Category Archives: Madeleine

Modern Day Selkies

The Visitors

 Author: Simon Sylvester
Rating: 4 stars
Genre: Fantasy
Length: 368 pages

When I first heard about this book, I knew it included so many aspects that I love in books: an atmospheric and foggy feel, a mystery, a coming-of-age story with a female narrator, a modern day story touched by mythology, selkies, a remote island in northern Scotland. Official blurbs were throwing out lots of comparisons to Neil Gaiman and Tana French.

And the good news? I predictably really liked this book.

Flora lives with her mother, stepfather, and baby brother on the remote island of Bancree. She’s in her final year of school, and all she cares about is graduating and getting off the island. She doesn’t quite fit in at home or at school. Then, several things happen. A strange man and his daughter, Ailsa, move into an abandoned house. And men around the area, often on the fringes of the community, begin disappearing.

As Flora begins the school year, she’s drawn into a school project researching selkies. She finds a macabre book about selkies and begins collecting selkie stories from several sources, including her grandfather and a sennachie, or storyteller, who lives in a hut near the sea. And she befriends Ailsa, another girl who doesn’t quite fit in, and finds out she and her father have been moving from place to place across the Scottish coast. Motivated by his own loss, Ailsa’s father has devoted his life to tracing a string of strange disappearances, much like the disappearances that are now happening in Bancree.

The book isn’t perfect. It’s slow to start (a bit too much rumination over breaking up with the boyfriend) and gets a bit overdramatic for my taste at the end.

That being said, The Visitors is well-written, atmospheric, and evokes a sad, lonely feel for life on what feels like the edge of the world. Flora was a great narrator. The story is a mystery, but it didn’t feel like a traditional mystery story throughout. Flora doesn’t set out to solve it, like a Scottish Nancy Drew. For most of the book, it feels more like a strange backdrop, until events draw Flora in. Also, the selkie elements were wonderfully woven in. The book is sprinkled with different selkie myths that are told to Flora, and these tales were some of my favorite parts. Selkie myths are so interesting to me–stories of people torn between the land and the sea, the way love and loss are intimately braided together.

Final disclaimer: I won this book from a GoodReads Giveaway (thanks!) in return for an honest review.

Book Madness 2015 (Madeleine)

Madeleine's completed bracket for Out of Print Book Madness

I participated in Out of Print’s Book Madness last year, and it was a lot of fun. I actually got the final two and champion right. Last year, the theme was heroes vs. villains, which was a bit more fun to imagine than this year’s theme of classics (Atticus vs. Voldemort, anyone?). But, here are my predictions for this year.

In the final four I have Jane Eyre vs. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and To Kill a Mockingbird vs. 1984, with Jane Eyre and 1984 advancing to the finals. It was a hard choice, but in the end I chose 1984 as the winner.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

book cover of As Chimney Sweepers Come to DustAuthor: Alan Bradley
Rating: 3 stars
Genre: Mystery
Length: 392 pages

There isn’t a good way to discuss this book without spoiling the previous. If you haven’t read The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, you may not want to read on.

Yaroo, a new Flavia book! I dearly love Flavia de Luce. I read this series to see what sorts of shenanigans Flavia gets into and how she works her way out of them, not because I’m really engaged the mystery. Given the end of the last book, I was nervous about The Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. What would a Flavia story be like without her father, her sisters, and Dogger? Without Buckshaw?

On many counts, Flavia works really well in a different environment (her dramatic insistence that she has been “Banished!” for example or her plotting out how she would poison her chaperone). She’s still getting in and out of trouble, being clever and wonderful, doing chemistry, and making me laugh aloud. The boarding school setting and strange Nide, secret society intrigue were also interesting if a bit over the top.

Bradley spends a lot of time building the world of Miss Bodycoate’s. There is a dizzying cast of girls with as many names and nicknames as a Tolstoy novel. Even by the end, they all seemed very similar. I had trouble keeping them apart.

My biggest struggle, however, was with the end of the book, which seemed to negate the entire point of the book.

3 stars to As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust because it’s Flavia and I still enjoy reading about her quite a bit, but this was definitely a weaker entry in the series.

I received an advanced copy of As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Top Ten Tuesday: 2014 Releases I Meant to Read But Didn’t Get To

Top Ten Tuesday

I’m trying something new this week and participating in Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Every week, book bloggers put together their Top Ten list around a common theme. This week is “Top Ten 2014 Releases I Meant to Read But Didn’t Get To.” I initially thought this was going to be a hard one to think of ten, until I perused my GoodReads to-read list and was reminded of all the great books I haven’t had a chance to read yet.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks definitely belongs at the top of this list, because I tried really hard to read it. I’ve gone through three or four rounds on the library hold list and missed picking it up or had it come in during a particularly busy time. I loved Cloud Atlas, so I can’t wait to actually read this one.

Of Scars and Stardust by Andrea Hannah

Wolves. A missing sister. Snow. Tragic pasts. Hallucinations. Count me in for this YA book.

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Two girls on opposite sides of the Civil Rights Movement are forced to work together on a class project. I’ve had my eye on this one ever since Zelda reviewed it.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Aliens land in Lagos, Nigeria, and three people must race to save their country. The blurb on GoodReads promises me the story includes “everything from superhero comics to Nigerian mythology to tie together a story about a city consuming itself.” I haven’t read this one yet, because it hasn’t been published in the US. I did recently get a copy through interlibrary loan, though!

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons by Sam Kean

The Violinist’s Thumb was one my favorite non-fiction reads. The same author (Sam Kean) is back with this popular science book about neuroscience.

Evergreen by Rebecca Rasmussen

Siblings grow up separated, until the older brother brings his sister home to try to reconnect. Set in the Minnesota wilderness.

Yes, Please by Amy Poehler

A book by Amy Poehler? Yes, please!

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Whenever Harry August dies, he is reborn into the same life with his memories intact. He eventually finds the Cronus Club, a group of people who also die and are reborn. They have rules (no changing history, etc.), but then someone begins to mess with time and history.

The Wonder of All Things by Jason Mott

A young girl, Ava, has the ability to heal people. When this is discovered, people begin flocking to Ava for healing. But the ability comes at a cost to her own health…

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer

Astronomy. Religion. Cosmology. Fate. This one got a bit of buzz earlier this year, and then seemed to vanish. Besides the concept and catchy title, I also really love cover on this one.

What about you? What new books from 2014 are still on your to-read list?

Two 2014 Favorites

I’m sneaking one last review on here before 2015 begins. I realized last night that I had yet to review two of my favorite books that I read this year (quite possibly my top two favorite books).

All the Light We Cannot See

Cover of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony DoerrAuthor: Anthony Doerr
Rating: 5 stars
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 531 pages

Towards the end of World War II, the seaside city of Saint-Malo, France is bombed by the Allies. Werner, a young German soldier with a innate understanding of electronics is trapped underneath the rubble with a radio. Across the city, a blind girl, Marie Laure, finds herself alone in her uncle’s home, hiding from a Nazi treasure hunter obsessed with a precious jewel in her possession, with a radio transmitter and her braille copy of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

There are so many beautiful details in this book, particularly surrounding the story of Marie Laure and her father. Her father, the master of locks at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, builts miniature replicas of their neighborhood to help Marie Laure learn how to navigate on her own. Werner’s life is more difficult, but he remains inspired by a strange radio broadcast he heard with his sister as a child.

Besides the details, the writing is very beautiful. The prose can be a bit dense at times, however Doerr counters this with very short chapters with give the book some breathing room. I really wish I would have had time to read this one more slowly. Since I was reading it for class I had to clip through it at a very fast pace. I’m planning on a reread once it’s published in paperback (June 2016).

Station Eleven

cover of Station Eleven by Emily St. John MandelAuthor: Emily St. John Mandel
Rating: 5 stars
Genre: Literary Fiction/Science Fiction (very light)
Length: 333 pages

I’m going to use a word here to describe Station Eleven, but I don’t want you to let it turn you off the book. Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic (but not dystopian) novel set in the near future after the Georgian Flu wipes out most of the Earth’s population as well as crippling most technologies. Small communities have formed, often near wherever a group of people happened to be at the time the flu hit.

However, this isn’t a particularly science fiction-y book. The story is not centered on survival or plot or what happens next. Rather, the story moves back and forth in time (pre- and post-flu) weaving together multiple characters, but focused on the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who travel across North America performing, because “survival is insufficient.” Station Eleven examines art, humanity, memory, and those things that may survive us: the smart phone in the Museum of Civilization, an obscure sci-fi graphic novel, a Star Trek quote, Shakespeare’s plays.

The title of the book comes from the title of a graphic novel one of the characters creates over many years about a failing, partially flooded space station now consisting of interconnected islands led by Dr. Eleven and the group of people hiding in the Undersea who only want to return to a ruined, alien-dominated Earth. I wanted this graphic novel to be real. I really wanted this graphic novel to be real. Sadly, it is not, although the cover designer, Nathan Burton, did illustrate a few pages.

And like All the Light We Cannot See, the writing in Station Eleven was absolutely beautiful to read.

Books About Books

I was lovingly describing Ruiz Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind to a friend the other day. She seemed a bit unimpressed with my elevator pitch for one of my favorite books, and said, “You really like books about books.”

This is very true. I love books about books. I have a GoodReads shelf devoted to them. According to this list, I’ve read six books about books this year. I push them up to the top of my reading list.  BookRiot runs an irregular series called Genre Kryptonite, in which readers discuss genres or tropes they have a weak spot for. Books about books are one of my biggest genre kryptonites. Today, I’m going to write mini-reviews of the four I’ve read most recently.

Also, you should read Shadow of the Wind.

84, Charing Cross Road/The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

book cover: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene HanffAuthor: Helene Hanff
Rating: 5 stars/3.5 stars
Genre: Epistolary/Memoir
Length: 97 pages/144 pages

The very slim volume of 84, Charing Cross Road has been sitting on my bookshelves for two years, ever since a lovely book friend gave me her copy when she was moving and told me all book lovers should read it. The book sits on my shelf at eye level, and has been calling my name ever since. “Look at me!” it called. “I’m very short. I’m charming. I’m a book for book lovers.”

I finally picked up 84, Charing Cross Road last week, and it was wonderful. It is a collection of letters exchanged over twenty years between Helene Hanff, a script writer living in New York city, and Frank Doel, a bookseller at a used bookstore in London (located at 84, Charing Cross Road). Helene, who has a specific taste in books, is witty and sarcastic and overdramatic at times. Her outlandish letters are a stark contrast to Frank’s responses: formal, polite, and reserved.

The two start off corresponding after Hanff begins ordering books from the store. However, hearing about the food shortages and rations in post-WWI UK, Helene begins sending the bookstore baskets of gifts, including many hard-to-find items. A friendship slowly grows between Helene and Frank, conducted solely through letters. It’s understated and real and heart-warming.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is a sequel of sorts to 84, Charing Cross Road. The publication of 84, Charing Cross Road makes it possible for Helene visit the UK. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the journal she kept during the trip. While it is nice to see Helene finally visit England, it seems much more self-aware and planned than 84, Charing Cross Road, which consisted of letters that weren’t written for anyone else to read.

5 stars to 84, Charing Cross Road and 3.5 stars to The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

The Moment of Everything

book cover: The Moment of Everything by Shelly KingAuthor: Shelly King
Rating: 2.5 stars
Genre: Fiction
Length: 288 pages

The Moment of Everything had, well, everything going for it. A young woman loses her job and reinvents herself while working in a bookstore. There’s quirky bookstore workers and a cranky bookstore cat. She discovers the record of a romance between two unknown bookstore customers who don’t know each other, but left notes for each other in the margins of an old, used book.

I’ll start off by saying this is a fine book. It reminded me a bit of the set-up for Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (another book about books that you must read if you haven’t yet): an unemployed young tech worker/graphic designer in Silicon Valley looking for some sort of direction in life discovers something unusual or secret while working in a bookstore. It’s a perfectly enjoyable book.

Yet, the book just didn’t quite ring true for me, especially the characters. I didn’t really click with Maggie, the main character, or bought into her relationship with Rahjit. And to my disappointment, the romance blossoming between two characters who only know each other through the notes they leave in the margins of the book turned out to be a minor plot point.

2.5 stars.

I received an advanced copy of The Moment of Everything from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

book cover: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle ZevinAuthor: Gabrielle Zevin
Rating: 4.5 stars
Genre: Fiction
Length: 260 pages

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry reads like a giant celebration of books and reading and stories and second chances, along with a good helping of little book/publishing jokes and references.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry wasn’t what I was expecting at all. The premise of the book is this: A.J. Fikry runs a bookstore. He’s irascible. He doesn’t much like people. His store is struggling. And he isn’t doing so well personally since the death of his wife, who kept the bookstore running and also was the people-person of the pair.  Also, he’s a bit of a book snob. Here he describes his tastes:

“I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be—basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful—nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and—I imagine this goes without saying—vampires.”

The two things happen. His valuable edition of Tamarlane by Edgar Allen Poe, which is meant to fund his early retirement, is stolen. And a mysterious package arrives on his doorstep. The contents of this “mysterious package” are completely different than what I imagined, and it sent the story somewhere very different than I had imagined. I had read a bunch of reviews, so kudos to everyone for keeping that under wraps.

The books was loads of fun to read, as well as being a heart-warming tale. 4.5 stars.

P.S. If the judgmental quote about reading annoys you, rest assured A.J. does not feel the same about books by the end.

Ancillary Space

cover of Ancillary Justice by Ann LeckieTitle: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword
Author: Ann Leckie
Rating: 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 409 pages, 359 pages

Synopsis: Breq used to be a starship. She was the AI for the ship Justice of Toren, able to directly command hundreds of bodies, known as ancillaries. Now, this former spaceship has lost almost everything. Reduced to one body (the former One Esk Nineteen), Breq has her mind set on one objective–finding a weapon that will allow her to kill one body of Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, who she believes is responsible for her current condition.

Ancillary Justice is interwoven with scenes from the past. We learn the heart-breaking tale of what happened to Justice of Toren during a planet annexation that goes horribly wrong. Specifically, we get to better understand the singing One Esk Nineteen, who served and cared deeply for Lieutenant Awn.

Ancillary Sword picks up a week after the end of Ancillary Justice. We are no longer jumping back and forth in time, having learned the secrets that lead to Breq’s reduction to one body. Breq is made Fleet Captain of the ship Mercy of Kalr, whose former captain trained the crew to act as ancillaries. Breq is joined by Seivarden and the “baby lieutenant” Tisarwat, and sent to guard Athoek Station, a far-reaching system known mainly for cultivating tea. Of more importance to Breq, Athoek is the home of her beloved Lieutenant Awn’s younger sister. Once there, Breq immediately begins investigating several outside threats as well and a few internal inconsistencies that point to something not quite right at Athoek Station.

Several things make Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword unique. First, the book is written from the point-of-view of a former starship AI that used to control thousands of bodies. The point-of-view is unusual and strange, as readers sometime get glimpses of multiple events happening simultaneously. Second, Breq’s language does not have any concept of gender, so Breq struggles to identify who is masculine and feminine. She uses ‘she’ by default, as well as feminine words such as daughter and sister to represent child and sibling. In many cases, the reader never learns the sex of a character (most character do not seem to have a preferred gender, either). These two qualities make both Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword a very unique reading experience.

Review: I’m glad I read Ancillary Justice before I knew that there was a lot of hype surrounding this book.  Ancillary Justice has (deservedly) won multiple awards. Around the Internet, people are also raving about the books (The Book Smugglers, Tor, NPR, io9). When I read it for class this summer, however, the response in class was not positive at all. Because of this, for awhile Ancillary Justice felt like my own little secret–an awesome sci-fi book that only I knew about or appreciated.

That’s ridiculous of course. We’ve since seen Ancillary Justice win the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke, so apparently I’m not the only one that loves these books after all. They don’t need my loving protection.

Because of the unusual perspective of Breq (spaceship AI in a culture that doesn’t differentiate genders), reading Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword can be a bit disorienting, but in the best way possible. If you’re someone who needs to be able to visualize characters, these books might be frustrating. In most cases, you’ll never figure out the biological sex or the gender of the characters. Reading the book really challenges you to think about how you think about gender. (Side note: as another win for the book, a majority of characters, if not all, are people of color.) Also, Leckie has some spectacular pieces of writing, particularly during flashbacks, where she tries to capture what it might be like to be one consciousness experiencing multiple situations through multiple bodies. It’s absolutely stunning.

Aside from the two defining features of these books, the stories themselves were very interesting. In fact, I’m writing this review right now instead of working on schoolwork because I could not stop thinking about Ancillary Sword. The books move at a slightly slower pace than most sci-fi and are rich in detail, but tackle a lot of interesting issues: identity, colonialism, culture and language, systemic inequality, etc. I especially love the explorations of whether a starship AI can care about and form attachments to the people on the ship as well as the nuances of what happens to an ancillary’s personality when they are made into an ancillary.

Breq is a unique narrator. She comes off very distant and unemotional, even cold (due to the fact that she is an AI). Breq experiences everything in a strange dichotomy–very closely (Breq can often read the emotions people are feeling as the Justice of Toren or by linking in with Mercy of Kalr) accompanied by a strange emotional distance due to the fact that Breq does not understand everything the way you or I would.

What really drew me in, besides the unique narration, were various relationships between characters: particularly One Esk Nineteen and Lieutenant Awn, Breq and Seivarden (particularly in Sword–Seivarden annoyed me a bit in Justice), and Breq and Tisarwat. I also loved the small details that enriched the characters and the world they inhabit. One example is the singing. Breq has a habit of collecting songs and constantly singing or humming to herself without knowing. She acts this way even as an ancillary that is part of a ship, which individualizes her (and also raises questions about how the former identities of people influence the ancillaries they become). Once in command of the Mercy of Kalr, some of Breq’s crew pick up the habit and start singing as well.

Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword (named after the ships, by the way–Justice of Toren and Sword of Atagaris) are definitely worth a read if you enjoy sci-fi. Sadly, Ancillary Sword was just published, which means I’ll have to wait ages for the final book in the trilogy, Ancillary Mercy!

5 stars for both.