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Review: Red Winter, Dan Smith

red winterKolya is a deserter. He and his brother have left their Red Army unit, disgusted and uncomfortable with the atrocities they have been committing in Russia in 1920. On the way back to his family, Kolya’s brother Alec dies, and Kolya lives for nothing but the chance to spend the rest of his life with his wife and children. But the village is empty. There is no sign of anyone, no hint of what’s happened to them except a legend told by an old woman. Kolya sets off on a desperate trek to find them, through frozen wilderness and into the heart of the army he left behind.

This landed on my doorstep as an unsolicited review copy with a cover that, to be perfectly honest, didn’t appeal to me all that much (okay, not at all). Nor did the cover slogan, “The only thing that matters is blood”, and I think both are doing the novel a huge disservice. I decided to read it because the description sounded interesting and because I’ve been fascinated with Russian history for more than half of my life. The decision I made was the correct one, because behind the bland cover and needlessly violent words was a book that I genuinely enjoyed.

First of all, the setting. Russian wilderness in the grip of coming winter leaps out from the page. The season is perfectly chosen – winter is choking the countryside just as suspicion gone mad is choking the people with fear. Everything feels cold, closed-off, and terrifying. Smith’s writing helps this come alive; it’s easy to be really scared for these characters because there is no hint of what might happen next. Anyone could be an enemy, even your friend, because that’s exactly the attitude that the leaders are using to scare the many, many peasants into submission.

Kolya himself is an excellent character. He’s committed many wrongs and justified them in his head, just like all of the other soldiers, but he wants to make things right. He has finally seen what matters in his life and when he goes to find it, he can’t. It could drive him mad but instead it makes him more determined, although tinged with an edge of despair. I liked both the idea that Kolya was redeeming himself and his admirable drive to find his family. He doesn’t try to do everything; he’s not a superman. He just wants to save the people he cares about, and to me this seems a very human reaction. We perhaps would all like to end every atrocity in the world, but at this point he has to understand what is and isn’t possible and accept it. And this is why the sentence on the cover annoys me – what really makes Kolya move is his family, not “blood”. I worried about what happened to them for him.

The story itself is well-paced. Endless trudging through a frozen forest could have easily become boring, but the actual journey keeps throwing obstacles in Kolya’s way, both good and bad ones, that help inform his plan. It probably does qualify as a thriller, with plenty of exciting scenes and a few fights, but the overall impression the book gave me was quieter than that. Its strengths were in the cold, quiet nights, the air of suspicion and uncertainty, the crunch of hooves moving through a freezing, silent forest.

In conclusion, I really liked Red Winter. I would suggest it to those who enjoy historical fiction, especially if you’re interested like me in the dangerous times when societies are changing or in Russia.

I received this book for free for review consideration.

Mini Review: Banished, Liz de Jager

banishedKit loves being a Blackhart. She’s finally living with her cousins and learning about her heritage and her amazing magical skills. She’s completed her first solo mission and she’s ready to take on whatever the world has to throw at her. She starts finding out in no short order when her cousins are away fighting monsters and Kit is left alone in a suddenly not-so-safe Blackhart Manor. Complete with a prince, Thorn, in tow, who shows up in the forest needing serious help, it’s up to Kit to find her cousins, figure out what’s going on, and make sure neither of them gets killed.

Like probably lots of other people, I have had Liz de Jager on my radar since she ran a book blog. I’ve been looking forward to this from the day the book deal was signed and it didn’t disappoint. Banished is a fantastic YA adventure peopled with some interesting, kickass characters. It seemed to me like a mesh between some of the darker urban fantasy that I like with a more classic fantasy story (goblins, elves, etc.) and it was a blend that I really enjoyed.

The heroine, Kit, is also a great character. She already knows about her heritage, so we can skip all of the various ways in which characters learn that they are different and special. She’s already aware that she’s different and special and, instead of being freaked out by it, she loves it and embraces it. Her full magical potential hasn’t been explored yet, but she’s on her way. She has a supportive family and even though she’s left on her own in this instance, she isn’t permanently and she knows that she has support. I liked Thorn, too, and I’m looking forward to finding out more about the other characters.

Great book, easy to read, bring on Vowed!

Review: Panic, Lauren Oliver

panicCarp is a small town with small town traditions and Panic is one of them. Every year, high school seniors take on dangerous dares in order to win a large monetary prize that will help them escape their town for good. Heather thinks she’s too sensible to get involved, but she finds herself caught up in the rush anyway with her best friend Natalie. Dodge, another student, has always known that he would participate in Panic, although for different reasons than Heather. The book alternates between the points of view of these two students while the game gets ever more dangerous.

I felt decidedly “meh” about this book. I had anticipated something more along the lines of Before I Fall and Delirium. Both of those struck me hard, especially the first; I love the concept of living over and over again and learning as you go (see also Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, another big hit with me). They were interesting and innovative and they made me excited to read Panic, too.

But as soon as I started I knew it was different – this is just an ordinary town. The concept of high schoolers taking on a life-or-death game isn’t really the same as a world without love or a girl who lives the same day over and over again. It’s something that could actually happen in the real world. I suppose for some that might be an advantage, but for me it was a drawback. Some of the games are ridiculously dangerous and outrageous, yes, but none beyond the realms of our actual real world. This wasn’t what I’d expected and I wasn’t as impressed with this as I was with the other two books I’d read by the same author. It didn’t suit my own personal taste and it wasn’t a book that I felt went above and beyond.

Is it worth your time? That’s a separate question, I think. This is more in the style of a thriller than the other two and I have seen positive reviews floating around. It has its positive points – I think the characters grow over the course of the book, the romance is okay, and it does keep a reader’s attention – but it just didn’t work for me. I would start with Oliver’s other books in any case.

I received this book for free for review.

Mini Book Thoughts

americanahBooks I have read recently that I would like to write some thoughts about:

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I loved this. I loved how Ifemelu found her way back to herself, to her roots; that she needed her childhood and her identity to remember who she was, rather than giving it all away to be someone else. And even though my own immigration is really different, and came about for far different reasons, and resulted in different things, I could still identify with that clash of cultures in a way that spoke to me but also made me think about how this must be for others who don’t share my advantage of the same skin color as the native population (and a wider culture gap). I should have written a review for this book, but instead I’ll say you should go read it and leave it at that.

The Suffragette Scandal, Courtney Milan – I will continue to auto buy each and every book Milan writes. Such different topics, incredible characters, beautiful love stories. No exceptions here.

Skin Game, Jim Butcher – This book FINALLY went in a direction I’ve been waiting for since very early on and I was so pleased. It’s also got capers, and fantastic bad guys, and lots of Harry’s signature humor along with those answers. It was great fun to read. If you enjoy urban fantasy and haven’t read the Dresden Files, you should (along with my lengthy list of other favorite urban fantasy reads like October Daye and Kate Daniels).

a darkling seaA Darkling Sea, James Cambias – This sat on my wishlist for a good few months before I fortuitously grabbed it at Forbidden Planet. Sci-fi is still a genre I’m not as familiar with, much as I’m coming to love it, and for the first few chapters I struggled to get into this book. You’d think I could assimilate other worlds easily enough due to my years of reading fantasy, but not so much. Eventually, though, I started to understand the characters and the culture clash and I found the book really interesting. It’s a first contact novel and the world that Cambias creates is truly bizarre but fascinating. It’s not first contact for humans, it’s first contact for the Ilmatarans, complete with their dissection of a human; it’s so cool to see this flipped and a human as a “victim” of a completely innocent group of Ilmatarans. Very well done.

Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts?

Review: A God in Every Stone, Kamila Shamsie

a god in every stoneIn July 1914, Vivian Rose Spencer is a twenty-two year old young woman who has finally been given permission to go on her first archaeological expedition. In the shadow of coming war, she falls in love and is forced back to England, where her life seems on hold until she’s not sure how it can continue. At the same time, Qayyum Gul is fighting in the war, losing an eye at Ypres. He and Vivian meet once, unaware how their lives will change around each other, until fifteen years later their fates are united again in the search for a historic artifact and a second fight for independence.

This review has been difficult to start writing. I didn’t feel the way I expected to after reading this book. Burnt Shadows was powerful. It left an impression on me and it took a long time to get out of my head. I mean, I read it nearly five years ago and I still have feelings about it. By contrast, I finished A God in Every Stone towards the end of July and I’m struggling to recall any feelings I had towards it besides indifference.

I think part of the reason I didn’t appreciate it so much was because I didn’t get on very well with the main character. Viv irritated me. Unfortunately I think I am one of those readers who generally has to at least sympathize a little bit with the main characters in a book to actually enjoy the book itself; this isn’t always the case, but I couldn’t really recover from a decision she makes towards the beginning of the book. The very beginning of the book seemed like it would be perfect for me – an archaeological expedition, a burgeoning love story, and the shifting uncertainty caused by the approach of war. Because Viv’s expedition is comprised of her and Turks and Germans, I initially thought this would be a book which demonstrated how people are just people, no matter what country they come from.

It kind of is, but doesn’t really get there. The characters in the book are certainly people with all the flaws inherent in that and I spent most of the end of the book worrying about the fate of one particular character, but I suppose in the end it just didn’t connect with me. Which is a shame, because a lot of people seem to think highly of it. Shamsie is a beautiful, skilled writer with a real talent for getting into her character’s minds and evoking atmosphere. It makes me feel as though I missed something, but for me it did fall short. As you can probably tell, it’s difficult to articulate just why, and I don’t think I’ve succeeded in this review.

I would still look forward to Kamila Shamsie’s next book with eagerness, but I would recommend Burnt Shadows before A God in Every Stone.

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

Review: The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henríquez

the book of unknown americansArturo Rivera, his wife Alma, and their daughter Maribel arrive in the United States with close to nothing. Unlike many immigrants, who come to the United States out of poverty and desperation, the Riveras have arrived in the hopes of getting Maribel into a special school for children with brain damage. Beautiful sixteen-year-old Maribel hasn’t been the same since a terrible accident and Arturo and Alma would do anything to help her recover. They find themselves in an apartment building full of other immigrants. Entwined with the Riveras story is that of the Toro family, whose son Mayor falls in love with Maribel on first sight and only loves her more when he gets to know her better, and snapshots from the lives of other immigrants from all over Central and South America.

I really loved The World in Half, the first novel I read by Cristina Henríquez, so when I was offered The Book of Unknown Americans for review consideration, I immediately accepted. Although I’ve forgotten the details, I still remember how beautiful that book was and how much of an effect it had on me. This book was different, but again had an impact and slightly shifted my worldview.

One of the things that stands out most, again, is Henríquez’s beautiful, clear writing. The very first scenes of the novel, when the Riveras are arriving into their new apartment for the first time, are surprisingly moving. We learn the details of their lives – the cracked windows, the cupboards with bedsheets tacked on instead of doors, the mattress a discarded relic they found on the way – and even when the story gains more heft, we know that this is in the background, not only for the Riveras but for the other tenants in the building.

Their story is interspersed with those of the other people in the apartment building. They all have different reasons for arriving in the United States, some legal, some illegal, and this is what the book is trying to convey. There are so many of these people, all Americans, who are unknown, who don’t count as much because they have slightly darker skin, who slip beneath the radar. Like immigrants in what seems the world over, especially those who aren’t white, they suffer simply for being slightly different and are held accountable for all manner of ills. I found this passage really powerful:

I mean, does anyone ever talk about why people are crossing? I can promise you it’s not with some grand ambition to come here and ruin everything for the gringo chingaos. People are desperate, man. We’re talking about people who can’t even get a toilet that works, and the government is so corrupt that when they have money, instead of sharing it, instead of using it in ways that would help their own citizens, they hold on to it and encourage people to go north instead. What choice do people have in the face of that? Like they really want to be tied to the underside of a car or stuffed into a trunk like a rug or walking in nothing but some sorry-ass sandals through the burning sand for days, a bottle of hot water in their hands? (p.241)

I didn’t get tired of these parts of the book, even though I liked the main story too. All of them were different and had stories worth hearing. Although they were brief, and for the most part had settled in that apartment building and left the more difficult parts of their immigration behind, I personally found them really moving and a perspective I hadn’t encountered often enough.

Very highly recommended and I will continue to keep my eyes open for Henríquez’s next book!

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review consideration.

Review: Deadly Curiosities, Gail Z. Martin

deadly curiositiesCassidy Kincaide is the owner of Trifles & Folly, a gift shop full of magical antiques and rare items. Some of them are inert, some give off happy feelings, and others have negative memories. A few of the items are even haunted. Most of those – and anything too negative – is not available for the public to buy, but Cassidy hears that a local B&B has started having hauntings after buying a few of her items. Plus, she’s just found a pair of opera glasses that was inert and has now turned dangerous. Cassidy’s ability to read items means that she’s really the only one who can find out what’s turning once-neutral antiques into malicious haunting presences.

I’d never read anything by Gail Z. Martin before; I’m always interested in trying a new author and particularly a new urban fantasy series, so I was happy to get this particular book offered for review. While I wouldn’t put it up there with some of my favorite urban fantasy series, it was a solid offering.

In concept similar to The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff, which I didn’t end up writing about, in actual fact Deadly Curiosities is significantly different in story. I was really intrigued by the idea of magical items that could more or less take on a life of their own. They don’t change reality so much as actually haunt people and cause them to feel certain things. Cassidy’s special magical talent enables her to tap into those histories and find out what actually happened; witnessing what’s making those objects have the effect they do. She can tap into any item, so those with a positive or protective influence can also be used as weapons against ghosts or other hauntings. It’s an intriguing idea and worked well within the context of the story, allowing us to skip around in history without losing the main narrative.

Some of the events that happened were downright scary, too; I think the one that would have terrified me most is a ghost haunting the B&B owner, only for her to be protected by another ghost. Not sure I could have lived through that myself!

The book does suffer a little bit from being the first in a series; it always takes time to set up a world and characters and sometimes I felt that the ones here were a little bit shallow or simple. The author doesn’t really do info-dumping, but at times the plot takes a twist or turn to describe some other aspect of the world, rather than getting straight to the conclusion. I am sure these problems will be solved in coming books, especially as the author is given an opportunity to sink into the world a little bit more. I’m particularly interested in learning more about Sorren, the vampire with whom Cassidy works; there was just enough detail to make me interested in learning more.

Overall, I didn’t fall in love with Deadly Curiosities, but I liked it, and I’m certainly intrigued enough to have a look around for other books by Gail Z. Martin.

I received this book for free for review consideration. All external book links are affiliate links.

Review: Hild, Nicola Griffith

hildSeventh century Britain is a harsh world, comprised of petty kings and their domains, haunted by the frequent spectre of war. Little Hild is born into this world as the daughter of a prince, her mother prophesying before her birth that she will be the light of the world. But Hild’s father dies when she is only a child, throwing her world into uncertainty. Her mother, and then she, schemes to keep their rightful place, and Hild becomes a seer for her uncle, King of Northumbria. Not only does she have to handle difficult and uneasy politics, but she also has to deal with the regular struggles of any young girl growing into a woman.

The author for this book has done a lot of research into the period and it shows. She freely admits that she’s completely made up the vast majority of Hild’s story – it is fiction, after all – but the surroundings and the life that Hild lives are entirely possible for a girl in seventh century Britain. She is the seer of just one petty king in a Britain full of them. They each hold one piece of what is now a whole, but that is not treated as a foregone conclusion in the slightest. I liked reading about some of the smaller kingdoms, including Alt Clud, which was actually in Vanished Kingdoms, a book I found incredibly interesting nearly a year ago, about kingdoms and provinces in Europe that have since been forgotten.

As for Hild, all this means is that she has to keep Edwin’s favor but at the same time weigh what might happen if one of the other kings surge in power and she’s no stranger to battle. Because she is a seer, and not just the king’s niece, she has to endure a huge amount of danger and uncertainty.

At the same time, though, Hild is very clearly a teenage girl, and even though the world she lives in doesn’t at all resemble our own, she’s easy to relate to. This book really spans her childhood, from when she can’t even speak to the moment when she becomes a woman and in charge of her own destiny – at least, as much as she possibly could be. She grows and we understand where she’s come from and where she thinks she’s going, even when she’s not sure.

This book’s storyline spans the conversion of Christianity, which I found fascinating. The bishop, Paulinus, is a missionary and it’s his job to convert Hild’s people. The king in Kent is of course the first to be converted and then Christianity spreads across the island. The book thus has to deal with the reconciliation of pagan beliefs with Christianity; how to get these people to decide to be baptised and then how to compromise in order to keep them Christian. Hild doesn’t stop being the king’s seer even when she has to be baptised. She remarks with surprise at the time that she hasn’t burned and she’s still herself and her visions are given just as much credence as they were before. She still fits, even though the world around her is changing and adapting.

I read Hild slowly – it’s not a fast read – but it’s a book worth spending time with. Hild’s world is very unlike our own and it takes some getting used to, but the reward is an intricate, cleverly written story and a worthy heroine as its star. Recommended, especially for those who already enjoy historical fiction.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

Review: Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell

fangirlCather Avery would have been perfectly content to stay at home with her dad and twin sister, Wren, and write fanfiction about Simon Snow for the foreseeable future. If she has to go to college, which of course she does, she’d at least have preferred to live with her sister, as she has for the first eighteen years of her life. But instead, both twins go to college, and Wren chooses to live with someone else – leaving Cath to stand on her own two feet for the first time in her life. Cath can’t deal with her roommate or her roommate’s adorable boyfriend, Levi; she can’t seem to find enough time to write the fanfiction that she loves so much and she’s afraid to leave it behind to write fiction separate from that world; she can’t stop worrying about her dad, coping alone in the world without his two daughters for the first time. Can she find a place for herself in the world outside the bubble she’s created for herself?

Rainbow Rowell’s books make me want to write about them immediately. I loved Eleanor and Park late last year (how has it been that long?) and it was only a matter of time before I found myself starting FangirlOf course, I am a “fangirl” myself, which explains part of the attraction. I spent most of my teenage years hanging out on Final Fantasy forums and have tried my hand at writing fanfiction more than once. I have had plenty of friends who have done the exact same thing. Like Cath, too, I’m shy and socially inept (at least in my own head). Starting college with literally no one I knew anywhere was hard and scary, and while I didn’t hide in my room like Cath, I certainly wanted to until I found my eventual, amazing friends who made that time incredible.

What I’m trying to say with the above paragraph is that I massively related to this book, to Cath, and I felt like I could get more inside her head than with most other fictional characters. I normally don’t like books that are too close to my own possible life experience, but I related and I wanted better for her. And I loved Levi, the boy who gives smiles away like it doesn’t cost him anything. I loved them together, I loved that everything was behind closed doors but so, so charged with tension. Rowell is absolutely brilliant at this – who can forget how emotional she makes hand-holding in Eleanor and Park – and she puts her talents to good use in this book, too.

On top of the wonderful relationship she’s got starting with Levi, Cath relates to everyone and cares so much. Her conversations with Reagan had me laughing, frequently, and her constant care for and worry about her father and sister make her a good person. It doesn’t matter what else is happening at any given moment, if someone she loves needs her, Cath will go there and be with them. Everyone has lessons to learn in this book, but Cath doesn’t need to learn how to love. She’s so good at loving that it’s no wonder she worries people will take advantage of her, and she’s damaged from having that love essentially spurned. But even though she categorizes herself as broken, she’s not. She just needs to learn how to be whole again and this book is her wobbling and then learning to do just that.

I could quote so many passages that I loved, but instead I’ll link to this goodreads page. Every quote on there is golden. So often there would be a passage and I would think yes that it’s impossible to summarize all of them. I’d have to quote the entire book.

I read this book in the space of a single evening, forgoing sleep in favor of getting to the end; although there is no real suspense here, it’s hard to tear yourself away from a page that is so full of beautiful words and emotions and living. Rainbow Rowell is brilliant. I’m glad I already bought all of her books, because I’m certainly going to be reading all of them.

Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

we are all completely beside ourselvesWhen she was a little girl, Rosemary was a chatterbox, happy to talk anyone’s ear off. Her mother told her to choose one of the two things she had to say; when that wasn’t enough, it became one in three. But by the time Rosemary is a college student, she hardly ever speaks, and she’s moved halfway across the country to avoid the gaps in her life. Her brother and her sister have been missing from her life for years and, even though she loved both of them, she’s been spending most of that time misunderstanding why they are gone. Eventually Rosemary can’t deny her past, but in order to unravel it, she begins in the middle with this book, where her father always told her to start stories, when telling the beginning would take too long.

I went into this book knowing almost nothing about it. I have probably mentioned it before, but this is the way that I enjoy books the most, because I don’t have any preconceived notions about what’s in them and I can come to the story in the way I imagine the author intended. That is almost certainly the case for this book, which is why I’ve tried very hard not to give anything away. The bit I’m keen to avoid talking about happens around page 70, so it isn’t as though it takes long – I just think it’s worth not knowing, avoiding preconceptions, before you realize what’s happened.

One of my favorite things in a book is an unreliable narrator, I think mainly because we’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives. Rosemary spends quite a bit of time in the book going back to the beginning, to her very early childhood, and often has to confront whether what she remembers is fact or fiction. Does she remember something or does she now only remember being told the story? How much do the facts of her life, as she sees them, line up with what her parents and siblings remember and experienced? I love books that start out in the middle and only gradually reveal what actually happened and what it meant. This is definitely one of those.

There’s also identity and how our family shapes it, by action, inaction, or by simple absence. Rosemary’s adult life is in many ways dictated by what her parents chose to do when she was a child, factors that she simply can’t escape, and maybe shouldn’t, no matter how far from them she tries to go. Though she’s writing this novel as an adult, it actually documents more the process of her coming to terms with this and understanding their actions as well as her own.

And, although all of this sounds very serious, and most of the book is serious and sad, there’s also a light touch. Some of it is genuinely funny, almost to relieve the tension of everything else. Fowler maintains a delicate balance between a book that is extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking and one that is a pleasure to read.

The book is about so much more as well, but as I said above, I don’t really want to give it away. I just really want other people to read it so I can talk about it more. So I hope that, despite the “mystery”, others will feel the same way, and perhaps be inspired to pick We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves up. I would certainly recommend it.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.