Sceptical Reading

Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

April Buddyread Reveal

Our next buddyread book has arrived, and it is Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley. Just look at that gorgeous cover!

The blurb and the line “This is a place where we can be alone, together” on the cover give you a kind of peaceful, found family vibe. After the year we’ve had, this seems like something we all need – although a past war between Earth and Qita also seems to play a major role in the story and resulting conflicts may disrupt the peace.

The space inn setting alone seems like a nice palate cleanser after our last buddyread, and I’m very much looking forward to start reading it.

All we need is a little Grace

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, publishing day 04 May 2021.

The story is about scientist Ryland Grace who wakes up aboard a spacecraft. He’d been in a coma, he has amnesia. All he knows is that he is a scientist on a suicide mission to save Earth, and by that, mankind from the next ice age brought on by strange microorganisms feeding off the suns in our galaxy. Yet, out there in space, about thirteen light years from Earth, there is a star that is not affected by these microorganisms. Why?

As the story unfolds and our hero regains some of his memories, we learn that Grace is a junior-high science teacher. And that is basically why the science in the book is easy to understand, the science teacher explains it very well. We also learn that the microorganisms feeding on our sun dim the energy output of the sun and that Earth has about three decades before the effects cause an ice age. All nations have to work together and strangely enough they do.

Earth needs Grace’s scientific expertise, but also relies on the fact that he is willing to plough on although he is on a suicide mission. A fact that Grace struggles with throughout the story. But he also knows he’s the only hope Earth has. Again, Weir writes the story of a hero alone fighting for survival, this time survival of all the life on Earth.

I enjoyed the book, apart from a bit of a lull period between 40% and 60%. Nothing much happened other than science and playing Robinson Crusoe in space, in the Arrival version. AKA, the hero meets an alien and they need to understand each other to work together.

[Mini-Rant about one plot point. SPOILER ALERT!]

When in Arrival we have a linguistics specialist who tries to communicate with the aliens, here we have a high-school science teacher encountering an alien species. An alien species he then works together with to find a solution to the microorganism problem. Working together means having to communicate. So, over a few days they learn each other’s language?! No big deal?!

It seems our hero has perfect pitch and a knack for languages. Some people have this knack, here though it feels not exactly forced but false. For example, there’s the scene where Grace meets another scientist for the first time and after a few words exchanged he knows the scientist is from Norway. Wow! Quite the feat. Anyone else might have said they are from Scandinavia, and then followed that up with a question as to which part of Scandinavia. Add the alien language, made up of melodies/strung together single musical notes rather than actual words and you have the by far most unbelievable part of the whole book. Why? Well, I used to teach English as a Second Language to scientists. A lot of my students kept telling me that learning languages had never been easy for them and that that was why they went into sciences. To make it more believable, I would have liked to see Grace struggle more with grasping the alien language. It would have made this learning process a bit more natural.

It’s that time of the month…

…when Spring has sprung and the pollen are flying.

March was another strange month. I have read books, mainly audiobooks, but this was more to soothe my mind than actually please my craving for new stories. Can we please end that Twilight Zone episode about a pandemic? Or is someone playing Jumanji? Still?

I haven’t finished many of the books that I set out to finish; Chilling Effect is still lying on my bedside table, I read a few pages but then was distracted by rakes and debutantes (aka The Smythe-Smith Quartett books by Julia Quinn). I struggled through March’s buddyread The Absolute Book; and have only skimmed through Underland, let’s hope that’s enough for book club night.

I bought The Octunnumi. It’s a book whose secrets are very well hidden. All I knew about the book before purchasing it, and all I know about it at this moment, is what is on the website. I might have bought the cat in the bag. I might have found a gem. I strive to find out in the next days. For now, let’s just applaud the publishers for their marketing strategy.

In further news, I’ve read the sixth book in the Veronica Speedwell series, An Unexpected Peril. I’ve also finished Fugitive Telemetry, the sixth Murderbot story which will be out in a few weeks. I started Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, Every Heart a Doorway was interesting, but it didn’t make me stop everything else to read the rest of the series.

My current read is a review copy of Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir’s new book, publishing day 04 May 2021. I’m trying to savour it, but I want to fly through it too; not at FTL, though. Some people might find it a bit science-heavy, but I like it. It doesn’t only have lots of centrifuges in it, but space travel boosted by a very unexpected fuel, and the one man who might be able to save all humankind -as soon as he recovers his memories- encounters aliens. Final verdict to come, but so far I am leaning towards better than The Martian.

The Shelf of Shame currently holds 120 eARCs; a recent count of the physical TBR came up with a figure that’s closer to 200 than 100. For my PennyPerPage challenge – get one penny/cent for every page I’ve read and balance it against every penny/cent I spent on books – I’m still in the blacks, although I bought a lot of books in March. Ergo, I am reading more pages than I am spending; I count that as a win.

March Buddyread

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox, originally published September 2019, is an absolute brick of a book. With 630 pages, you get a lot to read and think about.

Warning: This is more a rant than a review, and as such it contains what some people might consider spoilers.

To be honest, neither of the three of us liked the book. Reading the first part of the book we all agreed that it gave us a sense of Déjà-Vu. We were reminded of The Da Vinci Code -we even went so far as to say Da Vinci Code with Fairies-, American Gods, The Starless Sea and a bit of Mo Hayder’s Jack Caffery series.

The second part then picked up some speed when a detective, Jacob, was on the main character Taryn’s heels. He was looking into the murder of Taryn’s sister’s murderer. Taryn also introduces her book. A book about books, but the only really important part in Taryn’s book is a scroll box named the Firestarter. When Taryn and the detective get plunged into fairy land, we didn’t bat an eyelash, we were still fully on board. But then,… then the book just took a turn for the worse.

What followed were long descriptions that more often that not seemed to make no sense at all and just bogged down the main story. Also: Can someone please explain why we have this mishmash of different believe systems? What’s the Christian concept of Hell to do with Celtic mythology? And what the BH do Hugin and Munin and Odin and Mimir have to do with this? And since when is Mimir a norn? Without prior knowledge about these systems, we would have been even more confused.

Naturally, we started discussing this. We could not come up with a reasonable explanation other than, it’s weird, we might have to live with it.

Ploughing on, and that is what it felt from then on, we went back and forth within the chapters we were reading and re-read passages, just to still be confused by events and discussions that seemed to have happened off the page.

We considered bailing. Then TheLadyDuckOfDoom went ahead and skimread to the end. Pre-warning that we’d encounter a passage where over more than ten pages nothing much happens but Taryn and Jacob trying to lift something. No wonder the book is so long!

In the end, we find out what is inside the Firestarter scroll box and why it is so bloody important – ridiculously anticlimactic. We finally find out what The Absolute Book, the book is named after, actually is. And there is an interesting and rather weird attempt at solving climate change with magic.

Final conclusion. The Absolute Book was absolutely not our cup of tea, but lots of tea was drunk during the reading process, and gin. From a certain point on tea just didn’t do it anymore.

TheLadyDuckOfDoom: This book tries to be everything at once. It gets so lost during that. It should have focused on fewer things.

Tideline – by Elizabeth Bear, read by LeVar Burton

I’ve always enjoyed reading Elizabeth Bear, and recently, I’ve been slowly reading through her short fiction, compiled in The Best of Elizabeth Bear. Tideline, specifically, won the Hugo and the Theodore Sturgeon Award in 2008.

I don’t want to give too much away about the story of Tideline, I think it is best experienced without much information. But I will quote the introduction by C. L. Polk in The Best of Elizabeth Bear:

“Tideline” is a heartbreaking, beautiful story about family and remembrance that pairs up a warmachine and the boy who found her…

C. L. Polk, The Best of elizabeth bear

When reading short fiction, I always check LeVar Burtons Podcast for the story. And there it was, read in 2020. Hearing this story was one of the most intense audiobook experiences in my life. The story is not only read, through subtle sound effects and the different voices LeVar Burton gives the characters and the narration, it feels like so much more. And all that in 45 minutes. I cried at the end. And after that, a little bit more.

If you have some time, or want to give short fiction a try, I cannot recommend this enough.

News from the Belvedere

Or, the sixth book about the sleuthing adventures of Veronica Speedwell and Revelstoke Templeton-Vane. At the beginning of An Unexpected Peril by Deanna Raybourn, published 02 March 2021, Veronica and Stoker are helping setting up an exhibition in honour of a female mountaineer who died in an accident climbing the legendary ‘Teufelstreppe’ [fictitious mountain in a fictitious Alpine country].

As can be expected, they find evidence for the mountaineer’s death having been murder. Trying to investigate this, at Stoker’s loud refusal, leads the two of them down a very interesting path indeed; Veronica has to impersonate a head of state, while Stoker has to try and keep her alive as death threats arrive.

If you’ve read the previous five books, you know what happened at the end of book five, A Murderous Relation. If you further think that those events, which I am not going to spoil here, might influence the dynamic between the duo, you are wrong. The two of them still banter, the air between them still crackles, and it’s still great fun to read.

Okay, I’m going to say it, I love Veronica and Stoker. But I didn’t love this story as much as the ones before. For the main part, the twists were very predictable. When the previous books mentioned to surprise me here and there and I couldn’t put them away until I had read the story, this instalment I kept putting away for other books.

Anyway, the last lines hint at another story for Veronica and Stoker, and I will gladly come back to Victorian London to investigate whatever Deanna Raybourn has thought up for them.

Where You Come From

Who are you, when your native country does not exist any longer? In Herkunft, his work of biographical fiction, author Saša Stanišić tries to find an answer to this question. The original version won the German Book Prize in 2019 and is now scheduled for release in English in November 2021.

He takes the reader on a journey from Germany to his birthplace in former Yugoslawia, using anecdotes and sometimes fictitious means to reflect on how a coincidence like your birth can have an effect on your life.

Ultimately, it is a book about how memories shape your identity. As his grandmother’s memories are fading due to dementia, Stanišić takes stock of his own. They are humorous, heartwarming and even the serious ones feel like an easily acceptible part of life. Especially the parts about his coming of age in Heidelberg stand out.

While books written in German often feel very rough and chopped, Stanišić uses the language with poetic skill. I also enjoyed his book Before the Feast (Vor dem Fest), but Herkunft really managed to get me excited about his style of writing. Also, there are dragons. Saša Stanišić has now earned his place on my auto-buy list.

A bunch of quick reviews

Without further ado…

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells, publishing date 27 April 2021.

Murderbot being Murderbot, it is not easy for it to interact with humans. But it has to find out about the dead human. A dead human it did not kill, thank you for asking. So, it’s playing Sherlock on a space station. Making new friends along the way, of course.

Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes, published 02 March 2021.

This collection of fantasy and contemporary fiction short stories was a bit ‘yeah and meh’. Some of the Jewish ‘own voices’ stories were really really good. Yet reading some of the more speculative fiction stories, I felt a bit lost. Strong stories nonetheless even if they might make you feel uncomfortable.

The Stolen Kingdom by Jillian Boehme, published 02 March 2021.

This was surprisingly good for a rather generic YA fantasy romance. Boehme managed to make her characters and their love story believable by letting them both acknowledge that they had known each other only for a short time. A further plus: it’s a standalone that delivers a solid story in less than 350 pages.

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner, published 02 March 2021.

A historical fiction using the split timeline trope. I liked the storyline about the apothecary set in the late 18th century. Nella has a secret apothecary shop, she’s helping women who find themselves in ‘tricky’ situations. Until a chance encounter with 12 y/o Eliza sets the wheels of fate in motion, which lead to Caroline from Ohio. On a trip to London she finds an apothecary bottle while mudlarking in the Thames. She starts researching about the bottle and the apothecary. The story would have been just as interesting without the contemporary storyline, which was rather ‘meh’ compared to the historical story.

A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark.

Both short stories are set in an alternate Cairo in the early 20th century. Otherworldly beings are just as normal as the Ministry of Alchemy. In A Dead Djinn in Cairo, Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi is trying to solve a murder disguised as suicide and finds herself digging so much deeper that she encounters clockwork angels and a plot that might implode time itself. The Haunting of Tram Car 015 brings us back to Cairo, this time “Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr shows his new partner Agent Onsi the ropes of investigation when they are called to subdue a dangerous, possessed tram car. What starts off as a simple matter of exorcism, however, becomes more complicated as the origins of the demon inside are revealed.” I enjoyed both short stories and I am looking forward to reading the full novel A Master of Djinn (expected pub date: 11 May 2021), which has been idling on my ARC shelf for some time.

Not Only the Faithful Wife

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood takes a well known story and tells it from a new and enlightening perspective. I guess everyone has at least heard of Odysseus and his journey home after the Trojan War. But what do we know about his wife Penelope, other than that she is supposed to be the very image of a faithful wife?

While her narrative is usually mainly reduced to the fact that she waits for twenty years for the return of her husband, Atwood rightfully takes a stand that more should be said. From Penelope’s perspective we learn about the things she has to do to manage the kingdom on her own – for example fighting off suitors with the help of her most loyal maids – and other hardships she has to endure. Meanwhile, Odysseus is still off somewhere having adventures (some of them with goddesses).

Once Odysseus is back on Ithaka, he kills the suitors besieging his house and wife, and also the maids he believed to be unfaithful. The maids are a central element of Atwood’s story. She uses their voices as a Greek chorus, which is an element I really liked. In this version of the story, the maids only seem to be unfaithful to support a plan of Penelope that in the end protects Odysseus.

Penelope’s story is told in a very poetic, playful and most of all realistic way that adds so much to the Odyssey narrative. I almost always enjoy myth retellings, and this one really stood out.

Graceful Burdens

This little short story (21 pages) packs quite a punch! But since it’s by Roxane Gay, who would have expected it not to?

In the alternate reality of Graceful Burdens, you have to pass a genetic screening to be allowed to have children. Those who fail can only numb their desperation and longing by checking out babies from the library. Yes, a two week loan, no, renewals are not allowed. One has to wonder – where do these library infants come from?

When the main character Hayden decides to use the library, she gets swept up by an organiziation trying to change things and starts to see their society and her life in a new light.

The story’s tone reminded me a lot of The Handmaid’s Tale and I would have gladly read a full-length novel set in this terrible world.

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