Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

Book title: Artemis

Author: Andy Weir

Page Numbers: 384

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

I really enjoyed this one, but I wasn’t utterly blown away like I was with the Martian.

The world building was interesting and well done, although I would have liked it to have been expanded a bit more. I really enjoyed learning about how the first and only city on the Moon worked, and the unique culture that was developing as a result. I liked the idea that the Kenyans were responsible for the first city on the Moon because of their proximity to the equator – I just thought that the overall feel of the city could have been more African than American. Just as with the Martian, I found the science mostly fascinating – particularly the medical issues that people on the Moon face, such as having to return to Earth when pregnant, because fetuses can’t properly develop in the womb on the Moon (heh) or that you can’t move to the Moon before the age of 12, or it may permanently affect your growth and development. I wasn’t overly fond of all the welding stuff, and some of Jazz’s dialogue doesn’t really sound much like how women actually think or speak.

I did miss the humour and the wonderful characterisation from the last book though. Jazz just wasn’t as likeable as Mark Watney. Mark was utterly adorable, and every page sang with his personality and his wonderful sense of humour. Jazz was tough, mean, and kinda bitchy. Her sense of humour felt more… 12 year old boy. She didn’t seem to form relationships with people easily, and her methods of making a living were shady at best. I did enjoy Jazz’s email-based friendship with Kelvin, and her growing relationship with Svoboda. Her moral compass was shaky but generally seemed pointed in the right direction.

Overall, the book was well-written and interesting, but I feel like it was lacking something vital that would have made it a 5 star read.

Retold Fairytales – For love of the genre

Retold fairytales are one of my absolute favourite genres when it comes to books (and what I write!). There is something innately special about the reworking of beloved old folktales like East of the Sun, West of the Moon or Sleeping Beauty, and the thousands of creatively expressed stories that result. It’s a very personal thing, I think, the way an author decides to retell a fairytale and the new worlds they design around familiar characters.

One of the key aspects of retold fairytales lies in originality. I know, it seems like a bit of an oxymoron, but if you are taking a story that has been an intrinsic part of storytelling and popular culture for centuries, you need to add a new twist, a shot of creative universe building, to make the story fresh, new, and interesting. You’ve got to have Cinderella fighting her own battles and standing up to her wicked stepmother; you’ve got to have Jasmine weaving her own magic carpets and becoming sultan in her own right; you’ve got to have a cyborg Belle downloading books into her brain direct from the source and travelling the countryside, reading to children. Breaking the mould and seeing characters you’ve adored your whole life in amazing new situations is what makes the trope so noteworthy. And I think it’s why we keep revisiting the old stories we’re so familiar with; there are just so many amazing possibilities.

Here are a few of my favourite retold fairytales and  their brilliant authors:

Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier.

This story centres around the old Six Swan fairytale, where six men are turned into swans and their sister has to weave six shirts made of nettles in order to free them. Juliet Marillier sets her beautiful story in ancient Ireland, a land already doused in magic and the supernatural, and creates something truly stunning. Sorcha is brave and steadfast in her task, despite the awful circumstances that surround her, and the ending is well worth the pain and suffering she goes through. I have always thought that her brothers took what she went through for granted though.

Beauty by Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley is the Queen of the retold fairytale genre; Beauty is the best example of why she’d held the crown for so long. The beauty in this story is awkward and falls short of the looks her sisters have, but she does have personality. The decision she makes to travel to the castle is one of love and sacrifice, and the relationship she has with the Beast is one that grows and develops over time. It’s ultimately a beautiful story, with a likeable heroine and intelligent storytelling.

A Court of Thorn and Roses by Sarah J Maas

Sarah J Maas is a YA author I’ve been enjoying a lot lately. Her books are massive, epic tomes with strong, kickass female protagonists. This series starts off with a Beauty and the Beast retelling, and they keep getting better from there.

Alice by Christina Henry

Alice in Wonderland isn’t technically a fairytale, but I couldn’t leave this little gem off the list. Alice is set in a dark, strange land, where people are cruel and merciless. You won’t find whimsy here; instead, you find Alice locked in an asylum, triggered by the brutal death of a friend after a trip to a forbidden part of town years before. Hatter  is a man with his own problems; imprisoned after losing his mind, Hatter falls for Alice and helps her on her journey through Wonderland. It’s disturbing and twisted, but also full of adventure, wonder, love, and heroism.

The Woodcutter by Kate Danley

The Woodcutter is a melting pot of fairytales. Set in a realm where the fairytales we’ve grown up with are all true, the Woodcutter is the keeper of the peace between the Twelve Kingdoms. When Cinderella is murdered, the Woodkeeper must find who killed her before others meet the same grisly end. The world is rich and vibrant, and full of amazing stories from around the world.

Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier

Another Beauty and the Beast retelling, beautifully rendered. Again, this one was set in ancient Ireland. Caitrin is a scribe, intelligent and skilled, and she’s on the run from deplorable family members when she seeks work at Anulan’s castle. He has spent years isolated from the outside world due to a physical deformity and some supernatural goings on, and Caitrin quickly forms a bond with him. The atmosphere is appropriately gloomy, and the love story powerful, yet understated.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Have you ever wondered what happens to the children who disappear into fairytale worlds and yet come back at the end? This deceptively short book delves into what those children have to deal with once they’re back home, with one of the main characters providing a boarding school to help them cope. It’s gorgeously written and imagined, with whole new worlds (both fantastically whimsical and terrifyingly dark) opened up. If you’ve ever wanted to fall into Wonderland, open a wardrobe into Narnia, or run through a brick wall to Platform 9 and 3/4, this is the book for you.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Based on Russian folktales, this glorious book is dark and magical. It evokes a wintery feel, where you feel the impulse to set in a comfy chair by the fireside, blanket in your lap, while you read into the wee hours. Vasilisa loves the tales her nurse tells her by the fire – particularly that of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon who appears in the night to steal souls. Vasilisa‘s father’s new wife is a devoutly Christian woman who refuses to adhere to the old ways, and so crops begin to fail and misfortune stalks the village. It’s up to Vasilisa to protect her home and her family, while everyone else turns away.

Do you have a favourite retold fairytale? I would love to find new recommendations!

 

 

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Title: The Book of Speculation

Author: Erika Swyler

Page number: 339 pages

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The Book of Speculation is beautifully told, and everything magical realism should be. At its heart is a travelling carnival from 18th century America, the quirky group of performers who make up it’s ‘family’, and the carnival book lead performer Peabody writes along the way.

300 years later, an antique book dealer stumbles across Peabody’s tome and sends it to Simon Watson, librarian, who is related to the carnival’s Wild Boy/Seer and Mermaid. What follows its a sad, beautiful tale involving a curse and a long line of women who die on the exact same day, in the exact same way.

I enjoyed the dual timelines and the juxtaposition between Simon’s modern way of thinking and Amos/the Wild Boy’s coming of age. Their attempts to look after the women they love while trying to do the right thing were admirable. I also loved the subtle fantasy and the nods to Russian mythology. The insight into travelling carnivals and the unique gifts possessed by the people who worked in them was fascinating, although it felt like a rather dark and exclusive world to live in.

The Red Queen – Obernewtyn Cronicles Book 7

Title: The Red Queen (Obernewtyn Chronicles)

Author: Isobelle Carmody

Page numbers: 1120 pages

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

I have waited 16 years for the conclusion to this amazing story, and it did not disappoint. This is the series that got me on to epic fantasy – without Obernewtyn, I’d probably be a very different reader today. I have loved Elspeth, Rushton, Dameon and Matthew particularly since that first book when I was 14, and to finally come to the end of all of their stories is both heartbreaking and .. well, actually, just heartbreaking really. I haven’t cried so much while reading a book in years.

I’m not even sure if you could call it a happy ending. All of the plot threads that Isobelle had been weaving for decades came to neat ends, but there is still so much that she could have explained. There’s so much left up to our imaginations. And there’s a huge message throughout the entire saga that people should definitely heed. If you’ve been put off by the years of silence from the author, don’t be. It’s finally finished. Start at the beginning, you won’t regret it.

Book Review: Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel

Title: Waking Gods

Author: Sylvain Neuvel

Page numbers: 336

Rating: 5 stars out of stars

A remarkable sequel in truly fantastic series. I adored the second just as much as the first. From the get go, I was utterly absorbed. There is something special about the way Sylvain Neuvel writes, and about the way he creates and develops his characters. I fell in love with all of them, particularly Rose, Vincent, and Kara, and they more than live up to the expectations I’d had for them after the first book ended.

The first book begins with child Rose falling into a massive hole and landing in the palm of a truly enormous hand. The second book begins in a similar fashion – with a child, only this child has waking nightmares that come true. After a brief glimpse into her life that does nothing to tell us about who she truly is, we’re back with the Unnamed Man, one of the most complex characters in the whole book. The interviews from his point of view are fascinating, and I really enjoyed the mystery that surrounded him. The pace picks up from there, with the aliens who built the Themis robot sending more to Earth, and the series of events that occurs as a result of our heroes actions in the first novel is nothing short of terrifying. My heart raced and ached for the loss and devastation they felt along the way.

I love the unique formats these books take as well. From the more traditional prose style to the formal interview and the brief snippets of dialogue, the story is extrapolated from bits and bobs and told so many different ways and from so many view points. It never feels disjointed, but rather adds to the overall realism of the story. Which just goes to show the talent and thought that’s gone into these books.

Sylvain Neuvel has quickly become a must read author for me. Do yourself a favour and read them, and I’ll know he’ll become one for you, too.

The healing power of books

If you’re a bibliophile, there’s no doubt that in times of stress or sadness, you’ve turned to books for solace.

Of course, there’s that obvious bit of reassurance you’ll get from reading about someone who’s been through what you’re going through, but it’s so much more than that.

When you’ve had an extremely shitty day and your life sucks beyond the telling of it, revisiting an old favourite and living awhile in that world you’ve loved for years is the ultimate form of escapism. For that short time, your problems are put to one side. You almost forget about finding that job, or that you’ve been single since the dawn of time. You can forget about your boss giving you a hard time, or that idiotic thing you said in a professional setting. Life gets a tiny bit easier; you’re with old friends now, who won’t judge you, who’ve known you all your life. Your problems might still be there when the book is finished, but you’re stronger for having read it, and maybe you’ll be better equipped to deal with them now.

Books are the ultimate refuge when other humans just won’t cut it.

I have a rotation of refuge books that help me, right across a spectrum of emotions.  They live on the bookshelf closest to my bed, right near where I lay my head at night. I have no idea if I thought I’d absorb the goodness by osmosis as I slept, or if I just wanted them within easy reach, but they’re all there, nice and tidy. Going into all of them would take probably a full decade, so here’s just a tiny snippet of them, in no particular order.

The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling.

I’m betting this one is on a lot of lists of books people read when they’re undergoing some kind of emotional issue. The world of Harry Potter is just pure escapism. The drudgery of everyday life can really wear a person down, especially when you’re the type who loves a bit of magic, and has been searching for a source of it their whole life. Hogwarts was there for me as a teenager, which on its own is difficult enough. It’s been there through breakups, the end of friendships, problems with uni or job seeking, and just plain awful days. It’s also been responsible for the development of some of the best friendships I’ve ever had. I know I’m going to continue to revisit Harry and his wonderful, beautiful world well into my dotage.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

The Book Thief never fails to make me cry. It’s such a beautifully written book, full of gorgeous imagery and wonderful similes involving colour. Cloud-spat blue, for example, or the lemon of Rudy’s hair, or the silver-grey of Liesel’s papa’s eyes. You can lose yourself in the language, the unique perspective, or you can marvel at the bravery and resilience of a young girl who loves books and lives in Nazi Germany. That, or you can feel your heart break for the umpteenth time for Rudy, the best friend a girl could have. Plus, having a good cry sometimes can just be cathartic!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will forever hold the title of funniest book ever written for me. Douglas Adams had a truly wonderful sense of humour – his writing was whimsical and ridiculous, but also incredibly intelligent. If ever I needed a laugh, the Hitchhiker’s Guide was there to provide smiles or just a witty, hilarious escape.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

The ultimate old favourite, about a plain girl who works hard and does actually get her happy ending. It’s a comforting book – there’s a lot of injustice to relate to and rile against, and a lot of insight into the life of a poor female in Victorian times. Jane herself is a wonderful character – despite her upbringing and her circumstances, she’s strong in the face of people of higher social standing who want to bring her down. She knows her own mind, and she has worked hard to better herself and put her mind to use. She knows her limitations and her strengths – she’s not beautiful, but she is smart, and she is willing to put in the work to make a decent life for herself. It’s admirable, and it definitely helps when inner strength is something you’re striving for yourself.

Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier.

Juliet Marillier is a writer of retold fairytales, and this version of Beauty and the Beast is one of my favourites. Caitrin is flawed but strong and smart, and running from her recent past when she meets Anulan, the supposed beast. He’s been isolated for so long due to a physical deformity and some supernatural goings on that he has no idea how to act around her, but the two form a friendship based on honesty and books, and eventually something more. It’s a powerful tale when you need to feel hope.

Which books do you feel the need to revisit when you’re sad, angry, or depressed? I’d love to know – I’m always after new recommendations!

Book Review: How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Title: How to Stop Time

Author: Matt Haig

Page Number: 325

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

On the back of How to Stop Time, Jeanette Winterson is quoted as saying ‘Matt Haig uses words like a tin opener. We are the tin’. Never has a blurb sprouted more truth than that. Matt Haig’s beautiful book grabbed me by the heart.

In How to Stop Time, Tom Hazard lives a lonely, long existence. Every 8 years, he must give up the life he’s built and move on. He can’t fall in love, he can’t put down roots, and he can’t leave any evidence of his existence. This is because he’s 439 years old, and he’s aging so slowly, he only appears to be 40.

In essence, this story is about what it means to be human. About what shapes us, what helps us become who we are. It’s also about the things we’re willing to do to survive – even if we’re not really sure who we are anymore, or if we like it. There are some beautiful messages here, cleverly interwoven with history and famous characters that make reading it a joy. While most of it is sad, there is magic here, and hope. This is definitely a book worth savouring.

Book Review: The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris

Title: The Gospel of Loki

Author: Joanne M. Harris

Page numbers: 302

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I really enjoyed the Gospel of Loki. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting when I started this book – I loved Joanne M. Harris’ Chocolat books, but I guess I thought the prose would be similar in nature, with a kind of dreamy, mystical feel.

This book was nothing like that.

Basically, it was a first-person retelling of Norse mythology, revolving around Loki and his point of view. Therefore, we only see what Loki was present for, or what had been told to him by Odin or the other gods. The prose is rather matter-of-fact, despite the fantastic nature of the events that occur, and the story stays true to the original mythology. Joanne M. Harris doesn’t really stray at all from those original stories you may already be familiar with, so don’t expect any artistic liberty to be taken.

I’ve always had a fascination with Norse mythology and the Vikings in particular, so this book was right up my alley. I loved each adventure and felt angry at the way Loki was treated by the Aesir, despite the fact that he was often the instigator. He was definitely likeable, and I really enjoyed his voice.

Book review: The Colour of White by Jaclyn Moriarty

Title: The Colour of White

Author: Jaclyn Moriarty

Page numbers: 375 pages

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for years, and after seeing so many amazing reviews for it, decided it was time to give it a go myself. This is book 1 of 3, and I can’t wait to find out how the story progresses.

I’ve previously read ‘I Have a Bed Made of Buttermilk Pancakes’ by Jaclyn Moriarty, and I have to say that all the elements I loved about that book were there in this one. The humour, the whimsy, the strangeness. The pure fun.

I loved the colour present in both worlds – through Madeline’s clothing, her friendships, her mother, and her teachers, and in Elliot’s crazy world where colours were physical beings that could evoke moods or even kill. It was magical, it was odd, and it was full of personality.

In essence, it’s a book about growing up and developing a sense of self. The story is told in two parts, one in each world, and while the letters that Elliot and Madeleine write each other link them, so do the similarities between the two of them.

Finally, I have to say that I just love odd stories like this. I’d like to form a group for people who adored this story – I’m sure we’d all get along famously.

Book Review: The Girl of Ink and Stars

Title: The Girl of Ink and Stars

Author: Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Page numbers: 228 pages

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

The Girl of Ink and Stars is an amazing story, told with skill and creativity.

I read it one sitting, on the train ride home from work. It’s a gorgeous coming of age story, full of courage and cartography. The world Isabella lives in is beautifully imagined and colourfully brought to life. I was surprised that it was so short – so much happened, and the characters were so well written.

Isabella is a 13 year old who lives on what was once an island that floated around the world. Since the Governor arrived, the village has been cut off from the rest of the island, the ports have closed, and no one can leave. What used to be a magical world is now full of fear and drudgery. Isabella has a father who keeps the magic alive for her through story and through the maps he created when he was free to travel. The story itself starts when Isabella learns that one of her friends from school is missing after a trip to the forbidden orchids belonging to the Governor. What follows is an adventure told just like a fable. The writing is beautiful and lyrical, and everything a good fable should be. I adored every second of it.