T5W: Books for a Rainy Summer

To be honest, summer hasn’t really shown its face where I live; we had a truly beautiful Sunday, followed by a couple of days of gloomy rainclouds (and as I write, raindrops are attempting to batter their way through my windows). 🌧 Spring does seem to be finally-hopefully-maybe asserting its dominance over winter, but I’m not going to hold my breath for true summer weather for at least a couple more months… So, since this week’s theme – summer reads – is wholly inappropriate, I thought I’d tweak it a little bit, and instead I’ll be sharing with you some of my favourite books for a wet summer spent indoors! 😉

Sunny days always make me want to read light, fluffy contemporaries. Rainy days lend themselves to something a little bit heavier; sad or mysterious or thought-provoking or lonely, or maybe even a little spooky (but not too much!)… Though if you asked me why, I doubt I’d be able to answer. 😅

5) The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

A story about a young girl called Maria Merryweather, who, upon moving to the country to live with her reclusive uncle, discovers that her family is cursed, and it’s up to her to find a way to break it. This is a really magical book, and one that I still love even though I’m considerably older than its target audience. Naturally, I’d especially recommend it for people who love horses. 😊

4) Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Not long after Vera falls out with her best friend – and secret crush – Charlie, he dies in damning circumstances, and Vera is left to decide how far she’s willing to go in order to clear his name… and if she even wants to. Dark, mysterious, heart-wrenching, and gripping from start to finish.

3) The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

The eerie tale of a man who one evening saves the life of a crane that crash-lands in his garden, and shortly afterwards meets a young woman called Kumiko who seems to have some connection to the crane. And interwoven with this is a wonderful folk-tale-esque story about a crane and a volcano (which I may or may not have liked even more than the main storyline)… Beautifully written, and full of wonderful characters; Patrick Ness is an incredible author, and it’s just as evident in The Crane Wife as in some of his better-known works.

2) Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

A dark, slow-building story about a young man and his first love, who suffered deeply from depression. This book is much heavier than the others on this list (even Please Ignore Vera Dietz!), and is very emotionally draining, too, but it’s definitely worth the energy it takes to get through it. Incredibly thought-provoking, and brilliantly atmospheric.

1) The Kotenbu series by Honobu Yonezawa

Also known as the Classics Club series or the Hyouka series, these books tell the story of a high-schooler who’s forced by his sister to join his school’s dying Classics Club. It’s supposed to be a club where students meet in order to read and discuss classical literature, but instead the small club becomes all about solving mysterious happenings around the school and town, and willingly or not, Houtarou – our main character, who prefers to live his life in ‘energy-saving mode” – is dragged into the chaos. Each book offers up a different main case, and they vary in tone and complexity, but are always a great deal of fun. I really love these characters, too, which probably helps. 😆

These books have no official English translation at the moment, but if this series sounds like something you’d like, then fan-translations are available on Baka-Tsuki. Or you could check out the also-fantastic anime (which is called Hyouka). Or  do both! 😉

Review: The Scarecrow & His Servant by Philip Pullman (Spoiler-Free)

One night a scarecrow is struck by lightning and comes to life, and a great adventure ensues, as – along with his newly-hired (and very hungry) servant Jack – the Scarecrow hits the road in search of fame and fortune and, eventually, home… all while being pursued by bandits, birds, and all manner of other fearsome foes!

The short version of this review would be “a jolly romp, but a bit silly for my taste”, but since that doesn’t tell you much, I’ll go into a little more detail…

The story is told rather episodically, with Scarecrow moving from one adventure to the next without much thought, and much of it seemed rather flippant. Pullman was clearly going for a more comic tone with this book, and while there were some humorous parts, for the most part I feel that it missed the mark with me. Jack’s narration was good, however, and I liked him a lot as a character; Scarecrow was incredibly silly, but Jack seems to take all his quirks in stride.

I also really loved the role of the birds in the story. Naturally, a bird is a scarecrow’s mortal enemy, but (with some intervention from Jack) the way their relationship with Scarecrow changed over the course of the book was wonderful, and culminated in a great scene near the end where Scarecrow was brought before an enormous congress of birds (including Granny Raven, who is quite possibly the best character in the whole book).

The plot did come together quite well in the end, too, and although the ending managed to seem simultaneously drawn out (by Scarecrow’s illness) and rushed (in the final four-page chapter that ties up all the loose ends for everyone, however big or small their role), it was still a good one.

Review: I Was a Rat! by Philip Pullman (Spoiler-Free)

All Bob and Joan really want is a child, but after years of trying, they’ve all but given up hope. That is, until a small boy in a tattered page-boy’s uniform knocks on their door one night with no clear memory of anything except this: That he used to be a rat.

I remember really loving this book when I was little, but it had been so long since I read it that I’d completely forgotten what it was called or who it was by… Needless to say, I was thrilled when I finally came across it again (in Pullman’s Four Tales anthology) – but at the same time, I was really nervous about re-reading it, in case my memory of how good it was had been skewed by nostalgia. Luckily for me, it turned out that it hadn’t; I Was a Rat! was just as amazing the second time around as I remember it being the first! 😀

It’s quite a short story, so there’s not that much room for extensive character development, but it’s great to see how Roger (the rat-boy) changes as he learns more about living amongst humans – for better and for worse. Bob and Joan are both wonderful parents/mentors to him, I really admired their persistence throughout the book; and all the other characters we’re introduced to over the course of Roger’s journey (however large or small their roles might be) are full of quirks, and a delight to read about.

This story is a sequel of sorts to a very well-known fairytale (which I won’t name here even though I wouldn’t really consider it a spoiler), and Pullman has twisted the familiar tale in some very interesting ways beyond just showing it from Roger’s (very interesting and very unusual) perspective. He’s definitely a master storyteller, and I Was a Rat! is a perfect demonstration of that… The edition I’ve been reading is also littered with fun illustrations by Peter Bailey, which really enhance the reading experience.4 stars

Series Review: The Kricket Series by Amy A. Bartol (Spoiler-Free)

Having been on the run from Social Services for several years now, Kricket Hollowell is no stranger to being pursued… but this latest group of people searching for her don’t seem to be the usual sort, interested in returning her to the “loving” care of her foster family. Instead, they claim to come from another world called Ethar, and  – stranger still – they claim that Kricket comes from Ethar, too. Now Kricket must learn how to survive in an unfamiliar and hostile world, with an ancient prophecy hanging over her head that will decide the fate of her newly-discovered homeland.

The Kricket series is comprised of three books – Under Different Stars, Sea of Stars and Darken the Stars – which were self-published by Bartol from 2013 to 2015. At the time of writing, the series as a whole has an average rating of 4.2 stars (out of 5) on Goodreads, with the lowest individual rating being 4.07 (for Darken the Stars), and each book having been rated by at least 5000 people. I’m telling you this, by the way, because I find it completely baffling. This series is terrible, and the hours I spent reading it are hours that I want back! 😡

To be fair, it didn’t start out too horribly, and I actually thought that the first book seemed quite promising. I took a considerable break between reading Sea of Stars and Darken the Stars, so I remember my impressions of the first two books much more clearly than the books themselves, but I did enjoy reading Under Different Stars: Its premise was interesting, Kricket was a little irritating but not so much as to put me off the series altogether, the writing was pretty solid, and I was finding the developing romance between Kricket and one of her abductor-protectors kind of sweet. It read more like a romance than a sci-fi adventure, but I’d been expecting that; it was why I’d picked the book up in the first place – for a little brainless romance in-between bouts of reading the emotionally-draining The Painted Man (by Peter V. Brett).

Sea of Stars only offered more of the same, and it was at this point that I began to get bored. I still liked it, but the problems I’d had with the first book only seemed to be worsening, and the monotonous plod of the plot was becoming quite tedious… I finished the book reasonably quickly, but decided to take a break before moving onto book three, in hopes that I’d be feeling less critical of the series if I came back to it after reading something completely different. Or several things, it turned out, as my “short break” ended up lasting over a year… 😓 (Thinking back, the reluctance I felt to pick up Darken the Stars should probably have clued me into the fact that I wasn’t going to enjoy it.)

Darken the Stars, if you hadn’t already guessed, is the truly awful entry in the series (and is what’s pushed my overall rating down from the 2-stars it would have been if I was only averaging out my ratings for each individual book): There’s a sudden, inexplicable change of love interest; love interest #1 seems to be barely an afterthought to Kricket except on the rare occasions that he’s actually present, despite their supposed “great love” in the first books; he also seems to have undergone a personality transplant, possibly in hopes that it will make love interest #2 (one of the most vile characters I’ve ever come across) seem more palatable (spoiler: it doesn’t); another afterthought is the plot, which makes a brief appearance in the last three (maybe four) chapters, wherein Kricket rapidly comes up with a plan, executes it perfectly, and then deals with all the consequences before the book ends – something that we’re supposed to believe an entire civilisation has been struggling to do for years before Kricket was even born…

Some specific issues I had (in order of severity, from least to most):

Slang: The world of Ethar is rife with made-up slang words, which wouldn’t be a problem in itself (it’s not difficult to understand) if not for Kricket’s constant use of it. I can buy her calling people knob-knockers when they annoy her, in order to show off this shiny new insult she’s learned, but the speed at which she internalises the new language is incredibly distracting. There’s a scene in book three where she’s looking at some Etharian children (who are, as far as I can tell, completely human in appearance) and internally estimates their ages as “about twelve or thirteen floans”, even though she’s been using the word “year” for her whole life, and it has almost the exact same meaning.

Kricket: Kricket is not a relatable character in the slightest. She is, in fact, the quintessential Mary-Sue; beautiful, good at everything, with super-special magical powers, and the whole of Ethar seemingly treating her as if she’s the centre of the universe. In the second book in particular, Bartol really tries to push the idea that Kricket’s great flaw is that she can’t swim, and maybe if she was supposed to be becoming a sailor (or something else water-related) then this would be a character-building trait, but swimming really has very little importance in the Kricket series…

Romanticisation of domestic abuse: The series’ worst offence, and also one that is book-three-specific, as this is when love interest #2 (who will henceforth be known as Mr. Disgusting for the benefit of the hypothetical person who reads this review and thinks, “Oh, that sounds like a series I’d like!”) comes onto the scene in a romantic sense. Kricket is his captive for the entire book, and whenever she tries to escape, or to defy him, he hurts her. He tells her what to wear, what to do, how to behave; there’s a scene where he holds her head underwater until she almost drowns; there’s a scene where he talks about how much he’d like to rape her… and we’re supposed to believe that this is making Kricket fall in love with him?

And this would all be fine (in a purely narrative sense, of course) if Bartol was trying to tell a story about a woman’s struggle with domestic abuse, but Kricket treats it all like it’s completely normal – or worse, some kind of weird flirty ritual. Even during the early parts of the book when she still claims to be fighting against him, there’s this strange disconnect between how Bartol tells us she’s behaving (i.e. trying to escape/survive), and how she’s actually behaving (i.e. not seeming all that bothered by having to do whatever Mr. Disgusting says)… Remember when I got so enraged by the way Ruth was behaving around her awful boyfriend in Fiesta? This is like that, only about a hundred times worse, and drawn out over a whole book.

Ugh. 😑

February – April Haul

Good news, everyone: My book-buying ban (/restriction) is going super-well! So I only have five new books to show you even though it’s been three months since my last haul (one of which was a gift, so I’ve only actually bought four). 😀 They are:

1) Starfall by Melissa Landers. The sequel to Starflight (and final book in the duology), an epic space-pirate adventure that I read around this time last year. This book will focus on two of my favourite supporting characters – Cassie and Kane – from its predecessor, and will hopefully be just as amazing (if not more so).

2) Darcy’s Story by Janet Aylmer. A re-telling of Pride & Prejudice from Darcy’s perspective, which I picked up on a whim in March, and read pretty much immediately. I wasn’t expecting much more than a few hours of fun from this book, but it actually turned out to be surprisingly well-written, as well. 🙂 (I doubt I’ll be holding onto it for long, though.)

3) The Tower of the Swallow by Andrzej Sapkowski. The penultimate book in the Witcher series, which I’ve been obsessing over since late last year – and definitely one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. I’m dying to know what happens next, but am also resolved not to read The Lady of the Lake until it’s available in paperback… so this year is looking to be a particularly suspenseful one in Witcher-land. 😉

4) The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke. A standalone novel that follows a girl called Cat Novak through her life, and in particular her unusual relationship with Finn, an android whom her father programmed to act as her tutor when she was young. This is a book that I’ve had my eye on for quite some time, but it turned out to be not at all what I was expecting – in the best possible sense. 🙂 I’ve written a proper review of this book, which you can find here. (And many thanks to my aunt, Lucy, who gave me this book as a belated Christmas present!)

5) Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. This last book I just bought a couple of days ago, and I don’t actually know all that much about it, but the blurb sounded rather Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell-y in premise (a court sorcerer who travels to Fairyland in order to find out why magic has started to disappear)… though of course Sorcerer to the Crown is considerably less dense (as is the case with most books). It’s the first book in the new Sorcerer Royal series, and I’m looking forward to reading it soon!

April Wrap-Up

Not my greatest reading month in terms of quantity, but pretty impressive in terms of quality! 😉 Also, as I now appreciate more fully, non-fiction can be pretty time-consuming, even when you’re enjoying it… So in April I read a total of two novels, and one academic book. Here’s what I thought of them:

The Tower of the Swallow by Andrzej Sapkowski. The sixth book in the Witcher series (and the fourth of the novels which make up the Saga of the Witcher), in which Geralt and his companions continue their search for Ciri, as do several other interested parties, most of whom have less-than-noble designs. Obviously there’s not much I can say about the plot, but it continues to thicken, and I’m simultaneously dreading and anticipating reading the next (and final!) book in the series!

The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan. The first book in Riordan’s most recent Percy Jackson-verse series, The Trials of Apollo, which follows the god Apollo after he’s been turned into a mortal teenager by Zeus. I just about managed to scrape together a review of this book (which I liked a lot, though perhaps not so much as I have previous books from this universe); you can find it here. 🙂Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks. My Library Scavenger Hunt pick for the month, which is an exploration/study of Deaf culture and Sign Language (amongst other things). It’s rare that I foray into the world of non-fiction, but this made for an interesting read, even though much of it was completely over my head. You can find my full review here.

Library Scavenger Hunt: April

This month’s challenge was to read a book that was published the year you were born – 1989 for me – and required a lot more research than I’m used to having to do for the LSH, as well as several different library trips, since several times over, I wasn’t able to find the books I was looking for… :/ Luckily, I eventually managed to find this list, and a couple of the books on it were available in my local library! 😀 The one I eventually picked (which was originally published in 1989, although I actually read a more recent edition) was…

SEEING VOICES
Oliver Sacks

An exploration of Deaf culture and identity; of the history of Sign language (and American Sign Language in particular); of how languages (both visual and auditory) effect the brain; and many other related topics – from the perspective of somebody who is not part of the Deaf community, but clearly has great admiration for it.

This was a difficult book to review (and to rate) for a number of reasons. Firstly, I have no connection to the Deaf community whatsoever; in twenty-seven years of life, the only exposure I’ve had to Deaf culture is in the occasional (and usually not particularly prominent) deaf character on TV, and pretty much everything I know about the community (or deafness in general), I’ve learnt from this book. So I am entirely unqualified to make any argument concerning Sacks’ right- or wrong-ness. Secondly, I read fiction almost exclusively, and have never before reviewed a book that was not a novel (or short story), so many of the things that I’ve trained myself to think about when I read (plot progression, character development, world-building, etc.) really don’t apply here. Nevertheless, I will do my best to produce something coherent.

In regards to the content of the book, I will say this: Much of it was completely over my head, but I progressed through it feeling interested, and ended it feeling informed – if not as informed as I might have been, had I understood more of it. Sacks’ lack of objectivity is evident, but I don’t think it was trying to be an entirely objective scientific/sociological study so much as a documentation of Sacks’ own journey into the world of the Deaf, and all the interesting things he learnt along the way. And – as an outsider myself – his outsider perspective made the book relatively easy to follow.

My main problem with the book was actually the way it was formatted. Around a third of the main body of text (i.e. discounting the bibliography/references/etc.) was notes – many of which were extremely long – and constantly having to flip back and forth between sections meant that I was continually losing track of what Sacks was trying to say (and losing my place). True, there’s no need to read the notes if you don’t want to, but I found that they contained some of Sacks’ most interesting observations.

The rest of the text was divided into three sections (A Deaf WorldThinking in Sign, and The Revolution of the Deaf), the first two of which had previously been published as self-contained essays, and therefore reproduced much of the same information. Reading A Deaf World, of course, this information was all new to me, but Thinking in Sign (the longest section of the book) dragged quite a bit in consequence. The Revolution of the Deaf – a documentation of the Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet University in 1988 – was the only part of the book that was written specifically for Seeing Voices, and was very different to the rest of the book; less scientific, and more sociological. It’s also the most easily accessible part of the book, though when I was reading it, I appreciated having the background information provided by A Deaf World and Thinking in Sign.

As a final note, I’d like to suggest that anyone who’s unsure about reading this book check out some of the other reviews on Goodreads, which are, for the most part, considerably better-informed and better-articulated than my own.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]