Book Review – The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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Goodreads Synopsis:

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

Review:

So this is yet another very delayed review from #readtheworldathon – this time for the ‘Celebrate WOC’ square. I’d owned this for ages, having actually received it as an ARC but I forgot all about it until suddenly I started seeing hype for it everywhere and knew I had to read it.

This book can be split into several parts and so just when you think you know what’s going on, things take an unexpected turn and suddenly it’s a completely different novel. I adored this book for a multitude of reasons and it’s hard to narrow it down.

Firstly, this book is incredibly heavily inspired by Chinese history and culture which makes the world so rich and interesting. Some of the events are inspired by real events (I won’t say what because of spoilers, but suffice to say that a lot of the “bad” things that happen are based on real events) but as well as big things like that, it was also nice spotting the much smaller references. For example, the Keju is clearly inspired by the Gaokao and then there are throwaway remarks such as warning Rin to be careful of ‘gutter oil’. There’s probably way more references that also completely flew over my head due to my lack of in-depth knowledge about China and I definitely think I’m going to want to read this again to try and spot as many as I can.

The novel starts off with Rin at her academy and I’m a huge fan of novels that involve studying (I love school) so the setting appealed to me straight away. We don’t stay at the school for the entire novel, but the other settings are just as interesting. The characters are all very interesting too and it’s really rewarding to watch Rin evolve as a person throughout the novel.

There’s a lot I could say about this book, but I’m aware of the levels of hype surrounding it and I want to avoid saying too much because of potential spoilers. All I’ll say is that I highly, highly recommend it and have been recommending it to a lot of people. Indeed, the only people I wouldn’t recommend this to are those that don’t enjoy books with a lot of violence.

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Book Review – The Half Killed by Quenby Olson

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Goodreads Synopsis:

Dorothea Hawes has no wish to renew contact with what lies beyond the veil. After an attempt to take her own life, she has retired into seclusion, but as the wounds on her body heal, she is drawn back into a world she wants nothing more than to avoid.

She is sought out by Julian Chissick, a former man of God who wants her help in discovering who is behind the gruesome murder of a young woman. But the manner of death is all too familiar to Dorothea, and she begins to fear that something even more terrible is about to unleash itself on London. 

And so Dorothea risks her life and her sanity in order to save people who are oblivious to the threat that hovers over them. It is a task that forces her into a confrontation with her own lurid past, and tests her ability to shape events frighteningly beyond her control.

Review:

I started reading this months ago but put it down as I didn’t really get into it. I recently remembered about it so gave it another go and ended up really enjoying it. It’s a bit slow to start and I wasn’t sure if I enjoyed it at first as it’s a slow build up but once I got further in I was hooked and couldn’t put it down.

The plot revolves around finding the cause of a mysterious murder which is supernatural in origin. The main character, Thea, can hear the dead and so Chissick, a detective, has asked for her aid knowing that she can help more than anybody else. The pacing is quite slow which might not appeal to everybody, but it worked really well for this novel as the slow pace allowed the creepy factor and a general sense of unease to build while reading. We don’t know what the cause is, but we don’t like it and you start to dread to moment when we’ll face whatever entity is causing this.

The book is very well written and I love the interactions between the characters. The setting of Victorian London works really well and if I didn’t know better, I could easily believe this was a genuine Victorian novel.

I would recommend this book to anybody that is a fan of Victorian literature, and to anybody who enjoys the subgenre “Fantasy of Manners”. It’s also fantastic for those who want a nice slow and immersive read – this is definitely the kind of book I’d enjoy reading while curled up in front of a fire.

Book Review- A Russian Doll and Other Stories by Adolfo Bioy Casares

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Goodreads Synopsis:

This collection of traditional and experimental stories by Argentinian novelist Bioy Casares ( The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata ) offers sophisticated, seamless prose, as well as magical realism and biting political satire. His characters are motivated by lust, avarice and vanity but elicit sympathy because of their vulnerability. In the title story, a fortune hunter joins an ecological expedition in pursuit of a millionaire’s daughter; but the father is swallowed by an enormous pollution-feeding caterpillar, and when the daughter takes over her father’s factory, she renounces her former ecological stance. In another story, a notary public recovering from hepatitis stays near a lake and meets Doctor Salmon’s niece, who asks him to prove his love for her by letting her uncle transform them both into fish. Many of the stories are fantasies, often centering on shocking events–an actor is shot by supporters of a dictatorship for playing a republican who cries, “Oh liberty!” and an angelic-looking girl breakfasts on her parents after being given an appetite stimulant. Throughout Casares surprises and entertains in these suspenseful stories.

Review:

Here is another of my #readtheworldathon books, this time for the square located furthest away from me. I’d already read The Invention of Morel and adored it so figured a collection of Casares short stories would be a perfect choice.

What I love about Casares is that his stories are just so strange and full of surprises. It’s hard to describe really, but the stories are full of magic and creativeness. They don’t quite live up to The Invention of Morel but were still a very enjoyable read. I won’t say too much about the stories themselves as that would risk giving away some of the twists.

Overall though, this was a fantastic collection for those wanting to read more magical realism stories. I would recommend this, however if you’ve not read Casares then I would first direct you to The Invention of Morel which is a brilliant novella and then, if you enjoyed that, you can come enjoy these stories too.

Book Review – Stranger Tales of the City ed. by Elizabeth Evershed

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Goodreads Synopsis:

The knights hospitaller have just woken to a second life in a City the size of a galaxy. 

Two strangers from a far-distant future are flung together on Resurrection Day. 

A window-seller visits a claustrophobic suburb and finds it full of mystery. 

A Remake gunslinger seeks a new role from the one he was always meant to play… 

In this, the sixth anthology in the City of the Saved series, we meet a host of human and not-so-human characters getting to grips with life in the afterlife: alien adoptees with no previous experience of human cultures; Citizens permanently missing and not merely misplaced; priestesses of long-forgotten religions; posthumans with their own baffling version of the Civil Tongue; a viral strain of humankind that has never known community… 

The City is full of strangers and these are their tales.

Review:

This is the sixth book in the City of the Saved series which is based on the premise that “Everybody has died and woken up together in a huge city”. The short stories all feature different characters and how they deal with their new life. It’s a fantastic setting which gives a lot of freedom to the authors which is definitely shown in this collection where all the stories are very different from each other.

Now, I may be slightly biased here because my partner is one of the authors featured here (his is the story about a window seller in suburbia) however even without his story I still loved this collection. The stories were all so varied and dealt with a variety of themes.

The stories themselves are all linked by a frame tale featuring the Knights Hospitallers which I really enjoyed, and I loved the majority of the tales. Ironically, the one I enjoyed least was all about language (which, for those that know me, is very odd given how much I love studying languages and linguistics).

Despite not having read any of the previous books, I still found this very accessible. The only issue I had was understanding what a ‘remake’ was since they appear in several stories (one focusing heavily on them) but I was able to get enough information from context to understand the story.

I would definitely recommend this collection of short stories to Sci-Fi fans, although I need to point out that it’s not available on Amazon and you have to go straight to the publisher if you want an ebook which seems a bit of a strange marketing decision (and unfortunately means I won’t be buying any other books in the series as I make my purchases using Amazon Giftcards to control my spending on books)

Book Review – One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun

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Goodreads Synopsis:

An oblique, hard-edged novel tinged with offbeat fantasy, One Hundred Shadows is set in a slum electronics market in central Seoul – an area earmarked for demolition in a city better known for its shiny skyscrapers and slick pop videos. Here, the awkward, tentative relationship between Eungyo and Mujae, who both dropped out of formal education to work as repair-shop assistants, is made yet more uncertain by their economic circumstances, while their matter-of-fact discussion of a strange recent development – the shadows of the slum’s inhabitants have started to ‘rise’ – leaves the reader to make up their own mind as to the nature of this shape-shifting tale.

Hwang’s spare prose is illuminated by arresting images, quirky dialogue and moments of great lyricism, crafting a deeply affecting novel of perfectly calibrated emotional restraint. Known for her interest in social minorities, Hwang eschews the dreary realism usually employed for such issues, without her social criticism being any less keen. As well as an important contribution to contemporary working-class literature, One Hundred Shadows depicts the little-known underside of a society which can be viciously superficial, complicating the shiny, ultra-modern face which South Korea presents to the world.

Review:

This is another book I picked up for the #Readtheworldathon, this one for the “short hop” square. I’ve actually already read a book from South Korea recently but I didn’t let that stop me as it sounded so interesting.

This is a short novella primarily focused on the interactions between Eungyo and Mujae and so it’s hard to really give a review as there is nothing that jumps out at you as instead it’s just a beautiful journey with excellent prose in a very fluid, lyrical format. It’s focused heavily on the small details of life rather than big overarching plots which I really enjoyed and in particular it was a great way to see glimpses of South Korean culture.

As this is such a quick read, it’s something I would recommend to everybody wanting to expand their horizons and read more translated literature. It’s a fantastic look at the lives of two everyday people and yet is so much more than that.

Book Review – The Teacher of Cheops by Albert Salvadó

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Goodreads Synopsis:

This is the history of the time of Pharaoh Snefru and Queen Hetepheres, the parents of Cheops, who built the largest and most impressive pyramid of all. It is also the story of Sedum, a slave who became Cheops’ teacher, the high priest Ramosi, and how the first pyramid came to be built. 

Sebekhotep, the great wise man of that time, said, “Everything is written in the stars. Most of us live our lives unaware of it. Some can read the stars and see their destiny. But very few people learn to write in the stars and change their destiny.” 

Ramosi and Sedum learned to write in them and tried to change their destinies, but fortune treated them very differently. This is a tale of the confrontation between two men’s intelligence: one fighting for power, the other struggling for freedom.

Review:

So, this was my pick for “Small Country” in the #Readtheworldathon challenge as the author is from Andorra and I couldn’t find any other book available. It’s historical fiction about Egypt and I love historical fiction so figured it would be a good read.

I was wrong. I was very, very wrong.

I almost put this book down in the first few chapters as it starts off with a graphic sex scene between a child slave and a man who snuck into her tent. No, the man did not rape her as this child slave was very happy and willing to have sex for the first time with this complete stranger. At that point I lost all respect for the author and his writing and only continued to see how much worse it could get.

That was the worst part, but the rest of the book was not much better. I found it incredibly boring, badly written and I’d definitely say this is one of the worst books I’ve ever read. I only finished it because of my challenge to read something from around the world.

I do not recommend this book to anybody. If you are trying to read around the world and want to read something from Andorra then I recommend leaving it until last in the hopes that something else will become available because this is trash. I don’t say that very often about books (indeed usually when I don’t enjoy a book I recognise that there will still be plenty of people that will enjoy it) but I can not in any good conscious recommend a book that believes a child slave would willingly consent to sex with a random stranger. The author is disgusting and should be ashamed of himself.

#Readtheworldathon Challenge

So I’ve joined the #Readtheworldathon challenge and I’m super excited about taking part as this will really help me with my “Read Around the World” goal.

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*To get the full rules, you can find them at A Novel Haul

Now, this is an excellent card and so I was so torn on where to start and what route to take – I eventually settled on starting at Asia and then working my way down. I’m taking a slight detour for the Middle East, simply because I already had a book on my TBR for it and because it’s much easier than trying to find a book from a small country.

My TBR:

Asia – One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun (South Korea)

Globetrotter – A Russian Doll & Other Stories by Adolfo Bioy Casares (Argentina)

Celebrate WOC – Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson (Jamaica/Canada)

Middle East – Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq)

Indigenous – Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (Native American)


 

Are you taking part? If so, any suggestions for any of the other squares? Have you read any of my TBR list? Let me know!

Book Review – Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-yong

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Goodreads Synopsis:

Seoul. On the outskirts of South Korea’s glittering metropolis is a place few people know about: a vast landfill site called Flower Island. Home to those driven from the city by poverty, is it here that 14-year-old Bugeye and his mother arrive, following his father’s internment in a government ‘re-education camp’.

Living in a shack and supporting himself by weeding recyclables out of the refuse, at first Bugeye’s life on Flower Island is hard. But then one night he notices mysterious lights around the landfill. And when the ancient spirits that still inhabit the island’s landscape reveal themselves to him, Bugeye’s luck begins to change – but can it last?

Vibrant and enchanting, Familiar Things depicts a society on the edge of dizzying economic and social change, and is a haunting reminder to us all to be careful of what we throw away.

Review:

So, I recently got back from a short trip to Seoul and so naturally it was the perfect opportunity to read a book from South Korea for my “Read Around the World” challenge. I picked this book simply because it was also set in Seoul and was short enough I’d be able to read it while on my trip without taking away too much time from exploring.

Although the book is set on a trash island near Seoul, there is very little focus on Seoul itself and indeed could be set almost anywhere. You only know it’s Seoul due to the references to Korean culture which gives the story a certain charm.

The plot of the story is very simple, Bugeye and his mother have moved to Flower Island where she works as a trash picker and the story follows Bugeye as he adapts to his new living situation. However, the simplicity is what makes this story so magical – we’re reading about some people who were down on their luck and how they cope with their new life. There is some magic in the book with spirits that Bugeye meets and this, along with the new friends he meets, helps him grow.

This story was not what I was expecting, but it was delightful all the same. It’s a simple yet charming story that is beautifully written (and beautifully translated) and was an absolute joy to read.

If you’re looking for a short read to diversify your reading then this is definitely a book I’d recommend. If you’re looking for exciting fast-paced novels it’s probably not for you, but I’d suggest giving it a chance anyway, the slow relaxed pace is very enjoyable.

Book Review – Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers ed. by Sarena Ulibarri

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Goodreads Synopsis:

Solarpunk is a type of optimistic science fiction that imagines a future founded on renewable energies. The seventeen stories in this volume are not dull utopias—they grapple with real issues such as the future and ethics of our food sources, the connection or disconnection between technology and nature, and the interpersonal conflicts that arise no matter how peaceful the world is. In these pages you’ll find a guerilla art installation in Milan, a murder mystery set in a weather manipulation facility, and a world where you are judged by the glow of your solar nanite implants. From an opal mine in Australia to the seed vault at Svalbard, from a wheat farm in Kansas to a crocodile ranch in Malaysia, these are stories of adaptation, ingenuity, and optimism for the future of our world and others. For readers who are tired of dystopias and apocalypses, these visions of a brighter future will be a breath of fresh air.

Review:

I was very lucky to be offered an ARC of this straight from the editor due to the fact I previously reviewed Sunvault, another solarpunk collection of short stories. I leapt at the chance and read it straight away as I adore solarpunk and am always happy to read more of it.

Again, as this is a short story collection it’s hard to review because all the stories were so different. It was delightful to see all the different locations and interpretations used in the story. As seen in the blurb, the stories are set all across the globe, and some even venture into space. One particular story, The Spider and the Stars focuses on introducing insects to space and I really enjoyed that one despite hating spiders. Then again, I could just list the names of all the short stories as I enjoyed them all.

I particularly enjoyed the introduction which actually goes and lists other solarpunk books and short story collections for further reading which is so helpful as often when I mention that I enjoy solarpunk, I’ll get asked for recommendations. There isn’t a table of contents at the start which doesn’t bother me on my Kindle as I can easily skip through the stories, but in a physical edition that would disappoint me as I definitely see myself wanting to re-read certain stories again.

Overall though, this was a fantastic collection and it’s always brilliant to see more solarpunk collections out there. If you enjoy solarpunk or are interested in exploring it as a genre then this is an excellent place to start! I highly recommend this and hope more collections will be published in the future!

Book Review – Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Goodreads Synopsis:

Welcome to Mexico City… An Oasis In A Sea Of Vampires…

Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is busy eking out a living when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life.

Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, must feast on the young to survive and Domingo looks especially tasty. Smart, beautiful, and dangerous, Atl needs to escape to South America, far from the rival narco-vampire clan pursuing her. Domingo is smitten.

Her plan doesn’t include developing any real attachment to Domingo. Hell, the only living creature she loves is her trusty Doberman. Little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his effervescent charm.

And then there’s Ana, a cop who suddenly finds herself following a trail of corpses and winds up smack in the middle of vampire gang rivalries.

Vampires, humans, cops, and gangsters collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive?

Review:

When I was younger, I went through a Vampire phase and absolutely adored Buffy. I got my hands on any Vampire books I could find (I grew up in a small village before Twilight so there were not many). When Twilight came out, it led to an increase in Vampire novels but most of them all focused heavily on Romance which I’m not really a fan of.

This book though, this book is exactly what I wanted and I adored it. The main plot of the story focuses on Atl who is trying to escape a gang that killed her family and are now after her. It just so happens that Atl and the gang are both Vampires and so as the main focus of the plot is on Atl’s escape, there’s not much time for romance.

The worldbuilding in this book was absolutely fantastic. The vampires in this aren’t all one monolithic creature type, but instead, there are different varieties. Atl is a tlahuihpochtli, which is a Vampire indigenous to Mexico. The other Vampires we see in the novel are the Narcos and a Revenant which are Vampires that have arrived from Europe. I really enjoyed the fact that the author drew on different mythologies and had all these distinct versions of Vampires together in the same novel. The history of the world was also particularly interesting and I would love to read another book set in this world focusing on the discovery of Vampires and watching how the world changed into the world we see in this book.

The characters in this book were all fantastic and I don’t want to speak about them too much as part of the charm was slowly getting to know them more but suffice to say, they’re all very well written and very realistic – they all have their flaws, some more than others, and they all have their own motivations for their actions.

This was a very quick read as I got so engrossed I just didn’t want to put it down and if you’re a fan of Vampires then this book is ideal for you! The fact it’s set in Mexico City was also nice and refreshing (also makes it perfect for my Read Around the World challenge). I would highly recommend this novel and I’m definitely planning on reading more of the authors novels after this!