Sometimes I read things that aren't fanfiction, and in 2021 I'm trying to do better at this. Here are my totally unsolicited opinions on the books I'm reading. Warning: Spoilers ahead.

If you have a book to recommend, drop me a line. I favour scifi/fantasy, dystopia, contemporary romance, crime thrillers*, mysteries and the occasional classic or historical fiction. I do not enjoy paranormal romance or Westerns, but I'll try anything if it has good prose and finely written characters.

*note: I'm sick to death of crime thrillers featuring a beautiful dead woman and the rest of the cast is a sausage party. Give me feminist takes on that trope, especially queer lit, and if you're gonna kill the gays or the girls, there had better be a damn good reason for it.

science fiction, fantasy & dystopia

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Anne McCaffrey - Dragonriders of Pern series
 

I embarked on my third re-read (over my lifetime) of the Pern books out of nostalgia. They have not held up well. The first few in chronological order rate higher, purely for the science in the science fiction (Dragonsdawn and The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall) and the time travel in the fantasy (Dragonflight). But jeez. Talk about misogynistic, squirmingly racist, throwback sensibilities. McCaffrey appears to believe that violence and dubious consent is romance, and stereotypes represent cultural diversity. Maybe this was acceptable when McCaffrey published the first Pern book in 1968, but Chronicles came out in 1993. By then, her editors should have been a little more aware that Sean's dismissive, ungracious and downright emotionally abusive treatment of Sorka was Not Okay.

Throughout these books, the characters are caricatures, with the exception of Robinton and possibly Lytol, and I really don't care about any of them. Those I do start to care about (Menolly, Sharra, Brekke and Mirrim, to name the few; funnily enough, all women, perhaps because I felt reasonably sure none of them was about to turn into a sexual predator) are soon eclipsed by the men in their lives and relegated to wives and helpmeets. The only exception to this is Moreta, who gets her own story and fully deserves it. She's a middle-aged badass, a reluctant heroine and a flawed and enjoyable person, which is why Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern gets my highest rating of the clutch I read this time around.

Plot aside, Pern’s human history is just a bit ridiculous (and that's not even counting the genetically enhanced flying lizards-cum-dragons). No major wars – really? And no progression past medieval technology or society in over 2500 years, even given the handicap of Thread? These are humans we’re dealing with, yes? Apparently not the kind of humans Earth has.

Reading in chronological order, rather than order of publishing, I got through nine books, which is more than I should have. Partway through the tenth book, The Skies of Pern, I suddenly wondered why I was torturing myself, and called a halt.

Individual ratings for the books I finished:

Dragonsdawn - 5/10

The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall - 5/10

Red Star Rising - 3/10

Dragonflight - 5/10

Dragonquest - 4/10

Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern - 6/10

The White Dragon - 4/10

The Renegades of Pern - 3/10

All the Weyrs of Pern - 3/10

Average rating: 4/10
 
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Micaiah Johnson - The Space Between Worlds

 

Oh my God. Oh my sweet loving mother of God.

Maybe if I'd kept up the prodigious rate at which I devoured books throughout my childhood, teens and twenties, I'd have come across this kind of book more often. You know, the kind of book that makes you weep and gasp and want to offer your firstborn as sacrifice to the word gods, in the vain hope you might ever write with a fraction of that kind of talent.

Or maybe I'd still appreciate Space Between for the masterpiece it is.

Yes, it has its flaws - there are a number of plot threads left hanging a little bit, but I'm not one who needs it all tied up in a pretty bow, and nothing felt wrong or confusing to me. Just ... left to the imagination. And yes, the motivation of the Big Bad is a little bit questionable, and in a less amazing book that might have bothered me.

 

But that doesn't sour the beauty of Johnson's lyrical prose, absorbing world-building, tightrope pacing, and characters I couldn’t help falling in love with. I love Cara, the protagonist, with everything inside me, and the people she loves, I love, too. Her fear and love and hate and desperation feel visceral, and her view of herself as defective makes me want to hug her.

As for that plot, parallel universe theory is one of my absolute favourite devices in science fiction and any book that explores it automatically gets a point from me. Johnson's hook - that you can only travel to a parallel world where your counterpart is dead - is one I hadn't ever thought about before, and I love that it means the opportunity of traversing to other versions of the world is offered mostly to those who usually don't get opportunities. Then, cleverly, the book explores the dystopian nature of Earth Zero and how the traversers and the poor and unfortunate are still exploited for everything they have to offer, and how sometimes love triumphs, anyway.

Space Between actually feels like two or three books in one – at a couple of points I was surprised to realise there was quite a bit more book to go - but the ending is so very satisfying that I'm glad it wasn't truncated or split up. And it’s so refreshing to read a sci fi that handles the science deftly while bringing the humanity to life. I can’t wait to read more from this author.

Rating: 10/10
 
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Suzanne Young - Girls with Sharp Sticks

 

I suspect I’d have loved this book when I was 13. All those pretty girls in perfect dresses? I’d have lapped up that superficial shit and held out a metaphorical begging bowl for more. Now, though? I don't think so. I can enjoy a movie like Paradise Hills or Gattaca for the aesthetic styling (and they were both intriguing as well as pretty), but it doesn't work so well on the printed page. Really, it just comes across as shallow.

Aside from the book's obsession with perfectly groomed appearances, the narrative pacing is pretty ponderous, the random boy interest is a stereotypical teen hero, the likes of which I seriously doubt exist in reality, and the ‘mystery twist’ is just ... kind of dumb. The book's saving grace is a (heavily and murkily expressed) message about transcending your upbringing, but given the aforementioned twist, it loses all impact.

I have no desire to continue the series. Sometimes YA really should be left to teenage readers.

Rating: 5/10
 
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Rory Power - Wilder Girls

 

I was unprepared for the level of body horror in this YA dystopian coming-of-age survival tale. It’s truly gruesome. I grew up reading Stephen King, so I can handle quite a lot of squelching innards and dismembered body parts ... or so I thought. Maybe I've just lost my tolerance for it. I thought I'd grow inured to the extremely vivid descriptions as the book wore on, but instead I found myself wondering what the point was. My mother used to complain about gratuitous violence in literature/movies/TV and I used to scoff, but this really did feel gratuitous.

Aside from the gross factor, this island society - the setting is a school for girls in Maine that is placed under quarantine when the inhabitants develop a virulent disease - is savage and raw and brutal. Half the girls at the school have died and only two teachers are left; the school receives daily deliveries of food (which we later learn is contaminated) and essentials, but it's never enough, and the girls are forced to fight for enough food to survive. The school grounds are gated, which keeps out the forest animals grown wild and crazed with the same virus that's infected the humans.

Maybe the hardest part to take about this book, though, is how ultimately pointless it all seems. Every day is grimmer than the last, the girls suffer losses and agonies that are almost unbearable, and ... this is a spoiler, but ... in the end, it turns out they've been left to fend for themselves as part of some unexplained - perhaps inexplicable - navy experiment? I think? There's no reasoning behind this. There's also confusing and hand-waving allusions to the virus being caused by climate change (seriously?). Honestly, I was just really confused about the science here, not to mention the message Power seems to be trying to convey.

The writing veers between gorgeous and ridiculous; Power's weird sentence structure is often poetic and dreamlike, but can be jarring and affected. The characters are so hard-edged and stylised they are almost unknowable. Despite that, I loved the main trio of girls' staunch loyalty to each other. In a world gone insane, Hetty, Reese and Byatt are each other's only anchors, and there are times when that's beautifully understated.

Weird book ... and one I probably (despite this review) enjoyed a lot more while reading than I did on reflection.

Rating: 6/10
 
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Sabaa Tahir - An Ember in the Ashes

 

Can I just ask why there are so many dystopian YA novels? Or more to the point, why are dystopian novels so frequently classified as YA?

(Why is first person alternating POV such a calling card of YA books? I'm open to any kind of POV, tense and story structure combination, but after reading a few YA novels in a row, I'm really starting to notice this to the point of distraction.)

And why is there such a broad range of quality in the YA category? Some books read like the author is pretending they're 14 years old and not exactly nailing it. Others read like they're written for adults, by adults.

An Ember in the Ashes is one of the latter ... for the most part. From the beginning, the quasi-Ancient Roman setting had me intrigued (caveat: I'm shit at history, so if there are jarring errors they sailed right over my head) with its murky layers of intrigue, double-crossing, violence and surprising acts of love and humanity. Laia's journey from beloved Scholar, through terrified victim to brave Resistance spy is handled believably and compassionately. Elias' tortured hero is well-drawn too. And I want to know so much more about Helene, and about the Commandant, and about Cook (whose real identity I figured out within about ten seconds of meeting her, but that didn't diminish my enjoyment).

The plot twists like a rollercoaster and the language is vivid and exciting. I resented every time I had to put this book down, which hasn't been a problem for me with most of the books I've read this year.

The only low points are those moments when the action pauses for sexytime - or rather, somewhat hamfistedly described kisses and petting - which seems shoe-horned in to satisfy a certain subset of readers, and which, when finished, give a sense of the author briskly brushing off her hands with a relieved sigh and moving on with the story. Perhaps once the characters have moved past physical attraction and into emotion, the romances will feel less jarring.

I was planning to read another book after finishing this one, but screw it. I'm moving straight on to the next in this series.

Rating: 9/10
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Sabaa Tahir - A Torch Against the Night

 

I wanted more about Helene, and reader, I got it. Torch brings in her voice as the third narrator, but more than that, it builds on the complexity of who she is. Her loyalty is tested to the point of snapping, and her fate entwines with Laia's in ways that made me cackle with glee.

Laia's character growth continues in this book, too, and Elias becomes more than just the tortured hero, what with his tendency to assume everything that goes wrong for anyone is his fault (him realising he has to let go of this and allow other people their agency is probably his main character development throughout the novel) and how determined he is to support Laia's mission. I really like how the mission to free Darin becomes more than just Laia's very personal obsession; Darin's knowledge is important to the enemies of the Empire, yes, but saving him becomes life-or-death even to people who've never met him.

There's more magic in this book than the last one. I prefer sci fi to fantasy, so magic isn't something I usually love reading about, but in this case it's woven skilfully into the narrative. The fact that every power has its counterpoint, or is hard-earned in some way, means the book doesn't suffer from deus ex machina syndrome.

The only reason I'm taking off a point is because I didn't love the Keenan storyline. I get it, and I quite enjoy when the Big Bad blindsides other characters (and me too), but it just felt a little contrived, as though Tahir hadn't known what she was going to do with Keenan's character while she was writing An Ember in the Ashes.

Top notch apart from that though. On to the next.

Rating: 9/10
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Sabaa Tahir - A Reaper at the Gates

 

Reader, let me tell you a little about how much I love Helene, aka the Blood Shrike. This woman is Bad. Ass. She is real and whole and tragically broken and strong as a flexible blade, and I love her. Love. Her.

Thank you. Now, to the rest of this book ... Once again, utterly enjoyable, though this time it was in a morbidly fascinating way. How much worse can things get for our three protagonists? How many trials and frustrations and downright tragedies can they suffer? And will their sacrifices, in the end, be for nothing?

Some readers might find the unrelenting pace and never-ending thwarting of hopes and dreams in this novel too much to handle. I, however, am a huge fan of dialling the angstmeter up to 11, so I say bring it on. And bring it, Tahir does.

The fates of Laia, Elias and Helene separate further in this story, and at times I found the threads a little hard to follow - partly because every chapter seemed to end on a cliffhanger, partly because I was too busy with real life to read more than a couple of chapters a day - but the way they wove together in the end was satisfying in the extreme, and I relished it. I really enjoyed Laia continuing to grow and get even more kickass, and the Blood Shrike’s softness coming through (much to her consternation) in her love for her sister, and her love for her people. The Nightbringer is surprisingly sympathetic here; revealing his thousand-year-old backstory and letting us get to know the jinn and the Augurs a little better was a good narrative choice that brought much-needed complexity to the Big Bad. In fact, the Commandant has replaced the Nightbringer (for me) as the epitome of evil, perhaps because I still find her motivation murky and confusing. But, as Cook tells Laia, learning the Commandant's story means taking some of her power... so maybe we'll learn it in the fourth book.

I was very happy to see Emperor Marcus get his just desserts, too. No matter how piteous the Shrike finds him in the end, I have no sympathy for someone who kills so indiscriminately and gets his jollies by casually breaking every bone in his wife's body.

 

As for the romance? The Laia x Elias love story is nicely complicated here – I really like the sacrifices he must make to become the Soul Catcher – but the best love story for me is Helene x Harper. Especially toward the end of the book, I got huge Janeway x Chakotay vibes, what with the whole duty vs desire, 'we can never be together' drama. What can I say? It is my jam.

Rating: 8/10
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Sabaa Tahir - A Sky Beyond the Storm

 

This book felt so long.

 

There were so many complications and moving parts and new threads introduced, so many twists and climaxes, that I honestly kind of disengaged from it. I was determined to finish, but it didn't grip me and carry me along the way the first and second books did.

That said: I loved Helene’s transformative journey, and she retains her place in my heart as one of my favourite badass book heroines. She deserved a happier fate, as did Harper, but I kind of love that they didn't exactly get one. Helene's life is about being thrust into trials she didn't want and didn't ask for, finding love and purpose in the way she meets them, and coming out stronger. That she ends up in a role she, again, doesn't covet, and uses the power it gives her to transcend her personal tragedy and make things better for others, is a deeply satisfying conclusion to her story.

 

I also loved that Laia and Elias ended up together in a way that didn’t feel cheap or contrived but rich and well-executed. Their separate duties and goals wound together in an ending that felt earned, and I kind of crush on them both.

I did not particularly enjoy the whole Rehmat/Meherya business. It felt too supernatural and deus ex machina, if that’s not too obvious a thing to say about a book woven in magic. Which I think is ultimately my issue with this book series: the first one felt so weighted toward the characters, with magic being the light thread running through the story’s tapestry, but with each successive novel, the magic pushes its way to the forefront of the story and it just feels like it’s not entirely what I signed up for.

 

Still, the scale of this book was impressively grand, I still cared about most of the characters, and I finished it feeling satisfied.

Rating: 7/10
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Amie Kaufman & Meaghan Spooner - These Broken Stars

I find YA fiction so much more intriguing on preview than I do most books written for grown-up audiences, even though the melodrama of YA can pull me out of suspension of disbelief. YA just seems to explore so many different universes and possibilities. Even so, I didn't expect to enjoy this book as much as I did.

Lilac and Tarver both hooked me right from the start; they both seem acutely aware of their own flaws and privileges, but still view each other through a tarnished lens that they eventually learn to polish. I would have liked more world building, but Kaufman and Spooner struck a fine balance between the protagonists' backstories and growing love story, set against their struggle for survival and the increasing mystery of the planet they get stranded on. And the twist toward the end was both unexpected and heart-rending.

 

The only other thing I wish we’d had more time for was getting to know Swann. I love a badass woman, especially one in princess disguise. Great book. I’ll be reading the next one.

Rating: 8/10