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 science fiction, magical realism, fantasy, dystopia, speculative fiction, 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.

magical realism & fantasy

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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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Matt Haig - The Midnight Library

 

This book received great reviews on Goodreads, and the premise hooked me right from the start. Maybe that's why I was so disappointed that it underwhelmed me.

Protagonist Nora should be a sympathetic and relatable character, but I couldn't find it in me to care about her sad, claustrophobic existence, aside from wondering what made her special enough to get so many other chances, so many choices to remake and lives to try on for size. Or was that privilege something that was offered to everyone on the brink of death? If that was clarified in the book, I don't remember it ... maybe because I found the prose clunky and repetitive throughout.

 

I skimmed whole pages of this book that read like shopping lists, and the passages that were nicely written were too rare for me to really enjoy the cool concept, or the multiple different chances Nora tried out. Most of which, by the way, felt overdone and not very believable. The author squandered opportunities to dive into Nora's depths (why is Ravi so mad at her, and what does that say about Nora's inability to make decisions?) or to lighten the mood into cringe-humour (OlympicMedallist!Nora giving a motivational speech should have been hilarious, considering LifeHopping!Nora had no idea what she was doing). And after a while, I couldn't find it in me to care.

 

I also saw the ending coming from chapter one, but hoped it would be well handled despite the telegraphing. And it was competently done, but nothing about this book set my world on fire. All in all, a large helping of disappointment.

Rating: 5/10
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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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Kathryn Barker - In the Skin of a Monster

 

So, this book. When I saw it was set in the dream version of a small town which is practically on my doorstep, I snatched it up. Then the protag hooked me in - identical twin of a mass murderer, who returns home from psychiatric care to face the music? Sign me up. And then, somehow, Alice ends up switching places with a nightmare version of her twin (or herself?) and is thrown into a scary carnival version of her home town where nothing is right but everything is actually very real.

Then I have to confess I almost DNF'd, because despite the lurid dreamscape and the fascinating characters and Alice's trauma (I'm a sucker for a complex, traumatised heroine), the book just got too weird. I grew confused. Nothing made sense, just like in a dream. But this wasn't my dream, and I started feeling the intrusion of the author (there was a whole lot of telling-not-showing in the narrative, too).

And yet I persevered, because there were things I wanted to know. Things I wanted explained.

Spoiler alert: most of those things remain a mystery. So if you read this book hoping for lightbulb moments and big reveals that make sense of everything, you may be disappointed.

On the other hand, I absolutely loved the ending, partly because it wasn't tied up in a bow. Partly, also, because Alice finds the purpose she's been missing and gives up on hanging herself out like a target. Also, the love story is the ultimate 'we can never be together' tale and I'm a simp for tragedy.

Rating: 8/10