Review: The Witch Elm – Tana French

the witch elmToby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life: he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, when we no longer know who we are.

There’s no doubt that Tana French is a fantastic writer, and her mystery books are known for their slower pace and focus on characterisation. But in this 500 page tome, the skull which sets off the crime investigation only makes its appearance on page 180 or so. Which, uh, may test the patience of many a reader.

The first third of the book essentially consists of a thorough grounding in the character of Toby, the protagonist with the Midas touch, to whom dirt doesn’t stick, a boy (and then man) who always lands with his bum in the proverbial butter – pick your idiom. That is, until a burglary-turned-assault leaves him in the hospital with permanent mental and physical trauma.

And thus begins Toby’s slow unravelling. He returns to the family’s ancestral home to continue his recovery, a house currently inhabited by a favourite uncle facing terminal health problems of his own.

With a limp, memory loss, PTSD and a drooping eye, Toby’s winning streak at life seems to have finally come to an end. This is compounded with the appearance of the aforementioned skull, which sets off a murder investigation that forces Toby to dig deep and question his childhood experiences.

If the first part of the book is a bit of an expositional disappointment, the last three or so chapters certainly kept me on my toes, with a rapid onslaught of revelations – cold-blooded planning and hot-headed reactions.

French perfectly captures extended family dynamics – the chaos, the overbearing nature, the missing when they’re gone and the claustrophobia when they’re there.

More importantly, its an examination of those people who, because of their privilege, can remain blissfully unaware of other people’s suffering – coasting through life, undermining that which seems unfathomable to them.

Review: The Hazel Wood – Melissa Albert

the hazel woodSeventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get: her mother is stolen away―by a figure who claims to come from the Hinterland, the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother’s stories are set. Alice’s only lead is the message her mother left behind: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.”

Alice has long steered clear of her grandmother’s cultish fans. But now she has no choice but to ally with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland superfan who may have his own reasons for wanting to help her. To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother’s tales began―and where she might find out how her own story went so wrong.

***

Then I got my hands on Althea’s book. And it was perfect. There are no lessons in it. There’s just this harsh, horrible world touched with beautiful magic, where shitty things happen. And they don’t happen for a reason, or in threes, or in a way that looks like justice. They’re set in a place that has no rules and doesn’t want any.

The above quote, I think, does justice to the book as a whole. It was surprisingly sad in places, which I wasn’t expecting. The Hazel Wood is one of those ~aesthetic~ novels, for want of a better word. It’s a creepy and atmospheric take on the nature of fairy tales, harking back to their grim (Grimm? ha!) origins.

The plot in brief: 17-year-old Alice has spent her life on the run with her mother, chased by a series of incidents attributed to sheer bad luck. Her grandmother is a reclusive and mysterious figure, famous for the publication of a book of strange and haunting fairy tales. One day, they receive news that her grandmother has died, and shortly after, Alice’s mother goes missing – her last words a warning for Alice to stay away from her grandmother’s hidden estate.

So of course, our protagonist does exactly the opposite, armed with her (understandably) prickly personality and an ally from school. He is helpfully rich, which conveniently overcomes many of the obstacles one would have as a teenager-on-magical-quest.

I found the book quite jarring and unsettling at times, but an intriguing read nonetheless. I think it’s the kind of book you have to be in a particular mood for, however.

Review: Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha #1) – Tomi Adeyemi

children of blood and boneZélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.

But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.

Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.

Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers and her growing feelings for an enemy.

***

“With her words, something clicks – a sign of the greater hand. We’ve been led to this moment, pushed in the tiniest, most obscure ways.”

Perhaps one of the most hyped books of 2018, Children of Blood and Bone is worth the acclaim and praise. It’s such a refreshing change of setting from the standard pseudo-medieval Western Europe which dominates the fantasy genre.

From the deities and the magic system to the physical locations, the food, the language, character appearances and clothing – it was richly descriptive, immersive experience of an African (more specifically, Nigerian)-inspired fantasy.

Yes, the author does use popular fantasy tropes, such as the “Chosen Ones” and hunt-for-the-magical-artefacts, but there is nothing inherently wrong with this. (I’ve seen reviews critiquing this, which is why I’m addressing it here.) These are just markers of the genre – it’s what you do with them that counts.

(Also, there is a problematic trend of allowing white writers a pass on this, but then as soon as POC writers do it, we claim it’s overdone/this particular subgenre is over. A discussion for another time, and I am probably not the most qualified person to explain it, but again worth mentioning in regards to this particular book.)

The short chapters made for quite a swift read, despite the length of the book. The high emotions of the characters reminds us of how young they are, facing political and magical obstacles; family and friend drama; potential matters of the heart and their own growing powers/involvement.

There were also unexpected moments of levity and humour – this particular exchange had me chuckling out loud:

“I guess the other night was my first time spending the night with a boy.”
Tzain snorts. “Was it everything you ever dreamed?”⠀
“I don’t know…” I press my finger to my lips. “I always imagined less bondage.”

(Above context – they were captured and tied up in a tent!)

Finally, the jaw-dropping ending upped the stakes, and certainly has readers like me hotly anticipating the 2019 sequel.

Review: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari

21 lessons for the 21st centuryIn Sapiens, he explored our past. In Homo Deus, he looked to our future. Now, one of the most innovative thinkers on the planet turns to the present to make sense of today’s most pressing issues.

How do computers and robots change the meaning of being human? How do we deal with the epidemic of fake news? Are nations and religions still relevant? What should we teach our children?

Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a probing and visionary investigation into today’s most urgent issues as we move into the uncharted territory of the future. As technology advances faster than our understanding of it, hacking becomes a tactic of war, and the world feels more polarized than ever, Harari addresses the challenge of navigating life in the face of constant and disorienting change and raises the important questions we need to ask ourselves in order to survive.

***

I enjoyed the author’s first two non-fiction reads, and 21 Lessons provided much food for thought. Essentially, it consists of 21 chapters each detailing different issues that confront us in society today, from nationalism to technology.

Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely.

Quite frankly, its more theorising and speculation, but Harari raises some interesting situations and proposes situations that may seem far-fetched now – but to someone in the 80s, today’s technology would seem like some kind of unbelievable sci-fi invention, so I won’t dismiss his imaginings entirely.

We insist that our values are a precious legacy from ancient ancestors. Yet the only thing that allows us to say this, is that our ancestors are long dead, and cannot speak for themselves.

Each chapter could actually be a book in and of itself, so you only get a short glimpse into each of the themes he covers. One thing I do like about the writing is that the author uses examples from all around the world – he doesn’t just stick with western or developing countries, or one specific religion.

Throughout all the hypothetical future scenarios and current realities described, one thing that struck me was the idea that just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we necessarily should. Harari drives home the importance of the humanities: “Since the corporations or entrepreneurs who lead the technological revolution naturally tend to sing the praises of their creations, it falls to sociologists, philosophers and historians like myself to sound the alarm and explain all the ways things can go terribly wrong.”

Review: Sadie – Courtney Summers

sadie courtney summersSadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water. 

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meagre clues to find him.

When West McCray—a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America—overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.

Rating: 5/5

And it begins, as so many stories do, with a dead girl. 

So well deserving of the critical acclaim it’s been receiving, Sadie tells the story of a girl out to avenge the death of her sister. Alternately told through the perspectives of the title character and a crime podcaster, West McCray, who attempts to track her down, the novel is an incredibly timely tale of girls who slip through the cracks.

Girls go missing all the time. And ignorance is bliss. I didn’t want this story because I was afraid. I was afraid of what I wouldn’t find and I was afraid of what I would. 

There’s a lot to unpack in this story. What firstly struck me was the critique of our true-crime podcast culture, the voyeuristic gaze justified under the guise of giving the victims a voice. It notes the truly staggering number of girls who go missing, their traumatised bodies used as props for someone else’s narrative.

It also examines the deterioration of small towns, the hopelessness and fatigue and endless daily struggle to keep the lights on and the kids fed that the lucky among us are privileged not to know. The families wrecked by alcohol, drug addition and violence. The bonds that form despite these hardships. The found families, however temporary they may be.

It’s a story of resilience, a somber celebration of girls who fight, who protect, who survive, who persist, who are silenced but still have worth.

While the ending may leave readers unsatisfied, it somehow seems fitting. There are too many missing girls whose fate we may never know.

Seven literary highlights from 2017

Frohes Neues Jahr!
So 2017 started out strong for me, and then kind of petered out in the last third of the year. I started my Masters degree, and was so immersed in academic reading that I ran out of energy for any other kind of “word stuff”. Which also led to a lack of motivation for blogging.

But new year, new start and all that. I’m planning to start afresh – indeed, this blog needs a bit of a refresher, methinks. After all, it is 5 years old now!

But 2017 wasn’t a total loss. There were some fantastic literary moments as well.

1. Getting the chance to interview the one and only Joanne Harris, she of Chocolat fame. I was so incredibly nervous, especially since I’m such a fan, and she can also be quite cutting on Twitter at times, but I needn’t have worried. Joanne was delightful to talk to – patient, witty and understanding.

2. Attending the book launch of a short story anthology, edited by one of my best friends. Such a proud moment at an event that was brimming with good vibes.

3. Visiting Shakespeare & Company, the bookstore of my dreams! I could have spent all day there – alas, we had other sights to see. (Oh, the sites of Paris, what a drag! MY LIFE IS SO HARD.)

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New favourite place! #bookstore #paris #shakespeareandcompany

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4. Encountering the gorgeous interior of the Stockholm city library – three stories of spiral literary goodness!

5. Accidentally gatecrashing a reading at the Stockholm Literary Festival. (It was hosted at the modern art museum, which I was visiting on a weekend excursion.) I ended up listening to a reading by Petina Gappah.

6. Interviewed Seanan McGuire (via email, but still!) for a blog tour. One of my all-time favourite authors. I still have a virtual contact-high.

7. And of course, all the great books from 2017. I may not have read as much as I wanted to, and didn’t get around to putting together a best-of list due to me being very AWOL, but standouts for me included THUG, The Child Finder, Hunger, Waking Gods and Goodbye Days.

Review: Migrations: New Short Fiction from Africa

Hello my lovelies. I ended up taking an unofficial two month hiatus from this blog – I just ended up in a reviewing slump. Think we’ve all had one (or more) of those, yes? But now I am back, in the mood to refresh the layout and such for this blog, and looking forward to starting 2018 with renewed blogging and reading energy!

***

short story day africaShort Story Day Africa presents its annual anthology. The stories explore true and alternative African culture through a competition on the theme of Migration. This is the fourth in the SSDA collection of anthologies which aim to break the one-dimensional view of African story telling and fiction writing. These are fresh urgent perspectives on one of our most profound phenomena.

Rating: 4.5/5

I’ve recently made a resolution to read much more local and continental fiction, because there is just so much incredible content out there. For some reason a lot of us have internalised the warped idea that international is somehow better, and that what is produced locally cannot measure up – which is simply untrue. There’s also perhaps the stereotype that African literature is all about war and poverty and race, interspersed with a few appearances by lions, but again – a patently false assumption. Not that those issues aren’t important, of course, but there’s so much more to be had.

A wonderful friend of mine has been involved in the production of the Short Story Day Africa anthology for the past few years, and I have just finished reading the 2017 instalment. This collection really runs the gamut of styles, genres and emotions, all interconnected by the central theme of migration. I have to admit that my particular favourites usually veer towards those in the realm of speculative fiction, and this anthology was no exception. I very much enjoyed the two stories focusing on very different versions of human journeys into some kind of afterlife: one making imaginative use of cloud technology, and the other relying on our own biological plasma as the conduit.

The very first story in the collection features a boy, a crow, and an ending that will break your heart. As a reader, we are then taken on a number of different journeys throughout the anthology, whether literal or figurative. There are stories involving those who leave for another land or another dimension, and those who return in both physical and spiritual forms. There are journeys of self-discovery and self-reckoning. Journeys into love and back out of it. Contemporary narratives alluding to today’s migratory horrors, and historical perspectives on troubling legacies. Sometimes our protagonists find that the new land of milk and honey is not always what they expect. For others, home is where, and with whom, you make it.

This well-written, diverse collection was a real treat – brimming with emotion, thought-provoking and wonderfully imaginative.

(If my review has you suitably intrigued, check out Amazon to get your hands on a copy.)