#31 The Call by Peadar O’Guilin (2016)

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The country of Ireland has dropped off the map. All planes in Irish airspace suddenly crashed, and all the boats sank. A thick fog obscured the views of nearby Scotland, and all television, radio, and internet signals were lost. Then the children begin disappearing, returning exactly three minutes later, horribly mutilated. The Sidh, otherwise known as the fairy folk, have found a way back into our world after being banished centuries ago. Now, they are out for revenge.  Twenty-five years later, survival schools have popped up all over Ireland, where the dwindling population of children learn the skills they will need to survive once they too are Called.

Fifteen year old Tessa is one of the students at one of these colleges, but neither her classmates nor her professors have high hopes for her survival. Tessa’s legs are twisted and useless after a childhood encounter with polio, and the Sidh have little sympathy for a crippled child. This makes Tessa even more determined to buck the odds and live to see her eighteenth birthday. She maintains a stony distance from the other students, except for Anto, a determined pacifist who has also been given slim odds for staying alive against the Sidh.

This novel by author Peadar O’Guilin pulls you in from the first chapter and refuses to let go. This is one of those books where you find yourself debating how much sleep you actually need per night. Thankfully it’s also relatively short, so only one or two sleepless, page-turning nights will be required.

The menace of the fairies known as the Sidh comes from their implacability. They cannot be bargained with. They feel neither pity nor sympathy for the bewildered children who find themselves transported into their realm. They take a sinister kind of glee in finding new and inventive tortures for their helpless victims. And even those who do end up surviving the Grey Land are changed forever in one way or another. The lingering effects of constant fear permeate the pages of The Call, until we understand the hopelessness  that creeps into a person’s soul once they realize the true cost of survival.

Ireland is a country that continues to have respect for its own ancient legends. When I visited Ireland a few years ago there were several mentions of fairy rings and fairy roads. This could have been all a shtick put on for gullible tourists, but at the same time you can still find articles blaming the fairies for all manner of things. If there were ever a place where the veil between the fairy realm and our own is the thinnest, it could be argued that this place would be Ireland.

This was a suspenseful and tightly written novel that kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. It was disturbing without being overly gory, so would be appropriate for an older teen audience as well as being spooky fun for adults. Extra points for the amazingly creepy cover art.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Call here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#30 The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (2017)

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In 13th century Russia, the world is ruled by icy grip of winter. Into this cold and unforgiving world, a young girl named Vasilisa Petrovna is born utterly at home in the forests and snowdrifts around her village. She lives her days roaming the forests against the wishes of her father and her nights curled up listening to the fairy tales spun by her nursemaid. But her life changes forever when two new people show up in her village. The first, her new stepmother Anna, fears and hates the wild streak that runs in her young stepdaughter. The second, a priest named Konstantin, is determined to turn his new flock away from the worship of the old spirits and towards the teachings of the Orthodox Church. He too is threatened by the defiance and spirit shown by the young Vasilisa. She has also captured the attention of one far more dangerous, a dark figure with piercing blue eyes who becomes bolder as midwinter approaches.

Everyone knows the old platitude. “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Well I love judging books by their covers. Especially when the cover is as mysterious and beautiful as Katherine Arden’s debut, The Bear and the Nightingale. When I decide to judge a book by its cover, I generally refuse to read even a short synopsis, so I went into this novel with absolutely zero expectations. Within the first chapter I felt myself entwined and entranced in this dark and romantic fairy tale, so much that I could almost feel the howling winds of Russian winter outside my window.

At its heart, The Bear and the Nightingale is about the struggle between the old ways and the new. In the Middle Ages, as Catholicism slowly but thoroughly steamrollered its way across Europe, how many of the ancient spirits were left to wither in its wake? In this way I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s amazing novel, American Gods. But while Gaiman deals in the bitterness of those abandoned gods, Arden’s novel instead focusing on their sadness and confusion as they find themselves rejected by those who had left them offerings for generations.

Arden’s prose is dark and lyrical and completely mesmerizing. Her heroine, Vasilisa, is strong and independent while still maintaining a sense of vulnerability. She behaves in the only manner she knows how, and is utterly bewildered when people begin to whisper that she is dabbling in witchcraft by continuing to practice the old ways. How can it be witchcraft to hold to the same traditions that her people had held to only years before? I also loved the descriptions of the numerous little sprites and spirits that inhabit Vasilisa’s world. There are spirits that tend the oven, spirits that protect the horses, and so on, all of which have their roots in Russian folklore. Because Vasilisa is the only one who can see these entities (at first) it comes as no surprise that she seeks to aid them when they begin suffering from lack of care.

I would highly recommend this book for any audience. I am greatly anticipating the sequel.

My rating; 5/5

You can find The Bear and the Nightingale here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#29 Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010)

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In post-apocalyptic Africa, there is an ongoing struggle between the light-skinned Nuru tribe and the darker-skinned Okeke tribe. The Nuru have taken many Okeke as slaves, and systematically go into the desert to rape Okeke women in the hopes of impregnating them. These children of rape are known as Ewu, and are despised as outcasts by both groups of people. One of these children is Onyesonwu, whose name means “Who Fears Death”. Early in life, Onyesonwu realizes that she is special. She has the powers of the Eshu, or the shapeshifter. With this knowledge, she seeks the training needed to hone her magic in the hopes of one day hunting down the man who raped her mother.

All of this sounds like the making of a pretty good magic realism novel. With this description, together with the amazing cover art, I was really looking forward to reading this book. But for some reason, Who Fears Death failed to capture my imagination. Part of it may be because I felt as though I were coming into a movie midway through. We are given next to no backstory about why modern systems of government have fallen. What began the conflict between the Nurus and the Okeke? There are constant references to the “Great Book” but more details are needed to understand the connection between this religious book and the current upheaval.

Another reason why I had difficulty maintaining my interest in the novel may have been that the main character has what I like to think of as “Superman syndrome”. Superman is the most boring superhero in existence because he is just too perfect, and his weaknesses are too easily overcome. I felt that same way about Onyesonwu. When the heroine can transform into animals, heal wounds, travel outside of her body, heat rocks without fire, and strike her enemies blind with a thought, there isn’t a lot of suspense. Do we ever truly doubt that Onyesonwu will fulfill her goal? She’s set up as a Jesus-like martyr from the beginning, but the reader is cheated of even that by the muddled ending.

Early in Okorafor’s novel, there is a graphic depiction of female circumcision. All of the female children in the village undergo this procedure without anesthesia at the age of eleven. They are expected to do this willingly or risk social ostracism. One thing that I will praise about Who Fears Death is its handling of this delicate subject matter. Upon discovery of her powers, one of Onyesonwu’s first act as a healer is to restore her own sexual pleasure. This reclaiming of her own sexuality is a powerful act, and its effects create ripples that echo throughout the rest of the novel.

Overall, I was disappointed by this novel. It seemed to be a fantastic premise that relied too much on having an all-powerful protagonist. And although there were aspects that I did enjoy, ultimately I kept finding myself checking to see how many pages were left until the end.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Who Fears Death here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#28 Prince of Thorns (Broken Empire #1) by Mark Lawrence (2011)

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Jorg is the crown prince of Ancrath, but instead of preparing himself to inherit the throne, he is roaming the countryside with a band of murderous outlaws, searching for revenge. Four years ago, Jorg found himself trapped in a hookbriar brush, unable to move as his mother and brother were slaughtered before his eyes. Now, the Prince of Thorns prepares himself to return home and confront his father before enacting his final act of vengeance.

“You can only win the game when you understand that it is a game. Let a man play chess, and tell him that every pawn is his friend. Let him think both bishops holy. Let him remember happy days in the shadows of his castles. Let him love his queen. Watch him lose them all.”

There are many examples of the “anti-hero” throughout science fiction and fantasy, but I can’t think of a more prominent instance than Jorg of Ancrath. Most proclaimed anti-heroes are similar to Celaena Sardothien in Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass novels. They are morally ambiguous, and sometimes snap and kill their enemies in a disturbing manner, but underneath we know that they are operating for the greater good. Well I can definitely say beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jorg would make Celaena run and hide under her covers. He is a morally repugnant psychopath who murders people for annoying him. He seems to have loyalty to nothing whatsoever, and at one point sacrifices a member of his team to a group of monsters in order to gain access to a military target. There is also a throwaway line which alludes to the fact that Jorg may be a rapist. All in all, author Mark Lawrence makes it difficult for us to root for his main character. The fact that we still find a way to identify with Jorg’s struggle is a testament to Lawrence’s writing abilities.

It may be the fact that at a mere thirteen years of age, Jorg is rather young to be written off as a hopeless case. We as a reader feel the need for him to see the error of his ways and atone for them in a state of repentance. It is suggested that Jorg may not be entirely responsible for his own actions, there being a group of sorcerers working to control his fate. I found myself hating this aspect of the plot because it felt like a cheat. If your main character is going to be a murderous tween, let it happen. Don’t try to pull the punches by using magical mesmerism.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Prince of Thorns is that we have no idea when the story is taking place. Jorg alludes to the writings of Plutarch, Plato, and Socrates so we know we are on Earth. He also mentions the ambiguous “Builders” who have no imagination but can build marvelous things using “melted rock and twisted metal”. Trying to figure out the setting of the novel was a fun and twisted mystery.

I picked up Prince of Thorns because I was in the mood for a fantasy novel. As distasteful as I often felt towards the “protagonist”, I cannot deny that Lawrence’s writing captivated me and I was truly interested to find out what was going to become of the wayward little prince. I’m looking forward to reading the next installment in this series.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Prince of Thorns here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!


#27 The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999)

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In a series of letters, sixteen year old “wallflower” Charlie writes about the slow, stumbling, and sometimes scary transition from adolescence to adulthood. His letters detail important milestones such as first dates, making friends, doing drugs, and attending screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Constantly second-guessing himself and filled with confusion and anxiety, Charlie observes the world around him with a perspective vastly different from the average teenage boy.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of those books that I’ve been hearing about for years, but never actually got around to reading. The first twenty pages or so were a bit confusing. I struggled a bit settling in to this novel because I was trying to hard to figure it out. The first question I had was, “Who is Charlie writing these letters to?” This question could have spoiled my enjoyment of the book, but thankfully I was able to put it out of my mind and allow myself to become emerged in Charlie’s adolescent world.

It is impossible to read this novel without drawing parallels to one’s own teenage years, and I think that is part of the brilliance of Chbosky’s story. There is something about Charlie’s desperate longing make friends and fit in that resonates with everyone. Even if you never had a teenage experience with drugs, or alcohol, or death, there is an underlying current running through this novel that resonates with the awkward teenager in all of us. In this way, Chbosky evokes empathy within his readers without ever resorting to emotional manipulation.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a simple story told in a complex and compelling manner. There is a timelessness to the novel, it deals with the same issues that have plagued adolescents for centuries. I felt by turns thrilled, depressed, manic, and confused as I took a journey with Charlie into the heart of darkness that is the teenage psyche.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Perks of Being a Wallflower here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.


#26 How to Stop Time by Matt Haig (2018)

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Tom Hazard is old, but you would never know it. He is old like trees are old, or sea turtles. To be more precise, Tom is four hundred and thirty nine years old but he doesn’t look a day over forty-one. He suffers from a rare condition that causes his body to age very slowly, and as such he is filled with memories that span centuries. Tom’s life has been determined for years by the mysterious Albatross Society which is comprised of people with the same condition. The Albatross Society has only one rule. Never fall in love…

On the surface, How To Stop Time is a wildly irreverent novel which bounds gleefully through the centuries. It delights in juxtaposing great historical figures with modern day language. At one point, the protagonist mentions that Shakespeare wouldn’t have gotten any right swipes on Tinder. Tom Hazard seems constantly excited by modern sanitation systems in cities. As he states at one point, “You used to live in stink. People never used to wash. People used to think baths were bad for them.”

At the same time, the underlying subject matter isn’t afraid to get serious. Immortality has long been a fascination for humanity, but Tom points out some of the serious drawbacks to living for centuries. He is plagued by headaches as his brain struggles to comprehend four hundred years worth of memories. He has watched the decay and death of every single person he has ever known. He has watched as generation upon generation of people refuse to learn from the mistakes of the past.

There is a curious combination of romanticism and cynicism present in this novel. Despite all the struggles and strife and bad smells that Tom has experienced, in his heart he still has hope for the bumbling people surrounding him. It is somehow a very innocent story, despite a few examples of foul language it would be very appropriate for a YA audience. I found myself reading most of this book with a smile on my face.

My rating: 4/5

You can find How to Stop Time here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#24 The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (2017)

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Li-yan lives a secluded life in the mountains of southern China. A member of the Akha ethnic minority, the upheavals of the Communist Revolution have left her isolated community relatively untouched, and her people still adhere to the ancient spirits and rituals that have been practiced for generations. But as the modern world begins to encroach on their lives, Li-yan and her family are all affected by the changes that begin sweeping into their quiet village.

I’ve been a big fan of Lisa See’s work since I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan almost ten years ago. Her novels tend to focus on the lives of Chinese women and the struggles that they undergo, and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is no exception. It is a powerful story of the bonds between women and how even under the oppressive thumb of a strictly patriarchal society, women will always find a way to express themselves independently.

I had never heard of the Akha tribe before reading this novel, and I highly recommend that you do a little bit of research into this fascinating minority culture. The Akha managed to remain almost completely ignored by society until the 1990’s. Their belief system is a mixture of ancestor worship and animism, the idea that everything on Earth has its own spirit. Their lives are dominated by religion, omen, and tradition, and can seem incredibly backward to our “modern” sensibilities. During one horrific sequence early in the novel, we find out what happens when “human rejects” are born into the Akha community.

The protagonist of the novel, Li-yan, has been raised to believe the same things that her ancestors have believed for thousands of years. But then something happens that opens her eyes to the possibilities of the outside world. Li-yan goes to school. She learns to speak Mandarin Chinese, which makes her the designated translator when a stranger shows up in their village one day. The stranger is in search of a special kind of tea that can only be found in these isolated mountains, and according to him it is worth a fortune. This one event changes the course of Li-yan’s life. I won’t say anything further, but suffice to say that the repercussions of the tea-buyer reverberate down the years and even across the oceans.

It’s difficult to place a theme to this novel. It’s about the bonds of mothers to their daughters. It’s about the inevitable march of progress and how powerless we are to stop it. It’s about trying to find a sense of belonging in a world that is changing too quickly. One of the reasons I loved this novel so much was that it asked so many different questions, and offered a thousand possible answers in return.

This was yet another knock-out story by Lisa See. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!