Books

Talking about books (when I have time to read for fun)

REVIEW: The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

The Winter of the Witch is the final book in the Winternight trilogy so there may be vague spoilers for the previous books, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, in this review.

After Moscow survives the flames and an attack from an enemy, it leaves its people searching for answers and someone to blame. Vasya, a girl with extraordinary gifts, must flee for her life, pursued by those who blame their misfortune on her magic. When a vengeful demon returns, stronger than ever, he finds allies among men and spirits and Vasya must do the impossible and unite the worlds of men and magic.

The Winter of the Witch is such an exciting and satisfying conclusion. It’s one of those perfect books where you can see how story and character points were deliberate and how though some unexpected things happen, with hindsight they make perfect sense with the themes that are in these novels. It’s like how the first book is more focused on the magic and spirits while the second book is more focused on the religion and politics of the human world and then The Winter of the Witch is the perfect balance between these two worlds and combines these elements in a really clever and satisfying way.

The worldbuilding is still wonderful and rich and it’s great that there’s still elements of the magical world that Vasya doesn’t know about. While she’s still learning about certain characters or rules when it comes to magic, she’s more sure of herself than ever and it’s really enjoyable to see her stand up for and believe in herself and her magic. How she starts to get respect from both magical creatures and powerful men is so gratifying.

At this point Vasya has gone through a ridiculous amount of trauma and hardship and while she’s still suffering from that, she’s also using the pain to fuel her in her quest to save both worlds that she’s a part of. Her family becoming more understanding of her abilities and nature while also still caring about her and wanting to protect her as she’s their younger sibling is really nice to see too. The relationships Vasya has forged are strong in The Winter of the Witch whether that’s her family or Morozko.

The Winter of the Witch is an epic and satisfying conclusion to a wonderfully magical and atmospheric story. A lot happens in this book and it’s more continuously action-packed compare to the previous books but it’s all held together by wonderful writing and memorable characters. 5/5.

Books of 2023

New year, new ongoing list of books I read this year. Now my Read the World Project is complete, 2023 is going to be the year of mood reading and probably reading a whole lot of backlist books as I’ve got my TBR to get through. I don’t have big reading goals, just want to read at least 52 books and complete the Magical Readathon: Year in Aeldia which I will make a note of what books I read for it at the bottom of this post. You can find out more about what I’m reading on my Twitter, Goodreads and Storygragh.

Without further ado, here’s what I read in 2023! Any titles with asterisks are rereads and if it has a link, that goes to my review.

January:
– Making a Scene – Constance Wu
– One of Us is Next – Karen M. McManus
The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden
The Girl in the Tower – Katherine Arden
– The Winter of the Witch – Katherine Arden
– Maybe I Don’t Belong Here: A Memoir of Race, Identity, Breakdown and Recovery – David Harewood

Currently reading:
???

Magical Readathon: Year in Aeldia
January – start a series: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
February – trees on the cover: The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid
March – book over 500 pages: The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
April – Magical Readathon Spring Equinox
May – book finishes on an even number: ???
June – book you already own: ???
July – read when it’s dark: ???
August – Magical Readathon Autumn Equinox
September – dark academia book: Babel by R.F. Kuang
October – chapters are only numbers: ???
November – random number generator: ???
December – fox on the cover/title: Among the Beasts & Briars by Ashley Poston

REVIEW: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

The Girl in the Tower is the second book in the Winternight trilogy so there may be vague spoilers for the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale, in this review.

Vasya has left her village and sets out to be free and discover the wide world. Soon though she encounters the Grand Prince of Moscow and his men, which includes her older brother Sasha, a monk, as they’re on the trial of the rumoured bandits that roam the countryside, burning the villages and kidnapping young girls. Being disguised as a boy, Vasya soon proves herself in battle and gets the respect of the Prince and Sasha reluctantly keeps her secret though danger lurks in Moscow as there are power struggles and it might not just be human but fantastical dangers the city faces as well.

While there is still fantastical elements in The Girl in the Tower with Vasya’s talking horse and the various creatures from folklore Vasya encounters in different peoples homes, the political machinations really takes the forefront in this book compared to the first. Vasya is still headstrong and brave but she is unused to the way people act in court and the double meanings and alliances that can form. Plus, as she’s pretending to be her sibling’s younger brother, there’s always a sense of danger as in this world women should not act as Vasya does. It’s a patriarchal society and women and girls are judged by their looks and presumed virtue and nothing more, Vasya is opinionated and smart and finds a freedom in pretending to be a boy as well as the danger.

The sibling relationships in The Girl in the Tower are really interesting. Vasya is in her late teens and her older brother and sister, Sasha and Olga, are in their twenties and haven’t seen her for at least ten years. Both younger and older siblings struggle to understand and connect with the version of their sibling that’s in front of them when they’re so different to who they remember. It’s an interesting dynamic as Sasha and Olga aren’t who Vasya remembers from her childhood but equally, Vasya perplexes them both as she refuses to be confined and do what is expected of a young woman of her age – marry a man and bear children, or join a convent. Vasya’s wildness grates against Sasha and Olga’s propriety and their understanding of the political and social standings they have in Moscow clashes with her dreams.

The connection Vasya has with Morozko, the Winter King or Frost Demon, continues to be really intriguing. It has the start of romance but at the same time there’s a lot of half truths between them, and how can an immortal demon love a mortal girl without it being the undoing of either of them?

Unlike The Bear and the Nightingale where the first half was slower and more character-driven and then things picked up in the second half, The Girl in the Tower has a lot more action throughout. Though the political plotting can drag a little bit in the middle and there’s a thread of tension through most of the book because you’re waiting to see if/when Vasya’s deception is discovered and if it is, just how bad the consequences will be. The writing in The Girl in the Tower is still excellent though and even odd moments or throwaway lines are purposeful as everything builds to a thrilling ending.

I’m both excited and kind of nervous about what the third and final book of this trilogy will bring. There are prophesies still to be fulfilled for Vasya and for other characters, so The Girl in the Tower has done that wonderful thing of leaving some mysteries and plot threads hanging. Hopefully everything will wrap up nicely as at the moment it looks like The Winter of the Witch has the potential to be an epic conclusion. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church. But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods…

I loved this book. Honestly, I was a bit hesitant to begin with as it’s the first book in a trilogy that has so much hype but the writing and atmosphere pulled me in really quickly. The first part is a lot slower paced than I was expecting but it’s never not interesting and all of the family dynamics and the background political rumblings it sets up come into play later on. Spending the time with the characters and their relationships to begin with allowed them time to grow and really deepen. Vasya’s relationship with her older brother Alyosha (who is closest to her in age) was especially great and relatable as while he didn’t necessarily believe in the stories and magic, he believed in his sister.

The Bear and the Nightingale is set in a medieval Russia where the folktales, magic and old religions are real but most people treat them as superstitions. Vasya though, has always been able to see the creatures and spirits that protect her home and the surrounding countryside while others could not. She talks to them and they talk back and as she grows older, they teach her things while she learns to keep what she can see and sense a secret because the villagers may call her a witch.

I really liked how the old religions came into conflict with the “new” religion when Konstantin, a Christian priest, arrives and starts to push the word of God. He is a character I loved to hate. Though there was the odd moment where he was so pathetic that he became almost sympathetic, he was so frustratingly righteous and stubborn that I relished in every moment where things did not go his way. He’s almost unwanted obsession with Vasya as she becomes a young woman was uncomfortable at times and their verbal sparring battles just made me like Vaya more.

Vasya is a wonderful character. The Bear and the Nightingale follows her from her birth until she is a teenager and you see from the outset, she’s been a wild child who doesn’t often do what’s expected of a girl her age. This does make her come into conflict with her family, especially her father, who wants to protect her, and her stepmother, who can’t stand her actions most of the time. Vasya can make impulsive decisions but she’s very loyal and caring and as she respects the creatures and guardians from tales, she can tell when bad things are about to happen and do her best to prepare her family for it.

The writing in The Bear and the Nightingale is excellent and often painted a vivid picture of the cold, harsh world Vasya grows up in and all the creatures are larger than life. I’ve been meaning to read this book for so long and while I’m not usually a seasonal mood reader, I’m glad I picked it up during winter when it’s cold and dark and frosty as it really added to the reading experience.

I really enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so enthralled by a story and I’m looking forward to continuing on with the trilogy. 5/5.

My reading in 2022 and bookish goals for 2023

After a not great reading year in 2021, I was back on track in 2022. I made my Read the World Project my focus and I completed it before my self-imposed deadline! That’s novels/poetry/non-fiction/short stories from 205 different countries around the world. I’m so happy that I broadened my reading horizons that way and I really do feel a sense of accomplishment over it.

My goal in 2022 was to read 52 books and review half of them and I smashed that target – I read 79 books and reviewed 42 of them. I always want to have an equal split between male and female authors if possible, with the understanding that it’ll probably be leaning towards women which it was in 2022. “Both” got a decent sized chunk last year as I read The Old Guard comics and reread/caught up on the Saga comics series and both of them are written by both men and women writers and artists. When it comes to what genres I read in 2022, Sci-fi got a bit of a boost thanks to the Saga comics and because I reread the Hunger Games trilogy and then the prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Horror definitely made an appearance thanks to the 12 Challenge as I’m normally a complete wuss. I started 2022 with 88 books on my physical/digital TBR and I ended it with 75 books on my TBR! That number has been the goal for my owned TBR for the past two years and I’ve finally done it. (more…)

My TBR as 2023 begins

As a new year begins so does all the grand ideas for goals and challenges – whether they’re to do with big life changes or more simple things like reading. I will be sharing a review of my 2022 reading goals and what my goals are for 2023 next week. In the meantime, as it’s been a while (late 2020 in fact) since I shared my complete TBR, thought I’d kick of 2023 with that. Especially as I’ve yet to pick up a book this year.

This list is divided between the physical books, the audiobooks and ebooks I own. The physical books will probably be the main priority going forward as I really am running out of space but all that talk will come next week.

I’d love to hear if you’d recommend any of these books and which ones should move to the top of my TBR. (more…)

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Favourite Books of 2022

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Artsy Reader Girl. It’s the first Tuesday of 2023 so that’s the perfect time to take a look back at what we read in 2022 and share our favourites of the year. These are in no particular order but they are all books that I gave 5 stars this year and really enjoyed for different reasons. If I wrote one, I’ll link to my review of these books.

Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road by Kyle Buchanan
I love Mad Max: Fury Road so a book about how that amazing film was made was always going to be on my radar. I really loved this book and read it in two sittings. It’s so interesting and in-depth about filmmaking and how the production of Fury Road was unlike the productions many of the people interviewed had ever been a part of. If you’re interested in filmmaking at all, I’d recommend this book because it’s just fascinating and a really engaging read.

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch
I love the world in the Gentlemen Bastards series and Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen are the bestest best friends I’ve read in forever. The audiobooks in this series are excellent too

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
The audiobook for this was great and it was fun having an historical and scientific twist on something as fantastical as dragons. I would like to carry on with the series but as I’m putting together my 2023 reading goals, I have a fair few series on the go so not sure when I’d actually get to it.

Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas
I’m always slightly hesitant about reading a prequel to a book I loved a lot but I shouldn’t have doubted Angie Thomas. Concrete Rose is a great backstory to Starr’s father and the world he grew up in and then moved away from in order to do the best for his children.

An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie
I finished my Read the World Project this year and this was my favourite book I read for that project this year. How determined Kpomassie was to travel from Togo to Greenland, crossing Europe and taking just about every form of transportation, is to be admired, and then how he writes about the culture clashes and the things he learnt from his time in Greenland was so interesting.

Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li
Portrait of a Thief is full of the heist tropes I love (and has many Fast and Furious references), great characters, and is all about culture, art and belonging. I really liked how it talked about how museums in the West get the art that’s in them and who the art really belongs to.

Slade House by David Mitchell
I’m a wuss but I do like a spooky ghost story and how this one is a series of short stories across the decades about one house was really creepy and clever.

Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson
Her Majesty’s Royal Coven was so good! A grown-up magical story which includes intersectional feminism and complicated friendship dynamics. Loved every character point of view and there were some twists and turns I did not expect.

Himself by Jess Kidd
Himself was one of the first books I read in 2022 and it’s stuck with me all year. It’s a small-town ghost story/mystery that’s very atmospheric and magical but it also manages to have a pretty wry sense of humour too.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Listening to the audiobook narrated by author Reni Eddo-Lodge made Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race all the more impactful. It put into words some of the things I’d been thinking or heard bits about before and just made the puzzle pieces fit together in my brain.

Have you read any of these books? What were your favourite books you read in 2022?

REVIEW: Poster Girl by Veronica Roth

What’s right is right. Sonya Kantor knows this slogan – she lived by it for most of her life. For decades, everyone in the Seattle-Portland megalopolis lived under it, as well as constant surveillance in the form of the Insight, an ocular implant that tracked every word and every action, rewarding or punishing by a rigid moral code set forth by the Delegation. Then there was a revolution. The Delegation fell. Its most valuable members were locked in the Aperture, a prison on the outskirts of the city. And everyone else, now free from the Insight’s monitoring, went on with their lives. Sonya, former poster girl for the Delegation, has been imprisoned for ten years when an old enemy comes to her with a deal: find a missing girl who was stolen from her parents by the old regime, and earn her freedom. The path Sonya takes to find the child will lead her through an unfamiliar, crooked post-Delegation world where she finds herself digging deeper into the past – and her family’s dark secrets – than she ever wanted to.

I’m not one who often comments on the writing style in a book so it has to be pretty bad or pretty different for me to notice it – I tend to be more focused on characters and how the story makes me feel. Veronica Roth has written a few adult books since her YA dystopian juggernaut series Divergent (which I read over a decade ago) but Poster Girl is the first I’ve read. I have to say, I did have to check a couple of times to see if Poster Girl was supposed to be YA or adult as the writing style is quite simplistic and it felt more like a YA story. Also, Sonya herself felt juvenile at times. Perhaps this was intentional as she was put in prison when she was a teenager and so has simultaneously been forced to grow up but everything in her life also stopped for the past ten years so she hasn’t matured in other ways. Either way, Sonya often felt younger than someone in her mid-late twenties.

It was interesting seeing how a society moved on after being a dystopian one for so long. So often dystopian stories are about the rise of the people and overthrowing the corrupt government and they end once they’ve succeeded in doing that. Having Poster Girl set ten years after the revolution was interesting as you could see how some characters attitudes have changed and how others were still stuck overthinking everything as they were so used to having an implant in their brain that automatically quantified if something they said or did was worthy of reward or punishment.

There is a romance element that is underdeveloped and just feels like it was added for the sake of having a romance subplot and added nothing to the overall story or to Sonya’s character. It’s kind of enemies-to-lovers but the transition from reluctant allies to lovers is far too rushed and there’s little chemistry when it comes to the romance side of things. I preferred the mistrust and jabs Sonya and her former acquaintance had before they started to be on the same page.

The case of the stolen child that Sonya is tasked with finding has its moments but the mystery isn’t particularly compelling and some of the twists can be guessed from a mile off. I think that is the crux of the problem with Poster Girl. While it is a pretty quick read at less than 300 pages, the case doesn’t have enough tension and Sonya isn’t that interesting as a character either. While the setting is a good and intriguing starting point, the story isn’t memorable or event that satisfying because so much was predictable. 2/5.

REVIEW: John Dies at the End by David Wong

Normally I’d give a general overview of the book I’m reviewing, whether that’s what’s on the blurb of the book or my own synopsis, but with John Dies at the End I’m not really sure I can. The blurb is weird and vague and gives now real information except warnings not to read the book, but now that you’ve picked it up bad things are going to happen and you can’t unlearn the fact there’s an “otherwordly invasion currently threatening to enslave humanity”. So needless to say, going into John Dies at the End I really did not know what to expect. I will say it’s about two friends, John and David (the book is from his perspective and parts of it has him recounting events of the book to a reporter), and how they can see things that aren’t there and go on adventures as they try and figure out what’s going on.

Even though I’ve now read John Dies at the End, I still can’t describe it. It’s a weird, creepy horror story with paranormal elements and drug-induced psychoses and a dog that’s perhaps immortal. At this point I’m not even sure I really liked it but there was something about it that was super compelling and kept me reading. Perhaps it’s because so much strange and/or unsettling things were happening all the time so I ended up feeling like I was just going along for the ride and was waiting to see what on Earth was going to happen next – and if anything was ever really explained.

There were some answers but not enough for me and the answers we did get often led to more questions. There’s so many moments when characters aren’t sure they can believe what they’re seeing and as this is being told from David’s point of view, you end up doubting things too. It’s really quite the strange reading experience.

I think I preferred the first third of John Dies at the End, mainly because that really set the scene in terms of the creepiness with horrifying creatures and the general unnerving feeling of something not being right. While I knew John Dies at the End was classed as a horror story, the kind of weirdness and horror it had was so unexpected that it was more shocking and interesting to begin with. There’s also a time skip about a third of the way though and I’m generally not a fan of time skips so that didn’t really do much for me, especially as the first third was so action-packed and interesting. As John Dies at the End is a 460-page book, variations of the same weirdness did get a bit repetitive over time and I did find the last 100 pages or so a bit more of a drag even though more and more things were being revealed.

Character-wise David seems to be a bit of a spectator to his own life and gets dragged into this situation by John and though he’s pretty resourceful, a lot of it comes down to dumb luck. The same can be said for John but pretty much everything that came out of John’s mouth was cringe-inducing as it often revolved around his penis or making himself seem more strong/smart/skilled than he was. These two guys are just average twenty-somethings and so there is the internet-related, kinda gross boys’ humour that you might expect which at times I did find myself skimming over.

John Dies at the End was an interesting reading experience. As I said, I preferred the beginning when it was all new and unexpected (one of the first sequences inside a supposedly haunted house was genuinely suspenseful and surprising) and as the plot progresses it gets more and more wild which some may love while others may find ridiculous – I was on the fence about it. I didn’t like John but being in David’s head wasn’t so bad and his sense of imagination really did paint a vivid picture when it came to some of the creatures they encountered or horrifying (and sometimes really gross) situations they found themselves in. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen

Hart is a marshal, tasked with patrolling the strange and magical wilds of Tanria. It’s an unforgiving job, and Hart’s got nothing but time to ponder his loneliness. Mercy never has a moment to herself. She’s been single-handedly keeping Birdsall & Son Undertakers afloat in defiance of sullen jerks like Hart, who seems to have a gift for showing up right when her patience is thinnest. After yet another exasperating run-in with Mercy, Hart finds himself penning a letter addressed simply to “A Friend”. Much to his surprise, an anonymous letter comes back in return, and a tentative friendship is born. If only Hart knew he’s been baring his soul to the person who infuriates him most – Mercy. As the dangers from Tanria grow closer, so do the unlikely correspondents. But can their blossoming romance survive the fated discovery that their pen pals are their worst nightmares – each other?

I really enjoyed the setting and world-building of The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy. The fantastical land where “drudges” (basically zombies) roam and how the mythology and religion of these people does have some bearing on their lives today. How Mercy cared about the dead and how the burial rituals are different to what we tend to know about them was really interesting and how the dead are honoured and cared for isn’t something you see in books that often. Especially in a romance where the heroine is an undertaking – it’s not the most pretty or girly of jobs but Mercy’s love for it shined through.

It’s easy to compare The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy to the film You’ve Got Mail as it’s the story of two people who don’t like each other but find they a connection when they don’t know it’s their worst enemy that they’re writing to. The letters were a great way for the reader to get to know more about Hart and Mercy and see beneath their hostile exteriors. While it’s easy to say Hart is the grumpy one, Mercy can be pretty harsh and cruel too as she tends to think she’s right a lot of the time. Seeing how they both soften overtime when it comes to each other as well as with family or co-workers was nice.

The problem I had with The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, and the reason I put it down for a while and took so long to finish it is because around the half way point something happened that just made me feel uncomfortable. To go back to the You’ve Got Mail analogy, what happened was like if Tom Hanks had walked into the coffee shop to meet Meg Ryan, knowing she was his anonymous pen pal but she didn’t and then started a relationship with her without telling her that he knew so much about her because they’d been writing to each other for months. It was a power imbalance to the relationship that just made me feel weird and as naturally the truth would come out eventually, that made me more stressed waiting for it to happen especially as it took a lot longer than I thought it would.

I know in romance stories there’s often miscommunication or that one final hurdle before the couple have their happily ever after, but the way this one played out made me more uncomfortable than interested. I don’t read a lot of romance so if you’re more used to that trope then maybe The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy would be absolutely fine for you. I think knowing it would happen and then reading this long drawn-out process was a different thing.

I wanted the “lies” to come out a lot quicker than they did and it took me longer to read this book than it should’ve as I’d be apprehensive waiting for the big reveal and I found it hard to root for Hart and Mercy’s relationship when one of them was keeping such a big secret from the other.

Overall I did like this mixture of cutesy romance and fantasy. It wasn’t something I’d read before and was surprised how well the elements came together and when there wasn’t big secrets I found The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy to be very quick and easy to read. 3/5.