A to Z Reading Challenge

REVIEW: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Agnieszka loves her valley home and her quiet village, even though it’s close to the Wood, a corrupted place full of malevolent power. Close to her village in a tower lives the Dragon, every ten years he chooses a girl and keeps her for that time. The next choosing is fast approaching and Agnieszka, just like everyone else, knows the Dragon will take Kasia, her best friend who the most beautiful and talented. But events don’t go how everyone predicts and when the Dragon arrives it’s Agnieszka, not Kasia, he chooses.

Uprooted is a fantasy story with magical creatures and a beautiful magic system. How the magic worked for different characters and how different magic users would craft spells was always interesting to me. The Dragon is a wizard and he likes things in order and logical, especially when it comes to magic and spells. Agnieszka on the other hand, is more chaotic and organic when it comes to weaving spells. Her learning about her abilities and how it differs from so many traditional wizards and witches was both fun and interesting.

The Wood is such a unique villain as it were. It’s something that is alive and has thoughts and goals that are sometimes beyond what people could imagine. It’s an unsettling presence throughout the story and when someone is taken by the Wood, it won’t give them back easily. It corrupts creatures, people and the land around it. There’s not only the Wood to worry about, there is also political intrigue with Kings and courts that Agnieszka and the Dragon have to deal with.

The problem I had with Uprooted was I never felt the urge to pick it up and continue on to the next chapter until I hit the 300-page mark – that was almost three quarters of the way through the book! I think that was down in part to the writing style, it paints a very eerie yet beautiful picture, and while stuff did happen before page 300, it was all building to that moment but it hadn’t really pulled me in. I mainly read Uprooted for my A-Z Reading Challenge. It’s a few days before 2019, the only letter of the alphabet I hadn’t completed was the letter U, so I did persevere with Uprooted when under normal circumstances I would have probably put it down.

Uprooted is a good magical story that somehow manages to feel whimsical and haunting at the same time. The setting feels like a fairytale but it has a darker undertone too. On the whole, the characters and their relationships were compelling, but the story never did enough to enthral me. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Poland: Lala by Jacek Dehnel

Lala has lived an exciting life. Born in Poland just after World War One, Lala grew up to be a selfless and honest independent woman who survived some of the most turbulent events in Europe. As she falls prey to the first signs of dementia, she continues to tell the stories of her life to her grandson, who faithfully notes down her adventures.

Lala was translated from Polish to English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and I listened to the audiobook narrated by Lawrence Dobiesz which I would recommend.

Lala as a book is a little confusing as it’s marked as a work of fiction but the way it’s told, and the fact the grandson who is narrating this story has the same first name as the author, did make me wonder if it was a combination of fact and fiction, memoir and fantasy.

The scenes where it’s clear that Lala is losing her memory were both funny and poignant. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and when reading about Lala’s antics I had to smile as there were so many things she said or did that was just like my gran. It’s a great depiction of a woman slowly losing her mind but then there’s also those moments of suddenly clarity which were lovely but also so sad as Lala was never going to get better.

Lala is a grand sweeping story as Lala tells stories about her family as far back as her great-grandfather. This is where she would sometimes confuse something her grandfather did for something her father did, then it’s her grandson who corrects her as he’s heard so many of these stories before he could often recite them by heart.

While Lala is the focus of the story, with her life before, during and after the Second World War is a big part of it, her stories of a family means this story spans over 100 years. This led me to learning a lot about Polish history that I’d never even heard of.

I really enjoyed Lala. It’s an interesting insight into Poland’s turbulent history from he eyes of a character who lived through it all, the good and the bad. It’s funny, touching and sometimes verges on the ridiculous because of Lala’s outlandish stories about the situations she’d get into or she’d hear about. I loved the way it’s told with the grandson simultaneously seeming to tell the red the stories and to be hearing them for the first time himself.

Lala is such an interesting book and it’s honest and realistic take of a woman slowly succumbing to dementia was brilliant yet sad. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Power by Naomi Alderman

One day, teenage girls all over the world find that with a flick of their fingers they can inflict agonizing pain and even death. As this phenomenon spreads and women of all ages learn to release powerful electricity from their bodies, the world changes forever.

The Power is an engaging read that captures your attention from the outset. It’s a story that’s building up to something so from the very beginning you’re wondering what exactly is everything leading to and what’s going to happen next. The story is largely told from four characters point of view. Roxy, the teenage daughter of a gangster, Margot, an American politician, Allie, a girl who reinvents herself as a religious figure called Mother Eve, and Tunde, a journalist and is the only male character you follow in this story. The story is told in snapshots, you get a dozen pages or so with each character and then it jumps forward a year or so and you see what’s happening in their lives now and how much, or little, things have changed.

The Power is fascinating because one would hope that if women suddenly had a power that men did not, it would finally tip the scale so that both men and women could be equal. They’d each have different strengths and weaknesses but this electrifying power women had would make them be able to protect themselves. Instead, The Power shows the scale of equality tipping in the favour of women. It does take time, but women become power-hungry, aggressive and sometimes sadistic in the way they abuse men for their own enjoyment or just because they can.

In some ways it makes sense, if you have some women who have been abused all their lives in some shape or form by men, it’s almost natural that if they suddenly had the power to cause pain they’d use it against those who hurt them. Also people are complicated! We can’t say that Men Are Bad and Women Are Good, and if women ruled the world it’d be a utopia. Women are just as flawed and as capable of violence as men. That being said, if women were so often seen as lesser-than, one would hope if they got this unique power, they would be more empathetic as they know what it’s like to be the one who’s scared to go out at night.

I hope the last couple of paragraphs make sense. The Power does give you a lot to think about, how society can change in such a reasonably short space of time, how people can forget how things were and how things can snowball into something you could never expect.

The scenes where women abuse men with their new powers are uncomfortable to read. It reminded me of when I read The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter in my Women’s Writing class at university. It’s almost more disturbing to read about women abusing men, than men abusing women and that is probably because there’s so much media showing men hurting women, that it becomes something you’re almost desensitised to. Women being cruel, sexually assaulting men, making them be in almost constant fear, it’s unnatural in many ways, and seeing that side of the society that evolves in The Power is unsettling to say the least.

The Power is an incredible book. It’s fast-paced, exciting and it’s a story that you’re never sure where it’s going to go next. There are some minor plot points that I wasn’t over keen on, and as I said it’s both unfortunate and interesting that it appears that, at least in this book, an equal society isn’t possible. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A short story about a woman who’s staying in a crumbling old mansion for three months. While her physician husband is out of the house almost every day, she spends her time in the room with yellow wallpaper. She becomes almost obsessed with the sinister patterns of the wallpaper as she struggles to deal with her nervousness and loneliness.

I listened to The Yellow Wallpaper on audiobook and it was narrated by Harriet Walter. I shan’t lie, the only reason I borrowed this book from my library was because of its title. I’m taking part in the A-Z Reading Challenge where you read a book starting with each letter of the alphabet and I needed a book that started with “Y”. But I’m happy I borrowed and read it as it was a very interesting read.

Told via the unnamed woman’s diary entries, The Yellow Wallpaper is a weird and creepy short story. At the beginning of the story the woman is very anxious and potentially has postnatal depression as she mentions she and her husband have a baby, though it’s mostly looked after by her husband’s sister, so she can rest. She’s jittery and spending so much time in their bedroom with the yellow wallpaper has her unsettled.

The way the wallpaper is described makes it sound like it’s alive, but only she can see what is trapped inside the patterns. She has been isolated by the people who are supposed to care for her and because of that it makes her anxieties worse and perhaps makes her slowly lose grip on reality.

The Yellow Wallpaper is a captivating and creepy gothic short story. The way the story progresses, and its ambiguous ending makes one unsure whether or not it is a “proper” horror story, but there’s certainly some horrifying imagery in it. 4/5.

MINI COMIC REVIEWS: Jessica Jones Vol. 1, Tales of Suspense: Hawkeye & the Winter Soldier and FABLES: Cubs in Toyland

Jessica Jones Vol. 1: Uncaged! by Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos and Matt Hollingsworth

Newly released from prison, Jessica Jones has got a lot of problems. Her latest client wants her to investigate her husband, who thinks he’s from another universe, and Jessica’s own husband, Luke Cage, wants to know where their daughter is. Jessica’s got a lot on her plate when a new threat appears, one that wants to destroy all heroes.

I liked how this book managed to keep Jessica Jones and her story relatively grounded, while still having cameos from other superheroes like Jessica Drew aka Spider-Woman and Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel. It made Jessica and her PI business a part of the wider superhero world, but it also shows how Jessica is constantly fighting against the title of “hero” and being a part of that world.

Jessica and Luke’s relationship is strained, but I did enjoy seeing it and I hope they can work things out. Jessica has given a lot up to do what she thinks is the right thing, and it’s meant keeping a lot of secrets from the few people she cares about.

The main story in Jessica Jones Vol. 1 was interesting but I wasn’t that scared or intrigued by the main villain as I couldn’t really get their motives. This might have been something

I liked the art style in Jessica Jones, and I loved the monotone colours, it really set the tone of the story. While I didn’t love this comic, it does enough to make me want to continue the series to see how Jessica can possibly sort her life out. 3/5.

Tales of Suspense: Hawkeye & the Winter Soldier by Matthew Rosenburg, Travel Foreman and Rachelle Rosenburg

The Black Widow is dead, but someone is killing her old enemies one by one. With a broke heart and a bloody trail to follow, Clint Barton aka Hawkeye is looking for answers. The only place he might get them is from another of Natasha’s ex-boyfriends, Bucky Barnes aka the Winter Solider. Will Clint and Bucky be able to trust each other enough to get to the truth, or is the truth deadly and out to get them?

I really enjoyed this. It’s a sequel to everything that happened with Secret Wars, Captain America apparently being an agent for Hydra and a lot of bad stuff happening, but you really didn’t need to know any of that to read and enjoy this comic. I only knew the concept of Secret Wars and haven’t read any myself, but this book does enough to give you all you need to then enjoy these characters and their interactions.

I’m a big Clint Barton fan and I really enjoyed how he and Bucky interacted. It was great how in the fist issue it’s told from Clint’s point of view and then the second issue is from Bucky’s, giving you an insight into both of their minds. They both don’t like each other but they have a common goal in finding out what’s going on with Natasha’s past. They have some really funny moments, and Clint is his idiot but capable self which I loved.

I liked the art style and the colours too for the most part, though some facial expressions were a bit overexaggerated for my taste. Tales of Suspense: Hawkeye & the Winter Soldier is a really fun, character-driven mystery and I’d love to read more about Clint and Bucky’s reluctant partnership. 4/5.

FABLES: Cubs in Toyland by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha and Gene Ha

Theresa has a lousy toy boat that she doesn’t really like but it talks to her, encouraging her to run away to a land that she can be Queen of. Theresa travels to Toyland, where broken-down playthings dwell. Wooden, metal, plastic or stuffed, they’re all looking for a queen to fix their bodies and their realm. But these toys are broken in more ways than one. As Theresa’s family search for her, including her wild brother Dare, what will become of her when she discovers the truth about Toyland? And what will staying in that realm cost?

This graphic novel has been sitting on my shelves for years. A friend bought it for me for Christmas one year, but I had never gotten around to reading it as it’s Volume 18 in the Fables series and thought I wouldn’t be able to follow the story without reading the previous 17 volumes. Recently I did some googling and as everyone seemed to say this was a standalone volume I gave it a go.

I do agree it’s a standalone. I could follow the story and the various characters and their relationships easily enough, though there were the few odd moments that seemed to be tied to the larger story that I was unaware of.

The magic system and how all the characters are versions of the classic fairy tales is interesting. Cubs in Toyland was surprisingly sinister and dark at times – these weren’t the fluffy Disney-versions of the fairytales we all know. There were some bloody and violent moments too, which were even more disturbing as they featured young children.

Maybe it’s because I didn’t have as much of a connection to the characters as I hadn’t read the previous volumes, or maybe just the story wasn’t for me, but I did find Cubs in Toyland a bit of a slog to get through, especially the last 40 pages or so. I just didn’t really care to find out how the story would end or if Theresa would be OK. 2/5.

REVIEW: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Lydia is the favourite child of Marilyn and James Lee. Both of her parent’s want her to fulfil the dreams they never could. Lydia is dead in a nearby lake. Her family doesn’t know that yet. And when they do, it will shatter everything they thought they knew about Lydia, and each other.

I attempted to read Everything I Never Told You a couple of years ago for the #DiversAThon but only got about 50 or so pages into it as I couldn’t connect to the characters and the story didn’t grab me. This time, I listened to the audiobook narrated by Cassandra Campbell and I found the story easier to consume via audio. I think that’s because while the story is told from multiple points of view there’s also an omniscient feel to the narrative voice. For instance, there’s moments when it comments on the future, or makes an observation that a character couldn’t have known at that moment.

There’s a mystery element to Everything I Never Told You as you don’t know how Lydia died, whether it was suicide or if there was someone else with Lydia on the lake. But it’s not as if a character is being an amateur detective trying to solve it, instead it’s more about the repercussions of Lydia’s death on her parents, her older brother Nath and her younger sister Hannah.

One thing I did like about this story was that it featured a biracial family. James is Chinese-American, and Marilyn is a blonde white woman so there’s interesting commentary on how their relationship is seen from the outside and also the pressures placed on Lydia and her siblings for looking so different to their peers. Everything I Never Told You is set in the 1970s in a small town in Ohio so there’s no one else but the Lee family that looks “out of place”. It also explores the sexism of the 1960s and 70s as Marilyn dreamed of becoming a doctor and as she tried to pursue that dream, men in her university classes would persistently make comments and her own mother expected her to find a husband and settle down rather than have a career.

Everything I Never Told You is frustrating in a way because the whole Lee family is terrible at communicating with one another. No one tells anyone how they really feel about something, what they want to do in their lives, or even honestly share how their day was. They are all putting on a front in different ways, talking to each other in half-truths and bottling up everything they feel they cannot say.

Everything I Never Told You is mostly a study of a family. A family who has suddenly experienced something tragic and are all grieving differently. There’s a distance between the reader and the characters due to the narrative voice, however that does fit in well with this book as the characters are distant from one another too. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Murders in the Rue Morgue And Other Stories by Edgar Allan Poe

A collection of three short stories, two of them are The Murders in the Rue Morgue and its sequel The Mystery of Marie Rogêt which are creepy and gruesome mysteries. The third is The Purloined Letter which is mystery about a seemingly simple case.

I had an interesting time with this short story collection. It was the first time I’d read any Edgar Allan Poe and I flew through, and really enjoyed, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, but I found the other two stories a real drag.

All three stories are told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator. His friend Dupin is an amateur sleuth so when there’s a crime, he narrates how Dupin gets involved and how he might solve the case. Dupin’s explanations of what happened is where the stories lost me. They’re really long and in depth, with page long paragraphs that I found myself getting lost in as his explanations didn’t intrigue me. They seemed like a way to show off how clever Dupin was but there was never enough to make me like the guy.

The events of The Murders in the Rue Morgue are horrifying and there are a lot of vivid descriptions on the crime scene. Those sequences, in all the stories, are the most compelling. It’s the explanations that ended up boring me instead of making me interested in finding out whodunnit.

These short stories reminded me of the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and E.W. Hornung. The style of writing and story-telling is quiet something but unlike Sherlock Holmes or A.J. Raffles, Dupin isn’t a charismatic protagonist that I almost instantly took a liking to.

I’m not sure if this was a good introduction to Poe but at least I can now say I’ve read The Murders in the Rue Morgue. 2/5.