Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

I loved this book.
I’ve been hearing tons of hype about Leigh Bardugo lately. The gals at book riot sing her praises on a relatively regular basis and recently my lil’ sis said that Six of Crows was her FAVOURITE BOOK OF ALL TIME. She’s sassy and picky and smarter than me, so I figured I should probably give it a shot.
And what. A. Book.
This book is like if Steven Soderbergh, Scott Lynch, and that dude who makes all those CW superhero shows, not the bad ones (I know they’re all kind of bad, and that it’s all the same guy), but the ones with engaging and charming characters, all had some rooooooooougggghhhh and gritty sex and made a baby out of it. And that baby was actually a book. And that book was actually good.
And I know that sounds like a lot, but…this book is kind of a lot. There’s just so much good stuff to crunch into while reading it. The characters are complex and engaging and endearing and flawed. The way they interact with each other, the chemistry they have together, is endlessly engrossing (and suuuuuper dramatic sometimes. But not syrupy teen drama dramatic, nobody drops to their knees and screams to the skies, they’re just in unusually tense situations). The mysteries in each of their pasts are interesting and smart and revealed at the perfect pace. AND! (if you can’t tell by the exclamation point, this is particularly important to me) the heist plot was actually well thought out and intelligently put together. The smart people in this book, the ones coming up with the plans, actually talk and act like smart people. It’s the fucking best. There was a little “a whoooole bunch of stuff had to go right for this plan to work” going on, but I was so wrapped up in the action and excitement I barely noticed it.

Recommended for people who like twisty plot heavy novels, introspective character novels, fun and action-y novels, gritty novels, fantasy novels!, crime novels etc. etc. etc. you get my point. It’s good. Go read it.


VBR

PS. This is a late ad-in edit, because I always forget to shout out to authors for doing this, but if more diverse representation in your fantasy is something that’s important to you, this book does have that. It’s not loud, and if you don’t keep your peepers peeled you might miss some of it, but it’s there.

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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Yeeeeeeeeeeeesh, what a book.

I don’t know why it took me this long to get to this. It was the buzz book a few years back, and I’ve been hearing about it periodically ever since (the peeps over at Bookriot are constantly singing it’s praises, even now). There’s even regular copies of it at the used bookstores I go to (Pulp Fiction in Vancouver! Go there!). I think I was just under the (completely and entirely wrong) impression that this was a soppily dramatic YA novel, a la John Green, about a murdered girl and all her angst. This isn’t the first time that that’s happened, I made a snap judgement about a book and was way off base, but I think this may be the most wrong I’ve ever been.

I can’t believe this is Celeste Ng’s debut novel. There are writers out there (lots of them), good, competent writers, who have whole careers where they never produce something this insightful, this subtle, this good. It’s so beautifully written and she manages to fit so much stuff in such a small package. At it’s most basic this is the story about a girl’s death, how and why it happened, and what happens after. But it’s also about love and want and loss. About racism and family and the weight of expectations. And above all that, or maybe beneath it, it’s about miscommunication. How hard and complicated it is to be human, how complex our feelings are, how impossible it can be to convey what we really mean. So often we miss the point of another person’s actions or words or gestures because we’re too busy seeing it through the filter of our own flaws and insecurities. We see jabs aimed at our most vulnerable points because that’s what we’re afraid people we love are going to do, or we end up striking other people in their’s because we’re too busy licking our own wounds to notice the damage we’re doing.

This book may not have been the overly dramatic teen soap that I was expecting it to be, but it was an emotional, difficult read. There’s a lot of ugliness and at times the book can be pretty bleak and heartbreaking, but it’s not all tears and misery. There’s genuine love and affection, hope and good people doing good things, insight into the human condition. Basically gals what I’m saying is hold on to your butts, because it’s a bit of a ride.

Recommended for people who like crying, and being sad, and learning stuff about what it is to be human, even if it isn’t always the easiest stuff to admit to or see.

Buy it, ya chumps!

VBR

Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

Ugh, you gals, this book broke my heart.

I had a whole stack of books to write about saved up on here. December was a great reading month for me (I treated myself to my very first N.K. Jemisin experience, and it was everything everyone said it would be), and the first two books of the year were nothing to shake a stick at. But as soon as I opened Call Me By Your Name, as soon as I read the first page, I knew that I wasn’t going to write anything else until I’d talked about it.

I haven’t been this moved by a love story since A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, which I read early last year and which remained one of my favourite reads of 2017. Granted, I’m a sucker for a gay love story. I’ve spent so much of my life starved for them that, even if it’s mediocre, I’m still going to devour it (likely over and over again). If it’s bad, I’ll probably still like it. If it’s good, I’ll love it. If it’s as touching and insightful and beautiful as this? Well, I’ll probably cry while finishing it on a train full of strangers and feel like a total weirdo after.

I just…it’s been a long time since I’ve felt so connected to a main character. Elio felt like me (minus the super rich, European genius thing, obviously) as a conflicted gay teenager. There were so many parts that were just so spot on. The way he moved around men that he wanted, the way that he thought about them. The way he lay awake at night seesawing between hoping that they would come to him and praying that they wouldn’t. The way he knew that his parents would accept him no matter what, but that he feared telling them or talking to them about it anyways. He dreaded that moment of hesitation from his father, that slight twitch of the face, even if he knew that what was coming afterwards was love and acceptance. There was a portion of the book where Elio is thinking about Oliver and his broad shoulders and how nice they are, when he starts to wish he had shoulders like that, and it makes him think, Do I desire to touch them, or to have them as my own? Am I admiring them just because they’re admirable, or because I want to nestle inside them, hold them, have them hold me? Is there a difference? I read that and felt like Aciman had cracked open my skull and scooped out a memory from my youth. It was the lie I told myself for years as a teenager in order to avoid confronting my gayness. I don’t want them, I want to be them. That’s the reason I had all those GQ magazines under my bed. That’s the reason my eyes always lingered where they did.

It’s a beautiful love story, but at it’s heart, for me, it’s a story about confronting oneself, of finding oneself within another, and of finding acceptance in that other person. Elio knows what he is, he spends almost none of the book trying to deny it (he’s so immediately smitten with Oliver that there’s little chance of that), but he still wrestles with it. The scene after the first time they make love, where Elio feels shame and self-disgust and doesn’t want to be around Oliver at all, I know that feeling. I remember it. Even when intellectually I’d decided that I was going to act on my feelings, that there was nothing wrong with them, there was still all this pent up, festering homophobia that I’d swallowed from my culture and environment. That was the hardest hurdle to get over, and I’ve never seen that reflected so accurately on the page before. It broke my heart to experience another person going through something like that, but it gave me comfort too. I said this about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad a few weeks ago and if anything it’s even more true about this: reading this book made me feel less alone about my experience of life. Not to get too cheesy on you, but that’s a rare and precious thing.

So all that is to say, this book gave me feelings. Like, a bunch of them. Probably all of them. I loved it, I still love it, and I’m probably going to reread it in like a month. So…I dunno, get on it!

Recommended for people who aren’t idiots, who have good taste in things, and who don’t want me to judge them for not having read it (because I will, and already am).

VBR

 

Ps. As a side note, this book was such an emotional experience for me that I didn’t really get into any of the technical aspects of it in the review. Suffice it to say, Aciman knows what he’s doing. The book is not only beautiful, but beautifully written.

 

Manhattan Beach (And Also, Sort of, Mostly, A Visit from the Goon Squad) by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan can do no wrong for me.

I read A Visit From the Goon Squad when it first came out and absolutely loved it. As well as just being an outstandingly written and engaging book, it struck a really specific chord with me. I was in a weird, complicated place in my life at the time. I had already come out of the closet, but was still wrestling with the idea of being gay, the fact of it. I’d admitted it to myself, I’d let people know about it (I’d sort of gotten to the point where hiding it was not an option anymore), but I was having a hard time acting on it. I didn’t know what to do or how to be and I was still struggling with a little internalized homophobia. I wanted to sleep with men, but I didn’t want to be the type of man that slept with men (which, trust me, I know how fucked up and wrong that is. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that I had swallowed some of the mild, background homophobia of the environment that I grew up in, and even longer to purge that vile shit from my system).

So anyways, I was in this weird and vulnerable place, thinking that nobody in the world understands me or where I’m coming from, that yeah there are lots of gay people out there, even lots of gay people in conflict with themselves, but I’m some specific and unique type of person that, in the entire history of angsty as fuck semi-adults, has never ever existed before. And then I read this book, and there’s a character in it who’s struggling with himself a lot, uncomfortable and unhappy in his own skin, and it mostly has to do with the fact that he’s gay and not allowing himself to act on it. We weren’t exactly the same (he was some highschool football jock and I was suuuuuper not that), but I saw a lot of myself in that character, in the way he pulled against himself and tore himself up trying to avoid something that he, deep down, didn’t really want to avoid. It was a relatively small portion of the book, but Egan fucking nailed it. It’s such a specific feeling, being pulled, both against and not against your will, towards a version of yourself that you’re afraid of becoming, that you want to become, that you know you can’t avoid. I have such respect for her as a writer, for her insight, because of it. It gets the highest compliment that I can give a novel: I read this book and I felt less alone.

Now! Manhattan Beach didn’t have quite the impact on me that A Visit From the Goon Squad did (it’s hard to imagine how it could), but that has less to do with the writing and more to do with the subject, I think. She still has her sharp insight, her craftsmanship when it comes to specific and engaging characters, who not only seem like real people, but feel like them. And I did dig the setting and the subject a lot, women workers during the second World War, diving, gangsters, merchant seaman, the pressures and consequences of social expectation during that period of time. All those things are super awesome and interesting, and she tells them really well. I may not have connected with the characters in that same way I did in her previous novel, but that’s not really surprising. I’m not a gangster, I’m not a father who abandoned his family, and I’m definitely not a woman pushing against a society that is set up not to trust or respect me. The commonality that I had with these characters was more in a “we’re all human beings” sort of way, rather than anything specific. Still, Egan is a master of her craft and I got wrapped up in these people, absorbed by them. This isn’t a little book, somewhere around 450 pages, but I shot through it in two or three sittings and, even though I really liked the ending, was disappointed when it was done. I liked these people (most of them anyways), liked learning about and being around them. I was sad to see them go.

Anywho, all of this is to say that this wasn’t my favourite of Egan’s books, but I still loved the pants off it, and it was a damned sight better than I’d expect from most other authors.

Recommended for anybody who’s looking for historical fiction rooted deeply in the lives of the people of the period, those who want finely crafted character studies, and anybody with an interest in World War II era underwater welding, but that (like me) doesn’t really want to spend that much time on the war itself.

VBR

Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Good day my beautiful peoples!

I’ve been writing a lot over the last little bit, but I feel like I haven’t checked in enough with you lately. How are you? How’s your life? What’s new?

*Insert what’s new and/or what’s happening in your life here*

REALLY?!

(Select appropriate response from the following)

1) How dare they!

2) Go on and get it girl!

3) That’s fucking disgusting

4) Congratulations!

5) I know I’m not your mom or whatever, but I really think you should stop reading this and go see a doctor.

Whew! What a rollercoaster. Now on to the book!

I have some mixed feelings about this one.

First off, the setting and world building really worked for me. I’ve always been a fan of books that are set in really specific and underutilized (at least in the fiction that I’ve been reading) times/places and Shawl really hooked me with this one. It probably didn’t hurt that the history/social studies curriculum at my highschool was fucking gaaaaarrrrrrrbage (we basically did four consecutive years of in depth study about Canada’s contribution to the second world war) so I went into this book pig-ignorant about the Congo and all the terrible things the Belgians did there. I had a very slight idea about the horrors of the rubber industry at this point in history (thanks to David Grann’s amazing The Lost City of Z), but I wasn’t aware that the Congo was a part of that, and I had no idea the depth of the damage done to the region. Learning about the Congo (sort of, I know this isn’t a historically accurate depiction) really fascinated me and it hooked me enough that I’m currently in the market for a nonfiction history of the area (holler at me if you have any recommendations).

Unfortunately, everything else just didn’t really hit it for me. I respect the ambition of the story, it’s sprawling and huge and complicated, but I never felt overly invested in it. Part of that probably has to do with the writing, which I found a little stiff (to be fair there were moments of lyricism and beauty, though few and far between), and obviously the structure didn’t help (the chapters were told in short bursts that hopped perspectives and significant portions of time, never really allowing you to sink into or get familiar with any individual characters POV) but I think most of it had to do with the characters themselves. I never really found one I could invest in, never really connected with or cared about any of the people in this, and because of that I just felt removed and uninvolved in the story in a way that left me feeling pretty unsatisfied with it as a whole.

Listen, the concept of this was great (building a steam-punky utopian society based on moral ideals in the middle of colonial Africa is just…such a good idea. Seriously, Nisi, A++), but I think I just ended up wanting to like this a lot more than I actually liked it. I respected it, but, if I’m being honest, I didn’t really enjoy reading it. SO! If you’re planning on giving this one a go, keep that in mind.

Anywhooooodle, happy reading!

VBR

 

 

 

By Gaslight by Steven Price

I bought this book on a bit of a lark. A friend of mine and I were doing our bi-weekly bookstore walk-through and the cover and name caught my eye. I am, and have always been, a sucker for a pulpy, steam-punky (the aesthetic, not all the gross pro-British empire stuff) historical thriller. When I read the back though, it sounded kind of ridiculous. The names alone-an impossible to catch, ghostly thief by the name of Shade, a love-sick dumby named Foole (because he’s a fool for love? Get it? GET IT?), a detective named Pinkerton (my vote would have been for Shurlock Murdersolver, but that’s just me)-seemed cheesy enough to give this one a miss. But I was in the mood for something cheesy and dramatic, so I picked it up anyway.

I did not get the book I was expecting.

This novel was incredible. Introspective, complicated, surprising, and stunningly written (for real though, some of the best writing I’ve come across this year. There was a blurb on the front comparing it to Cormac McCarthy and they weren’t wrong), it wasn’t anywhere near the pulpy crime drama that I was expecting. There was still some of that, some drama, some crime, some pulp, but none of it was cheesy or overblown. It, like the rest of the novel, was measured and perfectly paced, just enough to hook and keep your interest.

Which is a good thing, because this puppy is loooong. At around 750 pages, this book is a brick, and a lot of that is atmospheric description and character study. I loved it, but I can see why some people might have a difficult time with it. So, if you’re looking for something light and easy and quick, be forewarned, this is not the book. But if you’re in the market for a dark, historical fiction about human relationships, revenge, and obsession, you came to the right place.

Dig in, my lovelies.

VBR

Comicbook Corner 1: Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Heya!

So I’m going to give something new a try. I loooove comic books, always have, but for some reason I’ve never really talked about them on here. They take up a pretty sizeable chunk of my reading time, they’re just as interesting to talk about, aaaand…I just don’t, for some reason. So let’s remedy that! Every now and then I’m going to do a Comicbook Corner and give you the run down of one that I’m currently reading or just finished reading or one from the back catalogue that had a big impact on me. They’ll be a little shorter than the usual post. If comics aren’t your thing you can just skip these posts (though I’d encourage you to give them a shot. It’s just reading accompanied by incredible art).

Okay, let’s get to it.

Monstress, Written by Marjorie M. Liu and Art by Sana Takeda

Consistently well-written. Weird, complicated, interesting, and always so, so beautiful to look at. Easily one of my favourite comics coming out right now, and the only one that I collect issue to issue. At first the world was so rich, so dense with history and information and intricate, interconnected relationships that I almost felt like I couldn’t get into it, like I was starting a story partway through. But the visuals were incredible and the writing hooked me in, kept me going, and I’m suuuuper happy I stuck it out. This world has such a complicated and complex history and Liu doesn’t feel obliged to spoon feed any of it to you (other than those fun little tidbits you get at the end of each issue). While at first I felt a little frustrated by it, over time, as I’ve began to understand the world a little better, its become one of the most satisfying reading experiences I’ve had this year. Besides, even though I may not always know what’s going on, I have always one hundred percent believed that these two do, and that they’ll get me there eventually. It’s really, really good.

VBR

 

Ps. I hate to hit the representation drum all the time (I actually don’t), but if that’s something that’s important to you in your art, this book has it in spades. Most of the characters (that aren’t animal people) are POCs and women, and the main character is a POC, a woman, and an amputee (as well as a fucking badass).

 

Phantom Pains by Mishell Baker

Hey ya’ll!

So after reading Hunger, a great book that’s also reaaaaally difficult, I felt like I needed something light and fast and fun. I’d eaten my veggies, cleared my whole plate, and it was time for some dessert. I really loved Borderline, the first book in this series (you can check the review out here), and if this one was anything like it I figured it would do the trick.

And it did, sort of. I liked this one, I still enjoyed myself while reading it, but I can’t help but feel like it didn’t really live up to the promise of the first one. At first I couldn’t really figure out why I wasn’t having quite as much fun, it still had all the major key points of the first one (fast-paced action, a sort of mystery, weird faerie shit), but I think I’ve managed to narrow it down to two things.

The first one is Millie. Maybe it’s just me, but she seemed a little different in this book. It could be that the character herself is just growing up and coming into her own a little more, but she seemed a lot less unstable this time, a lot less confrontational (she mostly shuts down when people in the book either critique her or push back against her), and just a little more…bland? Generic? Maybe those aren’t exactly the right words, but it seemed like a lot of her sharp edges, the things that made her so interesting in the last novel, were blunted. I get that it’s important to move a character forward, but if it’s done properly it should be satisfying to watch a character grow and stabilize and come into their own. Here I feel like we missed a step or two and it just doesn’t really sit right.

The second thing is the plot. I have a few minor winges about it (mostly to do with nobody ever believing Millie eeevvvveerrrrrr, even though she’s constantly right all the time. Eventually you’d think that they’d just start taking her at her word, but I guess you have to get your drama and suspense from somewhere), but I’m going to focus mostly on the main problems: how unnecessarily complicated it was, and consequently, how long that made it feel.

As a side note, just to start this off, I just went to my bookshelf to check how many pages longer this one was than the first one, convinced that it was going to clock in at around a hundred pages more, and was surprised to find that they’re basically the same length. If you’d asked me right after I put this one down I probably would’ve bet money on it being atleast fifty pages longer, if not more, that’s how sure I was. That, in and of itself, has got to say something.

I think the major problem lies mostly in how complicated she made the plot. She tried to stuff waaaayyyyyy too much into this one novel and it really changed the dynamic. In the last book it wasn’t exactly a slow reveal, but there was still tons of mystery involved. You felt like she was uncovering information about the fey and the existence of the other world bit by bit, and that no matter what she found out she was still missing most of it. In this one you get exposition dump after exposition dump and by the end of it, I wasn’t sure what else there was to reveal. I left feeling like there wasn’t really anything hooking me into reading the third one. I know that this might just be personal preference, I’m always inclined to a slow reveal leading to a big payoff, rather than just dumps of information along the way, but this website is called verybiasedreviews so…I dunno, what did you expect?

Anyways, don’t write this book or this series off completely. The first one is great, and again, despite it’s problems I still had a pretty good time with this one. I’ve seen worse when it comes to the sophomore slump. I’m definitely going to come back in for one more go, but if the third one is more like this one than the first I might have to leave it after that.

Recommended if you like foul-mouthed, no bullshit lady protagonists, are fond of stories that are even tangentially related to hollywood, or if you like your exposition given in big, straight forward, indigestible chunks.

VBR

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Right off the top you gals, this one is a tough read.

Not tough in the sense that it’s a slog or that you have to push your way through. Kind of the opposite, actually. I was propelled through this book, captivated by it, couldn’t put it down. I usually read on the train on my way to work, but this is the first time I can remember that I would read all day before my shift, read while walking to and from transit, and only put it away when my boss started giving me the side eye. It’s not the writing that’s tough, it’s the subject. This book is about hunger, yeah, but it’s also about suffering and humiliation, about craving love and comfort and acceptance, about never finding it, or finding it and not recognizing it, finding it and losing it, finding it and having it not be enough. This book is about a lot of things and none of them are easy.

When Gay was a small child she went through something horrendous, something that changed her and altered the course of her entire life. I’m not going to get into what the event itself actually is (I tried a couple of times and just…read the book. Gay was there, it happened to her, and she’s a better writer than me anyways), but I will warn you that it does have to do with sexual violence and it’s…very difficult to read. Gay’s great talent as a writer is her voice, her ability to make you empathize and relate to her, to connect with and feel like you understand her. In anything else of hers that I’ve read that’s a strength, and it’s a strength here too, it’s just a complicated one. It hurts to watch somebody you’re connecting with suffer so much.

I’ve never read a memoir quite like this one, one so concerned with the body. It makes sense, it’s what this part of her story is all about. The invasion of it, the effort she went through to change it, the consequences of that change. And she has such an interesting view of the body, one so different from my own. For myself, I see my body and me as one. There’s no difference, no space, between the two. But Roxane constantly refers to her body as a structure separate from herself, as a prison, a fortress, a cage, a cave. Always things that you can either hide or be held in. For her, maybe that’s not that far from the truth. She used food to turn her body into a stronghold. Big, imposing, impregnable, but inescapable as well. Sometimes she loves her body and how strong it is, sometimes she hates the limits it puts on her, but she’s always aware of it, in a way I’ve never experienced. Things that most people take for granted are constant sources of stress and anxiety for her: shopping, going for walks with friends, getting on an airplane, going to events (she tells a story about an event that she had to speak at where there was an elevated stage, about three feet off the ground, and no stairs. After visibly struggling in front of the audience to get on to the stage, eventually having to be helped up by some of the other speakers, she sat on the flimsy, thin wooden chair that they’d placed on the stage for her and heard a crack. She was able to use the strength of her legs to take her weight off the chair enough so that it didn’t break, but she was so humiliated by the experience that she threw up in her mouth and had to swallow it), and even what she can and can’t eat in public. She says to a friend that offers her chips at one point that people “that look like me don’t get to eat food like that in public.”

Which brings me to my next point. Can we please, as a society, just stop being shitty to people about their bodies? The constant comments and intrusions that Gay has to face from people all the time, the humiliations, are unacceptable. No person should be subjected to that kind of treatment. And I know, I know, you say that you’re concerned about their health and whatever, but let’s be honest here, you’re really not. You’re trying to make yourself feel good about your own body, your own flaws, by framing somebody else’s as being worse. You’re putting someone else down to make yourself feel good. It’s what children and bullies do, so grow up and cut it the fuck out.

This book is, without a doubt, one of the rawest and most intimate memoirs I’ve ever read. And so universally human too. I felt myself constantly surprised by how relatable I found it. I may not have experienced the trauma that she has, or lived in the body she’s lived in, or done the things she’s done, but I kept seeing myself in her reactions and desires. Her hungers are the ones we all feel, for food yeah, but also for love and affection and respect, safety and security and comfort. For peace. I hope she finds it.

Recommended for those who like intimate, personal accounts of tragedy, those who like intelligent, sharp takes on difficult things we don’t often talk about, and people who don’t mind ugly crying on a bus full of strangers. Really though, read this book.

VBR

 

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