Review: A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World – Like a Warm Blanket of Hope

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Title: A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
Author: C.A. Fletcher
Publisher: Orbit Books
Release Date: April 23rd, 2019
Genre(s): Post-Apocalyptic
Subjects and Themes: Coming-of-Age, Animals
Page Count: 384 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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My name’s Griz. My childhood wasn’t like yours. I’ve never had friends, and in my whole life I’ve not met enough people to play a game of football.

My parents told me how crowded the world used to be, but we were never lonely on our remote island. We had each other, and our dogs.

Then the thief came.

There may be no law left except what you make of it. But if you steal my dog, you can at least expect me to come after you.

Because if we aren’t loyal to the things we love, what’s the point?

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I never thought I’d be using “cozy” and “huggable” to describe a post-apocalyptic book…and yet here we are. I went into A Boy and His Dog thinking it’d be a story about the celebration of dogs against an end-of-the-world backdrop.

I was wrong.

It’s a story about the celebration of life.

This book tackles the end of the world from an angle that I haven’t seen before in the genre, and I think what it achieves for post-apocalyptic fiction is similar to what Life is Beautiful achieves for Holocaust ones–taking what is traditionally a grim subject matter and injecting it with an astonishing amount of hope and goodness. And you can hurl the exact same criticisms for A Boy and His Dog that people do for Life is Beautiful: that it’s not dark enough, that it doesn’t portray all the horrors of the situation, that it’s too positive and hopeful.

But you know what? I don’t think there’s such a thing as too positive and hopeful. Not with stories like these.

Griz’s narration is everything. It’s companionable and warm, like you’ve been friends for your whole lives and this is just a story that he’s telling you over a breakfast table. And it’s laced with empathy and introspection that I think most book lovers can recognize and fall in love with. And he does this thing where he gets a certain feeling from looking at something or experiencing something, but he can’t quite explain it with plain adjectives, so he tries to describe around it using imagery and comparisons to other things, and I just had to pause and stare at my tablet because it reminded me so much of myself and I rarely come across characters who think like this.

But the most brilliant part of the story is how Griz rebuilds this ruined world into something new–something quiet yet wondrous–just through his narration. He comes across empty bridges and crumbling buildings and old dusty records, but he doesn’t see them as the loss of a civilization. He doesn’t think, “Look what’s become of humanity.” He thinks, “Look what humanity has achieved.” It’s one of the most beautiful examples you can get of a character creating the world.

Surprisingly (or not surprisingly), there aren’t a ton of speculative book characters that I actually want to pull into this world and be best friends with. But with Griz? Sleepovers, baking sessions, camping trips, movie nights, book discussions–I want to do them all because he is my kind of people.

That being said, I did want more scenes of Griz bonding with his dogs; I kind of thought this would be a dog story first, post-apocalypse second, but the dogs felt more like catalysts for plot development than actual characters. And the ending wasn’t as meaty as I’d hoped it would be. I wouldn’t say “disappointing” but I was expecting something with a bit more impact. I think these complaints are fairly small in the grand of scheme of things, though.

A Boy and His Dog is the feeling of snuggling under your blanket fort, listening to the rain patter outside. A book that shines a light on the small everyday things we take for granted and says, “How magical. How beautiful. How extraordinary.” And if the world ends in a fiery inferno tomorrow, I’ll rest happily knowing that Griz will be narrating the life that comes after.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley

Review: Someone Like Me – Genre-Bending Thriller Feat. Anthropomorphic Fox in Armour

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Title: Someone Like Me
Author: M.R. Carey
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: November 6th, 2018
Genre(s): Thriller
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, Abuse
Page Count: 512 (hardback)

Rating: 7/10

Add to goodreads

 

 

Liz Kendall wouldn’t hurt a fly. Even when times get tough, she’s devoted to bringing up her two kids in a loving home.

But there’s another side to Liz—one that’s dark and malicious. She will do anything to get her way, no matter how extreme.

And when this other side of her takes control, the consequences are devastating.

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I feel like most of this review will boil down to “A lot of cool things happen in this book but I can’t really discuss them because spoilers. But I swear the cool things do happen!” So I won’t go into details about the plot, but I will wink and nudge and say that this is no ordinary psychological thriller.

I can most definitely talk about the characters, though!

The story swaps back and forth between Liz, a mother of two children and the ex-wife of an abusive husband, and Fran, a teenage girl who had been kidnapped as a child and is still dealing with the aftereffects of the incident. With Liz’s storyline we explore the horrors of domestic abuse and the lasting scars it leaves on a person, all of which Carey portrays with poise and care.

Both characters are dealing with mental health issues–or, at least, what they believe to be mental health issues. Liz has discovered that there’s an angrier, more volatile side of her that surfaces during stressful moments. And Fran has been dealing with the fact that physical properties of the world randomly changes for her and only her (the colour of a bedroom wall, for example).

Fran was my favourite of the two, however, and a large part of that is because of Lady Jinx, her “imaginary” anthropomorphic fox companion who wields a sword called Oathkeeper. That sentence alone should have you reaching for this book. Jinx is an awesome, awesome character–hands-down my favourite of the story. I also quite loved Fran’s interaction with her father, who is just the most supportive, protective, goofy parent you could ask for (can I get an “Amen” for positive parent-child relationships in speculative stories?) and Zac, Liz’s empathetic teenage son, who becomes Fran’s partner-in-crime as she tries to unravel the mystery surrounding her kidnapping.

While I found the two main characters (and the orbiting side characters) interesting, I did find the main villain a bit too campy, especially towards the end. I also feel like the book could have been shorter. Carey’s writing is meaty and introspective and there are scenes that have you completely engaged, but there are also scenes that feel overly dense and not all too necessary. As a result, my interest rose and waned in waves.

Overall, though, Someone Like Me is an entertaining genre-bender that successfully juggles many heavy topics and has you exclaiming “Oh!” as it slowly reveals its many fantastical secrets.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Diversity Spotlight Thursday: Space Opera

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Diversity Spotlight Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by Aimal from Bookshelves & Paperbacks. Each week you come up with three book for three different categories: a diverse book you’ve read and enjoyed; a diverse book that’s already been released and is in your TBR; and a diverse book that hasn’t been released yet.

This week’s topic is space opera!

 

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A-book-I-have-read2Warchild by Karin Lowachee

It kills me that this book isn’t more widely known. Over the course of three books, Karin Lowachee tackles space warfare in a way I’ve never seen before, by swiveling the focus onto the foremost victims of any war: the children. Warchild can be read as a coming-of-age story about an orphaned boy named Jos who gets trained to become an assassin spy. It can also be read as a story of a young survivor suffering from PTSD who finds himself getting used by two opposing factions of a war. Lowachee examines the horrors of conflict, both psychological and physical, with a deft yet unflinching eye. The fact that it also features LGBTQ themes and some of the most complex side characters I’ve ever come across, makes Warchild one of my all-time favourites of any genre.
 

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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet has been compared to Firefly and Mass Effect and  been recommended to me more times than I can count. It features interspecies relationships, queer characters, and racial and species diversity. So of course I’ll read it. The only question is when. Sometime this summer, probably, as it seems perfect as a light summer read.

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A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White

Boots Elsworth was a famous treasure hunter in another life, but now she’s washed up. She makes her meager living faking salvage legends and selling them to the highest bidder, but this time she got something real–the story of the Harrow, a famous warship, capable of untold destruction.
Nilah Brio is the top driver in the Pan Galactic Racing Federation and the darling of the racing world–until she witnesses Mother murder a fellow racer. Framed for the murder and on the hunt to clear her name, Nilah has only one lead: the killer also hunts Boots.
On the wrong side of the law, the two women board a smuggler’s ship that will take them on a quest for fame, for riches, and for justice.

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The premise sounds like something straight out of Borderlands, so count me in! This book promises fun space adventures, treasure hunting, and some f/f romance between two interesting characters.

Releases June 26th, 2018

 

[Review] Jade City – Rich, Bloody, and Gloriously Asian

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Title: Jade City (The Green Bone Saga 1)
Author: Fonda Lee
Publisher: Orbit Books
Release Date: November 7th, 2017
Genre(s): Fantasy, Crime
Page Count: 512
Goodreads

Rating: 9.0/10

 

 

 

Jade City is Fonda Lee’s adult fantasy debut and it is an absolute firecracker–a brutal tale of two warring families set in a rich, vivid world that teeters between modernity and tradition. Its first chapter is the perfect sampler of what you can expect from the rest of the book: intriguing worldbuilding, a dynamic magic system, vivid descriptions of settings, snappy action scenes, and interesting, cutthroat characters. And the best part? It’s all so gloriously, unabashedly, Asian

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Tell me this isn’t the most adorable map you’ve ever seen.

Kekon is a small island country reminiscent of Southeast Asia. Shaped vaguely like a reptilian embryo, it should win awards for the being the cutest-shaped landmass in the history of fantasy cartography. But, in the story, Kekon is far more notable for being the world’s only source of bioluminscent jade. Only those of Kekonese lineage can harness the jade’s powers to augment existing abilities–speed, strength, and senses–to superhuman levels. Such individuals are known as “Green Bones.” Two powerhouse Green Bone families effectively rule Kekon: the Kauls of No Peak and Ayts of the Mountain clan. The former controls the eastern half of Janloon, Kekon’s capital city, and the latter controls the western half. But pre-existing tensions between the clans have boiled over into hostility, and now it’s an all-out war. To the victor goes the honour, the jade, and control of the country.

There are two things that make Jade City exceptional: worldbuilding and family dynamics.

I’m going to wax poetic about the way Fonda Lee constructed Kekon for the rest of the year, because it’s just so damn good and had me clenching my fist and hissing “yes!” in public like a crazy person. My problem with a lot of fantasy stories is that their worldbuilding feels separate from their magic system. Like you could swap out one magic system from one book with another and there would be very little difference to the world. Such systems tend to feel video gamey–contrived and artificial, regardless of how cool or complex they are.

In Jade City, the world is molded around the magic system–which makes the former feel much more natural and real. Jade isn’t just a magical object, it’s a national symbol that influences every aspect of Kekonese society–commerce, trade, governance, education, religion. Consequently, the powers of the Green Bones don’t feel like magic, but a discipline that’s just common to Kekon.

Moreover, I loved how textured Janloon is. It’s not just a cardboard stage for the characters to play around in, but a character that’s well alive and breathing. And it’s all thanks to small details. Like relayball, a high-intensity sport that is particular to Kekon. Like the various festivals that are held throughout the year, and descriptions of cuisines served at a local favourite restaurant (I had a serious hankering for crispy squid when I finished). Like ordinary middle-aged locals drinking and playing cards in the comfort of their homes. And Kekonese slangs (“You cut?”) and expressions that revolve around jade.

A person hoping for too much good fortune might be warned, “Don’t ask for gold and jade.” A child who demanded a custard tart after already having had a sweet bun was, Lan knew from personal experience, likely to be scolded, “You want gold and jade together!”

Even when the plot’s not moving forward, the world of Janloon is so constantly dynamic and interesting that you hardly notice. It’s a city that you want to get lost in and Fonda Lee has you begging to see more of it.

The story is mostly told from the Kaul family’s point of view. We have Lan, the eldest of the Kaul progeny and the newly-appointed leader of No Peak clan. A leader who is sick of his own advisor questioning his decisions and weary of his younger brother courting trouble with the Mountain clan. We explore through Lan’s eyes the burden of leadership and duty. In a city where public image is everything, he struggles to maintain a confident exterior while battling inner demons. It’s compelling and stressful stuff and I loved every bit of it.

Then there’s Hilo, the middle child and the military arm of the clan. Easygoing and quick to laugh but also quick to anger, he’s the polar opposite of Lan. In the beginning, I felt that Hilo was a fun character but one without much depth. But as the story went on, I saw that there was more to him than meets the eye and he soon catapulted over Lan as my favourite. It’s his passion that got me. The way he wears his heart on his sleeve without shame or fear. How he feels everything with so much intensity. And the fact that he so loves his family and yet is looked down on by most of them. Labelled a volatile thug, overlooked by his mother, and despised by his grandfather, he’s the ultimate underdog. And I do so love those.

“You give a man something to live up to, you tell him he can be more than he is now, more than other people think he’ll ever be, and he’ll try his godsdamned best to make it true.”

Then we have Shae, who’s returned from studying abroad in Espenia (the U.S. equivalent in this world) and is determined to make a living for herself without the help of the Kaul name. And Anden, who, at the age of eighteen, is the youngest (adopted) member of the family. Anden is a quiet, talented young man, who also happens to be gay. I found the way the Kekonese view queerness interesting and different from the attitude found in most fantasy worlds, in that it’s viewed not as a malignancy, but as a kind of an acceptable misfortune.

They are, each and every one, complex people trying to balance family and self-interest in a city that’s gone to hell.

Even discounting the fantastic worldbuilding, the palpable love and bond within the Kaul family makes this an incredibly engaging story. Because at its core, this book isn’t about gangs or magical jade. It’s about family. Asian families, in particular. About the bond that ties each and every member together with a strength that never wanes whether we’re five or five thousand miles apart. There’s something almost frenetic about it–a sense that we are but individual parts of the same whole or, indeed, a clan. That’s why I used to be so confused when I heard North Americans equating family gatherings during holidays to getting their teeth pulled out. Because, for me, such gatherings had held a feeling of rightness to them. A feeling of harmony and completion. And no matter the disagreements, we’ll always come together in the end. Because family is everything.

Until Jade City, I’d never read a fantasy book that captures this dynamic, so a massive thank you to Fonda Lee for that.

This book does its damned best to fill the Gentleman Bastards-shaped hole left in my heart and it feels like just the tip of a very large, very bloody iceberg. The war’s only just begun and I can’t wait to see where things go from here.

 

[Review] Torn – Fabric Swatches and Revolutions

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Title:
Torn (The Unraveled Kingdom 1)
Author: Rowenna Miller
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: March 20th, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy
Page Count: 480 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 6.0/10

 

 

This was a bit of a disappointment. While I liked the first 1/4, the rest of the book didn’t quite match up with the expectations I had going in.

Torn tells the story of a dressmaker named Sophie who has the ability to add charms (things like luck, protection, love) to the clothing she makes. She lives with her brother Kristos in Galitha City during a time of rising discontent within the working class. But Sophie isn’t a would-be-revolutionary, handing out pamphlets and giving speeches; that would be her brother. She’s just trying to run her business and keep them out of starvation. Except one day Kristos gets himself kidnapped. And Sophie must comply with the wishes of the kidnapper if he is to survive: make a piece of clothing that would help murder the royal family.

What this book isn’t: a high-stakes political intrigue starring a perky young businesswoman who happens to get mixed up in a revolution.

What this book is: a languid, historical-fictionesque story with lots of political and economical talk, starring a perky young businesswoman whose brother happens to get mixed up in a revolution and she ends up trailing along by accident.

The worldbuilding was more sparse than I would have liked. It felt very much like a historical fiction with a dash of fantasy added, rather than the other way around, which again, was not what I had in mind. Galitha is very similar to 18th-century England, or pre-revolution France, with tensions building between the elite and the working class.

The entire story takes place in Galitha City. For me, a good cityscape in a book feels like a living, breathing entity. There would be lush descriptions of all the mingling smells and sights and all the different districts that compose the organs of the city. There wasn’t much of that in Torn. We were sequestered to Sophie’s shop, a lady’s parlour, a couple of cafes and taverns, and a few other miscellaneous locations that felt isolated from the rest of the city. These places had little character and there was no good sense of what the city as a whole looked like. What’s more, the transitions between the locations felt choppy.

At first, all the political talks, cafe visits, and walks around the city were charming. There was a comforting laziness to it that made it different from any other fantasy I’d read recently. But after a while it got to the point where I was craving something more. More action, more tension, more involvement in the revolution plotline. Because even at the halfway mark, it was still a lot of just sitting around talking about the pending revolution and its players. It felt like there were two plotlines from two different novels: Sophie’s and Kristo’s. The former involved working at the dress shop, debating about politics at the parlour, and being courted by Duke Theodor. And the latter involved all the life-and-death, shaking-the-country’s-foundation stuff. I can’t tell you how many times I thought Kristos was probably having a more fun time than Sophie (and he’s the one who got kidnapped!)

I liked Sophie as a protagonist for the most part. If you’re tired of books that equate “strong” female protagonists with women who hate skirts and housework, then you’ll love Sophie. It’s not often we get a businesswoman–a dressmaker, at that–as a fantasy protagonist and I immediately took to her practical, no-nonsense attitude. I also empathized with her sentiments that, although she’s Pellian (and her parents are Pellian immigrants), she’s grown up in Galitha and thus feels a closer kinship with the country and its people. I’m not a stranger to people of my nationality–and people not of my nationality–saying that I should exhibit more patriotism, more interest towards my home country, so her internal struggles rang a chord with me.

My problem with her? She’s passive. Not so much in terms of character, because she’s obviously a self-sufficient woman who’s unafraid of speaking her mind, but in terms of plot. She waits for things, like the rebellion, to happen to her before doing anything about it. She spends half the book repeating to herself that she doesn’t know which side–the nobility or the common folk–she stands with, without making an effort to find an answer. It was utterly frustrating.

I also wasn’t a fan of the romance between Sophie and Theodor, partly because I felt the author gave it precedence over the revolution plotline, and partly because I found Theodor somewhat bland. He is a pleasant enough character, however, and I did like his laid-back sense of humour:

“How long is dinner?” I chewed my lip. The longer the better.
“Probably four to six courses–not terribly long.”
“That sounds like an eternity,” I replied.
“Not compared to state dinners and wedding feasts. Twelve, fourteen courses–land sakes, you get sick of food.” Theodor stopped himself. “Sometimes I can see why revolutionaries want us dead,” he said ruefully.

He and Sophie have some interesting debates (because this book is full of debates on every possible subject).

My favourite part about the book, and the thing that really makes it stand out, is all the diverse, intrepid women surrounding Sophie.

Three ladies in elegant dishabille convened around a book bound in pink leather. I trained my ear toward them, expecting to hear a rehashing of a romantic novel. Instead, I caught snippets of a lively debate about labor economics.

These include painters, seamstresses, socialites, and history buffs of various nationality and class. The book gives you a little wink and a smile and tells you that there are no specific parameters of being a woman. You can love pretty clothes and makeup and tea parties and also be politically savvy, an artist, an entrepreneur, whatever. The whole story is distinctly feminist, with scenes of women propping up other women, and I loved that.

So if you’re looking for something slow that features interesting female characters and lots and lots of political talk, then give Torn a shot. Alas, it just wasn’t for me, and I don’t know if I’ll be continuing on with the series.

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This is an honest review of an ARC provided by Orbit Books and Netgalley.