March book reviews

‘Twas a varied reading month. Reading back these reviews, I realise I compare books a lot!

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Stone’s Mistake by Adrian J. Smith

ARC received by Netgalley

There was a lot to like about Stone’s Mistake but also a few jarring issues. I think I tried to overlook the issues because I so wanted to enjoy a crime novel with LGBTQ+ protagonists.

It is fairly unusual to write a serial killer as a woman. The chapters narrated through Lollie’s perspective (the killer) were interesting; I enjoyed Smith’s handling of Lollie’s warped perception of what was happening. The lack of back story, however, left a huge gap in her characterisation – particularly as the novel starts just as Lollie’s actions are escalating. I wanted to know how she got to this point and how she’d been living before her killing spree.

Also, whilst Lollie was sinister and plausible, I didn’t find her victims as believable. The idea that a mature, professionally successful woman would immediately let a complete stranger she’d met on the path by her driveway stay in her home just because there’s snow seems… unlikely. Let alone the idea they have *wink wink* within a couple of hours of meeting. It’s like Smith’s depiction of women gives with one hand (a creepy, dangerous female killer) and takes away with the other (weak-willed, easily duped women).

The chapters centred on Morgan Stone (FBI Agent) are also problematic. It’s pleasing that Smith presents a strong woman. Also, the complicated relationship with her cop-partner-best-mate, Pax, offers a thoughtful insight on friendships which endure despite ideological differences. But the over-reliance on Morgan’s coffee drinking as a defining character trait was thin. And some of Stone’s titular mistakes are just ridiculous. Out of the blue, and without any kind of an invitation, she kisses a police officer outside a crime scene. Really? As a lead agent and profiler, she doesn’t disclose phone calls she’s received despite the fact she knows the Bureau can trace them. Really, really? I don’t buy it.

Did I finish the book because I needed to see how it ended? Yes. If it was a TV series, would I watch it? Probably. Will I buy the next in the series, I’m not convinced.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️🤍🤍

***

Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker

ARC received by Netgalley

Well, now, this is a Marmite book… and I’m a fan of Marmite.

It seems that the very things which put some people off, appealed to me: slow, creepy, cryptic, dystopian.

The writing style is deliberately languid, with a building sense of dread. They’re not in the least bit similar but the only other book I’ve read that’s created that stinging-nettle sensation of anguish was Affinity by Sarah Waters. Composite Creatures isn’t a horror story, per se, but finishing it was both disorientating and a relief.

Consider me very excited to see what Caroline Hardaker publishes next.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

***

Raising Hell by Bryony Pearce

ARC received by Netgalley

Bryony Pearce’s Raising Hell feels a bit like the natural progression for anyone who enjoyed the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. Not the same mythical world but similar, more grown up and very much set in the UK.

I really enjoyed it and galloped through the book in just two sittings, frequently tutting at my wife whenever she interrupted me. It throws you straight into the action and the world, so you have to rely on the narrator, Ivy, to orientate you. It’s a great way to build affinity for a protagonist. I’ve not read anything else by Pearce but I find her tone and characterisation very appealing, so I’ll definitely be grabbing more of her work.

Whilst Pearce delves into magic, zombies, spell-casting and dead things, she really uses these to tackle a wide range of bigger issues like grief, responsibility, guilt and consequences. Choices aren’t straight forward and the wrong-doers aren’t always in the wrong: that complexity adds to the narrative. 

Ivy’s world is our world but different; I do wish there was a little more world-building. I can absolutely see how politics would have changed when magic appeared (particularly in the hands of teenagers) but I’d like to linger with that idea for longer and learn more about it. Within a fantastical setting, it could provide YA readers an insight into how political landscapes can shift and how national crises can be hijacked for political power. Given that Pearce has potentially left the rift* open for a sequel, I’m hoping we get to see more of this. 

What I have relished the most is the carefully balanced combination of action, gore and humour. In the same chapter, the narrator explains she “had less sense than a Year Seven in the last week before Christmas” and a few lines later describes “a bubbling hiss from the woman as air rasped in and out of her mangled throat.” This isn’t the goriest moment by a mile but I don’t want to spoil any delights for future readers of the book.

And if you need another reason to pick up a copy, there’s a talking cat.

*It’s an in-joke… you’ll get it when you’ve read the book!

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

***

A Queer Little Book of Tales by H.R. Harrison

ARC received by Netgalley

This was quite a departure from my normal book reading diet and I really enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I’d seen some reviews with low ratings. It seems to be that the complaints of other reviewers are not particularly fair, so my review is going to tackle them head on.

Some people have expressed disappointment that the queer nature of the book (as advertised in the title) is primarily focused on the gay male experience, with some nods to gender identity. It irks me that writers who explore LGBTQ+ narratives are criticised for not representing the entire rainbow in their work. We don’t do this with heteronormative books so why is the expectation that LGBTQ+ books will be all things to all people all of the time? I can only assume it’s because readers approached the book with their own understanding of and hopes for the term “queer.”

A second complaint relates to the pace of the book – that it’s too slow. I agree it’s slow but didn’t see this as a terrible quality. It seems mellow and comfortable in its own skin. Harrison sets a pace that matches the nature of the stories as they feel like character explorations rather than action-focused plots.

A final complaint I saw was that the pitch is confusing because it’s like a child’s book but with decidedly more mature themes and descriptions. I think this is a narrow, Disney-esque critique. The fairy tales of old were mature in nature and often pretty grim. Depicting magic, creatures, love and fantastical elements doesn’t inherently mean a narrative is childish or aimed at children.

In addition to these points, I particularly enjoyed the tales which were interconnected but not always in obvious ways – it adds a richness to the story telling. Also, the blending of fairy tale and SciFi elements (From stars they fell) feels like an homage to the titular queerness: a little unexpected and different but brilliant because of it. Finally, and I suppose it’s related to the aforementioned slowness, I was pleased the short stories aren’t too short. It means there is ample time to get to know the characters and to invest in their experiences.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍

***

A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah J. Maas

A Court of Silver Flames (A Court of Thorns and Roses) eBook: Maas, Sarah  J.: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store
Audiobook

You know when you feel committed to a series and so you want to see it through even though it’s wavering? Like Game of Thrones series 9 and 10? Yeah, that.

I feel like the books are getting worse not better. I don’t normally provide a summary (because I like to avoid spoilers) but it goes a little like this: sex sex sex sex sex sex badly handled PTSD sex sex sex sex sex sex some healthy female comradeship sex sex sex sex sex superficially depicted trauma sex sex sex sex exercise cures depression sex sex sex sex women with eating disorders can still be objectified sex sex sex sex sex misogyny presented as feminism sex sex sex sex the victim is the apologiser sex sex sex sex sex predictable fantasy tropes about scent and mating bonds sex sex sex sex. It’s rammed (I think that verb was used for the sex at one point?) with mental health stereotypes. Fine, it happens in books and, as I said in the review of Harrison’s book, an author can’t be all things to all people. But, Maas has made the mental health of the protagonist the main point of the story. Nesta’s fall, trauma and recovery are the sum parts of the narrative and their portrayal leaves an unpleasant after taste.

I’ll provide an example, from the beginning of the book, to illustrate what I mean. Nesta has been drinking, partying and shagging her way through her trauma – failing to eat or look after herself. She is spending her brother-in-law’s money at taverns across the city (we know he’s rolling in money from frequent mentions in previous books). The family decide to invoke an intervention… not because she’s clearly crying out for help but because she is embarrassing them. The intervention is to essentially imprison her and cut her off from everyone. It grates because her sisters, in earlier books in the series, are given space, time and kindness to overcome their traumas. Also (and this might demonstrate my point more clearly), despite being very ill, this is how she’s viewed by Cassian when he’s sent to fetch her for the intervention:

He took the invitation to survey her: long bare legs, an elegant sweep of hips, tapered waist – too damn thin – and full, inviting breasts that were at odds with the new, sharp angles of her body. On any other female, those magnificent breasts might have been enough cause for him to begin courting her the moment he met her… His gaze kept snagging on her breasts, peaked against the chill morning; her bare skin. The apex of her thighs.

Sure, she’s unwell and on the brink of despair but take the time to mention how horny she makes you. Plus the lack of autonomy implied by him courting her. Ugh. And it’s the first of many, many, maaaaany times her genitals are referred to as her apex.

I have nothing against books which some folks might categorise as trashy. I don’t even mind books full of sex. They fill a void or a need. It’s just that the A Court of… series is pretending to be something else. Best way I can describe it is by comparing The Slug & Lettuce to Wagamama*. Pre-pandemic, if you popped to The Slug for some lunch and a drink, you knew it was going to be quick, probably breaded, definitely fried or microwaved and cheap. Lunch at The Slug is an honest celebration of 2-for-£10, sticky tables and beige-ness. It’s why you go and you know what you are getting. Wagamama, on the other hand, is a let down. It claims to offer an authentic, Japanese-inspired experience. Ha. I call bovine-faeces. Sharing seating with strangers and pretending it’s all part of the vibe when traditional ramen joints have limited (and often solo) seating. No thanks. Charging a tear-jerking fortune for what is considered a quick, humble meal. No thanks. In this comparison, other easy-read books echo The Slug because they own it. A Court of Silver Flames, on the other hand, is Wagamama: all branding, promise and delusions but very little substance or delivery.

(* other pub chains and restaurants are available)

Rating: ❤️❤️🤍🤍🤍

***

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air): Amazon.co.uk: Black, Holly: Books
Audiobook

I listened to The Cruel Prince straight after I finished A Court of Silver Flame. Well, what a contrast. Maas thinks she’s subverting fantasy genre conventions, breaking gender stereotypes and depicting realistic trauma and recovery. Then Black comes along and shows her how it’s done. Boom.

In Black’s world, the faerie folk are sexy, sure, but they’re dangerous, corrupt and cruel – and they embrace these natures. The protagonist, Jude, is well aware of this. I really like how the differences between humans and the creatures of the faerie world aren’t just based on appearance but also on personality, motivations, behaviour and attitude.

Someone recommended The Cruel Prince to me a while ago and it’s been sitting in my Audible account for well over a year. I assumed, particularly after reading Maas’ most recent book, that it would be a typical YA, fantasy, girl-loves-bad-boy novel and had braced myself for disappointing mediocrity. Nope. It’s brilliant! The politics, scheming, murder, back story, societal structures all provide a rich and engaging narrative. Sure, there are elements of the book which firmly root it in YA, such as Jude trying to find her place and purpose in the world, but the character development, intricate plot and skilled descriptions make it a pretty epic read. Some of the twists are more obvious than others but there’s sufficient cleverness that it had me hooked throughout.

Something is up with the Audible recording – the sound quality kept changing to the extent I was convinced they’d changed the narrator. Apparently it was the same person so that was odd. I’ll be reading eBook versions of the rest of the books in the series to avoid this.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍

***

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The Midnight Library
Hardback

It’s a clever concept. It’s reassuring. It’s uplifting. And yet it might not be a good fit for everybody and that’s ok.

The Midnight Library is like one giant what-if exercise. It cautions against thinking there are perfect choices, or holding tight to unfulfilled regrets, or believing you’re the main factor in other people’s misery or misfortune.

I felt better for reading it. It resonated with me and kept echoing once I was done… a bit like the impact I felt from reading “The Travelling Cat Chronicles” by Hiro Arikawa. They definitely share a feeling even though they’re utterly different.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

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