Category Archives: Advanced Reading Copies

A Master of Djinn

Queer steampunk fantasy mystery set in early 1900s Egypt

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of a digital book cover of “A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark. The cover is of a silhouetted figure climbing ascending a staircase in an ornate building with blue and gold designs and cogs and gears hanging from the glass ceiling.

“A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark is a fantasy mystery novel with steampunk elements set in an alternate Cairo, Egypt in 1912. After the barrier between our world and the magical world was removed half a century earlier, countries have been trying to manage the influx of magical beings. In Egypt, where Djinn now live amongst people, Fatima is the youngest woman who works at the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Fuelled by confidence and a snappy style of dress, a new mystery soon has Fatma stumped. After members of a secret British society are murdered by someone claiming to be the very man they worship, Fatima must solve the crime before the tension in the city boils over and and all is lost. Meanwhile, she has an unwanted new partner at work and her hot and cold girlfriend is more than who she seems.

This is a fun novel that reimagines Cairo at the turn of the century in a new light. The introduction of magic and Djinn in the world shifts the international power dynamic and in Clark’s Egypt, the British have withdrawn early and colonialism is becoming a distant memory. Djinn and the mysterious Angels bring with them new technologies, which Clark shows off to great effect during some of the action scenes. Fatma is a great, imperfect character whose brilliance is tempered by her vanity and her stubbornness. I really enjoyed Fatma’s new partner Hadia, and their interactions were a really good comment on how scarcity of opportunity for women (or people who belong to any marginalised group) can force unfair competition, but also how valuable mentorship and camaraderie can be. I also really liked the romance. Clark explores what it means to come from more than one background, and how critical trust and safety is in a relationship. The Djinns as well were really well done and I thought Clark brought a lot of complexity and humanity to these new citizens of Cairo.

I think something to keep in mind is that the characters refer to events earlier one quite often, and I though perhaps he was setting the story up for a prequel. It turns out, he has actually written a short story set in the same world. While I don’t think you need to have read it to enjoy this story, given how often it is referred to it might help. Although set in a steampunk fantasy world, this is at heart a mystery and I probably would have liked it to be a little, well, mysterious. Clark introduces several red herrings and plenty of action, but ultimately I guessed the twist early.

A fast-paced and enjoyable novel with a lot of interesting social commentary if not a particularly surprising ending.

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The Northern Reach

Family saga set in Maine, USA

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of a digital book cover of “The Northern Reach” by W. S. Winslow

“The Northern Reach” by W. S. Winslow is a family saga set in and around the small fictional coastal town of Wellbridge in Maine, USA. Spanning about 100 years and the four intersecting Lawson, Baines, Moody and Martin families, traumas echo through the generations against the dramatic Maine coastline.

This was a really readable novel with an exceptionally strong sense of place. Winslow has a real strength for characterisation and each point of view character has a unique and distinct voice. I really enjoyed Liliane, the sophisticated French woman who finds herself widowed in unwelcoming Wellbridge. I also really liked the sisters Coralene, Marlene and Earlene and the subtleties in their relationships and Winslow’s hints of infidelity. Winslow also thoughtfully and sensitively explores family trauma and how they impact not just the immediate generation but the subsequent generations afterwards. The moody coastal atmosphere is also complemented by some ghostly visitors.

The only thing that was a bit challenging about this book was keeping track of all the families. Winslow helped a lot by providing a full family tree at the beginning of the book and then specific branches throughout, however reading an eBook did make it a little hard to flip back to the diagrams.

An immersive and insightful novel about the complexities of families, relationships and small towns.

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Honeycomb

Novel of original and interrelated fairytales

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of a digital book cover of “Honeycomb” by Joanne M. Harris and illustrated by Charles Vess. The cover (which will be the cover for the Australian edition) is powder blue with text and a stencil design of roses, vines, honeycomb and bees in bronze.

“Honeycomb” by Joanne M. Harris and illustrated by Charles Vess is a novel made up of original fairytales. Many of the chapters are distinct stories in the form of fables and parables, however most of them connect to an overarching story arc featuring the Lacewing King, a handsome yet selfish man who wanders through his kingdom ruling over the Silken Folk doing as he pleases. Nevertheless, as time passes and the number of his enemies grows larger, the Lacewing King’s self-interested lifestyle becomes unsustainable.

I have been a fan of Joanne M. Harris (styled as Joanne Harris for her non-fantasy fiction) for a really long time, and as early as 2012 I was reading her #storytime vignettes on Twitter (which have now been removed and collected into this book). I was even inspired to make the little painting below. The stories in this book make for hard-hitting, unsettling chapters that all contribute towards the overarching story of the Lacewing King. Harris conjures a captivating and uncomfortable world made of insects and excess, the same world that was touched upon in her previous book. Some of the fables in this book have clear underlying morals and are told in a similar style to “Animal Farm“. Harris writes particularly about the perils of following the crowd and placing too much faith in self-proclaimed leaders and self-important loudmouths. However, it is the journey of the Lacewing King that I was the most invested in. I really liked how Harris shows the repercussions of indifference over generations, but how also people can change their worldview. There are also stories that initially don’t appear to be related to the main story that Harris masterfully weaves in later.

The Lacewing King Page 1
Image is a watercolour illustration with a bee telling a story to three larvae against a background of yellow hexagons.

While individually I found each fairytale very readable, I did find it hard to settle into this book. I found myself reading one story then setting the book down. I think that although the structure of the book lent itself to this kind of story, it ultimately did feel quite interrupted.

A thought-provoking and refreshing approach to the fairytale genre.

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Knee Deep

Young adult novel about Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and voodoo

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publicist.

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Image is of a city street flooded with a girl floating in a small dinghy on top

“Knee Deep” by Karol Hoeffner is a young adult novel about a 16 year old white girl called Camille who lives a slightly off-beat life as the daughter of owners of a bar in New Orleans. Exposed to a very diverse range of people in the French Quarter, Camille’s first love is for her handsome next door neighbour, an 18 year old young black man called Antwone. Already facing the not inconsequential obstacles of an interracial romance and Antwone’s current girlfriend, Camille’s crush is truly put to the test by Hurricane Katrina. When Antwone goes missing, Camille turns to voodoo magic to return her love to her. However, her dogged pursuit in a city of chaos puts more than just her dreams of a relationship at risk.

This is a readable and creative novel that resonates as a historical and cultural touchstone. Although of course in Australia we all saw the reports of Hurricane Katrina on the news, and have watched TV shows that reference the struggles to rebuild, it is hard to imagine what it was really like being there during such a challenging and tumultuous time. Hoeffner has a compelling writing style that reminded me a bit of Daniel Woodrell in his book “Kiss Kiss”. Camille is a really interesting character who makes a number of ethically suspect and selfish decisions, and Hoeffner fosters a strong sense of dramatic irony around her crush and exactly how requited it actually is.

I think the only part of this book that got under my skin was that Hoeffner did take some creative liberties with elements of the story. For example, although the hurricane happened in 2005, Hoeffner describes her characters posting on Facebook several times even though the social media service wasn’t open to public access until late 2006.

A unique and historically relevant book that showcases New Orleans culture and challenges the reader with ethical questions.

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Remote Control

Africanfuturism science fiction about a radioactive girl

Note: Since publishing this review I have been advised that the author prefers the term “Africanfuturism” to describe her work, and more information about the nuance and differences between “Afrofuturism” and “Africanfuturism” is available via her blog.

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I have read a previous book by this author, and I was really excited to read more of her work. The cover design is exceptional. It is so evocative and really captures the heart of this book.

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Image is of a girl glowing green with hoop earrings, a bald head and a shea tree superimposed over her face

“Remote Control” by Nnedi Okorafor is a science fiction novella about a teenage girl known as Sankofa. Wandering from town to town in a Ghana in the not-too-distant future, the people she visits scramble to meet her every whim from excellent food to new clothes to her favourite: room temperature Fanta. In exchange, Sankofa doesn’t kill them with her mysterious green glow. As the book progresses, more about Sankofa and how she came to possess her unusual abilities is revealed.

This is a fantastic book with an excellent sense of place. I absolutely love how Okorafor writes science fiction, blending African culture with technology to explore interesting ideas about humanity. Sankofa is a great character whose innocence is gradually replaced with ruthlessness in her quest for survival. I loved her fox sidekick Movenpick. Okorafor leaves plenty of room for interpretation and explores themes of technology, religion, corruption, superstition and violence. The writing itself is just exquisite. Like in her book “Binti”, Okorafor’s descriptions are so tactile: she transports you beneath Sankofa’s shea tree and into her shoes as she journeys across the Ghanaian landscape.

This is a quick and impactful book that will leave you breathless, and I cannot wait to read more of Okorafor’s work. There is nobody writing science fiction like this.

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Machine

Science fiction space opera

Content warning: disability (chronic pain)

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publicist. It is part of the broader “White Space” series and takes place in the same universe shortly after the events of “Ancestral Night“. However, it is a different story with different characters and I don’t think there would be significant spoilers if you started with this book.

Machine (White Space, #2) by Elizabeth Bear
Image is of a person floating in space beside a ring-like space station

“Machine” by Elizabeth Bear is a science fiction novel and the second novel in her “White Space” series. The story begins shortly after the previous novel, but this time follows new character Dr Jens, a trauma doctor who travels through space medical on rescue missions on an ambulance ship operated by an Artificial Intelligence known as Sally. When she and crew mate Tsosie board a ship from another era called Big Rock Candy Mountain and docked with a ship belonging to an alien species from a different atmosphere, they initially grapple with how to possibly transport the survivors safetly to the multi-species space station hospital known as Core General. However, when Dr Jens is tasked with finding out what happened to the mysterious survivors, she uncovers far more than she bargained for.

This is a compelling book that explores fresh aspects of Bear’s intergalactic society called the Synarche and the way humanity has come to exist within its social and technological parameters. Bear reintroduces the idea of using technology to suppress and control emotions and builds on the theme of human augmentation through Dr Jens’ exoskeleton which allows her to move while minimising the impact on her chronic pain syndrome. I really liked how Bear contrasted modern humans’ perspectives about ‘tuning’ emotions and how out of control ancient humans must have been against Dr Jens’ actual meeting with someone from that era. I also enjoyed how Bear explored a different space profession, and the kind of training and personality traits you need to have to be basically a cosmic paramedic. I don’t think that I have ever before read a fiction book before that tackles the issue of chronic pain.I found it to be a nuanced and interesting characterisation that focused more on the experience of living with chronic pain rather than the cause. Again, I enjoyed the aliens and I enjoyed learning more about Cheeirilaq’s species and how different species with different survival requirements can co-exist on the same station.

However, like the previous book, I found this one about a fifth too long. It is a nearly 500 page book and by about 400 pages I felt like the story should have wrapped up. I also found the relationships in this book a bit frustrating. A brief five minute conversation with one character, for example, was enough to forge an almost unbreakable emotional bond and I think Bear relies a bit too heavily on telling the reader about relationships rather than showing. Like the previous book, a lot of the book is the protagonist’s own thoughts and although I appreciate the series is concerned with aspects of the human psyche, I think that that the strongest scenes were dialogue between characters rather than Dr Jens ruminating on the same things over and over.

Ultimately, I did enjoy this book more than the previous one and found Dr Jens a more relatable and interesting character. A creative take on the genre, this book is worth a read if you enjoy spaces operas and human augmentation.

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Wild Horses on the Salt

Romance novel about escaping domestic violence and finding a new life

Content warning: domestic violence

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Wild Horses on the Salt” by Anne Montgomery is a romance novel about Becca, a lawyer fleeing her abusive husband. She finds herself on a property in Arizona, USA that belongs to an old friend of her aunt’s who uses it as a guest house. Physically and emotionally bruised, it takes Becca time to open up about what has happened to her. The more she learns about the beautiful country she has found herself in and the environmental issues that threaten it, including the contentious mustangs, the more she begins to feel at ease among her new friends. Especially the handsome Noah. However, her husband is not about to let her go so easily, and Becca soon finds the safety of her new life under threat.

This is an interesting novel that sensitively approaches the issue of domestic violence. Montgomery explores the factors that can leave someone vulnerable to controlling relationships as well as the stigma, financial control and physical danger that make it so difficult to leave. From the outside, Becca is an intelligent, beautiful and successful woman and I think that books like these carry the important message that domestic violence can happen to anyone. This is a well-researched book, and Montgomery brings the Arizona landscape to life through the lens of Becca’s rediscovered passion for art.

However, there were some points in the book where Montgomery’s enthusiasm for description slowed the plot down a bit. The parts of the book that follow the journey of an unlikely pair, a stallion and a sheep, were interesting but I felt that thematically they could have been connected better to the main story as either a well-timed plot device or a clearer metaphor for Becca’s own journey.

A good approach to the difficult topic of domestic violence.

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To Hold Up the Sky

Collection of science fiction short stories

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher, and I was really excited to read it. I have read the first book in this author’s trilogy previously, and have been meaning to read more of his work, so this is the perfect interlude.

“To Hold Up the Sky” by Cixin Liu and translated by multiple translators is a collection of science fiction stories set primarily in China. There are 11 stories in the collection set in the past, present, future, on earth and in the furthermost reaches of outer space.

Liu is a very creative writer who is contributing significantly to the genre of hard science fiction. Using quite a classic science fiction style, he explores fascinating ideas about maths, science and humanity through a Chinese lens. Science fiction is a genre dominated by Western-, and particularly American-, centric ideas and reading stories about alien encounters, time travel and the future of humanity from a non-Western perspective is unbelievably refreshing. Although all the stories contained in this collection are vastly different in subject-matter, I felt that they were all connected by the theme of trying to reconcile the macro with the micro. Liu also explores a number of real-world issues in his books such as industrialism, government surveillance and control, poverty, war and environmental issues. He writes confidently and creatively about physics and mathematical concepts, assisted significantly by his background in computer engineering.

I really enjoyed the first story The Village Teacher which was about the difference a small piece of information and fortuitous timing can make to the survival of an entire race. I also enjoyed The Time Migration, a new take on the idea of remaining in stasis to re-emerge in a new era, and The Thinker which was as much about platonic love as it was about finding a pattern in the stars. However, I think Contraction was the one that really stuck with me in a brilliant yet disturbing way.

Although I enjoyed a lot of the stories, there were some that felt a little slower than others. Even though it had some interesting concepts around humans being raised as farm animals for an alien race, Cloud of Poems didn’t really capture me overall. Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming was very heavy on military tactics, something that I find a bit hard in sci-fi, and even though it had some fascinating ideas about the impact of predicting the future on society, Mirror took a really long time to get there.

A thought-provoking collection that is a must for sci-fi fans.

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The Sea

Speculative fiction novella about humanity’s connection with the ocean

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author.

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“The Sea” by Sophie Jupillat Posey is a speculative fiction novella about a man called Amos who wakes in the morning drenched in saltwater after disturbing dreams about the sea. Somewhat of a misanthrope, Amos spends most of his time alone. However, when he reconnects with his estranged sister and attends his nephew’s birthday party, he realises that he is not the only one in the family with this unusual connection to the ocean.

This is a story with an original premise that invites the reader to imagine a physical embodiment of the sea to explore the harm humanity is inflicting on the marine environment. Amos undergoes a considerable amount character development in this short novella evolving from someone apathetic about the world to someone passionate about a single cause. Jupillat Posey writes vividly and takes her concept to the extreme and envisions a world completely renewed.

Although Amos changes significantly towards the end of the book, he is a difficult character to empathise with. His disdain for those around him is challenging to read at times, and I did find myself wondering why he was chosen over others, including his nephew, to experience this journey.

A thought-provoking book about pressing environmental issues and isolation.

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The Factory Witches of Lowell

Historical fantasy about industrial action in America

Content warning: slavery

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

“The Factory Witches of Lowell” by C. S. Malerich is a historical fantasy novella set in Massachussets, USA in the 19th century and is a fictionalised account of the Lowell Mill Girls. When management increases the rent of the women who work in textile factories without increasing their wages, the women organise themselves and agree to go on strike. With the help of Mrs Hanson, who runs one of the boardinghouses, and the guidance of ailing Hannah Pickering who has a gift for seeing, the women cast a spell to ensure they all stick to the strike until their demands are met. However, when management counter their action, the women realise they are going to have to take more drastic measures.

This is a light-hearted story that transforms a historical event into a subtle fantasy novella just one step shy of magic realism. The magic is sparse yet effective. Although dealing with serious issues including women’s rights and workers’ rights, Malerich has a humorous and gentle style that makes this book very quick and readable. Judith Whittier is a strong character and a strong leader, and I really enjoyed the banter between her and Hannah. I thought the romance in this book was done well, and was a good counterbalance to the industrial action afoot in the town. There is a point in the book where Mrs Hanson’s loyalties come into question, and I had my heart in my mouth wondering what was going to happen next.

I think that the only issue I had was that this book does at times border on an irreverent tone. The reader is thrown headlong into a very limited point in time, and I felt that the terrible working conditions of the women were downplayed somewhat, and the resolution seemed too simple, given the historical context. Malerich, I think in an effort to acknowledge that slavery was still in place during this time, refers to Hannah’s ability to see a physical embodiment of being enslaved. This was handled in an unfortunately dehumanising way, and became more about furthering Hannah’s story rather than a comment on slavery itself.

A light, enjoyable read that perhaps occasionally made too light of some things.

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