Once again I am late with a wrapup. Are you surprised? Because I’m not. And I plan on doing 3 this month (Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon, which I will be doing a week early, really does deserve its own). I swear I really do try to keep up with it. Yet here we are, again! So let’s just dive into the first half of April. Which was an…. okay 2 weeks of reading? Could have been better, but I am still on track with my reading goals. Kind of.
Judas, by Amoz Oz. MBI shortlisted. Finished April 1st. This was one of the few Man Booker International nominated books that I’d actually heard about before the longlist announcement. To be honest, I hadn’t planned on reading it, because the synopsis (student in Jerusalem becomes caretaker & companion of cranky old man) screamed “cozy and heartwarming to me” which is not really my genre.
Thankfully, Judas is nothing like what I imagined. Shmuel, or main character, is indeed an (ex) student who is having a bit of a quarter-life crisis. He can’t afford his schooling anymore, his friends have essentially abandoned him, and his girlfriend ran off with another man. Lost and adrift, he answers an ad that provides room & board in exchange for spending his evenings with Gershom, the cantankerous old man from the blurb. Atalia, a woman in her 40′s, is the only other occupant in the house… and really, the only other character. There are a few others who pop in and out, or who we see in flashbacks, but there are really only 3 pieces on this chess board.
This is a deeply emotional and philosophical book. Most of it is the internal dialogue of Shmuel’s struggle to find meaning in his life. As the name of the book implies, he was working on his thesis about Judas when he left university, so we get a lot of the history of Judas & Jesus’ relationship and views on him through the ages. While it’s a religious theme, I would not classify this as a religious book. It has theology as a central theme, yes, but it’s not about religious principles. It’ about history, and how time can shift and change our perceptions of things. The idea of Judas as both traitor and savior is played with a lot, and Shmuel finds a lot of parallels in his own life.
Of course there is not a whole lot of plot. If you want your books fast-paced, this is probably not for you. It’s slow and character-driven, and relies a lot on the reader being interested in both the characters and the historical aspects discussed. But I was so in love with all of these. It’s an endearing and intelligent novel, and one I am very happy to have read.
Wolves of the Calla, by Stephen King. Finished April 3rd. I had heard from a lot of people that the Dark Tower series starts going downhill after Wizard & Glass, so I was a bit hesitant when I picked this up. But I shouldn’t have been, because this is my second favorite so far (with The Waste Lands being #1 in my heart).
I feel like the books are all so different tonally, it’s really hard to say that one is objectively better than the others. The Gunslinger is a weird mix of Western and post-apocalyptic fiction, The Drawing of the Three adds in urban fantasy, The Waste Lands is more of an adventure-fantasy across a scifi landscape, Wizard & Glass is epic fantasy, The Wind Through the Keyhole is a fairytale, and Wolves of the Calla is like a Western movie (quite intentionally, because it has many parallels to The Magnificent Seven) with like robots and stuff. Wolves and Waste Lands are probably the most similar both in tone and in the fact that they both have all 4 (5? does Oy count? HE DOES) main characters in action together, so it makes sense that I love them so much. Hopefully the final 2 books follow in these footsteps!
First Love, by Gwendoline Riley. Bailey’s shortlisted. Finished April 4th. Is this the most contentious book on the Bailey’s list? I would say yes, especially after it got shortlisted over what people think are more deserving titles. And yes, I’m heartbroken that The Lonely Hearts Hotel didn’t make it on, but it’s the winner in my heart. *sob*
First Love is definitely a strange little book. It’s about Neve, a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with her much older husband. We jump around in time a lot, starting with present-day Neve and moving back and forth through her past. It is, essentially, the story of how she got to her current situation. It focuses a lot on her relationship with her eccentric and overbearing mother, along with how she met Edwyn (her husband).
The prose is sparse and, at times, very strange. It’s not overly descriptive but it’s not exactly straightforward either. About halfway through the book you get the feeling that Neve is not… entirely honest with the reader. There are a few times where she recounts an event, and when another character contradicts her she will say “well actually, maybe it didn’t happen like that…” It’s a classic unreliable narrator, though I don’t think Riley pushed it far enough. I was never really certain why Neve was unreliable. What did it add to the plot, other than some character depth? Because there are no big twists, no moments when you realize Neve has a “big lie” or anything like that. She’s just a bit deceptive.
I did enjoy this book, and I thought the scenes of Neve’s emotional and verbal abuse were particularly well done. You really hurt for her, and feel that panic rising up when Edwyn starts going after her. But it’s one of those books where I was left wondering, “why did the author write this? What is the point of this novel? What was it trying to convey?”
The Traitor’s Niche, by Ismail Kadare. MBI longlisted. Finished April 6th. This is probably the Man Booker International novel I was most excited about when the longlist was announced. Surreal historical fiction about the Ottoman empire, and a niche where they literally display the severed heads of traitors? Sign me the hell up!
This is, indeed, a very strange book. It’s historical-fiction-meets-magical-realism, and Kadare pulls it off beautifully. It starts out normally–or as normally as a book about severed heads can be, I guess. We follow the caretaker of the heads, who has to make sure that they remain in good condition while on display and also keeps people from defacing the niche. It’s weird, but still kind of grounded in reality. As we skip from character to character it grows increasingly strange.
We then move to Albania, where the Empire is attempting to quell an uprising. Here we learn about the Empire’s method of culture suppression, which is a series of tasks that aim to completely eradicate the base culture of a conquered nation. This is, of course, a metaphor for things that happen in real life, but it’s also where the magical realism really kicks in. Because they do mean literally destroying a culture: they have ways to eradicate a language, a society, a series of rituals, etc. It gets very strange and dark, but it’s told to us in such a matter-of-fact way. In fact, the whole book has a “so these are the facts” kind of tone. It does create a layer of separation, but I think that was entirely intentional. It’s still a choice I have a bit of trouble with, and it’s why this wasn’t rated higher.
This is such a densely layered book that I think it would benefit greatly from a re-read. It does a lot of interesting things that it’s hard to appreciate on a first read-through. For example, we flit between quite a few characters, but rarely get the resolution to plotlines in the section that they’re brought up in. We start with the man who guards the heads, and the conclusion to his plotline is mentioned in brief passing in the last chapter. If you’re not careful, you can miss some very important elements as they’re mentioned in only a sentence or two.
The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle. Hugo Novella Nominee. Finished April 7th. What I need in my life is another prize list, right? Well,I had been planning on reading the Hugo novel nominees but all of them but one are sequels of some sort, some of them the 3rd or 4th book in a series. I’m just not down for that much commitment, guys. What if I hate the first book and never even get to the nominated one? I quickly decided to read the list of nominated novellas instead, because 1) there were only 6 of them 2) I had already read (and loved) 2 and 3) 2 others were on my TBR, leaving only 2 “strays” that I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. This one was already on my TBR, because I adore Victor LaValle.
I also adore Lovecraft, aside from you know the intense racism and xenophobia. The Ballad of Black Tom is based on what is probably Lovecraft’s most egregiously racist story, The Horror at Red Hook. Which I actually re-read before tackling this, even though I had planned on skipping it as I re-read all of Lovecraft’s work (an in-progress project I hope to finish by the end of the year). I really, really recommend doing this if you read Black Tom, because it adds a lovely layer of context. This is, after all, a response piece: it’s Red Hook told from the perspective of the “bad guy.”
Some (okay, let’s be honest, many) Lovecraftian retellings fail to capture the spirit of the original work. There’s no sense of wonder and horror, no sense that the bad guys are definitely going to win and hope is pointless, no sense of cosmic dread. But, as I expected from LaValle, all of that is perfectly captured here. It’s eerie, unsettling, and tense. And not just because of the cults: our main character is a black man in 1930′s New York, so there’s that racism/cosmic horror mashup going on. I enjoyed that in Lovecraft Country, but I think it’s better executed here. If you can believe it, Black Tom actually pushes the Lovecraftian elements further than the original piece, while adding in a nice dose of real-world horror.
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson. Hugo Novella Nominee. Finished April 8th. Like Black Tom, this is a retelling (or sequel?) to a Lovecraft story. This tackles, as you may guess from the name, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. And like Black Tom, it is also about some of the implicit biases in Lovecraft’s works. This time, it’s tackling the complete lack of female characters in his works.
Vellitt Boe is a former adventurer who now works as a professor in a women’s college. One day her star pupil goes missing, carried off to a dream world by a mysterious stranger. The twist here is that Vellitt lives in the dream world of Lovecraft’s imagining, and the world her student goes to is the waking one. For various reasons which I won’t get in to, Vellitt has to go after her student and resume her old, adventurous life. All of the Dream-Quest elements you’d expect are here: ghouls and ghasts and nightgaunts and, of course, cats!! So many cats. Still no answer on what the hell is up with the evil cats from Saturn though, sigh.
I really enjoyed this, but I do think reading Black Tom and Vellitt Boe back to back was a bit of a mistake because they suffer a bit in comparison. I just loved Black Tom so much and this novella didn’t have quite the emotional impact. And I read the original Dream-Quest before this as a refresher, and they are VERY similar since, well, they traverse the same terrain (literally). It does deal with elements of sexism and feminism, but I wanted a bit more of that than what we ended up with. By far the most interesting part (to me) was the whole waking world versus dream world, and I think the ending handled that so beautifully and in a really unexpected way that mirrored Kadath‘s end perfectly. What makes a home a home? How do you deal with wanderlust? Is it worth traveling when you don’t even know what it is you seek? I wish this had been explored a tiny bit more, but overall a very solid novella that I loved.
Assassin’s Fate, by Robin Hobb*. Finished April 14th. Will my heart ever recover from this book? Probably not, let’s be honest.
Since this is the 16th book in a series (17th, if you count The Inheritance), there is almost nothing I can say about the plot without spoilers. Heck, I can’t even discuss what characters are and aren’t alive at this point! Though I will say this: if you have been reading just the Fitz books and skipped the middle series (Liveship Traders and Rain Wilds), you need to go back and read them before tackling this! All of the threads from Hobb’s narratives come together at last, and we get characters from every trilogy here. Sure, you could read it on its own, but you would lose all the emotional impact of the story.
Since I can’t talk specifics, I’ll just discuss what I love about the series in general. The world is, of course, amazing. It’s a nuanced, subtle fantasy word. While there are many kinds of magic (and dragons!) it is never over the top and we don’t get wizard battles or any of that. The magic is completely woven into the story. The world itself feels deep and full of history. Even after 17 books, I don’t feel like I fully know all the nooks and crannies, and much of its backstory is still a secret to the reader. Hey Hobb, if you want to write a history of this world textbook-style, I would gladly read it!
But of course, the characters are where Realm of the Elderlings really shines. I have never encountered a fantasy with such deep, nuanced characters before. Everyone feels completely fleshed out and real. In fact, I think that’s why the Rain Wilds isn’t quite as popular: still good characters, but they aren’t quite as deep as what you’d expect from Hobb. And I have to say, I realized in this book that it’s not just the characters themselves that make these books strong, it’s their relationships to each other. Each connected character has a complex relationship. It’s never black and white: we never have just friends or just foes, there are no simple father/son bonds, no trite love stories. Literally every single character interaction is fraught with history and depth. Fitz and the Fool are obviously the main stars here and I can’t even begin to describe the layers of their relationship!
If you like character-driven fantasy, interesting Medieval settings, complex worlds and magic, and (of course) dragons, I really recommend going and starting with the very first book in this series, Assassin’s Apprentice. And prepare for a journey of extreme emotion, I’ve cried more times than I’d like to admit reading these.
So, that was the first half of April! 5 award books, 2 series books. The award lists have kind of taken over my reading life and I’ve fallen a bit behind on the number of TBR books I’d like to tackle this year, but that’s okay! I’m trying to be a bit looser with specific goals this year. As long as a book falls into one of the very generous categories I’ve constructed (on my TBR, on my Kindle, physically owned but not read, a series book, a Read Harder challenge book, or a prize book) it’s a “good” decision. And only 4 haven’t met that criteria so far, so I will focus on the positive!
Reading Challenge Goals
Books Read: 56/200
Goal Books: 52
Impulse Reads: 4
[Books marked with a * were provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review, all opinions are my own]