Starling by Sarah Jane Butler

Description

Starling can trap a rabbit, cook a meal from a hedge and hear a bailiff coming from a mile off. All she has ever known is a nomadic existence, traveling in a camper van with Mar, her strong-willed mother. But Mar has cut them off from their community, and this winter they’re stuck in deep mud in a wood, with no fuel, no money and no friends.

One morning, without explanation, Mar leaves and doesn’t come back. Utterly alone, Starling must learn to survive without her mother and build a life on her own terms.

An offer to stay with an old friend draws her into a more conventional way of living – but can rootless Starling ever find a place where she truly belongs?

My thoughts

To begin with, while the book description is accurate, it is deceptively simple. Starling is a complex character, raised wild and semi-feral in her thought processes. This is a result of having been brought up by Mar, someone who is an incredibly strong presence in the book. Mar’s deep mistrust and avoidance of humans has rubbed off on Starling to the point where Starling also trusts no one. So when Mar abandons Starling without warning Starling is completely adrift and with nowhere to go and no one to turn to except for the childhood friend she hasn’t seen for many years and whom she also feels abandoned by.

Starling is not always an easy person to like. Even knowing why she does the things she does it is hard to see her hurt others, sometimes unknowingly and other times intentionally. Being forced to live fully with other people for the first time in her life without Mar’s judgemental presence helps Starling to see, for the first time, that perhaps Mar’s perception of the wider world and those who live in it might not be entirely reliable.

This is a very insightful book with characters that get under your skin. One part of me hopes for a sequel, but the larger part wants to leave the story exactly where it ended and let my imagination continue to fire.

Signal To Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Description

A literary fantasy about love, music and sorcery, set against the background of Mexico City.

Mexico City, 1988: Long before iTunes or MP3s, you said “I love you” with a mixtape. Meche, awkward and fifteen, has two equally unhip friends — Sebastian and Daniela — and a whole lot of vinyl records to keep her company. When she discovers how to cast spells using music, the future looks brighter for the trio. With help from this newfound magic, the three friends will piece together their broken families, change their status as non-entities, and maybe even find love…

Mexico City, 2009: Two decades after abandoning the metropolis, Meche returns for her estranged father’s funeral. It’s hard enough to cope with her family, but then she runs into Sebastian, and it revives memories from her childhood she thought she buried a long time ago. What really happened back then? What precipitated the bitter falling out with her father? And, is there any magic left?

My thoughts

I loved the premise, along with the bright cover, but the story felt weirdly flat for me and I think it was because I really didn’t like the main character, Meche. She didn’t seem to have any redeeming characteristics, being both a user and abuser of her friends. Which brings me to my next issue – how did she have friends, let alone keep them? Which made someone loving her a bit of a stretch.

It also took a very long time for the story to get going. I remember at the halfway mark wondering if and when it would get interesting. Thankfully the story itself did. It’s told in two timelines – 1988 and 2009 – and this is a plot device I usually enjoy except that the voices sounded the same in each. Despite being 21 years older, there didn’t seem to be any maturation of the characters. The second half was more interesting to read though and finally felt as though the story was moving forward.

Having loved Mexican Gothic I was full of anticipation for this and I’m sure that coloured my expectations but Signal To Noise just never really got going for me.

The Locked Away Life by Drew Davies

Description

Everyone has secrets… But are they saving you or destroying you?

Esther has shut away herself in her vine-covered manor house on the top of a hill for as long as she can remember. Everyone in the village whispers about the scandal that broke her heart. She has cut herself off from the world – until now. Now, she needs help uncovering the mystery that has plagued her for decades…

On a sunny spring day, eighteen-year-old Bruno is in the local library when he spots an advert. The old lady on the hill is looking for internet lessons, and Bruno sees his chance. Forever the outsider, he can’t wait to escape the sleepy village – the paid position could be his ticket out of there.

Esther and Bruno have nothing in common, except that they are both in hiding, and their secrets are stopping them from truly living… Esther must come to terms with her past, and Bruno needs to figure out his future. Can these two strangers save one another?

Just as heartbreaking as it is heartwarming, this page-turner is for anyone who has ever felt left behind or came close to giving up.

My thoughts

Told in alternating points of view by Bruno and Esther, this is a beautifully written story about unlikely friendships, finding one’s sense of identity, and setting right past wrongs. It deals with some sensitive issues with enormous compassion and understanding.
Bruno is confused about his identity and desperate to escape the small village where he lives, due to the stigma of his Romani heritage and the fear of being trapped working in the industrial complex where all the young village men end up working and never leaving. He takes a job teaching elderly recluse, Esther, how to use the internet – “the online” as she calls it. Esther’s backstory, along with her refusal to let her decreasing mobility take away her independance, was also very strong. Esther is a wonderful character who refuses to engage in fake niceness and only respects honesty.
I loved how all the characters had their own distinct personalities and the conversations with each other. None of it felt manipulated or forced.
This is a heartwarming book that will make you fall in love with the characters but also really tug at your heartstrings. I was hooked from the prologue and remained hooked until the very end, which I absolutely loved.

Thank you to Netgalley for an advanced copy in return for my honest review.

In the Middle of Hickory Lane by Heather Webber

Description

Emme Wynn has wanted nothing more her whole life than to feel like part of a family. Having grown up on the run with her con artist mother, she’s been shuffled from town to town, drawn into bad situations, and has learned some unsavory habits that she’s tried hard to overcome. When her estranged grandmother tracks her down out of the blue and extends a job offer—helping to run her booth at an open-air marketplace in small-town Sweetgrass, Alabama—Emme is hopeful that she’ll finally be able to plant the roots she’s always dreamed of. But some habits are hard to break, and she risks her newfound happiness by keeping one big truth to herself.

Cora Bee Hazelton has her hands full with volunteering, gardening, her job as a color consultant and designer, and just about anything she can do to keep her mind off her painful past, a past that has resulted in her holding most everyone at arm’s length. The last thing she wants is to form close relationships only to have her heart broken yet again. But when she’s injured, she has no choice other than to let people into her life and soon realizes it’s going to be impossible to keep her heart safe—or her secrets hidden.

In the magical neighborhood garden in the middle of Hickory Lane, Emme and Cora Bee learn some hard truths about the past and themselves, the value of friends, family, and community, and most importantly, that true growth starts from within.

My thoughts

Heather Webber is like my comfort blanket or a warm hug when I want to read a book that is full of love and friendships and caring, and In the Middle of Hickory Lane delivers all this in spades.

Emme is a lost soul. She doesn’t know who she is anymore or what to do with her life next, so when she receives an invitation from her grandmother to come and stay in the small Alabama town of Sweetgrass she sees it as a lifeline. When she arrives her cousin, Cora Bee, is recovering from a broken heart and a broken foot and Emme moves in to be her assistant and a tentative friendship blossoms. For the first time in her life Emme finds herself surrounded by family and friends who truly care about her.

This is a story about found family and friendships and is beautifully told. In all of the author’s books that I have read there is an element of magical realism but it’s done lightly but interestingly. She has a gentle, calm writing style and I can highly recommend this if you want a book that leaves you feeling happy, relaxed and uplifted.

Thank you to Netgalley for my copy in exchange for an honest review.

The White Hare by Jane Johnson

Description

In a valley steeped in legend lies an abandoned house where Edens may be lost, found and remade…

The White Valley in the far west of Cornwall cuts deeply through bluebell woods down to the sea. The house above the beach has lain neglected since the war. It comes with a reputation, which is why Mila and her mother Magda acquire it so cheaply in the fateful summer of 1954.

Magda plans to restore the house to its former glory: the venue for glittering parties, where the rich and celebrated gathered for bracing walks by day and sumptuous cocktails by night. Mila’s ambitions, meanwhile, are much less grand; she dreams of creating a safe haven for herself, and a happy home for her little girl, Janey.

The White Valley comes with a long, eventful history, laced with tall tales. Locals say that a white hare may be seen running through the woods there; to some she’s an ill omen, to others a blessing. Feeling fragile and broken-hearted, Mila is in need of as many blessings as she can get. But will this place provide the fresh start she so desperately needs?

My thoughts

Mila and her overbearing mother, Magda, move to a neglected old house in a deep valley in Cornwall, along with Mila’s daughter, Janey. They plan to restore it and turn it into an exclusive holiday retreat but soon learn that the locals do not like the house because of its dark history, which they are reluctant to talk about, and many are hostile to the new occupants. This setting is very atmospheric and has a strong Gothic feel to it. The Cornish legend woven through the story is fantastic and I loved the supernatural touches, which were done with a light hand. Most of the characters are very strong and memorable, but the one who I felt had the least personality was the main character, Mila. This is partly explained by her recent back story and also having always felt unloved and overwhelmed by her very strong mother, but at the same time I struggled to see what her attraction was for the main male character. I really enjoyed the story though and Jane Johnson remains one of my favourite authors.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for the opportunity to review this book. My opinions are my own.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Description

From the best-selling author of Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, a stunning new novel—his first since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature—about the wondrous, mysterious nature of the human heart.

From her place in the store, Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her, but when the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change forever, Klara is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans.

In Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro looks at our rapidly changing modern world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator to explore a fundamental question: what does it mean to love?

My thoughts

I loved Never Let You Go by Kazuo Ishiguro but I loved this book even more, and a lot of that is down to the unique and pure voice of Klara.

Klara is an artificial friend (AF) whose sole purpose is to provide positive role-modelling and non-judgemental companionship to children. She is purchased by the mother of a 12 year old girl, Josie, whose health is precarious. The story is told by Klara in an observational manner, and the reader is left to infer things through the context of the events and repeated conversations that Klara reports. Klara may not ‘feel’ emotion, but her intelligence means she can – to a certain extent – ‘understand’ some of what she observes.

This is a quick read but covers some complex ethical and moral dilemmas, none of which I can’t really enlarge on without risking spoilers. It is poignant and thought-provoking and will stay with me.

Ma and Me by Putsata Reang

Description

When Putsata Reang was eleven months old, her family fled war-torn Cambodia, spending twenty-three days on an overcrowded navy vessel before finding sanctuary at an American naval base in the Philippines. Holding what appeared to be a lifeless baby in her arms, Ma resisted the captain’s orders to throw her bundle overboard. Instead, on landing, Ma rushed her baby into the arms of American military nurses and doctors, who saved the child’s life. “I had hope, just a little, you were still alive,” Ma would tell Put in an oft-repeated story that became family legend.

Over the years, Put lived to please Ma and make her proud, hustling to repay her life debt by becoming the consummate good Cambodian daughter, working steadfastly by Ma’s side in the berry fields each summer and eventually building a successful career as an award-winning journalist. But Put’s adoration and efforts are no match for Ma’s expectations. When she comes out to Ma in her twenties, it’s just a phase. When she fails to bring home a Khmer boyfriend, it’s because she’s not trying hard enough. When, at the age of forty, Put tells Ma she is finally getting married—to a woman—it breaks their bond in two.

In her startling memoir, Reang explores the long legacy of inherited trauma and the crushing weight of cultural and filial duty. With rare clarity and lyric wisdom, Ma and Me is a stunning, deeply moving memoir about love, debt, and duty.

Quote

‘Failure to thrive’ is what the doctors said, three words flicked like sand into my mother’s ears. Taking shape inside her, docking on her deepest insecurities. If her baby fails to thrive, she will take it to mean only one thing, that she has failed, too. Three words are enough to make a story. A story I will spend my life trying to override.

My thoughts

I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy this initially as I felt the first few chapters jumped around between different places and people and eras before I’d had a chance to familiarise myself with them, so I kept having to stop and figure out whether I was reading about Ma or Ma’s mother. But once I’d got past those first chapters I couldn’t put this beautiful memoir down.

I knew the bare bones of Cambodian history and nothing about Cambodian Khmer culture. This was all explained so well that I felt immersed in Put’s story and family. The relationship between Put and Ma was one grounded in Ma’s history. Female Khmer children were expected to marry and bring a dowry to her parents, and then be subservient and devoted to her husband and family. Added to this expectation of Put was the fact that her mother had fought so hard to keep her alive and Ma expected unequivocal loyalty in return. Put’s refusal to settle down and marry young, followed by her insistence on being independant and successful in her career was difficult for Ma to understand, let alone accept. Put’s revelation that she was gay drove a further huge wedge in their previously close bond.

Put is honest about her feelings of guilt and failure to be the daughter her mother expected her to be. Ma is a force to be reckoned with and Put’s decision to at last forge her own way in life was extremely brave, knowing that the relationship with Ma might never be healed.

This is a beautiful account of what it means to be Cambodian in America, to be viewed as a foreign Cambodian in Cambodia, and what it means to not follow the traditional paths set out in Khmer culture. I loved the contrast in demeanours in the wedding photos at the back. I stayed up very late to finish this memoir because I couldn’t put it down.

Razorblade Tears by S. A. Cosby

Description

A black father and a white father join forces on a crusade for revenge against the people who murdered their gay sons, by S.A. Crosby, the award-winning author of Blacktop Wasteland.

Ike Randolph has been out of jail for 15 years, with not so much as a speeding ticket in all that time. But a black man with cops at the door knows to be afraid.

The last thing he expects to hear is that his son, Isiah, has been murdered, along with Isiah’s white husband, Derek. Isiah was a gay black man in the American South; Ike couldn’t bring himself to attend his son’s wedding. Isiah was a man Ike never understood. A boy he was never there for the way he should have been.

Derek’s father, Buddy Lee, is also suffering. He’d barely spoken to his son in five years; he was as ashamed of Derek for being gay as Derek was ashamed his father was a criminal. Buddy Lee still has contacts in the underworld, though, and he wants to know who killed his boy.

Ike and Buddy Lee, two ex-cons with little else in common other than a criminal past and a love for their dead sons, band together in their desperate desire for revenge. In their quest to do better for their sons in death than they did in life, alpha-males Ike and Buddy Lee will confront their own prejudices, about each other and their sons, as they rain down vengeance upon those who hurt their boys.

Provocative and fast-paced, Razorblade Tears is a story of bloody retribution, heartfelt change – and maybe even redemption.

My thoughts

This is a story that goes from zero to a hundred in just a chapter or two and then doesn’t take the foot off the gas right until it’s finished!

Gritty and unflinchingly deals with issues such as hate, racism, bigotry and grief. There is a lot of violence. Grief driven revenge and atonement is the motivation behind it and I’m not sure what it says about me but I like it when an author isn’t afraid to let his characters loose and get no-holds-barred revenge. I was rooting for these two unlikely vigilantes all the way!

There are some truly raw moments along with absolute poignancy but the relentless action stops the reader from wallowing in it. I loved Ike and especially Buddy Lee. And I loved this book from beginning to satisfying end!

The Frog Hunter: A Story About the Vietnam War, an Inkblot Test and a Girl

by T. B. Stamper

Description

The Frog Hunter: A Story about the Vietnam War, an Inkblot Test and a Girl, is a memoir that reads stranger than fiction.

The author takes his readers on a fascinating, often humorous, and emotionally moving journey from deadly Ranger missions in Vietnam, to betrayal by his superior officers at Fort Ord, to the inside of an Army psychiatric ward.

With a chaotic mind, trying to make sense of the war, Stamper is in a desperate search for truth.

He turns to the hippie culture, attracted by their message of love and enlightenment. Unexpectedly, he meets a beautiful girl; the love of his life. The happiness that life now offers him is threatened by the war that consumes his mind and heart. He wants the girl and he wants a future. But how can he find his way back to normal?

Written in powerful prose, the story reveals how war wounds the soul, but then hope emerges, kindled within the tangled aftermath of trauma and loss.

My thoughts

This is a memoir written in the style of a fiction novel told in the first person point of view (the author’s) and this is very effective. The author tells his story in a very cohesive and easy style and does not shy away from talking about his emotions but doesn’t descend into sappiness. His descriptions are brilliant as I was able to clearly visualise what was happening and where.

It’s a book that will be memorable to me. I’ve always had empathy for the Vietnam veterans because of the lack of recognition and support that they received compared with veterans of other wars. To have survived the war in Vietnam and then to feel alienated and unable to talk about it because it was the war no one wanted to hear about, and wouldn’t understand anyway, must have been hell in itself. I’m glad the author was able to find the right people to help him on his journey to healing.

I highly recommend this book, even if it’s a subject you have no interest in. I think you will become quite invested in the story.

Lost World and Mythological Kingdoms

by Tobias S. Buckell; James L. Cambias; Becky Chambers; Kate Elliott; C.C. Finlay; Jeffrey Ford; Theodora Goss; Darcie Little Badger; Jonathan Maberry; Seanan McGuire; An Owomoyela; Dexter Palmer; Cadwell Turnbull; Genevieve Valentine; Carrie Vaughn; Charles Yu; E. Lily Yu

Description

“Here be dragons . . . and a lot of stories that would make a dragon blink. A fascinating kaleidoscope of people and places and Things That Might Have Been—or Might Be.”
—Diana Gabaldon, New York Times bestselling author

From Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea to Journey to the Center of the Earth, from the fabled island of Avalon to the lost oasis of Zerzura, from The Land That Time Forgot to the golden city of El Dorado, storytellers have long imagined what exists beyond the edges of the map.

The need to seek and discover the unknown is embedded in who we are, no matter the culture or era. To celebrate this sense of wonder, award-winning editor John Joseph Adams has gathered together some of the best SF&F writers working today, collecting adventure and mystery in this spectacular anthology. With original contributions from Kate Elliott, Tobias S. Buckell, Dexter Palmer, E. Lily Yu, Jonathan Maberry, and a dozen more, there are short stories sure to enthrall every reader.

Explore the rich tradition begun centuries ago with this all-new compilation full of imagination and delights. What lies beyond the edge of the unknown? Only you, brave reader, can find out.

The line-up includes new stories by:

Tobias S. Buckell
James L. Cambias
Becky Chambers
Kate Elliott
C.C. Finlay
Jeffrey Ford
Theodora Goss
Darcie Little Badger
Jonathan Maberry
Seanan McGuire
An Owomoyela
Dexter Palmer
Cadwell Turnbull
Genevieve Valentine
Carrie Vaughn
Charles Yu
E. Lily Yu

My thoughts

I have enjoyed dipping in and out of this book over the past week. There are stories from some authors who were familiar to me and several who were not. Each story brought something new to the table and were very different from each other. A couple were unfathomable to me and felt as though they were excerpts lifted from a larger story because they seemed to not have a clear beginning or end. Most I really enjoyed and found them thought provoking, and some I wanted to continue on with the story.

The title is a slightly misleading one as it would indicate (to me, at any rate) stories about kingdoms half-known, perhaps in legend or folklore, but they are actually about new worlds and discoveries and realities.

A very enjoyable read.