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Review: Broken Light by Joanne Harris (2023)

Title: Broken Light
Author: Joanne Harris
Pages: 443
Genre: Fiction
Stand-alone/Series: Stand-alone.
Year of Release: 2023
Publisher: Orion
Review Copy via the Publisher

Bernie Ingram is forty-nine, menopausal, and lonely. Bernie feels herself growing less visible, less surprising, and less lovable with every passing day. Until the murder of a woman in a local park unlocks a series of childhood memories and, with them, a power that she has suppressed for all her adult life.

Until now.

When a woman finally breaks, watch out for the pieces…

I loved Broken Light. Harris takes the familiar life story of a woman getting pregnant too soon, settling down, and slowly becoming invisible but adds the rage of King’s Carrie being released at menopause.

Does Bernie seek revenge for all the women that men have wronged? She could, quite easily, because with great power comes great responsibility, doesn’t it?

Everyone has a choice, and when Berinie Ingram’s power reappears, she believes she will make better choices and control her powers. But life doesn’t work like that; there are consequences to interfering.

Harris demonstrates how easily women are diminished, sidelined, used and abused. As Bernie’s power grows, her rage is unleashed, as do the strength of the voices in her head that dare her to go further, to take more extreme actions.

Social media is ingrained into so much of our lives, and it’s integral to Bernie’s story. It might feel a little alien if you don’t spend time interacting on social media.

Does Bernie (via Harris) focus too much on the impact of social media discourse?

I did find it a little too open and maybe a little too laboured in the points it was making, but many corners of social media focus on convincing people that one group or another is the source of all their problems.

The format is mostly Bernie’s LiveJournal Entries with the occasional linked extract from her childhood friend’s new book on Bernie (published the year after the events Bernie describes). So it is going to reflect Bernie’s thoughts and feelings on things that are central to her and her world.

I can imagine this will frustrate or put off some readers and might cause a little Marmite-like reaction.

For me, Broken Light is utterly devastating but contains so many shards of hope. If every person could pivot slightly, the world can be such a better place.

Why haven’t I said much about the plot? #spoilers. I will say it made me cry and left me more hopeful than when I started it.

Read it and see if you feel the same.

Rating: 5/5 Date: 6 May 23

Additional Information

There is more insight and a Q&A on Joanne Harris’s website. Warning it does contain spoilers, so you may want to look after you’ve read it.

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Audiobook Review: Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater (2023)

Title: Death of a Bookseller 
Author: Alice Slater
Narrators: Emma Noakes, Victoria Blunt
Pages/Length: 384/12hrs 58 mins
Genre: Crime/Thriller
Stand-alone/Series: Stand-alone.
Year of Release: 2023
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Review Copy via NetGalley

Roach – bookseller, loner and true crime fanatic is not interested in making friends. She has all the company she needs in her serial killer books, murder podcasts and her pet snail, Bleep.

That is, until Laura joins the bookshop.

This tale of obsession is told from the dual perspectives of the person who carries the flame and the person who is their focus.

It quickly becomes apparent that True-Crime-Podcast-loving Roach feels she has a connection to Laura that’s not reciprocated. But Roach isn’t deterred; she sets out to become friends.

I find thrillers hard to review. Their strength is in the tension that builds as the story unfolds page by page. I don’t want to spoil things by revealing too much.

Slater’s skill is keeping pages turning. I listened to the audiobook, and each chapter is short, sharp and alternates between each character’s point of view. I kept listening

And due to the medium, I couldn’t flip forwards or backwards; I was trapped in each uncomfortable moment, and half-closing my eyes made no difference. I had to relive them from both sides over and over again.

I think Slater likes both Roach and Laura. You may disagree with me, but Slater has created characters who have sympathetic traits. Or at least they garner compassion, to begin with at least; whether you remain endeared to them by the end, that’s on you.

The entire bookshop’s staff rota is memorable, and how Roach and Laura see them gives a truer reflection of their individuality.

She also gives an insight into what really happens in a bookshop. It’s not just happily handing over books to the next customer. There seems to be more than one day working with a hangover.

I need to mention the performances of Emma Noakes & Victoria Blunt. They are perfect for the roles. The creepiness of Roach and the coldness of Laura come across strongly. There is a small point where Roach’s voice slipped; it was less than a chapter, but then the persona came back strong and clear. The editing was clever when Roach was taking off Laura’s voice, and vice versa, when the narrators swapped to say their own lines, which felt natural and creepy.

I spent time in their heads that I have the compulsion to change the locks and have vowed never to pick up a true crime book.

If you’re a lover of creeping dread, bookshops or are just curious about what’s in the mind of a True Crime lover, then Death of a Bookseller ticks all the boxes.

Rating: 4.25 Date: 26 April 23

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Review: Siblings by Brigitte Reimann[trans. Lucy Jones] (1963/2023)

I finished Siblings by Brigitte Reimann (trans. Lucy Jones) is rightly described as a ground-breaking classic of post-war East German literature. 

This, I believe, is its first translation from German to English. 

Set in 1960 (and published in 1963) when the border between East and West Germany was closed. It examines the relationship between a brother and a sister as they each examine their place within the Deutsche Demokratische Republik/German Democratic Republic (GDR). 

The tension underlying Reimann’s style had me reaching to add tabs to moments I found notable. The pressure is mirrored in our main character Elisabeth’s relationship with her ideals, family, and co-workers. 

There is probably a literary essay to be written on reading this contemporary novel as historical commentary, as I have done. 

It is 129 pages, plus notes added at the back. I’m very grateful for the notes adding extra context.

It feels more profound and denser than its slight paperback form promises. 

I don’t want to give any spoilers but trust Reimann to lead you through the story, and you’ll get the answers you need, but perhaps not the answers you want.

Book of the Year, so far.

Rating: 4.75 Date: 26 Feb 23

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Review: A Master of Djinn (Dead Djinn Universe, #1) by P. Djèlí Clark (2021)

Title: A Master of Djinn
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Pages: 416 (print)
Genre: Fantasy
Stand-alone/Series: Series but easily read as a stand-alone.
Year of Release: 2021
Publisher: Orbit

Summary

Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities.

When someone murders the members of a secret society, Agent Fatma’s job is to find the killer.

Set in Cairo in 1912, where djinn walk the streets and steampunk eunuchs serve coffee.

Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend, Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind their deaths and restore peace to the city.

Comment/Thoughts/Analysis

P. Djèlí Clark is a master of world-building. The alternative Cairo he has created is tangible. I could quite quickly be drinking Sarsaparilla with Fatma. I can imagine seeing djinn doing their daily business and buying books from them.

He can also create a story that builds as you (the reader) and Fatma discover what’s happening. Clark shifts gears and moves things up a scale constantly. Just when you think it’s going to plateau, it jolts forward.

It is, at its heart, a historical urban fantasy detective story. The facts are there for Fatma to follow. But it’s also a Fantasy tale with a big F. The murders lead Fatma to find beings with inhuman motivations.

It’s also a romance. Siti always has Fatma’s back and leaps into danger. Fatma and Siti’s relationship is explored internally through Fatma’s feelings and externally through how other’s perceive them.

And this brings me to my problem with A Master of Djinn; it’s almost too perfect.

Clark has a cast of characters that too often pop up at the right time and place. Some readers, like me, get distracted from the momentum when they see some of the illusions’ mechanisms.

It’s his first novel, and I found it immensely enjoyable. I got frustrated by what I thought was the big scene at almost the novel’s end, but Clark had another trick to pull out of his bag, and I enjoyed being tricked.

He’s also used his setting to challenge colonialism and the Euro-centric worldviews. This, I think, he does with humour and panache. And is one of the other strengths of A Master of Djinn.

I wasn’t sure there could be the potential for a sequel as the story seems so entwined into the environment. After finishing it, I’m confident that if Clark wanted to revisit this world that he’d find another angle to look at his world.

Conclusion

Clark has created an anti-colonial fantastical environment to tell his police procedural using an outsider’s point of view that addresses war, power and manipulation.

As well as exploring the people’s need for a champion when they are considered the underdog, he puts a sapphic romance into the centre of this steampunk.

Did I say it’s also a detective story? It is, and the clues are there!

4.25/5

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Review: Far From the Stars of Heaven

Cover to Far From the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson

The colony ship Ragtime docks in the Lagos system, having travelled light years from home to bring one thousand sleeping souls to safety among the stars.

Some of the sleepers, however, will never wake – and a profound and sinister mystery unfolds aboard the gigantic vessel. Its skeleton crew are forced to make decisions that will have repercussions for all of humanity’s settlements – from the scheming politicians of Lagos station, to the colony planet of Bloodroot, to other far flung systems and indeed Earth itself.

Blurb from Far From Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson

I’ve chosen to share the blurb as that’s more information than I had going in, and if you’re curious, I’d suggest going in coldish…

I will say that what sold it to me was being told that it’s a horror in space, which it is. It also starts as a locked room mystery.

Far From the Start of Heaven has many elements to enjoy, like the characters’ backgrounds and how they interplay, but the construction and the layering let it down.

There are jolts in the narration to move it along rather than slick reveals. They felt jarring, and I was expecting better. The writing had me speeding along, and then a choice was made, and I got mentally shifted in a huh rather than an ahh way.

There were some nice ahh moments too. That’s what makes this a complicated book to explain. It’s great until it’s not. It’s satisfying until it isn’t.

Towards the climax, something about the writing shifts from clear to vague. This gave it an unfinished and dissatisfying quality.

I did feel connected to the central character and her journey and got unexpectedly teary at the end.

Overall, this felt like an undercooked and failed experiment.

I really wanted it to be better than it was.

As the author is a Clarke Award Winner, I’d still like to read Rosewater and/or his shorter works to see how he handles stories in general.

Rating: 3.5/5

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Review: Alien: The Cold Forge by Alex White

Cover of Alien: The Cold Forge by Alex White
Alien: The Cold Forge by Alex White

I read the complete Salvagers Trilogy (A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe/A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy/The Worst of All Possible Worlds) by Alex White last year.

I also read my first Aliens tie-in novel (Alien 3: The Unproduced Screenplay from William Gibson by Pat Cadigan)

And as I enjoyed both separately, I thought I’d combine the author and franchise in the form of my next Alien book. 

[Spoiler]I was so gripped by this Alien story that, whilst reading it, I hunted down a great deal on a seven-book-set of other Alien tie-ins. Then when I fished The Cold Forge I ordered  Alien: Into Charybdis, which continues the story in some way. [/Spoiler}

The Cold Forge starts when a callous auditor from Weyland-Yutani is sent to a secret space lab to assess the profitability of the various research projects on board. It ends with shock and horror. 

I wasn’t expecting how much horror White weaved in. Their style for this story is dark. They managed to build a tension that made me want to know what could happen next to the scientists.

The reader knows how dangerous the xenomorphs can be even if the scientists think they are safely caged up, but what becomes clear is that the Aliens aren’t the only thing to fear. 

You can tell White is enjoying themselves. They go deep. There is no sugarcoating here. They also made a disabled character one of their main focuses. I wish more books would include disabled rep and make the characters part of the ordinary course of the story. 

I am excited to read the post-2014 batch of Alien novels from Tim Lennon, James A. More, Christopher Moore, Keith DeCandido, Tim Waggoner, and others. White has set a high bar to reach. 

Rating 4.5/5

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Review: The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal (2022)

The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal (2022)

Synopsis: Tesla Crane, a brilliant inventor and an heiress, is on her honeymoon on an interplanetary space liner, cruising between the Moon and Mars. She’s traveling incognito and is revelling in her anonymity. Then someone is murdered and the festering chowderheads who run security have the audacity to arrest her spouse. Armed with banter, martinis and her small service dog, Tesla is determined to solve the crime so that the newlyweds can get back to canoodling—and keep the real killer from striking again. 

One Word Review: Crochet!

One Sentence Review: A fun and twisty tale of murders, honeymooners and cocktails. 

One(-ish) Paragraph Review: The Spare Man’s contains lots of brilliant parts: there is the normalisation of a mix of gender and pronoun expressions; the main character’s real world experience of her physical and mental trauma; the different gravities for the different passengers throughout the ship; the dialogue that works deftly around a time delay (you’ll see); the unsettling nature of the narrative; And everything keeps moving and keeps the tension. But there was also some awkward parts, at least to me. There is a scene where the two main characters leave another person alone in the next room way too long and that felt unrealistic and jarring. And there are a couple of moments where I felt I’d lost the thread or questioned the character’s uncharacteristic actions. I also think I missed out by not knowing some romance genre cues.  With minor faults,  I found The Spare Man very enjoyable and the reveal was a clever surprise. I’ll definitely read more Mary Robinette Kowal. 

Stars:  3.75/5