A Quiet Kind of Thunder (Sara Barnard)

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“Steffi doesn’t talk, but she has so much to say. Rhys can’t hear, but he can listen. Their love isn’t a lightning strike, it’s the rumbling roll of thunder. 

Steffi has been a selective mute for most of her life – she’s been silent for so long that she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her. He’s deaf, and her knowledge of basic sign language means that she’s assigned to look after him. To Rhys it doesn’t matter that Steffi doesn’t talk and, as they find ways to communicate, Steffi finds that she does have a voice, and that she’s falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it.”

4 stars

I was going to start this review by yelling about how cute this book was. But I just didn’t think that did it justice. Yes, this story is really really cute and I enjoyed it a lot, but it’s also really important. Our protagonist, Steffi, is selectively mute and struggles with anxiety that underpins every single one of her daily interactions. Our love interest, Rhys, is biracial and was born deaf. Steffi, having learnt some BSL to help her communicate when unable to talk, is roped in by her school to help new boy Rhys settle in and they end up finding that the other is the person they feel they’ve always been looking for.

This idea could have ended up really twee, but instead Barnard was honest about some of the difficulties of Steffi and Rhys’ friendship and relationship. There is no awkward feeling that Steffi or Rhys are ‘saved’ by the others existence, or that they couldn’t live their lives without the other, they just really enjoy being together. Indeed, there are a number of believable miscommunications between them fuelled by Steffi’s low self esteem and the fact that Rhys isn’t automatically the perfect human being just because he’s a disabled main character. Both seem beautifully and realistically human  and the relationship between them was so engaging I ended up sitting down and reading the book in one go.

But the relationship isn’t the only talking point of the book, in fact, I’d say it was only one of the plot points in a book that dealt with emotional discussions of grief, therapy and life long female friendship. Steffi is a character that will probably feel instantly recognizable to anyone with anxiety, but even to those who are less familiar, her friendship with her best friend and the way it morphs, changes and strengthens over time is so important. Changing schools, relationships, different life courses all can strain friendships, making those in them fear they may become distant from those that have been part of their lives for as long as they can remember. It was really lovely to see a female friendship meet those challenges and grow from it, not falter in the face of adversity.

For me, the thing that knocked it down a star was the last fifty pages or so. Without giving spoilers, Steffi comes to a realization in the last page that, as someone with anxiety, I feel maybe should have had a little more time spent upon.  I just don’t feel that the decision she made had enough time to come to fruition in the little time spent on it. It felt like a drastic turn around on her thinking in the rest of the book. Whilst her epiphany was a healthy one, it’s very difficult for someone with their anxieties so ingrained to come to that thought process so quickly. The thinking that goes into something like that, something which fights against every iota of your insecurities, feels like torture and I wish that had been given a little more page space.

Overall, this was a great book. Sweet, sad and truthful, it managed to share the beauty of a burgeoning relationship without every shying away from the common, and more specific, pitfalls of the main characters love.

Thank you to Pan Macmillan for a copy in return for an honest review.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (Kij Johnson)

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Professor Vellitt Boe teaches at the prestigious Ulthar Women’s College. When one of her most gifted students elopes with a dreamer from the waking world, Vellitt must retrieve her.

But the journey sends her on a quest across the Dreamlands and into her own mysterious past, where some secrets were never meant to surface.

4 stars

So, when I first picked up a copy of this book I, somehow, neglected to notice that it was based on the Lovecraft mythos (more, specifically, ‘The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath’) and, once I realised this, I spent a while torn between continuing as I was and reading up around the base concept. In the end I sort of did a bit of both.

I can happily say that this book is accessible to any and all, you don’t have to know anything about Lovecraft’s work to enjoy it. I’d read a little of Lovecraft’s work but found it very difficult to overlook the racism and sexism that is prevalent in it. Beautiful ideas utterly mired by disgusting prejudice. Johnson’s book almost reads as a commentary on that, a bit of a ‘what we could have had’ if the Lovecraft stories weren’t so hostile to women. Vellitt Boe acts as foil throughout the book, correcting some of the more troubling assumptions of the original books and gently critiquing the misogyny of Lovecraft’s male protagonists, namely Randolph Carter, the protagonist of the original ‘Dream-Quest’.

‘He loved who he was: Randolph Carter, master dreamer, adventurer. To him, she has been landscape, an articulate crag he could ascend, a face to put to this place. When were women ever anything but footnotes to men’s tales?’

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book is the voice of the protagonist. Vellitt Boe is an elderly woman, a character who has settled down to a life of quiet academia after decades of adventure, before being pulled into it once more. It’s so rare to read about older women in fantasy, especially not elderly women who are the heroes of the story.

Even without focusing on the important social commentary aspects, this is a beautiful book. It is entirely possible to get lost in the Dreamlands with Vellitt Boe. It has all the haunting beauty of the Mythos’ original ideas, but written in a more accessible, less rambling manner. The author mentioned in the afterword that she can remember the first time she read ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ at the age of 10, and that, even though being troubled by the racism, the ideas of the Dreamlands had stuck with her. You can see the nostalgia in this book, that of Vellitt Boe travelling the roads she travelled as a young woman, and that of Johnson giving voice to the worlds she had adored and devoured as a child.

Whether it be the wild landscapes and creatures of the Dreamlands, or the well trodden paths of our own modern world,  Johnson finds beauty in both the extravagant and the mundane. Throughout the story you feel you are taking the journey with Vellitt, through places both bizarre and somehow familiar, and into the memories of a life fully lived.

Thank you very much to Macmillan-Tor/Forge for a copy in return for an honest review.

For those who are wondering, the beautiful cover art is by the wonderful Victo Ngai 

Dreadnought (April Daniels)

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Danny Tozer has a problem: she just inherited the powers of Dreadnought, the world’s greatest superhero. Until Dreadnought fell out of the sky and died right in front of her, Danny was trying to keep people from finding out she’s transgender. But before he expired, Dreadnought passed his mantle to her, and those secondhand superpowers transformed Danny’s body into what she’s always thought it should be. Now there’s no hiding that she’s a girl.

It should be the happiest time of her life, but Danny’s first weeks finally living in a body that fits her are more difficult and complicated than she could have imagined. Between her father’s dangerous obsession with “curing” her girlhood, her best friend suddenly acting like he’s entitled to date her, and her fellow superheroes arguing over her place in their ranks, Danny feels like she’s in over her head.

She doesn’t have time to adjust. Dreadnought’s murderera cyborg named Utopiastill haunts the streets of New Port City, threatening destruction. If Danny can’t sort through the confusion of coming out, master her powers, and stop Utopia in time, humanity faces extinction.”

4 Stars

Many thanks to Diversion Books for providing me a copy in return for a honest review.

This is a really important book. I think, off the top of my head, I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve read with trans characters. Considering how many friends and people I know that identify as trans or nonbinary, its actually pretty terrible how little representation there is for them in TV, film and books. This book is extra special because its accessible to the people who really need to be exposed to this book, your middle grade and younger adult readers.

‘Dreadnought’ did a really good job of taking the kind of high tech, metahuman world we see in X-Men and using it to examine real world problems. A world that will accept a flying green man but still balks at transwomen. It’s about hypocrisy in the face of progress and ‘equality for all…except you’.

I also feel this book really speaks to our current generation, kids who are finding themselves on the internet and our need for superheroes in a disappointing and downright dangerous world. We have an MC, Danny, who knows her own mind and is yet constantly told that she’s too young to make decisions for herself, to ‘consider’ the wants of her parents and put them before herself. I like that the book definitively calls out the vileness that Danny is subjected to. Misgendering? Slayed. Discrimination? Pulled up by the scruff of the neck. Trans-exclusionary rad fems? Slam dunked in the trash can.

It’s a short read, with a sparky, quick moving story that doesn’t shy away from confronting prejudice. I think one of my favourite messages of the book is that being a lawful good superhero shouldn’t stop you from examining your prejudices; that even a saint can be a bigot if they don’t listen to those around them.

Why not 5 stars?

I’m writing this review as a white cis bi woman so please correct me if you feel I’ve said something offensive/ incorrect. This book is #ownvoices, and it’s telling a really important story. My one big qualm with ‘Dreadnought’ was that, ironically, it did not feel that friendly to LGBT teens. In depicting the discrimination against Danny a lot of really quite nasty slurs were used, and, whilst, that’s good at teaching your average white teen about what it can feel like to be LGBT (and here more specifically trans) it can be a hostile environment for a young reader who wants to read about people like them.

It’s a difficult line to tread and, whilst I felt the ending was quite empowering, I’m not sure whether there were too many slurs used throughout. I’ve never had most of those words used against me and I felt uncomfortable. Now imagine you’re a 15 year old kid who is feeling really down, really isolated and wants to read a book about people like them. Is that kid really going to be glad about the MC being called a f*gg*t and being subjected to violent transmisogyny? I’d be interested to see what other readers thought. Maybe the book could have come with a trigger warning just to warn kids that it’s maybe one to save for when they’re feeling a bit more secure?

The Bear and the Nightingale (Katherine Arden)

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“In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift – a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, the father hides the gift away and his daughter, Vasya, grows up a wild, willfull girl, to the chagrin of her family. But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.” (Random House)

5* stars

There are some books that are just meant to be read with the cold wind whistling down the chimney and a spiced cup of tea. This is one of them.

I’ve always been a big fan of Russian classics, reading wide-eyed into the night from tomes larger than my head, imagining Princes and Princesses fur bundled in sledges against the driving snow, or farmer’s daughters dancing around the kitchen bread ovens. I was unsure as to whether a modern author would ever be able to capture the wild, hard beauty of Russian history quite like a writer who had lived through it. But this book proved me wrong.

Rich, heady, and yet unyielding in its honesty, embracing the juxtaposition that is the beauty and bleakness of life in a rural northern Russian village far from Moscow. The breaking of bread fresh from the oven, the frail snowdrops raising their heads against the ice, the dull blue lips of a child who froze in the dark winter night.

I fell in love with the wildness of Vasya, our protagonist, and how she felt like a creature of the woods herself. Wilful, clever and obstinate, she was a character after my own heart.

Arden brings to life the elemental superstitions of Russian folklore, from the timid house spirits to the powerful godlike figure of Morozko, Father of the Frost and the Winter Wind. Even if you are not familiar with Russian folklore, Arden manages to gently explain mythological origins in text without the reader ever feeling overwhelmed. I was also impressed with how easily she managed to convey the increasing discord between the old ways and Christianity in the rural hamlets, where farmer’s left offerings to the house spirits to protect them and yet simultaneously felt guilt for looking beyond the church for help. It’s a fascinating time in history that Arden has managed to mould into the most beautiful story.

I feel I could probably ramble about how much I love this book for a good while. I can still remember curling up to read it on my kindle in the dark and just feeling as if I had stepped into another time entirely.

Rich, vibrant, and utterly scintillating; I recommend this book to anyone who is drawn to the winds of the winter, to the warmth of the open fire or the cavernous depth of the night sky. I recommend it to anyone with a soul.

Many thanks to Random House Books for an advance copy in return for an honest review.

A song for reading: Anuna- Noel Nouvelet