Reading Round-up: Jan-Mar

The books/stories in this list are those I thoroughly enjoyed these past few months.

Novels

1. The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
If you’ve been paying attention in the book world for the past six months, then you’re probably familiar with this book. It’s everywhere! Regardless, it sat for a while on my TBR and I kept meaning to get to it. But when I saw it shortlisted for the Nebula, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

Friends, I kid you not: it is worth all the fuss.

Alix has a way with words which is lyrical, magical and very much fable-esque (which is absolutely my jam). In fact, this is one of the many reasons this book works so well. I don’t think it could have been written in any other style and done a good job of transporting the reader into the story. On many levels this book reminded me of Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer (which I also reviewed gushed about here), from the writing, down to the characters – especially the characters.

This is portal fantasy, with all the magic of doors, the written word, and love in all the ways it is (and isn’t) expressed.

I could say this book is about how one girl’s effort to connect with her father leads her down a rabbit hole (read: Doors) of secret societies and immortal beings flitting through worlds with all the nonchalance of cats and I would be right. But it’s also the story about her parents and the hope they cling on to in the face of overwhelming hopelessness.

2. The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay
My introduction into horror literature was through Stephen King (there’s no escaping the King!) back when I was thirteen, and I promptly spent the subsequent years of my life devouring his back catalogue. But recently I’ve been wanting to branch out, explore what other new voices there are in the genre, and my quest lead me to this gem.

In this fine modern horror piece, Paul turns a home invasion (which is in and of itself horrific) into something bordering on madness. A vacation by a family of three quickly turns into a nightmare when they are invaded by four assailants fanatics(?) bearing crudely-made, hellish-looking weapons. Fanatics are scary not because of their unwavering conviction in their beliefs (note that this does not always have to be religion) but the lengths they’re willing to go to convince you, or force you to their side, and these people do go to some extreme lengths (whatever you’re thinking, it’s not it). Even more heart-wrenching are the sacrifices the victims have to face as they slowly realize that this shit is serious. And when the ball drops, you shudder with horror because you realize: it could happen to you.

Mr. Tremblay raises several disturbing questions which he doesn’t attempt to answer; he gifts you, instead, with a window into the heads of each character, including the antagonists, so that you are forced to answer these questions yourselves. A fantastic read.

3. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
One word: mind-bending. Have you ever felt new neural pathways forming in your brain? Because that’s what happened to me as I read this book. It is science fiction in every sense of the genre. What initially seems like classic space opera, complete with a dying earth, and the last vestiges of humanity searching for a habitable planet, quickly becomes a masterpiece of creation, evolution, survival, and a philosophical exploration of what happens when a human mind welds with an electronic construct and lives for so long that it is no longer human.

4. The Hunger by Alma Katsu
Most Americans are familiar with the tale of the unfortunate Donner Party, back in the days of the great American expansion. I’m not American so I wasn’t, not until a few months ago when I caught an Infographics Show about it on Youtube. So when I read the blurb for this book, and saw that Miss Katsu was addressing this but with a horror spin, I was immediately intrigued.

We follow several characters on this doomed journey through the harsh plains of the Wild West. This book has the feel of a sunny day which slowly turns overcast before devolving into a hellish downpour of rain. The book does not waste time in establishing the main horror: there is something haunting their trail. And when children start to vanish one by one, the cracks start to show up. Worse is when the weather turns harsh and the people start to starve and we see that for all of humanity’s supposed “civilization” we quickly turn to animals when starved, scared and desperate, and Miss Katsu does a damn fine job of documenting this – several times I had to remind myself I was reading fiction. But then, who’s to say this isn’t what actually happened?

5. Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
The title of this iconic revenge novel by Mr. Abercrombie is taken from that famous, if not cliched quote by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” And boy, is that dish served really well here.

We follow a host of characters in this book, but they all are in one way or the other pawns used in Monzecarro’s quest to avenge a very awful grievance. She’s been wronged, you see, betrayed by a man she gave her all for, a man she won kingdoms for, and she will do anything to make him pay. It’s quite the irony when she recruits her former mentor to aid her in her quest for revenge – a man who she herself betrayed! But this is grimdark and there are no high horses here. Only desperate vagabonds in tough situations. Desperate vagabonds with long memories.

Through his unparalleled stellar characterization and snappy dialogue, Mr. Abercrombie takes a tired revenge plot and brings it to life. His characters, for all that they’re cold bastards, are bastards you want to know, and maybe sit down and have a drink with, but be careful with that drink – someone might have sprinkled in some additives.


Short Fiction

Things Boys Do by ‘Pemi Aguda

A Study in Shadows by Benjamin Percy

Ngozi Ugegbe Nwa by Dare Segun Falowo

Flashlight Man by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Rat and Finch are Friends by Innocent Chizaram Ilo

The Sycamore and the Sybil by Alix E. Harrow

The Mermaid Astronaut by Yoon Han Lee

The Ordeal by M. Bernado

Giant Steps by Russel Nichols

January update

Is it just me or it feels like there’s been 200 days of January? Quite a lot happened this month and now that I look back and reflect on everything I think I understand why.

Writing
The bulk of this month was devoted to The Novel. I queried this late last year and got a few agents to bite, but they all turned it down, save for one who gave me a detailed feedback and invited me to resubmit if I ever revised. Her notes lined up with most of the critiques I’d previously gotten so I decided to tackle them. I won’t lie it was hard. It’s still hard. Most of what I’d written had to go, and I’m still not sure I’m satisfied with this version. We’ll see where it takes me. I’m looking to finish this by February ending so I can send it out to the betas then start querying in March.

Reading
Kicked this year off with The Hobbit, then went on to the Golden Compass, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. I read these books as a kid over ten years ago. It was very enjoyable rereading scenes I’d forgotten and just reliving the emotions which captured my tween heart. Next I read Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold. I read his First Law trilogy late last year and thoroughly enjoyed the narration. Joe Abercrombie is a master of characterization. I particular love how every chapter in his books reads like a short story, complete with a beginning, middle and end.

Life. Well this month was devoted to exams, and even though I didn’t study thoroughly I somehow managed to pass Neurology and Psychiatry. I’m not complaining. Also I finally got to see my sister! After 5 years. She studies on one end of Russia and I on the other end. Between us there’s over 15hrs of flight and a shitload of ticket money, so we never could visit each other. But she had to go renew her passport in the embassy and since Moscow’s only a few hours from where I stay it was the perfect opportunity to meet up. Yay! I mean we video chat and text and call, but to see each other in the flesh was surreal to say the least. I grinned like a fool the whole time:)

Best Books I Read in 2019

As of this writing I’ve read some forty-odd books (all the while trying to stay afloat in medical school and also write! As you can tell I don’t have a life). Of these titles some were good, some were okay, and some absolutely blew my mind.

These are just the books I read, not all of them were published in 2019 (just 2 of them actually)

In no particular order, here they are:

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

This is the third installment in the Winternight Trilogy and by far the best book of the three. I find myself at once trying to savour each page and also read as quickly as I can to find out what happens next. A very satisfying ending to Vasya’s story, one which I will be reading again.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

This book, my goodness! Where to start? The world Laini Taylor creates here is fantastical, mythical and so deeply realized that I lost myself completely while reading this, and it has been a long time since I had that happen to me with a book. Lazlo is such an endearing character. It’s got books, a magical city, blue-skinned gods! And the prose is simply bewitching.

Also, whoever said third person omniscient (headhopping) is outdated clearly has not read this book. Seriously it’s a masterclass in this POV.

Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor

The sequel to Strange the Dreamer is even better! I ate this book up in a day, flying through the pages, waiting to find to what comes next. Laini Taylor made me so invested in the characters that I empathized with every one of them (even a certain little tyrant!) You come to understand that there is no pure good or evil and everyone is a product of their circumstances. I mean, just like in real life. A brilliant conclusion to this fantastic duology.

The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

This book, which was Miss Oyeyemi’s debut, remains one of my favourite works of hers. It’s the one book I read every year and find something new with each reread. It tells the tale of a biracial child and the disturbing friend she makes on a trip to her hometown in Nigeria. Two of my stories (coming in 2020) were directly inspired by this book and I have no doubt it will continue to inspire me for the foreseeable future.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Mr. Gaiman, in my eyes, can do no wrong. This dark fantasy story is a very refreshing read. Here a middle-aged man returns to his childhood home and recalls interesting (forgotten) events from his childhood. This book spoke to me on many levels, and I personally saw it as a commentary on that oh-so-magical period of our lives called childhood, and how, as we grow into cynical, rational adults, we forget. I read this book twice; the first time as a reader, and the second time as a writer, pen and paper scribbling away. On the second reread, I noticed Neil Gaiman never mentioned the name of the narrator. He wrote 50,000 words without telling us the name of the main character. It was cleverly done. Very good, Mr. Gaiman, very good.

Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter

A boy seeking revenge against a class of pompous noblemen. Oh, and there’s dragons. And it’s Africa-based. Need I say more? Evan Winter’s debut is electric. His writing is that of a seasoned master. Trust me, you’ll be doing yourself a favour if you read this book.

Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

This is an explosive conclusion to this series (First Law). Joe Abercrombie lives up to his title of Lord Grimdark. Everyone is a bastard in this book, and I love them all for it. I actually listened to the audiobook for the entire trilogy, and Steven Pacey did such an awesome job of narrating. He really brought the characters to life – especially Inquisitor Glokta. That lisp!

Awards Eligibility 2019

So this year has been pretty interesting. I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a writer, and have learnt more and honed my craft. The first half of this year was dedicated to writing that damned book, while in the second half I focused on short fiction.

I had 2 stories published this year, both of which I’m incredibly proud of:

Faêl published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, is a fantasy story about a witch king, a cunning moon goddess, a war criminal seeking redemption, and how their lives intersect in a climax that has been millenia in the making.

The Muse of Palm House published in The Dark, chronicles the dark history of an old colonial manor in a fictitious Nigerian town, and the unsuspecting artist who moves in there to kill himself.

Well, that’s it! Two stories in 2019 and they are eligible for all the awards. Happy reading folks!

Behind The Story #1: The Muse of Palm House

Here’s a brief rundown of the inspiration behind this story. There’s potential spoilers here. If you haven’t read this story, go here


First came the house.

I’ve always been fascinated with haunted houses – the classic gothic dark vibes, so when I set out to write this story I knew immediately it had to feature a haunted house – but with a twist. This was not going to be your typical ghost story.

Next came the haunt.

The Picture of Dorian Gray also influenced my decision here. I thought instead of having a painting which ages while the subject retains youth, why not have an entity whose way to the wider world is through a painting? Because what is more permanent than a picture – or painting?

Third came the damned.

I had 2 elements. A house and the concept of the painting. I needed last ingredient. The medium through which the story will be experienced. I’ve usually always thought that horror is best served on an unsuspecting character. Indeed the first half of the story might not read like horror. You might think it’s a contemporary piece on an artist long past his prime seized by sudden inspiration (and you’ll be forgiven for thinking so, this was intentional). I thought why not have a main character who’s so self-absorbed and consumed with his own affairs that he doesn’t see the house for what it truly is? That he doesn’t see Lara for what she truly was?

All the pieces came together and the rest, as they say, is history. I wrote this feverishly (much as the main character’s feverish painting). I thought long and hard about how to end this story. In the end I went with the ambiguous ending, because it is horror after all, and some things are best left unsaid, or in the this case, unwritten.

I’m really proud of this story, I think it’s accomplishes everything I set out to accomplish.

New Publication: The Muse of Palm House

I am so thrilled to announce the publication of The Muse of Palm House in The Dark. This is my second story to be published in this particular magazine.

It’s a horror story, with a haunted house and an artist and ancient entity (all my favourite things). The first half of this year was spent working on that damned novel (more on that later) and in the second half I decided to turn my attention back to sort fiction as sort of a palate cleanser after so long slogging through the same story.

I cranked out lots of stories (some have been accepted, some are still under consideration, finger crossed) and it was in this period I wrote this story. Sometime in August, to be exact. Some stories are difficult to write, while for some all the elements just fall together. The Muse belongs to the latter group. I wrote it feverishly in three days. I let it breathe for one week, sent it out to the beta readers, fixed up some clunky lines and sent it off to The Dark , and what do you know, one month later I got that acceptance!

I’m really proud of this one. If you’re curious about my thought process behind the creation of this story, go here

New Publication: Faêl

Hey there! I am so excited to announce the publication of my story Faêl in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

I wrote this story late last year (I’m thinking October) in the middle of writing the first draft of my novel. It helped me flesh out some necessary details, and get through that oh so dreaded writer’s block.

I’m really bad at surmarising my own stories (er, which writer’s isn’t? Hehe) but here’s a review I feel surmarises it fantastically.

Happy reading, folks.