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  • Anouchka Harris

June Books Round Up

A slightly belated round up of what I read in June. Four novels and one non-fiction book. Here are my thoughts!

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

This is the first book in a series. The premise is that there are several Londons existing on different planes, each one unique, and magically linked together, although only certain people can travel between them. The protagonists are Kell, a magician who carries messages between the rulers of the different Londons, and Lila, a thief searching for adventure and a better life. Grey London, the mundane world, knows next to nothing about magic. Red London, a prosperous, magical place, and Kell’s home, has survived by magically sealing itself off from the other worlds. In White London, magic is dying and the city is rife with bloodshed and corruption. Black London is a mystery, assumed to be a wasteland destroyed by magic. Nobody is permitted to go there.

I loved the premise of this book and I heartily enjoyed reading it. The one downside is that there are so many interesting places in this book and none of them get quite enough page-time to really seize the imagination. Unfortunately, I didn’t get enough time in each world to really appreciate it. That said, I didn’t feel this detracted from the plot or from the characters. I’ve read Schwab’s other books, This Savage Song and the follow on, Our Dark Duet. Schwab definitely has a style of her own and the characters in the books I’ve read are distinctly hers. They tend to include a supernatural male protagonist with mysterious powers, and a fierce, determined, and resourceful female protagonist whose lack of supernatural ability never detracts or discourages her from going up against insurmountable odds. I like this combination and I feel that it works well in Schwab’s writing.

I have to admit though, I preferred This Savage Song. Of the books of hers I’ve read, that is the one I would recommend. It’s more of a modern urban fantasy, in which every misdeed, like murder or assault, produces a literal monster. Soon the city, Verity, is almost overrun. The protagonists are Kate, a mob boss’s daughter, and August, the “monster” produced by a mass slaughter. Overall, I enjoy Schwab’s writing and will continue to read her work. (But I am very sad that there are no more books set in Verity.)

Lost Boy by Christina Henry (spoilers)

Another very enjoyable read. I’ve never read any of her books before and this one was a pleasure. It’s the lovechild of Peter Pan and Lord of the Flies. Lots of fun, rather dark. I feel that Henry tried something quite ambitious here and very nearly pulled it off perfectly.

The protagonist is Jamie, Peter’s right hand man, his best friend and the very first boy Peter brought back to Neverland with him. However, Peter is more ruthless than even he imagines. When he tires of a toy, he discards it and in this situation the toy is a five-year old called Charlie. Jamie takes it upon himself to be responsible and stop Peter from leaving the boy in the jungle to starve or to be eaten. All of this works very well. It is only in the final part of the novel that the plot doesn’t quite hang together so well. Jamie begins to grow up and, upon discovering that one of the boys is in fact a girl, promptly falls in love. The girl in question, Sally, doesn’t stick around long before dying unfortunately. She serves the age-old trope of motivating the male protagonist by her death. I feel that Sally was quite hard done by here. Also, I found myself struggling to maintain interest in Jamie’s lost memory and his fragmented flashbacks. These did resolve well I feel, but they were overshadowed through most of the book by the present threat of Peter.

Henry does a good job of racking up the tension and maintaining an interesting world with powerful dynamics, however, the final part is an unrelenting shower of misery. Perhaps it’s my fault for expecting a happy ending. Just don’t read this if you want something upbeat, okay?

All in all, I thought this was very good. There are a few things I wasn’t a fan of, but all round this was a good read.

Bite by K.S. Merbeth

This one was on my reading list for a while. Post-apocalyptic, Mad Max but with more cannibals. The protagonist, known only as Kid, is picked up by cannibals in the wastelands. With no other options available, she joins them. The novel tracks her attempts to prove herself and her value to them as part of the team, while they simultaneously try to solve the problem of the mysterious big bad, a man calling himself Saint.

While fun, this had more problems than I like in a book. Merbeth has a charming, cartoonish and rather funny style which works nicely for this book. However, the plot is a bit haphazard, sometimes feeling directionless and the payoff at the end fell flat for me.

There’s plenty of action in this one, sometimes a little bit too much. It’s pleasingly gory though. And, for me, a fan of tabletop roleplaying games, the characters feel familiarly like an RPG party. The character interactions are often funny, occasionally touching, frequently dysfunctional and this works well in the world Merbeth creates.

This is Merbeth’s debut novel and I would be interested to read more of her work once she builds on her plotting. The biggest disappointment was the ending. There really is not much of a payoff and I think that if the ending had worked better, I could forgiven the other weaknesses in this book more easily. I definitely enjoyed this and I don’t regret reading it, but it wasn’t my favourite this month.

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

This is the third installation by Chambers set in the same universe. The books can easily be read as standalone novels since she doesn’t return to familiar characters. This latest book is more reminiscent of her debut, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, in that it reads more like a series of vignettes than a clear story. However, Chambers’ world is so colourful and interesting that this held my attention right the way through.

Where her first two books focussed on different species of alien life and on AIs in her universe, this one is centred on characters living within the Exodus Fleet, the ships of humans that left the dying planet Earth. Humans are not the most technologically advanced here and are only barely tolerated by certain groups of society. It makes a change from the sci-fi that always imagines humans at the top of the food chain. Chambers twists many of the tropes of sci-fi and creates something unique. She writes aliens that truly feel alien, both in their appearance and in their culture and communication. However, in the way she writes the culture of the Exodus Fleet, humans here feel almost as alien as the other species do.

Chambers’ characterisation and world-building is as good as ever, although I have to admit, a return to a vignette-based style of storytelling was a little disappointing. Her second book, A Closed and Common Orbit, was much more plot-driven without sacrificing her exploration of characters and new perspectives.

Another bonus of Chambers’ work is that it’s very inclusive. LGBTQ characters are reasonably well represented and she habitually uses the gender-neutral pronoun xe/xyr to refer to anyone whose gender identity is not known or not disclosed.

I very much looked forward to reading this book and I enjoyed actually reading it just as much as I’d hoped. Record of a Spaceborn Few launches on July 26th, but in the meantime I highly recommend the first installments of Becky Chambers’ work. I’m already waiting for the next one!

Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe

This is an excellent book by Instagrammer @bodyposipanda and my favourite read this month. I don’t often devour non-fiction like I did this book. As the title suggests, it’s all about body positivity. What it is, what it isn’t, ways to love your body better and just how damaging diets really are, both physically and mentally, plus lots more.

Crabbe strikes a perfect balance between memoir, scientific study and amusing anecdotes. She writes about eating disorders, of which she had first-hand experience, with a compassion and sincerity that never drifts into blame or accusation. She even includes tips on how to talk to a loved one who is in recovery from an eating disorder. She writes honestly and frankly and it never feels like she is holding back from the reader.

The section about diets was both horrible and compelling. She details how diets, even the “good” ones, are damaging and why they always fail. A sweet inclusion at the end of the section is an anti-diet pledge that she encourages you to stick up somewhere. Crabbe includes many scientific studies and plenty of evidence to back up everything she has to say. Some of the case studies are truly shocking, but fascinating. The science in this book is extremely accessible without either feeling overwhelming or overly-simplified.

Aside from the hard science, Crabbe breaks up her writing with warm humour, making this book a very easy and enjoyable read. Perfect for dipping in and out of if you find you don’t have the attention span a fiction novel demands. Or, my personal preference, perfect for reading in the bath.

One of the other great things about this book is that it feels very inclusive. From the beginning, I felt like she had consciously made an effort to include people of all genders, orientations, ethnicities and ages. She does acknowledge that the war on people’s bodies tends to hit women the hardest, but she doesn’t ever fall into the trap of treating it as an exclusively female issue.

To conclude, I have nothing but good things to say about this book and I highly recommend it to anyone. Regardless of your body type, this book is for you. If you’re just curious about body positivity, this book may be a great place for you to start. Besides, it’s the summer. What better way to fight back against all the ‘bikini-body’ bullshit floating around at this time of year, than reading a book that encourages you to love yourself unconditionally and unapologetically? I would recommend this as a beach read.

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