Month: March 2017

Book Review: City of Saints & Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson

You may remember that February was my month of reading mysteries. This was one of my February reads, and one of the top books I have read yet this year. I gave it Five Stars on GoodReads. And then I had to calm down a bit because yeah, man, it was THAT good. And as for the publisher’s description, no, not Gone Girl. There was nothing unreliable about this narrator. Nothing at all. This was Girl with a Dragon Tattoo meets Life After Life. So many choices. So many unanswered questions.

This story was riveting. I rocketed through it in two giant 200-page gulps, not regretting a moment. I felt like a ping-pong ball, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the story unfolding in front of me. The Kenyan setting was lush, the characters were whole. I especially loved Tina, AKA Tiny Girl, whose life is turned upside down when her mother is killed.

This is a rich story, full of consequences. She and her mother are refugees from a village that is too close to the militia fighting in Congo. Tina spends the book finding out just how close her mother is to the fight. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say that it is very complex, and dangerous. They land at a rich white guy’s house, the Greybill mansion. Greybill works for the mining industry in Kenya, has married a local (albeit rich) girl, and lives up on a hill far above the common rabble.

There are so many layers here, honestly. Anderson’s descriptions of the grimy port town of Sangui City (yes, that means blood) put you right in the middle of it, and Tiny Girl’s Rules let you know just how precarious each day is. Most chapters start with a Rule, and the first one is: You don’t exist. She becomes invisible so that she can survive. When her plan for revenge takes her back into her old life, she must walk a very high tightrope, and you, dear reader, will walk that tightrope with her. Tina spends her days dodging dangerous thugs and stealing from others. She belongs to a gang, but she’s not exactly part of the gang. That all comes together later, too.

I was with Tiny Girl the whole time, careening from one situation to another, from the dusty streets of Sangui City to the carpeted halls of the Greybill mansion, from the decrepit hospital to the dense, humid forest. This was gripping, compelling, full of details and characters that made it all seem like a newsreel, unspooling in front of you. All the human emotions and realities collide with the greed of business and the lust for power, capturing children in its grip and making them old – and wise – before their time.

It’s plain that the lives of the gang, street kids taken in to do dirty work by a local crime boss, are very real. You don’t invent that kind of detail from whole cloth. These kids are waifs, starving. Tina becomes one of them when she is “rescued” by one of their leaders, while trying to steal a mango. She is on the streets, because she doesn’t want to go to the convent where she hid her sister. You can’t exact revenge from behind a convent wall. So there are sinners, and the tattoos on Tiny Girl’s arms tell the stories of the saints.

Even after Tina is thrust back into her old home, where her mother was a maid, she still thinks like a street kid. She is always watching her back, always on the lookout for what she can get out of a situation. Rule 12: always be ready to bolt.

And yet, I really liked Tina. Tina is smart. Really smart. She knows how to read a room. She knows when to say what, and when to shut up. She has another Rule: thieves don’t have friends. So Boyboy isn’t her friend – he’s a useful thing to have around. He can help her hack into security systems, steal information, find schedules and floorplans. And even though he is the only one she lets up on her rooftop, he is definitely not her boyfriend. He’s got it just as rough as she does, even if he does have a family: a poor gay kid in a town that does not suffer softness.

Everything about this story works: the setting, the characters, the intrigue. It is a thriller in a slow-burn kind of way, though things really do get rocking fairly quickly. Piecing together the puzzle of what happened with Tina’s mom, and then finally, what is going on in the village in the Congo, and how it relates to the house on the hill, will keep you up way past your bedtime. Just when you think you are going to solve one mystery, another one pops up in its place.

I would love to see more of Tina. I loved her and her whole crew – yes, even Michael. And my heart feels for her and Kiki, and I want to know more than anything what happens to them.

So yeah, five stars. And I never give stars. I don’t see the point of differentiating between three stars and four stars. And one star is just too mean. So I only give five stars. But then rarely.

I don’t know if there is a sequel coming, but if one pops up, I’m all over it.

Tolkien Reading Day 2017

I hadn’t really anticipated becoming wholly consumed by Tolkien during the month of March. But that appears to be what has happened.

First, I heard about this from the bloggers over at Pages Unbound. They put out a call on Twitter for bloggers to take part in their two-week Tolkien blog fest, which would feature posts they wrote plus lots of guest posts. I was happy to write a post about how Tolkien has influenced my work, which can be seen here. And there are lots of other posts about all things Tolkien, so get on over and check them out.

Then I saw a challenge on Instagram. I do a lot of photo challenges (which, if you don’t know, are basically lists of prompts that you interpret and then share with a hashtag), and this was to be a month-long Tolkien theme under the #MiddleEarthMarch tag. I thought that sounded like loads of fun, so I was eager to participate in that. This also included a Lord of the Rings read-along, which was preceded by a read-along of The Hobbit, where we followed along on #febandbackagain.

I had a blast with the prompts, and had fun going through my books and gathering together all my Tolkien-related titles. Come to find out that I actually have a pretty good collection! I am especially happy with a special edition I picked up at a con a year or so ago for $20 – it is the green leather one in a slipcase, with runes on the cover and spine. It’s gorgeous, and a lovely addition to my library (but really, I’m a sucker for anything in a slipcase or a boxset).

On my #RockMyTBR challenge, I had already ear-marked a Tolkien title, The Silmarillion, for April. But I substituted the above titles, which was handy because I found that either I do not own The Silmarillion or I simply couldn’t find it. I just swapped my previous March title with April. And then GoodReads changed its rules so that you could count rereads as part of your challenge goal, so that helped speed me along.

Before I saw the Pages Unbound post, I honestly didn’t even realize there was going to be a Tolkien Reading Day in March. March 25 is the anniversary of the day of the defeat of Sauron, in case you are wondering. The celebration is sponsored by the Tolkien Society, and there are lots of celebrations worldwide. This worked out perfectly for me, since I read that scene in the book on the night of March 24! I was able to keep on track with my reading in the read-along, though I am sad to say that I hardly read anything else during March. But it was worth it.

I never read The Lord of the Rings until after college. So this was only maybe my third time reading the series. The last time was when the movies came out. When I was in high school, fantasy was a class for stoners and slackers. I loved English and reading, so instead, I took Shakespeare and English lit. Well, let that be a lesson to you. Don’t skip a class if it sounds interesting! Had I taken fantasy in high school, I might have been a decade ahead on my Tolkien obsession!

And now I am well and fully hooked. I have always loved the movies, and my son and I did a binge watch of the extended version DVDs over the holidays. So that set me up nicely for all the reading. Now I am looking forward to The Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion. I have been looking around, and it sounds like this is the order which is most recommended in reading Tolkien (that is, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, The Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion).

I am very much looking forward to the upcoming Beren and Luthien, which is being released in May, and was edited by Christopher Tolkien and illustrated by Alan Lee. Many Tolkien fans will know that this story of star-crossed lovers was very close to Tolkien’s heart. He even had the name Luthien engraved on his wife’s headstone when she died, and then instructed that Beren should be engraved under his name (they share a headstone).

I’ve long had a wish to go to Oxford, and see his haunts. I would also love to go to New Zealand, where you can see the set for the Shire, and have lunch at the Green Dragon. So go ahead, Tolkien merch, take all my money! I don’t even care.


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