Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

Skylarking is my second-favourite of my lighthouse books, and I’ve been looking forward to rereading it. I remember enjoying the atmosphere, and being pleased that the plot wasn’t about falsifying the identity of a child, since that was what The Lightkeeper’s Daughters and The Light Between Oceans had in common.

Unfortunately, reading Skylarking a second time, the one thing I vividly remembered from my previous read was the climax of the story. Knowing what was coming robbed the novel of some of its power and I found the whole plot somewhat underwhelming.

Knowing that he wanted nothing from me, no outburst or tears or thanks, I could just sit and let the humiliation find its place amongst all the rest of me.

Skylarking, Kate Mildenhall

At just over 200 pages, Sklyarking doesn’t deeply explore any of its themes, character or setting. Kate Mildenhall tells the story from Kate’s perspective; she and Albert are the characters who most vividly come to life, but even so, I didn’t feel any of Kate’s emotions had particular impact. The lighthouse and the life of a lighthouse keeper is mentioned, but not delved into. There are a few very shallow mentions of Australian Aboriginal people, which left me wondering what the point of including them was.

I still see it sometimes, in my dreams, my mind’s eye. I see it but not quite as it was, and I wonder what other imaginings I have mixed up with the truth of the past.

Skylarking, Kate Mildenhall

The prose is fine, but without the mystery of wondering what happened to carry me forward through it, it wasn’t more than that. I don’t mean to be harsh: this is an enjoyable read the first time, but it doesn’t hold up to repeated readings as well as some other books.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone — New Review, Bookclub Too

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I’d heard good things about This is How You Lose the Time War, and I enjoyed Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, so in as much as I had any expectations, I suppose they were fairly high. And yet, I just felt as though I didn’t connect with the book at all for the first 80 per cent of it. The prose is nice, but it flowed over me without leaving much of an impression. The characters write about their lives, but they’re from such a different reality from our own that I never felt like I had enough context to understand their significance.

Let me also speak plain, before this tree runs out of years, before the fine fellows under your command make siege weapons of my words: what do you want from this, Red? What are you doing here?
Tell me something true, or tell me nothing at all.

This is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Usually, I like epistolary novels, but despite their long correspondence, Red and Blue never stopped feeling like strangers to one another. I did get slightly more interested toward the end, when Red finally felt as though she had some motivation to actually do something, but I finished the book only a few days ago, and already I can’t tell you how the story concluded.

Perhaps This is How You Lose the Time War would be more compelling on a reread, though I’m not convinced. Certainly, I expect it would be more interesting to someone who likes puzzling out how a world works and piecing together the bigger picture from small fragments — what, in video games, is called ‘environmental storytelling’. It just didn’t work for me, but I’m still curious to see what other people say about it on bookclub’s discussion day.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle — Reread Review

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Previous in the series: The Sign of Four.

After getting angry at period-typical misogyny and racism in the first two Sherlock Holmes novels, Nickie suggested that I might find the short stories to be more palatable, so I was curious to find out whether that would be true for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Though I’ve read (or listened to) all twelve stories before, it’s been a long time, so my tastes might definitely have matured out of them.

There was only one instance, in A Case of Identity, in which I felt that Arthur Conan Doyle really mistreated one of his female characters: Holmes works out exactly how his client, Miss Sutherland, was manipulated and deceived but declares that she won’t believe him if he tells her, so just leaves her to get on with her unhappy life! Clearly, it’s the solving of the puzzle that matters to Sherlock (and Dr Watson), and not the actual result of his actions. That would be okay, except that I increasingly feel as though the same is true of Arthur Conan Doyle, and what’s forgivable in a flawed character is less so in a real person.

Outside the wind still screamed and the rain splashed and pattered against the windows. This strange, wild story seemed to have come to us from amid the mad elements — blown in upon us like a sheet of sea-weed in a gale — and now to have been reabsorbed by them once more.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle

For the most part, the beginnings of the stories were a little tediously repetitive: Watson notes that Sherlock solves cases for the nobility, but says that these are sometimes less interesting and shows off Sherlock’s skills less well than whichever case he’s introducing. There’s nothing wrong with a formula that works, I suppose, but I might recommend not reading these stories back to back to back.

For many years [Sherlock] had adopted a system of docketing all paragraphs concerning men and things, so that it was difficult to name a subject or person on which he could not at once furnish information.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle

The problems and their solutions are clever, and anyone reading these for the first time would likely be carried along by that alone. (Except in the case of The Five Orange Pips, which is sadly incredibly obvious to a modern reader. I can only assume that the Klu Klux Klan was less familiar to British readers in 1892 than it would be today.) Remembering the endings of ten out of twelve stories definitely put me in a position to notice more of the flaws!

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow — New Review, Bookclub Edition

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I wasn’t expecting much from The Once and Future Witches; I only gave The Factory Witches of Lowell three stars, and this seemed like such a similar idea that I was surprised book club would add it to our list when we’d already experienced exactly this subgenre. I was absolutely wrong, The Once and Future Witches is up there with The Goblin Emperor and An Accident of Stars as one of the best books we’ve read.

Despite being a lover of fantasy novels, magic systems aren’t that important to me. The distinctions between hard and soft, rules-light and rules-heavy rarely influence how I feel about a book. But I absolutely loved what Alix E Harrow did with the magic in The Once and Future Witches, because it’s all based in reality, but given a clever and literary twist. Spells are hidden in nursery rhymes and stories, and so many of them begin with familiar words. Similarly, Alix E Harrow takes familiar concepts and weaves them into her world in a way that delighted and surprised me every time.

(Sometimes she can still see the walls of her room at St Hale’s: perfect ivory, closing like teeth around her. She keeps such things locked safe inside parentheses, like her mother taught her.)

The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow

In a similar way, the prose was full of clever twists and references and beautiful sentences that I loved. While the style seems simple, it’s also very clever, building in references and allusions that will become more important later. I’m sure The Once and Future Witches would be a joy to reread!

While the magic reminded me of Chocolat, the world-building shows a greater divergence from reality, something more akin to Dread Nation. I loved that so many of the significant historical and mythological figures were female versions of those found in our world: Alexandra Pope, Queen Midas, to name just two. It made me wonder if reading this feels a little like being a man in our world, where so many important figures affirm your gender. The Once and Future Witches is an explicitly feminist book, though Alix E Harrow does flesh out positive male characters just as well.

Beatrice rubs her thumb along the spine of her notebook, stuffed full of her most private thoughts and theories, her wildest suppositions and most dangerous inquiries. Her own heart, sewn and bound.

The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow

Which brings me on to the characters, who I adored. Even though the Eastwood Sisters, and many of the others, were built on archetypes, they were incredibly well-drawn and developed. Of course, as a reader and reviewer of books, not to mention a notebook enthusiast, I loved (Beatrice) Bella the librarian and note-keeper, but Agnes’ story was just as compelling, maybe even more so. To round out the three witches, I should also say that I cried harder in Juniper’s chapters than I think I have in any book I’ve read for book club. The ending of The Once and Future Witches is powerful and deeply sad, but not a total tragedy.

Or maybe they won’t tell our story at all, because it isn’t finished yet. Maybe we’re just the very beginning, and all the fuss and mess we made was nothing but the first strike of the flint, the first shower of sparks.
There’s still no such things as witches.
But there will be.

The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow

I have absolutely nothing bad to say, which doesn’t happen often. And for once, I haven’t struggled to articulate all the things I loved about The Once and Future Witches. Fingers crossed I’m just as able to string my thoughts together at book club.

Rating: 5 out of 5.