Piranesi by Susanna Clarke — New Review, Bookclub Edition

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Piranesi was a Christmas gift from Rebecca, and being picked for Fantasy Book Club means I’m actually ‘allowed’ to read it, even though this blog still has more fantasy reviews than any other single genre. I went into it knowing nothing, except that I’d liked what I’d read of Susanna Clarke’s last book, but hadn’t even come close to finishing it. Piranesi is much shorter, but both novels have been written in a metafictional way which foregrounds the process of writing.

Like Beatrice Belladonna Eastwood (The Once and Future Witches), Piranesi is another character who values notebooks and journal-keeping. His journals even have a separate notebook which serves as an index, which will surely excite any bullet journal fans reading! Writing advice often insists that every character needs a goal, but for most of the novel, it’s hard to tell what, exactly, Piranesi is looking for. Despite this, and the fact that he spends much of the book alone, Susanna Clarke keeps his story interesting.

Perhaps even people you like and admire immensely can make you see the World in ways you wold rather not.

Piranesi, Susanna Clarke

Piranesi’s thought-process is refreshingly different. Like The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Susanna Clarke includes thought-provoking insights which invite the reader to think about how they see their own world. The capitalising of some nouns could be a tad distracting, but the prose is otherwise nicely transparent. Though the mystery of the world inclines the reader to question character’s motives, Piranesi has a much more relaxed atmosphere than The Loneliest Girl in the Universe.

There should be plenty to talk about in book club, though it remains to be seen whether Piranesi will raise as many questions as The Bone Shard Daughter. Either way, it should be interesting!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Silas Marner by George Eliot — Reread Review

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Our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us any more than without us: there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud.

Silas Marner, George Eliot

I have a tendency to avoid classics on my TBR because I expect them to be difficult; George Eliot proves that this assumption is flawed, because I raced through Silas Marner with no more trouble than it took me to read any novel published in my lifetime. While I dimly remembered the bare bones of the plot, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I was able to identify with Silas, and how much of a character development journey he goes on.

Silas Marner is not just a miserly weaver, though that’s the starting point for the novel’s relatively simple plot. He was a devout man whose community turned against him and left him cut off from both spiritual and lay society. The idea that moving geographically also created distance between Silas and his ‘local god’ was fascinating. George Eliot doesn’t completely pin down the religious differences between Lantern Yard and the Raveloe church, so modern readers may find themselves wishing there was a little more context.

Marner’s thoughts could no longer move in their old round, and were baffled by a blank like that which meets a plodding ant when the earth has broken away on its homeward path.

Silas Marner, George Eliot

Nonetheless, Silas’s journey is well, if simply, related. The way he falls into loving golden guineas above all else feels like George Eliot is describing the symptoms of depression: the way the world shrinks, nothing seems to matter, routine wears itself into a rut from which it’s difficult to escape. Watching Silas rise back out of the slump is incredibly satisfying, even if the method is far from universally applicable.

Silas isn’t the only character who reads as something other than neurotypical: Nancy has fixed personal rules for life which, once arrived at, cannot be strayed from even if being more flexible would make life easier. George Eliot doesn’t dwell on this as much as on Silas, but it’s still fascinating to see in a character so far removed from modern labels. There’s also Priscilla, who rejects both the possibility of marriage and any attraction to men completely out of hand, which may strike a reader as coming pretty close to the asexual or aromantic spectrum.

Silas Marner’s plot is really just the background action holding all the characters together. There’s no mystery as to how Silas’s life changes, and the character who brings about the biggest upheaval disappears off the page entirely for most of the story. His return is unforeshadowed and not terribly satisfying. The ending of the novel, while making perfect logical sense from the events which precede it, feels a little abrupt.

Nonetheless, I had a great time reading Silas Marner and would thoroughly recommend it. If you enjoyed Heidi, you could see this as a very similar story, but told from the opposite perspective.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik — New Review, Bookclub Edition

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When A Deadly Education was introduced as ‘a nasty magic school’, I was worried it would be another Witchsign; I couldn’t have been more wrong. The tone and the characters are completely different, and while both books have similar themes, A Deadly Education delivers friendship overcoming the odds far more effectively.

She charges almost nothing, and that little mostly because if you offer to do professional massage for free, people will look at you sideways, as well they should.

A Deadly Education, Naomi Novik

The Scholomance is a dangerous place which thrives on inequality, but nothing about A Deadly Education is delivered to grind the reader down. Instead, El’s savviness, self-knowledge and pragmatism are immediately captivating. Naomi Novik creates an amazing contrast between El and her non-privileged peers who have to be smart to survive versus the ‘enclave kids’ who can coast on generations of magical alliance.

But hope is good strong drink, especially when you can get someone else to buy it for you.

A Deadly Education, Naomi Novik

El’s character development is awesome, and ties seamlessly in to an action-packed plot. It’s rare that a moment of intense self-discovery will also be an attempted murder, but Naomi Novik manages it. Against the background of self-interest and betrayal, El’s developing friendships shine particularly brightly. While there is a romance, it doesn’t overshadow the platonic relationships.

Mum does magic by dancing up mana with a group of willing volunteers — I’ve told her she ought to charge people, but no — and then she spreads it out again freely in sparkles ad happiness, tra la.

A Deadly Education, Naomi Novik

Even though El’s mother never appears ‘on stage’, their relationship is beautifully portrayed. Gwen Higgins is the goodest of good witches, but the mother-daughter bond isn’t all unconditional love and endless support; it’s complicated and realistic and oh, so fantastic to read about.

It’s always a good sign when there’s enough plot going on that the reader can make guesses about a situation and be wrong. No detail of the plot felt wasted or cumbersome, and Naomi Novik manages to set-up such a brilliant cliffhanger that even if you know there is one, you probably won’t guess what it’s going to be.

A Deadly Education was a complete joy to read, despite the darkness of the world and setting, and I can hardly wait to move on to the next book in the series!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta — Reread Review

When first read, some books create incredibly strong memories: where you were, what you were feeling, who was around you. The Piper’s Son is one of those books for me. I remember sitting in my bedroom in the Woodside Park flat I shared with Rebecca, with my bed against the innermost wall, crying my eyes out. And yet, I couldn’t remember what happened that was so moving, beyond the vague idea that there was a pregnancy involved.

Melina Marchetta does an amazing job of following up the story of Saving Francesca. In the years that have passed since the first novel, relationships have changed, huge life events have happened, which makes the characters and the story much more realistic than if everything had continued as it was up until the moment the new story started. It’s bittersweet, because there are almost as many characters missing as there are still in touch with each other, but that’s life sometimes.

She makes lists of jobs she’d love if she wasn’t doing the following things, and then she makes lists of those following things, and her lists become hybrid and feral. In the end, they make Lucia paranoid about all the things she’s supposed to be doing that she doesn’t have time for because she’s making lists.

The Piper’s Son, Melina Marchetta

The Piper’s Son features new characters, too: Tom’s family and work friends. Unfortunately, some of these are a little hard to keep track of. The Finch-Mackee families are so sprawling and interconnected that it’s not always obvious who is who or to whom they’re related. Dominic, Georgie, Sam and Callum are all easy enough, but then there’s Lucia and Bill and another Tom and Gracie who might be Grace. At times, a family tree would have been really helpful!

Maybe she’d always been there. Maybe strangers enter your heard first and then you spent the rest of your life searching for them.

The Piper’s Son, Melina Marchetta

While the story was still captivating, the emotions didn’t hit as hard this second time around. Nonetheless, the endings were extremely satisfying, and the characters are just as real as ever. Melina Marchetta leaves the reader with the certainty that these lives will continue to grow and develop, that there will be difficulties, but that hopefully they’ll be able to help each other through them.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda — New Review, Bookclub Too

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I was doubly intrigued by the blurb of Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight; first by the premise of a man and woman sharing a final night together before the end of their relationship, then by the twist that each believes the other to be a murderer.

I arrange my face into a smile, ready to greet the man who may be planning to kill me.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight, Riku Onda

The opening chapters certainly live up to that promise. Riku Onda successfully evokes the tension from both characters’ perspectives without any hint as to which of them is more justified in their anxieties. Riku Onda doesn’t pull her punches, the atmosphere is immediately charged with danger as well as the complicated emotions of two people saying goodbye to each other and to a phase of their lives.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight isn’t a detective novel, even though both characters profess to want to know ‘whodunnit’, and in some ways that hurts it. Riku Onda never successfully conveys any motive for the possible murder from either character, which makes it hard to really believe their suspicions of one another.

Why do her words come to me in snatches, like sound bites from a documentary? They filter into my brain like pieces in a mosaic and settle into place.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight, Riku Onda

Despite the fraught situation Aki and Hiro find themselves in, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight isn’t an emotionally raw novel. The prose keeps the reader somewhat detached from both characters, even at moments that are supposed to be loaded with fear or anger. Similarly, the twist ending feels interesting without having much impact, either on the readers’ feelings or the course of events. By the end of the book, nothing has really changed from the beginning in a material way.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight was interesting, but not hugely memorable, nor something that seems it would reward rereading.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams — Revisit Review

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Previous in the series: So Long and Thanks for All the Fish.

Finally, I’ve reached the end of what I’ve personally dubbed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe — all five books written by Douglas Adams. I’ve been looking forward to Mostly Harmless; I have an absurd and lasting fondness for the section which describes Arthur Dent as The Sandwich Maker. My vague memories of the rest of the book mostly involved Random and the new avian incarnation of the titular guide to the galaxy.

Starting Mostly Harmless I was pleasantly surprised. While I’d forgotten Ford’s and Tricia’s plots, I found them and the writing just as engaging as I found So Long and Thanks for All the Fish. Fenchurch’s complete and abrupt disappearance was disappointing, and made me wonder what the point of including her in the series had actually been, but Douglas Adams clearly set out to write a random and inexplicable universe, so it’s not as much of a problem as it might be in another set of books.

What King Antwelm had assumed was that what everybody wanted, all other things being equal, was to be happy and enjoy themselves and have the best possible time together.

Mostly Harmless, Douglas Adams

Everything ambles along quite pleasantly, which is what I love about these books. This time around, I empathised particularly with the Grebulons living on Rupert, having forgotten what their mission is and spending all their time watching television. However, I don’t think I’ll turn to astrology to figure out the answer — which we all know is 42.

In the afternoon, she got up and prowled around restlessly, not certain what to do with the rest of her day, or indeed the rest of her life.

Mostly Harmless, Douglas Adams

As the final book in the series, Mostly Harmless feels a little incomplete. Douglas Adams writes nothing about what Zaphod is doing, or what’s happening with the president of the galaxy. While the ending, if I’m reading it correctly, ties up the stories of Arthur, Tricia, Trillian, Ford and Random, it leaves a vast number of questions unanswered. Maybe that’s the point, though, in which case I can’t be mad about it. And besides, I know that And Another Thing… is somewhere in my future.

With the exception of Life, the Universe and Everything, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed revisiting these books, and I’ll definitely be reading them again.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruin Zafón — New Review, Bookclub Edition

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The Shadow of the Wind is one of those books that seems to always be featured in book shops. I must have picked it up a dozen times to read the blurb or the first page but never quite got around to actually buying it. It’s a book about books, and while those appeal to me as a reader in theory, they are often slightly disappointing in practice.

Such was the case with The Shadow of the Wind. While the cemetery of forgotten books is a fascinating concept, Carlos Ruiz Zafón spends hardly any time there. The Shadow of the Wind isn’t so much a book about books as a book about one author and his mysterious backstory. Except, some of the mystery, specifically Lain Coubert’s identity, could be guessed hundreds of pages before it was officially revealed.

Women have an infallible instinct for knowing when a man has fallen madly in love with them, especially when the male in question is both young and a complete dunce.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruin Zafón

Daniel and Julián simply aren’t that interesting as characters, unless you find adolescent male romances particularly compelling. Sadly, the women they fall in love with aren’t very well fleshed out, they exist mostly as aloof and unattainable examples of femininity, which is tiresome. Carlos Ruin Zafón does much better with the minor characters: Daniel’s father is sympathetic, Fermin’s story is unexpected, Bernada is sweet, and I could go on. In terms of building a large and interconnected cast of characters, Carlos Ruin Zafón has succeeded, but the story he chooses to tell with them isn’t all that inspired.

I looked again at the portrait of that couple and knew for sure that the young man was Julián Carax, smiling at me from the past, unable to see the flames that were closing in on him.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruin Zafón

The Shadow of the Wind‘s prose is very nice, there were several poetic descriptions of Barcelona, usually at the beginnings of chapters, as well as some lovely atmospheric moments throughout. It does veer towards pretension at times, but not enough to ruin the reading experience.

Overall, The Shadow of the Wind is solidly written, and has good moments especially in Carlos Ruin Zafón’s minor characters, but the main story wasn’t something I’d especially recommend.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie — Revisit Review

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I chose to read Appointment with Death this week because I’ve been watching Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King with my online writing group and I thought it would be interesting to carry on the theme of terrible parents. Reading it with that in mind definitely added intensity to the toxicity the Boynton family are forced to endure. I’ve already said that I like it when Agatha Christie evokes a creepy atmosphere, but this experience dialled it up to eleven!

And then with a shock, Dr Gerard noticed her hands. They were concealed from the group around her by the table, but he could see them clearly from where he sat. In the shelter of her lap they were picking — picking — tearing a delicate handkerchief into tiny shreds.
It gave him a horrible shock.
The aloof remote smile — the still body — and the busy destructive hands.

Appointment with Death, Agatha Christie

Unusually, the best part of this murder mystery is not the detective, nor the solving of the crime. While Mrs Boynton is the victim of murder, her family are all the victims of her reign of terror, and that’s where the reader’s sympathy lies. Agatha Christie sets this up incredibly well, with lots of small simple details which have a chilling cumulative effect.

Against such a dramatic backdrop, Hercule Poirot doesn’t stand out as much as he usually does. In his sections, the verbatim repetition of his list of clues and his timetable for events surrounding the murder felt like padding; it was difficult not to skim read material that had already been presented word-for-word. That said, the Summation Gathering was effective — particularly the way Agatha Christie twisted the usual practice of trying out how each suspect could be guilty. The solution to the mystery works, and all the clues have been fairly presented without being rushed or told rather than shown, which is more than I can say for some of Agatha Christie’s works.

She sobbed out brokenly:
“It’s so lovely — the night and the blueness and the stars. If only we could be part of it all… If only we could be like other people instead of being as we are — all queer and warped and wrong.”

Appointment with Death, Agatha Christie

Finally, the ending works back around to centring the Boynton family members, which pays off all that they suffered in the set-up. It’s not a long scene, and it wraps up a lot of storylines very quickly and neatly, but it feels justified because these characters deserve it!

Appointment with Death doesn’t quite reach the heights of Five Little Pigs, but it’s pretty darn close!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by Gilbert Keith Chesterton — New Review, Bookclub Too

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I knew very little about The Napoleon of Notting Hill, except that it was set in London and would allow me to check off another book from my ‘Literature in London’ list. Although I’ve heard of him, I’ve never read any Gilbert Keith Chesterton and I don’t even know which books he’s most famous for. As with all the Bookclub Too books so far, The Napoleon of Notting Hill is quite unlike anything else I’ve read. Written in 1904, set in the 1980s but with 15th-century weapons and clothes!

The establishing chapters of The Napoleon of Notting Hill read like political satire, though the latter half feels more like offbeat speculative fiction. Aubern Quin, the main character, is probably intended to be a comic character; he certainly believes he’s playing a great joke on the city of London. Even for readers who don’t gel with Chesterton’s sense of humour, there’s plenty to keep them interested in both the story and the writing.

Twenty feet from him (for he was very short-sighted) the red and white and yellow suns of the gas-lights thronged and melted into each other like an orchard of fiery trees, the beginning of the woods of elf-land.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Gilbert Keith Chesterton

While the overall plot (or what there is of one) wasn’t particularly compelling, many of the threads woven into The Napoleon of Notting Hill were thought-provoking. An essay could be written about the uses of colour, for example, and G K Chesterton’s take on using urban landscape as inspiration for art was interesting. The ending reflected back on all that had gone before in a way that invited contemplating of life in general, despite the absurdity of some of the plot’s events.

Overall, I’m not sure what I got out of The Napoleon of Notting Hill was what G K Chesterton intended, but I’m glad I read it and I think I’ll continue to process and digest it before I ultimately return to it at a later date.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Jo’s Boys by Louisa May Alcott — Reread Review

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Previous in the series: Little Men.

Despite my best efforts to keep track of who was who in Little Men, I opened Jo’s Boys to a bewildering array of names. The events of the book were enough that I eventually figured out Tom, Stuffy and Josie, but I had to resort to Google to remind me of Jack, Dolly, Ned, Dick and Billy. Obviously, a school the size of Plumfield needs to be well peopled, but Louisa May Alcott may have tried to spread the attention too thinly between all these boys, as only some of them are sufficiently memorable.

‘I never can forget this — I hope it’s cured me; if it hasn’t, I am afraid I ain’t worth saving,’ answered Ted, pulling his own hair as the only way of expressing his deep remorse.
‘Yes, you are, my dear; I felt just so at fifteen when Amy was nearly drowned, and Marmee helped me as I’ll help you.’

Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott

As usual with Louisa May Alcott’s writing, it’s the characters who develop over the course of the novel that really stand out. In this case: Nat, Dan, Ted and Josie. Dan’s story is particularly heartbreaking, and while the ending is probably realistic, it feels like less than he deserved, especially in comparison to almost everyone else’s most-cherished desires coming true. That said, the relationship between Dan and Mrs Jo is enviable to the very last and is the greatest triumph of both these sequels.

A few quiet weeks followed, during which Dan chafed at the delay; and when at length word came that his credentials were ready, he was eager to be off, to forget a vain love in hard work, and live for others, since he might not for himself.

Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott

Other romances are less doomed than poor Dan’s, and while they’re all sweet enough, Louisa May Alcott did a good job of balancing them out with Nan. Her refusal to bow to heteronormative pressure to find a husband is not only explicit and explicitly praised, she also gets the chance to monologue on the subject of why she doesn’t want a husband.

The March sisters and Laurie continue to delight. Mrs Meg’s mingled horror and admiration that her daughter inherited her flair for dramatics and wants to make a career of it was particularly enjoyable, as was her relationship with her older children becoming adults. The only fly in the ointment comes at the end, when the narrator expresses a desire to call up an earthquake to end the series. It feels like Louisa May Alcott’s way of saying she’s tired of these characters, which somewhat tarnishes a reader’s enjoyment of them.

Similarly, there’s a section early in the novel where Mrs Jo has to deal with autograph-hunters and the effects of her own celebrity. For anyone who has read a biography of Louisa May Alcott (or the annotations in Little Women), this section feels a little too lazily drawn from life. Overall, there’s a sense that the narrator (who is probably the author) doesn’t really want to be writing this book at all, which might make the reader for guilty for enjoying it.

As a long time fan, I came away from Jo’s Boys with mixed feelings, but I definitely want to read more of Louisa May Alcott’s work and see what she did with characters other than the March family.

Rating: 3 out of 5.