The Red Palace by June Hur

“I wanted to love and be loved. I wanted to be known. I wanted to be understood and accepted.”

The Red Palace makes for a fairly suspenseful read, one that will definitely appeal to fans of YA mysteries where the lead girl goes all Nancy Drew trying to figure out who the culprit is. And of course, given the setting, Korea in 1758, The Red Palace will likely appeal to fans of historical K-dramas. Personally, I think The Red Palace is the kind of book I would have loved 10 years or so ago. Now, I am a bit more nitpicky and there are a few things that prevented me from being fully immersed in Hyeon’s story.

“We are women,” she continued, “and nothing short of death stops us from doing precisely what we wish to do. That is what the laws and restrictions binding our lives breed: determination and cunning. The likes of you will not obey me. You will tell me that you intend to be as still as a rock, and yet I know you will dart from shadow to shadow like a fish.”

Hyeon is the illegitimate daughter of Lord Shin, who refuses to acknowledge her as his daughter. In their kingdom, Hyeon is seen as ‘belonging’ only to her mother, one of Lord Shin’s concubines, and therefore belongs to the ‘cheonmin class’ which she describes as ‘the lowest of the low’. Hyeon refuses to grow up into her mother however and dedicates herself to the study of medicine, eventually earning the coveted position of palace nurse. Hyeon hopes that her hard-work and ambition will result in her father’s approval but he continues to largely ignore her existence.
Hyeon’s life is upended when four women are murdered at the palace, most of whom were nurses like her. After her beloved mentor is accused and arrested for these murders Hyeon is determined to clear her name. Concerning rumours around the city claim that the Crown Prince is the killer, and Hyeon has no choice but to pursue this lead, even if doing so could potentially result in her ruin. Thankfully, Hyeon doesn’t have to navigate this world of dangerous court intrigues alone as she is aided by Eojin, an actual police officer. Eojin has some personal reasons for wanting to find the real killer so the two decide to combine their efforts. As they confront various people of interest they slowly begin to untangle the truth…of course, not everyone is happy with that and Hyeon risks losing what she’s worked so hard for.

The stakes were certainly high in this novel so I found myself reading this in quite a short amount of time, wanting to find out how our leads would manage to bring the real killer to justice.
The historical setting is the most well-developed aspect of the narrative. While there were some interactions that had slightly ‘modern’ dynamics (especially between the two leads), overall I liked the amount of detail that went into the setting. The author does use Hyeon as an ‘intermediary’ to the Joseon period (she sometimes forget certain key factors of her society, and asks someone to fill her in, other times she explains about Confucianism or other things that she would not really need to ‘explain’ to herself) but it kind of works as Hyeon does function as an extension of the reader. Her Daddy Issues™ and her role as a nurse are her main defining characteristic, which didn’t make for a truly fleshed out and fully dimensional character. All of the characters, in general, were fairly one-note, even Eojin. The story was more interested in establishing and exploring the setting and the mystery than in developing its characters. I am the type of reader who prefers character-driven stories (rather than plot-driven) so I wasn’t quite able to love this as much as I hoped I would. The mystery itself was a bit predictable, but that’s probably because I have read a ton of thrillers and whodunnits…(and watched one too many scooby-doo episodes/movies). Still, even if the storyline was vaguely formulaic I liked learning more about the Joseon era and I appreciated that the story isn’t romance heavy. Hyeong struggle for self-worth and self-actualization in a society that sees her as ‘less than’ was compelling, and the author also does a good job in regards to her conflicted feelings towards her father (wanting his love and respect while at the same time resenting what he stands for and the way he has treated her and his mother). The writing was at times a bit too dramatic and cheesy for my tastes (“silence fell, as chilling as the shadows enveloping us”, “a thought lurked in the far shadows of my mind”, “we seemed to have, in that moment, merged into one mind with one purpose: find the killer, find the truth”, “revenge begets revenge […] we become the monsters we are trying to punish”, “[her] mouth parted as though in a silent scream”). Still, I recognize that this type of style may very well work for other readers.
The romance was surprisingly cute. In fact, the ‘partnership’ between our leads was one of the most enjoyable things about the story. During their shared scenes Hyeon character became a bit more rounded and interesting.

All in all, I liked The Red Palace well enough! I would definitely recommend you check this one out for yourself and make up your own mind about it.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Crossings by Alex Landragin

Alex Landragin has written an ambitious tale, one that begins with the following line: “I didn’t write this book. I stole it.”
This prologue, written by a bookbinder, tells us of how this manuscript has come to be in his hands. The manuscript in question comprises three seemingly separate books: ‘The Education of a Monster’ written and narrated by Charles Baudelaire, ‘City of Ghosts’ which consists in diary entries from Walter Benjamin, and ‘Tales of the Albatross’ which follows Alula, who lives on Oaeetee, a remote island in the Pacific.

Crossings can be read in the conventional way or the Baroness way (which gives page particular page numbers one has to jump to at the end of a chapter). I read it the Baroness way, and I believe I made the ‘right’ choice. The Baroness sequence, unlike the traditional one, intertwines chapters from each section (Alula’s, Charles’, Benjamin’s), making the connection between these three narratives much more clear.
To give more information on the plot (or maybe, I should say, many plots) would risk giving the novel away. I will try to be as vague as possible: the novel will take readers across time and space, combing genres and playing with tone and style.

As much as I enjoyed the labyrinthine and story-within-story structure of this novel, I was ultimately disappointed by its characters and the ‘star-crossed lovers’ theme that unifies these seemingly disparate narratives. Alula, someone I wanted to root for, commits a particularly heinous act, one that she quickly absolves herself of, reassuring herself that she did what she did ‘for the greater good’.
The personality of the two supposed main characters never truly came across. While it made sort of sense, given the conditions they are in, I wanted some more interiority on their part. Additionally, Alula sounded very much like a Western woman. This could be excused away, given the direction that her story takes her in, but her voice still lacked authenticity.
While the author renders in minute detail aspects of the time he writes of, I wonder why he brought two real-life figures into the folds of his story. After all, Baudelaire’s work isn’t exestively discussed, nor does it actually play a significant role in the story (a Baudelaire society appears now and again but it seemed more a prop than anything else). It seemed that by making Baudelaire and Benjamin into his protagonists the author was trying to spruce up his otherwise boring narrators.
The villain, who comes out with things ‘we are not so different you and I’, was painfully clichéd and not at all intimidating.
This novel will definitely appeal to fans of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or even Stuart Turton’s The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. A novel that reads like a puzzle, one that combines different styles and genres.
While I did enjoy the adventure-aspect of this novel, and its structure is certainly impressive, I can’t say that it left an impression on me.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley — review

9781473632523.jpgAlthough I did—for the most part—find Lucy Worsley’s prose to be compelling, I thought that many of her arguments were unconvincing and biased.
Of course historians have their biases, but shouldn’t they at least try to distance themselves from their subject?
The problem I have with this biography props up in the author’s introduction:

“While I’ll try to put Jane back into her social class and time, I must admit that I also write as a signed up ‘Janeite’, a devotee and worshipper. I too have searched for my own Jane, and naturally I have found her to be simply a far, far better version of myself: clever, kind, funny, but also angry at the restrictions of her life, someone tirelessly searching for ways to be free and creative. I know who I want Jane Austen to be, and I put my cards on the table. This is, unashamedly, the story of my Jane, every word of it written with love.”

Although in this instance Worsley is being upfront of her lack of objectivity, her biography on Austen seems quick to dismiss and criticise other historians’ vision of Austen. She is critical of their attempts to romanticise Austen, both her personality and life. Yet she falls for the very same trap, as the Austen that emerges from this longwinded biography is very much a heroine, one that could easily feature in Austen’s own novels.
Worsley’s cleverly implements certain sections of Austen’s own letters to corroborate with her image of this author. At times her suppositions and speculations regarding Austen’s character and motivation are made to seem as facts. Unlike other historians and biographers, who often misconstrued Austen’s personality and life, Worsley seems to imply at a personal connection to her subject, one that makes her into one few capable to discerning the truth about Austen. Curiously enough Worsley reveals that: “I was once a pupil at the Abbey School myself, and Jane Austen was our most famous ex-student”.
And often Worsley used this BBC-type of tone that sounded both patronising and childish. Her attempts to engage the reader seemed a bit cheesy.

“What a treat. And just up the road from the cottage, at Chawton Great House, lived one of Jane’s favourite girls in the whole family, Fanny Austen.”

There were lots of surelys and no wonders, and a lot of rhetorical questions, which yeah, didn’t really work. If anything they reminded of her presence.

“But if you follow me this far in the idea that Jane was undermining the very moment where you’d expect marriage to be most praised, there could be an explanation. Remember that ‘double-voiced’ nature of Jane’s letters? The same applies to her novels. At first reading, these are stories about love and marriage and the conventional heterosexual happily-ever-after. Only at the second does a sneaky doubt perhaps creep in to suggest that maybe marriage is not the best thing that could ever happen to these women.”

Worsley’s biography on Austen isn’t as poignant or as revolutionary as its biographer seems to think. She treats her subject with too much familiarity, and her interjections had an almost jarring effect (there were a lot of “I think” and “I wonder”).

“I hope that he hadn’t told Jane what he was doing, so that she did not have to face the instant rejection.”

Worse still is that Worsley bases many of her arguments regarding Austen’s personality and actions on the author’s own novels. While I’m sure that when writing her novels Austen will have drawn inspiration from some of her own experiences, to solely link her life to those of her fictional characters makes for a rather skewed account of the author herself. These comparisons were thin at best, and most of the time plainly misleading.

“It has been suggested that with these clever layers of meaning, Jane was perhaps even more subversive than we give her credit for.”

Worsley tries to elevate herself, suggesting time and again that only she views the true Austen (going against her very own words since she initially stated that her Austen was very much hers). Yet, to me, the Worsley’s Austen is an unconvincing and unabashedly fictionalised version of the real author.
This is a less a biography than a fictionalised take on Austen, one from a self-confessed ‘Janeite’ who is quick to knock down other historians accounts and readings of Austen’s life and letters
The biography also had this weird insertions that seemed adverts of some sort:

“While Jane did not forget Lyme, the town did not forget her, either. You can still eat at Jane’s Cafe, walk in Jane Austen’s Garden, and buy souvenirs in the Persuasion gift shop today.”

Still, I did find that when Worsley was merely writing about the Georgian era (the lifestyle and traditions of those of Austen’s class). There were some interesting tidbits abut their customs and daily routines.
Overall however I don’t recommend reading this if you are looking for to read some informative, or credible, material about Austen. Worsley’s constant snubs at her ‘competitors’ were tiring, especially considering that she seems to do exactly the same thing.
Just because she is a fan doesn’t make her opinion of Austen more valid or true. Yes, while everyone can certainly believe that they have a certain connection to an author or historical figure, to use this ‘connection’ to validate one’s interpretation of this person is ill-advised. Excusing your partiality by saying that it was done ‘with love’ is a bit of a cheap trick.

“I like to think that this last, insubstantial image of Jane running through the Hampshire grass in fact shows her running away from all the eager hungry biographers keen to get their teeth into her.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars

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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

“The great tragic love story of Percy and me is neither great nor truly a love story, and is tragic only for its single-sidedness. It is also not an epic monolith that has plagued me since boyhood, as might be expected. Rather, it is simply the tale of how two people can be important to each other their whole lives, and then, one morning, quite without meaning to, one of them wakes to find that importance has been magnified into a sudden and intense desire to put his tongue in the other’s mouth.”

A sweet and fluffy read that follows Monty – the son of an earl – and his misadventures through Europe. Monty, our protagonist, is the force of this novel. His voice is incredibly funny and, often, too honest: even when he acts like a prat, it was hard not to like him. He is just so engaging and fleshed out that by the end of the third chapter I already felt as if I knew him. His escapades in Europe are, for the most part, pure entertainment: highwaymen, pirates, angry dukes, alchemical compounds…this book has them all.
Percy and Felicity make for some more sensible company, although that doesn’t make them any less likeable. Despite the highly hilarious scenarios our main characters finds themselves in, most of the time because of something Monty has done or said, Lee still manages to address more serious issues: Monty doesn’t realize his own privilege, causing him and Percy to argue, given that Percy’s epilepsy and skin colour cause him to be ill-treated, while Felicity, being a female, is unable to pursue the medical studies that fascinate her so.
Monty’s character growth and adventures make a winsome combination. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an absorbing read that is both cute and bittersweet. Go read this!

My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

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