Skim by Mariko Tamaki

Who knew that I would come across something that would make me feel nostalgia for the mid-2000s? Skim is a compelling coming-of-age story that is bound to make you feel nostalgic for the mid-2000s (even if you, like me, didn’t strictly ‘come of age’ in that time). Skim captures the angst, confusion, heartache, and loneliness experienced by its titular character with empathy and insight. Kimberly Keiko Cameron, who goes by the nickname of ‘Skim’, is an aspiring Wiccan goth enrolled at a private girls school. She has a best friend who is very much vocal about her dislike and contempt for the ‘popular’ girls or anything she deems mainstream. When Katie Matthews, one of said popular girls, is dumped by her boyfriend who then goes on to commit suicide, well, the school is thrown into chaos. Some students are very much into performing their grief, exaggerating their connection to the boy and the impact that his death has had on them. Others cluster around Katie, their attempts at comforting her bordering on the oppressive. The staff is made newly aware of the importance of their students’ mental health and identify Skim, a quiet Goth, as someone to keep their eye on. Skim herself sinks further into depression as her only friend becomes increasingly toxic. When Skim develops an infatuation with one of her teachers, well, things get even more complicated for her.
I liked how this graphic novel avoids the usual teen coming-of-age tropes. Skim may be a bit of an outsider but, as we see, the social hierarchies within her school aren’t wholly inflexible (not all of the popular girls hate her or are portrayed as boy-crazed & vapid). Additionally, just because you aren’t part of the popular clique, does not mean you are necessarily a nice person (take Skim’s BFF for example). At times you can grow apart from a friend without any real ‘reason’. Much of the story reads like a slice-of-live dealing with suicide, depression, alternative culture, sexuality, and first love. The narrative never felt moralistic or contrived and I loved the pacing of the story. Skim was a likeable and relatable character who is dealing with a lot of different emotions and can’t quite make sense of what she wants or who she wants to be.
In addition to loving Mariko Tamaki’s storytelling, I adored Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations. Her style has a sketchy edge to it that goes hand in hand with Mariko’s narrative.

I loved how at the ending two characters come together and it is left open to interpretation whether their relationship is platonic or romantic. I did wish for a slightly longer conclusion, but then again, that just may be because I did not want to leave Skim and her world behind. The teacher-student relationship could also have been addressed a bit more. Still, these are minor things and I would happily read this graphic novel again & again.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

“Every time I was around them, they acted like I was a monster. So I said goddamnit, I’ll be the worst monster you ever saw!”

This novella takes place in 1920s New York. Charles Thomas Tester is a bit of a ‘hustler’ who sings and plays his guitar on the streets even if he isn’t a particularly talented musician. Still, he gives it a go trying to earn some money to support himself and his father. Whenever he ventures outside of Harlem he’s subjected to racist slurs, stared/glared at by white people, and harassed by the cops. He eventually finds himself coming into contact with a mysterious tome, a sorceress, and a wealthy white man who may be dabbling in the occult.

Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? Even monsters hold high opinions of themselves.

While the premise did intrigue me I had a hard time following the story. The first few pages are straightforward enough but once Tom comes into contact with that old man (i’ve forgotten his name) I just had a hard time understanding what was going and the characters’ motivations. It didn’t help that the narrative tone is slightly at a remove from the characters, which was a pity as we don’t get to delve into Tom’s character. He makes a few puzzling choices or says a few odd things that just…I’m not sure, I just didn’t fully comprehend what was going with his character. I also disliked that that cop, Malone or whatever his name was, gets so much page time. Towards the end, he seems to have more scenes than Tom himself. The narrative had already established that he’s racist and a genuinely abhorrent human being. So no, I didn’t feel particularly keen on spending time alongside him, especially when that time could have served to make Tom into less of a puzzling character. That wealthy decrypt white guy also…I didn’t buy into him. I get that his attempts to awaken whatever evil supernatural forces he wanted to awaken were meant to be OTP, however, I still found him to be a plot device more than a character (even calling him a caricature seems too generous).
Still, I did for the most part like the author’s style. The story has a strong sense of place and there are some clever descriptions. However, I can’t say that, on the whole, I found this novella particularly gripping or insightful. If you happen to like modern takes on Lovecraftian/cosmic horror this may be the right read for you.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

And so my latest TRC re-read has come to an end. What an outstanding series. Truly. I cannot even begin to articulate how much this series means to me and how much I love it.

In this finale, the stakes are higher than ever and a lot of things Stiefvater has hinted at in the previous instalments come to the fore. The Raven King makes for a bittersweet read. While Stiefvater’s delightful humor is still present, there are several scenes that are just brimming with sadness & melancholy. In a way, this mirrors the shift in tone and reflects how far the characters have come since their early days in TRC. That is not to say that they still don’t make mistakes or say the wrong things, but they have at least learnt how to communicate more with one another. Their experiences have made them more mature, and witnessing this ‘growth’ makes for such a rewarding experience.

With the exception of The Dream Thieves, which is pure gasoline, the other volumes in this series are characterised by a calmer pace. In The Raven King this too changes as the narrative is very much action-driven. Stuff just keeps happening and at times I missed the more tranquil pacing of TRC or BLLB. Still, I was very much hooked on the story. We get some great reveals and character development. Stiefvater’s storytelling is always on point, from the atmosphere she creates through the use of repetition to the vividly rendered setting of Henrietta (and Cabeswater, Monmouth Manufacturing, 300 Fox Way, the Barns)
As per usual, I adore the Gangsey. Gansey is going through a lot. While he’s certainly good at pretending that he’s control, there are various things that happen here that threaten his ‘everything is going swell act’. Adam is still learning more about his abilities but without Persephone there to guide him, he has to learn to trust his friends and himself. Blue’s reunion with her long-absent father is not particularly ideal as he refuses to talk to anyone. Ronan…my poor boy.
These characters truly are the heart of this series. I did find myself wanting more scenes of them together, and part of me resented that we get less of them in favour of introducing Henry. I like him, I do. I can tell Stiefvater cares for him and wants us to feel the same. The thing is, I would have preferred it if he’d been introduced earlier on in the series or if he’d played a more minor role. His presence in the narrative makes it so that we get less of Noah and less of Adam&Gansey or Ronan&Gansey…I also found myself missing the OG quest. In the previous books, Glendower is very much the goal and Gansey often talks about history and myths…here instead Glendower seemed an afterthought almost that only comes into play towards the end. But these things were fairly minor things.

A lot happens in The Raven King, so much so that we don’t really have the time to process some of the more heart-wrenching scenes (if you’ve read this you know). As I was reluctant to say goodbye to these characters part of me wishes that we could have had a longer epilogue…still, I’m extremely grateful to Stiefvater for what she has accomplished with TRC.
While TRK isn’t my favourite book in this series I still found it to be a fantastic read. I am in awe of this series.
I’m so happy that Stiefvater went on to write Call Down the Hawk and Mister Impossible. While the tonal shift may not appeal to all, personally, I think it really works in its favour.

my rating: ★★★★★

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The Witch’s Hand by Nathan Page

The main reason why I read The Witch’s Hand was Maggie Stiefvater’s 5-star review for it (what can I say, I trust in Stiefvater). And I’m so glad I did! Way back when I had an ahem Scooby-Doo phase (not only did I watch 20+ Scooby-Doo animated films but I also ended up devouring the two Mystery Incorporated seasons…all over the course of one summer. I know, I had a problem.) so I was immediately drawn to The Witch’s Hand: we have the small-town setting (with a, you guessed it, creepy lighthouse) + a bunch of kids trying to solve a mystery. We follow orphaned twins Pete and Alastair Montague who spend most of their time solving mysteries. Their latest case may be more complicated than their previous one as it may involve a witch and magic.
The retro art really suited the setting (1960s) and I liked the banter between the various characters. Yes, the bad guy was a bit too Disneyesque for my taste but I also appreciated the YA tone of the story (as opposed to middle-grade) and its atmosphere. I look forward to reading the next instalment as I would be happy to read more of the Montague twins and their antics.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

edit: it hasn’t even been a year and I have already re-read this. This book slaps.

Ninth House can be best described as: “talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same, totally unique, completely not ever been done before…”

Leigh Bardugo sure showed me. I went in to this expecting the worst (most of my GR friends panned this book, and their less-than-impressed reviews are hilarious) and soon found myself amazed by how much I was vibing with it.
Ninth House‘s campus setting brought to mind urban fantasy series such as Richelle Mead’s Bloodlines and Rachel Caine’s The Morganville Vampires but with the kind of magical elements and aesthetics from The Raven Cycle, or even Holly Black ‘s Modern Faerie Tales, and the dark tone of Vita Nostra. In brief, Ninth House was 100% up my lane.

“There were always excuses for why girls died.”

It took me a few chapters to familiarise myself with the story and its protagonist as when we are first introduced to Yale student Galaxy “Alex” Stern its early spring and shit has already hit the fan (ie she has clearly been through a lot). Thankfully the narrative takes us back to the autumn and winter terms, and we get to read of the events that lead to that prologue.
Alex’s ability to see ghosts (called ‘grays’) has caught the attention of Lethe (aka the Ninth House) a secret society that keeps in check the occult activities of the Yale’s eight secret societies (if you are wondering, yes, they do exist in real-world Yale…). She’s offered a place at Yale, for a price: Alex is to be Lethe’s ‘Dante’, who under the guidance of ‘Virgil’, ensures that the eight houses are obeying Yale’s rules. Each house practices a different kind of ‘magic’, but, it becomes quite apparent that magic, of whatever form or type, in this novel is not an easy or strictly ethical endeavour.
Alex, is just trying to survive. She run away from home as a teenager, started using downers to suppress her ability, lived with a man who abused her, and was the sole survivor of a multiple homicide. The girl is dealing with a lot of trauma and she’s kind of mess. Her mentor, Darlington, comes from a drastically different background. He’s white, wealthy, educated. Yet, in a manner very reminiscent to Gansey from TRC, he feels mundane and wants more. The two had a great chemistry (not in the romantic sense, at least, not in this first novel) and I appreciated the way in which Bardugo doesn’t present any of them as being ‘good’ or ‘heroes’ of some sort. If it wasn’t hard enough to adapt to Yale and Lethe, the societies may have had something to do with the murder of a ‘townie’. While almost every person she encounters tries to wave away her suspicions, Alex knows that the societies had something to do with it.

“I’m in danger, she wanted to say. Someone hurt me and I don’t think they’re finished. Help me. But what good had that ever done?”

If you ever craved a dark academia novel with a paranormal twist, this is it. But, as pointed out in many other reviews, this novel is Dark with a capital D. There are explicit scenes depicting sexual assault, rape, abuse, death, and other unpleasant, if not downright gory, things. It never struck me as gratuitous, anymore than I would call a novel by Stephen King gratuitous. The mystery kept me on the edge of my seat, the different timelines piqued my interest, the setting—of New Haven and Yale—was vividly rendered, the tone was gritty and real, the atmosphere was ‘edgy’ (in the best possible way), and the paranormal elements were hella innovative. I loved the descriptions of Alex’s environment, the attention paid to the architecture, the tension between her and the other characters, the momentum of her investigation. Yale is a haunted place, in more than one way. Bardugo combines fantasy elements with a sharp commentary on privilege, corruption, accountability. The story’s is an indictment against abuse of power and against violence (towards women, minorities, those deemed ‘expandable’). Trauma is not pretty, and Bardugo does not romanticise it in Alex. Speaking of Alex, she was a memorable character. I loved her for her strength and her vulnerability. Her cutting humour provided a few moments of respite from the novel’s otherwise dark tone.

Prior reading this novel I wouldn’t have called myself a ‘fan’ of Bardugo. I liked her YA stuff but I was never ‘blown’ away by it. Her foray into adult fiction has changed that.

my rating: ★★★★★

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The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

“Creature was a good word for him, Ronan thought. What the hell am I?”

Every time I read this I am

blown

away.

This novel, I swear, is something else.

The Dream Thieves is pure adrenaline. Ronan Lynch is my favourite asshole, which is probably why The Dream Thieves is my favourite book in The Raven Cycle series (and one of my favourite books period). Ronan is such a complex character. On the surface he has this ‘I don’t give a shit’ attitude that often results in him saying or doing rude and or reckless stuff. He’s addicted to trouble and makes no compunction about saying what’s on his mind. In The Raven Boys we don’t get his pov so this novel provides us with our first glimpses of his inner workings. His ability of course is very much a central part of who he is and I love how ‘dreaming’ works in TRC.
I love the shifting dynamics and knowing looks that take place between the various members of the Glendower gang. I also really appreciate how Stiefvater never reveals too much about her characters or their motivations/feelings. She hints at things but always leaves room for ambiguity, and I love her for it. The friendships between the various characters are intense and as complicated as the characters themselves. The fracturing that occurs between Adam and Gansey always gets to me, especially as Stiefvater makes it so that neither boy is exactly to blame.
There are a lot of car chases, many dreamed things, a surprisingly endearing hit man, and so much yearning. The phone calls between Blue and Gansey always succeed in giving me the feels. And don’t even get me started on Ronan and his longing for a certain someone.
Stiefvater’s writing is as phenomenal as always. The rhythm created by her prose always brings to mind that of a fairy tale (there is repetition, names are important).
To say this novel makes for an absorbing is an understatement. Every time I’ve read it I manage to inhale it in the arc of 24 hours. Ronan is my favourite fictional character and this novel is in many ways just like him.

P.S. I’m not a car person, I don’t drive, I know nil about cars…but damn, every time I read this book (or think about this book) I find myself agreeing with Ronan: cars are sexy.

MY RATING: ★★★★★ 5 stars
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The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Re-reading The Raven Boys after having had my heart obliterated by Mister Impossible, well, it made me rather emotional. It’s almost ridiculous just how much I love this series and this first instalment. Reading it for the third time makes me all the more aware of just how talented a storyteller Maggie Stiefvater is. She’s a wordsmith and I will be forever in awe of her work.

The opening chapter may give you the impression that this is yet another YA romance novel about a cursed girl doomed to kill her true love….but it’s anything but. Stiefvater playfully pokes fun at Blue, one of our lead characters and the girl in question. She points out early on that she makes an effort to look quirky and weird and that she wants to be special and interesting…which is understandable given that she was right in an eccentric all-female household of fortune-tellers. Blue becomes entangled with a group of ‘raven boys’, who attended a private school and except for Adam, are loaded. One of them, Gansey, is on a quest to find a sleeping Welsh king that may be buried in their little town of Henrietta. The narrative switches between Blue, Gansey, and Adam’s perspectives, with the occasional chapter from someone who may pose a threat to our ‘Gangsey’.
There are tarot readings, visions, magical forests, Welsh mythology, ghosts, and plenty of magic. The setting of Henrietta is vivid and is central to the narrative’s ongoing mysteries and happenings, and the academia vibes and commentary on class and privilege add even more depth to the story and characters.

The dynamic between the characters is one of the most engrossing aspects of this novel. Rather than presenting her readers with ‘heroes and heroines’, paragons of beauty and virtue, Stiefvater’s characters, regardless of their role, are nuanced and messy. The raven boys and Blue can be insecure about themselves, each other, and their future. Their friendship is an intense one, and things are never easy between them. They frequently piss each other off (Ronan, my boy, excels at that), or, in trying to do ‘good’, end up hurting the other person (Gansey). While they each have their distinctive personality, Stiefvater never reveals too much about her characters, so that they always retain a certain ambiguity, an enticing air of mystery. Depending on what character we are following, well, we are getting their ‘view’ of things and other people so things tend to be skewed. This unreliability adds to the already intriguing mystery and makes the characters and their relationship to each other puzzles of sorts. We have Blue and Gansey, both of whom are full of want. Blue works really hard at appearing as this quirky ‘weirdo’ but in reality, much to her own annoyance, she’s an incredibly sensible person. Gansey is acting most of the time. Or at least, he plays the golden boy ‘Gansey’ that people seem to like, so he’s polite and charming, always keeping up this good front when all the while he’s just bottling up so many emotions. Adam, my unknowable boy, is painfully aware of his differences. He hates the idea of owing favours to anyone and resents Gansey and other raven boys for how blind they are to their own wealth. Meanwhile, he works three part-time jobs and lives in an abusive household. Ronan, my number one boy, is a dickhead. I love how mysterious his character is here. We don’t get his pov so we don’t really know what is going on with him but he has some of the best lines (and gets called out for behaving like a shit). Noah, the smudgy one, he’s…you know. My heart goes out to him. I adore his bond with Blue.

Stiefvater is a marvellous storyteller and her style carries a wonderful rhythm. I love the way she plays around with repetition and the way she describes her characters or how animated her scenes are (there are so many secret looks shared between the raven boys). She can be playful, giving us hints to later reveals or events, clever, in her word choices, dialogues, and descriptions, and endearingly funny.
The Raven Boys is an incredibly atmospheric book that will always have a special place in my heart. And while I have attempted to review this, words cannot truly express how much I love this series. Returning to this world and these characters, well, it feels like a homecoming.

MY RATING: ★★★★★ 5 stars
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The King of Crows by Libba Bray — book review

unnamed.jpgI hate to say it, or write it, but The King of Crows wasn’t a very satisfying conclusion to The Diviners series.

“Who got to decide what made somebody an American? America, the ideal of it at least, was its own form of elusive magic.”

While it isn’t as drawn-out as the finale to the Gemma Doyle series (which was around 800 pages) it struck me as being similarly anticlimactic.
In The King of Crows the pacing of the story is all over the place and the characters have very rushed and unsatisfying arcs.

Nearly three years have gone by since the release of Before the Devil Breaks You. Given that this series started back in 2012, it isn’t all that surprising that I’d forgotten a quite a few major plot-points. Still, I remembered the diviners, their personalities and powers, as well as their group dynamics. Libba Bray doesn’t spend too much time recapitulating old events, and once I caught up or remembered what was going on I found the first few chapters of this novel to be promising enough.
Once the diviners are scattered across America however the story’s upbeat pace comes to a halt. What follows over the course of the next three-hundred pages is a tedious repetition of similar scenarios.
The diviners encounter good folk, who are willing to help them or understand what it means to be different (such as the members of a circus), as well as horrible individuals and groups of people (the most noticeable being the KKK). They all come to terms with their simultaneously beautiful and terrible country/world. All the while we get random chapters showing us that ghosts are coming (phrases such as ‘ghosts are coming’ and ‘this country is full of ghosts’ are repeated so many times as to loose the initial sense of danger and urgency that they carried). The confusing showdown between our good guys (aka the diviners) and the baddies is crammed in the last hundred pages.
The narrative in The King of Crows lacked the mystery-factor that made the other volumes in this series intriguing.

In short: the story is just padding.

Characters behave as flimsy versions of their former selves (Evie and Ling, both of whom I previously really liked, were simply irritating) and had very rushed storylines that seemed to add very little to their overall arc.
Take Henry. Most of his scenes revolve around the way in which his sexuality is deemed abnormal by his society. That’s pretty much it. Ling’s sections also often emphasise her sexuality. Whereas those scenes that focus on characters such as Memphis and Theta seem to focus on other aspects of their lives (their general desires and fears, etc). Jericho has the most eye-roll worthy storyline which sees him (view spoiler).
Even the banter between the various diviners felt unimaginative. At times their conversations and discussions seem to rely on their catchphrases (Evie says something ‘scandalous’, Sam says something flirty, Jericho doesn’t get whatever is going on, Ling is disapproving…).
None of the romances were interesting. They mostly revolved around cute nicknames (such as baby vamp) and on scenes featuring some very uninspired flirting.

The King of Crows is a Disney type of villain. I remember that the first instalments of this series presented us with creepy or fascinating antagonists…but this guy is just dull. He has a few cameos here and there, scares our protagonists, does some mayhem, and is very much the novel’s boogeyman.

The setting too seemed to lack its usual spark and vibrancy. Previously I loved the way in which Bray brought 1920s New York to life. In this volume however most of the ‘action’ is outside of New York, and we read of a series of small and forgettable towns…which do not make very intriguing backdrops.

The plot was full of convenient coincidences. What frustrated me the most was a ‘revelation’ towards the end, which came as no surprise whatsoever (view spoiler)

Bray draws an unsubtle parallel between the rampant racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, othering, and other forms of bigotry of the 1920s and today’s political climate (there are phrases such as ‘get out of our country’). Her approaches to some of these topics came across as rather on the nose. For example when Theta learns that someone she likes was raised by slave-owners she has such an unbelievably naive ‘how could she?’ reaction.

The epilogue struck me as predictable….(view spoiler)

All in all…this was an incredibly disappointing followup to Before the Devil Breaks You.
While Bray is an undoubtedly good writer The King of Crows simply lacks the glamour and electricity that made the other instalments so much more engaging and atmospheric. It had a meandering narrative, with lots of repetition regarding the importance of storytelling and stories, a passage from Nietzsche which felt rather out of place, some lacklustre cosmic horror, and a cast of one-dimensional characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars 

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Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater — book review

Okay, I loved it even more this second time around.

This book is full of Stiefvaterisms (in the best possible way).

“This is going to be a story about the Lynch brothers.”

The very first line of Call Dawn the Hawk echoes that of a fairy tale and Maggie Stiefvater demonstrates just how impressive a storyteller she is throughout the course of her novel. There are many elements of her writing style that seem to mirror those of a fairy tale: she employs repetition and recurring motifs, ‘truth’ and ‘naming’ shape both the narrative and the characters, the words and images she uses have a certain significance. Stiefvater pays incredible attention to word she uses and to the way that certain phrases sound. Her use of repetition also gives a unique rhythm to her story. Yet her style doesn’t solely emulate that of a traditional fairy tale as she injects her prose with a good dose of modern aesthetics.

“This was stupid. Ronan was no hero, but he knew fucking right from fucking wrong.”

Call Dawn the Hawk stars one of my all time favourite ‘fictional’ characters: Ronan Lynch. Although he has somewhat ‘calmed’ down, most of what he feels and does is still undeniably Ronan-ish. It was tough seeing him struggle so much: he feels left behind by Adam (who is in college) and Gansey (who has taken a year off and is travelling alongside Blue). The ‘nighwash’ limits his movements, so much so that spending a night outside of the Barns can have quite destructive results.

“Ronan, with his dangerous dreams, sleeping some-place other than the Barns or Declan’s town house? Dubious. Moving someplace other than the Barns or Declan’s town house? Never.”

Stiefvater does a brilliant job in fleshing out Declan’s character. He had a rather limited role in The Raven Cycle so it was refreshing to see more of what goes on underneath his deceptively ‘bland’ exterior.

“He just didn’t think. For one second of one minute of the day, he didn’t run the probabilities and worst-case scenarios and possibilities and consequences. For one second of one minute of the day, he just let himself feel.”

I always liked Matthew’s character in the previous books. His innocence and happy-go-lucky attitude make a change from the other characters’ (especially his older brothers) more angsty personal arcs. It would be lovely to see him getting his own chapters in the next instalment of this series.
Scenes featuring the Lynch brothers are guaranteed to entertain. Their relationship is definitely…complicated…but also utterly compelling. Declan and Ronan clash so often but it is clear that they deeply care for one another (even if they have no idea how to expresses their love).
Surprisingly less complicated is Ronan’s relationship with Adam. It’s definitely not all roses and sunshine but we could definitely see how strong and mature their bond has become.

“They hugged, hard. It was shocking to hold him. The truth of him was right there beneath Ronan’s hands, and it still seemed impossible. He smelled like the leather of the thrift store jacket and the woodsmoke he’d ridden through to get here. Things had been the same for so long, and now everything was different, and it was harder to keep up than Ronan had thought.”

Stiefvater also does a great job in introducing us to new characters. It took me a while to warm up to them (this is partly due to the ambiguousness which surrounds them) but I soon became fond of them. Jordan and Hennessy are wonderful addition to this series. They each have their own distinctive personality and their bond was surprisingly complex. Jordan interacts in particular with Declan and I was surprised by how much I liked their banter. Hennessy and Ronan instead share the same mercurial personality so it was equally interesting to see them interact with one another.
The first time I read this Carmen Farooq-Lane’s chapters weren’t my favourite ones, but, upon a second reading I found myself really loving them.

“This was, she told herself, the business of the end of the world.”

Although at its bare bones the plot is rather formulaic (we have chapters following each individual character until slowly their paths converge) Stiefvater shakes this classic storyline up (people with powers + a mysterious government agency that wants to eradicate them + possibly the end of the world). She gives us some incredible sequences, brilliant dialogues, confusing dreamfuckery, the mysterious ‘Bryce’, and, of course, a cast of unforgettable characters.

Stiefvater has really honed her writing style. I loved the way she often mythicises her characters, so that they almost appear as if they are the protagonist of some myth or ballad. I also found the recurring imagery and symbols within this novel to be incredibly effective. They created a unique atmosphere and worked well with the rhythm of her language.
Stiefvater also portrays different types of faith with great realism. Learning of the various character’s beliefs, convictions, and general outlooks made them all the more believable. Interspersed throughout the narrative there are many compelling discussions and observations regarding art (from painting techniques to the lives or works of certain artists).
The pacing of this novel is pretty furious. Lots of things happen, each chapter furthers the plot (characters come across someone or certain information that contributes to their overall storyline).
The first time I read this I gave it 4.5 stars but upon a second reading I found myself 100% invested in everything that was happening. I loved it.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. I felt ‘emotionally’ involved and I found myself simultaneously wanting to read it all in one gulp and also never wanting it to end.

my rating: ★★★★★

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson – book review

Thomas-Ehretsmann-142-We-Have-Always-Lived-in-the-Castle.jpg

“Bow all your heads to our adored Mary Katherine.”

In recent years Shirley Jackson has experienced a kind of renascence. Perhaps because of Netflix’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House or possibly thanks to contemporary authors (such as Donna Tartt, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King) who have credited Jackson as their inspiration, enhancing her reputation, and prompting a reappraisal of her work. The fact that the Gothic and Horror genres—long regarded as cheap and sensational—are no longer considered ‘lowbrow’ fiction has also contributed to this reassessment of Jackson’s oeuvre. Modern readers now see Jackson as a central figure of the America Gothic as much of her fiction paints a fascinating—if not disturbing—portrait of postwar America . Yet, I find it difficult to pigeonhole Jackson as a Horror writer. Her narratives often feature emotionally disturbed women who are trapped within Kafkaesque worlds. They reality they presents us with seems off. Jackson seems to magnify the way in which traditions and societal expectations threaten one’s individuality and creativity. Most of her stories follow a woman’s ‘quest’ to find or maintain her identify. The ‘horror’ within Jackson’s stories is experienced by her characters. It is because most of her protagonists are labelled as ‘different’ that they are made vulnerable. Yet, readers will often find that all of Jackson’s characters behave with eccentricity (there are whole towns and communities populated by weird people…a bit a la A Series Of Unfortunate Events). In spite of this our protagonists are still singled out, often because they seem more interested in practicing their personal brand of witchcraft than of engaging with the rest of their world.
Madness and evil pervade Jackson’s writing to the extent that even her depictions of everyday occurrences are riddled with human weaknesses, fears, and cruelties. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle evil takes many forms.

The protagonist of We Have Always Lived in the Castle—which happens to be Jackson’s last published novel—has no interest in personal growth. Mary Katherine, who goes by the nickname of Merricat (quite fitting given that she often behaves like her closest companion, a black cat named Jonas), is an untame and defiant tomboy whose apparent ingenuousness hides a razor-alert mind. Six years before the events of the narrative—at the age of twelve—Merricat’s mother, father, aunt, and younger brother died after eating sugar laced with arsenic. Constance, Merricat’s older sister, is accused and acquitted of the crime.
Ostracised from their village, Merricat and Constance have become completely estranged from society. At the age of eighteen—free from her parents’ rules—Merricat has fashioned Blackwood Manor into her own private and idyllic world. The two sisters and Uncle Julian—who survived the poisoning but is now wheelchair-bound and increasingly senile—lead a life that is relatively quiet and governed by the daily chores and the ritual of mealtimes. Constance is in charge of the cooking and spends most of her days looking after Uncle Julian and completing household chores with Merricat, whom she treats with loving indulgence, often condoning Merricat’s disturbing behaviour by saying “silly Merricat”. When Constance voices her desire to go outside of the property, Merricat fear of this begins to manifests itself in her surroundings, skewing the way she perceives her reality so that she views ordinary things as ‘omens’ that “spoke of change.” Merricat attempts to regain control of the situation through her witchcraft and by breaking objects but with cousin Charles’ unannounced visit, Merricat is forced to take more drastic approaches to self-preservation.

A third fourth reading of this short and beautifully odd novel has made me even more appreciative of Shirley Jackson’s mastery of words. The first time I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle I was propelled into an increasingly puzzling yet utterly compelling story. During my second reading, I payed more attention to all of the novel’s components, rather than just getting swept along the bizarrely unapologetic storyline. Each time I re-read this novel, I love it even more. Jackson doesn’t feel the need to explain the surreal reality of her novels which makes readers such as me all the more in awe of her craft. Although it is difficult to draw comparisons, I could describe her style as David Lynch meets Tim Burton. Everything and everyone within this novel is peculiar and most scenes and conservations seem to hold a level of absurdity. Merricat’s narrative is also marked by a sense of growing unease (towards change, the future, anything other than her own version of reality) and the tension created by her various anxieties is alleviated by the story’s dark humour.

There are many different layers to We Have Always Lived in the Castle. One the one hand, it is exactly what its reputation promises it to be: an incredibly eerie and compelling short novel. On the other hand, it also delves into many challenging and unsettling subjects, such as paranoia, persecution and violence. Shirley Jackson does not shy away from portraying the darker corners of human nature, in fact, she delves right into the darkest parts of the human psyche.
On the surface, Merricat’s alienation is debilitating yet a closer look suggests that her estrangement from her society is act of self-preservation, one that is both empowering and subversive, allowing them to defy the societal norms and expectations of their time. Throughout the course of her narrative she attempts—for better or worse—to shape and maintain her own identities, refusing the role thrust upon her by her society. In Jackson’s novels, a world of fantasy is preferable to the ‘real’ world, which is populated by people who perform acts of cruelty, physical brutality and or psychological violence against those they perceive as ‘outsiders’. Merricat, who embodies the feared ‘other’ through her unwillingness, if not outright refusal, to adhere to established social conventions, is the ideal scapegoats of her community.

Merricat’s megalomania shows itself through her desire to exact punishments and for designating things and people as either “good” or “bad”. Her dichotomous view of the world causes her to behave in extremes: she varies between acting like a feral child, a sulky adolescent, and a seemingly Cassandra-like individual. Merricat obeys her childish impulses, and readily resorts to violence when not getting her way. Although Merricat sounds much younger than her eighteen years, her naivety is misleading, and her fantasies can easily move between those of a child (“I really only want a winged horse, anyway. We could fly you to the moon and back, my horse and I”) and those of a far more ruthless and dangerous person.
Her sadistic fantasies, her manipulation and subordination of Constance, and her desire to frighten others (“I always thought about rot when I came toward the row of stores; I thought about burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully. I wished it on the village.” ) reveal Merricat’s cunning awareness. Readers might find her charming, yet warped perspective jarring, especially since she avoids explaining her most malevolent deeds.

Merricat’s surreal inner world is conveyed through her first-person narration and readers are granted a unique insight into some of her mental strategies that she uses to feel protected from world around her’. To an outsider like her cousin Charles, many of Merricat’s actions seem to be unwarranted temper tantrums. Readers, on the other hand, know that Merricat always attributes a meaning—however absurd or far-fetched it may appear—to her every action and word. We are aware that she deliberately smashes objects in an effort to regain control over her life.
Merricat’s tendency to let her fantasies dictate her behaviour, turning her imagination into reality, distances herself from the ever-present threat of reality. She attempts to change and control aspects of her life through magical charms and fantasies, with little direct engagement with the outside world. Merricat’s need of control could possibly stems from her ‘fear of change’ which in turn causes her to perceive anything outside her and Constance’s established routine, such as the arrival of uninvited guests, as a threat to their wellbeing. Merricat tries to deflect ‘change’ through her own unique brand of witchcraft, which consists in the performance of various magical rituals, the burying of various ‘safeguards’, unspoken ‘spells’, and even the occasional“‘offering of jewellery out of gratitude”. Merricat draws strength from her belief in magic. What Charles—and presumably the rest of society—would see as childish games, Merricat views as the means to safeguard her future and protect her from the outside.

It is up to Merricat to fashion her home, Blackwood Manor, into a ‘castle’—a stronghold—which she can protect through various magical rituals and wards, and Merricat believes that nothing—and no one—can prevent her from projecting her fantastical and solipsistic view of the world onto her reality.
Shirley Jackson’s style is perfectly attuned to Merricat’s unnerving mind. Her obsessive and impulsive nature is fluidly conveyed by Jackson’s repetitive and rhythmical writing. Jackson also evokes a surrealisms reminiscent of fairy tales through the Merricat’s childlike urges and morbid fascination.
Merricat is a beguiling narrator. Her playful fantasies are juxtaposed against the most violent and bizarre thoughts. Her devotion to her sister borders on the obsessive yet it is through this puzzling relationship that we see a more genuine side to Merricat’s character. In spite of her selfish nature, her palpable fears and unique worldview make her into a fascinating protagonist. Once the stability of the sisters’ purposely reclusive existence is threatened, Merricat survives through her active fantasy. She retreats into the deepest parts of her made-up world. And it is her increasingly desperate attempts to retain control over both Constance’s and her own life that make her into such a brilliant character. Even in those instances where she ‘simply’ observes others, Merricat is always ‘there’, her presence unmissable to the readers.

Her sister Constance also demonstrates worrying behaviour. She too is initially in complete denial over the family’s status. She is in some things, rather controlling, while in other instances, she seemed…on another planet. While Constance remains a cypher of sorts, we see why Merricat needs her.
Uncle Julian ramblings were endearing and his sharp remarks provided much entertainment. Much of the story’s humour springs from his character.
Merricat perceives cousin Charles a threat right from the start. The scenes featuring him are brimming with tension: Merricat’s apprehension is all too real, and I found myself viewing him as an ‘enemy’, just as she does. Merricat’s descriptions of him often present him as something not quite human, a ghost or some such creature. While we can see that some of his criticisms towards Constance and Merricat had some truth, we are always seeing him through Merricat’s eyes.

The underlying suspense, the growing unease, make this uncanny tale hard to put down.The vivid descriptions are simply tantalising, the surreal quality of the characters’ conversations is darkly amusing and the atmospheric setting is almost tangible. We Have Always Lived in the Castle makes for a lush and macabre read, one that will probably strike you as weird yet ultimately compelling. It could be read as a fairy-tale of sorts, an alternative to folklore narratives, or as a story that sets otherness against ‘herd’ mentality.
Recently there has been a film adaptation of this novel (you can watch the trailer for it here) which, in spite of some minor alterations, brings to life Jackson’s story. It conveys the novel’s unapologetic weirdness, its idiosyncrasies, and its black humour. The film Stoker also seems to have drawn inspiration from this novel.
The first page of this novel perfectly encapsulates its style and tone. If you are uncertain whether this is the kind of story for you, I recommend you read its opening paragraph:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”

edit: I’ve now read this 6 times and I find myself still in love with it. Jackson is a brilliant storyteller and We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a marvel of a book.

My rating: ★★★★★ stars

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illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann