Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

“He spoke the spell under his breath, still a little uncertain after the agonies he had endured. But magic came, ever his friend—magic answered his call.”

Written in a playful pastiche style Sorcerer to the Crown will certainly appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, and Diana Wynne Jones. Cho’s bombastic prose, characterized by an Austenesque sense of humor, and madcap fantasy of manners story were a delight to read.
The first time I read this, back in 2015/6, I did, truth be told, struggle to get into Cho’s high register language. But, the more I read, the more I familiarised myself with her lofty and loquacious style. Sorcerer to the Crown was a brilliant read, a real blast!

“In truth magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition and profligate with its gifts to high and low.”

Set in an alternate Regency England, Sorcerer to the Crown follows Zacharias Wythe, the country’s first Black Sorcerer Royal, who was raised by his recently deceased predecessor, Sir Stephen. While Zacharias clearly respected and was grateful to Sir Stephen, the two didn’t always see eye to eye. Moreover, Zacharias can’t forget that Sir Stephen bought and freed him, separating from his own family. This being Regency England Zacharias is treated with open animosity by most of his colleagues, some of whom are actively attempting to besmirch his name, claiming that he’s responsible for England’s decline of magic and Sir Stephen’s death. Zacharias is an incredibly level-headed individual, a thinker not a fighter. He’s serious, studious, punctilious. He’s also fair, loyal, and endearingly naïve. Yet, even he can’t quite keep his calm when his reputation, and life, are under attack. Attempting to clear his name and to discover the reason behind England’s magic drought, he leaves London.

“Magic was too strong a force for women’s frail bodies—too potent a brew for their weak minds—and so, especially at a time when everyone must be anxious to preserve what magical resource England still possessed, magic must be forbidden to women.”

He visits Mrs. Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches, a place that is meant to snuff any magic from its pupils. In England, the only women who are ‘allowed’ to practice magic are those from the lower classes (and can only use spells to facilitate their daily chores/tasks). Due to her ‘questionable’ parentage (ie her mother was not an Englishwoman) Prunella Gentlemen, similarly to Zachariah, has always been treated as an outsider. Prunella is an orphan who thanks to her ‘generous’ benefactor, Mrs. Daubeney, was, for the most part, treated like the other students. When an incident threatens to change this, Prunella decides to take matters into her own hands and forge her own path to happiness.

“Your amoral ingenuity in the pursuit of your interest is perfectly shocking,” said Zacharias severely.
“Yes, isn’t it?” said Prunella, pleased.

Zacharias and Prunella cross paths and form a camaraderie of sorts. While Prunella is still very much self-serving, repeatedly going behind Zacharias’ back or eliding important information & discoveries, she does seem to enjoy bantering with Zacharias. Together they face disgruntled magicians, engage in some magical mishaps, attend/crash a ball, confront angry magical creatures, try to reason with a formidable witch, partake in discussions with some rather tedious thaumaturgist, and challenge the Society’s long-established traditions and hierarchies.

““Why, all the greatest magic comes down to blood,” said Mak Genggang. “And who knows blood better than a woman?”

While the witty dialogues and droll characters result in delightfully humourous, within her narrative Cho incorporates a sharp social commentary. From the rampant racism and xenophobia that were typical of this time to addressing gender and class inequalities. Through satire Cho highlights these issues, and, in spite of her story’s fantastical backdrop, Cho doesn’t romanticise this period of time and the England that emerges from these pages feels all too real. The use of historically accurate language and the attention paid to the time’s etiquette and social mores, result in an incredibly well-rendered historical setting.

While this type of narrative won’t appeal to those looking for action-driven stories, Cho’s sparkling storytelling is not to be missed. The follow-up to this book is, dare I say, even better.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“Fear and hatred, fear and hatred: often, it seemed that those were the only two qualities he possessed. Fear of everyone else; hatred of himself.”

A Little Life is a heart-wrenching tour de force. Dark, all-consuming, devastating, moving, stunning, brutal, dazzling, beautiful, disturbing, A Little Life is all of these and so much more. This is the kind of novel that haunts.

“Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.”

The first fifty pages or so may give one the illusion that the story they are about to read is the usual tale of a group of friends trying to make it in the big city. Which in some ways, it is. Friendship is one of the novel’s underlying motifs. But, A Little Life is first and foremost a novel about pain, suffering, and trauma. And as highly as I think of this novel I could not in good conscience bring myself to recommend it to anyone else. Large portions of this 800-page novel are dedicated to depicting, in minute detail, a man’s past and present physical, emotional, and psychological suffering. We also have to read paragraph after paragraph in which adults inflict all kinds of horrific abuse on a child. What saves this novel from being yet another sensationalistic or gratuitous take on sexual abuse are Hanya Yanagihara’s clear and realist style and the many moments of beauty, kindness, love, empathy that are interjected throughout the narrative. Still, even so, I can see why some may find A Little Life to be too much. Hell, there were many instances where I found myself thinking ‘I can’t it, this is too much’. But who was I kidding? Once I started this novel I knew that I had to finish it and in fact I devoured it over the course of three days.

“Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.”

The novel recounts, decade-by-decade, the lives of four friends in New York City from their early 20s to their 50s. There is JB, a gay painter, Malcolm, who still lives at home and dreams of becoming an architect, Willem, an orphan who is pursuing an acting career, and Jude, also an orphan, who is a lawyer. Jude’s is reticent about his past and his friends know to leave it well alone. He has a limp and suffers from many health-related issues, which were caused by a car injury. As the story progresses the narrative shifts its focus on Jude and his many ongoing struggles. Jude’s horrific childhood and teenage years are revealed to us slowly over the course of the story. To cope with his traumatic experiences Jude self-harms, something that definitely hit close to home so I appreciate the authenticity with which Yanagihara portrays Jude’s self-harming. Similarly, his self-hatred and self-blaming are rendered with painful realism, without any judgment on the author’s part. While there were many—and I mean many—horrifying and painful scenes, there are moments of beauty, lightness, and tenderness. As an adult Jude is surrounded by people who love him, there are his friends, colleagues, neighbours, mentors, and it is here that the novel is at its most moving.
This is a novel about sexual abuse, pain, grief, friendship, love, intimacy, hope, and silences. The characters (it feels wrong to even call them that) are fully-formed individuals, imperfect, at times incongruent, yet nonetheless lovable. Oh, how my heart ached for them.
Yanagihara foreshadows certain events but even so, I found myself hoping against hope that the story would not be a tragic one. Yet, this unwillingness on Yanagihara’s part to provide a happy ending or to give her characters sort of closure that makes her novel simultaneously subversive and all the more realistic. Things don’t always get better, people can’t always overcome or reconcile themselves with their trauma, love doesn’t ‘fix’ people, you can’t magic away someone else’s pain. I have never sobbed while reading a book but I was sobbing intermittently throughout my reading of A Little Life. At times reading about Jude’s pain was brought me to tears, at times it was when coming across a scene that is brimming with kindness and love (basically anything with Jude and Harold or Jude and Willem).

“I want to be alone,” he told him.
“I understand,” Willem said.
“We’ll be alone together.”

This novel made me feel exposed, naked, vulnerable, seen in a way I wasn’t ready to be seen. It broke my fucking heart. It disturbed me, it made me ugly-cry, it made me want to find Yanagihara so I could shout at her. To describe A Little Life as a piece of fiction seems sacrilegious. I experienced A Little Life. From the first pages, I found myself immersed in Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm’s lives. When I reached the end I felt bereft, exhausted, numb so much so that even now I’m finding it difficult to to articulate why I loved this so much (then again my favourite band is Radiohead so I clearly like things that depress me). I doubt I will ever be brave enough to read it again but I also know that I will be thinking about A Little Life for years to come.
Adroit, superbly written, and populated by a richly drawn A Little Life is a novel unlike any other, one that you should read at your own risk.

my rating: ★★★★★

ps: the bond between Jude and Willem brought to mind a certain exchange from Anne Carson’s translation of Orestes:
PYLADES: I’ll take care of you.
ORESTES: It’s rotten work.
PYLADES: Not to me. Not if it’s you.

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Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin

Pretend I’m Dead was 50 shades of fucked up but boy was it funny.

“When he went to order their drinks, he asked, “What’s your poison?”
“Oven cleaner,” she’d said with a straight face.
Her sense of humor sometimes made people—herself, included—uncomfortable.”

This novel is divided in four chapters, each one focusing on a particular relationship of our protagonist. In the first chapter, ‘Hole’, we are introduced to Mona, our main character, a twenty-something who works as a cleaning lady in Massachusetts and volunteers at a clean-needle exchange. Mona doesn’t have any particular aspirations and she is fine with her job. At the clean-needle exchange she meets a man she nicknames ‘Mr. Disgusting’, “on account of his looks and dirty clothes”. Mr. Disgusting is in his forties and has clearly been through the wringer. The two get involved, and things get weird and messy fast. In the following chapter, ‘Yoko and Yoko’, Mona moves to Taos where she lives in an adobe house. In spite of her reservations, she gets close to her neighbours, Nigel and Shiori, a couple that gives some strong ‘cult’ vibes. Mona understandably ends up nicknaming them Yoko and Yoko. Mona misreads the situation and things also get weird between the three of them. In ‘Henry and Zoe’ Mona becomes convinced that her newest client, Henry, a seemingly nice guy, is a less than decent person. This chapter crosses quite a few lines, and it is bound to make readers’ queasy. The last chapter, ‘Betty’, sees Mona becoming close to another client who happens to be a psychic.
Given that each chapter is more or less self-contained, these end up reading a lot like vignettes, each centring on a different period of Mona’s life. However, is only by reading all of them that we begin to understand Mona and her past. Her fraught relationship with her father is of particular importance in the overall narrative. Mona’s mind often turns to Mr. Disgusting, so that he also becomes a perpetual presence in her story. Through Mona’s ‘misadventures’ the story examines themes of loneliness, connection and belonging.

In spite of its offbeat main character Pretend I’m Dead made for a morbid, grotesque, and occasionally obscene reading experience. Yet, it was also undoubtedly one of the funniest books I have ever read. Mona’s wry sense of humor, her deadpan replies, and her mental meanderings (which lead to some freaky fantasies) were thoroughly entertaining. While none of the characters are strictly likeable, they were certainly fleshed out. With a few selected words Beagin brings her characters to life, rendering the way they look and behave with clearcut precision.
As funny and absurd as Pretend I’m Dead was, the novel touches on quite a lot of serious issues (sexual abuse, drug addiction, depression, suicidal ideation, trauma, incest). It is remarkable that Beagin manages to explore these through Mona’s lenses. Dark humor indeed!
I really liked the way the story was written, which is saying something as I usually don’t care particularly for 3rd person narrations that refer to the main character as ‘she’ (as opposed to her name, in this case Mona). Beagin has an ear for dialogue and a talent for portraying those thornier feelings and emotions.
If you are a fan of Ottessa Moshfegh, Melissa Broder, Raven Leilani, or Jean Kyoung Frazier chances are Pretend I’m Dead will be up your street. Those who aren’t keen on books that examine challenging, if not controversial, topics or cannot stand vulgar or non-PC content might want to give this book a wide breadth.

my rating: ★★★★

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The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

“Loving a country besides the one you lived in was a recipe for disaster.”

The Star Side of Bird Hill is an enjoyable coming-of-age novel about two sisters, Dionne and Phaedra, who are sent off by their mother to spend their summer with their grandmother, Hyacinth, in a small town in Barbados. The girls’ aren’t too happy to leave Brooklyn, even if their homelife hasn’t been great given that their mother, who is suffering from depression and no longer works, can’t look after them (or herself for the matter). In Bird Hill they are forced to acclimatise to a different culture, and are often treated as foreign by their grandmother’s community. Although Phaedra, who is 10, misses her mum, she soon grows attached to Hyacinth, especially once she learns how vital a role she plays in the community. Fifteen-year-old Dionne on the other hand, repeatedly clashes with Hyacinth and her rules. Even if she resents her mother, for having sent her away and for forcing her to take care of both her and Phaedra, she’s clearly hurting.
As the summer goes by the two sisters adapt to life in Bird Hill. Phaedra, who is made fun of by other young girls for being a bit of a tomboy, finds fulfilment in learning more of her family’s history and of her grandmother’s job as a midwife. Dionne takes far longer to adjust to Bird Hill and their grandmother’s presence. She flaunts her rules and seems intent on being as difficult as possible. After certain events happen, she too begins to reconcile herself with her life in Bird Hill and Hyacinth.
Throughout the course of the novel we are given flashbacks into the girls’ childhood as well as the start and end of their mother’s relationship with their father.

“You practice being one kind of thing too long, and soon enough that’s who you become.”

While the storyline is somewhat conventional of this ‘coming-of-age’ genre, the author injects vitality into her story thanks to the character of Hyacinth and the vividly rendered setting of Bird Hill. Hyacinth was a force of nature (and funny too: “Oh Lord, please deliver me from these Yankee children”). I loved her no-nonsense attitude and the many wisdoms she imparts on her granddaughters. Phaedra too was a likeable character (who likes reading Jamaica Kincaid, always a plus in my books), who had a clear personality from the get-go. Dionne, in comparison, was a far weaker character. She’s very much the epitome of rebellious and angsty teenager who spends most of her time disrespecting her elders and thinking about sex. Which is fair enough, but because Hyacinth and Phaedra weren’t relegated to their ‘grandmother’ or ‘young child’ role, Dionne’s poor characterisation—which hinges on her being a teenager—stood out.
The writing was heavy on the ‘telling’ and light on the ‘showing’. Conversations are summarised rather than being ‘played’ on the page, and because the third-person narrative switches from character-to-charcater the same events or information would be repeated over the course of a few pages. The flashbacks could have been better integrated within the narrative, as they often broke the flow of the story, and gave us chunks of backstory that could have been portioned out more uniformly.
Still, I liked reading about Bird Hill, Hyacinth, and Phaedra. And even if the story touches on topics such as mental illnesses, it did so without delving too deep in them, so that it maintained an overall lighthearted, if bittersweet, tone.
I would probably recommend it to readers who enjoyed Frying Plantain or other novel that focus on family relationships between women (mother/daughters, granddaughters/grandmothers).

MY RATING 3 / 5 stars

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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley — book review

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“Under the gas lamps, mist pawed at the windows of the closed shops, which became steadily shabbier nearer home. It was such a smooth ruination that he could have been walking forward through time, watching the same buildings age five years with every step, all still as a museum”.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street mostly takes place during the 1880s in London. One of the main characters is twenty-five year old Thaniel Steepleton who works as a telegraph clerk at the Home Office. His mundane and solitary existence is thrown into upheaval after a mysterious pocket watch saves him from a terrorist time bomb. Believing that the maker of his watch is somehow connected to this attack, under false pretences Thaniel moves into the watchmaker’s residence on Filigree Street. The watchmaker, who goes by his surname, Mori, hails from Japan. Mori, who seems to have a polite and quiet disposition, is more than happy to have Thaniel around. Thaniel too finds himself warming up to Mori and his customs. While Thaniel soon realises that his new landlord is indeed hiding things from him, he questions whether his involvement in the terrorist attack.
Alongside Thaniel’s story we also read of Grace Carrow who studies physics at Oxford. Grace wants to pursue her studies and experiments but thanks to her parents she will only be able to do so as a married woman. Given that no one seems interested in marrying such an ‘uncompromising’ and ‘eccentric’ woman, Grace has few options left…
While Thaniel and Grace’s paths do eventually converge, readers might be surprised by the consequences of their acquaintanceship.

Thaiel and Mori were easily my favourite characters. There is a faltering quality to their friendship. In spite of their age, class, and cultural differences they soon became used to one another.
For the most part Grace struck me as the usual protagonist of certain contemporary historical novels, which often star heroines who are unfeminine and uninterested in marrying or adhering to the social norms of their time. Her main characteristic is her ambition, which does make her somewhat admirable. Later on however she makes some increasingly maddening choices that were not clearly explained.

Natasha Pulley does an excellent job in giving her story a Victorian atmosphere. Whether she was writing about London or Japan I found her historicism to be accurate and evocative. Her novel’s storyline could be best described as being part period mystery, part gentle adventure. One of the main ideas the story plays around with is as clever as it is fascinating…so much so that part of me wants to reread this book in order to pick up on what I’d initially glossed over.

The narrative also has a lot of steampunk elements—which range from gaslights to clockwork automatons—as well aspects that struck me as belonging to the magical realism genre.
I particularly appreciated the realistic depiction of being a Japanese expatriate in Victorian London. Mori, alongside other Japanese characters, is routinely exposed to racist behaviour and attitudes. Grace’s story instead emphasises the way in which gender discrimination oppressed, repressed, or constrained women lives.
A portion of the narrative is also dedicated to Japan. Here we read of the divide and conflict between conservatism and Westernisation, which made for some engaging reading material.

The budding friendship between Thaniel and Mori was extremely sweet and filled with a quiet sort of yearning, for above all companionship. Part of me wishes that instead of having sections dedicated to Grace we could have had some more insight into Mori’s character as he was a lot more interesting. Grace’s later behaviour made her particularly unlikable…yet the narrative seems to imply that we should condone her actions.

Grace aside, I really loved this novel. It is a slow-burn mystery and not for those who are looking for anything too ostentatiously fantastic. Pulley’s writing is a pure pleasure to read: from her vivid descriptions to her humour. What began as a seemingly unassuming story soon conveyed brilliant depths.
I thoroughly recommend this one, especially to fans of Victorian settings or steampunk.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to 4 stars)

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The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney — book review

“That was Wyatt’s philosophy when it came to the past: Stay out of it. ”

The Long and Faraway Gone is a well written if somewhat uneven novel.

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I can definitely see why it has drawn comparisons to books by Dennis Lehane. Both authors render a strong sense of place, so much so that the settings of their stories transcend the role of backdrop, becoming an active character into their narratives, one that can—and will—sway the direction of the story.

One of the links between two apparently unrelated storylines in The Long and Faraway Gone is that they both take place in Oklahoma City. In the summer of 1986 two young individuals experienced tragic and traumatic losses: Wyatt was the only survivor in an armer robbery while Julianna’s alluring—and troubled—older sister Genevieve went missing during the annual State Fair.
Years later Wyatt—now a private investigator—and Julianna—a nurse—grow increasingly preoccupied over the past . Soon their obsessions will derail the course of their everyday lives as they jeopardise personal relationships, and their careers, by undertaking investigations of their own.

Wyatt’s humour and emphatic nature made him into a compelling protagonist. His story seemed a lot more fleshed out and coherent than Julianna’s. While I was willing to look past Wyatt’s mistakes, and understood why his stay in Oklahoma City affects him so much, I was unable to reconcile myself with Julianna’s appalling behaviour. Her narrative seemed to have a lot more padding, and while her ‘investigation’ definitely had some tense moments, I was always looking forward to return to Wyatt’s story.
It was interesting to see how their storylines occasionally mirrored one another, yet Lou Berney never resorted to throw an unlikely connection between the two as a way of linking these two stories together.

Berney, similarly to Lehane, is skilled in giving each of his characters—regardless of their role—a convincing personality. With a few clever descriptions, and by articulating those idiosyncrasy relating to an individual’s mannerisms or their way of speaking, Berney creates realistic and memorable characters. Regardless if we like them or not, his characterisation is such that they do not fall neatly into a ‘good person’ or ‘bad person’ category. Because his characters are rendered in such vivid detail, his dialogues crackle with energy. There are so many great lines and exchanges that make The Long and Faraway Gone into such an engaging novel.
The resolution to the main characters’ interrogation of their past, although unexpected, is surprisingly mundane. Berney doesn’t try to make the characters’ tragedy into part of larger and unlikely plot, providing instead solutions that are far more realistic.

In spite of a few minor quibbles—mostly relating to Julianna’s narrative—I thought that The Long and Faraway Gone was an engaging read and I am eager to read more by Berney.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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Wylding Hall : Book Review

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand
★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars

I’ve read two other books by Elizabeth Hand, one of which I consider an all time favourite.
Wylding Hall begins strongly enough. The narration uses a limiting form of structure and consists in a series of interviews with the former members of a British an acid-folk band.
In the 70s the band stayed at Wylding Hall in order to work on their second album but things don’t go quite as planned. During their interviews each character gives their own account of those weeks at Wylding Hall. Some of them are still convinced that whatever happened there was caused by unknown supernatural forces. Some are not so sure.
The fact that they are looking back to their time in Wylding Hall gives their accounts a nostalgic tone. They seem to regret not having prevented one of their own from falling ‘prey’ to whatever roamed Wylding Hall. Some simply yearn for the music they were able to create while staying at the hall or for their carefree living styles.
I was absorbed by the story but there seems to be no real conclusion…there is this mounting uneasy which culminates in nothing.
Great until its disappointing ending.

For fans of We Sold Our Souls.

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THE GHOST FIELDS (RUTH GALLOWAY): BOOK REVIEW


The Ghost Fields
by Elly Griffiths

★★★✰✰ 3 stars

“Stop!” shouts Nelson. “Police!”
In answer a bullet shoots past his ear.
“Ruth!” yells Nelson. “Get behind the duck.”

While I did find The Ghost Fields to be rather entertaining, it also made me realise that Elly Griffiths is not for me.
Maybe it’s down to the tone of her stories, which seem far from being the mysteries or crime stories that they are labeled as. The sort of humour that pervades the narrative in The Ghost Fields often came across as silly and out of place. More often than not it seems that the narrative makes fun of the characters, which made it difficult for me to take either them or their drama seriously.
Another thing that I disliked is the dichotomous portrayal of class: there is Ruth, a University lecturer therefore she lives cast off from other, throws literary or historical references, brains over looks etc…then we have Nelson who is a straight-talking policeman (who finds words such as feminism repelling) who dislikes the Blackstocks on sight (aristocrats…yuck!). We have the ‘eccentric’ Professors who talk only of their subject, the bitter aristocrats….everyone is either entitled or pretentious. Other characters are also rather one-dimensional: gym-bunnies, the kind pregnant woman, the self-assured American…it was hard for me to think of them as ‘people’ since they are merely stereotypes…that don’t even succeed in being amusing.
There is very little that would make this novel into mystery/crime. Yes, there is a body, and there are a few ‘detectives’ but it seemed to be more of melodrama: Ruth likes Nelson, Nelson has a wife but is jealous that Ruth is interest in Frank, Nelson’s wife is also interested in someone else. Drama alert!
Anyway, I still finished it so it wasn’t all that bad. It might be that Griffiths is simply not for me.

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