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The Charioteer by Mary Renault — book review

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“He was filled with a vast sense of the momentous, of unknown mysteries. He did not know what he should demand of himself, nor did it seem to matter, for he had not chosen this music he moved to, it had chosen him.”

This is the fourth time I’ve read The Charioteer and once again I’ve been swept away by it. The Charioteer is quite likely my favourite novel of all time as there are few books that I care as much about.
There is something comforting about The Charioteer, which is strange given that Mary Renault’s impenetrable prose demands her readers’ full attention. There are the coded conversations, thoughts and feelings are often only obliquely hinted at, the pages are full of slang, and there are constant allusions to the Classics. Yet, her writing also has a languid quality, perhaps reflective of her protagonist’s convalescence.
In an almost Bildungsroman fashion The Charioteer introduces us to Laurie as a child. This first chapter recounts a significant moment of his childhood and is followed by a chapter of him at school where he has a memorable encounter with the Head of the School, Ralph Lanyon. The subsequent chapters follow Laurie as he’s recovering from a war injury at a hospital. Here he meets and falls for Andrew, a conscientious objector who is now working as an orderly.
While Laurie is aware of his sexuality, and believes that Andrew reciprocates his feelings, he’s unwilling to reveal to Andrew the true depth of his emotions. By chance Laurie ends up re-connecting with Ralph. As the title of the novel suggests, Laurie’s story can be likened to the myth of the charioteer from Phaedrus.
Now, I know that my summary doesn’t do this novel justice. I don’t wish to reveal too much about the story or its characters. Still, I can say that The Charioteer presents us with a beautiful narrative, one that captures a particular moment in time. The characters’ days are punctuated by Imminent Danger sirens, air raids, shortages. Laurie, alongside other patients, has to obey the hospital’s strict rules. Under Renault’s hand, the war seems almost ‘normal’, and characters will often discuss it as they would any other topic.
Renault’s portrayal of the gay community feels both intimate and compelling. While Laurie himself feels uneasy towards those he deems as ‘flamboyant’ or ‘effeminate’, the narrative doesn’t share his prejudices. Renault’s characters often engage themselves in conversations relating to their role in society, often professing contrasting beliefs. Their discussion on ethics and morality were riveting, and I soon lost myself in the rhythm of their back and forth.
The novel is as interested in what the characters say as it is with what they don’t say, whether this is due to self-censoring or self-denial. Although Laurie is the story’s protagonist, much of what he feels remains off page. Renault will often only allude to Laurie’s most innermost feelings. Because of this Laurie, and other characters, often seem like unsolvable puzzles.
Laurie’s story is also one that is concerned with connection. Although he becomes fast friends with another patient, he fears being ‘known’. Yet, in spite of this sense of loneliness, he is reticent about ‘embracing’ his community (“He kept telling me I was queer, and I’d never heard it called that before and didn’t like it. The word, I mean. Shutting you away, somehow; roping you off with a lot of people you don’t feel much in common with […]”).

Miscommunications abound in this novel. At times the characters make tentative attempts to form more meaningful relationships but they often betray themselves by not saying what they want to say or by saying the wrong things.
Renault renders sadness, anxiety, self-denial, awkwardness, tenderness, longing, ambiguity, confusion, honour, passion, and hope. Her characters reveal her piercing understanding of human nature. Through her expressive and elegant writing Renault demonstrates her inside knowledge of the society she depicted (Renault was both a lesbian and a nurse, which is possibly why she can so conjure up both queer parties and the daily routines of a hospital).
I love everything about this novel. Laurie’s quest for identity, the struggle between his desires and his ideals, is as moving as it is thought-provoking.
A truly complex and multi-layered masterpiece that is both heart-rending and intelligent.
Impenetrable, subtle, beautiful, touching. I can’t recommend this novel strongly enough.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue — book review

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“That’s what it comes down to, I suppose. I was obsessed with what I was, because I had no idea who I was.”

Scenes of a Graphic Nature is a thought-provoking and engrossing novel that is far darker than its brightly coloured cover suggests. After reading and being captivated by Caroline O’Donoghue’s debut novel, Promising Young Women, I had really high hopes for Scenes of a Graphic Nature.
The first person narration is engrossing and adds a sense of urgency to the story which follows Charlie Regan. Charlie, who is twenty-nine, is deeply unhappy: there is her father’s cancer, her strained relationship with her mother and her more successful best friend, her non-existent ‘career’ in the ever competitive film industry. In an attempt to make some extra cash Charlie has even begun selling photos, of a ‘graphic’ nature, of herself online. Given her not-so-great circumstances, Charlie feels understandably lost.
She finds some comfort in her father, whom she idolise, and his stories, one of which an account of his having survived a terrible tragedy. Inspired by this Charlie, alongside Laura, worked on ‘It Takes A Village’ a film that was based on her father’s story. When the film gains the attention of an Irish film festival, Charlie and Laura are invited to the event. With her father’s encouragement, Charlie set off to Ireland, hoping to find some guidance in the country she regards as her ancestral home. It happens that Charlie and Laura end up in Clipim, an island off the west coast of Ireland, and the place in which her father grew up. The people of Clipim however are not very forthcoming about the past, especially towards outsiders. Charlie however is convinced that someone is hiding the truth about the tragedy that irrevocably shaped her father’s life.

Similarly to Promising Young Women, there is a sense of unease permeating the narrative. From Charlie’s awkward interactions with her mother and best friend, to her sense of disillusionment towards her work and love life. Clipim magnifies the story’s ambivalent atmosphere and O’Donoghue does not shy away from portraying the ramifications of the British occupation of Ireland. Over the course of the novel Charlie, who is quick to emphasise that she is indeed ‘half Irish’, realises that she has mythologised Ireland and her own connection to this country. While I was very much interested in Charlie’s journey, and in the story’s engagement with colonialism, national and self identity, and in her shrewd yet nuanced portrayal of Irish–British relations, the plot tangles itself in unnecessary knots. The latter half of the novel veers into clichéd territories: we have the Town with a Dark Secret™, almost a la The Wicker Man, which is almost entirely populated by physically and verbally ‘hostile’ individuals, There Be Strangers™. Charlie herself makes many stupid choices (which do create tension), and seems unable to read a room. Towards the end the story becomes increasingly disconcerting, which in some ways I was expecting given how hallucinatory Promising Young Women ended up being. Charlie hits rock bottom, some bad shit goes on, and then we get a hurried explanation and ending. The violence of certain characters seems totally brushed aside, which was rather unsatisfying. Also, Charlie’s ‘investigation’ seemed less an investigation that her getting drunk and making wild accusations.
Even as the story become increasingly confusing, and frustrating, I was still absorbed by O’Donoghue’s prose. I liked the way she writes and the themes/ideas she explores. Her main character is an imperfect human being who can be selfish and reckless. Her loneliness and her disillusionment however are rendered in an emphatic light. Certain relationships, such as the one between Charlie and Laura, were believably messy.
Yet, as much as I appreciated certain aspects of the story, part of me knows that the Clipim’s residents were depicted in a less cartoonish way. In spite of Charlie’s interesting inner monologue, the storyline could have maintained a better focus. Still, I would thoroughly recommend this books as O’Donoghue’s writing is incredibly compelling and in spite of her blunders Charlie was an all too realistic main character.

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

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The Red Scrolls of Magic by Cassandra Clare — book review

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“Romance was a lot of work.”

The Red Scrolls of Magic is a fun throwback to Cassandra Clare’s TMI in which Magnus and Alec finally get the stage for themselves. After the Mortal War the couple takes a well-earned romantic getaway in Europe. Once in Paris however an ‘old friend’ of Magnus breaks some bad news to him: a demon-worshipping cult called the Crimson Hand, which Magnus himself may have founded as a ‘joke’, is killing downworlders. From then on Magnus and Alec go from France to Italy, trying to find and stop the cult and leaving mayhem in their wake. Getting to know each other isn’t easy, getting to know each other when demons are trying to kill you…well that complicates things.
There is plenty of action and wit in The Red Scrolls of Magic. Even in the most deadly of situations Magnus remains a joker. By contrast Alec finds himself mingling with Magnus’ downworlder acquaintances, most of whom are suspicion or hostile towards Shadowhunters.
This was a very entertaining read. It has plenty of amusing dialogues, it gives some insight into the early stages of Magnus and Alec’s relationship (bonus: we read of Aline and Helen’s first meeting), and it has plenty of romance.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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Olivia by Dorothy Strachey — book review

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“And so that was what love led to. To wound and be wounded. ”

Set in a French finishing school Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia tells the story of a schoolgirl’s infatuation with her headmistress. Narrated by its titular character, Olivia perfectly evokes adolescent love. Olivia becomes enamoured with Mlle. Julie, and experiences an awakening of sorts.

“Pretty girls I had seen, lovely girls, no doubt, but I had never paid much conscious attention to their looks, never been particularly interested in them. But this was something different. No, it was not different. It was merely being awakened to something for the first time—physical beauty. I was never blind to it again.”

Not only do her feelings towards Mlle. Julie alter her sense of self but they also seem to heighten her senses. Her narration is full of ecstatic exclamations and passionate declarations. She often looses herself is sensuous raptures in which she elevates Mlle. Julie to a godly status. Olivia however is not the only to pine after her, and Mlle. Julie herself seems to be involved with the other headmistress, Mlle. Cara. Strachey’s perfectly captures the anguish of unreciprocated love. Mlle. Julie is Olivia’s objet petit a, in other words her unattainable object of desire. Although Olivia longs for Mlle. Julie, it seemed to me that the impossibility of this love magnified the intensity of her feelings. She seems almost satisfied by her own yearning and angst. Strachey vividly renders Olivia’s finishing school, from the petty jealousies between pupils to the rivalry between Frau Riesener and Signorina. I particularly liked reading about the school’s two factions: the ‘Julie-ites’ (who studied Italian with Signorina) and the ‘Cara-ites’ (who studied German with Frau Riesener).

The novel doesn’t have a plot as such. The narrative seems intent on using a certain type of language in order to translate to the page Olivia’s feelings towards Mlle. Julie. Through her grandiose prose Strachey articulates the highs and lows of Olivia’s infatuation. Her writing has a flamboyantly poetic quality, one that complements Olivia’s emotions—from her desire to her misery—and her reverence towards Mlle. Julie.
Being an individual who is not only prone to crushes, but one that tends to romanticise said crushes, well, I rather identified with Olivia. It’s a pity that Olivia is Strachey’s only novel.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Some of my favourite quotes:

“Was this stab in my heart, this rapture, really mine or had I merely read about it? For every feeling, every vicissitude of my passion, there would spring into my mind a quotation from the poets.”

“These people seemed to be beset on every side by “temptations”; they lived in continual terror of falling into “sin”. Sin? What was sin? Evidently there loomed in the dark background a mysterious horror from which pure-minded girls must turn away their thoughts, but there were dangers enough near at hand which made it necessary to walk with extreme wariness—pitfalls, which one could hardly avoid without the help of God.”

“Did I understand the play at that first reading? Oh, certainly not. Haven’t I put the gathered experience of years into my recollection of it? No doubt. What is certain is that it gave me my first conception of tragedy, of the terror and complication and pity of human lives. Strange that for an English child that revelation should have come through Racine instead of through Shakespeare. But it did.”

“I went to bed that night in a kind of daze, slept as if I had been drugged and in the morning awoke to a new world—a world of excitement—a world in which everything was fierce and piercing, everything charged with strange emotions, clothed with extraordinary mysteries, and in which I myself seemed to exist only as an inner core of palpitating fire.”

“But there was no need of wine to intoxicate me. Everything in her proximity was intoxicating.”

“The dullest of her girls was stirred into some sort of life in her presence; to the intelligent, she communicated a Promethean fire which warmed and coloured their whole lives. To sit at table at her right hand was an education in itself.”

“No, I have never seen anyone freer from every sort of selfishness, never seen anyone devote herself to others with such manifest gladness. And yet, with all her altruism, one could never think of her as self-sacrificing. She never did sacrifice herself. She had no self to sacrifice. When she gave her time, her thoughts, her energies to bringing up her stepbrothers and stepsisters, it was really a joy to her.”

“I think there was nothing else she wanted. If I too would have liked to serve, I was continually conscious that I was incapable and unworthy, continually devoured by vain humilities. And then there was also in me a curious repugnance, a terror of getting too near.”

“Let me think of those words later, I said to myself, there’s too much in them—too much joy and terror. I must brush them aside for the moment. I must keep them, bury them, like a dog his bone, till I can return to them alone.”

“It was at this time that a change came over me. That delicious sensation of gladness, of lightness, of springing vitality, that consciousness of youth and strength and ardour, that feeling that some divine power had suddenly granted me an undreamt-of felicity and made me free of boundless kingdoms and untold wealth, faded as mysteriously as it had come and was succeeded by a very different state. Now I was all moroseness and gloom—heavy-hearted, leaden-footed.”

“But I wasn’t thinking. I was sometimes dreaming—the foolish dreams of adolescence: of how I should save her life at the cost of my own by some heroic deed, of how she would kiss me on my death-bed, of how I should kneel at hers and what her dying word would be, of how I should become famous by writing poems which no one would know were inspired by her, of how one day she would guess it, and so on and so on.”

“On the very first morning of what was to be my new life, how could I expect to banish entirely those haunting visions—of a shoulder—of a profile?”

“I had been so utterly absorbed by the newness and violence of all my emotions, that it had never occurred to me the present could be anything but eternal.”

“I must feed on beauty and rapture in order to grow strong.”

“I pondered the episodes I have just related. I lived them over again, sometimes with ecstasy, sometimes with anguish.”

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Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan — book review

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“I felt I had hitherto woefully misdirected my energies in attempting to cultivate a personality. If you didn’t have one then that left more room for everyone else’s.”

With so many professional reviewers hailing Exciting Times as one of the best debut novels of 2020, praising Naoise Dolan for her wit and her razor-sharp social commentary, or describing her book as being “droll, shrewd and unafraid”, this promised to be an intelligent and compelling read. Sadly, as with a lot of hyped new releases, Exciting Times wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

While part of me rejoiced at the sight of quotations marks (yes, I’m looking at you Sally Rooney), I soon found myself wondering where the ‘wit’ I was promised was (in case you are wondering, largely MIA).
Exciting Times is an innocuous debut novel. It follows the tradition of the alienated young woman, which has regained traction over the past years, in no small part thanks to Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. The women who populate these novels have a lot in common with Esther Greenwood, who is perhaps the supreme example of the alienated female narrator (then again I think this title should go to Natalie Waite from Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman). Ava, the protagonist of Dolan’s novel, is far less morbid than Plath’s or Moshfegh’s narrators. Her alienation comes across as a phase of sorts, something she was experiencing merely for the sake of the aesthetics. Still, Ava’s millennial despondency does seem to make her prone to bouts of lethargy and ennui.

“The trouble with my body was that I had to carry it around with me.”

At 22 Ava decides to leave Dublin behind and move to Hong Kong where she ends up teaching English grammar. Because she didn’t like herself in Ireland she believes that a change of scenery will either improve her personality or the way she sees herself. In Hong Kong Ava makes few attempts at socialising with her colleagues or her roommates, and it is only when she meets Julian, a banker, that she begins to be interested in someone other than herself. The two form a bond of sorts, which sees them occasionally sparring about the fraught history between Britain and Ireland, while for the most part they seem content with being cynical together. Soon enough Ava moves into Julian’s guest bedroom. While he’s back in England Ava meets and ‘falls’ for Edith who, unlike Julian, openly reciprocates her feelings.

“Keeping up with both of them took work, but their similarities lent the enterprise a certain economy of scale.”

The plot as such sees Ava obsessing about either Julian or Edith, checking their Instagram accounts, over-analysing their texts, and attributing a special meaning to everything they say or do.
In passing she talks with others about class, race, abortion. But these topics are briefly mentioned, and for the most part Exciting Times is about Ava’s detachment from others. In a certain way I can see why this novel could appeal to fans of Rooney as the narrative is very much focused on creating and maintaining an aesthetic of detachment. Ava is all about the ‘conceal don’t feel’. She feels ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, ‘damaged’, ‘messed up’, ‘different from other people’…you get the gist. While this is in part intentional, and both Julian and Edith call her out on the ‘woe is me’ act, the novel perpetuates this ‘she’s different’ by casually reminding us that she has a right to feel ostracised given that once a girl in school was homophobic towards her. Personally I don’t think that just because she spends large portions of her time daydreaming, envisioning what ifs scenarios, or wondering how others see her, she’s actually ‘different’.
The novel is so focused on being clever that it ends up not having anything substantial to offer.
Ava’s alleged ‘aloofness’ seemed an excuse for her character not to have a personality. One of my favourite literary characters is Charlotte Bronte’s Lucy Snowe, someone who is aloof, distant, occasionally manipulative, and who hides her feelings from the reader. In spite of this we do see glimpses of her emotions. Ava instead just tells us that she ‘loves/hates’ someone…and I just didn’t feel it. If anything she was infatuated with the idea of love…which brings me to the ending. Are we meant to believe that there was any character growth on her part? Cause I don’t…
Much was made of the power dynamics between her and Julian. Ava plays her own violin insisting that if she were to end things with Julian she would have to find a ‘crammy’ room…and I’m meant to feel sorry for the circumstances she’s in? She is employed, and earns far more than others, and has enough savings to leave Julian’s apartment (or make a small contribution). Yet, her ‘dilemma’ is made into this ‘big thing’.
Lastly, in the novel Hong Kong is a mere cardboard backdrop for Ava’s existentialist crisis. The story could have been set in any city outside of Ireland and it would barely need changing. Mentioning Hong Kong’s political unrest now and again was not enough.

Some positives
Julian and Edith, although not strictly likeable, felt much more like well-rounded people. I couldn’t see why they were both interested in Ava given how self-involved she was.
Dolan has a knack for dialogues. They are extremely realistic: at times the characters talk about nothing, misunderstand each other, use the wrong words to express what they feel…her back-and-forths, or banter, between certain characters was fairly engaging.
Most of all I loved the way Dolan writes about the English language. Ava is attentive when it comes to English. She often questions people’s word choices (“We discussed whether the word ‘quite’ magnified or diminished a compliment. I sketched a cline on a napkin and put ‘quite’ between ‘a little’ and ‘very’.”) and, given her teaching position, she also reprimands herself for using ‘bad English’.
Dolan rendition of different intonations and accents is evocative:

“Her accent was churchy, high-up, with all the cathedral drops of English intonation. Button, water, Tuesday – anything with two syllables zipped up then down like a Gothic steeple.”

My favourite passages were the ones that focused on language and the ones describing a person’s pronunciation or words choices.
Ava does share some genuinely clever insights about the English language or modern methods of communications. For example I particularly liked the way she describes texts:

“We chose what to share. Through composition I reduced my life, burned fat, filed edges. The editing process let me veto post-hoc the painful, boring or irrelevant moments I lived through.”

Overall
As I’ve said before, this was an inoffensive novel. It wasn’t thought-provoking or half as witty as it tried to be but it isn’t badly written. I was hoping perhaps for a less glib take on alienation or a more complex interrogation of power dynamics and gender.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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After Elias by Eddy Boudel Tan — book review

49218727.jpgFrom its heartbreaking first pages, to its lump-in-your-throat epilogue, After Elias is an emotionally charged novel.

“People can bring you pain, but nothing will hurt more than the pain you inflict on yourself.”

Grief, guilt, regret, and fear dominate Tan’s narrative. Coen Caraway and Elias Santos are meant to have a fairy-tale wedding and live happily ever after. One week before their big day, the airplane piloted by Elias crashes into the Arctic Ocean, leaving Coen, who had just arrived on the idyllic Mexican island that was meant to host their wedding, bereft.
When the authorities begin speculating whether the crash wasn’t accidental, Elias becomes a prime suspect. His cryptic final words, “Pronto dios” (“soon god”) disconcert an already grieving Coen.
While his family and friends plead for him to return home, to Vancouver, Coen refuses. His stay on the island however does not keep his doubts at bay. In spite of his insisting that “he is fine”, Coen finds himself spiralling. In the passing days he tries to make sense of this unimaginable tragedy and of his own relationship with Elias.
As the narrative moves from past to present, readers begin to gain a picture of both Coen and Elias.

“Life is nothing more than an elaborate house. It starts out small, a simple shelter. Then we build upon it, room by room, believing in the necessity of every expansion, every renovation. By the time we realize it is no longer a shelter but a tomb, it’s too late.”

Coen’s grief, confusion, and uncertainties feel strikingly authentic.Tan allows his readers to witness and understand the depth and magnitude of Coen’s discordant feelings. Coen’s thoughts, emotions, and impressions are articulated in a subtle yet lyrical language.
I was often surprised, and spellbound, by Tan’s arresting imagery.

“The only sounds in the room are my pounding heart and fitful breathing. I am Lazarus returning from the land of the dead, a corpse trapped by life.”

Tan renders Coen’s pain with exceptional compassion, without sensationalising Coen’s—and other characters’—grief and desperation. What particularly struck me was how ‘real’ Coen felt. His fears and anxieties are depicted with incredible authenticity. The way he simultaneously wants and doesn’t want to confront the darkest aspects of his relationship with Elias, his dormant yet inherent conviction that he will never be happy, his inability to express how he feels…everything about him felt real.
Other characters, such as his two best friends, Vivi and Decker, his brother, Clark, the hotel’s bartender, Gabriel, are just as believable. Decker in particular has a complex relationship with Coen, one that will undoubtedly make some readers tear up (I certainly did). These characters are flawed yet capable of change. While readers may not come to know them as well as they do Coen, they will get an impression of what kind of person they are (or want to be).

Although Tan doesn’t provide lots of descriptions when it comes to the appearance of his characters or the island itself, his narrative is remarkably atmospheric. Tan’s discerning prose relays the mood or quality of a certain conversation or moment.
The distinctive and deceptively dream-like setting of the island, as well as Coen’s own dreams, reminded me of certain novels by Ann Patchett, in particular State of Wonder and The Magician’s Assistant. The way in which Tan approaches painful themes bear resemblance to Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s own approach in his more adult novels, such Last Night I Sang to the Monster and In Perfect Light.

Through his prose, which is in turns lucid and opaque, Tan showcases his capacity for empathy and compassion. He offers insights into grief, loneliness, abuse, mental illness, and trauma.
After Elias is an artful and heart-wrenching novel. Although it doesn’t make for ‘easy’ reading material, its cathartic narrative and underlying message of hope are guaranteed to leave a lasting impression.

PS: I’m so grateful to NetGalley for having accepted my request to read After Elias. I’m not sure I would have ever read this novel if I hadn’t spotted on NetGalley’s ‘recently added’ page.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars (rounded up to 5)

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An Honest Man by Ben Fergusson — book review

In Ben Fergusson’s An Honest Man our narrator Ralf revi51QJeS5BD+L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgsits a particularly significant year in his life. The year is 1989 and Ralf is eighteen and lives with his family in West Berlin. Growing up in a bilingual household (his mother is English), Ralf has always felt like a bit of an outsider. In a few months him and his friends will part ways and go to separate universities (Ralf whose passion is geology plans to study in England). Until then they spend their days and nights relaxing: they go to the swimming pool, on nature excursions, drink together etc. Ralf’s routine is interrupted by Oz, born to Turkish parents and a few years older than him.
As Ralf struggles to reconcile himself with his growing attraction, and feelings, towards Oz, he also learns that Oz is keeping tabs on one of his neighbours, Tobias Rose. When Oz asks him for help Ralf finds himself uncovering life-altering secrets. As Ralf’s relationship with Oz deepens he is forced to question where is own loyalties lie, and who is willing to betray.

While the story does delve into espionage, the focus remains primarily on Ralf. His relationship with Oz sees him embarking on a journey of self-discovery. The approach of university also alters his perceptions about who he is and who he wants to become. When a shocking discovery jeopardises what little normalcy his life contained, Ralf becomes further enmeshed in a web of deceit.
The story is very much a coming of age. To begin with Ralf is a rather sheltered and somewhat naive boy, and as the story progresses, and he starts seeing with new eyes his family and friends, he becomes more of an adult.
Ben Fergusson portrays believably fallible characters. Ralf, somewhat understandably given that he has a lot to contend with, can be rather self-centred and bratty. More than once I experienced second-hand embarrassment at what he says or does. His relationship with Oz is filled with a young sort of longing, with plenty of awkward flirting (they talk about their favourite pasta shape) and even some tender moments. Oz’s introverted nature lends him an air of mystery, and readers, alongside Ralf, will find themselves wanting to learn more about him.
Ralf’s group of friends was also solidly depicted and we get to see how his relationship with each one of his friends differs. His friends all have their own backstory and clear-cut personalities.
Ralf’s relationship with his family plays a big role in the narrative. Although we might not like or forgive Ralf’s parents, Fergusson does give these characters some nuance.
What Fergusson truly excels at is brining West Berlin to life. The setting is vividly rendered, and Fergusson creates and maintains a rather bittersweet atmosphere. Ralf’s narration is filled with youthful descriptions and observations. His narrative is sensuous, as he always seem to loose himself in the bodies of those around him (noting the way the light illuminates someone’s hair or face).
The ending was a bit rushed for my taste, and part of me wished for a more satisfying confrontation between Ralf and certain other characters.
Although this is a slow-burn kind of story, I finished this novel in one day. Ralf’s story is absorbing, and Fergusson examines complex themes in a compelling manner. If you enjoy coming of ages, books by John Boyne, or stories set in times of political divide (such as Confession with Blue Horses and Swimming in the Dark), chances are you will like this book.

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

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Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran — book review

42442934._SY475_.jpgQueen of Coin and Whispers is a very generic YA fantasy novel. While it is not necessarily badly written, its story, setting, and characters are both forgettable and lacklustre.

What initially drew me to Queen of Coin and Whispers was its F/F romance. Once I began reading this book I quickly realised that the queer romance was the only thing that makes this story somewhat more interesting than your usual YA fantasy. The world-building is poorly rendered, the plot, as such, consisted in a succession of cliché after cliché, and most disappointing of all is the romance, which severely lacked chemistry.

The World-building/Setting
The setting is a generic fantasy one. There is an attempt to make this world different by dividing social classes into steps (barons are third steps, while lord and ladies are sixth and seventh steps). This whole step system was wholly unnecessary as the characters already have titles, and readers could therefore workout who sits where on the social hierarchy. The rest (clothes, customs, architecture, the kingdom’s history) is barely hinted at. The country’s attitude towards same-sex relationships is briefly hinted at towards the beginning, and later on we discover that same-sex marriages are legal, but we don’t really know more details than that (when this happened, whether homophobia still occurs, etc). We are told that Edar, the country Lia rules, is no longer religious, but we don’t get much more information beyond that. What sort of religion? What about Edar’s myths and or lore?
Most of the story takes place in inside Edar’s royal palace, and you would think that we would get an extensive history of it (when it was constructed, its dimension/style) but we don’t. We know that nobles live in apartments inside the palace, but we don’t really know how they are set out (on more than one floor?).

The Story
Like many YA books out there this book stars a newly crowned queen who has to assert her power. She decides to make Xania into her spymaster. There is gossip, some drama between different factions, an assassination attempt or two, and some foreign princes. As the queen Lia has to marry in order to have an heir. Lia and Xania fall in love. That’s sort of it.

The Characters
Lia: most characters describe her as an idealist…so I guess we could say she is that. Other than that nothing about her stood out.
Xania: much is made about her…she is Lia’s Whispers, aka her spy, and should therefore be feared by the court…to me however she was way way way too green to be a convincing spymaster. She is seventeen, she must have only recently started working at the palace’s treasury, and that would hardly make her well-versed into the art of spying. When she describes those instances in which she extrapolates informations from others she is so self-dramatising. She goes on about how dangerous she is…and for some reason she has learnt self-defence even if she was raised at the palace…I just wasn’t convinced by her character.
Other characters: they are either good or bad, but most of all they are forgettable.

The Writing
Lia and Xania have first person narrations…and they sound exactly the same. There were a lot of unnecessary attempts at making them sound edgy (so we have many metaphors involving thorns and blades). Other than that the writing was all-right, nothing too elaborate.

Final Verdict
I just didn’t feel the chemistry between the two main characters. The story was predictable, the setting was barely rendered, and the writing was unremarkable. All in all, I would not recommend this. If you are looking for a satisfying F/F YA fantasy novel I would suggest Marie Rutkoski’s The Midnight Lie.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune — book review

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“He was here to observe and nothing more. He couldn’t influence the orphanage. It wouldn’t be proper. The RULES AND REGULATIONS were specific about such matters.”

The House in the Cerulean Sea tells an equal parts heartwarming and silly tale. The world in this novel is fairly reminiscent of our own one however its pages are full of magical people and creatures. The government closely monitors those who are deemed not human and they are raised in government sanctioned orphanages.
As a case worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth (often abbreviated to DICOMY) Linus Baker, a solitary forty year old, oversees and inspects these orphanages. His job consists in ensuring the children’s wellbeing and that the people who are running these orphanages are following DICOMY guidelines. Linus himself abides by DICOMY’s strict rules and regulations.
His routine is brusquely interrupted when he is summoned by DICOMY’s Extremely Upper Management, only to be unexpectedly tasked with an unusual and highly sensitive assignment: he has to leave the city and travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage. The orphanage is run by the rather mysterious and eccentric Arthur Parnassus. It is up to Linus to determine whether the six children who reside there (a female gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist) should be taken away from the Island.
As the story progresses Linus begins to question DICOMY and its methods. Once he is able to move past what his case files tell him about these children, he begins to see them in their own right.

In the novel magical powers/appearances is a metaphor for being different. They are isolated from ‘ordinary’ humans, raised in controlled environments, treated with mistrust and or outright hatred. Linus finds himself challenging his own assumptions and preconceptions about these children.
Ultimately this is a story about the family that you choose: Linus himself has always felt like he doesn’t quite belong. On the Island, alongside the children and Arthur, he starts to feel more at ease with who he is as well as the type of person he wants to be.
The novel is filled with quirky humour and charming dialogues. There were quite a few elements that struck me as being a bit too silly for my taste, so that occasionally the story verged on being ridiculous (such as all of those ‘Oh My’ that Linus utters) but for the most part I liked this novel, it even made me smile here and there.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Chain of Gold by Cassandra Clare — book review

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“We don’t always love people who deserve it.”

To be honest, I thought I was over Cassandra Clare….and it turns out I was very wrong. There is something about the Shadowhunter world that I find interesting. And over the past ten years or so I have grown fond of it and the characters that inhabit it.
Chain of Gold sees Clare at the top of her game. The Infernal Devices series is my favourite by Clare…and Chain of Gold has the same atmosphere. Clare is great at rendering historical settings and I just loved the way she depicts the beginning of the 20th century.
There is angst, quite a few battles, drama, secrets, a few complicated love hexagons, and a lot of longing.

“Would you like to be a muse?”
“No,” said Cordelia. “I would like to be a hero.”

Cordelia Carstairs is perhaps one of my favourite heroines by Clare. Kind, just, not afraid of calling out her loved ones for their rude behaviour. There are so many other characters and relationships that I really loved. I was particularly fond of the bond between Cordelia and Lucie. The somewhat fraught relationship between Cordelia and Alastair was surprisingly poignant. The romantic relationships, often restrained, were engrossing.
The merry thieves (James and his friends) brought to mind Maggie Stiefvater’s the raven boys. James and Grace’s story had quite a few parallels with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
This book made me laugh out loud, squee in delight, and stay up all night.
If I had to pick a favourite character it would probably be Alastair who is far from perfect but has a wonderful character arc.

I loved the setting (London), Clare’s writing, the atmosphere, the characters, the action, and the various mysteries that pop up in the narrative. I can’t wait to read the next instalment.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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