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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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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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The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski — book review

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“It was hard for me to tell what was real. Lies made it worse. It is a midnight lie, she said. A kind of lie told for someone else’s sake, a lie that sits between goodness and wrong, just as midnight is the moment between night and morning. ”

Having loved and agonised over Marie Rutkoski’s ‘The Winner’s Trilogy’, I had quite high hopes for The Midnight Lie. Set in the same universe as her previous trilogy, this book is narrated by Nirrim who lives on an island divided by strict social classes (High Kith, Middling, Half Kith, and Un-kith). As a Half Kith Nirrim is forced to live in the Ward, forbidden to wear certain colours or materials and foods. No one seems to question why there is such a social divide, nor do they question their city’s history, and rather than wondering why they live in such an unjust system they say to themselves and others: ‘It is as it is’.

“We had been taught not to want more than we had.”

Nirrim, an orphan, has been subjugated and oppressed her whole life. An encounter with a mysterious a traveller called Sid dramatically alters the course of Nirrim’s life. Sid, who is unapologetically unabashed and outspoken, is unlike any person Nirrim has met. To the disapproval of Raven, the woman who raised her and her employer, Nirrim finds herself tagging along Sid’s quest for magic.

“It can be hard to imagine things beyond your reach. It feels like you will be punished just for wanting what you’ll never have.”

While the premise is not very innovative, the romance in this book is simply off-the-charts. Usually, I find romance in YA fiction to be…dull. From their very fist meeting the chemistry between Nirrim and Sid is simply…sizzling (these lines: “Nirrim, I can’t be good to you.”, “Then be bad.”) . Given that they have been raised in completely different circumstances it takes them some time to understand each other. Readers quickly realise that Nirrim is in more than one toxic relationship and that she does not deserve happiness or freedom. Sid however challenges Nirrim’s worldview and encourages her character growth.

“There is no possible way to understand fairness and guilt when your world has already determined a set of rules that doesn’t make sense.”

The scope of the story is definitely far more narrow than the one in the ‘The Winner’s Trilogy’. Given that the characters themselves do not know why their city is the way it is, the world-building remains vague. The novel depicts the way in which those in Nirrim’s position can be indoctrinated and abused. The narrative also does not shy away from revealing just how horrifying systematic oppression is.
As Nirrim begins to question the system, she comes more into her own and her relationship with Sid develops in a beautiful way.
The plot as such is a rather slow burner yet the dramatic finale will undoubtedly leave readers desperate to read the next instalment. The story is very much about Nirrim: coming to grips with the nature of those around her, realising her self-worth, and her search for answers.

“I had never felt or seen anything so beautiful, and it was only then that I realised how starved I had been for beauty.”

Marie Rutkoski writing is as beautiful as ever. From her metaphors to her insightful observations. Her prose perfectly reflects Nirrim’s worldview.
I also appreciated the Ancient Greece inspired setting and the allusions to Sappho.

While part of me wished for the ending to have provided us with some more answers, I still thoroughly enjoyed this novel. In spite of the swoon-worthy romance the story deals with many serious issues. It was also interesting seeing the way in which the world-building slowly unfolded.
Heart-rendering and engaging, The Midnight Lie is a must-read for fans of ‘The Winner’s Trilogy’.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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The Confession by Jessie Burton – book review

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Although The Confession had a very promising start…I think I liked the book’s cover more than its actual contents.

“It came smoothly to me, this loosening the threads of my own identity, weaving a new one. How had it become this easy to let go of myself, to pour words and fantasy into these gaping holes?”

The premise of The Confession is one that has been done time and again. A young-ish woman forms a bond with an older woman, the latter is often famous (she can be an actress like in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo or a writer such as in The Thirteenth Tale) or merely involved in some mystery of sorts (The Brimstone Wedding). The older woman will often confide in the younger one, who in her turn will find herself re-assessing her often until then unfulfilling existence. These books often implement a dual timeline to tell both of these women’s stories and towards the end a big secret will be revealed. So yes, I knew that this book was threading familiar paths…still, I hoped that it would give this scenario or these dynamics a new spin…(it didn’t).
In The Confession it is Rose Simmons who approaches the reclusive Constance Holden, an author who vanished from the ‘literary’ world after publishing her second book decades before. After years of silence, before Elise Morceau mysteriously disappeared, she was last seen with Connie.
Having waited so long for any information regarding her mother and her past, Rose, quite unwisely, decides to approach Connie under false-pretences and is employed by her. As Rose becomes invested in Connie she finds it more and more difficult to reveal her true motives and identity to the novelist.
All the while Rose is having some sort of identity crisis: does she love her boyfriend ? What does she want to do with the rest of her life? Can she ever know herself when she’s grown up with a missing parent?
In some chapters the narrative switches to third-person and jumps back in time, taking us to when Elise first met Connie. We see the way in which she falls for Connie, who by then is at the high of her career. The age gap and power imbalance in their relationship however soon causes a rift between them…

I enjoyed the first section of this novel and, in spite of Rose’s temporary lack of sense, I found both narratives to be engaging. Rose and Elise’s story arcs seemed almost to mirror one another; they both lack(ed) a mother figure and they are uncertain of their own abilities.
Much of the novel is concerned with themes of motherhood and pregnancy. Rose resists the pressure from her father, her best friend, and her boyfriend’s family to get married and have children. Feeling that she has yet to truly live she is not willing to lose her agency, and therefore, independence. It is Connie, a woman who has always dedicated mind and body to her writing, who helps Rose recognise that there are other paths for her…
Sadly, the characters, and by extension the relationships they had with one another, weren’t as nuanced as I would have liked. Most of the romantic relationships were rather unconvincing and never gave the impression that the characters actually cared or loved one another (view spoiler). Worst of all, the book, rather than creating a narrative in which there is room for different perspectives regarding certain topics, it goes on a self-righteous spiel. We get it, this is a truly feminist book.

Here are some of the reasons why I didn’t like this book as much as I hoped to:

✖I found many of the discussions surrounding female rage and autonomy as either incongruous or too ham-handed. First of all Connie expresses disapproval that she and her writing are defined only in terms of their femaleness; yet Rose, Connie, and Elise’s questionable actions or general flaws are presented as an unavoidable outcomes in a ‘patriarchal‘ world. Rather than being angry, they were feeling anger on behalf of their whole sex. Their words or choices seemed to always carry on some debate regarding their being female, which went at odds with the way in which these two narratives imply, directly and non, that these women should not be seen only in terms of their gender.

✖While initially I appreciated the story’s conversations around motherhood, I soon noticed that there wasn’t a single female character who was happy or at peace with not having children. We have the one who desperately yearns for a child; one who is about to have a second one and although she is not blind to the stress this will bring she seems relatively happy; and there are the ones who become pregnant and are faced with the choice of continuing or terminating their pregnancy. Connie, the one character who had the potential of being content with not having children, (view spoiler).
I also hated the fact that (view spoiler). All of the women seemed framed by their potential to become mothers. Couldn’t we have one woman who wasn’t defined by her ability to procreate ?!

✖Rather than having flaws the three main characters (Rose, Elise, and Connie) are merely reacting to a mean world. Their selfishness, anger, and stupidity were made to seem like the only solution to the bad people *ahem* or should I say men *ahem* around them. Rose and Elise’s seemed to share the same sort of aimless personality and funnily enough they both seemed too fixated on Connie (for Rose she is a sort of model for female independence; while for Elise she seems to be everything, yikes). Rather than being held accountable for their actions they are made to seem as if they are the wronged ones…they just didn’t seem to posses any distinctive characteristics, which the narrative tries to pin to the fact that they grew up without a mother figure. Mmmh.
Overall I just wasn’t keen on the way they would dramatise themselves and everything they did or felt.

✖The men are portrayed in such a shallow way. The two most prominent male characters seemed to just shrug a lot. They exist only to be insensitive: not only are they completely ignorant in matters concerning motherhood but they often seem to be held accountable for the female characters’ poor choices or bad behaviours. They were deliberately made to seem as little more than ‘meh’. They have no idea how to deal with emotions of any type or form (sadness, anger, love, you name it, they won’t cope with it).

✖While for the most part I really appreciated Burton’s prose, I soon grew wary of the odd way in which she would suddenly turn to saccharine language (for example in expressing the ‘anguish’ experienced by Rose and Elise). There were many sex scenes that were far too twee for my taste. And yet, amidst these corny love making scenes, there were these abrupt crude descriptions which seemed like a poorly veiled attempt to bemodern‘ that succeeded only in irritating me: (view spoiler).

✖This novel takes itself far too seriously. I found the self-congratulatory and polemical tone of the book to be off-putting. Rose and Elise’s stories were made to seem as ‘relatable’ narratives portraying a contemporary/modern female experience…and yet rather than starring complex and flawed protagonists the book focused on two female characters that seemed often just that: female. Oh, wait a second, Elise is beautiful. There we go. And in spite of its attempts to be a serious, if not literary, type of the novel, both Rose and Elise’s narratives soon turned into soap-operas full of perfectly avoidable miscommunications that have serious repercussions.

✖The mystery element is…lacking if not MIA.

In spite of its promising start (I did enjoy the first few cheap tees), and its beautiful front cover (isn’t it lovely?), The Confession was a rather frustrating book. Between its dichotomous arguments, its poorly developed characters, its uneven tone, and its propensity for melodrama it just didn’t work for me.
There are so many books that use a similar premise with much better results…

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars (rounded up to 3)

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The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif – Book Review

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The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif
★★★✰✰ 3 stars

The World Unseen was not the love story I hoped it to be.
While there were sections of this novel that well written, for the most part I found Shamim Sarif’s writing style rather monotonous.
The story takes place in apartheid South Africa in the 1950s. This historical setting was portrayed in vivid detail so much so that I often felt horrified by what apartheid entailed. The novel focuses on two Indian women who, although very different (one is married and has children, the other one runs a café). The story also follows the characters around their lives, in particular their family members. At times I was frustrated by the fact that these characters had so much page-time given that seeing from their perspectives didn’t really flesh them out.
A lot of these characters act in a rather clichéd fashion (the ‘bad people’ are incredibly cartoonish) and the two female leads were surprisingly boring. I was hoping that the romance that develops between the two would bring out more of their characters but it just made Amina seem very pushy.
All in all, I’m not sure if I liked this or not.

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A Memory Called Empire : Book Review

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A Memory Called Empire
by Arkady Martine      ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

Yet another example of great concept, poor execution.

A Memory Called Empire is an ambitious first instalment. Sadly, the interesting topics and discussions approached by the novel were diminished by an unclear world-building and by a monotone storyline.

“Three Seagrass gave Mahit a look which clearly expressed, despite the fundamental cultural differences in habitual facial expression, a chagrined admiration of her nerve.”

The main focus of the story is language. The protagonist is Mahit Dzmare, Lsel Station’s new ambassador, who is sent to the capital of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire. Mahit tries to navigate her new position and surroundings but struggles to reconcile herself with a culture that poses a threat to her own one (the people from Lsel Station—Stationers—are considered ‘barbarians’). Things are complicated by the mysterious death of her predecessor and by the conflict that seems to brewing beneath the surface of this supposedly civil and powerful city.

“So perfectly imperial, to have messages made of light and encrypted with poetry, and require a physical object for propriety’s sake.”

The world Martine has created has potential. Sadly, I was never drawn into the story or its characters.
The political intrigue was barely there. There were a lot of repetitive conservations which came across as a ‘lithe’ banter, not very amusing or clever. Characters attributed a lot of value and significance to things that had little to no importance in the overall storyline.
The Teixcalaanli language had some interesting components. Teixcalaanlitzlim have different mannerism and expressions to that of the Stationers (they smile with their ‘eyes’ rather than their teeth) but theses weren’t as well explored as some of the ‘technical’ aspects of the Teixcalaanli language. Martine does however render the nuances that words and a language can have:

“I am terrified of you, your Excellency, she said, using the word for ‘terror’, which, in poetry, could also mean ‘awed’. The sort of adjective that was applied to atrocities or divine miracles. Or emperors, which Mahit assumed were in many ways both at once.”

One of the reasons why I didn’t connect with the character is that they have terrible names. I guess I couldn’t believe in characters who were described in one or two lines and, worse still, they had depersonalising names: Three Seagrass, Twelve Azalea, Six Helicopter, Two Lemon, Three Sumac….the list goes on and one. This combination of a number+word created a lot of confusion. Which wasn’t helped by the general lack of individuality shown by these characters.I understand that this uniformity is in some way a part of the Teixcalaanli culture but at times they seemed excessively similar to one another. A lot of the characters were meant to be clever and cunning but came across as anything but.
Mahit herself lacks history. Her character seems to exist only from the moment she has become the new ambassador. The dynamics between her and her imago (the memory of the now deceased ambassador) made her slightly more appealing…but her imago was MIA for a lot of her narrative…so that didn’t really improve her as a character.
The characters move from one interior to the next often showing very little autonomy or initiative. Scenes that should have had some emotional impact felt flat and impersonal.
The muddled world building gave the impression that the Teixcalaanli Empire has been existing for a short amount of time. It was all too colourless for my taste.
Overall, this was a very generic sci-fi. It borrowed a lot from existing empires and offered very little innovation. Still, it was far from terrible, and if you can look past a poorly constructed universe (which focuses on a rather bland society), you might be able to appreciate this.

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The True Queen (Sorcerer Royal #2) : Book Review

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The True Queen
by Zen Cho
★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

Now this is what I call a great companion novel.

“Relations are a terrible burden to a girl with magical ability.”

It’s not easy to describe this series. A mad fantasy romp? A comedy of manners? A fantasy of manners? A pastiche 18th– and 19th-century literature? Fun quests?
I strongly recommend reading Sorcerer to the Crown before embarking on this one. I actually think I enjoyed this novel more because I started this knowing more about Zen Cho’s style and magical world.

The story focuses on Muna and her sister, Sakti, both of whom have lost their memory. Waking up after a storm they remember only their names and that they are sisters. The two travel from the island of Janda Baik (where Sakti is trained by the powerful witch Mak Genggang) to England. Sakti however is spirited away during their shortcut through the unseen realm (aka fairyland), and Muna arrives alone to England.
Here we are reunited with familiar faces such as the Sorceress Royal (Prunella!), her husband, Zacharias Whyte, and Henrietta Stapleton (a schoolmate of Prunella).
The novel follows different characters, and Cho easily waves together their different storylines. Muna remains the central figure of the story and I was utterly absorbed by her determination to rescue her sister.
Along the way she will have to lie (something she doesn’t like to do), adapt to a society which is not friendly towards women practicing magic or foreigners (more than a few ‘respectable’ members of the British society refer to her as a ‘native’), trick a number of magical creatures, and forge an unexpected friendship (which might blossom into something more).

Cho’s pays incredible attention to etiquette and modes of behaviour. She includes a lot of archaic English words (mumchance might be a new favourite) and really brings to life the old British empire without romanticising it. Yes, her world is enchanting but the society she focuses on has very conservative social mores (our protagonists are judged on the basis of their ethnicity, race, sex, and class). Yet, it isn’t all gloom and doom! Quite the opposite in fact. Humour and wit underline this narrative and I was smiling throughout.

Do you know that food must only speak when it is spoken to?

Cho combines different mythologies and folklores creating a unique compendium of magical beings and traditions: there are fairies, dragons, lamias, vampiresses, as well as Malaysian spirits and supernatural beings such as a weretigers, bunians, and polongs. The unseen realm is richly imagined and I loved the parts set in it (those scenes gave me strong Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland vibes).

The more the polong said, the less reassured Muna felt. “But are not spirits famously changeable?”
“I will have you know that is an offensive generalisation,” said the polong. “No one could accuse me of inconstancy.

The way in which magic works in Cho’s world is just as interesting as I remembered (more cloud-riding, yay!).
The characters were another delightful aspect to this story. Regardless of their standing (wherever they were old fogeys or angry dragons) they were portrayed in an almost endearing way. Muna was probably my favourite character. I loved the way she looked up to Mak Genggang, her bond with her sister, her sense of duty, her sheer determination…

This is escapist fiction at its best. It provided me with a brilliant story, an interesting mystery, magic, funny mishaps, balls, a dash of romance, and non-stop entertainment.

“When I have mislaid my things, murder is not my first course of action,” said Prunella. “What I do is look for them—and quite often I find them.”

One of my favourite scenes features a depressed dragon:

“No one ever saw a longer face on a dragon.
He had never been overly fond of the usual draconic pursuits and in the circumstances they lost all their savour.
At most he might dutifully pick off a unicorn that had wandered away from its herd, but he had not the heart to finish devouring the carcass before his appetite failed him. ”

Another brilliant scene was when Muna told off a bunch of rude fossils paintings:

“I am a guest in your country, I am entitled to your hospitality, and instead you hoot like monkeys. You dishonour your white hair by your conduct. Men so old should know better!”

My review of Sorcerer to the Crown.

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