A month of magic and dispair: March 2023 Reading log

Book Review, Books, Fantasy, Horror, Literary Fiction, Queer Literature, Speculative Fiction
Photo credits: Neil Rolph

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout

“What is it like to be you? I need to say: This is the question that has made me a writer; always that deep desire to know what it feels like to be a different person.”

Elizabeth Strout

When I used to work in a bookshop, Elizabeth Strout was an author that many of my University friends came for. They’d get every book Strout published, telling me how much they adored her writing. I remember shelving those same books. The covers didn’t seem particularly attractive. When I read the blurbs I wasn’t especially inspired either. Once we got a review copy of Olive, Again and instead of reading it I gave it to one of these friends, who was very, very happy.

Fast forward to March 2023 – I saw Lucy by the Sea in the library. I picked the book just to try and see but very much doubted it was going to be my thing. Where to start? Strout is one of those authors that manage to imbue a certain hypnotic quality to their writing that traps you, no matter how interested you really are in the characters or the plot. She’s similar to Haruki Murakami and Sally Rooney in that regard. Especially to Sally Rooney, even though she writes about a demographic that’s in their sixties and seventies, rather than late twenties and thirties (I suspect Rooney’s characters may grow with her as she keeps writing them, though?)

Lucy by the Sea’s main character is, oh surprise surprise, Lucy. She’s appeared before in Strout’s fiction but this novel can definitely be enjoyed as a stand-alone. The book opens with the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. I have to say I was very close to quitting in these first chapters because pandemic fiction doesn’t quite make it for me these days. I was also quite annoyed with Lucy, the main character. She’s a talented (and famous) writer in her sixties who lives in New York (the dream!). When the pandemic hits she (like many of us at the time) doesn’t think much of it and believes it’ll only last for a few weeks. (I distinctly remember hearing an older friend in March 2020 say that the lockdowns would last at least until September 2020 and nobody believed her, it sounded too terrifying.) Luckily, Lucy’s ex-husband, William, convinces/forces her to leave New York with him before things get too ugly and they both go to a beautiful cottage by the sea in Maine to enjoy themselves.

Have you noticed my ironic tone already? Yeah. I struggled to feel sorry for Lucy feeling so lonely and annoyed she had to be in Maine by the sea with her ex-husband (a man who had his moments but definitely cared about her and was her friend). I mean… sure, isolation sucks, we all suffered its consequences during that time. But many of us were also worried about losing our jobs, about not being able to see our families (if you lived in a different country to your family during the worst of the pandemic, you know what I’m talking about). My relatives in Spain spent literally three months cooped up in the tiniest city flats because you couldn’t even go for a walk without being stopped by the police. Some of them went, quite literally, mad, and they haven’t recovered since. Many friends who worked in the arts and entertainment industries lost their jobs because art venues and theatres closed down for so long.

So yes, sorry, Lucy, sorry William. Your idyllic time in the cottage by the sea didn’t seem all that bad.

Yet, I kept reading. Because Strout is a talented and smart writer, and she does character really well, which I love, so a third into the book I found myself caring for Lucy, and William, and their two daughters, and the old rich friends they made in Maine. At some point in the story (skip this paragraph if you don’t want a spoiler) Lucy’s older daughter loses a very much-wanted baby to miscarriage. I gasped. I was so involved in these characters’ lives that it felt like it’d happened to a friend.

Another thing I enjoyed about this book was the character of William as an ex-husband and a father (as a husband to Lucy he seemed to have been pretty bad). The relationship between Lucy’s daughters felt very real. The insights into Lucy’s writing career (her experience talking to posh high-school kids who couldn’t care less about her memoir depicting her upbringing in a working-class family). The slight touch of magic realism in Lucy’s clairvoyance. How the book explored people’s reactions to the pandemic, how some believed in it, how some didn’t and how this played out within families.

Burn by Patrick Ness

Another book I picked because I heard that Patrick Ness was a great fantasy and YA author. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed Lucy by the Sea, which was surprising.

The premise is great: we are in an alternative version of the States in 1957. A world in which the Cold War is as real as dragons, who have been co-existing with humans, more or less peacefully, in the last few decades. The novel follows Sarah Duwharst, a biracial teenager (her mother was black, and her dad is white) who lives on a farm. Her father has just hired a Russian blue dragon to help them work. Since Sarah’s mother died she and her father struggled to keep the farm business afloat.

The novel introduces quite a large cast of characters from then on. Sarah’s Japanese-American neighbours, a father and a son (the son being Sarah’s secret boyfriend in a close-minded town where they both live). A skilled young assassin called Malcolm who is part of a cult that worships dragons. Nelson, a runway from Vancouver who can’t stay with his family since they discovered he’s gay. Two FBI agents – one of them, Agent Woolf, the character who will catapult the second half of the novel in a surprising direction.

It had all the wonderful ingredients of an original fantasy work and yet it didn’t quite make it for me. The plot felt rushed at parts and I found it used the trope of the chosen one in a way that wasn’t all that surprising. The villains (especially the main one) felt too evil and two-dimensional. I was very interested in the dragon’s own culture, and especially in Kasimir, the Russian blue that becomes Sarah’s friend, but there wasn’t much time to explore that. The ending felt quite rushed, and the addition of the multiverse narrative was a bit too abrupt. I wanted to believe in the romance between Malcolm and Nelson but again, it happened way too fast. I think this could have been a good plot for a whole series of books, rather than a standalone piece.

It didn’t put me off reading more of Patrick Ness, though, and I shall pick another of his books in the future.

Ghosted by Jenn Ashworth

Dark, twisted and hilarious. I loved this one. It made me feel very nostalgic because I used to live in Lancaster, which is the town where this book is set. I moved down south a year ago and I still miss it. The northwest of England is grey, bleak, and the weather is not the greatest, and still…

But I digress. Ghosted is the story of Laurie, a thirty-six-year-old woman whose husband doesn’t return home one day. Five weeks after that, the police show up at her door and are particularly suspicious of the fact that she hasn’t reported his disappearance.

This is, like the title promises, a love story. I found it very moving in all its darkness and quirkiness, but then I’m not one who likes classic romances. I don’t even believe in those, and when I read about them I find them boring, and fake. Here, I found Laurie and Mark’s relationship much more real and touching. These are two people who have gone through something horrible (which isn’t revealed until quite late in the novel) and are trying to come to terms with it while their marriage falls apart.

Laurie is an unreliable narrator, something that Jenn Ashworth has always written especially well. I love unreliable narrators too and even though I didn’t trust Lauire (she’s clearly trying to excuse her actions) I empathised with her. Yes, she has some clearly self-destructive tendencies, but wouldn’t we all react a bit like her when faced with a horrific and traumatic event?

The details in this book are superb, and everything has a haunting atmosphere. Especially Laurie’s flat on the sixteenth floor of a building with views to the mysterious (and cursed, and beautiful) Morecambe Bay.

To add to the cast of characters is Laurie’s friend from work and Mark’s (annoying) mother, who is one of those British people who live in Portugal (yes, I’m still bitter about Brexit). There’s also Laurie’s father, who suffers from dementia and, as a consequence, behaves in different ways at different times to the extent that Lauire feels like she has several fathers. But my favourite secondary character was Olena (what a gorgeous name!), her father’s Ukranian carer. She’s hardworking (as if immigrants had any other option!) and studies an MA while working to support herself and her family back in Ukraine. Olena also had lots and lots of patience with Laurie, who was especially mean to her at points throughout the book. Frankly, I want a novel with Olena as the main character.

I have a thing for endings (always had) and I loved this novel’s ending. I’ll let you decide what I mean by that.

Now She Is Witch by Kirsty Logan

I’m a fan of Kirsty Logan’s work since The Gracekeepers, and her collection of horror short stories What We Say in the Dark is one of my favourite ones – delightfully twisted. This novel was surprising in its lyricism. I was expecting to read a fast-paced narrative about an Icelandic witch seeking revenge. Instead, I was invited to enter the eerie atmosphere of the author’s imagined medieval Iceland. This was what I enjoyed the most – the setting felt like a real medieval world at a visceral level, definitely not a pastiche. I heard in an interview that Kirsty Logan wanted to write a medieval novel without knights and potatoes (there weren’t any potatoes in Medieval Europe, as these are originally from the American continent). This is the kind of historical fiction I enjoy the most – I don’t necessarily want to learn a collection of facts or be in the company of kings and queens. I’m more interested in inhabiting a place that can’t exist now with people whose set of beliefs and ideas about the world are completely alien to me.

This novel takes some interesting risks – with some of the sections narrated in a lyrical style, almost like poems or chants. I went along with it because by then I was fully immersed in the eeriness of the story and this hypnotic tone fit it well.

There’s an interesting mixture of beautifully bleak Icelandic landscapes – especially the stretch of sea that divides the north from the south – and horrifying details on torturing (mostly women) who are perceived to be witches. In the same interview, Kirsty Logan explained that her research on witches led her to believe that they were not necessarily midwives or women with medicinal knowledge who were accused of practising magic by men who didn’t understand their skills. These women would have been very useful for their communities, so getting rid of them would have come at a high price. Logan suggests a new theory she came across during her research: witches were the poorest members of the community, most of the time homeless, old, ill, or disabled. They were an easy target and used as scapegoats.

Lux, the main character of this novel, is a young woman brought up with a terrifying old mother who lives in the woods (as an outcast) making poppets and spells to sell to anyone who comes by. After being sent to a convent she returns home to find that her mother (and their house) were burnt by the villagers. She sets on a revenge quest to help Else, a mysterious presence who seems to be a real witch with magical powers (not like Lux’s mother) against the lord that wronged her. For such a dark novel the ending is triumphant in a way I found powerful as young Lux, who is cheeky, passionate and has an extraordinary sense of self-preservation, moves around Iceland challenging the different roles being imposed on her by others (girl, maiden, servant, whore…)

I am the Tiger by Jon Ajvide Lindqvist

Like Kirsty Logan, Lindquvist is one of my all-time favourite authors. I adore Let the Right One In and most of Lindqvist’s bizarre horror novels and short stories. I Am the Tiger is part of a trilogy that started with I Am Behind You and I Always Find You. I have to say that I Am Behind You was by far my favourite one in the collection. I Always Follow You was extremely dark and grim but the plot wasn’t as tight as the first one. I Am the Tiger is definitely my least favourite because it’s perhaps too ‘normal’ and doesn’t have much from the strangeness in Lindqvist’s work that I’m really drawn to.

I am the Tiger is more crime fiction than horror and, in a way, a pretty standard story: there’s a new drug lord in town (town being Stockholm) who is not only dealing cocaine of the purest quality ever encountered but also killing the competence (that is, all the other drug lords). The caveat here is that all these killings look like suicides. The main characters are interesting enough – Tommy, a true crime journalist who used to be famous, and his nephew, Linus, who starts dealing his ADHD meds as a teen and ends up working for the mysterious all-powerful drug lord.

The best thing about this novel is Lindqvist’s description of Gårdsstugan, a run-down high-rise which was meant to be a utopia in Stokholm’s suburbs but quickly deteriorates into chaos, racial tension and violence.

This book had a handful of interesting characters, especially Tommy and Linus, but didn’t explore them in as much depth as I’d have liked to. Other characters felt rushed – like Linus’ friend Cassandra. The plot was a slow burner until it suddenly ended with what felt like a rushed explanation. Lindqvist had spent three books building up tension, mystery and horror and somehow this ending didn’t do justice to the intricate set-up of the trilogy.

Solanin by Inio Asano

I chose this manga because I´d liked other works by the same author (A Girl by the Sea). Solanin is an earlier work filled with anguish that any of us who’s worked a shitty job while having other (artistic) aspirations would be familiar with. The story follows Meiko and Taneda, a couple who graduated from university a few years ago and are now trapped in jobs they hate. Meiko decides to do what many of us wished to have done at some point: she quits her soul-crushing office job in the spare of the moment and decides to live on her savings while she figures out what she wants to do with her life. Her decision inspires Taneda who is now set on pursuing a career in the music industry with the band he formed when they were both at university.

Yes, it resonates because I´ve always struggled with the routine of a day job. Some jobs I struggled with more than others – there were those days when I had to literally drag myself to the workplace every morning by promising myself I would quit as soon as I found something else. The main issue is, like it happens to Taneda, that when you have something you love doing but doesn’t pay you enough to live on the compromise of having to then dedicate most of your time to something you don’t care about but pays the bills can feel defeating. Having this sort of aspiration is a sort of a curse – you don’t ask for it, but it’s there, and you have to learn to live with it. If I don’t write, if I don’t exercise my creativity, I’m miserable. But a full-time job – the kind of job that allows me to be financially independent – is also what robs me of most of the time and space I crave to realise these creative ambitions

The story was beautiful at parts and I found Meiko’s quiet resistance very inspiring. There’s quite a tragic moment two-thirds in that I’m not sure was needed for the plot – to me, the fact that we have to work such long hours in a society obsessed with productivity is already the tragedy. But all in all, it was a good read.

Are you Happy Now by Hanna Jameson

Another familiar author – The Last was a book I thoroughly enjoyed back in 2019, surprisingly so, because it was marketed as crime fiction and this is one of the genres I read less of. I found the premise of Are You Happy Now quite intriguing – we are in the real world and there’s a strange pandemic going on. This is not Covid-19 but some sort of mortal existential dread – without any warning nor reason people drop to the floor and refuse to interact with the world until they die. I can see now how this novel is very similar to Solanin in that it explores the anxieties and fears of life post-university, when one has to come to terms with the fact that a) the working landscape is utterly broken with the rise of free labour, fixed-term and zero-hour contracts and b) society seems to push us all into the same classic mould (find a job, marry, buy a house, have children) which obviously not many of us fit in. Because of its more reflective side, this book was also similar to Beautiful World Where Are You by Sally Rooney in a subtle way, as the characters were also in their early thirties and shared similar issues.

The most interesting thing about this novel is that it explores the current mental health emergency and connects it with the idea of a pandemic and Covid-19 – this book was written during it, and it shows because at times the whole scenario (especially the way the news dealt with it when not much was known) seems too realistic.

The mental health angle is interesting – for years now I find that we all seem to be struggling with anxiety and depression. I don’t know if it was always like this and it’s only now that we have the language to define these conditions and the will to actually discuss them or if it’s got worse than it ever was. But it’s something I see a lot of – especially in my line of work – and it makes me wonder.

This novel follows four characters, which I think they are all middle-class (if I have understood the definition of ‘middle-class’ my British friends have explained to me in which it’s all about the mindset rather than the financial situation of the person in question). Yun is a musician struggling to make a living on his talent; Emory is a journalist that becomes famous thanks to her coverage of the pandemic; Andrew is the only clearly rich character who is however going through divorce and questioning his sexuality; Fin is a young aspiring dancer who’s moved to New York from the UK to continue his studies. Yun was, to me, the most interesting and fleshed-out character, full of contradictions. He moved through life trying to make the best of it while struggling with bouts of sudden depression. I get those – that terrible feeling of doom that seems to come out of nowhere, like a summer storm, like a sort of light that sucks all the joy out of every situation and leaves only one question, what’s the point? Perhaps saying that only creative people suffer from this is a harmful cliché. But I have definitely felt the urge to simply drop to the floor and stop trying when I’ve been in the midst of it, which makes this novel intriguing and worth a read. Plus the pace is really good – short chapters full of detail, dialogue and good character-building. Definitely, an interesting mixture between literary fiction and dystopia that explores many current themes.

Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

I have a confession to make. Lately, books that are written in beautifully lyrical language while offering a diffused plot (because language is what’s taken the main role in the story) bore me. In the past, I enjoyed Virginia Woolf and her stream of consciousness – even if I wasn’t always sure what was going on. But lately, I need a story, and I need characters, and if it’s difficult to follow these and the narrative is more like a poem even though we are all calling it prose, and a novel, then I feel kind of infuriated. Maybe it goes in seasons.

Hex is one of these books. The writing is outstanding and I found myself re-reading paragraphs not because I was lost but because I found them so well-written and insinuating. To be fair, this is a very short book, which is why I think it worked for me, despite being so lyrical. It’s written as a sort of long love letter from the main character, Nell, a PhD student studying the detoxification of poisonous plants, to her supervisor, Joan. The problem is that the experiments that Nell is carrying out may not be all that ethical, and when another student dies in her lab, she’s kicked out of her PhD programme. The story follows the before and after – describing everything with scientific detail, from Nell’s research to her relationship with and focuses on Nell’s research with scientific detail as well as her relationship with Joan and a small cast of characters related to them both.

Yes, most of the time the focus here is on language rather than the plot. But this novella is wild, darkly funny, and bizarre, and Nell’s devotion to Joan is believable in all its strangeness. I find this obsession relatable because a PhD can be a bit like that – it consumes you, just like unrequited love.

“When you grow up in Kansas wearing very large shorts, thinking not very much of yourself, thinking mainly of your knees, looking mainly at your knees, your face a frisbee that cant fly, your teeth buck, your eyebrows rectangles, your forehead more than half of your face, your shirts shapeless, your shape shapeless, your Kansas shapeless, your lust absent, your legs bowed, your arches flat, your chest flat, your ears your only curves, your ears never pierced, your denim never dazzled, your sneakers white, your socks white, your teeth turquoise with rubber bands, your cheese orange, your milk whole, your bread wonder, your luxury a tuna casserole, your pale a neon pale, your fantasy to race a Mario Kart over the desert and into the final oasis, your earthly oasis a salted pretzel, your solitude total, your urges not even visible to you on the clearest days at the farthest horizons, your blank magnificent, your inertia wild and authentic, your nothing your preference, and then into it somebody walks, a Joan, this sudden hero can really take control.
You’re susceptible first to idolatry, then to study, to apprenticeship, and finally to a kind of patient love that makes fun of itself and believes in itself without limit. Imagine being a pudding cup of a person and encountering a confident, elegant, powerful scholar who knows what to do with her shoulders. Imagine encountering you.”

Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson

I’ve never read anything by Juno Dawson before even though I know she’s a popular author from my time as a bookseller. I picked this book because I like urban fantasy – it’s a comfort genre for me – and it had witches, but I had no further expectations. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that I got into the story very fast and it was one of the books I enjoyed reading the most this month. It did have that comforting quality I was hoping to find and the plot was absorbing enough.

First of all, the title refers to a witch society of sorts in this parallel universe in which witches are real in the UK. I just loved the play on words there (HMRC = Her Majesty Royal Coven) and how in the book HMRC is actually this magic institution instead of being the tax office. If only.

The plot follows quite the classic structure: there are four witches, Helena, Leonie, Niamh and Elle who were childhood friends and now, as adults, have to fight against a dark prophecy. This is a big fantasy trope but I did enjoy reading how things played out even if a few plot twists were certainly predictable. There’s quite a lot of humour in this book and the fact that it’s mostly set in the north of England made me feel deliciously homesick since I used to live there.

In the last third of the book, things turn suddenly quite dark. One of the main characters becomes a villain quite fast and I found that a bit abrupt along with some choices at the end. I have to say that a few of these women felt a bit cliché at times and I’d have appreciated a bit more nuance (especially with Helena, a rich child who becomes HMRC’s High Priest) and Elle (a powerful witch who, initially, is more interested about not ageing and being attractive to her husband than anything else… would you really think like this when you can do actual magic?) Leonie was a really interesting character who didn’t get that much attention in this book – she’s a black lesbian witch who finds HMRC too set in the old ways so she creates her own intersectional, diverse coven, Diaspora. Niamh was the character this book focused on – she’s a healer witch and a part-time veterinarian. I wonder if the next instalment of this series will focus on someone else.

I’m excited to be reading more fantasy – like Burn, by Patrick Ness – that questions the status quo and raises some interesting social issues. Yes, yes, I know, many pick fantasy to escape reality (which is something I don’t always agree with but I understand) but do we always need to escape to an all-white misogynistic inherently racist world? I’m curious to see where it goes next (the series is supposed to be a trilogy, I believe) and I’d definitely pick the next instalment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s