Fawkes

Thanks to the publisher Thomas Nelson for providing me a complimentary advance reading copy through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review remain completely my own. Fawkes by Nadine Brandes will be available on 10th July 2018.

“An exotic place to live, despite the view of severed heads on spikes rising every which way.”

FawkesAn ambitious allegorical reimagining of the Gunpowder Plot and the English Reformation, Fawkes addresses not only the horrific religious violence, but also the slave trade, racism, misogyny, stigmatised diseases, and such philosophical dilemmas as revolutionary jus in bello and personal spiritual truth.

Fawkes is also an exemplary example of world-building. No passage felt obtrusively expository; instead, readers were allowed to discern the rules governing Brandes’ brand of magic themselves. Few young adult fantasy novels give their audience due credit nowadays.

This otherwise impressive feat was dampened, however, by the lapses into 21st-century colloquial speech – especially when it was the White Light speaking. The omniscient, omnipotent colour snickering like an American teenager was jarring, not to mention that the story took place in 17th-century England. The American spelling throughout the novel was also somewhat distracting, but at least it was consistent, so I let this one slide.

Nevertheless, the colour magic concept was genuinely inventive. I almost wish a little more time was spent navigating its subtleties; after all, much of our protagonist’s motivation was fuelled by his need to master it. How was each person’s strongest colour determined, for example? By their temperament? Talents? Interests? And what about purple?

Some characters’ incentives and plot developments were also too convenient. But I did appreciate the unwavering pace – an admirable achievement for such a thematically ambitious book. I would choose minor improbabilities over drawn-out digressions any day.

Overall, Fawkes is a diligently researched retelling of one of English history’s most widely commemorated events (this accuracy somewhat spoils the plot, yes, but I assure you Brandes remembered to inject fresh suspense). I wouldn’t read too much into the parallels between the two factions of colour magicians and the Protestant-Catholic conflict either (the snarky White Light voice, for one, and for another, religion does not have to be passed down from father to son), but they were cleverly and neatly drawn. A solid three stars.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Half of a Yellow Sun

This is a hard book to review. It was moving and merciless. The language was so consuming, when my mother called, “Come! Eat your chicken udon before it gets soggy!” for a moment I gawked and thought, We have meat! Then I realised what a fool I was. Of course we have meat. We always have meat.

Another image swam through the many imagined ones still treading in the shallows of my mind. My friends and I were sitting on the uneven planks of a stilt house. The wooden, wall-less structure served as Ban Chôk’s community centre. We had just eaten our first meal in the village and our interpreter was asking us what we thought of the food. Someone said, “There’s no meat. Can we have some meat next time?” Others nodded. I also nodded, even though I did not notice that there was no meat and I liked the coriander soup and boiled vegetables anyway. After the man left, our teacher said quietly, “Meat is expensive.”

I remember those words from time to time. They always kindle in me something akin to shame. School voluntourism trips are always somewhat hollow, but it was another level of irony to demand so unthinkingly from the people we were supposed to have been helping.

Half of a Yellow Sun is commanding like that. It immerses you in the mundane, meticulous details, which bring other details from your own life with them. From the eyes of five characters (an uneducated village houseboy, a radical professor, his rich and beautiful and cultured lover, her twin and an Englishman), we see an intimate, pitiless tapestry of the years leading up to and embroiled in the Biafran War. Adichie’s narrative is one that needs no exposition – the famine, rapes, forced conscriptions, international politics, national politics, civilian massacres… all were palpable through her characters’ individual treks through love and loss. In the first half, at least.

In the second half, those same details lost their potency. The metallic tang of war was already in the air, yet we were still tangled up in personal scandals that took entire chapters to unfold. I was irritated by how frequently the precipitating event was clumsily alluded to – obvious attempts at building suspense. But reading “the months before Baby was born” twice on the same page only fanned my frustration more than anything.

My criticism may sound paradoxical; after all, these deeply personal narratives are what make Half of a Yellow Sun so evocative. But somewhere in the middle, they just became distractions. I wanted awfully to like the book, so I took a break and read something else first. I only came back to it four books and a month later.

I’m so glad I finally finished it. Once we moved past the scandalous event, the prose returned to its unflinching brilliance. Half of a Yellow Sun is a book I would recommend to everyone. I will never adequately articulate how arresting and haunting and relevant it is. This story is not over yet.

Favourite quote: “This is our world, although the people who drew this map put their land on top of ours. There is no top or bottom, you see.”
Rating:
4/5

Revenants: The Odyssey Home

Thanks to the author for providing me a copy in exchange for an honest review. Though I was gifted this book, these opinions remain mine. For my full review request policy, please click here.

The publisher’s note at the end of the book called Revenants a novel “that might haunt them from time to time”. I agree. Though claiming to be a retelling of the Odyssey, there are only loose conceptual similarities. The war is still ongoing, there are no tragic maidens on magical islands, Betsy has no husband desperately fending off seductresses. The monsters and trials Betsy wrestles are all from inside her: anger, depression, guilt, grief. And although she eventually takes a decade to find her way back ‘home’, most of the novel covers only the months immediately after her brother’s death.

Kauffman’s keen grasp of the diction of two periods separated by 55 years and defined by two very different, devastating wars breathes lucid authenticity into his characters. He presents his readers a savage, unromanticised portrait of war, both at the actual front and in the homes, communities and nations embroiled in it, elucidating its relentless, divaricating trails of ruin – and the political machines it still feeds. His strokes are both graphic and allusory; aside from the one prosaic, expository paragraph on Betsy’s brother’s final hours, Revenants is a deft demonstration of how to show-not-tell.

One of my main gripes was the frequent typos and occasional grammatical mistakes in my Kindle edition. I often had to reread sentences to guess what they were intended to say, and it drew me out of the otherwise immersive atmosphere. But contrary to other readers, I did not find the beginning slow. While Revenants was not a gripping read, every development and flashback was purposeful. The secret patient’s memories were richly detailed, but they were compelling rather than tedious. The plot progressed at a comfortable, steady pace; I was never bored. In fact, I found Betsy’s coping behaviours at the beginning a tad abrupt and theatrical, and a quicker pace would have made her even more caricatured.

Even after her much more convincing emotional growth, she sporadically lapsed into histrionic utterances. For example, when Nurse Baker comforted her and explained how the patients keep themselves from jumping off the roof, she responded, “That’s me. Climbing up that ladder to the roof, one day, one rung, at a time”. Or abruptly in a colloquial conversation with her father: “I could be the thread by which one of them manages to hang on. Manages to go home”. While these could have been potent unvoiced thoughts, when used in direct speech, they felt incongruous, if not eye-rolling.

I was also hoping for more on her parents’ and her younger brother’s own odysseys to acceptance, so to speak. Some plot developments were also too convenient (Betsy being asked to organise the old patient files just after it had occurred to her that the secret patient’s file might be hidden among them, and just after a staff member had told her she would normally never get access to them). Betsy did offer to help, but only with paperwork in general.

Nevertheless, I was impressed by Revenants. It is a poignant account of personal guilt and communal grief, disguised as a tragic mystery and woven with a romance. Though I ultimately decided to give it three stars, they are three very big stars. A historical war novel you will find difficult to forget.

Favourite quote: “So?” “So nobody works here for long even if they’s suffering from the giantest Jesus complex there ever was.”
Rating: 3/5

I Can’t Be the Only One

There are contemporary books so lauded or so popular, they are cultural pillars in our collective consciousness (at least, my generation’s): Harry Potter, Twilight, and to lesser extents, The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson. And because these series have transcended into such phenomena, there is luxurious room for justified disappointment, apathy and even loathing.

There are also books, though not Herculean triumphs like the aforementioned, that are popular enough to have seemingly achieved omnipresence across social media platforms and in prime window displays in bricks-and-mortar stores (yes, those still exist). Many of these are adored enough to have scored an average 4.0+ on Goodreads. To the uninitiated bibliophile, that may not sound impressive, but with a community numbering more than 55 million members and books often receiving more than 100,000 ratings each, such a high average is actually no easy feat. For the typical book, it would mean almost 50,000 deeming it perfect enough to merit the elusive five stars. From my personal experience, the rating system really is quite reliable, and I do agree with the vast majority of the 4.0+ ratings for the books I have read.

Anyway, I digress. The point of this post is, I have been increasingly frequently boggled by certain books, which either received rave reviews or were otherwise simply commercially successful enough to have sold-out sequels etc. Here is a list of those books, and why I did not enjoy them.

1. Freakonomics (averaging 3.9 stars)

I wrote a full review for this ‘groundbreaking’ introduction to economics a little while back. Steven D. Levitt certainly thinks of himself as some ‘woke’ academic with (gasp) controversial answers to some big questions. But too often, the crucial intermediate steps between his bold hypotheses and conclusions were missing. Some statistics were quoted from unreliable sources. His deductions were no more than superficial appeals to intuitive logic. And the black-and-white explanations were too simplistic to be convincing or even evaluable.

The titles for most chapters were overworked and sensationalist. His tone was unpalatably dismissive, stamped with an all-too-familiar oh look at you less educated souls, how cute! strain of superiority. Yes, I was uncharacteristically generous when I gave this three stars. But be assured that it was for wholly unrelated reasons to the educational value of this book. If you want to learn some economics, look somewhere else instead.

2. Heartless (4.1 stars)

Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles was deserving of praise. The retellings stood on inventive premises that worked, had compelling and complicated characterisations both familiar and fresh, and were different enough from previous reworkings to make them feel like completely new stories. Heartless (a ‘prequel’ to Alice in Wonderland) was not this.

The protagonist, Cath, was insufferable – the archetypal fortunate-in-all respects girl blessed with wealth, a good family, attractiveness, and purported ‘intelligence’, who was woefully stuck in an oh-so-original ‘unfortunate’ circumstance (catching the eye of the king). If the problem were just the premise, I would have been willing to set it aside. But she could not seem to do anything but whine. Whine and precipitate the very disaster she was warned about repeatedly throughout the novel. Oh, and inexplicably turn mad and start chopping heads off left, right and centre.

I mean, I get it. [Highlight to show spoiler] Her lover died. (Her fault.) But it was all so sudden. The final few chapters felt like Meyer was desperately rushing to turn Cath into the villain we all know so well from the original stories, knowing that she was already running out of steam. Not to mention how clichéd it all was. True, clichés are clichés for a reason – they can still be powerful when spun well. This was not spun well.

3. The Wrath and the Dawn (4.2 stars)

I also wrote a full review for this duology, the first four paragraphs of which discuss the sheer ludicrousness of the plot and characterisations (or lack thereof). But if you cannot be bothered to scan a few more hundred words, the gaping flaws were as follows:

  • Girl’s best friend is murdered by the caliph.
  • Said girl has few charms to recommend her (at least, none uniquely able to catch the caliph’s attention when 70+ just as beautiful and much more talented girls have failed) but decides to seduce and murder the caliph.
  • Girl thinks she’s all that but it’s a Hong Kong summer-ful of hot air. 90% of her qualities are tell-not-show.
  • Caliph is seduced. Don’t ask me.
  • On day two, girl becomes all butterflies and lust for her best friend’s murderer because he’s frickin’ hot.
  • Some corny lines.
  • More corny lines.
  • She finally finds out why he has been murdering a girl every dawn and stuff actually goes down but it’s already the last few chapters.

I really have no clue why the two books were considered to be amongst the best fantasy novels published in their respective years. Nor why readers swooned from the ridiculous patchwork of clichés that was the central ‘romance’. I did end up giving the second book four stars, precisely for the same reasons most readers enjoyed it less – the eye-rolling romance became less important, towns were razed, a war declared, basically some actual action happened.

4. The Sword of Summer (4.3 stars)

I know, I know, this is a Middle Grade book, so I was not the intended audience. While I staunchly believe books written for younger audiences should never automatically be held to lower critical standards (read The Little Prince, Harry Potter, even picture books like The Giving Tree and The Paper Bag Princess), another spin-off series is just one too many. There are only so many times you can rehash the exact same concept, and for Riordan, third time was sadly not the charm.

With The Sword of Summer, you can tell he was trying too hard. His wit was a little thinner, his characters flatter, his twists more formulaic. Magnus Chase might as well have been Percy Jackson 2.0 – take Percy Jackson’s voice and personality traits, truss them up into a younger blond, and you have our latest demigod hero. I was so uninterested I gave up after the first quarter. Maybe it’s time to get back to some actual creativity.

5. Deathless (4.1 stars)

Valente’s lemony prose first captivated me in her Fairyland series (reviews here, here and here), with its sumptuous verbal illustrations weaving allusive treasure troves for literature lovers and seasoned readers. Deathless boasts the same meandering descriptions, but in this case, the leaden-footed build-up was an unfortunate detriment instead. The narration was too verbose, bordering on pretentiously philosophical, and I was constantly tempted to skip entire chapters.

It suited Fairyland, where there was a deliberate absence of urgency or any overarching tasks, so the reader was able to feel like she had all the time in the world to be enamoured by the wondrous, witty marvels of Valente’s unique, well, fairyland. I am sure her extensive knowledge of Russian folklore was incredibly impressive. I am sure she transformed well-loved stories (as she did with Fairyland) into a poignant, heart-wrenching, witty, intricate mural of war and love – if you ever manage to slog through it first. But no amount of genius or incandescent language can make up for the total lack of direction. If this novel were 100 pages shorter, perhaps I would have been able to finish it.

So?

So there you have it, why I cannot comprehend, for the life of me, why these books receive such inflated hype. Are there any popular books that you just could not enjoy? Comment them below, I would love to hear!

Flame in the Mist

An overdue review, but better late than never. (Although in medicine, late often makes never. But I’m getting distracted.) Having read Ahdieh’s last duology, I was justifiably wary about this one. Like most Young Adult books, the blurb of Flame in the Mist had to spotlight a romance, and romance is definitely not Ahdieh’s forte. Compound that with the incomprehensible fact that the most successful ‘feudal Japan-inspired’ series amongst English readers is still the quasi-Asian mess that was Across the Nightingale Floor, and you have quite a sceptic. (Going on another tangent, every single one of the most popular books set in feudal Japan was written by a Caucasian author.)

What ultimately encouraged me to buy the book was her evident meticulous research for The Wrath and the Dawn. She may be Middle Eastern, but the language, tone and smallest details demonstrated an impressive understanding of a region that preceded modern Persia by more than twelve centuries. And thankfully, besides minor descriptions that were a touch absurd (really not sure how varnish can ever smell like Dragon’s Beard candy), Flame in the Mist was also nowhere near Rubinstein’s gross appropriation.

Flame in the Mist was a large improvement on The Wrath and the Dawn in almost all aspects. But most of all, in the romance – or lack thereof. Yes, Mariko does fall into another nonsensical amour (an Ahdieh signature). Yes, it was ridiculously abrupt. Yes, there were no conceivable reasons behind Okami’s attraction towards her. But this was all much more forgivable because it was forced into existence only in the final quarter of the book, and remained relegated to the sidelines. What is Ahdieh’s forte is subterfuge, and the ceaselessly twisting, ruthless palace politics were fortunately in the limelight this time around.

I have no idea what is up the crown prince’s golden silk sleeves. Or the consort’s. Or the elder prince’s. I am still not even sure what the emperor’s agenda actually is. Nothing good, for sure. But beneath the appearances the characters are so adept at crafting, the loyalties are divided between many more than two sides. Sure, a lot of Ahdieh’s tricks have long been hallmarks of East Asian period dramas. But I personally have yet to find another English Young Adult novel capturing the tensions so well. The Wrath and the Dawn was no original tale either (in fact, it was much closer to a poorly disguised khoresh of clichés), but Ahdieh does have a knack for recreating worlds too often dressed in garish kitsch and scanty knowledge.

Like Shahrzad’s entirely absent ‘allure’, for the first half, Mariko’s alleged strategic quick thinking was also just a lot of tell without any show. Her choice to cross-dress and hunt down her attempted murderers was based on tenuous logic (I suppose Ahdieh had to get her to the Black Clan somehow), rather than shrewd judgement. She also made some pretty stupid decisions more frequently than one would expect; she saved the leader of the aforementioned murderers, even though all she was wanting was him dead. Now, the classic ‘calculated reason’ would have been because she wanted to torture his employer out of him first, or just to torture him, finis. But no. She did not show that foresight either. I can only say how glad I was when she realised her own naïveté and ineptitude once she had to ‘play with the big boys’, so to speak.

Anyhow, Flame in the Mist is one of the very few well-researched non-European historical fantasies I have read. For that alone, I was impressed enough to give this three stars. For the relatively complex and incalculable plot, I bumped it up to four. Highly recommended holiday read – quick, light and so much more engaging than the typical Californian beachside summer flick.

Favourite quotes: “To me, you are magic.”

“I’ve never been angry to have been born a woman. There have been times I’ve been angry at how the world treats us, but I see being a woman as a challenge I must fight. Like being born under a stormy sky. Some people are lucky enough to be born on a bright summer’s day. Maybe we were born under clouds. No wind. No rain. Just a mountain of clouds we must climb each morning so that we may see the sun.”

Rating: 4/5

Wives and Daughters

Wives and Daughters is a leisurely, meandering forest path, with dappled sunlight pooling in the occasional fairy-tale glades – an expansive bildungsroman canvassing the untheatrical lives of Molly Gibson and her county neighbours, from the aristocracy to the servants.

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl.

Mrs Gaskell’s final novel may lack the grit of my beloved North and South, focusing instead on the “old worn grooves of… the South”. It takes a certain mood for the lengthy examination of those grooves, and Mrs Gaskell’s voice has a beautiful, lulling, motherly tone. But potential readers are sorely mistaken if they think this novel is dull or blandly expository. No, Mrs Gaskell paints with her characteristic sensitive strokes, colouring her characters so convincingly that the stepmother and villain are sympathetic, if they cannot be likeable. As vain and manipulative as Mrs Gibson may be, she vows to be an impartial stepmother, and to love Molly as much as she does her own daughter. (That is to say, less than she loves herself, but we cannot expect too much from such a silly, self-involved creature.) The secondary characters are as charming; I especially love Lady Harriet, who used her rank to champion poor Molly when her conduct was unfairly subjected to the scandalous gossip of Hollingford. The squire too, although prone to tempestuous tantrums and exasperating pride, is as tender-hearted a friend to Molly as a higher ranked middle-aged man can be.

Osborne ransacked the hothouses for flowers for her; Roger had chosen her out books of every kind. The squire himself kept shaking her hand, without being able to speak his gratitude, till at last he had taken her in his arms, and kissed her as he would have done a daughter.

The plot may seem mundane, but before the reader’s senses are so much as piqued, the narrative slips into a wry comedy of manners. It dissects Truth, family tensions, female adolescence, nationalism, religion and women’s position in Georgian society. Like North and South, profound power shifts are woven into the deceptively humdrum fabric of everyday life: the aggressive expansion of the middle class, the reinstatement of the South as the economic capital, “the emergence of a scientifically led intelligentsia”.

I only give four stars because at times, Molly and Cynthia are more akin to two halves than individual wholes. The latter is the fatherless, ‘bad’ counter to the motherless, ‘good’ former. Molly is the “steady sun”, and Cynthia the “inconstant moon”. I also almost wish Molly’s romantic hero were someone else. Their tacit understanding and easy friendship are heartwarming, but their relationship began when the hero took her under his wing and deemed her his favourite – but frail and ignorant – pupil, whom he must shelter and protect. Molly gradually steps away from her wide-eyed role as Telemachus, but readers are much less privy to the hero’s changing perception of his pupil, then his sister, then his love and equal (I assume there was this change – I cannot have him still considering her a frail young thing). Indeed, we are not sure exactly how he came to love her either, especially after his fervent infatuation with her sister. Perhaps Mrs Gaskell intended to reveal all this, but she sadly passed away before she could write the final chapters.

Wives and Daughters is a delicate union of humour and depth – a moving magnum opus, a cautionary fable, a penetrating illustration of the individual, inner life, inescapably entangled in the fine-spun web of perplexing relationships and outward appearances.

Favourite quote: “I won’t say she was silly, but I think one of us was silly, and it was not me.”
Rating: 4/5

One of my favourite reviews, most lovingly written by B0nnie in the form of a perfect extended metaphor.

Sylvester

Georgette Heyer may not have the most refined Regency prose (her sentimental language is rife with mannerisms quite out of place among the landed gentry, let alone the nobility), but dear Phoebe Marlow sparkles with such caustic wit and vivacity, that this historical romance (Heyer practically invented the historical romance) quite grew on me. I especially appreciated her defiant ambitions to be a spinster novelist – ‘unusual’ would have been a grave understatement for women more invested in their careers than their marital prospects, not that gentlewomen were expected to have careers at all! Even more laugh-out-loud hilarious than Austen’s most popular work, Sylvester is a delightful mélange of comedy, incredulity and biting banter, with an affably (if only because he was rather clueless, his poor grace) arrogant hero and unaffectedly charming heroine.

On Sylvester’s arrogance, it was a refreshingly nuanced strain – that is, he treated everyone with incredible civility, even the most unsympathetic and offensive characters. He was condescending (in the Regency sense of the word), generous and genuinely caring towards his servants and many of his inferiors. Instead, his pride manifested in his unconscious expectation to be obeyed without question, to take for granted that his personal comfort would be every present person’s utmost priority. So although I thoroughly enjoyed how Tom and Phoebe gave him much-needed ‘set-downs’, I could not fault him too harshly for his sometimes viciously severe ways.

Sylvester: ‘Don’t throw my rank in my face again! Good God, am I some money-grabbing Cit… decorated with a title for political ends, and crowing like a cock on its own dunghill?’

Tom: ‘Oh, don’t fall into a miff! I see precisely how it is! You are very like my father, [Sylvester]! It’s as natural for you to be a duke as it is for him to be the Squire, and the only time when either of you remembers what you are is when some impudent fellow don’t treat you with respect!

I will admit that towards the last quarter of the book, Ianthe’s wholly ridiculous plot developed at a slovenly pace, and I skimmed several chapters. But until that unfortunate speed bump, the characters’ steady stream of hysterical antics made an endearing, engrossing Regency read.

Side note: Before I started the book, I unfortunately glimpsed a review with a picture of Spock, and I never could get it out of my head whenever Sylvester’s ‘flying black brows’ were so distinctly described. Please, someone make an adaptation so I can safely imagine a less hysterical male lead!

Favourite quote: “The charm of your society, my Sparrow, lies in not knowing what you will say next – though one rapidly learns to expect the worst!”
Rating: 3/5