Snow City

Thanks to the author for providing me a copy in exchange for an honest review. For my full review policy, please click here.

“Staring through a rainy window at a little piece of heaven. Unwilling ever to fully participate in the paradise that surrounds her.”

Snow City Front CoverSnow City is – double meaning intended – dreamlike. Not quite surreal, not yet magical realism. In fact, I’m not sure the term ‘realism’ could at all be applied to this novel. The hazy quality is not disquieting though. But it does dull the senses.

Echo Japonica: Thirty-five. Unmarried. Living alone in self-imposed quarantine. One day she was surviving apocalyptic America. The next, she was in Snow City – her utopian dream world painstakingly perfected on nights dogged by desperation and despair. In Snow City, people are kind, children are loved, women are respected. But with a creator still haunted by a depraved reality, how safe can this shelter really be?

As tiresome as Echo’s diction became and as frivolous as her imagined name was, it was hard not to identify with her. This is a tad embarrassing to admit, but I often puzzle over the minute logistics and intricacies of my own imagined worlds – whether they be lifted from my favourite books or new ones I hope will one day make their way into my very own bestseller. Who wouldn’t trade the relative monotony of real life for an existence that redefines the impossible?

And so I had no difficulty immersing myself in Echo’s occasionally melodramatic prose (she has a particular penchant for repetition and ellipses). The plot, too, was intriguing – peppered with well-placed twists, some as bewildering as our protagonist’s predicament. I easily waded through these 240 pages in a single sitting.

The dreamlike tone, however, was a double-edged sword. It lulled me through the entire book, keeping me entangled (the usual ‘hooked’ is too sharp a word here) in the breakneck plot. But there were also frequent allusions to the horrors of the – our – real world, from which Echo escaped. Horrors made all the more horrible by the realisation that they are happening around us, right now. Horrors that we have become desensitised to because this is human nature, right? Snow City was not as immune as Echo had intended it to be either, so harrowing events plagued its coddled centre too. Yet – the emotional response these passages ought to have evoked was muffled by that persistent dreamlike tone. Even the moving moments felt oddly detached.

Despite its promising premise, Snow City also adamantly avoided the issues of reality, religion, death, authorship and creative control. More ‘mundane’ questions were left unanswered too: How did Echo get here? Why did Echo get here? In the end, the whole woke-up-in-her-literal-dream-world business had disappointingly little to do with the story. I know, I know, letting yourself let go and indulge was part of the point. But we still deserved more closure than this.

Overall, Snow City has an idiosyncratic – if a little insubstantial – charm. A quick, easy escape from reality.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

An Enchantment of Ravens

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Tried to be ~conceptual~ with the “living rose” among books, Aster’s Craft.

Why I still gave this four stars: A Review.

TLDR: The A Court of series had as many problems as the moon has craters, and yet I still gave it four to five stars. So why not this?

Here belies another fork in the age-old debate: should language or content take precedence when judging a novel’s quality? Obviously, having both would be ideal. But you can’t always get what you want.

An Enchantment of Ravens may be Rogerson’s debut, but her pen evoked the easy elegance of a seasoned veteran. Her flawless prose was never purple nor plain. It was infused with sly wit, laugh-out-loud wit, dry wit, wry wit. And she detailed oh so succinctly all the pretty particulars of her own renditions of fair folk. Ladies and gentlemen, this is how you write.

“He was astonishingly vain even by fair folk standards, which was like saying a pond is unusually wet, or a bear surprisingly hairy.”

A splendid line in a splendid opening paragraph; from a single sentence, I could already discern the defining characteristic of Rogerson’s faeries.

“Once, a Whimsical poet died of despair after finding himself unequal to the task of capturing a fair one’s beauty in simile. I think it more likely he died of arsenic poisoning, but so the story goes.”

And from another splendid sentence (also in the opening chapter), I could already discern how these faeries exerted their influence on their mortal counterparts.

“Imagine all the things I could give you! I could make pearls drop from your eyes in place of tears. I could lend you a smile that enslaves men’s hearts, or a dress that once beheld is never forgotten. And yet you request eggs.”

And from yet another splendid section, I could even discern how exactly these faeries wreaked havoc on humans. No elaboration was needed; Rogerson simply appealed to our cultural consciousness: the French fairy tale, Diamonds and Toads, is internationally ingrained in our childhood canon. And through our enduring fixation on folkloric subversions, we all know very well how this one really ended (spoiler alert: not well for the diamond-spewing sister either)*. Extrapolate this to the latter two suggestions and it would be easy to imagine the woe the promised attention would only have brought.

“I quite like eggs,” I replied firmly. Besides, what on earth would I do with men’s hearts? I couldn’t make an omelette out of them.

Oh, and did I mention the wit?

This post has become less of a review and more of a discussion on what good writing is, but let me curve back around my digression. Clearly, Rogerson writes sublimely. The problem lay in the plot. Nothing in particular was wrong with it; the pacing was just too breakneck, and left little room for meaningful character development. And for what was essentially a romance, this costly mistake pushed the focal relationship dangerously close to insta-love (gosh I dislike this portmanteau so much, but I suppose bloggers must keep up with zeitgeists).

Now, I do not agree with all those reviews slamming An Enchantment of Ravens as a bare-bones copy of A Court of Thorns and Roses. We get it, here we have another faerie prince, and another mortal girl, and the prince also abducts the girl, and they fall in love. But isn’t that like, the premise of half the medieval folk tales our beloved fantasy novels continue to be inspired by? (Beauty and the Beast being just one notable example.) Broad tropes are not nearly enough to make a book a ‘copy’. Otherwise most – if not all – romances would be copies too. (Yes, A Court of Thorns and Roses included, what with its many clichés.) Broad tropes, in themselves, are not valid reasons for dismissing a plot either. Tropes are tropes for a reason, and when reimagined cleverly or stirringly or subversively, they can be powerful stuff. In short, the rest of this book was so different from S.J. Maas’ bestseller, it hardly merited a comparison anyway.

As for the romance, I do not think it qualified as insta-love either. Isobel initially seemed to tick all the wrong boxes, but it soon became apparent that she was just infatuated with the first handsome stranger who didn’t act like a douche. And she did realise this, poor lonely thing. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised to find this timely discussion on infatuation versus real love – an almost meta move, considering the painfully many young adult releases trying to pass off the former as the latter.

I also appreciated how Rogerson subtly showed the small moments where Isobel slowly fell for Rook, so that the reader realised she really was in love before even she herself did – another brilliant move that made her feelings that much more convincing.

Still, the breakneck pacing made it difficult to discern Rook’s reasons for falling for her. So much was glossed over that their relationship could still easily be misconstrued as a fleeting fancy. And the rest of the plot wasn’t nearly intriguing enough to salvage it. For once, I think An Enchantment would have worked much better if it were expanded by 100 pages or so. I acknowledge Rogerson’s success in spinning a story that never bored or so much as tempted me to skim – a remarkable feat. And yet – balance.

All in all, I gave An Enchantment of Ravens four stars because it is so
damn
difficult
to find such a wonderfully-wrought fantasy novel. I simply could not bear to downgrade it to a three, despite all the disappointments with the plot. I mean, under Rogerson’s hand, even lines that would normally have been cringeworthy were splendent similes instead.

“No. You surpass us all.” Beside me she looked colourless and frail. “You are like a living rose among wax flowers. We may last forever, but you bloom brighter and smell sweeter, and draw blood with your thorns.”

I highly recommend reading An Enchantment of Ravens if you can get past the silly notions of ripped-off storylines and un-ironic infatuation.

Rating: 4/5


*Try Gail Carson Levine’s The Fairy’s Mistake or Catherynne M. Valente’s In Cities of Coins and Spices.

Ever

In the same spirit of seasonal sentimentality, I reread Gail Carson Levine’s least popular fantasy novel. I had bought my copy from one of those mail-order catalogues my primary school used to hand out – what an era – but I had found the prose too different from her other books to give it more than a perfunctory skim.

Last year, I made a conscious effort to read more books by non-Anglo-American authors. And remembering that Ever was heavily inspired by ancient Mesopotamian myths and texts, I impulsively gave it another go at 2 a.m.

This time around, the writing wove through my mind seamlessly. Each sentence was simple and succinct, but by no means stiff. Some readers have complained that whenever white authors attempt to emulate foreign voices, they contrive gross caricatures of broken English. While in some cases I would agree, Levine’s language was reasonably reminiscent of Pritchard’s anthologies of ancient Near Eastern texts. And regardless of authenticity, the prose was perfectly fluent, lush even, and conveyed lucid Mesopotamian landscapes without the crutch of verbosity.

The plot itself was not exactly impressive, nor were the mythical ordeals empathy-inducing. The romance was heartwarming fluff, but fluff nonetheless. Yet the unexpectedly ambitious themes warrant a full review. Ever was the first novel I had read (well, skimmed) that attempted to navigate the tricky, easily stuffy theological realm. Kezi was raised a devout worshipper of Admat, the omnipresent, omniscient god of her country, Hyte. When she meets a very different god in the flesh, she understandably experiences a spiritual crisis.

Through her eyes, Ever deftly traversed some Big Questions: Is there a God? How can we know whether He exists? How can we know whether He is good? Why do we suffer? Must we suffer? As a second-generation Christian, these questions were certainly relatable. But because of its bold subject matter, Ever has also been met with astringent criticism. Disapproving readers have drawn parallels between the seemingly callous, absent Admat and the Judaeo-Christian God; from that angle, Ever may well seem like an attack on the Abrahamic faiths.

Personally, however, I found few theological similarities. Kezi’s religion may be monotheistic, but the sacred text and religious practices contradict Abrahamic teachings too greatly to permit deeper or more serious comparisons. Levine herself said she deliberately distanced the book from the Bible.

Even if young readers were to draw their own parallels, this novel is still an engaging preface to the crossroads every child raised in a religious family will ultimately reach – questioning what they have always been taught to believe. Whether this leads them to their own personal relationship with their god(s) or to disillusionment, formulating your own understanding of your religion is, in my opinion, the only way you can truly believe. So why rule out a book just because you (or your child) might end up disagreeing with some parts of it?

“A mind is like a parachute. It does not work if it is not open.” – Frank Zappa

Rating: 3/5

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

Swimming Lessons

Yesterday (or rather, the day before, since it is now past midnight), I walked into the most beautiful bookstore in Tribeca, with floor-to-ceiling shelves, gleaming brass ladders, and the kind of muffling carpet that belongs to grand hotels of old. It was called The Mysterious Bookshop.

Feeling quite overwhelmed, I simply plucked the first pretty cover I saw and sank into the burgundy leather sofa. The book was Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller. It began beautifully – the prose was limpid, like running water. The words tumbled and pooled into Southend Pier summer snapshots – pastels, sunshine, bubbling laughter. I was hooked.

But it quickly dissolved into a love-hate relationship, though thankfully not quite as tempestuous as Ingrid and Gil’s. Flora was the generic self-centred, sexually assured, ‘screwed up’ millennial younger sister. Nan was the generic Bert to her Ernie. And Gil was the generic smooth-as-silk seductive English professor. The only character that had any flesh was Ingrid, the vanished mother we only meet in hidden letters. Her voice was a lucid dream, and I was rooting for her from her very first page. Sadly – and I suppose it was already clear from the novel’s premise – everything only spirals downwards. I only became more and more frustrated by her complete inability to turn back. To properly process how disastrous her relationship is and to run the hell out of there.

Even with the countless affairs, illegitimate children, and betrayals by almost everyone around her, she continued to just let her life crumble into precisely what she had sworn she would never let it come to. Back when she was young and had dreams and did not know Gil Coleman (Get it? Gil? Gill? Swimming lessons? Hah.). Come to think of it, we never learn her dreams. Details of her life before Gil were disconcertingly absent. Her identity was wholly built on her relationship with her husband. Gil was infuriating too. He had the nerve to think, as he fell, that he wanted to tell Ingrid how much he loved her. Pah! If he had ever loved her, he would never have caused her such relentless humiliation and emotional torture. He loved her body and he loved how he managed to catch and tame her mermaid soul. He did not love her. I was even frustrated by Flora and her infantile frustration at Nan, just because she was more responsible. Basically, I was frustrated a lot.

But what was the most frustrating was the epilogue. After going through the maddening lows of Ingrid and Gil’s marriage and their daughters’ present-day unresolved grief, we were given no answers. At all. Which would have been a little more bearable if the novel had ended at the final chapter. In some ways, Swimming Lessons was about being okay with not knowing. Flora finally accepted that her mother had drowned, and tentatively began to move on. Yet Fuller completely unravelled her own arguments by throwing in the epilogue, which implied that Ingrid was, indeed, alive. Now what? Was she there because she needed closure too? Was she there to reveal herself to her daughters after eleven years? Was she there to see if Gil had missed her? Or was it a random woman after all? But by then, I’m not even sure I care anymore.

The entire book was a fine dining restaurant well past its glory days, presenting an exasperating parade of amuse-bouches and never managing to make the entrée. No amount of mesmerising prose can ever make up for the perplexing mess Fuller somehow managed to spin out of nothing.

Rating: 2/5

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.