Recommendation: “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

When he was a child, Zachary Ezra Rawlins found a door drawn onto a wall but didn’t walk through it.

Ten years later, the discovery of a mysterious book that somehow describes in detail the day he didn’t walk through the door leads him to meet Mirabel and Dorian, and a strange subterranean set of tunnels filled with an impossible collection of books and stories. However, even as he tries to make sense of this new world he must come up against those who are willing to sacrifice anything in order to protect the library.

Now Zachary must find the truth, and make his way deeper into the library to the Starless Sea itself.

After The Night Circus jumped straight up until my favourite books, and lingered on my mind for days after reading, I was very excited for Morgenstern’s follow up.

This is a story about stories, and it is intricate and woven around itself. But as beautifully written as it is, I will say I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did her debut. That’s not to say this isn’t a great book, just that my personal tastes lean that way. This is a very cleverly crafted story about the nature of story itself, and as can sometimes happen this cleverness detracts from the act of enjoyment.

Morgenstern intersperses each chapter of the plot with a short interstitial story that either expands the backstory or explores elements of the plot. By the end of the book all of these come together in an intricate pattern, but by the half way point I did feel they led to some sagging in the pace. I was hooked at the beginning, and the ending literally caught me tightly so I finished the book in one three hour sitting as I couldn’t put it down. But in the middle I began to find it harder to keep up my engagement.

But don’t think there was any point I didn’t want to keep reading, and boy is it rewarding to get through. There was a point where I worried the plot would lean to far toward “literary fiction”, and make the grave but all too common error of confusing unnecessary complication for smart writing, but instead everything came together in a beautiful finish that managed to answer enough questions to satisfy while leaving the perfect amount open ended.

There’s a reason why I finished the book in a single three hour sitting. It’s been a while since I was so satisfied to be exhausted the next morning after reading until 2am.

Review: “The Disciple” by Stephen Lloyd Jones

I enjoyed this book, but felt it only really got going in the second half.

There is a really good story here, with a core concept that’s incredibly interesting once you reach it. However, I don’t feel that the set up and initial feel of the book gels that well with the second, much better, half.

I feel the first half of the book could have been half as long and a lot more focused. I love Jones’ style, but it took me ages to get into the story to a point where I wanted to carry on.

But once you get through that, the second half is really worth working through for. The concept for the climax is really interesting. I would have loved to have the opening more focused around this rather than taking so long with character development that could have done with a lit of streamlining.

One thing I want to say is there is a massive improvement to the other of Jones’ books I’ve read. When I read his first novel, The String Diaries, I was disappointed by the tacked on happy ending. Sometimes a dark story needs to be brave enough to have a dark ending. And, without wanting to give too much away, The Disciple has an ending that perfectly matches the tone.

So not a great opening, but definitely worth pushing through until it focuses and pulls you in.

Review: Great Maps: The World’s Masterpieces Explored and Explained

I couldn’t tell you why, but I love old maps. I think it has to be something about the art of them, and how something with such political meaning and intention at the time they were created has bow become artistic and historical curiosity.

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I’ll always be drawn to collections like this. Seeing the ways cartographers tried to shape the world around them, whether it was claiming what they already knew or that which was being discovered and defined.

This is a pretty good collection, as they go. Most of the maps included reflect some aspect of cartography through the centuries, and the author makes sure to use examples outside of the western traditions, showing maps from other cultures and styles, some of which most people in western culture wouldn’t recognise as a map at all.

Review: Little White Lies by Philippa East

I finding myself enjoying stories like this one; smaller focused family stories, where people are forced to face the cracks caused by the tiny things done in their past.

A5D70964-D5B1-4301-81B0-6727CCE2C030_1_105_cIt’s similar to Emma Donoghue’s Room, in that it’s about a young girl who’s spent 7 years abducted and locked in an attic. Except here the story start with her being rescued, and told through the eyes of her mother and cousin.

The plot isn’t a rollercoaster. There are no real emotional peaks and valleys. The story is quite a low key presence. Rather than the events, “Little White Lies” focuses in the emotions of these characters as they try to process their own feelings and issues.

But there was something that stopped me getting completely lost in the book. I felt I needed more of Abigail. She’s been kidnapped and held away from her family for seven years, but until the climax didn’t seem that affected by it. She fit into her old life too smoothly. I think this was a conscious intent, as we are seeing her through the eyes of people desperate for her to slip back into her old life, but I felt it lacked a certain punch.

I think this is the book’s only issue. There’s fear, secrets, tension, but lacks any real conflict. I wanted Abigail’s return to upturn things. To disrupt her family’s lives more.

I think the author’s background in psychology is reflected here. I found the characters completely believable, but just a little detached.

I sped through this book. One of those stories that grabs you and keeps you reading. I can’t wait to see what East brings us next.

The Wheel of Time Reread: The Shadow Rising

*SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THIS AND EARLIER BOOKS IN THE SERIES*

Prelude: New Spring
Book 1: The Eye of the World
Book 2: The Great Hunt
Book 3: The Dragon Reborn

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With The Shadow Rising the series has really hit its stride. Now we’re through the initial “trilogy”, as I discussed in my last post, we’re able to get into the story proper.

Let’s start with my highlight: the history of Rhuidean and the Aiel. This is, in my opinion, a contender for the best moment in the whole series.

We were introduced to the Aiel in the previous book, and now we see their culture in full. This is the third culture we’re introduced to – after the “main” world and the Seanchan – and its differences. The way Rand learns their history is amazing not just because it fills in a large portion of the world’s history but for how it does it.

As I mentioned in my last post, we’ve also now established my favourite characters in the series; Perrin and Faile. It seems silly in a way, but I really connected with these two when I first read the series. Out of Rand, Matt, and Perrin, Perrin was always the one who seemed to me to just get one with things. He did what needed to be done, and with far less sulking than the other two. Not that there isn’t some, but less than the others.

And he meets Faile, a fiery, passionate woman from a different culture who challenges him and forced him to connect with him own passion, while at the same time let him ground her. To an English boy who met and married and Argentinean girl, this spoke to me.

And I still love them. More than any other couple in the series, they compliment each other. They’re always looking out for each other and striving for the best for the other, even when they don’t agree with what that might be.

The other thing that can’t be avoided now we’re well into the series is an issue that’s been raised a lot: the gender divide.

There has been a lot of discussion about the gender politics of The Wheel of Time. Some of it is valid, some of it less so. I’ll probably go into this in more detail in later posts, but let’s start here.

The Wheel of Time has a definite gender divide. The characters are always talking or thinking about how the other gender is impossible to understand. Women will talk about how men are impossible to control and never understand anything, and the men will do the same about women. It’s a theme that runs through the books, and a lot of people have focused on this as a problem.

But there are two sides to this.

The first is that we have to face the fact this series has the same problem all fantasy of its time has, especially when written by someone of Jordan’s generation: outdated gender politics are written into the world in a way that wouldn’t stand today. These books may only be thirty years old but that’s enough to have noticeably dated in some ways.

But the second point is a gender spilt is an intrinsic part of the world. This a civilisation whose founding incident was all male magic users going mad and literally the world. From that point on only woman could use magic without going mad. This would naturally leave a culture with a stark gender awareness.

So while we do have the problem of traditional gender roles being entrenched in fantasy literature, I believe The Wheel of Time gets away with it due to its design. A modern writer might have better addressed this – Brandon Sanderson, for example, would have handled this much better – but I think Jordan just didn’t see it as a problem.

Also, as much as the female characters can be somewhat problematic at time, they have full agency and control. They are in most cases doing their own thing. And while a lot of this revolves around a man – Rand being the prophesied Chosen One will do that – that’s simply an inevitable part of the story.

And now on to The Fires of Heaven. The characters are on the move, the established havens made unsafe, and everything uncertain.

Recommendation: “Lexicon” by Max Barry

Emily, a talented street grifter, is pulled off the street and placed in a school that teaches its students the true power of human language. Struggling against the strict discipline of this new life, she discovers her talents for persuasion are more powerful than she ever realised.

Will has no memory of the things the men who abducted him insist he was part of. The only survivor of an impossible to survive event, he finds himself on the run from an organisation that wants to pull a word out of his head anyway it can.

I got this book as my Secret Santa gift at work last year. It was a successful purchase.

I got pulled into the story straight away, with both Will and Emily’s stories are equally engaging. At no point was I annoyed when it swapped between one and the other, which can happen when there are two viewpoints at once.

It’s hard to go into some of the details without spoilers, but I’ll just say I loved how the two POVs came to interact. There were surprises, and while I managed to work some out in advance these were enough to make me fee smart rather than making the story feel predictable.

This book was fascinating. As I got into it I actually started to worry, as the concept got very close to one of my WIPs. Luckily Barry took it in the other direction to where I’m looking to go. I might still take some inspiration from here though.

I’m definitely putting Max Barry on my watch list. It looks like he’s got a few books out, so those are on my To-Read list once I get my current reading pile down a bit.

The Wheel of Time Reread: The Dragon Reborn

 

Book Three done.

From this point on in this series of posts I’m going to have to say *mild spoilers*. We’re getting to the point where discussing the plot of each book with reveal points from previous ones. It’s unavoidable. So if you’ve not yet read The Wheel of Time, or plan to watch the Amazon Prime show when it comes out without knowing anything in advance, then I recommend doing so before reading any more of these posts.

Prelude: New Spring
Book 1: The Eye of the World
Book 2: The Great Hunt

*MILD SPOILERS AHEAD FOR EARLIER BOOKS IN THE SERIES*

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I think The Dragon Reborn is where The Wheel of Time really starts to get good. The premise is set, we know the main characters, and have a grasp of the world as a whole. The foundation is in place and we’re ready to open things up and run.

In my last post I discussed how The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt mirrored each other; in the first the characters are running from something and in the next running to something. The Dragon Reborn concludes the introduction ‘trilogy’, if you will, by having them run for something. The characters are now becoming proactive.

Where we might start to get bored with the formula a little, the introduction of the world of dreams – both with Tel’aran’rhiod and the Wolf Dream – gives us a nice helping of foreshadowing. The first time you read these they open up possibilities and could easily mean very little. But on following read-throughs you know what they are hinting at. You get to see exactly how far ahead Jordan had planned the story. Elements we’re not going to see for several books are already hinted or at play. It’s masterful.

The only series to come close to The Wheel of Time when it comes to foreshadowing is the television show Babylon 5. If you know of any others, let me know as I’d love to have more examples.

And, critically, we have new antagonists: The Forsaken.

Two of the Forsaken turned up in The Eye of the World, but in that case simply appeared during the climax to act as a Boss Battle. By the end of The Dragon Reborn we know they are all free. Until now there were a distant threat, trapped but as risk of escaping. Now they are in play. And also they are all doing something far more terrifying than simply attacking the protagonists outright; establishing themselves and making plans. They are setting themselves as rulers, insinuating themselves into positions of power.

By the end of The Dragon Reborn we know where three of them are and that two of them are dead, but the others are all out there somewhere. And so now the series has a credible, real world threat. Until now we’ve had the Trollocs. Terrifying, but essentially mindless monsters. The Forsaken, on the other hand, are active, intelligent forces working against the protagonists. Each one different, yet equally dangerous.

Also this is the book that introduces Faile, and Faile and Perrin are my favourite two characters in the series. I’ll talk more about them in my post for the next book in the series.

The last thing is want to mention here is how annoying some of the characters are. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Take Nynaeve. I hate Nynaeve as a person, but love her character. She’s arrogant, stuck up, bullies people into getting her way, refuses to admit anyone else can ever be right, and her entire arch through the first few books of the series is based about seeking spiteful revenge against Morraine.

One of the things I love about this series are the flaws these characters have, and the reasons behind them. There are reasons Nynaeve is the way she is, and there will be ways she grows and tempers her personality without changing who she is.

And that’s fine. Better than fine. She’s not the only one, just the main example. I also feel Matt needs a good sulk to stop him sulking all the time. It’s easy to forget how young the main characters are sometimes. If they sound like they are being sulky and childish, they’re mostly teenagers still. And acting like any teenage with authority they’re not certain how to handle.

It’s important to be able to dislike a character. To be able to look at a protagonist and see how their thoughts and opinions are valid, but if you were in a room with them you’d just want to slap them for being so irritating.

But that’s what makes them interesting. It’s why no particular section feels boring. As the series progresses there are going to be so many new characters to keep in our heads, and it’s these character traits that stops them becoming interchangeable.

If I have a criticism for The Dragon Reborn, it’s that there’s a little too much exposition in the first third of the book. It suffers from the fact it was an early book in an epic fantasy series and needed to refresh the reader on the world and the story. When you re-read them in quick succession it’s jarring when the characters keep explaining everything to us. I don’t remember this problem from previous read-throughs, so hopefully it will stop being a problem in the next books.

 

And so on to The Shadow Rising. Rand has declared himself the Dragon Reborn, fulfilling the prophesies that make it impossible for the world to deny him. It’s time for our main party to split, and the Forsaken to start tearing the world up under their feet. And, happily, the this will be the last book in my collection is the terrible original cover art.

Polyamory Week 2020 – Review: ‘More Than Two’ by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert

Day 1: Polyamory Week 2020
Day 2: What is Polyamory
Day 3: What Polyamory Means to Me
Day 4: My Polyamory

When coming into a new area of life, research is important. I may have all the necessary skills and tools for this life, but it’s possible that I don’t know how to use them. And it’s a simple fact that as much as I consider myself a modern, open minded person, I’ve had thirty-six years of conditioning that the romantic ideal is to find “The One”.

There are books out there designed to help people into the non-monogamy world. But we need to remember that just because someone has been living the lifestyle longer, and may even be seen as a leading figure in the scene, it doesn’t mean their advice is perfect.

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More Then Two, by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert has been referred to in a number of circles as the “Polyamory Bible”; recommended as the go-to resource for discovering and working out the basics of polyamory.

More Than Two is comprehensive. There are sections aimed at those coming in to polyamory from different points of view – single to poly, couples opening up, families with children – and more general topics like communication. A lot of it seems simple, and I’m certain that everyone who reads it will find parts are just common sense. But I’m also certain each person will find a chapter that will really benefit them. There were parts I skimmed through, but there were parts that really made me think about what I was doing and how I was doing it.

There are also lots of real life examples, most often taken from Veaux or Rickert’s personal experiences. These are useful, as not every topic will be relevant to each reader and these examples show the real world application of what is being discussed.

However, Franklin Veaux has been revealed as a problematic source. And in the last few years he’s been called out by a number of women he’s had relationships, including co-author Eve Rickert, for being manipulative and emotionally abusive.

I’m not going to comment strongly on this area here. I don’t know a huge amount about about the situation. I would recommend visiting https://polyamory-metoo.com, created by Louisa Leontiades, and https://brighterthansunflowers.com/2019/09/02/thoughts-on-the-fifth-anniversary-of-more-than-two/ for the views of the co-author Eve Rickert.

I was lucky enough to have met Louisa Leontiades at a party. When I started reading More Than Two I recognised Veaux’s name from posts she’d made regarding the issues with him that had been raised. So I reached out to her and asked if it was still valid to read the book. Her advice was it still was a valid resource, as long as those reading it kept in mind that the book presented polyamory through a single viewpoint; and knowing how Veaux had misused it to manipulate his partners was vital as a background understanding.

Reviewing More Than Two is difficult. It’s a useful resource of foundational knowledge. But it also filters polyamory through the point of view of a straight, cis, white man who believed it was something that benefited him over his partners. It is a book that cannot be viewed on its own merits alone, but requires outside context.

So, should you read it? I think it’s best put into words by co-author Eve Rickert (from the post I linked above):

I’m glad that people are thinking critically about More Than Two. I’m glad people are pointing out its flaws. This consensual nonmonogamy thing we’re all working on is not static, and no one has all the answers figured out for everyone. More Than Two represents, at best, a snapshot of what was important and how certain communities were thinking at a certain point in time, just like The Ethical Slut was two decades prior. Ideas and practices will continue to evolve, and that’s a good thing. Some or all of what’s in More Than Two may eventually be thrown out—and I think that’s okay, too. 

So I guess all I can say is: It’s flawed. Maybe it’ll help you. I hope it will. But be careful. Read other things. Take what works for you from each. Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right to you, listen to that feeling. 

So would I recommend More Than Two?

Yes, I think I would. It’s not perfect, but no book on relationships will ever be perfect. If you’re looking to learn more about coming into polyamory it’s a good starting point, as long as it isn’t taken on its own. Do some further reading on Veaux, read the testimonies of the woman he talks about in this book, and indulge in some critical thinking.

Above all, take from this that there is no clear and easy resource to tell you how to “do” ethical non-monogamy. And just because someone’s been involved in the scene longer doesn’t mean they know more than you, or are necessarily doing it “better”. In polyamory, as in monogamy, people have their own issues that they bring to the table. Be aware, and be educated.

Recommendation: “Magpie” by Sophie Draper

Claire and Duncan’s marriage has been over for years. Now their son is eighteen, Claire is finally ready to leave. To take her life back. But she finds that secrets from their past tie her to a man who has become a stranger to her. Ties that wind back to a shared past neither of them are prepared to face. 

When I read Sophie Draper’s first novel, Cuckoo, I was not sure if my problems with it were the writing or my own expectations? I felt there was a slight disconnect, thinking it was going to be more supernatural. When that wasn’t the case I felt thrown.

873B418C-EAAF-4D4E-B575-05C28F1E2FD8So I don’t know if it’s the story or a resetting of my expectations that made me absolutely love Magpie.

This story grabbed me from the start. We follow the characters Claire and Duncan, a couple whose marriage has been dead for years, in two separate time periods: Before and After. You find yourself immediately trying to work out the event between them, but Draper masterfully keeps you guessing.

Each shift and change in the plot is satisfying. Nothing feels cheap or gimicky. And, without wanting to give anything away, the grand reveal at the climax was one of those moments that actually had me rereading previous chapters as everything had been flipped on it’s head yet still made perfect sense.

As good as the plot is, at its heart this book is about it’s characters. Both Claire and Duncan are complex, rounded characters. The failure of their marriage isn’t flat and simple. They both contributed to it with how how they’re responded – and failed to communicate with each other about –  circumstances out of their control.

I very much recommend Magpie. With it Draper has shown that she’s a master storyteller.

Book of the Year 2019: ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern

I didn’t get to read many books this year. As I discussed in my earlier post, my commuting time – which is my main reading time – has been given over to studying, slashing my reading in half (based on the number of books I read this year against 2018).

But even if I’d had a large pool of books to select from, I can’t imagine another one pulling me in as deeply as The Night Circus.

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Yes, once again I’m choosing a book that wasn’t published this year. But as much as I would like my pick for the year to be more currently, I have to select from the pool available.

The words I used to describe this story at the time were “comfortable without feeling worn, and elegant without being pretentious”. I still feel those are the most accurate. I can already imagine coming back to this book again and again, immersing myself in the pages and rediscovering the beauty and the magic.

The true beauty of The Night Circus is how Morgenstern ensures the pure magic of the circus itself blends with the everyday sections. We see Le Circe des Reves, the Night Circus itself, from the point of view of the world’s public and also from behind the scenes. It is both magical and everyday. Something spectacular and unreal, and yet still grounded in a reality. The perfect setting for a contest of magic where neither participant knows exactly who their opponent is.

Don’t expect fast paced. But also don’t expect slow and bloated. This novel is exactly the right length as it travels through a cast of characters who all feel unique and alive. This isn’t a story of two protagonists with a background cast passing through and appearing only when needed. This is the story of a the world the protagonists live in, fleshed out and real.

I’m pretty sure I’ll come back to this book relatively soon. And when I do I will likely sink right back into it with a smile on my face.

And I received Morganstern’s new novel – The Starless Sea – as a Christmas gift. So I’ll be throwing myself into that as soon as possible.