Her Royal Highness

“There’s a unicorn on this.”

Her Royal Highness, Rachel Hawkins, Penguin Random House 2019

I find some time to read in between the films. Although you don’t need much time for this 200 page YA novel that is a wish-fulfillment fantasy involving Scottish castles, royalty and a Cool Girl. It’s YA, very obviously. That I didn’t pull out any hair in frustration about dumb teenage actions is a compliment to the author.

Millie likes geology and doesn’t care about her looks. Because of Reasons she decides to do her final year of high school in Scotland. There, she becomes the room mate of a princess. A snooty, tiresome princess but oh no – are those feelings?

It all works: the surroundings, the side characters, the absolutely wonderful love interest. While struggling to get through The Shadow King and seemingly to only pick serious films or duds – this was a breath of fresh air.

Mary, Mary

It was a Saturday night and Mary Ryan had a hot date with Mrs. Aucoin.

Mary, Mary, Lesley Crewe, Nimbush Publishing Limited 2016

Meestal houd ik de regel ‘gelezen in Engels = geschreven in Engels” aan, maar dit was zo’n vreemde verzameling van woorden dat het voelt alsof ik mijn verwarring hierover het beste in het Nederlands kan uitdrukken.

In Mary, Mary is de hoofdpersoon eens niet het zwarte schaap maar het witte schaap. Ze is te geduldig, te vriendelijk en haar moeder en grootmoeder maken daar misbruik van. Volgens de blurb ~gebeurt er iets~ waardoor dat allemaal verandert; en daar kijk je ook snel naar uit met die snertkarakters. Fijn zo’n twist, maak het maak naar en miserabel.

Alleen – dat gebeurt maar niet. Situaties veranderen, maar de grote HAPPENING komt maar niet. Het verhaal wordt meer absurd en de tweederangs karakters krijgen meer ruimte, terwijl ons dat helemaal niet boeit want die hebben allang bewezen dat ze dat niet verdienen.

In één ruk las ik de laatste 100 pagina’s: er moet vast iets zijn wat dit allemaal bij elkaar gaat brengen. Neen. Het wiebelt alle kanten op als een slordig geschreven telenovela. Geven we om Mary? Om haar familie die door omgeving en situatie gevormd zijn? Of moeten we het allemaal maar snel vergeten?

Enige zonde vind ik dat ik niet meer kan herinneren waarom dit op mijn TBR lijst stond. Hoe kwam ik er op?

The Hidden Palace

Of all the myriad races of thinking creatures in the world, the two that most delight in telling stories are the flesh-and-blood humans and the long-lived, fiery jinn.

The Hidden Palace, Helene Wecker, HarperCollins 2021

I don’t remember exactly why, but I remember absolutely loving in that swept-away-recommend-everyone way the prequel to this: The Golem and the Jinni. Maybe it’s a sophomore slump or the time between has dropped the rose colour from my glasses, but I didn’t love this one. Sadly.

My biggest complaint is how compartmentalized it felt: there’s never much room given to have the story flow, instead of continuously moving on to another character, another angle, another location. It’s like the notes for a story; not a story.

Of course, it’s still a wonderful look at a young New York city (although not that young anymore, with the first World War around the corner), a broad view at the mythology/-ies of golem and jinns. Some of the new characters add to the stories of the golem and the jinn, others take up too much space and sentimentally planned scenes (assuming, of course) don’t pull at the heart strings at all or only very little.

It’s all too one-dimensional, but there’s rumours there’ll be another book. Maybe the third time is the charm – again.

The Witch’s Heart

Long ago, when the gods were young and Asgard was new, there came a witch from the edge of the worlds.

The Witch’s Heart, Genevieve Gornichec, Penguin Random House 2021

I love a good retelling. Mythological, it is. Madeleine Miller did it with Greeks, Genevieve Gornichec goes way up North with Loki’s story from one of his wives’ point of view.

Angrboda is much more than Loki’s wife: she’s a powerful witch, a threat to the Norse gods (mostly in their eyes, she just wants to be left alone), and a calm soul. She wants to live her little life, but mythologies aren’t build on that. So there’s an unfamiliar feeling (love) for an unreliable person (Loki), pregnancies, children and terrifying visions about (growing) threats. As it goes.

Gornichec doesn’t attempt an old-timey tone that will assure you this is a myth: she tells it like one. There’s a clear chronology, little side steps, lovely visuals. A novel like a comfortable sweater — if you manage to ignore the several deaths, abuse and apocalypse. It’s still a myth, after all.

A Long Petal of the Sea

The young soldier was part of the “Baby Bottle Conscription,” they boys called up when there were no more men, young or old, to fight the war.

A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende, Bloomsbury Publishing 2020

Author Isabel Allende warns that “this is a story of sorrow, displacement and hope” and that’s even a considerate description of it. The characters are fictional, what they go through isn’t and isn’t ancient history either.

It’s humans that live through Franco’s fight(/destruction) for power in Spain, only to go through a very similar thing in Chile (under Pinochet). Twice it’s shown how there is a large divide between class, political sides and ignorance and how this can lead to absolute massacre and destruction. The reader mainly follows Victor and Roser – middle class surviving, but also gets glimpses at the bourgeoisie, fans of waiting every development out so they can continue living as they have always have.

Yet this isn’t a horror story, nor a pamphlet for human monstrosities or a history lesson. Allende puts the people first, showing how life still goes on and can even be beautiful. Descriptions of people, thoughts and countries add such a layer that the story becomes three-dimensional. It makes for an appealing story – while getting your serving of (lesser-)known history.

White Ivy

Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never knew it to look at her.

White Ivy, Susie Yang, Simon & Schuster 2020

White Ivy is all over the place. As the summary and blurbs say it’s coming of age, a (second generation) migrant story, but Ivy manages to elevate (and worsen) all of it.

Because Ivy doesn’t fit into any mold. Maybe she doesn’t even have one. It’s maddening how she sabotages and destroys, but looking at her experiences and upbringing… maybe not that strange. Because how do you handle being left in a country only to meet your parents again after several years? Being the only Asian-Canadian in white surroundings? Having a violent tiger-mother and (mentally-)absent father? Lesser people would have gotten some trauma from that.

Again, sometimes you’re talking to Ivy to just unclench for once, give herself something, let go of all she’s carrying. Please, to give the reader some air to breathe as well.

I won’t share if she does, but it’s been a while since I’ve so rooted for and so disliked one and the same fictional character.

Greenwood

They come for the trees.

Greenwood, Michael Christie, Scribe 2020

It is well-known (here) that I’m a fan of family epics. There’s always the risk that the dullest character gets the most attention but still: throw in clear images of different eras and I’m in.

Michael Christie’s adds trees to his. From cutting to protecting, wood working and dendrology (- yes, I learned a new word), these Greenwood generations are willingly and unwillingly connected to the lungs of the earth.

The story ranges from 1908 to 2038 and with almost 500 pages – goes far and wide through Canada and characters.

The only thing that slightly bothered me was the imbalance between male and female characters and how the latter were all connected to motherhood somehow. I know that some of the historical settings limit female independence and freedom or maybe the male author simply didn’t dare but.. I would have liked to know more about them and their surroundings.

Except for Jake’s. Her 2038 is a loud, environmental warning we should all hope doesn’t turn into reality.

Anxious People

A bank robbery.

Anxious People, Fredrick Backman, Simon & Schuster 2020

“This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots.” – don’t say Fredrick Backman didn’t warn you.

A bank robbery turns into a hostage situation but everyone involved is completely incapable of being a decent, well-functioning part of society. The bank robber takes over an apartment viewing, but everyone is more annoyed by this situation than terrified. And the bank robber is nervous and apologetic.

With flash-backs and flash..sides? we learn slightly more about this collection of fools and what made them this way. Backman does this in a quirky way, but manages very well to balance it before it gets annoying. This turns it into a comedy without having claimed to be a comedy, but there’s plenty of saddening details to add layers and depth to “Haha, weirdos!”.

It had me crying at the end. They might be idiots, but weren’t they made that way by situation and society? Saying more would ruin the few (small) surprises; read this for a solid laugh.

Homeland Elegies

I had a professor in college, Mary Moroni, who taught Melville and Emerson, and who the once famous Norman O. Brown – her mentor – called the finest mind of her generation; a diminutive, cherubic woman in her early thirties with a resemblance to a Raphaelesque putto that was not incidental (her parents had immigrated from Urbino); a scholar of staggering erudition who quotes as easily from the Eddas and Hannah Arendt as she did from Moby-Dick; a lesbian, which I only mention because she did, often; a lecturer whose turns of phrase were sharp as a German paring knife, could score the brain’s gray matter and carve out new grooves along which old thoughts would reroute, as on that February morning two weeks after Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, when, during a class on life under early American capitalism, Mary, clearly interrupted by her own tantalizing thought, looked up from the floor at which she usually gazed as she spoke – her left hand characteristically buried in the pocket of the loose-fitting slacks that were her mainstay – looked up and remarked almost offhandedly that America had begin as a colony and that a colony it remained, that is, a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment was paramount and civil order always an afterthought.

Homeland Elegies, Ayad Akhtar, Little Brown and Company 2020

I should have seen it coming with such a first sentence. With some books you feel bad about not clicking with it; this has such positive reviews, it’s such an eye-opener etc. etc., so why am I not latching onto and never letting go?

Well, for starters the summary and the story don’t have a lot in common. There are so many descriptions of everything and everyone (the author seems to know that he does this, but still keeps doing it). And there’s much more descriptions of women’s vulvas than expected.

“Life as an American Muslim from 9/11 to Trump”. Sorta, but much more. And before as well, but not after. And very much, maybe all of it, about the author’s life. Even though there is a disclaimer about every character being fictional.

This offers insights about the (American) Muslim diaspora and ideas about the Islam which were new to me and explain some things, but there’s no clear line or plot wherever. Are these independent stories or a chronological build up? Trump might be mentioned on five of the three-hundred pages, was this a marketing decision? And why the sex diary?

But it’s “unputdownable” and by a Pulitzer-winning author, so I probably just don’t understand.

De vrolijke verrader

George Blake had zich al veertig minuten in een doorgang net binnen de muren van de Londense gevangenis verscholen.

De vrolijke verrader, Simon Kuper, Nieuw Amsterdam 2021

Echt geen idee wat vrolijk is aan dit verhaal of al het verraad eigenlijk, maar dat kan ik ook gewoon gemist hebben.

Simon Kuper levert namelijk een grote berg informatie over spion George Blake die een dubbelagent (Engeland/Sovjet) was tijdens de Koude Oorlog. Het boek gaat niet alleen over Blake maar over misschien wel de beste tijd in de wereld van spionage. Als een complete leek het boek in was best een uitdaging; gelukkig waren er ook hoofdstukken die zo uit een John le Carré-boek kwamen en wat tempo en spanning toevoegden.

Tegelijkertijd blijft het bizar dat dit ten eerste non-fictie is en ten tweede nog niet eens zo lang geleden allemaal gebeurd is. Ook blijft Blake een apart figuur dat het hele verhaal allemaal net iets vreemder en daardoor aantrekkelijker maakt.

Maar wanneer hij nu vrolijk was door zijn verraad? Misschien allitereerde het te lekker om te negeren.