The Dark Gifts trilogy

  • Gilded Cage
  • Tarnished City
  • Bright Ruin

For YA, there’s a surprising amount of politics and commentary on political systems. Mostly still on a YA-level – don’t expect deep-going analyses and there’s just a hint of ‘maybe grey is the best possible option in a world of black and white’ but it was a pleasant surprise. It even kept me going through the first book after realising the author was setting up the plainest of romances.

Anyway, there’s magic users in power and not-magic users that have slavedays: ten years of their life have to be devoted to working for the country with nothing in return. Of course there are people who agree with this, who disagree with this, and those that just want to be and/or stay in power.

Two families are followed, on either side. Some are skeptical from the start, some naive, blood flows, death follows, and more and more often reality sinks in.

That sometimes it’s all a bit clunky and certain plot lines aren’t as neatly finished as they could have been might be a sign of its target audience, or just a lack of editing. Either way, it was more fun entertainment than expected. I didn’t even mind it being a trilogy.

Lady in Waiting

One morning at the beginning of 2019, when I was in my London flat, the telephone rang.

Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of The Crown, Anne Glennconner, Hachette Books 2020

If you feel like you need more after watching all of The Crown in one go, are a fan of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ or just want to see how the aristocratic one percent lives – this is your book.

Because Lady in Waiting Anne Glennconner (she’s Princess Margaret’s friend and Lady in Waiting) doesn’t only come from that category – pretty much everyone she knows does. And those that don’t, are celebrities through music, art and film – the only thing missing is the aristocratic element. Those are also the only people that aren’t related to her or her husband in some way — because in England royalty and the level below that — everyone is.

Anne (I honestly don’t know if she should get a title) lives through a large part of the twentieth century and goes through almost the same amount of houses as she goes through years – on many continents. With her anxious, aggressive, loud husband she has five children who provide their own problems, while she has to be head of the household of several households and take care of Princess Margaret in every possible way as soon as she’s around. In a fictional story an editor would have told the author to start culling this huge amount of detail, story lines and disasters 100 pages in. But this is someone’s life.

Mostly it just shows that heritage, money and a network won’t prevent you from suffering trauma, while simultaneously making you see how much of a circus it all is. Honestly, if this is her truth; give me fiction.

Group

The first time I wished for death – like, really wished its bony hand would tap me on the shoulder and say “this way”- two bags from Stanley’s Fruit and Vegetables sat shotgun in my car.

Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life, Christie Tate, Avid Reader Press 2020

I guess that mental health is a theme of mine now. With The Midnight Library, Crazy Ex Girlfriend and this one, you could call it a mental-health-trilogy. This one is the only non-fictional one of the three, although Rachel Bloom has admitted to her own issues with mental health inspiring CEG.

In Group, Christie has a collection of them. Issues with relationships, families, romance and food all lead to that first sentence. Therapy isn’t new to her either, but without effect, so why even try the worse option of group therapy?

As someone with little therapy-experience, some of the things her therapist put her through are wild. Some of her reactions to it are even wilder. Is this how (group) therapy works in the USA? There’s a strong truth-is-stranger-than-fiction vibe, but it also shows that when it comes to mental health that desperate measures are the only measures sometimes.

It’s sad and frustrating how stuck Christie is, and impressive how she turned her story into something appealing and entertaining. This isn’t a pamphlet for group therapy or a complaint about society’s ideas about adulthood, relationships and therapy. It’s the story of a group, and it’s a good one.

The Midnight Library

Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat in the warmth of the small library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford.

The Midnight Library, Matt Haig, Harper Collins 2020

I was very excited about this one because it’s something I do: daydream about what life would be like if I had done A instead of B. I didn’t expect the depression-part and very dire play-out of this idea, which made parts of it definitely a tougher, more realistic read than expected.

Because Nora Seed gets the opportunity to look at her other lives. The ones she would have had with one big or smaller decision made, at another time, with another person. She experiences those lives in the body of the other versions of her, adding to the alienation of life she already felt in the first place. It creates a combination of pity and impatience – why won’t she just be satisfied?

In the end, pity and fear win out. Is this our reality? Would I do things better? Does it really all hinge on one decision? And why are there always so many regrets?

Still, it won’t stop me day-dreaming about other lives.

Killers of the Flower Moon

In April, millions of tiny flowers spread over the blackjack hills and vast prairies in the Osage territory of Oklahoma.

Killers of the Flower Moon: the Osage murders and the birth of the FBI, David Grann, Doubleday 2016

With some books, it’s clear how it could be turned into a film or TV-series. Some seem to be written for that transition, this one doesn’t. And yet: guess which story is turned into a film.

This could be a deep-digging, terrifying and beautiful look at the wild west in the USA and the horrible treatment of native people; there’s so much happening that you might wonder how it could have all happened in just a couple of years. That also means that plenty of those details are going to be cut out: this film isn’t going to be six hours long, of course.

Because in the beginning it’s simple: Osage people are killed by white people because of their riches. Corruption and racism reign the small towns, including the law enforcement. How is crime solved when the victims are viewed as less than human? The murders are blatant, the villains are almost cartoon-y evil, and the incompetence is staggering.

It all makes for a very detailed western – the birth of the FBI is really the least interesting part of the entire story. It’s – besides the spotlight on corruption and racism – a demonstration of journalism and research: the author just kept on digging and flourished by other people’s needs to document their lives.

Truth is stranger than fiction, indeed.

Mijn konijn van vaderkant

De voorlaatste keer dat ik werd afgeschoten uit een kanon was toen Odelia ervandoor was gegaan met het kind.

Mijn konijn van vaderskant, Etgar Keret, Verhalen * Podium 2020

Jeetje, de tweede verhalenbundel waar ik mij mee heb vermaakt. En flink, zelfs. Met zo’n titel, en met de blurbs over hilariteit, surrealisme en andere grote woorden, had het net zo makkelijk een melige brij van ironisch-leuk-doen kunnen worden, maar neen. Het was echt vermakelijk.

Bijna elk verhaal is absurd op de één of andere manier, maar wederom zonder ooit slapstick te worden. Er zitten zelfs een paar ongemakkelijke momenten bij, zit je daar ineens te gniffelen tot het te laat is.

Elk verhaal is ook de juiste lengte, wat een compliment waard is. Geen idee meer hoe dit boek op mijn Te Lezenlijst is terechtgekomen, maar zo loopt dat ook eens goed af.

Piranesi

When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides.

Piranesi, Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury 2020

Susanna Clarke took her time. Years and years ago I plunged into Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and continued to recommend it to everyone the following months. When no news followed about other books, I guessed that was it: the unicorn of a solo fantasy book you could enjoy in every direction.

I was an eager beaver when I heard about Piranesi. So eager that I noticed it was much smaller than the book that had took me along for a multidimensional rollercoaster-ride. Piranesi is a novella, in e-book not even hitting the 150 page mark. Well, beggars can’t be choosers etc., and a well-written novella is even more proof of a good author.

You’re kept in the dark for a long time; not just the narrator is unreliable, everyone seems to be. Where are we, what are we, when are we? The clue doesn’t necessary ruin the eerie feeling of the story, but it does make it much more depressing. And just like with Jemisin’s The City there’s some sense of this not being fiction at all, which doesn’t make for a better feeling when closing the book.

Long story short: I still like how Clarke can surprise and influence me and my mood.

De aanslag

Ver, ver weg in de tweede wereldoorlog woonde een zekere Anton Steenwijk met zijn ouders en zijn broer aan de rand van Haarlem

De aanslag, Harry Mulisch, 1982

Toeval bestaat niet: een vriendin die vraagt – een paar uur nadat ik dit boek uit de minibieb heb gehaald – of ik eigenlijk wel eens klassiekers lees. Ik denk dat iedereen die lockdown en avondklok met de oorlog vergelijk mijn voorbeeld maar heel snel moet volgen (en zich in de tussentijd moet doodschamen).

Is er nog wel iets te vertellen over dit boek wat al niet een miljoen keer eerder is genoemd? Vier periodes in het leven van iemand die de oorlog meemaakte, er gigantische wonden oplip en door ging. Verder leefde.

Het zijn zulke andere tijden, omgevingen dat ze bijna allemaal als fictie aanvoelen. De boodschap van het verhaal, de altijd aanwezige dreiging van onheil juist verre van.

Dat het eerste boek dat ik weer eens vlot uitlees nu toch een klassieker van een mannelijke, witte auteur moet zijn; als dat geen mooie aanwijzing is om maar vooral een open blik te houden. Zoals ik zei: toeval bestaat niet.

Luster

The first time we have sex, we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light.

Luster: A Novel, Raven Leilani, Bond Street Books 2020

I don’t know if this is going to be a review about Luster or a confession.

Luster works hard, while simultaneously not doing shit to get the reader to feel something about its protagonist. Do we pity her, get angry at her, are grossed out by her? Can we blame her decisions or outlook on life when you see what she’s been dealt and the society she lives in?

It’s the kind of book I can’t get any grip on, an endless frustration that I can’t steer in any direction. I want a conclusion, no matter how unhappy. I want a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s a coming train. What I don’t want to be is infected by the manic, the passivity, the ugliness of it all.

This isn’t about bad relational decisions or how rudderless my generation is, it’s how Raven Leilani puts her hand on your neck and keeps forcing you to watch and think and experience.
Is that not something I enjoy? Am I a cookie-cutter reader?

Or is it simply that the confrontation is too big, the despair too overwhelming, and the possible life line too brittle?

I’m angry at this novel. I’m frustrated by the impact I allowed it to have on me and how I feel I have to defend myself. A happy ever after wouldn’t even have satisfied me at the end, I want to put this growth to bed so I can calm down again.

A confession it is, then.

Today Will Be Different

Today will be different.

Today Will Be Different, Maria Semple, Little, Brown & Company 2016

Maria Semple did it before: the frazzle, the alien character in a grand, wealthy world. This time it’s not a side-character, but the main. And that gets a bit exhausting after a while.

Because what’s happening, really? Our protagonist tries to be better, for at least one day. It doesn’t work the way she wants to, but only part of that is because of reasons outside of her control.

Unlike with Bernadette (I’m just going to continue comparing here) – there is no direction here, no pay-off, not even a crooked compass. It’s Ducks with better punctuation, but with even less consideration for the person we have to feel something more than annoyance for. There are crumbs of motivation behind her behaviour, but never enough to create even a biscotti from. Instead, you just don’t care about any of the people involved.

Maybe this is Semple’s thing. Maybe I’m not finely-enough-tuned to a traumatised person’s inner-workings, maybe it was the wrong book at the wrong time.

And just like the author of Today Will Be Different I’ll let the reader decide.