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.

Crazy Ex Girlfriend

62 x 40 min

Crazy Ex Girlfriend; or how shows sometimes really need to put up a disclaimer with regards to both title and summary: no it’s not what it looks like and maybe take things literally for once.

Because it’s probably widely viewed as crazy to move to the other side of the country for someone you dated a couple of weeks when the both of you were teenagers. And it might not be up everyone’s alley to turn this element into something that needs musical numbers. A lot of them. About all kind of subjects.

Musicals make me itch.

So, I forwarded the few musical numbers, and maybe some of the scenes in which Rebecca was just too much. Awkward, honest, scared, sad – all of them.
But then. Then you may slowly but surely catch up to what’s going on. Recognise that the comedy part of this dramady may be more sour than saccharine and the drama part too hard-hitting to be comfortable. And yet: the balance stays.

Laughing, hurting, crying, cringing: suddenly Crazy Ex Girlfriend turns out to be an intelligent show on mental health and society’s ideas about romance and relationships. With smart, hilarious lyrics when they do add a musical number.

Yes, I was very surprised as well. Now – after having completed it three weeks ago – I miss the show.

Well, that’s pretty depressing

Sometimes it seems like your unconscious makes the decision for you. Or my Netflix-list just needs some sparkle. Either way, some recently watched films that aren’t particularly.. happy.

First of all, an Asian award-gatherer: the Taiwanese A Sun. In a family the younger son is a screw-up, the older son tries to pick up behind him, the father pulls away from every family member while the mother – pretty passively – despairs. How utter sadness can look beautiful in a solemn way.

Next there’s Jonas, or another edition to the Bury Your Gays trope. This French film could have been an adorable coming-of-age, slice of life story of a homosexual (or bisexual?) teen discovering his identity, but instead we get violence.

Okay, maybe something non-fiction? With The Edge of Democracy you soon wish it was fiction. How absolute power can destroy democracy while people dance in the streets because media and moguls told them that this is the right way. Brazil, I’m so sorry.

Well, at least this post is international: my last offer is Nigerian Prince. The set-up sounds a bit like a comedy: American teen is sent to Nigeria to become familiar with his origins while one of his cousins is a scam-artist that takes him under his wing.
But no. The lack of communication between the teen and his parents hurts; the reality of having to scam Americans and Europeans because there is no other way to make money if you’re not part of the corruption is depressing; the open ending might make you anger without anywhere to put it.

Pfew, I’m going back to The Bold Type now.

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.

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.

Pieces of a Woman

128 min.

This is Vanessa Kirby’s film. Not only because Shia le B. doesn’t deserve any mention (the creep), but because – except for the actress playing her mother (Ellen Burstyn) – nothing and no-one comes close to her.

In Pieces of a Woman Kirby plays a woman that has a traumatic birth experience with lethal result. That isn’t who Martha is of course, but it’s the only role she’s allowed after. She doesn’t mourn correctly, doesn’t support her partner and family correctly, doesn’t scream for vengeance and fury correctly. Behind her eyes is both chaos and complete emptiness.

I guess this is one of those ‘actor-films’; it’s definitely a lower priority how the plot will play out than how Kirby will work her way through it.
Another gold star for how it never gets sentimental: mourning also exists out of rage and Pieces of a Woman shows plenty of that.

This might be my first film recommendation of the year.

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.