Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

Author: TheMarquessMagpie Page 1 of 4

A Long Petal of the Sea

A Long Petal of the Sea was my first Isabel Allende book, although I’ve had her on my radar for quite some time. That’s to say there are at least three other books either waiting on my shelf or my e-reader which I haven’t gotten to yet. My interest was renewed after watching her TED talk Tales of passion. So when I was recently stranded without a book and hours to kill, I did the only sensible thing. I went straight to a bookstore and bought an emergency book – this one.

This family saga covers decades and two continents, as we follow the main characters Victor and Roser. Their story starts during the Spanish Civil War, during which Victor works as a doctor and Roser waits for the return of Victor’s brother Guillem to return from the war in time for the birth of their child. Instead of being happily reunited, Victor and Roser have to flee the country after Franco overthrows the government. After learning of Guillem’s death, they marry to use to opportunity to embark on a sea voyage organized by Pablo Neruda (yes, the poet) to start a new life in Chile. They are unlikely partners, but throughout the book we see them connect and grow into an impressively strong unit.

My prior knowledge about Spanish history really lacked, so it was very interesting to learn about that time period in this well-researched piece of historical fiction. I was really surprised that Pablo Neruda played such a huge part in that time, and found it very fitting to start each chapter with a short quote by him. The book title is also taken from one of his poems about Chile. My only issue with the writing was that it sometimes read too much like a report – but I guess that is hard to avoid when you want to cover such a large amount of time with multiple character lines. Although these characters offered a very obvious chance for a fated lovers trope, Allende didn’t take that path and I’m really grateful for that.

4/5 Magpies

A Cup of Tea for the Soul

It’s been some time, but I’ve promised my fellow Sceptres that I will finally (this time for real) get back into the habit of writing blog posts. But – how to start? Usually I’d say when in doubt choose a Pratchett, but another author who never disappoints is Becky Chambers.

You may know her Wayfarer series, which introduced us to her fabulous way of writing diverse characters and heartwarming stories. When picking up a Becky Chambers novel, you know that everything is going to be alright.

Her newest book, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, is no exception. While her Wayfarer books take place in space or in at least technologically advanced environments, the first book in the Monk & Robot series takes a different turn. The main character is a tea monk, offering a tea ceremony to people who need comfort and someone to listen to their problems. Still searching for a greater sense of purpose and adventure in their life, the monk one day ventures off the well-maintained paths and comes across a robot. This comes as quite a shock, since the robots left the humans to fend for themselves after gaining self-awareness. If you ask me, that would be a really likely scenario. According to the robot, it’s time to check in with the humans, and to answer the question “what do people need?”.

This snack-sized novella asks some very interesting questions about purpose, needs and happiness. On top of that, you get that hopeful and comforting tone Becky Chambers is so good at.

5/5 Magpies

Lose Your Temper with Me

Nicky Drayden is an author who should get a lot more attention, if you ask me. Temper was quite the experience. It starts out as your regular kind of urban fantasy, and features a bunch of annoying teenagers. But things spiral out of control quite fast.

In this version of South Africa, it is normal to have a twin to balance each other’s character traits. The seven vices and virtues are split between each pair of twins and the vices are marked on your body for the whole world to see. The twin with more vices is seen as the lesser one and often faces severe discrimination and poverty, while the twin with more virtues goes on to lead a privileged life. The world building is very strong and believable, without needing to explain every last detail. Bonus points for introducing a third gender with ey/eir as pronouns.

Our main character is Auben, one of the rare cases with six vices and therefore destined to get into a lot of trouble. As can be imagined, the relationship with his holier-than-thou six-virtue-twin Kasim is getting more and more strained the older they get. When Auben begins to hear a voice that really speaks to his darker side and may be Icy Blue, the most powerful demon of their religion, their relationship really starts to fall apart.

Usually I don’t stick with books starring really annoying teenagers – and believe me, this book is full of them – but since their behaviour was always rooted in their vices/virtues I could stand it and follow along. Once the story around Icy Blue really comes into focus, things really hit the fan and it even gets quite gory. It was just so much fun to witness the mayhem.

The main thing I liked about this book is that all characters are morally grey, even the most virtuous ones. Maybe especially them? Ultimately, it is a story about how labels like vice markers do not define you. I do not give it a full star rating because you really have to get through a couple of pages full of teenage drama before the fun really starts.

4/5 Magpies

Sharks in the Time of Saviours

I’m not even trying to think of a clever blog post title here because the book title is so beautiful. Sharks in the Time of Saviours is Kawai Strong Washburn’s debut novel and it is one of those magical realism books that makes you think about it for days after finishing it.

In the book, we are spending time with the Flores family, mostly in Hawaii. The story is narrated from a first person point of view, alternating between the different family members. The family is hit hard by the collapse of the sugar cane industry, and their economical situation is getting quite desperate.

That’s when their younger son Nainoa is saved from drowning during a family trip by nothing other than a shiver of sharks. (Which is now my favourite collective noun alongside a murder of crows, but I digress.) The family takes this as a sign that the ancient Hawaiian gods are on their side. After the incident, Noa is considered a legend. You might imagine that this does not sit too well with his siblings. Growing up, all three siblings head over to the US mainland and try to make their own separate ways. Each of them finds that it is hard to shake off the past, and tragedy forces them to come back to Hawaii.

After the initial shark incident, I expected more fantastical elements to pop up throughout the story, but they take a backseat. This is more of a family story than a fantastical one, but it still had me turning the pages. The changing points of view certainly helped with that. I really enjoyed to spend some time with Nainoa’s siblings Dean and Kaui, to see what not being The Special One did to them.

A note on the cover: I first noticed the book because of the bright and slightly bonkers US cover, but bought the UK version in the end. After reading it, I think the quieter blue colour is a better fit for the story.

4/5 Magpies

All Hail the Squirrel Cat, the Finale

Crownbreaker is the final installment in Sebastien de Castell’s Spellslinger series. As mentioned in a previous post about it, this series stands out for not tending to the ‘special one’ trope. In this finale, war is brewing and our no-good mage Kellen has to step up to prevent it.

This book feels like the end of a TV series, as basically every major side character we encountered throughout the other books makes an appearance. It is fun to see them all again, especially his Argosi mentor Ferius. As the conflict is culminating in a single city, it makes sense that everyone of importance gathers there. It still feels a bit too convenient, though.

One of my favourite aspects of the series is Kellen’s friendsh…. business relationship with the squirrel cat Reichis. This cursing furball just has a place in my heart. And Reichis making a big entrance riding on the back of a hyena really made my day.

At over 500 pages, this is still a fast read. It clearly is a fairwell to all the characters and their development throught the series, as the plot feels like it’s taking a backseat. Considering the book on its own, it is really not mind blowing, but as a conclusion it is absolutely fitting.

I thought that after reading this book, I would finally be able to tick off a series as finished. That would be quite the accomplishment, as I’m very good at picking up book one but really bad at following up with the rest. But I just saw on Goodreads that there will be two full-length spinoffs centered on Kellen’s mentor Ferius. I really liked her character, so I’ll have to pick them up. The first one, Way of the Argosi, is out already, the second one is supposed to be released in October.

4/5 Magpies, as it is a decent wrap-up of the series

Black Water Sister

Our May Buddyread was Black Water Sister by Zen Cho, a contemporary fantasy novel set in Penang. Our main character Jessamyn probably has enough problems to struggle with when moving back to Malaysia. She has to find a job, and the distance is really taking a toll on the relationship with her girlfriend. Especially, since her parents know nothing about said girlfriend. On top of that, the voice in her head is not there due to stress, but because her dead grandmother has unfinished business.

Instead of taking time to sort out her life, Jessamyn is pulled into a conflict between a local gang boss and the deity her grandmother used to be a medium for – the titular Black Water Sister. The Sister is definitely not a quiet and benevolent one and quite a good match for the Malaysian gang members.

The first part of the book starts out quite slow, but once the first deity shows up things really get moving. Seeing a wider range of deities one may not be familiar with was really interesting. Jess’ grandmother is a really fun character, as she’s a snarky, ruthless old lady. You wouldn’t want her in your head, or to be on her bad side, yet her appearances were always very entertaining.

The resolution was slightly predictable, but still fitted the story’s development and made sense that way. The Malaysian setting was really refreshing and plays a very important part in the story. Overall, this was an entertaining and fast read.

4/5 Magpies

Migrations, Big and Small

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy easily slipped into my favourite books of the year. I was so eager to get my grabby little hands on it, but then so hesitant to start it because my expectations were quite high. I shouldn’t have worried.

Franny Stone has always been the kind of woman who is able to love but unable to stay.

Goodreads Blurb

The book follows Franny Stone as she follows the Arctic terns on their maybe final migration from Greenland all the way to Antarctica. Earth has lost most of its wildlife by then, the overshadowing feeling is one of deep loss and desperation. In a way, it is a depressingly realistic distopian setting. But as the story is centered mostly on Franny’s character, it is more of a literary distopia.

Bit by bit, we get to know more about Franny and her past. Her path is a long and winding one, she is full of regrets and yet only able to move forward instead of fixing what she has. Most of all, she is driven by a deep desire to keep moving.

With about 250 pages, this book is on the shorter side. But the writing is so heartbreakingly beautiful that you don’t want to leave.

5/5 Magpies

16 Ways to Defend a Walled City

After reading K.J. Parker’s novella Prosper’s Demon in January, we decided that 16 Ways to Defend a Walled City should follow soon.

The main character Orhan, a colonel of engineers, is widely out of his depth when the city faces an approaching siege. But he has to take command, since nobody else is willing to do it. What follows is a series of events he would probably never have bargained for. He proves to be cunning and resourceful, and is a great character to spend time with.

The plot of the book is built up in a very entertaining and clever way, and even the enemy on the other side of the wall proves to be a surprise for Orhan. Since the story is told as Orhan’s account of the events, the narration is pleasantly unreliable.

Parker’s writing style once again managed to delight us. Cleverly crafted shenanigans (yeah engineering!) are mixed with scenes that hilariously highlight the absurd paths bureaucracy can take. In one scene Orhan has to hunt down this book’s equivalent to permit A 38. Compared to Prosper’s Demon, the main characters feel quite similar. Which is a very good thing, if you share our fondness for smart, flawed characters and a dry sense of humour. There is also a sequel (How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It) following a different main character. We think it is a good idea to take some time between those books so that Parker’s style does not feel too repetitive.

Agricultural Dystopia

I’m pretty sure this term does not exist, but there is nothing more fitting for Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall. What starts as an idyllic trip to an Austrian mountain cabin has devastating consequences for the unnamed main protagonist. While the rest of her party is on a trip down in the valley, an insivible wall seems to have come down all around her. She is left alone with her cousin’s dog and is suddenly faced with the frightening prospect of mastering everyday life on her own.

The story reminded me of Under the Dome by Stephen King – or maybe the other way round, since The Wall’s German original version was first published in 1963. But despite sharing the same claustrophobic setting, the stories feel completely different. The Wall is told as a written account of the events, so there is a deep personal connection to the main character. Asides from tending some later-adopted animals, there is not a lot of plot. But still the story with its sad sense of doom drags you in. While there are so many dystopias with a lot of action, the quiet and domestic setting in the Alps was almost comfortable and thus really special. You also learn a lot about hay harvesting.

I really enjoyed the audiobook – only to notice in the end that my library hold was the abridged version… seems like I need to pick up a physical copy of the book sometime in the future.

How Not To Die On A Mountain

… is not really something this book will teach you. Touching the Void is Joe Simpson’s account of his highly improbable survival in the Peruvian Andes. Together with his climbing partner Simon Yates, Joe set out to reach the summit of the Siula Grande via the West face. While the ascent was a struggle, bad weather turned the descent into a nightmare.

When preparing for their trip in the base camp (where they left their non-climber companion Richard Hawkins to wait for them, the poor guy), they did not pack enough gas to account for a delay in their progress. Sounds like a bad idea, right? Combine it with terrible weather and you get two very exhausted, cold and dehydrated climbers with no way to melt snow and ice for drinking water.

Disaster strikes on an ice cliff, when Joe breaks his leg in a fall. The descriptions are not for the faint of heart, let’s just say that his tibia ended up in his knee joint which is not a decent place to be. They both know that this is a death sentence for him. Simon’s chances of descending alone would be slim enough, without attempting to rescue Joe. They try it anyway, and Simon lowers Joe by using two ropes tied together to increase their length. Sounds scary? Now try to imagine that they have to repeatedly stop to switch the belaying device from one side of the know to the other, while Joe had to balance on his one good leg.

This works quite well for them. But one disaster just is not enough. Almost having reached safer ground, Joe is lowered over a cliff edge, hanging free with his whole weight on the rope. There was no way to let him down any lower, and he could not climb back up. After supporting Joe’s weight for the longest possible time and with his belaying seat disintegrating underneath him, Simon was forced to make the brutal decision of cutting the rope to save his own life. Traumatized, he reached the base camp alone and had to tell Richard that Joe was presumably dead.

Joe, meanwhile, had survived his fall into a crevasse and began the mind-boggling process of hopping and crawling towards the base camp. His injured leg was completely destroyed and useless by then. Nothing short of a miracle, he reached them mere hours before their departure back to Lima.

This book is filled with technical descriptions of the climb itself and the gear they used, but also offers a very interesting psychological angle. Simon Yates faced a lot of criticism for his decision to cut the rope. People argued that he should have decided to (probably) die with his friend instead of cutting Joe loose to save himself. Joe shows a huge strength of character. He offered comfort and voiced his complete support and understanding to Simon before being even remotely recovered.

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