Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

Category: Forgotten Relics

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

Not Only the Faithful Wife

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood takes a well known story and tells it from a new and enlightening perspective. I guess everyone has at least heard of Odysseus and his journey home after the Trojan War. But what do we know about his wife Penelope, other than that she is supposed to be the very image of a faithful wife?

While her narrative is usually mainly reduced to the fact that she waits for twenty years for the return of her husband, Atwood rightfully takes a stand that more should be said. From Penelope’s perspective we learn about the things she has to do to manage the kingdom on her own – for example fighting off suitors with the help of her most loyal maids – and other hardships she has to endure. Meanwhile, Odysseus is still off somewhere having adventures (some of them with goddesses).

Once Odysseus is back on Ithaka, he kills the suitors besieging his house and wife, and also the maids he believed to be unfaithful. The maids are a central element of Atwood’s story. She uses their voices as a Greek chorus, which is an element I really liked. In this version of the story, the maids only seem to be unfaithful to support a plan of Penelope that in the end protects Odysseus.

Penelope’s story is told in a very poetic, playful and most of all realistic way that adds so much to the Odyssey narrative. I almost always enjoy myth retellings, and this one really stood out.

Mercy in Pain

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave was my first finished book of this year and it was a really good one. It is a historical fiction novel set in the small island town of Vardø, Norway, and is based on the real event of a sea storm in 1617 which killed most of the male population while they were out fishing. While this event alone could make for a really interesting story, it is the witch trials – the first in Norway – following the storm that make this book a hard but rewarding read.

The story follows two main characters. One of them is Maren, who had to witness the death of her father, brother and betrothed during the storm. We follow her struggles as she has to adapt to the new life with the rest of the women of Vardø. While still coming to terms with the trauma of losing so many people, they have to fend for themselves in order to stay alive. The second point of view is that of Ursula, wife of the new comissioner coming to Vardø. He is supposed to assist the appointed minister to keep the women on a tighter leash.

The comissioner’s arrival deepens a divide that has begun to emerge between the women. There are the kirke-women, going to church and praying and focusing on womanly and godly behavior – and there are the rest of the women, taking on “male” tasks like fishing to keep the community alive. Maren faces the divide even in her own home, as she is left with her mother, her sister-in-law and her newborn nephew. While her mother leans more and more toward the company of the kirke-women, her sister-in-law is one of the native Sámi people which are increasingly suspected of witchcraft due to their rites and rituals.

Ursula has come to Vardø trapped in her loveless marriage to the cruel commissioner. On her way from Bergen, she envisioned a place of sisterhood to help her through her loneliness. She finds a safe haven in her growing bond with Maren, while around them conflicts are growing and finally erupting.

The writing is wonderful and lyrical, capturing the harsh setting while still providing sources of light and hope. Although this is a historical fiction novel, the tone and style reminded me a bit of last year’s buddyread of The Once and Future Witches.

While the beginning and the end of the book are really fast paced, the middle is more character-driven to illustrate the connection developing between Ursula and Maren. The difference in pacing gives the feeling that the middle drags a little, but I still enjoyed seeing the relationship between the two women grow. The commissioner is a character that fills you with dread right from the outset, and the feeling grows the more you get to know about him. Religion is once again used as a tool of oppression here. Especially in the unfolding of the conflicts you really start to question how people really could believe all the accusations thrown at the supposed witches.

Mutineers and Mangos

Robert Merle’s The Island is based on the fate of the Bounty mutineers on Pitcairn Island and once again shows that a hunger for power begets quite a lot of blood. While not completely out of my comfort zone, it took someone close to my heart to put it into my hands. I probably wouldn’t have stumbled across it myself, given my somehow strained relationship with French authors.

After killing their cruel and sadistic captain, the mutineers aboard the Blossom need to avoid British persecution. Those directly involved in the mutiny therefore sail toward an uncharted island, determined to build a new home there. They stop in Tahiti, picking up several men and women of a tribe befriended by the main character Adam Purcell. But even before reaching their island, conflicts between the British sailors and Tahitians are starting to brew. One of the main reasons for dispute will prove to be the fact that there are less women than men and that their “distribution” hence leads to jealousy and rage. Combined with a decent supply of gun power and cultural differences, a predictable racial war ensues.

Merle’s writing style is very detailed and analytic, often discussing every possible outcome of a debate before the character has even uttered a single word. It’s not a style to really relax your brain, but enjoyable nonetheless. While the plot itself is easy to predict, the book keeps you hooked with extensive character development and moral considerations.

Would events have turned out differently if the most power hungry of the British had been killed early on? What kind of society would have emerged, if the whole crew had taken to Purcell’s approach of treating the Tahitians as equals? What if the women had been allowed to select their partners on their own, instead of being distributed like cattle?

After dipping my toe into this part of Merle’s work, his next book on my list will be Malevil. It will be interesting to see how his writing fares in a (dystopian) science fiction setting.

Better late than never #1 …

…or how I eventually picked up a series that had been recommended to me felt ages ago. (BTW, this is going to be an ongoing series, I have a lot of catching up to do.)

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin was, as I mentioned above, recommended to me. When I found myself spoilt for choice with what to read next, I picked up the first book, The Fifth Season.

It was a bit tricky to get into the story. The different POV took some time to get used to, but when it finally clicked and made sense, I flew through the rest of the book and immediately picked up the next one, The Obelisk Gate. Which I then chased with the last book, The Stone Sky.

The world-building and magic system are what most people rave about. I would like to describe it, but I am sure I’d botch it up and/or give too much away. Let’s just say, the raving is justified.

What I truly liked about the series is that the main character is a woman in her forties, who has already experienced so many bad and good things in her live and now has to find her daughter and somehow save the world on her quest.

Alive and kicking

Well, it’s been a while. First of all, I have to thank my wonderful fellow Sceptres for keeping this blog alive. I feel like the 30-something child still living in your basement without paying rent. I have nothing to say in my defence except for this: life has been busy and some things have sadly taken a backseat.

To my astonishment, I somehow still managed to read nine books in August – seems like I was just too lazy to talk about them. I solemnly swear to change that. Just typing these few sentences makes me wonder what has kept me from doing so in the past couple of weeks.

One of my bookish highlights this month was a reread of two childhood favourites. They are the first two books of a trilogy which was recently updated by a fourth book – the reason for my reread. Originally published in German, their English translations are The Water Mirror and The Stone Light and they are quite a bit darker than I remember.

Let’s see what September has in store for us. Of course there will be a Sceptre buddyread and we already have our suspicions. Fingers crossed that we are once again correct. Other than that, I will finish And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. It’s one of those books that has been sitting on my shelf for ages. Once I picked it up, I quickly remembered why I liked Hosseini’s other books so much. His writing is a thing of beauty.

I will also have some days off, so I’m expecting a lot of reading time. Maybe I will even finally finish The Stand…. just kidding, let’s stay realistic. Knowing myself, I will probably pick up something lighter to stay in the reading flow.

Revenger Series Review

About a month ago I finished the Revenger triology by Alastair Reynolds, consisting of the books Revenger, Shadow Captain, and Bone Silence. It took some time before I could review it properly, because somehow these books are really different from your typical YA reads. Before I explain why, let me give you a brief overview of the start of the story:

The Ness Sisters, Fura and Adrana, are teens in a near bankrupt family on one of many habitable small worlds scattered in the sun system. They sign up with Captain Rackamore, an honest treasure hunter. He and his crew specialize in opening baubles, objects in space that only open under specific circumstances and by the right hands. In these baubles wait traps and treasures, and sometimes even more creepy things. On the outskirts of the habitable zone lurks the myth of Bosa Sennen and her ship with black sun-sails.

Unlike Alastair Reynolds’ other books, this is not hard sci-fi. The world-building is rather subtle instead of lots of sciency sounding explanations. It is considered YA, but I think that is mainly motivated by a) the teen protagonists and b) the more accessible story-line. There are a few points that differ from your typical YA story: no romances, the age of all other characters has a wide range, and the protagonists actually think about what they are doing.

The made up words for things were a bit confusing, for example “lungstuff” instead of air or oxygen, which broke my immersion a bit. Otherwise, I really loved this story about the Ness sisters and their adventures. Not all questions get answered, but a lot are.

The adventures of the Ness sisters make up a fantastic triology without middle book syndrome. Characters, their agendas, and circumstances change, and the second book, Shadow Captain, circumnavigates the trap of feeling like it is setting the stage for Bone Silence.

I would not describe the books as fast-paced, but to me, there weren’t any unnecessary lengths either. Things happen in their own time, and I enjoyed it much more than those stories with crazy coincidences where everything happens at once. It certainly adds to the space opera feel of the whole story.

4/5 stars

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