The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

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artwork by kasana86 from 123RF.com

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Well, what can I say? Wyrd and Wonder month is turning out to be a kickass month for me! My third read has been great fun, a beautiful fairytale-ish story about two uncanny beings who find themselves in turn-of-the-century New York. It presents a gently rose-tinted view of immigration in the late 1800s as a backdrop for a number of glorious characters, including our protagonists, and a slow-building adventure. And a sort-of romance.

Wecker has got the touch when it comes to writing engaging characters and I really enjoyed the many smaller stories than ran in and out of the main plot of The Golem and the Jinni. I particularly loved Maryam Faddoul and her husband Sayeed, who run a coffeehouse in Little Syria, and the tragic Ice Cream Saleh, who was once a doctor; gentle old Rabbi Meyer and poor trapped heiress Sophia Winston; and the quiet Matthew Mounsef. Wecker lavishes care and attention on each of them and I’d have happily read endless tales of their smaller daily struggles to make lives for themselves in the melting pot of New York city. The larger story of the golem and the jinni draws all these characters in, however, and all paths cross eventually in interesting and mostly satisfying ways.

The golem Chava, and the jinni Ahmad, are equally fascinating. (Everything I know about golems comes from Terry Practhett’s Feet of Clay and Going Postal, although that seemed to do me no harm here). Chava is unusual in being a female golem, created to blend in with humanity having been commissioned as a wife by and for the unmarriageable (and quickly dead) Otto Rotfeld. Brand new to the world and having lost her master Chava can hear the wants and needs of all the people in close proximity to her and her life is dictated to a large degree by that. Ahmad stands as her direct opposite. He is freed from a copper flask by the tinsmith Boutros Arbeely, having been trapped there for thousands of years by a powerful wizard and unable to remember anything about how he was caught. While he is stuck in human form because of an iron bracelet, he is in all other ways free to follow his every desire and is as impetuous and passionate as Chava is cautious and controlled.

I foisted this book onto one of my favourite customers at the same time that I was reading it which resulted in us having a very interesting conversation about how the story would have gone if the male character had been a golem as is traditional and the female character a jinni. Mrs M had expected a male golem because of their association with great physical strength, but we decided that a biddable, careful male protagonist, strong or not, and an impulsive, fiery female one in a late 19th Century setting would have led very quickly down a different path. If I was disturbed by this novel in any way, it was because of this. Chava’s ability to hear the desires of others and her compulsion to satisfy them feels, for me, predictably and annoyingly feminine. What would a male character with the same abilities do with them? Chava works in a bakery and takes in sewing in the evenings (neither she nor Ahmad sleep at night). Propriety, a less obvious want that underlies many others, keeps her in check. But a male golem, less constrained by propriety could no doubt become a successful con-artist at the very least.

And yet Chava’s struggles are all the more real because of this aspect of her design. She and Ahmad complement one another in that they each teach the other something foreign. The centuries-old Ahmad learns something about the consequences his actions have for others over the course of the book, and newly-born Chava learns something about her own wants. They become deeper characters through their night-time walks and discussions together, their qualities changing and/or solidifying by being challenged by the other. And all the while they circle that very human question: can we choose who we are? Can Chava choose who she is?

“‘She’ll already be obedient,’ Schaalman said, impatient. ‘That’s what a golem is – a slave to your will. Whatever you command her, she’ll do. She won’t even wish otherwise.’

‘Good,’ Rotfeld said. … ‘Give her curiosity,’ he told Schaalman. ‘And intelligence. I can’t stand a silly woman. Oh,’ he said, inspiration warming him to his task, ‘and make her proper. Not … lascivious. A gentleman’s wife.'”

It’s not a question reserved only for these two, however. Each character in one way or another is having to decide who they are to be in this new country. Old traditions and religions rub up against new ideas, just as languages and neighbourhoods run alongside one another. The grandeur of Bethesda Terrace and the Washington Square arch is as much a part of this world as the tenements, the rooftops and the Bowery. Sophia Winston is as trapped by her wealth and the expectations of her family as Chava and Ahmad are by their need to blend into this city full of humans.

Loneliness and isolation also abound. Chava and Ahmad are isolated from their human friends by being something other than human, but even the many human characters suffer from loneliness, despite the crowded city in which they all live. Chava’s first guardian Rabbi Meyer is a lonely old man and Ahmad’s rescuer Arbeely feels the want of a wife or companion. Sophie Winston is lonely in her wealth; Michael Levy is lonely in his work at the Sheltering House. Chava’s friend from the bakery, Anna, is isolated by her unmarried pregnancy and poor Ice Cream Saleh by his madness. Surrounded as they are by friends, fellow countrymen, neighbours and lovers, still each person has to deal with some things unaided. It gives the novel a melancholy tinge that cuts the enchantment.

And yeah, sure, this book has its flaws. The dramatic ending is the weakest part after the slow build-up (the sense of foreboding that develops as we learn about Fadwa al-Hadid’s story is masterful), and apparently some of the details of practical Kabbalah in the book are not quite correct (not something I would have known, but this was mentioned in a couple of reviews I read), and it’s maybe a smidge romantic in its historical presentation, but heck, who cares? It’s great fun, thoroughly absorbing, and I hear there’s going to be a sequel – what’s not to love?

 

 

 

 

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Read-along: The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams

 

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Always late to the party? No kidding! I’m just about managing to keep up with the reading for this read-along, and I’m making notes, naturally, but posting as well? It’s just not happening. So, here are my thoughts on the questions set for both weeks one and two, posed by imyril of There’s Always Room for One More and Lisa of Dear Geek Place respectively.

Sorry I’m late!

Also, watch out – SPOILERS!

 

WEEK 1

“You travel with an Eboran, and you explore the Wild, and you’re looking for things that might kill you. None of it makes sense.” What are your first impressions of Lady Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon?

She’s forty years old (as I will be this year, so immediate soft spot), she carries a crossbow, she’s a woman of colour, she’s a scientist and an adventurer, she’s utterly charming, she wears (what I can only imagine to be a kickass) hat, and her swear word of choice is “buggeration” *snigger* … what’s not to love about Vintage?! I have developed the biggest crush on her and she was initially the only thing keeping me reading when it seemed like this was going to be a much bleaker fantasy than I was expecting.

 

Not your traditional elves, eh. How do you feel about Ebora and the Eborans?

Creepy. Disturbing. Darkly fascinating. I’ve never come across blood-sucking elves before. Hestilion has that whole cold, beautiful, pitiless thing going on (kiddy-killer that she is), while Tor is a bit more relatable. I don’t know which of them is the unusual one: Is Hest mad as a bag of spiders, or is Tor oddly human-friendly?

Ebora itself, or rather the palace that Hest haunts, is lovely and spooky all at once. The image of this near-empty, dusty place built around the corpse (?) of their god Ygseril, inhabited only by a few dying Eborans and roaming wolves and Hestilion in her embroidered silks is gorgeous. I particularly loved the scene between Hest and the confused Aldasair – that gave me shivers.

 

Parasite spirits, mutant animals and really big grapes: Would you live safe behind city walls, or would you make your home in the Wild?

My imaginary self would be out there with Vintage and Tor kicking ass and cutting a swathe through the Wild. I am completely taken with the parasite spirits (did anyone else think of the Phantoms from the Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within movie for a moment when they first encountered these spirits? No? Just me then), and I can’t wait to see some Behemoth remains (it took me a while to realise that the corpse moon was a partially destroyed Behemoth caught in Sarn’s orbit … at which point I completely lost my s*** because, OMG! A fantasy world that has been invaded by aliens??!! SO COOL!!! (!!!!!))

My real self would be cowering behind the thickest, highest walls with my eyes tight shut, rocking back and forth chanting “there’s no place like home … there’s no place like home”.

 

In a nightmarish world a few bad dreams are to be expected. Or are they? How much are you reading into them?

I’m reading everything into them. People who live in fantasy worlds never have meaningless dreams. Fact. I mean, come on! Fell-Noon and Novice Lusk (and Aldasair) just happen to have the same dream about the Jure’lia returning to Sarn? Oh boy!

 

Other first impressions, wild assumptions, or guesses about Where All This is Going:

I’m pretty sure Agent Lin is going to be a scary character. She makes me very, very nervous for Fell-Noon.

I lovelovelove Fell-Noon. And Fulcor! (Another first for me – an awesome bat sidekick! Please let there be more Fulcor!) I can’t wait to see where their story goes.

The whole Winnowry/ Drowned One/ Fell-witches/ akaris thing is fascinating – I’m interested to see where that’s going to go. How did it all begin? How did Fell-witches come about? Is this just an elaborate bit of scenery or will this all play a part as the larger story unfolds?

 

WEEK 2

Vintage’s journal entries at the start of each chapter seem to be filling in more backstory for our heroine, but what do you think of this approach to providing information about her? Are these entries fascinating, or distracting?

Definitely fascinating. I love that Vintage’s history is being filled in in this way because her tone is so wonderful and it feels like being able to see behind the curtain a little. I like that we’ve started to get tiny glimpses of what Marin must be like too, from her letters to him; I have a secret hope (not so secret anymore) that we’ll get to meet him at least once before the trilogy is done.

It’s of no consequence, but I keep thinking back to Vintage’s brother Ezion saying to her “You have got yourself all agitated” when we first met her at the beginning, and thinking how he can have had absolutely no idea who his sister really was. And wondering, if he read her letters and diaries like we’re doing, would he have been able to appreciate her more?

 

More details emerge about what happened at the end of the Eighth Rain … what do you think happened to (or between?) the Jure’lia queen and Ygseril?

Oh my goodness – I have no idea! I wonder if the two have become connected somehow, or if they cancelled each other out. Then again, the Jure’lia queen is speaking to people in dreams, which suggests a certain amount of strength, whereas Ygseril is, to all intents and purposes, dead, even if Hestillion has seen a glimmer of life. So maybe both were damaged by the confrontation (?) during the Eighth Rain, but Ygseril more so. I really don’t know. I’m along for the ride on that one.

 

And now it seems that the god-tree still lives. Or does it? What’s your take on what Hestillion is doing, and what do you think she’s going to do with her surprise guests?

She’s definitely biding her time, which doesn’t bode well for anyone in her vicinity, but I don’t know what for (because I don’t speak crazy-murderous-semi-immortal-bitch). She seriously creeped me out when she appeared to be all thankful that the plains people were offering to help the Eborans, and then was crowing that they’d “fallen for it” – fallen for what?

 

Make love, not war. Or, if your Tormalin the Oathless, do both. How do you feel about the particular mix of Tor’s skills, and what do you make of his interactions with Noon so far?

Yeah, Tor’s getting more interesting the deeper in we go. I just thought he was a bit of a philanderer at first, but now it’s clear that he has an arrangement with a chosen few, which sort of makes him a male courtesan. It’s a pretty interesting take on things. I’m not sure why he drinks so much. And I like him best when he’s crotchety, like when Vintage gives Noon some of his clothes, and when he gets blood on his shirtsleeve.

His interactions with Noon have been pretty light so far. I’m interested to see if they will gain understanding from each other, as members of two historically opposed peoples. I hope it doesn’t lead to a romance between them. That’ll piss me off. But I can envisage them becoming fighting partners of some sort (and let’s face it, with their skills that’d be badass!), and friends, I hope.

 

Other thoughts/speculations/theories:

What did I say about Agent Lin?! Scary, scary lady!! And you just know we haven’t seen the last of her, don’t you? I was really impressed with her winnowfire skills though. I like the idea of Noon learning to kick ass with her own winnowfire and there being a final showdown where she totally beasts Agent Lin … *all my fingers crossed*

Also, what happened to Noon before the Winnowry? She can’t become a badass angel of winnowfire vengeance until she’s made peace with her past, methinks.

Finally: The. Wild. Is. Awesome. The mutant bear that attacks them? (Annihilation anybody?) Awesome!!

 

 

 

Folk by Zoe Gilbert

 

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artwork by kasana86 from 123RF.com

Folk by Zoe Gilbert has been described as folkloric, enchanting, timeless, allegorical, haunting, dreamlike and fantastical; it has been associated with The Wicker Man, Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter. A fair few of the major British newspapers have said lots of worthy, Literary (capital L) things about it. None of these notions are wrong, but I’m going to try not to do that. This is going to be one of those posts, however, where I can’t say half of what I want about just how amazing the experience of reading this was simply because I don’t have the words to catch it. So be patient with me as I fumble around trying to get to something true.

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This was the perfect book to read for Wyrd and Wonder month. Folk is both weird, in that it’s nothing like anything I’ve read before, and wonderful (quite literally full of wonders), and an unadulterated joy to read. It’s one of those books that I’m not going to loudly recommend to everyone I meet, but rather jealously guard and only mention to those few people I believe will appreciate it (at least enough not to say anything bad about it to me). It’s a book to be discovered, to be picked up because of its gorgeous cover, to be chanced upon.

Structurally Folk is a set of fifteen interlinked short stories that tell the tale of a generation of people on the island of Neverness, and while I guess you could dip in and read just one or two of them the way you might a regular short story collection, to do that here would be to miss all the wonderful cross threads that link them together. The book has the feeling of an oral history, with images and characters recurring, larger or smaller depending on whose memories are being tapped, and coloured by various moods and personalities. As you read through, the stories accrete beautifully into something bigger and more unfathomable than its parts, but nonetheless deeply satisfying.

I’d be very interested in some wider responses to Folk because I feel that it’s incredibly British, it almost vibrates with the smells, sights and sounds of our countryside and coastlines, and, not having travelled all that much, I have no way of knowing how universal (or local) these depictions are. All I know is that the world of Neverness is incredibly familiar, that it pulls at my own experiences of roaming the woodlands, fields and beaches of home, that the customs and traditions of these fictional island people mirror those I encountered in the stories of my childhood and those odd lingering superstitions of my grandparents. The stories of Folk feel like stories I may simply have forgotten in growing up.

It’s also a very sensual reading experience. Gilbert’s language is poetry and I spent most of my first read-through writing down beautiful sentences and turns of phrase (I’d nearly written out the whole book before I realised what I was doing and added it to my to-buy list). I shall give you a small, fragrant taste:

“He steps between two trunks, into the wood’s held breath, and stands. The quiet is a blanket about his head.”

 

“The barley in the fields fattens and leans towards the moon. Mice scurry in its maze, their trails mapped in the starry sky by the sweep of owls.”

It’s the kind of writing that shuts out all those clamouring thoughts you have as your brain both parses it and appreciates it all at once. It’s writing full of sensory information: the smells of the different seasons, daylight and night-time sounds, the feel of weather, and absolutely evocative of a pre-Industrial world. A world in which it’s not so unbelievable that a man could be born with a wing instead of an arm, that Jack Frost could be real, that a selkie/mermaid could have chosen to live on land with a man and his daughter, that a young woman could fall in love with a water-bull. The line between the truly magical and Neverness superstition is so blurred that everything is tinged with a charmed quality and even the natural world – wind, trees, mist – appears to be sentient, and complicit in the events that unfold.

And there are some fabulous characters, (with fabulous names). I particularly loved bent-backed Gertie Quirk, and Hark Oxley both as a young boy teasing girls and as a lovelorn young man. The characters with the sadder stories seemed to stick with me most: Granny Winfrid, Verlyn Webbe, Gill Skerry, Galushen and Old Merry Mort, and also maybe the creepy Guller the fowlmonger. The overall tone of the book is gently melancholic although there are not only tragic deaths, but also uncertain mothers and uncanny mothers, jealous sisters, close brothers and not-so-close brothers, ambitions great and small, romances both requited and unrequited, and a murder or two. There is also a lovely vein of humour running through, usually a bit saucy in nature – jokes made among the teenage boys and girls of Neverness, and among the married. It all weaves together to create a picture of village life in which everybody knows everybody else’s business, and yet no-one truly knows what’s in each person’s heart.

There aren’t many books I think of as perfect. And recently I’ve been trying to work out what exactly I mean when I think of my perfect books. The last book that I thought of in this way, Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer has very little in common with Folk and yet they both created beautifully tight and intricate patterns in my mind (I know that sounds ridiculous, but I’ve no other way to describe how I experience books both during and after having read them). I think what I mean by perfect is something that is completely itself. Neither Annihilation nor Folk seek to explain themselves to their readers, the story is laid out for you to take or leave, explanation is something you must decide for yourself. So I’m going with that definition for now, although I’ll keep pondering on it.

 

Finally, just for interest’s sake, part of my dictionary’s definition for the lovely word folk:

” … 3 (treated as pl) the common people, those who determine the character of a nation or people and preserve its traditions, arts and crafts, legends etc, from generation to generation [Old English folc.]”

The New Penguin English Dictionary, 2000

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker

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artwork by kasana86 from 123RF.com

This book had me captivated from the first page. The city of Troon isn’t really all that important to the story, nor do we spend any time there once we’ve met our heroes Smith and Lord Ermenwyr, and company, but Baker opens with a description of that city, whose wealth rests upon the making of flour and whose inhabitants all suffer from emphysema. Thus, there is a Festival of Respiratory Masks. If you don’t crack a smile at that, then this book is not for you.

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I believe Kage Baker is better known for her science fiction, particularly her Company books, which I hadn’t heard of until I looked her up after reading this. If those books are even half as good as The Anvil of the World I’m going to love them, because this book was awesome. The best first read for #wyrdandwonder I could have hoped for.

It’s a novel that would possibly have been published in three parts if published now. It definitely feels as though it was written as three novellas, and loosely speaking the first story is about a caravan journey, the second about a murder investigation, and the third a rescue mission. Sort of. What the overarching story ends up being much more interested in is whether the Children of the Sun “given to sins of an ecological nature” as they are, and ignorant and argumentative besides, deserve to survive. The number of jokes that Smith, as the Children of the Sun’s representative in the book, is the butt of could have been unkind, but Baker isn’t out to condemn or belittle, her humour is generous and inclusive. She encourages us to laugh at ourselves.

“Aren’t you going to cauterize it with something?”

“Do you use a sword to cut through flowers?” replied the Yendri, extracting the bolt and regarding it critically. “Ah, but I forget: you people do.”

There’s plenty of jokes about autopsies and birth control, crop rotation, attitudes to the environment, the intelligence of whales, and the nature of good and evil. One of my favourite things about the world Baker has created is that the Living Saint (also known as the Unsullied Daughter, the Green Saint and the Unwearied Mother) worshipped by the Yendri has confounded her believers by marrying a demon Lord of Darkness, the Master of the Mountain. And, as befits her personification of bountiful life force, has then proceeded to have lots of children.

One of whom is Lord Ermenwyr. There should be prizes not just for writing great books, but also for creating great characters, because Ermenwyr is a stroke of brilliance. At times a foppish hypochondriac, a hedonistic youth, a whiny teenager and a terrifying half- (or quarter-) demon, he wasn’t a character I particularly liked to start with, and yet ridiculously, inconceivably, he was absolutely my favourite by the end. He abuses substances like they’re going out of fashion, he’s as sex-mad as only a young and wealthy demon with time to spare can be, chaos follows him wherever he goes, and yet he’s definitely someone you want on side when there’s a murder to solve and a dead body to get rid of, his gratitude knows no bounds and his childhood reminiscences are worth sticking around for. If there was a book solely dedicated to him, his family and their antics I’d be made up.

Other characters are equally satisfying. I loved Mrs Smith (no relation to the male Smith, just another person in need of an alias) and all the hints and glimpses of a life very well-lived that she provides between puffs on her pipe of amberleaf. Her passion for and skills in the culinary arts are near supernatural (two-time winner of the Troon Municipal Bake-off, don’tcha know?), she’s remarkably perceptive and a force to be reckoned with. Smith himself is just as much fun. An assassin trying to go straight, his reactions sometimes get the better of him (don’t go making any sudden moves, ok?), but he’s hard-working and easy-going and generally pleasant to be around, although he does get injured quite a bit (through no fault of his own) over the course of the book. I loved the relationship between the two of them and how it changes over the course of the caravan journey to Salesh-by-the-Sea and then their setting up a hotel at the resort. Again, these are characters I’d happily read more about for no other reason than they’re incredibly likeable and funny.

“I never saw a man bleed the way you did and live.”

But I’m making it sound as though this is a tame stroll through a gently landscaped parkland, aren’t I? It’s not! From the get go Smith and company are attacked and ambushed at every bend, there are catastrophes a-plenty and screaming children (!!) and Smith says “something unprintable” several times. There’s romance in the face of prejudice, murder, the destruction of religiously significant sites, war, some spectacular food, another festival of questionable taste, and several Chosen Ones of various types.

All in all, this is the best kind of fantasy there is. It’s funny, but the world-building is still beautifully done. It’s got some really rather serious things to say, but most of the characters are charmingly distracting. It feels as familiar as a comfortable armchair, and yet Baker does things in her own way so that it’s not at all predictable. And it’s hopeful. Yes, the Children of the Sun are terrible, they don’t think about their environment, they don’t respect other cultures, and they’re not terribly bright (sound like anyone we know?), but there’s always hope. They learn, but slowly. They love and appreciate and care just like anyone else. And as Smith himself proves, they can change. Just because they’re good at destroying things, doesn’t mean they want to. And in Baker’s generous universe intention counts for a lot.

 

P.S. Forgot to mention – I lovelovelove that cover art by Tom Kidd. It’s like something I’d have picked up when I was a teenager just for the cover. The shade of green, the Living Saint and the Lord of Darkness on either side, the extravagant ship, the butterflies, the stars … I’d have been in raptures then. I’m in raptures now!

 

 

 

Flying Witch (volumes 5 & 6) by Chihiro Ishizuka

Tomorrow the month of Wyrd and Wonder begins! I am stupidly excited about it and have even managed to book a couple of days off so I can attempt to keep up with all the awesome stuff that’s going on. I’m going to try my hand at the daily Instagram prompts, I’ve got some exciting stuff lined up to read and I am totally psyched for the group read-a-long of Jen Williams’ The Ninth Rain. My cloak is newly laundered, my pointy hat is freshly starched, and so as a gentle limbering up exercise I thought I’d dip back into the world of Flying Witch before the fun really starts …

 

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A magical ring! Snow in July and rain indoors! What two cheeky cats will do for a pork cutlet lunch! It’s all going on in these next two volumes of Flying Witch and I’m loving it just as much as ever. It’s now summer – cue outdoor cooking and fishing trips down to the river – and while Nao tries to teach Chinatsu and Makoto how to skip stones, Kei gets a serious case of hiccups for which there’s only one cure: playing with cuddly toys! Makoto also gets her first paying job as a witch, and Chinatsu uses magic for the first time. We meet a new character, the serious upperclassman witch Sayo Kazuno, and several new magical creatures.

Everything I’ve said about this manga series up until now in my first and second posts still stands, the artwork is consistently beautiful and creator Ishizuka continues to choose interesting and unusual angles and points of view for her/his panels. The gentle humour is just lovely and running jokes are developing as the story continues, like Akira’s disorganised and bottomless bags (Mary-Poppins-style bags crack me up every time), Makoto’s lack of any sense of direction and Kei’s bear bell. And while it’s near impossible not to love everyone you meet within these pages, but Chinatsu has nevertheless managed to become my favourite because of her irrepressible enthusiasm and bounciness. She steals any scene she’s in.

As do Chito and Kenny, Makoto and Akane’s cat familiars. There’s an utterly gorgeous near-wordless Chito comedy at the beginning of volume 5 in which she chases a butterfly and learns that she can punch holes in the house’s paper shoji screens. The expression on her face as she looks between her paw and the first hole in the screen is priceless – I laughed so hard. Then she gets a starring role in the cuddly toy play Kei and Chinatsu act out to rescue Kei from eternal hiccups, and Chito and Kenny visit Makoto, Nao and Kei at school when they hear there’s pork cutlets for lunch. It’s all small stuff, and yet it’s ridiculously delightful.

Ishizuka’s skill lies in making the details of the everyday beautiful. Almost twice as many pages are dedicated to the repair of the shoji screens as to the funny way in which they were destroyed, but this is just as fascinating. It’s like reading an exercise in mindfulness. Or a celebration of slow living. While I love all the magical elements that find their way into the story, I would just as happily read this manga if the mundane was all it focused on. I’m aware that some of this fascination is due to it depicting a life that is very different from mine (traditional rural Japanese living being about as far away from my own experience as it’s possible to get), but I think that it’s also a tribute to Ishizuka’s talents as a storyteller.

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And the magical details of this world are starting to accumulate into a coherent whole. The series is in no hurry to reveal all, but we learn some significant things about Makoto’s journey towards being a full-fledging witch in volumes 5 and 6. For example, there are the Nine Paths, and we learn that Makoto is most likely a Terra because she gardens and doesn’t mind digging about in the dirt, while her new friend Sayo is a Ventus and able to create wind (ha ha … I just made myself laugh – I know, I know, childish!). We also meet a young Rain Master, Yomogi, who’s an Aqua presumably. We encounter another Harbinger, the Harbinger of Summer, and learn a little about what he does to enable Summer to arrive. And we learn how a witch is chosen for a job, how she then accepts the work, and how she is paid for it afterwards. Oooooo, and then there are the Magical Items (A.K.A. MIs), like Akira’s music box that prevents witchy conversations from being overheard by non-witchy people, Chinatsu’s ring which enables her to squirt water from her finger *giggle* and Makoto’s newly acquired Visibility Ointment that allows her to see magically-camouflaged creatures; and there’s mana the “fuel” that is used whenever magic is performed.

I’ve also been impressed that even though the cast of characters just keeps on growing it’s never gotten confusing or overcrowded. There’s at least one new human character and one new magical creature per volume now, and yet they’re all intriguing enough to remain distinct from one another. The creatures, in particular, are just wonderful. I didn’t think anything could top the stone sky-whale from volume 3, but the puddle-supping manta ray in volume 5? Oh my goodness! All the hearts!! And the narunaru in volume 6 is awesome too, with its wicked turn of speed and penchant for worms. Adorable!!

So I’m going to keep posting about Flying Witch despite the fact that I’m soon going to run out of words for just how delightful I find it. I may even drown in exclamation marks, I don’t care. These posts are consistently my least popular ones from what I can tell, and I don’t care about that either. I defy you all not to pick up volume 1 of Flying Witch and not be captivated, charmed and, yes, delighted by what you see. This series is totally worth it and I will keep harping on about it until the end of time (or at least until I get distracted by something sparkly). I keep a box for things that are 100% joyful for those times when I get a bad case of the blues and need to be reminded about cake and rainbows and all that good stuff … and these books? They’re going in there.

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A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

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I’ve only read Hardinge’s two Mosca Mye adventures Fly by Night and Twilight Robbery previous to this, but from them I got the definite impression that she is an author who loves language and history, who’s irreverent, generous and nonconformist. Certainly an author I want to read more of. I’m extremely picky about the YA fiction that I read because most of it is such twaddle (love triangles, sparkly vampires and the like not being my cup of tea at all), but Hardinge is just fabulous.

A Skinful of Shadows is a less gleeful tale than those of Mosca and Eponymous, but it is still gorgeously told, and this time rooted very firmly in the beginning of the English Civil War. It deals with themes like inheritance and power, doesn’t shy away from critiquing the concept of aristocracy or pointing out that both political and religious beliefs can cause a lot of damage, and fiercely champions the underdog. If you’re an animal lover there are several scenes that will give any faith you have in humanity a hearty kick in the balls, so there’s a big fat trigger warning right there, but Hardinge also gives us an incredibly compassionate and feisty heroine in Makepeace Lightfoot. And, of course, she’s written a really very creepy ghost story that successfully freaked me out in a couple of places (not that that’s difficult to do as I’m a huge wimp, but I can still identify quality chills from cheap scares and this is the good stuff).

The plot is fairly dense, but roughly speaking it goes a little something like this: Makepeace’s mother has gone to great lengths to keep her daughter away from her father and his family, and to prepare her for her uncanny paternal inheritance. Because Makepeace can harbour multiple ghosts within her mind, and her father’s family, the aristocratic Fellmottes, use this ‘gift’ to preserve long-dead members of their family in a deeply creepy and not-a-little vampiric practise that most often destroys the mind of the host. In what is going to sound like a very disparate series of events, after her mother dies in a riot Makepeace accidentally takes on board the ghost of a dancing bear, then gets shipped off to the Fellmotte’s ancestral pile at Grizehayes. Here she meets her half-brother James, another by-blow, and … dark and twisty adventures ensue.

Makepeace’s journey loops through both Parliamentarian and Royalist territory, and she encounters Puritans and Catholics – and acquires ghostly passengers from both sides of this great divide – as she attempts to work James and herself free of the Fellmotte family. But her connection to Bear is both her start and end point and everything about this relationship dictates all her others. When she first takes his spirit on board after seeing his mistreated body abandoned where it fell on the marshlands, she does so without fully understanding what she is doing, but out of an overwhelming compassion.  Grieving herself, she recognises Bear’s hurt and feels a kinship. Equally, having just attacked Bear’s owners with a wooden stool for torturing the creature, she and Bear share a rage also. It takes time for the two to get used to one another, but a lot of Makepeace’s strength and patience is a result of their symbiosis. Some of the most beautiful bits of writing are Makepeace appreciating the world through Bear’s senses: “dropping to all fours in the kitchen garden, and letting Bear contentedly amble her body through the cold, dew-laden grass”, and accommodating him within herself:

“Over time Bear had learned to accept the kitchen, in spite of the heat and the noise. He knew all its smells now. He had rubbed himself against the door jambs to make them his, so the kitchen felt safer.”

She is his protector and he is hers and through one another they achieve a peace they may not have got to on their own.

Which is just as well because being part of the Fellmotte family, even an illegitimate one, is enough to destroy any peace of mind you ever had. Forever. From her first meeting with Obadiah, the head of the family, Makepeace (and Bear) know that something is very very wrong, a feeling that is only compounded with every new bit of information – none of which I plan to share with you. It’s safe to say Sir Marmaduke is terrifying in the orchard, Lady April is consistently unsettling throughout, Sir Thomas becoming the head of the household is not good at all (poor Sir Thomas), and Symond is no better than the rest (which is the understatement of the year). Running away is scarier than staying put, staying put is a special kind of scary on its own, and when the protagonist feels that she has more in common with the geese she fattens up for slaughter than with anybody else in the household … well … you get the idea, it’s pretty scary altogether. But Makepeace isn’t one to go without a fight, nor does she believe that just because something has always been done it always should be done.

The historical setting is perfect for the story where this conflict between the old and continuation (the Fellmotte Elders) and the young and change (Makepeace and James, and Symond, sort of) is being acted out on a much grander scale within the country. The English Civil War is a fascinating period of history in its own right, as the country struggled with religious and political concepts that shaped everyday lives, and Hardinge does a beautiful job of bringing this world to life, incorporating both commonplace details and some of the more curious facts; a few of my favourites being the gold smuggled into the King’s Oxford court via barrels of soap (he had a whole network of laundress spies – so cool!), women cross-dressing in order to fight, and some fantastic medical practices such as putting someone’s head in the mouth of an oven to cure their melancholia and squirting some sort of beetroot concoction up their nose to “cool the cauls of her brain” (which puts me right off time travel, I have to say).

Hardinge’s prose in A Skinful of Shadows is very different to that of Fly by Night and Twilight Robbery. The language is … plainer, somehow, and I wonder if this is because she is writing about a real historical period, with all the obligations that entails, or because it is a darker story in which some of the play of her other books wouldn’t quite fit. Whatever the reason, it is still beautifully written and there are glimmers of something richer occasionally, some lovely bits of vernacular (favourites: “selling them a tarradiddle” – telling tales; “soft-headed little doddypoll” – an insult, naturally; and the beautiful “chirurgeon” – an early form of the word surgeon) that comforted me when I worried that maybe Hardinge was moving away from that language-love I associate with her.

There’s loads to love about this book that I haven’t mentioned. I could spoil so much. Suffice to say, some books are roughly the same kind or awesome for everyone who reads them, whereas others will mean different things to different readers. And this is the latter kind of book. The things I loved about this won’t necessarily be the things you love. You may not care so much about the turnspit dog (although if you don’t I’ll want to know why), or notice the significance of the various names Makepeace uses on her journey and how she grows into the name that “made her feel a bit unreal” way back at the start of her story. Instead you’ll notice things I completely missed and care about different things. The important thing is that you read it and see for yourself. I heartily recommend that you do.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m doing a book tag! – The Last Ten Books

 

I’m in the mood to do something different. Also, I haven’t managed to finish anything this past week because I’ve been sick. The kind of sick where you do a lot of sleeping, not the kind of sick where you do a lot of reading. The worst kind of sick, therefore.

Anyhow, imril of There’s Always Room for One More did a cool book tag a few weeks ago that I enjoyed reading, so I’m gonna take a shot at it. Here goes:

 

1. The last book I gave up on

25036395I haven’t given up on it, but I’ve put The Scar by China Miéville to one side for the time being. I started it at the end of last year when I was having my reading crisis and I kept picking it up and putting it down. I love Miéville and I know I’ll go back to it, I’m just not yet in the mood.

Before that my last DNF was The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst. I’ve read a few great reviews for this, it sounds totally up my alley, but I just … couldn’t. I don’t know why. Just not in the mood, I guess.

 

2. The last book I re-read

21954891I love to re-read! There’s nothing better when you’re feeling crappy than to go back to a book you know will be awesome. Most recently I re-read Tam Lin by Pamela Dean so that I could gush about it here and The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien because that’s been my Christmas re-read for a long time and I was trying to drag myself out of the aforementioned reading slump.

 

 

  1. The last book I bought

34728925I have just bought The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken because of Little Red Reviewer’s kickass review, Rosewater by Tade Thompson because of Mogsy’s (over at Bibliosanctum) brilliant review and The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss because of multiple great reviews and its lovely cover. I also just picked up a copy of A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge from the library. I don’t need any reason for that. Hardinge rules!

 

4. The last book I said I’d read but actually didn’t

I don’t think I’ve ever done this. I’ve skim-read books to get a sense of what they’re about, usually if they’ve been recommended to me by a customer whose book tastes I’m not yet sure of, or if I’m trying to find a particular bit of info, but I don’t see any reason why I’d say I’d read something if I hadn’t. No one’s going to think more or less of me for having not read something … are they?

 

5. The last book I wrote in the margins of

22609418Ooo, controversial! Ten Million Aliens by Simon Barnes. Yes, I write in the margins of my books. Not my fiction books so much, but most of the non-fiction I own is scribbled in. Because firstly, books aren’t sacred objects. Just because something is printed doesn’t mean it can’t be corrected, argued with, highlighted, or cross-referenced. And secondly, how else am I going to remember that thought, or find again that bit without a visual aid?

If it makes anyone feel any better, I never fold down the corners of pages. That’s sacrilege!

 

7. The last book I had signed

Last year I wouldn’t have been able to answer this question. I don’t go to book signings as a rule, and I’m not terribly keen on the idea of going to crowded public places (shudder) to meet people just because they’ve written something that blew me away. However, I was given the opportunity to go to a book talk/signing being given by Marcus Zusak for his new book Bridge of Clay. Zusak gave a brilliant talk, was thoroughly engaging and I got a copy of Bridge of Clay signed on behalf of the library afterwards. The whole experience was nothing like I’d expected and I feel slightly more interested in maybe possibly meeting an author or two in the future. Unfortunately, Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Le Guin are all unavailable for future talks/signing, which narrows down the field of authors I care enough about considerably.

1134659I do have a book signed by Diana Wynne Jones, which I found in a charity shop last year. I didn’t realise it was signed until I got it home, and it’s addressed to ‘Clare’, but I thought it was pretty cool nonetheless. Even the little lad on the cover is impressed.

 

 

 

7. The last book I lost

McKinley CoversI thought I’d lost my copy of Welcome to Night Vale by Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink when I felt like re-reading it a couple of months ago and couldn’t find it, but it turns out a friend of mine is still borrowing it.

I can’t find my copies of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, and that’s far more upsetting because they were both bought for me by a friend who passed away a couple of years ago and it matters to me that I don’t have them to hand. She’d written in the front of them.

 

8. The last book I had to replace

1235758I didn’t have to replace it, but I found a gorgeous second-hand copy of Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy the other day which hands down beats my little pulp paperback copy. This newer copy has got lovely floppy pages and when I open it the spine doesn’t threaten to break.

 

 

9. The last book I argued over

I don’t think I’ve ever argued over a book. If somebody wanted a book enough to fight me for it they could have it. And if I disagree with someone about something we’ve both read, I tend to keep quiet. I love talking about books with people, and I love to hear what people think especially when they have different reactions to me, but I don’t really argue. Like, at all. This may be a bit too personal, but I grew up under an incredibly … overbearing … adult who believed that disagreement was disrespect and was not to be tolerated. I may nearly be forty years old, but arguing still doesn’t feel safe. One of the things that fascinates me about this whole bloggy enterprise is that I have opinions that I’m not always aware of until I’ve written them down, and that people don’t immediately steamroller me in the comments. But that’s enough feely-sharey stuff …

 

10. The last book I couldn’t find

25791216I’m still trying to find copies of Penric’s Demon and Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold that don’t cost the earth because I’ve heard great things about the Penric and Desdemona books. Unfortunately, I don’t read ebooks, which would solve this problem immediately. But it’s not like I’m going to run out of things to read any time soon, so I’m not too worried.

 

So, this was fun! Anyone else wanna have a go?