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review 2019-02-15 20:14
The Binding
The Binding - Bridget Collins

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

This was a little of a rollercoaster book for me, in that the blurb -is- pretty misleading when it comes to the expectations it rises—so there were quite a few chapters when my interest ebbed and flowed, as I poised between “this is not what I wantedto read” and “that’s pretty interesting” and “I expected something different in terms of world-building”, etc. Especially, there’s a romance element that is -not- in the blurb, and since I’m not a big fan of romance for the sake of romance in general, my first reaction was pretty much ‘ugh, no, not yet another romance plot, you should’ve warned me about this, since I don’t feel like reading romance these days’.

However, as everything settled, as the plot fully came together, as I got to know the characters more, this change of mood abated, and I found that I was actually liking this novel. I do regret that the art of binding wasn’t explored more in depths, with deeper explanations of how it worked, and this is something that disappointed me until the end. Still, I nevertheless felt myself rooting for several characters, getting angry at how other people treated them, didn’t accept them, at the rampant intolerance, too. It wasn’t ‘enjoyable’ (I so wanted to slap the parents), no. The main characters were often annoying in many ways, too. But it made for a good story.

I must say that I usually have several pet peeves when it comes to romance (yes, there’s some romance in it), one of the major ones being when the lovers lose sight of priorities (typical example: “who will she chose, the boy she loves, or saving the world?” --> everybody knows that 99% of the time, the world is doomed). Here, there is strong potential for turning these characters’ world(s) upside down, but I didn’t get that feeling of thwarted sense of priorities, because all in all, most characters had bleak prospects to start with, and what hinged on them was something that wouldn’t have made so many other people happy anyway: arranged marriages, bad job prospects, abuse, cannot go back to their old lives, etc.

Speaking of abuse, the world Emmett lives in is rather bleak in that regard as well. It reminded me a lot—and that was no doubt on purpose o nthe author’s part—of 19th century novels, with a strong country/town dichotomy: the countryside as a ‘pure, natural, innocent’ world where people have a chance to be happy, vs. the town as polluted, home to crime and vice, and where the wealthy treat servants and poorer people in general as dirt, as toys that can be broken and then mended at will. While the abuse is not depicted in gory ways, and usually alluded to rather than directly witness, the allusions are not veiled either. It is very clear who rapes their servants, and who gets others murdered for the sake of their own interests. Those aren’t triggers for me, but they could still be depending on the reader. All in all, that also reminded me of other literary movements of that time: there’s no shortage of showing people being sick, reduced to their ‘bodily functions’, shown as the cowards they are, and so on. If you’ve read Zola, you’ll know what I mean. This novel doesn’t sing the praises of human beings in general, for sure, and shows most people as being weak at best, and hidden monsters at worst.

I am… bizarrely satisfied with the ending. It’s fairly open, and there are still many loose ends, but it also allows the book to close on a kind of resolution that I found fitting, balancing between “it could still turn so sour so quickly” and “well, there’s hope left and the future looks kinda good”.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars

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review 2019-02-13 15:25
Once Upon a Time...
Once Upon a River - Diane Setterfield

Yes! My soul needed a good magical realism book. It was crying out for it you guys. "Once Upon a River" delves into many characters but manages to thread the needle with keeping an eye on the main plot from beginning to end of this book. I absolutely loved "The 13th Tale" so I was looking forward to see what Setterfield did with this. She weaves stories, fairy-tales, and myths together to tie around the Thames River and the people who live alongside it.


"Once Upon a River" starts with an inn called the Swan. Everyone tends to gather there to hear the innkeeper's husband tell stories. And can you imagine it in your head. A cold wintry night. A crowded inn with men and women together in order to beat back the cold. Listening to stories and laughing. And then a half dead men is brought in with what many take to be a puppet. And then everyone starts to realize that the puppet is a dead girl. After calling upon the village nurse/wise woman, the dead girl is somehow alive. And though the girl won't speak, many characters end up being drawn to her and want to lay claim to her. 


The young girl is proposed to be the missing girl of the Vaughans family who disappeared two years earlier. The wife is insisted that the girl is their daughter Amelia. And then a man named Robert Armstrong appears wondering if this girl could be his potential grandchild Alice. And then we have some side characters who wonder about the girl's identity and propose that it could be (whispered) and you wonder on that for the whole story too. 


Your heart bleeds for the Vaughans and for Robert Armstrong who is hell-bent on making sure all of his family are together and well taken care of no matter what. And you feel sad for the village nurse who has taken a shine to the girl though she is adamant she will not marry or birth any children. 

Setterfield's writing is fantastic in this. She manages to make sure every character have their own unique voice, but also everyone is developed so well. I don't know who I liked the best, but have to go with Robert Armstrong and his love for his wife, and their family. I could picture him in my head. Robert could have had his own book when you read about how he came to be, how he became a farmer, and why does he keep loving a song that rejects him every step of the way. Also can I say this, Robert needed to beat Robin's tail, like a lot. That said, I was so sad in the end when you have Robin finally realizing what mistakes he made. 


I will say that the flow of this book is slow and that you have to keep reading to see how things are revealed. Setterfield doesn't rush this book or it's characters at all. I think that readers will be happy with the resolutions of all the story-lines. 


The setting of the area felt full or magic and promise. I loved the idea of stories being carried down long after people pass away and how those stories can turn into myths which hold some truth to them. 

The ending was wonderful. I honestly wouldn't change a thing.

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review 2019-02-13 15:18
A Tale of Two Kitties
A Tale of Two Kitties (Magical Cats) - Sofie Kelly

#9 of Magical Cool Cats


Katie is the library director with two magical cats - Hercules who can turn himself invisible and then Owen who can walk through walls. The old post office was being moved and many letters and pictures were found hidden behind shelving and the library is trying to help get pictures back to people. As they prepare for a celebration of the opening of the Carnegie Library, they are fixing it all up and decide to have all the old photos framed and hung up in the hopes that this would help find out who was in them and get them to the people. While this is happening, Mia's uncle returns to town and her grandfather is also there. When Mia's grandfather is found dead, Katie works to find out who would want him dead and why, to help her boyfriend, the police detective. 


The story was different and I will try reading some of the other books. 

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text 2019-02-08 03:02
Killing Commendatore
Killing Commendatore - Haruki Murakami,Kirby Heyborne

Murakami's first-person narrator for Killing Commendatore never discloses his name (something that didn't actually occur to me until I was close to the end of the novel).  The narrator is a portrait artist whose wife unexpectedly asks him for a divorce, sharing that she has been seeing another man.  Portrait Artist (calling him that for convenience) leaves the apartment he shared with his wife, embarks on a journey, and ends up living in the remote mountain home of a well-known artist--the father of an old art-school friend.  The father, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, has been moved to a nursing home.  For a nominal rent, Portrait Artist cares for the home, focuses on his art, and does some teaching at a community center.


Portrait Artist discovers in the attic a remarkable painting called "Killing Commendatore," which depicts in Japanese style a version of a famous assassination scene in Mozart's "Don Giovanni."  Portrait Artist brings the painting into the studio and becomes mesmerized by it. His friend's father, as a young man, had studied in Austria, but mysterious events over there during the Second World War resulted in his being returned to Japan, where he abruptly changed from painting in a European style to a Japanese style.


Although he has quit doing traditional portraits through an agency, he accepts a commission by a wealthy neighbor who gives him the direction to paint the portrait in any style he chooses.  The shared experience that produces the portrait leads to a friendship between the artist and his subject, ultimately leading Portrait Artist to accept his neighbor's request to paint the portrait of another neighbor, a 13-year-old girl, Marie.  The neighbor who requests the portrait may have a connection to the girl--but I won't spoil that.


Bringing the painting "Killing Commendatore" down from the attic--where its creator had ostensibly hidden it with the intention of preventing anyone from seeing it--seemingly sets into motion certain fantastical events, calling forth "ideas" and "metaphors" that are personified, and making possible/necessary a crossing into an alternate world.


This is one of those books I can't quite assign a star rating to.  There were aspects of this book that I loved:  Its depiction of an artist's mind, the narrator's visual memory, the power of art to capture elements that go beyond surface appearance.  There were aspects that I found troubling, too.  I've seen discussions where people note that Murakami seems obsessed with breasts and ears.  The breast obsession definitely comes through in this book (including the narrator sharing that his sister, who died at age 12, had very small breasts, as does the 13-year-old Marie, in contrast with her aunt, who has large shapely ones--while his wife also has small ones).  He also gives his weirdly detailed descriptions of women's ears in a couple of instances. 


There is also a scene that involves a sexual dream where the narrator basically rapes his sleeping estranged wife--he himself identifies it this way when he thinks about the dream, noting that if she's asleep, she's not consenting.  On the one hand, he was dreaming, but on the other--the dream might not have been an ordinary dream, so possible unfortunate implications.


In addition, although the book had me hooked most of the time, there were also segments where the narrative dragged, and I actually found myself doing "wrap it up" gestures with my hands (I listened to the audio version).


In sum, I am glad I experienced this novel.  I think Murakami's fans will, on the balance, appreciate the story, though possibly with misgivings.

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review 2019-01-26 16:56
LGBTIA Magical Realism in Early 20th century Manchester.
The Night Brother - Rosie Garland
Sometimes you are lucky enough to read exactly the right book at the right time. This was the case with "The Night Brother" and me. It was the perfect piece of fiction to read after "Caliban and the Witch". While the beautiful prose and rich characters would have been enjoyable at any time, the poignancy of the subtext was enriched when read with knowledge of the history of women's struggles.
It is set in the late 19th - early 20th century, Manchester, England. A time of suffragists and a blossoming underground queer culture, both of which were violently opposed by state and police. Set in this time, place and atmosphere is the story of Edie and Gnome. The first chapter shows them in perfect, natural harmony with each other. But as Edie grows up her intersex nature (given a gloriously magical bent by Garland) is repressed and made a cause of shame by the abuse by their mother. Without full expression and acceptance, Edie/Gnome's relationship becomes destructive and toxic. This journey of acceptance and balance is woven into a wider narrative about feminine roles in society and the struggle to transcend them.
It is a dazzling book, bleak at times, uplifting at others. It does not shy away from women's struggles or the resistance to them by reactive traditional figures. It is a lover's kiss of a book, communicating deep and hidden truths while giving intense pleasure. It is among my favourite reads of all time.
5/5 stars.
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