Honestly, there’s very little not to love about Usborne’s The World of the Unknown Series. All About Ghosts was one of my favourite books when I was a kid. I think I almost permanently had it on loan from the library (sorry fellow children of Elwood!) and would devour it under my blankets with a torch.
When a Change.org petition started to have this out of print gem re-issued, I was among the first signatures. And the second the re-release was announced, I was one of the first to pre-order. It’s shorter than I remember, but isn’t that always how childhood memories go?
I think what I love about this the most (despite the pleasant nostalgia that comes with it) is the fact that it’s neither full-believing nor completely sceptical. It simply gives an overview of the different types of ghosts that a child might hear stories about, their origins, and where they might be found. It’s incredibly matter-of-fact and doesn’t pass any judgement as to the veracity of ghostly claims. Because of that, it appeals both to the sceptics among us, and the true believers. There’s something in here for everyone!
There’s not a lot of depth – it is a children’s reference book, after all – but it gives enough information for a decent snapshot, and encourages readers to learn more. It even provides a handy little reference list.
I am certainly not disappointed by my purchase of this re-issue. It’s nice to have my own copy of it now, and who knows, maybe one day my children will derive the same, chilling joy from All About Ghosts as I did as a child.
A few years ago, I picked up a copy of Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl when I moved to Cyprus. I’d read amazing things about it, especially since it was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, but for some reason, it wasn’t printed in the UK at the time. I worked for a book shop, and we could only get it via print on demand publishers that year. My first day out in Cyprus, I walked into a book shop, and there it was, sitting right on the shelf. A real, paperback copy! I bought it immediately, and then life got in the way, and I forgot to read it.
As much as I hate to say when SKY UK’s Chernobyl aired, I remembered I had this sitting on my shelf, and I finally dusted it off and started to read, before I watched any of the series. I’m so glad I did because so many of the oral histories recounted in Voices from Chernobyl influenced the narrative of the series – and as confronting as the series was, I’m not ashamed to say that I cried in public, tears streaming down my face reading those histories in the words of those who experienced them. Every emotion was represented. There was sadness, hope, anger, resignation…it was an emotional roller coaster that left me weeping at the tragedy of it all.
Soldiers came for us in cars. I thought the war had started. They were saying these things: “deactivation,” “isotopes.” One soldier was chasing after a cat. The dosimeter was working on the cat like an automatic: click, click. A boy and a girl were chasing the cat, too. The boy was all right, but the girl kept crying, “I won’t give him up!” She was yelling: “Run away, run little girl!” But the soldier had a big plastic bag.
I was amazed at the skill Alexievich showed in getting to the emotional heart of her subjects. She conveyed their voices with precision and depth. She began and ended the collection with the two most gut-wrenching tales – tales of wives who lost their husbands and the pain they had to endure. It drew me in and ensured that all these stories would linger in my mind, quite possibly for the rest of my life.
It’s easy to look at stories from history and forget that they happened to real people. Some stories are so fantastical, and take on such an air of mythology that they become almost hyper-real. We forget to step back and really think about why, how, and to whom these events occurred. Voices from Chernobyl reminds us that Chernobyl is much more than a thrill-seeker’s theme park. It’s a place where lives were lived, memories were made, and people destroyed.
The sparrows disappeared from our town in the first year after the accident. They were lying around everywhere – in the yards, on the asphalt. They’d be raked up and taken away in the containers with the leaves. They didn’t let people burn the leaves that year, because they were radioactive, so they buried the leaves.
The sparrows came back two years later. We were so happy, we were calling to each other: “I saw a sparrow yesterday! They’re back.”
The May bugs also disappeared, and they haven’t come back. Maybe they’ll come back in a hundred years or a thousand. That’s what our teacher says. I won’t see them.
Voices from Chernobyl offers very little context or background. This works in its favour. The stories speak for themselves. The reality is, the people telling the stories were just as much in the dark (in fact, more so!) than a reader would be, and so it makes it all the more impactful to hear their stories without comment.
Voices from Chernobyl isn’t a book about politics or global impact. It’s an intimate monologue, recording the life of the citizens who were most deeply affected by the Chernobyl disaster. If you don’t shed a tear reading some of these accounts, you don’t have a heart. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
Well, I finally managed to make it through The Book of Life, and thus, to the end of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy. I had to force myself to finish it, and given that I had two over 30-hour flights within 7 days (including waiting at airports) that should give you an idea of how much I was just not into this book.
The Book of Life was not as bad as Shadow of Night, but it was still absolutely dull and insipid. It starts off with two characters who could be an interesting addition but never appear again throughout the book except as passing mentions from other characters, and a new character is mentioned in the very last pages of the series! The pacing was just all wrong. This whole series should have been interesting and exciting, but it was just boring, with a plodding plot, and nonsensical worldbuilding. I honestly don’t understand what people see in these books.
“Vote?” Matthew said, incredulous. “Since when did we vote in this family?” “Since Marcus took over the Knights of Lazarus,” Gallowglass replied, drawing a silver lighter from his pocket. “We’ve been choking on democracy since the day you left.”
By this book, it seems that Harkness had realised that first person wasn’t really working for her writing style, and so The Book of Life is filled with switching points of view. We still get Diana’s utterly insipid narration, but now we also switch to an omniscient narrator to talk about all the other characters. Including dead ones! Because of the inclusion of characters who had been killed off in previous books, the whole thing felt bloated with unnecessary voices and personalities. Characters who had no appearance in the last book suddenly popped up again and were apparently necessary, and characters who had only briefly been introduced for a page or two during the last book all of a sudden became central characters. There was no development and no reason for me to care about any of these characters in the slightest.
The worldbuilding was practically non-existent. From the beginning of the series, we’re told that it’s incredibly important to keep humans in the dark about the existence of creatures, and secrecy is paramount. But within the first few pages, Diana and Matthew are telling absolutely everyone about everything while still maintaining that it has to be a secret. The time travel element of the previous book also wholly failed in The Book of Life. There are suggestions that Diana and Matthew changed the past with new historical artefacts appearing, however, given that the characters of the book who were alive in the past all had memories of Diana and Matthew being there, this shows that the past simply became the past. There would have been no changes appearing in the present, as the past was one that had already happened, meaning those artefacts would simply have already existed in the historical record. No thought went into the internal logic of this book at all!
From a character point of view, Diana’s job is to be pregnant, Matthew’s job is to be an overprotective asshole (but he’s apparently an asshole for medical reasons, so that’s ok?). And don’t even get me started on the absolutely unnecessary and unbelievable love triangle that exists solely to show what a special flower Diana is. (Although I must say that there was more connection in the two paragraphs Diana spent on the unrequited love than there was in a single page of her romance with Matthew).
“I watched in silence as the parts of Matthew I knew and loved—the poet and the scientist, the warrior and the spy, the Renaissance prince and the father—fell away until only the darkest, most forbidding part of him remained. He was only the assassin now. But he was still the man I loved.”
Then we come to the central premise of the whole series. Ashmole 782. I nearly smashed my kindle, throwing it across the airport when I came to the culmination of searching for that blasted book. The search for the book should have been the primary plot point, but it always ran second to Diana and Matthew’s romance for the entire series, but to have it culminate in such a completely unoriginal, and idiotic way just made me rage. I can’t talk about it without spoiling it, but suffice to say it was awful.
Honestly, I could go into detail about the meandering plot (full of plot holes), the utterly contrived romance, the weak characterisation, and lacklustre worldbuilding, but I’d be here all day. Suffice it to say, I just don’t understand why people love these books. I could forgive the plot holes and poorly conceived character arcs if it were a fun read. But it wasn’t. It was just boring. If you like your men abusive, and your women pregnant and submissive, then this might be the series for you. But if you want more out of your reading material, I’d recommend you read just about anything else.
Shadow of Night is the first book I have ever read where the plot happened entirely off the page, and I didn’t know it until the last chapter. Characters gathered, fought, died, fell in love, and were born while Diana and Matthew played house in the Elizabethan Era – and we got to experience or read about none of that. Everything that could have made Shadow of Night exciting was left out of the book entirely and added on like a footnote at the end. Real trauma was glossed over as if it hadn’t even happened. This book was almost physically painful to read. It was boring, poorly constructed, the pacing was all off, and the central premise entirely nonsensical.
All the worst parts about the characters of A Discovery of Witches are back in force in Shadow of Night. Diana is still a special snowflake for no discernible reason, and Matthew is still a controlling asshole. Neither character has any personal growth, and neither learn anything from their behaviour. Matthew is allowed to be an asshole ‘because Vampire’, and Diana is allowed to be devoid of personality or backbone ‘because Mary-Sue’.
Despite being shallow constructs, they were still the only characters with any real depth as the reader is treated to a revolving cast of interchangeable satellite characters who are virtually indistinguishable from one another and who serve no purpose other than being historical name-drops or temporary antagonists. Apparently, Matthew just knew every single influential person in history ever. Something that even Deborah Harkness mentions directly in the text. It made for tough reading as historical name after historical name were just shovelled into the narrative without any real reason or purpose. Matthew is even apparently responsible for building most of the historically significant buildings around Europe, including St. Vitus in Prague. It was just too much and wholly shattered my suspension of disbelief.
“London had well over a hundred thousand residents. Why did Matthew have to know everyone that historians would one day find significant?”
The character development of Diana and Matthew seemed to halt completely, and in some cases take a considerable step back. In A Discovery of Witches Diana’s role as a historian was a central part of the plot, however in Shadow of Night Harkness seems to have forgotten entirely the training that Diana would have had to become one.
In one scene we see Diana struggling to follow a discussion between Matthew and his friends in Latin, even though to have made it to fellowship in Oxford with a specialisation in Middle English there is no way that she wouldn’t have a working grasp of the language. She states on numerous occasions that she struggles to keep up with all Matthew’s historically significant friends, even though they’ve gone back in time to a period that was her area of specialisation. She would have had a very detailed knowledge of these people before she ever set foot in that time. There is even a terrible moment when Diana exclaims about the carriages being totally different from those she’d seen in Jane Austen films. I mean, it’s a totally different period in time. She’s a historian! As if she wouldn’t have known that or even be surprised by it!
To add insult to injury, she has to ask Matthew to mansplain Norse mythology to her when her historical nephew by marriage, Gallowglass (and if his constant use of the term ‘Auntie’ doesn’t have you wanting to pull your hair out by the end of this book, then I don’t understand the world anymore), compares them to Odin’s ravens. Even though it’s not her specialisation, there is no way that an Oxford Fellow wouldn’t know at least superficially about Norse mythology. The tale of Odin’s ravens is one of the most well-known, and Norse mythology was essential to the development of British culture through invasion.
“ ‘Among my people it’s a great compliment to be likened to a raven. I’ll be Muninn, and Matthew we’ll call Huginn. Your name will be Göndul, Auntie. You’ll make a fine Valkyrie.’
‘What’s he talking about?’ I asked Matthew blankly.
‘Odin’s ravens. And his daughters.’”
Matthew’s characterisation fares no better. In A Discovery of Witches he was precise and exacting, if somewhat harsh. In Shadow of Night however, he flits between callous disregard for danger or aggressive control. Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe is a central antagonist of Shadow of Night and his behaviour threatens Diana’s life constantly. In the first book, Matthew would have killed him for this – we saw him do just that with Gillian Chamberlain – but for some reason, Matthew just laughs off the danger as inconsequential. Diana does the same thing. Despite Kit actively trying to have her outed as a witch, she still chooses to follow him willingly on a moonlight stroll where, surprise, it ends badly! (In one of the most-anticlimactic scenes of tension and self-discovery ever put to page, I might add.)
The romance between Diana and Matthew is completely flat and lifeless with some of the most lacklustre sex scenes ever put to page. And a pregnancy sex scene that was just plain icky if you think about the physical logistics of what is being described. Diana just blindly accepts Matthew’s controlling behaviour as part of who he is, and in return, Matthew constantly keeps Diana in the dark about important matters that could influence their relationship. But the most horrible aspect of their relationship is that Matthew completely admits to raping his dead wife. Take a look at the quotes below:
“When I look back, I wonder if she was abused when she was a child. Not punished – we were all punished, and in ways no modern parent would dream of – but something more. It broke her spirit. My wife had learned to give in to what someone older, stronger, and meaner wanted. I was all of those things, and wanted her to say yes that summer night, so she did.”
“She wouldn’t say no, but her eyes always held some reluctance when we made love”
Let’s take a moment to think about those words. Essentially Matthew is admitting that he knew that his ex-wife had been likely sexually abused and he took advantage of that to get the woman that he wanted. Bearing in mind that he did this before he was a vampire. He did this as a human, without the coldness and control that supposedly comes with being a vampire. He took advantage of an abused woman, admitted to knowing that she didn’t want to have sex, but made her do it anyway. I don’t care how you slice it, that is absolutely horrific. But Diana’s reaction is no better.
“It hurt to know that Matthew was still so deeply attached to his dead wife and son.”
It hurt Diana to know that he was still attached to his dead wife and son (which in itself is odd, because any person with a heart would be), but it doesn’t hurt her to be explicitly told that her husband is a rapist – or at the very least took advantage of an emotionally vulnerable, severely abused woman. This destroyed the series for me. There is very little that Harkness can do to claw her way back from that.
But, if we ignore the plot and characterisation that I don’t agree with and look just at the construction of the book, even this was poor. Harkness spends so long dwelling on the minutiae of Matthew and Diana’s life that she makes absolutely terrible mistakes that should have been picked up in editing. Shadow of Night is written primarily in first-person, and yet Harkness occasionally slips into third-person. While there are a few moments of this, the most glaringly obvious was right at the end of the book.
“’Hurry, then,’ I said, scarcely able to control myself. Despite my entreaties, the speedometer stayed exactly where it was. I groaned with impatience. ‘We should have stuck with Marcus’s car.’
‘Patience. We’re almost there.’ And there’s no chance of my going any faster, Matthew thought as he downshifted again.”
If it’s written in first-person then there is no way we can be told what Matthew is thinking – especially since this literally switches from first-person Diana to first-person Matthew. There are a few chapters in Shadow of Night that were written in third-person, and in my opinion, these are Harkness’ strongest chapters. They have the most subtle characterisation and the most development in the shortest space of time, but it was still a stylistic choice to have the novel written from Diana’s point of view – if that choice is made then stick with it. Or simply write the story in third-person! This really grated, especially given that so much happened to so many characters that never made it to the pages of Shadow of Night. To break into third-person for something so utterly trivial as the speed of a car made the whole thing even more insulting.
This brings me to the part of Shadow of Night that was the most nonsensical. The entire premise of time travel. Harkness took no time to really flesh out or develop her theory of it, and as such, it left far too many questions unanswered and far too many inconsistencies to be believable. We are meant to believe that by travelling back in time, the Matthew from that time simply disappears and will reappear when they leave again. There is no way that this would work. And if past-Matthew returned after a year’s absence with no knowledge of what had happened, then this would have been a memory that present-Matthew possessed. He would have remembered a blank year in his own personal history. Gallowglass, for instance, remembers meeting Diana and Matthew, which means that time continued on linearly. Therefore, Matthew’s own past and memories would have been altered simply by him being there.
The more time they spend in the past, the more historical anomalies appear in the present. Even this makes very little sense, as the past has already happened, those anomalies would already have existed and not have been any different to recorded history. If they do change history, then no one would have noticed these changes as it would essentially have been an alternate timeline, in which only the people making the changes would have known them – to anyone from the present, it would have just been history. Time travel is a minefield for a writer, but Harkness makes absolutely no attempt to make sense of the internal logic of the way she uses it. Even the fact that they only travel to one time is barely explained. They are hiding and trying to find Diana a teacher. There was no need for them to try and live and fit in – really they should have just jumped from time to time until they found what they needed. There was minimal attempt to explain why Diana couldn’t do this except that it was deemed necessary for the plot. If it’s necessary, explain it!
Honestly Shadow of Night was really difficult to get through. Written in third-person and experiencing what was happening to the characters left in the present would have made a far more compelling read than the historical name-dropping and lacklustre characterisation of the Elizabethan Era that we got. Honestly, it reads like poorly constructed Twilight fan-fiction written in an attempt to be more academic and, quite frankly, failing. I simply do not understand how this trilogy has gotten quite the acclaim it has.
The Art of Taxidermy by Sharon Kernot felt like it was written for me. While my emotional circumstances didn’t align with the narrator, Lottie, everything else in the story felt so familiar that it really resonated. I chose The Art of Taxidermy as my book for my May Reading Challenge, and for the theme, I chose a book depicting my country. Honestly, I couldn’t have picked a better one.
The Art of Taxidermy is a slow burn, and I must admit, it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. It’s described as a novel, but it’s more than that. Essentially, it’s a piece of narrative poetry, and as such, is a short read. But Kernot really does a lot in minimal space. Her prose is deliberate and tightly woven. Because of the style and structure, not a word is out of place. There wasn’t a deep plot, or any unexpected twists and turns, but what it did show was a very personal look at grief and the beauty that can be found in death.
Australian flora and fauna are an integral part of The Art of Taxidermy, and as such, I’m not sure how much a non-Australian would get from it. This novel resonated with me so deeply because I felt a familiarity with its people and setting. Lottie’s family are German, and the prose is speckled with German words which are not always translated. Coming from a bi-lingual Australian/German family, once again, this was something that really resonated with me, but made me question just how much a reader not immersed in that culture would really understand in the nuances.
The corellas were grazing with a scatter of galahs. We sat on a fallen log and watched them squabble and tussle, beat their wings and waddle like hook-nosed old men with their arms tucked behind their backs.
There are some stunningly visceral descriptions of death, dying, and decay. While these may not be for everyone, I found them oddly beautiful. There is beauty in the fragility of life, and artistry in capturing those moments, and it was refreshing to see those things represented in a way that was more than merely violent and gruesome. It was a hopeful, loving novel, but still punctuated by an undercurrent of grief and loneliness. It was like the human condition was distilled into a few pages of prose, and I thought it was done masterfully. There isn’t a great deal of world-building, nor particularly in-depth characterisation in The Art of Taxidermy, but that didn’t matter. It wasn’t that kind of book. Reading it is more about the experience of it, rather than the enjoyment – and for that, I was glad of its relatively short length. Had it been any longer I think it could have become boring, but any shorter and it would have felt lacking. It was a pretty much perfect showcase of unique style and subtle story without overstaying its welcome.
I don’t think The Art of Taxidermy will be everyone’s cup of tea. I think it will appeal to a particular audience. So, if you’re like me and you’re an Australian/German with nostalgia for your home who is bi-lingual and has a love for Natural History collections, then this book was written for you. Alternatively, if you like unique structure and beautiful prose that probes the subtleties of the human condition, then this book might also be for you. There’s no doubt about it, The Art of Taxidermy is an ‘artsy’ book that needs to be experienced rather than simply read. If that’s the kind of book you like, then this will be right up your street.
As I’m still slogging through my trilogy pick for last month’s entry in my 2019 Reading Challenge, I chose something a little shorter for April. I decided to read and watch a Book-to-Movie adaptation and picked George R. R. Martin’s Nightflyers to get the job done.
Nightflyers was only recently released on Netflix where I am, and it looked really promising. Well acted, with gorgeous sets, and high production values made me confident that I would see a solid entry into the Sci-Fi genre. What I saw, instead, was a hot mess of plot holes, and a nonsensical plot. It was lovely to look at and created a pleasant viewing experience, but the story was weak. But this is normal for adaptations, and given that the source material was considered worthy of adaptation, surely meant that it would be of far higher quality than the show?
In some sense, George R. R. Martin’s Nightflyers was vastly superior to the television adaptation. It was tighter, less convoluted, and a lot more enigmatic. That is where my praise for Nightflyers ends, however. Despite being far more streamlined than the television show, for such a short work of fiction, it still split its focus between three main elements, rather than focusing on developing one. The result was that it introduced too much, and didn’t develop any of them to any satisfying level of engagement. The mystery of Royd, the mystery of the Nightflyer herself, and the mystery of the volcryn all felt underdeveloped – the volcryn were arguably the most interesting part of the novella and had the least amount of prose dedicated to them.
I accept what I am, but I did not choose it. I experience human life in the only way I can, vicariously.
Martin’s writing is certainly not bad, but he made some stylistic choices that made Nightflyers a bit of a slog to read. I didn’t find myself truly engaged in the story because there was a lot of repetition. A lot of the information was given to the reader in long conversations for the sake of exposition, and the dialogue itself felt robotic and clinical. Characters were constantly given their full names when being described or spoken about, and a lot of their descriptors were repeated. The phrases “improved model” and “three steps ahead” were continuously repeated, and I found myself getting frustrated with each new repetition. It made it very difficult for me to really get into the story.
The flat tone and lack of detailed world-building meant that when I got to the real meat of the novella – full of as much gore and terror as you’d expect from the sci-fi horror genre – I didn’t really care enough to have any kind of reaction. Martin describes in visceral detail the deaths of some of his characters, and honestly, some of those descriptions were oddly quite beautiful. The problem was that those descriptions were still stuck in a web of flat narrative and emotionless characters, so I simply couldn’t have a reaction.
Nightflyers reads like a list of things you learn in a creative writing class, all put into a sci-fi setting. It felt like writing-by-numbers, rather than an organic story that developed with its own sense of flow. Background, dialogue, climax, etc., were all inserted where a writing textbook would tell you they should go.
My copy of Nightflyers was illustrated, however, and David Palumbo did a stellar job. His art was dark and emotive, and perfectly encapsulated the scenes I was reading. They were, without a doubt, the best thing about the novella, and did more to create a sense of fear, emotion, and dread than any of Martin’s prose.
As Nightflyers was written in the ’80s, there have been similar works of sci-fi horror released since that do a much better job. I’m glad I read it, but it’s not a book I would recommend for sci-fi fans to rush out and get their hands on.
Ok, so there’s a lot to unpack in A Discover of Witches, the first book in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy. It’s been on my TBR pile for a while, and with my 2019 Reading Challenge well underway, I thought it would be a good idea to start off my birthday month with a trilogy, especially one that I’ve bee meaning to read for a while. I was expecting something great given how many people had recommended it, but what I got was a popcorn Urban Fantasy romance dressed up as literary fiction. It was all form and no substance.
A Discovery of Witches is like two separate, very different books all rolled into one. One of those books was right up my street, and the other had me pulling my hair out in anger and frustration. The historical and academic parts of the novel, mixed with the experienced history of its characters really worked for me. When Diana Bishop was in Oxford studying ancient alchemical manuscripts, my eyes flew over the pages desperate to take in every word.
Harkness drew me in with a strong premise and intelligent, emotive writing. The beginning and end of A Discovery of Witches are where it really shines. It’s an historical mystery wrapped up in intrigue, and at those moments I was utterly engrossed. But unfortunately, the entire middle of the book and most of the plot movements were dedicated to one of the most lacklustre, insipid romances ever put to page. And it’s toxic, to boot.
As far as I can tell, there are only two emotions that keep the world spinning, year after year. One is fear. The other is desire.
There is precisely zero chemistry between the Witch, Diana Bishop, and her Vampire lover, Matthew Clairmont. Sure, Matthew is intelligent, but apart from the fact that he’s handsome, there is nothing about him as a person that really convinced me why someone as equally intelligent and independent as Diana would fall for him. Matthew is controlling, demanding, secretive, and dismissive. At various points in the narrative, he purposefully keeps important things from Diana – things that are imperative for her independent decision making. He controls her through use of his blood, keeps her sedated if he thinks she’s being too headstrong about her own bodily autonomy and is a straight up murderer! Sure, at times Diana makes the right noises about Matthew’s controlling nature, but it never goes anywhere. She merely smiles, nods, and accepts all of his negative traits because he’s…good looking, I guess?
Diana Bishop herself is a problematic character, and it sometimes felt like Harkness couldn’t quite decide what she wanted her to be. I’m an historian, and some of the ways Diana thinks about her profession and research makes my mind absolutely reel. It is established very early on that Diana doesn’t use her witchcraft because she’s afraid of it after her parents were killed by villagers in Africa for being witches (the inherent bias in that alone is worthy of discussion at some point…). Despite this, she still has some vestiges of power that could help her in her research, which she refuses to use because she thinks it’s cheating and wants to make sure that she earned everything on her own. This is like someone born tall thinking that their height gives them an unfair advantage in basketball so it would be cheating if they played. If your skills give you a unique outlook and understanding of the history that you’re studying, this isn’t cheating. This is using your knowledge for the betterment of human understanding! If you can glimpse the past and find the truth of a document from touching it, then this is a far more valuable skill than the fallibility of human interpretation. As long as you can cite it, you can use it!
Still, Diana is set up as an independent, modern woman with a set of ‘isms’ that she will have to overcome. I can totally get on board with that. But it’s not how the narrative played out. Within weeks of meeting Matthew, Diana does everything he wants, and everything he tells her to do. She sometimes remarks on the way he controls everything she does, she even says she doesn’t like it, but she lets him do it anyway. Even her magic is somehow tied to her feelings for him. Given how many women were killed historically as witches for being too independent, the fact that Diana’s witchcraft is tied to man is just downright insulting.
All you have to do is be a good listener. Nobody really wants to keep secrets, not even the dead. People leave clues everywhere, and if you pay attention, you can piece them together.
The end picks up again as A Discovery of Witches brings the plot back to the historical manuscripts. When Diana heads back to her childhood home, Harkness weaves some of the best scenes in the book. The house is a character in its own right, and I absolutely loved the way it reacted to and accommodated for visitors. This is where the real mystery comes into play, and I loved the convergence of characters (although once again, Matthew spends the entire time being an absolute douche).
This is where we come to an issue of stylistic choice, however. A Discovery of Witches is written in the first person from Diana’s point of view. Because of this, we can only experience the narrative through her eyes. The unintended consequence of this was that in the final few chapters we end up with characters showing up who we’ve never heard of until this point, but are going to be absolutely essential to the plot moving forward (I assume…). They seemed just to appear and were given grave narrative importance, despite the fact that one of them only appears in a single chapter! I had a moment where I had to flick back a few chapters and see if I was meant to know who these people were. It was sudden and confusing and definitely could have been worked in more subtly to the narrative.
All in all, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy A Discovery of Witches. I did. When I got past the pages and pages of wanky wine descriptions and the fact that Diana loves tea, and moved past the absolutely toxic and insipid romance, the descriptions were sumptuous, and the world building was really quite excellent. I’m going to finish the series – after all, that’s what a reading challenge is for – but I really hope that Diana grows into a stronger character as the novels progress, and Matthew stops being such an insufferable asshole.
For anyone who felt like me and loved the literary mystery of A Discovery of Witches but hated the Twilight’esque romance, I can highly recommend A.S. Byatt’s Possession. It is everything that A Discovery of Witches isn’t.
Wish was 10/10 for illustration. The characters were beautifully designed, and the images absolutely gorgeous. They were wistful, hopeful, bright, and conveyed so much emotion. Chris Saunders’ illustration is utterly flawless and had I been rating this book on the illustration alone, this would have been a five-star book.
But I’m not. So it isn’t.
The story was rather unimaginative and derivative, with a rhyming meter that couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to do or be. The rhyming scheme is forced in places, and there is one particular moment in Wish where this is incredibly jarring.
Thanks to you I am busy writing. Creating amazing stories so wonderfully exciting! I have been inspired by your selfless deed. Please, choose a story you wish me to read.
Consider the above quote for a moment. The word ‘read’ has clearly been chosen only to rhyme with the word ‘deed’, even though the fox’s entire story has been about writing. This is a conceptual flip that really makes the forced rhyming obvious.
The message of the book is undeniably lovely, but it doesn’t come to a strong enough conclusion. There is a message of friendship, and that helping others will be fulfilment enough, but the entire time the rabbit has been asking if his friends wishes are really for him, but it concludes with him living out all his other friends dreams with no actual statement on what this means to rabbit.
Wish isn’t bad. It’s just underwhelming. The illustrations are good enough to carry the lacklustre story, so I can still see this doing well. It’s a pretty thing to have in the house, even though it’ll probably be read once, and then left on the shelf.
I’m self-confessedly not one to enjoy autobiographies or memoirs, so for this year’s Reading Challenge, I chose one of my options as a book in a genre that I usually don’t pick up. Quite fortuitously I was also offered an ARC of Crystal Rasmussen’s Diary of a Drag Queen, so I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and choose it as my February challenge book.
It’s challenging for me to review Diary of a Drag Queen, because I’m not sure how much of my dislike stems from its genre, and how much for the book itself. Don’t get me wrong, Rasmussen is a fantastic writer, and they have some absolutely spot on things to say about being queer and the issues facing LGBTQIA+ and other minority communities. But that for me was the issue. There was nothing else. The very nature of the memoir is that the diarist gets to pick and choose what they release to the public, and Rasmussen chose their stories carefully to be an almost equal mix of important discussions on these issues and stories told for shock value.
Diary of a Drag Queen is about Rasmussen’s queer identity only, without actually saying too much about Rasmussen as a person. I’ve never met them, but I’d like to think there is more to them than anonymous, dirty sex, and intellectual discussions about what it means to be queer. As such Diary of a Drag Queen ended up feeling more like a lecture on gender and sexual identity, than a cohesive, interesting narrative.
People bandy about terms like ‘fake’, but choosing how you want to look is the definition of authentic.
Diary of a Drag Queen shows two faces of Rasmussen. First, the intellectual who deeply thinks about the issues facing them and their community. This is told well through personal anecdotes and a self-deprecating wit that I found endearing when I started the book. They are unapologetically blunt, filthy, and incredibly candid about their body image issues which made their words feel somehow universal. I really identified with Rasmussen. Their words and thought processes really gelled with me, despite the differences in our experiences. I really felt a commonality, that drew me into the narrative.
People think drag queens are stupid. This is misogyny in action: they think that because we feminise ourselves, because we spend a lot of time on make-up and hair and getting exactly the right look, we are vapid, bitchy and stupid.
People are wrong to think drag queens are stupid.
Perhaps the change in how I felt about Diary of a Drag Queen came at the point where our experiences diverged. After a while, the very things that made Rasmussen relatable achieved the opposite, simply because they almost started to feel repetitive. Again, this is likely a genre issue. This is Rasmussen’s experience, and I have absolutely no right to say how that experience should have played out. But, I can approach it as a reader, and for me, personally, I found it repetitive and dull after a while.
The antidote to this shame is not pride, or honour, or even celebration. That comes later. The antidote to shame is honesty. Stark, crass, funny, powerful honesty. Honesty that smashes through notions of taboos and inappropriatenesses.
Diary of a Drag Queen is incredibly explicit. That’s fine. But when that kind of explicit narrative gets boring halfway through, then you know it’s missed the mark somewhere. This is Rasmussen’s second face. The reader is treated to a very candid, no holds barred recounting of their sex life. In and of itself, completely fine, and actually interesting to get a glimpse into a world in which I will never belong, but after the 20th Grindr shag, and the 50th dirty sex story the shock had worn off and I was just bored. If my reaction to someone offering to shit in someone’s mouth is ‘not again, that is so page 20’, then something has gone wrong along the line.
Perhaps Diary of a Drag Queen is not written for me. Or maybe it is. So much of what was so great about it was Rasmussen’s amazing insight. But that insight wasn’t enough to carry the narrative past the halfway mark. Then it felt like an overload – a curious mix of proselytising and stories told for shock value. Had this been another genre I probably wouldn’t have felt that way, so I don’t blame Rasmussen. But, what my Reading Challenge for February has taught me, is that I should probably keep avoiding memoirs and autobiographies. I obviously just don’t like them.
The Devil Aspect by Craig Russel was a gripping read, rich with historical research, well-developed characters, and a believable setting. It’s a mix of crime thriller and gothic horror, and treads the line masterfully, leaving the more ‘supernatural’ elements of the story ambiguous. This should have been a five-star read. Craig Russel is a spectacular writer. His pacing is perfect, and his description and worldbuilding absolutely sublime. What brought the book down for me though was that the plot twist was made evident in the very first chapter. When the book reached its climax, I knew exactly where it was going, and this flattened the reading experience somewhat for me.
The Devil Aspect is intelligently written and delves into some of the deeper concepts of human psychology and the nature of God and the Devil. It tackles Jungian concepts, intertwining it with Slavic folklore, and the political history of Czechoslovakia. It was a big task, but Russel rises to it masterfully. He creates deep characters, all with inner turmoil and unique motivations. He realistically writes about character reactions to the political crisis with the rise of Nazism, showing how different people would have viewed the politics of the day with varying degrees of acceptance, fear, and dismissal.
One of Russel’s more masterful strokes is that he subtly compares the thoughts and motivations of his protagonists with the actions of ‘The Devil’s Six’- the six criminals housed in the Hrad Orlu Asylum where young psychiatrist, Victor Kosarek is allowed to test his new methods in order to find the darkness within the prisoners that he terms ‘The Devil Aspect’. While a Jack the Ripper style murderer terrorises Prague with no obvious motivation, the reader hears the stories of The Devil’s Six, whose crimes are given a more human side, really making us question the nature of Evil.
When science can’t yet explain a phenomenon rationally, superstition explains it irrationally. That doesn’t make the phenomenon any less real.
The pacing of The Devil Aspect comes on you like a creeping dread. As the novel went on, I found myself feeling more and more uncomfortable, worrying for the characters and their futures. I felt pity for The Devil’s Six, and frustration at the rampant nationalism in the background for which we all know the inevitable consequence. There was a real sense of mystery underlying the narrative, and I was utterly engrossed.
There is no such thing as the supernatural. You know that, I know that, anyone with any intelligence knows that. All there is, is all there is – but you know we’re a long way from understanding it all.
Perhaps that’s why I found the last few chapters a little disappointing. There had been such a sense of mystery the whole way through, but as the The Devil Aspect reached its climax, I realised I knew exactly how things would unfold, and how the inevitable plot twist would play out. The subtle dread that permeated the novel gave way to an action sequence that was a little on the nose and didn’t feel entirely believable within the carefully constructed pacing of the novel.
While the ending was a little disappointing though, the rest of The Devil Aspect more than made up for it. It’s definitely a book that I would recommend, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Craig Russel’s work!
My name is Pamela and I'm a freelance editor, ghostwriter, researcher and web designer.
I started life as a professional historian and museum curator, surrounded by dusty books and old bones. Now I get to write about them!
I love narratives in all forms so every spare moment I have (and some moments that I can't spare) I spend reading or playing video games.