The Door

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I generally avoid classics of all kinds as I often feel as I’m reading or after I’ve finished them that I’ve somehow missed the point of the story or the reason the book is a classic. Still, one of the Women in Translation bingo card categories I was to read was a classic. I picked up The Door by Madga Szabo, Hungary’s most translated author, to round out my reading list and to expand my literary horizons.

The Door Cover

This was utterly captivating and also rather emotionally exhausting. It follows a writer (who is named only once in the book but shares her first name with the author) in her fraught and complex relationship with her elderly housekeeper, Emerence. The time frame of the book spans decades and is focused fully on Magda and Emerence’s relationship, every action and thought leading invariably back to it. If you’re looking for something plot-driven, this is not the read for you.

For those interested in checking out the NYRB edition as I did, I recommend skipping Ali Smith’s introduction and saving it until after you’ve read the book. I prefer to go into books with fresh, unbiased thoughts if possible, and the introduction doesn’t allow for that. It quotes from the text and reveals some of the events that you may not want to know of going in.

While I usually enjoy an interesting plot, it was completely unnecessary for this book. The beautiful prose and complex nature of Magda and Emerence’s interactions had me glued to every page. I can only assume that Len Rix’s translation does the original justice, for if the writing in Hungarian is somehow more lovely, I weep that I couldn’t read it’s true form. From the opening, in which Magda makes a dire confession, to the last page, I was hooked. Not knowing anything about Hungary (either in the past or present) I admit to being a bit lost when politics of any kind were mentioned. It took only some quick googling to brush up enough that I could follow along more readily. In doing so, I did wonder how much of this book (if any) was autobiographical, as Szabo and her Magda seem to share in a career, spouse, and a few seminal life events.

Setting aside any parallels to the author’s own life, I found Magda’s character to be almost unbelievably self-absorbed. Though this would generally be to a book’s detriment, instead the story works precisely because of this selfishness. All of the characters, from our two lady protagonists, to Magda’s husband, to the surrounding cast of friends and distant relatives are written to be flawed and to demonstrate the absolute cruelty and misunderstanding that we often extend to our loved ones. This is a novel that understands that every person has a private life, and that our thoughts often turn to our own lives rather than to those that surround us.

Emerence is a difficult character to like, often rude, always anti-intellectual, beating her dog, and flying into rages or cold silences when someone displeases her. For all that, every tidbit you learn of her life is enthralling. The reader can absolutely understand Magda’s obsession with her, and the love that her neighbors hold for her. She is a human puzzle, and the tragedy is that so could we all be to those who know nothing of us. What lies beyond Emerence’s front door is certainly a literal mystery, but it isn’t difficult to consider it a metaphorical one as well.

If you’re looking for a book that will make you think about topics you may not usually consider, this is a good pick. It speaks of emotions, relationships, morality, and religion, and it does so without fumbling or feeling forced in any way.

Len Rix is translating another of Magda Szabo’s works, Abigail, which will be released by NYRB in January 2020 and I’ll be pre-ordering my own copy soon. I can’t recommend trying this author enough.

Have you read The Door or any of Szabo’s other work? Do you have any other works to recommend for Women in Translation month? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

 

What Should Be Wild

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Before Women in Translation month began, I resolved to read more of the books I already have at home on my shelves. What Should Be Wild has been with me for ages  – through several job changes and a major move. It has definitely waited long enough to be read, and I’m sorry it took such a length of time!

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Maisie Cothay is born with the ability to kill and resurrect with a touch, her first casualty being her mother while she is still growing in the womb. Maisie’s father Peter raises her in almost total isolation on Urizon, his wife’s family estate. A man of science, Peter uses Maisie’s childhood as an opportunity to conduct controlled experiments testing his daughter’s capabilities and limits. As Maisie grows, so too does her longing for companionship and it isn’t to be sated until an unexpected event sends her out into the world for the first time.

Conceptually, I loved this book. The narrative certainly had a fairy-tale quality that I enjoyed, and the prose was often beautiful. This is the kind of book that it would be a pleasure to read aloud to oneself. Maisie’s narration from childhood to young adulthood was interesting, clearly unreliable but all the better for it. I did wish that she had stayed younger for more of the novel, but then I suppose it would have been more of a candidate for a duology instead.

Maisie’s perspective is interspersed with that of the ‘lost women’ of the Blakely family (her mother’s family), women who throughout the ages have sought refuge of different sorts in the woods surrounding the estate.

These two perspectives played well off each other and were probably my favourite part of the book outside of the concept itself. The ‘origin’ chapters of each woman were the parts I liked the most.

The lost women are all interesting in their vices and faults, and I would have gladly read more about them all. Maisie is exactly as you’d expect someone so isolated to be: naïve, eager to make friends, and foolish as heck. Peter (her father) was a flawed man, whose character arc I found excellent as he learned and grew during his short presence in the narrative. The two male side characters were both quite forgettable and firstly seemed to be shoehorned in as possible love interests. When one is revealed to be something else, it was a rather stale twist that didn’t quite make the impact it should have.

There were some pretty gruesome scenes in the book, but I expected that considering the subject matter.

Ultimately, the problems I have with this book are the same ones I always seem to find in magical realism or literary fiction that feels like dabbling in the fantastical: it just didn’t follow through. The author spent so much time laying the groundwork of Maisie’s (and the other women’s) circumstances, but then ignored them in favour of tying a neat little bow around the boring ending of the book. Maisie’s powers and the intrigue of the woods are the central focus of the story, but it isn’t enough to keep them the focus at the end.

While I did enjoy reading this, I was disappointed that I read through so urgently to the end only for it to be such a letdown. There was so much potential here for the story to say more about women’s bodies and agency (which I did feel it attempted) but it really let itself down at the end if that’s what it was trying for. Previous events and interactions were glossed over to the detriment of the story.

There was the possibility for the narrative to come full circle, which was entirely ignored to my dismay. Though the book does try to focus on morality and the importance of one’s actions and choices, it failed by believing the fantasy elements it introduced couldn’t further an ending with any impact – and in doing so robbed readers of any satisfying conclusion.

Still, if you’re in the mood for a book with lovely prose, and don’t mind the complete disregard laid by the fantasy groundwork in the beginning, you might be well served by giving this one a try.

Have you read What Should Be Wild? Do you have any similar recommendations? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

 

The Witches of New York

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Earlier in the year I was eager to start a book club, not finding one in my area that I was able to join. Invites had gone out, prospective members had responded, and then I was concussed. That put the whole idea on hold indefinitely. Thankfully, I had already started a two-person book club (buddy-reading?) with the lovely Rialta Erie.

I sent her a list of books I was interested in reading, and from among them she chose The Witches of New York as our first read. It didn’t take either of us very long to realize this was going to be a very long road.

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I’ve had this book on my shelf for a while now, inevitably drawn to stories with witches.
I was certainly expecting magic to play a central role in the narrative. While that was indeed the case, this was an extremely slow-paced tale. The story centers around three women: Adelaide, Eleanor, and Beatrice. I found all of them to be equally tiresome in different ways. Their good points often lost under frustrating habits or opinions.

The plot was loosely focused on each character’s goals, with Beatrice portrayed as a savior of sorts for a new generation of witches. Adelaide and Eleanor guided her towards that fate in different and sometimes conflicting ways. I thought that the secondary characters in this book were interesting and fleshed-out enough to jog the story along when our main trio lagged.

The main antagonist, Reverend Townsend, was a wicked and contemptible man whom I deeply wanted to see dead the entire book. His scenes were by turn disgusting and discomfiting, and I would rush through them as quickly as possible. I won’t deny that McKay can write a great villainous character.

This story really had a lot of potential to be gripping but I did struggle through a lot of it. It was undeniably lovely in places; the descriptions of the teashop and the Fifth Avenue Hotel were beautiful and interesting. McKay’s descriptions of ghosts, dreams, and all manner of magical things were bright spots in the narrative. I simply found myself wishing for more magic and more of a meaty plot.

I learned small things about Adelaide, Eleanor, and Beatrice, but never enough to satisfy my curiosity. Had the story centered more on one of them as a main character rather than split between them, things may have been more fulfilling. I simply didn’t care enough about the wishes and goals of the main characters. I often found the plights and personal lives of side characters more poignant than the story itself. The most interesting side plots weren’t even resolved, to my dismay.

This isn’t a book I would re-read. If you enjoy a slow paced tale with magical elements, this may be for you. If you’re looking for something contemplative and like to fill in your own blanks, this is a winner. If you enjoy a fast-paced narrative with lore explored in more depth, this is likely not for you.

Have you read The Witches of New York? Care to recommend other witchy reads? Let me know in the comments below!

Mini-Reviews

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It’s been a while, folks! It’s true that things have gotten a bit away from me this year. Still, I have been reading despite being busy with other things, and I’m back to share my thoughts on some titles.

You know when you’re looking forward to reading something and then begin it and realise rather quickly that it isn’t what you thought it would be? Yeah, that was The End We Start From in a nutshell.

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I received an e-arc of this earlier this year and it took me a while to start it. When I finally did, I wasn’t as wowed as I expected to be. The cover is undeniably beautiful but the content wasn’t to my liking. I was expecting a book centered more around a dystopian society or a world-shattering event. The book is narrated by a woman navigating her way through what appears to be society-altering flooding. It’s quite fragmented, taking place over a large period of time. Despite that, I really wouldn’t shelve this as science fiction or dystopian.

The book focuses a lot on the protagonist’s sense of new motherhood. The story meanders and there isn’t really a plot. This wasn’t my favourite read, but if you’re looking for something sparse and contemplative to read during the winter this may be for you.

Next up: Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend.

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That’s right, this is a real book. I was egged into reading this by a co-worker after she told me that Bearllionnaire was a thing. (Review of that to come in the new year, fear not.) Thinking it might be the exact kind of weird and hilarious read I would enjoy, I caved to the peer pressure and went for it.

Sadly, it was not good. Not the kind of not good that you can enjoy and read because it’s still fun, but just the didn’t finish kind. The protagonist was unlikeable, and while that isn’t usually a deal-breaker for me, if I’m 50 pages in and still haven’t had very many scenes with the aforementioned Pterodactlyl Boyfriend, I call foul on the whole thing.

Next, Ask Baba Yaga.

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I’ve been dipping in and out of this gem since I picked it up a few months ago. I read a couple pages before bed every night and I’m super sad for the impending end of the book. Formatted as an advice column, regular mortals seek answers to every day problems from the well-known oracle/witch Baba Yaga. Beautifully formatted with thick, glossy pages and intricate illustrations, I highly recommend this.

While Baba Yaga’s advice is obviously strange, sometimes violent, and often cryptic, it reads well and is always rather solid stuff. Just great on all fronts. If you like weird, you’ll love this.

Another good read was The Witch Boy.

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I read this back in spooky season, on the recommendation of a co-worker (not the same as above). Bless her heart she knows me well, I did indeed love this. The story revolves around a boy born into a magical family where boys become shapeshifters and girls become witches. His entire life however, he’s felt no pull to shapeshift, only a desire to learn the spells taught to his female kin.

This graphic novel was wonderfully illustrated, and the story, while straightforward was really lovely and absolutely something I would recommend, especially to younger readers. I’m sad that this is a standalone and I hope the author revisits this ‘verse in her future work.

That’s all for now. Have you read these titles? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Summer Catch-Up

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After disappearing for a summer far too packed with work, I’ve returned with more reviews! I thought I’d kick things off with some mini reviews of what I’ve been reading in my absence. While being less prolific than usual, my choices have run the gamut from non-fiction to comic books and I’m happy I’ve kept to my goal of stepping outside my YA comfort zone.

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I’ve never been much of a poetry reader, but I greatly enjoyed this collection. While I wouldn’t categorize Kaur’s work as traditional poetry, it resonated deeply with me. I felt a kinship with many of the experiences she alluded to, and I’ll certainly be revisiting it when I’m in a pensive mood or I need a good cry in the bath.

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman

A book with this title was too intriguing to pass up, and it turned out to be a quick and easy read. While enjoyable enough, I found the essays to be a mixed bag. My favourites in the collection were those speaking of Serena Williams, Nicki Minaj, and Hillary Clinton. Still, even in my favourites there was a lot of repetition of ideas and regurgitation of source information. The author spent more time quoting other sources than she did forming her own ideas.

Wonder Woman: Warbringer

Centered around a teenage Diana, this novel was supremely enjoyable. While not a part of any current DC canon it was a great story with lots of fun and feeling! Diana was a greatly sympathetic character, but she was also a very believable teenage girl. The friendship she forges with Alia was really moving – and their distinct personalities and lives complemented each other. The supporting cast of characters was well developed and Bardugo sets an adventurous pace that makes it easy to read through without stopping. I can’t wait to read more of the DC Icons series and of Bardugo’s work as well!

 The First Bad Man

This book was recommended to me by a friend, and it was utterly bizarre. I found all the characters unlikable and strange. Everyone is clearly dealing with their own issues. The protagonist is clearly suffering from a mental illness, and an unusual one at that. It was interesting to see the world from her perspective. I spent a lot of the novel being frustrated with her, and yet I still wanted to know how the story would turn out. Still, it isn’t something I would re-read.

 That’s all for now, but I’ll be posting more regular content from here on out. What have you been reading this summer?

Roar

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Hello folks! I’ve been MIA for a little while, I know. My best friend has given birth to a beautiful baby boy, and I’ve been helping out as an honorary auntie. Luckily, I had some reviews waiting for approaching publication dates, so you’ll still be getting some posts!

Though I’ve been looking to expand my reading horizons, I do still love YA and read it consistently. I had a lot of hope that this early June release would be wonderful, and I was really looking forward to a romp in a cool new fantasy setting.

Cue letdown music.

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Princess Aurora is due to be married to a handsome prince to secure the safety of her kingdom in a land ravaged by sentient storms. When she discovers that she may have other options, she decides to take her fate into her ow hands and runs away with a group of storm hunters.

With these talented individuals by her side, Roar (Aurora’s chosen new persona) is ready to discover all that she has missed during her sheltered life.

Here’s the thing: this concept was so freaking cool.

Sentient storms? City-states? Different forms of magic and magic systems co-existing? Various cults and religious groups?

Sign me the fuck up.

It really pains me to say that I didn’t really enjoy this book.

Despite the cool concepts this book falls flat onto its underdeveloped face.

The meat of the fantasy setting was practically non-existent. What I got instead was an overabundance of storm descriptors and metaphors when speaking of other things, and a very unfortunate case of insta-love. (TWO cases, actually. Yes, really.)

The perspective changes were pretty useless, considering the majority of the plot focused on Roar’s feelings for Locke rather than her future or that of her people. Thus, the small glimpses of Nova’s perspective, and Cassius’ perspective, and the Stormlord’s perspective were strange and out of place little inserts.

This book felt far more like an unsatisfying romance novel than it did fantasy fare. Considering it only gave any truly useful or interesting info in the last forty or so pages, the 300 page length was honestly ridiculous. The romance itself was not fun to read about, as it contained: pining, angst caused by misunderstandings (that would be easily solved through communication), and falling in love with virtual strangers.

This would have been a much stronger story had it been half the length and more focused on the world-building or the plot rather than the romance. If Roar and the crew had learned more about each other, had they learned more of their world, had they been able to actually accomplish anything throughout the length of this novel it would have been a lot more engrossing.

The secondary characters were quirky in appearance and surface personality, and we learn absolutely nothing of substance about them. The politics in the book aren’t well developed enough to be the kind of plot point the author seemed to reach for, and I was just rolling my eyes a lot while reading.

Though I want to learn more of this world and it’s denizens, I can’t bring myself to sit through pointless (and pathetic) romance story lines when I was promised fantasy. I certainly won’t be reading the next book in this series.

Do you intend to pick up a copy of Roar? Do you agree or disagree with my points? Let me know in the comments below!

TTT: Impulsive Cover Buys (That Paid Off)

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jamie @ The Broke and the Bookish.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Top Ten Tuesday, and this week is a cover freebie. Below are ten books that I impulse bought based solely (or mostly) on their covers. I think the saying ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ does a terrible disservice to the folks who spend their time designing and illustrating book covers.

When I have the disposable income to do so, I’ll cover buy a few books and see how it goes. The books that made the list this week are cover buys that ended up being favourites of mine.

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Sabriel: This first instalment in a series of fantastic heroines, necromancy, and insidious magic set me on a path to seeking out more cool and unique fantasy contests.

A Certain Slant of Light: This beautiful and slightly creepy cover conceals a unique story of the afterlife that I’ve never seen replicated before or since.

Hawkeye: The colour choice and bold graphics drew me in, and this turned out to be one of the funniest comics I’ve picked up in ages.

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Annihilation: This gorgeous graphic cover is the first in a creepy and slow-moving speculative sci-fi trilogy that is absolutely unforgettable.

Sunshine: In a world where magical gifts manifest and creatures roam, the titular character is trapped with a vampire in an incredibly interesting story. The sparkly cover is rather different from the content matter, but it was certainly eye-catching.

Saga: I had no idea of the epic tale of family and space that waited for me within the pages of this excellently illustrated comic. Fiona Staples is a master.

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Kaptara: This brilliantly coloured and rendered cover conceals a hilarious story set in deep space with a distinctly 80’s vibe.

Deathless: The stark and beautiful graphic cover still doesn’t quite convey the tale of love, death, and magic that lays within the pages of this book. The story stayed with me for years.

The Gentlemen’s Alliance Cross: Arina’s Tanemura’s striking manga illustrations are densely detailed and convey her story lines wonderfully. The first in a series that I absolutely adore.

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The Fionavar Tapestry: This beautiful cover introduced me to my favourite author via a series that would go on to influence both my reading and writing forever more.

That’s all for today! Have you read any of my cover picks? What theme did you choose this week? Let me know in the comments below!