Book review: The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay

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I finally finished Martin Seay’s The Mirror Thief a few days ago after a pleasurable few weeks of reading, and the bittersweetness of finishing the novel has been lurking around the corners of my life ever since. It was a fantastic read: immersive and absorbing, adventurous and intriguing. Seay paints vivid portraits of people and place in three different worlds and periods. That it’s his first novel is a marvel.

The book follows the interconnected lives of three men and their ghosts and tramps through the present, the fifties and the sixteenth century with ease. It’s no great effort to switch time and place when Seay does it so well, and the end result is a remarkable read that comes off effortless for all its complexity.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Mirror Thief
Author: Martin Seay, who spent an impressive five years writing the novel.
Publisher: Melville House
Rating: 5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.3)
The best feature of the book: It’s fascinating.
The worst feature of the book: It takes a while to get going.
Trigger warnings: There’s some violence and homophobia. Spontaneous wart removal and other bodily grossness occur.
You’ll like this if… This is a tough one. It isn’t a straightforward mystery or thriller, though it contains elements of both. There’s alchemy and coming-of-age and crime fiction. It’s literary and prosaic. Read at least until you hit Stanley’s back story. I think you’ll stick around for the rest.

Book review: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia Macneal

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I didn’t start this book expecting the best book of the century, but I was disappointed that it wasn’t even a good bad book. Macneal apparently did a great deal of research for the novel, but that research feels oddly absent from the book itself and the end product is vague and the writing without character, like the book has been edited too many times.

While ostensibly a Strong Female Character (which I love), protagonist Maggie Hope is unsympathetic and unlikeable and her cast of friends indistinguishable from one another. Even the love story – the most interesting part of the whole novel – was anticlimactic. I stopped reading the book twice and only finished it so I could add it to my “read list”. By all rights, the story should have been interesting – London, spies, love, mystery – but it was as bland as the writing itself.

Title: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary
Author: Susan Elia Macneal
Publisher: Bantam Books
Rating: 3/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.66/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s a quick read if it keeps your interest long enough.
The worst feature of the book: Vague and unsatisfying prose and characters and a plot that strains suspension of disbelief.
Trigger warnings: Violence, war, torture.
You’ll like this if… You like glib mysteries or if you’re looking for a less-than-rosy beach read.

Book review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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There’s nothing like a TV adaptation to spur you on to read the classics you’ve been delaying in favour of novels that don’t want to make you kill yourself. With Hulu’s recent adaptation of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought I’d better get off my laurels and add Atwood’s flagship novel to my feminist credentials. We’ll pretend it didn’t take me a decade to get here.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian near/ever-present future where parts of the US have been taken over by a theocratic far-right. Under their regime, women are steadily and stealthily stripped of their rights and freedoms, leaving the protagonist Offred to navigate life as one of a number of “handmaids”, women attached to rich men for breeding purposes. The handmaids’ behaviour, appearance and movements are all strictly monitored and controlled. They have no personal agency and are simultaneously the desire and scorn of other parts of Gileadan society.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a fantastic book of course; presumably this is why they gave it a Booker prize! The prose is beautiful and hypnotic, capturing Offred’s dreamlike disassociation from the horror around her even as it suffocates her. I think it’s this contrast that makes the book so unsettling: it makes you question the appearance vs substance of everything, especially dearly-held notions of safety and order.

It’s no accident that Hulu should adapt The Handmaid’s Tale now when under Trump’s GOP the world’s most powerful nation leads a fresh assault on women’s rights. The Handmaid’s Tale is a timely reminder – and has been, since it was first published in the eighties – that civil liberties are hard won and far from guaranteed. While Atwood’s story may seem fantastical, its reality is never far-off.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Vintage Books
My rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.05/5)
The book’s best feature: The writing itself; its prophetic message.
The worst feature: The oppressing patriarchy.
Trigger warnings: Rape and misogyny in general.
You’ll like this if… Liking this isn’t the point, I think.

Book review: The Lunar Chronicles, by Marissa Meyer

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I always swear up and down I won’t read any more young adult fiction – my days as a Twihard haunt me still, though perhaps not as much as they should – but inevitably a YA title makes it way into my reading list, and here we are. Sometimes the experience is unpleasant – Jennifer Armentrout’s “Obsidian” and Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series both come to mind – but YA fiction isn’t always like being stabbed in the liver.

In that vein, I’ve got to say I enjoyed Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles without worrying how it would look if I died with these books on my bedside cabinet.

Cinder, Scarlett, Cress and Winter – with a bunch of novellas stopping gaps between the major instalments – follow the lives of various heroines loosely based on old fairy tales. In Cinder, we learn about cyborg Lihn Cinder, mechanic and outcast; in Scarlet, about the red-haired, red hoodie-wearing Scarlet, whose grandmother is missing; in Cress, about a girl with tangles of hair stuck in an orbiting satellite; and in Winter, the final instalment, we meet Princess Winter, the beautiful envy of her evil stepmother…

Half of what makes these stories so intriguing is the ease with which Meyer introduces her story world: an earth far into the future that still feels familiar, teetering, as it is, on the edge of dystopia but not quite there yet, although not for lack of trying on the disease and enemy fronts. Meyer tells you about the society through the experiences of her characters, so the narrative isn’t slogged down with her story world’s history.

The other half of what makes it work are the characters themselves. In many ways they’re your typical YA fare: the misunderstood heroine, spotted – against all odds – by the handsome or misunderstood or enigmatic or blasé-but-really-deep-deep-down boy, with the requisite angst, intrigue and romance. But as in all good YA, while the boy fights for the heroine, these heroines fight for themselves and the people around them. There’s a depth to them that colour them interesting.

And, you know, it’s fun. It’s fun reading Meyer’s adaptation of familiar stories into something else, something unexpected without robbing them of their quintessence, and reading it, I was excited to see how she would sketch all these characters into a cohesive narrative. The plot doesn’t slow down – I finished all four novels inside a week – so it’s fair to say that Meyer did a good job.

Why these novels aren’t more popular – the first I saw of them was a random pin on Pinterest – baffles me. I’m assuming it’s because they were published right between Twilight’s last hard fandom encore, and the then nascent Hunger Games frenzy. Meyer exceeds both Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins in technical writing ability, though I suppose you could say that The Lunar Chronicles had a slightly younger audience in mind. Still, it’s a shame that these books were overshadowed by other series when they have such interesting characters and such an intriguing narrative.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Lunar Chronicles (Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, Winter).
Author: Marissa Meyer
My rating: 4/5 for the whole series (Goodreads rating for comparison: an average of about 4/5)
The best feature of the books: The heroines are all pretty cool. Skimming the reviews on Goodreads I noticed that more than one person disliked Cinder, the main protagonist of the series. She’s hardly perfect, but I found her relatable and well constructed. Also, there isn’t a single love triangle in sight; not a one.
The worst feature of the books: If I had to nitpick, I’d say it’s the fact that Levana could have solved a lot of her own problems, but reading the books you understand why she misses obvious opportunities. She’s a pretty despicable villain, but I find it a pity that her despicableness is so related to the typical “evil woman” stereotype – a lost or rejected lover, etc.
Trigger warnings: General creepiness. While aimed at a slightly younger audience, these books don’t mess around when it comes to mentioning things like rape, and there’s quite a bit of graphic violence. There’s also some serious ick factor when it comes to the Lunar gift (a form of mind control).
You’ll like this if… You like YA fiction in general or need to read something interesting but ultimately harmless.