The Maidens by Alex Michaelides | Book Review

Pages: 337

Genre: mystery, crime

It has lots of trigger warnings, I would recommend to look them up before reading it.

Synopsis

Edward Fosca is a murderer. Of this Mariana is certain. But Fosca is untouchable. A handsome and charismatic Greek Tragedy professor at Cambridge University, Fosca is adored by staff and students alike—particularly by the members of a secret society of female students known as The Maidens.

Mariana Andros is a brilliant but troubled group therapist who becomes fixated on The Maidens when one member, a friend of Mariana’s niece Zoe, is found murdered in Cambridge.

Mariana, who was once herself a student at the university, quickly suspects that behind the idyllic beauty of the spires and turrets, and beneath the ancient traditions, lies something sinister. And she becomes convinced that, despite his alibi, Edward Fosca is guilty of the murder. But why would the professor target one of his students? And why does he keep returning to the rites of Persephone, the maiden, and her journey to the underworld?

When another body is found, Mariana’s obsession with proving Fosca’s guilt spirals out of control, threatening to destroy her credibility as well as her closest relationships. But Mariana is determined to stop this killer, even if it costs her everything—including her own life.

My thoughts

two out of five stars

I didn’t expect just how much of the crime genre format this book would have, where it put upon itself certain boundraries like having to introduce all these very shady characters so that you hopefully will be guessing who, if more than one, is the real murderer. It seems like that choice also makes for most of the elements I dislike. For exmaple the protagonist Mariana has to tell you everything about herself and her grief over her dead husband upfront to make space for the plot and the other character introductions. Like my thoughts on the introduction already at 40 pages in was – You ever read a story that is so obviously written by a man, even if you have no single quote that bad to pull from?* Mariana was the ultimate psychotherapist dealing with grief and being stalked by her patient, but never seeming too scared or concerned. It was made worse when I looked up the author, who seemingly has also studied and worked within psychotherapy.

As the story continued I leaned more about it being a choice to make her so very stereotypical therapist, but there were certain spots where I wasn’t sure. The book always has the allure of gods and wherever they are real along for the ride, but it’s obvious the author doesn’t intend for it to be magical realism. But then it’s weird to bring in these people that can read others so well and how the therapist Mariana can «feel» a person’s anger like this:

“She felt a burning sensation in her stomach, a prickling in her skin – which she associated with anger.

But whose anger? Hers?

No – it was his.

His anger. Yes, she could feel it.”

Which doesn’t a good detective novel make, I would say, when there’s no clues to follow only the protagonist feeling other’s emotions. I think the character of Edward Fosca is the most well-done, when he is in focus or rather when Mariana here and there focuses on him as a suspect, yet we never get any reason behind his eccentric behaviour. He isn’t a difficult character to write, just make him a “The Secret History” professor mixed with a Hannibal poise and charm (even if seen through Mariana’s eyes) and make everyone constantly describe him as dazzling. He is the one that brings most of the good elements of Ancient Greek stories and this study group society of Maidens that is his special students who he controls, which also where the dark academia elements are. It’s obvious the author has studied at Cambridge, and so the setting in general and the lonely feeling it can be as a student is described well. So is the red tape you can get around if you know the right people, as is the basis of Mariana’s investigation as she’s not a detective. The twists were half-way obvious and half-way surprising, but it kind of ends on that note and nothing else that is out of bounds is ever explained. And in that way any depth Mariana might have given the other characters doesn’t linger, they don’t stand out on their own.

At a certain point, if you are to write a book which includes such truly gruesome acts as this did, it does the whole book a disservice to just throw it in as a reveal for the murderer and their backstory at the end. Also the young wealthy women of the Maidens have no reaction to when their classmates are being murdered, and whether they are next, and it’s never looked further into other than being pointed out and explained as a bad (maybe abusive is used? I don’t remember) group dynamic.

How did I feel reading this book: I read it quickly, but I was annoyed a lot of the time, some of the time I was impressed by the details and certain scenes, but it never lasted. I would not recommend this book and I now would say I disagree with the dark academia genre it has been thrown into as well. Murders happen in the “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt and others, but the whole focus is on the psychological obsessions and breakdowns in the group leading to it.

*About this obviously being written by a man; as I finished up the review it seems like a thing very many has picked up on. As this review from Natalie so perfectly puts it: “It is glaringly apparent Michaelides struggled to truly understand women and how they think and behave; their fears and motivators, and relegated them to orbiting around men and their influence.”

The Lessons by Naomi Alderman | Book Review

Genre: contemporary fiction, lgbt; gay & bi main characters, dark academia

Pages: 288

Synopsis

Hidden away in an Oxford back street is a crumbling Georgian mansion, unknown to any but the few who possess a key to its unassuming front gate. Its owner is the mercurial, charismatic Mark Winters, whose rackety trust-fund upbringing has left him as troubled and unpredictable as he is wildly promiscuous. Mark gathers around him an impressionable group of students: glamorous Emmanuella, who always has a new boyfriend in tow; Franny and Simon, best friends and occasional lovers; musician Jess, whose calm exterior hides passionate depths. And James, already damaged by Oxford and looking for a group to belong to. For a time they live in a charmed world of learning and parties and love affairs. But university is no grounding for adult life, and when, years later, tragedy strikes they are entirely unprepared. Universal in its themes of ambition, desire and betrayal, this spellbinding novel reflects the truth that the lessons life teaches often come too late.

My thoughts

Rating out of five: four

I was almost turned away from this book because it had bad reviews, but the synopsis sounded like the dark academia type of book I was looking for. And it’s a great dark academia book, with found family, an extremely wealthy young man in the middle of it who studies theology and a morale that the people that (by what were first seen as flaws) escaped this elitist university got the better end of the deal. And, of course, the characters experiencing (well-written) tragedies in their lives. It was the comparison to “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt that made me pick it up eventually. It’s impressive how much you can start with the same type of premise, but as a writer bring an entirely different feeling to the story. I don’t adore this book as much as I did “The Secret History”, but here the cast of characters has less of a mythology around them and more real and recognizable emotions, flaws and fears. There’s no great professor to rally around, quite the opposite as the protagonist James gets extremely little support, mostly reprimands, from his physics tutors. And the group as a whole isn’t quite pushed towards murder, but yet their personal tragedies hit me even harder.

Kendall smiled at me apologetically. I watched them go and wondered if he knew what he’d escaped, or if he still pined for the quads and rooms lined with ancient books. We always value things that are hard to get, regardless of their intrinsic worth.

The problem with this type of book is that it’s more a biography of a group of people’s lives than a plot, and so you have a so much better chance of liking it if that’s what you’re into. And also some reviews seem to dislike there being queer characters or how they’re portrayed, as it’s more yearning and dealing with a lot of religious homophobia. It is a dark book in that the characters in it are majorly morally flawed and that shows in their relationships, some turning abusive. James, for instance, is a swamp of a person, struggling with having any identity of his own. It’s fascinating to read the book through his perspective, because his opinion is shown to change as the people around him states theirs. It’s like his whole reality, value system and base of truth shifts, all the time.

This, this was the chance I’d waited for. Here, if I said the right things, I could enfold her into my life, and wrap myself in hers, in the Oxford life I had somehow missed. […] yes, just take me with you wherever you are going, I don’t need my life any more, I will take yours.

But James also has an impressive insight into what’s going on with the friendgroup, only his new girlfriend Jess beats him in that she more often seemingly knows what to do. And as the years passes, James finds his identity, but the daily life things, what he enjoys on his own, seems to still be affected by those around him. Or because of the skewed narrative, you could interpret it as James having a mental illness that shows in the start of university and every barricade of comfort he builds up from that point is to protect him from his own mind and its possibilities. It’s somewhat weird to watch James go from this ambitious physics student facing too much pressure and fall into this group of people of academically good people, yet he and Mark are the only two of them who loses that ambition. It does kind of point to the second alternative.

I did not eat much that weekend, I barely stirred from bed. It was clear to me that this was my natural condition; that without Jess I would return to the state in which she had found me – incapable, bleak, desperate. It was only late on Sunday night, when I heard her key in the door, when I saw her face, that the mood lifted, suddenly, all at once, as though it had never been.

Mark on his side comes into this book and friendgroup with a bunch of problems he already knows of, but has the charisma, the house, (the drugs) and the passion to keep them together. At least in the beginning. There’s a very specific tipping point at the very end of the book, in which he pursues teenagers, that everyone should be at the point where they hate who he had turned into. But there’s a weird slope to that point, in which he might seem narcissistic and manipulating, but he stays what the friendgroup expect, with certain few brighter and kinder moments. He is the cult-like personality they rally around.

I really appreciated the ending, where James and Jess gets to sit down and have a final talk about what went on between them. It differs this book from the similar books I’ve read. Because Jess gives James the final push out of his comfort, into Mark’s arms to take care of him, but didn’t realize the disastrous consequences. And as she’d made every right decision towards their friendgroup until that point, it only fit that she was the one to right her mistake by reminding James of his worth at the end.

Is it accurate to studying physics? Not to the average student. But the average student doesn’t find a rich friend to move into a basically castle with. James describes having been a smart kid who didn’t have to try hard up until this point and now is struggling to create study habits, which is accurate for a certain type of person. The weird competition between students at the beginning that turns into hauling each other over the finish line as the workload increases might be exaggerated, but not unaccurate. The scene where the professor laughed at the idea of doing the next weeks tasks without having done the the past ones, yet won’t give extensions seems a bit too accurate to a certain type of personality. The pre-exam scenes in themselves should come with their own warnings of accuracy as they hit a bit too close to home.

Dark Academia Book Recommendations (& one horrible one)

I’ve seen people I respect really hate the dark academia concept, and I get that as it out of context and/or romanticized ends up portraying academia in unpleasant ways. Both in being too good or too bad. But as book and movie genre goes, it really is about how obsessive a person and group can get when they’re all in the same place, under immense pressure following their passions, with the weird group dynamics that can create. Like cult-ish, or featuring too many mysteries for someone to not be keeping secrets.

Books I’ve Read

If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio: A typical dark academia book in that it’s very centered around a cast of characters (both friends and enemies) attending the same classes, performing greek plays, being in general theatric and dark. You can see how the characters are pushed to excell and that they know that themselves, before they start to unravel from guilt. It’s is ways similiar to the secret history, but I found this book missing in some aspects like the complexity of the characters.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt: I’ve read this book multiple times, it’s the perfect dark academia book. The synopsis says what it needs to; “Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: I’ve never written a full review of this book, and yet it is one of my favourites. It’s a deeply tragic story with many different acts or settings. It’s mostly about friendship, survival and loneliness, where the protagonist goes constantly from good situations falling apart to surviving the worst ones. It features a bomb in a museum killing the protagonist’s mother, a lost painting, rich families and abusive homes. And also a character Boris, pulling the protagonist into a deep friendship with some homoromantic subtext. As Rick Riordan put it “If nothing else, read this book to meet Boris“. He’s somewhat of a criminal genius. All throughout this book there’s some mystery and urgency in the survival.

They Never Learn by Layne Fargo: It’s different to a lot of the other books here, because the English professor protagonist is definite murderer, trying to avoid persecution while roaming around on the university campus. The other protagonist is a student, who brings a lot of obsessiveness in taking things into her own hands when her friend gets sexually assaulted. It definitely showcases the potentially worst sides of an (academic) institution with abuse of power from everyone in charge. Less about the group dynamics, and more about the individuals’ dark paths.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles: A boarding school of boys lives their life while a war is brewing outside in the world, constantly dripping into theirs. It fits with the dark academia concept because of that obsessiveness attached to the secluded group dynamic the boarding school brings. There’s a lot to say about this coming-of-age story, but personally the relationship between Gene and Phineas felt like those really destructive friendships that behave almost like romances (even if that was not the goal). The distant war and the situation is wearing the whole group down, with dramatic consequences.

Books On My TBR

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: Filled with riddles and mystery, with the protagonist living in an endless labyrinth of “classical architecture stitched together” which he works to understand. There’s searches for knowledge and a debate for it being the good for humanity or for power.

Maurice by E. M. Forster: It’s a classic gay novel making a point to criticize the romanticization of the posh ivy league, it might not fit all the criterias, but that’s central.

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M Danforth: A sapphic novel set in a school for girls spanning two different times; one which lead to the school closing as the girls died from a wasp incident, and one where it’s newly reopened and allegedly cursed.

Those Who Prey by Jennifer Moffett: It’s a lonely college freshman seduced into joining an exclusive cult, a trip to Italy, trying to escape and a mysterious death.

The Magus by John Fowles: I’m a bit unsure yet how dark academia this is, but it should have rich dudes, the protagonist getting a teaching position on a remote Greek Island and befriending a local millionaire, which turns into a deadly game with a lot of mental manipulation andn torture. All steeped in metaphor, symbolism, eroticism, mythology and shakespeare. Which sounds like it fits.

Peace Breaks Out by John Knowles: It’s less known than “A Separate Peace”, but in some way I hope it’s more of the same? It’s post-war and dealing with some weird consequences of relief and guilt, mostly told by the teacher of an all boys school. Can’t quite promise it’s dark academia, but will eventually get to it.

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé: A queer thriller set in a private school dealing with institutionalized racism.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Mixing elements of the supernatural with science and academia, with love stories, enormous wealth, debutante balls and gothic mysteries.

Update after reading mexican gothic: definitely dark and horror, less academia, except for character’s interest and knowledge of plants and mushrooms. Wouldn’t immediately say it’s dark academia.

Mona Lisa Smile by Deborah Chiel: The protagonist gets a teacher position at an all-girl school trying to get the girls to follow their passion in the 1950s. Described as “dead poets society” with girls.

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee: An intense, sapphic novel with an unreliable narrator, obesessions and mysteries.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl: A dense novel where a smart protagonist is looking for similiar friends at a private school, with success, but also a drowning, a hanging and a lot of dealing with murder mystery.

The Lessons by Naomi Alderman: A naive narrator from a poor background enrolls in a prestigious university, meeting a close-knit intellectual and wealthy friendgroup (sounds a lot like The Secret History) featuring manipulation, intense romances and gay and bi characters.

This book was just a horrible attempt at dark academia;

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo: You cannot just give your characters all this past and current, very explicit, trauma and then not play out the consequences in any shape or form. It is not the shortcut to “darker” or more “mature” content that this book was so heavily marketed as, it only brings up questions of what is for shock factor (and creates a unneccessarily long trigger warning list). Yale is the setting, which Bardugo attended, but there’s barely anything related to academia. There’s a powerful magical rich group of people (secret society style), the protagonist supposedly coming from a poor background. But the poor people are portrayed as sell-outs, they’re drug-dealers, murderers, something to leave behind. There’s racism that’s never confronted and the most badly written and handled sexual assault I’ve ever read (at which point I stopped reading it). That says something as I just read Philip Pullman’s take on a girl being nearly gang-raped on a train by soldiers the moment she enters his world’s equivalent of muslim land and told to cover up afterwards. WHO LETS THESE (until then good) AUTHORS WRITE THIS JUST BECAUSE THEY’RE FAMOUS AND SUPPOSEDLY CHANGING FROM YA BOOKS TO MORE MATURE?

The Hand on the Wall (Truly Devious #3) by Maureen Johnson | Book Review

Pages: 369

Genre: young adult mystery

My thoughts

Rating out of five: four stars

At the start of the book I really felt the heaviness of it being the third one, in that it felt both a bit much of the same setup, setting and storyline. But that quickly faded as the plot really picked up speed and Maureen Johnson impressed me by how she managed to tie up everything around the multiple and connected murder mysteries these three books has followed. It takes turns, it brings dramatic scenes while seamlessly switching between the past mysteries and the present ones. There is some less focus on the characters’ personalities than previously, but it feels natural because Stevie is so obsessed with finally figuring everything out and is isolating herself. It’s written in this perfect way of showing how everyone around her at the boarding school is working on their projects and overcoming their griefs, but we only see glimses of what’s around her because Stevie is most of the time too much in her own head to pay attention. Still, for those reasons, it doesn’t have the same bright moments in between the murders as the previous books had.

The lack of David (which is the main romantic lead) for most of the novel was also explained with great care when it all came down to it, which played well into the focus and creating different tensions in Stevie’s life. She and David has hurt each other with playing into the hands of outside forces like David’s far-right politician dad (who aspires to become president). It showed in how cruel they at points are to each other, without removing the chance of redemption, which is a well-balanced feat. Some people seem to hate this romance, but it does feel like their problems is caused by personal differences and past betrayals more so than “hating each other” or lacking chemistry. In general, the characters of these books have always been very good at their thing (which got them into this special boarding school), but not been the most all-round likeable characters, which I’m personally very fine with. When it comes down to it everything in this book has the backdop of power and money, which ties the nearly fantastical stories Stevie is uncovering to a familiar reality.

I realized the next book in the series is the some of the same cast, but a new story and setting, which is exciting!

My Disappointment in The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman | Book Review

Trigger warnings (!!!): sexual assault, attempted gang rape

Genre: fantasy

Pages: 780

My thoughts

One out of five stars.

I’m just not okay with the accumulated wrongs of this book. Like of having Malcolm, a scholar in his thirties who both rescued Lyra from a flood as a baby, watched her sucking a fairy’s titty and tried to tutor her, declaring his romantic love for Lyra, now twenty. If not the age-gap is the problem, it is how the author having full control of how the last book and the past series has been told, is still angling it this way claiming it to be true love. Even worse is the very graphically written sexual assault of Lyra by a group of soldiers towards the end of the book, which explicitly states she had no way of getting out of no matter how hard she fought. Or the words afterwards from another “safer” guard: “‘Wear a niqab’, he said. ‘It will help’.” I forgot to mention the assault happened the moment she was on a train headed for this world’s Aleppo, which makes it worse.

There’s also on other levels some weirdly written scenes. For example, Lyra is on a boat which saves refugees from drowning after their boat is destroyed, in a very real-world drawn upon scenario. Lyra is told to take care of a younger girl rescued from the water, for the night. And it’s quickly turned into parallells between Lyra being rescued as a baby and the girl, at the very least it is used as an instant personal development tool and even Lyra claiming she will never forget the comfort she got from the refugee girl and her daemon. Malcolm also stops a religious coup in one swift, badly planned assassin act of going from a hostage to killing the leader and escaping as if he was a ghost. Because it’s that easy right? Also Lyra secretly enjoys being catcalled – no, I don’t know why that’s included either.

There’s a few good things in this book, at the beginning. I’m just going to write them all out here to retain some of the magic of Lyra’s world that I’ve grown up loving, even though debates of logic vs magic gets lost in the sexism and racism. Good things: Lyra never quite letting Will go in a very believable way. The protective circle around Lyra becoming more obvious and political. New, somewhat interesting way of reading the alethiometer. The storyline of complete rationality and logic vs magic. The magic of the commonwealth and the stories told by the gyptian. Dr. Crane taking care of Lyra and how heart-wrenching Lyra being kicked out from the College was, as the only home she’s known in one of the more relatable changes in a young adult’s life.

I just turned 23 years old, but I still find myself wondering if I’ve become old & grumpy when I get annoyed at books for things I see as really damaging that no one else seem to pick up on. But then I remember I didn’t pick up on it when I read my first “adult” books either. I’ve loved Pullman’s books for so many years, yet I agreed with the change of tone from His Dark Materials to The Book of Dust. Reading The Secret Commonwealth though, I just found myself constantly wondering why the choice of narrative had taken the wrong turn and just how much misogynism Pullman can write into his work now that Lyra has become “a woman” and no longer a pure girl, which is a character he again here proves he can write with much more grace.

Lyra has on every turn of this book lost all sense of agency as a person because she is now a young woman. This is not showcasing what a woman goes through in a realistic manner the way Pullman seem to think it is. I’m not reading the next one.

Three Morally-Gray Characters | Short Reviews

Two of three which is queer!

We’re doing a summary post of some books I really liked. They all deserve a full review, but this is what they’re getting.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (The Masquerade #1)

I genuinely loved the morally-gray (maybe even simply wicked) female protagonist. You are on her side because her island is taken over and controlled under an empire that believes heavily in eugenics, ruthlessly changing the society as they see fit and placing the kids in terrifying boarding schools. And Baru plays the waiting game for revenge for her family which they murdered, as the colonizers clothe her and educate her in what they see fitting. There’s lesbians, an island, politics and so much blood spilled. Definitely a brutal fantasy, but more so in the cultural impact and strategies than the wars of high fantasy. It’s very much debating morality of if ends justify means, as Baru gets to find out how far she is willing to bend and betray to get in a position of power. 4 out of 5 stars because it’s a bit long-winded in its writing.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir (The Locked Tomb #1)

The tagline for this book seems to be lesbian necromancers in space, which would be correct. It’s very much a love it or hate it type of book, because you’re thrown into the plot and have to start paddling to keep up with the characters. It does a great job turning into an unusual fantasy book even though it’s set in a fairly usual setting of deadly competition. The writing and character personalities are fantastic, as well as the well-hidden system behind the magic – not to forget the enemies to lovers (maybe) of the main characters. I want to reread it already. 4 out 5 stars, because it’s confusing in the beginning and you have to commit, even if it’s well worth it and I adore it.

I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells (John Cleaver #1)

I was definitely looking for morally-gray characters, and this is a fun take on sociopaths (not that that’s what you call it anymore). It’s about a guy who is obsessed with serial killers and how they think, but doesn’t want to let himself become one. It’s also a paranormal story with demons, of which the protagonist suspects his neighbour is one. This guy’s poor mom, trying to help out, but not being able to. 4 out of 5 stars, yet I have not retained so much of it, I have to admit. It was just an interesting read, which was just horror enough.

City of Strife by Claudie Arseneault | Review

Pages: 375

Genre: high fantasy, lgbt

TW for the book (from author): “abuse (physical, emotional, mind control — seriously, if depictions of abuse trigger you, please be very careful when approaching this novel/avoid it.), torture, homelessness, child abandonment, police brutality, racism, family death, memory loss, death by fire (mention) and hanging.”

My thoughts

I went into this book with little expectation or knowledge outside of it being a lesser-known fantasy book with many queer characters. All that was very true! All the characters are queer; bisexual, demi, pan, poly, gender fluid, agender, asexual, aromantic is all represented in an overall ruthless and amazing magical city. It is also a very ethnically diverse group. I just found out the author is the person behind the “Aro ace database” and it’s ownvoices for aro-ace.

The writing caught me from the very beginning;

Arathiel had grown tired—tired of not feeling rough wood under his hand, tired of not smelling the salty sea or earthy autumn air, tired of not tasting even allegedly spicy meals. Tired of being alone, a shadow, always one step removed from the world. One day, he would need to face his family.

I might have a big weakness for main characters who take the time to observe the world around them, is a thief or assassin, but also cares deeply for their friends. Also in general I find that there is way too little focus on platonic love, friends and friends as found-family in fantasy and young adult books (which is what I mainly read when it comes to fiction). And this book truly had all of those things, to the point where the few boring parts where the pacing gets a bit too slow is overshadowed by the good and unique elements for me. This book just gave me a lovely, fun and exciting experience reading it with characters I squeal over, but also feel comforted by. Without sacrificing any of the heavyness or high fantasy elements usual to the genre.

Tonight, however, he had a more mundane activity in mind: a game of cards with the two precious friends he’d managed to make. Way more stressful than sneaking into an inhabited building during the day, locating his target, and slitting his throat before anyone noticed him. Not to mention, Cal wanted to invite a new player today. Worse, he wanted Hasryan to do it.

Fantasy centered in a city and its politics with merchant families and rivalry, it’s just great. It highlights the many tough, quick choices characters have to make, magic making everything more complicated somehow as well. And the plot builds so naturally on the personalities and choices made by these characters and their lives intertwining by living in the same city. It’s not a very extended world-building and I think here’s where the fantasy book would’ve had more potential to build on. There is very many characters to keep track on through multiple POVs, but personally it was okay, even if a bit difficult to understand or relate to all of them just by the sheer amount. It is just a book that tries (and succeeds) to do a lot in under 400 pages. The morally gray aro-ace wizard-in-training Nevian is suffering under an abusive mentor. Arathiel is a mood, as they say, as he’s been gone from the city for 130 years after disappearing while looking for a cure for his ill sister. He’s back to a completely changed city and deciding on whether to claim his right as a noble or keep this anonymous new identity as the keeper of a homeless shelter of sorts. And I loved Cal of course. I’ve highlighted too many quotes of him talking about cheese to not love that character.

Cal climbed into it, then stared at Larryn, his legs dangling. Expecting something. Larryn cleared his throat, hurried to his pantry, and retrieved several types of cheese from it. He had bought so many yesterday, and it would be delusional not to admit guilt had played a big part in it. He had no intention of cooking with this

This will be a book I return to reread and I need to get a physical copy as well. And I’ve yet to read the next book, which I’m excited for! I always need more personality-driven fantasy books with lots of politics in my life, but especially when they have such a queer cast and focus on friendship and found families.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles | Book Review

Pages: 208

Genre: young adult, classic, dark academia aesthetic, historical setting

Synopsis

A timeless coming-of-age book set in the summer at the beginning of the second world war. The all-boys boarding school in New England becomes a rare place that has not yet lost its charm and innocence to violence. Friends and rivals is sometimes the same as we follow the protagonist Gene, a introverted intellectual, and the school’s star athlete Phineas, who also has the ability to talk himself out of any trouble. And trouble they find themselves in as Phineas is somewhat of a spontaneous risk-taker and Gene can’t seem to keep from following him, developing quite a strange bond. The events of the summer and the war eventually makes this period of time life-changing for Gene, that divide in anyone’s life where there’s a before and an after.

My thoughts

Rating out of five: four stars

This book gets a lot of shit because americans seems to be forced to read it too often in high school. But if you, like me, pick it up on your own, it’s quite obvious why it’s gotten its place as a classic.

Two things this book highlights exceptionally well; the setting of the external world at various times affecting or not affecting the remote world of the book, here the boarding school, as well as the unusual relationship between the two boys Gene and Phineas as they grow up side by side.

The knowledge of the outside world and the war brewing is something that constantly comes in drips through the story. That is, until the war breaks out and the cast of characters somehow intentionally try to downplay it in their heads until they finally are no longer able to ignore the reality in front of them. I read this book at the start of covid-19 becoming a pandemic, which was a somewhat ironic backdrop with its similar aspects despite the difference of how accessible news and media is today.

I was suprised by how queer the story felt, as a classic. A lot of searching after finishing the book lead me to the author being asked about and then rejecting any intentional homosexual themes. But I mean – obviously others had the same read of the situation. It’s interesting when the obsessiveness of the male and masculine goes so far to one side that it reads as queer. At points as they grow up the relationship between Gene and Phineas feels like those really destructive friendships that behave like romances, but the teens does not yet know how to pinpoint those big feelings or if they are gay. Spoken as a queer person. It could be interpreted as obsessiveness of other reasons, say jealousy, but it certainly is romantization going on in how Gene describes Finny. It fits with the (lately heavily criticized) dark academia concept because of that obsessiveness attached to the secluded group dynamic the boarding school brings.

Whether you want to call the relationship homoerotic or obsessive romantization for other reasons, it’s obvious the setting of the novel doesn’t permit such a relationship, as it gets its fitting ending.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo | Book Review

Genre: fantasy, dark academia (debatable)

Pages: 459

This book pissed me off; I wanted to like it, but its faults are so enormous. I DNF’ed it 60% in, should’ve been much earlier, but I had hopes considering the author.

Rating out of five: one star

I love dark academia, I love books with “darker” or morally gray protagonists, I’m even a fan of messy and disorganized plots. This book is too shallow to be able to drown someone in it, though a drowning was certainly in the plot. You cannot just give your characters all this past and current, very explicit, trauma and then not play out the consequences in any shape or form. It is not the shortcut to “darker” or more “mature” content that this book was so heavily marketed as, it only brings up questions of what is for shock factor.

Here’s an actual list of all the trigger warnings for this book, but just a few; sexual assault, rape (including of a child), racism, discussed suicide.

It’s a girlboss-gatekeep-gaslight type of book, even if it starts pretty catchy and held my interest for a while. Bardugo has gone to Yale, where it takes place, and brings a lot of realistic components. Among all the upper-class students (future world-leaders) and their secret-society magic, the characters sometimes briefly dips their toes into the societal discussions it seems this book wants to have as its themes.

Meaning you get characters around the MC Alex superficially talking/having one-liners about feminism, poverty, privilege, homelessness, sexism and drug-use. And Alex herself is supposed to come from a very poor background, but only carries that with her when convenient plot-line-wise. Otherwise she seems pretty middle-class, as it’s the only group Bardugo explicitly highlights to be hard-workers. There is actually nothing good connected to any poor characters, although Alex has her moments of «even the drug dealer didn’t deserve to be murdered». The poor people are sell-outs, they’re drug-dealers, murderers, something to leave behind. That could’ve been parts of her trauma, but it’s never brought-up or discussed as such.

Now. I’m going to write this as quickly as possible, because I do not want to think about it anymore. Here’s where I stopped reading; the MC’s Alex’s friend is sexual assaulted while on magical drugs (in which she seems to give consent on camera, but is drugged in an non-noticeable way bc magic) and the pay-back is Alex getting the confession with magic and then making the guy responsible eat shit, literally. Up ’til that point there was some uncomfortable casual racist comments and thoughts from the other MC towards Alex, which is never brought up in any other shape. Of course you can have racist characters, it’s just a bit (very) weird when it’s never pointed out by anyone. Alex herself is also sexually assaulted as a kid by some magical creature (ghost? demon?), making her act out in all kinds of ways – but this also was written very out of the blue and explicitly. Also it’s very heavily emphasised that she was a kid, same day as she got her first period. It felt very wrong in how it was written. I don’t even want to quote it.

Obviously, it’s difficult criticizing how authors writes (or not writes) anything to do with sexual assault. This is personal feelings only. But I can definitely say there’s lack of depth all over this novel. All together it gives the book a big fucking no from me.

Bardugo tried to go in many directions in this book. It’s a murder mystery, it’s magical societies, it’s supposedly dark academia even though it hits so few of the characteristics other than being placed at Yale with next-to-none of the school part of it. I’ve wondered where it went wrong, because the author managed the balance of depth and action in Six of Crows, but honestly it’s too un-redeemable for me to care. There’s so much better secret-society dark academia, even with magic, out there to find. For the most part, I can’t understand why so many people love this book except for it drawing in a YA crowd that has never read anything “darker” and finds it exciting, ignoring anything bad or horrible. Like it genuinely confuses me. I wanted to like it too, but there was too many warning flags showing up throughout the 60% I read.

Poetry: mary oliver, addonizio, lambert | Short reviews

Shame is an ocean I swim across by Mary Lambert: contains very powerful stories by someone who is a musician as well, the writing flows very well. Talks about sexual assault, mental health and fame. Very good phrasing and descriptions of situations I can relate to as well, not that that’s a requirement. The excellence of titles like “It is time to eat something other than pizza and tequila” mixes well with the somber topics. Four out of five stars. Definitely check the trigger warnings.

Tell me by Kim Addonizio: it took me some time to both understand the poet and the work, but it grew on me the second and third time I read it. Each poem is very hit or miss for me in how interesting I find it but overall obvious that Addonizio is a good writer. It’s feministic in how it shows someone moving unrelentless through the world, while not shying away from gritty parts. Just that level of honesty Addonizio brings creates such a depth that I can’t blame her too hard when she finds it lacking in her poetry students. Very little pretentiousness to find here, very much confessional and communicating directly to the reader. Four out of five stars, I think I’ll take a dive into her other work soon.

Why I wake early by Mary Oliver: I continue to find a lot of comfort and beautiful parts in Mary Oliver’s writing, even if this one wasn’t a personal favourite. In general, her poems are all about understanding humans through nature (as in the actual spending time in nature), in various ways. Usually with a bit more variety than here. Fav. poems is “The Arrowhead”; “The Snow Cricket” and “Where Does the Dance Begin, Where Does It End?”. Three our of five stars.