Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

jonathan-strange-and-mr-norrellAt the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England’s history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England–until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.

Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell’s student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear. (from Goodreads)

It might be a bit too early in the year to say this, but I’m pretty sure this book will be my favorite read in 2018.

There are not enough words in my vocabulary to praise this work. I don’t think I have ever read something like this before, and it’s a bit disheartening to know that most of the books I’ll read from now on won’t be any close to this level of “muchness”, for lack of a better word.

This book has so many things that I always enjoy in a novel: it merges an actual historical context with a fictional story, which happens to be a fantastic story, you know, with MAGIC. Magic that actually could be, more or less, easily learned from books, because, before anything, magicians are scholars, and not just a different type of humans born with powers or whatever. Many of these books are referenced not only by the characters, but by the author, in the uncountable FOOTNOTES that explain us this or that theory from this or that author, all of them fictional, you know. So this is not just a made out story, it comes with a made out bibliography, wich I just can’t even handle the amount of work of invention. The footnotes are also filled with episodes and legends from English magical past, which adds so much DENSITY to the main plot line. And all of these is written in a 19th century fashion.

And then, it happens that all of these reasons for which I can’t do nothing but love this book, are the reasons for which some people just couldn’t go forward and abandoned its reading, which saddens me; this also made me realize that the book might just not be for everybody’s taste, so proceed with caution (?).

There’s a BBC adaptation of this book, which aired in 2015. I watched it then, and rewatched it after I finished the book.

If you like the series, you’ll probably like the book too, as it goes much deeper than what a tv adaptation can manage (it’s still a great adaptation, though).

If you just can’t with the book, the series could be a good substitute, as it moves forward without the book constant deviations.

And for the record, I’m Team Strange, but I’m actually such a Norrell

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The Handmaid’s tale, by Margaret Atwood


In the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States, far-right Schlafly/Falwell-type ideals have been carried to extremes in the monotheocratic government. The resulting society is a feminist’s nightmare: women are strictly controlled, unable to have jobs or money and assigned to various classes: the chaste, childless Wives; the housekeeping Marthas; and the reproductive Handmaids, who turn their offspring over the “morally fit” Wives,

The tale is told by Offred (read: “of Fred”), a Handmaid who recalls the past and tells how the chilling society came to be. (from Goodreads)

I watched the series, I loved the series, I kind of obsessed with the series while I was watching it, so I went after the book. After knowing that there would be a second season, I thought I’d see in the book how the story would continue. Well, guess what? If you read the book you probably know this but for me was mindblowing: the book ends just where the first season ends. So now what?

The book doesn’t actually end there, there’s then an appendix which was very interesting. As we understand, the Republic of Gilead is presented as the quite near future of the United States. The appendix happens quite some time after that, when there’s now what seems to be lots and lots of scholars who work, research and write about the Republic of Gilead. So the appendix is a transcription of a conference in where the Handmaid’s tale is treated, because apparently this “tale” is a transcription of some recordings found hidden in a safe house. In this conference, the scholars hypothesize about what could happen the Offred after the ending of the tale and how she got to record her story.

I love altered history and made up investigations and bibliography.

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman


The world will end on Saturday. Next Saturday. Just before dinner, according to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, the world’s only completely accurate book of prophecies, written in 1655. The armies of Good and Evil are amassing and everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan. Except that a somewhat fussy angel and a fast-living demon are not actually looking forward to the coming Rapture. And someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist. (from Goodreads)

This one took me such a long time to finish. After I listened to the audiobooks of Neverwhere and The Graveyard book, I tried to find an audio version of this read by Neil Gaiman himself, but without success. Probably because of this disappointment, I couldn’t bond with this narrator’s voice (I know, the whole “problem” sounds too wtf to me too), so the only way I could follow the narration was reading the book at the same time, which was far from my original reason of using an audiobook. So I left it there for several months. Considering that the end of the year was near and I was far from completing my reading challenge, and that I was constantly spammed by Neil Gaiman sharing pictures from the filming of the tv adaptation on his instagram, I said to myself: “get to work and finish this darn thing”.

I’m glad I did. Don’t let this whole rant make you think that I didn’t enjoy the book. The book is great, and I loved every little piece of it. The narrator did a very good job, making great voices and all, but had a very different pace to what I was accustomed, which was probably the reason why it felt a bit awkward at first.

I’m looking forward to the tv adaptation, and to read this again, but on a physical book next time.

The beast within, by Émile Zola

36551997 Roubaud is consumed by a jealous rage when he discovers a sordid secret about his young wife’s past. The only way he can rest is by forcing her to help him murder the man involved, but there is a witness – Jacques Lantier, a fellow railway employee. Jacques, meanwhile, must contend with his own terrible impulses, for every time he sees a woman he feels the overwhelming desire to kill. In the company of Roubaud’s wife, Severine, he finds peace briefly, yet his feelings for her soon bring disastrous consequences. (from Goodreads)

For each book in this series, Zola picked one or two main subjects, which he studied thoroughly, and presented them to us in an impeccable way. In this work, the leading theme is murder and violence, and as secondary (yet omnipresent) topic was the railway system.

What I found interesting about the first part of the book was that it practically became a regular murder mystery book, except that, for once, we already knew the murderer. Zola amuses himself making a fool of the detective, who has a very high opinion of himself and believes to be such a great thing, but has not a clue of what was going on, while higher ranks were already pulling the strings behind him to arrange the case in a way that wouldn’t damage the political power.

Being murder the main subject, Zola gave us not one, but several killings in this book, all for different motives and different MOs, exploring what makes a person to make such decision, how do the murderers live with the consequences of their act and why do they manage (or not) to get away with it.

Fun fact (?): I read mostly while commuting, so a large portion of this book was read on trains. One afternoon, coming back home, I was reading a part where a train collided against an obstacle, with very tragic consequences. While waiting for my train to leave the station, I overhear the engine driver talking to a woman… “I won’t do a thing today, I have a trainee”.

It was probably the most terrifying ride I had… for 5 minutes or so. The trainee did a good job, but still, I had such an adrenaline rush!

Fun fact 2: I think this is the oldest I own. It doesn’t have a date of print, but after some research I did online it made me think it was published during the 1900s or 1910s, and it was probably printed in a linotype machine. I believe it originally had a paperback, as a tiny piece of its original cover remains, but it was rebound into a hardcover.

The Masterpiece, by Émile Zola


The Masterpiece is the tragic story of Claude Lantier, an ambitious and talented young artist who has come from the provinces to conquer Paris but is conquered instead by the flaws of his own genius. (from Goodreads)

Zola’s works could (and probably should) be read as a great historical document to better know and understand the lives of French people during the 1850s-1870s. He thoroughly researched those subjects he wasn’t familiar with, which gave a very veridical feeling to the stories he told.

In this case, I doubt he did any research at all. He lived the things he wrote, he was a first-hand witness. This story is believed to be a highly fictionalized account of Zola’s friendship with the painter Paul Cezanne (*). In this book, he represented what was the art world like at the time of the uprising of the impressionists, seen from their point of view. Even when the events are fictionalized, it’s very easy to pinpoint real-life references. The first of Claude’s paintings introduced to us is a clear reference to Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. His later obsession with the Île de la Cité reminded me of Monet’s painting and repainting of the Rouen Cathedral. And I’m pretty sure that each and every one of the bohemian characters could be easily recognized by Zola’s contemporary readers. He even portrayed himself in the character of Sandoz, Lantier’s best friend. Through Sandoz, Zola gives way to all of his ideas about writing, which makes of this book not only a depiction of the Impressionism movement, the bohemian life and the struggles of artistic creation,  but also a manifest of his life work and the Naturalism movement.

For me, as an art student who really enjoyed art history classes and readings, this book was… I don’t think I have words to describe it. I had read about the impressionists until exhaustion, but I think they never felt real, or alive, to me until this very moment. It also gave me a better view of what the Salons were like, what the merchants were like, and other things that usually were left behind in my classes. While reading it, it was like history was developing in front of my eyes.

If you consider yourself an artist, this is the book for you. If you’re interested in art history, and/or are fond of the Impressionism movement, this is the book for you. If you are a writer, this is the book for you. If you’re none of the above, I still recommend this work, because I think it is very good.

(*) “The story was perhaps too personal for Cezanne, whose correspondence with Zola ended immediately after the novel’s publication”. When I knew about this, it made me sad. I believe Cezanne was such a sensitive person, which is a trait that, I think, comes with great blessings, but also can bring huge sorrows.

L’Assomoir , by Émile Zola

36290072L’Assommoir (1877) is the story of a woman’s struggle for happiness in working-class Paris. At the center of the story stands Gervaise, who starts her own laundry and for a time makes a success of it. But her husband soon squanders her earnings in the Assommoir, a local drinking spot, and gradually the pair sink into poverty and squalor. (from Goodreads)

Compared to the last book read in this series (The joy of living), this was such a pleasure to read. The translator made such a nice and tidy work, with lots of footnotes and all that academic crap that I just LOVE. Absolutely nothing is left behind and that was such a relief, considering that probably this was one of the most (if not THE most) “outrageous” and “depraved” books Zola wrote.

This book messed a little with my mental timeline in the beginning, because a character we met in The belly of Paris, Claude Lantier, Lise’s nephew, a young painter, is revealed here as Gervaise’s son, less than 10 years of age.  This happened because I’m following Zola’s recommended reading order, instead of reading by the chronological order of publication or the chronological timeline within the series. Zola’s order takes one branch of the family tree at a time, from beginning to end. Gervaise’s branch is preceded by Lise’s, her older sister, which finished in The joy of living, with Pauline’s story (Lise’s daughter). What a tangled mess!

Back to Claude Lantier, his presence here is little more than a mention because, luckily for him, he’s taken back to Plassans, where an old man is going to pay for his artistic education. More of Claude will be seen in the next episode, The masterpiece, his very own book.

Anyway, I should say something about this book. Just like it happened to me with The conquest of Plassans, this book was also hard to read, as one witnesses the downfall of people that began with such high hopes and morals. The same words came to mind: devastating and frustrating.

Gervaise arrived to Paris with his partner (not husband) Auguste Lantier and their two children*,  in the search of fortune. Barely surviving, their money soon fades away, mostly because of Lantier’s dissolute way of life. He leaves Gervaise, and that ends up being the best thing that could happen to them: Gervaise gets on her feet and works hard to maintain her children, marries her neighbor Coupeau, has a daughter, Anna (Nana), and is able to realise her dream and raise enough money to open her own laundry. From this point on, everything goes down. Coupeau, who was an honest, abstemious and hardworking man, suffers a terrible work injury and  takes first to idleness, then to gluttony and eventually to drink, turning into a wife-beating alcoholic. Eventually, Gervaise follows the same path. As if this wasn’t enough, Lantier comes back, befriends Coupeau and installs himself in their home. In this chaotic household, Nana grows until she’s old enough to get a job, and eventually runs away and becomes a prostitute (we’ll see more of her in Nana).

How do you think this tale ends?

Spoiler alert: BADLY.

I need to find more uplifting readings xD

*Fun fact (?): to the original two sons of Gervaise and Lantier, Claude and Etienne, a third one is added, Jacques, and has his own storyline in The beast within.

The Golem Cypher: T.R.I.X., by B. V. Bayly

35179435Once one of the best assassins in the galaxy, Cadell is now the hunted.

The Ascendency, the ruling galactic empire and Cadell’s ex-employer, has stripped him of everything and placed a significant bounty on his head. Forced to live with the shadows of his past, Cadell hides on the backwater planets of the outer rim. Away from anyone who would recognize him.

When his old friend and mentor, Salis, dangles a job in front of him that will get him an Ascendency pardon and let him clear his name, Cadell is ready to take it on. Armed with his constant companion, a strange alien symbiote named T.R.I.X. and his skills as an assassin, Cadell sets off to complete the strange job. How hard could it be?

But before long a crude Bounty Hunter, named Jacko, is on his trail with a squad of elite Ascendency soldiers at his command. Dead or alive, they will stop at nothing to find Cadell. His situation worsens as he narrowly escapes capture and arrives at his destination only to find every Bounty Hunter in the galaxy converging on the same planet. Despite the odds stacked against him, Cadell fortifies his resolve and unleashes T.R.I.X. to deal with anyone standing between him and completing the job.

As he gets closer to regaining his freedom, friends and enemies become blurred, and the noose around his neck tightens. (from Goodreads)

(isn’t this synopsis a bit too long?)

I heard of this book being free for a short time on Amazon, so I took a chance with it since I’m not familiar with science fiction and I’ve been wanting to give it a try for a while.

It was ok, I’m not crazy about it, it took me some time to get hooked on it, but eventually I wanted to know what was going to happen next.

I really liked the idea that humans colonized other planets, and that after years of living in different circumstances, there were plenty of human mutations, adaptations to these new environments. That was an interesting concept. It really left me wanting to know more about the Ascendancy (how it works, how it was formed) and why Jacko was so eager to revenge on Cadell. Revenge of what? What happened? I don’t know, maybe it was explained and I wasn’t paying attention.

By the way it ended I assume there will be a sequel.

At this point, the reviews are almost catching up with my readings, so I’ll post more sporadically, beginning with updates once a week and then… we’ll see.

Happy New Year!