Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

Category: Hidden Gems Page 1 of 2

Where You Come From

Who are you, when your native country does not exist any longer? In Herkunft, his work of biographical fiction, author Saša Stanišić tries to find an answer to this question. The original version won the German Book Prize in 2019 and is now scheduled for release in English in November 2021.

He takes the reader on a journey from Germany to his birthplace in former Yugoslawia, using anecdotes and sometimes fictitious means to reflect on how a coincidence like your birth can have an effect on your life.

Ultimately, it is a book about how memories shape your identity. As his grandmother’s memories are fading due to dementia, Stanišić takes stock of his own. They are humorous, heartwarming and even the serious ones feel like an easily acceptible part of life. Especially the parts about his coming of age in Heidelberg stand out.

While books written in German often feel very rough and chopped, Stanišić uses the language with poetic skill. I also enjoyed his book Before the Feast (Vor dem Fest), but Herkunft really managed to get me excited about his style of writing. Also, there are dragons. Saša Stanišić has now earned his place on my auto-buy list.

Not Only the Faithful Wife

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood takes a well known story and tells it from a new and enlightening perspective. I guess everyone has at least heard of Odysseus and his journey home after the Trojan War. But what do we know about his wife Penelope, other than that she is supposed to be the very image of a faithful wife?

While her narrative is usually mainly reduced to the fact that she waits for twenty years for the return of her husband, Atwood rightfully takes a stand that more should be said. From Penelope’s perspective we learn about the things she has to do to manage the kingdom on her own – for example fighting off suitors with the help of her most loyal maids – and other hardships she has to endure. Meanwhile, Odysseus is still off somewhere having adventures (some of them with goddesses).

Once Odysseus is back on Ithaka, he kills the suitors besieging his house and wife, and also the maids he believed to be unfaithful. The maids are a central element of Atwood’s story. She uses their voices as a Greek chorus, which is an element I really liked. In this version of the story, the maids only seem to be unfaithful to support a plan of Penelope that in the end protects Odysseus.

Penelope’s story is told in a very poetic, playful and most of all realistic way that adds so much to the Odyssey narrative. I almost always enjoy myth retellings, and this one really stood out.

An Alchemy of Masks and Mirrors – Review

An Alchemy of Masks and Mirrors is the start of The Risen Kingdom, a trilogy by Curtis Craddock, which has been on my TBR for AGES. I finally managed to hunt down a copy of the first book, and decided to start reading it pretty fast. And I was not disappointed. Let’s have a look at the blurb here:

In a world of soaring continents and bottomless skies, where a burgeoning new science lifts skyships into the cloud-strewn heights and ancient blood-borne sorceries cling to a fading glory, Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs is about to be married to a man she has barely heard of, the second son of a dying king in an empire collapsing into civil war.

Blurb on Goodreads

If you aren’t intrigued by that, I fear things are hopeless for you. Isabelle is highly intelligent in a world that forbids women to think, has a deformed hand when physical perfection is required by the world’s religion, and has no allies except the musketeer that has been charged with her protection.

Isabelle and the mentioned musketeer Jean-Claude make a stunning duo of quick wits. Both have their unique strengths as they are cast into unknown situations with traitors, conspirators, and unlikely allies.

The author does not make every twist and turn plain for the reader to see, instead, he let’s them guess at the hidden intentions of the players, and he even has some real surprises in store for us. The world is planned out with thought, and has some really interesting aspects – I can’t wait to see more of it. An absolute recommendation.

On travelling the Continent

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss, published 10 July 2018. The second book in “The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club” series did not disappoint at all. If you’ve got the chance, get the audiobook version. (I’m going to rave about it further down.)

Let’s shortly recap [spoilers for book 1 ahead!]. The first book was about Mary Jekyll, daughter of the famous Dr Jekyll, who’s assisting Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in solving the Whitechapel Murders. This leads to her finding out about the secret Alchemical Society her father was a member of; and she finds the daughter’s of other Gothic mad scientists: Diana Hyde (her half-sister), Justine Frankenstein, Catherine Moreau and Beatrice Rappaccini.

The second story picks up a short while after the ladies have settled in the Jekyll household, calling themselves the Athena Club. From a telegram, they learn that Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped. Of course they have to rescue yet another daughter of a mad scientist from being experimented on. This time though, they have to travel to Vienna and Budapest for their rescue mission.

The story is told by Catherine Moreau, with lots of interjections throughout the writing process from the, sometimes bickering, young ladies and the household staff. It took me some time to get used to it in the first book, but I was actually looking forward to it in this second book.

Book 2 leaves us with a cliffhanger for the final story (really?) The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, published in 2019. I’ve already added it to my TBR in the audiobook version, because s.b.

What I truly loved was the audiobook. The narrator, Kate Reading, does an amazing job with all the different characters’ voices, but much more with the languages involved. It was fun listening to this story, and should I ever meet Ms Reading in real life, I’ll have to bow to her. Especially because, as a native speaker of German, I have to say, she managed 99% of the German words accurately – not once did her German sound false. Neither did her French or Italian – I should not comment on the Hungarian and Latin, but I am fairly certain she did those well too.

In short, get the audiobook. It’s 24 hours long, but it’s fun to listen to.

Addition by LadyDuckOfDoom: I love this series! I’ve read all three books, and now I am jealous that I did now listen to the audiobooks.

Addition in response to LadyDuckOfDoom: But I’m fairly certain you’ve got the print editions on your shelf, which I don’t have. So we’re both jealous. I’m not going to punch you in the arm for it. And I hope you’re not going to kick me Diana-style under the table.

Mutineers and Mangos

Robert Merle’s The Island is based on the fate of the Bounty mutineers on Pitcairn Island and once again shows that a hunger for power begets quite a lot of blood. While not completely out of my comfort zone, it took someone close to my heart to put it into my hands. I probably wouldn’t have stumbled across it myself, given my somehow strained relationship with French authors.

After killing their cruel and sadistic captain, the mutineers aboard the Blossom need to avoid British persecution. Those directly involved in the mutiny therefore sail toward an uncharted island, determined to build a new home there. They stop in Tahiti, picking up several men and women of a tribe befriended by the main character Adam Purcell. But even before reaching their island, conflicts between the British sailors and Tahitians are starting to brew. One of the main reasons for dispute will prove to be the fact that there are less women than men and that their “distribution” hence leads to jealousy and rage. Combined with a decent supply of gun power and cultural differences, a predictable racial war ensues.

Merle’s writing style is very detailed and analytic, often discussing every possible outcome of a debate before the character has even uttered a single word. It’s not a style to really relax your brain, but enjoyable nonetheless. While the plot itself is easy to predict, the book keeps you hooked with extensive character development and moral considerations.

Would events have turned out differently if the most power hungry of the British had been killed early on? What kind of society would have emerged, if the whole crew had taken to Purcell’s approach of treating the Tahitians as equals? What if the women had been allowed to select their partners on their own, instead of being distributed like cattle?

After dipping my toe into this part of Merle’s work, his next book on my list will be Malevil. It will be interesting to see how his writing fares in a (dystopian) science fiction setting.

Once there were three witches

The Once and Future Witches by Alix Harrow, publishing date October 15, 2020.

After reading The Ten Thousand Doors of January, I was happy to be approved for the ARC for Alix Harrow’s next book. A book about witches.

Yet, it is so much more than just about witches. Set in 1883, in New Salem, a town a few miles away from Old Salem, which was burned down in the witch trials about a hundred years ago. Women are fighting for the right to vote. And three sisters need to get to grips with their past and survive the present to allow a future for strong women and witchcraft.

Apart from (feminist) witches and devious witch hunters, this book contains badass librarians, sisters and Sisters, powerful depictions of birth and motherhood, and a gorgeous cover.

The prose is excellent. This is why the rather slow parts in the story are still a pleasure to read. Still, at about 60% of the story I was wondering what else might be coming, I thought everything had been said by then. I was wrong, obviously.

4/5 Goodreads stars


The Once & Future Witches was also our Buddyread this month, picked by our most trusted bookshop, Otherland. TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle skipped along a second time, while TheMarquessMagpie and TheLadyDuckOfDoom discovered the magical story of the three sisters. Here is what we think:

TheMarquessMagpie was very much in awe of the writing style. It felt like fairytales came alive, some of them old, some of them new, all of them feeling like a warm blanket on a cold day. She felt part of the family, one of the sisters herself. There was longing, to be one of the future witches and to believe her familiar is out there, waiting in the dark with red burning eyes until she is ready.

TheLadyDuckOfDoom fell in love with the book, sometimes every page all over again. She especially loved the part on page 399 – 401, which her imagination wants to paint rather badly. It’s the part where old meets new, and no further spoilers will be heard from her, because she loved every part of the story deeply and will not take anything away from potential readers.

Childhood Revisited

My childhood as a reader was influenced by the series we all know and love, mainly Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. But beyond that, I was obsessed with books by German author Kai Meyer. Last year I saw him at a reading and he announced that one of his trilogies was about to get a fourth book. I was hoping it would be one of my childhood favourites, either The Wave Walkers (US, or The Wave Runners in the UK) or Dark Reflections. Indeed, it turned out to be a fourth book for Dark Reflections and I was thrilled. Of course I had to read the original three books again – while I remembered loving them, the details were really blurry.

The three books (The Water Mirror, The Stone Light and The Glass Word) take place in an alternative reality, in which Venice is a city alive with magic, living stone lions and mermaids. But there is a threat from the Egyptian Empire, which has conquered most of the world except the Russian Empire and Venice. While the Russians are protected by none other than Baba Yaga, Venice is protected by a mysterious presence called the Flowing Queen. The story itself follows Merle and Serafin, who are at the right place at the right time to save the city from being handed over to the Egyptians on a silver plate. Which leads to Merle drinking the essence of the Flowing Queen, escaping on a flying stone lion to set off on a trip to literal hell to get help and Serafin joining resistance forces in the city.

I loved the books as a child – next to this paragraph you can see the German edition of the first one – but reading them again now I was often irritated by the wild mix of concepts. Magic, hell, sphinxes, mermaids, sea witches, flying stone lions, Egyptian priests, traveling through mirrors, parallel worlds, seasons incarnated, …. it’s a lot to take in and sometimes does not fit together seamlessly. I still enjoyed the reread because it was so nostalgic, and I’m looking forward to getting to the fourth book.

Reading it as an adult you may come across some weird plot devices that seem extremely far-fetched, but I think younger readers will still enjoy this as much as I did in the past. One of the main reasons is that Kai Meyer manages to write believable female main characters. Many (or probably most) of his books are centered around girls and they are most definitely not princesses who need rescuing. The Wave Walkers for example is about a pirate girl who can walk on water. Geeky twelve year old me was totally on board for that.

Let’s Swap!

The Switch by Beth O’Leary, published 16 April 2020.

Leena uses her forced two-month sabbatical to swap places with her 79-year old grandmother Eileen. Eileen moves to live in the shared flat in London, looking for love. Leena moves to live in the tiny Yorkshire village and tries to take care of all of Eileen’s projects.

This story of grief, loss, family, recovery, and love was so good, I couldn’t put it down. Or rather, I couldn’t take my headphones off. The dual narration by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Alison Steadman was the perfect accompaniment to the story.

I fell in love with the characters and felt for them throughout the book. They are real, down-to-earth characters that it was easy to root for.

If you loved Beth O’Leary’s Flatshare, read this. It’s definitely better than watching a whole series of Gilmore Girls, because it’s set in Britain. 😉

5/5 Goodreads stars

Whimsical fiction with gorgeous cover

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow, published 14 May 2020.

Could I just say that I liked this book more than The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern and be done with it? Yeah, thought so.

January, a child of mixed heritage, grows up in the mansion of Mr Locke, her father’s employer. Her father is often absent, travelling the world to find artefacts for Mr Locke. Meanwhile, January often travels with Mr Locke. On one such trip she finds out that her writing has magical ability, what she writes becomes true.

When her father doesn’t return from an expedition, now 17 year old January finds herself at a threshold. Stay with Mr Locke, ignore all she has discovered about herself and her parents so far, or go and open all the doors, find her father, find herself. Of course, she does the latter, but it is a very long walk on winding bumpy roads.

A whimsical YA story. Set in the early years of the 20th century, in the US and ten thousand fantastical worlds. A story about finding yourself, about family, heritage, and, of course, love.

4/5 Goodreads stars

Slaughterhouse Five GN

Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade by Ryan North, based on Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Pub Date 15 September 2020.

Look at this, a Graphic Novel of the classic science fiction novel. It is a very bold, and in my opinion, successful adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s. The GN doesn’t just simply repeat the story, it enhances it with its well-drawn graphics. Vonnegut’s weird witticism and dark humour are transferred well to the new format.

Definitely a gem among the GN.

5/5 Goodreads stars

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