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Another batch of “reviews”! (I will always refer to these as “reviews” because I feel they more closely resemble ramblings.) I read 9 books in March, and, once again, they’re from a range of different genres, eras, and countries. Here’s the list:

14. Anne Maria Nicholson – Weeping Waters (1 Mar)
15. Diana Gabaldon – Outlander (3 Mar)
16. Diana Wynne Jones – Fire and Hemlock (6 Mar)
17. Franz Kafka – Metamorphosis and Other Stories (Penguin Modern Classics, trans. Michael Hoffman) (10 Mar)
18. Gaston Leroux – The Phantom of the Opera (Dover, trans. Alexander Teixeira de Mattos) (13 Mar)
19. Philippa Gregory – The Other Boleyn Girl (13 Mar)
20. David Gaider – Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne (17 Mar)
21. Kate Quinn – Mistress of Rome (22 Mar)
22. Henry James – The Golden Bowl (26 Mar)
23. Janet Fitch – White Oleander (31 Mar)

And now, the “reviews”:

14. Anne Maria Nicholson – Weeping Waters (1 Mar)

I picked this up from a shop in New Zealand back in 2007, when I asked for book recommendations and the salesperson told me this was a great piece of New Zealand literature. Many years later, I’ve finally read it! (As you’ve probably noticed by now, this will be a common thread in my introductions…)

14 - Weeping WatersBlurb: On Christmas Eve 1953 a lahar, a deadly torrent of water, gushed out of the crater lake on Mount Ruapehu and swept down a darkened valley, fatally weakening a railway bridge at Tangiwai, in the centre of the North Island. Minutes later a packed overnight express train nosedived into the river. Most of the 285 passengers were asleep and 151 perished in one of the world’s worst train disasters.

For Maori the tragedy was inevitable. Tangiwai means weeping waters and was known as the place of torrential flows and death. They believed the track should never have been built across Ruapehu’s path.

When a young volcanologist comes to research early warning systems on the mountain, she finds herself in the middle of a raging debate between local landowners, iwi and government agencies. With a hidden agenda of her own she finds herself torn between two men, each on opposing sides, as memories of the Tangiwai disaster drive those who live there fifty years on…and another deadly lahar is building.

In a taut, atmospheric action romance, Anne Maria Nicholson introduces Frances Nelson, a scientist who walks a fine line between life and death, in a haunting contemporary love story set against a fiery and potentially deadly volcano.

Plot: Although I’ve never read any novels centred on volcanoes and the indigenous tensions in New Zealand, I was still able to predict most of the plot without using much imagination—rather disappointing. The novel’s strongest points are to do with Mount Ruapehu and Tangiwai, and the ensuing tension from the three related groups (the government, the Maori, and the scientists), and I did find some of those discussions quite interesting. What I thought quite unnecessary, however, was the romantic plot surrounding the protagonist, which felt forced and flat. And of course, there just has to be a love triangle, and a boring one at that…

Characters: I thought the characters were quite flat, and I didn’t manage to form a relationship with any of them—hence, when disaster struck, I couldn’t care less about the characters’ fates. I just wanted to know what happened at the end, and to reach the end more than anything else. The only character with a semblance of substance, Tori, is diminished by the romantic plot surrounding him—a romantic relationship I didn’t care for, so there goes that…

Themes: Having grown up in Australia, I’ve always been conscious of the indigenous rights and injustices prevalent in our society—so what really interested me here was a similar question being asked in New Zealand. The novel surprised me a little in that its portrayal of the New Zealand government is very different from my understanding, which is that they have a great deal of respect for the Maori. I’m not quite sure if Weeping Waters is accurate on this point, but the book did get me thinking about the complexity of the relationship between indigenous rights and governmental policies.

Language: The writing style did absolutely nothing for me. I didn’t find anything special about Nicholson’s language—it just felt like standard, run-of-the-mill fiction.

Overall: I was a little disappointed about this—I’d hoped to discover some quality New Zealand literature (prior to Weeping Waters, I’d only read some Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame), but the novel was below average. Well, at least I managed to finish it instead of giving up!

For those who like numbers: 2/5

15. Diana Gabaldon – Outlander (3 Mar)

This book (the first of the series) was recommended to me a while ago, and though I’d bought it, I was never really in the mind-set to start it….until now. And, wow!

15 - OutlanderBlurb: The year is 1945. Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon—when she innocently touches a boulder in one of the ancient stone circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an “outsider”—in a Scotland torn by warn and raiding border clans in the year of Our Lord…1743.

Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire is catapulted into the intrigues of lairds and spies that may threaten and life…and shatter her heart. For here James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, shows her a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire…and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

Plot: So basically, this is a fantasy-ish historical romance (it’s a little hard to describe), and feels a lot like some of my favourite types of fanfiction: with enough substance and important themes to be engaging, but still lovely and brainless enough and full of… “Fanservice” would be the term, I guess. As soon as I started getting into the novel, I stopped thinking about it in terms of pacing and plot—primarily because I knew it wouldn’t be anything spectacular and would be full of predictable subplots—and just allowed myself to enjoy the story. And enjoy it I did!

Characters: The two main characters fit very nicely in the archetypes of wise-and-strong-willed-medicinal-woman and young-and-brave-warrior-man, but I didn’t care because Jamie is really, really Scottish, and also really, really amazing and gorgeous, so yup, brainmush of the best kind ensued.

Themes: To be honest, there’s not much depth to Outlander, despite its attempts to delve into questions of fidelity, honour, loyalty, and so on. Everything is very much romanticised and idealised, but that was okay with me because I hadn’t expected much else.

Language: Again, this novel read like fanfiction—but I didn’t mind, because everything else was so enjoyable that I just went with it. And of course, the simple language was perfect for the kind of reading I’d wanted from the book.

Overall: I adored this book—as soon as Claire was hurled back into the past and it became Scotsmen and whiskey galore, I was hooked. Outlander became something I read in bed and on rainy days, and in those two weeks, I loved every one of the 850 pages. Although I’d dubbed it the first of my “Brainless Bedside Books”, I felt a real sense of loss after it was over—until I realised I could get the next book…and the next and the next! There’s an entire series, and the other titles are quite high on my wishlist!

For those who like numbers: 4.5/5

16. Diana Wynne Jones – Fire and Hemlock (6 Mar)

This is another book Costy sent me. Here’s how she described it:

A children’s book, but a book for all ages as well. Fire and Hemlock is a love story and a fairy tale and an actually extremely complicated dissertation on TS Eliot’s four quartets all in one.

A girl after my own heart—especially the T. S. Eliot part.

16 - Fire and HemlockBlurb: Polly Whittacker has two sets of memories. In one, her childhood is boringly normal. In the other, she is friends with the unusual Thomas Lynn, a cellist whose complicated life expands to include her, too. As she packs to return to college, the second set of memories blazes up to displace the first, and Polly knows something is very wrong. Why did she forget? Is someone trying to make her forget? Soon she is the detective in her own history, and the trail leads her back to Tom Lynn, whose life, she now knows, is at supernatural risk. Fire and Hemlock is an intricate, romantic fantasy filled with sorcery and intrigue, magic and mystery, all background to a most unusual and thoroughly satisfying love story.

Plot: I was intrigued by the premise at the beginning, and really enjoyed the story’s slow unfolding. Despite this being described by both Costy and the blurb as a love story and a fairy tale, I read this more as a bildungsroman with some fantastical elements. I wasn’t convinced by the “love story” aspect of the book, though I did love the relationship between those two characters—I just didn’t see it in a romantic way. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the final explanation or the book’s ending—it wasn’t quite satisfying or satisfactory for me, which was quite a shame, as I really enjoyed the rest of the book.

Characters: The two main characters are wonderful—Polly has so much imagination and gusto, not allowing her troubles at home to bring her down, while Thomas is sensitive and perceptive without being mushy. Watching Polly grow was a great delight, and I admit I was more interested in seeing where her character was headed than in any plot revelations. I also loved Polly’s mother as a character—her constant neuroticism and destructive jealousy are just so believable, and I felt so much sympathy for both her and Polly.

Themes: For me, childhood strength of heart is by far the book’s most prominent theme. Polly’s perspective is in turns refreshing and illuminating, and her willingness to see the best in people is absolutely heart-warming. Polly’s upbringing is a difficult one, but she remains resilient and perseveres through her trials—there’s something to be learnt from that.

Language: The writing style was wonderfully simplistic, and I just loved it so much. I really got a sense of Polly’s initially childish mind maturing into something more, and I absolutely loved how the dialogue not only advances the plot, but also reveals a great deal about the characters. The epistolary passages are fantastic, and really opened up the story’s magic and imagination.

Overall: This book was simply delightful to read, with wonderful characters and a beautiful writing style. I definitely agree with Costy’s assessment of this as a children’s book for all ages, but I wasn’t quite sold on the book’s love story/fairy tale aspect. As a music aficionado, I also got some additional enjoyment from the cello-centric parts of the narrative—you can never go wrong with a string quartet!

For those who like numbers: 4/5

17. Franz Kafka – Metamorphosis and Other Stories (Penguin Modern Classics, trans. Michael Hoffman) (10 Mar)

17 - MetamorphosisBlurb: This collection of new translations brings together the small proportion of Kafka’s works that he thought worthy of publication. It includes “Metamorphosis”, his most famous work, an exploration of horrific transformation and alienation; “Medication”, a collection of his earlier studies; “The Judgement”, written in a single night of frenzied creativity; “The Stoker”, the first chapter of a novel set in America; and a fascinating occasional piece, “The Aeroplanes at Brescia”, Kafka’s eyewitness account of an air display in 1909. Together, these stories reveal the breadth of Kafka’s literary vision and the extraordinary imaginative depth of his thought.

Overall thoughts: I loved the “Reflections” series, which contains observations and passing moments captured in light, perfectly balanced prose—exquisite. “Metamorphosis” is also a great short story, a tale about disfiguration and waste, and how much easier it is to shirk responsibility than to assume it. The story’s ending left me with quiet acceptance and a heavy sadness, both of which are indications of Kafka’s great achievement.

I wasn’t as interested in the other short stories, which was a bit of a shame, and which is going to bring down my rating for the overall book. That being said, the “Reflections” collection and “Metamorphosis” are definitely worth checking out!

On an additional note, some of short stories from “Reflections” have inspired me to start work on a new short story collection of my own. This project will take a while to reach fruition, but it’s definitely happening!

For those who like numbers: 3.7/5

18. Gaston Leroux – The Phantom of the Opera (Dover, trans. Alexander Teixeira de Mattos) (13 Mar)

18 - The PhantomBlurb: The lights of the Paris Opera House dim and a lovely singer holds the audience spellbound with her enchanting voice. Two men are rivals for her love: one of them the beloved friend of her childhood—and the other the terrifying “opera ghost” who haunts the theatre and wields a strange power over the performer.

This thrilling novel and its many adaptations have beguiled the imaginations of countless audiences throughout the twentieth century. A gripping tale of longing, passion, fear, and violence, the mystery classic will hold readers captive as it weaves its way toward a shocking and tragic conclusion.

Plot: I thought the beginning was quite sound, and was really into the first few chapters. However, the narrative becomes more and melodramatic and unbelievable as it progresses—quite an example of “losing the plot”. Because I had enjoyed the beginning, I tried very hard to stay invested in the story—but it got so bad that I just gave up. I finished the book out of an unspoken rule, and was so glad to have reached the end. The one thing I did enjoy was the faux historical take, the narrative framing, and the insertion of different text types to denote certain events—all of that is quite clever, but not enough to make up for the rest of the book’s flaws.

Characters: I was quite annoyed with the characterisation, especially of Christine (too whiny and pathetic) and Erik (too whiny and possessive)—their relationship becomes utterly implausible, and both characters are dull and boring in their heightened melodrama. By the middle of the book, I didn’t care at all about these people and their fates—and indifference for the characters is one of the worst things to experience as a reader!

Themes: I don’t know. To be honest, I’d stopped caring.

Language: I wasn’t a fan of the writing style, but I don’t know if that’s more to do with the translation or Leroux himself… I’ll have to learn French and read this in the original before I can make a proper judgement!

Overall: A huge disappointment, especially since the beginning had been so promising. I’ve never been a massive fan of the musical (though I do like some of the songs from it), and I now know that my problem with the musical stems from issues in the original text.

For those who like numbers: 2/5

19. Philippa Gregory – The Other Boleyn Girl (13 Mar)

After finishing Outlander, I needed another Brainless Bedside Book—and thank goodness for Philippa Gregory!

19 - The Other Boleyn GirlBlurb: When Mary Boleyn comes to court as an innocent girl of fourteen, she catches the eye of Henry VIII. Dazzled, Mary falls in love with both her golden prince and her growing role as unofficial queen. However, she soon realises just how much she is a pawn in her family’s ambitious plots as the king’s interest begins to wane and she is forced to step aside for her best friend and rival: her sister, Anne. Then Mary knows that she must defy her family and her king and take her fate into her own hands.

A rich and compelling novel of love, sex, ambition, and intrigue, The Other Boleyn Girl introduces a woman of extraordinary determination and desire who lived at the heart of the most exciting and glamorous court in Europe and survived by following her heart.

Plot: Despite this being supposedly well-researched and historically accurate, many elements of the plot are very much fictitious and…historically inaccurate. But one does not read Philippa Gregory for accuracy, and once I’d switched my mind-set to that of a brainless reader, I started to enjoy the book immensely. The plot is full of drama (and melodrama), and the prolepses so badly executed that they added to the awful flair of awful brainlessness that made the book even more enjoyable—provided I ignored all the seriousness with which Gregory approaches some scenes, which I became more than happy to do. The narrative has excellent pacing, and it was easy to just brainlessly turn the page and keep gobbling up the drivel. Mmm…!

Characters: Again, let’s not say anything about historical accuracy… As a work of fiction, the characters are very well realised (if a little over-the-top at times), and there’s a real sense of rivalry between the two sisters. Although Anne’s ambition and Mary’s idealism are sometimes exaggerated to suit the dramatic tone and pacing, I did find myself a little bored with their representations. My favourite character was William Stafford, who is just so persistent and devoted, and who serves as a wonderful foil to both Henry VIII and George Boleyn.

Themes: Okay, so this is probably where I’m expected to write an essay on women’s rights and female oppression during the Renaissance and so on, but…nope. Brainless book has taken away my brains. (Seriously, if you ever want to give The Other Boleyn Girl a go, I really do recommend leaving your mind and independent thinking at the doorstep, and allow yourself to enjoy a few hours of entertainment.)

Language: Goodness me, was this poorly written! All the grammatical errors made my brain hurt, and they just kept reoccurring. It’s a little depressing that neither Gregory nor her team of editors knows how to construct proper sentences—the pain! That being said, The Other Boleyn Girl was definitely a “Brainless Bedside Book” for me, and although it wasn’t easy, I eventually managed to overlook the mistakes…kinda.

Overall: I think I’ve already gone on and on about this book’s brainlessness, but I’ve also said quite a bit about its entertainment value. If I run out of other good brainless books, I’ll definitely be reading more of Gregory’s (a)historical fiction!

For those who like numbers: 3.5/5

20. David Gaider – Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne (17 Mar)

Yet another mindlessly entertaining book! This is a prequel to the game, Dragon Age, and was a gift from a friend waaaaaay back when the book was first released. This “review” contains some references to the game, though I’ll try to keep it as spoiler-free as possible.

20 - The Stolen Throne

Blurb: After his mother, the beloved Rebel Queen, is betrayed and murdered by her own faithless lords, young Maric becomes the leader of a rebel army attempting to free his nation from the control of a foreign tyrant.

His countrymen live in fear; his commanders consider him untested; and his only allies are Loghain, a brash young outlaw who saved his life, and Rowan, the beautiful warrior maiden promised to him since birth. Surrounded by spies and traitors, Maric must find a way to not only survive but achieve his ultimate destiny: Ferelden’s freedom and the return of his line to the stolen throne.

Plot: I loved the plot, which focuses on the decades before the events in Dragon Age. Even though players of the game know what’s going to happen at the end, I really enjoyed watching the events unfold and finding out exactly how things become as they are. Although sometimes quite predictable, the story is still packed with enough action and characterisation that I was happy to gobble it up.

Characters: The backstories for the characters from Dragon Age are wonderful, especially when it comes to Loghain. I thought he was just such a full, ripe character, and so much more than we get to see in the game. His motivation, his dourness, his resentment against Orlais—everything is explained here, and explained well. I’ve always thought of him as one of the antagonists in Dragon Age, but The Stolen Throne successfully portrays him as a “good guy”. It really makes me want to re-play the game now! Another character I loved was Maric, but mostly because I could easily see the similarities between him and Alistair— especially the “hardening” aspect of Maric’s plot, and how that could be paralleled with Alistair’s.

Themes: Darkspawns! Okay, not really. And, uh, there aren’t really any pertinent themes here…

Language: Straightforward enough. Nothing spectacular, but hey, I didn’t expect much from it. It’s fascinating how the writing in the game is absolutely superb when compared to other games, but the writing in the book itself is pretty mediocre. (Makes me wonder if something similar would happen, should we end up novelising of Regency Love…)

Overall: Although this could work as a standalone, I think it’s much more enjoyable for those who’ve played the game. In fact, I am seriously tempted to go through yet another replay of Dragon Age, now that I have a deeper understanding of the story world. Gaider has written another book, Dragon Age: The Calling, which is set after the events in The Stolen Throne, and I’m definitely going to read that before I embark on another Dragon Age quest!

For those who like numbers: 3.9/5

21. Kate Quinn – Mistress of Rome (22 Mar)

I got this for my sister, who’s a little obsessed with Ancient Rome (so much so that she’s doing a Classics degree at the moment—it’s even more useless than my degrees!), and ended up reading it as another Brainless Bedside Book. Mmm…!

21 - Mistress of RomeBlurb: Orphaned by Rome’s savage legions, Thea, a slave girl from Judaea, has learned what it takes to survive. She knows only violence until a chance meeting with gladiator Arius offers a shred of tenderness. But their bond is severed when Thea is sold again, condemned to rot in squalor.

Years later, a singer known as Athena betrays no hint of her troubled past. Catching the eye of the Emperor himself, she is swept into a world of decadence and depravity. But although Domitian fears betrayal from every side, he is unaware that the greatest threat lies next to him—a slave girl who has come to be called the Mistress of Rome…

Plot: Wow, was this predictable and far-fetched, and basically everything one can expect from fanfiction… I saw every single “plot twist” from miles away, and the scenes are played out exactly the way I’d imagined them—well, at least that fulfilled one set of my expectations! But I wasn’t looking for anything more than brainless reading, and this very much delivered—the story is fairly engaging, and the final resolution is nice and neat, and just as I’d expected.

Characters: Again, the characters and characterisation are very predicable and conform to basically every single archetype from historical/Roman/faraway-lands-of-really-old-and-dead-people fiction. They are also very two-dimensional: we have the protagonist (the virtuous underling), her love interest (the widely desired man with a tormented past and a temper), her antagonist (the whiny and spoilt rich daughter), and so on. I didn’t form any attachment to any of them, but I did enjoy following their journeys.

Themes: What I would liked from anything set in Ancient Rome: moral ambiguity, representations and dissections of nobility and honour, seemly gratuitous sex that is made less gratuitous when it begins to reveal ideas about Ancient Roman sexuality and society. What I got: good vs. bad, really good vs. really bad, gratuitous sex. Oh well, I probably wouldn’t have wanted something substantial for a Brainless Bedside Book anyway…

Language: Nothing spectacular. I think there are some nice metaphors floating around, but they’ve floated away and out of memory.

Overall: This was wonderful mindless entertainment, and I was almost tempted to look up Kate Quinn’s other books set in Ancient Rome. I would’ve liked a little more complexity, given the context, but then it would’ve become a very different kind of book. For what it is, Mistress of Rome was highly enjoyable, and a pleasant way to pass the time.

For those who like numbers: 3.9/5

22. Henry James – The Golden Bowl (26 Mar)

Wowowowow those 600 pages were… Well. Mr James and I have a very complicated relationship (as complicated as this book).

22 - The Golden BowlBlurb: Maggie Verver, a young American heiress, and her widowed father Adam, a billionaire collector of objets d’art, lead a life of wealth and refinement in London. They are both getting married: Maggie to Prince Amerigo, an impoverished Italian aristocrat, and Adam to the beautiful but penniless Charlotte Stant, a friend of his daughter. But both father and daughter are unaware that their new conquests share a secret—one for which all concerned must pay the price. Henry James’s late, great work is a highly charged study of adultery, jealousy and possession that both continues and challenges his theme of confrontation between American innocence and European experience.

Plot: The plot is very, very simple. In fact, if someone comes up to me and says that not much happens in the story, then they’d be right. What does happen is a lot of: thinking, deliberating, ruminating, analysing, philosophising, representing, re-representing, pulling apart the fabrics of nineteenth-century society and stitching them back in a slightly altered way. The novel’s psychological complexity is disproportionate to its narrative simplicity—or perhaps it’s complementary, seeing as the narrative deals with parts of the human psyche that are anything but simple.

Characters: We have four central characters here: Maggie, Amerigo, Adam, and Charlotte. By the end of the book, I knew them and their thoughts more intimately than me and mine—but at the same time very little at all, because humans have the capacity to surprise you in the last 100 pages of their story. Each of these characters is flawed and fragile, yet at the same time strong-willed and perseverant. At times, I wanted to shake Maggie and Adam, and chastise Amerigo and Charlotte—but then, I also wanted to hold Maggie’s hand, take Adam out for a walk, share a sympathetic cup of tea with Amerigo, and go cathedral hunting with Charlotte. And then I’d want to shake and chastise them yet again.

Themes: I am daunted by the mere thought of writing about The Golden Bowl’s themes—what can this layperson say, when scholars have spent the last century immersed in James’s deeply complex writing? Only the superficial labels, I suppose: marriage and fidelity, love and loyalty, Europe and America. Goodness, Europe and America… The vast differences between the two in the nineteenth century are one of my favourite things to think about. On the one hand, we have history, tradition, culture, religion, a long history of religious wars, and a growing irrelevancy of the aristocracy; on the other hand, we have independence, innovation, the individual, breaking free, industry, money, and a simmering reverence for the aristocracy. Reading and thinking about these two separate sets of values is challenging enough, but what happens when you put the two together?

Well, you get Henry James, of course.

Language: There are two general approaches to Henry James: “Eeeeeewwwwwwwwww his sentences are so freaking long and convoluted and uuuuuggghhhhh why why why can’t the dude just get to the damn point and blaaaaaah I give up”, and “Omgomgomgomgomgomg that last sentence/paragraph/page/chapter was freaking amazing and aaaaaahhhhhhh how he manages to capture everything in words and I don’t care if I have to re-re-re-re-read every other sentence/paragraph/page/chapter because this man is an absolute genius and I just want to make love to his words all the time”.

Yeah, I belong to the latter.

Overall: My goodness, what a grind. This was one of the toughest and most demanding books I’ve read in a while, surpassing Midnight’s Children. James’s narration is so particular to every nuance of psychological and emotional detail, and his single-minded focus on the four central characters (and namely the two women) comes off as almost claustrophobic at times. The plot is fairly simple, but James’s explorations of marriage, class, and the transatlantic divide are complex and harrowing.

I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who hasn’t read any other Henry James, or even to anyone who hasn’t read a great deal of nineteenth century literature from both sides of the Atlantic. I’d be the first to admit that I wouldn’t have enjoyed this book had I picked it up four or five years ago, when I didn’t have as thorough an understanding of the general literature and context (getting an MA in Romantic and Victorian Literary Studies helped me, but I think reading a truckload of nineteenth century novels would serve just as well, if not better). I’ll also say that despite my admiration, The Golden Bowl currently does not rank amongst my “favourite” books. I say “currently” because I feel that with Henry James, the more you read and understand, the more you come to love his works—and The Golden Bowl is no exception.

For those who like numbers: 4.2/5

23. Janet Fitch – White Oleander (31 Mar)

Before I even get started on the “review”, I will say now that this is the best book I’ve read in recent memory. I hadn’t planned on giving out any 5-star ratings, but then White Oleander came along, and my plans were ruined, in the best possible way.

And of course, I’m not particularly good at talking about the books I’ve absolutely loved without turning it into a gushfest, so…

23 - White OleanderBlurb: Astrid has been raised by her mother, Ingrid, a beautiful, headstrong poet. Astrid’s world revolves around Ingrid; she forgives her everything. Until Ingrid commits a crime of passion…

Plot: Amazing. The narrative flows seamlessly from scene to scene, and moves with such fluidity that I began to wonder why I’d even bothered with other, clunky books at all (presumably so I could be awestruck when White Oleander came round). I was not for a single moment bored or distracted while reading this—every single word kept me enthralled and longing for more. And, most importantly, the ending is absolutely perfect. It isn’t a cop-out or a disappointment—it is both incompleteness and completion.

Characters: Astrid, Ingrid, and every other person you meet in this book—amazing. Every single character has character, and plays some sort of role in shaping Astrid and her life. The characters all feel so real, and are so beautifully flawed and behave like real, beautiful, flawed people, with real, flawed reasons and motivators. There were some characters I wouldn’t ever want to meet in real life, but I still understood and empathised and admired and pitied—and that achievement, I think, is a mark of a great writer.

Themes: The book focuses on arguably the most important and complex relationship a person can have: with their mother. And here, every nuance of this vastly complicated relationship is given thought, breath, and life.

Language: It’s been a very long time since I’ve read a book and actively thought: “I wish I could write like this.” With White Oleander, I would have to put the book down every now and then to take a breather, and to think, “I wish I had written this.” Simply saying something like “Fitch’s prose is pure poetry” seems to undermine the quality and pure amazingness of her writing.

Overall: Stunning. Read this.

For those who like numbers: 5/5

A few disappointments, lots of brainlessness, and a few truly amazing reads. Not a bad month, I’d say! If you’ve read any of these titles or if any of them have sparked your interest, I’d love to know in the comments!