When you’re eight books into a series and each book is approximately nine hundred pages long, you somewhat lose the ability to be objective about it. Did Written In My Own Heart’s Blood have a particularly coherent plot? No. Could I even begin to explain what plot there was to a non-fan without the use of a detailed diagram explaining the connections between the extended Fraser family and their associates? Not a chance. Did it need every last one of those extremely detailed 18th-century surgery scenes? Hell no it didn’t. Did I love it anyway? You bet your ass I did. At this point, the fact that these books are mostly just increasingly bizarre things happening to a very complicated family is completely overshadowed by the fact that I am fully invested in every last detail of all of their lives. I don’t just want an update on Lizzie Wemyss and the Beardsley twins’ bonkers polygamous marriage, I need it. When a character in this book is in peril, I audibly exclaim (much to the concern of my partner). I am ride or die for this series, even if the next book is just Claire removing ingrown toenails for the people of Fraser’s Ridge while Jamie lives through a ye olde version of Grand Designs. I don’t care, Go Tell The Bees That I Am Gone can’t come out soon enough.
The test for whether a comedy memoir is any good is whether it actually makes you laugh out loud. This book not only did that multiple times, but it actually made me cry with laughter. Many people will recognise Jost as the host of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment but many aren’t aware that he’s actually been working at SNL for 15 years, first as a staff writer and eventually as head writer. Even when he wasn’t on screen, he was behind the scenes helping to pull together some of the most memorable sketches in recent years of SNL and his talent for being hilarious definitely shines in this book. Jost provides a range of hysterical anecdotes about his time at SNL as well as delving into his childhood on Staten Island, his time at Harvard and the disturbingly high number of times that he has pooped his pants as an adult man. Anyone who is a fan of SNL must read this book.
Thank you to NetGalley and Penguin for an ARC of this fabulous book. I’m a huge fan of Elif Shafak. She has an incredible talent for bringing a scene vividly to life in a way that evokes strong emotions in her readers and The Island of Missing Trees is a fine example of this. It’s a beautiful story of two parts. In one half we have two lovers struggling to be together against the backdrop of a civil conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in the 1960s. Defne and Kostas come from opposing sides of this conflict and the only place where they can meet with each other without either of their families finding out is a taverna in the middle of the island, run by another mixed Turkish/Greek couple. In the middle of this taverna grows a fig tree and when Defne and Kostas are eventually forced to leave Cyprus and move to London, they take a cutting from the fig tree and plant her in their new back garden. There, the fig tree continues to watch over them and, eventually, their daughter Ada. The other half of the novel picks up years down the line. Ada is a moody teenager, mourning the death of her mother and unsure how to relate to her distant father who has always been more comfortable with plants than people. An outburst at school and the sudden arrival of a figure from her parents’ past leaves Ada desperately curious about Cyprus, an island that has shaped her life even though she has never been there. The novel is narrated in part by the fig tree which adds a wonderful sense of magic to a story about very real and very painful issues. The island of Cyprus is essentially a character in its own right and Shafak does a brilliant job of bringing her sights, smells, sounds and history to life for her reader. Ultimately The Island of Missing Trees is a thoughtful and heartfelt exploration of identity, belonging and the immigrant experience of adaption and survival.
I’m going to cut to the chase; this is as close to a perfect book as I have ever read. It is a stunning, immersive novel that expertly blends historical fiction and fantasy to create one of the most convincing magical and fantastical books that I have ever had the joy of laying eyes on. It is set in 19th century England, but one where magicians used to rule the land with the help of their fairy servants. However, all of their magic has long since faded away and the only ‘magicians’ left are those who merely study the history of magic. Enter Mr Norrell, a ‘practical’ magician who has studied every book he can lay his hands on in order to recreate the magic that everyone thought was lost. He becomes renowned as the man who brought magic back to England and is soon doing favours for the most powerful men in the kingdom and waging war against Napoleon on their behalf. Norrell is a nervous, fastidious and jealous man who has no interest in sharing the title of magician with anyone and so when the charming, inventive and naturally gifted Jonathan Strange enters the picture seeking a position as his pupil, the reader knows that things are unlikely to go smoothly, Their relationship is epic, equal parts partnership and rivalry and they are perfect foils for each other, driving each other to increasingly erratic and risky behaviour to prove themselves the greatest magician of the age. Reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell felt effortless. Every part of the story seamlessly blended into the other, every character felt real, every event felt completely natural (no matter how supernatural it was). Susanna Clarke is an absolute genius and it’s books like this one that remind my how much I love reading.