Friday, August 27, 2021

A Discovery of Witches - Deborah Harkness

Title: A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy, Book 1)
Author: Deborah Harkness
Publisher: Penguin, 2011 (Paperback)
Length: 579 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy
Started: August 12, 2021
Finished: August 20, 2021

From the back cover:

Deep in the heart of Oxford's Bodleian Library, Diana Bishop - a young scholar and the descendant of witches - unearths an enchanted alchemical manuscript. Wanting nothing to do with sorcery, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery has set a fantastical underworld stirring, and soon a horde of daemons, witches, and other creatures descends upon the library. Among them is Matthew Clairmont, a vampire with a keen interest in the book. Equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense, A Discovery of Witches is a mesmerizing and addictive tale of passion and obsession that reveals the closely guarded secrets of an enchanted world. 

Yeah, I know, I'm a little late to the party on this book, and no, I didn't pick this up because of the show (although now post-read I definitely want to watch it). I'm glad this recommendation came my way, it's a great fantasy read set in the modern world (at least this first instalment is) that appeals to the academic in me. 

Dr. Diana Bishop is the last of the Bishop witches, raised in New England and working as a science historian at Oxford. This is a world where creatures (vampires, witches, daemons) exist alongside humans, but humans aren't aware of their existence. Diana knows the rule: one group can't associate with the other or risk attracting attention; so when she unknowingly unlocks a secret tome that's been sought after for centuries, her safety is in jeopardy when all manner of creatures start stalking her, including Matthew Clairmont. Matthew and Diana then become embroiled in the mystery of the book and how it affects both their futures. 

Again, the academic setting of this novel appeals to me. There were so many points where Diana would do or say something very stereotypically academic and I'd be laughing in sympathy, she's a character after my own heart. Plus, the idea of a person bonding with an ancient creature over their shared scholarship in an ancient library (especially when said creature has first-hand experiences contrasted with the person's second-hand accounts) is probably the most nerdy meet-cute ever. The characters are well-developed and the pacing and world building are well-done too. 

If you're a fantasy reader who likes a bit more academia and romance in your stories, give this series a try. There are two subsequent instalments which I have in my TBR pile that I hope are just as good as the first.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the old-school celestial and astrological symbols with Oxford buildings lining the bottom of the image. The other covers in the series are done in a similar style, and I always appreciate continuity in series covers. 

Monday, August 9, 2021

Divergent Mind - Jenara Nerenberg

Title: Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn't Designed for You
Author: Jenara Nerenberg
Publisher: HarperOne, 2020 (Hardcover)
Length: 244 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction
Started: August 6, 2021
Finished: August 8, 2021

From the inside cover:

A paradigm-shifting study of neurodivergent women - those with ADHD, autism, synesthesia, high sensitivity, and sensory processing disorder - exploring why these traits are over-looked and how society benefits from allowing their unique strengths to flourish.

As a Harvard- and Berkeley-educated writer, entrepreneur, and devoted mother, Jenara Nerenberg was shocked to discover that her "symptoms" - only ever labeled as anxiety - were considered autistic and ADHD. 

Nerenberg's not alone. Between a flawed system that focuses on younger, male populations, and the fact that girls are conditioned from a young age to blend in, women often don't learn about their neurological differences until they are adults, if at all. As a result, potentially millions live with undiagnosed neurodivergences, obscured by anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, we all miss out on the gifts their neurodivergent minds have to offer. 

Sharing real stories from women with high sensitivity, ADHD, autism, misophonia, dyslexia, SPD, and more, Nerenberg explores how these brain variances present differently in women and describes practical changes in how we communicate, how we design our surroundings, and how we can better support divergent minds. When we allow our wide variety of brain makeups to flourish, we create a better tomorrow for us all.

As an adult neurodivergent woman, with a majority of my family members being neurodivergent (including my children), and a teacher to both neurodivergent and neurotypical children, I've been trying to seek out the most recent books on neurodivergence to recommend to parents or folks just trying to understand a new concept that many aren't familiar with yet. 

A few months ago, I read Neurotribes by Steve Silberman, but didn't post a review because it was still during the school year, we were under yet another lockdown, and I was suffering from existential dread, so reviews weren't happening. Neurotribes is considered by most in the community to be the neurodiversity Bible, especially since it's still considered a recent publication (2016). Although I did enjoy the book and it is incredibly well-researched, one criticism I had of it while reading was that it seemed to approach neurodiversity from a mainly male perspective (granted the author acknowledges this and states that neurodivergent women and girls are under-diagnosed). Thankfully, this book nicely balances the former, discussing how neurodiversity presents in AFAB (assigned female at birth) individuals. 

In Divergent Mind, the author is wonderfully concise, essentially stating that those with diagnoses such as ADHD, autism, synesthesia, SPD and more have sensitivity as the root cause. That essentially even though every neurodivergent person presents differently, it all boils down to sensory sensitivity: everything is either "too much" or our bodies need more stimulation than we're getting (I still remember "too sensitive" thrown at me often as an insult during my childhood). 

In the first section of the book, the author makes the assumption that anyone reading this book will have some base knowledge of the various diagnoses she speaks of, spending little time on them in general and moving straight into the signs that women (and AFAB people in general) with these conditions might exhibit as opposed to males (especially in regards to ADHD and autism where the stereotypical symptoms everyone looks for are primarily present in males). 

For anyone who already knows they are neurodivergent and their respective diagnoses, the second part of the book might be of more interest. There, the author outlines various coping strategies and tips to help neurodivergent women improve their overall well-being, as well as specific strategies for the home and at work. 

Throughout the book, the author reinforces that neurodivergent minds have gifts that are essential to society's ability to thrive, and that ignoring the needs of the neurodivergent means to miss out on all we have to offer, which is a message that bears frequent repetition. 

Are you a woman (or AFAB individual) who often feels different and out of place? Do you struggle inwardly despite your outward success? If so, you might be divergent; come to the dark side, we have cookies! And you should also read this book. 

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the use of shards to form the outline of the bust, it's a nice design choice. 

Friday, August 6, 2021

The Starless Sea - Erin Morgenstern

Title: The Starless Sea
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Publisher: Doubleday Canada, 2019 (Hardcover)/Anchor Canada, 2020 (Paperback)
Length: 494 pages (Hardcover), 570 pages (Paperback)
Genre: Adult; Fantasy
Started: July 31, 2021
Finished: August 3, 2021

From the inside cover (Hardcover):

Far beneath the surface of the earth, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. The entryways that lead to this sanctuary are often hidden, sometimes on forest floors, sometimes in private homes, sometimes in plain sight. But those who seek will find. Their doors have been waiting for them.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is searching for his door, though he does not know it. He follows a silent siren song, an inexplicable certainty that he is meant for another place. When he discovers a mysterious book in the stacks of his campus library, he begins to read and is entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, lost cities, and nameless acolytes. Suddenly, a turn of the page brings Zachary to a story from his own childhood, impossibly written in this book that is older than he is. 

A bee, a key, and a sword emblazoned on the book lead Zachary to two people who will change the course of his life: Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired painter, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances. These strangers guide Zachary through masquerade-party dances and whispered backroom stories to the headquarters of a secret society, where doorknobs hang from ribbons, and finally through a door conjured from paint to the place he has always yearned for. 

Amid twisting tunnels filled with books, gilded ballrooms, and wine-dark shores, Zachary falls into an intoxicating world soaked in romance and mystery. But a battle is raging over the fate of this place, and though there are those who would willingly sacrifice everything to protect it, there are just as many intent on its destruction. As Zachary, Mirabel, and Dorian venture deeper into the space and its histories and myths searching for answers and one another, a timeless love story unspools, casting a spell of pirates, painters, lovers, liars, and ships that sail upon a Starless Sea. 

"We are all stardust and stories" (373) so this story says, and oh, this book has already developed a tale that I will re-tell to my children and grandchildren to highlight the lengths I will go to for a book. I was reading people's opinions about my previous read, The Midnight Library, and one reader mentioned that they had hoped The Midnight Library was going to be like The Starless Sea and was disappointed that it wasn't. That intrigued me, and down a few rabbit holes later I was reading a sample of the novel on Amazon and didn't even reach the end before I knew I needed this book. Like yesterday.

Reserved a copy from the library, but then realized it wouldn't arrive for several days. That simply would not do. Cue quick trip to neighbouring bookstore after checking that it was indeed in stock. Frantic, immersive reading sessions ensues. Feelings of regret occur upon realizing the paperback I bought had a crappy glue job along the spine, which leads to the last twenty pages of the book falling out before I finish reading it, it's beyond saving. By this point I knew I was going to be buying a hardcover version, because I was already in love with it, but the only place that had a hardcover available was Book Depository (which is a great UK site I've used before, and they have free worldwide shipping). So close to $75 and several copies later (one which will have travelled across several countries by the time it gets to me), all for one book. 

That's how much I love this story.

However, I fully admit this book is only going to appeal to a very specific group of readers. 

The Starless Sea is laid out in six parts. The chapters within each part alternate between narrating a piece of the main story following Zachary, or presenting a fable or alternate narrative not from Zachary's perspective. Those interspersed fables come from the books Zachary reads within the novel, and are actually integral to the plot. For example, we the reader read about the contents of Sweet Sorrows, the book Zachary finds in his campus library, before we even meet Zachary himself. At first it can seem as if the main storyline is being interrupted by narratives that make no sense, until you realize that every detail in those interludes does eventually show up within the main storyline, everything is connected. So anyone who is not fond of the "story within a story" types of plots will probably not like this novel. That stuff's totally up my alley though, so I welcome it gladly. 

This novel is also quite meta, which some people will also dislike. If you're looking for a story that explains things definitively where nothing is left up to interpretation, this might not be the book for you. Even I had to go back to sections and reread parts in order to follow along with the parallel storylines that eventually converge. Though I was able to follow along pretty well, some people will find this confusing and get turned off of the story. 

Onto the good things though. This novel is a love letter to books and stories, an ode if you will (the writing even has a beautiful poetic quality to it). The fables interspersed with Zachary's story weren't really distracting for me because I loved them as much as Zachary's main story. The novel speaks of the nature of stories and the people who find refuge in them, and the descriptions of the library itself are like something from any of my wildest dreams. 

The characters are endearing, even the ones that are a bit flat at first because their full stories aren't revealed until close to the end. I have to give the author credit for making Zachary explicitly BIPOC and LGBTQ in the text, plus there's also some LGBTQ content mentioned in passing in some of the fables, which I appreciated too.

The writing is phenomenal, it sucks you in and immerses you completely in this world to the point where I almost caution people to read this over a few days where you don't have anything pressing to do, because you will be not be able to put it down. There's also a ton of quotable lines here, and this is a novel that will likely need multiple readings to fully catch everything. 

Some of my favourite excerpts include:

"There is no fixing. There is only moving forward in the brokenness" (378).

"This is not where our story ends, he writes. This is only where it changes" (476).

"Spiritual but not religious," Zachary clarifies. He doesn't say what he is thinking, which is that his church is held-breath story listening and late-night-concert ear-ringing rapture and perfect-boss fight button pressing. That his religion is buried in the silence of freshly fallen snow, in a carefully crafted cocktail, in between the pages of a book somewhere after the beginning but before the ending" (125-126).

And Dorian's "Once, very long ago, Time fell in love with Fate" fable that he whispers in Zachary's ear at the masquerade (pgs. 70-73). 

If you're a reader at your core, love stories, and still believe in magic (to the point where you check wardrobes for portals to Narnia like Zachary), you need to read this book. I'm not even doing the story justice here, so just trust me and give it a go. 

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the hardcover version (pictured above) with the keys in a black and gold colour scheme. But this little beauty, a UK exclusive that is sadly no longer available, is so. freaking. pretty:
(Image found here).