Wrap up

April 2023 Reading Wrap-Up

“Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.”

First line in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

We’ve made it to May and it’s now time for me to try and remember what on earth I did for the past 30 days. One thing I do remember is that my life pretty much peaked because I met Hanya Yanagihara, the author of A Little Life and To Paradise!! Finding out that she was coming to Denmark was such surreal news that I didn’t actually believe I was going to see her until I sat in that hall and she walked in. And she was amazing! The guy who interviewed her was absolutely terrible at his job but she was so good at talking unprompted and it was all really fascinating to hear what she had to say about her books. She also signed books afterward so I actually talked to her (!!), although all I said was “hi” and then “thank you so much” (the latter three times in ten seconds). As a person with social anxiety, I could have done a lot worse.

As for the rest of April, there was of course Easter, and Easter means family time so that was terrible so let’s skip past that. I also had another week off and the weather was just perfect during that week and only that week. Basically, I spent the week finding different cafés where I could sit outside and read. It was perfect.

So yes, I did also read in April, and as I mentioned in my previous wrap-up, the month was dedicated to some big books.

I’m satisfied with the number of pages I read considering how that average rating is telling you I clearly didn’t like what I was reading. And that rating doesn’t even include one of the books I didn’t like because that was City of Dragons by Robin Hobb and I’ve made the decision not to rate or review her books. One book saved me but still, it was a bad month reading-wise.
I only have three reviews for you this month but I also wrote half a novel for one of them so maybe that’s okay. Let’s get to them!

Chain of Thorns (The Last Hours #3)

Author: Cassandra Clare

Published: January 31st, 2023

Genre: YA Fantasy

My rating:

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

My thoughts

If I had to list all the things wrong with this book, we’d be here all day. I’m so shocked by how bad it was! Like, what happened?? It was like Cassandra Clare didn’t actually want to write this book so she just rushed through it and didn’t see the point of making an effort. The characters spent most of the book coming up with the most bizarre reasons for not telling each important stuff and oh look, everything goes to shit because people don’t have the information they need! It’s so stupid!

In the first two books, the side characters have been the selling point for me because James and Cordelia are the most boring main characters ever. I mean, half the side characters are queer, why are we following the straightest people in the story? However, this book seemed to fuck up the other characters too by making them very one-note. They kept having the same conversations over and over like Cassandra Clare wouldn’t dream of giving them more than one personality trait so there would be more to explore about their characters. They’re still not as boring as James and Cordelia though.

To give my thoughts on the trilogy overall, I don’t think it should have been written. I don’t think Clare actually had an idea for a plot for this trilogy. I think she had a vague idea about some character types she wanted to write about and thought that would be fine as long as she made a ton of references to other books in her universe. That can’t fill three huge books.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

Author: Mark Sullivan

Published: May 1st, 2017

Genre: Historical Fiction

My rating:

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Buzzwords: World War II, Italy, “based on a true story”

Synopsis: Based on the true story of a forgotten hero, Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the triumphant, epic tale of one young man’s incredible courage and resilience during one of history’s darkest hours. Pino Lella wants nothing to do with the war or the Nazis. He’s a normal Italian teenager—obsessed with music, food, and girls—but his days of innocence are numbered. When his family home in Milan is destroyed by Allied bombs, Pino joins an underground railroad helping Jews escape over the Alps, and falls for Anna, a beautiful widow six years his senior.

In an attempt to protect him, Pino’s parents force him to enlist as a German soldier—a move they think will keep him out of combat. But after Pino is injured, he is recruited at the tender age of eighteen to become the personal driver for Adolf Hitler’s left hand in Italy, General Hans Leyers, one of the Third Reich’s most mysterious and powerful commanders.

Now, with the opportunity to spy for the Allies inside the German High Command, Pino endures the horrors of the war and the Nazi occupation by fighting in secret, his courage bolstered by his love for Anna and for the life he dreams they will one day share.


My thoughts

This might be a bit long because I’m calling this book problematic and I never actually thought I would use that word about a book.

On Goodreads, Beneath a Scarlet Sky has over 300,000 ratings and an average of 4.42, which is extremely good. It’s set in Italy following Italian teenager Pino Lella who is a real person. The Italian setting and the promise of a true story were what drew me to the book because I know very little about that country during World War II. The problem is that there’s a whole lot of doubt about how true the book is to what actually happened.

The book begins with a preface that I reread upon finishing the book and it now reads as the author begging the reader to believe the contents of the book to be true. He says he has researched a lot (he just doesn’t mention what) and he considers the book to be a work of fiction, not non-fiction, although “it hews closely to what happened to Pino Lella.” He says that if he added anything it was only because of Pino’s lacking memory about specific dialogue or because he compressed events and characters to make the book work narratively (all fair). None of this explains why I just read a book that feels more unrealistic than most other fiction books I’ve read. It’s absurd! The sheer number of momentous events Pino witnesses due to rather convenient circumstances was enough to make me question the legitimacy of this “true story”-claim. The heroics he performs and his saint-like and flawless presentation make me feel very weird about this book. Especially because reading between the lines has me suspecting Pino wasn’t all that sympathetic.

There is no way to confirm whether Pino’s story is true or not, and I’ve seen some people speculate why he didn’t tell his story until after all the people who could confirm/debunk it were already dead. Do with that what you will. There are still some signs that this book is more a work of fiction than Sullivan wants you to believe and while I don’t want to go into specifics, I recommend you read this reddit post for an overview of the situation.

Why does all this matter? Well, for two reasons. One, any mention of the book in marketing purposes seems to start with the “based on a true story” part and that’s just poor taste if that’s incorrect, especially when the author in the preface claims he didn’t change any of the major events. Two, the book is set to get a mini-series adaptation with Tom Holland as the lead so before you get drawn in by his pretty British face, I think this controversy is important to be aware of (if you’re paying attention, it means we have an American writing an Italian story and a Brit playing an Italian teenager which is a whole different debate).

A book review? Right, that’s supposedly what I do here. Reviewing this as a work of fiction, the most important thing I have to say is that the writing is atrocious. It’s basic and amateurish in every way and none of the characters are compelling because of it. Pino sees a lot of horrors and he’s also very distraught in the situations, but as soon as the thing is over, he starts pinning after this woman he talked to for three minutes and who clearly rejected him. Like, it was really hard to believe that these events affected him all that much because he was so hung up on this woman whom he later develops a relationship with. I’m also doubting how true that relationship was because it reeks of wish fulfillment with how perfect it was, and as a woman, it was actually a little uncomfortable to read because I kept wondering how the woman would have told that story. She is dead now and can’t say anything.
Another thing that annoyed me was how American the book felt or at least how geared towards Americans it was. I can’t explain how exactly except mention one part of it. There was a particular emphasis on words such as “slavery” and “slaves”, but it was very obvious that Sullivan didn’t care to consider that those words don’t have the same connotations to Europeans as they do to Americans. Sure, Europeans know slavery is bad but Europe and Italy don’t have the American history with it in the same way. Then there’s also the whole thing about how “slave” wasn’t/isn’t the most common word to describe these people in Europe. They were more often “forced workers” doing “forced labor”, which is technically the same thing but the lack of those words just told me Sullivan was making a European story digestible to Americans. And that bothers me.

I did learn something about Italy and Milan during the war but if that’s all that sound appealing to you about this book, I recommend you find a different book about the topic. I’m sure any book about Italy during World War II is going to be better than this. That 4.42 average rating is truly mindboggling!

(Okay, I’m done now).

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Author: Susanna Clarke

Published: September 8th, 2004

Genre: Fantasy

My rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Buzzwords: Magicians, faeries, alternate English history, Napoleonic wars

Synopsis: The year is 1806. England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell, whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country.

Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange.

Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrell. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms that between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.


My thoughts

I’m so hyped about actually having made it through this giant book and finally understanding why it comes so highly recommended for fans of historical fantasy. It has everything you want from that genre. The magical elements and the historical elements are fully integrated and intertwined with each other and it was really fun to explore how a war could be fought when one side has magic, although magic with limitations and rules.

So let’s talk about the magic because even though it has rules, we as readers aren’t fully privy to those rules. It’s a world with a very academic approach to magic so it can almost feel like you’re reading one of those dark academia books where someone explains some theoretical concept and you just go “sure, mate” because it makes no sense to a layman. But I also really like that.

Underneath all the magic and the politics, the book fascinatingly explores what Englishness means and I think that’s why it is so well-regarded. The book feels so incredibly English that I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had started shouting profanities at me. And it doesn’t paint a picture-perfect image of England either. It pokes fun at the poshness and has a plot meant to highlight that not everyone in society gets their voices heard. It’s still very subtle and somehow done in an endearing way, which for some reason also feels very English. It was such a joy to read.

Finally, I want to make a comment on the writing because that’s pretty special. The book is set in the early 19th century and Clarke sort of emulates the writing of that time. I constantly had to remind myself that this was written in 2004 and I wasn’t actually reading a classic. However, I still found it a bit easier to read than most classics which I didn’t mind at all. The book is still dense and my edition was 1,100 pages so I didn’t need to it be even more difficult. And that’s my only complaint really; I could have done with a couple hundred pages less.

If you can’t guess what my favorite book of the month was, I don’t think you read the post. Like, how did I pick up TWO 1.5 star-reads in one month? But if you have an opinion on either of those books or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, please tell me about it! What do you think about Beneath a Scarlet Sky? How true does a story need to be before you can say it is “based on a true story”? Tell me your thoughts and happy reading in May!

5 thoughts on “April 2023 Reading Wrap-Up

  1. The minute I saw your rating for Chain of Thorns on StoryGraph, I was dying for your thoughts on it! So the public holiday today couldn’t have come at a better time! 😁 What you said unfortunately doesn’t sound very promising to me, either, though… Maybe I should just hope that my copy stays lost in the mail? 😅 (Yes, I’m still waiting, even though I even mustered the guts to make a phone call about the missing package after about three weeks 😬)

    However, even though I haven’t read the Beneath a Scarlet Sky myself, I might’ve enjoyed your rant on that one even more 😇 I have generally become very skeptical with Americans writing about World War II because, although there are exceptions like ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ (🥰), I feel like many of them turn it into this extremely simplistic “good Jew-saving ally soldier” against “inherently evil Nazis” narrative. And often only focus on action rather than the psychological impact of the war and of politics at the time, which is what I think is actually meaningful about those kinds of stories. But claiming something is based on a true story without giving any sources does sound pretty sketchy 🤔 Just write fiction and don’t pretend any differently, then!

    However, you’ve made me more interested in eventually trying Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I was skeptical after Piranesi, but this one actually sounds a lot more up my alley!

    Anyway – I hope meeting Hanya Yanagihara somewhat manages to make up for the fact that my shitty reading luck seems to have been passed on to you 🙈 Hopefully, next month will be better!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, maybe your copy of Chain of Thorns staying lost isn’t the worst thing that could happen 😬 I can definitely already tell you it wasn’t worth the phone call because I just cannot imagine you liking that book 😅

      With Beneath a Scarlet Sky, I also wondered what my opinion would have been if the story had been presented as fiction and not a true story, and honestly, the story is still too far-fetched to be believed even as fiction 🙈 This guy just meets everyone who is anything at that time! He talks to Mussolini several times, is taught to drive by a future Formula 1 champion, hears Hitler himself through a phone, works for “Hitler’s right-hand man” in Italy, and after the war, he meets James Dean and tells him not to drive a Porsche (Dean is later killed driving a Porsche). Even if the book is fiction, it’s set in a very real setting so it just has to be somewhat believable. How is ANY of that believable!?!
      The “inherently evil Nazis” was definitely also a thing the book wanted to push… and also that Pino was very much against them, which adds a little to the suspicion for me because it’s a story about him joining the Nazis voluntarily to protect himself. Then he turns spy but did he really?

      Before you go rushing off to find a copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I need to tell you that it has footnotes… I’m sorry 😅 I won’t even say you might like these ones because I really don’t think you will. However, I don’t think you not liking Piranesi matters much. The books are so different that it makes no sense to compare them like that. It’s like they’re written by two different authors.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I’m thinking I’m probably not going to read Beneath a Scarlet Sky. I’ll trust your opinion! 🤣🙈

        And nooooo, why are there footnotes?? 😭 But if the rest of the book is good, I guess I might be willing to put up with them…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Meeting authors is so fun and scary at the same time. It sucks that the interviewer wasn’t good, but since it all run smoothly, it must have been a great experience. Hey, if it’s any comfort, as a fellow social anxiety sufferer I almost forgot how to spell my own name when I met Ian McEwan and he asked for it to sign my books. So, yeah, you could have done a lot worse 😅

    I am so jealous of you managing four books in a month. I can’t even finish one. I’m sorry that you didn’t enjoy what you read, but I enjoyed reading the rants. This Beneath a Scarlet Sky book sounds like some kind of weird bad fanfiction, I can’t believe it manages to pass as a true story.

    Congrats to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on being the saving grace of your reading month! I’ve seen it floating around a lot in the community, but I think your review finally convinced me to consider giving it a chance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Meeting Yanagihara was definitely an experience I’ll cherish forever 🤗 Luckily, they gave us a small piece of paper to write our name on so she could just look at that when she signed them. Otherwise, I’d probably have been exactly like you in that situation 🙈

      I’m also shocked that so many people believe Beneath a Scarlet Sky is real, but maybe it’s all Americans who don’t know much about World War II. It’s just so strange that it’s also getting an adaptation!

      Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a book I’ve been putting off for a long time because it felt like such a big project. But I know you read more classics than I do so I think you’ll enjoy the writing a lot. I’d be really excited to hear your thoughts if you ever get to it 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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