Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

I read and loved the Six of Crows duology (reviewed here and here) last year, and I was curious about Leigh Bardugo’s first adult novel set outside of her Grishaverse series. Ninth House is about the eight most powerful secret societies at Yale and how each one specialises in a different type of arcana. Into this world of wealth, privilege and the occult, comes high school drop out and stoner Alex Stern who is admitted for one single reason: she can see ghosts. Alex is invited to join the Ninth House which oversees the rituals of all the other houses. Haunted by both the ghosts she can see on campus but also the mysteries of her past as the sole survivor of a gruesome multiple homicide, she finds herself investigating the murder of a girl on campus and unravelling a more sinister conspiracy in the process.

The narrative switches between Alex and her mentor, Darlington, which was a little confusing at first because Darlington’s narrative is all set in the past while Alex’s runs from the past to the present. This is incredibly well plotted and there are several different mysteries running through the story, the murder on campus, her mentor’s disappearence, the night Alex survived a multiple homicide that she has no memory of, and another related to one of the ghosts haunting New Haven that Alex accidentally befriends, yet the story has a very clever resolution and still sets itself up for a sequel too.

I loved the setting, the descriptions of Yale and New Haven, and the awkward juxtaposition of student life and frat parties with ghosts (or grays as they’re called in the story) and the occult practices of the secret societies. I also adored the characters from Alex who is just trying to survive and make the best of the second chance she’s been given, Darlington the gentleman scholar, and Dawes, the reticent PhD student who works as the Ninth House’s housekeeper to Turner the straight laced detective who is Yale’s liaison with the local police department and the ghost of a local murderer who wants to clear his own name.

I enjoyed Ninth House so much that I tracked down a second copy in hardbook to survive rereads and because I will definitely be buying the second part in the series in hardback as soon as it comes out rather than waiting for the paperback like I normally do. Ninth House was thrilling, original, addictive and delightfully macabre, it’s a story to keep you up reading late into the night but one that might give you a few nightmares too, and a perfect read for Halloween or a dark and stormy night. Have a lovely week. X

The Strawberry Thief by Joanne Harris

Set 17 years after Chocolat (reviewed here), The Strawberry Thief is the fourth book in the series; Vianne and her youngest daughter, Rosette, are still living above their chocolaterie in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes (while her oldest daughter, Anouk, lives in Paris with her boyfriend) and the local florist, Narcisse, causes a stir in the village when he dies and leaves part of his estate to Rosette. Lansquenet is still the same town full of gossip, secrets and simmering resentments, but there’s a new witch in town who threatens Vianne by bringing the winds of change with her and challenging her to face her fears.

The narrative switches between Vianne, Rosette, the priest Francis Renaud and Narcisse who leaves his final confession to Reynaud – though it changes hands a few times through the story. I love returning to these characters to see how they’ve grown and changed, both Vianne and her former nemesis Reynaud, have been humbled by their experiences over the years, and have forged a friendship with one another.

I especially appreciated Vianne’s perspective on motherhood, and that bittersweet mix of emotions between her fierce desire to protect her daughters and the sweet sorrow of watching them grow up and outgrow their need for their parents. Yet as Vianne realises that her fear of commitment is rooted in her fear of loss, her daughters teach her that change can be liberating, and that the past can’t be changed, nor the future controlled but the only time that really matters is now.

I’ve enjoyed all of these stories, finding them all so absorbing, easy to read, full of humour and wisdom, and as comforting as a cup of rich, spiced hot chocolate, yet they’re not without tension or conflict. The Strawberry Thief is a story of secrets and confessions, guilt and forgiveness, parents and children, friends and lovers, fear, loss, love and change. Have a lovely week. X

The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale

I was looking for something a little bit whimsical and magical to help me through the winter lockdown and picked up this because of comparisons to one of my favourites, The Night Circus (reviewed here).

The story of The Toymakers spans almost fifty years, starting in 1906 when sixteen year old Cathy runs away from home, answering an ad in the newspaper for a job in exchange for bed and board at Papa Jack’s Toy Emporium. Cathy finds a new home and family with Papa Jack and his sons, Kaspar and Emil, at the Toy Emporium until 1917 when the war intrudes on their safe, little world.

I loved the complexity of Kaspar and Emil’s relationship as the brothers compete for their father’s attention, praise and ultimately to become his successor, and there are parallels with the story of Cain and Abel here. I also appreciated the contrast between the magic, wonder and innocence of toys and the Emporium with the horror, suffering, violence and death of the Russian Katorga (penal labour camps) and the first World War. One of the brothers goes to war a charming, brilliant, young man but returns a shellshocked shadow of the toymaker, husband, father, son and brother he was. Yet even after the end of the Great War, the brothers’ own conflict continues right up to a bittersweet ending.

The Toymakers is an enchanting but haunting story of love, grief, family, secrets, toys and war. Have a lovely week. X

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I’ve been finding a lot of comfort in fiction lately and decided to re-read The Night Circus when I was in the mood for something whimsical and romantic. I first read The Night Circus back in 2013 but I’d forgotten almost everything about it and felt like I was discovering it all over again.

The story follows two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, bound together in a competition between the two rival magicians who trained them. The Night Circus or ‘La Cirque des Reves‘ becomes their battleground as they seek to find out who can create the most stunning illusions.

I was captivated from the very first page, drawn into a world full of illusionists, contortionists, acrobats, fortune tellers, costume designers, architects and clockmakers, and it’s full of sumptious descriptions of the costumes, food, perfomances and, of course, the illusions that Marco and Celia create. The plot is meandering but not uneventful or lacking in suspense or twists. I was enchanted by circus life, the competition and courtship between the protagonists, and I really didn’t want it to end.

The Night Circus is a delightful, whimsical and romantic story, and given that most of the story takes place at night is a perfect cosy, comfort read for long, dark winter evenings. Take care, and have a lovely week. X