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Illyria (or: why Elizabeth Hand rocks, part 97)

We at The English Bookshop are very proud to announce that Helena D. of Bokhora and Dark Places fame will start blogging with us occasionally.


Elizabeth Hand, IllyriaThere is a Morrissey song echoing at the back of my mind as I sit down and attempt to write something about Elizabeth Hand’s World Fantasy Award winner Illyria. “And I just can’t explain it, so I won’t even try to” - that’s from “Now My Heart Is Full”, the opening track of Mozzer’s 1994 album Vauxhall and I, but you already knew that, right? In any case, those lines very much apply to Illyria, as well. It seems to me that, sometimes, the more you enjoy something - a painting, a song, a book, a particularly beautiful sunset - the harder it is to convey it later, to those who weren’t there. I read Illyria in one delicious sweep during my summer holidays, in a hot tub of all places. (This, I realise, makes me sound like the Zsa Zsa Gabor of book blogging - oh, I wish!) 

It is a short and sweet read, just shy of 140 pages, so it’s a great book to take with you into the hot tub. Or, indeed, the bathtub if you feel slightly less extravagant. This is just one of many great things with Illyria. Here are a few more: it is a beautifully realised and unorthodox love story, as moving as it is exquisitely written. Like many other of Elizabeth Hand’s novels, it is an hommage to and testament of the raw power of art, with heaps of references to literature and culture that blend seamlessly into the story. (More where that came from if you read on!) You emerge from reading it with a strong sense of having read something magical. Truly good books create unique worlds that the reader dives into and doesn’t want to leave. As I got out of that hot tub, slightly dazed and looking every inch of a 5’6 prune, I had that exact feeling. Illyria is, I suppose, technically a young adult novel but it really is an ageless novel, both in terms of its target audience and life span. It is no secret that I worship the books of Elizabeth Hand, but this is the best one I have read so far (and by now, I have read almost all of them). On 8 September at 6.30 pm, I will be interviewing Elizabeth Hand at the Uppsala English Bookshop. If you want to read something of hers before then - and I really hope you do, no  pressure or anything - this is an ideal pick. If you think I’m being annoyingly vague on the plot, yes, you are correct. I happen to believe that the less you know what a book is about as you start reading it, the better. Not always, but with some books. When I picked up Illyria, I knew exactly four things about it: 

  1. That it, in some way, dealt with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (correct, as it turned out)
  2. That the two main protagonists were cousins (correct - of the kissing cousins variety)
  3. That it was of novella length (correct - and a very astute observation to make, I must say)
  4. That I would like it very, very much (also correct)

Now, that is pretty much what you need to know beforehand, as well. Oh, and if you’re already a big fan of Elizabeth Hand, you will enjoy noticing  all the essentially Hand-esque little details and themes (the art as a saviour and destroyer thing, the punk thing, the queer thing, the magical and unexplained teamed up with the achingly real... and, having recently read Glimmering, I particularly enjoyed that a decaying Yonkers mansion plays an important role). It is a wonderful introduction to the genre defying, darkly glorious brilliance that is Elizabeth Hand, and I can almost guarantee that you will read it in one sitting. (The hot tub part optional.)

Also recommended

Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand, Radiant Days

Another ageless YA novel from the ever prolific Hand, who has published three novels so far this year (one of them a reprint of Glimmering, a dystopic near future sci-fi novel that - surprise - also comes highly recommended). I love the idea behind this book: what if the lives of a teen artist from 1977 and one of history’s most famous and admired teen poets from the 1870’s somehow, by the power of their own art, intertwined? Radiant Days is a fantasy novel with strong literary and artistic themes, where struggling art student Merle - another one of Hand’s amicable screw-ups - meets Arthur Rimbaud (yes, THE Arthur Rimbaud). I was not quite as blown away as I was by Illyria but this is, no doubt about it, a tale brimming with creativity and magic, blessed with Hand’s usual stylistic elegance and flawed, beautifully real characters. As a bonus, it made me want to explore Rimbaud beyond what I’ve learned from Patti Smith (which is actually quite a lot, now that I think about it). 

Broken Harbour by Tana French

Broken Harbour by Tana French  The fourth, and eagerly awaited, installment of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series - which can be read separately, as each new book features a new main character, always someone who has had a smaller part in previous books  - just might be the best yet. On paper, Broken Harbour seemed like the perfect place to raise a family. Sea views, luxurious housing, and almost affordable prices made the Spain family leave central Dublin and put all their savings into what they thought would be their dream Home. A few years later, Broken Harbour not so much stands as stoops half-built, a victim of the financial crisis. Tragedy strikes as three members of the Spain family are found dead in their home, while the fourth one - Jenny, the mother - is rushed to hospital in critical condition. When the Dublin Murder Squad’s star detective Michael “Schorcher” Kennedy arrives at the crime scene, he has a pretty good idea of what happened inside the Spain residence. Or so he thinks... The Spain murder case will not only make Scorcher question everything he thought he knew about law enforcement work; it will also force him to dive back into his own traumatic past. 

Broken Harbour is a nail biter of a thriller as well as a gripping take on the financial crisis, marriage, and what happens when the divide between life as you dreamed it and life as it turned about becomes an abyss. There is no doubt in my mind that Tana French is one of the most talented crime writers out there today. I’m already looking forward to next book.

Die For You by Lisa Unger

Die For You by Lisa Unger  If you’re a fan of Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay, you should do yourself a favour and pick up a Lisa Unger novel. Like Coben and Barclay, she writes unputdownable thrillers with more loops ahead than a rollercoaster. At the core of most of her books is that most haunting of questions: can you ever truly know someone? The Hollows series, which to this date consists of two books (Fragile and Darkness, My Old Friend), is superior to the standalones I’ve read so far, but that doesn’t stop Die For You, a standalone set in Manhattan and Prague, from being a tense, fast-paced read. My next Lisa Unger novel will be her brand-new standalone, Heartbroken, which judging by the excerpt I’ve read may rival The Hollows books. It’s a great feeling to have found a new, reliable thriller writer, and page turner aspects aside, I especially like Unger’s sense of place. The settings of her books, whether a small, seemingly idyllic town or big, rambling city, always feel incredibly real and vivid. I'm a sucker for a great setting, so this is a big, big plus in my book. Another one to look out for!

The Uninvited Guests

This is an unususal and quite pleasant combination of a psychological chamber-drama, a ghost story and an Edwardian love story. Sometimes one is blown away by the lovely descriptions of clothes and old buildings and family history, and then suddenly the suspense creeps up and is quite breath-taking. A lovely, cosy book - with that extra twist - for dark autumn nights.

Beautiful Ruins

Another wonderful book by Jess Walter! Like no other author Jess Walter can describe normal, middle-aged people who have somehow let their lives slipped by and still make it an extraordiary reading experice. Beautiful Ruins is just such a book. Through several parallell stories we get to know people, their past and present, what they wish their lives to be, and what they have actually become. This really shouldn't make for a good reading, but it does, and even thinking back on the book now, it gives me a warm, glowing feeling of happiness with my own, very ordinary, middle-aged life. Though everything is not perfect, there are certainly some things that are very good! Heartily recommended!

El Gavilan

I love small publishers; you can find some true gems on their lists; a voice you would never have heard otherwise. El Gavilan is a bleak crime novel set in Ohio with the topic being latino immigration and racism  - both personal and institutional. It is gripping and well written and makes you think. What more can you ask? I'm not entirely certain I like how the book pans out but at the same time I'm not sure I was supposed to! Recommended!

Black Light

I've had this book lying around for quite a while and just picked it up to brush up on Liz Hand's work before her visit in the shop on September 8. This is vintage Hand; dark, gothic, filled with historical and literary references and allusions as well as youth angst, drugs, sex and well darkness. It is VERY well written and quite captivating. The film tangent reminded me of Flicker for some reason. I liked it! (Oh and it's not in print at the moment, but drop us a line and we'll get you a nice second-hand copy if you're interested. You should be...)

Charlie Hood

Over the last 2 weeks I've reacquainted myself with one of my favourite writers; T. Jefferson Parker. He's been writing excellent Southern California crime writing for almost 30 years since his debut in 1985 with Laguna Heat. Lately his writing has been very much about a young police officer named Charlie Hood. I have just broken one of my long standing rules, which is do NOT read several books by the same author in a row. I have found in the past that this will almost always effectively make you disenchanted with that author. But nevertheless I just finished reading four Charlie Hood novels back to back, and they were all excellent! I read LA Outlaw a few years back and so this time I read The Renegades, Iron River, Border Lords and The Jaguar. The writing is great and as these novels progress they become more and more about Mexico and also increasingly a reflection on the nature of good and evil. They are so exciting and so well penned that I cannot recommend them heartily enough. And they just get better and better. Read these!

Before I Go To Sleep

One of the most thrilling books I have ever read! If you're looking for well-written suspense - this is the book for you! Quite breath-taking and absolutely absorbing.

The Seven Wonders

I love the historical crime novels of Steven Saylor. Gordianus the Finder is a wonderfully wraught character, Saylor spins expert webs of mystery in his stories and the history of the pieces is nothing short of excellent. As far as I can tell. They're wonderfully snug vibrant, lusty, curious, alive novels and I always look forward to a new one appearing. The Seven Wonders is a prequel to the other novels; it takes place when Gordianus is a mere 18 years old and travels around the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World with his tutor Antipater of Sidon. As we get to know the wonders as they stood at that time Gordianus also solves a new mystery at each one. But perhaps there's a great one tying them all together....? Read this, it's so enjoyable and you (at least I) learn a lot along the way. The best kind of historical crime novel.  

Jellicoe Road

This is an absolute must-read! A moving story about being a teenager and finding new pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that's your past, to figure out your presence and having to make decisions that might change your entire future. One of the most talked- and blogged-about books in Sweden this summer - and very well deserved!


The most eagerly awaited UK novel of 2012. I liked it, Mr Cleave's characters come off as very believable and though I've never followed athletic cycling (which is the setting of the novel although it's not what it's about...) I really enjoyed this. There are bits when I feel ever-so-slightly emotionally manipulated, but the topics touched upon ARE heart-wrenching so perhaps it's not so suprising. The writing is often pitch-perfect and the roller-coasters of feeling we're subjected to are fascinating and, yes , gripping.