Review: “Fools And Mortals” by Bernard Cornwell

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Hardcover: 384 pages

Publisher: Harper

Release Date: 9th January 2018

3 STARS

SET IN LONDON (1597)

 

 

The King of the historical fiction genre has returned with a stand-alone novel re-telling the first staging of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and I practically ran to the bookstore to buy it. How could I resist? I’m a massive Cornwell fan, he’s one of the few authors where I will actively go out and buy the hardback rather than wait for the paperback and this looked like it ticked all my boxes – Cornwell’s usual eye for detail with setting and description, theatre and adventure all rolled up together.

The Blurb: In the heart of Elizabethan England, Richard Shakespeare dreams of a glittering career in one of the London playhouses, a world dominated by his older brother, William. But he is a penniless actor, making ends meet through a combination of a beautiful face, petty theft and a silver tongue. As William’s star rises, Richard’s onetime gratitude is souring and he is sorely tempted to abandon family loyalty.

So when a priceless manuscript goes missing, suspicion falls upon Richard, forcing him onto a perilous path through a bawdy and frequently brutal London. Entangled in a high-stakes game of duplicity and betrayal which threatens not only his career and potential fortune, but also the lives of his fellow players, Richard has to call on all he has now learned from the brightest stages and the darkest alleyways of the city. To avoid the gallows, he must play the part of a lifetime . . . .

It hurts me to say this but… I didn’t love this book. I liked it. It was an enjoyable read but no fires were lit and I’m not sure I will remember anything about the characters in three months time.

Lord, what fools these mortals be…

This is Cornwell’s first foray into Elizabethan England and rather than his usual confident ease with the periods he explores, he’s succumbed to the author’s trap of trying to explain and describe every detail for a modern audience. It surprised me that he did this as it’s not a feature of this other novels – he never explains what Saxon terms are in The Saxon Chronicles and it feels a little heavy handed here, like he doesn’t trust us to be able to work out from context what things are.

His use of language and dialogue remains excellent though. Cornwell really goes to town with the rich bawdy insults that Shakespeare was famous for. In fact, these hilarious turns of phrase are probably the most entertaining part of the book. The characters never feel stilted in their dialogue and it flows well with plenty of witty to and fro. The problem is that you never really get past this to characters that you really care about.

Richard Shakespeare is William’s younger more annoying brother. This wouldn’t be an issue except that he narrates the entire story. It’s an interesting angle to present Shakespeare (the older) as a violent, difficult man but much of it is tainted by the petulant, bitter observations of the younger Shakespeare, although this does definitely improve as the narrative unfolds – the main action of the book takes off half way through and everything is on the up from there on out.

Overall, this is a good romp through a new era for Cornwell but doesn’t really hold a torch to his longer series. You won’t come away loving the characters or feeling particularly invested, which is a shame.

If you want classic Cornwell you’re better off sticking with The Saxon Chronicles or the Sharpe series.

Review: “Notes On My Family” by Emily Critchley

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Paperback: 263 pages

Publisher: Everything With Words

Release Date: 20th November 2017

5 STARS

 

“Notes On My Family” is a wonderful, funny, heart breaking YA novel published at the end of last year by the very talented Emily Critchley. Portraying an autistic narrator has a very specific set of challenges for an author, not only do you need to tread the line between being candid and being sensitive, but you also need to avoid the massive pot hole of ‘basically Curious Incident’.

The Blurb: Enter the world of Louise Coulson through her notes on her family, school and friends. Lou is thirteen years old, a perceptive and observant outsider, somewhere on the autism spectrum. She takes notes as if she were holding a film camera silently fixed on a world that tends to ignore her. Meet her dad who is in a relationship with a sixth former, Sarah her moody sister, Mikey her gay brother, her mum who has a ‘brief psychotic episode’, her nan who goes to séances, her friend Faith who has six ‘parents’ (all gay) and Lou’s family (and dog) in her alternative universe. Told in the present tense so that you feel that you are right there and sprinkled with Lou’s inimitable asides.

Lou is taking notes as everything happens, interweaving comments and dialogue to create a narrative that’s fast, subtle and convincing.

This novel tackles a wide range of issues that are relevant to the target readers – younger teens. The fact that Lou is autistic is never explicitly stated, nor does it need to be. Her autism is not the issue at hand for the majority of the book and its portrayal never gets in the way of you understanding the delightfully funny and caring person that Lou is. What it does give us is a hilariously upfront and unsweetened view of Lou’s world and the chaos that often seems like it’ll engulf her.

There is nothing like fresh pyjamas to cheer one up and to help one face the world.

There are moments that are truly awful – the incident in the girls’ changing room for one, and Critchley does a fabulous job of pulling every one of your heart strings, but ultimately the story is an uplifting one. The characters are wonderfully drawn, flaws and all, but it is Lou that you just want to scoop up and protect (although she’d hate that, so probably just a fist bump instead…)

This is exactly the sort of book young readers should be accessing. It has a strong sense of embracing difference, without ever being worthy or patronising and it never ‘tries to be cool’ – the death knell of adult written teen dialogue…

Overall, this is a compassionate and witty look at family life through the eyes of a very unique and observant narrator. Definitely one for your kids’ bookshelves.

As a side note, Emily is also a wonderful photographer… check out her Instagram – emily.critchley

@EmilyMCritchley

www.emilycritchley.com

Blog Tour: “Disturbing Works Vol.1” by Jon Richter

 

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Kindle: 144 pages

Release Date: 12th August 2017

5 STARS

 

Thanks to Jon Richter and Jenny of Neverland Blog Tours for the review copy.

 

Jon Richter’s fabulous collection of unsettling and engrossing short stories sits squarely somewhere between Roald Dahl’s “Tales of the Unexpected” and Charlie Brooker’s “Black Mirror”. Neatly crafted and without exception skin crawlingly compulsive to read they whip through epic fantasy to sci-fi to horror without any chance to draw breath, and yet you never feel that you’ve been cheated on detail or that the characters and settings are anything other than deeply drawn.

The Blurb: The first volume of my Disturbing Works is a collection of twelve twisted tales perfect for people who like their stories dark, despicable, and deeply unsettling.  Containing fantasy, sci-fi, dark humour and a lot of deliciously nasty horror, it should have something for every reader that has a sinister side and nerves of steel…

I have a love hate relationship with short stories – particularly anthologies. Too often they are patchy in quality, or a series of interesting ideas that are never quite brought to fruition. It’s not the case with these.

Richter’s use of language is wonderful, verging on poetic at times, which just makes the cruel juxtaposition with the content all the more dark and delicious. Bizarre and gruesome at every turn, Richter is able to immerse us in a wide variety of places – including Japan, North London and Outer Space…(!) seamlessly. Right from the opening with “Vengeance” you realise what you’re in for – Richter pulls no punches. This is full of well crafted cliffhangers that don’t feel contrived but leave you wanting more and clever structures and humour that stop the stories from ever falling into repetition. I really want him to develop “Something Waits” into a full blown feudal fantasy novel!

Many of the stories deal with suitably dark themes – possession, the dark side of relationships, fear of the unknown, rage, violence and revenge, but often the most engaging stories focus on the characters and their choices. To shoot or not. To act or not. To open that door or not. And it’s the fall out of these choices that Richter delights in  – this man loves to torture his characters! If you love Netflix’s “Black Mirror” there is plenty for you here. In several stories we see the collision between modern technology and the darkness it could bring into our lives in the near future… terrifying.

This collection really does have something for everyone. There are diverse characters and settings, a range of exciting genres and each is just long enough to keep you happy on your tube commute.

You can buy “Disturbing Works Vol.1” now on Amazon for the ridiculously bargainous price of 99p.

 

@richterwrites

www.jon-richter.com

 

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Jon Richter lives in London and spends most of his time hiding in the guise of his sinister alter ego, an accountant called Dave.  When he isn’t counting beans, he is a self-confessed nerd who loves books, films and video games – basically any way to tell a good story.  Jon writes whenever he can and hopes to bring you more disturbing stories in the very near future.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: “The Silent Companions” by Laura Purcell

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Hardcover: 384 pages

Publisher: Raven Books

Release Date: 5th October 2017

5 STARS

SET IN ENGLAND (fictional Fayford)

 

So I’ve made a sneaky side step from the magical to the mysterious with this chilling Gothic tale that perfectly blends Henry James’s “The Turn Of The Screw” with Susan Hill’s “The Woman In Black”. If you like to give yourself the heebie-jeebies then this is the tale for you. Just make sure you keep the lights on…

The Blurb: Newly married, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling country estate, The Bridge.

With her new servants resentful and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie only has her husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. For inside her new home lies a locked room, and beyond that door lies a two-hundred-year-old diary and a deeply unsettling painted wooden figure – a Silent Companion – that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself.

I should admit here that I am terrible with scary. I have a wildly overactive imagination. Quelle surprise. So why on earth would I pick this up? The Twitter storm surrounding its release went some way to explain it… and then, to be honest… I was completely suckered by the beautiful, beautiful cover. How bad could it be? I thought. You’ve sat through The Woman In Black in the West End at least five times you complete wuss! Get a grip! Look at that gorgeous frontage – nothing bad could be contained within such a delightful facade… (Note to self: you’ve read Dorian Grey you complete chump – have you learnt nothing about the evil within) Yeah well I managed to spook myself out admirably. In fact, I had to send my husband upstairs to switch on all the lights before I went to bed, which is quite honestly pathetic and embarrassing for a grown woman. And yet I still LOVED it.

Laura Purcell’s novel taps into many of the Gothic genre’s requisite themes – the unreliable narrator, female power and hysteria, a suitably decrepit country pile on a lonely, muddy moor… but it always feels fresh and engrossing. Focusing on terror rather than horror, the book is a slow burner (the irony of this will be apparent when you read it…) in the first few chapters but my God does she pick up the pace. It was almost impossible to put down.

Purcell’s narrative moves effortlessly between 1865 and 1635. She deploys a clever change of voice between these sections and it immerses you fully in each era. The characters are perfect foils for each other, quirky without ever being caricatures and you grow to really invest in them which of course makes the unfolding plot all the more unnerving.

This novel is perfect for winter nights and for fans of classic, claustrophobic Gothic fiction. The whole thing is cleverly put together, never lags and never feels contrived – which for this genre is really saying something. I can’t wait for Purcell’s next offering – “The Corset”.

@spookypurcell

http://www.laurapurcell.com

 

Review: “The Rules Of Magic” by Alice Hoffman

 

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Hardcover: 369 pages

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Release Date: 10th October 2017

4 STARS

SET IN NEW YORK CITY AND MASSACHUSETTS

 

I’m struggling to remember the last time I read a book that didn’t have magic in it…. This hasn’t been an intentional decision – maybe it’s just the autumnal weather kicking in, but it has had the beneficial side effect of immersing me in literary depictions of otherworldliness and getting me to think about what I do, and definitely do not, like about how the extraordinary is dealt with by authors.

The Blurb: For the Owens family, love is a curse that began in 1620, when Maria Owens was charged with witchery for loving the wrong man.

Hundreds of years later, in New York City at the cusp of the sixties, when the whole world is about to change, Susanna Owens knows that her three children are dangerously unique. Difficult Franny, with skin as pale as milk and blood red hair, shy and beautiful Jet, who can read other people’s thoughts, and charismatic Vincent, who began looking for trouble on the day he could walk.

From the start Susanna sets down rules for her children: No walking in the moonlight, no red shoes, no wearing black, no cats, no crows, no candles, no books about magic. And most importantly, never, ever, fall in love. But when her children visit their Aunt Isabelle, in the small Massachusetts town where the Owens family has been blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong, they uncover family secrets and begin to understand the truth of who they are. Back in New York City each begins a risky journey as they try to escape the family curse.

The Owens children cannot escape love even if they try, just as they cannot escape the pains of the human heart. The two beautiful sisters will grow up to be the revered, and sometimes feared, aunts in Practical Magic, while Vincent, their beloved brother, will leave an unexpected legacy.

Alice Hoffman’s writing is really lovely and I mean that in every sense of the word. There is a softness and lyricism to the way she describes scenes, a focus on the senses and how they mix with emotions for the characters. She’s able to deal with difficult situations for the characters in a way that touches you but doesn’t have the brutal edge that lots of authors seek in an attempt to make their writing ‘hard-hitting’ or ‘gritty’. Hoffman weaves her words around you like a spell and draws you in gently.

I wasn’t massively enamoured of the characters in the beginning and it took me a little while to settle into this novel. It is a prequel to Hoffman’s wildly successful “Practical Magic” and I must confess that whilst I’ve seen the 90s movie adaptation with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman (and that took me until last month…) I have never read the original. Perhaps this was why I found the connections a little tricky – I wasn’t already invested in these characters. In the end didn’t even really notice being sucked in. I suddenly realised that I was half way through. And it was dark outside.

Hoffman deals with the supernatural elements superbly. There are plenty of magical shenanigans but it never seems to tip over into the absurd. The fact that the three siblings each go on a journey with their discoveries and that their relationships with magic are heavily influenced by their different approaches to life keeps it grounded and stops it becoming boring. There is no ‘magical fix’ for the obstacles they need to overcome and Hoffman grows the characters throughout the story really effectively as they realise this themselves.

Overall this is a really gorgeously descriptive novel that transports you to 1960s New York. There’s no need to have read “Practical Magic” to enjoy it and if you’re new to Hoffman’s writing this is a great place to start.

 

@ahoffmanwriter

www.alicehoffman.com

The Month In Books: August 2017

It’s great to be finally back in the swing of things (sort of) post baby and I actually managed to read enough books to justify a Month In Books post! I realise that most of these are fairly dark in nature, often with a bit of death and paranormal goings on thrown in for luck, which means that this list is probably more appropriate to an October pickings, but ho hum… And whilst they might not be summer beach reads, most of these books are good for being curled up under a blanket with whilst it’s gloomy outside – perfect if you’re looking for something for the next couple of months yourself.

 

The Shadowy Horses – Susanna Kearsley      ****

15715406I’d read Kearsley’s first paranormal time slip novel “The Winter Sea” back in February and enjoyed it. This is better. The novel follows archaeologist Verity Grey as she gets drawn into investigating the vanishing of the Ninth Legion in the Scottish Borders, guided by the mysterious appearances of a ghostly Roman sentinel. Kearsley manages to create a really engaging plot, which for all the spooky elements, is more plausible than that of “The Winter Sea”. The characters are interesting, there’s a dash of romance and plenty of wild landscapes to keep the locationists happy. A really enjoyable read – especially if you’ve binged out on “Outlander” and need something else to whet your appetite before Season 3 starts later this month.

 

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward     *****

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I received a copy of this book as my very first ARC (blogging milestone, made me very excited!) and I didn’t even realise until last week when I checked into Netgalley to have a look around. I’m gutted that I left it sat there for so long as it’s one of my favourite books I’ve read this year. The novel is a beautifully poetic Southern Gothic that grabs you right from the opening with a very strong sense of voice and character. The descriptions are visceral, the magic realism flawlessly woven in and the changes in character narration never jar. Everyone should read this novel. Read my full review here.

 

The Edinburgh Dead – Brian Ruckley     ***

9737151I came across this novel in Waterstone’s on Princes Street in Edinburgh this summer whilst I was looking for something to complement Kaite Walsh’s “Wages of Sin” (another cracking read btw). What sets out as a Victorian style murder mystery quickly escalates into something more sinister. Plenty of famous Edinburgh scoundrels make their appearances in this ghostly, grave robbing tale – Burke and Hare, Robert Knox and Major Thomas Weir all seek to confound our intrepid investigator. This is an enjoyable novel but not anything particularly special. It would be a good pick for a long train journey or a quick filler between more heavy literary fiction tomes.

 

Plantation – Dorothea Benton Frank     **

65401I am afraid I didn’t manage to finish this novel – it just really wasn’t my thing at all. With the arrival of bubs and a massive TBR I just can’t spend time wading through books that I’m not enjoying. This appeared to be a fairly classic style beach read – light and frothy, dealing with family drama and plenty of slightly awkwardly written romance thrown in. I was hoping for something that would give me a good sense of place for a Great Reads in Great Places post in South Carolina and regrettably this is not it.

 

 

The House Between Tides – Sarah Maine    ****

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This was a ‘cover love’ pick – I just adored the moody and atmospheric artwork. From the blurb and the isolated misty house on the front, I thought that this was going to be creepier than it turned out to be. I had an idea in my head that it was going to be more of a “The Woman In Black” style Gothic novel, and whilst it wasn’t that at all, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a very well written story that really captures the landscapes and characters of the Outer Hebrides. Read my full review here.

 

 

The Witchfinder’s Sister  – Beth Underdown     ****

31377300This book follows the witch hunts of East Anglia from the point of view of Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins’ widowed sister Alice. There is very little historical fact known about the man, although detailed records of his interrogations and the resulting executions do exist. Underdown succeeds in bringing to life a dark period in British history and creates a good sense of creeping fear as we realise what Hopkins is up to and see how his sister is gradually dragged further and further into his madness. Read my full review here.

 

 

Sealskin – Su Bristow     *****

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I loved, loved, loved this book. I’ve been on a bit of a magical realism bent of late and this was perfect. Bristow brings to life the traditional Scots / Norse legends of the Selkie women – seals who shed their skins and transform into women, and explores the impact of a stranger on a small island community. This was the first Orenda published book I’d read and if it’s an indicator of the quality and style of their authors I’ll be picking up more. Read my full review here.

Review: “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward

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Hardcover: 304 pages

Publisher: Scribner

Release Date: 5th September 2017

5 STARS

SET IN MISSISSIPPI

 

What can I say – one of the best novels of the year so far. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is part Southern Gothic, part American road novel, part Steinbeck-esque story of people and place. It explores not only the family dynamic of Jojo, his grandparents and his drug addicted mother, but also their ties through the ages – to the dead and the living.

The Blurb: A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward.

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

The scope of this novel is vast and yet it feels intimate right from the opening pages. Through Jojo’s description of helping his grandfather kill and gut a goat we are very quickly drawn into the poor, rural, Southern setting and Jojo’s relationships with his sister, grandfather and mother. Ward’s descriptions and observations are visceral and unadorned with sentiment, yet we feel immense sympathy for the young man she presents. She at once paints a very personal picture of Jojo’s family life and also shows us the broader legacy of slavery and racism in the South.

Jojo’s mother, Leonie is a drug addict and hopelessly in love with the white father of her children. Rejected by his racist family, Leonie spirals deeper into addiction, haunted by the ghost of her brother who was killed by her lover’s cousin. Ward presents a character here who is pitiful and a terrible mother. She is incapable of acting in a way that is unselfish and frequently places her own desires above those of her children. What is so effective about Ward’s characterisation is that Leonie is not villified. She is just flawed and human and exposed to us with all her failings on display.

I was worried that Ward might try to cram in too much – this book was billed as drawing on The Odyssey after all – and not give us time to bond with the characters, especially Jojo, in her drive to link the characters to other points in time, but she does this superbly. The frequent jumps in time and narrator do nothing but enhance a rich tapestry of story. The magical realism elements are seamlessly interwoven with the main narrative and we accept without question the spectre of Richie and the tale he tells of Riv, Jojo’s Pop, and their imprisonment in Parchment which leads to the dramatic conclusion of the novel.

This is such a gorgeously written book – poetic but flowing, contemporary and timeless. I would urge everyone to read it.

 

@jesmimi

 

I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley in return for an honest review.

 

 

Review: “The Witchfinder’s Sister” by Beth Underdown

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Hardback: 304 pages

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Release Date: 25th May 2017

4 STARS

SET IN ESSEX, SUFFOLK, NORFOLK

 

A new perspective on one of Britain’s darkest periods of history. Before the Salem witch trials there was Matthew Hopkins – Britain’s self-appointed Witchfinder General. This chilling tale looks at what happened in the years between 1645 and 1647 when he held sway over East Anglia, through the eyes of his widowed sister Alice.

The Blurb: The number of women my brother Matthew killed, so far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six…

1645. When Alice Hopkins’ husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.

But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women’s names.

To what lengths will Matthew’s obsession drive him?
And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?

Not much is known about Hopkins historically speaking, and even less about any family he had. This gives Underdown plenty of scope to create her characters and to bring a chilling humanity to Hopkins, a man responsible for the deaths of over 300 women – more than all previous witch hunters in the 160 years preceding.

I particularly enjoy historical fiction from a female perspective as so often their stories are overlooked. Sometimes it can create narrative problems for authors though – how do you keep a female character in the centre of action that would probably only have included men at the time? Underdown navigates this successfully in the main. She uses Hopkins’ early absences and the slow trickle of information about what he’s up to to great effect in building suspense. The reader realises the scale and horror as the protagonist does which serves to draw you in. We sympathise with Alice as she struggles to work against her brother, constantly being thwarted by societal convention and her brother’s cold and controlling actions. Underdown also does a good job of balancing a historical tone in her language without losing pace or sounding contrived. Alice comes across as relatable but of her time, which is great.

Without going into details (no spoilers here!) the ending was frustrating and the thing that stops this getting a higher rating from me. I understand why it unfolded as it did… I just found it unsatisfying and one of the moments where the above problem wasn’t dealt with as well as earlier in the book. There is also a supernatural element that’s intriguing but never really goes anywhere – I really wish the writer had pursued this more.

Overall an enjoyable read but not a favourite.

 

www.bethunderdown.co.uk

@bethunderdown

 

Review: “Sealskin” by Su Bristow

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Paperback: 276 pages

Publisher: Orenda Books

Release Date: 1st May 2017

5 STARS

SET IN THE HEBRIDIAN ISLANDS, WEST COAST OF SCOTLAND

 

I picked up this book after a relentless Twitter campaign by Orenda Books and their affiliated bloggers and I’m very pleased I did. It’s a beautifully written piece of magic realism that captures both the timeless quality of the selkie legends and the claustrophobia of small island living.

The Blurb: Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous, and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives—not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence?

Based on the legend of the selkies—seals who can transform into people—evokes the harsh beauty of the landscape, the resilience of its people, both human and animal, and the triumph of hope over fear and prejudice. With exquisite grace, Su Bristow transports us to a different world, subtly and beautifully exploring what it means to be an outsider, and our innate capacity for forgiveness and acceptance. Rich with myth and magic, Sealskin is, nonetheless, a very human story, as relevant to our world as to the timeless place in which it is set.

I was wondering when this book arrived if it could live up to the rapturous quotations on the back cover – “exquisite” gushed Louise Beech, “haunting… and evocative” raved Off-The-Shelf Books, and they weren’t alone – the back cover of this novel is jammed with effusive praise for the dreamlike prose and skilful narrative. I wasn’t disappointed. I even recommended it to my sister who is a notoriously picky former literature student that I never dare push books towards.

The story follows a young fisherman called Donald Macfarlane who uses violent means to take possession of a young selkie girl who he sees dancing on the beach in the moonlight. So far, so traditional…

Bristow moves beyond the Scots and Norse selkie legends though and unfolds a tale of community and coming-of-age that sees Donald live with the consequences of his actions and it is this that makes the story so compelling. You’d think that you would struggle to empathise with a character who starts out so unsympathetically as Donald. He’s weak and selfish and whilst he struggles to find his place in the practical and often harsh community he lives in, this is not enough to redeem him in the reader’s eyes at the start of the book. It is testament to Bristow’s skill as a storyteller that you can be slowly won round as Donald seeks to make amends for his initial actions.

The language and imagery is gorgeous throughout the novel and it is easy to get swept away. I read the whole thing in two sittings – I was desperate to see the story unfold, yet it never felt rushed. That’s the real magic of it.

A beautiful book that really did live up to its hype.

 

http://subristow.weebly.com/

@SuBristow

 

Review: “We Were The Lucky Ones” by Georgia Hunter

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Hardback: 416 pages

Publisher: Viking

Release Date: 14th February 2017

5 STARS

SET ACROSS EUROPE

I am afraid that I am guilty of that most heinous of book crimes in the case of this novel – I judged this book by its cover and I couldn’t have been more wrong. “This will be a fairly quick easy read,” I thought, assuming that it was probably going to be one of those generic historical fiction novels that seem to all have the same sepia covers and semi handwritten title font. “It’s got one of those ‘airport’ covers – the sort of thing you can whizz through on a sun lounger on a package holiday,” and whilst I was expecting some weight from the subject matter, after all any novel dealing with the Holocaust is unlikely to be ‘light’, I wasn’t expecting to find the truly remarkable story that I did and the fact that it has its roots in the author’s real family history is even more extraordinary.

The Blurb: It is the spring of 1939 and three generations of the Kurc family are doing their best to live normal lives, even as the shadow of war grows closer. The talk around the family Seder table is of new babies and budding romance, not of the increasing hardships threatening Jews in their hometown of Radom, Poland. But soon the horrors overtaking Europe will become inescapable and the Kurcs will be flung to the far corners of the world, each desperately trying to navigate his or her own path to safety.

As one sibling is forced into exile, another attempts to flee the continent, while others struggle to escape certain death, either by working grueling hours on empty stomachs in the factories of the ghetto or by hiding as gentiles in plain sight. Driven by an unwavering will to survive and by the fear that they may never see one another again, the Kurcs must rely on hope, ingenuity, and inner strength to persevere.

A novel of breathtaking sweep and scope that spans five continents and six years and transports readers from the jazz clubs of Paris to Krakow’s most brutal prison to the ports of Northern Africa and the farthest reaches of the Siberian gulag, We Were the Lucky Ones demonstrates how in the face of the twentieth century’s darkest moment, the human spirit can find a way to survive, and even triumph.

“I would like to add that, even in the darkness, I see your love. Inside, you are full, and through your eyes, it shines.”

I seem to have been reading lots of books recently that are structured around the multi-perspective premise – perhaps this is the cool new literary thing. Unfortunately it can be such a hard thing to pull off as it can prevent pace, flow and narrative development if an author is not careful. Hunter does a brilliant job of manipulating this for her own ends here though. It really gives the feeling that the members of the family are scattered to the winds. They vanish and reappear throughout the novel and this serves to really draw you into the sense that this actually happening, that people were often suddenly missing, that they would disappear and perhaps reappear with little notice and adding to the hauntingly realistic portrayal of how families were displaced throughout Europe as they sought to survive. This is compounded by the unusual use of present tense throughout which gives the writing an immediacy and draws you in even more.

The writing is without exception vivid and emotional. It’s not often that I actually find myself crying whilst reading a book but there were several moments throughout this one that had me reaching for the tissues. I honestly can’t believe that this is a debut novel, the writing is so self-assured. Hunter has these beautiful moments of humanity that shine through all the dire events that unfold and you are always on the edge of your seat, waiting for the characters to be discovered.

Overall this is a strong piece of storytelling – emotional, beautifully written and actually lives up to the hype and quotations on the back.

www.georgiahunterauthor.com

@Georgia_Hunter

YA Review: “Gilded Cage” by Vic James

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Hardback: 368 pages

Publisher: Del Rey Books

Release Date: 14th February 2017

4.5 STARS

SET IN DYSTOPIAN ENGLAND

If Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games had a baby – this would be it…

The Blurb: Not all are free. Not all are equal. Not all will be saved.

Our world belongs to the Equals — aristocrats with magical gifts — and all commoners must serve them for ten years. But behind the gates of England’s grandest estate lies a power that could break the world.

A girl thirsts for love and knowledge.

Abi is a servant to England’s most powerful family, but her spirit is free. So when she falls for one of the noble-born sons, Abi faces a terrible choice. Uncovering the family’s secrets might win her liberty, but will her heart pay the price?

A boy dreams of revolution.

Abi’s brother, Luke, is enslaved in a brutal factory town. Far from his family and cruelly oppressed, he makes friends whose ideals could cost him everything. Now Luke has discovered there may be a power even greater than magic: revolution.

And an aristocrat will remake the world with his dark gifts.

He is a shadow in the glittering world of the Equals, with mysterious powers no one else understands. But will he liberate—or destroy?

All the hallmarks for brilliant dystopian teen fantasy are here: ruling elite vs quasi-industrial oppressed proletariat – check; technology used to control characters but also change the game – check; love across the magical divide – check.

It always takes me a little while to settle into fantasy fiction; I think I find the unusual names everyone has a bit of a stretch at first, but this novel gripped me right from the start, a few pages in and I knew I wanted to want to plow on through. I actually read this in two sittings which is unusual for me as I tend to pick things up and put them down again over several days.

The multiple perspectives approach that the book is written in is interesting and gives a rounded narrative that you don’t often get. On the downside, there are so many storylines that it can be a struggle to really invest at this early stage in all of them and whilst James does a great job of cutting between these, the love story, for example, needs a bit more development. I suspect though that this will be rectified over the course of the next two books as we get to know the characters in more depth. Got to love a series!

The characters themselves are very well drawn and there’s plenty of variety. I love the fact that the villains are unpredictable and not the solely cruel and pitiless cardboard cutouts you can get in this genre. James balances it so that just as you think they’re irredeemably awful they give you just a glimpse of something better and reel you back in. The two main ‘good’ characters, Abi and Luke, go through some pretty big changes and I’m really looking forward to seeing how this will develop later. They are also a good foil for each other; James has them challenge each other and they are both strong in their own ways.

I’m not going to spoil the ending but it ends on a great cliffhanger and sets up for a really interesting sequel.

I would definitely urge you read this book if you’ve got even a slight interest in YA or fantasy writing – it’s got pace, great writing and promises even more to come.

www.vicjames.co.uk

@drvictoriajames

More Dark Materials…

I was very excited to hear on the bookish grapevine yesterday that Philip Pullman is revisiting His Dark Materials in October this year with a new ‘equel’ series – another trilogy of books set both before and after the original.

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For those of you who might not have come across these books, perhaps you were so obsessed with Harry Potter that they passed you by in the late 90s / early 00s, this clever, magical narrative explores the adventures of Lyra Belacqua and her daemon companion Pantalaimon as they get sucked into a world of Dust and realm jumping that takes her far beyond her home at Jordan College, Oxford.

I have long been a fan of Pullman’s work – it’s complex and has real depth that takes it farther than most YA fiction dares to tread. Not only is it full of the magical fantasy elements that you might expect, but it deals with interesting concepts of family, loyalty and friendship in a manner that doesn’t simplify or patronise. The relationships displayed are real, flawed and unexpected – keeping you hooked throughout.

Pullman explained that the draw to return to His Dark Materials was built not only on a desire to explore the world of Dust in more depth, but that he has been influenced by recent political events: “at the centre of The Book of Dust is the struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organisation, which wants to stifle speculation and inquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be free”.

These books have never shied away from controversy – they have been roundly condemned by Christian organisations as promoting a world without God. Pullman is a well known supporter of the British Humanist Association and describes himself  as a Church of England Atheist. It will be interesting to see how these ideas are developed further in the new trilogy.

If you haven’t yet got stuck into this brilliant series – do it. The first book in the new series is being released on October 19th.

http://www.philip-pullman.com

@PhilipPullman