Saturday, 1 August 2020
I have been using psychological thrillers to sidestep some of the stress of the everyday. Although we're back to working (almost) like normal here in Shanghai, there is still a bit of tension that makes everything harder. Thanks to Amazon Publishing UK and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Pub. Date: 5/15/2020
Publisher: Amazon Publishing UK
Psychological thrillers are a great escape for me and many others as it releases some of the tensions and stress of everyday life. It's almost as if facing your worst fears on the page, whether it is being kidnapped, a high-speed car chase, a knife-wielding maniac or treacherous spouses, makes real life just a little bit less tense. How hard can it be to call the dentist if your main character is trying to solve a murder? Occasionally the high does wear off and you have to go more and more extreme in your thrillers to get some of the relief. What Lies Between Us was one of those books for me, which turned the dial up all the way. And although the shock aspect of it did the job, I realized, my need for a stronger dose of realism in my thrillers.
Twisted, that is the word most applicable to What Lies Between Us. Nina has her mother, Maggie, chained up in the attic but it is not quite clear from the beginning how the two women got to this point. As the book unfolds, history unravels and their relationship is laid bare. Marrs stacks horror and betrayal upon horror and betrayal. Much of What Lies Between Us is fascinating and gripping, but that is mostly due to its shock factor. Occasionally I found myself becoming slightly numb to all the twists and turns, the hurt the two women were causing and had caused each other. Above I mentioned my need for realism in thrillers, by which I mean a sense of consequences, the awareness that the outside world is there and is watching, that people do notice things. Novels like What Lies Between Us seem to take place in their own little universe where unspeakable acts can be committed without anyone being the wiser.
John Marrs' writing keeps you on the edge of your seat. You just know that behind every corner something horrible is waiting. What Lies Between Us is a dark novel in which there truly isn't a moment of light. Hardly anyone has any good in them and Nina and Maggie are twisted beyond belief in their relationship. They're co-dependent, they hate each other, they think they love each other and the whole thing is quite discouraging. I'm also not the biggest fan of the portrayal of mental illness in this book as it deals with quite a few damaging tropes. Most likely I will pick up other books by John Marrs, but I will also be more likely to give up on them if they prove to be in a similar vein.
I give this book...
I'm giving What Lies Between Us 3 Universes because it did keep me engaged. But this isn't a book would easily recommend. For me, it wasn't as smart or as thrilling as I'd have liked it to be. What Lies Between Us will horrify and shock, but that is all.
Wednesday, 22 July 2020
Greek Mythology is an enduring favourite of mine. It forms the origin point for most of my passion: reading, history, language, mythology in general, adaptations, traveling. I'm not quite sure which direction my life would have taken, had I not discovered (been introduced to) these Greek myths at the tender age of 7. So of course both Heroes and its predecessor Mythos would have peaked my interest straightaway. Thanks to Chronicle Book and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Chronicle Books
I've had a major soft spot for Stephen Fry for years. I can trace back this love to three different things: the TV show Quite Interesting, in which he dispenses puns and random facts with the jollity of a favourite uncle, his riotous and hilarious sketch show with Hugh Laurie, A Bit of Fry & Laurie, and his ease and love for language, evident in both of the former. It is the latter which drew me to both Mythos and Heroes, as the Greek myths and legends are already deeply embedded in my mind. I was wondering what twist he would bring to them, how he would reimagine the myths that so permeate Western culture. As he says at the end of the book, the heroes were the ones that sanitized the world, removed the monsters and horrors and made it a home for humans, rather than gods. In the view of their intense labor, Fry undertakes to show their humanity.
Covered in Heroes are Herakles, Perseus, Theseus, Atalanta, Oedipus and Jason. It is especially the inclusion of Atalanta I greatly enjoyed. While the others are established heroes, or at least established leading men, Atalanta doesn't always get the attention she deserves. (I also appreciated Fry's respect for Medea, a character easily vilified.) Fry's retelling of Herakles was oddly touching, as he highlights the emotional honesty that defines Herakles. He's not sly like Odysseus, but he is straightforward. Aside from perhaps Oedipus, he is the hero to suffer the most, to endure the most. Fry explores both his rage and his honour in full, which made for quite a few touching moments.
It is clear from Heroes that Fry has a very strong familiarity and understanding of the Greek myths, which allows him to familiarize them for the reader. I had the same response at first that I had to Mythos, an odd sense of betrayal at how straightforward and simple he had made these myths. I quickly began to appreciate, however, the importance of making these tales more accessible and more available. In Fry's Heroes the young men and woman are stubborn teenagers, as embarrassed to find out about their origins as any child is to think of their own making. They are as obsessed with each other as we are with them. As I also listened to the audiobook, I was amused by the different accents Fry gives his characters, choosing to make some of them Scots, for example. It made the stories even more enjoyable, having them read to you by Fry himself.
I give this book...
Anyone with a love for Fry and Greek mythology will find Heroes utterly charming. Although his reimaginations might not be for everyone, they do broaden the access to these myths and for that I am grateful.
Sunday, 12 July 2020
I adore short story collections, especially ones like Animal Spirit that seem bound together by specific themes. Each story builds on the next, perhaps not with the same characters, but by developing a feeling or a message, until, by the end of the collection it is almost a rallying cry. Thanks to Knopf Doubleday and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Pub. Date: 6/16/2020
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Centered in Rome but transporting us into worlds as varied and alluring as they are emotionally real, Francesca Marciano’s stories paint landscapes that are populated—vividly, hauntingly—by animals: from violent seagulls and starlings circling the evening sky in exhilarating formation to magical snakes and a tiny dog on the side of a deserted road.
In unforgettable, cinematic frames, events unfold, especially in the lives of women. An affair ends painfully at a dinner table, an actress’s past comes crashing down on her during an audition, an unhappy wife seeks respite in a historic palazzo sublet. Two starkly different couples imagine parenthood during a Greek island holiday and a young girl returns from rehab, deciding to set out anew with a traveling circus. A man in crisis draws his ex-lover deep into the New Mexico desert.
With spellbinding clarity, the six masterly stories in inhabit the minds and hearts of Marciano’s characters. They chronicle deeply human moments of realization and recognition, indelible instants of irrevocable change—epiphanies sometimes sparked by our connection with animals and the primal power they show us.
In Animal Spirit Francesca Marciano shows us people in the middle of dilemmas and conflicts, while focusing strongly on animal symbolism. Short stories are a great medium to explore specific moments or emotions, but it requires a major focus on the author's part. In Animal Spirit Marciano tackles the conflicts of women, many caused by their relationships with the men around them and mistakes from their past. Her short stories feel like novels, in the sense that she builds up character wonderfully through their actions meaning that after a few pages you have become very aware of them.
The title story of Animal Spirit concerns a group of friends, made up of two couples, who go on a holiday together, where tensions slowly rise. All of this is alleviated when a little dog finds its way to them. Being able to care for something, almost selflessly, allows them to put their other worries and concerns to the side for a moment, to be better. In 'Terrible Things Could Happen to Us' Marciano shows us the end of a relationship from the perspectives of multiple people involved. Through all the perspectives the true consequences of such a fall out. In 'The Girl' a young woman, who remains nameless, escapes to the circus, before escaping once again. It's a story of someone in the search for freedom and home. In each story animal imagery comes to the fore to help highlight unspoken themes. In 'There Might Be Blood' aggressive seagulls and swooping falcons battle it out as a woman considers her marriage and life. In 'The Girl' a giant albino python is both constrictive and liberating.
Marciano's stories stuck with me for a long time after I finished Animal Spirit, in a large part because she so effortlessly creates moments that shine. A mother and her daughters, waiting at the dinner table for her boyfriend to show up. A middle-aged woman in an Italian palazzo. A girl writhed in snakes in a circus tent. These images came across so strongly that sometimes they almost overpowered the rest of the stories. But all the stories have strong themes as well, that mostly come through by the end. I will definitely be looking out for future stories and collections by Francesca Marciano.
I give this collection...
I greatly enjoyed reading Animal Spirit, which contains nicely crafted stories about conflicts and, hopefully, growth.
Friday, 3 July 2020
I've been following Helen Fields' D.I. Callanach series since its fourth installment, Perfect Silence. I was immediately gripped by the characters and the intense plot Fields wove. For me Perfect Crime only improved in these areas and I wondered how she would be able to top herself. Perfect Kill is, however, on a completely different level. Thanks to Avon Books UK and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Pub. Date: 6/2/2020
Publisher: Avon Books UK
I want to take a moment at the beginning of the review to talk about the beauty that is a well-crafted detective book series. Too often, series feel the need to ramp up the tension and action, no matter what consequences that might have for the characters. It's similar in TV shows and films. How often can you put someone through hell or have them punched in the face before they simply can't get back up? The good series don't just allow for lasting consequences of trauma, they work actively with them. Part of the reason why The Hunger Games and Divergent series were so popular was because its protagonists carried their trauma openly and had it inform their next steps. I've always found that the D.I. Callanach series similarly tries to allow trauma and stress to be a part of Ava and (especially) Luc's character arcs, supporting their growth from book to book.
Perfect Kill is a tough read. Although each of Helen Fields' D.I. Callanach installments so far have dealt with heavy and difficult topics, Perfect Kill is very much a culmination of all of them. With Ava Turner in Edinburgh and Luc Callanach in Paris, both find themselves drawn into the same case when the kidnapping of Scottish youths coincides with the arrival and trafficking of Eastern European women. The main theme of Perfect Kill, then, is exploitation and abuse. Some of this is very violent, as we're given an insight into the horror by the narration one of the trafficked women, which means Perfect Kill might not be for everyone. I found certain parts of the book tough to read but I was also very glad that Fields didn't sugarcoat anything. For those with a weak stomach, there is also a bit of a warning attached to this book, as there is some explicit talk about surgeries. On the more serial aspect of Perfect Kill, the novel focuses a lot of Ava and Natasha's friendship, as well as the fall out between Ava and Luc after the revelations at the end of Perfect Crime.
I have reached the point where Helen Fields is now at the same level as Elizabeth George. The moment I see either of their names, I know I will be reading the book it is attached to. Fields explores new depths in Perfect Kill, with characters plummeting to new depths of despair and terror. She finds the right balance between allowing for the horror, while also bringing in lighter moments as a reprieve. Many of these lighter moments come from the side characters that continue to delight me in every installment. Moving back and forth between France and Scotland allows for a bit of suspense, as the reader begins to suspect how linked the two cases really are. As always, Fields nicely ties up all the story lines towards the end of the book, except for the continuing tension between Ava and Luc. This better not be the end of the D.I. Callanach series because although I adore the tension, I would love a resolution!
I give this novel...
The D.I. Callanach series is a pleasure to read and Perfect Kill is no exception. Fields delivers the thrills, the twists and turns, but also the emotional punches and character development. Get into this series as soon as you can!
Wednesday, 24 June 2020
I read The Glass Magician almost directly after The Paper Magician, having wasted a good few years wondering when I would get to them. I adored the first novel in the series despite a few hesitations and found myself with a few more hangups after The Glass Magician. Thanks to 47North and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Pub. Date: 11/4/2014
Sequels are hard. You have to follow up a great start with something that has to be similar but also new, recognizable and yet a clear improvement, something more mature and grander without betraying the first. Some books are clearly laid out to be a series and have an arc spanning across multiple books while each is contained within itself. Others seem a standalone but are then turned into series when they do well. I'm not quite sure where The Paper Magician Series falls, but The Glass Magician definitely tries to up the ante. Everything feels a little intenser, which means we inevitably lose some of the aspects of the first book that made it such a comforting read. There is more action, more drama, more characters and more locations but I'm still undecided whether this adds up to the book actually achieving more. A few of my issues with the first book arose again, which I'll go into more detail on below, and were strengthened rather than laid to rest.
I soon realized what the cause was behind my sense of unease and that it started very early on. This is where we enter spoiler territory for the rest of this paragraph so if you didn't get around to these in the last 6 years either, turn away now. The Glass Magician has two villains, one of whom has the major starring role and the other who is more of a very evil side-kick. We meet the latter early on when, after the first attack on her life, Ceony spots a foreign-looking man in the crowd. She chides herself for thinking of him as the potential perpetrator only because he is different, but is proven right by the narrative. He is not just evil though, he is almost animalistic and without any redeeming factors or actual personality traits aside from his foreignness. It is a weird turn for Holmberg to take and left a bad taste in my mouth. In my review of The Paper Magician I noted that although I enjoyed the romance aspect of the novel, I was skeptical about the master-apprentice relationship between Thane and Ceony. This skepticism only strengthened while reading The Glass Magician. (Again, spoilers.) He is a good bit older than her and has a failed marriage under his belt. He is privy to much more information than Ceony, meaning she makes rash decisions she is then told off for by both Thane and others. The power balance is completely off. And on top of that, Holmberg actually has Ceony's previous teacher openly disapprove of the developing feelings between the two as it is against the master-apprentice rules. Although the forbidden aspect is surely exciting, it is also wrong in the context of their relationship. nd let's not forget about Ceony thinking another middle-aged man is in need of a wife since he can't keep his own house clean or himself fed. Surely I'm not the only one thinking that even 2014 was a bit too modern for those ideas.
Although I continued to enjoy Holmberg's writing, the issues laid out above made me a bit hesitant. Ceony continues to be an interesting character, who wants to take responsibility for the problems she thinks she has created. However, as she is shut out of any important meetings, she often ends up making the wrong choices. It makes sense for the second book in the series to maybe be something of a breaking point for her, where she has to fail, reassess, grow and come out stronger, but the plot moved a little too fast to allow for this. Thane remains a bit of a mystery, which is less fun now than in The Paper Magician. Some of the other side characters are hardly developed beyond what they need to be for the plot, which is a shame. As you can tell, I am torn. I did enjoy reading The Glass Magician but couldn't help but wince here or there. Whether this is down to Holmberg or an editor, I'm not sure. I will give the series' next book a go, mainly because I prefer to finish series, but I will go into it more hesitantly than I did The Glass Magician.
I give this novel...
The Glass Magician is an interesting follow up on The Paper Magician, both making its blind spots more obvious while continuing some of the things that made the latter so charming.
Monday, 22 June 2020
Remember how earlier this month I complained about my habit of putting off reading books that I know I'll probably really enjoy? I'm here to tell you I did it again. This time it is The Paper Magician and Charlie N. Holmberg I need to apologize to. This is a delightful book I should have enjoyed back in 2014, although I'm also very grateful for the distraction it gave me now. Thanks to 47North and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Pub. Date: 9/1/2014
I love books about magic, especially when they're this inventive with their world-building. In The Paper Magician, every magician is bonded to a specific element or material forever. That is the material your magic will be tied to for the rest of your life and there is no way of breaking it. I enjoyed the way this tied the magic into everyday life as well, where every material has its own use in industry etc., meaning that magicians are needed for every material. And then there is the dark side of this all, the Excisioners whose chose material is flesh. Holmberg really brings these types of magic to life through her writing, especially in the more descriptive moments. There is a joy to most of the magic in The Paper Magician which was very fun to read.
Ceony would not have chosen paper for herself, but a new paper magician is needed. Hence she will now apprentice under Mage Thane, who turns out to be a great, if mysterious, teacher. But her training is cut short when disaster strikes in the shape of an Excisioner and Ceony has to save her teacher. Initially I was a little confused as to what we were working towards, plot-wise, but the journey through Thane's heart is very much the goal itself. As Ceony gets to know more about Thane, her new skills will be put to the test as she battles for her own life and his. The plot of The Paper Magician moves fast once the action begins, but it is offset by moments of calm and emotional depth that ground the action and allow the characters to grow and develop. Despite some of the more intense scenes in regards to the Excisioners, I do think The Paper Magician could be suitable for a wide age range. Occasionally I did question the power balance between Ceony and Thane, but much of it will depend on how it is developed in the next books of the series.
This was Holmberg's debut novel and I was enraptured by it. There is a soft glow to the book, which perhaps doesn't make a lot of sense but feels correct. It's not whimsy, per se, despite the cottagecore feel of it, but rather a sense of comfort and warmth, despite the rather bloody setting of the second half of the book. Ceony is a lovely main character, driven and ambitious, willing to learn but also stubborn. Emery Thane is a quiet but humorous counterpoint, never giving away too much and yet saying more than he perhaps means to. (See, ambiguous!) I got strong Howl's Moving Castle vibes from The Paper Magician, especially the Studio Ghibli film adaptation, but didn't hate it. Perhaps it was part of the gentleness of it, Ceony's fieriness, and the need to save a mysterious magician by digging into his heart and past. I have set my sights on The Glass Magician next.
I give this novel..
The Paper Magician is a lovely read that brings together many of my favourite things about magic in novels. For lovers of magic and Howl's Moving Castle (which I assume is an overlapping group), this is a great read!
Sunday, 21 June 2020
I think in some ways I have Luanne G. Smith to thank for getting me out of my COVID-19-related reading slump. I raced through the series first book, The Vine Witch, in pretty much a day earlier this month, after putting off reading it for months. I decided not to make the same mistake with The Glamourist and was rewarded for my growth. Thanks to 47North and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Pub. Date: 6/9/2020
There are a good few staples anyone who wants to write about magic and witches can take advantage of. In The Vine Witch Luanne G. Smith began her world-building with some of these, such as the master-apprentice relationship, strong connections to the natural world, and ancient tomes of spells and hexes. She builds on this in The Glamourist, but by recasting them into something new and surprising. There is a black cat, a shop of curiosities, and a young thief, but none of these are exactly what we expect them to be. There are also two overarching themes which I found very interesting: the question of whether our blood and ancestry defines us and the underlying distrust between those with and without magic. The latter is more subtle but frequently addressed, especially in Elena's narrative, and I hope more attention is payed towards it in the third book.
As its title might suggest, this book is a little more lyrical and has a little bit more glam. We have moved from the earthy vineyards to the glamorous Paris. In my review for The Vine Witch I noted how some of the side characters' story lines had been left open for continuation, and The Glamourist picked up right where they were left off. Yvette is, in many ways the star of The Glamourist, as she tries to unravel her own history and come into her power. However, this is mirrored by Elena's journey, as she tries to decide between her life as a Vine Witch and her birthright as a venefica, a witch of poisons. Do we get to decide who we are or is it all in our blood? Will blood out? Both Yvette and Elena will find out, with plenty of hijinks along the way that take them to Paris' fanciest restaurants and its darkest depths.
I raved about Smith in my first review and I'm just here to do a little bit more of it. The whole Vine Witch series so far has been incredibly comforting. There is danger, prejudice and hurt in her books and many of her characters struggle, but Smith also infuses every page with warmth and magic. It is not a perfect world, but it is a world in which many people work towards the better, where they help each other and happy endings are possible. Yvette is fleshed out a lot more in The Glamourist and I really found myself warming to her almost from the start. There are a few major reveals about her heritage and power and although I saw the major ones coming, this was largely due to my being deeply steeped in folklore. Despite predicting it, I really enjoyed how everything came together in the last few chapters. Reading The Glamourist left me feeling warm and eager for more.
I give this novel...
I adored The Glamourist and found myself trying to put off finishing it, even though it was impossible. The Vine Witch series has great world-building and beautiful characters. I think this is the comfort read we all deserve right now.