Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Review: 'The Beginning Woods' by Malcom McNeill

I love fairy tales and I love books about fairy tales. There is something about that whole mysterious world full of dark woods, dragons, princesses, talking frogs, wolves and witches that can fascinate me both as a child and an adult. So when I stumbled across a book that promised to delve into fairy tales in a very new and different way, I knew I had to pick it up and devour it. I'm talking, of course, about The Beginning Woods. It feels like a well-worn and trusted classic and yet is beautifully modern and complicated as well, which is a stunning combination. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Pub. Date: 1/09/2016
Publisher: Pushkin Press

A MYSTERY NO ONE CAN SOLVE
The Vanishings started without warning. People disappearing into thin air - just piles of clothes left behind. Each day, thousands gone without a trace.
A BABY NO ONE WANTED
Max was abandoned in a bookshop and grows up haunted by memories of his parents. Only he can solve the mystery of the Vanishings.
A SECRET THAT COULD SAVE THE FUTURE
To find the answers, Max must leave this world and enter the Beginning Woods. A realm of magic and terror, life and death.
But can he bear the truth - or will is destroy him?
A STORY THAT WILL TAKE YOU TO ANOTHER WORLD
Greater than your dreams. Darker than your fears. Full of more wonder than you could ever desire. Welcome to the ineffable Beginning Woods...

Clocking in at almost 450 pages, The Beginning Woods is a chunk of a book, which likes to take its time. Some reviews of this novel have taken an issue with its "slow pace", while also complaining about being confused by the plot. These two criticisms surprise me because they feel antithetical to me. The Beginning Woods takes its time, at the beginning, setting up various different plot lines for the reader to become adjusted to before the major story takes off. Rather than jumping from dramatic scene to dramatic scene, McNeill actually lingers on his characters, allowing his readers to sink into them and their minds. This especially counts for Max, the young protagonist of the novel. We get to know Max slowly but surely in the first 100 pages or so, and this kind of pace can be, I guess, off-putting to some who prefer to be dropped straight into the action. But for a novel like The Beginning Woods, which has so much to give for those readers who pay close attention, this kind of pace is a boon because it allows the reader to relax into the prose, be inspired and transported by it. Although it is difficult to maintain this kind of magic over 400+ pages, but for most of The Beginning Woods McNeill manages to bewitch.

At the heart of The Beginning Woods lies the importance and power of words and dreams. The Vanishings that plague the world, the Beginning Woods, Max's quest for his parents, the beautiful fairy tale-esque stories intertwined with the main plot lines; all this comes together to impress upon the reader how important it is to dream. Max comes into the world alone and is haunted by the desire to find his real parents. As the world becomes more and more paranoid about the Vanishings, Max is drawn to the Beginning Woods which seems to hold more questions and only few answers. Max is supported by a very interesting mix of characters, both magical and normal. Through these side-characters McNeill is able to pose some of life's most difficult questions and formulate some potential answers for the reader to figure out. Choosing a teenage boy as a protagonist comes with the same kind of dangers as picking a teenage girl, there is a lot of internal angst to potentially deal with. At times Max's worries and actions can be a bit annoying, but this is also natural for such a long and complex novel.

McNeill's writing throughout the novel is stunning, which made it very hard for me to believe this is his first book. As the plot moves along, there are some absolutely stunning moments and images which are incredibly inspired. I often find myself disappointed in Fantasy authors who copy without adding any new life to the old material. In The Beginning Woods there are witches, dragons, giants and ghosts, but the reader meets them in a completely new guise. It is incredibly refreshing to read a Fantasy novel that isn't lazy, that goes beyond and tries to create truly new and different ideas for the genre. Although this kind of experimentation can also go wrong every once in a while, overall I think that The Beginning Woods is a tour-de-force of fantastical experimentation. The Beginning Woods also isn't afraid to go dark and deep, whether it is in reaimagining fairy tale staples or having Max confront his most inner dark secrets. It's the kind of Fantasy novel you feel would inspire children, to read and to dream, and that is one of the best things any book could ever do.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I really loved The Beginning Woods! Although there are lesser moments in the novel, overall it is a fascinating Fantasy novel that celebrates dreaming and imagining, reading and loving. I will most definitely be rereading this novel and trying to find a hardback to add to my Fantasy/Fairy Tale shelf. I'd recommend this to fans of both Fantasy and Young Adult.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Review: 'Miranda and Caliban' by Jacqueline Carey

I didn't read The Tempest until I got to university, despite starting my love affair with Shakespeare years earlier! Unlike most of his other plays, I struggled with The Tempest a lot, confused about many of the characters, the storyline, etc. It took me a long time to develop an appreciation for the play, and up until a few days ago I would have counted it as one of my least favourite plays. And then Jacqueline Carey's Miranda and Caliban happened. Her novel has given me a whole new appreciation for the play, for the different themes playing under the surface and for Carey's excellent writing. Thanks to Macmillan-Tor/Forge and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book!

Pub. Date: Macmillan-Tor/Forge
Publisher: 14/02/2017

A lovely girl grows up in isolation where her father, a powerful magus, has spirited them to in order to keep them safe. 
We all know the tale of Prospero's quest for revenge, but what of Miranda? Or Caliban, the so-called savage Prospero chained to his will? 
In this incredible retelling of the fantastical tale, Jacqueline Carey shows readers the other side of the coin—the dutiful and tenderhearted Miranda, who loves her father but is terribly lonely. And Caliban, the strange and feral boy Prospero has bewitched to serve him. The two find solace and companionship in each other as Prospero weaves his magic and dreams of revenge. 
Always under Prospero’s jealous eye, Miranda and Caliban battle the dark, unknowable forces that bind them to the island even as the pangs of adolescence create a new awareness of each other and their doomed relationship. 
Miranda and Caliban is bestselling fantasy author Jacqueline Carey’s gorgeous retelling of The Tempest. With hypnotic prose and a wild imagination, Carey explores the themes of twisted love and unchecked power that lie at the heart of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, while serving up a fresh take on the play's iconic characters.
Adapting any classic piece of literature is a momentous task. You have to find a balance between honouring the original but also creating something new that holds up on its own. And then there is the enormous legacy that comes with someone like Shakespeare, whose name has almost become synonymous with literary excellence. I myself have often felt disparaging towards adaptations or retellings of my favourite books, since I have such an attachment to the originals. Often I have been surprised by how much I ended up loving the adaptations. Since The Tempest has always left me rather confused, I wasn't sure what to expect going into Miranda and Caliban. Would this be a straight up love story that ignores many of the issues thrown up in the play? Would the novel explore these characters in a way the play doesn't? In the end the novel completely blew me out of the water. Carey deals with the opposition between good and bad, ignorance and innocence, servitude and freedom, and brings it all together in a beautiful tragedy. For those fearing a love story, this is not a romance. Love is a part of this story, but there is much more to it.

For me the true power of Miranda and Caliban lies in how Carey liberates her two main characters from the characterisations they have been stuck in. In Shakespeare's play Miranda is very much a side-character to the Prospero-show, the kind of girl who is calm and quiet and falls in love with the first prince she sees. Caliban, on the other hand, is as close to the 'noble savage' archetype as a character can get. He is a monster, the child of a witch and a demon, and Shakespeare himself seems torn between representing him as an unjustly mistreated wretch and a cunning and sly opportunist. In Carey's Miranda and Caliban these two characters are fleshed out, given colour and life and motivations. The novel starts with a six-year old Miranda observing her father's magic, lonely on the island but aware there is a boy out there. When Caliban is lured into the house by Prospero's spells, the novel really takes off as Miranda becomes Caliban's teacher. As they grow up, they both start to strain against Prospero's tight hold over their lives and their realities, as well grow aware of each other and themselves in different ways. Carey really manages to evoke a sense of the loneliness and isolation of the island, as well as the conflicting forces pulling on both Miranda and Caliban. I want to just quickly go into some details regarding both of their characterisations.

Carey turns Miranda into a fully-fledged character. We get to witness her growing from child to woman, becoming more aware of the extent to which her father controls her whole life.  Whether it is her life before the island or the physical realities of becoming a woman, Miranda lives her life constantly in the dark, waiting for Prospero to declare her "ready". I have seen the word 'Stockholm-syndrome' floating around and in a way that does describe Miranda's relationship with her father rather well. She loves him, but that is because he is all she has. She tiptoes around him, yet hangs on his every word. By teaching Caliban, Miranda is given the chance to consider everything around her anew, to attempt to take control of her own life. Carey does the same for Caliban, imbuing his chapters with a painful awareness of his position. His chapters start out as three-word sentences, but as he learns more his chapters grow to become very insightful and beautiful. Carey addresses a lot of the themes that have made Caliban a controversial character. His origins are a point of contention for him, constantly being used to abuse him and put him down, as is his appearance. Carey's Caliban is a very deep and interesting character, who is full of emotions and conflict. As a reader you can't help but ache for both of these characters, who are so deprived and yet struggle to find silver linings.

Carey's writing in Miranda and Caliban is masterful. She captures the fluidity and eloquence of Shakespeare's language without making her writing feel or sound archaic and stuffy. Shakespeare never underestimated the power of words and this is a major theme in The Tempest, which finds a beautiful reflection in Carey's writing. A highlight is Ariel, who is the only character to retain a Shakespearian way of speaking. The novel is saturated with beautiful phrases like the one below:
"Thou art the shoals on which Caliban wilt dash his heart to pieces." 
With language like this it shouldn't come as a surprise that Miranda and Caliban is heartbreaking. As in any tale that is doomed from the start, there is a sense of dread mixed with hope that grows and grows while reading this novel. There is the hope that Miranda and Caliban will free themselves, that what you know must happen won't. In that sense Carey has well and truly mastered the art of retelling a famous story. Even though everyone knows what will happen, it doesn't matter for a single minute because the reader is too caught up in her version of the story. There is not a moment you will get bored of this novel and when it ends you'll wish it hadn't.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I absolutely loved Miranda and Caliban. It is a beautiful novel and a masterful retelling of a Shakespeare classic. Carey infuses her characters with a sense of life they didn't have before and you'll be sorry to see them go at the end of the novel. I'd recommend this to fans of Shakespeare, retellings and literary fiction.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Review: 'The Roanoke Girls' by Amy Engel

If ever there was a book I didn't put down then it's The Roanoke Girls. Fascinated by the blurb I requested it months ago, but then somehow it ended up at the bottom of my TBR pile. Then, on a whim, I started it on a random Tuesday in February and I didn't put my Kindle down till the very last page had been read and devoured. Sometimes a book just hits you at the right time, resonates will all the darkest and best places in you. This happened with The Roanoke Girls and I absolutely loved it. Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 09/03/2017
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

A gripping, provocative thriller about the twisted secrets families keep, perfect for fans of The Girls.
Beautiful.Rich.Mysterious.Everyone wants to be a Roanoke girl.But you won't when you know the truth. 
Lane Roanoke is fifteen when she comes to live with her grandparents and fireball cousin at the Roanoke family's rural estate following the suicide of her mother. Over one long, hot summer, Lane experiences the benefits of being one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls. 
But what she doesn't know is being a Roanoke girl carries a terrible legacy: either the girls run, or they die. For there is darkness at the heart of Roanoke, and when Lane discovers its insidious pull, she must make her choice…
Quite some time has passed between reading The Roanoke Girls and now reviewing it, which is good because reading Engel's book had my head swimming. There are certain novels out there which simply have the ability to make you sit back and go '...no way. I mean, right? That did not just happen.' The Roanoke Girls is definitely one of those books. I had to go rant and rave on Twitter straight after reading it and there is still a part of me that simply wants to screech about it. I'm guessing it's quite obvious that I loved this book, although it s very difficult for me to pin down exactly why. So please follow me in the paragraphs below as I try and make sense of it!

At the heart of Engel's novel are the three generations of Roanoke girls. The novel largely follows Lane's story, intermingling her present with moments from her past, but also takes little forays into the lives of the other Roanoke girls that have come and gone. It was quite fascinating to see Lane's present through the prism of her own past and the lives of the other girls, as each new addition made everything make a little bit more sense. Lane is a very interesting character, clearly deeply scarred by things that have happened in her past but also unwilling to face those demons. On returning to Roanoke, however, it becomes impossible for her to avoid these demons since they're all around her. Without wanting to spoil anything, I think it is fair to say that the trauma at the heart of this novel is not for the fainthearted. The lives of the Roanoke girls are incredibly fractured and complicated, with a lot of darkness and misery. Combine this with the relative isolation of rural America and you have the perfect recipe for a high-intensity novel that packs an emotional punch.

Engel's writing is perfect for this novel. Her characters come to life in a way that feels gritty and real, yet she also never tones down on the drama that makes this novel so addictive. Dialogue in novels can feel forced sometimes, especially if an author wants to get across a character's complicated feelings. The way Engel addresses some of the quite, to extremely, controversial topics in her novel, however, never feels forced or awkward. Sure, it's shocking and there is also the excitement of reading something scandalous, but The Roanoke Girls never feels like an exercise in sensationalism. Engel manages to combine the stories of the Roanoke girls with a whodunnit-story, which keeps the pace high and means you never get tired of exploring Lane's mind and history. This is the perfect book to get yourself excited again, to feel the rush of wanting to turn every single page and miss absolutely nothing.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

I loved The Roanoke Girls and I still can't quite do it justice when I talk about it. Engel creates fascinating characters and a story that grips you by the throat and doesn't let go. The last page is both a relief and a disappointment. I'd definitely recommend this to everyone who like mysteries and thrillers and don't mind taking a trip to the dark side.