Saturday, 22 December 2018

Review: 'Our Life in the Forest' by Marie Darrieussecq, trans. Penny Hueston

I was drawn to Our Life in the Forest for many different reasons. I adore reading literature in translation because it is fascinating to explore a genre through a different culture. I had never heard of Marie Darrieussecq before Our Life in the Forest, but that is another bonus to reading translated literature, you get to discover “new authors”. A big theme in Darrieussecq’s writing has been transformations of the body and that is one of the key theme in Our Life in the Forest that drew me to the book. I went into it with hardly any expectations but was blown away by the book in the end, unwilling for it to end. Thanks to Text Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/25/2018
Publisher: Text Publishing

Translated by Penny Hueston 
In the near future, a woman is writing in the depths of a forest. She’s cold. Her body is falling apart, as is the world around her. She’s lost the use of one eye; she’s down to one kidney, one lung. Before, in the city, she was a psychotherapist, treating patients who had suffered trauma, in particular a man, “the clicker”. Every two weeks, she travelled out to the Rest Centre, to visit her “half”, Marie, her spitting image, who lay in an induced coma, her body parts available whenever the woman needed them. 
As a form of resistance against the terror in the city, the woman flees, along with other fugitives and their halves. But life in the forest is disturbing too—the reanimated halves are behaving like uninhibited adolescents. And when she sees a shocking image of herself on video, are her worst fears confirmed? 
Our Life in the Forest, written in her inimitable concise, vivid prose recalls Darrieussecq’s brilliant debut, Pig Tales. A dystopian tale in the vein of Never Let Me Go, this is a clever novel of chilling suspense that challenges our ideas about the future, about organ-trafficking, about identity, clones, and the place of the individual in a surveillance state
Dystopian novels have never held that much of a fascination for me. I love watching those movies, perhaps because I’m more interested in the aesthetics of it than anything else. But I find that reading about our current reality is providing me with enough moments of ‘Where did we go wrong?’ and ‘I never thought we would end up here?’ so that Dystopian fiction usually falls by the wayside. However, Our Life in the Forest managed to sneak in, in part because of its initially innocuous cover which seems so innocent with its lined note, tree foliage and casual body parts. Somehow it did not prepare me for what was on the inside and yet it gave me a kind of glimpse at both the simplicity and cruelty that is on the inside. Our Life in the Forest will surprise you at every turn. Every new revelation changes the story, changes how you see the characters and what you think of the world Darrieussecq creates. 

In Our Life in the Forest, our recently renamed (by herself) narrator, once Marie and now Valerie, is lying in the forest, close to death. The novel is her final note in which she writes down her story with the awareness her life is about to end. Throughout her narrative she interrupts herself, suddenly aware of how close the end is, and it brings a sense of urgency to her story as she hops anachronistically through her life. We witness her as a young child, a worried psychoanalyst, a moody teenager, a lost rebel, and it all comes together to create a portrait of a tough but worn out woman who has seen too much. The twists and turns of her life surprise even her and there is a freshness to her tone that prevents it from feeling rehashed. 

 Darrieussecq’s writing throughout Our Life in the Forest is very clear and straight forward. She writes in brief sentences that get to the point. Despite her situation, Valerie doesn’t become dramatic and manages the explain the complexities of just what has happened with stunning brevity. What I occasionally dislike about Dystopian novels is just how much detail the authors feel they have to give in order to justify how their world looks. Darrieussecq does the opposite and lets the ordinariness of her narrator speak for itself. Her story feels so normal that it is horrifying in its own right. What scares me more than anything is the mundanity of evil, how simple deceit is and how blindly we trust that the truth we know is the truth. Darrieussecq picks up on these themes and manages to weave a narrative that is both enlightening and scary.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I was sucked into Our Life in the Forest almost immediately, first because I was trying to figure out what was happening and then because I had secretly become invested in what is happening. Darrieussecq’s novel is an exploration of physical and emotional transformation, of loss and of trust. For anyone open to mindbender, please read Our Life in the Forest!

Review: 'Perfect Silence' (DI Callanach #4) by Helen Fields

When you dip into a series halfway through, you’re not supposed to really realize until you Google the book. For me, that was mostly the case with Perfect Silence. Things had happened before the book started, clearly, but they were never an obstacle and when they came up they made perfect sense to rationalize a character’s actions. That’s what I want to see! Books playing into each other without being co-dependent. I do also have to say that part of what attracted me to this book was that it was set in Scotland and I kind of miss Edinburgh at the moment. But leaving my sentimentality behind, let’s get into it! Thanks to HarperCollins and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange of an honest review. 

Pub. Date: 8/23/2018
Publisher: Avon Books UK

‘Relentless pace, devilish cleverness and a laser-sharp focus on plot.’ Chris Brookmyre 
When silence falls, who will hear their cries? 
The body of a young girl is found dumped on the roadside on the outskirts of Edinburgh. When pathologists examine the remains, they make a gruesome discovery: the outline of a doll carved into the victim’s skin. 
DCI Ava Turner and DI Luc Callanach are struggling to find leads in the case, until a doll made of skin is found nestled beside an abandoned baby. 
After another young woman is found butchered, Luc and Ava realise the babydoll killer is playing a horrifying game. And it’s only a matter of time before he strikes again. Can they stop another victim from being silenced forever – or is it already too late?
 In Perfect Silence one theme stood out to me and that was that of “vigilante justice”/ ”punishment of the immoral”. The book revolves around two different cases but they are united by the shaed ense that someone out there is trying to clean up the streets, get rid of those they deem unworthy and enforce their own set of morals. It is a notion that has always fascinated me when it came to superhero characters like Batman or Daredevil, these deeply tortured men we root for because they only get rid of the bad guys. The main criticism they face in their own stories is that no one gave them the right to decide, even if flawed policing or legislating gave them the opportunity. In Perfect Silence Helen Fields puts us on the side of those who are being punished, who aren’t considered good, as well as on the side of the police officers trying to save these people, no matter who they might be. It was a thought I found really interesting and although Fields doesn’t dig into it very deeply, focusing rather on solving the crimes at hand, I helped keep me intrigued. 

 Perfect Silence starts when  the body of a young girl is found just outside of Edinburg. Shortly after, a doll fashioned out of the girl’s skin is discovered next to an abandoned baby. So begins perhaps one of the most macabre mystery/detective books I have read in a while. Fields puts you both inside the head of the victim, as well as inside her investigators, DCI Ava Turner and DI Luc Callanach. Knowing the victims means that each crime packs even more of an emotional punch, as we see how hard they try to survive. Similarly, Ava and Luc are battling their own demons while chasing the real ones. Supported by a cast of great character, Fields’ protagonists race against time to save whomever they can. Perfect Silence is unapologetic in its harshness, and for some readers it might be a bit too much, but I found that Fields still treats it with a kind of dignity. It is not gory or painful for sensationalism, but to make a point. In the end I found myself enormously invested in the characters and the novel, so I will definitely be looking up the rest of the series soon! 

 Helen Fields hardly needs praise from me but I’m going to give it to her anyway. Fields shies away from the simple black and white, and it is within the grey area that Perfect Silence triumphs. The plot is complex, with different narrators and two different story-lines, but Fields brings it together seamlessly, allowing one crime to inform the other. The personal lives of her protagonists don’t distract from the plot but rather add to it. Another thing I liked about Perfect Silence was the way Fields captured a different side from Edinburgh than you usually see. It’s not touristy or medieval, it is a modern city dealing with a dark underbelly. Finally, Fields manages to let the reader in on information before the main characters, but without giving away the actual identity of the killer. It will throw you for a loop and somehow make it all much more horrifying. In my research for this review I also found out that DI Luc Callanach is usually the main character (the series' name should really have been a hint, but oh well), but Perfect Silence focuses much more on DCI Ava Turner. Nothing about the book gives away that this is a new direction, which is just another sign of Helen Field's command of her writing.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

Perfect Silence kept me captivated throughout and on the edge of my seat. You can’t help but get attached to Fields’ characters and she crafts her novel so clearly that you never once lose the thread. Everything comes together in the end in a way that is very rewarding for a reader constantly looking for clues. I’d recommend this novel to anyone with an appetite for Mystery, but prepare yourself, this one is a hard pill to swallow.

Review: 'We Were Mothers' by Katie Sise

I requested We Were Mothers because the blurb is pure drama. Coming off a year full of brilliant TV and films focusing on women’s lives, I was looking to continue similarly into the winter but unfortunately We Were Mothers didn’t quite take me there. Thanks to Little A and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

 Pub. Date: 10/1/2018
Publisher: Little A

 A brilliant, twisty novel about a missing woman, an unfaithful husband, and the dark secrets that will destroy two perfect families. 
 A scandalous revelation is about to devastate a picturesque town where the houses are immaculate and the neighborhoods are tightly knit. Devoted mother Cora O’Connell has found the journal of her friend Laurel’s daughter—a beautiful college student who lives next door—revealing an illicit encounter. Hours later, Laurel makes a shattering discovery of her own: her daughter has vanished without a trace. Over the course of one weekend, the crises of two close families are about to trigger a chain reaction that will expose a far more disturbing web of secrets. Now everything is at stake as they’re forced to confront the lies they have told in order to survive. 
 Secrets and loss will tear people apart. Set during a single weekend, We Were Mothers shows the unravelling of two families as well as those closest to them, as family secrets come to the surface and threaten everything. That is what you’re expecting from We Were Mothers. Even if it doesn’t quite deliver on the drama. its central themes of secrecy and loss, of hiding behind a façade, are interesting at this particular time in popular culture. Think of Big Little Lies or even Sharper Objects, stories about seemingly privileged women who hide dark and ugly truths behind their shiny front doors. The latter two have stirred debate about everything from motherhood to white feminism and to alcoholism, and We Were Mothers makes an attempt at joining that conversation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hold the gravitas of its topic, even though it has its own merit.

 During the last few weeks at work there has been a lot of attention on unconscious bias and as I was writing this review I realized I had some unconscious bias myself towards this book filled with mothers, women thinking about being mothers, and children struggling with their mothers. Although Sise does show each woman is more than “just” a mother, it is still presented as something central to a woman’s life. I don’t know if and when I will ever be a mother, so that strong theme kind of kept me away from really appreciating the book as much as I would have liked. On top of that We Were Mothers presents motherhood as something consistently beautiful. No matter how hard things might be or how much a child cries, it is always fulfilling and worth it. For a novel trying to straddle the divide between Mystery and Literary Fiction I would have expected something a little bit more daring.

 Katie Sise has written a range of Young Adult novels and this is her first venture into Adult fiction. Sise’s experience in YA comes through quite strongly at times, especially in the tone of the novel. It is all rather preppy and even if it gets ugly it stays almost PG. We Were Mothers didn’t offer as much suspense or grit as I had anticipated, being at times overly melodramatic when I would have preferred something a little starker. In that sense, it almost feels like a more profound Desperate Housewives at times. Sise hides away some rather astute truths about womanhood, motherhood and loss into her novel, but they don’t get to shine as much as they could as they’re hidden under (at times very campy) plot twists.

I give this novel...

2 Universes!

Overall, We Were Mothers is a quick and engaging read that doesn’t require too much from its readers. Although I enjoyed We Were Mothers, I almost forgot I read it after a month. At the time I was caught up in the twists and the turns of the plot, the drama and excitement of it all, but once the book finished none of it had made a really deep impact on me. Although I’m interested to see what Sise writes next, We Were Mothers is for those readers who want to be engaged but not challenged.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Review: 'Empress of All Seasons' by Emiko Jean

You know when you have a book waiting for you and yet somehow you don't read it for ages?! I hate it when that happens and yet iI have no one to blame for it but myself. This happened to me once again with Empress of All Seasons, Emiko Jean's stunning YA Fantasy novel. Competitions, empresses, and supernatural monsters and spirits. What more could I have asked for? Thanks to HMH Books for Young Readers and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 08/11/2018
Publisher: HMH Book for Young Readers

In a palace of illusions, nothing is what it seems.
Each generation, a competition is held to find the next empress of Honoku. The rules are simple. Survive the palace’s enchanted seasonal rooms. Conquer Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Marry the prince. All are eligible to compete—all except yōkai, supernatural monsters and spirits whom the human emperor is determined to enslave and destroy. Mari has spent a lifetime training to become empress. Winning should be easy. And it would be, if she weren't hiding a dangerous secret. Mari is a yōkai with the ability to transform into a terrifying monster. If discovered, her life will be forfeit.  As she struggles to keep her true identity hidden, Mari’s fate collides with that of Taro, the prince who has no desire to inherit the imperial throne, and Akira, a half-human, half-yōkai outcast. Torn between duty and love, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness, the choices of Mari, Taro, and Akira will decide the fate of Honoku in this beautifully written, edge-of-your-seat YA fantasy.

I am an avid Fantasy reader, I love sinking into new worlds full of magic and mystery. However, sadly many authors settle on a medieval European world and, on occasion, provide nothing more than a weak copy of Tolkien's Middle Earth or Lewis' Narnia. So whenever I stumble across a Fantasy book that does something new, that isn't afraid to steer away from the ol' reliable and dares to bring something different to the genre, I do a happy dance. This year only two books have triggered that dance. The first was Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, a stunning African story of family and magic. The second is Empress of All Seasons, Emiko Jean's beautiful Japanese tale of love and strength. What I found fascinating is that, thinking of the two together, both are bound strongly by the theme of discrimination. In Adeyemi's novel the main character grows up afraid and ashamed of what she is, conditioned to consider herself less than. Children of Blood and Bone is a sharp and honest story about racism. Empress of All Seasons, while perhaps not quite as sharp, shows a similar picture. Jean's protagonist, Mari, has to hide who she is, a monster in the eyes of humans and a disappointment in the eyes of her own people. As Adeyemi draws from African folklore, so Jean draws from Japanese folk tales, and both make the Fantasy genre richer by their addition.

Empress of All Seasons is enchanting. From the beginning of the novel I was completely caught up in the world Emiko Jean was creating. Initially I was suspicious of the seasonal rooms and how it would work, but the mythology feels completely real and fantastical at the same time. Split between different narrators, The Empress of All Seasons manages to convey all the different consequences of a society split by those who are "right" and those who aren't. Mari is a great main character, scarred and scared but strong and determined in her own way. Struggling with her own identity and the expectations that come with it, Mari is someone you're rooting for. Similarly, Taro is more than the grumpy, sulky prince, and Akira is more than the third part of a love triangle. Although that tension is there, it is in no way the main focus and something you have to almost actively read into the text yourself.

Emiko Jean's writing in this novel is stunning. She sets her novel solidly in a medieval-esque Japan where monsters and spirits and humans roam side by side. Her writing suits itself to both the very real tension of a mother-daughter relationship and the mythical creatures and traditions that move through her world. Her descriptions of the Rooms are so vivid I could see them when I closed my eyes. Jean confidently strides into the YA genre and twists its tropes upside down. Are there three young people who may or may not be in love? Perhaps. But it's not as it seems! Is there a young woman with a destiny? Definitely. But neither her nor the reader know what to expect from it! I loved the twists of her plot and the last quarter of the novel is full of surprises.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I absolutely adored The Empress of All Seasons and want to read everything Emiko Jean writes. Mari is a brilliant fantasy heroine and Jean will continue to surprise you throughout her novel. I'd recommend The Empress of All Seasons to every fantasy reader looking for something new and beautiful.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Review: 'The Sister' by Louise Jensen

Ominous last words, a friendship that may not have been what it seemed, and a new friend who is suspicious. These are a few of my favourite things and The Sister employs most of them to great effect. Moving between the past and present, Jensen's The Sister sketches a portrait of a woman on the brink, trying desperately to claw her way back. Thanks to Grand Central Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 26/6/2018
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

"I did something terrible Grace. I hope you can forgive me..."
Grace hasn't been the same since the death of her best friend Charlie. She is haunted by Charlie's last words, and in a bid for answers, opens an old memory box of Charlie's. It soon becomes clear there was a lot she didn't know about her best friend.
When Grace starts a campaign to find Charlie's father, Anna, a girl claiming to be Charlie's sister steps forward. For Grace, finding Anna is like finding a new family, and soon Anna has made herself very comfortable in Grace and boyfriend Dan's home.
But something isn't right. Things disappear, Dan's acting strangely and Grace is sure that someone is following her. Is it all in Grace's mind? Or as she gets closer to discovering the truth about both Charlie and Anna, is Grace in terrible danger?
There was nothing she could have done to save Charlie... or was there?
At the heart of The Sister is friendship and guilt. Like many other current psychological thrillers The Sister is fascinated with the adolescence of teenage girls, the highs of friendship and the lows of betrayal. The friendship between Grace and Charlie centres the novel and is the relationship around which most of it revolves. Thinking back to my own adolescence and childhood I do remember the intensity of the smallest thing, so seeing the almost obsessive nature of the friendship and of Grace's questioning of it does make sense. Jensen does take it a step further by looking at guilt and its many different forms. We all carry some guilt around, whether it's regretting something we did or regretting something we didn't. The Sister shows this in different ways and in different relationships, between children and parents, husband and wife, friend and friend. Where is the line and what happens when it's crossed? I know there are a lot of questions here, but who doesn't love a book that asks questions?

At the beginning of The Sister we find Grace slowly trying to recover from her best friend's death, but as she tries to do so the past comes back to haunt her and her life slowly begins to fall apart again. I did enjoy much of The Sister, its twists and its turns, but whereas some things remain a mystery to Grace, I feel the reader figures some things out way quicker than she or any of the other characters do. Especially Anna was both fascinating and frustrating since she was rather untrustworthy from the beginning. Part of this is also down to the title. I mean, come on. I don't want to spell it out but surely we all know that titles like these can be major giveaways unless they're actively misleading or only suggestive. Think of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Rebecca is at the heart of the novel, centring the mystery, and Du Maurier wants you to be just as focused on her as her main character. In this case Jensen's title isn't as successful, unfortunately.

Louise Jensen knows how to keep the pace. When a novel switches back and forth between the present and the past, it's difficult to make sure both narratives keep a reader's attention. Jensen uses Grace's past as a way to both inform the present and confuse it. What happened? Why did it happen? And how long will the repercussions last? Grace's voice is strong throughout the novel, even if at times she isn't the most likeable of narrators. Jensen doesn't intend for her to be though, not shying away from showing that no one is perfect and everyone has their vices. In the end The Sister tries to show that forgiveness needs to happen and that this forgiveness can hide behind different and surprising corners. Despite the fact that not all of The Sister was as surprising or smooth as I would have liked, I did enjoy it and raced through it, heading towards the inevitable but juicy conclusion.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I enjoyed The Sister, even though it was quite obvious at times where it was going. However, there were some great scenes which offered a lot of promise so I will definitely keep my eye out for Jensen's next book.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Review: 'Spinning Silver' by Naomi Novik

A fairy tale adaptation you say? Set in a magical cousin of \Russia? Yes of course I'd love to read this, why haven't you given it to me yet?! Spinning Silver promises a lot of good things in its blurb, but I'm happy to say that what it actually has to offer is a lot better than what is promised. Novik spins a magical web, slowly ensnaring the reader until they realise they're in too deep to get out. Thanks to Pan Macmillan and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 12/07/2018
Publisher: Pan Macmillan

WILL DARK MAGIC CLAIM THEIR HOME? 
Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s too kind-hearted to collect his debts. They face poverty, until Miryem hardens her own heart and takes up his work in their village. 
Her success creates rumours she can turn silver into gold, which attract the fairy king of winter himself. He sets her an impossible challenge – and if she fails, she’ll die. Yet if she triumphs, it may mean a fate worse than death. And in her desperate efforts to succeed, Miryem unwittingly spins a web which draws in the unhappy daughter of a lord. 
Irina’s father schemes to wed her to the tsar – he will pay any price to achieve this goal. However, the dashing tsar is not what he seems. And the secret he hides threatens to consume the lands of mortals and winter alike.  
Torn between deadly choices, Miryem and Irina embark on a quest that will take them to the limits of sacrifice, power and love. 
In this fairy tale-inspired novel, Naomi Novik weaves a rich, multi-layered tapestry that is a joy to read.
The main reason I picked up Spinning Silver is because the blurb calls it 'fairy tale-inspired'. I love new, modern takes on fairy tales that explore what is at the heart of those tales and why they are still relevant to us now. Spinning Silver does this at the very start, revealing that behind the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin there is a very different truth. And so Novik sets the reader on an early path to both mistrust what is at the surface and suspect what lies underneath. It makes for a great set up to exploring the lives of her many characters, and especially the three girls at the heart of the novel, Miryem, Irina and Wanda. And this is where I need to take a moment to complain about the blurb above for this novel. The reason I included it in the review is only to be able to complain about it now. After having read the book I feel the blurb does it a major disservice. Not only does it leave out Wanda as a major character, it misses out of providing hints at the genres the book mixes together and gives no suggestion of the richness of the book itself. So as I said in my introduction above, consider the blurb only a pale reflection of the actual book. In this review I'm going to try and avoid covering too much of the plot because I loved the surprises it offered me.

As stated, at the heart of Spinning Silver are Miryem, the daughter of Jewish moneylenders, Irina, the daughter of a duke who had hoped for more, and Wanda, the daughter of a drunk and poor farmer. Part of why I was so annoyed that the blurb gave no hint of all three is because it is by bringing together their diverse stories that Novik really caught my attention. Miryem's family is poor because her father is no good at moneylending, but one day Miryem has had enough of the sly smiles, the withheld money and the comments about their Jewish heritage, and takes over from her father. Fueled by her anger, Miryem quickly makes her family's life more comfortable. Alongside this we are told of Wanda, who lives with her two brothers and father on a barren farm, "protected" only by her mother's tree. Through Miryem Wanda is given a chance at escape, understanding and maybe even the magic of letters. As Miryem's power to "change silver into gold" becomes more well-known, she draws the eyes of a people shrouded in myth and fear, catching up Irina in the turmoil as well. Irina has lived her life in the shadows, almost content at being a disappointment to her father, until he sees a chance to make her tsarina. Her elevation brings with it strength and danger, and, like Miryem and Wanda, she has to find a way to save what she loves and come into her own. Novik takes her three main characters and highlights both the differences and similarities between them. Whether it's their difference in class and ethnicity or their shared stubborn determination and quiet love for their family, Novik's Spinning Silver shows them in a gentle but honest light and I couldn't help but become engrossed in all of them.

Novik's writing is what brings Spinning Silver to life. She translates the sparse but powerful style of fairy tales into a more luscious and rich style, without losing the clarity and honesty. I loved both her descriptions of the grand  landscape and of the small moments between family members that show their love for each other. Spinning Silver moves skilfully between being loud and being quiet, being dramatic and being intimate. It means that I found myself, reading during my lunch break at work, completely lost in her world. I looked up from my Kindle an hour later and had forgotten I was at work. For the rest of the day I had Spinning Silver in my mind and I returned to reading the moment I got home. I was surprised that certain aspects of the novel worked for me. Novik moves a lot between different narrators, and not just her three main female characters. Yet each time there is a new character speaking their narration adds another layer to the story and it didn't feel like too much. In a sense the ending also came too soon and tied up all the loose story lines almost too neatly, but I guess now I'm just really looking for something to complain about. I will definitely be keeping my eyes out for more of Novik's novels.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I adored Spinning Silver. Once I was caught there was simply no escape. Novik weaves a beautiful tale of three interlocking stories, three girls with different paths yet similar desires, all set against a beautiful, Russian fairy tale-esque background. What more could you really ask for?

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Review: ‘Watch the Girls’ by Jennifer Wolfe

A missing sister? A former teen star? A series of disappearances? A town made famous by horror movies? How has this genius combination of thrills not been combined in a book before now?! I was fascinated by Watch the Girls’ blurb straightaway, which of course led to the concern that the actual book wouldn’t live up to my expectations. But thankfully that concern was unfounded because Wolfe delivered exactly what I wanted. Thanks to Grand Central Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/07/2018
Publisher:  Grand Central Publishing
Fame and obsession collide in this darkly twisted novel from an incredible new voice in suspense. 
I've been watched all my life. I'm used to being stared at. Observed. Followed.SOMEONE IS WATCHING 
Washed up teen star Liv Hendricks quit acting after her beloved younger sister inexplicably disappeared following a Hollywood party gone wrong. Liv barely escaped with her life, and her sister was never heard from again. But all this time, someone's been waiting patiently to finish what was started...
FOUR MISSING GIRLSNow fifteen years later, broke and desperate, Liv is forced to return to the spotlight. She crowdfunds a webseries in which she'll pose as a real-life private detective--a nod to the show she starred on as a teen. When a mysterious donor challenges her to investigate a series of disappearances outside a town made famous by the horror movies filmed there, Liv has no choice but to accept.
FOLLOW THE WHITE WOLFLiv is given a cryptic first clue: Follow the white wolf. And now a darker game is about to begin. Through social media, someone is leaving breadcrumbs to follow. As Liv makes increasingly disturbing discoveries, her show explodes in popularity. A rapt internet audience is eager to watch it all--perhaps even at the cost of Liv's own life...
Filled with provocative twists and turns as the line between plot and reality blurs in this inventive tour-de-force from breakout writer Jennifer Wolfe. 
Where to begin? A lot goes on in Watch the Girls and it took me until around halfway through the book before I saw what it was that connected the different elements: family. I have said this before, but the idea of family is incredibly potent in literature. Whether it’s Anna Karenina or Coraline, authors have always found inspiration in family relationships. Our family is, in a large part, what shapes us but it is also something we have to depart from at some point to consider ourselves independent adults. You can never quite let it go, of course, and the smallest tensions can lead to major fallouts. But it can also be a fountain of endless love and support, inspiring books likeLittle Women and A Little Princess. In Watch the Girls, Wolfe shows the darker sides of family life: jealousy and fear, the desire to protect and the desire to destroy. In the end it made sense that this potent network of connections is what motivates much of the twists and turns in Watch the Girls.

Watch the Girls follows Liv (Olivia) Hendricks, once a teen star and now a struggling C-lister at best. She wants nothing to do with all the glitz and glam, but she needs money so after being fired from her latest set she crowdfunds a new enterprise: Liv solving mysteries! But her first mystery takes her straight back to her own past. AsWatch the Girls moves between Liv trying to solve the disappearance of young women, young Olivia relives her own trauma of losing her youngest sister and remembering nothing of the night. Wolfe plays interestingly with (social) media, letting the reader see the Tweets Liv gets while also looking at the influence of too much exposure at a young age. And then there are the horror movies that made the locale of the disappearances famous. Wolfe indirectly examines why we are obsessed with what horrifies us, if there is something we can learn from facing our worst fears, and where those fears come from. I loved how Wolfe used the image of the wolf in Watch the Girls. The wolf has always been a fascinating figure, a pack animal with strong loyalties yet also a hunter at night.

I had never read anything by Jennifer Wolfe before, but Watch the Girls has definitely made me a fan. Although there are a number of tropes in the book she manages to avoid it becoming cliché. Her writing feels honest, while also giving you exactly the thrills and scares that you want. There is some truly horrifying stuff in this book, but Wolfe avoids sensationalism. ‘Dead girls’ is a popular topic in modern fiction and it can at times be problematic (click here for a very interesting article on this topic), but Wolfe manages to move around this relatively well. In a sense the world’s obsession with dead or disappeared girls is central to this novel as well, asking us why we think it so important to watch girls suffer on camera or in fiction. What is it supposed to teach us? Who is it really for? In a sense this question is also posed to the reader. Why are we so fascinated with this story of girls and women suffering? Watch the Girls doesn’t give an answer to those questions, but I was glad that aside from being a fascinating thriller that had me on the edge of my seat it also gave me food for thought.

I give this novel..
 
4 Universes!

While reading Watch the Girls it chased everything else from my mind. When I wasn’t reading it I was thinking about it. I loved trying to figure out what was happening, moving with the twists and turns and rooting for Liv to overcome everything that was thrown at her.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Books in the News: Odysseus Found

I thought I'd try something new and that is not only keep up with news about literature, poetry and drama but actually share my favourite news with you as well. Whether favourite will always mean happy and positive news remains to be seen, but for now, let's get the news on the road.


The first news story I want to share with you relates to one of my favourite Classical texts: The Odyssey. After fighting in the Trojan War for 10 long years, Odysseus manages to make an enemy of the god Poseidon, delaying his return home for another 10 years. As he travels across the sea and loses his companions he encounters a menagerie of supernatural beings, whether it's the Siren, Circe and a cyclops, before finally being able to return home. The poem is believed to have been composed during the 8th century BC and to have been transmitted orally. The earliest known fragments of The Odyssey, until today, stemmed from the Christian era and were found in Egypt , where they were transcribed onto parchment. 

Yesterday, in a press release, the Greek Culture Ministery revealed 'a particularly important discoveryFor the last three years Greek and German archaeologists have been tirelessly working on the Olympia site, but I doubt any of them were expecting to find the oldest fragment of The Odyssey ever uncovered and the first to be found in Greece itself. The clay slab discovered in Olympia contains 13 verses from the 14th book of The Odyssey. This book finally sees Odysseus returning to Ithaca and conversing with his friend Eumaeus, before reuniting with his wife Penelope and son Telemachus.


The dating of the slabs is still underway, but it was found amid Roman remains and is, for now, assumed to be from roughly 300 AD. I personally think this discovery will also be of major cultural importance to Greece. Many of the most stunning architecture and sculptures are to be found in museums outside of Greece and this has, rightly, been a sore point for a long time. To find a fragment such as this, of a text so integral to the literary and cultural importance of Greece to the rest of the world, and not have it whisked away, will be very meaningful.

From a literary standpoint this is indeed a singular and important discovery as well. I have always been fascinated by the oral transmission of such classic works, how stories changed with every time they were told, slightly altered by each person who told it. It is still debated whether Homer was a single person or if he is himself as much of a myth of Ulysses is. Are the tales he told all fiction or is there a kernel of truth to them? Although the answer to that question may never be found, I am hoping we'll continue to find little pieces of literary history such as the above clay slab, allowing us to trace how out stories have moved through time.

Are you a fan of the Odyssey?



Review: 'Metamorphica' by Zachary Mason

My first introduction to myths and legends was during a holiday in Greece when I borrowed (read: stole) a book of Greek myths from my parents. Surrounded by the Greek landscape the gods and goddesses of Olympus felt as real as anything. I have been devoted to them ever since. Studying Greek and Latin in school didn't manage to defeat my love for them and here I am, still chasing down books about them. The latest is Zachary Mason's fascinating Metamorphica, based on Ovid's Metamorphoses. Thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/07/2018
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A brilliant and daring novel that reimagines Ovid’s Metamorphoses 
In the tradition of his bestselling debut novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason’s Metamorphica transforms Ovid’s epic poem of endless transformation. It reimagines the stories of Narcissus, Pygmalion and Galatea, Midas and Atalanta, and strings them together like the stars in constellations—even Ovid becomes a story. It’s as though the ancient mythologies had been rewritten by Borges or Calvino; Metamorphica is an archipelago in which to linger for a while; it reflects a little light from the morning of the world.
Ovid's epic Metamorphoses is a classic. In 250 myths, the long poem tracks the history of the world from creation to Julius Caesar. Ovid's masterpiece has had a major influence on Western literature, from Dante to Shakespeare. His metamorphosis myths diver at times significantly from his Greek sources, yet they have become classic in their own rights. At the heart of many of his reworked myths is the idea of love, while humans come across better than the gods. The transformations in the Metamorphoses are often painful and violent, but then, isn't change always? I loved the Metamorphoses when I first read them, and still loved them when I was made to translate parts of it in school. A collection and reworking of past myths itself, it is no surprise that Ovid himself has given rise to reworkings. Up to now, I was never too bowled over by any of them, but Zachary Mason's Metamorphica is a stunner.

Rather than one connected narrative, Mason's Metamorphica casts each god and goddess as a star and tells the constellations of stories around them. I adored the star charts which started each new section dedicated to a new god or goddess, as well as the mini summaries at the beginning of each story. Rather than give anything away, these mini summaries tie the different stories together, show how each myth is somehow connected to the others. The stories vary in length, some no more than two paragraphs while others span for pages. Yet each brings a surprising new twist to what we know of the stories. Taking an almost psychoanalytical take to these stories, Mason brings out a new side to what we know. While Ovid's Metamorphoses was written entirely from a male view point, Mason frequently switches between male and female narrators, letting Clytemnaestra tell her own rage and allowing the reader to feel Narcissus' emptiness through his own words. Despite having read these stories over and over again, Metamorphica brought me something new and I absolutely devoured this collection of stories. I felt saddened when it was over, but also enriched.

Zachary Mason's writing is poetical and beautiful, both honest and fantastical. There is real grief and pain in his pages, but also beauty and joy, however fleeting. No Greek myth can be accused of having a happy ending and Mason doesn't gloss over that. There is a lot of tragedy in Metamorphica but it is of a kind of beautiful tragedy, the kind which is fated and therefore inevitable. Mason's writing matches this, laying everything on the table while maintaining the mystery of his tales. His takes on these Greek and Latin myths are sharp and to the point, not covering up the ugly truths contained in these myths but almost revelling in them. I adored how he dissected some of the stories, giving me a way to accept Circe's sudden obeisance to Odysseus, for example. Considering how much I have read about these myths I myself was almost surprised by how immediately I fell in love with Metamorphica. I am actually already in the middle of rereading it. Thank you Zachary Mason!

I give this collection...

5 Universes!

Metamorphica completely blew me away. Beautifully written and heartbreaking, Mason rewrites Ovid's Metamorphses in a way that felt both modern and ancient. I'd recommend this to anyone who has an interest in Greek and Latin myths.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Short Review: 'The Brontë Family: Passionate Literary Geniuses' by Karen Kenyon

Aah, the Brontë sisters! What geniuses they were and how miserably short their lives. And yet their few years continue to fascinate their readers. Sadly I am still far away from visiting Haworth, but it has been on my list ever since I first read Jane Eyre. As a devout Brontë fan I try to get my hands on every book written about them and the latest instalment is The Brontë Family by Karen Kenyon. Thanks to Endeavour Media and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review of this book.

Pub. Date: Endeavour Media
Publisher: 01/07/2018

The authors of such literary classics as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë were extraordinary not only because they were successful female writers in Victorian England, but also because they were sisters. 
Growing up, all three sisters’ writings were significantly influenced by each other, but perhaps most importantly by their troubled brother, Branwell. 
This fascinating account of each sister’s unconventional life, astounding talent, and tragic death draws readers into the minds of the gifted authors whose passionate tales have enthralled readers for more than a century and whose voices still resonate with modern readers.
I love the Brontë sisters. Once I discovered English literature through the brilliant Jane Austen I swiftly fell for Charlotte, Emily and Anne as well. I must admit, however, that Emily is my undoubted favourite. There is something so visceral and wild about Wuthering Heights that has, in my opinion, never been topped. But this is true of all the Brontë sisters. They were true in a way that was rare, honest almost to the point of painful and undoubtedly gifted. What fascinates me is how they penned three fascinating novels simultaneously by candle light, huddled over the kitchen table after a long day of work. The creative spirit that must have surrounded them is something I'm amazed and inspired by and it is no surprise they have continued to inspire people for years.

In The Brontë Family Karen Kenyon captures the lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne in short chapters dedicated to some of the most powerful and some of the most tragic moments in their lives. Whether it is the first sparks of their literary genius, their hardships at school, the brilliancy of their talent, the tragedy of their ends, \Kenyon covers it all in short yet insightful chapters. Although there is not much that would be new to Brontë fans, Kenyon's The Brontë Family covers them very well. I liked how every chapter began with a quote, whether from the Brontë sisters directly or from someone close to them. Kenyon also covers Branwell's life, how he brought both pride and shame to his family before his untimely end.


I give this novel...

3 Universes!

Short and to the point, I enjoyed reading The Brontë Family. In a few chapters, Kenyon highlights some of the high and low points in the lives of the Brontës, her love for the three sisters clearly shining through. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in finding out some more about the Brontës.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Review: 'Thirteen' by Steve Cavanagh

I adore crime thrillers! Give me all the mystery, the twisted minds, the detectives or private investigators putting it all on the line to get their bad guy. It's a predictable story line, usually, which is part of why the genre is so comfortable. You go in expecting to be shocked, to be horrified but to know, in the end, that evil has been locked away and everything is once again safe. So naturally I jump at every chance to read a new thriller come my way and Thirteen was the latest. Thanks to Orion Publishing Group and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 14/06/2018
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group

They were Hollywood's hottest power couple. They had the world at their feet. Now one of them is dead and Hollywood star Robert Solomon is charged with the brutal murder of his beautiful wife. 
This is the celebrity murder trial of the century and the defence want one man on their team: con artist turned lawyer Eddie Flynn. 
All the evidence points to Robert's guilt, but as the trial begins a series of sinister incidents in the court room start to raise doubts in Eddie's mind. 
What if there's more than one actor in the courtroom? 
What if the killer isn't on trial? What if the killer is on the jury?

Part of my love for psychological or crime thrillers comes from how they let us face the dark without forcing us to actually encounter it. Everyone has a bit of darkness inside them and always suppressing it can lead to bad things (watch The Babadook and you'll see why!). We also love to be horrified, it is why horror is such a potent genre. It goes back to Julia Kristeva's theory of the abject. It is what disturbs our normal order, it is how we define what is 'of us' and what isn't, it is how we place boundaries between our society and everything outside of it. We define ourselves by saying what isn't us or shouldn't be us. I think the same comes into play with these kinds of novels (and films). We read about what horrifies us, fear it, and overcome it, making these novels a kind of catharsis. Some of them are more on the pure entertainment side, while others dig more deeply into our psyche, but I enjoy almost all of them. And yet, as I said above, some of them can be a bit repetitive, the story lines of various novels blending into one another

Thirteen is a great twist on the usual psychological thrillers, as the blurb tells. Initially I was worried that too much had been given away. From the beginning we know of a killer trying to get on the jury for the trial of a murder most likely committed by him. From the very beginning we follow both Eddie Flynn, a lawyer standing up for the little folk, averse to corrupt police officers and overcoming his own personal demons, as well as Joshua Kane, the murderer, the mysterious jury member. My worry was how Cavanagh would maintain the novel's pace and suspense if both sides were plain to see for the reader, and the middle of the novel did flag here or there. Going through the trial, seeing it from both Flynn and Kane's points of view, was interesting but there is a sense of just waiting for the big reveal, for the moment when our hero and villain clash. Some of the twists were straightforward and expected, but then towards the end there was a twist that literally made me gasp out loud. And that is when I realized that Cavanagh had been playing with the reader and the genre. Just like both of the protagonists, we have certain expectations of where the plot will go, what the characters will do, who is good and who is bad. I majorly enjoyed the twist, but I still wish the cover and blurb didn't give quite so much away.

Steve Cavanagh knows what the readers want. His narrative is driven and moves at a good pace, not lingering too long on things that don't need it but providing enough background for his characters and their actions. Thirteen is less focused on the crime than on the legal side of things and Cavanagh really knows how to ramp up the tension of the courtroom. I had never read a Steve Cavanagh book before and only guessed around halfway through the book that it was part of a series. This is indeed the 4th book in Cavanagh's Eddie Flynn series, but thankfully there was no sense of having missed out on something. Everything I presume had come before was nicely fed into the narrative in a way that didn't feel forced. I didn't feel as attached to the characters as has happened before but I enjoyed spending a few hours in their company. I would definitely check out another Steve Cavanagh book, although I'm not necessarily out to hunt down the other Eddie Flynn books.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I really enjoyed Thirteen and its surprises. Cavanagh moved through his plot at a great pace and I always found myself curious as to where he would take us next. I'd definitely recommend this to any fans of legal and crime thrillers!

Monday, 21 May 2018

Review: 'Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places' by Rebecca Rego Barry

My love for books is both my family's pride and the bane of their existence. As a young child my parents would be thrilled to see me reading and infuriated to find my still reading at midnight. No matter where we are, no bookstore can be passed without a visit. And too often I turn pleading eyes onto my family members and beg for 'just 10 more minutes'. I can spend hours in bookstores, especially when they're the kind of bookstores you can get lost in, where the shelves reach to the ceiling, where old meets new, literary fiction meets art history and music theory settles in next to science fiction. So how could I resist Rare Books Uncovered? Thanks to Quatro, Voyageur Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 27/02/2018
Publisher: Quatro, Voyageur Press

Feed your inner bibliophile with this volume on unearthed rare and antiquarian books. 
Few collectors are as passionate or as dogged in the pursuit of their quarry as collectors of rare books. In Rare Books Uncovered, expert on rare and antiquarian books Rebecca Rego Barry recounts the stories of remarkable discoveries from the world of book collecting. 
Read about the family whose discovery in their attic of a copy of Action Comics No. 1--the first appearance of Superman-saved their home from foreclosure. Or the Salt Lake City bookseller who volunteered for a local fundraiser--and came across a 500-year-old copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Or the collector who, while browsing his local thrift shop, found a collectible copy of Calvary in China--inscribed by the author to the collector's grandfather. These tales and many others will entertain and inspire casual collectors and hardcore bibliomaniacs alike.
My obsession with antique books is really my family's fault. I think it started when my granddad one day decided that since I liked history I could help him riffle through a chest (I'm not kidding!) of old papers, photos and books that had been there for who knows how long. Not only did we discover we're related to George Friedrich Handel (again, I'M NOT KIDDING! It was an exciting day!), but we also unearthed a centuries old Latin copy of Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico. We went to the local library the next day to have it assessed and almost 8 years later my grandfather gifted it to me. That day spent with him lit a fire in me for antique books because I began to appreciate how wonderful those old books are, how they have passed through countless hands and how imbued with history they are. So from then on my trips to bookstores included hunting down books that struck me with that sense of history, books whose plain covers hid fascinating content. It started a passion that hasn't abated and probably never will. I own 7 different editions of Wuthering Heights and have stacks of books waiting at my father's house for me to get my own apartment with actual bookshelves. I may have a problem...

Rare Books Uncovered is the perfect book for bibliophiles and collectors like myself. Barry fills the book with short chapters dedicated to extraordinary finds, whether it's superhero comics or Dali's Alice. For someone who delights in boxes of books and dusty bookstores, these chapters are a delight. I found myself excited by these finds, laughing at the sheer serendipity of most of them, and inspired by the collectors' clear passion for books of whatever kind. Not each find pulls at me equally. I'm much less interested in driving manuals than in Frankenstein, and yet each chapter held something of interest for me. The chapter that struck me most was 'Scarce Scottish Imprint Hiding in the Stacks' in which Barry describes a surprising find in the St. Andrews Rare Books library. The library began a program called 'Lighting the Past' in which they started working their way through their backlog. While doing my Master's Degree in Medieval English at St. Andrews I actually spent time myself helping dig through the Rare Books and cataloguing them, comparing them to other copies in WorldCat and other collections. The work done on 'Lighting the Past' happened in the room next door. I loved the mornings I spent there, surrounded by books, and I felt a surge of pride reading about it in Rare Books Uncovered.

Rare Books Uncovered could easily be a dry and boring book. After all, it is simply a collection of book titles, dates, names and prices. But Rebecca Rego Barry brings these stories to life. Each chapter feels like a mini mystery, and the interviews she has done with the collectors and discoverers brings a personal touch to their stories. There is a love for books in Rare Books Uncovered and it is a love that is shared by Barry, the people she interviews and us, the readers. One thing I especially adored were the little asides in the book that explained certain lingo like 'provenance', 'ephemera' or 'marginalia'. It makes the world of book collectors a little bit more accessible and, in my case, gives me the vocabulary to describe some of the things I have found in my years of book collecting. Rare Books Uncovered is probably not for every reader. If you love reading but don't feel the need to collect them then this book will perhaps not fill you with the same sense of recognition as it did for me. Some of the stories will be interesting and you'll enjoy leafing through it. But if you're like me then this book is close to inspirational. I will have to hunt down a physical copy of Rare Books Uncovered because reading it filled me with joy.


I give this book...

5 Universes!

God I adored this book! Barry has written a book for book collectors, full of anecdotes, surprises and passion. Although book collecting has changed a lot in the last few decades, the spirit remains the same. It's about the joy of knowing anything could be anywhere and that maybe you'll find it. I'd recommend this to anyone who knows how addicting book collecting can be.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Review: 'Skin' by Ilka Tampke

I adore British history. There are so many different time periods, cultures and languages that came together to create the Britain we know now. One of the most mysterious cultures to have populated England were the Celts. An intensely secretive group, all their secrets and mysteries were passed along orally, yet authors and directors have never let that stand in their way of trying to reinvent the Celts. Ilka Tampke's Skin might be my favourite attempt every. Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Pub. Date: 06/08/2015
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Imagine a world where everyone is born with a 'skin' name. Without skin you cannot learn, you are not permitted to marry, and you grow up an outsider amongst your own people. 
This is no future dystopia. This is Celtic Britain. 
It is AD 43. For the Caer Cad, 'skin' name determines lineage and identity. Ailia does not have skin; despite this, she is a remarkable young woman, intelligent, curious and brave. As a dark threat grows on the horizon - the aggressive expansion of the Roman Empire - Ailia must embark on an unsanctioned journey to attain the knowledge that will protect her people, and their pagan way of life, from the most terrifying invaders they have ever faced... and it is this unskinned girl who will come to hold the fate of her people in her hands. 
SKIN is a standout, full-blooded debut which invokes the mesmerizing, genre-transcending magic of novels such as Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cavebear; it combines epic storytelling with a strikingly unique plot set during a fascinating period of Britain's history.
As I said above, many authors have tried to capture what they think the Celts were like. We see shades of them in old, wise, bearded men travelling the country side, for example. They are often tied to the Arthurian myths through Merlin, as well. Tampke does away with a lot of what has been done before and lets what we know of the Celts work for her concept of 'skin'. And perhaps that is why it works. Tampke gives the Celts a defined religion, a shared culture, and thereby makes them less vague. And before I go into reviewing the rest of the novel I want to spend some time discussing the idea of 'skin' in her novel. It is a mystical, mythical thing, and yet it is deeply tied to every single moment of her character's day. It's how you greet people, it is how you declare love, it is how you know you belong. It is deeply religious but it is also social. It divides people, and the exclusion of those without has almost racial undertones. Tampke lets Roman and Celtic culture clash in Skin, but she doesn't shy away from showing some of the progress of the Romans and the darker sides of the Celtic culture. All in all, Tampke creates a fascinating portrait of a long-lost culture which feels tangible and real.

Ailia is what centres this novel. Although Skin could spin out of control with its combination between historical fiction and fantasy, Tampke puts Ailia solidly in the middle, holding both the "real" and the "other" world together. She is a young girl, aware of her skin-less state yet burning for more. She is dedicated to her adoptive mother and sisters but she is also still looking for a home that is truly hers. What I found most recognisable about Ailia was her desire for more and her willingness to bend the rules for it, yet also her crushing fear that society is right and that she is nothing. Told her whole live she has no right to anything and she should be happy with what she has been given, her drive and desire are at the heart of this novel. She is surrounded for this by a plethora of fascinating characters, many of which are interesting female characters with their own motivations, fears and desires. As Ailia plunges further and further into the mysteries of the Mothers and discovers her power, the novel's quick but solid pace drives the reader forward, desperate to find out what will happen with Ailia and those she loves. Her mystical experiences were my favourite parts of the novel, elevating it above historical fiction into something mythical.

Tampke's writing style is almost dreamlike and yet she manages to capture everyday life in the Iron age in great detail. Tampke did a great amount of research into Iron Age Britain and it really shows, whether it's in the descriptions of the clothes, the houses or the stark contrast with the Roman Empire, it all strikes true. And on top of that she adds the fantasy element of her novel, the skins, the Mothers, the Journeymen who can travel between our world and the other. That fantasy is as rooted in detail as the "historical fiction" part of the novel, yet these details feel oddly familiar, as if you've read them before in a myth or legend. The winding rivers that lead girls astray in the woods, the handsome strangers who seem only half of this world, and the rituals of fire and stars. Tampke doesn't fall into the trap of trying to mimic old time-y English, but her modern English serves her plot well, still creating that magical feel Skin thrives off. One thing Tampke deserves major props for is her ending. I don't want to spoil anything but it is a brave ending that both closes of Skin and sets up a number of potential stories for the second novel Songwoman. I personally cannot wait!


I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I utterly adored Skin! I read it voraciously and thought about it when I couldn't read, wondering where Ailia would go next, what she would do. Tampke creates a magical world in her novel, bringing to live Iron Age Britain in an engrossing way. I'd recommend this to fans of Historical Fiction and Fantasy.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Review: ‘The Lost Word of Byzantium’ by Jonathan Harris


I spent much of my childhood watching television programs about ancient cities, fallen empires and imposing emperors. It instilled me with a lifelong love for and fascination with history and everything it encompasses. One empire that has always mystified me a little was the Byzantine Empire. Although I had learned about the Roman Empire in school, its Eastern part, which became Byzantium, was never truly covered. And yet, bridging East and West, it must have been a fascinating place. Thankfully Jonathan Harris’ The Lost World of Byzantium gave me a brilliant overview. Thanks to Yale University Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 15/08/2015
Publisher: Yale University Press
For more than a millennium, the Byzantine Empire presided over the juncture between East and West, as well as the transition from the classical to the modern world. Jonathan Harris, a leading scholar of Byzantium, eschews the usual run-through of emperors and battles and instead recounts the empire's extraordinary history by focusing each chronological chapter on an archetypal figure, family, place, or event. Harris's action-packed introduction presents a civilization rich in contrasts, combining orthodox Christianity with paganism, and classical Greek learning with Roman power. Frequently assailed by numerous armies-including those of Islam-Byzantium nonetheless survived and even flourished by dint of its somewhat unorthodox foreign policy and its sumptuous art and architecture, which helped to embed a deep sense of Byzantine identity in its people. Enormously engaging and utilizing a wealth of sources to cover all major aspects of the empire's social, political, military, religious, cultural, and artistic history, Harris's study illuminates the very heart of Byzantine civilization and explores its remarkable and lasting influence on its neighbors and on the modern world.
In The Lost Word of Byzantium Jonathan Harris has quite a challenge in front of him, trying to pack hundreds of years into not quite 300 pages. As such, Harris’ book isn’t a comprehensive, everything included, kind of history. As he described it, it is more of a ‘personal journey through the long history of Byzantium’. While some may prefer more factual ad “historical” history books, and I often do, I actually loved Harris’ take on writing Byzantium’s history. The Lost World of Byzantium is written with a lot of insight, Harris often interjecting the historical account to bring in his own thoughts or to consider how history has judged the person he is describing. In a sense, The Lost World of Byzantium feels quite intimate, despite describing over a 1000 years of history and countless emperors, empresses, heroes and saints.

The most important thing  a history book needs to do is give the reader a basic grounding in the history it’s describing, whether that is a single event or, as is the case with The Lost World of Byzantium, countless of events over hundreds of years. There has to be a sense of connection, allowing the reader to trace trends, philosophies and families across the pages and generations. On the one had The Lost World of Byzantium does provide the full picture, describing ruler after ruler, war following war, and victory following defeat. On the other hand, however, it might be beneficial to already have a basic understanding of Byzantine history before beginning The Lost World of Byzantium. Harris fills his book with a great amount of detail, occasionally jumping backwards or forwards to explain a certain event or decision. In a sense Harris is telling a story, which the title of his book kind of suggests. In a sense the whole of the book attempts to answer the question of why Byzantium managed to last so long and why, then, it did eventually, fall. Harris provides many suggestions throughout the book but a definite answer will, most likely, never be found.

History books can be hard to read. They are often dry and boring, or so highly academic that it’s a miracle even the author knew what he was talking about. The Lost World of Byzantium is neither of these. It is the perfect history book in that Harris’ writing makes the pages fly by. You get invested in the Byzantium he describes and his passion for the Byzantine Empire becomes infectious. Although he stays objective for most of the book, as he should as an academic, he can’t help but let a fondness for certain characters shine through. In The Lost World of Byzantium Harris is giving us both historical fact as well as one hell of a story. Despite Harris’ engrossing writing, however, it might still be best to take it easy with The Lost World of Byzantium. There are a lot of dates, a lot of stories, a lot of battles happening in the same place at different times; it is a lot and it can get confusing. History can be repetitive and as names and treaties and cities repeat themselves, it is best to occasionally take a break from The Lost World of Byzantium. The great thing is, you’ll definitely come back because Harris as you invested after the first chapter.

I give this book…
 
4 Universes!

I greatly enjoyed The Lost World of Byzantium. It’s the kind of history book that fills your head with images rather than dates, without losing its base in history and fact. Jonathan Harris is a great writer and I’m definitely keen to read more of his books on the Byzantine Empire.