Wednesday, 3 July 2019

‘Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun’ by Guillermo del Toro & Cornelia Funke

How was I ever supposed to pass this novel by? Below I will go into a little bit more detail about why a novelization of Pan’s Labyrinth would have drawn me in straight away, but let’s just say that I adore it wholeheartedly. This actually meant that I went into the reading of it almost fearfully. What if it didn’t live up to my expectations? How would this affect the way I saw the film? Would it at all? So many questions, and yet del Toro and Funke were safe hands to place myself in. Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book.

Pub. Date: 7/2/2019
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
You shouldn't come in here. You could get lost. It has happened before. I'll tell you the story one day, if you want to hear it. 
In fairy tales, there are men and there are wolves, there are beasts and dead parents, there are girls and forests. 
Ofelia knows all this, like any young woman with a head full of stories. And she sees right away what the Capitán is, in his immaculate uniform, boots and gloves, smiling: a wolf. 
But nothing can prepare her for the fevered reality of the Capitán's eerie house, in the midst of a dense forest which conceals many things: half-remembered stories of lost babies; renegade resistance fighters hiding from the army; a labyrinth; beasts and fairies. 
There is no one to keep Ofelia safe as the labyrinth beckons her into her own story, where the monstrous and the human are inextricable, where myths pulse with living blood ...

Pan’s Labyrinth was one of the first movies I discovered on my own and for myself. I read about it in an article in, I believe, The Spiegel, and then convinced my German granddad to buy the DVD when I visited him shortly after. So there we were, both lovers of literature and fairy tales, and we were utterly swept away by the sheer beauty of del Toro’s film. We were also shocked by the violence of the Capin, oddly fascinated yet disgusted by the Pale Man, and heartbroken at the end. Pan’s Labyrinth is a film I have never stopped loving and have found new appreciation for again and again. Meanwhile Cornelia Funke was a big part of my childhood from the moment Inkheart landed in my lap. My father read it to me as I was young in what became a very meta experience. As he read to me of characters being read to life, Funke’s story was brought to life for me. It was perhaps the first novel to make me think of books and characters as things that were real and that could affect your life. Together, del Toro and Funke’s works have played major roles in shaping how I look at stories, so the coming together of the two in this adaptation of Pan’s Labyrinth is simply too much.

Pan's Labyrinth is a story about magic and childhood, about loss and pain, about love and hate. Ofelia is cast adrift in a new surrounding, a mill engulfed by a forest. Her father has died and her mother has married the Capin, a fear-inspiring and cruel man. Ofelia's only escapes are fairy tales, until a fairy takes her to a labyrinth, where a faun explains to her that she is a princess and must complete three tasks to regain her place in her underground kingdom. Magic and reality begin to collide, as everything around Ofelia unravels. This novel is not just a retelling of the film, it is a broadening of the whole experience. del Toro's film is focused largely on Ofelia, although we do get some insight into the inner lives of the adult characters. This novel delves into their personalities much more, showing us the fragility of Carmen, Ofelia's mother, the steel that runs through Mercedes, and the mercilessness of the Capitán. It also provides the labyrinth and Ofelia's origin with more background and I loved discovering this new aspect of the story. It brings an even more legendary feel to a movie that is already steeped in lore. In the end, both on its own and in addition to the film, Pan's Labyrinth is a great read.

Pan's Labyrinth is a retelling that celebrates its new medium and invites new readers to its story. Although the film is definitely R-Rated, the novel leans more towards the YA genre. Its writing is generally simple but evocative, with the dialogue kept to a minimum and relying mostly on showing rather than telling. Part of the reason why Pan's Labyrinth is such a beautiful and meaningful story is that it is very fantastical and yet incredibly grounded. del Toro and Funke find a great balance between highlighting the magic of the natural world, the precociousness of a child, and the horror of the human world. It all comes together into a story that transports the reader. At times Pan's Labyrinth feels a bit like a fable, as del Toro and Funke don't shy away from putting the moral right there on the page. However, it doesn't overwhelm the novel and rather adds to its fairy tale-esque feel. There are also some beautiful phrases in this novel, many in relation to magic, love and storytelling. One that stood out to me early on in the novel is below:
'The letters were like footprints in the snow, a wide white landscape untouched by pain, unharmed by memories too dark to keep, too sweet to let go of.'
Stories such as these transport the reader, showing them a path that may lead through pain and hardship but also leads to the sweet things. I simply adored del Toro and Funke's Pan's Labyrinth.

I give this novel...
5 Universes!

It should have come as no surprise that I would love the novelization of Pan's Labyrinth since I adored the movie. del Toro and Funke expand beautifully upon the existing story, adding new layers to both the characters and the narrative itself. Anyone who has loved the film or is looking for an enchanting and engrossing fantasy novel, this is the read for you!

Review: 'Silver in the Woods' by Emily Tesh

What first drew me to Silver in the Wood was its stunning cover, the trees and the wood intertwining to form a man’s face. I have always loved trees and wild woods. They contain history, in a way, and their quiet fortitude is rather inspiring at times. So of course I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the Wild man of the woods. Thanks to Macmillan-Tor/Forge, and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 6/18/2019

Publisher: Macmillan-Tor/Forge,
"A true story of the woods, of the fae, and of the heart. Deep and green and wonderful.”—New York Times bestselling author Naomi Novik 
There is a Wild Man who lives in the deep quiet of Greenhollow, and he listens to the wood. Tobias, tethered to the forest, does not dwell on his past life, but he lives a perfectly unremarkable existence with his cottage, his cat, and his dryads. 
When Greenhollow Hall acquires a handsome, intensely curious new owner in Henry Silver, everything changes. Old secrets better left buried are dug up, and Tobias is forced to reckon with his troubled past—both the green magic of the woods, and the dark things that rest in its heart. 
Praise for Emily Tesh's Silver in the Wood:"A wildly evocative and enchanting story of old forests, forgotten gods, and new love. Just magnificent."—Jenn Lyons, author of The Ruin of Kings

Silver in the Woods is more like  a folk tale than  a novella. The setting is quite precise and yet vague enough that it could be any wood. It sometimes felt as if I was reading a story I knew but which was being presented to me in a completely new way. Some aspects of the story reminded me of the Green Man archetype in folktales, a symbol of growth and rebirth, but also a symbol that closely ties man and nature together. Us humans aren’t separate from nature, we are of it, and Silver in the Woods couldn’t make this clearer. There is a love for nature that runs through Tesh’s writing that sometimes reminded me of how Tolkien’s passion for trees shone through in The Lord of the Rings. Whereas Christianity and other religions of the Book set man against nature, our earlier religions saw us as one with it, and so both Tobias, Henry and everyone else who comes in touch with the woods remains, in a way, a part of it.

Silver in the Woods follows Tobias Finch, the Wild Man of Greenhollow, who was once a man but is now something else. The caretaker of the woods, perhaps? Its spirit, somehow? It’s not entirely made clear by Tesh and I prefer it that way. Tobias’ quiet life is shaken up by the arrival of Henry Silver, the new lord of Greenhollow Hall who is absolutely fascinated with the woods and with folklore. Henry brings some human joy to Tobias’ life, but he also draws the attention of the old ghosts that haunt the Greenhollow woods. In Silver in the Woods magic and folklore are always just under the surface. The woods are a place of life, death, worship and depravity. They are a place where you can both find and lose yourself, face your fears and discover new ones. Tesh captures the beautiful duality of the woods in Silver in the Woods and they form the perfect background for the tentative romance and self-discovery her characters go through.

Although the cover was the first thing that drew my eye to Silver in the Woods, it was also the Naomi Novik’s enthusiastic endorsement that convinced me. I adored her novel Spinning Silver, which brought a fascinating twist to the Rumpelstiltskin tale. Similarly to Novik, Emily Tesh crafts some wonderful imagery in Silver in the Woods. There are some stunning phrases throughout the novella that truly transported me and captured some of the timelessness of nature and storytelling.  Although Silver in the Woods is quite a gentle novel, it doesn’t shy away from laying bare the cruelty and greed of humanity. It asks us how we use our power, what we’re willing to sacrifice, and how far we’ll go to win back what we’ve lost. Tesh doesn’t get too moralizing, but it is quite clear what she thinks herself.

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

Silver in the Woods is a beautiful tale that will whisk its reader away. With stunning nature descriptions and lovely interactions between characters, Silver in the Woods is a sadly short but very rewarding read. I’d recommend this to anyone with a love of woods and a passion for folklore.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Review: 'Same Same' by Peter Mendelsund

Some novels require work and dedication, whether you're writing them or reading them. Same Same was that kind of novel for me. What do you say about a novel that is as much about writing as it is about creating as it is about the meaningless of trying to do either? Below I have done my very best to gather my scattered thoughts on this novel. Thanks to Knopf Doubleday, Vintage and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 2/5/2019
Publishing: Knopf Doubleday; Vintage
In the shifting sands of the desert, near an unnamed metropolis, there is an institute where various fellows come to undertake projects of great significance. But when our sort-of hero, Percy Frobisher, arrives, surrounded by the simulated environment of the glass-enclosed dome of the Institute, his mind goes completely blank. When he spills something on his uniform—a major faux pas—he learns about a mysterious shop where you can take something, utter the command “same same,” and receive a replica even better than the original. Imagining a world in which simulacra have as much value as the real—so much so that any distinction between the two vanishes, and even language seeks to reproduce meaning through ever more degraded copies of itself—Peter Mendelsund has crafted a deeply unsettling novel about what it means to exist and to create . . . and a future that may not be far off.
I am going to have to be very honest in this review and admit that for much of Same Same found myself a bit confused. It took me a good few pages to get into Mendelsund's narrative, but once I did I was engrossed by it, despite still being a little lost. Same Same is a novel about creating, with its protagonist Percy Forbisher coming to a desert institute to do exactly that. He is there to create something, if only he knew quite what. Peter Mendelsund says Same Same was largely inspired by Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, a novel I have not read. As such, I feel like part of the novel may have gone over my head. Same Same is a philosophical novel. It is also a minimalist, mystery and meta novel. Because of this, it is also a rather obscure and difficult novel. It is engaging but also disconcerting. There is a sense of claustrophobia and pointlessness to the novel that makes reading it almost off-putting. In that sense, Same Same is a masterful novel.

Percy is at the institute to create something. That much is clear. All he has, however, after many attempts, are his principles, the bare bones of what he think the work he might create be built around. However, his stay at the Institute has been ruined from day one due to a stain on his uniform. A different Institute member nudges him towards the Same Same shop, which replicates everything perfectly, whether it's a uniform or a device that may or may not be a phone. Percy becomes obsessed with this store, but at the Institute things slowly unravel as paper begins to pile up, creeping into all its corners and bringing the whole thing to a slow and painful halt. And then everything goes to hell and I'm not quite sure how. I still haven't quite figured out what the end is, exactly, or what it is trying to say. And perhaps that is the point. Because in the end Same Same is largely about the emptiness of creation. The industry is led by a Director who does nothing but threateningly shout inspirational slogans and empty words like 'synergy'. He'll remind you of influencers, spin instructors and Apple product releases. He's terrifying and  almost gave me nightmares.

Peter Mendelsund presents his readers with a challenge in Same Same. Reading through other reviews I have found many readers struggling with the novel in similar ways at myself. And yet I never once considered putting it aside. Mendelsund perfectly captures the oddities of humanity and the little inconsistencies in our world that make it so interesting. At one point he mentions how "the nicely cooled breezes blow in, jellyfishing the curtains" and I had to pause for a minute and accept just how brilliant that description was. Same Same is full of those kind of moments and they were largely what kept me engaged because they grounded the philosophy of the book in how mundane humans are. Same Same is challenging and at times it does feel like Mendelsund is a little bit too indulgent with himself. However, getting through it is rewarding and I can't say Same Same hasn't made me reconsider the way we think of art and creation.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

Same Same is complicated and long and indulgent and weird. It is not an easy read, but it is a fascinating vivisection of creation and the artist. This is a book for those looking for a challenge.

Review: ‘The Dollmaker’ by Nina Allan

Dolls have a very special place in popular culture. On the one hand they’re a symbol of childhood and innocence, on the other hand they’re a staple of the horror genre. Something about them unnerves many people and I find that contrast fascinating. Personally I was never that into dolls, partly because my parents never caved to my complaints that everybody else had them. I left them behind pretty quickly, yet I love the darkness that infuses them in horror movies. It’s the idea of corrupted innocence, I guess, that clings to them. In The Dollmaker Nina Allan puts dolls and those who collect them in the spotlight, while twisting readers expectations. Thanks to Quercus Books, riverrun and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 4/4/2019
Publisher: Quercus Books, riverrun
Stitch by perfect stitch, Andrew Garvie makes exquisite dolls in the finest antique style. Like him, they are diminutive, but graceful, unique and with surprising depths. Perhaps that's why he answers the enigmatic personal ad in his collector's magazine.Letter by letter, Bramber Winters reveals more of her strange, sheltered life in an institution on Bodmin Moor, and the terrible events that put her there as a child. Andrew knows what it is to be trapped; and as they knit closer together, he weaves a curious plan to rescue her. 
On his journey through the old towns of England he reads the fairytales of Ewa Chaplin - potent, eldritch stories which, like her lifelike dolls, pluck at the edges of reality and thread their way into his mind. When Andrew and Bramber meet at last, they will have a choice - to remain alone with their painful pasts or break free and, unlike their dolls, come to life. 
A love story of two very real, unusual people, The Dollmaker is also a novel rich with wonders: Andrew's quest and Bramber's letters unspool around the dark fables that give our familiar world an uncanny edge. It is this touch of magic that, like the blink of a doll's eyes, tricks our own . . .

 Dolls are not my favourite thing, and yet I've previously found myself fascinated by them in fiction. A story that springs to mind immediately is 'The Doll' by Daphne DuMaurier, in which a young man falls ardently in love with a woman who is enraptured in turn by a doll. The doll, in many ways, becomes a major character in the story, without being truly alive. Similarly in The Dollmaker, dolls are central to the lives of its main characters. They are lifeless representations of how we see ourselves. Or perhaps they hold a piece of us as well. Many of us have a childhood doll or stuffed animal hidden away somewhere, not needing it present in our bedrooms and yet not capable of getting rid of it. In The Dollmaker dolls are both a narrative device as well as the cog upon which the whole novel turns. They bring a Gothic atmosphere to the novel, unsettling the reader every so slightly and thereby opening them up to the questions Allan's novel asks. 
The Dollmaker revolves around Andrew Garvie, diminutive himself, crafts dolls with utter care, making them as lifelike as possible. And yet, he is unable to truly infuse them with life. Responding to a posting in a monthly doll collector's magazine, he begins to communicate with Bramber Winters, a woman living in a rather mysterious institute. He decides to surprise her with a visit, hoping that it will spark something more than just a friendship, and the novel follows his slow journey to her. In some  ways The Dollmaker is a coming-of-age novel for Andrew, forcing him to finally face his fears of rejection and his own traumas. It is also a contemplative novel, questioning what it means to be alive and how we see ourselves. How does what happened to us affect us now? Can we leave the safety we have found, even if that safety in and of itself poses a threat? Allan doesn't claim to have all the answers, and at times I found myself frustrated by a lack of clarity. Once I finished the novel I still felt like I didn't really know Bramber as an independent character. We see her solely through Andrew's lens, who has idealized her in the same way he has his dolls. 

Nina Allan has crafted a very intricate and complicated novel. On the one hand we have Andrew's travel narrative. On the other hand we have Bramber's letters, slowly unraveling the mystery of her life. And then, on a surprising third hand, we have the short stories of Ewa Chaplin, a dollmaker and short story writer that Bramber is obsessed with. Chaplin's stories are mysterious and fantastical, with odd links to Andrew and Bramber's lives. I have to admit that "Ewa Chaplin"'s stories were my favourite part of The Dollmaker. They're atmospheric, dark and full of stunning imagery. I was enraptured by them, which had the consequence that I found myself racing through the rest of the plot just to get to the next story. I wish the same tension and magic had been present in the novel's other story lines, but there was only a faint trace of it here and there. Overall I did enjoy The Dollmaker, even if not all parts of the novel captured me equally.

I give this novel...

3 Universes. 

The Dollmaker is an atmospheric novel which questions how we see ourselves and what we are willing to do to free ourselves. Although not consistently successful, Allan creates some stunning imagery in her novel and crafts a stunning structure. I recommend this novel to those looking for a challenge and interested in the Gothic.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Review: 'The Disappeared' by Amy Lord

I must shamefully admit to not reading Nineteen Eighty-Four until earlier this year, but it gave me a whole new appreciation for Dystopia, much in the way watching V for Vendetta first did. (Yes, I haven't read the graphic novel yet but I will, I promise!) In many ways I think reading it now, at this moment in time for our world, made it even more relevant to me, much in the way that the release of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale is scarily well-timed. Orwell's novel continues to be an inspiration for many writers, and The Disappeared is one of those. Thanks to Unbound and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 5/2/2019
Published: Unbound Digital
What if reading the wrong book could get you arrested? In a decaying city controlled by the First General and his army, expressing the wrong opinion can have terrible consequences. Clara Winter knows this better than anyone. When she was a child, her father was taken by the Authorisation Bureau for the crime of teaching banned books to his students. She is still haunted by his disappearance. Now Clara teaches at the same university, determined to rebel against the regime that cost her family so much – and her weapons are the banned books her father left behind. But she has started something dangerous, something that brings her to the attention of the Authorisation Bureau and its most feared interrogator, Major Jackson. The same man who arrested Clara’s father. With her rights stripped away, in a country where democracy has been replaced with something more sinister, will she be the next one to disappear?
Amy Lord is not shy about the novels that inspired her novel. Whether it is Fahrenheit 451, V for Vendetta or The Handmaid's Tale, she acknowledges them within the novel as books stolen or burned. They're the books that inspired Clara's father and now inspire her. However, the novel at the heart of The Disappeared is Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is the novel Clara uses to inspire her students to quiet contemplation and from there almost open revolt. It is also the novel upon which The Disappeared is very clearly based and having only just read Orwell's masterpiece myself, the comparison didn't do Lord a lot of favours.

The premise of The Disappeared is strong. In a post-Brexit UK, a new government has established itself after terrorist attacks makes the general populace more fearful and therefore easier to control. Certain books have been banned and only government-approved writing makes it to the public. Clara's father is arrested after it is discovered he has a library stock-full of banned books. His arrest is a traumatic event for the young Clara, further intensified by the fact that the one doing the arresting becomes her step-father. Now an adult and professor in literature herself, Clara convinces her partner Simon to teach their students the truth. This decision brings with it consequences she may not be ready to face. I can't share more without spoiling, of course, but for those aware of Nineteen Eighty-Four there won't be many surprises. As I said, I liked the premise of The Disappeared and Amy Lord makes a number of interesting choices, but overall her novel suffers from weak dialogue and odd twists and turns. Clara is hard to understand at times. She seemingly makes her choices out of conviction, but then backtracks on them immediately. Her trauma in regards to her father is pushed to the extreme, making it almost uncomfortable at times. And the novel ends on an odd note that feels out of touch.

This is Amy Lord's first novel and that may explain some of the weaknesses of The Disappeared. The dialogue often falls flat or feels too casual for the tone of the novel. Characters aren't fully fleshed out, which means some of their actions seem out of character. There is also no clear timeline for the novel, which meant that for me some things happened surprisingly quickly, while others happened incredibly slowly. There are also some rather graphic violence in the novel, which actually grounded the novel quite well, explaining what was at stake for Clara and the other characters. One of the things that really interested me about The Disappeared, however, was how Lord doesn't just give us Clara's point of view, but also gives us a look into Major Jackson, the man who arrested her father, married her mother and now becomes her enemy as well. We see his disillusionment with his own job, as well as his disappointment in himself and the regime he supports. I would have really liked to see this worked out more. Lord did excel at the descriptions in her novel, creating some imaginative and memorable moments which were very promising. Overall I am interested to see what Amy Lord comes out with next.

I give this novel...

2 Universes!

The Disappeared captured my interest, even if it didn't always manage to hold on to it. Amy Lord set herself a hard task by trying to follow in the footsteps of Orwell and others, but there are some great moments in The Disappeared which hold promise.

Review: ‘My Name is Monster’ is Katie Hale

I went into My Name is Monster blindly, not having read the blurb in a while and therefore only having a very vague awareness of what the book was about. As such, Katie Hale took me on a journey with her characters, letting me slowly discover the world she describes page by page. I think I'm going to have to do this more often because My Name is Monster absolutely captured me. Thanks to Canongate and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 6/6/2019
Publisher: Canongate
After the Sickness has killed off her parents, and the bombs have fallen on the last safe cities, Monster emerges from the arctic vault which has kept her alive. When she washes up on the coast of Scotland, everyone she knows is dead, and she believes she is alone in an empty world. 
Monster begins the long walk south, scavenging and learning the contours of this familiar land made new. Slowly, piece by piece, she begins to rebuild a life. Until, one day, she finds a girl: feral, and ready to be taught all that Monster knows. Changing her own name to Mother, Monster names the child after herself. As young Monster learns from Mother, she also discovers her own desires, realising that she wants very different things to the woman who made, but did not create, her. 
Inspired by Robinson Crusoe and FrankensteinMy Name is Monster is a novel about power, about the things that society leaves imprinted on us when the rules no longer apply, and about the strength and the danger of a mother’s love. 

Dystopian fiction has developed into a very ecological genre, to the point where they are now often apocalyptic in nature. A few years ago dystopian novels mostly showed the destruction of our way of life being caused by a corrupt elite or a right-wing political group, showing how our current society becomes a slippery slope that will lead to disaster. The recent dystopian novels I have read often refer to an ecological disaster, whether it is actively climate change leading to the destruction of our cities or other “minor” causes such as a plague or a virus against which we can’t defend ourselves. Now the future we're facing is a wasteland, more Mad Max than 1984Each time I see a genre adjust itself to our current culture this way I am once again astounded by how important literature is in providing us with a mirror. We often see ourselves reflected in literature, both our good sides in the heroes and our bad sides in the villains. What makes these new ecological novels stand out is that there is no real villain, in the way we’re used to. There is no corrupt government to blame, no nationalist group, no crazed prophet. Instead there is just an awareness that, in our own simple way, we all contributed to this slow destruction. Reading these kind of novels can be uncomfortable, but it is also very important.

In My Name is Monster the Earth has been ravaged by the Sickness, a disease we never hear much about but see the consequences off. We join Monster as she arrives on the shores of Scotland. We don't know yet why or how she's there, nor where everyone else is. As she slowly makes her way to her parents' village where she grew up, to verify they truly are gone as well, we become more acquainted with her story and with what happened. We get to know something of her childhood, during which she got her nickname which has now become her only name and during which she always felt different. Not in a wilting wallflower kind of different, but as someone set apart by her interests and not too worried about being different. She makes rare connections with others but seems deeply uninterested in others, which becomes part of her survival instinct. That is, until she sets up shop in an abandoned farm and, during one of her daily forages in an abandoned city, finds a child, feral and seemingly without any memories. She names the child Monster and herself as Mother, defining the former as 'survivor' and the latter as 'creator'. While the first part of My Name is Monster follows Monster/Mother, the second part is devoted to the now teenaged Monster 2.0. We find out more about her vague memories of the pre-Sickness world, but mostly we explore her small world with her. We begin to see Mother through her eyes and My Name is Monster shows some achingly beautiful moments between the two. As the two women build their fragile relationship and home in this destroyed world, the novel meditates on such themes as motherhood, survival, power and silence. It is a lot, but Katie Hale manages to bring them all together into a truly stunning narrative. 

The blurb it is mentioned that the novel is inspired by Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein. In part I can see how both of these gave Katie Hale something to work off. Survival is key to Robinson Crusoe, to the extent that as a kid I believed it was a genuine 'how-to' guide, rather than a novel. In the eponymous novel Robinson Crusoe has to survive alone on an island, learning how to build, till the earth and keep animals. However, Robinson Crusoe is also a product of imperialism, a novel that smacks of old attitudes, which My Name is Monster is not. There is survival, but of a different kind. The novel has more in common with Frankenstein, in which the monster reveals itself to be deeply human and deeply scarred by the society it is thrust into. The two women central to My Name is Monster are, in many ways, scarred as well, both physically and mentally. The relationship they develop is new and scary to them both, yet they cling to each other fiercely. It is the human need for companionship and for hope that suffuses My Name is Monster and it leads to some truly beautiful moments.

I had never heard of Katie Hale before, but as I looked into her after reading My Name is Monster I found out she considered herself a poet first and foremost. (Reading through some of her poems I found that Go into the Woods spoke to me on the same level as My Name is Monster.) There is a magic to her descriptions which belie their simplicity. Whether it is Monster making her way across the Scottish wasteland or Monster 2.0 wondering at the silence atop a hill, there is a wildness that Hale captures through the simplicity of her prose. For some the pace of My Name is Monster might be too slow, but it is a contemplative novel that says a lot in few words. A lot is said in a silence and Hale embraces this in a world devoid of the rush of crowds. My Name is Monster, despite its apocalypse and occasional horror, is a delicate novel that does ask its readers to do some thinking and reckoning. What is it to be a monster? What does survival take? How desperate are we for a human connection? And how do we go on when all else seems to have gone? Hale doesn't claim to have all the answers, but in My Name is Monster she does show us a potential way.

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

My Name is Monster is a stunning novel, showing us an apocalypse that can, perhaps, bring us back to our humanity. For those who enjoyed novels like Station Eleven, I'd definitely recommend Hale's debut novel. Anyone looking for a quiet contemplation on love and survival, look no further than My Name is Monster.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Review: ‘Property: A Collection’ by Lionel Shriver

My first introduction to Lionel Shriver was in an AS-level English class, where the theme of our reading was Nature vs. Nurture. We Need to Talk About Kevin became a focal point of the whole year as it seemed to withstand the curse of assigned reading by actually fascinating everyone. That book introduced me to the power of Shriver’s writing and especially to her ability to put the uncomfortable in the spotlight and force everyone to look at it. So of course I jumped at the opportunity to read Property: A Collection when I first saw it. Thanks to HarperCollins, The Borough Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub Date: 4/19/2018
Publisher: Harper Collins UK, The Borough Press
In her first ever story collection, Lionel Shriver illuminates one of the modern age’s most enduring obsessions: property.
A woman creates a deeply personal wedding present for her best friend; a thirty-something son refuses to leave home; a middle-aged man subjugated by service to his elderly father discovers that the last place you should finally assert yourself is airport security. 
This landmark publication explores the idea of "property" in both senses of the word: real estate, and stuff. Immensely readable, it showcases the biting insight that has made Lionel Shriver one of the most acclaimed authors of our time.
 The title of this collection is perfect, because all the stories in Property come down to ownership. Who owns what and how does that change and define us. But the stories are not just about physical property, they are also about how we own ourselves and others. There is a self-contentedness in many of Shriver’s younger characters that drive others wild. Why are you content with what you have and who you are, take some ownership of your actions, acknowledge the effect you’re having on others! (These are just some of things I wanted to shout at a few of Shriver’s characters.) Shriver has been a difficult writer for me to engage with ever since her column in the Spectator in which she lambasted the push for diversity in publishing and pushed back against “PC censorship”. That, in my opinion, narrow view contrasts sharply with the emotional intelligence of her writing, in which she articulates so clearly the topics most of us avoid. Perhaps this is why she chose to focus on the “PC culture”, but whether you agree with her or not, there is no denying that Property is a very engaging read.

The highlight of Property is the opening story, more of a novella really, ‘The Standing Chandelier’, which shows the development of a decades-long friendship between the artistic, if a bit airy-fairy, Jillian and her ex-lover Baba, who is in the process of getting settled. Shriver moves between their points of view and it is almost heartbreaking how clear it becomes that their close relationship is untenable. We can’t own the other, no matter how much of ourselves we give. Another highlight, of a different kind, is the story ‘Domestic Terrorism’, in with a 32-year old son, Liam, simply refuses to own his own life. When his parents finally kick him out the story almost descends into a farce, but Shriver’s sharp writing keeps it on the knife’s edge, bringing in political commentary on the refugee crisis and millennials (which you can read whichever way you want) as well as a close look at how family interacts. ‘Vermin’ is another favourite of mine, in which the sheer fact of house ownership drastically changes the story’s characters. Imagery-wise, this is one of the most beautiful stories in the collection for me. Not all stories in Property are equally effective. Both ‘From Paradise to Perdition’ and ‘The ChapStick’, for example, feel preachy, but in completely different ways. It feels like Shriver has an ax to grind, but with what or who exactly isn’t entirely clear.

There is a calmness to Shriver’s prose that I find myself enjoying. She is the kind of storyteller who knows exactly how ridiculous what she is describing is, but she never ruins the joke by laughing herself. Many of her stories are concerned with big emotional moments in people’s lives, yet Shriver avoids the melodrama that sometimes suffuses such stories. The only time she fails to do so is when she is trying to make a point, like mentioned above. That is when the stories lose some of their strength for me, when they become vehicles for something other than themselves. However, in general there is a clarity there that allows her to get very close to her characters’ emotions without letting them overwhelm the story. There are many laugh out loud moments in Property and many of Shriver's characters are unlikable, yet it is compelling reading nonetheless.

I give this collection…
3 Universes!

Shriver is a great writer and the stories in Property are a great analysis of just how tied down we are by what we own,  whether it is an object, a relationship or even just a feeling. Even if Shriver's personal beliefs sometimes bleed into the stories, they remain mostly fascinating.

Review: 'A Good Enough Mother' by Bev Thomas

Novels draw in their audience by their title, and Bev Thomas’ A Good Enough Mother caught me
straightaway. There is no room for mothers to mess up, and when they do it usually has horrible
consequences in literature. Just think of one of the most divisive books in the past decade or so, We
Need to Talk About Kevin. Motherhood gone wrong is a taboo still for many and I was very happy to pick up a book that makes a real psychological effort to expose that taboo while telling a riveting story. Thanks to Faber & Faber and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 4/4/2019
Publisher: Faber & Faber

The most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves. 
Dr Ruth Hartland rises to difficult tasks. She is the director of a highly respected trauma therapy unit. She is confident, capable and excellent at her job. Today she is preoccupied by her son Tom's disappearance. So when a new patient arrives at the unit - a young man who looks shockingly like Tom - she is floored. 
As a therapist, Ruth knows exactly what she should do in the best interests of her client, but as a mother she makes a very different choice - a decision that will have profound consequences. A gripping and deeply intelligent psychological thriller for fans of Apple Tree Yard, A Good Enough Mother promises to be as big as Lullaby.
The title of A Good Enough Mother does more than just set the reader up for a thriller about mothers
and their children. The concept of the “good enough mother” was introduced by the psychologist D.W. Winnicott in his book Playing and Reality. The good enough mother starts out completely adapting to her baby’s needs, sacrificing her own needs to fulfill those of the child. But as the baby gets older, small frustrations are introduced, as a way of introducing the external reality of the world. Whether it’s letting the baby cry for a bit before calming it at night or not responding immediately to a demanding cry for food or attention, these little frustrations are, according to Winnicott key to developing a healthy relationship with the external world. It keeps the child both within a world of illusion, where a need imagined is a need fulfilled, but also lets them come to terms with the outside world. In A Good Enough Mother Bev Thomas, herself a clinical psychologist, deftly weaves in the psychology of letting go and facing the hardships of the outside world into her narrative of Dr. Ruth Hartland, a mother who cannot let go. The strong basis of the book in psychology means that the A Good Enough Mother stands out from many other psychological thrillers by actually considering psychology.

A Good Enough Mother is a slow burner, even though catastrophe seems inevitable. As the reader we
know it’s all going to go wrong as Ruth, our unreliable narrator, is writing from hindsight and a sense of doom and inevitability pervades her tone. Even as she retells her story Ruth seems to be unable to truly admit where she has gone wrong. Ruth is a heart-wrenching protagonist because as the reader you can't help but feel sorry for her. Her disappeared son is a gaping wound in her life, a wound she keeps under wraps but can't truly hide. And then a new patient arrives who rips away the small security she had and she finds herself utterly at a loss, acting out, defending what she knows she shouldn't. It all leads to a tragic climax that doesn't really provide a happy ending, although there are notes of forgiveness and understanding at the end which are beautiful. In some ways A Good Enough Mother reminded me of  The Babadook, a movie that very much emphasizes the importance of working through trauma and loss, as well as setting boundaries. 

Bev Thomas is an excellent writer. As I mentioned above, it is the deep psychological foundation of this novel that sets it apart from many other psychological thrillers, yet it is undeniable that Bev Thomas weaves an incredibly story in A Good Enough Mother. There are moments of unbearable tenderness in this novel, contrasted with some truly horrible scenes. What I appreciated most about this novel was that Thomas never once takes the issue of mental health lightly. From her experience she knows the trouble it causes and there are a few scenes between Ruth and one of her patients that go very deep yet never lose their purpose to the plot. The aftershocks of violence, the need for understanding, the compassion humans are capable off. It is all described in A Good Enough Mother with a rare but stunning kindness.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

A Good Enough Mother is a stunning novel that goes much deeper than you'd initially expect. Excellently written with a kindness to its characters, this novel will stay with you for a long time.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Review: 'The Tragic Daughters of Charles I: Mary, Elizabeth & Henrietta-Anne' by Sarah-Beth Watkins

I love history, but reading about history is often more of a chore than a pleasure. History can't be changed, the outcome is set, and, depending on how old the history is, history isn't surprising. Or is it? What the best history books do, in my opinion, is show us the humanity behind the shadowy figures of history. And The Tragic Daughters of Charles I does just that. Thanks to John Hunt Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 4/26/2019
Publisher: John Hunt Publishing; Chronos Books

Mary, Elizabeth and Henrietta Anne, the daughters of King Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria, would be brought up against the background of the English Civil War. Mary would marry William, Prince of Orange, and be sent to live in the Netherlands. Elizabeth would remain in England under Parliamentary control. Henrietta Anne would escape to France and be the darling of the French Court. Yet none of the Stuart princesses would live to reach thirty. The Tragic Daughters of Charles I is their story. 
One of the things that fascinated me about The Tragic Daughters of Charles I was the sheer amount of letters that Sarah-Beth Watkins showed and quoted in her novels. History can become dry very quickly when it is recounted coldly and impersonally. By quoting the princesses' letters to their brother Charles and others, we as the readers get a real sense of who they might have been, what their internal, emotional lives look like. For me personally, I loved seeing how smart these women were in how they handled the fraught times in which they lived. Both Mary and Henrietta-Anne were crucial in their brother's attempts to bring Britain back after its Civil War, juggling their responsibilities to their old and new homes. Mary consistently used her power to provide her brother with money and ships, while Henrietta-Anne used her considerable influence in the French Court to barter for peace. Reading the words these women wrote brings them to life in a way no amount of details and facts could.

The Tragic Daughters of Charles I focuses on Mary (1631-1660), Elizabeth (1635-1650) and Henrietta-Anne (1644-1670). There were two other daughters, yet neither survived childhood. Sadly none of Charles' daughters made it to thirty. Although I lived in the UK for a good few years, a lot of British royal history is actually a bit of a mystery to me, especially its Civil War. Much of Britain's history is contextualized in The Tragic Daughters which definitely helped me. Sarah-Beth Waters starts her book with the execution of Charles I as a defining moment in all of his children's lives, before backtracking a few years to describe each child's birth and first few years. Although his daughters are the main focus of the novel, his sons also play key roles. Perhaps the fewest pages are dedicated to Elizabeth, who spends most of her short life under control of Parliament and far away from her family. Mary, Charles I's oldest daughter, takes up the central part of the book, as Watkins describes her move to the Netherlands and her troubles as she tries to fit in. Although both Protestant countries, the Dutch monarchy is very different from the British monarchy, and Watkins describes Mary trying to find an even ground between helping her brother's attempts to regain his crown and settling into her new country. The final part of the book looks at Henrietta-Anne, who was smuggled out of Britain at age 2 by her nurse while dressed as a little boy. Rejoining her mother in France, she becomes an elemental part of the French Court of the Sun King. She is perhaps the most fascinating of the daughters, simply because she becomes crucial to the peace efforts between Britain and France.

Sarah-Beth Watkins infuses her historical protagonists with a lot of life. Whether it is the sibling love shared between them or their own separate trials and tribulations, they feel like real people. I think many of us still hold on to the idea of the princess as being mainly a bartering good for kings, whose sole goal is to provide heirs and then retire to convents when they become inconvenient. Watkins doesn't shy away from these truths, showing the unhappiness many of the princesses felt at being displaced and removed from their homes and families. She also shows how erudite, sharp and powerful these women could be, however, and how much the course of history relies on their behind-the-scenes work. In the end what Watkins really describes is a family torn apart by political strife, scattered across Northern Europe, but united by a common goal. The Tragic Daughters also drives home just how close and connected European countries are, just how entwined their histories really are. In the time of Brexit this is a very important message to bring back.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Although I went into The Tragic Daughters of Charles I not knowing who these women were, I came out of it feeling strangely connected to them. Watkins brings these women to life without burdening the reader with too much extraneous detail. Anyone interested in British history and women in history should absolutely pick up this book!

Stacking the Shelves #1

I haven’t participated in any weekly blogging posts in what feels like eons, but Stacking the Shelves has always been one of my favourites because I get so many awesome book recommendations out of it! Hosted by Tynga’s Reviews and Reading Reality, Stacking the Shelves is easy as could be. Throw together a post of what books have made their way to you this week and then go see what other bloggers have been stacking up!

This week my books have come from Netgalley, so below is just a short overview of each:

The First Girl Child by Amy Harmon, to be published by 47North in August
m the New York Times bestselling author comes a breathtaking fantasy of a cursed kingdom, warring clans, and unexpected salvation. 
Bayr of Saylok, bastard son of a powerful and jealous chieftain, is haunted by the curse once leveled by his dying mother. Bartered, abandoned, and rarely loved, she plagued the land with her words: From this day forward, there will be no daughters in Saylok. 
Raised among the Keepers at Temple Hill, Bayr is gifted with inhuman strength. But he’s also blessed with an all-too-human heart that beats with one purpose: to protect Alba, the first girl child born in nearly two decades and the salvation for a country at risk. 
Now the fate of Saylok lies with Alba and Bayr, whose bond grows deeper with every whisper of coming chaos. Charged with battling the enemies of their people, both within and without, Bayr is fueled further by the love of a girl who has defied the scourge of Saylok. 
What Bayr and Alba don’t know is that they each threaten the king, a greedy man who built his throne on lies, murder, and betrayal. There is only one way to defend their land from the corruption that has overtaken it. By breaking the curse, they could defeat the king…but they could also destroy themselves.
The Man in the Next Bed by David K. Shipler, to be published by Knopf Doubleday’s impress Vintage in May.

In this heartbreaking and extraordinary first foray into fiction by Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Arab and the Jew and The Working Poor, David K. Shipler has delivered a miniature masterpiece.
Gibson has learned to keep his spirits up as he receives care from his many doctors, nurses, and attendants. He likes to watch the bustling goings on in the ward from his hospital bed, crack witticisms, and make his caretakers smile—even the news isn’t good. 
Gibson is an engineer, and he likes to understand how people work. When a young man gets placed in the bed beside his, hidden behind a paisley curtain, Gibson becomes privy to the intimate, private pains of his young neighbor’s life and forms with him the kind of fleeting human connection that will reverberate to the depths his memory and soul. 

And finally there’s, Klotsvog by Margaret Khemlin, translated by Lisa C. Hayden. To be published by Columbia University Press in August.

Klotsvog is a novel about being Jewish in the Soviet Union and the historical trauma of World War II—and it’s a novel about the petty dramas and demons of one wonderfully vain woman. Maya Abramovna Klotsvog has had quite a life, and she wants you to know all about it. Selfish, garrulous, and thoroughly entertaining, she tells us where she came from, who she didn’t get along with, and what became of all her husbands and lovers.
In Klotsvog, Margarita Khemlin creates a first-person narrator who is both deeply self-absorbed and deeply compelling. From Maya’s perspective, Khemlin unfurls a retelling of the Soviet Jewish experience that integrates the historical and the personal into her protagonist’s vividly drawn inner and outer lives. Maya’s life story flows as a long monologue, told in unfussy language dense with Khemlin’s magnificently manipulated Soviet clichés and matter-of-fact descriptions of Soviet life. Born in a center of Jewish life in Ukraine, she spent the war in evacuation in Kazakhstan. She has few friends but several husbands, and her relationships with her relatives are strained at best. The war looms over Klotsvog, and the trauma runs deep, as do the ambiguities and ambivalences of Jewish identity. Lisa Hayden’s masterful translation brings this compelling character study full of dark, sly humor and new perspectives on Jewish heritage and survival to an English-speaking audience.
I also ordered Sally Rooney's Ordinary People, but it hasn't come through yet so I'll feature it as soon as it's made its way to me in China! 

So not a whole lot of books for me this week, but definitely some variety there! I'm quite intrigued b The First Girl Child, mainly because I feel like diving into some fantasy soon! What do you think of these books? Any of them draw your eye?

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Short Review: 'The Other Sister' by Dianne Dixon

Twin sisters, one beautiful, happy and and accomplished, the other plain, sad and lost. Or are they? Who are we, outside of our family? And how much do they dictate who we become? These are some of the questions Dianne Dixon attempts to address in The Other Sister. Part of me would warn against reading the blurb below because it will give away much of the plot twists that kept me hooked to this novel despite its flaws. Thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book.

Pub. Date: 1/11/2016
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmarks
Morgan’s twin sister has everything, and she hates her for it. A terrifying crime reveals that those who know us best can either destroy us…or save us.
Ali and Morgan are sisters, fraternal twins who from the moment of their birth share a strangely intertwined existence. But then their connection is abruptly fractured by a series of startling changes that begin when Ali suddenly moves from Rhode Island to Los Angeles. Almost immediately she is raped, by a man wearing a very peculiar set of clothes. Then, years later, in ways that are both harrowing and transcendent, Ali’s life (and Morgan’s) is sent spinning into chaos by a bizarre discovery: the rapist’s clothing, neatly packed away in a small, brown suitcase. The suitcase is hidden in the attic of a house that Ali has only recently moved into.
How could this be? How, and when, did that suitcase get into that attic?
The startling answer to this question has its roots in a place of guilt, and of love—in the need to belong and the need to be free—in small accidents and dark crimes—and in an elusive search for atonement. 
The Other Sister tries to be a lot of things. On the one hand it is a family drama, on the other hand it is a suspense novel, and on an unexpected third hand it is a bit of a coming-of-age story. The story twists it way through the different genres, never quite settling and therefore never quite achieving a solid status. Dixon has too many ambitions for what is a relatively large book at almost 400 pages.
This book is very dramatic. Now, I love drama, it drives a plot forward, it brings out all the emotions, and it usually leads to scenes that stay with you for a long time. The Other Sister has drama aplenty but unfortunately it backfires. There are so many twists and turns throughout, subplots that don't seem at all relevant and then also fail to become more relevant later on, that you'll get lost. The biggest reason I kept reading was the sheer fun of it. The Other Sister felt like a soap opera, where something as tragic and horrifying as a rape happened one evening, to be followed the next by a suggested girls' ski trip.

My biggest issue with The Other Sister is the characterization. Now, one of my favourite novels is Wuthering Heights, so I have no issue with unlikeable characters. But I need them to be realistic, I need to be able to at least partially understand their motivations, the reasons behind their cruel behavior. The tension between Ali and Morgan is incredibly toxic and I could never imagine treating my sister that way. Dixon hops from one dramatic moment to the other, with characters seemingly going through enormous emotional upheaval without it ever truly coming alive. What also irked me was the treatment of the rape plotline. It is presented as something of a punishment for Ali, as if truly her life was perfect and she needed something bad to be able to appreciate how everyone suffers in their own way, or something like that. You can imagine why I wasn't a fan. I was expecting more, but in the end I only finished The Other Sister out of sheer stubbornness.

I give this novel...

2 Universes!

Review: 'Literary Places' by Sarah Baxter, Illustrated by Amy Grimes

Who hasn't read a book and wished they could just jump straight into its world? The great news is that for a large number of brilliant books, this is absolutely and utterly possible since they're set into our very own world! For me the most vivid memory of this is Barcelona. I fell utterly in love with Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind and wanted nothing more than visit Barcelona and get lost in it. Thankfully I got to do so a few years later and now Sarah Baxter has given me a whole new list of cities and books to visit. Thanks to Quarto, White Lion Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 3/05/2019
Publisher: Quarto; White Lion Publishing
Inspired Traveller’s Guides: Literary Places takes you on an enlightening journey through the key locations of literature’s best and brightest authors, movements, and moments—brought to life through comprehensively researched text and stunning hand-drawn artwork.
Travel journalist Sarah Baxter provides comprehensive and atmospheric outlines of the history and culture of 25 literary places around the globe, as well as how they intersect with the lives of the authors and the works that make them significant. Full-page color illustrations instantly transport you to each location. You’ll find that these places are not just backdrops to the tales told, but characters in their own right.
Travel to the sun-scorched plains of Don Quixote’s La Mancha, roam the wild Yorkshire moors with Cathy and Heathcliff, or view Central Park through the eyes of J.D. Salinger’s antihero. Explore the lush and languid backwaters of Arundhati Roy’s Kerala, the imposing precipice of Joan Lindsay’s Hanging Rock, and the labyrinthine streets and sewers of Victor Hugo’s Paris.
Delve into this book to discover some of the world’s most fascinating literary places and the novels that celebrate them.
The magic thing about literature is that it transports the reader. Whenever I open a book I travel, explore, learn and discover. Hogwarts may not be real but from the moment I first read the Harry Potter books I could smell the food in the Great Hall, map the old corridors and feel the heat of the fires in the Common Rooms. It's been the same for me with many real places, like I mentioned above with Barcelona. I had a really vivid picture of it in my mind and although the city, of course, was different from what I had pictured, it still felt familiar, like an old acquaintance whose face is a faint memory.

A wide variety of places are covered in Literary Places although none of them are exactly surprising. There's Paris, of course, famous for itself but also for Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. The city may look different from Hugo's heyday, but the feel is still there. Perhaps less famous but equally as attractive to me are the Yorkshire Moors, made immortal by Emily Bronte in Wuthering Heights. Just watch me, one of these days I'm going to wear a full-skirted dress and stand in the moors, the wind moving through my hair! Anywats, Sarah Baxter travels across the world in Literary Places, mostly visiting famous cities like Berlin, Cairo and Kabul, but also the culturally important or memorable places such as Monroeville or Hanging Rock. The last chapter is dedicated to the entire country of Chile, inspired by Isabelle Allende's The House of Spirits. The main thing this book reminded me of is just how full this world is of homes. What I mean is that each of the books mentioned in Literary Places were written by people with strong ties and a strong love for their home, which they bring back to live in their writing.

Baxter's writing is charming and simple. She paints vivid pictures with her words, her experience as a travel writer clearly shining through. But there is a strong love for books there as well, which helps her look at all these places anew. If you're looking for active recommendations on where to sleep and what to eat, Literary Places might not be the best book. But if you're hoping to get a sense of how a place feels, what it has meant to those who've written about it, what it continues to mean, then Literary Places is a great read. The book is enormously aided by Amy Grimes' illustrations, which are absolutely stunning. They remind me of those old school travel posters that give an instant classic feel. (You can purchase her art at Hello Grimes, it's stunning!). I wish I could frame the cover of this book, it's gorgeous and is what first drew me to the book. 

I give this book...

3 Universes!

I loved reading through Literary Places, although ithas a definite coffee table-book vibe to it. Leaving through it, marveling at Grimes' illustrations, your mind will take a journey all on its own. Anyone who wants some literary inspiration for their next holiday, look no further!

Friday, 15 February 2019

Review: 'The Enchanted Sonata' by Heather Dixon Wallwork

I started learning how to play the piano when I was 6 years old. Sure, initially it was more of a chore than anything else but quickly it became something of an outlet. I loved creating something beautiful that way, so when I saw The Enchanted Sonata I was immediately drawn to it. Music, fairies and an enchanted empire? Sign me up! Thanks to Amazon and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 23/10/2018
Publisher: Amazon, The Wallworkshop
The Enchanted Sonata, a retelling of The Nutcracker Ballet with a dash of The Pied Piper, will captivate readers of all ages. Clara Stahlbaum has her future perfectly planned: marry the handsome pianist, Johann Kahler (ah!), and settle down to a life full of music.  But all that changes when Clara receives a mysterious and magical nutcracker. Whisked away to his world--an enchanted empire of beautiful palaces, fickle fairies, enormous rats, and a prince--Clara must face a magician who uses music as magic...and the future she thought she wanted.
The Enchanted Sonata brings together a variety of different themes, stories and influences. Two main stories form the inspiration for Wallwork's novel and those are The Nutcracker and The Pied Piper. However, these two originate in their own way from the German tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. These stories provide inspiration for most of the plot and much of the characterization. This makes something of an adaptation out of The Enchanted Sonata, but since many people won't be familiar with the original tale, there is still much in the novel that will surprise the reader. (I also saw some notes of The Phantom of the Opera in parts of the novel, and especially in some of its characterization.) At the very heart of The Enchanted Sonata is music. It moves the plot forward, it wraps itself around the characters, but it is also in the very way Wallwork writes. The way she describes music is the very best thing about this book. I think that anyone with some experience in music will fall in love with The Enchanted Sonata for that alone, the clear reverence and adoration with which the book treats music.

As I said above, I adored the way Wallwork writes about music in The Enchanted Sonata. It is where she excels, alongside her descriptions of the landscape. All of the novel seems set inside a snow globe, a perfectly adorable, cozy and wintery landscape full of snow-topped pines, candy factories and imperial palaces. It was a perfect winter read, in that sense, purely because of its setting. However, there are a few things in The Enchanted Sonata that feel amateur-ish. Much of the characterization is flat. Clara was an okay main character but her motivation, her "perfectly planned future", are slightly ridiculous and I almost found myself offended on her behalf. The dialogue is sometimes oddly modern or childish, which doesn't fit with the fairy tale-esque backdrop. The writing in general could have done with some heavy editing since some sentences didn't really make any sense. These things would often take me out of the narrative and led to some frustration, but even despite them I did adore the atmosphere of The Enchanted Sonata and couldn't help but keep reading.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I did like The Enchanted Sonata, even if it's severely flawed in certain aspects. However, it has a lovely atmosphere and makes for a perfect little winter read that doesn't require too much from you, except some patience here or there.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Review: 'The Ruin of Kings' by Jenn Lyons

Fantasy was my bread and butter for much of my childhood. Nothing was quite as exciting as discovering new worlds and joining exciting heroes on their adventures. Although I did broaden my reading out a bit since then, Fantasy has always remained a staple and I keep returning to it time and time again, looking for authors that craft something new within the genre's conventions. My latest Fantasy read was The Ruin of Kings and I think I'm still making up my mind about it. Thanks to Pan Macmillan, Tor and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 07/2/2019
Publisher: Pan Macmillan, Tor
What if you weren't the hero? 
As a bard’s apprentice, Kihrin grew up with tales of legendary deeds. He also steals, desperate to buy a way out of Quur’s slums. Then he raids the wrong house, he’s marked by a demon and life will never be the same again. 
Kihrin’s plight brings him to the attention of royalty, who claim him as the lost son of their immoral prince. But far from living the dream, Kihrin’s at the mercy of his new family’s ruthless ambitions. However, escaping his jewelled cage just makes matters worse. Kihrin is horrified to learn he’s at the centre of an ancient prophecy. And every side – from gods and demons to dragons and mages – want him as their pawn. 
Those old stories lied about many things too, especially the myth that the hero always wins. Then again, maybe Kihrin isn’t the hero, for he’s not destined to save the empire. He’s destined to destroy it. 
The Ruin of Kings is the first book in Jenn Lyons's incredible Godslayer Cycle.
Like most other genres, Fantasy has a lot of conventions that kind of need to be followed to let it qualify. A big part of that is the Hero's Journey, a concept coined by Joseph Campbell but existent for thousands of years. A young hero sets off on an adventure and encounters a magical guide. They face trials and challenges and undergo some kind of death and rebirth, whether that is physical or mental. In the end they return wiser, having learnt from their travels and having conquered their enemies. This pattern is immediately recognizable and brings to mind countless of stories and characters and is also the reason why Fantasy and YA fit together so well as genres. The best Fantasy novels take this journey and transplant it somewhere completely new. I have loved some of the recent Fantasy novels that moved away from the stereotypical Tolkien-esque setting and rather reinvigorated the genre by bringing in their own cultural backgrounds. I'm thinking specifically of Children of  Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi and The Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean. The world created in The Ruin of Kings isn't quite as refreshing or new as those, but Lyons does create something very interesting with her world building. And I do mean interesting in both its positive and negative connotations, because although The Ruin of Kings gripped me, it did so in part because it felt slightly messy.

For parts of this book I was utterly confused. Part of that, if not most of it, is down to the book's narrative structure. We start in the present, where Kihrin is telling his story in first person, but he is not telling us his story from the very beginning. He is telling Talon, a demon, who then tells the initial part of Kihrin's story, leading up to where he began, in the third person. The novel flicks back and forth between these two narrators chapter by chapter. And finally, all of this is has been transcribed by a third character, who adds footnotes whenever they think anything needs clarifying or a sassy comment is required. I am confusion! Now, I adore complex structures. I wrote whole essays just on structure while I was at university. A complex structure, however, has to have a purpose aside from just being different or unusual. In the case of The Ruin of Kings it often leads to a lack of clarity rather than adding to the meaning or message of the novel. Throughout the novel, and especially in the blurb, Lyons hints at wanting to tell a story of someone who is neither hero or villain or perhaps both. I assume this is what the split narration is meant to work towards as well. This gets almost completely lost though since the structure means you get attached to Kihrin in a kind of distanced way while the moral gets lost.

We follow Kihrin's story from two different points of view, technically, but Talon is a shape shifter who has taken other people's memories, so her narrative is really the point of view of countless of characters. Together they tell the reader what has happened to Kihrin so far, how he has come to be where he is now. This journey of his spans years, as far as I could gather. How many I don't know. Some years apparently pass within a single sentence while some days are stretched out across chapters. Similarly there are a lot of supporting characters, many of whom were once someone else or at the very least aren't what they appear to be. What this means is that The Ruin of Kings is a fascinating read with some amazing world building, stunning imagery and interesting character building, while simultaneously being confusing for its readers. At almost 600 pages, I think that The Ruin of Kings could have done with some more thorough editing to prevent overloading the reader with too much information they can't place yet. There is so much going on in this novel that now, as I'm writing this review, I keep remembering things that happened, plot lines that were fun but seem irrelevant to the main story. While Lyons tries to address topics such as free will and slavery, the few instances where these are highlighted are washed away by a kind of sensationalist violence akin to Game of Thrones. There is a lot of murder, love, slavery, backstabbing, politicking, incest, etc. and it's all very exciting. Where the heart of The Ruin of Kings lies, however, what it is that the novel is supposed to really care about, is unclear.

In the paragraphs above I have tried to give as clear an overview of why The Ruin of Kings was a confusing read for me. I absolutely loved a lot of what Jenn Lyons did in this novel. There is a clear historicity to the text, it is steeped in references to emperors and kings, to deities and battles, intrigue and lawmaking. It reminded me of the Nevernight books, in that it felt like there was much more, that we were only scratching the surfaces of this world. Unfortunately Lyons does overwhelm her readers with much of the world building. Not a single page is read without a reference being made to something the reader will only understand fifty pages later. As the first book in a series, you'd think that Lyons would leave some of the world building to future books and focus on strongly establishing her main characters in this first book. Instead now I have a lot of information about Kihrin and his companions, not all of which I can place. The Ruin of Kings is like an incomplete puzzle. Pieces fit together here or there, but I feel like the overall picture is crooked. I'm not a big fan of books, or films for that matter, that serve only as a set-up for future books, and it does feel as if The Ruin of Kings is mainly there to make sure everything is set up and kind explained for the next book in the A Chorus of Dragons series called The Name of All Things, expected later this year. Don't get me wrong, I will most definitely want to read The Name of All Things because I'm fascinated by this world Lyons has created, but I have high hopes she will restrain herself a little bit with the flourishes and focus on telling a clearer story.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I loved reading The Ruin of Kings but it was a bit of a problematic love. There is an overabundance of style and showiness to this novel that will make it a confusing and potentially frustrating read for many. There is also a lot of promise and excitement in Lyons' novel that mostly makes up for it. I'd recommend this to readers looking for a fast-paced and expansive new fantasy series to get stuck into.