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.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Review: 'Someone You Know' by Olivia Isaac-Henry

Aah, family! As Tolstoy said, 'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way'. The difficulties of family have filled countless books and I have read a fair few of them across a wide variety of genres. But it's thrillers and mystery novels that really excel to bring out both the best and worst about family, which is why I am utterly loyal to novels like Someone You Know. Thanks to Avon Books UK and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 04/02/2019
Publisher: Avon Books UK

You can trust your family, can’t you…?
Tess Piper was fourteen when her adored twin sister Edie disappeared. 
She has spent the last twenty years building a life away from her fractured family, desperate to escape the shadow of the past. 
Only now she needs to confront the huge hole her sister’s disappearance left in her life, because a body has been found. The police are shining a spotlight on the Piper family. And secrets are about to surface. 
After all, it’s common knowledge that more often than not, these crimes are committed by someone close to the victim. Someone they trust. Someone they know… 
What really happened to Edie Piper?
A lot of the themes in Someone You Know are staples fot he genre. There are a lot of family secrets/scandals, a beloved twin/sister/best friend/mother is missing/has been missing/is dead and now our protagonist, who always has self confidence issues and drinks/smokes too much, has to find out the truth if she is every to truly live her life. If it is set in the UK then she is currently working creatively in London but has to return to her small home town to solve the mystery. (Her co-workers are almost always horrible people.) I'm not going to lie, I love those kinds of stories. I read them avidly and no matter how often the tropes and twists and turns are repeated, they still delight me. I think part of the charm of thrillers and mystery novels is exactly how predictable they are, while constantly shocking us.

Someone You Know is a roller coaster ride, but one where you're never entirely sure you trust the ride. The novel has a lot of promise and I was very intrigued by the blurb. Unfortunately it didn't quite meet my expectations. It follows all the expected tropes and does so quite interestingly, but the novel is confusing. I was never entirely sure just how much time was passing, I'm pretty sure there were timeline errors here and there, and many of the characters didn't feel entirely fleshed out. There are some great plot twists towards the end, but while one of them wasn't presented with the gravitas it deserved, the other left me utterly disappointed since there had been no build up. In the end I feel Someone You Know would have benefited from a harsher editor, who would have taken some gardening shears to parts of the novel. Isaac-Henry creates some interesting moments with her characters, most of which are not likeable but realistic. But in the end I didn't find myself connecting to any of them, which meant I sometimes found myself continuing to the end just for the sake of it, not because I was absolutely intrigued.

As far as I can tell, Someone  You Know is Olivia Isaac-Henry's first novel. The main points where this shows is in the many sub-plots throughout the novel. Her main story is solid, but so much else is going on that you end up unable to care about any of it because you're overwhelmed. Isaac-Henry tells the story of the twins by flitting back and forth between the past, told by Edie, and the present, told by Tess. This is a great set up that could have brought a lot of emotion to the novel, showing us the deep bond the twins might have had despite their differences. We didn't really get that, unfortunately, but the idea is there. There are a lot of great ideas in Someone You Know, which I would say is the most important thing. I hope that in her future novels Isaac-Henry improves on the execution of those ideas, at which point I'm confident she'll give us a great novel. For now, Someone You Know is a great holiday read, a book you can race through and experience the thrills without getting to invested.

I give this novel...

2 Universes.

Someone You Know had a lot of promise and a great set up. Unfortunately Isaac-Henry loses the way here or there, which means I walked away from her novel slightly disappointed. For those looking for a quick read, Someone You Know will give you exactly what you need. Meanwhile I'll keep an open mind for Olivia Isaac-Henry's next novel!

Review: 'How To Fracture a Fairy Tale' by Jane Yolen

Fairy tales were my first love. In the house where I grew up there was a specific bookshelf dedicated to fairy tales from all over the world. African, Hebrew, Asian or Native American fairy tales, all were collected there and I just loved opening those books and entering a different, more magical world. I have fallen in love repeatedly with fairy tales in different guises, whether it is through novel adaptations or through re-workings. And now this has led me to Jane Yolen's How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. Thanks to Tachyon Publications and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 15/11/2018
Publisher: Tachyon Publications

 “Jane Yolen facets her glittering stories with the craft of a master jeweller.”—Elizabeth Wein, author of Code Name Verity 
“One of the treasures of the science fiction community.” —Brandon Sanderson, author of Mistborn
 “[Yolen is] the Aesop of the twentieth century”—The New York Times

Fantasy icon Jane Yolen, adored by generations of readers of all ages, returns with this inspired collection of wholly-transformed fairy-tales, legends, and myths. 
Yolen fractures the classics to reveal their crystalline secrets: a philosophical bridge who misses its troll; spinner of straw as a falsely-accused moneylender, the villainous wolf poorly adjusting to retirement. Each offering features an intimate new author note and poem, allowing readers to discover stories old, new, and beautifully refined for the complicated world in which we live.  
 I have to admit I hadn't heard of Jane Yolen before this collection. Just how I have managed to miss her will remain a mystery but I was immediately drawn to How to Fracture a Fairy Tale on its premise alone. I have always thought of fairy tales as a mirror. They reflect our reality but twist it ever so slightly, thereby revealing deeper truths we can't see in our own lives. Sometimes the morals of these fairy tales are very clear, sometimes fairy tales have been so twisted to make them more "appropriate" that hardly anything remains of them. Authors like Jane Yolen, or for example Angela Carter, take these tales we all think we know so well, and fracture them. Suddenly the mirror shows us all kinds of other sides we had never considered. Suddenly the Beauty and the Beast tale has a different meaning, and suddenly Snow White isn't half as innocent as she seemed. This is how fairy tales continue to have meaning in different ages and for different people. Also, fractured fairy tales are very often bad ass!

'With their basis in well-known fairy tales, ;legends, and myths, the stories contained here are familiar, but only to a point. Some have been altered in ways that are subtle, yet profound. others have been smashed into pieces and glued back together. They have been reimagined, reworked, and, now, retold.
The result?
Poetry. Wishes. Heartache. Dreams.'
Thus describes Marissa Meyer the fairy tales in How to Fracture a Fairy Tale and I couldn't agree more. Each story in this collection feels oddly familiar, as if you've met it before, and yet it shows itself to be a completely different creature than you'd thought. 'Snow in Summer' is a modern take on the Snow White tale where our heroine sees the old lady for who she is.'The Moon Ribbon' is a magical take on the Cinderella story that feels both mystical and slightly horrifying. 'Happy Dens or A Day in the Old Wolves' home' tells us not to trust blindly in the stories handed down to us, especially if they're about wolves. One of my favourite, although that is hardly the right word, stories in How to Fracture a Fairy Tale is 'Granny Rumple'. Yolen uses the Rumpelstiltskin story to do many difficult things. She shows us how stories are used to explain history, how prejudices underlie stereotypes, and how pervasive anti-antisemitism is. In stories like 'The Foxwife' and 'One Ox, Two Ox, Three Ox, and the Dragon King' Yolen explores Asian fairy tales, while 'Sun/Flight' is a fascinating take on the tale of Icarus. 'Allerleirauh' is a truly tragic tale and 'Wrestling with Angels' made me want to cry. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale has something for everyone and shows Yolen's range. The tales are followed by a 'Notes and Poems' section, with each tale linked to a poem and explanation. Usually this doesn't really do much for me, but I enjoyed seeing Yolen combine story themes across prose and poetry, especially because she seems delightful in her Notes!

Jane Yolen is an icon of fantasy writing, as I realized once I started reading. She has written and edited hundreds of novels and stories throughout her long career. In How to Fracture a Fairy Tale Yolen employs all the necessary tools to keep readers engaged. Her stories are funny, outrageous, epic, dreamy, and everything in between. Yolen moves almost seamlessly between these different atmospheres and each story is solid in its own right. Yolen writes with joy and that joy infects the reader as well. In a number of stories Yolen uses her own family history and Jewish heritage to fracture the tales. Although that doesn't make them any easier to read, it does show just how intrinsic fairy tales are. They are elemental, in a way. We all grow up with stories and they are intensely personal and widely universal all at once. In each story in How to Fracture a Fairy Tale Yolen's love for stories comes through and that is what kept me exploring each new story. Not all of the stories necessarily clicked for me, perhaps it showed me a fracture I wasn't interested in seeing. But each story nonetheless taught me something interesting about its foundation story, let me look at these characters and themes anew.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed the wide variety of stories in How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. Yolen is a pro and handles each in such a way it shines anew. Some of the stories are cheeky fun, the others are beautifully tragic. In the end, there is a story for everyone in this collection. I am now off to explore Yolen's other work. Apparently there are books about wizards!