Friday, 4 September 2020

Review: 'The Habsburgs' by Martyn Rady

One of the things that continuously fascinates me about history is how so many things that must have been coincidence lead up to something that feels inevitable. For me, the Habsburgs have always been linked to World War I, which in and of itself felt both totally avoidable and inevitable. The Habsburgs by Martyn Rady gave me a chance to dig further into this family's history and realize once again how they pop up simply everywhere. Thanks to Perseus Books, Basic Books and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 8/25/2020
Publisher: Perseus Books; Basic Books

The definitive history of the dynasty that dominated Europe for centuries

In The Habsburgs, Martyn Rady tells the epic story of a dynasty and the world they built -- and then lost -- over nearly a millennium. From modest origins, the Habsburgs gained control of the Holy Roman Empire in the fifteenth century. Then, in just a few decades, their possessions rapidly expanded to take in a large part of Europe, stretching from Hungary to Spain, and parts of the New World and the Far East. The Habsburgs continued to dominate Central Europe through the First World War.

Historians often depict the Habsburgs as leaders of a ramshackle empire. But Rady reveals their enduring power, driven by the belief that they were destined to rule the world as defenders of the Roman Catholic Church, guarantors of peace, and patrons of learning. The Habsburgs is the definitive history of a remarkable dynasty that forever changed Europe and the world.

Aaah the Habsburgs, who started as nothing and eventually had a finger in every pot and were inbred up to their ears. What a family! In The Habsburgs Martyn Rady runs the reader through this family's entire history, showing how they seemed to fail upwards consistently, until they ran the Holy Roman Empire, and then truly took the reins. You will find Habsburgs in almost every major European and global event or trend from the fifteenth century onward: the Reformation, the expansion to the New World, Freemasonry, Alchemy, and pretty much every single war or battle. They gave us the Empress Sissi and Marie-Antoinette, but also the Habsburg Jaw and many an atrocity. The Habsburgs is an expansion of Rady's A Very Short Introduction on the same topic and it is definitely expansive.

The Habsburg empire was a fascinating amalgam of different countries, cultures, histories, languages, traditions and faiths. The fact it held as long as it did is almost miraculous, but I think part of the reason why it continues to fascinate is because we find ourselves in the situation where we need to try something similar. The world is so interconnected now that we need to face every problem if not as one, then at least united in an understanding of each other. The Habsburg empire is not an example but it is a lesson of history it is worth learning. I will not go into every single thing Rady covers in The Habsburgs otherwise I would have to re-type the book, but a big focus lies on their rise to power as well as their loss of that very power.

Martyn Rady doesn't set out to share any opinions or win any arguments in The Habsburgs which means that those expecting scandalous stories about  the inbreeding and madness of the family will be disappointed. But so will those be who were expecting him to come down harshly on the imperialistic tendencies of the family. In many ways The Habsburgs is a perfect introduction, a primer of sorts, that runs you through all the major characters and happenings with just the right balance between fact and interest to make you want to do further research yourself. For me this means that Rady strikes the right tone, since no one book can cover hundreds of years and events and crises and do everything justice. Rady will make you want to pick up further books to learn more, and I couldn't ask anything more from a history book.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Although I'm willing to accept The Habsburgs won't be for everyone, it is exactly the kind of book for those who are interested in history. Well written and full of information, The Habsburgs is both a fun reading experience and a valuable resource.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Review: 'Do Her No Harm' by Naomi Joy

What do you do when your best friend is gone and no one, but you, is wiling to dig any deeper? Naomi Joy takes us on a roller coaster ride in Do Her No Harm that leaves the reader questioning every step the characters take. Although not every twist hit its target for me, I did find myself racing through the book. Thanks to Aria and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 8/20/2020
Publisher: Aria

One unsolved murder. A best friend determined to right the wrongs of the past.

On the 21st August Tabitha Rice disappeared without a trace. All the signs point to murder, but no signs point to a murderer. The easiest answer is her husband, Rick. But he protests his innocence and there is little proof he is the murderer.

Annabella knows there is more to the story than what the police are telling. Tabitha was her best friend and she vows to uncover the truth.

As Annabella delves further into the past, she uncovers sides to Tabitha that she never saw coming, and she finds herself asking the question... Was this murder? Or is there more to Tabitha Rice's story than meets the eye?

Perfect for fans of Louise Candlish, The Silent Patient and Blood Orange.

Tabby disappeared five years ago and Annabella still can't let it go. Tabby's husband has moved on. The news media has move don. But Annabella knows there is more to all of this and she is determined to find out, no matter what the costs. I think the latter is one of the key themes of not just Do Her No Harm, but many suspense novels. Humans are often willing to go to the very end in their search for truth. Many of us absolutely will follow a strange noise up into the attic, because we need to know what's there. The brain is such a miraculous thing that anything it images is most likely worse than reality. Thus, Annabella finds herself grasping for straws, trusting a lousy private detective and partnering up with a journalist turned True Crime podcaster. But when do you stop? And will you recognize yourself once you have found the truth?

Annabella's private detective has failed her. He has found no proof Tabby was murdered and doesn't want to keep digging. Desperate, Annabella agrees to work with a True Crime podcaster who wants to shine a spotlight on Tabby's disappearance. The prime suspect is her husband, Rick, who has moved on and always seemed suspiciously calm. As the hunt for the truth brings her to the brink of distraction, Annabella finds herself making mistakes left, right and centre. Who can she trust? Did she know Tabby at all? And does she know herself? Not all of these questions are entirely answered to my satisfaction. There are a few quite shocking twists and turns in the final third of Do Her No Harm but a thriller aficionado will see quite a few coming. Overall I found Do Her No Harm very exciting while reading it, but once it was finished I realized it hadn't left much of an impression on me. I think part of this was due to not connecting well with the main characters which means that I wasn't truly invested in the resolution.

This is my first novel by Naomi Joy, although I know many people enjoyed her previous novel The LiarsDo Her No Harm is split up between Annabella's narrative in the present and Tabby's narrative leading up to her disappearance. As both edge their way towards the end, the tension in the novel ramps up enormously, making for an exciting second half. The first half of the novel is a bit slower, as Joy tries to put all her pieces in the right place. Sadly, Annabella wasn't fully realized for me as a character. Throughout Do Her No Harm she made some choices which seemed  very odd and unnatural. I think part of this was forced by the plot and the twists and turns Joy had coming up, but it was a shame to not be able to connect with her the way you'd hope. Rick remained a shadowy character for much of it as well, as did many of the other side characters. A slight warning comes with the book in regards to one of the main characters having OCD. It's not a major point but is a key part of her characterization and comes up frequently. Aside from that, Tabby and Annabella both worked at a beautician's and there's frequent mention of plastic surgery. Although I don't have an issue with it, I found some of the descriptions regarding it in this book almost unpleasant.

I give this novel...

3 Universes.

Do Her No Harm is a fun read that will keep you engaged for as long as the pages last. While some of it may be predictable to tried and tested Thriller readers, there is much to enjoy. I will keep an eye out for any future books by Naomi Joy.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Review: 'Hush Little Baby' (DC Beth Chamberlain #3) by Jane Isaac

The first thing that frew me to Hush Little Baby was the cover. It evokes the lullaby-quality of the title, but with the dark colours there is also that sense fo threat. Hush Little Baby gives the reader some of the best staples of the suspense genre, family strife and tragic pasts, but occasionally fails the landing. Thanks to Aria and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Pub. Date: 23/7/2020
Publisher: Aria

Someone stole a baby...

One sunny day in July, someone took three-month-old Alicia Owen from her pram outside a supermarket. Her mother, Marie, was inside. No one saw who took Alicia. And no one could find her.

They silenced her cry...

Fifteen years later, a teenager on a construction site sees a tiny hand in the ground. When the police investigate, they find a baby buried and preserved in concrete. Could it be Alicia?

But the truth will always out.

When Alicia disappeared, the papers accused Marie of detachment and neglect. The Owens never got over the grief of their child's disappearance and divorced not long after. By reopening the case, DC Beth Chamberlain must reopen old wounds. But the killer may be closer than anyone ever suspected...

The latest crime thriller featuring Family Liaison Officer DC Beth Chamberlain, Hush Little Baby is tightly plotted, fraught with tension and impossible to put down. Perfect for fans of Cara Hunter and K.L. Slater.

Many detective and suspense novels are part of a series, which can be half of the fun. As the reader, you become fond of the set cast of detectives and follow their arcs across the series. I imagine that the continuation also gives the author a baseline by which to start and organize every installment. However, the requirement for successful detective series, in my opinion, is that every story can be a standalone, that the series narrative doesn't stand in the way of developing each individual plot. In Hush Little Baby this is largely successful until the end where the events of previous books take over to such an extent that I, having not read them, did feel a bit lost.

In Hush Little Baby a young teenager is shocked to find a tiny hand emerging from a cement block. This leads to the discovery of the body of little Alicia, who was kidnapped fifteen years earlier. Her disappearance tore her family apart and was a bit of a national scandal. At the time, the culprit got away with it, but now DC Beth Chamberlain is on the case. As the Family Liaison Officer, she is right there with the family, having to open up old wounds and pry into their affairs. The perspective of an FLO is very interesting as it gives us all the delicious twists and turns of families hiding things from each other and the police. I do have to say I wasn't entirely pleased with the resolution to the disappearance of Alicia, but that could be due to the fact that the novel then continued on into, seemingly, resolving a story line from the previous books. It was an odd shift and kind of took away the emotional gravitas of the main plot.

This was my first book by Jane Isaac and I did very much enjoy her characterization of Beth Chamberlain. She is a very empathetic main character who is balancing a relationship with family troubles and a challenging case. A lot of time is spent building up what the consequences of the crime were for the family. As time has passed, certain wounds have healed, while others are still very much open. Quite a few family secrets are revealed, yet not all of them hit equally for me. A few twists are quite shocking but happen later on in the story when there isn't a lot of time left to wrap up the main plot. Overall, Hush Little Baby did have me gripped and I was eager to get to the resolution. However, I would give the advice to read the other two books in the DC Beth Chamverlain series before going into Hush Little Baby to get the full experience, as I did feel like I missed out on some of the enjoyment. 

I give this novel...

3 Universes.

I enjoyed Hush Little Baby but found myself occasionally disappointed by the twists as well as by the ending. I would recommend reading the overall series, however, as this would make for a better reading experience. 

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Review: 'What Lies Between Us' by John Marrs

I have been using psychological thrillers to sidestep some of the stress of the everyday. Although we're back to working (almost) like normal here in Shanghai, there is still a bit of tension that makes everything harder. Thanks to Amazon Publishing UK and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Pub. Date: 5/15/2020
Publisher: Amazon Publishing UK

Nina can never forgive Maggie for what she did. And she can never let her leave.

They say every house has its secrets, and the house that Maggie and Nina have shared for so long is no different. Except that these secrets are not buried in the past.

Every other night, Maggie and Nina have dinner together. When they are finished, Nina helps Maggie back to her room in the attic, and into the heavy chain that keeps her there. Because Maggie has done things to Nina that can’t ever be forgiven, and now she is paying the price.

But there are many things about the past that Nina doesn’t know, and Maggie is going to keep it that way—even if it kills her.

Because in this house, the truth is more dangerous than lies.

Psychological thrillers are a great escape for me and many others as it releases some of the tensions and stress of everyday life. It's almost as if facing your worst fears on the page, whether it is being kidnapped, a high-speed car chase, a knife-wielding maniac or treacherous spouses, makes real life just a little bit less tense. How hard can it be to call the dentist if your main character is trying to solve a murder? Occasionally the high does wear off and you have to go more and more extreme in your thrillers to get some of the relief. What Lies Between Us was one of those books for me, which turned the dial up all the way. And although the shock aspect of it did the job, I realized, my need for a stronger dose of realism in my thrillers.

Twisted, that is the word most applicable to What Lies Between Us. Nina has her mother, Maggie, chained up in the attic but it is not quite clear from the beginning how the two women got to this point. As the book unfolds, history unravels and their relationship is laid bare. Marrs stacks horror and betrayal upon horror and betrayal. Much of What Lies Between Us is fascinating and gripping, but that is mostly due to its shock factor. Occasionally I found myself becoming slightly numb to all the twists and turns, the hurt the two women were causing and had caused each other. Above I mentioned my need for realism in thrillers, by which I mean a sense of consequences, the awareness that the outside world is there and is watching, that people do notice things. Novels like What Lies Between Us seem to take place in their own little universe where unspeakable acts can be committed without anyone being the wiser. 

John Marrs' writing keeps you on the edge of your seat. You just know that behind every corner something horrible is waiting. What Lies Between Us is a dark novel in which there truly isn't a moment of light. Hardly anyone has any good in them and Nina and Maggie are twisted beyond belief in their relationship. They're co-dependent, they hate each other, they think they love each other and the whole thing is quite discouraging. I'm also not the biggest fan of the portrayal of mental illness in this book as it deals with quite a few damaging tropes. Most likely I will pick up other books by John Marrs, but I will also be more likely to give up on them if they prove to be in a similar vein. 

I give this book... 
3 Universes!

I'm giving What Lies Between Us 3 Universes because it did keep me engaged. But this isn't a book  would easily recommend. For me, it wasn't as smart or as thrilling as I'd have liked it to be. What Lies Between Us will horrify and shock, but that is all.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Review: 'Heroes: The Greek Myths Reimagined' by Stephen Fry

Greek Mythology is an enduring favourite of mine. It forms the origin point for most of my passion: reading, history, language, mythology in general, adaptations, traveling. I'm not quite sure which direction my life would have taken, had I not discovered (been introduced to) these Greek myths at the tender age of 7. So of course both Heroes and its predecessor Mythos would have peaked my interest straightaway. Thanks to Chronicle Book and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date:
Publisher: Chronicle Books

In this sequel to the bestselling Mythos, legendary author and actor Stephen Fry moves from the exploits of the Olympian gods to the deeds of mortal heroes.

Perseus. Jason. Atalanta. Theseus. Heracles. Rediscover the thrills, grandeur, and unabashed fun of the Greek myths. Whether recounting a tender love affair or a heroic triumph, Fry deftly finds resonance with our own modern minds and hearts.

Illustrated throughout with classical art inspired by the myths, this gorgeous volume invites you to explore a captivating world with a brilliant storyteller as your guide.

• Each adventure is infused with Fry's distinctive voice and writing style.
• Connoisseurs of the Greek myths will appreciate this fresh-yet-reverential interpretation, while newcomers will feel welcome.
• Retellings brim with humor and emotion.

In Heroes, Fry draws out the humor and pathos in both tender love affairs and heroic battles, and reveals each myth's relevance for our own time.

• A collector's edition filled with classical art inspired by the myths and a luxe, foil-stamped jacket
• Perfect gift for mythology and history buffs, lovers of ancient Greece, art aficionados, and devoted fans of Stephen Fry
• Add it to the shelf with books like Circe by Madeline MillerNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, and Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton

I've had a major soft spot for Stephen Fry for years. I can trace back this love to three different things:  the TV show Quite Interesting, in which he dispenses puns and random facts with the jollity of a favourite uncle, his riotous and hilarious sketch show with Hugh Laurie, A Bit of Fry & Laurie, and his ease and love for language, evident in both of the former. It is the latter which drew me to both Mythos and Heroes, as the Greek myths and legends are already deeply embedded in my mind. I was wondering what twist he would bring to them, how he would reimagine the myths that so permeate Western culture. As he says at the end of the book, the heroes were the ones that sanitized the world, removed the monsters and horrors and made it a home for humans, rather than gods. In the view of their intense labor, Fry undertakes to show their humanity.

Covered in Heroes are Herakles, Perseus, Theseus, Atalanta, Oedipus and Jason. It is especially the inclusion of Atalanta I greatly enjoyed. While the others are established heroes, or at least established leading men, Atalanta doesn't always get the attention she deserves. (I also appreciated Fry's respect for Medea, a character easily vilified.) Fry's retelling of Herakles was oddly touching, as he highlights the emotional honesty that defines Herakles. He's not sly like Odysseus, but he is straightforward. Aside from perhaps Oedipus, he is the hero to suffer the most, to endure the most. Fry explores both his rage and his honour in full, which made for quite a few touching moments. 

It is clear from Heroes that Fry has a very strong familiarity and understanding of the Greek myths, which allows him to familiarize them for the reader.  I had the same response at first that I had to Mythos, an odd sense of betrayal at how straightforward and simple he had made these myths. I quickly began to appreciate, however, the importance of making these tales more accessible and more available. In Fry's Heroes the young men and woman are stubborn teenagers, as embarrassed to find out about their origins as any child is to think of their own making. They are as obsessed with each other as we are with them. As I also listened to the audiobook, I was amused by the different accents Fry gives his characters, choosing to make some of them Scots, for example. It made the stories even more enjoyable, having them read to you by Fry himself.

I give this book...
4 Universes.

Anyone with a love for Fry and Greek mythology will find Heroes utterly charming. Although his reimaginations might not be for everyone, they do broaden the access to these myths and for that I am grateful.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Review: 'Animal Spirit: Stories' by Francesca Marciano

I adore short story collections, especially ones like Animal Spirit that seem bound together by specific themes. Each story builds on the next, perhaps not with the same characters, but by developing a feeling or a message, until, by the end of the collection it is almost a rallying cry. Thanks to Knopf Doubleday and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 6/16/2020
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Centered in Rome but transporting us into worlds as varied and alluring as they are emotionally real, Francesca Marciano’s stories paint landscapes that are populated—vividly, hauntingly—by animals: from violent seagulls and starlings circling the evening sky in exhilarating formation to magical snakes and a tiny dog on the side of a deserted road.
In unforgettable, cinematic frames, events unfold, especially in the lives of women. An affair ends painfully at a dinner table, an actress’s past comes crashing down on her during an audition, an unhappy wife seeks respite in a historic palazzo sublet. Two starkly different couples imagine parenthood during a Greek island holiday and a young girl returns from rehab, deciding to set out anew with a traveling circus. A man in crisis draws his ex-lover deep into the New Mexico desert.
With spellbinding clarity, the six masterly stories in Animal Spirit inhabit the minds and hearts of Marciano’s characters. They chronicle deeply human moments of realization and recognition, indelible instants of irrevocable change—epiphanies sometimes sparked by our connection with animals and the primal power they show us.
In Animal Spirit Francesca Marciano shows us people in the middle of dilemmas and conflicts, while focusing strongly on animal symbolism. Short stories are a great medium to explore specific moments or emotions, but it requires a major focus on the author's part. In Animal Spirit Marciano tackles the conflicts of women, many caused by their relationships with the men around them and mistakes from their past. Her short stories feel like novels, in the sense that she builds up character wonderfully through their actions meaning that after a few pages you have become very aware of them.  

The title story of Animal Spirit concerns a group of friends, made up of two couples, who go on a holiday together, where tensions slowly rise. All of this is alleviated when a little dog finds its way to them. Being able to care for something, almost selflessly, allows them to put their other worries and concerns to the side for a moment, to be better. In 'Terrible Things Could Happen to Us' Marciano shows us the end of a relationship from the perspectives of multiple people involved. Through all the perspectives the true consequences of such a fall out. In 'The Girl' a young woman, who remains nameless, escapes to the circus, before escaping once again. It's a story of someone in the search for freedom and home. In each story animal imagery comes to the fore to help highlight unspoken themes. In 'There Might Be Blood' aggressive seagulls and swooping falcons battle it out as a woman considers her marriage and life. In 'The Girl' a giant albino python is both constrictive and liberating. 

Marciano's stories stuck with me for a long time after I finished Animal Spirit, in a large part because she so effortlessly creates moments that shine. A mother and her daughters, waiting at the dinner table for her boyfriend to show up. A middle-aged woman in an Italian palazzo. A girl writhed in snakes in  a circus tent. These images came across so strongly that sometimes they almost overpowered the rest of the stories. But all the stories have strong themes as well, that mostly come through by the end. I will definitely be looking out for future stories and collections by Francesca Marciano.

I give this collection...
4 Universes!

I greatly enjoyed reading Animal Spirit, which contains nicely crafted stories about conflicts and, hopefully, growth.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Review: 'Perfect Kill' (D.I. Callanach #6) by Helen Fields

I've been following Helen Fields' D.I. Callanach series since its fourth installment, Perfect Silence. I was immediately gripped by the characters and the intense plot Fields wove. For me Perfect Crime only improved in these areas and I wondered how she would be able to top herself. Perfect Kill is, however, on a completely different level. Thanks to Avon Books UK and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Pub. Date: 6/2/2020
Publisher: Avon Books UK

A gripping, exciting read to absorb you from start to finish!

He had never heard himself scream before. It was terrifying.

Alone, trapped in the darkness and with no way out, Bart Campbell knows that his chances of being found alive are slim.

Drugged and kidnapped, the realisation soon dawns that he’s been locked inside a shipping container far from his Edinburgh home. But what Bart doesn’t yet know is that he’s now heading for France where his unspeakable fate is already sealed…

DCI Ava Turner and DI Luc Callanach are working on separate cases that soon collide as it becomes clear that the men and women being shipped to France are being traded for women trafficked into Scotland.

With so many lives at stake, they face an impossible task – but there’s no option of failure when Bart and so many others will soon be dead…

Get ready for a rollercoaster ride like no other, with the next gripping thriller from the number one bestselling crime author, Helen Fields. The perfect read for fans of M. J. Arlidge and Karin Slaughter.

I want to take a moment at the beginning of the review to talk about the beauty that is a well-crafted detective book series. Too often, series feel the need to ramp up the tension and action, no matter what consequences that might have for the characters. It's similar in TV shows and films. How often can you put someone through hell or have them punched in the face before they simply can't get back up? The good series don't just allow for lasting consequences of trauma, they work actively with them. Part of the reason why The Hunger Games and Divergent series were so popular was because its protagonists carried their trauma openly and had it inform their next steps. I've always found that the D.I. Callanach series similarly tries to allow trauma and stress to be a part of Ava and (especially) Luc's character arcs, supporting their growth from book to book.

Perfect Kill is a tough read. Although each of Helen Fields' D.I. Callanach installments so far have dealt with heavy and difficult topics, Perfect Kill is very much a culmination of all of them. With Ava Turner in Edinburgh and Luc Callanach in Paris, both find themselves drawn into the same case when the kidnapping of Scottish youths coincides with the arrival and trafficking of Eastern European women. The main theme of Perfect Kill, then, is exploitation and abuse. Some of this is very violent, as we're given an insight into the horror by the narration one of the trafficked women, which means Perfect Kill might not be for everyone. I found certain parts of the book tough to read but I was also very glad that Fields didn't sugarcoat anything. For those with a weak stomach, there is also a bit of a warning attached to this book, as there is some explicit talk about surgeries. On the more serial aspect of Perfect Kill, the novel focuses a lot of Ava and Natasha's friendship, as well as the fall out between Ava and Luc after the revelations at the end of Perfect Crime.

I have reached the point where Helen Fields is now at the same level as Elizabeth George. The moment I see either of their names, I know I will be reading the book it is attached to. Fields explores new depths in Perfect Kill, with characters plummeting to new depths of despair and terror. She finds the right balance between allowing for the horror, while also bringing in lighter moments as a reprieve. Many of these lighter moments come from the side characters that continue to delight me in every installment. Moving back and forth between France and Scotland allows for a bit of suspense, as the reader begins to suspect how linked the two cases really are. As always, Fields nicely ties up all the story lines towards the end of the book, except for the continuing tension between Ava and Luc. This better not be the end of the D.I. Callanach series because although I adore the tension, I would love a resolution!

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

The D.I. Callanach series is a pleasure to read and Perfect Kill is no exception. Fields delivers the thrills, the twists and turns, but also the emotional punches and character development. Get into this series as soon as you can!

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Review: 'The Glass Magician' (The Paper Magician Series #2)by Charlie N. Holmberg

I read The Glass Magician almost directly after The Paper Magician, having wasted a good few years wondering when I would get to them. I adored the first novel in the series despite a few hesitations and found myself with a few more hangups after The Glass Magician. Thanks to 47North and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/4/2014
Publisher: 47North

Now well into her apprenticeship with magician Emery Thane, twenty-year-old Ceony Twill is continuing to discover the joy of paper magic. She adores bringing her spells to life in surprising ways, from learning the power of distortion to creating a beloved paper dog. And she secretly hopes that the romance she foresaw blossoming between her and the peculiar yet strikingly handsome Emery finally becomes real.

But when one magician with a penchant for deadly scheming believes that Ceony possesses a secret, he vows to discover it…even if it tears apart the very fabric of their magical world. After a series of attacks target Ceony, and catch those she holds most dear in the crossfire, she knows she must find the true limits of her powers…and keep her knowledge from falling into wicked hands.

The delightful sequel to Charlie N. Holmberg’s The Paper MagicianThe Glass Magician will charm listeners young and old alike.

Sequels are hard. You have to follow up a great start with something that has to be similar but also new, recognizable and yet a clear improvement, something more mature and grander without betraying the first. Some books are clearly laid out to be a series and have an arc spanning across multiple books while each is contained within itself. Others seem a standalone but are then turned into series when they do well. I'm not quite sure where The Paper Magician Series falls, but The Glass Magician definitely tries to up the ante. Everything feels a little intenser, which means we inevitably lose some of the aspects of the first book that made it such a comforting read. There is more action, more drama, more characters and more locations but I'm still undecided whether this adds up to the book actually achieving more. A few of my issues with the first book arose again, which I'll go into more detail on below, and were strengthened rather than laid to rest. 

I soon realized what the cause was behind my sense of unease and that it started very early on. This is where we enter spoiler territory for the rest of this paragraph so if you didn't get around to these in the last 6 years either, turn away now. The Glass Magician has two villains, one of whom has the major starring role and the other who is more of a very evil side-kick. We meet the latter early on when, after the first attack on her life, Ceony spots a foreign-looking man in the crowd. She chides herself for thinking of him as the potential perpetrator only because he is different, but is proven right by the narrative. He is not just evil though, he is almost animalistic and without any redeeming factors or actual personality traits aside from his foreignness. It is a weird turn for Holmberg to take and left a bad taste in my mouth. In my review of The Paper Magician I noted that although I enjoyed the romance aspect of the novel, I was skeptical about the master-apprentice relationship between Thane and Ceony. This skepticism only strengthened while reading The Glass Magician. (Again, spoilers.) He is a good bit older than her and has a failed marriage under his belt. He is privy to much more information than Ceony, meaning she makes rash decisions she is then told off for by both Thane and others. The power balance is completely off. And on top of that, Holmberg actually has Ceony's previous teacher openly disapprove of the developing feelings between the two as it is against the master-apprentice rules. Although the forbidden aspect is surely exciting, it is also wrong in the context of their relationship. nd let's not forget about Ceony thinking another middle-aged man is in need of a wife since he can't keep his own house clean or himself fed. Surely I'm not the only one thinking that even 2014 was a bit too modern for those ideas. 

Although I continued to enjoy Holmberg's writing, the issues laid out above made me a bit hesitant. Ceony continues to be an interesting character, who wants to take responsibility for the problems she thinks she has created. However, as she is shut out of any important meetings, she often ends up making the wrong choices. It makes sense for the second book in the series to maybe be something of a breaking point for her, where she has to fail, reassess, grow and come out stronger, but the plot moved a little too fast to allow for this. Thane remains a bit of a mystery, which is less fun now than in The Paper Magician. Some of the other side characters are hardly developed beyond what they need to be for the plot, which is a shame. As you can tell, I am torn. I did enjoy reading The Glass Magician but couldn't help but wince here or there. Whether this is down to Holmberg or an editor, I'm not sure. I will give the series' next book a go, mainly because I prefer to finish series, but I will go into it more hesitantly than I did The Glass Magician.

I give this novel...
3 Universes.

The Glass Magician is an interesting follow up on The Paper Magician, both making its blind spots more obvious while continuing some of the things that made the latter so charming. 

Monday, 22 June 2020

Review: 'The Paper Magician' by Charlie N. Holmberg

Remember how earlier this month I complained about my habit of putting off reading books that I know I'll probably really enjoy? I'm here to tell you I did it again. This time it is The Paper Magician and Charlie N. Holmberg I need to apologize to. This is a delightful book I should have enjoyed back in 2014, although I'm also very grateful for the distraction it gave me now. Thanks to 47North and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 9/1/2014
Publisher: 47North

Ceony Twill arrives at the cottage of Magician Emery Thane with a broken heart. Having graduated at the top of her class from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony is assigned an apprenticeship in paper magic despite her dreams of bespelling metal. And once she’s bonded to paper, that will be her only magic…forever.

Yet the spells Ceony learns under the strange yet kind Thane turn out to be more marvelous than she could have ever imagined—animating paper creatures, bringing stories to life via ghostly images, even reading fortunes. But as she discovers these wonders, Ceony also learns of the extraordinary dangers of forbidden magic.

An Excisioner—a practitioner of dark, flesh magic—invades the cottage and rips Thane’s heart from his chest. To save her teacher’s life, Ceony must face the evil magician and embark on an unbelievable adventure that will take her into the chambers of Thane’s still-beating heart—and reveal the very soul of the man.

From the imaginative mind of debut author Charlie N. Holmberg, The Paper Magician is an extraordinary adventure both dark and whimsical that will delight readers of all ages.

I love books about magic, especially when they're this inventive with their world-building. In The Paper Magician, every magician is bonded to a specific element or material forever. That is the material your magic will be tied to for the rest of your life and there is no way of breaking it. I enjoyed the way this tied the magic into everyday life as well, where every material has its own use in industry etc., meaning that magicians are needed for every material. And then there is the dark side of this all, the Excisioners whose chose material is flesh. Holmberg really brings these types of magic to life through her writing, especially in the more descriptive moments. There is a joy to most of the magic in The Paper Magician which was very fun to read.

Ceony would not have chosen paper for herself, but a new paper magician is needed. Hence she will now apprentice under Mage Thane, who turns out to be a great, if mysterious, teacher. But her training is cut short when disaster strikes in the shape of an Excisioner and Ceony has to save her teacher. Initially I was a little confused as to what we were working towards, plot-wise, but the journey through Thane's heart is very much the goal itself. As Ceony gets to know more about Thane, her new skills will be put to the test as she battles for her own life and his. The plot of The Paper Magician moves fast once the action begins, but it is offset by moments of calm and emotional depth that ground the action and allow the characters to grow and develop. Despite some of the more intense scenes in regards to the Excisioners, I do think The Paper Magician could be suitable for a wide age range. Occasionally I did question the power balance between Ceony and Thane, but much of it will depend on how it is developed in the next books of the series.

This was Holmberg's debut novel and I was enraptured by it. There is a soft glow to the book, which perhaps doesn't make a lot of sense but feels correct. It's not whimsy, per se, despite the cottagecore feel of it, but rather a sense of comfort and warmth, despite the rather bloody setting of the second half of the book. Ceony is a lovely main character, driven and ambitious, willing to learn but also stubborn. Emery Thane is a quiet but humorous counterpoint, never giving away too much and yet saying more than he perhaps means to. (See, ambiguous!) I got strong Howl's Moving Castle vibes from The Paper Magician, especially the Studio Ghibli film adaptation, but didn't hate it. Perhaps it was part of the gentleness of it, Ceony's fieriness, and the need to save a mysterious magician by digging into his heart and past. I have set my sights on The Glass Magician next.

I give this novel..
4 Universes!

The Paper Magician is a lovely read that brings together many of my favourite things about magic in novels. For lovers of magic and Howl's Moving Castle (which I assume is an overlapping group), this is a great read!

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Review: 'The Glamourist' (The Vine Witch #2) by Luanne G. Smith

I think in some ways I have Luanne G. Smith to thank for getting me out of my COVID-19-related reading slump. I raced through the series first book, The Vine Witch, in pretty much a day earlier this month, after putting off reading it for months. I decided not to make the same mistake with The Glamourist and was rewarded for my growth. Thanks to 47North and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 6/9/2020
Publisher: 47North

A spellbinding novel of bloodlines, self-discovery, and redemption by the author of the Washington Post bestseller The Vine Witch.

Abandoned as a child in turn-of-the-century Paris, Yvette Lenoir has longed to uncover the secrets of her magical heritage and tap her suppressed powers. But what brave and resourceful Yvette has done to survive the streets has made her a fugitive. With a price on her head, she clings to a memento from her past—what she believes to be a grimoire inherited from the mother she never knew. To unlock the secrets of her past, Yvette trusts in one woman to help solve the arcane riddles among its charmed pages.

Elena Boureanu is the vine witch of Château Renard, noted for its renowned wines. Even as she struggles with her own bloodline—and its poisonous threat to her future—Elena can’t ignore a friend on the run. Joined by a cunning thief, the proprietor of an enchanted-curio shop, and a bewitching black cat, Elena and Yvette are determined to decode Yvette’s mysterious keepsake. But what restless magic will be unleashed? And what are Yvette and Elena willing to risk to become the witches they were destined to be?

There are a good few staples anyone who wants to write about magic and witches can take advantage of. In The Vine Witch Luanne G. Smith began her world-building with some of these, such as the master-apprentice relationship, strong connections to the natural world, and ancient tomes of spells and hexes. She builds on this in The Glamourist, but by recasting them into something new and surprising. There is a black cat, a shop of curiosities, and a young thief, but none of these are exactly what we expect them to be. There are also two overarching themes which I found very interesting: the question of whether our blood and ancestry defines us and the underlying distrust between those with and without magic. The latter is more subtle but frequently addressed, especially in Elena's narrative, and I hope more attention is payed towards it in the third book.

As its title might suggest, this book is a little more lyrical and has a little bit more glam. We have moved from the earthy vineyards to the glamorous Paris. In my review for The Vine Witch I noted how some of the side characters' story lines had been left open for continuation, and The Glamourist picked up right where they were left off. Yvette is, in many ways the star of The Glamourist, as she tries to unravel her own history and come into her power. However, this is mirrored by Elena's journey, as she tries to decide between her life as a Vine Witch and her birthright as a venefica, a witch of poisons. Do we get to decide who we are or is it all in our blood? Will blood out? Both Yvette and Elena will find out, with plenty of hijinks along the way that take them to Paris' fanciest restaurants and its darkest depths.

I raved about Smith in my first review and I'm just here to do a little bit more of it. The whole Vine Witch series so far has been incredibly comforting. There is danger, prejudice and hurt in her books and many of her characters struggle, but Smith also infuses every page with warmth and magic. It is not a perfect world, but it is a world in which many people work towards the better, where they help each other and happy endings are possible. Yvette is fleshed out a lot more in The Glamourist and I really found myself warming to her almost from the start. There are a few major reveals about her heritage and power and although I saw the major ones coming, this was largely due to my being deeply steeped in folklore. Despite predicting it, I really enjoyed how everything came together in the last few chapters. Reading The Glamourist left me feeling warm and eager for more. 

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

I adored The Glamourist and found myself trying to put off finishing it, even though it was impossible. The Vine Witch series has great world-building and beautiful characters. I think this is the comfort read we all deserve right now.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Review: 'The Caretakers' by Eliza Maxwell

Isolated estates, tense family relationships and true crime documentaries. Nothing could be more perfect. I also adored the cover of The Caretakers which looks exactly like a still from one of Tessa Shepherd's films. Thanks to Lake Union Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 4/14/2020
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing

In the isolated estate she’s found the perfect getaway. But there’s no escaping the past in this chilling novel from the bestselling author of The Unremembered Girl.

Filmmaker Tessa Shepherd helped free a man she believed was wrongly imprisoned for murder. When he kills again, Tessa’s life is upended.

She’s reeling with guilt, her reputation destroyed. Worse, Tessa’s mother has unexpectedly passed away, and her sister, Margot, turns on her after tensions from their past escalate. Hounded by a bullying press, Tessa needs an escape. That’s when she learns of a strange inheritance bequeathed by her mother: a derelict and isolated estate known as Fallbrook. It seems like the perfect refuge.

A crumbling monument to a gruesome history, the mansion has been abandoned by all but two elderly sisters retained as caretakers. They are also guardians of all its mysteries. As the house starts revealing its dark secrets, Tessa must face her fears and right the wrongs of her past to save herself and her relationship with Margot. But nothing and no one at Fallbrook are what they seem.

True crime documentaries have seen a major surge in popularity over the last few years, starting with Netflix's bombshell Making a Murderer in 2015.  Many of these documentaries are thrilling, shocking and emotive, meant to take their audience on a journey to a very specific point. In some cases it is to prove innocence, in others to put the system itself on trial. For all of them, however, there is a clear narrative arc that has to end somewhere. Often you can't help but wonder what comes next. What about the rest of these people's lives. Are they happy now or have the years in prison or on trial been too much? What about the families of the victims? Are they happy now that someone is behind bars or, in the days after, does it begin to feel like less of a victory? As the popularity of these types of films has grown, so have think pieces on their benefits and downsides. An audience is easy to excite but will also drop its latest hero as soon as a new one comes along. What does this mean for those whose lives have been laid bare? It's a very interesting choice by Eliza Maxwell to make this a part of her novel and although she can't provide all the answers, it might allow true crime fans a chance to think it over themselves.

Tessa Shepherd has helped free an innocent man, Oliver. She is riding the waves of success, even if her family life is still messy and anxiety waits for her around every corner. That is until Oliver seemingly goes on a violent rampage, implicating her, and her mother unexpectedly dies. Now she has to not only face her twin sister, but also confront the interest of the media and police and her own family's past. It's a lot for one woman to shoulder but as she begins to unravel she also begins to discover the truth. I found Tessa to be a great protagonist. Her eye for a story, for a way to frame a scene, adds a lovely, meta-esque layer to The Caretakers that makes us consider how we look at things. Although The Caretakers is fast-paced, Maxwell takes the time to let the story's emotional beats resonate with the reader. Most fascinating was the relationship between Tessa and her sister, Margot, as well as the two sisters who act as caretakers, which is captured in glances, gestures and the venomous language only two sisters can unleash on each other.

This is my first book by Eliza Maxwell but I was completely engrossed in The Caretakers. I read it within an evening, fully aware I had work in the morning but unwilling to stop reading. Maxwell brings both Suspense and a sense of Magical Realism to her novel, which intertwine beautifully. The descriptions of Fallbrook, the crumbling estate with a secret, were stunning and allow both the reader and Tessa a little escape from the stress of the outside world. Maxwell also approaches both Oliver's case and Tessa's mental health with the right care and awareness, thereby avoiding a sense of sensationalism or exploitation of such personal topics. The twists and turns come fast in the last quarter of The Caretakers, making for a thrilling finale which feels earned. I saw some of them coming while others felt like a surprise. Maxwell ends her novel with a note of unease, which I myself very much enjoyed. Although books, like true crime documentaries, do come to an end, that doesn't always mean the whole story has been told. 

I give this novel..
4 Universes!

I blazed right through The Caretakers and still find myself thinking about Fallbrook and its lushes woods and dark history. Maxwell has written a fast-paced, thrilling suspense novel perfect for fans of true crime and those with a love for Magical Realism.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Review: 'His Wife's Sister' by A.J. Wills

Sometimes you have to reach for a psychological thriller and spend a frantic few hours chasing down the path of madness for truth. At least, that's what I tell myself. Last weekend, I found myself in the need for some quick escape and reached for A.J. Wills' His Wife's Sister, which did the job quite admirably. Thank you to Cherry Tree Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 5/7/2020
Publisher: Cherry Tree Publishing

He stole her childhood. Now she wants it back.

A woman is found alone and confused wandering through remote woodland.

She claims to be Mara Sitwell, the little girl who mysteriously vanished from her home nineteen years ago.

She says she was abducted and has been held captive in an underground cell.

But not everyone’s convinced she’s telling the truth.

Her brother-in-law, Damian, thinks she’s hiding a dark secret and so psychologically scarred she’s a danger to his young family.

But no one’s listening to him.

His only choice is to prove what really happened to Mara.

But the truth is never easy to uncover, especially when it’s been buried so deep...

What do you say when your little sister disappears from the tent you're sharing in your backyard and isn't heard from again? What next when you feel like the outsider at school and a boy who's never spoken to you before offers to be your friend? And what do you do when your little sister suddenly reappears after 19 years? Now let's switch that around. What do you do when a little girl disappears from your town and her lonely sister is in need of friendship? What do you do when you fall in love with her? And how do you feel when her sister suddenly reappears and becomes central to your now-wife's life? Let's bring in a final viewpoint. What do you do when you're kidnapped as a child and never see anyone but your kidnapper for 19 years? How do you feel to see your sister has created a life for herself? How do you answer questions you don't even want to ask yourself? His Wife's Sister tries to engage with all these viewpoints in one way or another, and as you can perhaps tell from the jumble above, that's not exactly easily done. However, A.J. Wills'

Lucia and Damien are married with two lovely children. He works from home while she commutes into London for work. They seem pretty perfect, until they receive a call from the police that Lucia's sister, Mara, has been found after being abducted 19 years ago. Everything freezes to a halt as they try to help her adjust and let her move in with them. It is then that the real oddness begins, however, as Damien, our main narrator, starts to see gaps in Mara's behaviour and explanations. It is about a third through His Wife's Sister's first chapter that you begin to get an odd feeling about everyone involved. We spend most of the book inside Damien's head as he moves back and forth between telling us what is happening now and how he and Lucia met. Without getting into spoiler territory, most readers will grasp pretty quickly that he is an incredibly unreliable narrator. A lot of His Wife's Sister feels predictable, in that A.J. Wills sets up the dominoes in plain view and knocks them over perfunctorily. None of the characters are really likeable and sometimes slips into the weird territory of blaming a kidnapping and assault victim for their coping and survival tactics. Although I was engrossed by His Wife's Sister this was largely due to the creepy nature of the book and the fact I had to be certain A.J. Wills would bring it back around to kind of ok territory. 

This is my first novel by A.J. Wills and I'm still quite torn about the reading experience. On the one hand I found some aspects of His Wife's Sister to be rather off and a lot of the twists and turns are quite clear from the start. On the other hand some moments in His Wife's Sister happen so rapidly that I was confounded and fascinated by them. Quite frequently I'd wonder, how did we get here? Why is no one concerned about this? How could this just happen? The characters didn't feel real in the sense that I truly wondered at their interior motives and if they had any. It was a shame not to have Lucia be narrator or protagonist for part of the story, as that would have grounded both Mara and Damien more and prevented it from feeling as cliche. Now, I know that the above doesn't sound very positive. It is why my reading experience was such a confusing one. Despite the above, I did enjoy parts of His Wife's Sister and found myself unwilling to put it down. But I don't know if I'll be quick to pick up Wills' next one

I give this book...
3 Universes.

His Wife's Sister is a fast, gripping and frustrating read. The plot as well as the tone felt off, occasionally, and the characters weren't always believable. The reason I'm giving 3 Universes rather than 2 is because despite all this, I was hooked.

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Review: 'The Vine Witch' (Vine Witch #1) by Luanne G. Smith

Why does it take me so long to read books that I just know I’ll probably love? I have no answer. It will be a question that will continue to haunt me, as The Vine Witch becomes the latest proof that I just need to and read the books I pick up. Just look at that cover and tell me I shouldn't have known better. Magic, wine, France, curses, and a hint fo romance; what else could I have asked for. Thanks to 47North and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

What is it about herbs, spell books and secret rituals that is so utterly enticing to so many of us? In The Vine Witch we encounter age old traditions, passed on by a mentor, which are deeply embedded in the natural surroundings of our main characters. Perhaps it is this, connection, that makes it do heartwarming. Luanne G. Smith manages to create a world much like our own, with the definite difference that magic is real and, kind of, accepted. People don't like to see it too much (which Muggle has ever enjoyed knowing their lack of power) but they know the benefits it brings. What sets The Vine Witch apart, for me, is the genius of combining something as intricate and moody as wine making with witchcraft. Both require an intricate knowledge of the elements and the earth. Both require spending time pouring, measuring, stirring, testing, tasting. Both are full of tips and tricks particular to each region and family. I was thrilled from the very beginning!

Elena is not living her best life at the beginning of The Vine Witch. I won't betray the nature of her curse but it was not only a great start, it also retains its relevance throughout the novel. Once she manages to find her way back to her home, the vineyard where she learnt her craft, she finds out that years have passed and nothing is the same. As Elena sets about trying to fix her vineyard, Smith weaves in different plot elements that all come together rather neatly at the end. There is vengeance required for the curse. There is a brooding, science-minded city boy to deal with. And then there are the other, strange, magical happenings throughout the Chanceaux Valley that will need a witch to unravel them. The Vine Witch moves rather quickly but knows where to pack its emotional punches. 

Smith's novel soars on its premise, which I've already discussed in the first paragraph. It is a great idea that she is able to unpack and broaden throughout the novel without relying on exposition. She easily creates a sense of tradition and lore, while also leaving plenty of hints at further expansion. Her main character, Elena, is easy to adore as her passion for her craft, loved ones and vineyard shines through every action. I also found myself warming to the other characters rather quickly. The Vine Witch is not an overly complicated novel and perhaps has more of a romance theme than the blurb suggests. However, it is a very comfortable and warm read that lets you escape into another world for a few hours. There is enough intrigue and mystery to keep a reader less in love with magic interested as well. Although The Vine Witch is the start of a series, it does feel like a complete book on its own. Although there are a few story lines left open for the next novel, The GlamouristThe Vine Witch begins and ends its own story, refusing to leave readers waiting for a conclusion.

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

I adored The Vine Witch and absolutely raced through it. With a nice concept and solid world building, Smith has crafted a lovely standalone and great starter to her Vine Witch series. I'll be reviewing its sequel, The Glamourist, later this month. 

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Review: 'The Burning' by Laura Bates

High school can be the best and the worst of times. It's where you can make lifelong friends and pick up lifelong traumas. Add to that the sheer confusion of growing up in a female body, and all the pressures and developments that brings with it, and you have a veritable roller coaster of emotions. In The Burning Laura Bates shows us the dark underbelly of these experiences, while also giving us a historic perspective. Thanks to SOURCEBOOKS Fire and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

The Burning focuses very strongly on the ways a female body is policed, but does so from the perspective of the young girls themselves. Bates makes very clear the pull to both sides that I think all girls have felt. On the one hand there is the thrill of revealing, teasing, playing, giving what is asked for. On the other hand there is the need to protect, to cover up, to hide away, to be safe and respected. The middle ground between these two sides is as sharp as the edge of a knife and we never quite find the balance. We are either too slutty or too stuck up and it is a constant back and forth, all with the secure knowledge that whatever happens, it will probably be blamed on you. I would attach a warning to The Burning, however, as its descriptions of revenge porn and bullying are rather intense. It is good that Laura Bates doesn't shy away from the horror of its pervasiveness and the ease with which it is spread these days. But it could prove triggering for some readers, hence my warning. However, Bates does her best to infuse The Burning with a sense of hope as well.

Anna and her mother have left everything behind to start anew. As the reader you don't know why immediately, but there are enough hints that perceptive (female) readers will be able to pick up on the why pretty quickly. Anna's history comes to haunt and traumatize her, as well as those around her, and it becomes clear that it is impossible for her to be considered innocent. As her own life spirals, she finds fortitude from a history project, for which she selects to research Maggie. Maggie herself was at the centre of a scandal, accused of witchcraft, and as her narrative intertwines with Anna, the latter gains a newfound strength from this connection to the past. I really enjoyed the way Bates brought together past and present. Although vastly different situations, something is gained from both Anna and Maggie's narratives, even if it is quiet strength in the face of an oncoming storm. It also highlights other themes in The Burning, which is the need for solidarity between women, the need for institutional support and the holding accountable of men's actions. 

Laura Bates tackles a number of difficult themes in her novel which could have easily overwhelmed the plot. What impressed me was the way that Bates managed to keep the tone and message appropriate for a younger audience without drawing a veil over the more horrifying aspects of sexual harassment. The novel's language is straightforward and simple but at times also deeply lyrical, especially in Maggie's passages. Bates allows her characters to be teenagers while her adults are also allowed their full breadth of emotions. I will admit I was slightly biased in The Burning's favour as it's set in Fife. At one point Anna visits the St. Andrews' University Library and I was hit by a major wave of nostalgia. I was gripped by The Burning and found myself unable to put it down. I became rather attached to its characters and, despite its difficult topics, I found myself warmed by the reading experience.

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

The Burning is a great read that tackles difficult themes. It is a very timely read that, although not a manifesto, does its part in spreading awareness and bringing hope. 

Saturday, 6 June 2020

Review: ‘My Dark Vanessa’ by Kate Elizabeth Russell

I delayed writing the review for this book for quite a while since I was still sorting out my feelings about it and trying to wrap my head around the “controversy” that surrounded it for some time on Twitter. My Dark Vanessa is a very intense book and one that deserves time and needs time. So, now that I’ve had some of that, I can’t wait to write out my thoughts. Thanks to 4th Estate and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for a honest review.

My Dark Vanessa is a book perfectly fit to its specific moment in time where we are not just trying to out sexual abusers, but where we’re also re-examining what it means to be a victim, how one finds themselves in a situation where wrong and right become muddy. This was the exact situation we were in when I read this novel in March 2020 and I saw its relevance almost every day. We are currently in a very different, important cultural moment and although it is not linked to sexual abuse specifically, it is about power relations, about control, about who gets to tell the story and who gets believed. These broken power structures are so deeply ingrained in our cultures that even when you're looking straight at them you can't always name it. Reading books such as My Dark Vanessa, although fictional, give me a chance to redirect my gaze. And it's not comfortable, but it is necessary.

Vanessa is in her early thirties and so far she has just about held everything together. Nothing is quite right, nothing ever was since then but it's ok since nothing has gone entirely wrong either, as long as she keeps telling herself it was love. My Dark Vanessa is a novel about power, youth, judgement, fear and shame, but also about love. The overarching theme, in my eyes, is story telling, however. Who tells our story? Who has the right to it? And what if someone tells you your own story and you don't recognize it? I don't want to discuss too much of how Strane and Vanessa meet, how the end up entangled and what it means. There is no surprise in it, no shocking betrayals or unexpected twists. Russell  does not pretend it is extraordinary, the story she tells, but she manages to highlight the sheer damaging confusion of it all. Is Vanessa complicit? Should she not have understood all the references to Lolita, should she not have taken the escape options available to her? And why can she not let go? 

Vanessa is a fascinating character because she is difficult to read about. You'll find yourself feeling bad for not liking her, for not warming to her older self. And then you'll find yourself feeling such a strong, protective fury for the younger Vanessa that will take your breath away. My perspective of Vanessa switched throughout the book as you learn more about her past and present and as I kept finding points of similarity with her. So much of her is recognizable for anyone who has been a young girl, been a teenager in love with books, been a woman searching for herself. And you see all the traps that were laid out, the ones that you accidentally avoided and the ones you walked into with eyes wide open. Vanessa tries to work through her story and it's a hard journey to take with her. 

Kate Elizabeth Russell has written a brilliant novel, one whose writing is key to making the story work. My Dark Vanessa made me feel physically ill while reading. Russell would have written something so innocuous it could have been overlooked and yet it began the spiral of deep unease in the pit of my stomach. With every further step Strane had Vanessa take, the unease would become acidic and threaten to spill over. It didn't make for a "fun" reading experience, but it was visceral and I think that is very important for a novel like My Dark Vanessa. When writing about sexual abuse and power relations, it is so easy to slip into sensationalism or virtue signalling, but Russell wrote something deeply emotional that will stick with me for a very long time.

I give this novel...
5 Universes!

My Dark Vanessa is a brilliant and terrifying novel that I have been  recommending for four months now. It will grip you and you will have to occasionally take a forceful break away from it, but it is a rewarding reading experience.

Friday, 5 June 2020

Review: 'Body Tourists' by Jane Rogers

Secret procedures? The desire to live again? The rich indiscriminately taking advantage of the poor? I'm listening! Jane Rogers had me hooked pretty quickly once I read the blurb for Body Tourists. Science Fiction is one of my favourite genres, and there have been some great experimental SciFi novels lately, such as Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson for example. Body Tourists joins that rank, although it isn't quite as solid as the former. Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

I have always thought of Science Fiction as one of the key genres that is able to predict and discuss where we might be going. Science and progress have become elemental to our society. If we aren't moving forward, then what are we doing? This in and of itself leads to progress for progress' sake, where the question isn't 'should we' but 'when will we'. It is these type of questions that lie at the foundation of a classic like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Just because Frankenstein has the ability to create life, should he have? Both author and Creature seem to decidedly suggest no, but the fascination is there regardless for the reader. We know it isn't right, that Frankenstein was cruel, and yet we can't help but be in awe of what he achieved. Similarly, H.G. Well's Dr. Moreau is probably certifiably insane and yet there is something that won't let you look away. It is this moral grey area, that contrasts humanity's curiosity with its morality, that elevates Science Fiction for me. Who knows how any of us would act, what choices we would make, if we found ourselves in similar situations, with similar options. If you could, wouldn't you bring your loved ones back?

In Body Tourists we meet an array of characters, all, in some way, involved with the workings of a small clinic that is quietly bringing the wealthy dead back to life for fourteen days, using the bodies of "willing volunteers". Now, I won't go into why those quotation marks are there, but it does hint at one of the interesting themes brought up by Rogers' novel, which is bodily autonomy and how much of your character and personality is decided by your body. Can you sign away your body while your mind rests and not be affected? How different would you be if you were in a different body? It is clearer now than ever that the colour of your skin vastly affects what kind of life you can lead. I was intrigued by the way Rogers worked with the idea that body and soul are separate and yet deeply tied together. Other themes addressed in Body Tourists are the gap between rich and poor, the effects of virtual reality and constant access to screens, and the endless desire to once again meet our departed loved ones. It is the second, the presence of screens and AI everywhere, that balances dangerously between being a little cliche and having meaning. 

This is my first novel by Rogers and I really enjoyed her ability to create characters. Body Tourists is low on the science, which is understandable since, like Frankenstein, the science at the heart of the novel does not actually exist. As such, it mostly focuses on the varying experiences of the different volunteers and revived dead. I really enjoyed the back and forth between these different characters, many of which we see reappear in other narratives later on. Body Tourists is told chronologically, but since much of the emotional weight of the book is with characters you might never revisit, it can slow down the reading for you. Body Tourists dorsn't feel quite as groundbreaking as I was expecting, going in. The concept isn't super new, and neither is the idea that screen time may be bad for you. When something like Black Mirror exists, that purposefully pushes the technology we have to the brink, then it is worth for novels to work on a similar level, revealing deeper truths about our own ideas and practices. What "saves" the novel from feeling outdated, for me, was the sheer humanity of most of Jane Rogers' characters. You can connect quite deeply to some of them, which means that Body Tourists has been on my mind every since I finished it. The reader's connection to the characters is what will let the themes suggested by Rogers percolate and develop. 

I give Body Tourists...
3 Universes.

Body Tourists will leave you with many questions about the nature of life and what you would be willing to do for it. Rogers is a captivating writer who elevates these questions. 

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Review: 'break your glass slippers' by amanda lovelace

Not all poetry works for everyone. Wordsworth often meaves me clod, whereas Emily Bronte's poems speak to an inner fire. I read amanda lovelace's the mermaid's voice returns in this one last year and realized I adored her poetry. So when I saw break your glass slippers I knew I wanted another taste of lovelave's writing. Thanks to Andrews McMeel Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Fairy tales have always been half story, half tool. We keep retelling fairy tales, keeping mining them for new and different lessons, ways of re-envisioning our own lives. I have really enjoyed the way amanda lovelace has used the fairy tale genre and its tropes and characters to aim for a certain sense of empowerment. Occasionally these readings may feel anachronistic or misguided, but often I find that they not only give me a new perspective of myself, but also of the original fairy tale itself. Take Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves. No scared Little Red Riding Hood, but a confident woman amongst wolves. lovelace doesn't reinterpret the fairy tales, but rather imagines the protagonist of her poems as being in conversation with them. 

This collection of poems is a back and forth between a Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother. As Cinderella moves through life, from celebration to disappointment, joy to pain, her Fairy Godmother is there to remind her of some of the deeper truths of life, different origins of power, new ways of living. Whereas some of lovelace's previous poetry collections have had tragic over- and undertones there is a more joyous tone to break your glass slippers. Some of the poems struck very close to home in a way I didn't expect them to. The message of self-acceptance and self-love is central to the poems, but the collection is preceded by potential trigger warnings. In and of itself, the title fo the collection is like an imperative. Break your glass slippers, break the molds and the expectations you have, and see what wonders can be found after.

I am a major fan of capitalizing words. It's the German in me, I think, to want to see every noun capitalized. amanda lovelace is the only one for who I will set that love of capitalizing aside. There is a sense of democracy to writing in lowercase. The first word does not rule the sentence. Part of what attracts me to lovelace's poetry is that it is so different from the poetry I have studied. There's no meter or rhyme to it, and not every poem works as well as the best. And yet, for me, there is a magic to lovelace's poetry, to the way the individual poems interact with each other and serve her overarching theme.  If you're looking for a Fairy Godmother in your own life, give lovelace's a try!

I give this poetry collection...
4 Universes.

I adored break your glass slippers. There is something very warm and inviting about lovelace's poetry that fits perfectly with my love for fairy tales and the fracturing and reshaping of fairy tales.