November book reviews

I opened the 8th day on my (traditional, picture-based) advent calendar this morning and realised I hadn’t yet posted my November reviews. Oops. Just a couple of books last month but I’m also throwing in a game – I can defend that choice because it involved a lot of reading.


The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

The Wise Man's Fear: The Kingkiller Chronicle: Book 2 (Kingkiller  Chonicles) eBook : Rothfuss, Patrick: Kindle Store
Listened via Audible. Also available in print and eReader formats

I had a look at other reviews before I sat down to pen mine. Wow – Rothfuss absolutely divides readers. As far as I can see, there’s a great deal of jealousy in the naysayers’ camp because they don’t believe a sixteen year old protagonist should or could be like Kvothe (according to Audible, this is pronounced like growth but with a k sound). They take his intelligence as arrogance, his independence as stubbornness and his naivety as a flaw. Have they never met a teenager before? They can be reckless and irritating… but because the plot flipflops between his youthful past and his current life (age unknown), Rothfuss shows the reader how Kvothe has changed. Present day Kvothe is often pretty critical of past Kvothe’s choices.

In my review of the first book in Rothfuss’ series (link), I compared the novel to fish and chips because it’s familiar, filling but not all that good for you. In this sequel, published four years later in 2011, I think Rothfuss shows how he developed as a writer. I complained that the women were superficially depicted in book 1 and I was grateful there was no sex as Kvothe seemed obsessed with boobs. The women in The Wise Man’s Fear are far more dimensional and believable. And there is a lot of sex – but it’s well handled (and no, that’s not a euphemism, I swear). It’s really part of the coming of age tale for Kvothe. One of the fae teaches him how to be an attentive lover, the Adem teach him how to fight and to connect spiritually with his own moral compass, mercenaries teach him how to be diplomatic… it’s the backstory of how Kvothe comes to possess a unique worldview and matching set of skills. Rothfuss also sheds light on how a lot of Kvothe’s reputation in this world is based on exaggeration and rumour – he isn’t as perfect as he is depicted. He is fallible and that’s a good thing; it certainly makes him more believable and likeable to me but also seems to rub other readers the wrong way.

What attracts me most to Rothfuss’ writing is his immense worldbuilding and the reasonably slow pace. The Audible book was over 42 hours (!) and apparently the paperback is over 1000 pages. I know that will deter some folks but I actually love a book that I can’t consume in a couple of sittings. Besides, it also means events and characterisation aren’t dealt with superficially, which is often a complaint I have of Sci-Fi and fantasy books.

Before I recommend this to other fans of the genre, it comes with a George R. R. Martin style health warning. Fans have been waiting since 2011 for the next instalment of the series. Typing Patrick Rothfuss Book 3 into Google will yield more than 1.8 million hits. At times, Rothfuss has declared he won’t be finishing the series because of the fan pressure but, more recently, the next book seems to have a name and a tentative path to publication (link). In the meantime, I’ve happily discovered Rothfuss published a novella based on one of the side characters and a short story about another – those will tide me over for now. And I can’t complain because I started book 2 with the full knowledge that there was book 3 drama – so I’ve done this to myself!

Rating ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍


Nightshade by Anthony Horowitz

Nightshade (Alex Rider): Horowitz, Anthony: 9781406390629:  Books
Listened via Audible. Also available in print and eReader formats

I’ve long been a fan of the Alex Rider; many of the young people I taught over the years got into reading curtesy of Alex’s activities. Nightshade is the 12th book in the series. Its predecessors have featured terrorist cells, bio-terrorism, cyber-terrorism, organised crime, space travel and nuclear power plants. There was somewhat of a small hiatus before the 11th book, Never Say Die, was released in 2017. I really liked it, despite its lukewarm reception, because it was a departure from some of Alex’s more typical adventures. It was less fantastical than some of the earlier books. At the same time, it felt like the series was coming full circle because the first book began with Alex investigating a family member’s death and Never Say Die was centred on a close friend’s disappearance. Because of this, I thought it was the end of Alex, with Horowitz wrapping up the series. Imagine my joy, when scrolling through Audible with a spare credit to spend, at discovering Horowitz had brought Alex back in 2020. Somehow I’d missed the news.

The first book was published twenty years ago! I’m definitely a different reader now: not only am I much (much, much, much) older, I’m also no longer teaching. I read this for myself rather than through the eyes of my students. Is it flawed? Sure. Horowitz often depicts Alex as a reluctant hero… and his reluctance in Nightshade is the dominant vibe. Alex grouses, grumbles and groans for most of the 448 pages (or 10 hours as an audiobook) in a manner which evokes the Harry Potter of The Order of the Phoenix. It was mildly irritating but I could live with it – not only is he only a teenager, he is being inconvenienced over and over again to save the world. Also, I felt the conclusion was a little rushed in terms of catching the culprit but, again, forgivable as Horowitz spends a great deal of time building the sinister world of the nefarious particular terrorist-for-hire group.

There was lots to enjoy: Alex accepts help from others showing character development; the book deals with manipulation and radicalisation; although the overall story features a lot of technology, Alex’s solutions and actions are low-tech, relying on his skills rather than gadgets. Overall, it was a solid entry to the series with ample potential for maintaining narrative threads in future books.

Rating ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍


Detective Stories Case 2: Antarctic Fatale by iDventure

iDventure Detective Stories: Antarctic Fatale - Crime escape room game  (1-6+ players) - Escape crime game for adults and teenagers - Cold case  files for everyone : Toys & Games
You can buy it online here

Essentially, this is an escape room in a box. Thank you to my cousin and partner for sharing it with us. You are provided with all the materials you need to investigate a murder. Here is the premise…

The world has collapsed for Claudia Moor: her brother, Martin, is accused of murdering the head of the polar station in Antarctica. Desperate, she turns to you – Martin faces the death penalty, and there is very little time to save him. Find out what really happened in the land of eternal ice and convict the murderer.


In the box, there’s a case file with 20 documents, including an autopsy, witness statements, images and so on. In addition, there are photos, evidence bags, a lie detector readout, an expedition notebook, a newspaper, a letter and a prescription.

There is no instruction about how to proceed or a dictated order… you have complete freedom in what you choose to do and when. We worked together to start reading all of the materials and making notes. There’s a handy investigation proforma included in the case file to help record thoughts – it’s the only thing you need to write on which means once you’ve solved the case, you’re able to pass it on to another person. It’s worth noting that you need to be able to access the internet to test out clues and theories, and to find additional information. A smart phone is sufficient. There are clues online, if you’re stumped. They are quite on the nose, however, and more or less give you the outcomes related to a piece of evidence. That would be disappointing if it wasn’t for the fact there’s so much evidence that getting a leg up with one piece doesn’t mean you’ve solved it.

My wife and I like escape rooms, although we’ve had to stick to virtual versions since March 2020. We also like games, reading, puzzles, and crime TV and movies. So it was a perfect blend for us. Although we did it in one sitting, at around 90 minutes, you could easily come back to it over a few days, like a jigsaw puzzle. You’ll just need to suspend reality and pretend that poor Martin Moor’s death penalty isn’t due to be carried out imminently.

Overall, we’d get another version. I’m pleased there’s the original case and a third case out, too. It’s like having all the bare bones for a reasonably good crime novel but you’ve got to put it all together. Sometimes you need to compare different things you’ve read, other times you’re hacking into emails or even cracking codes. There’s lots to do and plenty of tasks to go around for a larger group. If you’re new to escape rooms and how they work, this might not be the best way to first try them out. We definitely drew on lots of our experience of physical and virtual rooms to figure out what was required of us.

Rating ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

October book reviews: special edition

Well, October has been and gone… somehow, I haven’t finished a single fiction book. In my defence, I’ve been reading a lot of PhD flavoured materials but I wouldn’t subject you to reviews of books about Q methodology factor analysis. So, this month, I’m cheating and I’m turning in other people’s homework instead.

I’m lucky to be surrounded by bibliophiles… and I’ve invited them to contribute book reviews for October’s blog post. There’s so much to enjoy in here, you probably won’t want me to resume my reviewing next month. Ho hum. Guest reviewers were asked to tell me about their most recent or favourite fiction book: title, author, genre, summary-in-one-sentence, review-in-one-sentence and rating. Quite typically of book lovers, lots of them struggled to stick to the one sentence rule!


Reviewer: Helen (my long-suffering wife)

Title: The Finisher

Author: David Baldacci

Format: paperback

Genre: science fiction, fantasy, young adult – although I do reject that notion! (NB she’s 45!)

Summary: a fast-paced romp where Lord of the Rings meets Eragon but with a courageous, female protagonist whose wit is as quick and fierce as her loyalty, mind and body. (I mean, she followed the rule but it’s a pretty long sentence.)

Review: suitable for all those girls and young women who are described as bossy when what people actually mean is they have great leadership skills.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

The Finisher (Vega Jane) : Baldacci, David: Books


Reviewer: Suzi (my marvellous PhD study chum – find her on Twitter here: @susanl_hughes)

Title: Anxious People

Author: Fredrik Backman

Format: always paperback!

Genres: fiction, humour, psychological fiction

Summary: a botched bank robbery becomes a hostage situation in which a group of strangers are brought together, each with their own anxieties, idiosyncrasies and secrets. As the police work to safely resolve the situation, the hostages become unlikely allies and the power of humanity is exposed. (See, Suzi is a one-sentence cheater!)

Review: this has been my favourite book this year, and my favourite Backman novel to date. Revelations throughout to keep the reader alert and individual storylines that are resolved in a complex, integrated and extremely satisfying way! (Also not a sentence!)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️


Now, you don’t have to take Suzi’s word for it as Backman got a second hit from another contributor!


Reviewer: Sinead (my chum and fellow MA survivor – find her on Twitter here: @sineadfae)

Title: Anxious People

Author: Fredrik Backman

Format: paperback, borrowed from Lancashire Libraries (Yas queen, big up our public libraries!)

Genre: fiction

Summary: the story is centred around a bank robbery which goes wrong as the bank robber escapes accidentally stumbling into a flat viewing, resulting in a hostage situation. It’s then up to two local police officers to handle whilst they wait detectives to arrive from Stockholm. (Never tell a bibliophile she can only have one sentence, ha!)

Review: I really enjoyed the twists and turns, and it really kept me guessing. I went through a lot of emotions reading it, from laughing out loud to genuine sadness – I think that’s the sign of a good book!

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Anxious People: The No. 1 New York Times bestseller from the author of A  Man Called Ove eBook : Backman, Fredrik: Kindle Store


Reviewer: Emma-Jayne (my fabulous Aunty)

Title: Mrs England

Author: Stacey Halls

Format: Kindle eBook

Genre: historical, drama, fiction

Summary: atmospheric, tense and easy to immerse yourself in this tale from the early 1900s. The main character is born to a working class family in Birmingham, she bettered her chances and won a scholarship to a revered Nanny/Nurse training institution. A quiet character, Nurse Ruby manages to get through the training and lands herself a job in a comfortable home in fashionable London. However, a change in circumstance sees her having to leave the relative safety of anonymous London and she ends up in rural West Yorkshire.

Review: absolutely loved this book and will be reading her other two novels in the near future. I do love a book set in days gone by where the author literally takes you there with their well written descriptions of how life would have been. For most, life is obviously harder in this time period but, in some ways, seems a whole lot simpler than life today… certainly less gadgety! This isn’t the case for Nurse Ruby May. She has issues. This novel takes you on a character discovery and you know all is not as it seems. A classic case of judging people before you know their backstory and this book has a couple of great backstories. It kept my interest throughout. I was a little frustrated with a couple of the characters on occasions but this is par for the course, I think. On the whole, a really good read. Good characters. Great atmosphere. Good outcome. Oh, I just read the review should be one sentence. LOL, oops! (Yeah, total disregard for the one sentence rule!)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍

Mrs England by Stacey Halls | Waterstones


Reviewer: Sue (my lovely Mum)

Title: The Beekeeper’s Promise

Author: Fiona Valpy

Format: paperback – I still prefer turning actual pages. Plus, weirdly, I love the smell of real books! (You can see whence my love of books originated! I’m also a book sniffer.)

Genre: historical, drama, romance

Summary: a modern woman finds new lease of life in rural France after discovering the history of another brave woman.

Review: it was exceptionally easy to read but not in the simple sense. It flowed. I loved the jumping between time periods and the comparisons between Abi (now) and Eliane (past). I loved the characters, the tension and the history. (Ok, not quite a sentence but I did trick her into joining in!)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

The Beekeeper's Promise eBook : Valpy, Fiona: Kindle Store


Review: Holly and Rose (my epic cousin and her brilliant daughter – she is a founding member of my sisterhood-of-kickass-girl-cousins; you’ll hear from them all in this post…)

Title: My Little Night Light

Author: Claire Freedmand

Illustrator: Alison Edgson

Format: hardback

Genre: children’s book, bed time routine

Summary: it’s based right by the seaside, during the night. Featuring a battery powered soft-glowy light in the light house.

Review: I love it because it’s so comforting; it feels as though I’m telling Rose the story as if I’d written it. As if it were our perfect little life in a seaside village.

More from Rose’s point of view: the rhymes sound so smooth off the tongue for Rose. She properly chills out! She loves switching on the light herself. Flicking the pages over and over again and pointing to all the objects and animals – she can almost sound out words after reading it so much. Even words like rock pool. She particularly loves the last page because she thinks it’s her in the bed! Every time we reach the end of the story, I say “ahhh, na-night baby Rose” and point to her in the bed. (Seriously, Rose is perfect.)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️


Reviewer: Charlotte (also a member of the sisterhood-of-kickass-girl-cousins and correctly thinks animals are better than humans – find her on Twitter here: @ch4rmander94)

Title: Right Behind Her

Author: Melina Leigh

Format: e-reader

Genre: crime, thriller

Summary: book 4 in the series, Sheriff Bree Taggert is facing more painful memories as bodies are discovered buried in the yard of her childhood home, and the pressure is on to track down a brutal killer who has been free to roam her hometown for thirty years. (Oooo, she nailed the one sentence rule!)

Review: I am a huge fan of crime thrillers, and the Bree Taggert series provides just the right balance of mystery, drama, and just a pinch of steamy romance to keep readers engrossed in its pages throughout; if you want a story to keep you on the edge of your seat, this instalment will do just that! (Canny use of a semi-colon to stick to the one sentence, there.)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Right Behind Her (Bree Taggert Book 4) eBook : Leigh, Melinda: Kindle Store


Reviewer: Sallie (my awesome Auntyalso, I bet my aunties compare how I’ve introduced them!)

Title: The Midnight Library (I’m also a big fan – see my review here).

Author: Matt Haig

Format: Kindle eBook

Genre: Fantasy, philosophy, fiction

Summary: desperate girl feeling unwanted and unnecessary commits suicide and goes to the Midnight Library where she can experience all the lives she feels she could’ve lived.

Review: I thoroughly enjoyed the book, not my usual genre but it was very thought provoking, we’re all meant to live the life we live. (I’m saying nothing about which aunty followed the rules and which did not – hehe.)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

The Midnight Library: Matt Haig: Haig, Matt: 9781786892706:  Books


Reviewer: Eugenia (my chum and also a fellow MA survivor – find her on Twitter here: @TheMariugenia)

Title: Force of Nature

Author: Jane Harper

Format: hardback – borrowed from the public library! (Yas queen, more public library support!)

Genre: mystery, thriller, crime

Summary: “Five women pick up their backpacks and start walking along a muddy track. Only four come out on the other side” 😲😲😲

Review: I discovered Jane Harper a few months ago, when my local public library’s catalogue suggested her to me after reading a book from Riley Sager, I guess because of their similar writing style. Let me tell you that this was a one-way ride… After reading Jane Harper’s debut novel “The Dry” (which is absolutely brilliant and stunning – highly recommend it as well!), I couldn’t wait to immediately read the second book of her Aaron Falk series, “Force of Nature”as well. Just like with “The Dry”, Jane Harper haunts you with her incredibly addictive writing style, leading you to a non-stop and totally-worth-it one-seating read. The author has an impeccable way of narrating the story in short chapters that immediately haunts you and make you want to continue reading more and more. Unlike other crime and mystery fiction novels, Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk series novels are not predictable at all and at the same time they are both perfectly written in a way that makes them both unique and brilliantly narrated so their outcome is never what you had expected to be so far. “Force of Nature” is a fine masterpiece for mystery, thriller and crime reading lovers who although are passionate for these genres, can’t deal with very violent and explicitly descriptive books in order to avoid posterior nightmares, like me 😂🤦‍♀️. If you are looking forward to reading an addictive, shocking, terrifying and with incredible plot twists book, search no more: this is a perfect choice for you. (Yup, another bibliophile… we had no chance of her sticking to the one sentence rule either!)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Force of Nature by Jane Harper | Waterstones


Reviewer: Nat (also Natty or NATALIEEEEEEEEEE – youngest member of the sisterhood-of kickass-girl-cousins, who might not yet have forgiven me for convincing her to do an MA)

Title: The Book Thief

Author: Markus Zusak

Format: paperback

Genre: historical, young adult / coming of age, fiction

Summary: narrated by Death, this book follows the tale of a young girl growing up in Nazi Germany, 1939. Tale of childhood within the destructive environment of a world war. (That’s two sentences, Nat!)

Review: the last book I read, but not my first read of The Book Thief. It is well written, an absolute treasure. Probably one of my all time favourite books. (Nobody tell Nat that it’s been on my to-be-read shelf for ten years.)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

The book thief: Markus Zusak: 9780552773898: Books


Reviewer: Megan (I suggested I introduce Megan as my cousin’s cool friend but Nat said I should say “my cool cousin’s less cool friend”… just so you know, Megan!)

Title: Circe

Author: Madeline Miller

Format: paperback

Genre: fantasy, historical, Greek mythology

Summary: a retelling of the mythical story of Circe, daughter to the Greek god Helios, who after discovering her powers of sorcery is banished to an island where over the centuries she meets a number of famous faces from Greek legend. (I mean, it is a single sentence but it’s even longer than Helen’s!)

Review: this book is full of so many quotable lines thanks to Miller’s beautiful writing style and the complex characters brilliantly bring the world of myth to life. (Nailed it, Megan.)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Madeline Miller - Circe


Reviewer: Child 1 (eldest child of my spiffing study chum – go follow her on Twitter here: @PhDMumLife)

Title: Room on the Broom

Author: Julia Donaldson

Illustrator: Axel Scheffler

Format: board book

Genre: children’s book

Summary by Child 1: witch and cat! And loses hat! Yes! Cries the witch. Dragon roar! Scary and loud! Hee hee. (Sorry but he’s too cute to penalise for not sticking to the one sentence rule and he was still more succinct than some!)

Review translated by Mum: he loves the book. He loves the film version. He’s entranced by it, he recites whole passages word for word. But I cannot get a review type answer out of him! (When Mum tried earlier in the day, she sent me a video… as soon as she mentioned the book, Child 1 commented “it’s not bed time?” Love it!)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Room on the Broom : Donaldson, Julia, Scheffler, Axel: Books


Reviewer: Child 2 (youngest child of small-human-wrangler-extraordinaire @PhDMumLife!)

Title: Mr Magnolia (or ‘Nolia as Child 2 calls it)

Author: Quentin Blake

Illustrator: Quentin Blake

Format: hardback

Genre: children’s book

Summary by Child 2: ‘Nolia! Boot! Owls! Hoo-hoo. Owls. Boot. Look! Boot!

Summary translation by Mum: delightful rhyming story about Mr Magnolia, who only has one boot. (Mum nailed the one sentence rule.)

Review: Mum to Child 2 – “do you like Mr Magnolia?” Child 2 to Mum (excited) – “‘Nolia! Yesss!”

Rating: 🦉🦉🦉🦉🦉 (that’s five owl-hoots)

Mister Magnolia : Blake, Quentin, Blake, Quentin: Books


September book reviews

Yes, yes, I’m late. But I wanted to finish the new Thursday Murder Club before I posted. And I had to climb into the loft to turn on the heating, now that I’ve won that argument.

Three strong books this last month, well suited to the season of pumpkin spiced lattes, scarves and Ugg boots.


The Harm Tree by Rose Edwards

The Harm Tree : Edwards, Rose, Tomic, Tomislav: Books
ARC received from Netgalley. Available on Kindle and as a paperback.

I think in many ways, the novel is technically flawed and could be improved. There were some things I wanted Edwards to expand on and others I wanted her to cut back. But I don’t want to focus on that; I’d rather talk about the feeling it created, because Edwards has got so much right in her debut novel.

“Under my ribs, the hook of my homesickness tugs me north. I wonder if this is what the gulls feel, flying back to their nests in the spring.”

Rose Edwards

There’s something utterly immersive about the way Edwards wields language. Some of her phrases don’t just strike a chord, they perform an entire score that’s simultaneously familiar and new. There’s a great deal I really admired about Edwards’ novel: the Norse-inspired world is richly built, the characters have distinct voices, Edwards doesn’t patronise her YA audience and the female characters defy vapid, fantasy tropes.

I’ll definitely be reading future books from this author.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍


The Guest List by Lucy Foley

The Guest List: A Reese's Book Club Pick, the biggest crime thriller of  2020 from the number one best selling author of The Hunting Party: The  Biggest ... No.1 Bestselling Author of
Available now in paperback

I worked out all but one of the twists and whodunnits in Foley’s novel. As you can see on the front cover, Horowitz says it’s a ‘very clever’ book and my extremely smart chum, Suzi (go follow her on Twitter), says she didn’t figure it all out and enjoyed “the genuine surprise.” So I’m thinking I should become a mastermind criminal, detective or crime writer… because I’m rarely surprised by crime novels, TV shows or movies. Is there something wrong with me?! Anyway, my smugness didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the book.

I think Foley might have done something quite clever with The Guest List and I hope it was deliberate. For the first half of the book, I didn’t like a single character. This is usually a complete turn off for me because it means I’m not invested in what happens to them and it’s the main cause for me to give up on a book. But, somehow, Foley balanced this with a sufficiently interesting plot and setting that meant I persevered. Towards the end of the novel, there were a few women I’d warmed to but the men could literally all get in the sea – they embodied privilege, toxic masculinity and drunk, obnoxious, manchild behaviour.

Unlike some other reviews I’ve looked at, I liked the gothic, gloomy setting; it was a useful plot point (isolating a group of people of a stormy island), as well as matching the overall secret-death-revenge vibe . Although the clues were heavy handed and I’d solved it long before the end, I rather liked the slowness of the story structure, told by multiple people.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍 (I much preferred it to The Dinner Guest)


The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman: 9781984880994 | Books
Listened via Audible. Also available in hardback and Kindle

The plot is a little broader than the first book, including some spy stuff, ex-husbands, diamonds, the mafia, drugs and therapy. And a sprinkling of romance but not so much that it put me off.

I understand that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but there’s something quintessentially British about Osman’s series (we can call it a series now that Penguin is offering a pre-order of the third book) which really appeals to me. It feels like a perfect, autumn Sunday: a walk in the woods with the dogs kicking up leaves, a roast dinner, a board game, a pair of fluffy socks, a hot chocolate (or mulled cider) and a re-run of David Suchet’s Poirot on ITV. It’s familiar and cosy whilst offering sufficient twists to keep my interest piqued.

The characters are the biggest draw, I think. The second instalment provides more depth to their backgrounds and the multiple moral dilemmas offer greater insight into their personalities. I aspire to be even a little like Elizabeth when I pass through middle age into my golden years… Of course I’d like to be like Joy but I don’t think I’m kind enough!

It’s a big, fat yes from me. I really worried that offering up a sequel so quickly would mean Osman fell into the trap of producing formulaic stories but this couldn’t be further from the reality. I listened to the book via Audible and Lesley Manville is a stellar narrator. There’s also a bonus conversation between Manville and Osman at the end of the book, which I enjoyed.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️ (because it delivered exactly what it promised)

August book reviews

So, September’s here already and instead of thrusting us straight into autumn/fall (my favourite season), she seems to have brought a late summer with her. August was a skinny month for reading… just two books. But one of them was an absolute cracker. In fact, Fadugba’s novel has left me with the kind of book hangover that’s made it hard to start something new.


Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg

Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder: An Inquirers Mystery:  Willberg, T.A.: 9781409196631: Books
I read it in hardback and listened via Audible.

I chose this as one of my birthday books, using a very generous voucher from some chums.

The book explores Miss Brickett’s Investigations and Inquiries – a (literally) underground detective agency in 1950s London. When one of their own is killed on their premises, it sets in motion a number of interrelated investigations and we follow Marion Lane, a first year apprentice, as she tries to solve the multiple whodunnits.

Tonally, it felt like an Agatha Christie; if Poirot or Miss Marple had pitched up, they’d have been in keeping with the setting, characters and plot. One reason I chose the book was that Stuart Turton reviewed it so highly. I am a fan of his book, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, and thought his endorsement might mean Marion Lane was similar. Sadly, Turton’s novel was far more sophisticated and clever than Willberg’s novel. For instance, I wasn’t sure if Marion Lane was aimed at an older YA audience or adults. Also, the plot wasn’t twisty enough for a whodunnit, in my opinion. I guessed all of the outcomes – and whilst I enjoyed the sense of smugness that gifted me, I do prefer to be surprised by some elements in a crime novel.

It felt like the kind of book you’d enjoy reading on a wintery Sunday, in front of the fire, with a blanket, cake and tea. Comfortable and enjoyable but not exhilarating or challenging.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️🤍🤍


The Upper World by Femi Fadugba

The Upper World
I listened via Audible – it’s also available in paperback.

In an interview (you can read here), Fadugba claims that physics = maths + metaphors. I love this. I love love love this. And it’s exactly how he tackles the physics and time travelling elements in The Upper World.

As with every good book, I don’t want to give away too much of the plot for fear of ruining it. Essentially, Fadugba introduces two characters in two different timelines. In the present, we meet Esso, a young boy living in Peckham and trying to survive school, friendships, family and stereotypes. His mother gifts Esso a notebook full of letters and scribblings from his absent father, which explain the Upper World, physics, space and time. Once Esso begins reading it, he starts to experience unfathomable things. In the second timeline, fifteen years in the future, Rhia is a struggling football star from Peckham. She lives with a foster family and has unanswered questions about her past and her mother.

Fadugba takes us on a real and metaphysical journey as Esso and Rhia’s timelines collide – the result being the Upper World. At different points, the novel made me feel really clever (I’m getting it, I’m getting it) and at others, I felt really dim (I’m just going to reread that last section 389656 times). In hindsight (is that a metaphysical joke?), I wish I’d read a printed version of the book instead of listening to it on Audible. Don’t get me wrong, Tom Moutchi and Weruche Opia were exemplary narrators, but I think I needed to see some of the more complex ideas as ink on paper. That is literally my only criticism and, really, it’s a criticism of my own choices!

The Upper World ticks every box for me: interesting science fiction, very well developed characters, compelling premise, a plot that rattles along at a brisk pace, satisfying conclusion coupled with the hope of future books, a lack of unnecessary romance, and a strong level of realism. Whilst the present timeline is evidently set many years from now, given the level of tech the characters access, much of it is familiar. The depiction of life in London for young Black people, the inner city school system and the lives of people in the care system are all well-handled and not glazed over.

I’d like to know more about Esso’s father and the village of his heritage, given Fadugba clearly hints there is an acceptance of the existence of the Upper World there. But that’s a wish-list not a criticism! It’s also exciting that Netflix have picked up the rights for a film adaptation. Sometimes that makes me nervous because I worry they’ll ruin the book but I’m keen because the producers have been working with Fadugba.

I really can’t recommend this book strongly enough.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

July book reviews

How have we already passed the halfway mark of 2021? It wasn’t a very book heavy month in the Wonky Librarian household… the manchild was home from university, my wife was ill and I was back to the PhD after a leave of absence for surgery. July seems to have sped by with only a tiny handful of books.


Rainbow Grey by Laura Ellen Anderson

Paperback, available now

I’m pretty sure I first saw this shared on Twitter and was smitten with the very camp front cover so pre-ordered it.

Set in the magical Weatherlands, Ray Grey doesn’t have the same weather-based magical powers as her friends and family, who are responsible for the weather systems on Earth. Ray does have Nim, a cloud cat who frequently explodes, as well as a penchant for visiting the library. In essence, she ends up on an adventure to prove that she’s brave after being teased by some bullies.

It has everything you want in a child’s book: adventure, imagination, magic, moral questions, fabulous illustrations, friendship and a few twists. The humour is sophisticated in its range; there’s slapstick silliness (exploding, farting, cloud cat), word puns and sufficient tongue-in-cheek moments to keep the adults chuckling. In that regard, it reminds me of How to train your dragon by Cressida Cowell.

The relationships were well developed, for instance parents who worried about her and applied boundaries and consequences without being unnecessarily cruel. At no point was Ray pitted against her parents, something I often find in children’s books.

It’s written for 8 – 10 year olds but I’d argue younger readers would love it as a shared or bedtime read.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍


Beyond the Black Door by A. M. Strickland

42642042. sy475
Hardback, available now

Hmmmm. I really wanted to love this but I was left a little dissatisfied.

Kamai is a soul walker as she can pop into your soul whilst you’re asleep. She doesn’t learn how to fully hone this skill because her mother – her teacher – is murdered. Her mother has always told Kamai that she doesn’t have a soul like other people. No matter which soul Kamai visits, a black door appears, thrumming in the background; her mother has forbidden her to touch it or open it.

So, naturally, Kamai does both.

I really enjoyed the soul walking elements, socio-political constructs, friendships, familial relationships and setting. I was less enamoured with the romantic relationships and developments. Strickland explores a range of identities including gender queer, biromantics and asexual romantics – this is interesting and it’s not for this reason I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. I think I am becoming ambivalent towards stories where the romantic relationships are integral to the plot or where they are the plot. Kamai’s self-discovery is great and I enjoyed reading it. What I disliked was the notion that she was falling for the bad guy (even though there are complexities with the situation) and that it was her process of working through this that brought about the plot resolution. Also, the relationship felt a little like grooming and definitely a lot like manipulation. Strickland gave with one hand with brilliant queer representation and then took away with the other, through an attempt at dark romance that simply reinforced tired tropes of abuse and misunderstood men. (Nora Martinez’s review on Goodreads makes these points much clearer than I can).

Probably another criticism is something I’ve seen in another review and it resonated with me. There is obvious peril and danger in order that Kamai can be the hero. However, whilst the world around Kamai is well depicted, we’re not privy to the wider world. This means the threat feels less threatening and the doom feels less doomy because we can’t fully appreciate the world or lives at risk.

Rating: ❤️❤️🤍🤍🤍


Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

41081373. sy475
Hardback and audiobook, available now

I am able to appreciate and value a book without enjoying it, per se, and Girl, Woman, Other falls into this category. For instance, I think it’s a better work than its Booker Prize co-winner, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. Evaristo should have won, hands down, but I still enjoyed Atwood’s book more.

Girl, Woman, Other is a very clever multi-narrator story exploring British women of different backgrounds, classes, ages and identities. The way Evaristo interweaves the lives is incredibly satisfying and she delves into meaty issues: parenting, love, class, privilege, inequality, feminism, oppression, intersectionality, family.

I have a thought and I’m worried I’m going to mishandle it with words, but here it goes… Despite the deliberately relaxed approach to punctuation and the centring of different voices, Evaristo’s book feels less like a novel and more like journalism, an academic publication or a Ted Talk. It teaches and highlights and explores, using the characters as a vehicle for the reader to understand big issues without reducing them to clichés. For this reason, whilst the characters don’t feel like stereotypes, they do sometimes sound unrealistic or as though they’re lecturing. The dialogue that follows is uttered by a middle-aged, drunk, high lesbian:

We should celebrate that many more women are reconfiguring feminism and that grassroots activism is spreading like wildfire and millions of women are waking up to the possibility of taking ownership of our world as fully-entitled human beings how can we argue with that?

Now, I might sound like that sober when writing an essay but even when I’m trying to be pompous, I don’t often speak like that aloud. I guess it feels like Evaristo’s manifesto – and her ideology chimes with mine a great deal.

Here’s a terrible analogy. I love roast parsnips and I love roast potatoes. Yum. What I don’t like is thinking that I’m spearing the final roast potato, which I deliberately saved until last, only to discover it’s a parsnip. I’ll still eat it and appreciate it but, all the while, I’ll be wishing it was a potato. That’s Girl, Woman, Other for me. If I’d known it was a parsnip (interesting book) before eating it, I’d have been more satisfied than I was when I hoped it was a potato (fictional novel)…

Ah well, it made sense to me and it’s lunchtime so I’m hungry.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍

June book reviews

For once, no hot-off-the-press or yet-to-be-published books… these are all readily available, if you’re so inclined.


The Dinner Guest by B P Walter

The Dinner Guest by B P Walter | Waterstones
Listened via Audible when creating our garage bar

I picked this up because Audible pushed it as a recommendation and because I fancied a break from fantasy. The performances by Katy Sobey and Marston York were great; I would definitely listen to more books read by them. It’s tricky to review a crime novel without giving too much away so I’ll be sketchy and vague. The opening tells us that four people were at dinner and one is murdered – the rest of the book flits back and forth between the past and the present as we discover how and why this happened.

A whodunnit needs to be balanced between the plausible and the not-too-easily guessable. I want twisty turns but I don’t want them to be lazily convenient or predictable. I want to be shocked but satisfied. The Dinner Guest more or less achieved this: I had figured out whodunnit pretty early on but not the motive. Frankly, that’s probably because the motive is a little questionable and stretched.

Walter has cleverly created superficially likeable protagonists in a dual narrative style whilst hinting enough that you inherently know you can’t trust them. In addition to the overarching crime, Walter touches on class, privilege, family structures, LGBT+ life, parenting. There’s definitely enough substance to keep you satisfied.

I didn’t enjoy the last chapter. I’ve seen other reviewers call it over-indulgent which I think is a great description. The penultimate chapter, in contrast, was sinister and menacingly threatening; ending it there would have been perfect. The last chapter was somewhat too obvious and overt – so it diminished the impact.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️🤍🤍


Identity Crisis by Ben Elton

Identity Crisis by Ben Elton
Paperback – already loaned to someone else

This was recommended to me by a chum. It’s my second crime novel of the month, in which Elton explores identity politics. Set a little in the future, Detective Mick Matlock investigates a series of murders whilst trying to tiptoe safely around an ever-changing identity landscape, which he just doesn’t understand. The UK is a few years into its post-Brexit position and another referendum is on the horizon – this time England wants independence from the union.

I took the paperback with me on the day I had to have surgery because I knew I’d be waiting around. I raced through the first 120 pages as I waited for my turn to be knocked out. Then, as I was poorly for ages, I didn’t pick it up again for a few weeks but, once I did, I raced through the rest of it in two sittings. The racing wasn’t necessarily a reflection of pleasure so much as a) wanting to finish it so I could pick up my next book and b) not quitting so I could confirm my suspicions about whodunnit were right.

Identity Crisis is described as a satire. Hmm. Sure, it’s definitely topical with contemporary political issues – an important trait of satire. However, its depiction of life is a little too on the nose and realistic, rather than exaggerated, ironic or ridiculous as satire demands. The posthumous prosecution of Samuel Pepys as a serial sex offender is the only exception – it was sufficiently far fetched to be in the same country as satire, if not in the same county or town. But one example does not a satire make. Sometimes it feels as though Elton wants us to get on board with identity politics and sometimes it feels as though he’s poking fun at it for quick laughs. It left me feeling a bit lost. I have no idea what Elton is satirising…

Unusually for me, I’m going to defer to someone else’s review. Here, Emma Gert encapsulates exactly how I feel about the book. It was all a bit of a pendulum, swinging from extreme to extreme with minimal nuance. And I was very pleased to have finished it so the swinging stopped.

Rating: ❤️❤️🤍🤍🤍


The name of the wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind: The Kingkiller Chronicle, Book 1 (Audio Download):  Patrick Rothfuss, Rupert Degas, Orion Publishing Group: Books

Rothfuss published this back in 2007 and I’ve long meant to get on and read it. I think I have a copy on my Kindle but I opted for the audiobook instead. It’s a whopping 28 hours and I thought it would take me months of car journeys to get through it but I finished it in under two weeks because I kept reaching for it when doing chores, crafting projects, the washing…

As Rothfuss is fond of a simile (or seventy billion), this is like fish and chips: it’s filling, it’s familiar, it’s something you have as a treat because you recognise it’s not very nutritious and, despite that, you enjoy it so much you keep going back for more.

Fundamentally, Chronicler has tracked down Kvothe (who appears to be in hiding by running an inn) to extract his biography. The toing and froing between the present and the past is really enjoyable; it enables Rothfuss to tell lots of stories with their own narrative arcs, as well as weaving them together into a more epic, overarching story. In this first book of the tale, Rothfuss leads us towards something huge in Kvothe’s biography that’s somehow affected life for everyone – when the book ends, we still have to wait to discover what.

There’s lots to love about the book: Kvothe’s adventures; Rothfuss’ depiction of the impact of sustained poverty on Kvothe’s daily and academic life; the juxtaposition of his precocious intellect and his naivety; his kindness to those less fortunate than him; his willingness to make amends alongside his desire for revenge; and the exploration of truth in comparison to myths and legends. I disagree with others who say that Kvothe is a dislikeable character because he excels at everything (acting, music, magic, academic studies) and lacks flaws. I disagree – his main flaw is that he thinks he lacks flaws; he wants to progress because he’s capable without always recognising he’s not ready; he thinks his course of action or plan is the best because it’s his, rather than slowing down and considering potential consequences; he’s rash. And from these flaws, Rothfuss pulls drama, problems, resolutions and so on.

It drops a heart in my rating for Rothfuss’ depiction of women – far too much objectification for my liking, even when he’s trying to avoid it. Sure, in the retelling of his story, Kvothe is 15 years old and bound to be obsessed with women but I was pretty bored by the many references to “her breasts pressing against my arm.” Perhaps it’s a small mercy that there’s no sex. I know exactly how all the women in the book look – be it his mother, love interest, money lender or peer – which would be fine if Rothfuss helped me to picture what the men looked like with as much clarity.

That said, I enjoyed it well enough to immediately download the second book, which had this gem in the first chapter: “I’d heard he’d started a fist fight in one of the seedier local taverns because someone had insisted on saying the word utilise instead of use.” It’s this humour, I think, which kept me hooked on his writing.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍

May book reviews

Somehow May has run away from me. Only three books read but I’m already making up for it by reading two books simultaneously for the start of June.


Hide and Secrets by Sophie McKenzie

ARC received from Netgalley, due for release 22/07/21

I’m a fan of McKenzie having been introduced to her Split Second books, by a chum’s daughter.

The book follows 14 year old Cat as she navigates life after her father’s death, supporting her (recently) mute sister, Bess, and her troubled relationship with her mum. Just as another family move into the property for a summer project, Cat is informed her father is alive and in danger – Cat has to save him.

The book has everything a teen reader wants in a YA novel: mystery, thrills, some romance (it isn’t overdone), a relatable protagonist and a sense that the kids have some autonomy – in this case, they’re solving a mystery.

I’ve read some other reviews that complain the relationship between Cat and her mum is odd and that Cat’s friends wouldn’t ghost her in light of her father’s “death.” As someone who has taught thousands of teenagers, I found both situations utterly believable. In losing her go-to parent, it’s no wonder that Cat would retreat from the world. Naturally, this would strain her relationship with her mum and potentially alienate her from all but the most persistent friends. I mean, don’t get me wrong… it’s also convenient for the plot and premise because in seeking her father, Cat relies on herself and her new friend, Tyler (one half of the family who move in for the summer), rather than her mum or existing friends. It makes the sleuthing more insular. But convenience doesn’t mean implausibility.

I also note that some reviewers judge Cat’s decision making to be questionable at best and ridiculous at worse. Er, yup. That’s what 14 year olds do! I’m a long time fan of YA fiction; I’m about a minute away from turning 40 and I’ve still not outgrown YA fantasy, SciFi or drama. That said, I recognise I’m relating to the characters and plot through a haggard-40-year-old-lens. I think Cat’s choices are daft but I’m meant to think that. Youngsters in Years 7-10 enjoying Hide and Secrets will most likely resonate with Cat better than I can.

There were definitely sufficient twists to balance out the more obvious turns. And I also really liked Tyler, her sidekick; I wish we could have learned more about his backstory.

Overall, it’s great to have a YA book that’s actually aimed at a YA audience. McKenzie has created another brilliant novel that will comfortably sit in a secondary school library – unlike other books branded as YA which are too smutty or violent to avoid parental complaints. (I imagine this is a publisher problem not authors’ intent).

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍


I find my strength in simple things by Desree

Paperback, out now

I was fortunate to hear Desree perform at CALC 2021 as Day One’s social event. I was immediately blown away by her.

I am loud.

I’m trying to be heard.

I do try to have the last word,

because you didn’t listen to the first.

Black Girl Magic by Desree

She writes about identity, politics, love, icons and, even, hangovers. There’s nothing she can’t explore with her persistent and inventive language. I was hooked and had ordered myself and a friend copies of her book within minutes of her performance ending.

I love that the poems are peppered with QR codes – they link you to Desree performing live in different settings. It’s like getting two gifts: the written record and her lyrical, melodic, hypnotic performances.

With Desree, it doesn’t feel like a simple case of mic drop moments. It’s more like she drop kicks the mic, aiming hard and with fierce accuracy for the people at the back who choose not to ‘get it.’

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️


Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

eBook read on Kindle

I somehow missed the Armistead Maupin boat the first time around but I know my brother was definitely captain of the ship.

It was the May choice for The Information School’s virtual book club. And it was chosen as a palate cleanser following two gritty and pretty intense books (The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota and The Power by Naomi Alderman). The plan was to read something not too taxing and definitely a little nostalgic.

Well, I can say it made me very grateful to have met Helen in the times of going-to-a-pub-or-club. Long have I been smug that I missed the swipe right era and that I haven’t needed to navigate dating with apps, social media and t’interweb. It transpires that I also would have found courting in the 70s and 80s exhausting. It seems the entire cast of characters in Tales of the City are on one long, arduous campaign to you-know-what. And that supermarkets, bookstores, workplaces, cornershops, laundrettes were all legitimate places to find hook ups or partners, as long as you knew the rules. I probably channel far too much Mary Ann Singleton as I find it all too much! What if I just wanted to buy an avocado, pick up a paperback and wash my jeans?

It’s dialogue driven and episodic in nature, which made sense when I learned (thanks to book club) that it had originally been serialised. Maupin plays with sex, sexuality, drugs, family, race, class and wealth all through the characters’ relationships with one another. There’s something very soap opera about it – individual lives all cleverly intertwined with one another. I tried to listen to it on Audible as well as reading it, to speed up preparation for book club, but I found it was hard to keep track of all the characters in an audio format.

I enjoyed it and I’m glad I finally read it… but I’m not sure I’d read the rest of the series. It doesn’t hold any nostalgia for me as it’s neither my era nor did I read it when it was first popular. It’s hard to conjure up the same affection for 28 Barbary Lane as This Life, The L Word or Queer as Folk because I watched these at their peak.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️🤍🤍

April book reviews

I meant to put these up over the weekend but the Mayday bank holiday was dominated by a malevolent migraine.

Only three books across April but, flippydoodah, they were good.

I often get my greedy mitts on advance reading copies (ARCs). Last month, I had a complaint from an aunty who wanted to buy a book I’d reviewed and was grumpy to discover it wasn’t yet available. Oops. Moving forward, please find expected release dates in the image captions for each book.


Anna by Sammy H.K. Smith

Anna | Book by Sammy H.K. Smith | Official Publisher Page | Simon & Schuster
ARC received from Netgalley – due for release 27/05/21

Because of the nature of the story, this is a spoiler-free review so it will seem vague at times!

The book is set in the not too distant future, in our world following a global breakdown of society. Many people are nomadic, some live in small travelling groups and there are a few settled communities. As you’d expect, life has changed dramatically and for the worse. Women are owned by men, frequently branded and imprisoned.

Smith creates a three part structure, in which we see the protagonist in different settings and learn different things about her. We first meet The Woman (I won’t name her as it could be a spoiler), who was nomadic for two years, just as she is trapped by The Man in the wild (unnamed for similar spoiler concerns). This first of three parts covers The Woman’s imprisonment and abuse at the hands of The Man. It’s viscerally grim and hard to stomach. The first person narrative means the reader is able to watch the impact of such abuse from a front row seat. Smith doesn’t hold back: it’s harrowing and authentic.

The second section covers The Woman’s escape and resettlement in a static community. There is hope here but Smith also deals with the impact of acute trauma. Unable to relax or let her guard down, The Woman remains cautious and careful. The other community members are brilliantly depicted by Smith – they’re complicated, multi-faceted and never entirely innocent. Whilst reading, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own morality. In a dystopian world, what parts of myself would I be willing to sacrifice to survive?

The final section is taut. And that’s pretty much all I can say without revealing narrative points which would spoil the book for the next reader. I was worried I’d be disappointed with how Smith wrapped up the tale but I was absolutely sated by it.

Finishing the book, I was relieved and exhausted. My neck and jaw ached where I’d clearly been tensing as I read. I can’t say I enjoyed it – it’s not an enjoyable book – but I was utterly gripped by it. I read it across two days and the night in between was riddled with dreams of The Woman. If a book worms its way into your subconscious, the author is doing a lot of things right.

There are difficult topics covered in the book but they would be obvious spoilers. So my warning is that it’s not for the faint hearted and I’ll also give you some genre clues: dystopian, crime, drama, psychological thriller.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️


Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk and Nicola Yoon

Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton
ARC – due for release 24/06/21

First of all, what a powerhouse of writers! I’m already a fan of all of these wordsmiths so I was giddy to discover them all bound together in one book.

Second, you’d be forgiven for thinking I don’t like romantic storylines if you’ve read any of my other book reviews. Thing is, I have a problem with books which are advertised as adventure / SciFi / fantasy novels with grand political, fate-of-the-world story lines and transpire to be female-falls-in-love-with-bad-moody-male-and-fixes-him. Not only is the trope tired and riddled with toxic views of relationships, it’s rarely what I was led to believe I was buying into. Blackout is the inverse of this: it’s advertised as a collection of YA love stories which unravel during a New York City blackout… and yet, it is refreshingly much more than this.

“The blackout makes the city feel like it’s on hold, like someone hit a giant pause button.”

Each writer takes charge of a protagonist and a short story but they are connected to create one novel, with characters popping up in each other’s narrative arcs and well-rounded, distinct voices. It’s the ultimate multiple-narrators situation and it’s utterly convincing. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard, is one of my all time favourite plays because of this kind of mischievous cleverness. There’s a joy and recognition when characters from Hamlet appear in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s story. Blackout achieves this in a way that’s both entertaining and thoughtful. It seems effortless.

The effortlessness continues with the deft handling of different identities – love stories are portrayed from male, female, straight and queer perspectives. Without judgement. Without clunkiness. Without excessive sugar. It’s rich, clever story telling. Despite my obvious love for all things LGBTQ+ in YA literature, I found the most powerful story was “No sleep ’til Brooklyn.” Not only did Thomas incisively present bigotry with the depiction of the slappable teacher, she developed a lead female character who realises she doesn’t need to be defined by her romantic relationship to either of the boys in her life. She can settle into her own skin and learn to just be herself. I love this.

In her acknowledgements, Taylor explains that Blackout is the result of questioning “why Black girls didn’t get big love stories.” It’s a fantastic own voices book, centring and celebrating teen Black experiences of self-discovery, love and growing up.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️


For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten

For the Wolf: 1 (The Wilderwood): Whitten, Hannah:  9780316592789: Books
ARC received from Netgalley. Due for release 01/06/21 (that’s my birthday, by the way).

This is the first of the Wilderwood novels and Whitten has stated it will be a duology.

For the Wolf nods to Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and other fairy tales. Essentially, Redarys (Red) is destined to be sacrificed to the Wolf by virtue of being the second born daughter. It’s rotten luck given she is a twin. The practice is intended to keep the world safe from the Wilderwood and the Shadowlands, as well as potentially returning the Five Kings who have been missing for centuries.

Yes, there’s a misunderstood male and, yes, our protagonist falls in love with him. And, yes again, this would usually put me off. But although it’s a necessary facet of the plot – after all, this is rooted in traditional fairy tale conventions – Whitten hasn’t let it dominate the narrative. I enjoyed the depiction of other relationships, which aren’t as conventional. For instance, the Queen’s coldness towards her daughters, particularly Red, is quietly brutal. Why get close when Red is never destined to be hers because she’s ringfenced for the Wolf? It adds an interesting dimension to the characters’ decision making. Fife and Lyra, two inhabitants of the Wilderwood, have an unusual but refreshing bond:

“Well. Not like that, not really. It’s complicated… Lyra isn’t one for romance. Never has been. But she’s the most important person in my life, and has been for centuries now. That’s enough.”

I also really appreciated the way that Whitten depicted trauma and its aftermath. Sure, the Wolf is predictable in that he doesn’t deal with his trauma, broods and thinks he has to take on the burdens of everyone else as some sort of punishment. I’ve definitely read that before. But Whitten also shows the reluctance of people to leave a place of trauma even when the freedom is afforded to them. She shows characters righting traumas suffered by others, both through risky actions and introspective reflection. And, most powerfully of all, Whitten has a welcome take on self-forgiveness:

“You saved her.” Eammon’s voice was low, earnest. “None of it was your fault.”

“I don’t even think of it in terms of fault anymore.” Red hunched over her crossed arms. “It happened. I have to live with it.”

Probably the aspect I most enjoyed was the effort spent by Whitten on world building. It’s been a rushed flaw in some of the recent books I’ve read but Whitten takes her time. The spaces are many and complicated; we’re taken with Red as she learns the Wilderwood isn’t as she expected it to be. There are some passages that made me audibly oooh because the language and description is just exceptional. Whitten frequently turns a phrase that makes me envious. My favourite: “Red didn’t pick at the quiet.” So simple. Perfect.

The implication of the sequel’s title, For the Throne, is that we get to learn more from Neve’s point of view – the other twin. I am hoping that it doesn’t pick up where it left the story and that it actually goes back a little way so Whitten can show what was happening in the other places as the plot crescendoed.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍

March book reviews

‘Twas a varied reading month. Reading back these reviews, I realise I compare books a lot!


Stone’s Mistake by Adrian J. Smith

ARC received by Netgalley

There was a lot to like about Stone’s Mistake but also a few jarring issues. I think I tried to overlook the issues because I so wanted to enjoy a crime novel with LGBTQ+ protagonists.

It is fairly unusual to write a serial killer as a woman. The chapters narrated through Lollie’s perspective (the killer) were interesting; I enjoyed Smith’s handling of Lollie’s warped perception of what was happening. The lack of back story, however, left a huge gap in her characterisation – particularly as the novel starts just as Lollie’s actions are escalating. I wanted to know how she got to this point and how she’d been living before her killing spree.

Also, whilst Lollie was sinister and plausible, I didn’t find her victims as believable. The idea that a mature, professionally successful woman would immediately let a complete stranger she’d met on the path by her driveway stay in her home just because there’s snow seems… unlikely. Let alone the idea they have *wink wink* within a couple of hours of meeting. It’s like Smith’s depiction of women gives with one hand (a creepy, dangerous female killer) and takes away with the other (weak-willed, easily duped women).

The chapters centred on Morgan Stone (FBI Agent) are also problematic. It’s pleasing that Smith presents a strong woman. Also, the complicated relationship with her cop-partner-best-mate, Pax, offers a thoughtful insight on friendships which endure despite ideological differences. But the over-reliance on Morgan’s coffee drinking as a defining character trait was thin. And some of Stone’s titular mistakes are just ridiculous. Out of the blue, and without any kind of an invitation, she kisses a police officer outside a crime scene. Really? As a lead agent and profiler, she doesn’t disclose phone calls she’s received despite the fact she knows the Bureau can trace them. Really, really? I don’t buy it.

Did I finish the book because I needed to see how it ended? Yes. If it was a TV series, would I watch it? Probably. Will I buy the next in the series, I’m not convinced.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️🤍🤍


Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker

ARC received by Netgalley

Well, now, this is a Marmite book… and I’m a fan of Marmite.

It seems that the very things which put some people off, appealed to me: slow, creepy, cryptic, dystopian.

The writing style is deliberately languid, with a building sense of dread. They’re not in the least bit similar but the only other book I’ve read that’s created that stinging-nettle sensation of anguish was Affinity by Sarah Waters. Composite Creatures isn’t a horror story, per se, but finishing it was both disorientating and a relief.

Consider me very excited to see what Caroline Hardaker publishes next.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️


Raising Hell by Bryony Pearce

ARC received by Netgalley

Bryony Pearce’s Raising Hell feels a bit like the natural progression for anyone who enjoyed the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. Not the same mythical world but similar, more grown up and very much set in the UK.

I really enjoyed it and galloped through the book in just two sittings, frequently tutting at my wife whenever she interrupted me. It throws you straight into the action and the world, so you have to rely on the narrator, Ivy, to orientate you. It’s a great way to build affinity for a protagonist. I’ve not read anything else by Pearce but I find her tone and characterisation very appealing, so I’ll definitely be grabbing more of her work.

Whilst Pearce delves into magic, zombies, spell-casting and dead things, she really uses these to tackle a wide range of bigger issues like grief, responsibility, guilt and consequences. Choices aren’t straight forward and the wrong-doers aren’t always in the wrong: that complexity adds to the narrative. 

Ivy’s world is our world but different; I do wish there was a little more world-building. I can absolutely see how politics would have changed when magic appeared (particularly in the hands of teenagers) but I’d like to linger with that idea for longer and learn more about it. Within a fantastical setting, it could provide YA readers an insight into how political landscapes can shift and how national crises can be hijacked for political power. Given that Pearce has potentially left the rift* open for a sequel, I’m hoping we get to see more of this. 

What I have relished the most is the carefully balanced combination of action, gore and humour. In the same chapter, the narrator explains she “had less sense than a Year Seven in the last week before Christmas” and a few lines later describes “a bubbling hiss from the woman as air rasped in and out of her mangled throat.” This isn’t the goriest moment by a mile but I don’t want to spoil any delights for future readers of the book.

And if you need another reason to pick up a copy, there’s a talking cat.

*It’s an in-joke… you’ll get it when you’ve read the book!

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️


A Queer Little Book of Tales by H.R. Harrison

ARC received by Netgalley

This was quite a departure from my normal book reading diet and I really enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I’d seen some reviews with low ratings. It seems to be that the complaints of other reviewers are not particularly fair, so my review is going to tackle them head on.

Some people have expressed disappointment that the queer nature of the book (as advertised in the title) is primarily focused on the gay male experience, with some nods to gender identity. It irks me that writers who explore LGBTQ+ narratives are criticised for not representing the entire rainbow in their work. We don’t do this with heteronormative books so why is the expectation that LGBTQ+ books will be all things to all people all of the time? I can only assume it’s because readers approached the book with their own understanding of and hopes for the term “queer.”

A second complaint relates to the pace of the book – that it’s too slow. I agree it’s slow but didn’t see this as a terrible quality. It seems mellow and comfortable in its own skin. Harrison sets a pace that matches the nature of the stories as they feel like character explorations rather than action-focused plots.

A final complaint I saw was that the pitch is confusing because it’s like a child’s book but with decidedly more mature themes and descriptions. I think this is a narrow, Disney-esque critique. The fairy tales of old were mature in nature and often pretty grim. Depicting magic, creatures, love and fantastical elements doesn’t inherently mean a narrative is childish or aimed at children.

In addition to these points, I particularly enjoyed the tales which were interconnected but not always in obvious ways – it adds a richness to the story telling. Also, the blending of fairy tale and SciFi elements (From stars they fell) feels like an homage to the titular queerness: a little unexpected and different but brilliant because of it. Finally, and I suppose it’s related to the aforementioned slowness, I was pleased the short stories aren’t too short. It means there is ample time to get to know the characters and to invest in their experiences.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍


A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah J. Maas

A Court of Silver Flames (A Court of Thorns and Roses) eBook: Maas, Sarah  J.: Kindle Store

You know when you feel committed to a series and so you want to see it through even though it’s wavering? Like Game of Thrones series 9 and 10? Yeah, that.

I feel like the books are getting worse not better. I don’t normally provide a summary (because I like to avoid spoilers) but it goes a little like this: sex sex sex sex sex sex badly handled PTSD sex sex sex sex sex sex some healthy female comradeship sex sex sex sex sex superficially depicted trauma sex sex sex sex exercise cures depression sex sex sex sex women with eating disorders can still be objectified sex sex sex sex sex misogyny presented as feminism sex sex sex sex the victim is the apologiser sex sex sex sex sex predictable fantasy tropes about scent and mating bonds sex sex sex sex. It’s rammed (I think that verb was used for the sex at one point?) with mental health stereotypes. Fine, it happens in books and, as I said in the review of Harrison’s book, an author can’t be all things to all people. But, Maas has made the mental health of the protagonist the main point of the story. Nesta’s fall, trauma and recovery are the sum parts of the narrative and their portrayal leaves an unpleasant after taste.

I’ll provide an example, from the beginning of the book, to illustrate what I mean. Nesta has been drinking, partying and shagging her way through her trauma – failing to eat or look after herself. She is spending her brother-in-law’s money at taverns across the city (we know he’s rolling in money from frequent mentions in previous books). The family decide to invoke an intervention… not because she’s clearly crying out for help but because she is embarrassing them. The intervention is to essentially imprison her and cut her off from everyone. It grates because her sisters, in earlier books in the series, are given space, time and kindness to overcome their traumas. Also (and this might demonstrate my point more clearly), despite being very ill, this is how she’s viewed by Cassian when he’s sent to fetch her for the intervention:

He took the invitation to survey her: long bare legs, an elegant sweep of hips, tapered waist – too damn thin – and full, inviting breasts that were at odds with the new, sharp angles of her body. On any other female, those magnificent breasts might have been enough cause for him to begin courting her the moment he met her… His gaze kept snagging on her breasts, peaked against the chill morning; her bare skin. The apex of her thighs.

Sure, she’s unwell and on the brink of despair but take the time to mention how horny she makes you. Plus the lack of autonomy implied by him courting her. Ugh. And it’s the first of many, many, maaaaany times her genitals are referred to as her apex.

I have nothing against books which some folks might categorise as trashy. I don’t even mind books full of sex. They fill a void or a need. It’s just that the A Court of… series is pretending to be something else. Best way I can describe it is by comparing The Slug & Lettuce to Wagamama*. Pre-pandemic, if you popped to The Slug for some lunch and a drink, you knew it was going to be quick, probably breaded, definitely fried or microwaved and cheap. Lunch at The Slug is an honest celebration of 2-for-£10, sticky tables and beige-ness. It’s why you go and you know what you are getting. Wagamama, on the other hand, is a let down. It claims to offer an authentic, Japanese-inspired experience. Ha. I call bovine-faeces. Sharing seating with strangers and pretending it’s all part of the vibe when traditional ramen joints have limited (and often solo) seating. No thanks. Charging a tear-jerking fortune for what is considered a quick, humble meal. No thanks. In this comparison, other easy-read books echo The Slug because they own it. A Court of Silver Flames, on the other hand, is Wagamama: all branding, promise and delusions but very little substance or delivery.

(* other pub chains and restaurants are available)

Rating: ❤️❤️🤍🤍🤍


The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air): Black, Holly: Books

I listened to The Cruel Prince straight after I finished A Court of Silver Flame. Well, what a contrast. Maas thinks she’s subverting fantasy genre conventions, breaking gender stereotypes and depicting realistic trauma and recovery. Then Black comes along and shows her how it’s done. Boom.

In Black’s world, the faerie folk are sexy, sure, but they’re dangerous, corrupt and cruel – and they embrace these natures. The protagonist, Jude, is well aware of this. I really like how the differences between humans and the creatures of the faerie world aren’t just based on appearance but also on personality, motivations, behaviour and attitude.

Someone recommended The Cruel Prince to me a while ago and it’s been sitting in my Audible account for well over a year. I assumed, particularly after reading Maas’ most recent book, that it would be a typical YA, fantasy, girl-loves-bad-boy novel and had braced myself for disappointing mediocrity. Nope. It’s brilliant! The politics, scheming, murder, back story, societal structures all provide a rich and engaging narrative. Sure, there are elements of the book which firmly root it in YA, such as Jude trying to find her place and purpose in the world, but the character development, intricate plot and skilled descriptions make it a pretty epic read. Some of the twists are more obvious than others but there’s sufficient cleverness that it had me hooked throughout.

Something is up with the Audible recording – the sound quality kept changing to the extent I was convinced they’d changed the narrator. Apparently it was the same person so that was odd. I’ll be reading eBook versions of the rest of the books in the series to avoid this.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍


The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The Midnight Library

It’s a clever concept. It’s reassuring. It’s uplifting. And yet it might not be a good fit for everybody and that’s ok.

The Midnight Library is like one giant what-if exercise. It cautions against thinking there are perfect choices, or holding tight to unfulfilled regrets, or believing you’re the main factor in other people’s misery or misfortune.

I felt better for reading it. It resonated with me and kept echoing once I was done… a bit like the impact I felt from reading “The Travelling Cat Chronicles” by Hiro Arikawa. They definitely share a feeling even though they’re utterly different.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

February’s reviews

Two months in a row and sticking to my resolution to keep up with fiction reading. Yay me.

Let’s ignore that it’s already March and I didn’t notice or remember to hit post… and that I only finished two books in February.


This Golden Flame by Emily Victoria

ARC from Netgalley

This Golden Flame is an excellent debut novel that blends humanity, machine and magic. Essentially, a group of characters – with slightly different agendas – is thrown together by happenstance. They unite to take down a corrupt leader.

Through Alix, an automaton, Victoria explores what defines a person in a manner that is accessible and interesting. Alix’s existential crisis reflects the human condition and will resonate with the novel’s target YA audience.

Victoria refreshingly avoids romantic entanglements between the narrators, Alix and Karis. The book passes the Bechdel test with top marks! I didn’t pick up that Alix and Karis are depicted as asexual until after I’d completed the book, when I read more about the it. Frankly, it works whichever way the reader interprets the characters. Equally pleasing was Victoria’s matter-of-fact approach to inclusion and representation. Different cultures, faiths (if scriptwork is imagined that way), classes, sexualities and genders are effectively woven together as part of the characterisation and the plot.

The dual narrative was tricky… The voices of Alix and Karis aren’t distinctly different so the split first-person narrative seems unnecessary. Maybe this was deliberate – showing how Karis is different to other people and how similar Alix is to her? But then it feels like the narration often focuses on internalisation and perhaps misses the chance to depict Tallis and Valitia more convincingly. Victoria is clearly a skilled writer and I’d have enjoyed more time with her world building. Moreover, the book feels like it has three protagonists: Alix, Karis and Dane. Despite this, only two narrative perspectives are included.

Really, that’s my only gripe. Unless you count wishing it was longer so I could find out more about Zara and her crew! There was so much to enjoy about This Golden Flame. I look forward to Victoria’s future work.

Rating ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍


The Supreme Lie by Geraldine McCaughrean

I love this book cover. Also ARC from Netgalley.

McCaughrean writes across the spectrum, for children, teens, young adults and those of us who no longer belong in this category; it’s one of the many reasons I admire her as a seasoned and skilled writer. The Supreme Lie fits comfortably somewhere within the YA bracket. In terms of genre, however, I’m at a loss. Drama, certainly, with splashes of fantasy, dystopia, political intrigue and adventure. It feels art deco in period but simultaneously very modern. I’ve found this with McCaughrean in the past – she frequently straddles genres and styles with impressive grace.

In essence, the country’s leader ‘does a bunk’ when unprecedented floods bring chaos to a region. To hide the leader’s cowardice, her husband hatches a plot to pretend the leader is still present by dressing up the 15 year old maid, Gloria. As you can imagine, the situation gets pretty fraught. It’s quite Shakespearean – think Twelfth Night or Measure for Measure.

Having read other reviews – after finishing the book – I can see some readers have criticised McCaughrean for being a little bizarre or far-fetched. First, the bizarre is a characteristic I always enjoy in McCaughrean’s work. In The Supreme Lie, we are often treated to the perspective of Heinz, a loyal dog. His adventure, trials and worries during the flood are expressed through his internal monologue. It’s beautiful – not bizarre – to see canine loyalty given so much page. In terms of being far-fetched… pffft. I’d argue that having watched the last American administration coupled with having experienced the handling of 2020-2021 (stares hard at 10 Downing Street), McCaughrean has sculptured a plausible political landscape. Scheming public servants, environmental crisis, mass media scare-mongering, biased news reporting, power grabbiness and dis/mis-information: what’s far-fetched about that?!

Overall, it’s funny and dark. Often, for young people such as Gloria, the solutions to real world issues appear simple. McCaughrean illuminates that this isn’t the case but that decisions made with a strong moral compass will always be preferable to those steered by corruption.

Rating ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️