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
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.
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.
The Guest List by Lucy Foley
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.
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)
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
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.
The Upper World by Femi Fadugba
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.
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
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.
Beyond the Black Door by A. M. Strickland
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.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
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.
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
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).
I find my strength in simple things by Desree
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.’
Tales of the Cityby Armistead Maupin
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.
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
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.
Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk and Nicola Yoon
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 voicesbook, centring and celebrating teen Black experiences of self-discovery, love and growing up.
For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten
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.
‘Twas a varied reading month. Reading back these reviews, I realise I compare books a lot!
Stone’s Mistake by Adrian J. Smith
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.
Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker
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.
Raising Hell by Bryony Pearce
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!
A Queer Little Book of Tales by H.R. Harrison
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.
A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah J. Maas
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)
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
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.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
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.
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
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.
The SupremeLie by Geraldine McCaughrean
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.
I’m going to review books a bit differently this year… I want to keep up with more reading so if I commit to a monthly round up, and put it in writing, I’ll do it. Right? That’s how resolutions work? Right? Right?!
Shatter Me (1) / Destroy Me (1.5) / Unravel Me (2) / Ignite Me(3)by Tahereh Mafi
I bought these in 2017 (ish) with a birthday cheque from my wonderful in-laws. I’m pretty sure I read half of the book straight away and then got distracted by MA assignments. So I returned to them as my first fiction fest in 2021.
They’re dystopian, sci-fi, YA books. If you like the “Gone” series by Michael Grant or “The Darkest Minds” series by Alexandra Bracken, then Tahereh Mafi’s work will be right up your street.
I enjoyed the complexity of the characters; Mafi creates plausible conflict and politics. I am less enamoured of the fact the plot is often driven by romance. Suzanne Collins did this more effectively in “The Hunger Games” and even Veronica Roth came good at the end of the “Divergent” series. I feel that if this series was adapted for the big screen, it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test.
It wasn’t a difficult read and I enjoyed it. But my concluding comment is that I’ve just discovered that there are three more books and three related novellas and I haven’t rushed to buy them…
The Boy I Am by K.L. Kettle
I have three indicators of a really good book: I stay up far too late reading, I tell other people to read it so I can discuss it with someone and I have to take a break before I pick up a new book (AKA the book hangover). This hit all three.
I notice other reviewers commenting that “The Boy I Am” has much in common with Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Sure, I can see the obvious parallels often found in dystopian fiction but I feel it shares more with Alderman’s “The Power” or Blackman’s “Noughts and Crosses” series. Subverting the stereotypical roles of race or gender provides a new lens to view systemic problems.
In “The Boy I am,” flipping the power dichotomy of men and women shines a powerful light on the absurdity of the treatment and oppression of women. There are big teachable moments, like consent, body autonomy and democracy. But I really respect the way Kettle handled the more nuanced examples, that would filed under the everyday sexism category. The smiles. At home, teaching Connor about overt sexism was straightforward; we found it far more challenging to explain why give-us-a-smile-love behaviours and attitudes are toxic. Hearing Jude’s inner monologue as he navigates life with a catalogue of smiles is absolutely genius! It provides a recognisable lived experience for many readers and a new way in for those who have never experienced it.
They’re not really criticisms but I have two thoughts. The pace of the action rattles along full tilt even as you’re acclimatising to the world Kettle is building. I sometimes find that disorientating but I know other readers won’t. Also, the book predominately deals with a dichotomous presentation of gender; when you’re building an entire world in a single novel, I can see why. I would have enjoyed some more playing around at the margins but that’s just me. Not every book has to deliver everything to every reader.
Like Atwood, Alderman and Blackman, Kettle’s characters are not two dimensional. The protagonists are flawed, you can’t always trust the narrative voice and things aren’t neatly tied in a bow at the end. This is refreshing. And just as I’ve done with the powerhouse trio, I will be finding more of Kettle’s work to gobble and I’ll be returning to “The Boy I Am” for a second reading.
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman
I have a great Aunty who I can utterly picture as a member of the Thursday Murder Club. Any family members reading this blog will figure out who, if they give the book a try…
This novel is a kitsch gift of British idiosyncrasy, wrapped up in Christie-esque gift paper with a sufficiently intricate bow of twists and turns to keep you surprised.
It’s witty, clever, refreshing and, at the same time, familiar. Helen and I listened to it together via Audible and I was frequently frustrated when I had to wait for her to be available so we could continue.
As a whodunnit, I can’t really comment on the plot for fear of spoilers. The premise seems quaint but it works: a small group of mature folks living in a swanky retirement village form a club that solve cold cases. For fun.
The second book is expected in September and we both can’t wait.
The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe
This was another ARC from Netgalley. I’ve been really fortunate with my book options this month, so far… lots of top quality stories.
Ah. It’s one of those reviews where I can’t actually comment on the details for fear of ruining it for someone else.
What can I tell you? It’s a very clever YA thriller with an unusual protagonist. Very clever. Very, very clever.
Cleverness example 1. There are two timelines: the present moves nearly minute by minute and it’s tense; the past doesn’t always progress chronologically – sometimes it’s in reverse. It sounds complicated but it works effectively and Sharpe signposts the timeline so you don’t get lost.
Cleverness example 2. It feels pacy and action based but, when you reach the end, you realise it’s not actually plot-driven. Really, it’s a deftly handled character exploration that tricks you into thinking a lot is happening. Sneaky.
Cleverness example 3. It doesn’t end when or where you’d expect it to.
Cleverness example 4. Sharpe uses a lot of devices without it seeming forced: audio transcripts, therapy sessions, memories, lists, patterns.
Retailers are advertising it at readers 12yrs+ Whilst it’s chalked up as YA, I think any adult who likes this genre would appreciate the novel. Despite the age of the protagonist, I frequently forgot it was targeted at a YA audience. Moreover, I’d argue that a level of maturity is needed as the novel deals with physical, emotional and sexual abuse. So I’d apply caution when recommending it to younger readers.
Overall, it’s a brilliantly clever story. I know I said that already but I finished it four hours ago and I’m still sitting here thinking about its cleverness. Or, I should say, Sharpe’s cleverness: she’s aptly named.
Book: “The overdue life of Amy Byler” Author: Kelly Harms Source: Amazon Kindle and Audible Rating: 💖💖💖🖤🖤 Plot: Byler is readjusting her life following a cheating husband, her return to the workforce and an overdue existential crisis. Positives: it’s charming. There’s enough in it that I can empathise with and the characters are not flat. An easy read. Negatives: chick-lit just isn’t my genre. Some of it is a little trite, predictable and saccharine.
Book: “Diary of a confused feminist” Author: Kate Weston Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy) Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤 Plot: Kat is writing a diary to help her to do “good feminism.” It’s a cathartic coming of age story. Positives: honest insight into the lives of young women. It’s effortlessly inclusive, which is refreshing. It raises some big issues but handles them well to avoid lecturing the reader. Negatives: it’s slow to start and it took me a while to like Kat (Weston might have done this on purpose). Some of the humour was a miss for me but I’m unlikely to be its target audience.
Book: “Grief angels” Author: David Owen Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy) Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖 Plot: Owen has recently lost his father, Duncan has diagnosed depression, Lorenzo, Matt and Saeed are also dealing with issues, including relationships, confidence, grief, exams and body image. The book explores a group of boys as they navigate the route from adolescence to adulthood. Positives: the fable-like narrative structure is clever, whipping the protagonist from this reality into a fantastical realm that evokes images of Greek mythology. It’s thoughtful and unyieldingly honest about grief; moreover, the characters are complex and realistic. Whilst there is growth and development, there’s none of that Hollywood-happy-ending that can damage authenticity. Negatives: not everyone will get along with the to-and-fro of the narrative.
Book: “Last lesson” Author: James Goodhand Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy) Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖 Plot: I can’t really tell you without ruining it! Positives: the writer is a genius. This book joins the ranks of “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Atwood), “The Power” (Alderman) and “The Lord of the Flies” (Goldman) because they are all stories which echo and itch – refusing to leave my skull. Negatives: …
Book: “Undertow” Author: K.R. Conway Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy) Rating: 💖🖤🖤🖤🖤 Plot: Eila Walker inherits a mansion with a dark past around the same time that she finds out her own history and genetic makeup is unusual. Essentially, she is Lunaterra who don’t get along with Mortis and she’s discovered she’s in the middle of a centuries-old feud. Positives: until the scene described below, I did like the protagonist and how she viewed and described the world around her. Whilst it was a plot-device, I did also like seeing an alternative family set-up (Eila lives with her mother’s best friend following the deaths of her parents). Negatives: it’s pretty predictable for this genre. Likeable protagonist ✔ Range of sidekicks ✔ Forbidden love story ✔ Drip-drip-drip reveal of details ✔ Lots of money ✔ Parents / guardians conveniently out of the picture ✔ But it’s not the predictability that got my goat. I more annoyed about the handling of important real-life issues. For instance, “spazzed” is not an acceptable verb choice for how Eila’s heart reacts to her love interest and nor should I have to go into details about why. Moreover, when Eila is sexually assaulted, everyone (including Eila) brushes it under the carpet and blames the alcohol the young man consumed. Er, what?! “He has a low tolerance for beer” (so do I but I haven’t assaulted anyone whilst drunk); “he tripped and fell on me, and then got other ideas” (ideas that show he’s a sexual predator); “he’s not that type of guy” (he’s groping Eila without consent so he is that type of guy); and, from Eila, “I knew he was drunk and hopefully wouldn’t act like such a moron when he was sober, but the alcohol was clouding any decent judgement he had.” This last one is particularly grim. Eila’s character admits that she doesn’t know Teddy at all so how would she suppose that the alcohol was steering his behaviour? And I doubt, whilst fighting him off, mid-attack, that she would really concern herself with how he might behave when sober. The whole passage was irrelevant in terms of moving the plot on or developing characters so it seemed to only serve the purpose of justifying drunk jock behaviour, minimising the experience of victims of sexual assault. Not good in a YA book. After this passage, the whole novel was soured for me and I had no affinity with the author.
Book: “A court of thorns and roses” (Book 1) Author: Sarah J. Maas Source: Audible Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤 Plot: Feyre (pronounced Fey-ruh – cheers, Audible!) is a human who lives very near the boundary between the human and fae worlds. She is the sole provider for her starving family and when she shoots a wolf-that’s-not-a-wolf so that she can claim the rare doe they are both hunting, everything in her world unravels. She ends up in the fae world, prisoner in the Spring Court. Blah blah blah romance… blah blah blah mythical history… blah blah blah heroes and villains. Etc.! Positives: Maas is able to create whole, intricate worlds – like Trudi Canavan and George R Martin – allowing me to get lost in them and slightly peeved when I have to leave them behind. I can predict small plot developments and twists but, on the whole, she’s adept at surprising me and imagining ideas beyond my scope. I am looking forward to reading more of the series and finding out more about the world beyond the wall. Negatives: in a few ways, it’s quite similar to her other series, Throne of Glass. I suppose that’s not really a negative as one of those similarities is headstrong, independent, female protagonist. The problem with first-person narrative is that I can’t ever escape the romance. It would be nice to read a book where that isn’t a main thread or integral part of the plot.