Claire is not a Librarian, she’s an ex-human book wrangler. And in Hell’s library that’s an extreme sport.
Hell’s Library is vast; filled with all the books that have been dreamt up but left incomplete or never written. It’s a treasure trove of abandoned possibilities which may yet come to fruition. But every so often the books get restless of waiting and they wake up. Claire’s job is to keep them from escaping before their time and unleashing chaos; a job which has kept her so busy that she’s forgotten that she also protects this pot of powerful imagination from some of the worst denizens across the afterlife dimensions. Demons who would do anything to get their hands in the raw power contained on her shelves.
Such is the set up for The Library of the Unwritten, the first in a new fantasy series by A.J. Hackwick with a sizzling concept.
Claire and her library assistant, ex-muse Brevity, are perfect as the leads supported by nervous newbie demon Leto. Full of doubt, regrets and self-recrimination yet having to find some self-awareness and fight through their own issues to protect the inter-dimensional library system from apocalyptic upheaval.
In fact, Claire and her Library team were so charismatic and engaging that it left other characters in the dust. Ramiel and the hubris of angels was the weak link in the story for me, as I found myself desperate to get past those chapters which didn’t follow Claire. But his arc leaves him in a place that is more promising for future instalments. Hero as well spends much of his development in what feels like a set up for future books, and again one that I’m excited to see the pay off.
Despite the glamourous inter-dimensional hopping through afterlives old and older, it’s the more personal character moments and stories that give this story its heart, and a surprising amount of emotional resonance in a twist which you think you see coming, but then it ducks and weaves through its own narrative self-awareness to become something new. And better.
As a new series it’s a little slow to get going; there’s a lot of complex and very big ideas to establish and explain before the story can really start to run, but once it does find itself it soars, promising a thrilling series ahead. While I may have struggled a little to begin with, by the end I was pre-ordering the next in the series (and rather excited to find it’s out later this year).
And again I’m a sucker for anything to do with rebellious and subversive librarians!
The Library of the Unwritten is published today (11 February 2020) by Titan Books
Take a dash of Austen social comedy, the trappings of the European aristocracy and the complications of family drama and first love and throw them into a space ship some 200 years in the future and you’ve got the sumptuous romance adventure The Stars We Steal by Alexa Donne.
Following a sudden global ice age that renders Earth uninhabitable, the survivors of humanity are orbiting the planet on an ageing and crumbling fleet. Against a backdrop of rising insurgency and depleting resources, the rich and privileged are coming together for their once every four years engagement ritual – the Valg – a month of intense dating events intended to shore up the wealth and power of those at the top of the social hierarchy.
Princess Leo Kolburg us reluctantly taking part in order to save her family’s ailing ship, but love is the last thing on her mind, until her first love and once fiance Elliot Wentworth appears with a new found fortune, a mysterious business venture and a large chip on his shoulder, immediately becoming the most eligible bachelor of the season.
As a romance novel the key thing I look for is the chemistry between the main romantic pairing and Leo and Elliot had it in spades. Elliot is prickly to say the least, and Leo is privileged and ridiculously blind to what’s going on around her. Both of these are recognisable Austen character types (not a surprise as The Stars We Steal takes Persuasion as its narrative template.) But where other books which try to replicate these character tropes end up making their leads unlikeable and irritating, Donne manages too walk that fine line where, despite their flaws, you genuinely root for Leo and Elliot to overcome their differences and misunderstandings and find their way back to each other.
That some side characters and their feelings may be treated as disposable in this journey is too often the case with romance stories; they are there as obstacles after all, but Donne manages to keep this on the right side of palatable with some deft character choices.
What was a little more jarring was the contrast between the archaic social rules, the traditions of yore and the grandiose space elements of sci-fi. Even with character acknowledging this and commenting on the old fashioned-ness of it all, these elements didn’t gel as much as I could have wished for. But I love Austen and I love sci-fi so I was disposed to forgiving this, suspending disbelief and just enjoying the ride.
And it was a pretty enjoyable ride. I cared about the characters, the end was satissfying and the chemistry was tangible. A definite read for fans of romance; think the 100 meets Jane Austen.
Never having read any of the Amir Sisters’ series before, despite being an avid fan of
author Nadyia Hussain’s Bake Off career, I was nervous that I would be playing catch up with this – the third in the series. But I shouldn’t have worried.
Told from the point of view of Mae Amir, the youngest daughter of a large Bengali family The Hopes and Triumphs of the Amir Sisters is a humorous, heartwarming romp through family life as Mae tries to figure out her place in the world and her new position in the family she is tentatively spreading her wings from.
Struggling with loneliness and self-confidence issues Mae finds herself starting to make choices she is not always comfortable with but unable to turn to anyone for support – as she is usually the foundation they lean on – a situation which is no longer tenable as Mae grows up, and yet no one seems to have noticed.
There’s a lot going on in the story, and references made to previous stories, but I never felt lost. Despite being part of an ongoing series, Hopes and Triumphs made an excellent stand alone book (although I am keen to catch up on the rest of the series now) and Mae was a balanced compassionate heroine with an identifiable struggle of feeling overwhelmed with finding her own identity outside of a family of very big personalities.
But despite the apparent lightness of the story it doesn’t shy away from more serious subject matter –racism, unnoticed prejudices, micro-aggressions and the dangers of sexual assault, are all touched on as well as the cultural barriers Mae faces to being allowed to spread her wings and explore the bigger world beyond the Amir households.
It’s a lovely, funny, satisfying story with loveable, fully realised characters and genuine relatable family drama. Can’t wait to read the rest of the series!
Ben and Bella appear to be the perfect couple. Ben is nursing a broken heart after getting out of a long term relationship, and then flirty, sexy Bella pops up in his life and things just seem to click. At least on paper. In reality the red flags start to pop up and Ben finds his life spiralling and his family being torn apart. But it’s just a coincidence. Right?
There are elements of She by HC Warner which really merit a gripping thriller. The complexities of domestic violence committed against men and the hard time people around them have accepting it for instance warranted a more in depth look at the patriarchal constructs that prevent men accessing support and the terror that can arise from unexpected places. But honestly that’s trying to wring something out of what is essentially a competent but ultimately fairly boring thriller.
She is a colour by numbers tale drowning under adjectives and misogynistic clichés. Women are continually compared and pitted against each other. Bella’s psychosis is not really depicted as anything other than over the top vengeance, and despite nearly two thirds of the book being written from a woman’s point of view, the female characters never felt like anything more than 2 dimensional characters fighting over some men. One of whom really wasn’t worth fighting over.
The story is broken into three parts, the first told from Ben’s point of view, and the second a repeat from Bella’s point of view, the third is told from a more omniprescent point of view but at least goes beyond the plot points of the first two chapters. While the shifting viewpoints provides some interest, you’ll likely spot the bulk of the twist coming by the end of the first section and from that point it does get very repetitive, and increasingly desperate to try and throw some sort of scandal in, to the point that it jumps the shark somewhat.
The shiny brightly coloured cover of Followers by Megan Angelo hides beneath it a dark tale of corruption and the skewing of reality in a neat representation of the social and moral questions the book asks with regard to Social Media.
Followers juxtaposes two different timelines: one in 2015 where two young ambitious women, Orla and Floss, find common ground in the creation of a social media personality and become intoxicated with the power and notoriety it brings; the second is much further in the future, in 2051 after a mysterious world-changing event known as the Spill. Marlow has grown up in the public eye, in the media city of Constellation; a place reminiscent of the Truman Show but with full awareness by the participants. Here volunteers have stepped up to be watched and commented on by the American public in a fully pervasive government run form of reality TV. The media world has broken into extremes since the events of the Spill – professional content makers and those that avoid it completely. The general public no longer trusts the internet and is generally much more tech averse causing a desperate Government to go to extremes to encourage them to make use of the state run services.
Marlow entered Constellation as a child with her parents and has only faint memories of life before. But a new “story line” she is presented by her network starts her asking questions about what constitutes her life, what she wants from it and what the past, that her mother has worked so hard to run from, is, setting her on a quest to find answers.
Harper Collins is describing Followers as 1984 for the Instagram generation. It’s not a bad analogy, though like the social media followers its’ heroines have to navigate, it remains to be seen if Followers will stick around long enough to warrant the comparison.
What seems a more fitting comparison is an episode of Black Mirror; very well written, unsettling and horrifying; a stark demonstration of the dystopian paths we risk with our reliance on different forms of technology and obsessions with social media.
It’s a complex plot which is neatly laid out so that you know there is a link between the two timelines, but you’re never entirely sure of what that link is until the book wants you to know.
None of the characters should be likeable. Floss is narcissistic, manipulative and shallow; Orla is at times insipid, always desperate and fairly selfish and Marlow, as a result of her upbringing, struggles to demonstrate any sense of agency or opinion. They have all done bad things, from the carelessly uncaring to the downright unforgiveable, and yet these women are compelling in their flaws and complexity. We all know hundreds of people like Floss and Orla (although the combination of the two women is clearly toxic), we may even have acted like them from time to time, and so even in the depths of their mistakes they are identifiable. Marlow is less recognisable as her storyline is a warning of possible consequences – but one which many children growing up now may face (albeit in a milder form) as they encounter their parents’ social media presence.
It’s an engaging and thought –provoking read but also highly entertaining.
Followers by Megan Angelou is released today: 9 February 2020
I’m stuffed on turkey, sleepy after all the excitement of Christmas and ready to try and snooze and eat my way into oblivion over the next couple of weeks of holidays; so of course my thoughts turn to lying under a duvet with books and what to read next. Before I jump into my TBR pile for 2020 though I’m doing the obligatory, ultra-cool, totally-not-overdone round up of my reading year.
This is not a round up of best books which have been published this year; although some of them have been. I can’t even dream of writing that post because I haven’t managed to read everything that’s been published this year (I’m such a slacker.)
Instead this is a list of the best books I’ve read. Some of them are years old and I’m waaay late to the party. Some of them were released this year and as my first flush of enthusiasm fades I may scale back my gushiness. But all of them I’ve raved about to people, bought as presents for people, foisted them on people even as they insist they’re not looking for anything to read (annoying I know. It’s a flaw, but a useful one as a book blogger!) and generally not shut up about. I really would recommend you track these down and give them a shot.
Unlike my usual monthly round ups I’ve not listed these in order of preference but instead tried to group them as genre, and I’ve not critiqued them (you can look back at round-ups if you really want to, but they’re all five stars, high four stars at a stretch). My last caveat is that these are the absolute tops of what I’ve read but I’ve read loads and loads of other excellent stuff, I just couldn’t include it all.
What have been your books of the year? Have you read any of these and did you like them?
When they call you a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Asha Bandele, Angela Y.Davis
The tale of the birth of a movement, When They Call You a Terrorist details the horrifying and very personal account of what led Khan-Cullors to help found the Black Lives Matter movement. From the start it makes it clear why the movement was, and is, so vital and essential for Black People around the world as they campaign to be able to feel safe in their day to day lives. For those of us who have the privilege of not facing this level of aggression and oppression in the smallest of our interactions, and who can call for help without fear of repercussions, this is truly eye opening and terrifying. But shows how that fear was utilised by a group of women who believe a better future for them and their families is possible.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Stepping inside a library for the first time in years, Orlean’s interest was peaked and she began an investigation into the inner life of the Los Angeles Public Library which had suffered a catastrophic fire. Part history lesson, part sociology study, it’s hard to describe how compelling a tale this is. If you thought librarians were society’s heroes before this will just solidify that opinion. And it’ll remind you of the full extent to which a library is a vital part of every community.
Young Adult Fiction
The Burning by Laura Bates
Absolutely everyone who is and ever was and has anything to do with teenagers must read this, a novel which brings the realities and dangers of life growing up with social media into sharp relief. Anna and her mother have escaped from a past to a new school, new job and a new life in rural Scotland. But as Anna tries to rebuild her life and her trust in people, her past is looking to track her down. All the while she is undertaking a project on a young girl, Maggie, who used to live in her house a few hundred years previously and was burned as a witch. The similarities between Maggie and Anna’s persecutions are horribly real, all that’s changed is the methods with which they are enacted.
Sonny and Me by Ross Sayers
Sonny and Daughter are two 15 year old boys trying to survive in their fourth year when their one and only favourite teacher vanishes mysteriously. Of course they can’t let this lie, how will they possibly pass National 5 maths without Miss Baird to help them out? So off the boys set to find out where she is and when she’s coming back. What they discover is a web of gossip, intrigue and murder that they were entirely unprepared for, but handle with wit and a twinkle in their eye. This is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long long time and really will have you laughing from page 1, but it’s also full of heart and warmth and kindness.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Star is a teenager from a mostly black neighbourhood who goes to a mostly white private school. As such she feels she is having to live two different lives and regularly switch between two different versions of herself in order to fit in to both her worlds. She begins to question this when for the second time in her life she sees a close friend shot and killed in front of her. This time by the Police. While trying to process her trauma she gets caught up in both the activism from her home town and the subtle and not so subtle racism from her school life, all while trying to come to terms with the duality of her existence. It’s a harrowing read about experiences that far too many children are having to traverse.
Toffee by Sarah Crossman
Toffee is the intergenerational tale of a friendship between a runaway who is emotionally lost; Allison and a woman with dementia; Marla. They are two lost souls who find a home in each other. After Allison is mistaken by Marla as Toffee, she decides to take advantage of that in order to get a warm bed and maybe survive another night. What develops is a friendship that allows Allison to begin to heal and Marla to regain some of the dignity and passion that have been stripped from her. Toffee is written in beautiful lyrical verse and yet contains miles of emotion and some of the best of humanity.
The Giver of Stars by JoJo Moyes
The Giver of Stars will either be heartwarming or Twee depending on your viewpoint. It follows the story of 5 women who establish and run a horseback library based in remote hills of Kentucky. As well as showing the different acts of heroism stemming from the librarians, it shows them as they navigate their way through small-town politics and dead marriages to find true friendship in each other. It was a real passion project for Moyes based on a photo of the real-life horseback library and I adored it.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Two half sisters who have never met, Effia and Esi, end up leading very different lives, with Effia marrying James Collings the British Governor in charge of Cape Coast Castle and Esi being taken prisoner in the dungeons of the same castle. What follows is an epic sprawling inter-generational tale following the two family lines as the face racism, prejudice and superstition at home and abroad. Each chapter follows a new descendant of the family. It’s heartbreaking and harrowing and captivating and utterly unputdownable.
Things in Jars by Jess Kidd
Bridie Devine is a Victorian era detective, interested in figuring out how things work and helping people that most would overlook. Having risen from an Irish Street rat to a doctor’s apprentice and now an independent woman who advocates for the less privileged, Bridie’s reputation is still recovering from her last case. Which is why a Baron with something…fishy to hide feels confident that she’ll keep his case confidential. So Bridie and her 7 foot tall ferocious maid, Cora get drafted in to find Christabel Berwick; a missing child that no one was supposed to know even existed, and who has a little air of Kirstin Dunst’s “butter wouldn’t melt/oh so vicious” character from Interview with a Vampire about her. Oh and Bridie absolutely doesn’t believe in anything inexplainable or supernatural. She DEFINITELY doesn’t believe in ghosts, and definitely isn’t developing feelings for the really handsome half dressed spectre from her past who just so happens to be following her everywhere.
What Jess Kidd has produced here is a book full of warmth, heart and genuinely hilarious quirks.
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
800 pages of queens and prophecies and dragons, and secret agents, and love. I have heard many many people say that the size of the book intimidated them, but the story flows so naturally, the characters are so compelling and the adventure so careering that you will never notice the length of this book, and will likely grieve when it does end. It’s phenomenal and does so without having to lean on gratuitous violence or misogyny. Ead and Sabran’s blossoming relationship is one for the ages.
Nevernight by Jay Kristoff
Mia was born into a highborn family, with a life of wealth and privilege and a warm and loving family. However her father attempts a failed rebellion, he is summarily executed and her family imprisoned. With the help of her rage and a shadowy familiar named Mr Kindly Mia manages to escape and finds herself seeking out The Red Church, in order to graduate as an elite assassin called a Blade and exact her revenge on those that destroyed her family.
From page one this is engrossing, and brutal and unforgiving and utterly addictive.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Upon returning home for a funeral, the narrator starts to remember strange events which occurred 40 years earlier, including a malevolent spirit and the mysterious girl next door who offers to help him bind it. It’s impossible to describe what follows without giving too much away but it’s haunting and universally awestriking. And weird. But beautiful. This is the book that has ignited m love for Gaiman’s writing.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Vasya is the youngest daughter of a rural Russian Boyar named Pyotr, thought both cursed and gifted. Her birth led to her beloved mother’s death but she also wields extraordinary powers inherited from her maternal grandmother – including the ability to speak to spirits and creatures of folklore. Unfortuantely her stepmother (who shares her gift but believes she sees demons) condemns Vasya as a witch and shuns her and the culture that the creatures of folklore come from. Vasya’s gifts soon draw the attention of greater and more powerful spirits.
It’s a hauntingly beautiful tale based in Russian folklore and exploring Vasya’s journey to discover and accept herself.
The Binding by Bridget Collins
In a world where books are taboo as they are created by binding people’s undesired memories, which are then prayed on and traded by the elite, Emmett and his sister lead a sheltered life in a rural farm. Then one day Emmett is summoned to be a bookbinding apprentice – a profession and world he knows nothing about. Then one day he finds a book with his name on it.
This is a love story. One that is passionate and haunting and terrifying and where Emmett and Lucien have to fight prejudice and members of the powerful elite in order to find happiness.
Circe by Madeline Miller
The epitome of there are two sides to every story, Circe tells the story of a banished Goddess who was a side villain in the Odyssey, but from her point of view. Events play out just as they did in the Odyssey but from a very different perspective which follows Circe from her position at the bottom of the divine social ladder to her own ownership of herself as a person. A beautiful reimagining of a classic which makes it much more accessible and feminist for modern day audiences.
The “I don’t know what to call it” genre
I wanted you to knowby Laura Pearson
If you want an uncontrollable tearjerker this is the one for you. Jess is a single mother who is at the end stages of terminal breast cancer, and her daughter, Edie is still a baby. So Jess sets about writing Edie a series of letters telling her how to love, how to forgive and how to move on. This is juxtaposed with Jess’s goodbyes to everyone around her. It is heartbreaking and powerful and cruel – the very nature of cancer. And completely unforgettable.
My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
A blackly comic look at the depths and limitations of family loyalty between two sisters in Lagos. Ayoola is charming, manipulative and deadly. Korede appears average by comparison but is fiercly protective and obsessively organised. As sisters they have a bond forged in the heat of an abusive childhood and they make a deadly efficient team, but what happens when they set their sights on the same man and can their relationship surivive?
Sal by Mick Kitson
It’s hard to define which genre Sal sits in; it could fit in so many. Sal and her sister have been living in an abusive home where their needs and welfare are neglected at best, and at worst…well: Sal is driven to plan an escape in order to preserve her sister. The story follows Sal and her sister as they find their feet, independence and general freedom in the Scottish wilderness, while also flashing back to the lives they escaped. Despite the circumstances it is hopeful and joyous in places and Sal is a compelling heroine who is determined to overcome the obstacles and lack of choice that were her lot in life.
The Lost Onesby Anita Frank
In 1917 Stella Marchem returns from nursing in the Great War, traumatised and having to come to terms with the horrific loss of her childhood sweetheart and fiancé. Steeped in a deep depression, Stella is given the mission of attending to her lonely and newly pregnant sister, Madeline, who currently lives with her mother-in-law and a handful of servants in an oppressive and chilling country manor. And so off she sets with her maid, Annie Burrows; a young girl who makes everyone around her nervous and who seems to on the knife edge of madness. But Madeline is facing more than simple loneliness; from running footsteps to sudden chills; misplaced items and sobbing in the night.
Is it hormonal hysteria, or is there something more sinister at work?
Charlie Miller is a woman on the run from her past. She’s just been released from prison for perverting the course of justice, but is also having to come to terms with her own guilt and the abuse she suffered at the hands of ex-boyfriend and serial killer Lee. With few ties to her old life and hankering after a new start, she flees to Cornwall, intending to keep her head down and try and acclimatise to her new freedom and self-awareness. But her new start is haunted by her past mistakes and it quickly becomes apparent that Charlie is being hunted by multiple people. Can she really just start anew?
I grew up obsessively watching Columbo films at weekends. I used to play a game where I would switch on the film 20 minutes in so that I missed the murder and then see how many seconds it took me to go “They did it”. As an adult, obviously this is hardly a challenge – it’s whoever Columbo insists on sharing the screen with in every scene – but as a kid I loved playing detective and that feeling has never really gone away. I love trying to solve the puzzle.
But thrillers are brain popcorn for me. I read them as a palate cleanser; a mini puzzle where I try and figure out the twists and turns as soon as possible. Usually the foreshadowing is pretty obvious but not with Safe House and I loved it for that. This genuinely kept me second guessing myself until the last page, and even when I did just about figure it out (about a chapter before the reveal, but I was never 100% certain) Jakeman still managed to throw a twist at me that I REALLY didn’t see coming. (It’s fairly minor, but I appreciated the surprise).
Charlie is an identifiable character who made catastrophic mistakes. She was a victim herself, but is having to find the balance of accepting her own vulnerabilities, complicity and abuse ensuring a complex and well-rounded heroine. I enjoyed that as she re-built her new run down home she began to recover herself and a semblance of a life, but more than that I loved the empathy and kindness she showed to the people around her who she initially had no intention of engaging with. Her relationship with the elderly man next door was one of the highlights for me.
There was the odd scene, particularly towards the end, which felt like it was written with cinematic rendering in mind (It strongly reminded me of Julia Robert’s ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’ which is no bad thing!) and I stumbled with the prologue which is driven by a character who is nowhere near as likeable as Charlie but he’s quickly relegated to the background.
But these are quibbles; this is a well-drawn, subtle, character-driven story with edge of the seat tension and jeopardy. The thriller elements; the paranoia of the prey and the twisted view point of the hunter, are ratcheted up so expertly and in such clever increments that the you can feel the tightening claustrophobia make your heart race.
A really top-notch thriller, and one that I’d definitely recommend.
I received a preview copy of Safe House in exchange for an honest review, but it’s out today (31st October) and the Publisher has confirmed that it is going to be available on Amazon Kindle for 99p throughout November – definitely one to add to your TBR pile.