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.
I don’t know what happened this month. I feel like I must have walked into a timewarp at some point, but I keep checking my list and it IS accurate. Somehow or other I managed to read 21 books (Hands up this is a total humble brag, but I AM genuinely shocked). Given I read FOUR last month and thought that was good going I actually don’t know how I managed this. The only thing I can think is that SO MANY of them were just fantastic that I just couldn’t stop. Anyway, apologies for the length of this – it won’t happen again. Honestly, if you make it through this more power to you! (I might even send you one of the mythical Orange Twirls as a reward!)
Nevernight by Jay Kristoff (5 stars)
Mia was born into privilege, and enjoyed the high life until she was 10. Content with her parents, baby brother and beloved cat (who is relevant in the story, I promise!). Then a misplaced coup results in everything being torn from her and her running for her life. 6 years later she is looking to enter the secretive and elite assassins training school to become a Blade and get justice for the wrongs done to her family by the corrupt power structures of ????. The guild is comprised of zealots who excel at what they do, but competition is fierce, and each and every one of the acolytes is a murderer already. Added to that: their training consists of surviving the masters’ multiple attempts to murder them, and this becomes Hogwarts for adults – with swearing, sex and bloody gory murder a plenty.
This book grabbed me from the first line, and I’d ordered the rest of the trilogy before I was halfway through. It’s compelling, brutal and wonderfully written. I cannot express how much I loved it. But it is absolutely definitely NOT for children or young adults. I’ve seen a lot of reviewers really struggle with this and try to fit it into that box, I’m assuming because the protagonist is a teenage girl?
The Lost Ones by Anita Frank (5 stars)
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?
Anita Frank has woven together a terrifying and nerve wracking tale which warrants becoming an instant classic of the genre. The first half ratchets up the tension unbearably; I genuinely found myself with goosebumps and nervous to go into unlit rooms, before unravelling its macabre revelations. It creates a tangibly unsettling atmosphere which, even with a satisfying ending, stays with you long after the book closes. This had me gripped from the start to the end and I’ll be recommending it to everyone for some time to come.
Things in Jars by Jess Kidd (5 stars)
So having 4 5 star reviews in one month makes it look like I hand them out Willy Nilly, but I promise I don’t! I just read a lot of good stuff this month! But also somehow or other I’ve read 3 mermaid or “people of the sea” stories this year. It’s not a genre I specifically seek out, but I guess coincidences happen. After the first two: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock and Pisces, I decided that maybe I just didn’t like mermaid stories, cause I HATED those two. (To be fair they both contained some pretty atrocious sex scenes and a lot of very unlikeable characters.) Then along came Things in Jars to prove me wrong.
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 something 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. It’s a Victorian detective story, but with a folklore twist and loveable characters. So loveable that I found myself digging my heels in as I neared the ending (which fair warning, is inevitably bittersweet) and desperate for the ability to spend more time with Bridie and Cora. The fact that these characters aren’t in a series is a travesty and if I’m ever fortunate enough to meet Kidd I’ll be on my knees begging for more of them.
Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (4 stars)
I, along with every other millennial out there, am utterly obsessed with Fleabag. It’s captured a zeitgeist that is hard to explain. It is whip-smart, dark and oh so identifiable. So I loved reading the original version which has most of the elements of Season 1 and demonstrates one of the earlier evolutions of the show that stole everyone’s heart. This edition also collated memories of the stage show from the cast and crew.
The Institute by Stephen King (4 stars)
12 year old Luke has displayed minor skills in Telekinesis. Not even powerful to alert himself to his skills, he has been spotted by the Institute, a shady organisation in Maine who captures children with special talents and puts them to nefarious use. Meanwhile in Small town South Carolina, an ex-cop from Florida is starting a new life with the Sheriff’s department.
It’s very hard to go into the intricacies of this book without giving too much away, but as always King is a master story weaver, walking that fine line of compelling and making the unbelievable believable. If you’re a King fan I think you’ll enjoy this one. If not, start with Carrie and you will be!
Rivers of London: Black mould by Ben Aaronovitch (4 stars)
The Rivers of London book series is one of my Go To fantasy series’. Full confession, I don’t always fully understand what’s going on, particularly with whatever mystical revelation happens towards the end, and I’m totally lost from one book to the next about where things stand with Lesley May (not sure why this flummoxes me, it’s usually stated pretty clearly.) But this confusion is where I found the Graphic Novel really came into its own. Black Mould is a standalone orginal graphic novel story that sees Peter and Guleed have to fight both sentient fungus and slum landlords as Peter continues his training with The Folly, the super secret supernatural branch of the Met Police.
It’s a simple enough story, but seeing the characters and humour that I love in illustration really expanded my understanding of the series as a whole. I’ll definitely be seeking out the other graphic novels.
Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon by James Lovegrove (4 stars)
Having been approached in a coffee shop by Eve Allerthorpe, eldest daughter of a wealthy and entirely batshit crazy Yorkshire family who live in a gothic black castle in the middle of a lake, Holmes and Watson are engaged to investigate the mysterious myth of the Black Thurrick; an evil side kick to Father Christmas who likes to leave bunches of birch sticks around and snack on naughty children.
Eve’s sudden interest in the myth is, in large, thanks to some weird goings on and supernatural sightings around her creepy and not at all cosy home. Of course she’s due a substantial inheritance on her 21st birthday on Christmas Eve, on one condition; that she has managed to retain control of her mental faculties by then. But while investigating out of curiosity a far more serious crime occurs almost in front of Holmes and Watson. So has local folklore come to life or is someone trying to drive Eve mad? Who would dare try and pull the wool over Holmes and Watson’s eyes? And can the grumpiest and most eccentric family in England make it through a holiday season in one piece?
This is a highly entertaining and enjoyably ludicrous tale. Holme’s eccentricity and Watson’s sarcasm are set off perfectly by being surrounded by like-minded and similarly oddball members of the upper classes. There a moments of slapstick and exquisite arguments of the absurd where Holmes again proves his ability to always be right is pure luck, but is nothing compared to his unparalleled confidence in himself. And beneath it all the story is beautifully written and imagined. A truly enjoyable festive mystery.
Safe House by Jo Jakeman (4 stars)
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 abuse 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 she’s being hunted by multiple people. Can she really just start anew?
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. This genuinely kept me second guessing myself until the end, and even when I did just about figure it out (About a chapter and a half before the reveal, but I wasn’t certain) it 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 a likeable 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. There was the odd scene, particularly towards the end which felt like it was written with cinematic dreams in mind and ignore the prologue which feels much clumsier than the rest of the book, this is a well drawn, subtle character driven story with edge of the seat tension and jeopardy.
Tam O Shanter by Robert Burns, adapted by Richmond Clements (4 Stars)
From Cranachan Books comes this new vibrant Manga rendering of the classic Burns poem Tam O’Shanter. I always struggled with the depth of the Scots Language in Tam O Shanter, but this rendition really does bring it too life and is chock full of atmosphere. A good Scottish Autumnal tale for a creepy Halloween. Highly recommended.
My Name is Monster by Katie Hale (3 stars)
Monster has survived the apocalypse deep in the Arctic Seed vault, miles from home. Emerging weeks later, she must make her world through a totally changed and deserted world and find a new home, but she’s not entirely alone. In an unnamed city she discovers a child who she takes under her wing, naming her Monster and renaming herself Mother.
This is a strange slow burner of a book, showing the fears and hopes of motherhood spliced alongside a child’s need to become their own person and make their own way in the world. It is beautiful but dark.
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (3 Stars)
Two ageing Irish gangsters have staked out the Gibraltar ferry port, searching for Dilly, a daughter that hasn’t been seen in 3 years. What follows reads in part like an atmospheric one act play and in part like a painful flashback to the drug glory days of the 90s when Charlie and Maurice were making names for themselves.
It’s an interesting book that is absolutely not for everyone – it’s written very stylistically – but contains lifetimes of pain and love while two Irish fuckups try to figure out what the hell life is about. Their conversations are hilarious, but spin on a dime and turn dangerous with breathtaking speed. Their entire beings are wrought through with violence and pathos as they reflect back on the mistakes they’ve made and the hurt they’ve caused over the decades. Drugs and uncontrollable urges abound, and yet despite the fact that they have been horrible people who have committed unforgiveable crimes, Maurice and Charlie are pretty likeable; in part because they own up to their mistakes (even if it is too late), and in part because of the fondness with which Dilly views them. Safely. From a distance.
Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire by G.M Nair (3 stars)
Michael Duckett and Stephanie Dyer are chalk and cheese but have been friends forever. She’s chaotic and he’s Type A. But just as their friendship if falling apart they mysteriously get dragged into a manic adventure to save the multiverse.
This is the first book in a new series which relies a little too heavily on stereotypes but offers a tantalising glimpse of a promising new sci-fi/humour series. I’ll definitely be checking out the sequel when it arrives.
The Aunt who Wouldn’t Die by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay (3 stars)
Lyrical prose succinctly captures three very different women in a Bengali family struggling to navigate the social conventions expected of them: a young modern woman who wants nothing to do with marriage and feels she has to duck, dive and lie to retain her independence, a shrewd young bride who carefully “manages” her new husband and family towards success from a position of supposedly happy meekness (although there is burning passion present too, which eventually takes over), and a righteously furious ghost of an elderly aunt who taunts and goads her family with scathing rants, pushing them via sneering insults and death threats to achieve more than she was allowed too. A quick read but containing massive riches (and some hidden treasure).
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (3 stars)
This was a brutal read. Written as a lilting stream of consciousness from the point of view of Sylvie, an abused and brainwashed 17 year old girl on a summer “study” retreat with her psychopathic father who is obsessed with the Iron age; her institutionalised mother and an archaeological study group. Sylvie knows not to enrage her father, and knows to hide his physical abuse from prying eyes, but also takes it as normal that she is whipped black and blue based on his whims. The Horror that unfolds as her father and the professor explore their obsessions with the past and the Britishness of the Iron Age feels like sliding uncontrollably and inevitably towards a cliff edge, but the tension is built with poetical intensity.
The Guardians by John Grisham (3 stars)
John Grisham deserves his reputation as a crime writer. Normally I loathe present tense writing as it often smacks of immaturity, so my heart sank when I saw that’s what this was, but within the first few pages I was gripped as Grisham wove his typically tight, tense and compelling narrative.
The Guardians of the title are pro bono legal sharks who pursue exonerations for the wrongfully convicted, and this novel, some of which is sadly based on true cases, looks at two particularly intricate cases. The characters are interesting and sympathetic, the plot is believable yet also insane and the tension is palable . Indubitably readable.
Captain America Dark Designs by Stefan Petrucha (3 stars)
It’s 2005 and Captain America has finally gotten some semblance of a life back, but following routine tests after a mission, it’s discovered that within his body Cap carries an extinction level virus. Why it’s not currently active, and what might trigger it is anyone’s guess, but to protect humanity Rogers has to head back to the deep freeze until a cure can be found.
However, old nemesis Red Skull is back, in a body cloned from Captain America himself, so he also carries the virus, except that he has become symptomatic. Knowing the end is insight, and without the selfless gene that is sending Rogers into cryogenic sleep, Red Skull sets about fulfilling his bucket list; specifically ending Captain America, with the aid of some hidden old Nazi Tech. Can Rogers fight off giant killer Nazi robots and a psychopathic enemy with a bug that makes Ebola look like a cold all while he’s technically in quarantine?
What follows is a rollicking good adventure which explores the extremes of Steve’s moral code, and what sets him apart from other heroes. Philosophical questions are thrown into the mix like challenges which Steve side steps with ease.
The Silent House by Nell Pattison (3 stars)
Waking up to their worst nightmare, the Hunter Family discover one of their children was murdered in the night. But they are deaf and heard nothing. Paige Northwood is called in as an interpreter, but being part of the Deaf Community herself her interest quickly becomes much more personal and her investigations lead her to a dark place.
Despite the promising concept this is a pretty run of the mill thriller, with red herrings a plenty and a so so conclusion. Worth a read, but doesn’t fulfil the promise it makes.
The Extinction trials by SM Wilson (The Extinction Trials: 3 stars Exile, 2 Stars, Rebel 2 Stars)
Stormchaser Knux accidentally finds herself taking part in trials to become a finalist to go to Piloria in search of food, resources and a way of survival. Piloria, as opposed to Earthasia, Storm’s home continent which is struggling to sustain its population, is the dinosaur continent across the sea. Thus Storm and a hodge podge band of comrades and a cardboard cut-out villain find themselves shipped off to face the living fossils.
I’m not totally sure why I kept reading these, honestly I’m exhausted just writing the summary, remembering how they were executed. Maybe it’s cause I grabbed them at the Library and they were easy reads, but good grief they were not good. The blurby bit describes them as The Hunger Games meets Jurassic World. Maybe in Ambition; it’s a good summation of what the series tries to do, but absolutely not in execution. It’s one dimensional, predictable, tries to be gory and edgy but really isn’t and the exposition; oh god the exposition is endless, clumsy and repetitive. Yet I read them all. And Quickly. I’m not sure why.
Of course I’m not the target audience for these. It says 13 + (Nope) but I try and put myself in my 7 year old’s shoes and I think he’d just have got bored, especially compared to the quality of some of the stuff he’s been reading. However, given that I tore through them I don’t feel I can warn you off despite not wanting to recommend them. (Look at my expert level of fence sitting!). Make your own minds up, but good luck!
Everything you Ever Wanted By Luiza Sauma (2 stars)
Oh Boy was this a disappointment.
Stuck in an overpopulated rat race Iris is struggling with depression and feeling her life is meaningless, when she gets the opportunity to be part of a lead colony on Nyx, a new planet on the other side of the galaxy which offers a new start and open space. The catch is it’s a one way ticket. The concept had so much promise but was a massive disappointment. It raises questions about Depression and the society we’re living in. Is the grass really greener on the other side? The answer will be obvious from the start, but it felt like a mystery was set up that never really paid off, the characters were one dimensional and their motivation never particularly compelling. Definitely NOT everything that I wanted.
Pick of the Month: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff
Dud of the Month: Everything you Ever Wanted by Luiza Sauma
September was an odd month for me (I blame the Autumnal solstice and the darkening nights, cause it couldn’t POSSIBLY be my laziness. Nope. Not that.). The books I managed to read were all generally good and I would recommend them, however I spent far too long persevering with a book which I desperately wanted to like and ended up abandoning after about 2 weeks; and then the rest of the month scrolling the internet instead of reading (this I blame on the whole Sony/Marvel debacle while I not-so-patiently waited for confirmation that they were PLAYING US THE WHOLE TIME. Ahem. Moving on.) So there’s not a lot here, but other than my DNF I’d give any of them a shot!
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I am so late to the party on this one, but it has been sat on my TBR pile for months. This is the book that kickstarted me reading again after “it-that-shall-not-be-named” (at the bottom of this list.) and I suspect you already know how powerful and phenomenal it is.
Starr Carter is a typical teenager, studying for exams; navigating changing friendships; hiding boyfriends from parents. But as she and her childhood friend Khalil are driving home from a party one night, tragedy strikes and Khalil is brutally shot dead by a cop in front of her, igniting the racial tensions in the community and forcing Starr to question the prevalent institutional prejudice being aimed at her community. All while she is trying to grieve and come to terms with her own heartbreak and trauma. Worse still, it’s not the first time Starr has had to witness the death of a friend.
Starr is a girl who straddles two worlds, the one she grew up in where she feels she can be herself, and the one her school sits in, one of opportunity and privilege but where she feels she needs to censure herself in order to fit in. What follows the horrific murder of her friend is a clash of those two worlds, and Starr’s journey to see if she can bring the two versions of herself together in a way that she is comfortable with. It is an astoundingly powerful story and should absolutely be a recommended text for all schools everywhere.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I love love love The Handmaid’s Tale – not the TV show, the book (although I watch the show avidly too). I think it was probably the last book to surprise me. I’d heard of it, but somehow my brain had assumed it was a historical story about a servant. I had no idea what awaited me; how horrifying; how powerful; how plausible a dystopia it contained. And through the horror I fell in love with Offred and Margaret Atwood’s sinisterly powerful writing. The Testaments is NOT the Handmaid’s Tale. It doesn’t contain the creeping horror or the unavoidable dread. But it is exactly what fans of the original needed 30 years later, in a world skirting scarily close to an oppressive dystopia.
It is a more streamlined look at the world of Gilead, focussing on three separate female voices and experiences of the regime: Agnes who was raised a believer; Daisy who was raised in Canada but whose parents hold secrets close to their chests; and Aunt Lydia. Yes. That one. Each woman’s voice is individual; Daisy is a child of privilege, awakening to some of the global issues around her, Agnes is that of a devout believer and Lydia is…complex and will genuinely keep you guessing until the end. Most importantly in this political climate, it offers hope and shows that individual actions always count for something.
A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Betty Widdershins and her sisters live with their sullen grandmother in Poacher’s Pocket; a rowdy, inn on the dreary island of Crowstone.
Desperate for a life of adventure, Betty plans a secret outing with her youngest sister to neighbouring Marshfoot for her 13th birthday, but is mysteriously caught mid-voyage by their Grandmother. Betty is then devasted to discover that all Widdershins’ girls are trapped by an ancient curse and if they ever leave Crowstone, they will die by the following sunrise.
Her grandmother attempts to soften the blow by showing the girls three magical objects which have been passed down through generations: an old bag that transports the bearer wherever they wish to go, a mirror which shows the holder whatever they want to see, and a set of Russian dolls containing the power of invisibility. When Betty tries to use these objects to change their fate, she inadvertently puts her sisters in mortal danger and has 24 hours in which to save them all.
This is a lovely, engaging story led by a brave and likeable heroine.
The Stone of Destiny by Caroline Logan ⭐⭐⭐ (and a half!)
I’m on the blog tour for this one next Monday, so I’ll post a full review then – but it’s ace!
A School in South Uist: reminiscences of a Hebridean Schoolmaster 1890 – 1913 by F.G. Lea ⭐⭐⭐
This was a bit of a comfort read for me. Although it’s events take place over 100 years ago, the community, people and traditions it so gently describes are alive and well throughout the Hebrides, and defiantly recognisable to any who have experienced the way of life here… except now we have more cars. It’s not a dramatic story, but it is a cosy snapshot of Hebridean life and so would invoke homesickness in ex-pats or give a nice taster for those wanting to know more about the Hebrides. My only complaint is FG Lea spends WAAAYYYY to long talking about sport. Especially fishing.
Kraken by China Melville (uch…DNF)
I wanted to like this one so badly – from the cover (yes, I know, but LOOK at it ! ↓) to the concept (Copper is thrown into the underground world of Secret London Cuthulu Cults worshipping giant squid) this just looked my bag.
It was my curated book subscription book too, so chosen specifically for me; but at one point I actually googled the history and current stance on Cursive Writing, just because I was so easily distracted. Trying to keep my brain on this story was HARD work and even though I tried for nearly two weeks I only got about 8 chapters in. I couldn’t invest in the characters, I could barely understand what was happening half the time, and while generally I tend to let narratives like that flow over me until it clicks, I just couldn’t make myself care with this one…so apologies if it suddenly gets good 3 pages after I quit but Life’s too short.
Pick of the month: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a phenomenal debut that was released in 2016 and promptly (and rightly) won all the awards. It is heart-rending; powerful and harrowing. It follows the stories of two branches of a family tree descended from half-sisters on the Gold Coast during the height of the slave-trade. Through twists of fate and misfortune, one half of the family ends up being sold into slavery, while the other become slavers; selling prisoners from warfare to the white men who have set up at Cape Coast Castle and reaping the power that comes with it. What follows is an unrelenting and breath-taking examination, across eight generations and 300 years, of the wounds and scars inflicted by slavery; the families torn apart and the crimes of humanity committed against entire nations.
I cannot recommend this book enough. Each character only has a chapter, and yet is drawn so fully and written so empathetically that your heart will break anew with each story. As you are pulled from some characters – never knowing their final fate as their family and children never knew, or getting fleeting glimpses and hints – only a smidgen of the horror; the unanswered questions and ruined lives is understood, but it’s enough. Enough to make this a true classic that lays bare the institutions of racism and power which were created and are still maintained today all while telling a compelling story through glorious writing. I cannot wait for Gyasi’s next book due next year.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)
Arden has also created a debut novel which completely bowled me over. The Bear and the Nightingale is the first in a trilogy which was completed this year (and thank God there’s two more because I can’t wait to get my hands on them!)
It tells the story of Vasya, the youngest child of Pyotr Vladimirovich, the lord of a remote Russian Village and his bewitching wife Marina Ivanovna. As Vasya grows she finds friends among the spirits and imps of the forest, and captures the attention of Morozko, the Frost Demon. Not knowing that she has the Sight, her family mistakenly try to protect her from Morozko, completely misunderstanding his intentions and underestimating Vasya’s abilities and resourcefulness.
This a hauntingly beautiful fairytale with layers upon layers of ethereal Russian folklore built in. Fairytale folk and demons vie for attention, but as always the true horrors and mistakes are committed by misguided people only faintly understanding the world around them. Vasya is a compelling heroine who loves her family deeply, but knows her own mind and I’m excited to see her grow into her powers and confidence in the sequels.
Toffee by Sarah Crossan (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)
This is marketed as a young adult book and as with all good modern young adult books it doesn’t shy away from the darkness experienced by teenagers, but does so with such humour and heart that it’s impossible not to read in a single sitting.
Written in poetry, Toffee tells the story of a young runaway who is escaping an abusive father. She comes across Marla, an elderly woman with dementia and the two form an unlikely and poignant friendship which, just maybe, saves them both. Written with a lyrical brevity there is not a single superfluous word and yet emotion drips from every page. Here are two women that society deems invisible and abusable, but in each other they find their dignity and confidence; their sense of fun and adventure and the ability to heal from past trauma. Crossan shows how vital kindness can be, the mistakes people can make as they try to find their way, and that there is always hope, even in places that initially appear unlikely.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold (⭐⭐⭐⭐)
Hallie Rubenhold has been getting a ridiculous amount of flack for this examination of the women murdered by Jack the Ripper in 1888.
In the 131 years since the five canonical victims of one of England’s most famous serial killers met their tragic demise, their deaths have been sensationalised, their lives dismissed and their murderer glorified and turned into a grizzly tourist attraction. Rubenhold’s self-proclaimed aim with The Five is to give Polly, Elizabeth, Mary Jane, Kate and Annie back their voices, their dignity and their humanity and remind people that these women were not footnotes to the Jack the Ripper myth, but women who led full and complicated lives; who were murdered as a horrific act of misogyny and who continue to be demonised by that same misogyny.
What she has created is 5 compelling tales of tragedy, desperation and survival. She takes the known facts of the women and filters them through the prism of experiences of women in Victorian Times. In doing so she creates narratives, which, yes, at times are based on guess work and gap filling, but completely achieve Rubenhold’s aims of making these women real, identifiable and sympathetic, and remind us to revel a little less in their tragedy. Critics of the book are blinkered in their furor that Rubenhold refuses to categorise the women as prostitutes. They are angrily dismissing the depth and humanity of her study and the fact that she has produced the most detailed examination of the victims to date. Ironically, by doing so, these critics go a long way to prove her point: that people are much more comfortable with the gruesome tale and its lack of closure if they can dismiss the victims as somehow “deserving” of their fate. Critics are missing the point: It doesn’t MATTER if they were prostitutes (although there does appear to be a ridiculous lack of evidence to support that they were, and the police investigation looks fatally flawed by insisting on such). First and foremost they were women, who had families and friends and deserve acknowledgement for their lives and not their deaths, as such, don’t expect any detail of their deaths, or circumspection on the identity of Jack – this isn’t about him.
An interesting read for a new perspective on a well known tale.
Horror, she Wrote by Lisa Kroger and Melanie R Anderson(⭐⭐⭐⭐)
I’ve read a lot more non-fiction this month that usual (i.e….Two) but I’ve enjoyed both. I was provided with a review copy of Horror, She Wrote in advance of it’s release on 17 September.
Sometimes these book list books can be dry, but not so this one. Written in a chatty and interesting way, Horror, She Wrote looks at the epic list of female writers of Horror, Fantasy and Weird Fiction and their continuing influence on the shaping of these genres.
Kroger and Anderson are so breathlessly excited by the wealth and breadth of horror and supernatural female writers that it’s impossible not to get caught up in their enthusiasm. As well as learning loads, my TBR pile expanded exponentially – in main thanks to the Reading List summaries after each author. I actually had to read it with a notepad next to me, to make sure I didn’t miss anything – but it never once felt like homework! This was a genre that I’ve probably explored the least, and after reading this I can’t wait to get started.
A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoirby Lady Trent by Marie Brennan (⭐⭐⭐⭐)
Since I started in my Library in January I’ve had my eye on this book (and may have added it to a few too many book displays!) – anything with a dragon on the front was going to get my attention.
Now Historical Fiction is not my favourite – despite the ridiculous amount I seem to have read over the last year – but I enjoyed this. Written from the point of view of Lady Trent, elderly dragon expert, who has finally sat down to write her memoirs, it’s funny, warm and reads like a good solid adventure mystery story…with added dragons. This is the first in a series and as such focuses on Lady Trent’s formative years as a rebellious tomboy yearning for more out of the life than the Victorian style (it’s not set in our universe, but has similar periods) and her first adventure abroad to see Dragons in the flesh. Lady Trent is an interesting heroine, and it’s a chatty and compelling adventure. I’ll definitely be picking up the next one in the series.
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley (⭐⭐⭐⭐)
Merrick Tremayne is a once vivacious adventurer who, following an accident has turned into a recluse, living at home with his reviled brother in a house that is falling down around him. But one last adventure calls – a mission to a village in Peru with a family connection, a healthy dose of fantastical secrets and a friendship (not convinced it’s not true love, but it’s never explicitly stated that Tremayne and the Priest love each other) for the ages.
With plenty of supernatural mysteries and historical adventure into interior Peru this was a magical read with plenty of original ideas and just enough jeopardy to really care about the outcome.
Why Mummy doesn’t give a ****! By Gil Sims (⭐⭐⭐)
Ellen is back in the third instalment of a woman just trying to survive family life with two children, a terribly misogynistic husband and a beloved and judgemental dog called…Judgy.
In Why Mummy Doesn’t Give a ****! Ellen faces her last straw and finally leaves Simon. What follows is her first year of singledom, navigating life as a single parent to two children, finding a new balance with her ex-husband and re-discovering herself and it’s wonderful. A fun empowering exploration of the frustrations of being a family matriarch and being expected to hold everything together when you can barely remember your own name. Not challenging, but identifiable and heart-warming.
I Owe you One by Sophie Kinsella (⭐⭐⭐)
I needed some light reads this month and I have to confess I love a Sophie Kinsella book. They are uncomplicated, generally unoffensive, pretty much guaranteed a fluffy happy ending and often pretty funny and I Owe You One was another prime example.
They’re pretty forgettable, but if you’re looking for a romance story with a fairly ditzy but generally likeable middle class woman at the centre these are the ones for you. Popcorn for the brain and I’m guaranteed to read every. Single. One.
Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James (⭐⭐⭐⭐)
This is an odd one, because for level of world building, writing style and originality this is absolutely a four if not five star book. The story itself is phenomenal as well and stays with you. But it’s hard work to access that story and that impacted seriously on my enjoyment – a bit like Lord of the Rings -it’s incredibly dense and epic.
This is a hallucinatory high concept fable of Tracker, a lone wolf who finds himself working with a bunch of mercenaries to find a lost child, and facing down witches and vampires and shapeshifters in the process. Who is the child and Who can be trusted?
At times it’s hard to tell what’s going on, which adds to the drug hazed vibe and the confusion that Tracker faces, but even when he’s figuring things out I always felt lost. It took me a long time to get through this one, and weeks later I still find it hard to decide how I feel about it, but it’s absolutely memorable.
Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks (⭐)
I’ve been ridiculously lucky this month and read a lot of high quality and entertaining books. This was not one of them and I really struggled.
Hanks has written a series of short stories with a through theme of nostalgia and a shoehorned motif of a typewriter. Seriously, the first two or three are ok, but then you stop focusing on the stories and just waiting for the inevitable bloody typewriter to pop up “subtly”. Spotting the typewriter ends up feeling like the point to each story, after which you can move on. The most disappointing thing is that each story starts with a promising enough concept and then just…nothing happens.
It’s competently written, and every story is just…nice. At times you get the impression that Hanks feels he’s writing an “edgy” story, and he’s not. Unfortunately “Competent” and “nice” are not what I’m looking for in stories.
For years after reading American Gods I, slightly shamefully, claimed that I wasn’t a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing. I thought that my love of Good Omens must come from Pratchett’s involvement, but in the last 6 months I have (thankfully) been completely disabused of that notion and now I have discovered two new favourite FAVOURITE books: The Ocean at the End of the Lane which I reviewed previously, and Stardust.
Set in the human town of Wall and the contrasting multi-coloured world of Faerie, this is a more intelligent, thoughtful and hypnotic take on the two-world trope made famous by the Wizard of Oz – where you identify with the muted world but you desperately want to stay in the brighter dreamlike land beyond the confines of the story.
Our hero, Tristran Thorn, is a child of two worlds (unbeknown to him), who’s first experience of love sets him on a quest for a fallen star. Along the way, he encounters goblins, unicorns, witches and sentient forests based on Tori Amos, but more importantly he grows into the man he should be and comes to rectify youthful mistakes while maintaining his almost naive optimism.
This is a grown-up fairy tale full of hope and growth and magic, where the very prose makes you feel like you are coated in Stardust. I loved every word.
The Record Keeper by Agnes Gomillion ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Arika of House Cobane has spent her life identifying as a ‘First Brother’ of Kongo and training to be an elite Record Keeper, perhaps even a senator, for her region. She lives in a society built out of the ashes of old earth following a World War that left most of the planet uninhabitable, and the remains of humanity scraping their survival out of the charred earth. With the survival of the species on the line, the three surviving tribes: The Kongo, Clayskins and English have each accepted responsibility for one facet of continuing life and each race must pull its weight for everyone to survive. Or so Arika believes. In reality the new structure is built as much on oppression and racism as the old world structure was, but obedience is guaranteed through the mirage of equality.
As a child Arika had her streak of rebellion and fight brutally stripped from her ‘for the greater good’, but it simmers beneath and the Record Keeper charts her reawakening as she is forced to confront the truth which she has been sheltered from, including her own privilege and oppression of her own people. It is a challenging, powerful and empowering read, as it becomes clear that the more things change, the more they are kept the same, until we confront our power structures and stand up and enforce change, all while set in a future dystopia that is frighteningly like our current world.
Hope for the Best (the Chronicles of St Mary’s) by Jodi Taylor ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
The latest book in one of my favourite book series’, the Chronicles of St Mary’s by Jodi Taylor continues the story of a group of chaotic, beautiful tea loving historians who investigate events in contemporary time (time travel to you and me). Hope for the Best is the 10th book in the series, and continues to follow the adventures of Max, Leon, Matthew and Dr Bairstow among others.
I love these books, they’re funny, engaging and usually reasonably light (except for book 8 which I’m STILL traumatised by, but begrudgingly accept) and speed through different time periods and adventure sequences. I’m a sucker for time travel stories but I’m ready to be done with Ronan and increasingly the Time Police, who I’ve never quite warmed too after the sudden alternative world flip (and don’t mention their behaviour over Matthew). I am always happy to reread these over and over and over again.
Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops By Jen Campbell ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Does what it says on the tin, a collection from Bookshop owners all over the world which gathers together some of the more questionable conversations had with customers or overheard between friends and families. Everyone has moments of ditziness and comes out with something absurd but when they are gathered together in one book it is eye-wateringly funny. I tore through this in about two hours and was wheezing by the end, but it could easily be used as a Dip in and out read.
Green Valley by Louis Greenberg ⭐⭐⭐⭐
After finally reaching it on my TBR pile, I tore through Green Valley in the 24 hours. A very special example of Techno-Terror, a Sci-fi/Horror blend about a future city split between two extremes: A technology drenched walled-in city, Green Valley, where people have chosen to live in a virtual world utopia and their reality is a mystery; and the rest of the country where a total Technology ban exists in order.
After children riddled with nano tech are found dead, the murder investigation leads to Green Valley where Lucie Sterling’s niece, who she only met once before the wall went up, has also gone missing. Louis Greenburg manages to explore humanity’s relationship with technology without ever being preachy – and with a bloody terrifying ram thrown into the mix. It is creepy and intriguing and raises questions about why humanity is so driven to seek out extremes.
Thanks to @Titanbooks for the review copy. And the nightmares!
Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi ⭐⭐⭐⭐
The Winner of the International Man Booker Prize 2019: Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi is a dense, sprawling, epic, which covers the lives of multiple generations of families, in particular 3 families, in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, in just under 250 pages.
It is poetic, and sometimes difficult to navigate, but completely hypnotic and engaging. It covers the trauma and joy of being a woman in a country undergoing massive cultural shifts, and beautifully illustrates generational differences in culture and expectation.
Confessions of a Bad Mother – The Teenage Years by Stephanie Calman ⭐⭐⭐⭐
A book which will speak to the heart of any parent; Confessions beautifully encapsulates the bittersweet frustration of your children growing up and simultaneously pulling away from you, the dichotomy of pride in their achievements and their ability to overtake you and pain as they make it clear they no longer need you. The book covers a mother’s journey from her children being 7 (yes, some teenage attitudes start this young) to leaving home. Well written and well observed, it’s a good warning for what I’ve got ahead of me! (my eldest has turned 7 and is already displaying some of these tendencies).
Girl in a cage by Jane Yolen ⭐⭐⭐
Girl in a Cage follows the story of 11 year old Marjorie Bruce, Robert the Bruce’s daughter and future mother of the Stewart dynasty, as she is captured and held hostage by Edward Longshanks during the Scottish wars for Independence. Simultaenously describing the first two weeks of her capture alongside the 8 months leading up to it, where her father took up the crown, resulting in his family having to flee across Scotland as fugitives, this is a story aimed at 8 to 11 year olds.
Over the last couple of years @Cranachanbooks has established a reputation for bringing a human perspective to historical lessons, and rendering them identifiable and interesting to younger readers, and so it is with Girl in a Cage by Jane Yolen Robert Harris (he of Talisman fame). It’s a winning formula, and one that really brings history to life.
The Girl in Red by Christina Henry ⭐⭐⭐
A post-apocalyptic retelling of Red Riding Hood with a dash of The Walking Dead and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road thrown in, albeit with a little more optimism and a prosthetic equipped, mixed-race feminist heroine who suffers no fools. This was an interesting and compelling re-imagining but, for me, there were a few too many elements chucked in the mix without adequate explanation.
I get that Red is just a ‘normal’ citizen and not a ‘chosen one’ who is looking for answers, but when there are genetically created monsters (aliens?), AND an apocalyptic croatoan type sickness creating havoc around the globe at the same time but with no clear or confirmed link then I need a few answers even if she doesn’t. This, combined with a time jump ending, made it feel like Henry had an interesting idea but got bored towards the end and couldn’t find a way to link it all. That being said, Red was a great grumpy heroine and I’ll definitely check out more of Henry’s re-tellings. Thanks to @titanbooks for this preview copy.
Love Nina: Despatches from Family Lifeby Nina Stibbes ⭐⭐⭐
My Book subscription book this month was something which I would never have picked up, but it was ok. A tame, humourous look at life among the London Literrati in the 80s. Funny and sweet in places, and with some great references and famous playwrights popping up and behaving ‘just like us’ but with more eccentricity. It was a little plodding, just like looking at someone else’s holiday snaps.
This month I did something which I never do. I refused to finish a book (and believe me I’ve read some dross) I do wonder however if it was just me as it has got incredible reviews elsewhere, so if you’re a horror fan don’t take my word for it, but my DNF was Growing Things by Paul Tremblay. An anthology of horror tales, I managed just 3 so can’t speak to the overarching themes. The stories themselves all started promisingly and with intriguing concepts, and then I’d lose what was going on. I didn’t find them creepy (as my husband suggested), just confusing, and given the promise each one held I just found it disappointing.
Pick of the Month: Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Dud of the Month: DNF Growing Things by Paul Tremblay
Trembling with excitement, Bertha Watt sets out on the adventure of a lifetime: her and her mother leaving behind their old life in Aberdeen to meet up with her father in Oregon and start a new life full of promise and opportunity and, if she behaves herself, a pony.
Facing several boring days crossing the Atlantic onboard a ship, she and her new friend, Madge, decide to emulate Holmes and Watson and set up The Collyer-Watt Detective Agency. They quickly stumble across two intriguing mysteries, one involving treasure and another involving a mysterious family with a shady father. Along the way, Bertha befriends Johan, a 3rd class passenger with a desperate passion to reunite his family. But something even more ominous is lurking over the horizon: It’s April 1912 and Bertha, her family and her friends are sailing to America aboard the Titanic’s maiden voyage.
The Titanic Detective Agency by Lindsay Littleson is a tale of two halves. The first; a look at the innocent and nostalgic childhood from the early twentieth century – both that of the privileged, and the heavier responsibilities of those in poverty. The second half is wrought with tangible horror and heartbreak, as the ending that you almost forgot was looming comes to fruition.
Littleson has done her research, and although the narrative is fiction, all the characters are based on true-life passengers aboard the doomed Ocean liner with some of the more out there twists and turns being based on fact – truth is often stranger than fiction after all.
It’s a challenging introduction for its target audience of 8 to 11 year olds. One which focuses on the humanity involved in the maritime tragedy, but it’s all the more worthwhile for this focus, The Titanic Detective Agency doesn’t shy away from the horror and lasting impact the accident had on the few survivors.
It’s well written, engaging and doesn’t talk down to younger readers. More than that it brings a hundred and seven year old tragedy to life. And just look at that cover – it’s beautiful!