Friday, 27 January 2023

The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

Half-human, half-immortal, Yaga lives alone in the forest as she has done for centuries, only encountering people when they come seeking her herbal wisdom and magic charms. Then one day her seclusion is broken by the arrival of an old friend, Anastasia, wife of the Tsar Ivan, seeking help for a mysterious illness. To keep her safe, Yaga must return with her to Moscow, and immerse herself in the affairs of men.

In the city, she finds a ruler growing increasingly tyrannical, intent on crushing anyone who speaks against him, in the centre of a court full of rumours and intrigue. Ivan himself though is being manipulated by forces he couldn't begin to understand - immortal powers, treating Russia as a battleground for their own aims.

Set in 16th century Russia during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, this debut is an interesting mix of myth and history, giving a feminist twist to the scary stories of the witch Baba Yaga, creating a very human, relatable woman, and setting her within a firm historical perspective. 

The period of Russian history is a compete blank to me, so I found the depictions of Ivan's court and the wars which ravaged Eastern Europe fascinating (and found myself falling down a rabbit-hole of fact checking and discovering more via Google). Somehow though the whole meshing of historical and fantasy elements didn't quite work for me and the later part of the book failed to hold my attention as the earlier part had.


Tuesday, 24 January 2023

My Life in France by Julia Child

 Shortly before Christmas I decided it was a good idea to try to clear some of my personal (as opposed to book review) TBR pile, especially any that could have been last year's Christmas presents. Hence the seemingly random 'My Life In France' by Julia Child. 

Despite her celebrity status in the US, I wasn't aware of Julia Child before watching the film Julie and Julia which follows a cookery blogger Julie Powell in her attempts to work her way through Child' s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, interspersed with excerpts from Child's life in France and her rise as an early TV cook.
This book is, as it says, primarily about Julia Child's years spent in France - though it follows her and her diplomat husband in the years after. 

Arriving in France in 1948 as a young woman with no culinary skills, Julia Child immersed herself in  French culture and cookery, exploring the fresh food markets, dining out on traditional French food, and enrolling at the famous Cordon Bleu cookery school. Although food was undoubtedly her passion there's more to her story than that; her relationships with friends and family, the troubles of relocating due to her husband's diplomatic career, and his growing disillusionment with it.

It's very readable; a story of enthusiasm and new experiences; full of life and, of course, food (though this isn't a recipe book).

Friday, 20 January 2023

My Picks of 2022

 Usually I come to do my best of the year list and struggle to keep it down to ten, or a dozen, but  I seem to have read fewer books last year and so the 'best of' list is correspondingly short. I decided that I couldn't actually 'order' them into a ranking of first, second, third, and so on so they appear here in the order I read them

Top of the list then is Devotion by Hannah Kent from back in February. The story follows the growing, forbidden relationship between Hanne and Thea, moving from an Old Lutheran community in 19th century Prussia to the wildness of Australia's colonies. It's raw and warm, and filled with both love and loss, with Kent's poetic prose bringing the natural world of Germany forests and Australian outback vividly to life.

March brought two, very different, additions to the list. First, When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo. Darwin works in Fidelis cemetery in the fictional Trinidadian city of Port Angeles; he tends neglected grave plots, and comforts the bereaved. Above the city lives Yejide who has inheritated a strange responsibility - to comfort the dead themselves; to calm their spirits in transition from one life to another. Unsurprisingly they're drawn together. A wonderful mix of the mundane and fantastical, filled with the sights and sounds of its setting. An astounding debut.

Wild And Wicked Things by Francesca May. Coming into an inheritance from her estranged father, Annie Mason travels to mysterious Crow Island, the last refuge of magic in a world from which it's been banned. Here in this strange community, 'nice girl' Annie finds herself tempted by decadent parties, magic, and Emmeline Delacroix, the focal point of them both. Described by the author as a witchy, lesbian take on The Great Gatsby, it has that same moral ambivalence, and spell of glamour hiding darkness.

April brought another stunning debut - Trespasses by Louise Kennedy. Set in 1970s Belfast , this is a Romeo and Juliet style tale of a young, single Catholic teacher, and an older, married Protestant barrister drawn to each other despite everything that stands in their way. Set against a backdrop of sectarian violence, with a feeling of inescapable tragedy hanging over the couple,  it's both wonderful and heart-breaking.

My last choice will come as no surprise as I'm always a fan of Donal Ryan's work, and his latest novel, The Queen of Dirt Island,  is as heart-warming and moving as I've come to expect. In a bungalow in a small village in Co Tipperary live three generations of women, Eileen, her mother in law Mary, and daughter Saoirse. Their story begins with a death  but is a celebration of life. Their home not one of peace and harmony, but of arguments and fallings-out, yet still a haven, a place of belonging and nurture. It's too easy, I feel, to just dismiss a new novel by an admired author as what you'd expect from them but Ryan always delivers, and this is no exception.

Thursday, 22 December 2022

The Weather Woman by Sally Gardner

 Neva is born with an unusual ability - to predict the weather. At first she assumes everyone can do this, but as the frozen Thames ice starts to break under the frost fair of 1789, even little Neva can see that she's the only one to have foreseen the event. As she grows, she comes to understand how strange and unique her talent is. Using a mechanical figure made by her adoptive father, she disguises her abilities as being those of the automaton, the Weather Woman, and becomes a success in London's salons and soirees. 

But  Neva is frustrated that as a woman, she isn't taken seriously by the scientific experts of the day, and creates herself a male alias, Eugene Jonas, who can go where she can't. However, when Henri Denoue, an exiled French count, meets first Neva, then Eugene, he falls in love - perhaps with them both.

This is a lovely, fairly lightweight, but eminently readable, historical novel with a thread of fantasy or magic running through it. Neva's ability is never quite pinned down, but, as one of my daughters has a synaesthetic condition whereby she sees music as colours, that's rather how I understood Neva's visualising of clouds and colours. It doesn't quite matter to the plot which is one of thwarted romance, and adversaries who want to get hold of the Weather Woman for their own use. 

As with Gardner's teen/YA books, there's a fantastic capturing of the period. Neva is very different to Austen's heroines, or the marriageable daughters of Bridgerton, not wanting to settle quietly into marriage and child-bearing, but to further her scientific curiosity, and her story explores the difficulties facing her.

Contrasting with the quiet domestic setting of Neva's adoptive family, are the grand houses of the 'bon ton', dingy lawyers' offices, seedy boarding houses, with characters to match - in fact a whole slice of Regency London from the high to the low. 

Thursday, 15 December 2022

Our Share of Night by Mariana Enriquez

translated by Megan McDowell

As a child from a poor background and with serious health issues, Juan is 'adopted' by the wealthy Bradford family, ostensibly to give him the care he needs but actually to exploit him and his 'magical' abilities - for behind the facade of respectability and money the Bradford family are members of a strange cult, known as The Order, participating in demonic, horrific rituals, and Juan is a natural medium, able to make contact with the Darkness they worship. 

As he grows up, he falls in love and marries into the family, but when his son, Gaspar, is born, Juan is determined that The Order will not manipulate another generation, and he begins to lay plans to ensure Gaspar's safety.

This disturbing book is hard to quantify - part horror, part political tale with parallels to Argentina's military regime, part a story of love between father and son, and the lengths one will go to to save the other. Overall though I'd say it's an examination of the corruption that too much power and wealth can bring. 

It's told in sections, moving backwards and forwards in time, and the Bradford/Reyes family emerge as an untouchable clique, acting beyond moral or legal restraints, with a total disregard for anyone outside the family; imprisoning, torturing, and executing them with impunity.  There are definitely echoes of Argentina's troubled past here. 

Be warned - it's not a book for the squeamish. The rituals are bizarre and grotesque, full of blood-letting and mutilation.  At the time of reading, I found them so disturbing that I wondered whether or not to continue, but I'm glad I did, as the story is about more than the horrors people can inflict on each other. In retrospect, I'd go so far as to say it's life-affirming; that such cruelty is now in the past, and won't be allowed to infect the future.

Thursday, 8 December 2022

Sorcerer’s Edge by David Hair


Review by The Mole

This book is the third and final book in his The Tethered Citadel trilogy and, for my sins, it’s also the first of them that I have read.

The book starts with a brief resume of books 1 and 2 before continuing the story. As we meet each character we are filled in as to who they are and a brief history to keep us in the loop.

This is not a fantasy where we confuse the good guys with the bad guys (and there are good and bad factions) and we know who we’re rooting for from the off. Sometimes we want a complex plot, sometimes we want one that jiggles about but is easy to follow – this one jiggles a lot.

Very well written and extremely addictive, this book is fabulous fun and I enjoyed it immensely. Yes, I knew who would prevail and peace would reign, because it's that kind of story, but that didn’t change a thing for me. 

I really would recommend this to both established fantasy readers and new readers alike.

Clearly, if I attempted to summarise the plot it could give spoilers to anyone with plans to read books 1 and 2.

Friday, 25 November 2022

Light Perpetual by Andrzej Sapkowski

This last book of Sapkowski's Hussite Trilogy, sees our hero, Reynevan, journeying across war torn Bohemia and Silesia in search of his true love Jutta of Apolda, who's been abducted and effectively imprisoned in a nunnery. It seems like a journey of 'one step forward, and two steps back', as Reynevan is sent in first one direction then another, following information about where Jutta might be being held, trying to avoid his enemies, being sent on missions which take him in the wrong direction, and ending up captured himself. Through it all though he holds true to his purpose, ever striving for news of Jutta,

Sapkowski is better known as the author of fantasy novels - The Witcher series - rather than historical,  and, although the Hussite trilogy is set firmly in central Europe during the wars of the early 15th century, there's more than a touch of fantasy about it; Reynevan uses magic in his work as a physician, or amulets to help him pass unnoticed; his arch-enemy, Grellenort, shape-changes between man and bird. So it should appeal to fans of both genres. Be warned, this isn't historical romance but a story set during times of war, and aiming for a level of realism, meaning there's a lot of violence and casual brutality. 

I've come to the series late, starting with the last book, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment, although some aspects are not totally clear at the beginning, and there seemed to be a plethora of characters - good and bad - to become acquainted with in the first few chapters. At over 600 pages, it's long - normal for fantasy novels, less so for historical (unless you're thinking of Wolf Hall) - but settle in for a long consuming read and you won't be disappointed.