Tuesday 25 May 2021

Threadneedle by Cari Thomas


Anna has always been told by her aunt that magic is a dangerous, sinful thing, that it was responsible for the death of her parents, and that it should never be used. Anna's now a teenager and although she shows little ability for magic, when she turns seventeen the little magic she does possess will be 'bound' to prevent its use. 

Then Selene, an old friend of both Anna's aunt and mother, arrives in London, accompanied by her daughter Effie, and a curious young man, a friend of the family, named Attis. Where Anna's aunt is severe and strict, Selene is charismatic and full of life - and more to the point she believes magic should be used to enjoy life to the full. She, Effie and Attis open Anna's eyes to a different side of the magical world (and perhaps the world in general), one full of fun. At school Effie and Attis discover other witches mixing unrecognised among the students, and set up a coven, drawing Anna into their disruptive plans.

At first it's all fun, but the coven's actions take a dark, destructive turn and Anna begins to wonder if her aunt was maybe right all along - that magic is a curse and shouldn't be practised at all. 

Threadneedle is the first book in great new urban fantasy series. Although aimed perhaps mainly at YA readers, with its share of teenage rebellion, and the school culture of 'Queen Bee' cliques, the style and its thread of dark, twisted family secrets to engage older readers. It's easy to sympthise with Anna and her desire for a more fun-filled life (whether than involves magic or not) but at the same time there's a distinct feeling that Effie and Attis will just lure her into trouble. And as events unfold, it's clear that neither her aunt nor Selene are quite as Anna sees them. I thoroughly enjoyed it. 


Monday 17 May 2021

The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano by Donna Freitas

 Rose and Luke are happily married - or so Rose thought. From the start of their relationship, they've both agreed that they didn't want, and wouldn't have children. But now Luke has changed his mind. Should Rose change hers too to make Luke (and his parents) happy? 

I'm a bit of a sucker for this style of book, one which explores the what-ifs of life. Maybe we've all wondered what would have happened if we'd done things differently? Take one decision and life unfolds in a certain way. Take another and things are completely changed. But, to be honest, I didn't find the alternate 'lives' presented here to be different enough to be really compelling, and I didn't like the 'happy families' ending.

The starting premise is that one day Rose and Luke argue over whether or not they'll have a child. And in different time-lines, the fall out from the argument is different - sometimes Luke leaves, sometimes Rose does, sometimes their relationship carries on - but the slightly disappointing aspect was that whatever happens somehow having a child to love and care for (even if not her own) is seen as necessary for a happy-ever-after scenario for Rose. 

Generally I didn't find Rose to be a character I could sympathise with. She made sure from the outset that Luke was aware of her decision to never have children, yet it hardly takes any persuading from him for her to consider changing her mind. Also, when there's surely no need to choose between career and having children these days, Rose's main objections didn't make sense - it was as if the author didn't want to follow the thought path that not everyone likes children or wants them. I'd have enjoyed it more if in at least one version Rose had thrown Luke out, and led an exciting, fulfilling, childless life.

Thursday 13 May 2021

Things To Do Before The End Of The World by Emily Barr

Thawing of the permafrost has unleashed The Creep, a massive cloud of carbon dioxide and other toxins, and there seems to be no way to avert disaster, not just for the human race but for all life on Earth. With nine months or so left, what would you do if you knew the end of the world was coming? For seventeen year old Olivia, it's step out of her shell and become the confident person she's always wanted to be, the person she can only become when acting on stage. She's always been the shy one, the one who doesn't have many friends or go to parties with the rest of the class, but now she wants to change - if only she knew how. Above all, she wants to pluck up the courage to speak to Zoe, the girl she likes.

Then through a quirk of fate, an unknown cousin, Natasha, gets in contact, and, saying she too was once unbearably shy, takes charge of Olivia's life, setting her a series of challenges, and promising that she'll soon be that outgoing, self-assured person she wants to be. At first these are small steps, just slightly out of Olivia's comfort zone, but when Natasha shows up out of the blue on Olivia's doorstep she doesn't seem quite the supportive friend she claimed to be. More like someone who wants to cause trouble, and drag her cousin on wilder and wilder adventures. 

 In this end-of-the-world thriller, shy girl Olivia is taken under the wing of bold, brash cousin Natasha, but while Olivia accepts her cousin at face value (particularly at first), the reader knows better and that Natasha cannot be relied on. While some of me was willing Olivia on, a huge part was thinking 'DO NOT trust Natasha!'.  
It's this which made me want to hurry to the end, to rapidly turn the pages (or the e-book equivalent), to find out if Olivia saw through Natasha's fake friendliness and uncovered her plans before something went horribly wrong. And in the course of uncovering those plans, a lot of family secrets come tumbling out of the closet!

Oddly, it's the fate of Olivia and Natasha that matters more than the greater fate of the world, so if you're looking for a sci-fi armageddon story, of  scientists battling against the odds to save everyone, this isn't it. It's a story of self-discovery, of learning to step out of one's shell and embrace the world, and as importantly to not accept others at their face value. 

Monday 10 May 2021

Highway Blue by Ailsa McFarlane


Anne Marie and Cal got married young; she was just nineteen, he a few years older. A year later, he walked out one morning, leaving Anne Marie to an aimless life of bar work, shared apartments and one night stands.

Two years later, he shows up out of the blue, trying to put things right, but he brings trouble with him, and the couple are soon on the run, taking the Highway Blue in search of love and belonging.

Highway Blue is a short novel (less than 200 pages), but a compelling, memorable one. 

Despite the violence that sets Anne Marie and Cal on the run, the book isn't plot-driven as such - this isn't the sort of road trip that involves fast car chases or the encountering of odd people or unusual places. Instead, as they travel south by car and hitch-hiking back to the town where Anne Marie was born, she journeys back though her life, not nostalgically but in an attempt to understand herself and the position she finds herself in now. 

It's beautifully written, told by Anne Marie in the first person, with a haunting, yearning quality. With her, the reader dips back into her childhood and her realtionship with her mother, experiences her all consuming but brief love for Cal, and shares her hunger for something better than she's known so far. 

Tuesday 4 May 2021

The Witch's Heart by Genevieve Gornichec


There was a time, and a life, before, but Angrboda can't remember it. For her, the story starts when Odin attempts to kill her for not revealing visions of the future to him. Three times he has her burned, then tears out her heart. But still Angrboda survives.  Wanting to have nothing further to do with the gods of Asgard she retreats to the far-distant Iron Wood to heal and start over. She's soon followed though by Loki, the trickster, bringing back her heart but winning it through love. Together they raise three strange children; a daughter, Hel, born with withered legs, and two sons - Fenrir, a wolf, and Jormungand a small wriggling worm who rapidly grows into an enormous serpent. Despite their oddness, all three are greatly loved by their parents, but as Angrboda recovers her powers of prophecy she realises that her children have an important part to play in the end of the world - and that there's nothing she can do to avert it.  

I loved this book - a spell-binding, feminist re-imagining of Norse myths in which a minor character - a woman dismissed to the margins of the old tales now takes centre stage. Angrboda is the sort of woman rejected by society, often labelled 'witch', whose knowledge is both in demand and feared, and at the same time a mother, full of love for her unique children, her often-absent husband, Loki, and her one close friend, the huntress Goddess Skadi. It's love in general, and that maternal love specifically which makes her courageous enough to take on destiny. 

Within their close-knit, isolated home, the children are just seen as unusual; being different doesn't make them unlovable or 'less' than others. It's only when outsiders disrupt this environment that Angrboda's children see themselves as monsters.

The story reads like a fairytale or myth, but turns our usual understanding of the Norse gods and Ragnarok, the ending of their days, on its head. This isn't about superheroes saving the world as in the Marvel comics and films, or even the old traditional myths, but of the power of a mother's love that can sometimes change fate, if only a little.

It's an absolutely stunning fantasy debut, and I look forward to reading more by Genevieve Gornichec.