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.

Friday 4 November 2022

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett


Review by The Mole

It's the 30th anniversary of the death of John Keel - a former mentor of Vimes and a founder of the Watch. An annual pilgrimage to Keel's graveside is underway by Watch men when Vimes, chasing a hardened criminal, is transported magically back in time along with Carcer, the chap he's pursuing. 

Arrested by his younger self, for fighting with Carcer, Vimes is put in a cell alongside the man who killed John Keel. Upon his release he heads to the Unseen University to ask to be transported back when he is accosted by time controlling monks who explain he must assume the identity of John Keel who has been murdered.

While Pratchett plays with time travel in ways so many authors have, he stays true to the Discworld and the style of writing we all love. I often find I criticize time travel in plots while reading but Pratchett manages to use it in a way where I don't feel such a need.

Excellently plotted and excellently executed this story explains much of the origin of Vimes who is, to many, the best character in the entire series.

While this book has won awards (as so many Pratchett books have) it has also been serialised for Radio 4. A truly magnificent creation that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend and the sixth book with Sam Vimes in.

Wednesday 26 October 2022

Terciel and Elinor by Garth Nix


Terciel has grown up in the Old Kingdom, a land where magic exists, and the dead do not always stay dead. At an early age he was adopted by the Abhorsen, and his future mapped out for him as her successor, trained in her skills of necromancy to protect the living and keep the Dead where they belong. 

Meanwhile on the other side of the Wall, in Ancelstierre where magic doesn't belong, lives Elinor. Her life has been isolated, but quiet. All that is about to change when her mother's illness takes a turn for the worse, and brings magic, danger, and Terciel to her door. Although the life she's known so far is threatened, Elinor finds a previously-unknown sense of belonging among her new 'Charter' acquaintances from north of the Wall. 

I've loved Garth Nix's Old Kingdom stories since I borrowed my daughter's copy of Sabriel, and to return there is always a delight, even if, at times, a nail-biting one. 
This latest book is a prequel to Sabriel, and so some readers (me among them) will be aware of how the story must end. It doesn't detract from it at all though, but is as full of Charter Magic, re-awakened Dead, perils on almost every side, and a smattering of romance as anyone could want. 

Tuesday 25 October 2022

The Truth by Terry Pratchett

Review by The Mole

 William de Worde produces a newsletter about events in Ankh-Morpork He then has handwritten copies made by a local artist and sent to subscribed customers. On this occasion there is a delay which frustrates him and when dwarfs offer to print copies on a brand new and unheard of  "Printing Press" William reluctantly agrees. Incidentally they print more copies than required and insist on taking the excess out and selling. And so the first newspaper for the Discworld is born.

But it's not all journalism... the paper rocks too many boats, it is found it can be used to influence people, as well as show pictures of funny potatoes.

What seems like a possibly gently-paced story quickly becomes life and death, cutthroat business, with possibly a little love interest thrown in too - all the elements of a good Discworld novel.

Plenty of fun and laughs which we expect in a Terry Pratchett book and well worth a read.

I really enjoyed this book although, to be fair, I haven't found a Pratchett that I didn't enjoy.

It can be read in isolation but it might be nice to understand more about Vimes and Vetinari before reading this - they each have their own most excellent stories in the series.

Friday 21 October 2022

One Dark Window by Rachel Gillig

When children are infected by a magic-inducing fever, they are taken away and killed, but when Elspeth fell ill, she was hidden and saved by her aunt. Now she's left with a spirit she calls the Nightmare trapped inside her mind, afraid of it, and afraid that anyone will notice she's not like everyone else.
For years, Elspeth's believed she was the only one to survive the fever, but then she discovers that those with magic-tainted blood can be used by the king to further his plans - and that a small group is making a stand against this.  

I've always read fantasy novels but I'm finding myself increasingly drawn to them at the moment - perhaps as escapism from the real world? perhaps because the bad guys always lose, and the hero and heroine live happily ever after? Whatever the reason, I loved One Dark Window.

It's a compelling tale of dark magic and evil kings and those who oppose them, of romance among the danger - chock full of the things I like - a complex but believable magic system backed by brilliant world-building, a heroine who's prepared to stand up for herself and others, and take on the status quo, and  a story in which the 'bad guys' aren't apparent at first. All of these are bound together with an atmospheric first person narrative which pulls the reader in, and keeps them hooked. Elspeth isn't specifically unreliable as a narrator, but obviously she doesn't know everything, and the story is told in such a way that the reader can see other characters' motivation when Elspeth seems unaware of it. 
It's not perfect - at times the romance seemed a little forced, certain plot-threads seemed to be abandoned (though I hope they'll be revisited in book 2), and the end came unexpectedly and abruptly leaving me wanting more. Now!  I can't wait to read book2. 

Friday 14 October 2022

Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie

 Maryam and Zahra have been friends since childhood, so long that they can barely remember a time before they knew each other, despite their different backgrounds.  Maryam was born into privilege; the granddaughter of a wealthy Karachi businessman, destined to take over the family firm one day. Her family is one with connections - to rich government insiders, to the 'fixer' who sorts out any little problems encountered in the business and factory; if something needs sorting, they know a way. Zahra's family, while comfortably wealthy, is not in the same league; her mother is a teacher, her father a TV cricket commentator, both opponents of Pakistan's dictator, General Zia.
 At fourteen, in 1988 as Pakistan throws off its dictatorship, and elects Benazir Bhutto, they're inseparable. With a woman in charge of the country, anything suddenly seems possible.Then one night something happens that derails their futures. 

The story picks up in London, in 2019, when both are now successful women. Maryam is a venture capitalist with an interest in hi tech and social media, happy to exploit government connections to further her business deals; Zahra, the head of a civil liberties organisation, fighting the government's immigration policies. Somehow the two are still firm friends, until an acquaintance from the old days in Karachi turns up, and their instinctive reactions prove how different their morals are.

While primarily a novel about the sort of friendship that lasts a lifetime, one that withstands disagreements and challenges, it's also about money and power, the advantages they offer in life, and how both can be used for good or bad.
In comparison to, say, Shamsie's previous novel, Home Fire, the story seems a slow burn; the emphasis being on character development rather than events, but it's enjoyable and well worth reading. In fact, it wasn't till the absolute last section, set during the first lockdown of 2020, that I felt all the pieces slotting into place. 

Tuesday 4 October 2022

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

Review by The Mole

Imp Y Celyn is a strolling musician who finds himself in Ankh-Morpork but when he tries to earn a crust the Musicians Guild steps in and stops him performing. He meets C.M.O.T. Dibbler who decides that Imp Y Celyn, along with a dwarf and a troll, should form a rock band called "The Band With Rocks In" and tour the Discworld. After a performance Imp Y Celyn (who adopts the name Buddy) decides that something is missing from their sound and invites the librarian from the Unseen University to join them on keyboards. Meanwhile it appears that Buddy's name has come to Death's list but Death has taken a holiday and left Susan holding the list. Things never seem to go well for Susan, and what is one more messed up time line?

Presenting a very cynical view of music management Pratchett places Dibbler in a perfect role. And in Buddy he casts the extreme, the artist who sees money as dirty and just wants to eat, sleep, perform, repeat.

Many of the names and songs reference real historic artists and tracks and done in a subtle way that you have to be careful not to miss. Imp Y Celyn for example is Welsh and translates as something close to "bud of the holly".

At first this plot felt so un-Discworld that I seriously thought Pratchett was running out of ideas but he amazed me by crafting into it our favourite characters and staying true to Discworld so well that I loved yet another of the series.

Thursday 29 September 2022

The Crocodile Curse by Saviour Pirotta

 illustrated by Jo Lindley

Brothers Renni and Mahu, aided by their friend Princess Balaal  are off on adventures again. Renni has been working with his uncle decorating the interior of a tomb but the Pharaoh has decided alterations need to be made to the entranceway, so for a while Renni has nothing to do. Meanwhile floodwater has covered the land where Mahu grows his family's food. When it recedes, fertile black soil will be left for crops to flourish in, but for now Mahu has time on his hands. Balaal suggests they go on an a trip to Shedet, the city of Crocodiles, where the most sacred of the temple's crocodiles has died and is to be mummified.  

A fun journey soon turns more dangerous when among other visitors the friends spot Paser, Pharaoh's evil vizier. He's bound to be up to no good, but the three are determined to stop him, helped by a very unusual ibis.

This second book in the Nile Adventures series, following on from The Heart Scarab, reintroduces us to Ancient Egypt, and to the two brothers, Renni and Malu, and their friend Balaal. Since their father died, Malu, as the eldest, has to provide for his family, growing crops and fishing. Renni is quieter and more artistic and works as an apprentice to his uncle, helping with the decoration of the Pharaoh's tomb. In her own country, Balaal is a princess but she's come to the Black Land, Egypt, to discover more about its people and way of life. 

The Crocodile Curse is a book to entertain and educate.  It takes the three friends to Shedet and its temples dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile-headed god, and while young readers will find themselves caught up in their adventures, the background is full of informative facts about the culture and life of Ancient Egypt. It's a perfect tie-in to school KS2 history projects, helping to bring the past to life. Jo Lindley's black and white illustrations are full of slithery crocodiles, magnificent temples, and of course the three friends helping young readers to picture the scenes. 

Thursday 22 September 2022

Ithaca by Claire North

 Most of us are aware of the story of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, of the long years spent away from home - first in the siege at Troy, then at the mercy of gods and monsters as he tried to make his way home - but here is the story of the wife, and island, he left behind. 

Hardly more more than a girl when Odysseus left, Penelope has unobtrusively kept their island kingdom going. With all the able-bodied men following their king to war, farming, fishing, and trading have fallen to the women. Life has been quiet, but they survived. 

Now, with the majority of Greek warriors returned from Troy, Penelope faces new problems, finding herself besieged by self-proclaimed heroes determined to win her hand, and kingdom, while eating and drinking their way through her stores. At first convivial, their mood is turning nasty. What can Penelope do to keep the peace? One day, she hopes, Odysseus will return, but until then, on an island of women, old men, and inexperienced youths, who can defend her? 

There seems to be a re-awakened interest in Greek myths at the moment, with books from authors as varied as Natalie Haynes and Stephen Fry, but Ithaca I feel is the best I've read from the women's point of view. Told from the omniscient point of view of gossipy, sarcastic goddess, Hera, wife of Zeus, this is retelling with a feminist feel. How the left-at-home women actually coped while their men were away is something we can't know, but here Claire North offers an alternative to the meek-mannered version of Penelope of myth. Dealing with an unruly mob of suitors, the threat of pirates along Ithaca's coast, and the unexpected presence of a disgraced queen, Penelope proves herself to be as sly and cunning as Odysseus himself..

It's a change of mood for Claire North, whose previous novels have been more fantastical in nature, but a book I would definitely recommend.

Thursday 1 September 2022

The Wolf's Song by Saviour Pirotta

illustrated by Davide Ortu

Wolf, the Neolithic boy from the Orkney islands, has completed his journey to regain his precious amulet. Now it seems the only thing left to do is return to his home in the far north, and fulfill his dreams of becoming a shaman to help his people. But things aren't that simple. Being reunited with the amulet has brought strange dream-like visions of underwater creatures dying and being reborn, and when he is tempted to return to the temple of the Sleeping Goddess he unleashes her fury. Can he set things to right?

Fourth and last of this series set in prehistoric Britain and Europe, The Wolf's Song brings this story to a dramatic close. Wolf starts out from his home in Orkney as a young boy with aspirations to become a shaman, but with little knowledge of human nature or the wider world outside his island. On his journey, Wolf has traveled many, many miles, seen wondrous sights, and overcome numerous obstacles and challenges. Now he has at last gained the insight he needs to truly be a help to his people, but they are in physical danger. 

This has been a wonderful series, mixing nail-biting adventure with historic fact, and exploring problems and situations that are as relatable to today's readers as to the late Neolithic characters. It's a perfect read for the 7+ age group, whether they're learning about this period in school or not.

As with the previous books, the characters and atmosphere are captured by Davide Ortu's black and white illustrations. 

The previous books are - 

The Stolen Spear

The Whispering Stones

The Mysterious Island


Thursday 25 August 2022

Long Shadow by Olivia Atwater

A series of mysterious deaths is shocking Regency London. Eligible young ladies are dying in their sleep, and in the morning the western window is found open - leading some to speculate that faeries, particularly the cruel kind called sluagh, are responsible. 

Elias Wilder, Lord Sorcier of England, certainly believes this to be the case, but while he is willing to do battle with Lord Longshadow, the most important and powerful of the sluagh, he believes that his eighteen year old ward, Abigail, should not, and would, in fact, be safer in the faerie realm. 

Abigail does not agree, and sets off on her own investigation into the latest death - that of Miss Lucy Kendall - and encounters a strange young woman, dressed as a laundress, who is also searching for Lucy, or at least her ghost.

This is the second of Olivia Atwater's Regency Faerie Tales that I've read, and is again a delightful, whimsical mix of historical (lesbian) romance and faerie magic, with the extra twist of a murder mystery thrown in too. The main character, Abigail, is one of the Workhouse children rescued in Half a Soul, and here we find her a few years older, exploring her magical powers, and discovering love in a way that she feels is very unconventional, but which Mercy assures her has existed forever. 

Magic abounds, as you would expect in a story set partially in Faeryland. There are magical dances in Kensington Gardens, and ballgowns spun out of midnight, but just as Half A Soul had its darker side with explorations of the workhouse system and the apathy of most people towards its conditions, so too does Longshadow, with its look at our attitude towards death. There's the inevitable grief which turns even Lucy's stuck-up mother into someone deserving compassion, but alos Abigail and Mercy think differently about death itself. One maintaining that we should battle against it as long as possible; the other believing that there's a point as which enough is enough, and we should retire from life gracefully. It seems a slightly weird topic to encounter in what is to all intents a 'lightweight' story, but it gives depth and a contrast to the magical world of faery.

Friday 19 August 2022

This Beating Heart by Laura Barnett

At forty-three, Christina finds herself living alone, her marriage and dreams of raising a family broken down after years of unsuccessful IVF and two miscarriages. Her ex-husband has started a new life in San Francisco, while Christina remains in their old London flat, haunted by 'what might have been', and hoping that Ed will consent to her using their remaining frozen embryo for one last-ditch attempt at motherhood. 

It's time really for her to move on, and, with a little push here, and a new acquaintance there, maybe Christina can find a new future.

The author herself underwent IVF treatment, and despite, or because of, it being success it led her to think the unthinkable - what if it all goes wrong?  How do you pull yourself up and start again after such a blow? 

I've loved this author's previous novels - Versions of Us and Greatest Hits - so was very enthusiastic to read this, but somehow it just didn't hit the spot in the same way. The first half or so, while Christina struggles with the past, was immensely sad, but Barnett really got inside her character, brought her alive on the page as someone to empathise with. Yet even while things are going so badly, it's easy to predict how her future will pan out. It's not the way Christina is hoping for, but the signs are there, and when she's ready to let go of the past, things fall into place just a little too conveniently. As a light rom-com read, it's great but it wasn't what I'd expected.

Although Christina's distressing rounds of  IVF are apparent from the blurb, I feel there maybe should be a trigger warning with this book. I found it unbearably sad at times, and I can't help but wonder how it would be for anyone undergoing treatment, or, worse still, for someone whose treatment failed.

Wednesday 17 August 2022

The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan

In a small bungalow on the outskirts of a village in Co. Tipperary live three generations of Aylward women - Eileen, her mother-in-law Mary, and daughter Saoirse. It isn't a peaceful household, yet, despite the arguments and fallings-out, it's a place filled with love; a home that's far more than bricks and mortar, but a haven, a place of belonging and nurture. 

It'll come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I'm an ardent admirer of Donal Ryan's writing. I've been hooked since I first read The Thing About December, and he's one of the few authors whose books I can pick up knowing I'll be enthralled and moved. This new story is no exception.  Two pages in there's a body blow of a shock and such is Ryan's writing that the reader already feels for this character, has shared their hopes and dreams, and mourns their loss - and like the women left behind by this tragic death, we readers too have to pull ourselves up and start over again.

This unexpected start sets the tone for the book. Revolving around these three generations of women, The Queen of Dirt Island is a story of resilience despite what life throws at you, about love and family ties, told with compassion and understanding. Their lives aren't easy - by any standards they seem to attract more than their fair share of tragedy, disappointment, loss, and straight forward bad luck - but together they pull through, and we're left with an impression that the future is bright.

It's set in the same general location as most of Ryan's work (an unnamed village somewhere near to Nenagh, Tipperary), and characters from other novels put in an appearance - most noticeably from Strange Flowers, to which it feels like a companion piece, but I'm fairly sure there are others too. I love this way of setting a particular story against a backdrop where other tales are unfolding; the postman, policeman, schoolgirl, the passers-by on the street, as in real life they all have lives of their own (and if we haven't been told about them yet, maybe we will be soon).

I also particularly enjoyed what seemed like a sly criticism of  male authors or teachers of writing courses - the way Saoirse's story is taken by someone claiming to know better than her, and twisted into something more dramatic, full of violence and extreme emotions, but essentially untrue. I'd love to know if Donal Ryan had someone in mind when he wrote this. 

A book that takes its characters through devastation and anger but is ultimately filled with the redemptive power of love.

Friday 12 August 2022

The Wilderness Cure by Mo Wilde

At the end of November 2020, Mo Wilde decided to embark on a year of eating wild. She's led foraging courses for many years, and frequently encountered the query 'but could you actually live on only foraged food?' - here was a chance to prove it. So on Black Friday when the rest of the world seemed overwhelmed by buying frenzy, she resolved to stop - or at least to stop buying food. In The Wilderness Cure  Wilde takes us on an incredible year of only living on what she gather - nuts, shoots, leaves, mushrooms (so many mushrooms!) and occasional gifts of a culled deer or surplus salmon; all foods which would have been familiar to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. 

I grew up in the country, so foraging is always something I've done a little of. As a child I went out to gather blackberries and elderberries in autumn, as an adult I've collected elderflowers in spring, sloes, crab apples, and the occasional chestnut in autumn - but the important difference is that to me they're additions to what I grow or buy. I knew that it was feasible to harvest more from wild sources - mushrooms being the obvious thing but I never had any one to teach me their secrets when young, and fresh spring leaves of hawthorn or beech which I'd rather looked on as extraordinary things for when harvests had failed. This book came as a revelation of the many, many things which can be gathered from the wild; the roots and shoots, seeds and flowers, which can be used as part of our daily food.

This book is more than a foraging diary. It digresses naturally into the author's philosophy, her belief in the Gaia world-system and how this challenge re-affirmed her connection with the Earth, into the disconnection between humans and the natural world, into the bodily changes brought on by this unusual diet, and even into archaeological research which provides historical context for 'foraging' (or 'collecting dinner' as I assume our pre-historic ancestors considered it). 

It's a fascinating read, even if you've only the slightest interest in foraging but in a world based round consumption and consumerism, doing anything for yourself is an act of rebellion - and nothing more so than deciding to live on only the food you can gather for free. 


Friday 5 August 2022

The Book of Gothel by Mary McMyne

Under a trapdoor in the cellar beneath an old German house, a manuscript has been discovered. It tells the tale of  Haelewise, a girl  skilled as a midwife and able to sense the barrier between life and death, but distrusted by her neighbours who label her a 'witch' because of her black eyes and strange fainting spells. When her mother dies, and the boy she loves is forced into a loveless marriage, Haelewise decides it's best to leave the town she grew up in and seek refuge in the forest. There she finds an unexpected haven in the ancient Tower of Gothel, home to a wise woman, who keeps the old traditions of herbal lore alive.

The blurb to this book promised a new take on the old fairy tale about Rapunzel, which I thought would be an interesting read (I'm always up for a reinterpretation of old tales), but it fell a little short of my expectations. 

Haelewise's manuscript felt too long-winded and rambling; the story of a life with all its ins and outs, rather than just the core story-arc. It may be of course that you like a novel to develop in this way, but I felt it was too matter-of-fact, too realistic, and with not enough magical or fantasy elements. Maybe too much 'tell', not enough 'show', but as fantasy it left me wanting something more.

I think in many ways it would have stood better as straight-forward historical fiction, a story of women versed in pagan ways fighting to survive against 'modern' Christianity.

Sunday 24 July 2022

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin


Sadie and Sam first meet as youngsters in a hospital gaming room. She is visiting her sister; he is recovering from a devastating car accident. They bond over their love of video games, but a misunderstanding leads to them falling out with a resolve to never see each other again. 

Years later, Sam spots Sadie across a busy train station, and their connection is instant. From then on, they're inseparable (well, apart from all the times they fall out again). Together they begin to write games - not violent shooting games, but ones which give the player the escape from the real world that they'd both needed when younger. Their first game is a runaway success. But after that Sadie and Sam need to face the real world, which is never as fulfilling as a good game in which one may fail innumerable times but it's always possible to start over.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a story of love, friendship, possibilities, misunderstandings, and, of course, creating games. I found it enthralling. Their relationship echoes a game. The periods when they don't talk to each other been the equivalent of a game-character's death. Their getting back together, the 'return to last saved level' and recommencement of the game. In games, though, it's possible to press restart an infinite number of times; life isn't so convenient. 

It's an intimate and nuanced depiction of a long-term friendship - one where the friends are as close and inseparable as lovers. The characters are fully developed, flesh and blood people, faults and all. Their arguments and misunderstandings explored from both sides. 

I'm not a committed gamer, though I'm fond of Lara Croft and some of the Lego games, and it took this book to show me that games are really in essence another form of story-telling - a small child is lost at sea and must find its way home, an older child is in hospital undergoing treatment but at the same time slips into a fantasy world where there are different obstacles to overcome - and stories are ways of making sense of life.

Thursday 14 July 2022

The White Hare by Jane Johnson

 In a valley in the far west of Cornwall lies an old house, once grand and imposing, now neglected for many years. Here, in 1954 Magda, her daughter Mila, and granddaughter Janey arrive, running away from their troubled London lives.

The valley too has a mysterious past. Locals tell legends of war, and rivers running with blood, and of the mysterious disappearance of the pre-war owners, but also of a spirit, often seen in the form of a white hare, which protects those considered its own.

This, the first novel I've read by Jane Johnson, is an atmospheric tale of two women looking for new beginnings in an old house, woven through with just a hint of magic. The valley is immediately recognised (by the reader at least) as somewhere 'other'; a place where old traditions hold sway, from herbal lore to a sort of Earth Mother worship. Magda, an out and out 'townie', doesn't appear to feel anything strange, but Mila, raised in the country by her grandmother, senses foreboding in the air, especially when 5 year old Janey begins to behave strangely as if influenced by her surroundings. The three also respond in different ways to Jack, the stranger found in their barn - Magda treats as she might any other man, as someone to be of use to her; Mila approaches him with caution, while Janey immediately and enthusiastically 'adopts' him as a father figure.

I really liked the characters here, the change in the relationship between mother and daughter, and the gradual peeling back of layers to reveal their past lives. Here they can at last find a way to communicate with each other, maybe not quite as mother and daughter, but at least woman to woman.

Thursday 7 July 2022

For the Throne by Hannah Whitten


"Red and the Wolf have finally contained the threat of the Five Kings, but at a steep cost. Red's beloved sister - Neve, the First Daughter - is lost in the Shadowlands. But Neve has an ally, even if it's one she'd rather never speak to again - the rogue king Solmir. Together they must journey across a dangerous landscape to find the mysterious Heart Tree - and finally claim the gods' dark, twisted powers for themselves."

For the Throne continues (and concludes) the story of twin sisters, Red and Neve, both in different ways locked into inescapable destinies. Red is now happily settled in the Wilderwood with her Wolf, but Neve is trapped  in the upside down, shadowy monochrome world of the Shadowlands. Neve must journey through this horrific landscape to find the enigmatic Heart Tree, which might somehow, with luck, and a huge dose of sisterly love, show her the way to return to the world above. On the way there are monsters and gods to contend with, and no one to help Neve - unless she can be persuaded to place her trust in her enemy Solmir.

Most of the story takes places in the creepy world of the Shadowlands, following Neve and Solmir - and what a scary, disturbing world it is! Fortunately there are brief respites, and flashes of colour, as Red works from her side of the barrier to reach Neve. 

There is perhaps a lot of trudging along through the Shadowlands' wastes, but at the same time this gives Neve time to reflect on some of her earlier decisions, and on Solmir's character and intentions - for the first,  acknowledging that they may not have been as right as she believed, for the latter - well - that he may not be as out and out evil as she'd assumed. In both regards, Neve has a lot of personal growing to do.

All in all a gripping mix of magic, horror, and sisterly love.

I haven't read what might be considered the first half of this duology - For the Wolf which follows Red's story - but enough references are made to the events in it to fill in the background while still leaving the reader wanting to know more. 

Friday 24 June 2022

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett


Review by TheMole

Brutha is working in the monastery gardens when a turtle lands nearby - as they do. This turtle was supposed to be a mighty eagle but you can't have everything.

Brutha is a novice in the monastery, dedicated to the god Om, and is not likely to progress because while he seems to lack many skills he also has unrecognised skills. One such skill is to hear the voice of this particular turtle who claims to be the god Om. Brutha is a gentle soul and would not hurt a harmless creature and so he becomes guardian of the turtle god.

Brutha is chosen to go with a delegation to try to persuade them to worship Om but he suspects treachery, murder and war may ensue. And harmless Brutha with his pet turtle are trapped in the middle.

The 13th book in the series this felt like a deviation from the "normal" Discworld books but still delights in the same humorous vein. None of the regular characters appear although you very quickly don't miss them.

Once again you can see parallels to real life and views on those events expressed - but not at the expense of humour and a most enjoyable story.

Highly recommended but if you're new to the Discworld and want to know what it's all about then consider not starting with this one.

Publisher: Transworld

Genre: Fantasy, comedy

Thursday 23 June 2022

Madwoman by Louisa Treger

In 1887, Nellie Bly arrived in New York determined to make a name for herself in journalism, not in the accepted female range of journalism, of theatre reviews and flower arranging, but as a serious reporter covering social issues and inequalities. She'd had some success in her home town of Pittsburgh, but New York proved a harder nut to crack. In desperation she came up with a plan to get admitted to the asylum on Blackwell's Island and uncover the treatment of the patients there. What she found was beyond her most horrific expectations. 

Madwoman follows the true story of pioneering journalist Nellie Bly, her internment in a mental health facility, and the cruelty and oppression she found there. Although I wasn't aware of Nellie's story, I had heard of the appalling treatment of mental health patients in the days of 'lunatic asylums', and of many cases of people wrongly incarcerated. As such, much of the dreadful treatment didn't come as a shock to me,  and I found the writing style also distanced me from the horror; for my preferences, it was a little too much 'tell', not enough 'show'.

Not a book you'll 'enjoy', but one which many may find informative and shocking.

Thursday 16 June 2022

Half a Soul by Olivia Atwater

As a child, Dora Ettings wandered into Faerieland, and had half her soul stolen away. Since then she's only experienced emotions in a detached way. She feels neither fear not embarrassment, and doesn't see how falling in love would be remotely possible. 

Now, Dora's accompanying her cousin, Vanessa, to London in the hope of finding husbands for them both during the Season.  In polite society, say at a ball, Dora's curse makes her inclined to say or do the wrong thing, but when her aunt tries to pair her off with Albert Lowe, an eligible 'younger son' who helps as a doctor in the city's workhouses, Dora's lack of feeling proves invaluable; the dreadful conditions she encounters don't repulse her, and she's able to calmly assist when needed. This isn't, of course, what her aunt had planned. Nor is a close association with the Lord Sorcier, Elias Wilder, who she meets though Albert and his investigation into a mysterious sleeping sickness spreading among the workhouse children. 

I'd expected a light Regency Bridgerton-style romcom, with a hint of faerie magic, but found something with more grit. Yes, there are balls and romance, but there are also darker undercurrents which I think made it more compelling for me. On one hand, there's the dark world of Faerie which threatens to trap Dora, just as everything seems to be going well for her. On the other, the work of Albert and Elias among the poor exposes the very real conditions of 19th century workhouses, and also the lack of concern shown by much of society for anyone unfortunate enough to end up there. Neither Bridgerton nor Austen's works concern themselves much with the world beyond 'society', but here the reader is forced to see beyond the fancy ballgowns and marriage market, and encounter complacent attitudes which seem very common today.

I understand there are further books planned in this series, and I'm intrigued to discover what they're like. 


Thursday 9 June 2022

The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by Sean Lusk

 Abel Cloudesley is a renowned maker of clocks and mechanical marvels in 18th century London. Left devastated by the death of his wife in childbirth, he tries his best to bring up his son Zachary with the help of a wet nurse, Mrs Morley, and occasional interference from his wife's eccentric aunt Frances, but an accident in the workshop leaves six year old Zachary blind in one eye, and everyone agrees that Aunt Frances's country house with its weird collection of birds and animals would be a better place for a young inquisitive boy.

Zachary has always been wise beyond his years, and able to randomly forecast future events. Now, seemingly aided by an artificial eye created by Abel's most skilled assistant, he seems able to read thoughts and hopes, and when his father is lost on a government mission to Constantinople, Zachary is the only one who believes he's still alive and in need of rescue.

I'm trying hard to not give away the whole plot, but this is one of those books that seem difficult to give a feel for without doing so! Part historical fiction, part fantasy, it wasn't quite as I expected (I had hoped for a greater fantasy element), but I still enjoyed it immensely. From Abel's workshop to the crowded streets and luxurious palaces of Constantinople it's a very atmospheric read that will cast its spell over you; it's not one to dash through, but to sink into and savour. The cast of characters are equally numerous and varied, from Abel's old school friend now up to something shady in the British government to the black eunuch in charge of the seraglio, who's possibly the real power in Constantinople. I particularly liked the inclusion of LGBTQ characters as people just getting on with life and love, being accepted by others for who they were without any fuss. 

It's an adventure story but also one about love and the ties that bind family, friends and lovers. One I would say for lovers of Alix E Harrow's The Ten Thousand Doors of January or Claire North's novels.

Thursday 26 May 2022

The Red Arrow by William Brewer

 'A failed American novelist is on honeymoon in Italy, but the day of this story he's travelling from Rome to Modena by the 'frecciarossa' high-speed train (the 'red arrow' of the book's title). He's in the process of ghost-writing the life story of a famous physicist, but the physicist has disappeared - refusing to answer e-mails or phone calls. This has put our unnamed narrator in a fix, as finishing the memoir was the only way he could write off a huge advance from his publishers, but he's hoping to find the physicist at home on his family estate. 

While the train rushes through Italian countryside, the narrator's thoughts wonder back over his life - through years of depression and the life-altering psychedelic drug treatment which saved him. 

The Red Arrow is a difficult book to describe without giving a complete spoiler. The writing is straight forward, very American to my mind (though I'd be hard pressed to describe what exactly I mean by that), but the narrator's thoughts are circuitous, constantly circling round the big 'treatment' event without approaching it. Even so, I found it very readable. 

There's a huge amount of coincidence or interconnectedness to events and characters, and a resolution which resembles the 'which came first; the chicken or the egg?' conundrum. To be honest this seems only fair and fitting as I picked this read up from Netgalley solely on the basis that one of our local buses is named the Red Arrow. What I didn't expect was the brief appearance of my grandmother's next door neighbour, D H Lawrence, but that's coincidence for you.  
All in all, an intriguing book, and one I think I'll read again.

Thursday 19 May 2022

The Mysterious Island by Saviour Pirotta


illustrated by Davide Ortu

Wolf lives in the Neolithic Age on the islands of Orkney, off the north coast of Britain. He's no good at the things that matter to his family and fellow islanders - things like fishing, hunting, or minding sheep - but has at last discovered his place in life and how to help his people, by becoming a shaman. The village's current shaman is willing to help him, but the shaman's son, Rain, who has never really liked Wolf, wants to be the one to replace his father, and his ambition will stop at nothing. 

Now, Rain has stolen Wolf's precious amulet, and in an attempt to retrieve it Wolf and his friend Crow (a young female warrior) find themselves on a journey across seas and unknown lands to an island at the centre of the world. Along the way Wolf and Crow see caves filled with paintings, a mountain that shoots fire into the sky, and temples constructed by long-forgotten people, but the most important discovery comes from within Wolf himself; that forgiveness is better than retaliatory anger.

This third book in the Wolfsong series continues Wolf's story on the path to achieving his ambition of becoming a shaman, to help his people interpret the spirits around them, and to conquer the evil ones that live within him. Aimed at children aged 7 and over, it fits well with Key Stage 2 history, but is first and foremost an adventure story, full of dangers and wonders, bringing the past to life with characters and situations that children can relate to, aided as always by Davide Ortu's illustrations. 

Wednesday 11 May 2022

The Mercenary River: Private Greed, Public Good: A History of London's Water By Nick Higham

Clean water available at the turn of a tap is something we all take for granted, at least in the 'developed' world. If you think about it at all it's when something goes wrong and supply fails, or when a documentary about conditions elsewhere reminds you of the value of water piped to your home. Does anyone wonder where their water actually comes from? Probably not; we've grown to expect it to be there when needed. And does anyone ever wonder about WHO decided to pipe water into our homes, and WHY?

These are the thoughts that prompted Nick Higham to research the history behind London's water system. It's basically a tale of two halves - on one hand of the recognition that fresh water delivered via pipes is a basic need, keeping dirt and disease at bay, especially in over-crowded cities; on the other, the realisation that there's money to be made in providing that service. It shouldn't really come as a surprise that such a basic necessity was so easily turned into a source of profit, and at such an early date, but somehow it does.

Medieval Londoners were supplied with water, surprisingly at no cost, via conduits, but as the city grew, so did its need for water, and, from 1619 with the setting up of the New River company, so did the network of pipes carrying it, and ultimately carrying sewerage away. And with the supply of water came other things - the creation of civil engineering, and a new form of financing; the joint stock corporation. The history of London's water supply is seen to be inevitably linked to so many aspects of life from health and hygiene to powering industry to nepotism and financial corruption. 

Considering the complexity and breadth of the subject, The Mercenary River is very readable, balancing anecdotes about the entrepreneurs, investors, and engineers associated with these colossal projects with the overwhelming amount of facts and figures necessarily involved. It's not a light bedside read but if you've an interest in the who and what and why of the development of society than it's very interesting. 

Wednesday 4 May 2022

Traitor in the Ice by K J Maitland

In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, King James and his officials are looking to track down one of the perpetrators, perhaps even the mastermind behind the whole affair, who goes by the false name of Spero Pettingar, One of their agents is sent to investigate rumours that Pettingar may be in hiding at Battle Abbey, but is soon found dead, struck down and left to freeze in the dreadful cold. So Daniel Pursglove is despatched on the same mission - to infiltrate the household of Battle Abbey, home of Lady Magdalen Montague, a fervent Catholic and known supporter of priests and possible traitors - and to track down the murderer. 

Daniel finds a house of many secrets - a few hidden priests seems to be the least of them - and as with any secret of a dangerous nature people are prepared to kill to protect it. Daniel, obviously, has only his wits to help him solve the crime; no fingerprints or DNA, no minuscule spy cameras to catch people's movements, and it makes for a story that's very different to a modern thriller. The mix of fiction and historical fact is well done, with details such as Daniel's day-to-day role in the household, and the dire freezing winter of 1607 adding to the atmosphere and authenticity. 

This is the second 'outing' for Daniel Pursglove, and I think it's better to have read the first before this. There are a couple of initially confusing flashbacks to his past which I assume would make more sense if I'd read the books in order.


Thursday 21 April 2022

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

 Cushla and Michael first meet one evening in her family's pub just outside Belfast. Their attraction is instant and mutual, but what do a young, single, Catholic teacher and an older, married, Protestant barrister have in common, especially when British soldiers stand armed on every street, and sectarian violence is erupting all around them?
Meanwhile through a boy in her class, Cushla becomes involved in the welfare of a mixed Protestant/Catholic family. She starts out with the best of intentions, but it seems like everything she does just makes things worse. 

Set in 1970s Belfast, Trespasses is a Romeo and Juliet style tale of two people drawn to each other in defiance of everything that stands in their way. 

Beautiful and shocking at the same time, it's told from Cushla's perspective, and the reader can sense the desire sweeping her off her feet, going against everything she considers sensible, and the doubts that plague her about Michael - does he really feel the same, or is she just another extra-marital affair to him?  

It's both wonderful and heartbreaking. A feeling of imminent tragedy hangs over it all, but even though you instinctively know this love affair is doomed, when the end does come your breath catches. it's the sort of novel I want to push into everyone's hands and say 'read this!'.

An astounding debut from Louise Kennedy, and I can't wait to see what she follows it with

Wednesday 13 April 2022

Shadowlands by Matthew Green

 Under Britain's streets, fields and lakes lies another landscape of forgotten villages and towns; places that for natural, economic or military reasons have been abandoned and left to decay. Maybe too many of the populace died of plague for the village to be viable, maybe the sea came crashing through doors too often, maybe authority in the form of city corporations in need of water or the Ministry of Defence needing training grounds decided their need was greater than that of the inhabitants, but all over the country remains can be found of places that for one reason or another people left; sometimes voluntarily, sometimes being evicted.

In Shadowlands, Matthew Green takes us on a tour of eight of these places from Skara Brae on Orkney, hidden for thousands of years under sand dunes, to Winchelsea on the English Channel, where not one, but two, towns have fallen foul of coastal conditions - the first washed away by violent storms, the second decaying slowly as its harbour silted and traders left.

On the way, he takes the reader to Wharram Percy, left a ghost town after the Black Death and a subsequent change in farming practices, 

Trellech on the Welsh Marches near Chepstow - once a bustling place feeding the English settlers need for iron armaments and accoutrements of war

Dunwich where a Medieval city on the Suffolk cliffs has gradually crumbled into the sea.

St Kilda which had to be abandoned by its inhabitants when its population dropped to unsustainable levels as young people sought a life beyond their inhospitable, isolated island home.

The lost villages of Norfolk taken over during WW2 for military training, and never given back.

And, the most poignant perhaps because it's still remembered by people who grew up there, the valley of Capel Celyn in North Wales, lost to Liverpool's growing need for water.

Part history book, part travelogue, this is both an engaging and informative read, bringing these locations back to life, and placing their growth and decline within a wider context of social change around them. Green also digresses into how previous visitors/generations have responded to these places - from touristy explorers of the Enlightenment looking for noble savages on the islands of St Kilda, to the romantic poets mourning the passing of Dunwich or Winchelsea.

I've always had a curiosity about the past, and forgotten places such as this have a mysterious pull about them - trying to imagine the lives of the people who lived and worked there, their sadness (or perhaps delight) at leaving - more so than the ruins you might find lurking under a shopping mall, so this books was definitely MY kind of thing, and I'd greatly recommend it to anyone with even a mild curiosity about the past.

Tuesday 5 April 2022

Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee

Following from Francesca May's Wild And Wicked Things, we have another story about witchcraft, but of a rather different sort. Wild and Wicked Things is set in an alternative early twentieth century, and its witchcraft is of its time - very glamorous and full of temptation. Cunning Women is set three centuries earlier, when witchcraft was very much believed in, something to be feared and persecuted, and it's far more down to earth in setting and story.

Sarah Haworth and her family have had to leave their home after the death of her father. They now live in an abandoned house outside the village, and scrape together a living selling potions and cures, which has earned them a reputation as 'cunning women' or witches. Sarah's mother is inclined to encourage this label as she feels it gives them protection as the villagers live in fear of the illness and pain witches might cause; Sarah would just rather live a normal life, and is delighted when Daniel, the local farmer's son, becomes attracted to her, and gives her a job at the farm. 
Then, following a series of strange deaths, a new magistrate arrives, and his eye turns towards the 'cunning women'. Public opinion has turned against the Haworth family, with people seeking to settle old wrongs and grudges. Can Sarah manage to protect her family, and save her relationship with Daniel? In a world set against anyone practising witchcraft, where too many innocent women have already died for the offence, it seems unlikely.
In many ways, this is a familiar story - a historical tale of witchcraft, of seventeenth century persecution of anyone suspected of it, of the personal grudges leading to false accusations and deaths - and, although good enough, didn't enthrall me.

Monday 28 March 2022

Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May

Annie Mason's parents separated when she was young, and her father has remained a distant, virtually unknown figure in her life, but when he dies she inherits his belongings and house on mysterious Crow Island. It's a place with a reputation, for Crow Island is the last refuge of magic in a world from which it's been banned., but Annie despite her misgivings needs to go there to sort her father's property, and there's an added incentive in that it was also the last address Annie had for her long-lost friend Bea.

 Annie is a 'nice girl'; her mother's brought her up to be good, to never question, let alone break, the law forbidding magic, and to only envisage a future of husband and family, but from the moment she arrives on Crow Island Annie is tempted. From the tourist shops selling harmless herb-scented teas, the crows gathering ominously on roofs and fences, to the wild kazam-fueled parties held at the Delacroix house there's a scent of magic in the air. But it's the enigmatic neighbour Emmeline Delacroix, with her dark, mysterious past and gender-bender style that Annie finds most bewitching; despite the warning from her father's friend/solicitor, and even after she uncovers the dark bond forged by Emmeline and Bea, Annie can't help being attracted.

I'm going to make it clear upfront that I know the author - in happier pre-Covid times she helped run the local Waterstones book group I attended - and I heard long ago of her pet fantasy novel - a witchy, gay take on The Great Gatsby, that to be honest I thought sounded a bit weird. But I applied for and received a Netgalley copy, started to read - and loved it! 

It's not remotely a formulaic lesbian re-telling of Fitzgerald's story  but a fantastic read in its own right - dark, wicked and so entrancing. Gatsby dazzled his neighbours with money and alcohol, and no one queried their sources; Emmeline does the same with magic, from the small innocuous potions to perhaps attract a lover, to dark dangerous spells that are bargains sealed with blood and demanding blood (very literally) in payment, 

Much like Gatsby and co, these wild and wicked characters are morally ambivalent at best; messed up by their personal backstories, and with no sense of right and wrong beyond how it fits their needs. No one is out and out 'bad', and not even Annie could claim to be 'snow white'. To my mind, it makes them more interesting and realistic, but in a fantasy novel they may not be to everyone's taste. 

A gentle warning - Wild and Wicked Things may start slowly and quietly but builds through unsettling moments to horror and bloody violence. So, be warned, it's may not be for readers of a tame, easily disturbed disposition. 

Last year I included another, more traditional, Gatsby spin off - Nick by Michael Farris Smith - in my picks of the year; this year Wild and Wicked Things will be up there.