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.