Tuesday 5 December 2023

Held by Anne Michaels

The book (I'm not sure whether to refer to it as story) begins on the battlefields of WW1 where a soldier, John, lies injured, with his thoughts drifting back to childhood, to his first meeting with his lover, to times since then spent with her. Three years later, he's home, reunited with Helena, trying to pick up the life that was interrupted by war, but still carrying the physical and mental scars of battle, and still searching for that place and time when he felt 'held' and surrounded by love.

At this point it feels like the story might follow their life - but it doesn't. There's no linear plot, not even an overall story arc or a darting backwards and forwards to reveal something buried in the past. Instead the book is comprised of vignettes capturing a moment in time, highlighting important moments in the lives of John's family over four generations,with a linking theme of their search for that feeling of love and safety.

Overall I found this an odd book, maybe because I was expecting something more straightforward. The writing is beautiful and poetic, but the flitting from one generation to the next is confusing at first, and takes some getting used to. Having finished the book and being able to see it as a whole, I feel I can appreciate it more, and would like to reread it.

Tuesday 21 November 2023

This Plague of Souls by Mike McCormack

A man, Nealon, returns home to find his house empty; not just empty but seemingly abandoned. No heating. No lights. No inhabitants. The only welcome (as such) is from an unknown man on the telephone. A man who seems to know all about Nealon, and certainly more than the reader does.. 

As days pass more of Nealon's life is revealed - his childhood in rural Ireland, his career as an artist, his relationship with his wife and son, and, crucially, where he's been for the past few months - but he himself remains an enigma. He may, or may not, have been behind an enormous insurance fraud. He may be the person behind an ongoing security alert ... but, then again, he may not

This is definitely a difficult book to describe, but for its length (under 200 pages) it gives the reader a lot to think about. It's a strange book, weird but absorbing, enigmatic like its protagonist, which raises more questions about characters and events than get answered. (I once read that a lack of resolution was the mark of a literary novel - in which case this must be the most literary of them all). For me, it's a book that I'd go back to and mull over; I feel like there are hints and details along the way that didn't register with me on a first read-through but which would help clarify the ending. 

I haven't read anything previously by Mike McCormack but knew he'd been long-listed for the Booker, so was intrigued when I saw this come up on Netgalley. I'm not certain if this is typical of McCormack's style but to me it seemed reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's work, with that feeling of a character creating the world around him as he names things and people.


Tuesday 31 October 2023

The Harbour Lights Mystery by Emylia Hall

"As The Shell House Detectives try to solve a family mystery, their investigation runs dangerously close to a murder case. Are the two linked?"

 The Shell House Detectives are back. Thrown together over the solving of a murder case, unlikely couple Ally, the widow of a retired country policeman, and Jayden a much younger ex-city cop have set up the Shell House Detective Agency. Over summer they've solved some low key cases but the approach of Christmas finds them on the fringes of another murder.

Ally Bright is in Mousehole for a fun evening of carols and Christmas lights when the evening's festivities are cut short by the discovery of a dead body. Her friend Gus, despite being a budding crime writer, wants to head home immediately, but Ally is eager to find out more. This time, though, she really does have to leave things to the police.

 The dead man is quickly identified as J P Sharpe, a chef at a local restaurant, and someone with a string of enemies. An added complication is an unposted letter found in his coat pocket, which might be the solution to a local family mystery. This is something Ali and Jayden can get involved in, especially as they know those involved, but their inquiries lead them back to the killer and a dangerous situation they may not be able to get out of. 

 I really enjoyed the first in this cosy crime series, The Shell House Detectives, and if anything this return to Porthpella is better. I felt there was more opportunity this time for Hall's ability to create atmosphere and location.  The real Cornish fishing village of Mousehole, setting for the murder; with its jolly festive lights sharply contrasting with the empty dunes and lonely out-of-season vibes of Porthpella.

There's also opportunity to get to know the characters better. To explore Ally's unsettled relationship with Gus, Jayden's absorption with fatherhood and misgivings about leaving the police force, plus the lives and backstories of the 'supporting cast' of Saffron, the cafe-owning surfer, and Mullins, the inexperienced and slightly immature local policeman. 

If you're looking for a Christmassy cosy crime adventure this is perfect, but if you're looking for a snow-filled coming-of-age mystery I'd also add a suggestion to track down one of Emylia Hall's earlier novels - A Heart Bent Out of Shape 

Thursday 19 October 2023

Julia by Sandra Newman

 "London, chief city of Airstrip One, the third most populous province of Oceania. It's 1984 and Julia Worthing works as a mechanic fixing the novel-writing machines in the Fiction Department at the Ministry of Truth. Under the ideology of IngSoc and the rule of the Party and its leader Big Brother, Julia is a model citizen - cheerfully cynical, believing in nothing and caring not at all about politics. She knows how to survive in a world of constant surveillance, Thought Police, Newspeak, Doublethink, child spies and the black markets of the prole neighbourhoods. She's very good at staying alive."

To be honest, when I first heard about 'Julia' I wondered if we really needed a re-telling of "!984" -  it's a dystopian classic after all - but I was intrigued enough to read it, and I'm glad I did.The story is told this time from the point of view of Winston Smith's lover Julia, and their relationship given a new twist. 

While outwardly following the rules laid down by Big Brother and the Party, following the dull, regimented life expected of lower Party members, Julia has found ways to sidestep the regulations and live a slightly fuller life - or so she thinks. Big Brother has eyes everywhere, Julia's activities have been noted, and she finds herself drawn into a plot against Smith. 

Newman has managed to catch Orwell's writing style, cleverly twining a new story around the original, and incorporating much of his dialogue. If anything the dreariness of existence under Big Brother's regime seems more overwhelming - perhaps because Julia desires more from life than Winston does. Unqualified support of the Party is necessary, sex and marriage are frowned on, and entertainment consists mainly of meetings given over to Party propaganda and the occasional game of table tennis. Being selected as part of a conspiracy plays into Julia's craving for excitement, but she isn't as essential as she feels; in fact she's merely being manipulated along with everyone else.

To say I 'enjoyed' this is maybe not the accurate word - hard hitting and brutal, it's a story about living without hope and with no real prospect of any in the future - but it's a powerful read. A word of warning - there are disturbing torture scenes, and explicit sex scenes.

Out of curiosity, I decided to reread "1984" immediately afterward, and actually found "Julia" the better of the two. Maybe it speaks more directly to me as a woman, but it benefits, I feel, from losing the long chapters of Goldstein's subversive text and the torture scenes which go on for far too long. In Julia they're short and sharp, but lose none of their terror. 

Also, when your lover has betrayed you rather than face a couple of rats, what do you do? Julia's way is gruesome, if not sickening, but definitely effective. Proving once again that the female of her species is more deadly than the male

Saturday 14 October 2023

The Low Road by Katharine Quarmby

Hannah Tyrell's childhood was a happy one. She and her mother lived and worked on a farm in the Waveney valley in Norfolk, and despite some villagers looking down on her mother for being unmarried, their lives were settled and content. Then tragedy struck - Hannah's mother is arrested for the suspected murder of her newborn child, and commits suicide, and, the village not wanting to support her, Hannah sent away to a Refuge for the Destitute in London.

The one instance of companionship and love she finds there is deemed 'unnatural' and 'vicious' , and an attempt to run away leads Hannah into further trouble. Moving from one bad situation to a worse, her life cycles downwards until eventfully she's transported to Australia. 

The Low Road is the moving story of a young girl caught up, through no fault of her own, in the early 19th century system of Refuges and Workhouses that took care of the destitute. If you've ever watched the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? which traces family trees, you'll be aware that once part of that system there's very little chance of escape.

It's a gritty, realistic story - both depressingly familiar, and yet unique; focusing on one individual, Hannah, and bringing life and compassion to the 'statistics' of Refuges' drudgery and transportation. An interesting read based on real-life records which brings the injustices of the past vividly to life.

Thursday 5 October 2023

Upon a Frosted Star by M A Kuzniar

Once a year, as the snow begins to fall on London, invitations arrive to a fabulous party held in a remote manor house. Attending for the first time, Forster is amazed and bewitched, by the opulence and magic of the evening, not least by the ethereal, enigmatic ballet dancer who steals his heart. Determined to find out who she is, he returns at a later date but finds nothing but an abandoned house and a lake on which a solitary swan is swimming. He must wait till the next winter before he can see his beautiful dancer again.

Through his love for Odetta, Forster finds inspiration for, and success in, his art, but they cannot be together until he can unravel the spell that ballet impresario Rothbard has cast over her

A mix of fantasy and historical fiction, Upon A Frosted Star is a beautiful, heartbreaking re-telling of Swan Lake, with a sprinkle of Gatsby-inspired parties thrown in. The story is simple in some ways - we know who the good guys are, we want them to live happily ever after, and we know that Rothbard is undoubtedly evil despite the magical ballets that he produces - but the telling is captivating.

The only negative I could find was that at times things move along a little too slowly. Part of this is due to Forster and Odetta being only able to meet in winter, but I also thought there was a little too much unnecessary (in my opinion at least) detour into the relationship between Forster and his friends, Marvin and Daisy. I wanted the story to stay with Forster and Odetta, and their attempts to be free from Rothbart's evil designs 

Thursday 21 September 2023

Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim

Meet Sally Pinner - the most beautiful young woman you're likely to meet. All her life Sally's looks have stopped people in their tracks, and attracted attention. Throughout her childhood she was kept quietly hidden away in the backrooms of her parents' shop, but now, as she's growing up, her widowed father doesn't know what to do to keep Sally safe from the men who flock around whenever she appears. At first he tries moving from London to a sleepy village near Cambridge, but even there the threat of her being 'discovered' by undergraduates gives him cause for alarm. 

Then one day, one of those very undergraduates, Jocelyn Luke, calls in at the shop, falls head over heels in love, and proposes. To Mr Pinner this is an ideal way to solve the issue of Sally's safety - get someone else to look after her. She and Jocelyn will marry and all will be well - but having fallen for Sally's looks Jocelyn discovers that there were perhaps other things he should have considered. Sally's conversation, education, and manner of speech are all an embarrassment to him - plus he now realises the stir that Sally creates everywhere, and that he is the one to keep such unwanted attention at bay.
Meanwhile, back in her refined but tiny home, Jocelyn's widowed mother has a not-quite romantic entanglement of her own. Her distress at hearing of her only son's marriage and the possible throwing away of his bright academic future led to her accepting a marriage proposal from her undoubtedly rich, but not quite of her class, neighbour. Can she really tolerate his free and easy manners and turns of speech?

Introduction to Sally was first published in 1926, and, although we probably think we're above such matters these days, I feel we all love a comedy which laughs at our perceptions of, and about, class - think of Henry Higgins trying to teach Eliza Doolittle to speak 'proper English', or, more recently, wannabe social-climber Hyacinth Bucket.  There's certainly more than a touch of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady in this comedy of manners as Jocelyn and his mother attempt to improve Sally's speech, but she is no Eliza Doolittle, and refuses to hear the difference between her words and theirs. Sally has her own ideas about how to behave well (a husband doesn't dump his new bride with his mother and go and live elsewhere, and he certainly shouldn't swear) and won't tolerate anyone contradicting her. 
Von Arnim is probably best known for The Enchanted April which, although it has its humorous moments and ironic observations, isn't as thoroughly funny in the way of Introduction to Sally;  from the crowds who flock to gaze adoringly at Sally, the loss of luggage from the back of the car and its subsequent retrieval, to Mr Pinner's obsession with keeping Sally 'safe' the humour ranges from sly wit to farce. As with the best comedy scriptwriters, von Arnim has the knack of highlighting the short-comings of her characters while still leading the reader to become fond of them. I think it's rather a pity that there were no follow-ups to this Introduction, for a I suspect Sally would have triumphed over prejudice every time 


Wednesday 13 September 2023

What it was like to be an Ancient Roman by David Long

Following on from What it was like to be a Viking, Blue Peter Award winner David Long takes us to Ancient Rome to discover what life was like there.

Illustrated by Stefano Tambellini, this is a short but all-encompassing introduction to life in Ancient Rome aimed at readers of 9 and over (KS2). It introduces children to the history of Rome, from a group of huts to a sprawling empire, and its many accomplishments of roads and buildings, legal systems and calendars, echoes of which can still be seen today.  They can learn about amphitheatres and bath houses, about life in town or country, what Romans ate, what jobs they would have had, the gods and goddesses they worshiped, and what ultimately led to the Empire's downfall.

An excellent introduction to the Roman world whether to spark an interest in history or back up school lessons.

Friday 8 September 2023

Normal Rules Don't Apply by Kate Atkinson


This latest offering from Kate Atkinson is a collection of eleven slightly off-beat short stories. They range from an oddly quiet end of the world apocalypse to a fairy tale in which a queen bargains for her daughter's life, and are interconnected as locations and similar, if not identical, characters pop up in more than one story - they might make their fortune by listening to a talking horse, they might find themselves framed for murder. 

A whimsical collection like this ought to have right up my street, and normally I love Kate Atkinson's work, but somehow I quickly found it failing to engage me. I almost didn't finish.

An odd thought, but one which might prove helpful, is that I felt I disliked it in the way I dislike Pratchett/Gaiman's Good Omens. Maybe they share something in style or substance

Thursday 24 August 2023

House of Odysseus by Claire North

In this second book of the Songs of Penelope, we return to the rocky island of Ithaca, home to Odysseus, who has been absent nearly twenty years, and to his wife, Penelope, who was left behind to wait, and keep things going as best she can.

Time is moving on though. Troy is defeated. Helen is back in Sparta with her husband Menelaus. Soldiers and sailors are now returned - all except Odysseus. On Ithaca, Penelope's position has become more precarious than ever after her son left in search of his father. With only a council of elderly men to support her, she needs to maintain peace and independence.
  Enter Orestes and Elektra, children of Agamemnon, caught up in their own Greek tragedy - their sister killed by their father, their father killed by their mother, Clytemnestra, who was in turn slain by Orestes in the name of justice. Remorse now seems to have driven Orestes to madness, and Elektra fears what will happen to both of them when word gets out. Their uncle, Menelaus, flush with his victory in Troy, seeks to take over Orestes' throne and make himself king of all the Greeks.

Book One, Ithaca, was told from the omniscient viewpoint of the goddess Hera. Now her role is taken over by Aphrodite, goddess of love with an eye for warriors' rippling muscles or women's softly turned limbs. She's sly and playful, but a fierce advocate of love in all its forms - romantic, familial, or just between friends.

Penelope is a lonely figure, in need of compassion and love. Her maids try their best but Penelope is still queen with the isolation and responsibility that position brings. She has though found a better path through the rules and restrictions laid down by the patriarchal society in which she lives than her fellow queens.  As the story evolves Penelope is proving to be just as wily and cunning as her renowned husband. While she manoeuvres men, playing them like chess pieces, and hiding her own involvement,  Helen employs a different sort of subterfuge. Subjected to her husband's beatings and repeated rapes, she hides her thoughts and feelings behind the cover of childishness and drunkenness, while biding her time for opportunities for revenge. Clytemnestra, throwing off any subterfuge, and openly taking a lover while her husband is absent was never going to succeed and live happily ever after; the rules of her world would never allow it.

I loved Ithaca with its story of the resilient, resourceful women of Ithaca, left behind to cope without their menfolk, and was just that little worried that House of Odysseus might not live up to it - but it did, possibly even surpassing it.

Wednesday 23 August 2023

Prophet by Helen Macdonald and Sin Blache


Sunil Rao is brought in by US forces to investigate when an all-American diner pops up overnight in a British field. His unique talent is the ability to spot lies and fakes, and he soon realises that this diner is not, however improbable its sudden appearance, a real diner, but a construct formed of someone's idea of how a diner should look. It's apparent quite early on that the high-ups in the US military have some idea of what's going on, and Rao and his partner/minder Lt Col Adam Rubenstein (who he's worked with before) are soon off to the US, to meet with the people behind the secret Prophet project, which twists memories to control its subjects, but which is getting dangerously out of hand.

While this started off with an original idea that feels more like fantasy than anything else, the way the story progresses is like a military espionage drama - a little bit X Files, a lot of A Few Good Men or The Presedio - so not quite what I'd expected which wrong-footed me at first, and I found it difficult to get into the story and care about our two heroes, Rao and Rubenstein. The plot seemed slow to advance, with a lot of time spent in military conference rooms or laboratories, debating what is happening, who's behind Prophet, laying down military plans, with the 'higher ups' trying to obscure the issue rather than help to solve it.

The relationship between the two men also takes up a considerable amount of the book, as it delves into their pasts, and the feelings which Rao is happy to openly acknowledge while Rubenstein remains a very prim and proper model soldier. Would the story have been better without this aspect? I'm not sure. It slows the progress of events, although the ending would need considerable re-thinking without it.

Friday 11 August 2023

The Fall of the House of Byron: scandal and seduction in Georgian England by Emily Brand

George Gordon, Lord Byron, has gone down in history for his poetry but also for his reputation as someone 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know'. Lady Caroline Lamb, may have been referring solely to her lover when she said this, but a little investigation into his family history shows that it's an epithet that could have applied to many of his relatives as well.
At the start of the eighteenth century, Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire was home to William, 4th Baron Byron, an amateur composer and artist, and his young wife, France. The house was widely admired, the family fortunes seemed secure. But by 1798 when George inherited the title of sixth baron, the building had become a dilapidated ruin, and the fortune dissipated. 
In the intervening years the family had immersed itself in seemingly one scandal after another; murder, elopement, separation and (above all) the running up of mountainous debts seemed to be almost everyday activities for the Byrons, even the daring sea-adventures of John (later vice-admiral), or the quiet, unremarkable life of Richard (who became a vicar) couldn't save the family's reputation.

Emily Brand's fascinating book follows the Byrons' ups and (more frequent) downs, their loves and squabbles, and introduces the reader to lives full of drama and excess. To be honest if they had been fictional characters they'd hardly seem believable.
The style is almost one of fictionalised biography, told on the one hand from the perspective of young George Gordon making his first acquaintance with his ancestral home and family history, and on the other charting the troubles that befell his forebears, and it's a technique which brings them to life on the page. 

There's a lot to take in, especially as the family seem fond of christening children after their uncles or aunts, or even in some melancholy circumstances after a deceased sibling, but I found it an engrossing read which shed a whole new light on the poet Byron's character and heritage.

Friday 4 August 2023

The Den by Keith Gray

 It's the beginning of the summer holidays, and Marshall and Rory are out on their bikes enjoying the thought of weeks without school, even though living in the 'middle of nowhere' there's nothing new or adventurous to be found. Desperate for something, anything, to do, they head for Skelter Cottage, an abandoned house they once believed was haunted. At 13 they're too big for such childish ideas now but at least it's somewhere to go. The cottage has been knocked down though. Not even a pile of rubble remains. But hidden under leaves and branches, they find a trapdoor, and beneath it the perfect place for a den. 

Marshall thinks this is an ideal place to get away from his dad and his moods. He and Rory can make it their own secret hideout where no one can find them. But Rory wants to share it with some of his friends, and a difference of opinion quickly turns into something potentially nasty.

The Den is an easily read, easily relatable tale of boys being, well, boys. Their friendships, their arguments, the bravado hiding their fears and insecurities. There's a real sense of tension from both investigating the 'den', and the way emotions easily run out of control. It feels like a wrong decision could easily lead to disaster. 

Balanced between childhood and teenage, Marshall and Rory are also learning to cope with family issues - Rory's mum wants to know his every move; Marshall's dad is so caught up with his own problems that he doesn't care. 

Presented in Barrington Stoke's dyslexia-friendly font on cream pages, it's aimed at 11 years and over, but with a reading age of 8 to entice readers who might not feel too confident of their abilities. 

Thursday 3 August 2023

The Black Crescent by Jane Johnson


As a child in his native Moroccan mountain village, Hamou Badi stumbles across a corpse dumped unceremoniously by a dried-up river bed. It's a random event which influences his life, for his desire to give this dead person some dignity and justice leads him, later in life, to join the Surete, the police force of the French colonialists who rule the country. 
He hopes this way he can help people and make things better for them but as the 1950s progress, Moroccan demands for freedom become more violent and the French response increasingly aggressive and ruthless. Hamou is caught between the two, in a position which is rapidly becoming untenable.
It's also a love story, with Hamou finding himself in a similar quandary. His mother prefers the old traditional ways to make a match for her son - to talk to her neighbours, and find a suitable bride, whereas Hamou finds himself attracted to the daughter of his Casablanca neighbours, a modern relatively independent women, working as a nurse, and running dangerous errands at night.     

The Black Crescent is definitely a page-turner of a read, set in a period of comparatively recent history about which I suspect most readers will know little.  
With input from her Moroccan husband, the author has crafted an incredibly atmospheric novel capturing the sights of sounds of 1950s Morocco from ancient hill village where life seems quiet and almost unchanged in hundreds of years to the modern bustle of Casablanca, from the crowded older parts of the city where the poorest workers live, to the luxurious seaside villas of the French colonialists. 

Thursday 20 July 2023

Charming by Jade Linwood

We all know those fairy stories of young maidens and princesses locked up in towers, poisoned by a piece of apple, or sleeping for a hundred years, and how, just in the nick of time, a handsome prince comes riding by to save them and sweep them away to live happily ever after. But what if Prince Charming wasn't quite as honorable? What if he was actually more interested in the kingdoms' riches than any fair maiden? And if when he'd raided their treasuries he disappeared leaving a trail of broken hearts and impoverished kingdoms behind him? Yes, this Prince Charming is definitely more of a cad.

When three of his victims (you'll know them as Snow White, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty) accidentally meet and begin to swap stories, they soon realise how many young women have been conned by Charming, and how many treasuries drained by his exploits. The only thing to do is take matters into their own hands, and seek revenge.

I loved this book. It's a fun fantasy romp (none of your The Witcher style gore and bloodshed here) bringing a new slant to old fairy tales, and with three resilient heroines determined to prove they're the equal of any man, no matter how 'charming', and bring him to justice. 

The story-telling moves from atmospheric and enchanting to funny to tense, the action moves along quickly, and (something that I really liked) the characters grow and change as the tale unwinds. It ends in a way that leaves the possibility of a sequel, and I for one would certainly read it.

Friday 14 July 2023

The Granite Kingdom: a Cornish journey by Tim Hannigan

 Tim Hannigan is a travel writer known for covering far flung destinations such as Indonesia. This time though he's looking at somewhere much closer to home - to his native Cornwall. 

Starting at the Tamar, the traditional boundary separating Cornwall from the rest of England, his journey zig zags from coast to coast heading towards the furthest point of Land's End. It's a journey that could be made in under two hours by car (according to Google Maps, and making allowances for holiday traffic) but this is a slower winding way, mainly on foot, taking the reader up and over empty, boggy moorland and the spoil tips of China clay works, down to tourist-packed hotspots and quiet seaside villages, from places which sound quintessentially English to those with a definite flavour of Brittany in their names. 

Along the way, the author discusses the geology of the area, its history, tries to pin down what exactly makes Cornwall different to the rest of the country, and what it means to be Cornish, while putting paid to a lot of the myths about King Arthur, wreckers, and smugglers. 

Hannigan's own personal history weaves around that of the inhabitants of, and visitors to, this remote-seeming peninsula - of the Neolithic builders of burial cairns, Phoenician tin traders, the early 'tourists' venturing into a barren, desolate area, or, more recently, artists in search of its beauty, and holiday-makers searching for sun and surf.

For many of us Cornwall is the place of summer holidays, with Betjeman's 'Sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea', or the setting for the novels of Daphne du Maurier and Winston Graham with rain-lashed moorlands and brooding heroes.The scenery is either balmy and idyllic, or dramatic and wild. It's not the post-industrial landscape of China clay workings and ruined engine houses left from tin mining. It's not the centre of sea trade with European neighbours, or the countryside that thousands left as work there dried up. But this is an insider's view, a behind-the-scenes-look at a place we think we know. Part travelogue, part history, I found this a fascinating read. Apart from a small area around Polzeath, I haven't visited Cornwall as an adult, and now I realise how little I know about the rest of the county. Time, I think, for me to plan a visit. Meanwhile, if you're heading down west this summer, have a read - it may open your eyes.

Wednesday 5 July 2023

Footmarks: A Journey Into our Restless Past by Jim Leary

 When I, and perhaps many of us, think of historic or prehistoric remains what immediately jumps to mind is a castle perched on hill top, or perhaps the stone outline of a Roman fort, maybe an old earthwork where people and animals sheltered from raiders, or perhaps the strange standing stones of Stonehenge or Kilmartin Glen. But these are all static remains. 
In Footmarks archaeologist Jim Leary shifts the focus from buildings to the web of  pathways, tracks and roads which lay between them. Often overlooked, despite being literally beneath our feet, these connected farms to pastures, villages to towns, cities to each other. They took people to market, to work, to their holy places, or across continents just for the sake of exploring.  
From footprints 'frozen' in time by estuary mud, via holloways created by the passage of feet over hundreds of years, to long distance pilgrimage routes Leary takes what could have been a very niche subject matter only for academics, and makes it interesting and accessible to the lay reader. Interpreting those footprints captured in mud to bring the group who made them to life - the adults seriously following the direct route, children playing about, dashing this way and that - or following the trail of pilgrims from England to Santiago de Compostela - collecting their souvenir badges on the way - brings an immediacy to the lives of long-forgotten people. 

Footmarks is a really interesting book about the history of, and contained within, paths and roads. History has always fascinated me, and I found this to be a wonderful, illuminating read, showing that people have always being restless and inquisitive, wanting to know what lay beyond the hill, on the other side of the water, or over the horizon

Thursday 29 June 2023

The Shell House Detectives by Emylia Hall

The small Cornish village of Porthpella doesn't seem like the setting for a murder enquiry but behind the dunes and holiday cottages something unpleasant is lurking.

Ally Bright is disturbed late one night by a distraught young man knocking on her door. Lewis Pascoe is newly released from prison, and has just discovered that his grandmother's bungalow has been sold to incomers, and his grandmother moved miles away to a nursing home..In his anger and confusion Lewis turns to the only man who might help him - Ally's husband, the retired village policeman - but unfortunately he's died while Lewis has been in prison. Before Ally can decide what to do about the situation, Lewis heads off again into the night. 

And next morning he's found at the foot of the cliffs. Alive, but unconscious.. 

At the same time, an incomer, Helena, goes missing. She and her husband are the couple responsible for buying and knocking down Lewis's grandmother's bungalow. Are the two incidents related? Did Lewis threaten her in some way?

While the police assume Lewis is responsible, and wait for him to regain consciousness,  Ally and a new acquaintance - ex-cop Jayden Weston - aren't convinced and decide to investigate themselves.

The Shell House Detectives is Emylia Hall's first foray into the cosy crime genre (although there's a taste of it in her earlier novel A Heart Bent Out of Shape). and the first of a three book series.

Ally and Jayden are an unlikely pairing - a middle-aged widow, and a young man who's left the police because of his partner's death but can't help but be inquisitive. What they have in common is a sense of curiosity and obligation to see things put right.

There are other side issues - a potential love interest for Ally, Jayden's worry of having been too quick to leave the police and relocate to Cornwall plus his impending fatherhood, the inadequacies of the new village policeman - which give a firm backdrop to the central crime investigation. 

 If you like dark psychological thrillers, then this probably isn't the book for you, but it has a twisty plot, great characters (some more fleshed out than others, but all recognisable individuals), and a lovely Cornish setting. An excellent holiday read. 

Monday 22 May 2023

The Book That Wouldn't Burn by Mark Lawrence

 Livira grew up in a huddle of huts out on the Dust. A place of hand-to-mouth existence, plagued by creatures living within the Dust, and Sabbers attacking from without. It's one of these attacks that leads Livira to a new future; to the city of Crath and the library there. 

Evar and his family live in another library, one which they cannot leave. They've food and water, and all the books they could ever read, but Evar longs for escape. 

The two meet in a place between worlds; somewhere outside the normal boundaries of time and/or space, and from which they can travel to multiple other worlds. Are Livira's and Evar's home libraries in the same world but at different times, or at the same time on different worlds? In Evar's world civilisation has fallen to the Sabbers; in Livira's it looks like it will happen soon. Is there a way to avoid the cycle of rise and destruction that plaques both worlds.

This is a book which starts out simply with Livira being forced from her home and resettling in the city, but which gradually expands to bring in themes of love crossing all boundaries, of the danger of having unlimited knowledge without checks and curbs on its use, of who should limit that knowledge, of mankind's destiny to repeat its mistakes again and again. The plot twists and turns through time so much that I was left dizzy, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. As Book 1 of a series, not everything is nicely tied off at the end, and I can't wait to read 'whats happens next'.

A great startb to a new trilogy from Mark Lawrence.

Friday 5 May 2023

Gothikana by RuNyx

  Corvina Clemm had never expected to be going to university so to say she's surprised to receive an admission invitation to University of Verenmore would be putting things mildly, but she's not going to turn down the opportunity now she's been offered it.

Situated on a mountain top, cut off from the neighbouring town by dense forests, Verenmore is a place of mystery, dangerous cults, and unexplained deaths, but Corvina finds herself at home there. She also finds herself irresistibly attracted to her tutor Vad Deverell, a man who rumour would associate with strange deaths on campus. Their forbidden relationship could unravel some of Verenmore's mysteries; or it could end in disaster. 

I wasn't sure quite what to expect with this book but I'm finding that lately I'm enjoying quirky, gothic reads, so decided to try it - and I was hooked. Despite the familiar start - unexpected acceptance to a mysterious university/boarding school, with a host of unexplained events in its history - it soon goes its own way. Corvina is a strange protagonist, raised by her single mother in virtual isolation with no friends or family, and to be honest I didn't necessarily trust her intuitions, especially regarding Vad, but that ambiguity is part of the book's appeal.

It's a very readable book, one which keeps you turning the pages, but it's dark, very dark, filled with death and forbidden passion, and sex - lots of sex (don't imagine we're talking Harry Potter here, or even Wednesday Addams, grown up a little). In a preface to my review copy, the Author cautions readers about the subjects raised - death, suicide, parental neglect - and the explicit nature of the sex scenes; it's definitely an 'adult' read, not for younger teens. 

Saturday 29 April 2023

The Sinister Booksellers of Bath by Garth Nix

From a quiet bookshop in Bath, the Sinister (as in left-handed) Booksellers keep an eye on the activities of beings of the Old World, particularly the goddess Sulis Minerva who lives in the hot spring. One day, unpacking a parcel they stumble on an old map, which pulls bookseller Merlin into its depths. His sister, Vivien, and his on/off girlfriend, Susan, follow in an attempt to save him, and all three find themselves trapped in a sorcerous world created by an Ancient Sovereign, and guarded by living marble statues. Escaping from the map is only the beginning of their problems though, as they realise they aren't the first to be lured in, but might, in a very unpleasant way, be the last.

I've done that weird thing here of joining in with a series on book 2, but I found it didn't hamper my enjoyment. Nix fills in enough of the previous events to enable the reader to understand the background to book 2, but without telling the whole story and robbing us of a desire to read it.

On to book 2 though, and its Sinister Booksellers ... set in an alternate 1980s where magic and the humdrum everyday world exist side by side, it's a non-stop exciting read with very little quiet down-time for either characters or readers (though the characters do find time to sample quite a lot of delicious-sounding cake). For the 'booksellers' this is all comparatively in a day's work - their role is after all to keep people safe from the magical world and to keep that world secret -  but for Susan things are different. Until recently she'd assumed she was as average as the next person, but finding out her father was an Ancient Sovereign known as The Old Man Of Coniston has changed all that. She'd like to go back to how things were but having an ancient being pursuing her, feeling the call of her father's realm, plus  her growing relationship with Merlin, all seem to be acting against that.

I've seen The Sinister Booksellers of Bath described as YA but more off a crossover/ YA plus book, one as appealing to adult readers as their younger counterparts. It's not without its breath-holding moments but nothing too terrifying. A 5 star read which I'd definitely recommend to fans of Neil Gaiman or Alan Garner.

Wednesday 12 April 2023

Go As A River by Shelley Read

On an autumn day in 1948 Victoria Nash, delivering peaches from her family farm, meets Wilson Moon, just passing through town, and in a few minutes both their lives are changed forever. Propelled by impetuous emotion they embark on a secret love affair, not thinking of the consequences.

Stepping in to the role of housekeeper after her mother's death, Victoria's life was probably destined to be one of drudgery; cooking and cleaning for her father and brother, helping in the orchard, selling the fruit. Till she meets Wilson, she's accepted this without question, but now through grief and adversity she discovers a stronger, more independent side to her nature. She's forced to make her decisions, uproot herself, and start over again elsewhere. Like a river, having encountered an immovable rock, she follows a different course.

Not quite a family saga, more the story of one woman's life, but sure to appeal to llovers of the former, Go As A River is a story of love, compassion, and strength versus small-town attitudes and prejudice, set among the stunning mountainous scenery of Colorado. The racism Wilson encounters is shocking, especially its outcome and general acceptance by the town's inhabitants. In contrast the writing is beautiful, and will leave you longing for juicy peaches fresh from the tree, but I found the ending a little too sentimental for my my liking.


Friday 24 March 2023

The Foxglove King by Hannah Whitten

At thirteen Lore was found on the streets and taken in by a gang of poison-dealers, helping spy on their rivals. So far she's much like any other abandoned child on the streets of the city, but she also has a hidden, untapped ability to work highly illegal 'death magic'. She keeps this talent closely hidden, until one day a seemingly everyday drug drop goes wrong and she attracts the attention of the Presque Mort, the king's warrior monks. Arrested, she expects death or banishment but King August has a use for her - to uncover who or what has been killing the inhabitants of scattered villages, and to spy on his son, Bastian. Thus, Lore finds herself thrown into the strange (to her) world of the court, with its protocol and parties, where no one can be taken at face value or trusted - least of all, perhaps, Prince Bastian, and the Presque Mort monk Gabriel instructed to keep an eye on Lore and initiate her into the ways of the Court.

Having read Hannah Whitten's For the Throne, I'd rather expected something similar - a fairytale setting in which the foxglove king would be a flower-surrounded fairy - but instead the setting is more urban (though still that never, never time of fantasy novels) and the foxgloves are not the beautiful purple flowers but the drug derived from them.
The story is just as compelling though. There are so many things to love about this book. The world building is brilliant -  both the overall religious set up of quarreling gods and sainted kings, with a magic system which derives its power from death (mortem) and life (spiritum),  and the in detail political divide between the rich and the poor, where the poison which brings relief is freely available to the rich, but only obtained illicitly by the poor. The plot is a twisty intrigue-filled thriller, with Lore uncertain whose version of events to believe, and to further muddy the waters there's a love triangle.thrown in, as Lore finds herself torn between stiff, repressed Gabriel, and idle, pleasure-loving Bastian.
I really enjoyed it and look forward to book 2 of the series.

Wednesday 15 February 2023

The Garnett Girls by Georgina Moore

As a teenager, Margo ran away from home to live with her older boyfriend, Richard. Their love affair continued, they married and had three daughters - Rachel, Imogen, and Sasha. Then one day Richard left, leaving Margo plunged into despair, and the girls having to fend for themselves. When she picked herself up, Margo vowed that her girls would never suffer as she had. So she brings them up to be well-educated, strong career women, to marry safe, dependable men, to create for themselves the life that she would have wanted, but somewhere long the way the girls, trying so hard to live up to Margo's expectations, lose sight of themselves and their own desires. Now young women, each successful in her field, they have to confront the impact of their father's sudden disappearance from their lives before they can find true happiness.

 There's been a lot of hype about The Garnett Girls  - the author is, after all, a publicist - but it's a stunning, captivating debut that definitely lives up to everything I've read about it. A warm, intimate story of the Garnett family - Margo the matriarch, and her girls, Rachel, Imogen, and Sasha - their loves and losses, the secrets they keep, and the younger generation's struggles for independence from their mother's overwhelming influence and expectations. In many ways, living up to Margo's standards has stunted her daughters' emotional development, and I felt it was telling that Rachel, Imogen and Sasha are more often seen as a trio - the Garnett girls - rather than as individuals and as women.

The story is not wholly set on the Isle of Wight but Sandcove, the family home, plays such an important part in the Garnett's lives that it's like a character in itself. It's the place they come to to settle family disagreements, to heal, to find themselves, to party on the beach till dawn. 

I loved every page - and I now want to live by the beach and drink cocktails every night.

Friday 10 February 2023

Emily Wilde's Encylopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett

Emily Wilde is a respected professor of fairy lore, a meticulous cataloger of the ways and tales of the Folk, but so far the much-desired position of tenure-ship continues to elude her. To obtain this she's embarked on a mammoth project - an Encyclopaedia of Fairies, which will collate all the information held on them, their world, and their interactions with humans. One last section is needed - a study of the previously unrecorded fairies of the northern island of Ljosland  - so accompanied only by Shadow, her faithful dog, Emily heads off on an adventure which will change her life.
Her approach on her previous field trips has been one of professional, detached interest, more attuned to the nuances of associating with the Fae Folk than the local villagers or her colleagues. She expects this project to be no different, but there are surprises in store for her - dangers, friendship, and marriage proposals from not one but two fairy kings!
Overall it's a light but enchanting story, with a backdrop of cold, snowy beauty contrasting with warm, cozy interiors, and perilous  encounters with the Folk to give it a little 'edge'.
Emily is one of those heroines - socially awkward, unintentionally rude, determined to keep even those who would help her at arms' length - that you'll either take to instantly, or not get along with at all. Reading between the lines of her field notes, and seeing the real Emily beneath that clumsy exterior, I was definitely on her side. Her colleague, Wendell Bambleby, who turns up uninvited, is the opposite - charming, handsome, making friends wherever he goes, just somehow too perfect - and actually I could see why he would irritate after a while. They don't seem like a well-matched pair but under her gruffness, it's obvious that Emily cares for him more than she'd like to admit.
I'm  delighted to see that there are plans for further Emily Wilde stories, and I'll be looking out for them.

Thursday 2 February 2023

The Witches of Vardø by Anya Bergman


Off the northern-most coast of Norway lies the small island of Vardø, site in the mid-seventeenth century of a notorious series of witch trials. Anya Bergman's novel brings us a fictional account of those times, seen from two points of view - that of wealthy Anna Rhodius, imprisoned in this remote fortress by her former lover, the King; and that of sixteen year ago fisherman's daughter, Ingeborg, whose mother is falsely accused of witchcraft. Ingeborg desperately wants to save her mother, and will go to any lengths to do so. Anna meanwhile is interested in protecting herself and negotiating a way to return to her former life. 

The numbers involved in the real trials were horrific (91 people executed over a period of years) but Bergman has reduced them to handful without losing any of the terror and helplessness that these women must have experienced. As is frequently the case, there's a trail of fear and misogyny behind the accusations - women denounced for 'seducing' married men, the local Sami people victimised for being 'different', anyone who vaguely steps beyond the rigid bounds of propriety being considered fair game. And the treatment of women in general, as totally subordinate to men, and threatened for voicing their own opinions, is unthinkable now.

Although I'd heard of many instances of witch-hunts, from Pendle to Salem, Scotland to Essex, I hadn't realised that the fervour for them had spread to Norway, apparently influenced by King James VI (Scotland) and I (England), and his writings on Daemonologie. Reading The Witches of Vardø led me off down a lot of wormholes, finding more about the historical events, and learning more about the remote landscape of its setting.

Manilla Press

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.