Friday 27 January 2023

The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

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

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

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

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


Tuesday 24 January 2023

My Life in France by Julia Child

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

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

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

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

Friday 20 January 2023

My Picks of 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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