Wednesday 25 August 2021

Fireborn: Twelve and the Frozen Forest, Aisling Fowler

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This post is part of the Ultimate Blog Tour for the novel. Thank you to Harper Collins and The Write Reads for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Ember is full of monsters, and trainee Hunters enter the Lodge to hone their craft and become formidable fighters. They give up their names and are instead known by numbers until they are given their Hunter name. The heroes of this story are therefore known as Five, Six, Seven, and Twelve. This feels a little clunky and awkward to start with but you do get used to it. When one of their number is taken, these young huntlings set out on a mission that will take them through the Frozen Forest and the monsters it contains who will force them to admit truths about themselves that they thought were safely buried. 

Twelve is a promising huntling, but makes enemies easier than friends, and lashes out whenever she feels vulnerable. In time the trauma she has experienced is revealed, and the desire for revenge that drives her. She is haunted by her past and relies on dream milk to keep flashbacks in her sleep at bay. On the road, however, she doesn’t have this safety net and it leaves her open to attack, but also offers the opportunity to see the vulnerabilities of her fellow travellers. We see her grow throughout the course of the novel and learn to see beyond her prejudices.

The other characters play a supporting role but all have their own uncomfortable secrets and desires. These include regret, love, and the desire of a creature made of stone to be able to experience taste. The trajectory of each of their stories is not unpredictable, but there are surprises to be found and struggles that readers can relate to. The book deals with some serious issues including grief, betrayal, and forgiveness, and you feel the characters’ hurt and reluctance to trust.

The world itself is richly described without slowing down the pace. Twelve takes a magical bestiary with them and so when they encounter creatures we are given their bestiary entry so you never feel particularly lost. Many of the monsters are reminiscent of those that appear in other popular fantasy worlds, so will feel familiar but with some striking differences.

Overall, this is an enjoyable read that lets you throw yourself into the world it builds around you. There’s a steady stream of peril and a dramatic climax that will keep you hooked. It also pulls at the heartstrings with its examination of the depths of human emotion and motive.

Fireborn is due to hit shelves 30th September.

Pre-order a copy:

Wednesday 18 August 2021

The Vixen, Francine Prose

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thank you to Harper and Random Things Tours for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Simon Putnam has recently graduated from Harvard, seemingly stuck in limbo between his ambitions and ‘a future that looked alarmingly like the past.’ He is back in his parents’ home, watching the countdown to the execution of one of his mother’s childhood neighbours, Ethel Rosenberg. They watch in tense distress as the final formalities play out on the screen, hoping something will save them but knowing they can never express that desire to anyone outside their home. 

Simon is soon working at a publishing house thanks to his Uncle Maddie’s connections. He has a hard time settling in, being widely ignored and fearing he might lose his job at any moment. One day, out of the blue, Warren Landry, one of the founders, entrusts him with a book set to be a bestseller. It’s more commercial than their normal catalogue, but they desperately need the money it will bring in. The problem is, it’s a terrible book, and worse still, it features a heavily eroticised representation of Ethel Rosenberg that would leave readers with no doubt as to her guilt. Simon finds himself suffering under the weight of the moral dilemma before him, a desperate desire to please and fit in, and an author who makes clarity even more evasive. Before he knows it, he finds himself entangled in a passionate love affair, in a company that clearly has some dark secrets that he can scarcely imagine, and a book that fills him with such guilt that he feels compelled to move out of his parents’ home.

Simon makes for an interesting, at times infuriating, narrator and protagonist. Many readers on the cusp of adulthood will recognise the agonies of uncertainty and desire to start moving forward into the life they’ve been working toward, but which might not end up looking quite as they’d imagined. He repeatedly points out how naive he was about love and sex, but it goes much deeper than that. He is surrounded by shady characters who drop hints at their insincerity, but in his youthful optimism, mistakes their manipulations as genuine affection. There are revelations that come later that will not entirely surprise the reader, yet it does not feel that you’re meant to be shocked. Indeed, by hinting at the truth throughout we see the extent of Simon’s naivety as he blunders through excruciating encounters.

He is juvenile in his approach to sexual relationships, apparently falling in love with any woman who he speaks to. He fantasises about his feelings for two women simultaneously and finds it hard to separate his nightly imaginings and reality. Despite his innocence he also has a sense of superiority. When talking with Anya, the author of the dreaded book, he is constantly surprised that she knows about art and literature, and he believes his parents feel unqualified to discuss his studies with him. He repeatedly makes judgments about people that he reminds himself he shouldn’t. He is at times a sympathetic character, at others infuriatingly oblivious, and not always kind.

Life at Landry, Landry and Bartlett throws him many curveballs which make him feel as though he’s always one step behind everyone else. Warren Landry drinks heavily and talks more freely than he should, but there’s the feeling that he isn’t ever entirely upfront. His business partner, Preston Bartlett, was institutionalised after they got into a fight at a Christmas party, the subject of which is not widely known but has a decidedly sinister air. When he meets the enigmatic Anya there are many suggestions that she has spent a significant amount of time with Warren, despite his claims they’ve met only once. Simon notices these inconsistencies but attempts to reason away any doubts. His sense of betrayal is heartfelt when the truth is revealed, knowing that the instigators went out of their way to toy with him for their own amusement.

His family life and sense of identity are also touched on throughout. He struggles between love for his parents and his desire to forge his own way. ‘I felt disloyal to my parents, ungrateful for their love and care, but I told myself that they would approve of my need - it was time, after all - to separate my history from theirs. I affected the carefree air of a recent Ivy League graduate, Simon Putnam, a literary aristocrat born for the job he’d rightfully inherited.’ He hides his heritage and closely guards the fact he grew up on Coney Island, desperately trying to fit in with his peers and rejecting his true self in the process. It takes maturity to realise what he already has, and to appreciate it before it slips through his fingers.

This is a self-assured book that makes you feel you’re in safe hands from the get-go. It is peopled with fascinating characters that make you want to dive in and uncover their secrets. The intrigues and concealments are multi-layered and it is a pleasure to witness the gradual peeling back of each layer, keeping track of every hint, eager to discover the whole story. Whether or not you fully trust Simon as a narrator, this is a thrilling read. There are a few little conclusions that feel a tad awkward but all in all this is a book that will keep you up at night. 

Wednesday 11 August 2021

A Young Lady’s Miscellany, Auriel Roe

This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thank you to Dogberry Books and Random Things Tours for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

This memoir follows Roe from her teenage years through to a burgeoning career and early motherhood. It takes her from Cumbria, South Wales, Devon, and even Amsterdam, as she seeks to find her place in the world. The blurb suggests her misadventures largely arise from following the advice of a Victorian self-help book by the same name. This doesn’t turn out to be the case however - an odd paragraph here and there mentions it but mostly in reflecting on the time from a distance rather than it ever having been used as a guide. Despite not being quite what I expected, it was still an enjoyable, relatable read, written in an engaging style. 

Her family naturally feature heavily. Her two grandmothers receive the most detailed descriptions at the start, highlighting how greatly they contrast, and how the period in which they were born (late Victorian and Edwardian respectively) shaped who they were. Her memories will likely evoke nostalgia for childhood interactions with grandparents, but she also highlights regrets at not having taken the opportunity to get to know them better, to learn from them. Her descriptions of their actions and habits make the reader consider how unique the experience each generations has is, and the ways in which this can build barriers if time isn’t given for understanding. 

Her grandmother Manda and Manda's husband Wiff seem the most welcoming of the family. Her father is largely neglectful and always puts his own concerns ahead of his offspring. Her mother spent years in an unhappy marriage but shows great strength in trying to build a life for the two of them when she finally leaves. Her mother’s brother, who remains in the family home, terrorising their elderly mother, is selfish and literally pushes them out when they come to stay, encroaching on his territory. The disruptions in family life means she frequently has to change school, at times just as she is beginning to settle in and excel. One school is so badly run and contains such unpleasant students that she rarely attends, a fact that goes unnoticed by both the school and her mother.

Her romantic life also stalls many times, with her early attempts at intimacy leaving her cold and believing its only purpose to be procreation. She unwittingly falls into relationships, and at other times finds herself changing her style completely to match that of someone who has caught her eye. She is brutally honest throughout, both about her own shortcomings and of those around her.

Nothing particularly extraordinary happens in this memoir yet perhaps this is why it’s so easy to read, it all feels relatable and reminiscent of many a young person’s experiences. In guiding us through her own coming of age Roe discusses family dynamics, issues of class, travel, love, and learning to accept yourself. It will have you chuckling to yourself and nodding in recognition.

Thursday 5 August 2021

Beauty and the Beast, Madame de Villeneuve

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A tale as old as time, but not as you know it. Madame de Villeneuve’s original Beauty and the Beast is darker and more complex than the Disney version. Beauty’s father has fallen on hard times and is under pressure from Beauty’s selfish siblings to provide them with treasures. When he goes away for business he insists Beauty request a gift. She chooses a rose, knowing that he’ll easily be able to find one for free. Unfortunately, he tries picking one from the Beast’s garden, condemning her to a lifetime locked away with him.

The character of Beauty is sympathetic to begin with. She is kind and thoughtful despite her immediate family. As the novel progresses she begins to feel more otherworldly - she is selfless to a fault, beautiful beyond belief, and can play any and every instrument, speak countless languages, and generally excel at anything she tries her hand at. Despite the lavish praise that is heaped upon her however, we do see glimpses of capriciousness later in the tale, and a tendency toward the dramatic.

Her family don’t come off particularly well, even her father doesn’t argue against her being the one to go to the Palace. Later in the story we see how unwaveringly loyal to her family Beauty is despite the fact they insult and reject her. They feel in many ways more realistic - they have their human weaknesses and respond naturally, albeit not admirably, to events.

The Beast, for the most part, keeps to himself. He proves himself generous and kind through his actions but spends only a short amount of time with Beauty each day, simply asking for her hand in marriage. His counterpart appears to her in her dreams, her great Unknown. She falls for this mysterious man and wonders if he is also held prisoner in the Palace. Her feelings for him almost get in the way of her relationship with the Beast, despite the repeated advice not to be fooled by appearances.

This was an interesting and fairly enjoyable read that draws on a lot of familiar themes from other fairytales. The final section of the book, which seeks to explain the events that led up to it, is overly complex, convoluted, and frankly detracts from the rest of the tale. There are some shock revelations and a few lessons to learn from, but ultimately it would have been a stronger story without it. Nonetheless, it was fascinating to explore the original.

Monday 2 August 2021

Reflections On A Decade Of Blogging

Ten years ago today I sat down and hit ‘publish’ for the first time. A few hours later, I was doing the same again, possibly the only time in this blog’s ten year history that two posts have gone live on the same day. What started as a vague idea to keep my brain ticking over in post-University life has blossomed slowly into a more focussed endeavour that has introduced me to innumerable fellow bookworms. It’s got me reading books I’d never have picked up on my own, and has undoubtedly kept my read count up.

The gentle ebb and flow of activity indicate some major moments in my life - personal tragedy, further study, ill health, and happiness, all have been present in the intervening years, perhaps imperceptibly to you my dear readers, but every absence, indeed, every post, takes me back to the life I was living when it was written or abandoned. There are notable absences, Wuthering Heights, for example, my most read book, has somehow evaded review, appearing only in passing comments in discussion of other books. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve begun keeping a log of my reading, mistakenly thinking that this site sufficed, and yet I’m constantly amazed by the books that have somehow fallen through the cracks.

For most of this blog’s life it’s been my own little space to muddle out my thoughts about books, theatre, exhibitions, and the occasional bit of food. In the past couple of years I’ve begun sharing my posts, getting to know other bloggers, and even being sent books to review. The supportive book blogger community has been a happy revelation, eager to share enthusiasm, but similarly happy to discuss differences of opinion. Thank you to anyone reading this, and to everyone that’s interacted over the years - your recommendations, support, and shared passion have kept me reading, writing, and enjoying book blogger life despite the ever growing to-be-read pile, ready to topple at any moment, and the self-imposed deadlines that can at times make it all feel a bit stressful.

I can’t quite believe this blog has existed for an entire decade, and if you’ll excuse the indulgence, here are the reviews of some of my reading highlights. Here’s to the next decade and all the books and friendships that are waiting to be discovered.

The Humans, Matt Haig

The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham

The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose

The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante

The Shock of the Fall, Nathan Filer

The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

How Was It For You? Virginia Nicholson

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne

Hired: Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, James Bloodworth