Review: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter – Theodora Goss

058 - The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter

058 - The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter

Rating – 4*

I saw this book, and the sequel, on offer on Amazon and I have to admit, the premise fascinated me so I picked it up. Sometimes I love picking a book up on a whim because you go in with no expectations and can only be surprised!

This story follows Mary Jekyll, the daughter of Dr Jekyll, her mother has just died and she is penniless. While sorting through her mothers affects she comes upon some interesting facts about her fathers mysterious past. In dire straits, she stumbles upon some interesting information about a Mr Hyde – and takes it to the only man who will know what to do with it. Sherlock Holmes. Needless to say this premise is incredible, it sounds very bizarre but it works.

Every character in this book is the progeny of a famous “monster” in literature, and throughout the book we’re introduced to a band of girls alongside Mary –  Diana Hyde, Justine Frankenstein, Catherine Moreau and Beatrice Rappaccini. All of these girls/women have been created through experimentation (and even if you haven’t read Frankenstein, or the Island of Doctor Moreau, you get enough backstory to understand their characters). The title of this book is clever, because while we focus primarily on Mary, every one of these women is an Alchemist’s Daughter, and we get all of their back stories. Alongside Sherlock and Watson, this group of unlikely friends uncover something a lot deeper and darker than they were anticipating.

All of the characters in this are fantastic, feisty and feminist. These are the female protagonists I want in literature – especially young adult literature. None of the women in this book conform to gender stereotypes, they’re politically involved and vocal about women’s rights. Often throughout the book there are lines like “It’s the 1890s, and we’re thoroughly modern women” and I just loved that.

An interesting technique is engaged in the writing of this, and it’s that the characters interject in the middle of a chapter, giving their thoughts and essentially “arguing” with each other. In the physical book I’m sure this is something that can be glossed over/ignored, but actually I listened to this as an audiobook alongside the eBook, and it added a really fun insight in to the characters before you fully knew their stories! I can understand this technique isn’t for everyone, but for me it was just a little bit of fun and it did add to the narrative.

I absolutely loved this, I loved it so much I promptly purchased the second in the series (and read it immediately after) because I needed to know what happened next. It was just so much fun – I can’t actually explain how much I enjoyed this.

If you want some badass women in the late 19th century with a good story and also easy to read – give this some consideration because it’s fun, and who doesn’t like a bit of fun now and again?

Review: Trickery – Roald Dahl

057 - Trickery

057 - Trickery

Rating – 3*

I was fortunate enough to be approached by Penguin to take part in a blog tour to celebrate Roald Dahl day on the 13th of September, in exchange for taking part I was sent four of Dahl’s short story collections to peruse and review. Today I’m going to discuss one of those in the shape of Trickery.

I’ve never read any of Dahl’s adult fiction before so this was a really new experience for me, and I’m happy to say that his writing translates really well to an adult audience. The bizarre and slightly dark nature of all of his children’s books is elevated to a new level, a much more mature level, and it really works.

The reason I picked this book up opposed to one of the other three I was sent is that I felt that a book around Trickery would have a more varied assortment of stories than something like War. And it was just what I was in the mood for, stories with good twists! As you’d expect with a theme of trickery linking all the stories the collection focuses on how we as humans use deceit, lies and manipulation to achieve our goals – but this book also focuses on the repercussions and fall out which shows that it doesn’t always get you what you think it has and that life has many twists and turns to surprise you yet!

I’m sure many of you reading this will agree with me when I say that the trouble with short story collections is that it’s highly unlikely that you will love every single story. I gave this collection 3 stars because I really enjoyed around half of the stories, some stood out to me more than others, and while none were bad there were just weaker stories sandwiched between stand outs.

My two favourites in this collection were The Visitor and Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat. Both really stood out to me. In The Visitor we follow Oswald, a man who has travelled extensively and finds himself stranded in the Egyptian outback and receives help from a wealthy local resident and his family. However, I do think my favourite among the stories was Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat in which we follow Mrs Bixby, a woman who is carrying out an affair and gets more than she bargained for when trying to pull the wool over her husbands eyes.

This was a solid collection, and I feel very fortunate to have been picked by Penguin to take part in this Blog Tour to celebrate Roald Dahl’s work! I’m definitely going to be picking up more of his short stories because the good stories in this collection were great and ones that will stick with me. Not only that, but I’m also really looking forward to reading what all these wonderful people have to say over the next 2 and a half weeks!

Roald Dahl Blog Tour Card

Review: The Parentations – Kate Mayfield

056 - The Parentations

056 - The Parentations

Rating – 5*

I picked this book up on an absolute whim on Audible. I had no idea what it was about, but from what little I heard in a preview and a quick check on goodreads I thought it’d be a book I enjoyed. I wasn’t wrong, I just wasn’t prepared for how much I was going to love this book. I can categorically say now this will be one of my favourite books of the year – I’ve given a lot of 5* ratings this year, but none have come as easily as this one did.

Finding words for how much I loved this book is hard, in fact I’ve been musing over them for 3 days now as I write this. This book was an experience I wasn’t expecting, I haven’t been as pulled in by a book in a long, long time – to the point I read this book in 2 sittings, something I haven’t done with a nearly 500 page book in a very long time!

The story in this book is intriguing – it bounces around between London and Iceland, starting in the 1700s and following the same characters right the way through to present day. That alone intrigued me, as it should anyone, because it follows the same characters over 250 years or so, why wouldn’t that be interesting? The story is about a young man called Rafe – who we follow from the time his mother found out she was expecting him – and why he’s just so special. We never really follow him from his own perspective, instead we follow the life of his mother Elizabet, his aunt Clovis, and his god mothers Constance and Verity Fitzgerald. We move Iceland to London, our characters living in near exile, in grand houses and in prison at different points of the book – and while it spans 250 years or so, it moves at a hell of a pace when you get through the first few chapters of character building.

The women of this book are all unique – especially Clovis who is some Dickensian level of machiavellian; she’s a character who is absolutely abhorrent and for that, while I didn’t like her, I loved her. It’s very rare in literature to come across a woman who is so conniving and, let’s face it, a complete psychopath of the Criminal Minds variety and it was a breath of (very evil) fresh air. As for Constance and Verity, I want them to be my godmothers, I adored them both, they were the complete antithesis of Clovis and I can’t explain quite how much I was rooting for them! While Elizabet is Rafe’s mother, she plays more of a background part throughout.

There are other characters who are well rounded too. All the men in this book portray very different type of man to ones I’ve seen in novels before. It sounds crazy to say this, but I genuinely don’t feel like I’ve read these characters before, in any way, shape or form. Clovis’ husband, Finn, is not all he appears to be – and definitely does not wear the trousers in his relationship, shall we say. And their household staff are interesting too – dealing with LGBTQ+ themes, and very, very low level mentions of sexual abuse. Not one character is a stereotype, they’re all so multifaceted and layered, and even after nearly 500 pages I still felt like there was more to learn about them.

While the book is very character driven, the plot is also incredible.  It constantly kept turning in a way I wasn’t expecting, and before I knew it I’d read 250 pages and it was 1AM. How everything and everyone comes together, I adored. There are no other words for it. There is so much going on, and it’s so well put across, I just can’t believe it was over so quickly. It was one of those books I didn’t want to stop reading, but equally I didn’t want it to end. Finding that balance is tough!

I’d urge anyone even remotely interested in any form of historical fiction, fantasy, magical realism, or just good books containing amazing characters, to pick this up. I’m so sad it’s over, and I don’t often say this but I can’t wait to read it again.

Review: Liminal – Bee Lewis

055 - Liminal

055 - Liminal

Rating – 4*

I will start by saying this was one of my most anticipated books of 2018 – ever since I read the blurb in Salt’s 2018 releases catalogue I knew I wanted to read this and I’ve been waiting, and waiting until I could get my hands on it. Thankfully their website had it available a few days pre-release so I snaffled it up as soon as I saw it. (PS: Check out their website, amazing books, free UK delivery, I’m not sponsored – I wish I were – I just love their ethos, their catalogue, and I want more people to support one of my local publishing houses!)

This book follows the story of Esther – a young woman who has had a rather difficult start in her life. We know early on that she’s had a leg amputated, and the story as to how this came about is one of the many threads of this book. Esther and her husband, Dan, have had a pretty grim few months and decide to move to a small village called Rosgill in the Scottish Highlands – but we find that this young couple have a far from happy marriage. The story spans a week, from their first Friday in the highlands, to a very interesting Easter weekend just a week later.

I’m going to be honest – the first 50 pages of this book I wondered if I hyped it up too much. I wasn’t connecting, the characters felt wishy-washy, it felt overly descriptive and I’m so glad I persevered because oh my gosh – this book just crept up on me and once I hit around page 75, I didn’t want to put it down. A lot of the description comes from nature and the environment, the way the surroundings are put across – and once I got in to it I found that charming, whimsical and at times quite dark and unsettling. The way this story evolved I wasn’t expecting, and became increasingly involved in how it was going to develop.

I had a lot of issues with the relationship in this book, which was my primary issue but then I realised that was intentional. This isn’t meant to be a fairytale romance, it’s meant to be an unhealthy relationship and as the book progresses and Esther grows a backbone it becomes so, so much more enjoyable to read. Her history with her parents, her own impending motherhood, the relationship with her husband, and with the mysterious stranger – she develops over this 250 page book in a way I wasn’t expecting.

There are a lot of parallels and themes being pulled on from mythology and classical literature, especially Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There are a couple of mentions of it throughout but there are also a lot of more subtle references; Esther is undergoing a metamorphosis of her own over the course of this book.

I’m so glad I persevered. And I would encourage anyone to persevere with this because where it ends up is a surprise – I anticipated a few things but not the ultimate finale. I think this book was beautiful, and unsettling. Ultimately I really, really enjoyed this. Salt have pulled another blinder out of the bag with this book (again, not sponsored, I purchased this book with my own money) and I can’t recommend it highly enough if you’re in the mood for a slow building, gothic story set in the wilds of Scotland – and frankly, who wouldn’t be?

 

 

 

Review: Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

051 - Norse Mythology

051 - Norse Mythology

Rating – 2*

I love mythology. I’ve always had a keen interest, and it’s been something that I often come back to on occasion, in phases. My first love was Egyptian mythology, and then I moved on to Greek (and to a lesser part, Roman) but I have to admit I never really stumbled much upon Norse myth until I was older. So before going in to this book my knowledge of Norse Mythology was quite lacking, and in all honesty it’s still quite lacking on the other side.

Neil Gaiman can tell a good story, of that I’m certain. I’m just starting to wonder if I read his work in a completely different way to others. I’ve honestly never read a Gaiman book that I’ve loved and there are a number of reasons for that, and it always seems to come back to one key feature – he’s really, really bad at writing female characters. There are some incredible women in Norse mythology, and yet all they do in this book is stand to one side, flicking their golden hair and pouting. While I understand that most current understanding of Norse myth comes from MCU, there is more to it than Thor, Odin and Loki – yet this book didn’t seem to cover all that much of it. In fact, it was just one big ole sausage fest and as many of you dear readers may know, I don’t do sausage.

But this book confused me, at times it read like a children’s book but then there were moments which were certainly not for children. I found as the book went on it became all very monotone, even as an audiobook I found it flat and found myself getting more and more disconnected as it went on.

I recently read Stephen Fry’s retelling of Greek Myths and this is pretty meh in comparison. I can only imagine how incredible Stephen Fry’s Norse Myths would be based off of that.

So I gave this 2 stars, because there were moments of brilliance but they were few and far between for me unfortunately. And I think it’s fair to say I’m not going to be reading any more Gaiman because, honestly, every one of his books I’ve read I’ve been disappointed by.

 

Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar

 

050 - The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

050 - The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

Rating – 5*

I heard so, so much about this book in the run up to it’s publication this year, and yet I didn’t buy it because I wasn’t sure it was “for me”. I finally relented, purchasing a copy of this in my favourite independent bookshop and oh my word, I am so, so glad I gave in to the hype and read this because this book is, frankly, a work of genius.

I was absolutely hooked on this book. There’s no other way to say it. From the moment I picked it up I didn’t want to put it down and I’m so glad I had 3 days off mid-week to read this in a relatively short space of time without much interruption (aside from doctors appointments and trips to the shop to get food).

The story itself is very immersive due to the nature of the writing style. While the book is set in the 18th Century, and is written in a very complimentary manner to that, it’s not difficult to follow like a “true” classic can often be but it has a lot of the same atmosphere and feel to it. I found myself finding similarities to other books I love, written in recent years but set in a similar portion of history, and I realised that I am a sucker for good historical fiction.

One thing I absolutely loved about this book though is that it’s actually quite dark. I was expecting something a little more lighthearted, and while there were certainly those moments, this was a lot more twisty than I had imagined. Parts of the book are in fact quite oppressive or claustrophobic but it just adds to the strangeness and the charm of it.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. The author is one I’m going to be keeping an eye out for in the future because wowza, I think we’ve got a lot of good things to come from her! Also, the simple fact she’s a UEA Alumni makes me want to support every endeavour she undertakes!

This book is simply wonderful, and I imagine it would make a beautiful Autumn weekend read! I’m always quite late to a bandwagon, but sometimes that’s a very good thing.

Review: Circe – Madeline Miller

049 - Circe

049 - Circe

Rating – 3*

Having seen high praise for Circe prior to publication, and also the adoration for Madeline Miller’s first novel this is one of the easiest new releases I’ve purchased this year. I’ll be honest and say that I’ve not read The Song of Achilles, but it is a book that has intrigued me for a long time.

Circe is – I thought – a book about Circe. Circe, daughter of Helios, witch of Aiaia, famed for her part in the Odyssey and I was hoping this book would would be a history of her through her own voice. Yet at times I felt that she was a secondary character in her own story. The only time I felt she wasn’t was around the last third of the book which I ended up really enjoying but I didn’t find it, on the whole, anywhere near as compelling as I expected.

From what I know of Greek mythology this book is well researched, and that appears to be the general consensus on the internet. That’s not something I can fault. I can’t even fault the readability because it is very well written, it’s accessible and I think it may even spark a love of Greek mythology in readers who would otherwise have not discovered it. But, and I hate to say this, it’s dull. I found only a handful of moments in this book actually gripped me and I think Circe as a character deserved so much more than the lot she was given in this, and yet it’s meant to be a book about her.

The one redeeming feature, the bits I absolutely loved, was when Circe meets Penelope and what unfolds on Aiaia after this point. I could have read an entire book about these two women who had pivotal roles in Odysseus’ life and yet even parts of their tentative friendship were marred by Odysseus himself, even though he was not in the picture.

Ultimately this is a coming of age story, and maybe that’s why it just didn’t resonate with me. I’m not the biggest fan of a coming of age story, but if you are this might be a really good way to bridge the gap between your typical coming of age story, and something with historical and mythological context. It was good enough, and parts of it were good I can’t deny that but it wasn’t what I was expecting, and it wasn’t what the hype built it up to be. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I wouldn’t recommend it, I would just say go in to it with this blinkered view and be open minded about what you’re going to get.

A lot of people are saying this is one of the best books of 2018 or “the best book ever” and, if I’m honest, I’m going to have to disagree. It was average, and had this not had Madeline Miller’s name on the front, had it not have been so hyped, had it have had different characters but the same plot, I don’t think it would be lauding praise right now.

Review: Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik

048 - Spinning Silver

048 - Spinning Silver

Rating – 5*

This book was a lovely, really enjoyable read for me. I do however think that the publishers need shooting because on reading this it’s very clear that it’s a Wintery book, and while there is something nice about reading a book about a harsh winter in Summer, when it’s around 30°C outside it’s more frustrating than anything. I am going to say straight up that I think this would have been a lot easier to give this 5* had I read it in Autumn or Winter, cuddled under a blanket with some hot, fruit tea! As it stands, I originally gave this book 4* but on writing this review I’ve come back to change my mind because I loved this book and I can’t blame the weather for my overall rating.

I loved Novik’s writing in Uprooted and I do think some of the issues I had with that book remain in this but ultimately this book is about strong women, and educated women, and how with education there is power and how can I find fault in that? I also had reservations about this book focusing a little on the “Jewish” trope of being shrewd and miserly – however I actually think the focus on Jewish culture, family and heritage was really well handled, and while there was emphasis on how outsiders look in, it was made very clear that this view was wrong. I really loved that the main family in this book were Jewish, and I love how seamlessly that was woven in to the story without it being a big thing, or a trope. Little things like lighting candles or celebrating Shabbat – it was just well represented and felt balanced and unforced.

There are a lot of characters in this book, and while reading you get several different points of view, at first I found it a little jarring but when you pick up the little quirks it’s easier to follow each narrative. I did find it a little bit frustrating when suddenly a new narrative would come out of nowhere and I had to pick the thread up, but I got there eventually and their perspective did add to the overall story arc. Miryem is our protagonist and I really, really loved her – without giving much away she’s smart and she stands her ground and I loved her. Then there are a full cast of other, incredible women throughout this book and where in Uprooted it felt like the protagonist resigned herself to her fate, in this book none of them took an unfair lot – they all found their strengths and stood up for themselves and yes, it was marvellous! I’ll also say that the “Rumpelstiltskin” character is redeemed and I grew to like him in the end, and I think while we’re on the subject of the end, it was tied up and brought together in a very appropriate way. On the surface it could be a little Stockholm Syndrome-y but actually, on reflection it’s something that’s built up to gradually and feels organic, but I’d like to hear other points of view on that if anyone else has read it!

I will also say that while this is a loose retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, there is a lot of Russian and Eastern European folklore and fairy tales mixed in. I think the nature of this story it is inevitably going to be compared to Katherine Arden’s Winternight series as there is a lot of the same foundations in place (Russian story of Morozko!) however, as much as I loved that series, this single book has captured me in much the same way and it was one book (anyone who knows me knows how I hate waiting for the next book in any series, it’s why so many of my favourite authors are dead!)

So I loved this book. I will be rereading this book, possibly this winter. I loved this book, and as I prefaced this review with, on writing this I grew to love it more than I did when I started it meaning I’ve now changed my rating because oh my word I can’t explain how much I enjoyed this book. I really need to get on to Novik’s other books because she hasn’t let me down with either of her fairy tale retellings!

Review: Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

047 - Everything Under

047 - Everything Under

Rating – 4*

This is the first, and probably the last, book on the Man Booker 2018 longlist that I’m going to read. I’m not going to go in to why I’ve fallen out of love with the Booker, I think enough people have discussed that currently, what I am going to talk about though is this incredible, and ambitious, debut novel.

I picked it up the day before the longlist was announced as the few pages I read in the bookshop were absolutely beautiful and I knew I had to read it.There are so many things I love about this book, so many. I think a lot of people will be put off by the fact it’s on the Booker longlist, and even those who aren’t I think may not enjoy it all that much. It’s very traditionally “Bookerish” in that there are a lot of things going on, and a lot of literary devices which just ramp it up a gear (a lot of people may say those little techniques mean the book is pretentious, I personally think if done right it just makes for good reading).

Reading this book is like being in a constant state of flux where nothing is entirely certain. Johnson in this book plays with so many things both with writing style (from first, second, and third person narratives from the same character) to family, gender and identity in all the characters. Language is a key theme and that in itself is played with fluidly, the main character and her mother living a very isolated life during her childhood and developing their own, made up language. The fact that Gretel and her mother lived in a river community is fascinating in and of itself, but it also leads to another fluid component of the narrative in that her mother doesn’t like to be stagnant and stay in one place too long.

It’s taken me a couple of days to fully digest this book and process what I read and thought about it because for a slim thing of under 300 pages it packed a punch with the content. On contemplating I realised there are so many parallels with fairy tale and myth (not only is the main character called Gretel, but there’s a recurring theme of breadcrumbs and connecting ideas), there are themes of identity and loss and abandonment. And all of the little things done with language, this book is of itself a love letter to language and words – it’s about the power of words and it’s oh so incredible.

Parts of this book genuinely made me pause and have to go back on what I read to check I read it correctly. I didn’t see any of the twists coming and I loved that.

Ultimately, I’m a very happy woman that I read this book, and that I picked it up before it became a bit less exciting because it was longlisted for the Booker. I think had I not saw this in a bookshop prior to the longlist, I wouldn’t have picked it up because of that and that’s a shame, and I think it says all too much about how contrived the Booker has become! I’m going to be thinking about this book for a long time, and I’d highly recommend it.

Review: The Third Reel – S J Naudé

046 - The Third Reel

046 - The Third Reel

Rating – 3*

As those of you who have followed this blog for some time will know, one of my favourite short story collections of recent years was The Alphabet of Birds so when I found out that not only was Naudé writing a novel but that it was to be published by Salt, I got very excited.

The Third Reel is set in an interesting point in history – Thatcher’s Britain, Apartheid South Africa, the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Our main character, Etienne is a young man who has fled conscription in South Africa and sought asylum in the UK. He is enraptured by film, and wins a scholarship to study at London Film School but then his world is flipped upside down by a young German artist who makes art and moonlights as a paediatric nurse. While researching for a project on lost film, Etienne is introduced to this lost German wartime reel, and he becomes obsessed with finding the other two. There is so much more to this book as this is just the surface, but finding the words is difficult.

As someone who only has remedial knowledge about 1980’s Britain, I think the way this is written suits that time period. It feels very artsy, but also very industrial and brutal much like that period of history was. Nothing in this book was what it appeared on the surface, it was so multifaceted with art and music and architecture all layering on top of each other to build this really quite unsettling – yet oddly beautiful – environment.

A lot of this book feels unsettling, and I think the reason for that is simply that it’s so beautifully written yet the content isn’t always very pretty. The relationship between Etienne and Axel is a bizarre one and one I’m not entirely comfortable with, but as a reader I don’t think I was meant to be comfortable with it.

Ultimately, this didn’t quite match up with the high bar I set it based on The Alphabet of Birds but it’s nonetheless a good book. Had I not been familiar with his writing style, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much however. So it’s very swings and roundabouts as to how much I enjoyed this, which is why I settled at 3* – because it wasn’t a bad book, it just wasn’t as good as I was hoping.