Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon

020 - The Priory of the Orange Tree

020 - The Priory of the Orange Tree

★★★★

After what feels like a very long reading slump I thought it’d be a great idea to pick up an 850 page epic fantasy novel to ease myself back in to reading gently, I don’t like to make things easy for myself after all. But I’m really, really glad I picked this up. Samantha Shannon is a new author to me, having not read The Bone Season, but as soon as I found out there were lady gays and dragons in this, I knew I had to read it. It took me a little while to get in to it, but my word once I was in to it I devoured it.

As far as fantasy goes, this book is very “traditional” in that there are two very different parts of a world, one where dragons are revered as gods and the other where they’re considered dangerous. These two parts of the world are separated also by geography (East and West), and their religious views. They have differing views on what happened 1000 years ago, when The Nameless One – a dragon like creature – was vanquished and with the imminent return of this creature threatening them all, is what drives this story along. All of this is explored through our four narrators: Tane, Ead, Niclays and Loth. Tane, a young girl in the East hoping to become a dragon rider; Ead, a young woman who has been appointed as a member of the household staff to Queen Sabran Berethnet but is hiding a lot of herself; Naclays, an alchemist who is spiteful and driven by a lost love; and Loth, best friend to Queen Sabran who is sent on a dangerous diplomatic mission. All of these threads interweave perfectly by the end of this though, which is much appreciated! Something unusual for me, however, is that all of these points of view were enjoyable. Each character had a unique voice which made the jumping perspectives more tolerable, and by the time all their stories intertwined I appreciated each of them individually.

Far and a way my favourite character in this book though was Sabran – for me the central character who never got her own voice. A very deliberate move on Shannon’s part. Sabran is directed in her queenly duties by those who surround her, she hasn’t left the palace since her mother died, every move she makes at the beginning is very much decided by someone else and by the end of the book she’s her own person, and a lot stronger as an individual than she was at the start. The whole story revolves around Sabran and her family’s involvement in the slaying of The Nameless One, and Sabran feels that pressure.

The relationships depicted in this book are also something special – and not just the romantic ones – the love between friends and family is something explored beautifully in here. And while there is romance, it’s not forced, it’s not over the top and it’s not in your face. It feels natural and organic, which is a rarity in fantasy! Romantic love comes in all varieties too – gay and heterosexual – and rather than being shoehorned in, it just is and I LOVED that.

Ultimately for me the start of this book let it down a bit. It was a bit slow going which is why it’s only a 4* read for me.

Review: The Winter of the Witch – Katherine Arden

008 - the winter of the witch

008 - the winter of the witch

★★★★

It is absolutely no secret that I love this series, and this book has been at the top of my most anticipated releases since I finished book 2 in the Winternight series. I will start with saying that the series as a whole from me would get 5 stars but this book didn’t satisfy me in a way I had hoped it would.

It’s hard to review sequels – especially in a trilogy as far spanning as this one – without giving any spoilers away. This book picks up right in the action where the second book ended, and it definitely started as a 5* read. It was fast paced, exciting, starting to tie up loose ends and I loved it but I feel that some of it was unnecessary and ruined the plot for me. There is a lot going on in this book and at times, the action felt drawn out. Other times, I wanted it to move a little faster.

I love how Arden has blended medieval Russia and her fantasy world so seamlessly, I love how history, mythology, folklore and fairy tales have all been blended together. I found the afterword and the historical context to the series genuinely really interesting – not something I can often say about an afterword. I just feel there was something missing here, or maybe it was that there was too much to cram in to one final book, which left it feeling unresolved.

Vasya continues to be a fantastic character in this book; all the things I’ve loved about her in previous books come to a head and I felt in this book she became herself. She embraced all of her powers, and she owned them. She made decisions and stood by them. Everything she did she did of her own volition. Yet throughout the book her family is her main driving force, and I love that. I will say that there are a couple of scenes in which characters die – and those were intense, Vasya’s reactions were intense and believable and I felt emotionally invested in her.

Overall I felt this wasn’t the perfect ending at least for me. I will say it was a fantastic read, and I read it in the space of an afternoon. I just think it could have done with a bit of editing down, or a fourth book to properly develop some ideas. As with all the books in this series I listened to this as an audiobook and followed along with a print version and would very highly recommend this series on audio because it, somehow, makes it feel cosier. Perfect winter afternoon read in my eyes and I can’t wait to reread the series over the space of a weekend next winter!

Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman – Theodora Goss

059 - European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman

059 - European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman

Rating – 4*

After reading the first book in this series and loving it, I had to immediately pick up the second in the series. Now, I’ll admit I was a little intimidated when I saw the size of this (700 and something pages!) but I somehow read this book in 2 or 3 sittings. I just couldn’t put this down.

Just to apologise in advance, this may contain spoilers for the first book, even though I am trying my best to make it spoiler free!

This book picks up where the previous left off, the characters are just as wonderful – if not more so – than they were in the first book. All of the female characters develop more, and we are introduced to a few more amazing women including Lucinda van Helsing, Carmilla, and an interesting woman in power – Aisha. We also get to meet Count Dracula and Mina Harker, which is always a bonus! My love of Dracula made me love this book all the more. The inclusion of Carmilla, and her female lover, made me very happy. Even though this is set in the 1890s every character that met them both just accepted it, maybe it’s just their nature as they themselves aren’t exactly your stereotypical citizen of the world, but it was just really refreshing! Dare I say that I loved Carmilla in this more than I loved Carmilla?

The initial premise of this is that Lucinda van Helsing needs rescued, and much like with all of the girls in the Athena Club did at one point in the first book. Something weird is happening to Lucinda, and they need to get to the bottom of it as soon as possible. This journey takes them across Europe and out of the London that we became familiar with in the first book. And while there is a more in depth plot to this book than the first, it’s the characters that give the book momentum to move forward. The women in this are all incredible, and it’s why I loved the first book so much, and while I loved the plot it was them that made it all the better. We also get a more in depth look at their lives before they were all together, in freak shows and circuses, and all the colourful characters they knew (and new friends too!) Much like with the first book, their main motivation is understanding why their fathers created them all; it’s just taken to a new, more international, level in this.

Much like with the first book there is a strong female empowerment message, even in the characters from a different generation have the same view, mainly through the persuasion and influence from the younger girls! The women are so varied in their characteristics, and skills and it’s just so, so wonderful to see such a mish-mash of characters as friends. It makes me very happy.

Needless to say this has very easily become one of my favourite book series. I really can’t wait for the third and final book to tie all the loose ends in this up. I just can’t express how much I love this series, and a third book is going to be bittersweet when it’s finally released because I don’t want this series to end, but equally I can’t see where it goes. I think it’s safe to say I’d highly recommend this!

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: 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: 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: 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: The Gloaming – Kirsty Logan

015 - The Gloaming

015 - The Gloaming

Rating – 5*

I am so, so excited that I was able to receive an ARC of this from NetGalley in exchange for a review. The Gloaming will be published by Harvill Secker on April 19th – and I’m going to urge anyone reading this to pick it up because it is gorgeous. Much like with all Kirsty’s previous books it focuses on Scottish folklore and queer themes – lesbian mermaids. Need I say any more? But it has been one of my most anticipated books of 2018, it didn’t let me down, it didn’t suffer with Second Novel Syndrome – if anything I may love this just a little bit more than The Gracekeepers.

I had very high hopes for this book ever since I saw Kirsty talking about it on Twitter and it didn’t disappoint. It focuses around the Scottish myth of Selkies and deals with it in a much more tasteful way than my last encounter with a book which revolved around the myth. I’ve loved everything about it, and while it wasn’t what I was expecting it was still absolutely gorgeous.

The book follows the story of Mara Ross and her family. They live on a small, unnamed island off the coast of Scotland and it’s a magical, but dark place. Her family are haunted by many things, in a house that’s not quite right on an island which just seems to be filled with ghosts. It felt a lot more grown up, a lot more rounded than her previous novel – the characters were more real and the relationships between them also felt very believable. The relationships between parents and children, sisters, lovers; all of them felt real.

Something else I loved about this book is the nod to her short stories. I loved how she wove things like The Rental Heart in to this so seamlessly, and how that in this slightly fantastical reality it was believable. It also made me want to go back and reread her entire back catalogue – so keep an eye out for reviews of me rereading her books!

Honestly, I cannot praise this book enough. It was absolutely gorgeous and I cannot wait to get my hands on a physical copy in April. If you have a chance to get your hands on this, do, and let it wash over you because it’s beautiful. I read it in one sitting, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, and come the end I wanted to read it all over again. I feel so lucky that I was able to read this 2 months before release, and it’s genuinely one of the books I have been most excited for this year. I can’t wait to share it with my friends.

Review: The People in the Trees – Hanya Yanagihara

013 - The People in the Trees

 

013 - The People in the Trees

Rating – 2*

This book is one that has sat on my TBR since I read A Little Life when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2015. Much like A Little Life this book doesn’t shy away from difficult topics – but the beauty of her writing didn’t make this any the easier to read for me. I’ve read somewhere that A Little Life was a follow up to this in a way, in that it is told from the victims perspective – so if that was difficult to read, this is exponentially more difficult.

The novel follows Norton Perina, a character who we know from the outset has been sentenced to prison for sexual abuse of one of his many adopted children. We know he isn’t a good guy from the first few pages, but this is his ‘biography’ – his side of the story. His story takes us back to the 1950s, we briefly get an insight in to his academic studies, but the book picks up when he goes on an expedition to a little known island with an anthropologist. His life is forever altered by the time on this Micronesian island, he goes on to win the Nobel Prize and is comfortable for the rest of his career from the groundbreaking discovery he made on the island.

While the science in this book is incredible, as is the writing, a lot of it didn’t sit comfortably with me. It felt very claustrophobic as a book, I was never comfortable in it. The landscape the majority of the book is set in is jungle, it’s oppressive, and that’s how the book felt to me throughout. At it’s core this book is about rape. Rape of people, land, nature, an entire culture. It’s about a man who does that to better only himself, and he admits in the book he’d do it all again.

I admit that her writing is incredible, I can’t deny that, and she has a way with writing problematic characters. I just felt really, really uncomfortable reading this book and I can’t separate myself from that. Reading a lot of reviews of this book I can see a lot of people liken it to Lolita – which I haven’t read and have no intention of reading – so maybe if you read that and appreciated it (I hesitate to say liked it) this could be a book for you?

For me though, I just can’t bring myself to give this more than 2* – it was on for a 3* until the final chapter, or rather the epilogue, which I most certainly could have done without.