Review: The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

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Rating – 4*

The Bear and the Nightingale is a book that I have been seeing everywhere since it came out earlier this year but I kept ignoring it. Every time I saw it I was drawn in by the cover but, for some reason, I just didn’t pick it up – and having read it now I think maybe subconsciously I was waiting for the right time to read it. This, my readers, is the perfect Winter book to curl up under a blanket with and that is just what I did. I curled up and read it in one sitting and I cannot tell you how good it felt to do that with a book after so long!

I’m not familiar with Russian fairy tales and folklore but, honestly, you don’t need to be to enjoy this. In the first chapter the fairy tale this is based on is recounted to the children by their nanny. It’s the story of the frost demon – Morozko – who is the Russian equivalent of Jack Frost.

“In Russian, Frost was called Morozko, the demon of winter. But long ago, the people called him Karachun, the death-god. Under that name, he was king of black midwinter who came for bad children and froze them in the night.”

As a reader we’re following the life of Vasya. Vasya is everything I could dream of in a fairy tale retelling, she’s strong willed and wild, she doesn’t conform to societal norms of the culture she lives in – which in Medieval Russia is very misogynistic and not at all easy. Vasya, at least to me, was very much like Merida in Pixar’s Brave and that’s how I was picturing her.

Vasya is different, and when her mother was pregnant with her she could tell this. She knew that Vasya was to have a gift much like her Grandmothers – she can see the spirit guardians around her home, and those in the wild around her. To most these spirits are fairy stories, but everyone still adheres to the old ways – honouring those spirits, leaving food out for them and such, and while that still happens all is well. But then the old ways fall by the wayside leading to devastation in the community. Vasya doesn’t give up though, she continues adhering to the old ways, honouring the spirits – but being strong willed and defiant in a culture like that only leads to bad things for young women!

That’s nothing more than a very short summary – this story is so much more than that and is full of adventure and familial love – something I think so many books are lacking! Reading the blurb, this book really sounded like another YA trope jumping in the fairy tale retelling bandwagon. While it probably could be considered YA, I feel it had a lot more context and a lot fewer tropes than your standard YA book.

What makes me very happy is that there is to be another book in this world, and based on what Katherine Arden has said on Goodreads that the second is to focus on Vasya and her siblings Olga and Sasha who are two characters I really wanted to learn more about.

If anyone has looked at this book and put it back down, I’d say give it a chance because it is genuinely one of the cosiest books I’ve read recently, and I would definitely say this is a Christmas-y read. I for one loved it and was taken very much by surprise!

 

Review: Salt Houses – Hala Alyan

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Raiting – 4*

I was fortunate enough to get this book as a review copy from NetGalley. I’ll not lie, it was the cover that drew me in and it makes me very sad that in the UK this isn’t the edition that has been published, if it were I’d be snapping up a physical copy of this book because it was magnificent.

I don’t even know where to begin with this book because it is that incredible. We start in Palestine, it’s 1967 and the eve of a wedding. We follow the same family, from different viewpoints and perspectives, over several generations, several countries, and 3 continents from Palestine being torn apart by the Six-Day War. The family ends up spread across the world, and it’s made even more relevant to this family as Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait in the 90s; Kuwait being where some of the family set up a new home after the . How they feel living in America after 9/11. Ultimately though, this is about a family and the meaning of home. It’s a book that explores displacement, loss, and it also explores a woefully unexplained part of history – the view from the other side.

All the characters in this book were vibrant; each had flaws but they were almost charming because they were so well rounded, they were believable. I can’t talk about all the characters in this book because there are 5 generations by the epilogue – each of them as important as the last. I will say I had a soft spot for Atef, throughout the book he put up with a lot, and it’s only through the course of the novel that you realise quite how much.

As I said, this explores a very underrepresented portion of the population. The loss of identity for the children and grandchildren of Alia and Atef puts in to words what the horror what was 9/11 and being of Arabian heritage in the USA. Some parts of this book really broke my heart, and frankly it disgusts me that there are still so many ignorant people in the world.

The thing that stands out most about this book is the family is so normal. They’re ordinary. In spite of their atypical experience, so much about them as a unit was just them being a family, arguments and all, in spite of the horrors going on around them. They’re just people, a family, trying to get along in the world and find their place in it.

Alyan is a poet and that shines through in this book. For me this book was so rich; the prose was incredible, the scene building was amazing, and I was absolutely lost in wherever in the world we were in that particular chapter. Her writing is absolutely beautiful, and I’m looking forward to reading some of her poetry because if this was a taster of her work, the rest is going to be incredible.

I’m so glad I read this right now, but I have to admit I think this is a perfect sunny day, outside, read. This book made me feel like I would on a mid-summer evening, and I think reading it with that around me really would have heightened the reading experience for me. While it’s covering some really harrowing and heartbreaking history, it’s probably one of the most uplifting books I’ve read in a while. I’d highly recommend it to anyone.

Review: The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times – Xan Brooks

029 - The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times

Rating – 4*

This book was one of my most anticipated releases of 2017. Salt are one of my favourite publishers; I’ve never read a bad book from them and they’re a local publishing house, which just makes me love them even more. I was fortunate enough to win this book in a giveaway on Goodreads  – as someone who never wins anything, I was absolutely elated when this arrived in the post! However, with all my reading for the Wellcome Prize, I didn’t get around to this until the start of this month – but honestly, it was worth the wait.

I don’t know what I was expecting going in to this book, but honestly what I got wasn’t anything like I imagined. Trying to explain what this book was is difficult – because honestly it’s very unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It was absolutely mesmerising, but also quite an uncomfortable read in places, and I really enjoyed it.

The book is set shortly after WWI has ended, and we meet our young protagonist – Lucy – as she is on her way to the forest to meet The Funny Men. This band of men are named after Dorothy’s companions in the Wizard of Oz, and over the first part of the book we learn why Lucy is off to the forest to meet these men, who these men are, and the lines between fairytale and reality get heavily blurred. Over the course of the novel as a whole, those lines get even more blurred, the plot gets darker and even weirder, and seemingly unrelated plot points all come together and, frankly, it’s fantastic.

The first 20 or 30 pages for me were the hardest to get through, I had to read them twice before I actually found myself engaged in the book. It was quite a jolting start, if I’m entirely honest, and a little weird even for me! Once I got through them, and persevered, I found this a hard book to put down. Yes it was disturbing, and unsettling but come the end of it all I couldn’t help but have this overwhelming feeling of sadness that I was done with it.

This book was weird and wonderful and, while nothing like what I had imagined in my mind when I first read the blurb on Salts website in Autumn last year, it was incredible. It’s definitely not a book for the faint of heart and it’s also not a book that will be enjoyed by everyone. Personally, I loved it.

Now, you may be wondering why 4* not 5*? Well, it was a tough call but if I am entirely honest with myself, while it was beautifully written and expertly crafted, the different streams of the story often had me a little lost. It came together in the end, and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a book coming together, but while reading it I did feel it was a little jumbled.

I look forward to what Xan Brooks does in the future, because for a debut, this was incredible.

Review: Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters

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Rating – 5*

I was having a bit of a reading slump towards the end of April, so I decided it was the perfect time to have a reread. I haven’t reread a book in ages even though I have a pile of books which I want to get around to rereading it isn’t something I do a lot. Anyway, when deciding what to reread, for me, this was an easy choice.

Tipping the Velvet has always been a book that I enjoyed, but it is definitely one I enjoyed more on this third read than I ever did before. When I read it initially I must have been about 14 or 15 and a lot of the nuances, and even the plot, went over my head. I was young, naive, not quite in touch with my own sexuality yet and while the book was eye opening, I don’t think I fully grasped the magnitude of it (or even the profound affect it had on me at the time). It wasn’t until I reread it when I was around 18 or 19 that I probably understood more of it, that I realised what this book actually made me realise about myself – it was more eyeopening the second time than the first. Now, on this third read, I am looking at it through completely different lenses and I love it so much more than I did the two previous reads.

The main character in this is Nancy – or Nan – and we follow her over the course of several years of her life. At the start she works in her family business, shelling oysters in Kent and becomes entranced by a performer at the theatre – Kitty Butler. Kitty’s act is that of going on stage dressed as a man, and Nan finds herself going back night after night just to see Kitty. From here, Nan’s life takes an interesting turn down to the theatreland of London – she has ups and downs but every event she lives through shapes her for the next and I absolutely adore that aspect of her character development. The person she is at the end of this book is such a reach from the girl she was at the start, and you know every step of what got her there and I love that. All loose ends are tied up in the last chapter – anything left unresolved is very neatly resolved, it is a little cliche how it all works out but, frankly, I don’t give a damn.

Honestly, this is one of the best books I’ve read. It’s only rereading it now, at this point in my life, that I realise how profoundly impacting it has been on me over the years. Yes, I probably do have some emotional connection to it but that is most definitely one of the best things about rereading a book, remembering the feelings and thoughts you had on previous reads but also finding new things, finding that new connection.

I love this book, I urge anyone to read this book. It’s beautiful, it’s historical, it’s just damn fantastic. I can’t remember the last time I lost myself in a book like this – I did actually read it in two sittings (just a few days apart) and I laid up until 1am to finish it. That hasn’t happened for so long, and it’s made me so excited about reading again. May, I feel, is going to be a good month!

Review: The Witchfinders Sister – Beth Underdown

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Rating – 4*

A little known fact about my reading tastes is that I love anything to do with Witch Trials. Naturally, when I saw this available on Audible I had to invest; not only was the narration good, but the story had me hooked in that 5 minutes I listened to. I don’t often read new releases impulsively, I can count on one hand the times I’ve picked a new release up without knowing anything about it. This was published on the 2nd of March – I picked it up on the 6th and threw myself at it like a thing possessed!

The Witchfinders Sister follows a young, recently widowed woman called Alice who has decided to return to her brother following her husbands death. Her brother, Matthew, is based on a historical figure who was a documented witchfinder in the 17th century. The plot of the story is loosely based around true events, all stemming from the life of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins. Seeing history through his sisters eyes, I feel, was a frankly genius way to look at it. Alice adds a layer of emotion, gives a personal connection to the situation around her, and throughout the book we flick back in time through her eyes as she tries to understand what made her brother the way he is – and it’s amazing.

I found this book absolutely engrossing. There were parts which were a bit slower than others but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The atmosphere in this book was fantastic, and the mystery and intrigue kept me guessing what was happening until the last page – which was very satisfying!

This is Beth Underdown’s first novel. I can’t wait for her future books because this was a very, very good debut and one. I loved the mix of historical fiction and, almost-but-not-quite, psychological thriller. I hope this isn’t the last of her, because frankly I want to see what else she can do.

Review: The King’s General – Daphne du Maurier

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Rating – 4*

I picked this book up entirely on a whim, I hadn’t read any du Maurier in a while and I decided it was time to remedy that as, one of my many reading goals, is to finish reading her entire bibliography. I went in to this knowing nothing, I didn’t even read the blurb I just pulled the first du Maurier off of my shelf that I hadn’t read and, frankly, that was a very good decision.

Unlike most of her other novels I have read, this is a piece of historical fiction. And it’s one with a very interesting origin. It’s set in Cornwall, as most of her books are, and progresses through the Civil War – a period of history I know very little about. Reading the authors note at the end is something I rarely do, but in this case I think it adds so much to the story – and I understand why du Maurier was so inspired to write this novel because of it.

du Maurier never shies away from an interesting, possibly controversial, protagonist. Honor is no exception to this. It’s the 1640s and she does not give a damn about society and convention, and I loved her for it. She refuses to marry the man her family pick for her, and then flaunts convention by not marrying the man she loves. She has spirit about her, and doesn’t let any limitations get in her way. Possibly the thing that surprised me most about this book is the way that disability is represented – we as readers know that it is there, but it isn’t something that imposes many limits. Of course it is a bit dated, but at the same time thinking about when this book was written, and also when it was set, it’s a pretty positive representation which always wins some points for me!

As with most of du Maurier’s writing, there is incredible atmosphere built up here. There is suspense, mystery and intrigue. There are hidden rooms, and dubious women and it is just everything I love about du Maurier. If that sounds good to you, read this.

It isn’t her best book, but it’s one I read in a day. I found myself hooked, I didn’t want to put it down, so I just kept reading. I haven’t done that with a book for a long time, so it’s high praise indeed! For someone new to du Maurier, this would be a good place to go, especially if you’re a fan of historical novels.