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Book Review: Blackberry & Wild Rose by Sonia Velton

I had a hankering to read Sonia Velton’s debut novel Blackberry & Wild Rose for its stunning cover alone before I knew anything more about the story. But what a world I found wrapped up in that oh so very beautiful dust jacket.

WHEN ESTHER THOREL, the wife of a Huguenot silk-weaver, rescues Sara Kemp from a brothel she thinks she is doing God’s will. Sara is not convinced being a maid is better than being a whore, but the chance to escape her grasping ‘madam’ is too good to refuse.

INSIDE THE THORELS’ tall house in Spitalfields, where the strange cadence of the looms fills the attic, the two women forge an uneasy relationship. The physical intimacies of washing and dressing belie the reality: Sara despises her mistress’s blindness to the hypocrisy of her household, while Esther is too wrapped up in her own secrets to see Sara as anything more than another charitable cause.

IT IS SILK that has Esther so distracted. For years she has painted her own designs, dreaming that one day her husband will weave them into reality. When he laughs at her ambition, she unwittingly sets in motion events that will change the fate of the whole Thorel household and set the scene for a devastating day of reckoning between her and Sara.

THE PRICE OF a piece of silk may prove more than either is able to pay.

Blackberry & Wild Rose is a remarkably rich and immersive novel and, in writing it, Sonia Velton has created the kind of world I long to lose myself in as a reader. From the moment Sara steps off the cart that’s brought her to London and Mrs Swann scoops her up and bundles her along to the Wig & Feathers, I was plunged into eighteenth century Spitalfields. Sonia Velton fills her pages with the sights, sounds and smells of the area in this period so well that I felt as if I were living the story alongside her characters.

Told from the perspective of Sara and her ‘saviour’ Esther, this is the story of two very different women both constrained by the limited opportunities available to them and how vulnerable they are by dint of their sex. I took a more immediate liking to Sara but I think that was in part down to how soon her fresh start in the city turns sour and that she’s viewed as a project, rather than another woman in the household, by Esther. It takes longer to discover Esther’s heart’s desire and realise the consequences of her thwarted dreams and wasted talents, and the frustration and resentment these engender. But once they became known, I couldn’t help but feel for her and want her to find some comfort and happiness. Read more

Book Review: A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes

A young woman and her brother return to their abandoned home and an unsolved family mystery in this slow burn of a debut novel.

In the scorching summer of 1976, Robyn spends her days swimming at the Lido and tagging after her brother. It’s the perfect holiday – except for the crying women her mum keeps bringing home.

As the heatwave boils on, tensions in the town begin to simmer. Everyone is gossiping about her mum, a strange man is following her around, and worst of all, no one will tell Robyn the truth. But this town isn’t good at keeping secrets…

Twelve years later, Robyn returns home, to a house that has stood empty for years and a town that hasn’t moved on, forced to confront the mystery that haunted her that summer.

And atone for the part she played in it.

Told from the perspective of Robyn, the Little Bird of the title, and switching between the 1976 heatwave and the siblings’ return twelve years later in 1988, A Little Bird Told Me takes its own sweet time in unravelling the mystery at the heart of this story.

This is in part due to the fact that Robyn is our narrator and, while she may return as a twenty-one year old, she was only nine when the events of 1976 took place. Robyn has repressed memories as well as a skewed vision of what happened due to her age and the fact that others protected her from what was going on at the time. In retrospect, this was probably misguided on their part even if it was done for all the best reasons, but it all feeds into how unreliable she is as a narrator and how slow she is to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

That said, I would have liked to have had a few more breadcrumbs scattered throughout the book to help me keep faith that there would be some better resolution than the path of vengeance Robyn seems set upon when the book opens. Read more

Book Review: The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden (Winternight Trilogy #3)

Brimful of the deep-winter magic and folkloric elements I loved in her first two Winternight books, Katherine Arden’s trilogy culminates in a truly spellbinding finale with The Winter of the Witch.

Moscow is in flames, leaving its people searching for answers – and someone to blame. Vasilisa, a girl with extraordinary gifts, must flee for her life, pursued by those who blame their misfortune on her magic.

Then a vengeful demon returns, stronger than ever. Determined to engulf the world in chaos, he finds allies among men and spirits. Mankind and magical creatures alike find their fates resting on Vasya’s shoulders.

But she may not be able to save them all.

Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy has been ramping up towards its epic conclusion over the course of the first two books.

Given the title, it’s unsurprising to find that The Winter of the Witch is where Vasya needs to come into her own if she’s somehow to attempt to bring all the warring factions – military, magic, religious and demon – together to face the threat to Moscow.

No mean feat for someone who is once again an outcast, badly hurt and on the run.

Vasya’s journey takes her along the enchanted but hazardous road through Midnight, where she’ll learn more about herself and her family, take on an unlikely guide, and reunite with a beguiling frost-demon. Read more

Book Review: In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark

Inspired by real events but told by fictional characters Clare Clark’s latest novel, In the Full Light of the Sun, puts Weimar Berlin and a van Gogh art scandal in the frame.

In the Full Light of the Sun follows the fortunes of three Berliners caught up in a devastating scandal of 1930s’ Germany. It tells the story of Emmeline, a wayward, young art student; Julius, an anxious, middle-aged art expert; and a mysterious art dealer named Rachmann who are at the heart of Weimar Berlin at its hedonistic, politically turbulent apogee and are whipped up into excitement over the surprising discovery of thirty-two previously unknown paintings by Vincent van Gogh.

In the Full Light of the Sun is split into three sections, each with its own year: the first follows Julius, art expert, biographer and critic, in a position to influence careers and fortunes, his own included, in 1923; the second takes up Emmeline’s hedonistic life as an artist and young woman in search of inspiration, work and love, four years later in 1927; and finally in 1933, there’s the diary of a Jewish lawyer involved in the resulting court case. Still struggling to cope with a tragic personal loss, his world is fast becoming a smaller and scarier place, but he lives in hope of someone stepping in to call a halt on it.

The novel depicts Berlin at the height of a dynamic period of creativity, apparent freedom and innovation. But such heady times don’t guarantee clarity of vision and Clare Clark shows here how greatly people can be blinded by the glare when things burn so brightly, often leaving them deceived. Read more

Book Review: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden (Winternight Trilogy #2)

The Girl in the Tower continues the story of Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna which began with The Bird and the Nightingale. It sees Vasya far from her childhood home of Lesnaya Zemlya and alone in a world of warring factions.

The court of the Grand Prince of Moscow is plagued by power struggles and rumours of unrest. Meanwhile bandits roam the countryside, burning the villages and kidnapping its daughters. Setting out to defeat the raiders, the Prince and his trusted companion come across a young man riding a magnificent horse.

Only Sasha, a priest with a warrior’s training, recognises this ‘boy’ as his younger sister, thought to be dead or a witch by her village. But when Vasya proves herself in battle, riding with remarkable skill and inexplicable power, Sasha realises he must keep her secret as she may be the only way to save the city from threats both human and fantastical. . .

By expanding Vasya’s world in this book, Katherine Arden is able to show us how the decision Vasya took at the end of the first book was not the easy option by any means. It also serves to emphasise the extent to which Vasya and her family are in jeopardy. Something which becomes increasingly clear once the action moves to Moscow and we see the mercurial machinations of life at court, how quickly favours are won and fortunes are lost, together with how rapidly unrest spreads throughout the city and manifests itself into a mob.

Vasya’s disguise allows us to experience the stark contrast between the role of men and women. ‘Vassili’ is celebrated at court for his bravery and riding prowess, whereas the time Vasilisa spends with her sister and niece in their tower serves as a reminder of the life she should have led and how limiting that is, let alone for anyone as spirited as Vasya.

Moscow is a difficult place to keep secrets, thriving as it does on rumour and suspicion, so you sense this double life of Vasya’s can’t last and she will be forced to choose between falling into line with her family’s wishes, a more secluded life altogether, or becoming the wilful warrior witch she risks being exposed as. She’ll also learn that not all choices are hers to make. Read more

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (Winternight Trilogy #1)

The Bear and the Nightingale had been on my TBR shelf for far too long but with the final book in the Winternight Trilogy out last month, I decided to spend some of my winter nights reading all three books. Here’s what the first one is about:

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.

But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods. . .

The Bear and the Nightingale is a coming of age tale with a difference and a gorgeous retelling of a Russian fairytale.

Katherine Arden brings medieval Northern Rus’ alive in this, the first book in her Winternight trilogy. So much so that I felt as if I lived through the seasons with Vasilisa (aka Vasya) Petrovna, whether she was running wild through the forest and discovering mysterious creatures alongside new talents of her own, or listening to the old family nurse telling them folktales around the oven in winter. And winters here are of the harshest kind: where the bitter cold and hunger test even Vasya’s family, despite her father being the boyar, or local lord.

Rus’ is in a state of flux: the demons, spirits, nymphs and guardians of folklore are losing their hold on people as orthodox religion widens its reach. And when one priest, newly-arrived from Moscow, embarks upon what feels like a very personal vendetta, it promises to be a dangerous time for anyone who still communes with those traditional spirit-guardians.

Vasya is a terrific character: she’s a wild and spirited tomboy straining against the limitations and expectations of becoming a woman in her society. I really felt for her as she struggles to find a way through where she stays true to herself yet doesn’t alienate her family. You come to understand her need for more freedom and independence than society allows her and wonder how she will ever find her place in the world. I’m looking forward to following her through the next two books and seeing where her unusual gifts take her in what promises to be an exciting and magical deep winter trilogy.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is the first book in the Winternight Trilogy. It is published in the UK by Del Rey, an Ebury Publishing and Penguin Random House imprint here in the UK. I received a free copy of the hardback as part of the Amazon Vine programme and my review is here on the site. The beautiful hardback edition I received is sadly no longer available but it is out as an audiobook, ebook and in paperback. You can buy it from Amazon UK or Hive where purchases support your local independent bookshop. 

For more on Katherine Arden and her books, check out her Author Website, or follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Katherine Arden is coming to the UK at the end of next month on The Winter of the Witch (Winternight #3) tour and you can find all the dates below. 

Book Review: The Lost Man by Jane Harper #TheLostMan #BlogTour

Jane Harper’s third novel, The Lost Man, opens with a death which seems to make little sense. It’s a mystery that’s all the more disorientating for being set in the harsh and unfamiliar landscape of a Queensland summer. Here’s what it’s about:

Two brothers meet at the remote border of their vast cattle properties under the unrelenting sun of the outback. In an isolated part of Australia, they are each other’s nearest neighbour, their homes hours apart.

They are at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old that no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron. The Bright family’s quiet existence is thrown into grief and anguish.

Something had been troubling Cameron. Did he choose to walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects…

Aaron Falk, the detective from Jane Harper’s previous two novels, is a no show in this latest book but he’s not the lost man of the title. That distinction seems to be shared between two brothers: the dead man, Cameron, who looks to have strayed too far from his car and become disoriented in the heat, and Nathan, who needs to know whether his brother did so deliberately.

Youngest brother, Bub, may feel sidelined in the family business but it’s Nathan, the eldest, who is cut off from people both physically and emotionally. Divorced and living on his own, except for the present time when his son is visiting from Brisbane, he’s been ostracised by the community, both settled and itinerant, for breaching an unwritten outback code ten years ago. As the novel progresses and you get to know the man better, you can’t help but hope there’s a chance of redemption for him here, together with some sense of release for the family.

Jane Harper’s description of the land and its people is as blistering as the Queensland heat. My skin prickled as I read and I could almost feel the ubiquitous red dust on its pages, as both the mystery surrounding Cameron’s death and the family involved unravel. It’s especially absorbing if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to live and work on a remote outback station. What kind of person would you need to be to survive such a life in that landscape? Read more

Book Review: Hame by Annalena McAfee

Hame is a book I happened upon thanks to the publisher Vintage tweeting about it on St Andrew’s Day last year. The Scottish island setting and a literary trail in search of a mysterious poet really appealed to me and it seems only fitting to post my review of it on St Andrew’s Day, one year on. Here’s what it’s about:

Hame, n. Scottish form of ‘home’: a valued place regarded as a refuge or place of origin

In the wake of the breakdown of her relationship, Mhairi McPhail dismantles her life in New York and moves with her 9-year-old daughter, Agnes, to the remote Scottish island of Fascaray. Mhairi has been commissioned to write a biography of the late Bard of Fascaray, Grigor McWatt, a cantankerous poet with an international reputation.

But who was Grigor McWatt? Details of his past – his tough childhood and his war years as a commando – are elusive, and there is evidence of a mysterious love affair which Mhairi is determined to investigate. As she struggles to adapt to her new life, and put her own troubled past behind her, Mhairi begins to unearth the astonishing secret history of the poet regarded by many as the custodian of Fascaray’s – and Scotland’s – soul.

I read this as an ebook but got hold of a copy of the hardback when it came out and wish I’d read it in hardback or even waited for the paperback to come out, for the simple reason that I prefer the amount of white space those two formats often provide around the text. Something which is important here, when the book contains so many of Grigor McWatt’s poems, as it helps to form a useful and marked break between the biographer Mhairi’s work and the poet’s own memoirs.

Including the poems contributed to my enjoyment of the book. It was fun to try and read them aloud, and then work out what they were saying before checking the source or inspiration behind it. I didn’t read many of the longer poems in their entirety, though, and have to confess that I skipped most later sections once the novelty had worn off.

Mhairi McPhail embarks on some literary detective work, and another aspect of Hame which I relished was in trying to put the pieces together and solve the enigma that is Grigor McWatt before his biographer did. Read more

Book Review: The Winters by Lisa Gabriele

The Winters is a modern reworking of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and while it draws heavily on its source material, Lisa Gabriele also manages to pull off a stylish new twist in her take on the haunting psychological suspense.

After a whirlwind romance, a young woman returns to the opulent, secluded mansion of her new fiancé Max Winter – a wealthy senator and recent widower – and a life of luxury she’s never known. But all is not as it appears at the Asherley estate. The house is steeped in the memory of Max’s beautiful first wife Rebekah, who haunts the young woman’s imagination and feeds her uncertainties, while his very alive teenage daughter Dani makes her life a living hell.

As the soon-to-be second Mrs. Winter grows more in love with Max, and more afraid of Dani, she is drawn deeper into the family’s dark secrets – the kind of secrets that could kill her, too.

The Winters works surprisingly well, whether or not you’re familiar with Daphne du Maurier’s original. There are enough familiar elements for readers to recognise, while the changes and additions make sense and give the story a refresh, making the case for this update.

I liked the location change as it helps Lisa Gabriele not only give a nod to her inspiration but make the story her own. She moves the action from Monte Carlo and Cornwall to the US equivalent of their European counterparts in the Cayman Islands and the Hamptons on the southern tip of New York’s Long Island. This, in turn, feeds into the types of characters we encounter, their social circles and backgrounds.

What further updates the story is that Mrs Danvers’ character, a housekeeper in the original, here becomes future stepdaughter, Dani. This change worked really well for me, as both narrator and reader simultaneously question how much of Dani’s behaviour is attributable to the loss of her mother, the sudden appearance of her replacement or simply that she’s currently fifteen and very good at it.  Read more

Book Review: One More Chance by Lucy Ayrton

Lucy Ayrton’s One More Chance is one of four books helping to launch Little, Brown imprint Dialogue Books this year. It’s an imprint dedicated to introducing wider diversity and more inclusivity by giving a voice to those often overlooked by mainstream publishing. And here, that voice belongs to a young mother in Holloway prison.

Dani hasn’t had an easy life. She’s made some bad choices and now she’s paying the ultimate price; prison.

With her young daughter Bethany, growing up in foster care, Dani is determined to be free and reunited with her. There’s only one problem; Dani can’t stay out of trouble.

Dani’s new cellmate Martha is quiet and unassuming. There’s something about her that doesn’t add up. When Martha offers Dani one last chance at freedom, she doesn’t hesitate.

Everything she wants is on the outside, but Dani is stuck on the inside. Is it possible to break out when everyone is trying to keep you in . . .

I struggled initially with Dani as the main protagonist, feeling frustrated by her attitude and constant truculence, while finding myself distracted by other characters, in particular queen bee Chris and the altogether more mysterious Martha.

However, as Dani’s backstory is drip fed to us, it helped me begin to understand her, how she ends up where she does and why she behaves in this way. And by the end of the book, I grudgingly admired her and even felt ever so slightly hopeful for the future. So all credit to Lucy Ayrton’s writing for effecting this transition in Dani and my reaction to her.

There are some more mystical elements to the story which I chose to go along with partly because I figured Dani sees them as something to pass the time but which also feed on her personal circumstances and desperation to see her little girl. It’s up to you how you view them and how much weight you attach.

Where Lucy Ayrton very nearly lost me was in the scene at a park where a key absence goes unexplained, and I did tire of people staring at each other and how loaded with meaning each of those stares were.

Prison life is by its very nature going to be repetitive but I think Lucy Ayrton otherwise does a pretty good job of counteracting that here. It’s helped along by a subtle and intriguing subplot playing out in the background, as well as the following nice touches:  Read more

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