Category: 4 stars

Review: ‘Sally Heathcote: Suffragette’ by Mary M. Talbot

Review: ‘Sally Heathcote: Suffragette’ by Mary M. Talbot

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is a gripping inside story of the campaign for votes for women. A tale of loyalty, love and courage, set against a vividly realised backdrop of Edwardian Britain, it follows the fortunes of a maid-of-all-work swept up in the feminist militancy of the era. Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is another stunning collaboration from Costa Award winners, Mary and Bryan Talbot. Teamed up with acclaimed illustrator Kate Charlesworth, Sally Heathcote’s lavish pages bring history to life.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I went to an all girls’ secondary school as a teenager and we studied a social/economic history syllabus instead of what I think is a more common world history syllabus, with a whole term spent focussing on the history of the Suffragettes. In theory, I really ought to remember a reasonable amount about women’s efforts to obtain the vote and yet I don’t. I remember some key dates/facts and could probably get by in a light conversation on the topic (not that there’s likely to ever be such a thing but still) but by no means as much as I’d like to. I’ve been trying a little bit over recent months to get into non-fiction and I have a few books that I’m really looking forward to but I wouldn’t back my fledgling interest to survive a bout with a detailed book on women’s suffrage. Enter Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, a part fiction, part non-fiction graphic novel story of a young woman who was involved in various organisations’ efforts to secure votes for women.

Sally Heathcote is a fictional suffragette, who at the opening of the novel is a maid in service who ends up working for the Pankhurst family. As historical events unfold, Sally conveniently manages to continue to find herself at the heart of the action. While there wasn’t specifically a Sally Heathcote who travelled to London to work for the Women’s Social and Political Union or other political pressure groups, there were undoubtedly numerous women who did flock to the organisations to contribute their efforts to the groups’ work, challenging their previous role in society and Sally’s actions all feel entirely consistent with a young woman of her position at that time and not a strained storytelling device.

The book is only a couple of hundred pages but it manages to neatly cover all of the main events of the suffrage movement and show how women might have responded at the time (the death of Emily Davison is particularly thoughtfully covered). What Sally Heathcote: Suffragette does extremely well is different groups that were all trying to secure women the right to vote. Alongside the fairly militant WSPU (the group led by the Pankhursts and perhaps the most famous), there were other, arguably more peaceful organisations without subtly different aims, all of them often lumped together as “the Suffragettes”. Talbot does a brilliant job of introducing these groups by portraying Sally as a conflicted suffragette, committed to securing women’s rights but not sure about the best methods and engaging with efforts as best she can. As an introduction to the history and political climate of the era, it’s really solid.

The book is also unflinching about WSPU members’ treatment in prison during their hunger strikes following arrest and the forced feeding that women were subjected to and the horror of the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, which saw women released from prison when they were deemed in danger of becoming a martyr for the cause and re-arrested when they were thought to be healthy enough to ultimately serve their full sentence. I think all too often we refer to women ‘fighting for the right to vote’ without remembering that women suffered for it and the images and the telling of that in this account are raw and heartbreaking and incredibly powerful.

Speaking of, the illustrations are mostly in grey scale, with some colours used occasionally for emphasis (mostly organisations’ colours, including the now iconic white, green and purple, and Sally’s ginger hair). It’s a style that I’m always a fan of and one that works well here. The palette imbues the narrative with the gravitas and…weight that it deserves and avoids the graphic novel medium making it seem a little frivolous. It can make the other female characters a little difficult to identify by image alone but mostly they’re identified by name and it doesn’t become too much of a problem.

I don’t really want to spoil the book so I’ll just say that the last few panels are really impactive. They’re quiet compared to the drama of the main chapters but the stark contrast between the struggles that are so vividly portrayed in the rest of the pages and the last few statement that Talbot makes is stunning and absolutely perfectly judged.

Overall: I was a fan of Sally Heathcote: Suffragette before I got to the last few pages and those moments really made it something memorable. Books like this should be given to young women as an accessible account of what women (and men!) went through to secure the rights for women to vote, especially in the year that the country will commemorate centenary of the first British women to get the vote. Highly recommended if you want a either an introduction to or a refresher on a still very relevant and fairly recent period of UK history.


Pictured Edition published by Jonathan Cape (an imprint of Random House) in May 2014

Date finished: 07 January 2018

Source: Library

Book Thoughts: ‘Sufficient Grace’ by Amy Espeseth

Book Thoughts: ‘Sufficient Grace’ by Amy Espeseth

Overall rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Ruth and her cousin Naomi live in rural Wisconsin, part of an isolated religious community. The girls’ lives are ruled by the rhythms of nature — the harsh winters, the hunting seasons, the harvesting of crops — and by their families’ beliefs. Beneath the surface of this closed, frozen world, hidden dangers lurk.

Then Ruth learns that Naomi harbours a terrible secret. She searches for solace in the mysteries of the natural world: broken fawns, migrating birds, and the strange fish deep beneath the ice. Can the girls’ prayers for deliverance be answered?

Why I bought it:  After missing out on the first Moth Box last year, I made sure that I was quicker off the mark when the January box was released.  This was one of two books included in the beautiful box, wrapped up in tissue paper and tucked up with a branded bookmark in plenty of fun packaging.  The boxes are stunning and both books looked fabulous so if you haven’t yet tried acquiring two randomly selected, independently published books through this service, I’d really recommend you do (once I’ve had an opportunity to make sure I get myself one, obviously…).

Why I picked it up: When I bought the January box, I told myself that I couldn’t then buy the March one unless I’d read at least one of the January books. Out of the two in the box, I went for this one because the cover is stunning and it looked appropriately wintery.  And walking away from a blurb that promises “a story of lost innocence and the unfailing bond between two young women” that is “at once devastating and beautiful, and ultimately transcendent” is no mean feat.

Mid-point musings:  I tend to lean towards plot-driven novels but the writing in Sufficient Grace reminds me of how wonderful it can be to just read about a different type of life or a different environment.  I don’t know how this book manages to feel both so free and so oppressive at the same time.  There’s something about a life without the pressures of modern life that in some way seems quite appealing but the weight of living in such close confines with such a small number of people feels unbearable.  It’s a skillful writer that can convey that balance so effectively.  I hope that I’m wrong about what’s going on.

Mid-point rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Final thoughts:  
It’s hard not to write about Sufficient Grace in a way that isn’t full of clichés.  I could wheel out all sorts of over-used phrases about how raw and visceral the writing is.  About how Espeseth has taken a harsh environment and used it to highlight the trials her characters endure.  The annoying thing is, they’d all be true.  The writing in this book is absolutely stunning.  I can’t remember having read another book that gave me such a clear picture of the world characters were living in.  It’s harsh and unrelenting, describing a community that relies on nature and hunting to survive, that is so dependent on the environment and familiar with death in a way that modern communities avoid being. It doesn’t always make for easy reading (and the opening in particular might be one that’ll turn a few to vegetarianism) but it had a huge impact on me whenever I was reading and it haunts me months later. 

So come for the writing, stay for the heartbreaking story.  The story follows Ruth telling her of life among her family in an isolated rural community.  The author’s acknowledgements include an apology to any of her former isolated religious community that she might have offended in writing this novel.  Ruth’s story is Amy’s story, after a fashion, and it’s the ring of truth that makes this novel so powerful.  The way that Ruth uses religious stories and allegories to rationalise some of the terrible things that happen to her was painful to read about.  Adult readers will understand more about what’s happening to Ruth than Ruth does herself but Espeseth never overplays it.  She writes subtly and gives Ruth a voice that has just the right amount of naivety.  I wasn’t wrong about what was going on and the way that it plays out is just…devastating.  In a quiet, suppressed way.
This is a little known novel it would seem but it’s absolutely worth hunting down.

Favourite quotes:

“Reuben is pretending he wasn’t ever scared, that he hasn’t already been picturing himself slipping through the ice: sinking down, down, down into the freezing deep, his eyes peering up through the frosted water, trying to find the hole out that was his hole in”
“He is finished.  And now I know what I had hoped against: he is all he is, and he is not enough” [Page 251]

Date finished:  15 February 2017
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought via Moth Box Books
Genre: Literary fiction
Pictured Edition Published: in August 2012 by Scribe Publications

Review: ‘Bird Box’ by Josh Malerman

Review: ‘Bird Box’ by Josh Malerman

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Most people dismissed the reports on the news. But they became too frequent; they became too real. And soon it was happening to people we knew. 

Then the Internet died. The televisions and radios went silent. The phones stopped ringing. 

And we couldn’t look outside anymore.

I saw a lot about Bird Box around its release, bought it in a Kindle sale at some point and then forgot that I even owned it. Then one morning, I woke up early and couldn’t read my current physical book because it was dark and I’m kind enough that I didn’t want to bash on a lamp while Boyfriend was sleeping.  So I picked up my Kindle, flicked through the many books on there and went for this, drawn back in by the cover tagline “If you’ve seen them, it’s already too late”.
I wanted a thriller but I was very ill-prepared for just how dark this book was going to be.  Well, I suppose less how dark it was going to be than how gruesome.  The premise is fairly simple: the world is under threat from some being that, when seen by humans, makes those humans kill those around them before ultimately killing themselves.  The narrative is split between two main threads: one in the present where Malorie is alone in a house struggling to survive with two children, unable to go outside but desperate to brave it in the hope that she’ll be able to find some kind of life for her little family and one in the past that starts with news reports of the phenomenon and Malorie finding out that she’s pregnant and shows the world gradually unravelling from there.
I think what makes this book different from other dystopian fiction is that readers never find out exactly what is causing the implosion of the human race.  There are theories about what it is (including a fascinating one that there is in fact nothing at all causing the deaths other than mass hysteria and delusion) but, given that everybody who has seen it has died, nothing concrete.  It’s one of those stories that relies on readers’ imaginations to fill the gaps about what terrifying vision might be stalking the streets.  And my goodness does it work.  There are moments where characters are blindfolded and fetching water or something from outside and they’re plagued by images of what might be lurking just beyond their blindfold and the terror as they start to imagine something touching them and gradually descend into panic feels so real.  It perfectly conveys that feeling when you walk into a pitch black room and have that fleeting “But what if…?” thought and suddenly have to get a light on.
The novel also manages to touch on the social impact of strangers being forced to rely on each other to survive, the plight of being torn between the desire to help save others and saving yourself and it all feels very (worryingly) realistic.  The ending isn’t exactly definitive but it worked for me and even while it introduced a whole host of new moral quandaries, it did wrap up the story enough and didn’t feel as though Malerman had just got bored and stopped writing.
I really, really liked this book.  It was terrifying and it was brutal but it was completely gripping. I like stories that are told through flashbacks and this one uses the technique particularly well.  You know what’s coming (in a way) but I was still completely astonished when it came to the point of actually getting there.  Bird Box won’t be for everyone because it doesn’t shy away from some very raw and gory details of people’s demises (particular warning to those who especially don’t want to read about violence/death of animals).  There was a scene in particular towards the end that really freaked me out and that made me feel physically ill so even if it’s by no means a pleasant read, it is a hell of a gut-punching one.

Overall: With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that I’d definitely recommend Josh Malerman’s debut. While I was reading it, I alternated between fervent hope for characters, disgust and all sorts of other over-wrought emotional states.  It was a trying time but one I’d say is worth inflicting on yourself.  It actually looks as though HarperCollins will be publishing Malerman’s second novel, Black Mad Wheel, later this year and I’ll definitely be picking up a copy when it’s out.

Date finished:  14 January 2017
Format: eBook
Source: Bought
Genre: Dystopian fiction; thriller
Pictured Edition Published: in January 2015 by HarperCollins Publishers

Buy your own copy (affiliate links):  Amazon  |  Wordery

Review: ‘Hollow City’ by Ransom Riggs

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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
This is the second novel featuring Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children.  This review doesn’t include spoilers for the first book or the second book so I’ve also hidden the synopsis for the second book – if you want to see it, highlight below 🙂  
This second novel begins in 1940, immediately after the first book ended. Having escaped Miss Peregrine’s island by the skin of their teeth, Jacob and his new friends must journey to London, the peculiar capital of the world. Along the way, they encounter new allies, a menagerie of peculiar animals, and other unexpected surprises.
I read the first book in this series not too long ago as part of the October Readathon, initially picking it up because I thought the pictures would help if my eyes got tired.  I really wasn’t expecting to like the book as much as I did and I’m so glad that I knew I had the second one on its way as I was finishing it!  The first book sees Jacob meeting Miss Peregrine and her peculiar children and learning more about the world that they live in and how he fits in that world.  This second one continues the story after some rather dramatic upheaval is inflicted upon the Home for Peculiar Children in the final pages of the first book.  I’m glad that I read the first and second books pretty close together.  Although there are a couple of sentences that recap main events from the end of the first book at the opening of the second one, there isn’t anything too detailed so if it’s been a while since you read the first one, you might want to have a quick flick through the final pages of it or search out a quick summary before you get started on the next instalment.
I can’t decide if I liked Hollow City more or Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  Both books are action-packed but where the first one had mostly quite a whimsical, fairytale feeling about it and was almost outside of any time, the second has a darker, more sinister edge to it and plays heavily on the uncertainty and chaos already prevalent in England in 1940.  The pictures obviously continue to be one of the most distinctive features of the series but in the first book, they’re creepier and more haunting than in the second; there are still some new characters to introduce and some eery pictures that accompany these but there are also a lot of pictures that aren’t quite as quirky on the whole even though they do still hold to the vintage theme.  (Incidentally, there are maybe some that I’d personally say weren’t quite suitable for younger readers (dead things, mostly…) so if you have a younger family member reading them, it might be worth vetting the pictures beforehand.)

The interview with Ransom Riggs in the back of my edition of Hollow City describes how with the first book, the pictures mostly came first but with this second book, because the story was already so well advanced, the process was often the other way round; the words leading and the pictures filling out the details so I guess that it makes sense that overall I think I prefer the second book as a story but I prefer the first one as a reading experience, if that makes sense.

One thing I’ve been impressed with in both books and really wasn’t expecting was just how good the writing is.  I wasn’t expecting it to be bad but I also wasn’t expecting it to be noticeably good.  It’s really easy to read and the pages absolutely fly by (helped along by the regular pictures!) but it’s also beautiful in its way.  It flows wonderfully and it has some really stand out moments that I actually skipped back half a page just to read again.  Something about the tone just sets off the peculiar subject matter to perfection.

Through a bombed cemetery, long-forgotten Londoners unearthed and flung into trees, grinning in rotted formal wear. A curlicued swing set in a cratered playground. The horrors piled up, incomprehensible, the bombers now and then dropping flares to light it all with the pure, shining white of a thousand camera flashes. As if to say: Look. Look what we made

It wasn’t quite a five star read for me because the plot was a little too…neat for me in places, even though that slightly twee feeling was thrown on its head towards the end.  (Seriously, though, that ending!)  I already have the next book, Library of Souls, ordered and I’m going to be picking it up as soon as I can, before I forget how much these characters tug on my heart strings and how badly I want to know how their stories turn out.
Overall:  This series has continued to surprise me, with this one throwing me completely off balance in the last few chapters.  The pictures don’t feel gimmicky in the slightest; it all just works.  I love how Riggs has taken some odd, discarded photos and built a world around them.  Hollow City takes that world and blows it apart and I can’t wait to see whether it gets put back together again.

If you do fancy picking up a copy, you can compare prices over at SocialBookCo, a nifty website that shows you the current price of the book you want at most popular online stores (including Amazon, Book Depository and Wordery).  Some of the books I’ve seen have varied in price by as much as £5 so it’s an easy way to save some cash on the run up to Christmas!  Find Hollow City HERE.
Date finished:  19 November 2016
Format: Paperback
Source: Received from SocialBookCo in exchange for an honest review
Genre: Fantasy fiction; YA
Pictured Edition Published: in February 2015 by Quirk Books 

Review: ‘The Joyce Girl’ by Annabel Abbs

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Paris 1928. Lucia, the talented and ambitious daughter of James Joyce, is making a name for herself as a dancer, training with many famous dancers of her day and moving in social circles which throw her into contact with Samuel Beckett. Convinced she has clairvoyant powers, she believes her destiny is to marry Beckett, but the overbearing shadow of her father threatens this vision. Caught between her own ambitions and desires, and her parents’ demands, Lucia faces both emotional and psychological struggles that attract the attention of pioneer psychoanalyst Dr Jung.
I’ll be honest: other than the fact that he’s a literary great who wrote a book that nobody seems to like but everybody seems to feel as though they should try reading, I know very little about James Joyce or his life.  I guess it follows that I knew even less about his dancing protégée of a daughter, Lucia. Something about the description of The Joyce Girl really got my attention though.  A fictionalised account of Lucia Joyce’s life as a dancer and of her struggles with mental illness, filling in the gaps around letters and other real life records of Lucia’s life.  The novel opens in 1934 with Lucia talking to a psychiatrist before swinging back to the late 1920s and letting the story of how she ended up there unravel.
Most of the novel is set in 1920s Paris and the sense of time and place is really stunning.  Annabel Abbs manages to perfectly capture the conflict between the freedom that young women were starting to experience in post-war Europe with the restraint of the traditional ideals that older generations were clinging to.  Lucia wants to be a famous dancer and celebrated choreographer with a life full of romance; her mother wants her to give up her improper ‘hobby’ and settle down with a steady young man from a ‘good’ family.  The clash of ideals is a constant source of tension in Lucia’s life and one that affects almost every aspect of her life.
The issues with Lucia’s mental health develop gradually and are subtly explored.  The early signs are quiet and it’s easy to take them as part of Lucia’s passionate nature.  She meets Samuel Beckett relatively early in the novel and becomes besotted.  Her daydreams of true love and a ‘happily ever after’ are charming and I’m sure we’ve all been less dignified than we’d like in the face of romance at one time or another.  The development of Lucia’s jealousy over Beckett’s fascination with her father and the anger at intrusions into their budding love feel entirely realistic.  Every step that takes Lucia from being an open and happy young dancer to being a tragic figure in a psychiatrist’s office is completely believable and my heart hurt to read it.  What’s really clever is that not only does Annabel Abbs manage to show Lucia’s flaws, she shows the actions of Lucia’s family and friends feeding those flaws and insecurities and driving her downward spiral.  She is let down repeatedly but never in a way that seems melodramatic, just in a way that I can imagine all too easily happening to many girls of her age in her era.

One final gushy point and then I’ll stop: I’m no dancer but even I loved the writing about that side of Lucia’s life.  How real it made the gruelling hours of training and the sheer uncertainty of ‘making it’ in a creative field where what is ‘great’ is subject to individuals’ whims.  Less dreamy twirling, more bleeding toes and aching muscles.
If I had one criticism, it was that that the chapters set in 1934 were a little repetitive.  I expect that was intentional and it did reflect the monotony of Lucia’s life in contrast to her life as a dancer but it was a little jarring at times and I felt that it interrupted my enjoyment of the 1920s story a few times too many.  That’s it.  That’s my gripe.  So what that really tells you is that I really enjoyed this book and will definitely be keeping an eye out for Annabel Abbs in the future.
Overall:  This is a lovely (if utterly tragic) novel and one that I do absolutely recommend despite it having taken me a ridiculously long time to getting round to talking about. The writing is wonderful and the story is heartbreaking.  More so because it’s based on a true story.  Bonus points for the cameo from Zelda Fitzgerald.

And as if this wasn’t enough to make you buy a copy, all profits from first year royalties from sales of this novel will be donated to YoungMinds in memory of Lucia Joyce!

Date finished: 25 April 2016
Format: eBook
Source: Received from Impress Books in exchange for an honest review
Genre: Historical fiction
Pictured Edition Published: on 16 June 2016 by Impress Books 
Buy your own copy (affiliate links):  Wordery  |  Amazon

Review: ‘Empire of Storms’ by Sarah J. Maas (Spoiler Free!)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

As this is the fifth book in the Throne of Glass series, I won’t be pasting a synopsis here. If you’ve read the fourth book or just really don’t care about spoilers, you can find a synopsis on GoodReads HERE.

This post doesn’t include spoilers for this instalment but it does include some spoilers for earlier books in the series so if you haven’t read Queen of Shadows yet, look away now!


First things first, I really enjoyed reading this book. There is something about this story and about Sarah J. Maas’ writing that is so readable and completely absorbing. With every instalment, it takes me a few chapters to get back into the world but after that, the story pulls me in and I fly through the pages.  Whatever criticisms I might have of this book, I still think that this series is one of the best YA high fantasy around at the moment (even though it is getting progressively less ‘YA’ as the series goes on…) and I will absolutely be reading the final book in the series as soon as possible.  The ending of Empire of Storms is a real sucker punch and I very much need to know how the story ends.
There are some characters that deserve particular mentions this time around. Lysandra is fabulous and easily my favourite character at this point in the series. Now that magic is back in the world, we get to see a lot more of her shifting abilities and it’s so, so good. If you liked her in the earlier books, you will love her in this one. She kicks arse. I was also a big fan of the development of Elide and Manon. Elide becomes more than the shy, quiet girl that she is in the earlier books but in a way that absolutely feels consistent with the back story we’ve been given.  Manon has always been one of my favourites and I loved her even more in Empire of Storms.  She’s one of the more unique and unpredictable characters and stops the story from becoming too ‘Vanilla Fae’. While we’re on Manon, oh my goodness, how adorable is Abraxos? If adorable is the right word for a giant, lethal wyvern…Writing this makes me realise that it’s the ladies who are the stand out characters in this series at the moment. There aren’t any characters that I actually dislike but the male characters are definitely left behind in this book. Aside from Dorian, who is still learning about his magic and still manages to be a lot more complex than the other brawny and slightly dull men otherwise filling up the cast.
So there’s a lot that’s great. My main gripe with this book, however, is the romance. Not so much the Aelin-Rowan romance (which I have some reservations about but that I’m actually quite a fan of generally) but the all-out romance offensive. I get that the main group of characters have been travelling together for a while by the time that we’ve got to this book and that maybe some of the relationship dynamics might have started to change into something more romantic but to have pretty much every single character hooking up with another in the space of a single book is a stretch.  I mean, sure, I’ve never been part of a royal court during a global war and maybesomething about the constant peril might drive a lot of people together but everybody?  I’m not sure I buy it.  It also gave rise to a series of raunchy scenes that were pretty repetitive and, honestly, became awkward. In principle, sex in books doesn’t bother me but it does need to be well-written. Not all of the scenes in this book are. At the very least, the frequency with which couples start getting together had me rolling my eyes in a ‘here we go again’ kind of way.
The plot is as twisty as previous instalments and keeps a solid pace for a book that’s pretty much 700 pages. I didn’t feel bored or as though the story was being laboured, which is no mean feat with such a hefty page count so far into a series.  One thing that I did notice in this book more than I have in others is how heavily the series continues to rely on diversions and twists. Characters are secretive and through neat handling of the multiple POVs, information is doled out often at the last minute and I did a lot of gawping at the pages. Generally, I quite like that about this series and always have. When I get to a Big Reveal, I don’t feel cheated or as though it’s a lazy way of shifting the direction of the story without having to write any build-up (which I have seen some reviewers raise as a complaint). I feel as though it fits with whoever was doing the plotting’s character or actions in preceding chapters. What I had a bit of a grumble about this time around is maybe a bit of an odd one but it bugged me that Aelin doesn’t even seem to trust the man who is apparently the love of her life with her plans. I don’t know…I guess it does make sense in some contexts but there are some things that I really think could be shared with someone with someone trusted, even if you aren’t sure if it’ll come off. Worrying about being embarrassed in front of your partner if something doesn’t work out doesn’t fit with the picture of the equal partnership of a relationship that we’re expected to buy into.
Overall:  If you’ve read and liked Queen of Shadows, the series really is worth carrying on with.  Ditto if you’re at any other point in the series but have a cavalier attitude to spoilers!  It’s clear that the series is going to keep on going with a similar tone to Queen of Shadows and that one hell of a finale is coming.  Each book is darker than the last and I’m excited (worried) to see where things end up.

Date finished: 02 October 2016
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: YA fantasy fiction
Pictured Edition Published: on 06 September 2016 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
Buy your own copy (affiliate links):  Wordery  |  Amazon

Review: ‘Six of Crows’ by Leigh Bardugo

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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker has been offered wealth beyond his wildest dreams.  But to claim it, he’ll have to pull off a seemingly impossible heist.

Break into the notorious Ice Court (a military stronghold that has never been breached)

Retrieve a hostage (who could unleash magical havoc on the world)

Survive long enough to collect his reward (and spend it)

When I read the first book in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy a few years ago (which was confusingly initially published as The Gathering Dark in the UK while being Shadow and Bone in the US), I was pretty underwhelmed.  The Russian-esque setting was a nice deviation from the usual medieval Europe setting that fantasy writers often plump for but other than that, it felt very much like a re-hashing of all kinds of YA tropes –  young, unexpectedly gifted but remarkably naïve magic wielder, handsome and more experienced magic wielder to whom the young protégé finds herself attracted, impending world-changing evil, the works.  I never picked up the second book.
When Six of Crows came out, I was pretty taken with the idea (six criminals of varying specialties and levels of depravity attempting to break into a seemingly impenetrable fortress sounded like my kind of story) but I was wary after The Gathering Dark.  It was only when I started seeing positive reviews from readers who also hadn’t enjoyed or finished the Grisha trilogy either that it hit my wishlist.
I’ll start simply:  if, like me, you read one or more of the Grisha books and weren’t impressed, Six of Crows is so much better.  So, so much better.  If you’d given me them both and not told me the author, I wouldn’t ever have guessed that they were written by the same person.  Six of Crows feels so much more mature in both style and content.  It takes the distinctive setting from the Grisha trilogy and makes use of it, embellishing it to include more politics and history and fleshed out cultures.  The characters are distinctive, feeling flawed and real, and their relationships are tangled and complicated.  It’s an objectively really good book, not just a really good book in comparison to Bardugo’s earlier books.
Chapters alternate between different characters’ points of view in a way that reveals just enough to keep the story moving, secrets revealed and characters developing without getting muddled (although if I do have one criticism, it’s that characters’ voices do read as quite similar to each other overall). Take Kaz Brekker, the leader of these particular underworld inhabitants.  Readers get to experience how other characters see him and indulge in the mystique of the seemingly always-one-step-ahead criminal while also getting to know him.  It sounds as though it will be confused or as though the chapters where readers get to hear from Kaz will somehow ruin those where we’re meant to be intrigued by him.  And yet it isn’t confused at all.  It’s perfectly paced and cleverly plotted and, frankly, just bloody fantastic.
The book manages to deliver a dark and twisted plot (and in some places, I do mean dark) that is also a heck of a lot of fun to read.  There’s slavery, death, violence, racial prejudice and umpteen characters out for bloody vengeance but it never felt heavy.  I was still always dying to pick the story up whenever I’d put it down.  If you want ponderous fantasy, this one might not be for you but if you want something that’s full of action and intrigue and will have you staying up way past your bedtime, you could do far worse than Six of Crows.
Overall:  If you’ve been avoiding this for any reason related to the Grisha trilogy, stop avoiding and get yourself a copy.  There may well have been nuances that I’ve missed and allusions to the history of the Grisha that have passed me by but I never felt lost or as though I was on the outside of a series of ‘in’ jokes and references; this series stands up perfectly well on its own  The next instalment, Crooked Kingdom, is out soon and I’ll definitely be picking up a copy and carrying on with the series.
If you do fancy picking up a copy, you can compare prices over at SocialBookCo, a nifty website that shows you the current price of the book you want at most popular online stores (including Amazon, Book Depository and Wordery).  Find Six of Crows HERE.

Date finished: 20 September 2016
Format: Paperback
Source: Received from SocialBookCo in exchange for an honest review
Genre: YA fantasy fiction
Pictured Edition Published: in June 2016 by Orion Children’s Books

Review: ‘The Day of the Triffids’ by John Wyndham

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

When a freak cosmic event renders most of the Earth’s population blind, Bill Masen is one of the lucky few to retain his sight. The London he walks is crammed with groups of men and women needing help, some ready to prey on those who can still see. But another menace stalks blind and sighted alike. With nobody to stop their spread the Triffids, mobile plants with lethal stingers and carnivorous appetites, seem set to take control.

I’d always imagined that The Day of the Triffids would be kind of frivolous; a faintly comical post-apocalyptic jaunt in which the world is under threat from lumbering plants.  I think perhaps because I couldn’t see myself finding a story about sentient topiary particularly threatening.  But oh, it so is. It’s threatening and it’s haunting.  I finished the book in January and there are some moments that still bring a shudder to my bones when I think about them.  Growing potatoes is all good and well until you read a book that makes you wonder if they’re going to get up and flail menacingly at you…

From the moment Bill wakes up with bandages over his eyes and braves the streets of London to find that the streets are empty and everybody else has seemingly gone blind, the tension starts to build (with one of my favourite quotes:  “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere“).  What unravels in the following pages is a glorious blend of action and peril, tragedy and humour.

What’s worrying about The Day of the Triffids is that it’s one of those stories that was written decades ago (in the 1950s in this case) but that has become more and more relevant as the years go by.  We meddle with genetics and we test the boundaries of modern science and who’s to say that one day a plant that we think of as perfectly harmless but with physical quirks that we can’t fathom out won’t turn out to be utterly destructive?  Ok, so perhaps they won’t start walking around and maybe there won’t be a huge comet shower that renders all but a few humans sightless and at the plants’ mercy but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something we can take from the dark message behind Wyndham’s witty writing.
Speaking of which, the writing itself is understated and quiet and has a distinctly classic British feel that I just don’t feel you find in much modern fiction with the increasing melding of British and American cultures.  I’d expected flailing and action in the face of an onslaught of murderous vegetation and instead what I got was moral wrangling and political musings.  If almost the entire country has gone blind and no longer find food or other supplies, is it the duty of the few who can still see to save as many people as possible for as long as the resources left last or to sacrifice the many to enable the few to focus on rebuilding communities who can work on creating a sustainable future?  
That makes the story sound cumbersome and dreary or as though the invasion of the triffids is just a flimsy veneer to give Wyndham the excuse to wax lyrical on the virtues of democracy or of the perils of unbridled experimentation.  It isn’t at all.  Bill Masen, the main character is a reluctant kind of hero; he stumbles upon Josella while wandering around and trying to understand the new world and is jarred into action.  Their friendship is borne of necessity, almost, but it’s sweet and…simple against the complexities of their new world.  Their fight to find something like a life gives The Day of the Triffids heart and it takes a cautionary tale and makes it a story that you want to keep on reading.

And we danced, on the brink of an unknown future, to an echo from a vanished past” 

Overall:  A science fiction classic that is as relevant now as it must surely have ever been.  I started The Day of the Triffids because it’s iconic and because I have an enduring memory of my Nan trying to compel me to read her worn hardback copy years ago when I was a teenager.  I don’t know that I would have enjoyed it all those years ago but I do know that I really enjoyed it as an adult.  

Date finished: 26 January 2016
Format: eBook
Source: Bought
Genre: Science fiction; Dystopian fiction
Originally published: in 1951
Pictured Edition Published: in August 2008 by Penguin Books

Help me out: what Wyndham do I need to hunt down next?

Graphic Novel Review: ‘Nimona’ by Noelle Stevenson

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren’t the heroes everyone thinks they are.

But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona’s powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit.


Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism!

I have a feeling that 2016 will be the year that I really get into graphic novels.  I bought a little stash recently and it’s taken a considerable degree of self control not to devour them all over the past couple of weeks.  Not that there would have been anything wrong with that of course but they’re quite pricey and I’m vaguely trying to keep the number of books I’m buying down a tiny bit until we actually have shelves again.

Nimona hasn’t really helped my resolve.  It’s genuinely funny in a dry, sarcastic way (the best way) and the story is fun without being too frothy and I really enjoyed it.  There are dragons and some appropriately fantastical-sounding science. There’s also magic, a powerful organisation with dubious motives and plenty of disguises.  I’m sorry, but really – what’s not to like?  There’s a quote from Rainbow Rowell on the front cover that describes it as “full of humour and heart” and I’ll be damned if she isn’t spot on.  I picked it up wanting something to distract me from the lingering effect of The Collector and I don’t think I could have picked a better diversion.

For a relatively short book that has plenty of action, there’s a surprising amount of character development.  Nimona is a kick-ass shapeshifter full of bravado and snippy comebacks but she’s also vulnerable, with a dark side that’s more fond of villainy even than the kingdom’s most wanted villain, Lord Blackheart.  Lord Blackheart, meanwhile, fights against the established power (the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics) and is lauded as a villain but is obviously conflicted.  Plenty of the other characters are equally well fleshed out.  It could have been just another bad guy v. good guy story and the wit would have carried it but it was smarter and more subtle than that.

And since this was a graphic novel, let’s talk about the art.  I was a big fan.  It’s vibrant and colourful but without feeling flippant.  The panels darken and the colours deepen as the story does, creating a sinister atmosphere that sets off the writing perfectly.  I may not know much about graphic novels but I do know that this was one I “got” and really liked.

Overall:  Colour me pleasantly surprised! Nimona is a fabulous pick if you’re an adult looking for something to keep you entertained for a few hours that has a bit more about it.  I’ll be keeping an eye out for Noelle Stevenson’s comic series, Lumberjanes, without a doubt.

Date finished: 16 January 2016
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought

Genre: Graphic Novel; YA
Pictured Edition Published: in May 2015 by HarperTeen

Need more convincing?  You can look at an earlier version of the first three chapters for free HERE!

Review: ‘Mystery in White’ by Jefferson J. Farjeon

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

On Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. Several passengers take shelter in a deserted country house, where the fire has been lit and the table laid for tea – but no one is at home.

Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers are seeking to unravel the secrets of the empty house when a murderer strikes in their midst.


I bought Mystery in White in a pique of festivity last year.  I’m led to believe that I’m far from alone in helping this 1930s crime story creep back into the limelight.  It saddens me that this wonderful little book has been out of print for years but I’m so glad that it’s getting a revival.
What I love about books from the glory days of crime writing of Christie and Sayers, and what I loved about Mystery in White, is that the stories are intriguing and can keep you guessing without being so unsettling that you nearly rip your curtains off their poles trying to shut out the world and its darkness.  I’ll admit that the actual mystery part of Mystery in White is a little lacking.  And Then There Were None this is not.  It’s not that there’s no tension (because there is), it’s more that it’s a different type of tension.  It’s never quite clear whether the threat is from outside the house, inside the house or whether it’s something altogether more supernatural and there were moments where I did do a quick nervous check over my shoulder but there didn’t seem to be the sense of urgency that you might expect from a ‘trapped with a murderer prowling’ story.  Perhaps because the characters are quite a stiff upper lip bunch or because the constant drift of snow and the whitewash it leaves breeds a different type of atmosphere.  I absolutely wanted to know what the devil was going on in this mysterious house with seemingly haunted furniture but there was something less stomach-clenchingly nerve-wracking about the experience.  Like murder for the festive season, you might say!
Fear not – what Mystery in White might lack (slightly!) in the intrigue department, it more than makes up for in the charm department.  The writing has a warmth to it that just sings ‘golden age’.  It’s witty and the sense of humour is dry and I enjoyed every single minute I was reading it.  The characters are such a quintessentially British troop – old boreish chap that spent time in India and won’t stop going on about it, a swooning, ankle twisting delicate dancer and an eccentric and super-perceptive psychic investigator.  You might not get to spend too long with them but they’re a heck of a lot of fun all the same.

It’s surprisingly comforting to read a ‘trapped in by the snow’ story without first having to have characters explain away their lack of mobile phones or wireless broadband.  It’s snowing, the trains aren’t running, the main characters aren’t going anywhere and can’t communicate with the outside world so you can just settle in and enjoy.

I don’t want to say too much more.  Everything will be much better if you pick it up, ready to be wrong-footed by the shifting chronology and tangled up in a mystery or two.  When I picked it up, all I knew was what was on the blurb and this delicious quote that was printed on the back of my edition:

The horror on the train, great though it may turn out to be, will not compare with the horror that exists here, in this house” 

Just great stuff all round.

Overall:  If you’re a fan of Christie or Sayers or any other classic mystery writers and you want something festive without anybody falling in love over mince pies, this is the book for you.  At only 256 short pages, I just can’t express how perfect this would be for a snowy evening indoors. 

Date finished: 09 December 2015
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre: Fiction; Crime Fiction
Pictured Edition Published:  in December 2014 by The British Library
If you’re looking for a bookish treat for yourself or a buddy for this Christmas, you can currently snag 3 of The British Library’s Crime Classics for the price of 2 on their website and purchases will support the British Library – WIN WIN!