The Witchfinder’s Sister – Beth Underdown

coverThe Witchfinder’s Sister is a debut novel set in 1600’s Essex and follows Alice Hopkins, brother of Matthew Hopkins, historically and ‘affectionately’ known as the Witchfinder General. It’s set against a back drop of civil and religious war, where superstition is rife.

I went in to the book hoping for a dark exploration of how whispers and paranoia can turn villages into witchy hotspots. I wanted a feeling of claustrophobia, and inevitable peril cast upon characters that I care about. What I ultimately found was a story that hadn’t quite decided what it wanted to say.

As a main character there were times that I was completely indifferent to Alice. I didn’t feel that the relationship between her and her brother was particularly well developed and I just wasn’t on her side. You would expect an examination of family and it touches the surfaces but didn’t quite get deep enough. There were events in Alice’s life that she talks about that did make me almost emotionally connect with her, and I could picture just how hard life must have been as a woman in her era but there were so many opportunities to make her either smarter or more ignorant, but I was bored by her passivity.

It’s not a stretch to say that the events in this book are 99% fictional, and I didn’t really mind that. I wasn’t expecting it to be an accurate history lesson since I know that there isn’t much documented evidence of exactly what happened at the time, but I felt that the actual feeling of the era wasn’t particularly well portrayed, which I think would have been a saving grace. If I’m being kind I’ll argue that the issues it tries to present around attitudes to mental illness and gossip are timeless, and thus it can transcend its historical setting – and perhaps if it was more cleverly written I could argue that.

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2017 Reading Wrap Up

2017 has been a turbulent year. I left my role as a bookseller in tears, and tried to rebuild my life and my career. Now that I’ve been able to distance myself from the drama and I’m not being forced to sell certain books anymore I can finally focus on my style. I can explore new genres and go back to books that I’ve missed over the last 7 years. In 2017 I’ve read almost nothing and yet have still managed to discover a few gems. So far I’ve read 21 books:

I started off the year on a high with Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, a stunning sci-fi time-twisting mind-bending novel that I was shouting about to every one. I absolutely adored it and didn’t expect to have such an existential crisis this early on in the year. Next I went back to The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, which was an absolute journey of a book.  I’d owned it for a long time and it was definitely different to Dark Matter. I had a few issues with it but I just couldn’t stop reading. If you’re interested in slave narratives or books that examine how horrendous we are as humans, you need to pick this up. It’s been out since 2010 so I’m a little bit behind the times but then historical novels never age.

I love fiction that embodies American history and I’d been searching for something that presented historical New Orleans and I found The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin. It wasn’t perfect but boy did it make me want to jazz it straight to Louisiana. It’s fun and atmospheric and great if you like your serial killers bought to life. With the next book I kept to an historical bent but transported over to London in Beloved Poison by E. S Thompson. If there was a tick-list of things that I love to see in a novel, Victorian and Dark Secret would be right up there. It wasn’t the best written book in the world but I really enjoyed it.

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Caraval – Stephanie Garber

517izovmjbl-_sx323_bo1204203200_I remember when Caraval first came out, with all the special edition hardback covers, and I also remember that absolute scramble of people to get them. People saying that we hadn’t reserved the right edition, even though all the editions had exactly the same ISBN. I’m all for excitement around new books, but I’m the kind of person that likes to either read a book before the hype hits or a long time after so my opinions can’t be swayed by people shouting theirs louder.

I never originally intended to ever read Caraval. It was an accident, really. We’d popped to Tesco on the way home from Christmas shopping and I knew that we were probably going to be snowed in for the rest of the weekend. Obviously of all the thousands of books I owned I knew that none of them would be quite the one for a snow day. If you’ve never looked at the books in a supermarket they’re all pretty much crime thrillers, and Caraval seemed to be the only book that was a bit different.

 Caraval is set in an alternate world, which somewhat resembles Victorian Britain. It has all the beginnings of a Disney movie; Mother has disappeared, turning Father into an abusive Villain, leaving the two sisters to look out for each other. Scarlet, the older sister, is the main character, and when she is finally invited to take part in the Caravel games, it seems like she would be too timid to make it. Her younger sister Tella is the rebellious one, and when Scarlett finally makes it to Legend’s island, Tella is nowhere to be found.

Initially I was really unsure about Scarlett’s character. She seems so easy about her potential arranged marriage to the Count that when Julian even comes near her she’s quick to remind him that she’s engaged. Again, that 19th Century idea of virtue and a woman’s place was a little infuriating. If I was being kind to the book I would say that it is setting up traditional gender and familial roles in order to reflect the attitudes of a lot of the fairytales it’s inspired by but I’m not completely sold on that. I found that there was an incessant need for Scarlett to have a love interest. There’s actually no real need for her to fall in love with anyone, especially because of supposedly being crazy over not being able to find her sister.

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Genuine Fraud – E. Lockhart

9781471406621There are very few books that keep me up late at night, and get me waking up early to carry on reading. Genuine Fraud had just that effect. I would have read it complete in one sitting if I hadn’t had the need to sleep in between. After reading and loving We Were Liars, I went into this feeling that I understood Lockhart’s style and expecting two things: an examination of identity and its constructs, and to never have a grasp of what the hell is going on. Neither of these are bad things, and Genuine Fraud did not disappoint. From the first page I was analysing every single word and interaction trying to gain an insight into the story as a whole.

It’s very difficult to tell you the gist of the story line without giving away too much of the plot. On the surface it’s about two girls, Jule and Imogen, and their very complicated friendship. The narrative is completely fragmented and it’s like trying to do a jigsaw when you’ve no idea what the picture should be and you’re not even sure the pieces are from the same puzzle. Every chapter ends on some kind of cliffhanger, and just needed to know the truth. Every time I thought I had figured it out I realised I had no clue. There was always something more to the store, something deeper.

The ideas it sets forward about identity and how we form who we are, how much our backgrounds form us and how we perceive those backgrounds is so interesting, and I wish I could write more about it without giving away key plot point. It asks how much input we have over who we become and how we can become more than we are. I honestly wanted to shout about it from the rooftops and argue about it in coffee shops.

The writing has a suspiciously easy style, as though it should be so much more complicated to portray the intricacies of the story but it’s not, you can completely fly through it like I did. Yes it’s YA, and it’s raising the bar. The pace doesn’t drop, doesn’t give you a break to stop and gather your thoughts but keeps up with the hints and the tiny phrases that break apart everything you think you’ve decided is true.

If I haven’t said it enough yet I adored this book. I want to recommend it to everyone, especially those in a reading slump; it’ll light a fire under you. I barely looked up or noticed anything going on around me. So take my advice, treat yourself this Christmas and buy this book.

Ring by Koji Suzuki

51bd0rbsmclI picked this book up a couple of years ago at the HarperCollins Big Book Parade, which is a roadshow for booksellers where the publisher displays their titles and you can take whatever you’d like to read (yes, it’s as incredible as it sounds and they even give you bags to fill). As usual it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. I was halfway through the Half Bad series and wanted to read something completely different before I leapt into the final books and thought this would be perfect.

I love horror and Japanese fiction, and the film The Ring reached such a level of success that I was intrigued. I’m always interested in how something visual has translated from what the novel originally put forward. If you’re not familiar with the story (where have you been?) it centres around the idea that watching a particular VHS tape will cause you to die in 7 days if you don’t follow the instructions on the tape. The problem is that some clever kid taped over the instructions. You could do that then.

My absolutely favourite thing about this book is its 90’s nostalgia. Originally published in Japan in 1991, in some ways the culture it presents hasn’t really aged, but as someone who was born in the 80’s I find anything that throws back to 90’s technology embarrassingly hilarious. For example, when the main character Asakawa says he’s staying at the cabin to work, he points out he’s bought along a “portable word processor” and that just creased me.

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Half Wild – Sally Green

This post may contain spoilers for the first book, Half Bad. You can read my review of the first book here. It may also contain a couple of spoilers in Half Wild.

51yptmgpxcl-_sx324_bo1204203200_I’ve been binge reading this series ever since I realised I couldn’t remember what happened at the end of the first book. I didn’t get as far as reading books 2 and 3 the first time round so I headed over to my local bookshop and bought them, determined to read the whole series through.

Half Bad was just as wonderful as I remembered (and the ending just as frustrating) and I couldn’t wait to delve into the second book and find out where Nathan would end up. We find him living in a cave in a forest, at a meeting place appointed by Gabriel should anything go wrong whilst trying to get the Fairborn. It has a slow pace to begin with, like trying to peddle a bike when you’ve left it in a high gear, which is so teasing after the speed of the first book. It gives the reader time to catch up and remember, to get their bearings before being thrust forward once again into a constantly moving, twisting plot.

Nathan is isolated at the beginning of Half Wild and as harsh as it sounds I was glad, because I wanted to see where he was mentally as well as his thoughts and feelings around Gabriel and the rest of his group, without the distractions of the actual plot. Nathan is such an interesting and complex character and I find him fascinating.

However I didn’t feel that all characters were given the same treatment. Mercury, for example, had the potential to be another highly complex character but not much was shown about her. The first person narrative is effective but it restricts the ability to view characters in the same way we get to see Nathan.

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Half Bad – Sally Green

51cc9s7nqsl-_sx321_bo1204203200_Half Bad tells the story of Nathan, a young boy born to a White Witch mother and a Black Witch father. It’s set in an alternate UK where most Fains (non-Witches) don’t know that Witches exist, but within their own communities Witches are governed by a Council who are increasingly putting pressure on Black Witches and ‘Half Codes’, people like Nathan. At heart it’s a traditional ‘sins of the Father’ narrative that explores how Nathan’s formative years are shaped by his surroundings but conflicted by the genes from his Father.

The first thing you’ll notice when you start reading is the fragmented style of writing; broken chapters and short sentences perfectly portray Nathan’s struggling voice- it’s submerged and compelling, teased through an a-linear timeline. There’s a barbarity and savagery in the description. Physical and mental abuse are apparent right from the beginning and it’s not for the faint hearted. It’s written in present tense and the use of “you” early on in the book makes the writing feel immediate and it’s hard to tear yourself away. Nathan’s character develops quickly but deeply, reflected by his life with his half brother and sisters.

Nathan’s relationship with his half siblings is so interesting. His older brother, Arran, is beautiful and the love portrayed between the brothers is the most tender and sincere I’ve ever read. Green doesn’t simply go for the traditional ‘macho’ roles, instead they have moving exchanges that seem truly heartfelt. Even though the story solely follows Nathan, I wanted to know what was happening with his family while he was away.

There are plenty of moments where you’ll want to put the book down or look away but you simply can’t. It moves forward with such pace and you can’t help but think Nathan deserves so much more than the life he has, and how persecution can rob you of a normal life. With this review I’ve aimed to convey how much more this book offers without giving away too much of the plot. It moves so quickly and deftly that you need to experience it yourself. But it’s not really about the plot, it’s about Nathan, and his ultimate survival at all costs.

Reviewed for Penguin Books

The Forbidden – F. R Tallis

9780230764989the20forbidden_3If there was a recipe for the kind of book I love, it would include religious debate, the Gothic and 19th century medicine – and this book has it all. The story follows Paul Clement, a 19th century Parisian doctor who has a passion for resuscitation and what lies in the ‘beyond’. After he goes full Flatliners (stops his heart so he can see what happens after death and is then bought back) he gets a full glimpse of what lies beneath, and unfortunately brings something back with him.

The story feels like its in three separate parts that don’t completely gel together. There is the idea of old magic in the beginning, and although the thread is almost pulled through to the end it never quite meets in the middle. This is the general feeling I had for all of the book. It tries to introduce a lot of ideas but never really quite explores them fully. I love a good debate about the benevolence of God, and this does have the potential to have a fully rounded argument but it doesn’t quite come to any conclusion – even if there was no solid conclusion to have. Taking on the idea is a massive task for any author, and I think this was more ambitious than the novel was able to fully portray.

All in all, I wanted more. The characters are great and well rounded and I enjoyed the second part in the country much more than in the city but this shouldn’t have been the case. 19th century Paris is the personification of Hell, and this should have been used so much more. Notre-Dame was mentioned but it didn’t become a character in the way I would expect from a traditional Gothic novel.

If you’re looking for an easy and interesting read that I would recommend The Forbidden. It’s by no means perfect but it is fun, and actually quite well written.

Me And Mr J – Rachel McIntyre

512fcn0cb0l-_sx324_bo1204203200_I really loved this book! It’s a brilliant story that shows the isolation that some children feel, and the way they become vulnerable to those who are in a position of power. There is the saying that it takes a village to raise a child and I think that shows here, if every adult in Lara’s life had taken an interest in her in a responsible way then it should never have come to her putting her emotions into an unhealthy attraction.

I felt the issue was dealt with really well, and the ending was the only way it could have ended – it’s a good lesson for those who think that crushes on teachers always stay innocent. I think it deals with the ‘he loves me and age doesn’t matter’ vs. the ‘she led me on even though she’s a child’ scenario really well and seeing it only through Lara’s eyes makes it all the more devastating; I constantly wanted to scream at Mr. Jagger!

It puts forward all of the debates and arguments about bullying and its emotional effects, but also how the modern world affects the choices teenagers feel they have about solving them because of what they see in the media.

It’s a controversial read, but very compelling.

Reviewed for Electric Monkey