Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

To some extent I’ve been putting off writing about Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. What do you say that the hype surrounding the book hasn’t already said? When if it hasn’t quite won every prize going, it’s certainly been shortlisted for it?

In truth, even though I’d asked my partner to buy me the book for my birthday in December, I’d put off reading it until this month unsure, having lost one of my own twins, how well I’d cope with a novel about another woman losing one of hers, even after six years.

In the end, I needn’t have worried about this. Although Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is anchored by the death of Shakespeare’s son, exploring the family’s grief in the aftermath of Hamnet’s death, this is a novel about life, not death. Maggie O’Farrell gives life and character to the shadowy family that history has left behind in Stratford. For once, William Shakespeare isn’t named, the Latin’ tutor, the glovemaker’s son, he is the distant figure and the myth is woven instead around his family. Calling it a domestic drama doesn’t do it justice, but it’s undeniable that in Hamnet Maggie O’Farrell’s prose elevates the forgotten incidents of the lives of Elizabethan women to poetry, writing lovingly and with heart about birthing and raising children, about carving out your own destiny in a society which at best will only ever see you as second class.  

It’s a beautiful novel, but as a portrait of a family’s shifting relationships following a bereavement, and a couple struggling to relate to each other in the wake of it, it’s completely breath-taking.

The Mask Falling by Samantha Shannon – a review with some theories

“It is a beautiful mask, but all masks fall. In the end.”

The Mask Falling by Samantha Shannon

Such were the joys of home schooling and working around the children that I didn’t realise that the fourth book in Samantha Shannon’s Bone Season series The Mask Falling  had published until two months after the release date even though I had been counting down to the release date.

It felt as though I had been waiting for the fourth book forever though it’s all relative, cough cough, Patrick Rothfuss . I’d managed to feed my series addiction with forays into Samantha Shannon’s Bone Season spin off novellas The Pale Dreamer (really good, a pacey and exciting prequel to the series) and The Dawn Chorus (which bridges the events of novels three and four) in the summer but I was looking forward to getting my teeth into what happened to Paige Mahoney after she’d escaped the clutches of Scion in London and headed off to Scion Paris with the enigmatic Arcturus Mesarthim.

I found The Mask Falling quite different to the others in the series, as the first section had a slower build and concentrated quite closely on the relationship between Paige and Arcturus as she was stripped of her usual affiliations and networks in Scion Paris, which I’m sure will be welcome to many but at the same time, albeit necessarily, retrod some ground covered in The Dawn Chorus. The pace builds though, and it isn’t long before Paige is running around Scion Paris, exploring catacombs and subterranean cities, not to mention infiltrating the heart of Scion Paris and running into old friends and acquaintances along the way.

I felt at times as though The Mask Falling lacked the full punch of other books in the series – it had the slightly stretched feel of the classic middle novel in a series that has to fit just so much in that the final books will depend on – but for all that it was a really enjoyable read and I’m now frustratedly wondering when the fifth book will be released because what the hell sort of a cliffhanger was that to end on?! I suspect that the follow up novels will reveal the importance of lots of tiny details from this book.

If you haven’t read the first novel in the series but are interested, you can read my review here.

Spoiler section below for anyone else who has read it and wants to know what I was left wondering about….

Spoilers, Theories and Questions about The Mask Falling

Okay, so we’re into bears now. Paige Mahoney, Cade Fitzours and Emma Orson… the dreamwalkers all have Bear names, and Arcturus apparently means guardian of the bear. Fitz means son, and there’s also the suggestion that Orson is son of the bear…. so are they all descended from a common relative? Is that why the Poltergeist in Senshield (presumably also a dreamwalker since Nashira needs Paige to make Senshield work) marks Paige as kin? And if it’s not too much of a leap, is Arcturus the guardian of the bears because he fought in support of the Mothallath and has never had an issue with the concept of “flesh treachery” guarding the ancestors of a Reph/Human hybrid that has resulted as the result of the previous contact between humans and rephs that caused the waning of the veils? Is that otherness part of what makes Paige’s father call her a changling under torture?

Speaking of her father, what had he left her in his will? Sounds like a possible future plot point.

Paige gets to meet one of Arcturus’ exes when she meets the chained Kornephoros in the basement, and it’s surprising that he lets her go and doesn’t harm her, after she failed to keep her promise and free him. Which makes me wonder which oath is more pressing to him than getting his revenge on Paige? And who let him go? Cade would be the most obvious, but why wouldn’t he have had his head ripped off as promised? Though Cade has presumably been in Arcturus’ head at this point… what happened when he was in his Dreamscape?

Cade/David’s allegiances are still unclear. Why does he attack Paige? Because she’s realised he’s a dreamwalker? If he wanted her gone it would have been easier to get rid of her by in other ways surely, and then why chain her up. He seems to be working with Nashira but didn’t sell Paige out in the first novel, or deliver her to Nashira in this one. And when Paige attacks the Rephs while Arcturus is possessed, she says something along the lines of she called to the aether and something answered. At the same time, she seems Arcturus return to his eyes – did Cade leave Arcturus to help fight off the Rephs? All kinds of confusion around his true intentions.

And speaking about confusing people. Dearie Lord, Jaxon, what to make of you…. An interesting twist in their relationship as it seems that Jaxon is now trying to impress Paige in the ways she used to try and impress him.

And who is Cordier working for? She’s basically saved Paige’s life, but is painted as likely the person who sold out Paige and Arcturus…. And now she’s rocking up in a war zone to chloroform Paige when she was nearby and vulnerable to the Rephs if any had survived the bomb falling.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that Arcturus is still alive. Provided the Rephs can take aura and aren’t touched by the red poppies when injured, they seem to recover pretty well from most things…. And was it just me or did he seem to know that the bomb was going to be dropped?

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

“The only way to learn is to live” The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Nora Seed has had enough. Ground down by bereavements and break ups, we meet her on what she decides will be the last day of her life, which sees the death of her cat, the loss of her job, and rejection by the friends and family she reaches out to. Reaching rock bottom, she takes an overdose and finds herself waking up in the Midnight Library.

In the Midnight Library, the time is always frozen at midnight. And the miles and miles of shelves contain all the possible lives Nora Seed could have live had her choices been different. If she hadn’t broken up with her fiancé. If she had gone to Australia with her best friend. If she hadn’t quit the band. If she’d kept swimming. If she’d gone for that coffee.

I loved the concept of The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. I think it’s a thought experiment that everyone has played, if not a fantasy harboured by many, to think what your life might have been like if you’d made a different choice at key points in your life. In some ways, this is a self-book masquerading behind the thin veil of a novel, showing the reader that everyone is more valued than they realise; that their lives have meaning, if not in the way they might have planned as teenagers; that you might find, if you were totally omnipotent, that some of your most nagging regrets are misplaced.

And in The Midnight Library, Matt Haig does that very well. For all that its message is worthy and necessary, the novel is really enjoyable, and I was invested enough to keep reading until I finished the book to find out what ultimately happens to Nora Seed. While there’s an argument that at times Matt Haig has left the plotting a little on display – there’s a lot to set up in the opening chapters to allow Matt Haig to draw out Nora’s possible lives as she explores the Midnight Library later in the novel –  I don’t think that stops the potential of the idea being brilliantly executed.

I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who is looking for a gentle and ultimately affirming and upbeat read. Novels steeped in positivity and hope are what I need on my TBR list right now.

Best Bookish Jewellery Gifts 2020

Eeeek, it’s almost December already and this year is going to be a tricky one for shopping, even if you do feel comfortable going to the shops. Socially distanced Christmas shopping anyone? The whole thing is stressful enough anyway without the added complication of a pandemic. I think it’s really important this year to support local shops and small businesses, so I’ve put together my traditional bookish gift list with Etsy to highlight some gorgeous book themed jewellery from independent makers and seller.

This post contains affiliate links so I may earn a small amount of commission if you click through and buy any of these pieces.

little prince fox silver necklace“But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.”

I love this silver fox necklace which has been inspired by the fox in Le Petit Prince or The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Not overtly bookish at first glance, I like the idea that it could be something of a secret message to the person who receives it. Just remember, you become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.

Starless Sea Layered Necklace with bee, key and sword“Occasionally, Fate pulls itself together again and Time is always waiting.”

The book I loved the most last year was Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, so I was so excited to find this triple strand necklace with the motifs of a bee, a key and a sword the bee for the acolytes, the key for the keepers and the sword for the guardians of the stories, because who could choose just one role. There’s also a single strand version available.

Jane Austen Personalised Charm Bracelet“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope…I have loved none but you.”

I didn’t used to be much of a fan of Jane Austen, but was given a folio set of her books for my 30th birthday, and reading Persuasion forced me to reconsider my position on that. Then of course there was seeing the new adaptation of Emma before lockdown earlier this year, and I may be a late convert. This Jane Austen charm bracelet is very much a one of a kind talking piece, and may well be the ultimate gift for a true Jane Austen fan.

Princess Bride Charm Bracelet“My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!”

Yet again, it might be that you prefer your charm bracelets more cult than classic, in which case, maybe you could have fun storming the castle in this quirky charm bracelet based on William Golding’s novel The Princess Bride. It’s inconceivable that anyone could receive it and not love it. Of course, love is many things none of them logical…

Outlander wedding ring“Ye are Blood of my Blood, and Bone of my Bone,
I give ye my Body, that we Two might be One.
I give ye my Spirit, ’til our Life shall be Done.”

Right, giving the Outlander wedding ring as a Christmas present might not be a subtle gesture, but it’s 2020 and all bets are off so do it. Or treat yourself to a ring from one of the most popular book boyfriends/husbands out there. In the name of self-care. You’ve nearly made it to the end of 2020, so you definitely deserve it.

Steam punk book locket with dragonfly“Your science can save a man’s life, but imagination makes it worth living.”

I thought this steam punk book locket with moving parts and a gorgeous dragonfly was beautiful and it really reminded me of Natasha Pulley’s Keita Mori novels. If you know a fan, this is a good stand in, as the description sounds a little like that of Grace Carrow’s pocket watch. Today, the necklacce, tomorrow, Katsu the clockwork octopus.

Geometric book necklace for bookworms“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”

Get one up on Lemony Snickett and take a book everywhere you go with this lovely geometric book necklace. It’s quirky enough to get attention, but would be versatile enough to go with any outfit while always showing your bookworm stripes.

Dragon's eye pendant ice dragon game of thrones priory of the orange tree“My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”

Who doesn’t love a dragon? Honestly, if they don’t like dragons, why are you even thinking about buying them a Christmas present? Literary dragons are not without pedigree, but I’ve had to choose a Tolkien quote to marry up with this seriously chilling but incredibly beautiful dragon’s eye pendant. Go in to 2021 with big dragon energy, I’m very tempted to get this for myself but I’d have to fight my daughters for it and I fear that they would win.

I hope that you like this year’s Bookish Jewellery selection, if you’re looking for a gift that will arrive in time for Christmas, I’d really recommend looking at Etsy’s Ready to Ship Gift Guide which really does have something for everyone.

 

The Flip Side by James Bailey

$R0Z7HUDIn The Flip Side by James Bailey, Josh experiences his own personal 2020 slightly ahead of the rest of us. Picture the scene, it’s New Year’s Eve and 135 meters above the ground in a pod on the London Eye, Josh proposes to his girlfriend, only to find out that she’s been having an affair.  In the twenty nine minutes it takes for the pod to come down to the ground, Josh loses his girlfriend, his job and his home.

With his faith in his own judgement shaken, Josh decides to outsource his judgement to a 50p coin – resolving that for a year he will flip the coin to make every decision, in the hope that the coin can help him find direction, and perhaps true love.

If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a thousand times, big public proposals bring me out in hives. I think they’re manipulative, unless you’re with someone who is definitely into performing a relationship in public, they feel like a way of coercing someone into saying yes when they’re borderline. So I have to admit I really enjoyed the cringe factor of the opening scene of The Flip Side by James Bailey in which Josh’s proposal crashes and burns.

And this is a novel of cringe, and really good fun if you like awkward humour. It’s been compared to The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary, but I’d say that this is more sitcom than romcom, with the awkward situations Josh finds himself in with his friends and his family being some of the funniest parts of the novel, though I did quite like Josh’s search across Europe for his manic pixie dream girl.

I found reading this novel quite bittersweet at the moment. So much of the action takes place in pubs, at family parties etc. it was an odd sensation reading it in lockdown, especially with a looming Brexit which could make a plane hopping trip across Europe an impossibility for Britons before too very long.

Despite that, it’s a light and bright read which is a nice distraction from the state of the world at the moment.

I reviewed The Flip Side by James Bailey as part of a blog tour, and was gifted a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. The next stop on the tour is From First Page to Last

Triple Chocolate Brownies with Marshmallow Ghosts

triple chocolate ghost brownies easy halloween bake with kids

My friend’s recent virtual baby shower left me craving brownies after she received not one but two packs of Gower Kitchen Brownies. So obviously I had to make my own the next time I had the slightest excuse, cue these death by chocolate but very cute at the same time ghost brownies that the kids and I made for Halloween. They were a really easy Halloween bake with kids, but at the same time looked pretty cool on the table for a Halloween party.

Ingredients

185g butter

185g dark chocolate (I used 70% cocoa)

3 eggs

275g caster sugar

85g plain flour

40g cocoa powder

50g white chocolate

50g milk chocolate

White marshmallows

Edible pen/icing

Red food colouring

Method

  1. Preheat your oven to gas mark 4 and grease and line a brownie tin/rectangular baking tray
  2. Melt the dark chocolate and butter together over a very gentle heat (I used a double boiler method with a plastic mixing bowl and a saucepan of boiled water) you want it to melt but without getting it so hot that it burns, or retains it’s heat and knocks the air out of your egg mixture. Chop the white and milk chocolate while you wait.
  3. Cream together the eggs and sugar until they’ve fluffed up to double their original size, an electric whisk makes short work of this.
  4. When the eggs are fluffy and the chocolatey butter has cooled, fold these gently together until they have a uniform colour.
  5. Sieve and fold the plain flour and cocoa powder into the butter mixture, then stir through the chopped milk and white chocolate.
  6. Tip all of this in your cake tin and bake for 20-30 mins (depending on your tin size, keep checking until you’re happy that it’s cooked through) then allow to cool completely.
  7. When the brownies have cooked and cooled completely, remove them from the tin and cut into squares.
  8. Using the edible markers or icing pens, draw simple ghost faces on your marshmallows.
  9. Put two marshmallows and a quarter of a teaspoon of water in a microwavable bowl and cook on full power for twenty seconds, add a drop of red food colouring gel (or green, ectoplasm slime could be cool…)to this and whisk together to make a glue.
  10. Dip the marshmallow ghosts into the glue, then pop them on top of the brownies.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi lives in the House. He supposes he always has. Only one other person lives in the House, Piranesi calls him The Other as he has never known anyone else in the house, though he has found evidence of other people in the forms of their skeletons and makes a point of tending the fourteen dead. But one day a stranger comes to the house, and the knowledge she brings will turn Piranesi’s world upside down.

Susanna Clarke writes wickedly clever books. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was wickedly clever in skewering the style of a 19th century novel, while creating an epic fantasy. Piranesi, by contrast feels far more restrained, a focused, almost academic novel that defies categorisation – part allegory, part travelogue, part personal philosophy.

For me, Piranesi felt a bit like a refraction of Plato’s Cave allegory through the lens of Robinson Crusoe. Instead of watching shadows on the wall, Piranesi sees the statues of the house which represent lost knowledge that have flowed from our real world. In his Crusoe-esque travelogue, he tries to make sense of his world, his lost past repressed by the amnesia inducing powers of the house, believing that he infers the existence of large numbers of people from the existence of the statues, and marvelling that he can makes sense of the idea of a university without the existence of one in his world, The House.

For all it’s relative brevity, Piranesi is one of those books that I could see would stay with you. It leaves you with so many questions, so many things to find an explanation for. What are we intended to take away from Piranesi’s reverence of the house? Are the birds truly augurs, what does the presence of the albatrosses and their chick mean? Is there an environmental/ecological analogy in Piranesi’s rejection of the quest for the Great Knowledge and appreciation of the house itself? While the other sees the house as Piranesi’s prison and a threat, Piranesi sees it as a sanctuary, a protective force; does the inhabitant project their own character onto the house? Is it in that sense a sort of crucible? And who is the skeleton of the little girl with the necklace?

Have you read it? What did you think?

Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan Review

$R86Z4GI        “ She had discovered us.

This was her way of getting in touch,

     of punishing me”

Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan

Ana Kelly is in love with Connor Mooney. They met at her legal practice when Connor came in to draw up his will and started an affair. One day, shortly after the couple have argued, Ana receives a phone call from Connor’s wife, Rebecca. Unaware of their affair, Rebecca tells her that her husband has died and she needs to organise the legal affairs relating to his estate. Bereft without the man she loved, and unable to share her grief as a result of the affair, she transfers her obsession to the woman who stood between them.

Here is the Beehive is a short novel written in blank verse, narrated from the perspective of Ana Kelly as she struggles to come to terms with her lover’s death. Crossan makes the most of the narrow focus of her narrator, the story, despite its brevity, becoming increasingly complex as Ana’s focus shifts in increments and we learn more about her own circumstances, and the increasingly complex world of her affair. I did wonder if Connor’s wife was named Rebecca as a nod to the Daphne Du Maurier novel of the same name.

I thought the book was skillfully written, but I struggled to empathise with the main characters, at times feeling incredibly hostile towards them, a testament to the author’s skill but not a recipe for the most relaxing read! In terms of style, despite the blank verse, I’d say it’s a little bit Sally Rooney’s Normal People, twenty years after university and lacking (for me) the emotional hook and goodwill the characters in Normal People engendered.

Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling

I had quite a lengthy debate with myself about whether I should buy Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling’s Troubled Blood. Can you separate an artist from their art, especially in the case of JK Rowling whose art is words, and has written an insidious transphobic article as a dogwhistle to the likeminded as she attempts to justify her overtly transphobic tweets.

Working in publishing, I know that there are a lot more people dependent on the sales of a book than an author. The royalties from book purchases probably make minimal difference to the multimillionaire (some say billionaire) Rowling, but for the editors, designers, typesetters at publishers whose salaries are paid by the sales of such books, a major release tanking in the wake of cancel culture could mean redundancies for people who were not involved, who may have been among the Hachette staff who refused to work on her books because of her totally unacceptable views about transmen and transwomen.

Given the context of this furore around JK Rowling’s controversial statements, it didn’t take long for clickbait headlines seemingly flaunting spoilers to announce that Rowling had doubled down on her transphobic views by writing a “cross dressing villain”, Vanity Fair magazine online going so far as to lead with a headline suggesting that it proved Rowling’s commitment to transphobia.

So is Robert Galbraith’s 5th Strike novel Troubled Blood transphobic?

I realise of course that I’m speaking from a position of cis privilege and am not affected by the issues in the same way as someone who identifies as non-binary or trans, but I don’t think that the novel is transphobic in the way that the numerous clickbait headlines would like to imply. The cross-dressing killer they refer to, Dennis Creed, is a sub plot of the novel, an already incarcerated cis male suspect in a cold case, who rather than being transgender, or even actively cross dressing, is noted to have engaged in fetishist theft of clothing, and has posed as a camp gay man to ensure that he appears unthreatening to his victims, in order to win their trust. The novel seems to anticipate the criticisms of real world readers by providing real world comparisons for serial killers who have behaved in this way when Robin compares Creed to Jerry Brudos. Having said this, the novel did contain sections which betrayed a deep underlying fear of non-traditional gender identities assumptions with a passage that refers to a character being “hoodwinked by a careful performance of femininity” which did make me wince, but all in all, I don’t think that these aspects of the novel would have been unremarked upon had it not been for Rowling’s “series of unfortunate tweets”.

The book in itself was an improvement on Lethal White, but still suffers from Galbraith (or Rowling) being too big to be reined in by her editor. The story itself was well executed, but indulged too many diversions in the name of characterisation which diverted from the plot and added little to the story. Robin’s quest for a new perfume, the dinner party Robin’s flatmate holds for Strike, Ilsa’s miscarriage, and the entire bloody Charlotte Ross subplot would have benefitted from a liberal application of red pen to tighten the novel up.

What really gets me with Rowling’s writing, and I suppose there’s an argument that this is an aspect of most genre fiction, but I think Rowling is particularly guilty of this, is that I find that she devotes an excessive amount of time expanding upon the background and psyche of her favoured main characters (honestly, the word count wasted throughout the novel musing on Robin’s bloody perfume choices…) while writing many of the characters as lazy archetypes- the Bengali doctor, the strong black woman, the bitter spinster, the airheaded mockney receptionist… and that brings me to another of my issues with Rowling’s writing- the insistence upon writing in dialect. I’m sure that this is intended to give colour to her writing, but it seems to me that it implies a level of class judgement, at one point Strike tells a working class character that they do a good middle class accent… what the flip is a middle class accent??? Why does Rowling write a Scots accent, or a cockney accent phonetically, when she writes an RP accent, or Robin’s Yorkshire accent in standard English after describing them as such? It seems to me to come back to this idea of the archetype, the Scottish ex-squaddie is written in some kind of mock Scots to flesh out his archetype, and so is the cockney secretary, whereas the characters who are worthy of her attention are worthy of standard English dialect… Maybe you can get away with it in children’s books, but I think it needs to be better executed in an adult’s book.

My feeling is that the books are becoming too invested in drawing out a relationship between Robin and Strike, and less on solving crimes. As such, I’d say there can only really be one book left in the Strike series, two at most before it becomes a parody of the earlier books in the series.

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

$R0T9BM0A lot has been written recently about the way in which serial killers are treated like macabre geniuses, while the victims of their crimes are forgotten.

The most famous of these is undoubtedly Jack the Ripper, who having evaded capture has become something of a modern myth, and the Jack the Ripper folklore has spawned a micro-economy which trades on the death of his victims for profit; tours of the Whitechapel scenes of the murders, numerous films and television adaptations, even souvenirs with t-shirts and mugs displaying his victims corpses as if they were artworks created by a master craftsmen, not women who lived and breathed.

In The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold seeks to go some way towards reclaiming the names of his victims, exploring their histories to restore their identities and humanity. It makes it clear that it doesn’t matter who Jack the Ripper was now, what matters were the complex and varied lives that he snatched. One by one she goes explores the lives of the canonical five victims; Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, from their births to their deaths, revealing far more complex lives than any film or documentary purporting to explore the history of Jack the Ripper has ever revealed.

Rubenhold’s The Five is as fascinating as it is heart-breaking, showing the various factors that brought the women to be living such precarious existences in Whitechapel, and reminding the reader just how precarious life could be in the Victorian era, where an extra mouth to feed could tip a family into poverty, or the loss of a male relative could leave a family of women incredibly vulnerable. Where if you were born into poverty, you had little to no hope of escaping, and even if you were born into the middle classes, one mistake or one small upset would be enough to derail your life.

The Five not only returns a sense of the victims as real people but gives a clear picture of what life was like for women and the poor in the era. I found it a really moving read, and although I enjoy a crime novel as much as anyone else, thought it was an important counter voice to the sensationalism of violence against women for entertainment.