Author Archives: Siobhan

The Appeal by Janice Hallett

In a town full of secrets… Someone was murdered. Someone went to prison. And everyone’s a suspect. Can you uncover the truth?

In the small town of Lockwood, a couple recently returned from working with Medicine Sans Frontiers in Africa join a local amateur dramatics society and are cast in their production of All My Sons. At the same time, a two-year-old girl is diagnosed with a brain tumor, and her family launch an appeal to raise money for life-saving treatment from the United States. In the course of these events, a murder is committed. The suspect is in prison, but a QC who worked on the trial believes that the murder is still at large and hiding in plain sight. He instructs two law students to review a portfolio of evidence to see if they too come to the same conclusion.

The Appeal by Janice Hallett is a whodunnit with a difference, with an innovative structure that brings detective stories into the 21st century, the story is told through whatsapp messages, texts and emails, with the build up to the murder thus told by an array of unreliable narrators, in which the victim is voiceless, and the two law students serve to direct the reader’s focus, before acting as the Columbo-like detective figure spelling out what really happened on the night of the murder.

I really enjoyed this book, there’s something a little voyeuristic about picking through the emails, but it’s highly readable and as a format it really works. The characterisation is brilliantly conveyed through the emails the characters themselves write, and they manage to evoke some really strong reactions to various characters throughout the course of the novel. I was a bit of a drama kid growing up, and I’ve always found that local amateur dramatics groups can be a real cesspit of politics and factions, and I thought that Janice Hallet skewered these beautifully in The Appeal. Some of the characters were all too recognisable!

At the end of The Appeal, the reader is invited by the QC to answer 15 questions which will help reveal the killer. Even though I managed a few like which character was never there at all, I have to admit I flunked it, but in the most enjoyable way.

I thought that this was a really fun read, and it’s one of those books which will definitely become one of my go to Christmas and birthday presents for fans of Agatha Christie style crime novels.

Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Picture of the cover of Kazuo Ishiguro's Klara and the Sun, on a red cover, a window of blue shows a sliver of the sun which is echoed in the sprayed edges of the pages to give the impression of the sun setting around the book.

“I’d begun to understand also that this wasn’t a trait peculiar just to Josie; that people often felt the need to prepare a side of themselves to display to passers-by – as they might in a store window – and that such a display needn’t be taken so seriously once the moment had passed.”

Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara, an Artificial Friend spends her early life observing passers by from her shop window, waiting for a child to come and choose her. With profound observational and interpretative abilities, she forms her understanding of the world from the events she sees outside her window until one day she is chosen by a teenager Josie, with who she forms a profound connection. But when she arrives at Josie’s home, she realises that the world outside the shop is more complex than she had ever realised.

Klara and the Sun is very much a novel for the pandemic. Isolated characters, struggling with loneliness, teenagers all homeschooled via tablets/oblongs and needing lessons in how to socialise with one another, wealthy parents buying AFs, or artificial friends, to help their offspring through the modern world. Seeing the world through the childlike eyes of Klara, who almost worships the sun as a benevolent deity and accepts all she sees as normal and right within the context of her limited life experience, we as the reader don’t initially realise how deeply twisted the initially recognisable world has become. It is only as the novel pans out that we realise why Josie is so unwell, what happened to her sister, and what is so disturbing about Josie’s her portrait sessions with Mr Capaldi.

Like Kazuo Ishiguro’s other books there’s so much to think about in this; what decisions do parents get to make on behalf of their kids; where do we draw the line with technology; to what extent is anyone truly an individual and unique? Could you copy the human heart and soul?

My thoughts below here may contain spoilers for Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

I find that Kazuo Ishiguro’s characters are designed to challenge the reader, while what drives them is relatable, and you can sometimes have sympathy with the emotion that drives them, fear, loneliness etc. the actions that these feeling push them to are often repulsive. Klara’s mother is a clear example of this, she wants the best for her daughters so she has them genetically modified to allow them to reach their peak potential. But this kills Josie’s older sister, and yet she does the same for Josie, knowing the risk to her children’s health – repulsive- but then we see the consequences for the children who aren’t “lifted” like Rick, they fall behind and become social pariahs because of their unlifted status. Assuming such technologies were developed and became the norm, what would you do? Would your child resent you that they were left behind if they weren’t lifted? Would they lose their health and life if they did?

The urge to create an AF of your dying child. Urgh. I can understand that the grief would be maddening but the scenes where Josie’s mother is almost experimenting to see if Klara could convince her, if she could trick herself into loving her like she loves Josie, gut wrenching.

Throughout the novel I found I had more sympathy for Josie. She’s an innocent, she’s young, she’s ill, as a reader I forgave many of her actions but the way that Klara, her artificial friend who she brought home with promises of a life of equality and being able to stay in her bedroom is first pushed out to the utility room to make way for Josie’s guests, then abandoned at a rubbish dump as her faculties begin to run down even though her mind still seems to be intact. Throughout the novel she’s seen as less than human by the human characters, but her sentience is more often than not acknowledged and respected, so this end for her felt a little heartbreaking for me.

If you’ve read the novel, what did you make of Josie’s miraculous recovery? I wondered whether Klara’s ability to see things that humans couldn’t, even though she can’t explain how she’s arrived at these understandings allowed her to draw parallels between Josie and the failing AF’s to realise that her illness required exposure to sunlight to fix it, and that the spectacular sunset that made this seem almost like a miraculous recovery was just a serendipitous occurrence.

They accept that your decisions, your recommendations, are sound and dependable, almost always correct. But they don’t like not knowing how you arrive at them. That’s where it comes from, this backlash, this prejudice.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

If that is what lead to Josie’s recovery, does that to some extent mean that the modifications performed on her as part of the lifting have in some ways reduced her humanity, that she is to some extent a cyborg now? Is that partly what Rick means when he refers to the Josie he once knew?

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

Book cover of Ace of Spades by by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, a black female and male face each other on a black background with a large white ace of spades, Ace of Spades is written in block capitals in a red which looks like graffiti or blood smears/spatters.

“Growing up, I realized quite quickly that people hate being called racist more than they hate racism itself.”

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

I finally got around to reading Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, and oh my gosh, I couldn’t put it down. Cue another late night reading until half one when I knew I’d be up before seven with the kids. Set in the rarefied world of Niveus Private Academy, Ace of Spades sees the lives of Devon, a scholarship kid from an impoverished single parent family, and Chiamaka, Head Prefect and Queen Bee, rapidly fall apart as an anonymous texter who calls themself Aces begins sending their darkest secrets – sex tapes, voyeuristic pictures, and crimes they thought were secret – to the campus population. As the cyberharrassment spills beyond the school gates, Devon and Chiamaka soon realise that Aces is intent on destroying more than just their reputations, and their only choice is to unmask them and fight back.

I think this book might be the perfect YA novel. It’s Gossip Girl meets Pretty Little Liars with a whacking bass line of social justice issues that lifts it from being a well written thriller to one of the best YA books I’ve ever seen. The Àbíké-Íyímídé has recently graduated from university, and the rawness of that teenage experience shows in her characters, the simultaneous cruelty and vulnerability of Chiamaka who is riding high on the wheel of fortune before she realises that hands other than hers are spinning it for her. The sheer desperation of Devon’s situation as he lives in survival mode relying on college or university to carry him and his family out of poverty, alienated from his peers by his sexuality in a homophobic community and seeing his hopes for a better, or at least more manageable future slip away with every card Aces deals him. Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé writes YA at its best, an uncompromising thriller but with bucket loads of heart in the characterisation.

As a white person, I know that it’s not really for me to write about race and experience of race, but I thought that this novel was incredibly powerful in its portrayal of the experience of young black characters lives as they live through systemic racism on steroids. For me, reading Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé was akin to the perspective shift you encounter reading Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, the empathy for the characters that the story fosters allowing you for a moment to have a glimpse of life through the characters eyes. It’s a great thriller novel, but a powerful one for this dimension and I’d really love to see it being bought by secondary schools librarians and recommended by teachers who want to help their students access more anti-racist literature.

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

If you loved The Bedlam Stacks, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street or the Lost Future of Pepperharrow (and I know I did) then good news, Natasha Pulley has written another mind-bending-in-the-best-way novel, The Kingdoms, which plays with our perceptions of time, picking apart and reconstructing possible futures like one of Keita Mori’s clocks.

In Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms, Joe Tournier wakes up in Londres on a train from Scotland, wearing clothes he doesn’t recognise and with no knowledge of how he got there. Now he comes to think of it, he can’t remember anything. He’s totally lost his memory and is taken to a psychiatric hospital to help with his sudden case of amnesia. While he’s there, he has a brief memory of a woman Madeline, who he thinks must be his wife. But when an advert is posted in the paper and his family come to claim him, he learns that he is a slave, and while he does have a wife, her name isn’t Madeline, and she’s unhappy in her marriage to him as she’d planned to marry his brother Toby who died in the army. But beyond the memory loss, something doesn’t seem right, and when Joe receives a post card from a Scottish island which was sent to him 100 years ago and written in English (a criminal offense) asking him to come back if he remembers, signed by M. he knows he must do everything to get to Scotland in case this is the Madeline he had forgotten.

A slight departure from her previous books which are linked within the same part steampunk part magic realist world with an overlapping cast of characters, this book is set in an alternate timeline which sees the French win the Battle of Trafalgar before it’s even started, changing the course of the Napoleonic wars and ultimately rewriting history as we know it. A group of architects and engineers inadvertently sail through a gateway to the past on a steam powered ship and are captured by the French, which allows them to access futuristic technologies and knowledge of the military history of Trafalgar and get the jump on the British, leaving an alternate future in which England is a part of the French Republic, slavery is both legal and rife, and Scotland is, ironically enough, the last stronghold of English independence.

I personally love any story that explores what the good doctor referred to as the timey-wimey stuff, and I think that this is a great concept. It has the hallmarks of what I’ve come to expect from Natasha Pulley’s writing, sheer originality and inventiveness, a strong emotionally focused m/m relationship, a rich woman railing against the restrictions of her time, history with a twist, and incongruous animals quietly playing critical roles (this time four tortoises) written with a brilliant playfulness and poignancy. Without giving too much away, because this is definitely one to read, I really loved the ways that changes in the past drastically and specifically altered the identities and fates of characters in the future. A timely reminder that the past is a part of us all, and the roles that generational wealth and privilege have played in making us who we are today.

King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

King of Scars book cover appearing to be a crest carved from golden stone, the Ravkan double headed eagle is rampant behind a shield with three large tears as if from claw marks along it

The Darkling has been defeated, Alina and Mal are running their orphanage in Keramzin, and Ravka is experiencing a brief period of peace as King Nikolai Lantsov’s farming reforms bring improvements to the lives of the common man… but this is Ravka. Of course, things are never that simple. Nikolai is still possessed by a demon, a legacy of the Darkling’s merzost that lives on after it’s creator’s demise, its power seeming to grow stronger day by day. As enemies threaten at the borders and challengers of the Lantsov bloodline stake their claims for the Ravkan throne, a plague of miracles is breaking out across Ravka, pointing towards the fold where a cult of worshippers demanding churches and recognition for The Starless Saint agitate at home…

I regretted how long Six of Crows sat in my e-reader before I got around to reading it, and having gone on quite the Bardugo binge in the last few months I do have to wonder why I didn’t hop on the Grishaverse books faster. I think it might have been because I read that the Crows didn’t really figure in the books outside of the Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom Duology, but I think that the two clever fox backed into a corner can match Kaz Brekker for readability on his day.

And in King of Scars, backed into a corner he is. But it’s nice to see Zoya come to the fore- I love, love, love her for not being a people person but actually having a heart and the weight of all the people she’s responsible for and her formative experiences making her who she is in this. With a nice Nina Zenik side plot and various old friends and foes popping up in these books there’s a lot here for established Grisha fans before we get on to the newer characters (like Isaak and Yuri offering us lessons in being true to ourselves and the perils of letting a man live rent free in your head, not to mention Juris, aaaaaah Juris!), though it would make a lot of sense to read the Shadow and Bone trilogy and Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom duology before branching out into The King of Scars/Rule of Wolves duology for context and to avoid spoiling all the other books.

I love how this book takes the whole a legend is a story based in fact idea and plays with it, twisting it out to the point where the characters stories are legends being written and colliding with actual legends within the context of the Grishaverse, there’s something very meta about it but at the same time in a way that doesn’t seek to intellectualise, it’s clever but so part of the action you don’t really notice it happening.

Masterful as always from Bardugo, and I’ve now bought Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo for my e-reader because I have almost no impulse control and couldn’t wait long enough to get to the bookshop and pick up the next in the series. Now I’m just really intrigued to see how Netflix will cast Nikolai or Sturmhond for the Shadow and Bone series, I think it’s only Nikolai and Wylan who have yet to be announced of the more major novel characters from the Grishaverse.

A Wood of One’s Own by Ruth Pavey

A Wood of One’s Own By Ruth Pavey book jacket design of wildflowers against tree trunks in black an white with patches of muted colour, jacket design by Maddy Mould

“I showed them where the animals have made an opening in the old stock fencing through to the higher wood. Pleased to keep to myself what a ripping, stinging struggle awaited them. Throughout this exchange the man kept his head down. In my last glimpse of him he ducked lower to avoid a hanging curtain of ivy, stepped over the wire and followed the woman into the half-light of the ash wood. Into the selva oscura with them, thought I.”

A Wood of One’s Own by Ruth Pavey

Have you ever wondered what happened to Enid Blyton’s characters when they grew up? I think I might have found out. Having read A Wood of One’s Own by Ruth Pavey, I have strong suspicions that they might have bought a few acres of woodland on the Somerset Levels and written a memoir about their experiences with the queer folk they met in the land round there.

I was drawn to A Wood of One’s Own by Maddy Mould’s beautiful jacket design, the puffs from the cover endorsements suggesting that this would be a piece of nature writing to sit alongside Isabella Tree’s Wilding, or perhaps something by Robert McFarlane. I liked the idea of someone deciding to take a barren piece of land and plant their own woodland, and seeing what kind of voyage of discovery this would take them on. I’d still be interested to read a book like that, but Ruth Pavey’s A Wood of One’s Own is not it.

Having read it, I’m still not entirely sure who the book is for. It’s a curious mixture of non-sequitur anecdotes that arise in a way that seems entirely disconnected from the text that precedes them and are never resolved, and mildly poisonous pen portraits of people who have seemingly wronged the author. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim she goes full Rita Skeeter (except maybe as in with the quote above with her maliciously gleeful account of directing a woman who questioned whether there was a footpath through her land into nettles and brambles) but Ruth Pavey rarely has a good word to say about anyone in the book – be they the nurserymen she has bought the trees from, the fruitseller who seemed to expect payment for teaching her to graft apples, or the friend she decided to end a friendship with after their dog chased rabbits in her wood, the few people who are written about in favourable terms are her neighbour Ted and a man Andrew who helped develop the woods with heavy machinery, but all are written about very much with an air of the hired help, with side musings about what they meant by certain things and their tone.

For a book which must have been written at some years distance from many events, there’s a lot of umbrage and rumination coming through, written in the part clipped and part chipper tones that reminded me of Blyton novels, with the same tendency to use minor characters eg. “the Bosnian woman”, “the campground owner’s son” to hammer home some point about the putative hero of the piece.

For me it was an uncomfortable read, which dripped of the author’s position of privilege. Buying a woodland on a jolly, breezily remarking that you bought a second house and accidentally became a second home owner while not finding it difficult to remortage your London house, it’s no surprise that it was a Sunday Times book of the year… I suppose these criticisms could be made of Isabella Tree’s Wilding, you have to be in a privileged position to be able to firstly, have the land, and secondly, be able to not farm the land and experiment with rewilding. But at least at Knepp, that was an experiment that was paying dividends for society as an exemplar of how things could be improved. A Wood of One’s Own is a memoir of Ruth Pavey’s creation of a folly, which sees the author buy up a chunk of old orchard land, clearing scrub that was a habitat for wildlife (there’s a section in which her neighbour comments on how many robins had been raised in the wilderness she has ripped out to make a lawn and a leaking pond) to plant non-native species like tulip trees and cedar in a woodland while filling what might have been a wildlife pond with koi carp.

If you want to read a book that is well written and about a genuine personal engagement with improving an environment for wildlife I’d recommend reading anything by Kate Bradbury for the small scale, to Isabella Tree’s Wilding for the grand scale. But not this.

Witchshadow by Susan Dennard a review

I’ve been pre-ordering a few new releases recently, and have been so excited to have them turn up in the post a week or two ahead of the advertised publication date. The most recent of these has been Witchshadow the fourth book in the Witchlands series by Susan Dennard, which I’ve been itching to get my fingers on for ages.

The novel focuses on Iseult det Midenzi, on the run from the Hell-Bards with Owl and a weasel who isn’t a weasel, following a foiled scheme to save Safi’s uncle Eron by marrying her to Emperor Henrick. In theory it picks up where Bloodwitch left off, with the major characters scattered across the Witchlands as they mobilise for war.

I say in theory, because it took me a little while to gather the threads of where things had left off… what happened to Aedun? Becoming possessed by an ancient being feels like something the reader needed to be shown but I missed that. I’ve loved the Witchlands books so far, but for me this was a little chaotic. I was struggling to keep up with who and what was a Paladin and the Witchlands lore at time, and I think that may be because I have yet to read Sightwitch which was billed as being a separate non-essential novel in the series but I suspect might actually be key to some of the passages in this book making instant sense as supposed to sense that you have to work for. The novel was still enjoyable without the context, but I suspect that it would have helped contextualise the sections with Stix and Ryber in Baile’s Slaughter Ring.

Having said that, despite the chaos and the occasional moment of feeling like I was struggling to grab at the threads that flew everywhere, I really enjoyed getting back into the Witchlands novels. I think Susan Dennard writes action scenes really well, so while the mythology could have been clearer, when the time came to initiate and complete, the writing was on point.

If you haven’t read any of the Witchlands series, I’d strongly recommend them, especially if you’re a Leigh Bardugo fan looking for somewhere to bide your time for the next Grishaverse novel, the Witchlands series is a little less dark, in my opinion, and probably well suited to readers who are maybe a little young for the Grishaverse novels, but at the same time, there’s nothing light about them and the characters have a slipperiness and moral greyness in many cases that leaves you wondering where the series will take you. Just read them in order and probably don’t skip Sightwitch!

I’m just wondering when I’ll be able to pre-order the next book now, I understand it’s the last in the series and there’s a lot to bring together. Eeeeek.

The Skylight by Louise Candlish for Quick Reads 2021

Simone has a secret.

She likes to stand at her bathroom window and spy on the perfect couple downstairs, living their perfect lives through their skylight. She knows what they eat for breakfast, who they have over for dinner, all the minute details of their lives.

Which seems harmless until voyeuristic Simone realises that her partner, Josh, is having an affair with downstairs neighbour Alina whenever her husband is away on business, and decides to teach her a lesson….

Happy 15th Anniversary to Quick Reads from The Reading Agency! I was gifted a copy of The Skylight by Louise Candlish as a promotion of this scheme but have ordered the remaining titles from Waterstones because I think it’s such an wonderful idea. One in six adults in the UK finds reading difficult, and quick reads is designed to support these readers by offering inspiring books for emergent readers who have fallen out of the reading habit.

Every year, a new selection of quick reads across a range of genres is published, and for every title sold until July 31st 2021, the Reading Agency donates a title to help support adult readers. Each title only costs £1 so for the cost of a standard paperback, you could net six new books while donating the same number to those who need them most. This year’s selection of titles includes:

The Baby is Mine by Oyinkan Braithwaite

The Skylight by Louise Candlish

Saving the Day by Katie Fforde

Wish You Were Dead by Peter James

How to Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

The Motive by Khurrum Rahman

The Quick Reads books are chosen with the intention of inspiring less confident adult readers, but the writing is still of an excellent quality, with stories that pack a punch in short novella form. I’d argue that they aren’t just great for adults seeking to improve their literacy but anyone who finds themselves pushed for time to read – I know these would have been a life line for me when my daughters were tiny, and the small format means that they’re light and easy to carry around in a handbag or changing bag.

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, a review

“Rhen,” she calls after me.
I pause in the doorway and face her.
“I’m not going to fall in love with you,” she says.
Her words are not a surprise. I sigh.
“You won’t be the first.”


A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

Prince Rhen of Emberfall has been eighteen for over three hundred seasons. Cursed by a sorceress to repeat the Autumn of his eighteenth year until he manages to convince a woman to fall in love with him, Rhen sees the curse as a game at first. But at the end of the first season Rhen begins to turn into a monster, and as he does, he forgets who he is. As a beast, he has no control, and murders his entire family, before coming back to himself for the final hour of the season to see the havoc he has wreaked. For three hundred seasons he has turned into a beast, his murderous rampages decimating his kingdom leaving his guard Grey as his only company. And his memory of each season never fades. In his final season, Rhen is ready to accept that he will turn into a monster forever, until Grey is attacked by a young woman who witnesses his attempt to kidnap Rhen’s latest conquest, and he accidentally brings her to Emberfall instead…

On the surface, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer is hugely problematic. How could it not be when the obvious slap slap kiss love story at the heart of it centres on a handsome prince who with the assistance of his trusty guard kidnaps hundreds of women to use in an attempt to break a curse each season. Details are hazy on what happens to the women (selected for being what the agents of Criminal Minds would call high risk, no family, no support network, no one to miss them when they’ve gone…) when the season is over. Rhen says they return to their world, but it also sounds like he ate a few of them in monster form, so it looks like a few of them at least are now forever Emberfall as it were.

So yes, a romantic fantasy which starts with two men kidnapping a young woman and keeping her locked up in a castle should set alarm bells ringing, and neon signs flashing problematic, but I actually really enjoyed reading Brigid Kemmerer’s A Curse So Dark and Lonely.

By bringing the reader in towards the very end of the curse skips over the worst excesses of Rhen’s former character that the novel hints at and lets us see him at his most vulnerable. He’s lost everything, and despite his own morbid curiosity about the limits of his curse (he’s tried to end his own life several times, and tried to persuade his Guardsman, Grey to behead him) he’s resigned to his fate, a broken man who is now only concerned about his citizens and owning his failure… And then there’s Harper.

Harper is to A Curse So Dark and Lonely as Clare Randall/Fraser is to the Outlander novels. An intelligent, loyal and empathetic heroine who acts rashly but always with the best intentions. A teenaged girl living in poverty in Washington D.C., she accidentally makes the trip to Emberfall when she sees Grey attempting to kidnap a young woman outside a nightclub, and barely hesitates to rush in and attack him with a tyre iron despite that being even more challenging for Harper than the average woman, because Harper has mild cerebral palsy that affects her balance and movement in one leg.

I haven’t lived with cerebral palsy personally, but I have taught students with mild CP, and I found the portrayal of Harper really refreshing. Finally, a heroine in a YA novel with a named disability that places realistic boundaries on her physical capabilities who isn’t portrayed as a burden, a damsel in distress or in need of fixing. She might take the role of the warrior woman, learning to throw knives and shoot a bow, but what sets her apart is her empathy and fierce intelligence. She’s easily the equal of her kidnappers, and while she doubts she will ever fall in love with Rhen and break the curse, her strong sense of social justice allows her to see that there are plenty of ways he can still help the Kingdom of Emberfall in the meantime.

Part of the reason that the highly problematic kidnapper/captive love story doesn’t become as problematic as it could is the dynamic between Rhen, Grey and Harper. Rhen is an overthinker, always calculating with the need to feel twenty steps ahead of any scenario, Harper is rash and impulsive, Grey acts as the balance between them, and in a move that has shades of Outlander again, teaches Harper to defend herself with a dagger when she tries to attack him. Both young men treat Harper with the utmost respect at all times, almost to the point of deference, and this leads Rhen to quickly drop any pretence of seduction and be honest about his plight.

It was good to see a YA novel where a relationship grows out of total honesty, though despite Kemmerer’s best efforts, I have to admit I struggled to feel much empathy for the Rhen, I found his character fairly brittle even when the ultimate Big Bad, sorceress and magesmith Lilith was brought out to torment him (in fairness it’s hard to blame someone for wanting revenge on a man whose family were responsible for the genocide of her people). In comparison to Rhen, Harper and Grey were far more interesting characters to read about, even though the novel is narrated from Harper and Rhen’s points of view, and I suspect that Kemmerer may have enjoyed writing them more too.

There’s a lot going on in A Curse So Dark and Lonely – deeply troubled families, dying parents, broken kingdoms, debt, bad choices, the weight of the crown and the responsibility that comes with it, but Brigid Kemmerer has woven it all together beautifully in a fantasy novel that does the hard work for you and doesn’t shy away from embracing its characters vulnerabilities.

The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver

The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver, a confusingly packaged but interesting read on the role of friendship in the modern world

They used to say that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, but modern publishing relies on shelf appeal -be that in a physical or online shop- an invests so heavily in cover designs that generally you can do just that. For bigger releases, editorial, marketing, design and sales will all pitch in about the final cover and title of a book to make sure that it’s discoverable to the readers who are likely to be looking for it. They want you to know what to expect.

With that said, it’s rare these days to pick up a book and find that it’s been somehow mispackaged. The Friendship Cure: Reconnecting in the Modern World by Kate Leaver positively screams self-help book, from the title, to the subtitle, to the girly pink and purple crushed tablet of glitter which has bled into the font. But wait, why is the endorsement on the cover calling the author the new Jon Ronson?

The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver, despite its confusing title, isn’t a self-help book at all, but a treatise on friendship in the digital age. Touching on a wide range of friendship related topics, it draws on social psychology, anthropology and a healthy dose of personal experience and annecdote to explore why most people’s social networks hover around the 150 mark, looking at different categories of friendship like the Bromance, The Work Wife, The Toxic Friend, The Virtual Friend and Friends with Benefits to resulting in an enjoyable exposition on why friendships matter as much as ever in our disconnected world.

Leaver has serious experience as a journalist, and the book tackles head on the hugely topical issue of the loneliness pandemic, and I’d say it does it very well. The writing at times leaned towards excessive self-deprecation, and there were a few sweeping generalisations in the chapter on whether men and women can ever just be friends which seemed to lend more than a little credence to the films of Nora Ephron, but I enjoyed reading this and found it informative. A solid book.

All the while I was reading it though, I couldn’t help but thinking that if this was a male journalist writing about the importance of friendship, reflecting on his own experience of friendship with men and women and how that had shaped his sense of self, the publishers wouldn’t have gone full throttle on the heavily gendered packaging. The non-fiction market is going from strength to strength in the UK, and it would be nice to see women’s writing being given the same consideration as men’s when publishers are thinking about how they promote books to readers.

We do tend to judge books by their covers after all.