Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Starless Sea Book Cover with photograph of embossed pages with bee key and sword motif

“Zachary takes out the book. He turns it over in his hands and then puts it down on his desk. It doesn’t look like anything special, like it contains and entire world, though the same could be said of any book.”

The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern

There’s nothing hugely new about a novel in which a boy finds a book and it leads to a world of adventure. A story in which a boy finds a book which leads to an unknown enemy hunting them to retrieve the book isn’t hugely new either, Carlos Ruiz Zafon did this with The Shadow of the Wind. But believe me when I say The Starless Sea is far from basic. It’s so extra it’s meta.

A moibus strip of stories, The Starless Sea reads like a love letter to storytelling, video games and fan culture. An adventurous storytelling adventure which spans from myth to modern day and back again, watching entire empires rise and fall in the liminal spaces occupied by our book hangovers. This is the heartsong of the readers.

 “A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.”

It’s rare that I want to start a book straight away after finishing but I could so easily have done that with The Starless Sea, and I would have enjoyed it just as much, appreciating how the puzzle fits together, catching the references that I glossed over chasing the plot, becoming an acolyte to Morgestern’s storytelling.

There must be a more elegant word than book hangover (and my guess would be it exists in German or Japanese because they have the best words for these intangible concepts) to describe the feeling of a book that stays with you, that you want to revisit from scratch and occupy all over again. What Erin Morgenstern has done in this novel is effectively distill that essence and used it to paint a cast of characters who are both slaves to the story and causes of book hangovers in their own right.

Given the book’s fondness for cocktails, I’d love to try a starless sea if anyone mixes one up. Otherwise, I’ll take the bees knees.

 

Spoilers for The Starless Sea Below

“And there are always those who would watch Alexandria burn.

There always have been. There always will be.”

Yeah, okay, she’s technically the villain of the piece but you can’t really blame Allegra for wanting to protect the harbour and the starless sea can you? She chose the wrong path but I bet many a booklover would have done.

Who else thought Mirabel had gone rogue there? I have to admit that I did and the ice sculpture briefly seemed apt. As an act of penance, I’m going to have to dye my hair pink and dress like Max from Where the Wild Things Are. It’s happening and I’m not sure I can wait until World Book Day.

Eleanor and Simon do find each other at the end! That’s nice, the poor kids had a rough deal. Loose ends have to be tied up but the book doesn’t labour the point and I like that.

But who killed the Owl King this time? Or did he not have to die this time? Was that not the point of the sword after all?

I love Madam Love Rawlins, love, trust and acceptance. Those are mothering goals.

How horrific is the idea of drowning in honey? What kind of mind comes up with that?! It reminded me of one of the Plantagenets asking to be executed by drowning in a barrel of wine. It probably sounded like a good way to go until he actually had to go through with it.

I need a Kat Hawkins in my life and on my WhatsApp. But not as much as I need a kitchen.

What are the cats about?

Is anyone else tempted to make the room with the dolls house and the paper world? It can’t just be me.

Again, I love you Kitchen.

This is morbid perhaps, but I loved the idea of people being mummified shrouded in the stories of who they were. It was a really poignant moment for me.

The bees say that “she” always sends them a key to end the story. And Zachary is the key this time. Is she the Sculptor? How many stories have there been? Is this story, and this puzzle, just one of many? But if the sculptor is a godlike figure telling the story of Zachary, Mirabel, Dorian, The Keeper… what universe is she existing in? And who did she begin sculpting the stories out of raindrops for.

Come to that, how does time work? Who wrote the story of Zachary finding the door down in a book that was published before Mirabel was born so that Eleanor was able to read it?

Is Kat now the sculptor of a new story? She’s the world builder of the piece with avant garde theatre and virtual reality fusions. Is she there to build the new harbour? I get the feeling there will always be a new harbour, the egg cracks and a new story emerges.

Have you read it? I’m desperate to hear what other people think of it all.

 

Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds

Cover image of Sharon Olds Stags Leap anthology of poems about her divorce published by Cape PoetryReading Stag’s Leap is an uncomfortable sensation. At times, you feel like you are reading a stranger’s diary, section by section chronicling the breakdown of their marriage and aftermath of their divorce. Minutely observing the aftermath winter, spring, summer, fall… years later. Should you be reading it? This raw heartache?

At times, it’s more than that even. As you come to see slivers of yourself in the minutiae of the poet’s remembrances, there’s a gut punch as you recognise aspects of your own life and relationship and for a moment, despite the specificity, you forget that you are reading about Sharon Old’s heartbreak and begin to own it yourself. You are forced into something somewhere beyond empathy. The hidden chocolate bars of Discandied, the hidden tensions of Attempted Banquet create a hysteric feeling that something might be hiding in your own life, that a relationship so well-observed, so scrutinized by a seer poet, could hide a secret that drives two people apart after a life together.

Stag’s Leap is brilliant, of course, but oh so brave. To expose, surely, your utmost vulnerabilities – at times angry, at times disbelieving- to pin down your heartbreak so clinically, like a butterfly collector, and display those emotions and thoughts for all the world to marvel at.

The whole collection is a must read, but the poems that called out to me were Tiny Siren, for the cinematic melodrama of the moment described; To Our Miscarried One Age 30 Now, for the obvious overidentification that poem provoked; and finally The Healers. There’s a line at the end of The Healers that suggests that the poet’s husband had been uncomfortable with her career, “he did not feel happy when words/ were called for, and I stood”. It would be wrong to judge a relationship or a person based on a sequence of poems, but it did make me wonder what Sharon Old’s ex-husband must have thought of becoming the inspiration and subject of a T.S. Eliot Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poetry given the implication of The Healers.

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

Did anyone else see that viral video of Rutger Bregman at the 2019 Davos World Economic Forum meeting? I expect that I’m not the only person who wanted to high-five him after he told a few billionaires that they needed to pay their taxes and quite their bullshit philanthropy schemes. It didn’t go down well apparently…

The Davos elite may not have liked it, but the viral video has made Bregman this week’s folk hero and has raised the public profile of Bregman, who was already a rising star in academia. On the back of the Davos video, and articles I later read, I bought Rutger Bregman’s book Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There to see what else he had to say about the state of the world.

If, like me, you find yourself in a constant state of anxiety about the state of the world, Utopia for Realists is in some ways very reassuring. It highlights that (as long as you don’t think about rapidly impending climate catastrophe) the world is better for humans than it’s ever been before. In the West at least, we are effectively living in what your average Medieval peasant would have considered to be a utopia. But, Bregman argues, our progress has stagnated and we need to return to utopian thinking to consider the betterment of all of mankind, with the best minds applying their minds to the problem of how to make life better for all in an increasingly unequal society. He quotes Bertrand Russell saying,

“It is not a finished Utopia that we ought to desire, but a world where imagination and hope are alive and active.”

For Bregman, we’re lacking a mighty dose of imagination, funneling our best minds into sectors like finance where they move money around, contributing very little to the betterment of society in pursuit of growing the GDP- a useful measurement of a nation’s power at wartime, but a poor barometer of social welfare. Social dysfunction improves under GDP, but for Bregman it’s no great coincidence that the US which has the highest GDP has the highest number of social problems. The things that we would see as social progress, such as cheaper life improving technology, causes the GDP to shrink. Nurses, teachers and social workers who actively contribute to the improvement of society don’t rate highly in terms of GDP. The yardstick our politicians use to measure a country’s wellbeing and progress is not fit for purpose.

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman sets out his vision for how we might come closer to a more equal society which would be more like a utopia for everyone: a universal basic income, shorter working week and, radically, open borders. His academic argument for this is strong, but I’d argue that he makes a strong moral argument as well. When the mortality rate for Somalian toddlers is higher than that of frontline US soldiers in the American Civil War, Second World War or the Vietnam War then there’s something seriously wrong with the world and it’s time that lots was done to fix this on a global scale.

This is one of those books that I’m going to insist that everyone should read, and I don’t do that often with non-fiction, so add it to your TBR pile now.

 

 

Am I Ugly? by Michelle Elman

I don’t normally review non-fiction that I haven’t chosen for myself, but when I had a query as to whether I’d be interested in reviewing Am I Ugly?, a memoir from Michelle Elman, a body positive influencer who goes by the handle @scarrednotscared on Instagram, I signed up because I’ve got a few scars of my own and I wanted to see how Michelle’s experience related to my own.

I was nine when I was run over and the accident left me with a fractured skull, broken nose, a badly broken leg and, the jewel in the crown, a full thickness degloving crush injury to my left foot. If you don’t know what that is, don’t google it. I will not accept responsibility for any damage caused to keyboards by you losing your breakfast, regardless of how long it’s been since you ate it. So, in short, a life time of experience with some none too subtle scars and a few prolonged hospital stays.

Michelle Elman’s scarring is a result of multiple surgeries to treat hydrocephalus, and the complications that stemmed from earlier surgeries. Her memoir starts with an account of her health rapidly deteriorating at boarding school and the emergency surgeries that soon followed. While the memoir is billed as an account of one woman’s journey to body positivity, and while I’m sure that it was intended as such, for me, the book wasn’t really about the scars as a profound childhood trauma that the author was left to manage without any sort of adequate support. I’d really recommend it to anyone trying to understand how a child might experience a long hospital stay and traumatic illness.

Elman has changed a lot of names in the book, including the name of her school (which can be viewed on her LinkedIn profile so isn’t a hugely effective smoke screen) presumably for legal reasons in light of the allegations she makes about her teacher’s failure to safeguard her during her illness and the diet that her house mistress puts her on. Basically, if you were toying with the idea of spending £15,000 per term to outsource your child’s education and wellbeing to an external agency, then this would put you off.

The names that she can’t change, however, are those of her parents, and it does leave you wondering what they were thinking sending a young child with such a dangerous condition to boarding school without proper oversight. Rather than rush her immediately to a hospital when realising how ill her daughter has become at boarding school in the UK, her mother makes her feign wellness to fly to a hospital in LA which has previously treated her “because they have her notes”, risking her daughter’s health on the outbound flight. Following a series of surgeries in the US, she is then in hospital in an intensive care unit where she receives limited psychological support and the medical professionals discuss her condition in front of her in a way that seems designed to increase trauma. As soon as she is well enough, she’s shipped off back to boarding school in the UK, where her peer group has dispersed, finding herself isolated from her family who are in Hong Kong, without friends, and mistrustful of the teachers who have previously neglected her wellbeing.

Once back at boarding school, the author finds herself gaining weight from her inactivity while in hospital and is soon locked in a cycle of feeling awful about her scars and her weight, wondering whether she will ever be able to have a relationship with a man because of the scars. This all comes to a head at university, where she is forced to confront that she is still suffering from the trauma of her ICU stay in America. And it’s hardly surprising. I really felt for the poor girl. To go through all of that in a secure and supportive environment is hard enough…

I think a lot of how my recovery post-accident was dealt with made a big difference to our experiences and possibly our various perceptions of our scarring. I was carted off to a psychologist to talk about my PTSD pretty much as soon as I was out of hospital, suffering nightmares and squeaking in distress every time I was taken across a road (bit of a low point that).

I don’t ever recall feeling especially self-conscious about mine, my frustration with my foot has always been the ongoing pain that it causes and the things that it’s stopped me doing. If I had the option of having my scars disappear, I’d probably keep them because they are a big part of who I am and I probably wouldn’t feel right without them (the underlying bone issues and my ongoing fear of cars though, they can f*** right off…).

What I do relate to though is the being told how brave you must be (as if there was a choice but to cope as best you can?) and the expectation that this sets up that you will keep being brave. And that this becomes a role that you have to play. I remember after one of my surgeries the nurse coming to see if I needed painkillers and still feeling okay because the local anaesthetic was still working and my grandmother telling me that it was okay to ask for the painkillers if I needed them, saying, “You don’t have to be brave.” And I fell to pieces, because it upset this whole identity that had been constructed for me in the hospital about being a “brave girl” and a “good patient”. It’s been interesting to see about how Michelle went on to experiment with different kinds of therapy to address her PTSD, and that is something I’d like to learn more about as I’m vaguely aware that’s a journey that I’m still on.

I understand that this is intended as a book about physical scars and the bravery that it’s taken to embrace those, but for me, what’s impressive about this book is the emotional and psychological scars that the author has addressed and the strength that it takes to confront those so publicly. Michelle is still so young, so to tackle the issue of undiagnosed PTSD head on is a brave move, and will hopefully raise awareness for the carers of other young people in similar situations.

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans

On a warm summer’s evening in 1881, a beautiful young woman is murdered in front of her fiance at her engagement party in full view of fifty guests. Her killer escapes, but her murder sets in motion a chain of events which begin to uncover a dark secret. When legal clerk William Lamb finds his comfortable life ripped away from him by his mentor’s violent suicide, his world begins to crumble as he is forced to confront why an ordinary man like himself has suddenly become the focus of a sinister group with links to three of the world’s major super powers.

On paper, The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans has hints of everything that should make a good mystery novel. A shocking and inexplicable murder; mysterious artefacts with a long and improbable history; a character on a journey of self-discovery; criminals with their hearts in the right places; the great and good of society engaged in terrible deeds; a mess of strong female characters…

But for me, while the plot was strong and on the whole well-paced this novel fell far short of its promise. It felt like a story board where characters were moved through set pieces which had been lifted from a selection box of plot ideas then slotted into a novel. So often, the characters’ actions seemed completely at odds with their characterisation at this point that it left me unable to understand what would make them act in the way they did.

Why would a ruthlessly pragmatic woman focused only on her own survival try to rescue an elderly man that she doesn’t know from a situation that she can’t hope to escape?

Why would a wiley and discreet detective spill the details of a secret meeting in a moment of offhanded unguardedness to a journalist friend when he has so successfully refused to divulge any information to him before?

Why would an elite group with unlimited wealth and power allow themselves to be thrown into chaos by one lone drip, when they have the police in their pockets and they have enough circumstantial evidence to bring him down?

Why would the meticulously controlled Obediah Pincott just let everyone go on a whim?

There were just so many plot holes when a bit more finesse at characterisation would have tightened all of this up. The character of Savannah Shelton was the most obvious problem here. With only the vaguest hints of where she’s come from, and that she’s on the run, wanted for murder, we have no understanding of why she would repeatedly risk her life to save William Lamb. It felt very strongly that the author is hoping to leave the door open for a sequel to The Fourteenth Letter (probably one which sees the Vicomtesse Adeline return in her mask like the Phantom of the Opera and attempt to claim her grandchild/nephew/niece to continue her eugenics programme with the help of now President Cornelius Tinbergen forcing Savannah to return to America…whether she’ll still have goose-stepping German soldiers propping up her eugenics programme following the demise of her brother remains to be seen) and if it does, I hope we’ll see more characterisation.

As a plot driven novel, it’s enjoyable enough but I felt that the switch from murder mystery to an exploration of Darwinism and eugenics was a bit of a cliché fuelled stretch.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

life after life by Kate Atkinson book cover with snow fox and rabbitHave you ever wondered what would have happened if you’d done something differently? If you changed how a major event or minor detail in your life had played out, where your life might have taken you? And if you had the chance to live your life again what would you do differently?

In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson explores this concept. In February 1910, a baby girl is born to Sylvie Todd during a snowstorm. The midwife who has been called to attend the birth is stuck because of the snow. The doctor doesn’t arrive in time for the birth. The cord is wrapped around her neck and she dies before she can draw a breath.

In February 1910, a baby girl is born to Sylvie Todd during a snowstorm and lives to tell the tale. They call her Ursula, and she goes on to live life after life.

I’ve had Life After Life on my bookshelf for four years now but I’ve been wary of starting it. My friend gave me the book, but when I started having problems with my pregnancy warned me not to read it until I was in a better place. I was wary about what this meant and so I only really felt in the right place to approach it recently.

I found Life After Life to be an incredibly powerful book and technically brilliant. In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson tells us the story of Ursula Todd and her family multiple times, shifting small details of each telling to craft the impression of a different life but despite this repetition, the text doesn’t become repetitive. If anything, this repetition serves to increase the emotional impact as you see the near inevitability of the story playing out again and again. Nowhere was this more apparent for me than the section in which Ursula and her family are visited by the Spanish Flu which devastated so much of Europe at the end of World War Two. The scenes here weren’t obviously emotively written, but they were emotionally devastating. At the same time, this is where Atkinson carefully begins to draw out the idea that Ursula might be something more than the strange and thoughtful child that her family characterise her as, and we begin to see that her sense of déjà vu is related to tragedies in her previous attempts at living the same life.

“What if we had a chance to do it again and again,” Teddy said, “until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

This isn’t so much a novel about reincarnation as second chances, and doing things right. It asks us, what does it mean to live your life well? In some of Ursula’s lives that move on to adulthood she experiences truly harrowing experiences, rape, domestic violence, the loss of her child, but even in the lives where these things don’t occur, and in which she has satisfying relationships with her friends and family, it seems that for the purposes of the novel, she won’t have succeeded in living her life unless her brother Teddy survives the war and his true love Nancy also survives.

I found this focus on the character of Teddy very interesting, because for me it further complicated the mother child relationship that we see between Ursula and her mother Sylvie. There are hints throughout the novel that Sylvie is living her own version of Ursula’s life after life, Sylvie makes reference to “the black bat” of darkness which comes to symbolise Ursula’s death as having been vanquished in one of the first chapters when her baby has survived, experiences similar flashbacks to comforting memories of her own happy place when going through periods of stress, but compellingly has a pair of surgical scissors in her bedside drawer to save her own baby, repeating Ursula’s motto of “practice makes perfect” suggesting that she has indeed made a mental note that this is something that she will need from one of her previous lives. Both Sylvie and Ursula single Teddy out as being special as being the one they will do anything for. Initially I thought that this meant that Teddy was the child of Sylvie’s affair, but in the same life, Ursula notes that Ted had inherited Hugh’s smile.

Part of me wonders whether there is meant to be some kind of deeper resonance between their characters that needs to be in alignment in order for a good life to be lived. In the good life which sees Sylvie save Ursula and Teddy then survive the war, their character’s best lives are lived in alignment with their right actions combining to ensure the positive action. In one of the most distressing versions of Ursula’s life, when Ursula comes to see herself as deficient and broken, Sylvie’s attitude reflects this break and this is the time that we see her character at her worst as she rejects her daughter and Ursula notes that she used to love her, and now she didn’t. This is also the story in which Ursula sees Sylvie with another man, so we can suspect that some of this is projected self-loathing. It’s clear that while Sylvie repeatedly insists that there is no higher calling for a woman than being a wife and mother, there are times at which she resents this role and seems to envy Izzie’s freedom. In one of Ursula’s better lives, it is implied that her daughter rejects this role and lives a fulfilling life without becoming a wife or mother.

In the end, as I read it, Ursula’s successful life, the one in which Teddy survives and she gets to continue her life with him, isn’t the one in which she kills Hitler. It’s interesting to see that the follow up to Life After Life, A God in Ruins will focus on Teddy’s life after the events of Life After Life, and I’ll add this to my dangerously tall TBR pile to see whether Kate Atkinson offers up any answers to the questions that Life After Life has left me with.

 

 

 

 

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Last month, after years of resistance, I signed up to Instagram (you can follow me here if you like) and started playing around with Bookstagram. It’s been a pleasant experience and I guess for me has been closer to what blogging was like when I started – a community of bookworms discussing their favourite reads with people from around the world and picking through what they loved and hated about various books. With a little more focus on the images than a traditional blog, but the level of detail and analysis in the microblogging element has pleasantly surprised me.

At risk of digression into the world of Bookstagram (best talk about that another time) this is where I came across Girls of Paper and Fire (aff. link) by Natasha Ngan. Lots of people were posting pictures of copies they’d received in the run up to Christmas, the title was intriguing, the cover was cool, I was dealing with a teething baby… reader I treated myself and bought it.

Girls of Paper and Fire is set in a fantasy world, which seems to have been inspired by aspects of Imperial China. The society is made up of three castes, paper, steel and demon. The paper caste are humans without demon characteristics, the paper caste have aspects of both human and demon, and the demon caste have animal appearances and incredible strength. The are the elite caste, with paper at the bottom and steel somewhere between the two.

Lei is a human girl born to a paper family. Her mother was abducted during a demon raid on her village when she was a child, but otherwise she lives a quiet life in a rural backwater. But people come from miles around to her father’s shop because Lei has unusual eyes, eyes which are bright gold and look like they belong to a demon in her human body. It is these eyes that catch the attention of one of the Emperor’s soldiers, and lead to Lei being kidnapped to become one of his paper girls, a harem of concubines who are selected annually for the “privilege”.

Girls of Paper and Fire has been compared to Memoirs of A Geisha, but personally I found this to be a very lazy comparison. I thought it was more reminiscent of  (af. link) Empress Orchid by Anchee Min with a girl trying to find her place as the Emperor’s concubine and the perilous, cruel world in which she lived (though maybe it was partly inspired by Journey to the West?). Even so, Girls of Paper and Fire is a more explicitly violent novel than either of these, and leaves the reader under no illusions about the reality of Lei’s life with the threat of violence constantly hanging over her. The trigger warning at the start of the book is both wise and necessary, especially in Young Adult fiction.

I didn’t think that the book was exceptionally well written, and found the writing a little jarring at first, though this either improved or became less noticeable as the book went on. Although Lei was the main character, I felt that her character was less well drawn than that of more minor paper girls and I didn’t feel that her thoughts and actions were always credibly linked. Despite this, I thought that the story was original and the concept was well executed, though I assume that Lei’s eyes are some how related to the Moon Goddess alluded to in the book who defeated the God of Knight. I’m guessing that this is a foreshadow of what will happen later in the series, but if so I would have liked to have learned more about what power or ability Lei has that makes her a girl of fire, otherwise Wren would be, for me, the girl of fire, the member of the paper girls who is different for being a Xi warrior. For all her bravery, Lei wasn’t exceptional as a character, but maybe that’s the point.

It seems almost obligatory to leave YA novels open for a sequel these days (Girls of Paper and Fire is the first part of a trilogy), but I did think that the ending of the novel was cleverly constructed to leave Lei and Wren breathing a sigh of relief, not appreciating that the word Flight in Lei’s birth blessing pendant may well be hinting that she will spend the rest of her life on the run from the Demon Bull King Emperor.

 

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar Review

“The stories are of men who, walking on the shore, hear sweet voices far away, see a soft white back turned to them, and – heedless of looming clouds and creaking winds – forget their children’s hands and the click of their wives’ needles, all for the sake of the half-seen face behind a tumble of gale-tossed greenish hair.”

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar is one of those books that you see and have to buy in hardback. It’s so beautiful that waiting for the paperback (currently due to publish in January 2019) seems impossible. And I suppose this is how the book begins to help you understand the allure of the mermaid. It had 21 reservations at my local library when I tried to reserve it.

Set in the Georgian era, the story follows an array of characters who find their fortunes changing after encountering a mermaid that Jonah Hancock has acquired. The description of the mermaid makes it sound just like P.T. Barnum’s Fiji Mermaid, and it causes a similar sensation in Georgian society, making Jonah Hancock a fortune, and drawing him into the Georgian demi-monde as Mrs Chappell, a madam in a high-end brothel, hires his mermaid to provide her clientele with a new novelty. At Mrs Chappell’s house, he makes the acquaintance of Angelia Neal, a notorious courtesan who is seeking to secure her future following the death of her protector. Hancock finds himself powerfully drawn to Angelica Neal, who rejects and ridicules him. Nonetheless, he finds himself inspired by her, and drives himself to improve his fortune to catch her attention, risking his fortune and the safety of those he cares for in his quest for her approval.

This is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. The verbosity of the novel which reflects its Georgian setting initially holds the reader at arm’s length, only to pull you in forcefully when you realise that the quiet Mr Hancock is fully living with the son he never got to know, haunted by a life that he never got to leave which lightly touches all aspects of his everyday reality. He’s a rare thing in novels, a genuinely kind character who always attempts to behave well to those around him but who is simultaneously capable of commanding a reader’s attention. Likewise, the beautiful Mrs Neal, who is somewhat reminiscent of Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp with her taste for the highlife and scheming to find a man who will elevate her to a suitably lofty position in society, but all the while lacking Becky Sharp’s wiles and ruthlessness, risking everything for an unsuitable love affair.

Despite the vivacity of the major characters, it’s the brilliantly drawn minor characters who make the novel. Capable Sukie who could be so much more if she wasn’t a woman living in Georgian England; the neat but merciless Mrs Frost; and poor Polly, who has come from somewhere and has gone somewhere and you want to know her story but can never fully follow it.

If you’re looking for a book to read for yourself, or a Christmas present for a reader (no spoilers, but has a relatively happy ending), I would highly recommend this. It’s not often that I’ll say that something is a must read but this is a heck of a book. I could easily see The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock being adapted as a showpiece drama for the BBC at Christmas, or being picked up by Amazon or Netflix in this brave new world.

Circe by Madeline Miller, a review

“He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.”

Circe by Madeline Miller

I was a huge fan of Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles (read my review here) so you can imagine I was thrilled when I received a copy of her new book Circe to help while away the hours while I waited for my very overdue baby while I was on maternity leave earlier this year.

In Miller’s retelling of the Circe from Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is the unloved daughter of Helios, the Titan sun god, and Perse, a sea nymph. Overlooked by her mother for lacking the beauty that might secure her a marriage to a god, and thus her mother’s social standing, she is left to her own devices and mocked by her more attractive siblings. When the abandoned brother she has raised from infancy rejects her too, she is desperate for any affection and discovers that she has the power of witchcraft. But this sees her banished from her father’s palace and placed on an island in complete isolation, where she truly comes to know herself and her power.

While I very much enjoyed reading Circe, and Miller’s writing is on point as always, I thought it was interesting that it was branded as a feminist retelling of the Greek myth. For me, even throughout Miller’s version, much of our perception of Circe is derived from her interactions with the male characters. We see Circe’s struggle to find her place in her powerful and abusive father’s court; the terror she strikes into Glaucus, the human she falls in love with but who abandons her when she gifts him divinity; Apollo who takes her as a lover, but for the novelty more than anything else; the men who rape her and set her on her course of turning men into pigs…the only men she feels comfortable with are brilliant humans like Daedalus and Odysseus, but even then her relationships with those are complicated by the existence of their sons. Even when she seems to achieve a degree of freedom, it is always the result of having to bargain with the male world, I suppose that you could argue that that’s the system that every woman operates within but even when Penelope comes onto the scene and in scenes with Parsiphae, I’m not convinced that Circe would pass the Bechdel test.

As for the happy ending that Circe is said to receive in both myth and this retelling, her character certainly deserves it. But I couldn’t help but feel that it was another example of her giving something away for a man.

Oh and if this leaves you wondering, as I always have, “How do you say Circe?” The correct Greek pronunciation would be Kirky, but Miller says that she finds Sirsee to be more accessible to the modern reader.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

“Science can save a man’s life, but imagination makes it worth living.”

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

In 1883, civil servant Thaniel Steepleton returns to his depressing flat in a grey boarding house to find that it has been broken into. Nothing has been taken but his dishes have been washed and put away, and a beautiful but apparently broken gold pocket watch has been left on his bed. A short while later, that same pocket watch saves Thaniel’s life during a Clan na Gael terrorist bombing, but makes him a suspect for the policeman who sees how it forewarns him of the blast. Desperate to prove his innocence, he goes in search of the maker, and soon finds himself drawn into an adventure he could never have imagined.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is the first novel of Natasha Pulley, though I actually came to it having read her second novel, The Bedlam Stacks which isn’t a sequel as such to the series though it does operate within the same universe and features the character Keita Mori at an early stage of his life. The books can be read out of sequence, and the second was enough to bump the first right to the top of my to read list.

I find Natasha Pulley’s writing to be a bit like stepping into a warm bath. It engulfs you and is instantly comforting, her style is so fluid and natural, there’s no hesitance in suspending belief. As soon as you begin reading you are in the old broom cupboard at the home office, with the smell of tea and cleaning salts. The whole novel has vast sensory appeal, drawing you in even further to the world of Lipton tea, cream cakes, lemon soap and whirring machinery.

Part of this is Pulley’s clever characterisation as well. Thaniel experiences synaesthesia and sees sound, which not only enhances your experience of his world, but invites you to see the exceptionalism in a character who sees his existence as wholly ordinary and who has, out of a sense of obligation and decency, given up his dream of being a pianist and settled for a life whose pleasures amount to being able to afford ten candles and two baths a week.

There is a deceptive gentleness to the novel, both the watchmaker Keita Mori with his kind eccentricity, tinkering away in his workshop making fascinating steampunk creations; and scientist Grace Carrow, desperately seeking to prove her theory of the luminiferous ether to buy her independence from her overbearing parents seem, on the whole as characters that we can sympathise with. But when Thaniel finds himself caught emotionally between the opposing geniuses, who both wish to be the center of his world, we become shocked at what each might be prepared to do in order to secure the future that they hope for.

I admire any novel which managed to include a clockwork octopus with a penchant for stealing socks and shiny things as a character without wandering into the ridiculous, but The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is such a joyful mixture of steampunk, magic realism, thriller and historic adventure that I’d recommend it to anyone. I’ve already bought two copies to give as Christmas presents and I haven’t ruled out buying more.

And if you do know of a clockwork octopus of that nature, ideally answering to the name Katsu, please send it my way. My sock drawer is warm and welcoming.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street spoilers section

Some of my thoughts on how the ending explains the character of the watchmaker

Pulley successfully raised my hackles against Grace Carrow when she had her declare that women shouldn’t have the vote, considering herself a typical to most women and feeling that her sex generally weren’t capable of thinking rationally, preferring to focus on politician’s sideburns instead… but in some ways, you do have to wonder if she has a point about Keita Mori’s ability to see possible futures and nudge events to ensure a certain outcome. A person who could do that could be incredibly dangerous and would be able to control you without you really realising. And the novel provides numerous examples of Mori doing just that, slightly manipulating events to save his friend Ito, or chillingly failing to act but making sure that he was in position to witness his cousin dying in a wall collapse, an event that we know he could have predicted.

But Grace is controlling herself. We see her lie frequently to ensure that Thaniel does what she wants him to do, or to hide the truth from him when she has deliberately acted in a way that she knows will hurt him. She extends the offer of a marriage of convenience to solve both of their problems, but then changes the terms of this to want a full marriage when she sees that Mori will make it difficult to control Thaniel. She also frequently underestimates Thaniel, which she acknowledges is because she has seen him as being her intellectual inferior. She is ruthless and will go to horrendous lengths to get her own way, which doesn’t make her a reliable judge of character when she gives an opinion intended to sway Thaniel to her way of thinking.

If we are to take Mori at his word, he finds Thaniel hard to anticipate because he is indecisive, which would clearly be a character trait which would appeal to a man who can instantly and clearly see all possible futures the second they become possible. This is why he has chosen to make himself a pet octopus which is robotic and controlled by random gears rather than get the puppy that Ito suggests. He wants something in his life which is beyond the sphere of his control.

I think that Mori flipping the train bolt in the air for Grace Carrow to see after Akira Matsumoto has returned to see Thaniel receive his award for bravery is something of an olive branch, as well as making good on his threat to wreck a train earlier in the novel. By wrecking the train that Akira Matsumoto has caught so that it will break down in time for him to see the newspaper cover about Thaniel, it allows Matsumoto to return to Grace and gives them an opportunity to confess the feelings for one another that they have clearly been unable to admit all through the novel. Yes, his ability to sail the tides of chance is sinister, but he’s used it to effect a happy ending for someone who has been his rival.