Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett

“When you find them, you’ll see that Twyford wrote in a particular way. A very simple way. She’s an unchallenging read on every level. No subtext. No depth. No hidden meanings.“

The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett

Janice Hallett, author of The Appeal and Queen of the Unreliable Narrator is back with another mystery novel in which she does it again, and I would argue that The Twyford Code is even more enjoyable than The Appeal.

Steven Smith has just been released from prison a long prison sentence. He’s attempting to rejoin society and get his life back on track, but is haunted by the disappearance of his teacher Miss Isles forty years ago after she noticed a code in a children’s book he brought to school. Armed with a mobile phone his estranged son gave him, he records an audio diary of the investigation. What did happen on the day Miss Iles went missing? What are the other members of his remedial English class trying to hide from him? And is it possible that there really was a secret code hidden in the novels of prolific children’s author, Edith Twyford?

Much like Janice Hallet’s previous novel, The Twyford Code plays with the potential of technology as a story telling medium, and the novel opens with a letter from an Inspector Waliso to a Professor Mansfield, sending automatically generated transcripts of 200 deleted audio files which have been recovered from the phone of a missing person, asking for the Professor’s professional opinion of the content and hinting at a relationship between the Professor and the missing person.

These transcripts form the key narrative of the novel as Steven Smith records his attempted investigation, and give us a chance to really get to know Steve’s character and life story as he covertly interviews his former classmates, reminisces about his childhood and how he fell in with the criminal gang that saw him sent to prison, reflects on how he discovered he had a child, and of course hunts down clues to help him solve the mystery of Miss Iles disappearance. The transcripts are at times farcical; as he wades in to a university to interview a university professor who is an expert in Edith Twyford for the book he’s writing at times poignant; as he remembers how he used to love walking home from the pub with his emotionally remote father because he’d sometimes hold his hand and pick him up…. But all the while it’s clear that Steve is right, something odd is going on, and as two men in black keep showing up, it begins to look as though someone is trying to stop him finding out the truth about Edith Twyford.

I’m going to keep what I say here brief for those who haven’t read The Twyford Code, with spoilers clearly marked for those who have, but I would definitely urge you to read it if you do like a mystery novel or if you enjoyed Janice Hallett’s earlier novel The Appeal.

Spoilers below….

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Here be spoilers for The Twyford Code, you’ve been warned!

Aaaaah Janice Hallett does it again, completely wrongfoots you with an unreliable narrator. I was initially getting a bit annoyed about the shifting balance between the Twyford Code investigations and the memories of life with the Harrison gang and the heist, but then bam! Brilliantly done.

Once again Janice Hallett uses the unreliable narrator/one of these characters doesn’t really exist trick, this time instead of a character emailing an imaginary friend, it’s Steve playing the character of Lucy they sympathetic librarian who is the only character who seems truly kind to him in the novel and evokes a lot of pity except….

Except that’s clearly not the case is it? He’s still close enough with his friends from the remedial English class after forty years that they’re willing to help him build the whole cover story and frame the crooks who framed him. Unusual to stay so close after forty years, especially when one of the remedial English gang has actually joined a criminal gang and been imprisoned for murder during that time.

Speaking of murder, that’s a heck of a cheeky puff on the cover, “Time to solve the murder of the century”. I don’t think there was a murder to solve in the book as such. Miss Isles was fine, Colin confessed to killing his father who had in turn confessed to killing their mother, and Steve witnessed the murder of John Harrison, unless the murder was of Werner Richter the German spy, but again, less a murder to solve, more the execution of a spy during wartime and clearly known to those in the know… though I’m not sure what the Geneva convention has to say about that kind of thing. Maybe it’s Steve Smith’s figurative murder of his former self and his disappearance to a new life that’s the murder? I’m not complaining, I loved it.

In the world of the book, Edith Twyford is a real life character who existed (though clearly based on the prolific work of Enid Blyton during the same period, her works are similarly updated). Professor Max Mansfield, aka Steven Smith’s son says that he’s ordered some of her books to look for the cats and codes mentioned in the transcript but also confirms that the co-ordinates for the locations of the banks mentioned correspond to the information in the transcripts. The photographs exist with the visual clues that Steve apparently interprets in the transcripts, and Werner Richter was a real figure who was missing in action which is one hell of a coincidence if you’re writing a retrospective story to hide clues to treasure for your son.

Which is to say, although at the end Operation Goldfish is a secondary concern to Steve’s Heist and the Masquerade/Twyford code style treasure hunt that Steve Smith disguises in the transcripts to allow Max to collect clean untraceable gold, I think in the book it really happened. Especially in light of Miss Iles’ fancy house with the fish. Yes, it’s hinted that it’s a game that they made up in their literacy lessons but at the same time, “Take heed everyone. Trust what you find out. Right Doesn’t Come of deceit. Everything is spoken. Always love in vain. Each time of day answers you.” Thetwyfordcodeisalivetoday. She definitely found the gold from operation goldfish, didn’t she?

Speaking of right doesn’t come of deceit…. Guilt tripping your son into thinking you’ve been murdered by a criminal gang to persuade him to read your emotive life story is a crash course in toxic parenting isn’t it? An incredibly clever father is on the one hand sending instructions to his incredibly clever son to help him find the assets he’s hidden for him to give him the chance to provide for him, but at the same time it’s more than a little forked up to create a heroic narrative through those transcript files to guilt him into not having met with the doting father who is so proud of his boy throughout the book….“It’s emotional truth that matters. Little Smithy couldn’t read, but he knew a good story when he heard one.” It might be emotional truth that matters, but what about the effects of that emotional truth on the person (in this case your child who has experience more than a little emotional disruption as a result of the parent’s actions….)

“You must understand that two people may have different memories of the same thing. And both are correct.” That’s a quote just begging an undergraduate exam paper of dissertation based around unreliable narrators and witness testimony in modern novels isn’t it.

I got the impression that the book was part inspired by the Masquerade book and associated hunt for the Golden Hare that The Twyford Code references. This book is also real in our world as well (I had to google, it was before my time!) and you can actually find it to buy today. I loved the idea of this kind of mass national treasure hunt, it would be amazing if an enterprising publisher would do the same today.

Run Rose Run by Dolly Parton and James Patterson

She could feel the crowd’s new attention. Her fingers flew over the strings, and by verse two she was belting out the song at the top of her lungs. She sang for joy, and she sang as if her life depended on it.

Because, she knew, it did.

Run Rose Run by Dolly Parton and James Patterson

I grew up on the music of Dolly Parton, my Dad would play her records as my bedtime lullabies back when vinyl was the norm, and my mother liked her songs so much that she called my sister Jolene. When my partner was sniffy about my niece having the Dolly Parton Little People Big Dreams book alongside the Stephen Hawking one as if her contribution to the world was somehow lesser, we got into quite a lengthy debate about it because Dolly Parton is a Queen for her songs alone, but throw in her charitable work with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library and I’m perfectly happy to nominate her for a secular sainthood for the sheer positive impact she’s had on so many lives. Some dumb blonde.

Anyway, I’d heard a while back that Dolly Parton was writing a novel, but hadn’t thought too much about it until I was listening to Nihal Arthanayake (who I think is the best interviewer ever) interviewing a writer and a singer on Radio 5 about how to succeed recently, and after tuning in part way through the interview – that was Dolly Parton and she was talking about her new book, Run Rose Run with co-writer James Patterson. You can listen to Nihal Arthanyake’s interview with Dolly Parton and James Patterson for Radio 5 Live’s Headlines here.

I think one of the things that people love about Dolly Parton is that she doesn’t seem to take herself too seriously (famous for her one liners about not being offended by dumb blonde jokes “Because I know I’m not dumb, and I know I’m not blonde” and quipping, “It costs a lot to look this cheap.”) and in the interview she clearly isn’t precious about the book, having to ask for a reminder of the name of her male lead character at one point. Having read the book, I thought that this was really interesting because the book is so clearly a collaboration in the vein of the song writing collaborations in the book – yes, it’s kind of ghost written in the traditional sense, but James Patterson is co-credited as he might be on a song, and the heart and soul and experience of Nashville, the music industry and female country singers in the music industry is clearly coming from Dolly.

The novel follows the rise of AnnieLee Keyes from total obscurity, hitchhiking to Nashville to try for her big break she car-jacks an 18 wheeler when the driver sexually harasses her before begging a barman at the Cat’s Paw bar in Nashville to give her a chance performing her songs. While playing at the bar, AnnieLee Keyes is heard by Ethan Blake, a session guitarist for Country Music power player the reclusive superstar Ruthanna Ryder who has retired from performing in public but still records music for herself with a band in a private studio. Seeing AnnieLee’s talent as both a singer and a songwriter, Ethan introduces AnnieLee to Ruthanna, who helps orchestrate AnnieLee’s meteoric rise from nobody to superstar. But AnnieLee and Ethan have dark secrets in their past, and the closer AnnieLee comes to realising her dreams, the more determined her demons seem to drag her back to the hell she hoped she’d escaped.

I won’t pretend that Run Rose Run is some lofty work of great literature, but it doesn’t need to be. Three chords and the truth, like a great country song, Run Rose Run half relies on a predictable structure, giving the reader highs and lows before delivering an ending that they want. It’s a coffee drenched, dive bar love song to Nashville warts and all just as much as it’s the story of AnnieLee Keyes and her twisted path to the top.

Something that usually irks me about books which focus on songs and song lyrics is that unless they’re real songs, then the reader is usually left reading some fairly shonky poetry, but the lyrics in this book work well, and like Laura Barnett’s Greatest Hits, this book has an actual musical album (Run Rose Run, available to listen free on Spotify) recorded to breathe life into the imaginary songs. Except, in the case of this book, the songs are all sung by Dolly Parton, patron saint of country, with a few pretty notable male guest artists, like Ben Haggard, son of Merle Haggard who is name checked throughout the book.

I genuinely enjoyed this book for a bit of Nashville flavoured Americana, I had fun trying to spot aspects of the characters that linked back to Dolly herself, like Ruthanna’s work with the book charity, or AnnieLee’s refusal to give up her song rights as part of the deal apparently Elvis Presley wanted to record I Will Always Love You, but Dolly wouldn’t give him half the songwriting credit, a shrewd move since retaining those rights has apparently made her millions…. I think Run Rose Run would make a great summer holiday or beach read for fans of Dolly.

A Single Thread of Moonlight by Laura Wood

I’m beginning to think I could probably stick to reading fairy tales with a twist for the next three years, and never get bored, as long as they were all as good as Laura Wood’s A Single Thread of Moonlight.

Iris Grey is a modiste with skills that see the most fashionable ladies in society flocking to her employer’s shop, but she hides away in the backroom of the shop keeping a low profile and living under a pseudonym, having run away from her life among the landed gentry after her father’s suspicious death made her think that she would be the next victim in her wicked stepmother’s sights. Having lived by her wits in London, supporting herself with the needle skills she learned from her mother, seven years have now passed and she has weeks left to decide whether to return, reveal her identity and claim her birth right or be declared legally dead allowing her stepmother to claim her inheritance. Of course, at this very moment she catches the eye of the cold, calculating and far too handsome Nicholas Wynter, who like a fairy godmother offers Iris a chance to romance a handsome prince, while avenging her father’s death and learning the truth about her wicked stepmother and stepsisters.

Though this is shelved in bookshops as teenage fiction, A Single Thread of Moonlight is a novel with great crossover appeal. Beneath the glittering façade of romance, fabulous dresses, stately homes and masked balls; it touches on some pretty serious issues the emotional abuse of a child by their carer, coercive control in relationships, and the scales falling from your eyes as you realise that your hero might not be who you though they were. At the same time, it does this lightly within the context of a rollicking story – the novel layers romance and mystery, crafting a story based on the basic plot of Cinderella, but with an energetic and intelligent heroine who needs neither a fairy godmother or a handsome prince to save her.

A Single Thread of Moonlight is a fun, plot driven novel which frankly saved my sanity while sitting up all night with a toddler with a wild fever from covid who was not going to sleep thank you very much, it’s definitely made me want to check out Laura Wood’s other novels and would be a great tide me over between series of Bridgerton.

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 murderer 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.