Category Archives: Book Reviews

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith, a spoiler free review

Whisper it to the friends whose birthdays I’ve forgotten this year, but I had a reminder set in my phone for September 18th 2018 as soon as I heard that this would be the publication date for J. K. Rowling’s fourth Cormoran Strike novel Lethal White.

I had plans to buy it shortly after midnight to read on my Kobo while doing a late night feed with the baby. Those plans with scuppered by a trip to accident and emergency with a toddler sporting a 40 degree fever (she’s fine, she wanted me to take her to the museum when we were leaving the hospital at half past two in the morning) and the kobo store not having made it available until the next day. Still, the nights are long when sitting up watching a toddler for signs that her temperature is getting higher again, so I soon managed to catch up with Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacot where Career of Evil left off, on Robin and Matthew’s wedding day.

I’m not sure whether it was my state of mind while reading it, but for me, Lethal White, which sees Rowling take on the personal lives of the upper classes and characters across the political spectrum, felt a little more strained than the other books in the Strike series.

Rowling’s social commentary remains sharp but at times the verbosity which has seemed natural in other books in the Strike series felt a little stilted, and for me, Lethal White was lacking the easy humour which balanced out the darker elements of previous Strike books. It’s difficult to say how much of this was due to the need to cover the narrative arc of Strike and Robin’s personal lives in more detail while also bringing together the various threads of a murder mystery, and how much of the strain was due to JKR admitting in her acknowledgements that she’d taken a lot on in writing this book while working on various Harry Potter stage and screen spin offs.

Either way, Rowling/Galbraith’s sleight of hand lacked the usual lightness of touch I’ve come to expect from the Strike novels, the misdirection less effective with the red herrings that were laid out to distract proving ineffective in leaving me wondering whodunit until the end of the novel.

Is anyone else expecting the next novel in the series to feature another personal vendetta type crime as with Career of Evil?

Am I being cruel to think that Lethal White might be a victim of the success of the BBC TV series Strike? It felt as though a lot of the scenes were writing as staging directions outlining how Rowling saw the scenes being shot.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, a review

Just in case you were ever in any doubt as to whether I’m the kind of person to come late to a party, this week I read the ubiquitous Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

This originally published in 2013, and the coverage it received in the media is difficult to overstate. Newspapers, blogs, TV, radio, it seemed like you couldn’t move without someone giving their take on what it means to lean in to the point that the phrase lean in seems to have slipped into common usage with its own prominent entry in the Working Woman’s Guide to Business Jargon. What do Lean In and Fifty Shades of Grey have in common? You don’t have to have read them to have a pretty good idea of the narrative arc of either book.

So why read it now? In the years after the book was released, Sheryl Sandberg was everywhere. And I’d read profiles in the paper, but I was never interested enough to seek out what effectively sounded like a careers advice book for women. But my friend recently got me into a podcast player, and I’ve started listening to Desert Island Discs (I know) and one of the people featured was Sheryl Sandberg. Not only were her choices of tracks strong, but hers was the most heartbreakingly raw and human interview I’ve heard on there, so I decided to read her book.

And wow. What can you say in a review of Lean In that hasn’t been said before? Barring George Monbiot’s books about our impending doom, I don’t think I’ve ever read something which has managed to inform, entertain and depress me in such equal measure. On the one hand the anecdotes about Sandberg’s own career are interesting, the statistics looking at gender disparity in the workplace are fascinating and the advice is, in part, so f***ing depressing. I mean really f***ing depressing. There’s some advice in the book which says that men can ask for payrises and promotions based on their personal achievements and individual performance, while a woman has to link it to the common good to make herself seem unthreatening, likeable and a team player. And I can see that it would be true. And that’s what’s so bloody depressing about it all.

Honestly, by the end of reading it I was pretty much ready to reject my place in the world of work and take up subsistence farming. I’m mostly joking. But seriously, it’s an important book to read if you want to gain a better appreciation of how little progress society has made since the 1950s.

 

Five Tips for Getting Bloggers to Review Your Book

Most authors know that approaching bloggers to review their new book is a great way to drum up some free publicity that gives their book a word-of-mouth popularity, but when it comes to approaching blog authors with a query, their emails can be very hit and miss, sometimes just plain rude. Based on the emails I receive every day, here are my top five tips to help get your book reviewed with traditional presses and achieve a higher response rate when approaching bloggers about your book, remember you’re asking them to review your book for free so the least you can do is make your query polite.

 

Tip Number 1 – Check the blog’s reviewing policy

I wrote my reviewing policy so that anyone who asks me to review their book knows exactly what to expect when dealing with me – I don’t do paid reviews, I won’t mince my words, I don’t guarantee a review for books that were just blah  and I don’t review self-published novels. I’d say roughly half of the emails I receive asking me to review books are from self-published authors who haven’t spent the time familiarizing themselves with my reviewing policy beyond lifting my email address from it. If their book looks interesting and I know of another blogger who would review, I will try to link them up, but more often than not I have to delete their email without replying.

 

Tip Number 2 – Personalize your emails

No address is just rude, Dear Blogger is a bit annoying. If you’re taking the time to email bloggers, don’t send a clearly mass email in the hope that someone is going to commit at least three hours to reading your book and writing a considered review. Dear Book and Biscuit is acceptable, but most bloggers will have their name in their About Me section, and they won’t mind you using it.

 

Tip Number 3 – Build relationships

Bloggers can be really busy people. I work and have a toddler. Lots of other bloggers do too, or have other really time intensive commitments. If I’m pushed for time and declining reviews, I’m far more likely to make time to review a book by an author or publisher I have an existing relationship with. I doubt I’m the only one who feels like this. Rather than cold email a blogger, take your time to get to know their site, engage with it, comment on their blog, chat with them on social media. It will set you apart from authors who have lifted their contact details from a book reviewers list that many bloggers didn’t opt in to.

 

Tip Number 4 – Use your existing networks

If you’ve written a book, there’s a good chance that you’re a reader too. What existing networks do you have that allow you to reach readers that you’ve already built a relationship with? Do any of those blog, or would they be able to recommend interested bloggers who specialise in your genre? It’s worth reaching out with a personalized email to ask for their help or advice. It seems to me that there can be a lot of ego involved when people start out writing, but the authors I admire and who seem to be really successful are genuinely interested in being part of a community with like minded readers. I guess it’s all part of really understanding your target audience.

 

Tip Number 5 – Don’t pay for reviews

I know that it may seem tempting. And I know that there are unscrupulous sites which tout themselves as blogger networks who will take your money to arrange a blog tour or similar. I found this out when I provided an honest review after another blogger had begged me to as a favour, and the author became very upset because she had paid the other blogger (without my knowledge) and assumed that she had bought a positive review from me. It caused a lot of bad feeling all round. If you put in the work making yourself a part of a reading and writing community, you won’t have to pay for reviews, and you’ll build a more engaged following for it.

 

Fellow bloggers, is there anything else you’d add to this? Authors, what’s worked well in your experience?

American Gods by Neil Gaiman, a book review

neil gaiman american gods feather wing headdress cover “Hey,” said Shadow. “Huginn or Muninn, or whoever you are.”
The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes.
“Say ‘Nevermore,'” said Shadow.
“Fuck you,” said the raven.”
American Gods by Neil Gaiman

 

 

I’ve always like the work of Neil Gaiman for his classic storytelling ability, the way he draws in elements of classic folklore and fuses it with pop culture to create something new. I don’t think that the concept of Gods drawing power from belief is anything especially new, but I loved what Gaiman did with this in American Gods– how human some of the Gods had become, and the circumstances they find themselves living in. The ways they try to survive.

At times Neil Gaiman’s writing reminds me a little bit of Terry Pratchett without the footnotes because the stories within stories gain a momentum of their own and pull away from the main narrative. The vignettes in the novel are probably an example of this, some linked up with the main narrative as with the child in the cave and Hinzelmann, but in some like the story of Essie Tregowan it felt as though Gaiman was stretching his storytelling muscles and enjoying it, or in the case of the African twins that he was stretching his storytelling muscles and revelling in the horrors of history.

I’ve had American Gods in my house for a while now (this will be a regular theme in some of my forthcoming reviews- I’m trying to have a blitz of my unread books with missed results) after I found it on a bench with a playing card tucked in the back in lieu of a bookmark. It was starting to rain and the book marked looked as though whoever had been reading it had finished, so the book came home with me and it came to the top of the pile when I started seeing potential spoilers everywhere when the Amazon series was released- I needed to read it before someone spoiled a plot point.

I meant to review the novel before I watched the TV series to keep my thoughts on the two separate, but I’m afraid I watched the first episode so now the waters are muddied and I don’t want to write too much that will make this become an American Gods book and TV series comparison, but I thought that the episode that I watched was a poor adaptation. It felt too cartoonish; the violence amped up and the context missing. Because the concept of belief is so important to the novel, Shadow’s internal narrative was critical to the events of the novel. In the book his shock and disbelief at the death of his wife felt palpable, in the TV series, he just looked a bit pissed off.

So if you’re wondering, read American Gods first, then watch the TV series. Or skip the TV series entirely and pick up another book instead.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, a book review

“But a lonely man is an unnatural man, and soon comes to perplexity. From perplexity to fantasy. From fantasy to madness.” My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

I don’t get as much time to read as I used to (and even less time to write blog posts that do more than scratch the surface of books) but I was determined to read My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier before the Roger Michell directed film version starring Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz hit the cinemas, or at least before going to see it.

For readers who first encountered Daphne du Maurier through her most famous novel Rebecca and have loved her works ever since, My Cousin Rachel doesn’t disappoint, offering the same rugged Cornish landscape, with a plot featuring stately piles, mystery, romance and intrigue which keeps twisting and turning to the very end.

In My Cousin Rachel, Philip Ashley takes on the role of naïve narrator, whose comfortable existence is rocked when his beloved cousin Ambrose Ashley dies abroad, shortly after his marriage to Philip’s mysterious cousin Rachel. The official verdict is that Ambrose has died of a fever, which was further complicated by a brain tumour that lead to violent delusions, but Philip believes that there is some truth to the letter Ambrose has sent him begging for help and suggesting that his wife has poisoned him. Philip vows revenge upon Rachel, and soon has this in his sights when she arrives at his house to return Ambrose’s belongings. But Rachel is every bit as charming as Ambrose made out, and despite his suspicions, Philip finds himself increasingly drawn to the attractive widow.

Though My Cousin Rachel has a huge amount to recommend it, what stands out for me is the psychological complexity of the novel. Despite being the titular character, Rachel remains something of an enigmatic figure, in part a vulnerable woman living at the mercy of her erratic relative, in part a woman with huge power to entice, heal and potentially destroy, we receive almost all of her history and description through other characters which means her actions can never receive a straightforward interpretation. Philip’s progression from his self-perception as something of a man of the world who has modelled himself on his idol, sees him move from outright misogyny to falling into a deep obsession, acting out an Oedipal complex with his father figure’s widow who oscillates wildly between being an object of desire and a symbol of destruction in his mind.

It’s enough to make you want to go on a Daphne du Maurier binge all summer. And I’m going to Cornwall soon…  as to whether Rachel is guilty or innocent, I’m keeping spoilers out for my review for those who have yet to read it, but let’s discuss in the comments!

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig, a review

I’ve been finding it difficult to get drawn into novels recently. You know the kind of thing, you’re busy with work and life, so when you do get the time to read you’re so tired that your brain doesn’t really engage enough to full commit to the world of the novel.

But every so often, something comes along which really hooks you, so you forget about that. The kind of book where you go and have a lie down with a low level headache when the baby’s gone to bed at seven, start reading the first chapter, and before you know it, it’s two in the morning and you just have to finish the last chapter even though you know you need to be up at half past five. Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig was that book for me this week.

The novel opens with fourteen year old Ginny, an autistic girl who is living with her Forever Parents  having been removed from the care of her unreliable, drug addict mother, looking aft er one of those electronic plastic babies they give teenagers to give them a better understanding of what an unplanned pregnancy can do to your quality of sleep. She’s tried rocking it, shushing it, letting it suck her finger, but it just keeps crying. And it reminds her of her Baby Doll, the real one, which she left in a suitcase at her mother’s apartment when the police came to remove her into care.

People will inevitably compare Ginny Moon to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but for me, Ginny Moon was actually a far more gripping read, the kind of gripping where someone has hold of your intestines and every now and again gives them a little twist to make sure that you’re paying attention. With respect to Mark Haddon, it might be the benefit of fourteen years life experience and having worked with autistic children since I read The Curious Incident… and it might be having a child of my own, but I really felt that in Ginny Moon the author Benjamin Ludwig had crafted something much more involving.

I don’t want to give too much away, because I would highly recommend that you read this, and that you do so without spoilers, but I felt like I was being dragged along through Ginny’s story, seeing all of the pieces fitting together from the information that Ginny was unable to communicate to her Forever Parents and therapist because they were unable to fully appreciate that what she was saying was true, and becoming more and more horrified by the potential situations that I anticipated playing out but that Ginny was partially blind to because of her all-consuming fixation on her Baby Doll. I found myself simultaneously feeling an immense like for characters for the way they behaved towards Ginny, and a total empathy and pity because who could honestly say they would have been able to behave differently?

I was one chapter from the end of Ginny Moon when my nearly-two year old woke up. I went in to her room, picked her up and cuddled her back to sleep all the while thinking how lucky we are. A real privilege checker of a book.

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, a review

“As specimens go, they always get excited about me. I’m a good one. A show-stopper. I’m the kind of kid they’ll still enquire about ten years later. Fifty-one placements, drug problems, violence, dead adopted mum, no biological links, constant offending. Tick, tick, tick.”

The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan

 

At the opening of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel, fifteen year old Anais Hendricks, the anti-hero of the piece, is sitting hand cuffed in the back of a police car being transferred to The Panopticon a children’s unit with a watchtower that forces its residents to live under constant observation. She has blood on her school uniform, and a police woman is lying in a coma that she is unlikely to come out of.

The opening of the novel, coupled with the fact that Anais is feisty, intelligent and stylish, seemingly possessed of a six sense which allows her to see to the very core of people, could make this sound like a middle of the road, young adult dystopian novel. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Because beneath her tough exterior, Anais is incredibly vulnerable, a teenage girl for whom the label at risk might have been invented- in the grip of delusions fuelled by narcotic psychosis or untreated borderline personality disorder, she has been exploited or failed by most of the adults she has encountered in her short life. This is not a novel which uses a dystopia as a smoke screen for real world issues, this is a novel about real world issues which hammers home the appalling ways that the most vulnerable members of society are so often failed and demonized.

Jenni Fagan’s writing is like slam poetry, the perfect words chosen with flair that punches you in the guts. Her characterisation is exemplary and nothing I can say will do it justice, so what I will say is that The Panopticon is a novel which probably needs a thousand trigger warnings, but I would recommend that everyone reads it.

The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick, a review

I’ve always had a bit of a thing about the Tudor dynasty, and Catherine Parr as the surviving wife of Henry VIII always fascinated me, how do you follow up marrying one of the greatest tyrants in history? Falling in love with and marrying an equally questionable man (see the rumours around Thomas Seymour’s relationship with his stepdaughter on Katherine Parr’s watch) before dying shortly after giving birth to your sole child. Tragic. And what happened to Mary Seymour, the baby who survived? She disappears from history. And that’s where Nicola Cornick’s latest novel The Phantom Tree comes in.

“My name is Mary Seymour and I am the daughter of one queen and the niece of another.”

Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait – supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better… The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.

The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past – it holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.

But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows…

Part timeslip, part romance, part mystery, part ghost story The Phantom Tree follows the dual narrative of Mary Seymour in Tudor England, and Alison Bannister in (mostly) modern England. Alison, trapped in the 21st century, desperately searches for clues left as to the whereabouts of her lost son by her sometime enemy, Mary, who in turn struggles to carve a life for herself in a land where her mysterious visions have lead to accusations of witchcraft while still making time to fall recklessly in “love”.

I appreciate that this sounds like a jumble sale of genres, but for me it worked. Especially the witchcraft element of the story and the way that this played out with the mysterious Darrell, though I have to admit a part of me found the story of the lost child really challenging. When the novel had finished, I thought that it was really nicely handled, but I think that this might be a challenging read for anyone who has been separated from a baby.

The feminist slant on life in Tudor England was very welcome, and I thought that the character progression of Alison throughout the novel was really well handled. I wasn’t wholly sold on Mary’s transition from a wise imp of a child to a would be Juliet surrendering much of her integrity to the first good-looking man who pays attention to her, but hey, we all did silly things as teenagers and the story had gained enough momentum to carry me through- though I would have liked to see more time and attention giving to the riddle of Alison’s sewing box.

Something that I found really interesting was the use of historical and fictional characters, in as much as I wondered why the author had decided to create a fictional version of the historical Wild William Darrell in Will Fenner. I assume it was because of the misdeeds of the characters associated with the family in the book- one of which was clearly forewarned in the earlier part of the novel and one of which really took me by surprise- and concerns about how their descendants might react to the artistic license taken with the story, or perhaps out of respect to the memory of the individuals in question. Either way, very interesting, and I’d love to pick the authors brains about it.

In summary, it’s an interesting read, and another instance of Nicola Cornick putting her own spin on history to create an enjoyable yarn. It would make a great summer read…summer, it is coming.

I’ve written this post as a part of Midas’ The Phantom Tree Blog Tour. Please visit some of the other blogs involved to see what their reviewers thought.

The Phantom Tree Blog Tour FINAL

 

 

The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, a review

“You can defend your kingdom, or you can defend your people, Majesty. You don’t have the manpower to do both at once.”

The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Having won the enduring love of the majority of her people, but stirred up a hornets nest by stopping the shipment of Tear slaves to neighbouring Mortmesne, Kelsea Glynn finds her kingdom on the verge of invasion by a vastly superior force. With guerrilla warfare tactics only able to stall the inevitable defeat of the Tear, the Red Queen’s Dark Thing taking an unhealthy interest in her, and her nobles and the Church agitating at home, Kelsea is in need of a miracle. But her sapphires are silent, their only effects seeming to be a dramatic change in Kelsea’s appearance and a darkening of her own soul, the chances of a way out seem slim. And when Kelsea starts having visions of the life of a pre-Crossing woman, her concentration is taken away from the business of battle to the events of three hundred years ago…

I’m still loving this series. While I initially found the flashbacks to the pre-Crossing era a bit irritating, especially with the upsetting levels of sexual violence, I really came to appreciate the more rounded view they gave of pre-Crossing society and the formation of the Tear. It was especially interesting to speculate as to how this lined up with Kelsea’s own genealogy (seriously, who is Kelsea’s father?) and what events must have occurred to place a Raleigh monarch on the throne and the Church and the Arvath (does that word come from Our Father?) in a position of power sufficient to rival the monarch in a nation that was designed to be free from religion.

I’m hoping that The Fate of The Tearling the third novel in the trilogy focuses more on the Post-Crossing world, but I’m really looking forward to it. For a start I can’t wait to discover what caused the particularly interesting dynamic between the Fetch and Rowland Finn and who Kelsea’s father is. I can’t see any of the characters described in the novel so far being a likely candidate… though I do think that the Fetch might be of the Tear line as well as Kelsea… could the red haired woman he asked about be Jonathan Tear’s wife and thus his mother? It doesn’t explain what he’s being punished for though.

Speculation always welcomed.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, a review

On her nineteenth birthday, the Queen’s Guard come to collect Kelsea, who has come of age sufficient to claim her throne, the throne of the Tearling from her Uncle who has held it as Regent since her mother’s assassination. Kelsea knows that she hardly stands a chance of surviving the journey to New London, and that even if she does, she is likely to be murdered soon after her arrival by one of the many enemies that lurk in every shadow of the Keep. Kelsea is strong, idealistic and has a vision of a better world for her people, but can she survive long enough to impose her rule? Especially since her first act as Queen seems guaranteed to provoke the mysterious Red Queen of neighbouring Mortmesne.

I’ll be honest, I avoided reading The Queen of The Tearling for a very long time because of the Emma Watson association. I don’t really rate her as an actress, and there’s nothing more annoying than trying to immerse yourself in the world of a novel with the face of a miscast actor jarring you out of the novel every time a character description comes up. Fortunately, despite the terrible name, Kelsea is a unique enough character to stand out from that starting association and the book grips you the rest of the way. Kelsea is not your typical Queen in waiting, painfully aware that she is plain and stocky, she lives by her wits and hides her inner turmoil about gaining the loyalty of her men behind a cast iron exterior. An idealist, she eschews pragmatic compromise, and while this wins the support of the reader and the common folk, it drives further conflict within the novel. It’s a common complaint about fantasy novels that they are often peopled with trope characters, or rely on the well mapped characterisation of one character to fill out the rest. While this may be true for more minor characters, there are some really engaging and well-rounded secondary characters here which suggest real potential for storyline development throughout the rest of the trilogy.

Something I particularly liked about The Queen of The Tearling was the world building. At first, it seems to be set in a generic, everyone’s swinging a sword and wearing body armour type fantasy universe, but as the novel progresses there are hints that it’s actually set in something of an uncanny dystopia. A rough historical sketch lets the reader know that the countries of the Tear and Mortmesne were established as a Utopian society following a sea crossing to uncharted territory. Drip, drip, drip with the odd notes of description then, bam! There’s a seven set of leather-bound Rowling, an ancient, pre-Crossing author in the library and you realise that The Queen of The Tearling is set in the vastly distant future, though how to Post-Crossing Utopia came to be mired with so many horrific problems, the most obvious of which is the trafficking of adults and children, can only be guessed at. Again, I’m seeing this playing a big role throughout the rest of the trilogy.

I’ve already borrowed the sequel to The Queen of the Tearling, book two of the trilogy, The Invasion of the Tearling from the library and am really looking forward to the release of book 3, The Fate of the Tearling.