Category Archives: Book Reviews

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mask Falling by Samantha Shannon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoilers, Theories and Questions about The Mask Falling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Flip Side by James Bailey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

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

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

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

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

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

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

Have you read it? What did you think?

Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan Review

$R86Z4GI        “ She had discovered us.

This was her way of getting in touch,

     of punishing me”

Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan

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

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

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

Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

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

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

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

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

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

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary review

$R1XQGT8I, like most people, read books partly for the escapism they provide. You suspend your disbelief, and enter the world of the book, outside concerns irrelevant for as long as you can focus.

I’ll be honest, when I bought The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary, I was expecting to have some problems suspending my disbelief. I know that these arrangements – where two unrelated parties end up sharing a bed, sleeping shifts, because life is so bloody unaffordable – exist, but getting my head around how that would work (how is that working, for so many people post-covid??) in lockdown, I didn’t think I’d be able to go with the flow. But I could, and I did, and I found myself genuinely smiling with enjoyment as I read.

The plot of The Flatshare is pure chick lit, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. The author knows what her readers want – a love story in which you know that the characters will get together, but it’s more about the journey than the destination, and wow, what a journey.

Tiffy has broken up with her boyfriend Justin, who she is very much in love with, but she only realises that this isn’t one of their temporary splits when he brings another woman home. Nice. Being an associate editor at a craft publisher (hello less than London living wage publishers, we see you) she can’t afford anywhere to rent on her own, so is forced into taking a flat share with a palliative care nurse who works nights and spends his weekends at his girlfriend’s place. Leon, said palliative care nurse, needs the extra money because his brother has been sentenced to eight years in prison for armed robbery, a robbery that Leon believes that he didn’t commit, though his girlfriend Kay is less than convinced. She is taking care of the subletting of the flat share so that he and Tiffy never meet. Instead, they communicate through post-it notes, and it isn’t too long until a written friendship springs up between the flatmates….

Looping back to the issue of chick lit being considered a derogatory term, I guess I am using it here as a reference to women’s issues fiction, though I acknowledge that’s very reductive too. This novel, while hugely entertaining is more than a romance, and tackles some pretty serious issues, like emotional abuse, wrongful conviction based on racial profiling, and post-traumatic stress disorder. On the surface it’s less will they, won’t they, more when will they, how will they, marriage plot stuff, but as a novel it has heart and depth, and I thought it was well done.

It would make a fun sitcom/drama, and in the hope that they will adapt it for the big screen, you could have hours of fun fantasy casting The Flat Share.

I will be checking with friends and family as to whether they’ve read it and, if not, will be gifting this as the escapist read lots of us need in 2020.

But if Chick Lit isn’t your genre, I challenge you to write the dark psychological thriller that this book could undoubtedly have been if more sinister characters and lockdown had been thrown into the plot. There’s a writing prompt for you.

Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

Humankind by Rutger BregmanMost people, deep down, are pretty decent.

Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History

People are fundamentally good. It’s a difficult idea to sell at the best of times, let alone in the middle of a global pandemic with the planet teetering on the brink of climate crisis. All the evidence suggests the contrary doesn’t? Humans are the possessors of the selfish gene, acting only out of self-interest, aren’t they? You don’t have to look far to find multiple examples of people being awful. Five minutes on Twitter should do the trick.

Despite this, Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists, has published a book arguing the contrary, claiming in Human Kind: A Hopeful History that not only are humans fundamentally good, but that our success as a species is a result of our willingness to trust one another and work together to achieve the common good.

Has this description given you an overwhelming attack of Whataboutism yet? Hang back on that, because Bregman has done his research, and the book is a whistlestop tour of history, psychology and philosophy examining cases such as the London Blitz, the Stanford Prisoner Experiment, and the mysterious fate of Easter Island to debunk the myth of man as a purely selfish creature and to reframe them as case studies in his new philosophy of hope. As much as I’d like to believe that all people are fundamentally good at heart, I’m not entirely sold on this, but I don’t think that Bregman is either. Rather, he makes a powerful argument that the relentless negativity of the news that reaches us every day gives us a skewed perception of how bad the majority of humanity are, and this has the opposite of a placebo effect, making us feel worse and expect the worst of out fellow humans, trapping us in a cycle of negativity and cynicism which will make us behave in the spirit of mistrust.

To Bregman, cynicism is just another word for laziness, and a cynical world view is just a self-deceptive trick which gives the cynic an excuse to opt out of working to make the world a better place, and the book is compelling in challenging our cynicism about the average person’s intentions.

It ends with ten rules to live by to readdress the balance and go someway to thinking the best of others to create a positive feedback loop, in which people connect, understand and treat one another better. And maybe it will. What’s to lose in trying?