Review

Review: Camelot Burning (Metal & Lace #1) by Kathryn Rose

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4 out of 5 stars | Goodreads

I received a copy of this book for free from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

What’s not to like about an Arthurian steampunk novel? I was instantly intrigued by the premise of this story, and it didn’t let me down. I was so engrossed that I read half of the book on the train journey to and from London (three hours total). Weaving various characters of Arthurian legend into an original steampunk-based tale, as well as introducing some new, I thought it worked really well.

There are the familiar figures of legend such as King Arthur himself, Merlin (a bit of a drug-addled hippie, no surprise there), Guinevere, Lancelot and various other Knights of the Round Table. From the description of the knights with their dragon tattoos, leather outfits and bars through their ears, as well as kohl-rimmed eyes, I was constantly imagining them as bikers! Somehow this fit in pretty well with the steam and metal filled version of Camelot.

Vivienne, the main character, managed to fit into two sides of society: high society, as the queen’s handmaid, and a secret life as apprentice to Merlin. She was passionate about this secret side of her life, clever and inquisitive, and I just wanted her to completely step away from the court with its dresses and curtsies, embrace something that she obviously loved doing, and screw the consequences. She didn’t mope, she didn’t constantly fawn over her love interest and she just got things done. Talking of the romance, it was a blossoming interest, rather than insta-love (yay!), so much more enjoyable to watch develop – although it would be nice to learn a little more about Marcus.

Vivienne’s family were present but negligible – her parents a lord and lady, her brother a squire – and there is a nice twist in the story about three quarters of the way through that would have really benefited from knowing her family better. As it was, it just wasn’t shocking because I didn’t know anything about the family member in question.

One of my main issues with the book was the world building. Apart from Camelot and its immediate surroundings, the reader wasn’t really told much about the outside world. Jerusalem was mentioned, as was Lyonesse – but world felt so small. As as a result, Morgan le Fay’s threat didn’t seem too great, seeing as the whole ‘world’ pretty much just encompassed the castle of Camelot – how many people would it really affect if she took over? Another problem was magic – or more specifically, why magic was taboo. This wasn’t explained anywhere, so I never really got a sense of just how much danger Merlin or Vivienne were putting themselves in by practising. All I understood is that it was suddenly banned, not why or how, or even when. Magic could also be stolen, which was another thing that wasn’t explained.

A highly enjoyable take on Arthurian legend, recommended for steampunk fans or anyone interested in retellings/alternate tellings of mythology. Despite the lack of world-building, it has a fast-paced and thrilling conclusion, some great steampunk inventions and a clever interpretation of the mythology – the Metal & Lace series is definitely one I’ll be continuing.

Review

Review: The Quick (The Quick #1) by Lauren Owen

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4 out of 5 stars | Goodreads

I received a copy of this book for free from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

This is going to be a fairly short review for two reasons: one, it’s hard to write about this book without giving much away, and two, I didn’t want to break away from the story by taking lots of notes, considering I had a huge break from reading it part way through.

My first impression was that I loved the setting. Starting in a big manor house in the Yorkshire countryside, The Quick is a modern work that echoes stories of the Victorian era. It’s evident that Lauren Owen knows her stuff (she has a Masters degree in Victorian Gothic Literature), and she skilfully creates a rather dark and foreboding tone, even during the early scenes of James and Charlotte’s childhood. The setting moves briefly onto Oxford and then London, all the time retaining the feeling that there is something around the corner, some big shocking moment just waiting to happen. And when the twist does appear – well that’s when the story begins to get very dark. It is wonderfully gloomy and Gothic, I had no trouble at all imagining the London streets filled with smog on a chilly night. Unfortunately I can’t explain much more without spoilers, so I will refrain from explaining myself further!

As for the characters, there is a big reveal to do with James about one hundred pages in that I just did not expect. It has you worrying about what the consequences might be for James, in this society that does not yet understand. One of my favourite parts of the book was the back story of Shadwell and Miss Swift, in itself a wonderful little Gothic story that really helped to build up the characters.

Unfortunately I ended up taking quite a long break (three or four weeks) between reading the first 25% or so, and the last 75% of the book. For the first week of that I just didn’t read at all, and when I got back to reading I moved on to some other books that had closer publication dates. It does make me wonder, if I had read the book all in one go, would I have rated it even more highly? I really did enjoy the story, but I think that because of the break I took in the middle, it felt like it dragged a bit. However, I most definitely cannot fault Lauren Owen’s gorgeous writing style, very evocative of the period in which it is set, and her skill at creating and weaving together multiple stories – the result of which is one beautifully Gothic novel that certainly keeps its secrets well hidden.

I also had the privilege of meeting the author, Lauren Owen, back at the end of April.

Past Features

Turning Off The TV #5: The Borgias

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Welcome to my regular Thursday feature, Turning off the TV! In this feature I recommend books similar to TV shows or films you may have enjoyed, both series and specific episodes.

The TV series this week is: The Borgias.

The Borgias

Conspiring with his ruthless sons Cesare and Juan and poisonously seductive daughter Lucrezia, the charismatic Rodrigo Borgia will let nothing and no one stand in the way of his relentless quest for wealth and power. Mercilessly cruel and defiantly decadent, intimidation and murder are his weapons of choice in his scandalous ascension to the papacy in Renaissance-era Italy.

To me, the Borgia family is endlessly fascinating. Although there are so many rumours about them – it is often said that Cesare and Lucrezia had an incestuous relationship, that Lucrezia was skilled with poisons, etc – in reality none of this is actually known for sure. It could be that one of the most infamous families in Italian history were nothing like they seem. Despite this, it’s fascinating to read about them and try and put the pieces together, plus Renaissance history is a beautiful period to study.

Are you looking for fiction?

Madonna of the Seven Hills by Jean Plaidy Light of Lucrezia by Jean Plaidy
Poison by Sara Poole The Family by Mario Puzo

Jean Plaidy has written a two-book series on Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Rodrigo Borgia/Pope Alexander VI. The volumes are entitled Madonna of the Seven Hills and Light of Lucrezia – if you’re a fan of historical fiction then you’ve probably heard of Jean Plaidy before. I’ve read some of her books, and she writes brilliantly. Or perhaps if you’re after some more recent fiction (Plaidy’s series was first published in 1958), you could try out Sara Poole’s Poisoner Mysteries. It is about a young woman who becomes the official ‘poisoner’ of Pope Alexander VI, and also the lover of Cesare Borgia. Obviously this one is a much more fictionalised account! And then finally, the author of The Godfather has also written a novel about the Borgias – The Family by Mario Puzo. If it’s anything like The Godfather, then he will have captured the poisonous and scheming image of them perfectly.

Or perhaps non-fiction?

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli The Borgias by Christopher Hibbert The Borgias: A Hidden History by G.J. Meyer

Machiavelli’s The Prince is like an instruction manual on how to run a country or kingdom, and was in fact inspired in part by Cesare Borgia. Niccolo Machiavelli actually makes an appearance in the TV series. Christopher Hibbert’s The Borgias is a wonderful historical account for those who are interested in reading about the family, but don’t want to go into too much detail or read about lots of background information – unlike G.J. Meyer’s The Borgias: A Hidden History, which has an incredibly thorough history of the family, even pre-Alexander VI. I would definitely advise reading this one in chunks, not the whole thing at once as I attempted to do…

Are you a fan of The Borgias? Do you have any other recommendations to add to the list?

Review

Review: Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

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4 out of 5 stars | Goodreads

I received a copy of this book for free from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

It is rather difficult to write a review for this book for some reason, because not much really happened.

That is not to say that it was a dull book, but the story progresses very slowly. The book begins with a young William Bellman, and slowly takes the reader through his life: from the start of the story where he kills a rook, through his advancement at the mill, through all the deaths and hardships of his life and on to the opening of his mourning emporium, Bellman & Black. And throughout his life, a mysterious figure, dressed all in black.

Although the book is snail-paced, it works very well for showing William’s character and nature: inquisitive and curious, hard-working and dedicated. The reader also gets a feel for how William’s life feels, with the people he loves dying all around him, whilst he still fights on. What’s most interesting is that, despite the book feeling this way, it skips over big chunks of time – one minute William is just a young boy, the next he is nearly twenty years old, then suddenly in his thirties.

The chapters are interspersed with facts about rooks, occasionally hinting at how rooks never forget, creating an eerie tone that looms over William throughout the course of the book. However, this is pretty much as eerie as it gets. There are no big shocks, no horrific moments, even the mysterious Mr. Black isn’t that creepy. For something labelled as a ghost story, it sure doesn’t feel like one.

I wasn’t very satisfied by the ending. I was expecting some sort of big surprise or revelation, some explanation for the previous events: but nothing. However, despite the slow pace of the book, and not much happening, it is when Bellman finally opens his ‘mourning emporium’ that things get much more interesting. I loved the description of the building and all the items within – who knew there could be so many shades of black?!

I also spent the majority of the book working out where it was supposed to be set. It kept mentioning Stroud in the chapters about the wool mill, which is the town where I went to school and used to play a big part in the wool industry, so I assume it is based in Gloucestershire. It also mentions Bristol and Oxford, which widens the area but I’ve just come to the conclusion that it’s set in the south-west of England somewhere!

Overall, definitely an interesting story and concept, although with some rather dull moments – however these aren’t too common – though I would have liked more of a resolution.

Past Features

Turning Off The TV #2: Game of Thrones

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Welcome to my new Thursday feature: Turning Off The TV! In this feature I’ll be recommending books similar to TV shows or films you may have enjoyed, both entire series and specific episodes.

The TV series this week is: Game of Thrones.

Seven noble families fight for control of the mythical land of Westeros.

The obvious thing here – read the books written by George R.R. Martin. But perhaps you’ve already read them, or for some reason you’re just not prepared to read them (yet!). They are all pretty hefty reads after all! So, whether you’ve read the books or not, here are some recommendations based on Game of Thrones – the covers link to each books’ respective Goodreads page.

The White Queen, The Kingmaker’s Daughter & The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

The White Queen The Kingmaker's Daughter by Philippa Gregory The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

The Wars of the Roses were a big inspiration for George R.R. Martin whilst writing the series. These three books cover the life of Elizabeth Woodville, Queen Consort of England as wife of King Edward IV. Game of Thrones is full of strong female characters, just like Elizabeth, and I think if you like Cersei, Daenerys, Arya et al, you’ll love Gregory’s cast of characters.

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson

An adventure story set during the Wars of the Roses, but unlike the books above, this one does not feature royalty as a main character.

The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

The first book in the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, George R.R. Martin has quoted Tad Williams – and this book in particular – as being a huge inspiration on his work. An epic fantasy published eight years or so before Martin’s own epic series, A Song of Ice and Fire, was published, it has some pretty good ratings and reviews on Goodreads!

Have you read any of these books? Do you have any others to recommend? Are you a fan of Game of Thrones?

Blog Tour, Review

Blog Tour + Review: I Am Venus by Bárbara Mujica

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4 out of 5 stars | Goodreads

I received a copy of this book for free from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Today I have a review of Bárbara Mujica’s I Am Venus for you, as part of the TLC Book Tour. The book follows the life of artist Diego Velazquez, told through the eyes of those closest to him.
Narrated by the woman who posed for his portrait of Venus, this semi-biographical novel of Diego Velázquez is a wonderful piece of historical fiction. Mujica’s writing flows very smoothy, apart from the occasional untranslated Spanish word which may cause the reader to falter. I loved the tone of the book, it was both easy to read and informative.

I can’t fault Mujica’s descriptive writing. She creates some wonderfully vivid images of seventeenth century Spain, causing the reader to experience the smells and sights of Madrid. She also clearly sets out current events at the time, meaning that any reader who does not know too much about seventeenth century European history should be able to follow the story with few issues. As I studied this period of history in school, it was really fun to see familiar names and figures brought to life. The one thing that may confuse the reader at some points however, are the similar names and rather wide cast of characters. Whilst this is obviously not the fault of the author, the characters having been real people four hundred years ago, it would have perhaps been nice to have a list of characters in the book somewhere.

The major issue I had with the book is that the point of view was often confusing. I understand that the author wanted the identity of Venus to be a mystery (she is unknown to this day) whilst also having her narrate the book. This lead to some odd narratives, often switching between first and third person and in fact making the book feel like it had several narrators. I think the idea behind it was good, but it perhaps was not pulled off correctly.

I wouldn’t so much refer to this book as a ‘story of scandal’ – especially when in the context of history that makes me think of things like the corruption of the Borgias or the supposedly inbred Hapsburgs – and the book doesn’t actually focus too much on what is going on in the wide world, but more on domestic and smaller issues relating to Velázquez. And whilst the book is about Velázquez, he is often absent for many chapters – as he was often absent from the lives of his loved ones – so it is more a story about the people in his life.

I particularly enjoyed this one because most historical fiction that I read is either ancient history, or based in medieval or Tudor England. So this was a nice change, and is definitely a recommended read for anyone with an interest in seventeenth century European art or history, or the Baroque period.

Click here to visit the other stops on the tour and also read about the author. 
Review

Review: Serena by Ron Rash

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5 out of 5 stars | Goodreads

It isn’t often that I buy a book brand new these days. I’m saving up so I can afford to go and do my Masters – problematic when I have a book buying habit. So normally I get them second-hand.

However, every so often, I encounter a book that just really stands out, and I have to have it now. Serena was one of those books, purely from the blurb. I mentioned briefly before that I have a thing set for books in the Southern US states, so this checked one box. Toss in a 1920s setting, plus a cunning and strong-willed, albeit murderous, heroine, and I’m sold.

Both the reader and Serena are immediately made aware of George’s infidelity, it’s not some great secret that hovers throughout the book waiting to be exposed. This is a brilliant way of setting up Serena’s character – instead of getting upset or angry as many women would in such a situation, she reacts in a rather stoic manner (pg. 7):

“You’re a lucky man then,” Serena said to Harmon. “You’ll not find a better sire to breed her with. The size of her belly attests to that.”
Serena turned her gaze and words to the daughter.
“But that’s the only one you’ll have of his. I’m here now. Any other children he has will be with me.”

A woman ahead of her time, Serena is not afraid to get dirty, not phased by the possibility of injury and is completely prepared for her new Southern life. She takes an active role in the running of the camp, much to the shock of the workers, she wears trousers (dear god!) and rides horses. Refusing to be put down or excluded socially, Serena has wealth, a husband, an education and power, but not the one thing she wants most in the world: a child.

She is ultimately a very strong character, one that you can’t help but admire – apart from that little niggling feeling at the back of your brain, the one that tells you she is cunning and capable of horrific acts, and prepared to kill an innocent child. It’s difficult to decide whether to like her as a character or not, I suppose just as the workers are feeling when faced by Serena – she is a brilliant leader and boss, she knows exactly what she is doing, but she is female and that is not something they can easily overlook in that particular period of time.

I was expecting something dark and claustrophobic feeling, due to the isolation of the lumber camp – but the descriptions of the surrounding woods and neighbouring village make it feel huge, despite the camp and village being hours away from civilisation. The landscapes of the book were beautifully painted, and I got a real feel for the smells, sights and sounds of the forest. Unlike in The Snow Child, which felt very closed in due to the woodland setting, Serena only feels more broad. However, the chapters told from Rachel’s POV (the young girl whom George gets pregnant) seem rather more claustrophobic. She is alone, with very little help, and in danger. This really juxtaposed the difference in social status between the two characters.

The jumps in time were a little confusing, sometimes months would pass and the only way to tell was the age of Jacob, George and Rachel’s son. As for George, I was also unsure about how I should feel about him. The first impression the reader gets of him is that he is uncaring when it comes to Rachel, but he practically worships Serena. He is almost blinded by his love for her, unable to see what she is turning into and letting her wear the trousers (literally and figuratively) in the relationship. However, over time he starts to develop more of an interest in his young son, and also questions his previous actions and decisions, whilst slowly redeeming himself.

Oh, and the shocks in this book. There are so many events you don’t see coming, or don’t want to see coming, and they are brilliant. Starting with the very first chapter, they build up with intensity until the end – the most shocking of them all.

Definitely, definitely worth a read. You’ll begin questioning whether you really support this strong-willed, independent young woman after all, especially with a lack of such figures in books these days. To have one waved under your nose and then have you wonder whether you like her at all is very effective.

Serena is also going to be made into a film, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as Serena and George Pemberton. It is set for release at the end of October, and I will definitely be going to see it!
Review

Review: The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman

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4 out of 5 stars | Goodreads
The blurb of this book definitely makes it sound exciting. It’s what drew me to the book in the first place. But it also makes it sound like a ‘typical’ YA novel – it doesn’t reveal what’s really hidden within this book.

 

And that just happens to be something original, exciting and very refreshing. What starts out as a Latin project develops into something much more sinister and dark, involving a group known as ‘Seekers’ and an object called the ‘Lumen Dei’.

We have our protagonist, Nora Kane, just an average looking teenage girl, not particularly popular, but not a social outcast. Checking off all the YA boxes there, but that’s about where it stops. Nora is especially good at Latin, what with having a Latin professor for a father, and having had lessons since she was young. She uses the study of Latin as an escape from the memories of her older brother’s death, several years earlier. It’s so nice to have a protagonist who has a skill like that, and is so blasé about it.

Nora’s best friends, Chris and Adriane, also flesh out more as the story progresses – Chris more than Adriane, but it’s nice to have so many of Nora’s memories and happy moments added in. The relationships feel real. These are teenagers who’ve shared so much together, who’ve gone through hard times and fun times, who’ve stressed through exams and spent summers together by the lake. And you can really feel that. Nora’s relationship with Max, her ‘Prince Charming’, was also very well done. In so many stories about teenage relationships these days, the characters seem to fall straight into love, but Nora questions several times whether she is in love or not. The attraction between her and Max is not instant, and in fact only appears with a little bit of a nudge. They don’t do all these amazing things together: they act like a normal teenage couple. There are no big declarations of love, things progress slowly.

And between all these relationships, there’s the action. With so many twists and turns, the story takes us from Massachusetts to Paris, and from Paris to Prague. Wasserman adds in a fantastic historical twist, all to do with the medieval Latin translations that Nora, Chris and Max were working on for a professor. The letters of Elizabeth Weston slowly reveal an eerie parallel with Nora’s life until it seems that she has more of a link to her than just a pure interest and talent for Latin.

At times, parts of their exploration through Prague and discovery of more clues felt a little slow, but it was generally well-paced and exciting. And whilst it was interesting to have a main character with a talent for Latin, there wasn’t much about Nora apart from that, the hole left by the death of her brother and her relationship with Max. It would have been nice to know what her other interests and passions were.

Overall, this was much more than I was expecting. An exciting ‘historical’ thriller, with well fleshed out characters and relationships, and plenty of (very shocking in places!) twists and turns, it’s well worth a read. What’s especially exciting is that many of the historical figures in the story within the story were real – but Wasserman has just taken a creative license to some of them.

Review

Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

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5 out of 5 stars | Goodreads
Set in early twentieth century Alaska, this book has a bleak setting, made ever harsher by Eowyn Ivey’s fantastic prose. From the very first chapter, the reader has a real idea of how tough life is out there, how remote and isolated everything is, and how hard the homesteaders must work to simply survive. In a landscape like this, family life and happy moods are something to cling on to, to keep you going through the cold, winter months. But for Jack and Mabel, life is difficult. Not only do they have to work through the harsh weather, but Mabel is still struggling to cope with the grief of losing a child a decade past.

Suddenly, a young girl starts to appear around their homestead, and over time they earn her trust. Their longing for a child is evident, and the girl’s presence turns a miserable landscape into something magical and wonderful. Ivey’s writing is especially effective here – pointing out the beauty of nature, how the snowflakes fall on eyelashes, the many wild flowers and plants, the variety of animals.

The characters are also wonderfully written. Mabel, whilst at first seemingly weak and fragile, proves herself to be headstrong and hardworking. Jack is stubborn and perhaps a little gruff, but softens up. The Snow Child’ herself is as much of a mystery to the reader as Jack and Mabel, which gives everything a bit of an ethereal feel.

The relationship between Jack and Mabel is very realistic – they are not a passionate couple, they are an old couple, familiar with each others ways, the initial spark long gone. The Snow Child brings them back together, reignites that spark, and that is one of my favourite parts of the story – seeing these two people, who clearly love each other very much, finally appreciating each other once again. Mabel gains confidence, her grief lessens although there is still a melancholy air about her. Jack softens, the wall between him and his wife breaking down.

Overall, this was a beautifully written book that explored various themes – relationships, loss, grief. I especially liked how all of the Snow Child’s speech was written without any quotation marks, as if she was talking directly into the heads of the other characters. It made her all the more mysterious. This should hopefully appeal to many groups of readers – those who like fiction, and those who like something a bit more fantastical.

Review

Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

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5 out of 5 stars | Goodreads
Odd’s fish! This was a fantastically fun read.

Admittedly, if you are looking to read some historical fiction set during the French Revolution in order to learn more about that period of time, this really isn’t the book. It is much more a story about the people, than the events. But what you do get, however, is a fun-filled adventure story with a very unusual hero, at least at first glance.

Sir Percy Blakeney is a lazy, dim-witted Baronet, married to Marguerite St. Just, one of the cleverest women in Europe. No-one understands the pairing, and least of all would they expect him to be the Scarlet Pimpernel – which is exactly who he is. The slow, stupid Percy is purely a mask; a mask so opaque that even his wife does not suspect. Yet as both a complete fop, and as the brave Pimpernel, Percy is such a loveable character. He is charming, in both manner and speech, and very much the classic hero. Add to this his quirky speech ‘ “odd’s fish!” – and you get a character that it is impossible not to fall for.

In contrast, Marguerite, whilst described as clever, comes across as a rather selfish woman, who marries Percy only because  he worships her. However, the story gives her a chance to prove herself a worthy character, and she rises to the challenge. As well as the classically handsome hero and beautiful, intelligent female protagonist, Chauvelin, the French envoy to England, plays the role of the typical villain. Often described as thin, with pointed features, and walking with a slight stoop, he brings to mind a rat or other vermin. So whilst all the characters are actually very typical stereotypes of their roles, it works very well – and it must be remembered that this was the book that inspired many future ‘masked avenger’ titles.

Overall, despite the subject material, the book is just very funny – from Percy’s various disguises (including an old hag), to Chauvelin’s soldiers obeying his orders to literally every last word, thereby actually disobeying them – and one of the easier classics to read. If you tend to struggle with classic books, you should still try this one; the slightly later publication date than many others means the language is a little easier, and it really is a story not to be missed.

Also, another note: if you enjoyed the book, watch the film version from 1982, featuring Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. Or just watch the film, regardless of whether you have read, or plan to read the book – Anthony Andrews gives a fantastic performance and really embodies the character of Percy.