Reads – A Darker Shade of Magic

A darker shade of magic by V E Schwab. Book review.

You know when someone says push and a cheeky part of your brain says pull?

Well, for a long while I had recommendations for A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab coming out of my ears. So many that my brain said pull. I actively resisted it. Skipped reviews for it, skipped passed its spine on shelves, blanked ads that popped up for it. Avoided, avoided, avoided.

That, let me tell you, was a really silly thing to do.

Because it’s brilliant.

I don’t know why I was so stubborn or what finally made the stubborness stop. *looks over shoulder for the giant computer cookie monster*

But I’m glad it did stop, because this was an amazing read.

I loved the world building. Four colour-coded Londons probably should have felt like too many, but it was cleverly done, and the descriptions were vivid and absorbing without being too much. I loved Kell and Lila. They were good company, full of magical, sparking life. I loved the plot. It twisted and turned – expectedly, unexpectedly, always entertainingly.

And, you know what made it even better?

Knowing it’s part of a trilogy that – because of all that avoiding – is complete.

*smiles smugly, as if it was always part of the plan*

If anybody needs me over the next few days, you’ll find me in a London – grey, red, white, or maybe even black.

Reads – Hydra

I can safely say I have never read a book quite like Hydra by Matt Wesolowski.

Which is a shame, because it’s mesmerisingly and disorientatingly brilliant.

It’s a standalone sequel to Wesolowski’s Six Stories (which I haven’t read – though I definitely want to now), told in the style of six podcasts by investigative journalist Scott King as he tries to unpick the story behind a family massacre. He first interviews the disturbed Arla Macleod, who bludgeoned to death her family one winter night, and then five people connected to Arla.

The identity of the murderer is never ever in doubt, so this isn’t a whodunnit. Well, it’s not quite a whodunnit. The skill of the book lies in the unveiling of increasingly spooky and unsettling events in the build up to the murders, and a growing sense of danger to Scott King as he uncovers new information about Arla’s past.

It’s cleverly and compellingly done.

For anyone thinking of reading it, I have one major piece of advice: don’t read the first podcast at midnight after a long day at work, with rain lashing down outside and ivy tapping on the window pane. That is one sure fire way of leaving you terrified, wide awake, eyes peeping out from the top of the duvet, desperately hoping no-one comes a-knocking at the door.

I did not sleep well.

But I learnt my lesson and made sure I read the rest of the book well before my bedtime.

Hydra is a creepy and addictive story told in a fresh way. It’s absolutely worth a read.

Perhaps, though, in daylight hours only.

Book review of Hydra.
Hydra by Matt Wesolowski

Reads – The Invisible Child

My love for the Moomins already knew no bounds, but this little book of two short stories by Tove Jansson – a special edition for charity – has sent my love for them skyrocketing even further.

The Invisible Child is a heartwarming story about Ninny – who is, as the title suggests, invisible – and the Moomins attempts to help her. I think anyone who has experienced shyness and/or social anxiety will find a kindred spirit in Ninny. I literally wanted to high-five Tove Jansson for summing up pretty much my entire childhood and teenagehood.

“You all know, don’t you, that if people are frightened very often, they sometimes become invisible.”

The second story, called The Fir Tree, is, quite simply, one of the funniest things I have ever read. I could not stop giggling.

“‘Mamma, wake up,’ Moomintroll said anxiously. ‘Something awful is happening. It’s called Christmas.'”

It follows the Moomins as they try to come to grips with Christmas, after being awoken during their hibernation by the Hemulen as he tries to find his yellow mittens.

“‘You need a fir tree for protection,’ Moominpappa mused. ‘I don’t understand it.'”

Oh, Moomins.

They make everything better.

The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree by Tove Jansson, special Oxfam edition. Moomin short stories.
The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree by Tove Jansson.

Reads – The Gallows Pole

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers is based on the true story of the Cragg Vale Coiners in 1760s Yorkshire. It follows the fates of “King” David Hartley and his gang as they exploit the close-knit and secluded location of the Upper Calder Valley to clip real coins and forge new ones – an activity that got so out of hand it threatened to destabilise the economy and meant death by hanging for anyone found guilty of it.

In my head, it played out like a cross between Poldark and Peaky Blinders, only set in Yorkshire and much more grisly.

Book review of The Gallows Pole
The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers

I had very mixed feelings about it.

I want to say that I love it, but I don’t so I won’t.

I respect it and admire it and marvel at it, though. #awkward

Here are some of my main takeaways…

Sections of the book are written phonetically – from David Hartley’s point of view – and for the first half of the book it kind of drove me up the wall. I’d see the itallics and a little piece of me would shrivel up and die inside. It just felt so painful to read, so slow, so laboured. But, somewhere along the line, I had an upiffanee. It’s not that it became easier to read, it just somehow – unexpectedly and weirdly – became a joy to read. David Hartley is mad and delusional, yet brilliant in his own horrible way. The phonetic writing is the same and the book would lose something without it. So I can forgive Benjamin Myers the fingernails-on-blackboard pain it initially induced in my brain. *pats self on back for moral goodness*

The other thing that was a joy to read, though this time throughout the whole book, was the writing about the landscape. It lives and breathes and sets the page alight. There’s lots of rain, lots of clouds, lots of fields, hills, and mud. Endless skies and knotted trees. Wild wind in your hair and fresh air in your lungs.

The descriptions are intense and vivid.

‘Finally the sky was free of clouds and stars cut through the night like smashed quartz sprinkled and thrown aloft to stick there.’

Well, holy moly is that one lovely sentence. One of many.

‘The night came in like a bruise of purples and blues and then finally gripped so tight that the sky was black and broken by the weight of time impressing upon it.’

(Just a heads up here: the description of the landscape is intense and so too is the description of brutal, sick violence. It hurt to read. If you can’t stand that kind of thing in a book, this absolutely isn’t the one for you.)

Ultimately, there was only one thing that deep-down bothered me about the book.

Maybe this is a totally unfair criticism, but I hated the fact there wasn’t really any character to root for, that there was no-one to give you a sense of hope. I personally found it hard to read a book where I didn’t feel tethered to at least one character’s soul, even in a little, teeny-tiny way. I did enjoy the moral conflict between law and order and the “clip a coin, fuck the crown” spirit – because how exactly do you live freely and fairly when the weight of the law is always stacked against you, when people can pick you up and move you on, lock you up, kick you when you’re already down on a whim? – but I just wish there had been someone in the book that I felt less than 90% negatively about.

Everybody – and I solemnly swear this – is up to no good.

It wore me down.

Like I say, maybe that’s unfair. But it’s how I feel. So there. *sticks out tongue*

It’s a beautiful and bleak, brilliant and frustrating, intriguing and unnerving story. I loved it in a way, and hated it too for making me feel kind of miserable. If I were a star-giver, I’d give it four out of five. Four for its rugged beauty; the fifth being held back because it made me grumpy. (Or perhaps just grumpier.)

So, yeah. Feelings all over the place for this one.

I can see how that’s not really helpful. But it’s how I feel.

So there.

Reads – The Girl in the Tower

Oh. My.

I don’t have enough words to describe my feelings for this book. I just have lots of long, drawn out, unintelligible, half-language/half-noise things that I can’t figure out how to spell, which is making writing a review tricky.

Basically, in conclusion (introduction?), I really really, truly truly loved it.

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden. Book cover. Book review.
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Why? Well, let me get out some trusty bullet points and give you a few reasons.*

  • The writing. Ah gosh. It’s magical. Captivating. Bewitching. [Insert all other synonyms here.] The descriptions are beautiful without being overbearing. Characters pop out of the page, right into your heart and brain.
  • The setting. The Girl in the Tower evolves brilliantly from the small town setting of The Bear and the Nightingale. Things are no longer exclusively lush and natural and wild – they’re also golden and glittering, bewilderingly human.
  • The relationships. They spark, falter, realign, flourish, and die – believably, joyously, and painfully. It’s an emotional roller-coaster of the best kind.
  • There are consequences. There were points when I worried that everything was all too easy and convenient, but the easiness was snatched away. It was perfectly timed and excruciatingly brutal.
  • Vasya. I’ve read criticism that Vasya is too headstrong, too stubborn, and too selfish. She is absolutely headstrong, absolutely stubborn, and sometimes she’s selfish. That’s the point of the story though, right? She’s growing. She’s learning to balance being resolute in her wants, beliefs, and dreams, and the world(s) she lives in. She’s learning how to navigate herself towards a life of freedom, without veering into selfishness and without harming others. She’s always gone with her heart and gut, now she’ll have to step up and factor in the cool, calm calculations of her mind too. She’s a great and flawed protagonist.

So as you might have guessed, I thoroughly and heartily (right from the bottom of it in fact) recommend this book. And if you haven’t read The Bear and the Nightingale please go read it now. Pretty please. Then read this one. If you like fairytales and wonder and magic, or even just snow and ice and winter, you’ll love the world Katherine Arden has created.

You’ll love it.

Really really, truly truly.

Right, now it’s back to the noises I can’t figure out how to spell.

*Disclosure: I am still completely and utterly book drunk at this point. Mixing bullet points and book drunkeness is not generally advisable.

Reads – Holloway

At 36 pages, Holloway by Robert Macfarlane isn’t the longest read on the planet, but it was one of the nicest reading experiences I’ve had in a long time.

It’s teeny-tiny and delicate and cherishable, something to be picked up and reread every now and then. Something to get lost in for ten minutes. Something ‘within which ghosts softly flock’. It’s kind of like a prayer book – one where God is south Dorset (biased? me? *waves hand dismissively but guiltily*), gnarly knotted trees, sunken many-lives-haunted pathways, friendship, and quiet adventure.

It made me want to escape to the real world.

Just maybe when it stops raining.

Holloway - by Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood, and Dan Richards - book review.

 

Reads – Lullaby by Leila Slimani

Lullaby by Leila Slimani (translated from French by Sam Taylor) starts and ends with two murders and one attempted suicide. In between, the story tracks the slow unravelling of the bourgeoisie Parisian family and their nanny at the centre of that crime.

It’s not normally a genre I read, and, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t set a goal to read more translated books this year (trying to beat my score of one from last year – looking likely at this point). But I’m so so so glad I did read it.

The book grew more and more claustrophic, more sinister, more claggy against my heart with every page. It pulled me under and dragged my wimpish soul kicking and screaming, strangely hypnotised, to its ugly conclusion. The writing and translation are dream-like and smooth, a lullaby. Just a lullaby that drifts towards a nightmare.

‘Her heart has grown hard. The years have covered it in a thick, cold rind and she can barely hear it beating.’

Obviously, there’s no happy ending or salvation. But the journey. Ugh, the journey. It’s not perfect, but it is really, really, really good.

Lullaby book cover, by Leila Slimani. Instax mini 9 photograph.
Lullaby by Leila Slimani

Reads – Let the Right One In

I always seem to end up reading vampire stories in the run up to Christmas.* Last year, it was Dracula (which I ended up hating). The year before, it was The Quick (which I ended up liking). This year it was Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (which I ended up loving).

For the first fifty pages or so, though, I cannot stress how much I really did not like it. It just felt miserable and horrible and bleak and disturbing and really gross, and the cosy/happy/rainbows-and-unicorns part of my brain couldn’t handle how gloomy it was. But the curious/you-need-to-know-how-all-the-horribleness-turns-out part of my brain manhandled the reins out of the cosy/happy part’s grip, and I’m very grateful it did.

What is written about is horrible. It’s bleak and it’s gruesome. But the story is compelling and the characters (most of them anyway) glimmer with a small sense of hope or goodness that keeps you crossing your fingers that things might turn out better for them. Just don’t get too attached to the hospital janitor, because things really don’t work out too well for him. And to think I was already afraid of lifts. *shudders*

It’s certainly not a festive-cheer-inducing, feel-good book. But it is a very good book.

And it’s already got me wondering which vampire story I should read for Christmas next year. Any recommendations are very welcome!

*I’m not 100% sure why this weird tradition has started – maybe it’s a subconscious rebellion against tinsel and carols? – but it has and I’m more than happy to keep the tradition going.

The Haunting of Hill House

I read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson over the weekend, and in all honesty I don’t really know how to describe it or what to make of it.

All I can say with certainty is that I haven’t read anything quite like it, or anything quite so disconcerting.

It is really unsettling. It is really strange. I loved it and was kind of repulsed by it.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

Despite having ‘haunting’ in the title, there are no ghosts in the book. Just lots of bumps in the night, doors that won’t stay open (and may or may not lead to the room that you thought was there before), and a lot of unreliable – or maybe it’s reliable, who the hell even knows? – narration.

It’s brilliant. You should read it.

And if you do, can you please let me know and help me understand what just happened…

What I’m Reading – Slade House

‘A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t.’

Every 9 years, a mysterious and mind-bending house appears along a dark alleyway – ‘too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies’ – and a victim is lured inside, never to be seen again. In Slade House by David Mitchell we follow a handful of characters as they are led – disorientatingly, bewilderingly, mind-bogglingly – to their deaths.

Slade House by David Mitchell book review.

The book is entertaining if not engrossing, bouncing along from one character’s messy demise to another. The individual stories are claustrophobic and macabre; drawing you in, chewing you up and spitting you out of the other side (much like the house). I enjoyed the little details that intertwined cleverly across each narrative (and if you’ve read The Bone Clocks there are plenty of details weaved in from there too), and the ending is satisfying whilst leaving the potential for more.

I wouldn’t jump up and down and insist people read it, but it is a fun book full of vivid characters and saturated descriptions that kept me wanting to know what was around the corner, through the doorway that surely wasn’t there before, and up the ominous flight of stairs.