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.

Take Me Home

“Jacob?”

He turned, spine creaking, skin burning. A woman he didn’t recognise stood over him, dressed in yellow and framed in dying summer sun.

“You can’t stay here forever.”

Jacob looked back towards the sea, rubbing his eyelids with sandy fingers.

He could stay. He had to.

The woman didn’t go away like he’d hoped she would. Instead, she sat down next to him, pushing her bare feet into the sand and resting her arms on her knees. Big blue-green bruises patchworked across her ankles and calves, shimmering like fish scales in the light.

“You look tired.” she said.

Jacob closed his eyes. He was tired. His whole body hurt with it, and it hurt with sand and salt and sun. But it was so much nicer than the other hurt, the one that scrabbled at his belly, heart, and brain. That was the hurt he was afraid of.

“I can’t sleep.” he said.

“Not out here.”

“I can’t go home.”

The woman leaned a little towards him. “Not yet. Soon though.”

He shook his head. “Not without my sister.”

“No, I suppose not.”

The woman grinned and he stared at her strange face for a long while. Maybe he did know her? She wasn’t as old as he first thought – only just grown out of being a girl.

She sighed a long sigh and stood, holding out a hand for him. “I think we should go for a walk. It’s good to walk.”

He took the hand she offered – didn’t think it was odd, didn’t care if it was – and wrapped his fingers round her palm, gripping as tight as he could. His skin crackled as she hauled him to his feet and his muscles burned right through to his bones. She dusted off his shoulders, sprinkling sand and salt across his feet.

“We don’t need to go far.”

They walked hand in hand at first, but Jacob quickly slowed. The woman let his hand slip through hers, dawdling ahead. He stared down at the sand as he walked, trying to understand what was wrong with the footprints she left behind. But his eyes hurt and his head hurt and he couldn’t understand what was wrong.

Every now and then, the woman looked over her shoulder to ask how he was.

“Fine.”

Every time, she looked like she didn’t believe him. Every time, she carried on all the same.

The beat of the waves against the sand made Jacob feel better as he walked, and he smiled as he remembered how, just a few days ago, he had thought he’d never like the sound. At first – after his father had dragged him here, after he’d been kicked across the sand, dumped by the surf, pinned down and told not to return home without Lora – he had hated it. It had made him want to rip out his ears.

But now the sound wrapped round him like a blanket, cosy and snug, and he didn’t ever want to be without it.

The woman came to a stop by Cryer’s Cave, gazing up at the gaping scar of hollowed out rock.

“This is my favourite place.” she said.

Jacob hung back from the entrance, scrunching up his face.

“Are you scared?” She crossed her arms and leant against the rock. “I didn’t ever think I’d see the day.”

He frowned. What days had she seen him before?

“I’m not scared.” he lied and started forwards, his heart blundering at a strange rhythm – too hard, too quick. He hoped she couldn’t feel it too, though he was sure it was making the air shake. He tried to focus on each painful step and ignore the woman as she watched him, but he looked up as he passed her, almost stopping when he did.

Her hair was wet.

How had that happened?

She didn’t seem to notice the way her hair stuck to her neck or the way water bloomed across the top of her dress. Instead, she smirked a little smirk and followed him inside.

The cave was like a church, walls of rock towering up and up, echoes crawling off every surface, their breaths bellowing.

“Hello?” the woman called, grinning as hundreds of hellos rattled back. “Is anybody there?”

The air lulled back to quiet. “Your turn.” she whispered.

Jacob shook his head.

“Go on.” she teased. “Yell from right in here.” She pushed her fingers against her chest. “Take all the air you’ve got and scream.”

He shook his head again.

“Oh go on, Jacob.”

“No!” he yelled, and a rush of pain scrambled up his throat. He doubled over, coughing until his lungs felt bruised and he spat phlegmy blood onto the sand.

The woman pushed dripping hair back from her face. “I’m sorry. Are you all right?”

Jacob closed his eyes and waited until he was sure he wouldn’t cry, gulping blood back down his throat.

“I just want Lora.” he said.

“I know.” said the woman, ruining the echo of Lora’s name. “I just want to help.”

When Jacob opened his eyes again, he froze. He blinked, then blinked again, sure his eyes were wrong. But what he saw didn’t change.

The woman’s face was bleeding.

A huge gash had torn across her cheek and blood poured from it, spilling down her jaw and neck. The taste of his own blood made him grimace as he looked at it.

“Is something wrong?”

“Your face. You’ve cut your face.”

“Oh.” She ran her fingers along the gash, frowning.

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

“No, not really. Not anymore.” She wiped the fingers across her dress and turned, scaling a crop of rocks and picking her way across them. “There’s something I need to show you. It’s here somewhere, I just…” She stopped and faced him. “You have to promise you won’t run away.”

He would have laughed if his lungs hadn’t hurt so much. Hadn’t she seen he could barely walk?

“I promise.”

She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “You’ll want to, but you can’t”

“I won’t go anywhere.”

“Good.” She smiled, satisfied. “I won’t be long.”

She turned and clambered down the other side of the boulders, disappearing.

The sea and Jacob’s heart thudded in sync as he waited, and a horrible ache built under his skull.

I won’t be long.

The words went round and round, and made him want to scream. They were the worst words he’d ever heard and the worst words he’d ever said.

He tried to reach back four days and pull them out of the air, tried to erase them from his mouth and from Lora’s ears. He dug his toes into the sand and tried to go back, tried not to walk away, tried not to leave her playing all alone.

I won’t be long.

The sound of shuffling footsteps dragged him out of his looping nightmare. The woman reappeared at the top of the boulders, carrying something. Something with dangly legs and a floppy head. Something covered in shimmering bruises. Something wearing a yellow dress.

Jacob edged back as she descended the rocks towards him, the hurt he was afraid of rearing in his chest.

“Don’t run.” she pleaded. “You promised.”

The dangly legged, floppy headed something swayed at every limping step the woman took, its hair dripping and dress dribbling and face painted with purple-brown blood.

Water bubbled from each corner of the woman’s mouth as she handed the little body out to him.

“Please.”

He took the body in his arms and tried not think about how it was heavier than he remembered.

“I’m sorry.” he said, and the woman smiled.

“Take me home.”

Footprints in the sand at Lyme Regis, Dorset.

>>> No matter how hard I try, I can’t quite get this story right – but I’m releasing it into the wild anyway, because it needs to be free of my head and my laptop before it drives me mad with all the potential edits that can be made to it. The main idea for it comes from how people experience the unexpected death of a loved one. I was reading old accounts from families who lost relatives in World War I, and most of them wrote about seeing/hearing their loved one at the time they died – walking through the garden gate when they should have been (were) in France, appearing in a dream, etc. – and it kind of twistedly got me thinking about how there are no accounts where people see the death itself. It’s always very ethereal and rose-tinted, rather than visceral and horrible to watch. Here, the death has already happened and Jacob is witnessing the drowning retrospectively (and obviously a bit abstractly), to the woman Lora would have been. <<<

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.

What I’m Reading – The Bear and the Nightingale

The weather for the last week here has been beautiful – sunny and warm, the air filled with bumbling bees and dancing butterflies, the ground bubbling with bluebells. When it has rained, it’s been a gentle rain of blossom trickling to the earth.

And every chance I could snatch throughout the week I was outside in the garden clutching my copy of The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden, being transported to the wilds of northen Russia.

The Bear and the Nightingale book review. Book cover. Folklore, fantasy, fairytale.

The story follows Vasya as she tries to keep her community safe from forces they themselves have awakened after they abandon the old folktales and instead rely on the fearmongering of an ambitious, beguiling priest.

The story brims with creatures and magic – it had me keeping an eye out for Domovoi in the kitchen just how The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe had me checking the back of my wardrobe (plus pretty much any cupboard in the house, just to be sure) for another world.

I absolutely loved it. It’s enchanting, beautifully written, and the creatures and characters – especially Vasya – come alive on the page.

I didn’t really want it to end, so I’m very happy to hear that it’s the first book of a series.

Happy reading and happy Easter!

What I’m Reading: The Silmarillion

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t daunted by the prospect of reading The Silmarillion.

For years and years it’s been one of those books where the spine seemed to follow me round the room.

Are you ready yet?

The answer was always no. Nope. Absolutely not.

But I finally got tired of feeling like a wimp.

So down it came from the shelf and I tried to look/feel/actually be cool, calm, and collected as I headed off into this new old world.

TheSilmarillionBookPic2

It definitely wasn’t an easy read.

I went from understanding what was happening, to not understanding, to being almost sure I was keeping up, to definitely not keeping up, and back again pretty much everytime I picked up the book.

At first I found it frustrating and wished I’d never started it. It’s not great for your reading ego feeling left behind no matter how hard you try to keep track. But it’s just not a normal story. You’re witnessing a whole world and the creatures and people in it being created. Naturally it’s going to get a bit messy. (On that note I can wholeheartedly and unashamedly recommend looking up a few synopses to help make everything clearer. And make good use of the index!)

But as much as there are points where names whirl around in a blur and whole wars are over in half a paragraph, there are moments (and, dare I say, whole chapters) where everything is beautifully clear and all you can do is marvel at how Tolkien created such a complex but completely enchanting world.

tinoteathesilmarillion
With a cup of tea and a cat – my favourite way to read!

I loved the story of Beren and Luthien. I loved recognising familiar characters and learning more about their origins. I loved the tangle of motives, the triumphs and the downfalls.

And for all the epic scale and formal language there are plenty of quieter moments that pack a heart-warming/terrifying/thought-provoking/disturbing/sombre/lightbulb-moment punch.

I’ll probably have to read it again. And then again. And after all that I’ll more than likely have missed something important. But overall the Silmarillion is definitely worth a read and I did actually enjoy it.

It’s also made me feel braver when looking at other daunting books on the shelf.

Because what’s the harm in trying?

 

What I’m Reading: The Buried Giant

I read The Buried Giant without having read any of Kazuo Ishiguro’s other books, which – from looking through some of the reactions to its release last year – I feel might have been a blessing. I had no particular expectations or ideas as to what I would find.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. Photograph of The Buried Giant book cover. Thoughts, book review, opinion.

I’ve enjoyed it. It’s not my favourite book in the whole wide world, but it is engaging and interesting, and I feel like it might be one of those stories that stays simmering away quietly in the back of my head for a while.

The story follows Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple who set off to a nearby village in search of their son. Their relationship is intriguing – close, but with a sense of underlying trouble. On their journey, they meet a Saxon warrior, a boy bitten by a dragon, and an elderly Sir Gawain (King Arthur’s nephew).

I was interested that so many complaints I saw for The Buried Giant centred around it being fantasy. It certainly is – you know straight away that you’re in a land of mist, ogres, dragons and pixies – but I found it to be uncomplicated and matter-of-fact. A sort of gentle otherworldliness. There just are ogres and pixies and a strange mist that affects everybody’s memory. But the genre a book belongs to does not determine how good or bad a story is.

My only real complaint would be the dialogue, which I thought was quite dull and strangely formal. There were a few times when it actually became quite irritating. But that could just be me!

I’d be really interested to know what others thought of The Buried Giant. Did anyone else find the dialogue frustrating? Or does having read Ishiguro’s other books make this one harder to like?