Review of ‘Temeraire’ by Naomi Novik

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Temeraire is set during the Napoleonic Wars, but in a slightly alternative history where dragons exist. The story begins just after Captain Will Laurence of the HMS Reliant has taken command of a French ship carrying a dragon egg. Soon after, the egg hatches and the dragon chooses Laurence to be his rider, a role he is at first reluctant to accept as being bound to a dragon means giving up his naval career, plans to marry his childhood sweetheart and his position in polite society as (despite their vital contribution to the war) dragon riders are largely shunned by the rest of society. However, a bond quickly develops between Laurence and the dragon he names Temeraire, and their relationship is at the heart of this story.

Once they have joined the British Aerial Corps, both Temeraire and Laurence feel like misfits as Temeraire discovers he is a rare breed but lacks the fire-breathing or acid-spitting abilities of the other dragons, while Laurence struggles with the informality of the Aerial Corps and the inclusion of female dragon riders. The dragons themselves are all wonderful characters, and the plight of one particularly loyal and brave dragon brought tears to my eyes.

This an engaging story, but there are some pacing issues as Laurence and Temeraire don’t see any combat until the last third of the story. Having said that, the aerial battles are thrilling and capture the danger and savagery of combat for the dragons and their crews.

I’m a bit apprehensive about committing to a nine-book-long series, yet I found Temeraire quick to read and a little twist at the end left me eager to find out what happens next. Have a lovely weekend. X

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Review of ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage’ by Haruki Murakami

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I sometimes hesitate to recommend Haruki Murakami to other readers as his novels are often strange and surreal, and I often find it hard to describe what they’re about and even harder to explain why I enjoyed them.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is easily one of Murakami’s most accessible novels and probably the one I’d recommend to anyone who’d never read anything by him before. However, Murakami is not for everyone, there are awkward sex scenes, some strands of the plot are frustratingly unresolved by the end and there is still a slightly surreal element to this novel with actions that occur in Tsukuru’s dreams seeming to have consequences in reality.

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The story follows Tsukuru Tazaki who had four best friends at high school but was the only member of the group without a colour in his name leading him to view himself as colourless and empty; then one day Tsukuru was rejected by the group suddenly and without any explanation. For the next sixteen years, Tsukuru drifts through life unable to form deep or meaningful relationships with others until he meets Sara, his would-be girlfriend, who pushes him to find out why his friends ostracised him all those years ago, sensing that until he heals those wounds he’ll never be able to connect with anyone else. Tsukuru’s quest takes him from Tokyo back to his hometown of Nagoya and all the way to Finland in search of answers to the questions that have haunted him for so long.

This is a story about friendship and belonging, rejection, loneliness, death and rebirth that allows Murakami to explore the difference between how we see ourselves and how others perceive us, the choices that define us and the ripple effects they create. Bittersweet, slightly surreal and even humorous in places, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is laced with a sense of regret about lost time and the ways things could have been, yet it very much ends with hope.

Review of ‘The Wolf Wilder’ by Katherine Rundell

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The cover of this book caught my eye in a bookshop a few months ago, but I held off reading it over the summer until the stormy weather in our part of the country last weekend gave me the perfect opportunity to settle down in front of the fire to read as the wind howled and the rain pattered against the windows.

The Wolf Wilder has something of a fairy tale quality and the story is beautifully illustrated throughout by Gelrev Ongbico. Set in Russia before the revolution, this is the tale of twelve-year-old Feo, who like her mother is a wolf-wilder, teaching wolves that were kept as pets by the aristocracy how to howl, hunt and live in the wilderness once their masters have bored of them. When her home is burned to the ground and her mother is arrested by the tyrannical and cruel General Rakov, Feo embarks on a quest to rescue her mother.

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At times, Feo is hard to relate to, she can be reckless and coarse, and she much prefers the company of her wolves (simply named White, Grey and Black) to people. Yet over the course of the story, Feo softens as she makes friends with members of her own kind who offer her food, shelter and help when she needs it most. There is almost a sense of reversal as the wolf-wilder girl is not exactly tamed by the end of the story but regains some of her own humanity along the way.

The Wolf Wilder is a story that doesn’t shy away from describing cruelty, injustice and death, but also one that reminds us that sometimes we have to be braver than we feel, that challenges can be overcome and bullies can be defeated. This is a thrilling adventure ideal for dark and stormy nights. Have a lovely weekend.

Review of ‘Umami’ by Laia Jufresa

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Umami is a novel set in Mexico City that follows the residents of five houses (named after the flavours sour, salty, sweet, bitter and umami) all of whom are experiencing some form of loss or grief. The story has five narrators, there is twelve-year-old Ana trying to make sense of the death of her little sister, Luz; Marina, an artist recovering from anorexia who creates colours to describe emotions; Alfonso, an anthropologist mourning the death of his vivacious wife, Noelia (who was in life grieving her own childlessness); Pina, Ana’s friend and neighbour, trying to understand her mother’s unexplained departure from the family, and finally, Luz, describing the events leading up to her death.

Umami has an unusual and non-linear structure, each chapter focuses on one character during a particular year starting with Ana in 2004, switching to Marina in 2003, then Alfonso in 2002, Luz in 2001 and Pina in 2000, before returning to Ana and working backwards again. The time and character shifts can seem disorientating at first but it allows the story to unfurl gradually and shows how seemingly ordinary interactions between the characters can take on greater meaning and significance once the consequences are fully revealed.

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Umami is a short novel that tackles some big themes such as loss, grief and identity. As Ana and Pina take their first awkward steps towards adolescence, Alfonso is adjusting to his own transition from husband to widower and also describes Noelia’s struggle with her own identity as a wife and respected cardiologist but “only a daughter” because of her childlessness, while Marina attempts to overcome anorexia, an abusive childhood and work out who she is.

The sense of loss that permeates through the novel isn’t the tidal waves of sorrow, anger and shock that wash over us when grief is fresh, but the dull ache of missing someone that never really goes away no matter how many years pass, and of slowly trying to find a new purpose in life.

The slow and thoughtful pace of Umami has been a pleasant contrast to the busy-ness at work and home in my own life over the last few weeks, and Umami is a poignant but hopeful novel that lingers long after the story ends.

Review of ‘Close Encounters of the Furred Kind’ by Tom Cox

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Close Encounters of the Furred Kind starts not long after where The Good, The Bad and The Furry (reviewed here) left off, with Tom Cox and his partner contemplating moving their lives and their four cats from Norfolk to rural Devon.

Much like his blog and other books about cats, Close Encounters of the Furred Kind is laugh-out-loud funny in places as Tom describes the upheaval and stress of moving across the country with his four beloved felines, his attempts to domesticate and adopt a local feral cat, taking up dog-walking as a hobby, conversations with his parents and interactions between his feline friends. Yet I find Tom is at his most eloquent when contemplating the ageing and mortality of the cats with whom he shares his home and around which his life revolves, it is perhaps the knowledge that most of us will outlive our pets that makes us love them all the more fiercely.

Sadly since this book was published, two of Tom’s cats, The Bear (a soulful philosopher) and Shipley (a cantankerous chatterbox) have passed away, but they will live on through these books in his vividly captured descriptions of their personalities and mannerisms.

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It was about six months ago that we found a mast cell tumour on our own cat’s tail, and although it was removed before it spread, she is still at a higher risk of developing another tumour than other cats and is currently in a period of monitoring. As grateful as I am to all the vets who have treated Mara, I always feel anxious whenever she goes for check-ups and tests (which are not without risks), and about what the results might reveal, but I’ve drawn comfort from reading books like this from other animal lovers who understand just how much our lives are enriched by the affections and companionship of our pets.

After a busy week I’ve enjoyed spending a lazy weekend at home curled up on the couch with my husband, Mara snoozing across our laps and Close Encounters of the Furred Kind to amuse me. Have a lovely week.

Review of ‘The Silmarillion’ by J.R.R. Tolkien

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As a child both of my parents took turns to read stories to me, yet my dad was never much of a reader himself. The exceptions, however, were J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales of elves, dwarves and hobbits in Middle-Earth, which captured his imagination as a teenager and have continued to fascinate him over the years. My dad and I have spent countless hours discussing the books and film adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but I have always struggled to get into The Silmarillion, which happens to be his favourite book.

I recently learned that my dad, who has suffered from backache all of his adult life, requires surgery as the underlying condition has been steadily deteriorating and has now reached a level of severity where the risks of doing nothing outweigh the risks of operating. After spending some time with him recently, I became determined to attempt The Silmarillion once more.

Published posthumously, The Silmarillion is a compendium of stories starting with the creation of Middle-Earth and ending when the elves depart after the events of The Lord of the Rings.

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What immediately struck me about The Silmarillion was the thought and detail Tolkien put into it, from the geography and genealogy to the languages and mythology, at times the book feels more like a painstakingly researched historical treatise than a work of fantasy fiction. Having said that, the writing is dry in places and I sometimes found it hard to follow without frequently referring to the family trees and maps at the back of the book.

It is an incredibly ambitious collection, yet the quality varies from chapter to chapter: Of Beleriand and Its Realms, for example, is a tedious geography lesson that could have been cut during edits, but I thought the highlights were the chapters concerning Melkor and Ungoliant’s theft of the coveted elven jewels (the Silmarills), Of Maeglin (a story of betrayal and comeuppance), and the thrilling but bittersweet love story, Of Beren and Luthien. I also enjoyed learning a little more about familiar characters from The Lord of the Rings such as Galadriel, Elrond and Sauron.

I have always delighted in the power of stories to connect people, and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien in particular are beloved by people all over the world, but there is no one that I’m more excited to discuss The Silmarillion with than my dad. Have a lovely week.

Review of ‘Chocolat’ by Joanne Harris

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Chocolat had been sitting unread on my bookshelves for more years than I can count, but last weekend on a whim I settled down to read it while nibbling pieces of chocolate Easter eggs, which seemed wholly appropriate as the story takes places between Shrove Tuesday and Easter Sunday.

Chocolat follows Vianne Rocher and her daughter who sweep in on the winds of a carnival bringing flavour and colour to the drab and parochial French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes.

The novel is written in the first person, but switches between Vianne and Francis Reynaud, the village priest who takes umbrage when Vianne opens a Chocolaterie on the first day of Lent. The pace of Chocolat is meandering, yet the antagonism between Vianne and Reynaud builds suspense and drives the story on to its inevitable conclusion.

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The village of Lansquenet itself is rife with secrets, gossip and simmering tensions but Vianne finds friends among the other village outcasts and rebels, their kindness and camaraderie in stark contrast with Reynaud and his cronies’ hypocrisy and meddling.

Chocolat is a story that doesn’t reveal its secrets too quickly and kept me wondering right up to the end. I really enjoyed the supernatural elements of the story, there is magic in Chocolat, yet it is always understated and never becomes too fantastical.

The descriptions of Vianne’s chocolate creations are unsurprisingly mouth-watering and Chocolat was a delightful story that left me hungry for more. Have a lovely week.