The Strawberry Thief by Joanne Harris

Set 17 years after Chocolat (reviewed here), The Strawberry Thief is the fourth book in the series; Vianne and her youngest daughter, Rosette, are still living above their chocolaterie in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes (while her oldest daughter, Anouk, lives in Paris with her boyfriend) and the local florist, Narcisse, causes a stir in the village when he dies and leaves part of his estate to Rosette. Lansquenet is still the same town full of gossip, secrets and simmering resentments, but there’s a new witch in town who threatens Vianne by bringing the winds of change with her and challenging her to face her fears.

The narrative switches between Vianne, Rosette, the priest Francis Renaud and Narcisse who leaves his final confession to Reynaud – though it changes hands a few times through the story. I love returning to these characters to see how they’ve grown and changed, both Vianne and her former nemesis Reynaud, have been humbled by their experiences over the years, and have forged a friendship with one another.

I especially appreciated Vianne’s perspective on motherhood, and that bittersweet mix of emotions between her fierce desire to protect her daughters and the sweet sorrow of watching them grow up and outgrow their need for their parents. Yet as Vianne realises that her fear of commitment is rooted in her fear of loss, her daughters teach her that change can be liberating, and that the past can’t be changed, nor the future controlled but the only time that really matters is now.

I’ve enjoyed all of these stories, finding them all so absorbing, easy to read, full of humour and wisdom, and as comforting as a cup of rich, spiced hot chocolate, yet they’re not without tension or conflict. The Strawberry Thief is a story of secrets and confessions, guilt and forgiveness, parents and children, friends and lovers, fear, loss, love and change. Have a lovely week. X

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Sharing a review of the young adult fantasy novel Raybearer today to refresh my memory of events before starting the concluding part, Redemptor, which came out this week. Raybearer follows Tarisai, the daughter of the mysterious Lady who has been training her daughter since birth to infiltrate the Council of Eleven and murder the Crown Prince, but joining the Council means being connected to the Prince and his Council by his telepathic Ray.

I really loved Tarisai as she was raised in relative comfort and wealth yet lacked family, warmth or affection, which she craves deeply, and she’s torn between seeking her mother’s love and approval, and the family she could have as part of the Raybearer’s Council. Tarisai also struggles with her devotion and loyalty to the well-meaning but often naive Crown Prince, and the injustices she sees across the Arit Empire, which is steeped in tradition, such as the Treaty of the Underworld that demands the sacrifice of 300 children every year to prevent the spirits of the underworld from cursing the Empire with plagues, famine and war.

I found the West-African inspired Arit Empire really refreshing, the world was vivid and vibrant full of culture, history, mythology and folklore.

Raybearer is a captivating and enchanting story about family, friendship, love and courage, full of twists, suspense and moral dilemmas, and I’m really excited to find out what happens next in the sequel. Have a lovely week. X

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

The weather has turned in our part of the country, and I’ve spent the last few evenings curled up on the couch reading while raindrops drummed against the windows and thunder rumbled. I’ve been reading a lot of YA fantasy this year, and have found some really original and captivating stories, one of my favourites so far is Legendborn.

The story follows 16-year-old Briana ‘Bree’ Matthews as she atempts to infilitrate a secret society at university that she suspects may have had something to do with her mother’s death. I did struggle to suspend my disbelief a little bit that the direct descendents of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (the Legendborn) are fighting demons (shadowborn) in North Carolina but this turned out to be a really refreshing and modern retelling of Arthurian folklore.

I adored the protagonist, Bree, and really appreciated her observations about race, privilege and grief. Legendborn does feature a love triangle between Bree and two rival members of the secret society, Selwyn and Nick, which is one of my least favourite YA tropes as there’s always a risk that readers will be disappointed if their preferred pairing don’t end up together but it does fit with Arthurian legend, the love interests are very different from one another and it’s not at all obvious who Bree will end up with. There are a lot of supporting characters some of which I found quite unremarkable but others I’m really looking forward to seeing more of such as Bree’s gay Taiwainese-American bestfriend, a non-binary member of the secret society, the secret society’s healer and Bree’s dad.

I found the first half of the story a bit too heavy on exposition explaining the history and hierarchy of the scions, squires, pages, vassals and regents that make up the Order of the Legendborn which did slow down the plot. I also found the mastermind manipulating the order towards war with the shadowborn fairly obvious, but this story still packed a few clever twists and I raced through the second half, and the sequel (hopefully due out in 2022) is one of my most eagerly anticipated books. Legendborn is an orignal twist on Arthurian lore with a great cast of characters, plenty of humour, romance, mystery, magic and action. Have a lovely week. X

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice given how enduringly popular it is, probably even more suprising is that despite vague memories of the BBC adaptation starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, I knew very little about the story before reading it. The premise is that the five Bennet sisters are seeking to marry well in order to avoid destitution when their father dies as his home is due to be inherited by the nearest male relative in line.

It’s hard not to like the older sisters, Jane and Elizabeth; Jane is kind, forgiving and thinks the best of everyone, while Lizzie is lively, opinionated and I admired her refusal to settle for a loveless marriage (though at times I was also convinced she’d end up homeless and penniless because of it!), and how I cringed for them every time their mother or younger sisters embarrassed them in public.

There’s quite a large cast of characters, some of them comical and some of them downright scheming as they attempt to secure their own marriages and fortunes, but far from being a historical rom-com, it impressed upon me how few options women without means had during the Regency-era. There’s a fair amount of meddling, misunderstandings and personal pride and prejudices to overcome before any of them can live happily ever after.

Although slower-paced and very different from the novels I usually read, I was swept along by this delightful story. Even knowing the ending, there were times when I genuinely wondered how the characters would ever find their way there as they navigated all the obstacles in their way. I don’t read many classics but Pride and Prejudice is such an absorbing, witty and comforting story that it’s not at all hard to see why it’s such an enduring favourite and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. Have a lovely week! X

Mid Year Reading Roundup

Halfway through 2021 and I’ve read more books in the first half of this year than I managed to read in the whole of 2020. Sharing a little roundup of shorter reviews for the books I’ve read during the second quarter of the year.

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

The story follows Princess Karina, last surviving member of the Royal Family, who wishes to resurrect her recently murdered mother, and Malik, a refugee whose sister is captured by a vengeful spirit, who agrees to kill the princess in order to free his sister. I didn’t particularly like either of the protagonists at first, though I was more invested in Malik’s dilemma about whether he could kill the woman he’s fallen in love with in order to free his sister than Karina’s, but both characters go through some significant development and a few clever twists kept me interested until the end.

Incendiary by Zoraida Cordova

Renata is one of the Moria, a race of people with magical abilities – though her ability to steal memories makes her an outcast among her own – and she joins the resistance who are fighting against the humans who persecute them. When her unit’s commander is captured, she agrees to become a spy in the heart of the enemy’s stronghold in order to rescue him. This had a slow start, but it really picks up in the second half, which is full of angst, twists and betrayals, and had me eager to get my hands on the concluding part of the duology.

The Memory of Babel by Christelle Dabos

This was one of my most eagerly anticipated books of the year, but I’m not sure it lived up to my expectations. Set a couple of years after the events of the previous book (reviewed here), following Thorn’s mysterious disappearance, Ophelia remains determined to find him and unravel the mysteries of the creator and their shattered world. None of these books are action-packed but this one was particularly slow-paced, and there are a lot of disparate threads that I’m hoping the fourth and final part of the series will tie together. Ophelia and Thorn remain an odd couple, but their stop-start romance was the highlight of this book for me.

We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

A huntress and an assassin are sent on a quest to return magic to their dying land. This was probably one of my biggest disappointments and at times I wondered if I was reading a first draft because it’s full of interesting ideas but there’s little suspense, action or mystery, and it’s full of cliches, tropes and deus ex machina. As I don’t like writing wholly negative reviews, I’ll say that one of the supporting characters, Altair, turned out to be far more interesting and nuanced than I expected, and it was engaging and readable enough that I didn’t DNF.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Nora Seed is living her most mediocre life in Bedford, riddled with regrets about the opportunities she’s squandered through her life, but when she decides to end her life, she finds herself in the Midnight Library where she has the chance to explore all the other possible lives she could’ve lived. This is a story about regrets, philosophy, quantum physics, family dynamics, swimming, music and polar bears. The Midnight Library is an easy, life-affirming story, full of wisdom and humour.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

I was apprehensive about reading this as it has pretty much every trigger warning from self-harm (in the first chapter) to genocide, but it was incredibly absorbing. The Poppy War is the first book in a fantasy trilogy inspired by the Sino-Japanese War that took place between 1937 and 1945. The story follows Rin, an orphan from a previous war, raised by her opium dealing aunt and uncle who plan to marry her off to a man three times her age for their own profit. In desperation, she studies for the national exams and secures a place at the elite military academy. It’s a fascinating character study as Rin makes friends and enemies, finds mentors, and starts to consider what and who she’s willing to sacrifice for power. I tend to prefer adventures and heists to grimdark fantasy but even as harrowing and disturbing as this is (and Chapter 21 detailing the atrocities and massacre of a city deserves a trigger warning all to itself), the characterisation and world building are brilliant.

Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older

This is an original and quirky young adult fantasy about Sierra who discovers that her family have the ability to animate art and murals with the spirits of the dead when an evil anthropologist steals their knowledge and starts picking off the other artists one by one. I really liked the sassy, streetwise characters, and enjoyed the social commentary about race, ethnicity, immigration and the gentrification of Latinx and Black neighbourhoods in New York.

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

The sequel to An Ember in the Ashes (reviewed here) had a bit of a slow start and took me a while to get into. The narrative switches between Laia, Elias and his best friend, Helene, who has become the new Emperor’s Blood Shrike. Elias and Laia attempt to break into prison where Laia’s brother is being held, while Helene has been tasked with tracking Elias down and executing him as a traitor. Despite a slow start, there were enough twists, turns and betrayals to keep me interested and eager to find out what happens next in this thrilling Young Adult Fantasy series.

Have a lovely week. X

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes is the first part in the young adult, fantasy ‘The Ember Quartet’, and although it’s been all over bookstagram and blogs for the last few years, it was my husband’s recommendation that prompted me to finally read it. The story switches between two protagonists, Elias, a Martial soldier competing in trials to become the new Emperor, and Laia, a girl from the oppressed Scholars whose family were murdered by Martials. In desperation Laia agrees to spy on the ruthless Martial Commandant for the Scholar resistance in exchange for their help in rescuing her brother who has been captured and imprisoned by Martials.

While I found Laia the more sympathetic of the two protagonists, Elias faces the more interesting moral dilemmas as a soldier in training. The Martial Empire is one so brutal and bloody that the lives of their own student soldiers are worth little more than those of the slaves they keep. There are Martials who revel in their power and superiority over others, while some may not agree with everything the Empire does but accept life as it is, and Elias recognises the injustices and brutality but feels trapped and powerless to change anything.

I’ve always been drawn to stories about underdogs standing up to oppression and tyranny, but I really liked that Laia isn’t a daring, devoted resistance fighter, she’s a frightened young woman desperately trying to survive long enough in a brutal environment to save her brother.

An Ember in the Ashes was full of suspense, kept me hooked and wanting to read just one more page, then another, up to the heart-pounding end, and I’m really looking forward to reading the next part in the quartet. Have a lovely week. X

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

The Republic of Thieves is the third book in the Gentleman Bastards series, set soon after Red Seas Under Red Skies (reviewed here), and unlike the previous books this one didn’t have a slow build-up but hooked me from the start. Locke has been poisoned by his previous employer and is dying, but he’s offered a cure from the most unlikley source, the mother of the Bondsmage he defeated in the first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora, (reviewed here) in exchange for rigging an election.

Locke’s old flame, Sebetha, finally makes her appearence, and it was so fun to see her working for the opposition in the election campaign. I really love Lynch’s female characters from the spymaster in The Lies of Locke Lamora to the pirates Ezri and Captain Drakasha in Red Seas Under Red Skies, and Sebetha is no exception. Locke’s love interest absolutely refuses to be defined as such, as she’s very much his equal and rival, often outwitting him in politics and reducing him to a lovesick fool.

The plot switches between two timelines, the election campaign in the present, and the other following the Gentleman Bastards as youths performing a play over a summer as they hone their thieving, fighting and con-artist skills. It’s a clever contrast with the Gentleman Bastards learning to work together (and falling in love) in one timeline, but being forced to work against each other despite their personal feelings in the other.

I love fantasy heists and the thing that always keeps me interested is how the characters have to improvise when their carefully laid plans fall apart, they’re betrayed and outmanoeuvred by their rivals and enemies, and this kept me guessing right to the end about which side would win the election and whether Locke and Sebetha would finally get together. Despite being over 700 pages long, I found this a really quick and absorbing read, full of humour, romance and clever twists. Have a lovely week. X

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights is such a devisive story, and I sometimes wonder if readers expecting a gothic romance (perhaps similar to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre) are shocked by Emily’s dark tale of obsession, madness and revenge.

I first read Wuthering Heights on the cusp of my teenager years, and have re-read it several times since. I picked it up most recently after reading ‘The Bronte Mysteries’ by Bella Ellis, and once again I was drawn back into the wild Yorkshire moors and the tangled web of the Earnshaw and Linton families.

Narrated by Heathcliff’s tennant, and the Earnshaw and Linton families’ long suffering servant, Nelly, both appear to be somewhat unreliable narrators allowing their prejudices and superstitions to influence their perceptions and memories. Nelly, in particular, is interesting in that she openly admits to prying, meddling and with-holding information from Heathcliff, Cathy, Edgar and their children, nevertheless she tells a gripping tale.

While the tempestuous, destructive love affair between Cathy and Heathcliff, and Heathcliff’s subsequent quest for revenge, dominate the story, it’s the slower, kinder romance betwen Cathy’s nephew, Hareton, and her own daughter (also called Catherine) that finally restores peace to Wuthering Heights, despite how badly Heathcliff mistreated and wronged them both. Hareton and Catherine arguably represent the lovers Heathcliff and Cathy could have been if only circumstances had been different, and they’d been able to temper their wild impulses and passions.

Wuthering Heights is not without its flaws, but it remains one of my favourites, a story I return to again and again, finding something new every time I read it, and I’m still impressed by the power and urgency of Emily Bronte’s writing. Have a lovely week. X

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Just tapping out a quick review after a busy weekend of sunshine and playdates at the park. Last year I read my first mystery novel, The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis (reviewed here) and decided mysteries are a genre that I’d like to explore more, and where better to start than with the so-called Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie.

Hercule Poirot, the retired Belgian detective, is travelling to London on the Orient Express when the train is delayed by a snow-drift in Yugoslavia, during which one of the passengers is murdered, but fortunately Poirot is on hand to investigate.

I’ve often been deterred by the gruesome and ghastly aspects of the crime genre, but I found this so easy to read, and without any of the blood and violence that I find so off-putting. Murder on the Orient Express is hardly an action-packed thriller, as the main body of the story consists of Poirot methodically interviewing the other passengers to distinguish the witnesses from potential suspects, but it’s still a page turner as Agatha Christie knows exactly when to drop in another clue or twist, and I had a lot of fun puzzling over the evidence and piecing together the clues to work out who the murderer was. It’s also an interesting story morally as the victim is neither innocent or sympathetic, and it raises some questions about justice, vengeance and vigilantism, yet I still found the resolution satisfying.

Murder on the Orient Express was a delight to read, full of humour, twists, misdirection and a very clever resolution, it was a great mystery to start with, but one I’d love to read again. Have a lovely week. X

First Quarter of 2021 in Books

Spending winter under lockdown has helped get my reading off to a great start, and I’ve somehow powered through 19 books in the first three months of 2021, and thought I’d share a little round-up of short reviews here.

The House with the Chicken Legs and The Castle of Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson

Twelve year old Marinka lives in a house with chicken legs along with her grandmother, Baba Yaga, a Guardian who guides spirits of the dead through the gate from our world to the Afterlife. Marinka is training to become a Guardian, but she feels lonely and trapped, longing to choose her own destiny. I adored this original and poignant story about growing up, full of big themes and big emotions from grief, regret and loneliness to family, friendship and home.

I was disappointed by the spiritual sequel which follows Olia as she tries to save her beloved home from tangled magic leaking out from another world. It’s a fairly straightforward hero quest, but I felt most obstacles were too easily overcome, and I was disappointed that Marinka’s adventures ended when marriage and motherhood began, though I did like some of the supporting characters, Cascadia and the spirit of the Castle, Feliks.

Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou

My first non-fiction read of the year was a re-read of this collection of short essays, anecdotes and poems on a variety of topics from charity and philanthropy, gratitude, travel, parents and children, faith and religion to rape, grief, racism and segregation. It’s a short but thought-provoking and inspiring read.

The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie

The narrative switches between Poirot, the victim’s father, husband and lover, as well as another passenger on the train, Katherine Grey, who is drawn into the murder investigation and the theft of the victim’s rubies. The clues are carefully placed, there’s some clever misdirection and even a bit of romance, and I was pleased I solved part of the mystery before Poirot’s reveal at the end.

The Secret Chapter by Genevieve Cogman

In the 6th instalment of The Invisible Library series, the mysterious, Mr Nemo, hires Irene and a team consisting of thief, thug, gambler, hacker and getaway driver to steal a painting with significance far greater than its value. I love a good heist, but it was after the theft when the team starts double crossing each other that things really start getting interesting and the suspense ratcheted up when Irene has to choose between saving one world she cares about and preventing a war that could destroy countless other worlds.

The Diabolical Bones by Bella Ellis

The Bronte sisters are investigating the mystery of a child’s bones interred in the wall of a local landowner’s home. I found this slower paced and lacking the steady stream of clues, suspects and suspicious circumstances that made The Vanished Bride so riveting. However, the siblings’ interpersonal dynamics are almost as fascinating as the mystery they’re trying to solve, and there’s a good mix of humour, eerie and thrilling moments in this sequel.

City of Ghosts and Tunnel of Bones by V.E. Schwab

Twelve year old Cassidy Blake is the daughter of professional ghost hunters recording a TV show about the world’s most haunted cities, unbeknownst to her parents, however, is the fact that following her own near-death experience, Cassidy has the ability to see ghosts, including her “corporeally challenged” best friend, Jacob. City of Ghosts is set in Edinburgh and I loved seeing somewhere familiar from a different perspective.

The sequel takes place in Paris, where Cassidy has drawn the attention of a poltergeist whose behaviour quickly turns from mischievous to malevolent. Cassidy and Jacob’s friendship is the emotional touchstone of the story, and I really enjoyed learning more about Jacob’s life and death in this spooky and moving follow-up.

Take care, and have a lovely week. X