Monday, 21 August 2017

Review: The Goblins of Bellwater

The Goblins of Bellwater The Goblins of Bellwater by Molly Ringle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you have Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market,' then you may have an idea of what to expect from this book. That isn't necessarily a bad thing; but it is something to note. If you haven't read 'Goblin Market' (I advise that you do), it's about a pair of sisters, one enthralled and seduced by the goblin's beautiful fruits, but then withers without them. Her sister saves her.

That, in a nutshell, is also the plot for 'The Goblins of Bellwater.'

Personally, I didn't mind knowing what was going to happen; I predicted (correctly) that it would stick to the general story arc of Rossetti's poem, but that was okay with me: there was plenty of other little twists and add-ons that kept it interesting. But if you want a book to surprise you - this isn't for you.

Skye and Livy live in Bellwater, a mostly unspoilt place, with little contact from their parents. Livy works as an 'eco-warrior,' which I really liked, as it resonated with me. Skye, meanwhile, works in a cafe whilst she tries to get her artwork noticed by an agent, someone, anyone! (Sound familiar to any other would-be authors or illustrators out there?) But, this is an updated, modern version of 'Goblin Market' - you've got to have your boys! Kit is what's called the 'goblin liaison;' a curse was placed on his family decades ago meaning he has to pay the goblins in gold each month. The goblin magic means he can steal from anyone, anywhere without the fear of being caught; it might sound fun, but
Arthur Rackham's original illustration for
Rossetti's 'Goblin Market'
Kit has a conscience, and detests his work. Historically, all the goblin liaisons have died young (goblins don't always play fair) and the curse falls to the closest relative, making the curse ever-lasting.

When Skye is seduced by the goblins, she's incapable of talking of anything that has happened to her, incapable, practically, of speaking, except in echoes. Livy, desperately worried about her, asks Kit's cousin Grady to come and spend some time with her, trying to get her open up, and providing her with good solid meals - Grady's spending time in Bellwater with Kit whilst he searches for a job as a chef. So, when the goblin magic compels Skye to choose a mate, she chooses Grady, and not a goblin.

This is not what the goblins had in mind.

But, boy, do they have some fun with it. Two humans ensnared by their curse? - it's just a bonus!

Kit gradually works out what has happened to Skye and, subsequently, Grady, and the plot really starts to kick off. The goblins won't bargain with him, and he knows better than to be tricked into another curse that could haunt his future family for centuries. So, it's up to Livy to sort it out.

I enjoyed 'The Goblins of Bellwater;' in fact, I enjoyed it a lot. Knowing the general story beforehand left me free to pick up on more of the nuances, and the ways in which Molly Ringle had tweaked and updated this Victorian story for our modern era. It's been a while since I've read some good modern fantasy (not quite 'urban' fantasy, as it's set in the wilds), and I thoroughly appreciated the ride. My favourite part was Livy's quest to save Skye. I won't go into details here - this is the part where Ringle veers from Rossetti the most - but it was great fun.

Molly Ringle
To be slightly picky, it all seemed a bit too neat, with all the loose ends wrapped up, but sometimes that can be okay. Sometimes I like a story that has a clear ending and we know where everyone stands. The descriptive passages were brilliant; Ringle has a real artists' eye when it comes to depicting the goblins and other fae. I was slightly unconvinced by Skye and Livy's relationship at times; I felt that Livy's character wasn't quite protective enough of her younger sister. But, these are minor points. It wasn't the most brilliant book I've read this year, but it was a lot of fun.

I've noticed that a lot of reviews state DNF (Did Not Finish), which surprised me. I think this may stem from the predictability of the plot, and, perhaps, the character of Skye who was, at times, one-dimensional. However, the reason she was one-dimensional is very clear: she's under a goblin spell. She literally cannot behave differently.

Start reading this with the knowledge that it's predictable and you'll be okay. If you want huge surprises, then this book isn't for you.

For me, it was great, particularly because of my love for the original Rosetti poem. I really need to read some more fantasy...

Thank you to Net Galley, Molly Ringle, and Central Avenue Publishing for giving me the chance to read this book. It will be released on the 1st of October.

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Thursday, 10 August 2017

Review: History of Wolves

History of Wolves History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

'History of Wolves' is, as you probably guessed, not really a history of wolves. Just in case any there are any biologists getting excited out there!

It is, in fact, a sombre, somewhat compelling, coming-of-age novel. The central protagonist, Linda (or 'freak' or Madeleine), has grown up socially isolated and emotionally undeveloped: living in the last vestiges of a failed commune with people who may, or may not, be her parents. The story enfolds over three time spans, each eleven years apart: Linda as a teenager, then in her twenties, then in her thirties. Reading it as Kindle edition it was sometimes confusing which time period we were falling in, and that was one of the problems of the novel.

It starts very promisingly. Linda virtually lives in the middle of nowhere, so when a family move into the house across the lake from her, they are an immediate object of interest. When the father goes away for work, Linda 'accidentally' bumps into the mother and son: Patra and four-year-old Paul. Quickly, she becomes immersed in their life, acting as babysitter for Paul and companion for Patra. Here, again, Fridlund has set the age differences eleven years apart: a clever mirroring for the overarching plot.

Emily Fridlund
But the real action happens in Linda's teenage years. She's not a natural babysitter; she doesn't even really like children. Her own parents are distant from her; her mother doing this deliberately by the kid just plops down into my lap. Boom. And later: He just schootched over automatically, let his body flow into mine, worked his way in - bit by bit - into my lap. He never stopped studying the puzzle. Paul's family are a very demonstrative family, and Linda doesn't understand it at all. But I loved Fridlund's description of Paul - exactly how a child his age and how he had been raised would act. There are moments of prose like this which are really beautiful to read.
calling her 'CEO' from quite a young age, and her father is brusque, although well meaning. Her vague memories of the commune before it split up are her only experiences with children and, as a child herself, she doesn't find Paul endearing or sweet, merely exasperating for the majority of the time. There are, however, some heart warming moments when she feels moved by him. I particularly liked Fridlund's use of body language:

There is a theme running throughout of the difference between action and thought, which is mirrored in the story with her teacher and a classmate. I enjoyed teenage Linda's musings on the subject, and her later musings on what actions she could have done differently to stop the tragedy (don't worry, that's not a spoiler.) "Maybe if I’d been someone else I’d see it differently. But isn’t that the crux of the problem? Wouldn’t we all act differently if we were someone else?" Because, as you will find out if you read the book, there is also a big importance placed on non-action. I'll say no more - no spoilers!

The book becomes more exciting in the middle section, as you will find out. We know from the very first page that Paul dies. This is, of course, a tried and tested way of creating intrigue: you really have to keep reading to find out what happens, even when you suspect (too early on for my liking). Patra's husband returns, and Linda feels shoved to one side. It turns out that Paul's parents are Scientologists, although Linda wouldn't really understand what that means. The tension builds and climaxes in this centre passage, leaving the remaining pages somewhat lacklustre.

There were things I liked about 'History of Wolves', and things that I didn't. I found the plot line with her teacher and another student unsatisfying and unfinished, leaving me feeling as though I had missed something. The same too with Linda as she is as an older woman, both in her twenties and thirties: the barely fleshed out relationships with her boyfriend and roommate respectively. There were certain parallels with the teacher story (Mr Greirson) which were fantastic - but just weren't developed enough. It left me feeling very frustrated.

I think all of the points I have made have probably been covered in other reviews, but this is my tuppence on the subject. As a debut author, Fridlund has a while to grow her plot developing skills, and I hope she does - because the language is beautiful.

On the LongList for The Man Booker Prize (the first one I've read this year), but I don't think it will make it.

Thank you to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic Monthly Press for the opportunity to read this book. It is now on general release.

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Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Review: All Things New

All Things New All Things New by Lauren Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first book I've read by Lauren Miller - and I don't think it will be my last. Her word-smithing is beautiful. (I think that's a word!) It's another teenage 'issue' fiction book, but it didn't bore me in the least, despite the plethora of books of that ilk being reeled out at the moment. This book has something different - difficult to pinpoint, but thrilling to read.

Jessa suffers from panic attacks. She has done since about eighth grade when her parents divorced. When her dad moved away, her mum forced her into therapy. Jessa's confused, but there's one things she clears about: she does notwant to talk about it. So, acting becomes Jessa's talent. Before, she got good grades and made her parents proud. Now, her grades are suffering, but as long as her mum can't seeher panic, it's not a problem. Right? When she finds Wren, her boyfriend, things become easier. He likes her in a simple way. She's pretty, and she knows what to say when. Who cares if it's all an act?

When Jessa overhears at a party that Wren has been cheating on her, her world splinters. That same night, she is in an awful accident. She can remember it - but not vividly. Because, after the accident, Jessa suffers from aphantasia. This is something I've never come across before, and it greatly interested me. She has memories, but no accompanying pictures to them. Inside her head, all there is is darkness. Outside, the world becomes a riot of colour - something apparently common for people suffering from this condition - but within her head there is nothing. But it gets worse. Jessa begins to realise that she's hallucinating. Hallucinating injuries onto people - scars, burns, bruises. When she
Lauren Miller herself
eventually confides in a doctor, it's suggested this is because she cannot cope with her own disfigurement; the accident has left her face badly scars and she refuses to confront mirrors. But is that all there is to it? Because the injuries change, and they're not similar to her own. Not everyone has scars, only people who are damaged on the inside. Is Jessa seeing their insides then, their souls? No, that's impossible. But the school counsellor, Dr I, is very open to any interpretation and it leaves Jessa wondering. Why can she see bruises on her new friend's Hannah's face, which keep getting worse, when no one else thinks anything is wrong? Why is Hannah's twin brother, an upbeat happy-go-lucky kinda guy, scarless - despite having a hole in his heart and a dangerous blood clot?

Oh, there's so much more to this story - but I can't write anymore without giving away any spoilers. I'll just say this - each time you think you have the measure of it, Miller turns everything on its head. Each time you think that Jessa's wrong - maybe she's right. It's a rollercoaster ride of a book. I found myself explaining the entire plot line of this book to someone and was practically bouncing as I described it! It's absolutely fascinating, the whole of it: the aphantasia, the hallucinations, the relationships, the philosophy, even her English class studying 'A Picture of Dorian Gray.'

The ending is superb. Miller leaves you with the choice of what you want to believe. This wasn't the book I expected to read.

And for the romance lovers out there - don't worry, there's something for you too!

All in all, a huge thanks to NetGalley and to Three Saints Press for the opportunity to read this. Please, go out and buy a copy - what are you waiting for??

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Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Review: The Scandal

The Scandal The Scandal by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

'Late one evening towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barrelled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else's forehead and pulled the trigger.'

That (and the cover) was all I read before I clicked 'request' on NetGalley. I didn't read anything else about the book at all, which is very unusual for me; I'm generally quite circumspect in my reading decisions. But this had me hooked. I'm not sure why. There are so many enthralling one liners for books that don't turn out to be that good that I always make sure I read more than the 'tag-line.'

Actually, in this case, I'm glad I didn't. Because I would have discovered that it centres around ice hockey. A sport. Sporting books are really not my thing: I don't play sports and watching them on TV or supporting a team is my ideal of hell. Luckily, no one else in my household watches sport, but if they did I'd retreat upstairs with a book instead. So, I wouldn't have requested it, and I would never have read this book.

I'm so glad I didn't read further.

Okay, it's 'about' ice hockey. But it's not, not really. It centres around ice hockey, but that's not what the book's about. Of course it's not. So, what is it about? How can you answer that? There's never one single thing a book is about (unless it's completely one-dimensional). This book covers an entire kaleidoscope of issues: from determination and perseverance, bullying and racism, powerful white men and powerful white women, friendship and rivalries, disappointment, hard upbringings, good upbringings, good choices, bad choices. Not really about sport.

Did I mention I'm glad I didn't read any more of the blurb?

Image courtesy of: https://crazychessgirl.files.wordpress.
com/2013/03/2013-03-09-16-55-17.jpg
Originally published under the name of 'Bear Town,' this Swedish writer takes us on a whirlwind ride. (And a shout out to the translator whose name I can't find anywhere. I've mentioned it before, and I'll keep mentioning it, but translators deserve more credit. I can't even find their name! I think that's not on.) Bear Town is rural, down-trodden, forgotten. It's a small town in a big forest: no one's interested in it. Financially, it's a terrible place to live, but people still do - from the richest in their big detached houses, to the poorer (mostly immigrant) population in flats. But Bear Town wants to make it big, free itself from isolation. And there may be a chance.

Through the teenage hockey team.

What a heavy weight to fall on the shoulders of these teenagers, each struggling in their own ways with all the problems that puberty brings, and more besides. The strain also falls onto the coaches and the managers, mixing with their problems and allegiances. But this year the team are amazing. There's small, fast Amat; Benji who has no fear of pain; Bobo, big and overpowering; Filip, new and unsure; Lars; William. And Kevin. Kevin: the superstar, their sure ticket to making Bear Town a 'real' place again, a mark on the map.

There are other characters too, the women. Because hockey is a 'men's' sport, the women are left to organise, to cheer them on, to clean the rink, to make the coffee, to drive the cars. But these aren't any women. They're from Bear Town. And if there's one thing that can be said about people from Bear Town, it's this: they're strong.

There are some stunningly portrayed relationships throughout this book: Kevin and Benji. Maya and and Ana. Sune and Peter. Benji and his sisters, particularly Gabby. Amat and his mother. Maggan and Filip's mum. Fatima and Kira. Benji and a nameless musician.

Nothing could go wrong for this team, they have everything going for them. Except that something does happen. Something that turns the town upside down. And the old saying 'don't mix hockey with politics' just doesn't hold true anymore.

I highlighted lots of lines from this book on my e-reader, which I don't usually do. There were a LOT of good one-liners. Great ones, in fact. But it made me wonder: can an author rely on those pithy statements? Do we need so many sentences to make us really think; is there a limit to the amount of soul-searching you can pack in one book? I think the answer is yes; some of the lines could have been left out, just to balance the book slightly; it feels overwritten. Still, here are a few:

What happens to a town that doesn't grow? It dies.

People are good at feeling shame in this town. They start training early.

How big is the world when you're twelve years old? Both infinite and infinitesimal.

[His] mum always said that every child is like a heart transplant. [He] understands that now.

Sometimes life doesn't let you choose your battles.

The love a parent feels for a child is strange. There is a starting point to our love for everyone else, but not this person. This one we have always loved, we loved them even before they existed.

'Do you want to hear my best advice about being a parent?' 'Yes.' '"I was wrong." Good words to know.'

There are few words that are harder to describe than loyalty. It's always regarded as a positive characteristic... many of the best things people do for each other occur out of loyalty. The only problem is that many of the very worst things we do to each other occur because of the same thing.


Image courtesy of: https://
marthebijman.files.word
press.com/2015/12
/fredrik-backman1.jpg


Every day can mark a whole lifetime or a single heartbeat, depending on who you spend it with.

All their lives, girls are told that the only thing they need to do is their best. That that will be enough, as long as they give everything they've got... Children need the lie to be brave enough to sleep in their beds; parents need it to be able to get up the next morning.

...he was immortal in the eyes of the other boy.

David hates himself for not being better than his dad. That's the job of sons.

Big secrets make small men of us.

Loneliness is an invisible ailment.

Bitterness can be corrosive; it can rewrite memories as if it were scrubbing a crime scene clean, until in the end you only remember what suits you of its causes.

Hockey is just a silly little game. We devote year after year after year to it without ever really hoping to get anything in return. We burn and bleed and cry, fully aware that the most the sport can give us, in the best scenario, is uncomprehendingly meagre and worthless: just a few isolated moments of transcendence. That's all. But what the hell else is life made of?


There's a taster. There's a lot more of that. So, yes, it is melodramatic - in the extremes at times. But it is also a complete page turner. As I was reading this on an e-reader, I didn't really get an idea how long it was, but it's actually quite a hefty book at over 400 pages. Don't let that put you off. These characters and moments will stick with me. I enjoyed it immensely. And this is classed as YA, but can definitely be enjoyed by adults. Probably half the characters are adults!

Thank you Fredrik Backman. You gave me one hell of a ride.

Hey, and don't judge a book because you don't like sport. A decent book is never about one thing.

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Thanks to @PenguinBooks for using my quote!