Robyn Reviews: The Beautiful Ones

‘The Beautiful Ones’ is very much a novel of manners – one sprinkled with fantasy elements, but far heavier on the romance. Like all of Moreno-Garcia’s books it’s beautifully written, but there’s an element of detachment from the characters that prevents it being a fully immersive experience.

Antonina Beaulieu, known as Nina, has travelled to the city for the season – and the opportunity to join the city’s elite, The Beautiful Ones, thanks to her well-connected cousin and his scheming wife Valerie. However, her debut has not gone to plan. A country girl at heart, she lacks the decorum expected by high society – not to mention, she keeps losing control of her telepathy, a flaw which has earned her the nickname The Witch of Oldhouse. Enter the famed telekinetic entertainer Hector Auvray. Nina is dazzled by his skill, and Hector intrigued by her innate ability. However, its not only Nina’s telekinesis that draws him to her – and as Nina falls in deeper, Hector’s secrets threaten to tear them apart forever.

Nina is undoubtedly the highlight of the book. Forthright and naive, Nina is entirely out of place in a society run on unspoken rules and appearances, but she’s determined to have a good time anyway. A keen naturalist, Nina cares more about beetles than she does about securing an appropriate husband, and while she frustrates everyone around her she’s a delight to read about. While she might seem innocent and childlike, Nina is also an intelligent woman, and she picks up on more than those around her believe. Really, Nina is too good for any of the other characters, but in this sort of novel you always know how it’s going to end.

Hector Auvray initially comes across as very unlikeable, but as the story unfolds, he starts to evoke more sympathy. Hector is a performer, very different to the high class Beautiful Ones, and he’s worked hard to get to his station in society. However, he’s also become so adept at hiding behind a mask to fit in that he’s forgotten who he is without it. Hector makes a lot of mistakes, and Nina deserves better, but he isn’t a bad man.

Valerie, on the other hand, is on the dark side of morally grey. Consummately selfish, she’s been forced into a situation that she hates and regrets with every fibre of her being – and she reacts by tearing down everyone around her. Valerie’s situation, simultaneously the height of privilege and a tottering precipice, is a reminder of how difficult society used to be for women – even the wealthy ones.

The plot is predictable, following the well-trodden tracks of regency-type romances since the days of Austen. That doesn’t make the twists any less powerful when they inevitably come, Moreno-Garcia’s writing beautifully evoking tension and feeling. However, she also chooses to write her characters in a very Austen style, maintaining a degree of propriety and distance from them. This will likely appeal to stalwart fans of the regency romance genre, but personally I prefer to feel closer to characters, and this posed a barrier to becoming fully invested in the story.

The fantasy elements are well-woven, fitting the story without playing a large role in it. However, their absence wouldn’t greatly affect the plot or feel. This is definitely a romance novel that happens to feature fantasy rather than anything else.

Overall, ‘The Beautiful Ones’ is a well-written novel of manners that will appeal to fans of classic romance, Bridgerton, and fantasy-lite. For Moreno-Garcia’s fans, it’s very different to her previous work, but still a worthwhile read.

Thanks to NetGalley and Jo Fletcher Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Hardback: 27th April 2021

I review another of Moreno-Garcia’s books, Mexican Gothic, here.

Book Review: The Atomics

atomics

“He knew he was feeling terrible because he wasn’t getting enough radiation. If he wanted to feel strong again, to have that same energy as when he had pummelled that stupid boy, he would have to replenish his supply. Top himself up, as it were.”

The world’s first nuclear power station to generate electricity for its nation’s grid started operations in 1954 at Obninsk in the Soviet Union. Other countries soon followed suit. The UK opened Calder Hall at Windscale in 1956. By 1968, when this story is set, there were ten operational nuclear power plants connected to the UK’s commercial grid.

The Atomics focuses on a community of scientists, engineers and supporting staff brought in to operate and manage a newly built power station on the Suffolk coast. The protagonist, Frank Banner, is a talented Chemistry graduate – educated at Cambridge – who believes nuclear energy is the future of clean and efficient power. Unlike many of his co-workers, he has no fear of contamination. Indeed, he believes low levels of radiation can be beneficial.

Frank has a troubled past. His father was a farmer and a brutal man who regularly beat his wife and only child. Frank’s mother had psychiatric issues and committed suicide when he was eighteen years old. The boy idolised her and hated his father. Frank believes young women deserve protection from self-entitled and predatory men.

The story opens in Oxford where Frank has narrowly escaped a prison sentence for savagely attacking a boy. The boy’s mother retaliates, leaving Frank with mental as well as physical scars. His employers, in an attempt to avoid further bad publicity, suggest redeployment to the isolated Seton One power station. Frank understands he has little choice if he wishes to continue working in a field he enjoys. Although at times she has considered leaving her husband, Frank’s wife, Gail, agrees to accompany him. She wants a child and hopes the move will be a fresh start for them all.

Gail and Frank move into a new-build bungalow by the sea, one of many identikit residences provided for the workers at the new power station. Across the road live Maynard and Judy Scott, and their two young children. Maynard is an engineer at the plant – a lecherous buffoon whose wife drinks to forget what her life has become. When not sunning herself on the beach, Gail spends gin-soaked afternoons with Judy. Meanwhile, Frank nurses his dislike of everything Maynard says and does.

Another work colleague, Anthony, is dating Alice, a pretty young nurse at Seton One’s health centre. Alice is a local girl whose father works at a boatyard – necessary for the fishing industry that provided the region’s main employment before the power plant was imposed on them. The looming and secretive building is treated with suspicion, as are its associated incomers. Alice views Anthony as a possible route out of what she regards as a tedious backwater that expects little of its women beyond housekeeping and motherhood.

“In the village, the men were really just boys. No – worse than that – they were just fools. They believed you had to stand up for yourself or be emasculated. But it was utter bollocks. In that single loving look from Gail, Alice had sensed a world outside the village, a world of more complicated thought patterns, of people who did not accept that life was simple. That was where she belonged.”

Frank is a fascinating, terrifying creation. He regards himself as a protector, a saviour, but must always tamp down the angry turbulence of his true thoughts and desires. When his past starts to haunt him, what self-control he can muster becomes ever more unravelled. To the women he appears better and more interesting than the Maynards of their world. Only Gail knows what her husband is capable of, although not how unstable his core has recently become. Like the fuel rods he works with, Frank requires cool containment and careful handling. With Gail’s thoughts focused on getting pregnant, she fails to notice her husband spiralling away.

A chain reaction is sparked when Maynard shows an interest in Alice. Frank, with his delusions of saving defenceless young women, sets out on a mission of protection that requires an act of destruction.

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s Third Law. True in physics, true in life. If you sin, you will be punished. It was one of the undeniable rhythms to life. And if you are the one delivering the punishment, you will be rewarded.”

The insights into the history of nuclear power, especially early attitudes to safety and the risks of wider contamination, add interest to what is a tense and evocative unpeeling of the male psyche. The female characters may be granted greater emotional intelligence but are complicit in their acceptance of certain behaviours – perhaps typical for the time period.

The pacing is not that of a thriller but the plot contains many thrilling aspects. The author delves deep into dark character traits, how they are often downplayed to make daily life easier. Much could have been made of Frank’s upbringing but the reader is trusted to note connections. A deliciously chilling denouement provides an effective rounding off.

There are elements of horror within these pages that could induce nightmares. More horrific though is the recognisable willingness of the characters to ignore what they know to be damaging in order to keep their own lives secure. The power station setting adds originality to a portrayal of the dangers posed by damaged people. An unsettling tale I am happy to recommend.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.

I’m a stop on a blog tour! You may wish to check out these fine posts.

atomics blog tour poster

Robyn Reviews: The Shadow of the Gods

‘The Shadow of the Gods’ is the first book in John Gwynne’s ‘Bloodsworn Saga’, a new epic fantasy series inspired by Norse mythology. It tells an excellent, brutal tale, punctuated throughout by a sense of unease. The world Gwynne creates is cruel and unflinching, with no safety for the characters within. This is definitely a read for epic fantasy fans who like their stories on the bloodier side.

The land of Vigrid has been shattered by the fall of the gods, driven to extinction by war. In the broken remains, power-hungry Jarls feud for dominance, and monsters – remnants of the dead gods – stalk the lands. Amidst this chaos, Orka, a wife and mother, tries to eke out a living for her family, staying away from the politicking Jarls. Varg, a fugitive thrall, tries to find justice for his sister. And Elvar, daughter of a noble bloodline, rejects her heritage and goes in search of battle fame. Each are very different, living very separate lives – but something is rising, a dormant power believed dead that could spell the end of Vigrid once and for all.

Unusually for a novel with multiple perspectives, each of Gwynne’s protagonists is equally strong, with an equally compelling storyline. It can be a little difficult at times to keep each character straight – there are a lot of names, some of them very similar (like Elvar and Einar) – but once this is established, each plotline makes a worthy contribution. Orka has retired from the mercenary life, settling down with her husband and son and focusing on raising her family. Her son, Breca, is a sweet child, one constantly going out of his way to save animals and trying to make people do the right thing. In contrast, Orka is a tough, fierce woman, a warrior who may no longer be actively fighting, but who still analyses every situation like a war. Her love for her family is overwhelming and she’ll do anything to protect them. Orka is regularly rash, but she’s an incredibly strong fighter and, despite a lack of regard for human life, she does have a moral compass pointing in more or less the right direction.

Varg is undoubtedly the nicest of the protagonists. He’s spent most of his life as a thrall – a slave to a master’s bidding. His escape has led to a bounty on his head and him being named a murderer, but really all Varg wants is justice for his sister. Varg is constantly getting into situations well over his head, but he has a desperate will to survive and a generous dollop of luck. Varg ends up joining a band of mercenaries, the Bloodsworn, almost by accident, but once there he finds himself with friendship for the first time in his life. The ensuing moral battle between justice for his sister and loyalty to his new friends is beautifully written,as is Varg’s struggle to fight and kill when really all he wants is peace. Varg has the most complete character arc over the course of the novel, so it will be interesting which direction he goes in in the sequel.

Elvar starts the novel as a bit of a mystery. She’s a member of the Battle Grim, another band of mercenaries, but her place isn’t quite established. She also has a mysterious bodyguard, Grend, steadfastly loyal but looked upon with caution by the rest of the Battle Grim. Elvar is another fierce warrior, but unlike Orka it’s initially less clear what she’s fighting for. As the novel progresses, more about Elvar’s past is revealed, and her precarious position in the Battle Grim starts to make sense. Beyond anything, Elvar desires freedom – a desire which many can empathise with.

Gwynne’s worldbuilding is excellent, although this is definitely a novel which benefits from regularly referring to a map. Vigrid is a land divided into sections, each ruled by a Jarl – a powerful warrior. There’s also a Queen, Helga, trying to move away from the feudal system to a more united reign – going about this, naturally, by being stronger than all the rest. The magic system, a minor part, is based on the defeated gods – some people have a remnant of the gods’ powers in their blood, making them known as the Tainted. These people are collared and controls, treated as lower than the thrall slaves. The Tainteds’ powers depend on the god they inherited them from, but are always related to battle. Gwynne avoids info-dumps,instead spreading this information across the novel and allowing the reader to infer it. This allows the novel to flow smoothly, although at the expense of a small amount of confusion as all of the new terms are introduced.

The ending is excellent. A novel with three such separate plotlines is hard to end satisfactorily, but Gwynne manages it, each plotline ending neatly but with clear potential for future development.

Overall, ‘The Shadow of the Gods’ is an exceptionally strong epic fantasy novel, packed with Norse mythology and with three equally strong character arcs. I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for the sequel. Recommended to all fans of epic fantasy and Norse mythology.

Thanks to NetGalley and Orbit for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 6th May 2021

Book Review: Bitterhall

bitterhall

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Bitterhall is a story of intersecting lives and the effects of childhood experiences on how a person manages relationships. It is also a ghost story of sorts, including a murder mystery. Set in contemporary times but with disturbing undercurrents from the past, the narrative offers three perspectives on events that occurred over some weeks one autumn in recent history.

The first key character to be introduced is Daniel – thirty-six years old and one of three tenants living in a large house in a northern city. He works at the local university where his innovative work is nearing fruition. He has recently stolen an historic diary from a long time friend.

Daniel is attracted to the most recent tenant to take up residence in the house share. Tom is handsome, works in marketing, and is in a new relationship with Órla, a PhD student. Daniel discovers he has an affinity with Órla that he rarely enjoys with anyone. It is these three who recount the unfolding tale.

The third tenant, Badr, appears more centred than the rest. Also living in the house is Minto, the reclusive owner of the place.

In the opening section of the book there is a suggestion of suppressed violence in Daniel’s behaviour. He worries about how he appears to others, often choosing his own company as less stressful. His recollections focus on the insular – observing but rarely empathising.

Órla lives in another house share but stays over with Tom regularly. She is already waiting to have her heart broken, trying hard to tamp down this expectation.

“I loathed this being the one running after; I wanted to be the one people chase.”

When Tom starts reading the stolen diary, his behaviour notably changes. Órla grows worried but has little idea how to help.

“He has succeeded where I haven’t in becoming plural. And it’s not just down to me it happened – he split himself. He was split. Something clawed at him and he let it in and in the process let himself out. Selfletting, like bloodletting.”

By the time narrative shifts to Tom’s perspective it has become clear that some uncanny force has manifested. Órla turns to Daniel for help.

Tom lives his life in cycles, accepting that each will end. He is currently at the start of a new sexual cycle with Órla. His current job has lost its appeal and he desires change. He is disturbed by his reaction to Daniel and this is exacerbated by the diary’s effect on him. Is the force it unleashes obsession or possession?

“Everyone is drenched in ghosts – there are so many more dead people than alive – so it takes a cut to let them get in.”

There is an oblique quality to each of the character’s remembrances that, while building depth to events recounted, remain skewed by personal perspectives. The stealthy progression will lead the reader to examine what they believe.

The story starts at the housewarming party organised when Tom moves in. A second party, held at the home of the owner of the diary, is pivotal. The denouement is masterfully rendered exposing a truth many may try to avoid accepting. Spectres are raised over how much control anyone can have over their own feelings and behaviour – and how much they can influence the actions of those they care for.

Within each character’s sections the book is structured in short chapters with intriguing headings. Although this bite sized approach maintains pace, I found chapters meaty, requiring pauses for digestion. I was fully engaged but could not rush the reading.

Any Cop?: A skilfully shadowed story that will creep into the reader’s psyche inducing a questioning of possibilities. An exploration of the power of the mind – how difficult it can be to control when personal fears are triggered.

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: Shadow and Bone

‘Shadow and Bone’ is a solid, fast-paced example of the YA fantasy genre, now back in the spotlight due to the new Netflix adaptation. Its not perfect, but its creative, eminently readable, and a very strong debut novel.

For centuries, the nation of Ravka has been divided in two by the Shadow Fold – an area of near-impenetrable darkness filled with monsters that feast upon those who enter. The nation’s only hope lies in the legend of the Sun Summoner – a Grisha who can summon light, finally destroying the Shadow Fold once and for all. Alina Starkov, an orphan and cartographer, has never put much stock in Grisha legend – but when her regiment’s crossing of the Shadow Fold goes awry, she finds herself suddenly being proclaimed the Sun Summoner of legend. Whisked away to the luxurious world of the Grisha, Alina struggles with her new identity. Can she, a mere orphan, possibly be the saviour of Ravka – or is she doomed to fail them all?

Alina is the sort of strong character you want to root for. Stubborn and in many ways childish, she’s full of flaws, but she has a good heart and wants to do the right thing. Her struggles with identity are beautifully written and very impactful. Alina is an example of the Chosen One trope done well – despite being powerful, her naivety and moral dilemmas prevent her ever being too strong, and its abundantly clear that she has her limits.

This being an early 2010s young adult novel, naturally there’s a love triangle. Love triangles aren’t a trope I’m particularly fond of, but this is one of the strongest examples I’ve read, simply because it’s never entirely clear which character she’ll choose. There’s Mal, another orphan who grew up as her best friend – steadfast and loyal, but uncomfortable with Alina’s new power and status. Then there’s the Darkling – General Kirigan, the commander of the Grisha armies and the most powerful Grisha alive. The Darkling is captivated by Alina, proclaiming her his only equal – but he has many secrets, and Alina is never sure how much she can trust him. Alina’s dilemma between the two always feels authentic. The romance elements develop very well, with less predictability than might be expected, and it makes the situation much more readable than love triangles often are.

The setting is one of the book’s strongest parts. Ravka is inspired by Eastern Europe, but the way the Shadow Fold has influenced politics and society is fascinating. There’s also clear tension between Ravka and the surrounding nations, which despite not being the story’s focus is well woven in. Ravka is a very two-tiered society,with clear differences between the powered Grisha and ordinary humans, and again the tensions this creates are well explored. Bardugo has gone on to explore neighbouring areas like Ketterdam and Fjerda in subsequent spinoff series’, and her talent for worldbuilding is undeniable.

Overall, ‘Shadow and Bone’ is very much a novel of its time, packed with the tropes pervasive in all early 2010s young adult novels, but its one of the strongest examples of those books. For those interested in the show, the book is definitely worth a read first. Recommended for fans of strong worldbuilding, the Chosen One trope, and general young adult fantasy.

Published by Orion Children’s
Paperback: 6th June 2013

Book Review: We Are All Somebody

we are all somebody

“I realised how powerful poetry can be. It can instil hope, it can inspire and you can feel the emotion in the words.”

“Listen to our young people”

We Are All Somebody is a poetry anthology written by street children who were chosen to represent their countries in Street Child World Cups. Starting in 2010, these international events are organised ahead of the world’s biggest sporting competitions in cricket and football. Their aim is to bring together street connected young people from around the world, and to advocate for change in the way they are seen and treated.

The anthology was compiled by Samantha Richards who, in 2018, represented the UK at the Street Child Football World Cup in Moscow. Inspired by her discussions with members of other teams from across the globe she put pen to paper and wrote out her emotions in a poem. She invited her new friends to contribute in poetry or artwork.

“We must encourage each other to be the best version of ourselves before we can expect others to do the same.”

The book opens with profiles of the young leaders in the competitions from various countries. Their plea is to be treated fairly and with compassion. What they want is: shelter, food, clean water, healthcare, education. They ask for protection from: violence, exploitation, sexual abuse, trafficking, child marriage. Key to accessing these basic rights is a legal identity, often hard to come by.

“They are children like any other children in the world.”

The poems that follow are heartfelt cries for needs to be met without discrimination. Several include references to COVID 19 and the difficulties of adhering to recommended guidelines when access to proper sanitation is limited.

“insecurity and hunger are their greatest threats”

The street children are exploited by all they come into contact with, including at times each other. Despised, unprotected and blamed for their situation they have no recourse to justice.

“We sleep in a group
If you sleep alone, you are sexual prey
If you sleep too deeply, your money gets taken”

Although raw at times, the message herein is powerful. The contributors ask that their voices be heard on behalf of other street children. I hope they find readers who will listen.

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My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly On The Wall Press.

Book Review: Hashtag Good Guy With A Gun

hashtag good guy

“Part of the reason he’d never talked to girls was because they all seemed to think they were better than him. It was bad enough guys thought they were better than him, but when girls looked down on him it just seemed to hurt more.”

Hashtag Good Guy With A Gun, by Jeff Chon, is a darkly humorous satire on ideas of masculinity in the America that voted for Donald Trump as their president. It opens four days before the 2016 Presidential Election. Scott Bonneville, a high school English teacher currently out of work due to a sexual misdemeanour, enters a chain pizza restaurant with plans to expose a paedophile ring rumoured to operate out of the premises basement. Unexpectedly, he encounters an armed holdup and shoots the gunman dead. The media labels him a hero, a situation milked by his legal representative. Scott harbours many delusions, not least of which involves his unrequited love for Lisa, a woman who dumped him.

“Maybe he wasn’t a very good listener. Maybe if he’d only asked her about her experience, he could have comforted her, showed her what a compassionate and kind boyfriend he was.”

Scott admires Lisa’s looks, especially her breasts, and focuses his time and energy when they are together on getting her to have sex with him. He can’t stop himself correcting her when she comments on issues using arguments Scott knows to be flawed. This irritates her. Scott believes that if he were wrong in the way she so often is he would be fine with being corrected, it’s just that he never is.

Lisa’s son, Blake, was instrumental in the couple’s breakup. Blake was angry at the way his peers at school treated him but could see no way to improve matters other than to take the abuse without complaint. His teachers showed little interest in what they regarded as a slow-witted, smelly, uninspiring boy when they had potential sportsmen and scholars to nourish. All this changes when Blake moves school and befriends Walt, who introduces him to the Company of Men. Blake starts pushing weights and taking care of his appearance, living by the code laid down for the brotherhood who offer a channel for his negative energy.

“The men in the room especially liked watching the males cry, those bearded gender traitors who’d sacrificed their manhood in order to project a facade of virtue. They hated that facade, the men in the room. Thanks to RadFem, modern women had been taught to favor false virtue over strength. In turn, a generation of boys grew up to become weak-minded peacocks who displayed the feathers on their backsides rather than face forward like real men.”

Scott has a younger half-brother, Brian. Their father runs a financially successful doomsday church where they both spent formative years. When their father’s wife decides to leave the cult she takes only one of her adoptive sons with her – Scott. Neither boy can ever forgive her this choice.

Blake also blames his mother for the difficulties he faced growing up. Thanks to the Company of Men he can make sense of his hatred towards her.

“A man needs structure, because without structure, there was nothing to rebel against. And when a man can’t rebel, he becomes complacent, weak. How could he break down walls if none were provided for him?”

Alongside these characters are veterans suffering PTSD and a homeless man struggling with delusions that make him believe he and others are occupied by uncanny beings, possibly ghosts. The survivors of the pizza restaurant holdup play supporting roles, as do the family of Blake’s estranged father. As their backstories and interactions are revealed, the reader is treated to a droll tale of man’s gullibility, stupidity and senseless conviction of wisdom and rightness in the age of internet propaganda and conspiracy theories.

The women in the story play supporting roles that highlight how delusional many of the men remain whatever their experiences. The story is not one of man-hating or feminism. Rather, it is a satire on how hard done by certain men feel because the women they lust after choose not to sleep with them.

“You know what superpower I’d like to have?” he said “The power to make people see the things they’ve done. To make them really understand how they’ve affected things.”

After the election come days of reckoning. Blake and Brian each seek revenge on those they believe wronged them.

“Of course, there were still people with smiles on their faces, people who’d run into neighbors or relatives, still hoping for the kind of consideration they’d refused others for the past eight years.”

Trump’s unexpected victory is regarded as an opportunity to burn down assumptions that have festered and led to the RadFem mess the Company of Men resent and now hope will lose influence. Although masculinity is a key thread, there are multiple layers to peel back in what is a biting depiction of modern America. The traditional family setup does not come out of this well, despite being the bedrock on which many of the ideas fostered by the Company of Men rest.

In many ways this is a discomfiting read due to its recognisable portrayal of men who blame others for their personal shortcomings and lack of emotional intelligence. The inconsistencies and contradictions in their arguments – their blinkered beliefs – are easily mocked, but what cannot be denied is the damage wreaked, not least on themselves.

The story is also engaging and entertaining. The author has struck a fine balance between depicting a brand of masculinity as performatively toxic alongside revealing the innate personal anxieties such beliefs mask.

An original take-down of contemporary issues where underlying causes are too often dismissed as unworthy of attention. A story that stands on its dark humour as well as literary merits, but which offers more for those willing to question why men such as these feel so desperately hard done by.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sagging Meniscus

Monthly Roundup – April 2021

April has been another mixed month in terms of my mood, with the underlying stress of imposed restrictions shadowing the beauty of new life bursting forth in the woods and fields where I am fortunate to live. Lockdown was eased mid-month allowing for gyms to reopen. I welcomed the return to strength training and, as well as working out alone or with younger son, have enjoyed a couple of sessions with a personal trainer. I am hoping his expertise will help ensure my form is correct, that injury may be avoided as I slowly increase the weights I am shifting. Prior to this I had been trying to improve my fitness with lengthy bike rides. I still cycle to and from the gym but no longer feel the need to pedal endless miles. Much as I enjoy cycling, the routes I use had become repetitive. Life remains tied to my local area.

With organised sport now permitted the other members of my little family have returned to playing hockey. This means I occasionally find myself alone in the house, a strange feeling after so many months of living and working in the same shared space. What had once been taken for granted has become the exception. This also applies to making small talk at the gym. The staff there are friendly but I have forgotten how to socialise, not that I was ever much good at this anyway. Lockdown has exacerbated my hermit-like tendencies.

Shops and restaurants may have reopened but do not appeal while masks are required and certain strangers’ reactions to my proximity suggest I am regarded as a biohazard. I will return to these when I am made to feel welcome. It would be lovely to have a weekend away with husband but we shall wait until hospitality venues are permitted to be hospitable again. I have said this before – it is undoubtedly a bugbear.

My family are keeping as well as can be expected under the circumstances. We had good news last week when daughter’s exam results were released. After six years at medical school she may finally call herself a doctor. She has an NHS position confirmed, enabling her to start work in the summer. We ordered a takeaway and drank quite a lot of champagne to celebrate. Many of her fellow medical students were privately educated and I feel immensely proud that she, coming through the local state school comprehensive system and with no personal contacts within the field of medicine, has achieved alongside them.

My foot injuries continue to heal and I am running more frequently and covering longer distances. During the recent fine weather this was particularly enjoyable, although even in rain I find exercise provides a sense of achievement. As a reward for my efforts I finally treated myself to new trainers. Unfortunately the wrong size was sent – the downside of online shopping.

I reviewed 13 books in April: 10 fiction (3 translated), 2 non fiction, and a poetry collection. I particularly enjoyed The High House by Jessie Greengrass so sent the couple of proof copies I had received to other book bloggers who I thought would also enjoy this tale. I am grateful to the publisher for providing me with a beautiful finished edition.

Robyn added a further 12 reviews making this a bumper month on the blog. We have both been trying to read from our TBR piles alongside new releases.

As ever in these monthly posts, click on the title below to read the review and on the cover to learn more about the book.

Fiction

brood brooklyn
Brood by Jackie Polzin, published by Picador
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, published by Penguin

artist floating  every seventh wave
An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro, published by Faber & Faber
Every Seventh Wave by Tom Vowler, published by Salt

skyward  the source
Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley, published by Solaris
The Source by Sarah Sultoon, published by Orenda

the high houseThe High House by Jessie Greengrass, published by Swift Press

Translated Fiction

astragal andrea victrix
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin (translated by Patsy Southgate), published by Serpent’s Tail
Andrea Víctrix by Llorenç Villalonga (translated by P. Louise Johnson), published by Fum d’Estampa

lonely castle
Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura (translated by Philip Gabriel), published by Doubleday

Non Fiction

gone  spirit of the river
Gone by Michael Blencowe, published by Leaping Hare Press
The Spirit of the River by Declan Murphy, published by The Lilliput Press

Poetry

lover from tunisia
Ouafa and Thawra: About a Lover From Tunisia by Arturo Desimone, published by African Books Collective

Robyn Reviews

sistersong  1rv
Sistersong by Lucy Holland, published by Macmillan
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang, published by Harper Voyager

ag-sl  heather
All the Murmuring Bones by A.G. Slatter, published by Titan Books
Malice by Heather Walter, published by Del Rey

iwwv-1 1tmb
If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio, published by Titan Books
The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk, published by Orbit

blood  1
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, published by Macmillan Children’s Books
The Prison Healer by Lynette Nomi, published by Hodder & Stoughton

1aho 2rv-1
A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuval, published by Michael Joseph
Ace of Shades by Amanda Foody, published by HQ Stories

last bear  1ar
The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, published by Harper Children’s
Ariadne by Jennifer Saint, published by Wildfire Books

Sourcing the books

Robyn is on Netgalley and is grateful for all approvals of titles requested. She also purchased or was gifted some gorgeous finished copies.

Robyns April Books

I received many books that I am eager to read, although I do feel sad that I am unlikely to get to them all as quickly as I would wish.

april books received

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your continuing support is always appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health and as much mental stability as can be mustered in these challenging times. May we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx

Robyn Reviews: Ariadne

“I would not let a man who knew the value of nothing make me doubt the value of myself”

‘Ariadne’ is a retelling of the Greek myths of Ariadne and Phaedra, the daughters of King Minos of Crete. It sticks faithfully to the source material, weaving a beautiful – if at times tragic – tale of two women, trying to find a place in a world of men. A highly readable novel, it makes a worthy addition to any mythology fans’ shelves.

Ariadne has grown up in luxury as the Princess of Crete, free to spend her days dancing the halls and weaving her loom. However, her life has two blights – her fearsome father, King Minos, and her even more terrifying half-brother, the Bloodthirsty Minotaur. When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives as one of the Minotaur’s yearly sacrifices, Ariadne is besotted and vows to help – but helping Theseus means betraying her father and Crete, sacrificing the only life she has ever known. Besides, does the woman in the hero’s story ever get a happy ending?

The novel starts with only Ariadne’s perspective,but from part II onwards there are two – Ariadne and her sister Phaedra. Ariadne is by far the stronger character. Sheltered and naive, she’s a sweet girl who wants to do the right thing, but struggles to figure out what that is. As the story progresses, she grows into a more resilient woman, but still one who turns her face away from the truth of the world in order to preserve her happiness. Her internal dilemmas and insights are fascinating, with the dichotomy of powerlessness and privilege.

Phaedra is always harder and shrewder than her sister, never content to sit back and assume a woman’s role. Her relationship with Ariadne is complicated – she loves her sister, but also hates her passivity and naivety. Phaedra is easy to sympathise with, but there’s a cutting edge to her personality which can make her hard to like, and in some ways she’s even more blinkered and naive than her sister.

Most Greek mythology fans are familiar with Ariadne’s role in the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, but this is only a very small part of the book. The rest, chronicling what happens afterwards, is far more interesting. Jennifer Saint paints an engrossing picture of the sisters’ separate yet parallel lives, giving an exceptional sense of place and culture. The narrative is relatively sedately paced yet never feels slow. The subject matter inevitably means this book will be compared to Madeleine Miller’s work, and the combination of the focus on feminism and femininity, a prolonged period set on a secluded island, and the writing style, do make this feel much like Miller’s Circe. However, this is a quieter novel than Miller’s work – still emotional, but more of a gentle sea compared to the emotional storm found at the denouement of Miller’s novels.

Saint chooses to stay completely true to the source material – as far as this is possible for a several millennia old translated myth – and my only quibbles with her novel are mostly unavoidable given this. Ariadne’s infatuation with Theseus is instantaneous and feels unrealistic, but then this is very much how love is portrayed in all the major Greek myths. Theseus can come across as two dimensional, with little character development, but then he’s seen entirely through the eyes of Ariadne and Phaedra, who always view him in a certain light. This is an excellent novel, and these complaints are minor, with very little effect on enjoyment.

Overall, Ariadne is a strong addition to the mythology retelling genre, providing an interesting insight into the lives of Ariadne and Phaedra outside of the famed encounter with the Minotaur. Fans of similar modern retellings such as The Song of Achilles and Circe will likely enjoy this book.

Thanks to Wildfire Books for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Wildfire Books
Hardback: 29th April 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Last Bear

‘The Last Bear’ is a beautiful and moving children’s book about eleven-year-old April and her summer on Bear Island. It combines gorgeous writing with a wonderful tale about a girl and her connection to nature – and especially to Bear, the only polar bear remaining on an island cut off by the receding polar ice. Woven throughout is a rallying cry about littering and climate change. This is a lovely little book, perfect to be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

After April’s mother died suddenly in a car accident when she was four, April was left to be raised by her father, a climate scientist. However, his grief at his wife’s loss led him to throw himself into his work, more or less leaving April to her own devices. When he receives an invitation to spend six months manning the research station on Bear Island, April is ecstatic – finally, her and her father can have their own adventures. Instead, her father once again occupies himself with work. But her isolation leads April to make the most extraordinary friend. There are no bears on Bear Island – but there might be just one.

April is the sort of plucky heroine that children’s fiction thrives on. She’s stubborn, determined, and has an absolutely huge heart – especially for animals of all shapes and sizes. Her connection to nature is absolutely beautiful to read about. In many ways, April is reckless and foolhardy, but it’s impossible not to root for her every step of the way.

At its heart, this is a story about two relationships – the one between April and Bear, and the one between April and her father. Both are wonderfully and intelligently written. April’s relationship with Bear is heartwarming to read about – the way she’s determined to help him right from the start, and the way he always seems to understand when April’s having a bad day. Such a close friendship between a young girl and a polar bear is entirely unrealistic, but it doesn’t matter because it’s so beautifully done. April’s relationship with her father is much sadder but no less moving. In many ways, April lost both her parents when her mother died, and the guilt she feels for thinking that is cleverly rendered. The author simultaneously manages to make April wise beyond her years but also feel exactly like a real eleven-year-old girl, a difficult balance.

Hannah Gold’s prose really makes the story come to life. There are beautiful depictions of the wild landscape of Bear Island, but it’s the way Gold infuses the story with emotion that makes it stand out. The reader feels April’s delight, fear, desperation, and determination right along with her, making the happy moments all the more enjoyable and the sad moments even more moving.

The story is illustrated throughout by Levi Pinfold, and his depictions are fantastic, bringing elements of the story to life. The moments he’s chosen to capture are very powerful – especially the final scene. It’s hard to pick out a favourite image as they’re all excellent, but the emotional value of that moment is undeniable.

Overall, this is a wonderful children’s story recommended for children and grown-up-children alike.

Published by Harper Children’s
Hardback:18th February 2021