Book Review: Corpsing

corpsing

“What I was looking for at all times was an escape hatch, a way out of the present moment, to tunnel out of my totally unremarkable and pathetic self. To break the cycle of being a terminal disappointment: a disappointment as a daughter, a mother, a woman, failing at that implied contract of womanhood – of being nice and attractive and contained.”

Corpsing, by Sophie White, is taglined My Body and Other Horror Shows – appropriate given its focus on how one’s body cannot always be relied upon. It is a collection of essays that serve as memoir. The raw honesty of the subjects explored is both refreshing and horrifying, laying bare the sheer effort required to exist in a world where quietly keeping up appearances is the expected norm. Issues examined include the impact on self of: drug taking, grief, mental breakdown, motherhood, self harm, alcoholism. The author has both a caring mother and husband, along with three dependant children, but brings to the fore how living in the world must ultimately be coped with – or not – alone.

Divided into five sections, the first contains a series of essays that deal with the death of White’s father – a drawn out decline that finally ended shortly after the birth of her second child. The violence of birth is compared to the shrunken existence of a human body as it fades towards its inevitable end, when those left behind are cast adrift.

“Birth is explosive and volatile; the final moment of life takes this same explosion and detonates it deep inside us.”

The author struggled to cope with her sense of loss. She went through the motions of each day by keeping busy – looking after her children and starting a new job. And by turning to alcohol. Wine helped numb the sharp edges that threatened to cut her to pieces. What she needed was to be seen to be coping, not making a fuss.

From the outside, White’s childhood was not difficult. She was brought up by loving parents in material comfort. Peel back the veneer and there are all too common incidents that she knew needed to be swept under the carpet: older boys acting inappropriately with her four year old body, a friend’s mother’s who suggested a nine year old White eat fewer puddings to fit into a princess dress, being told she was ugly by laughing boys when a teenager. Absorbing, internalising these unremarkable events, as expected by those around her, leaves lasting scars.

Like many young people, the author in her teens experimented with alcohol and drugs.

“a place of refuge where I could take a break from being myself”

Aged twenty-two she took an ecstasy tablet while camping at a festival. The bad reaction suffered changed her forever. She describes it in detail, the start of her ‘madness’. There followed a breakdown, psychiatric help, the slow clawing back from thoughts of suicide. Years of travel, working as a chef or living meagerly off grid, provided ‘a strategy for restoring sanity’. The essays describing this period are terrifying to consider – the risks taken by young people that so many get away with – yet prove evocative and hopeful.

Returning to Ireland and getting married brought into sharp relief the relationship women have with their bodies and appetites.

“If you were born in the latter half of the twentieth century, then you will know that fat is the very worst thing. The worst thing to eat. The worst thing to be.”

This series of essays is wonderful in highlighting the many ridiculous habits so many absorb, and how women police not just their own bodies but those of others – family, friends, even strangers.

Later essays explore further the author’s descent into alcoholism, and how drunk girls are dehumanised.

“She teeters and topples, knees scuffed. She deserves nothing. No justice if she is victimised by an opportunistic predator. Opportunistic – it’s a word that practically commends this tenacious, moment-seizing, go-getting rapist.”

Another disturbing incident at a festival is detailed, but it is the drinking at home that many stressed out mothers may relate most to. The thoughts on motherhood are as honest as anything I have read on the subject – the pain and fatigue but, more than that, the judgement.

“When a man leaves work to attend to his child, it is commended; when a woman leaves work to attend to her child, it is noted.”

And, of course, the harshest judge of all is the mother herself – her inability to be perfect at all times leading to feelings of failure.

In amongst these excellent essays are topics that may be a little more esoteric: vampirism, adult thumb sucking, knitting. As the author approaches the end of the book: she gives birth to a third child, the COVID-19 lockdown is imposed, she suffers another breakdown and is taken into psychiatric care. It is a reminder that mental illness is managed rather than cured.

White has a writing style that is vehement in its desire for unadorned realism yet contains much humour. The macabre is balanced by recognition of how so many choose to live unaware, to turn away from the unpleasant. The conspiracy of silence that mostly surrounds the unpalatable truths of giving birth and mothering are discarded by the author witheringly.

As well as being eminently engaging, somehow this is an enjoyable read despite the blood, gore and madness. It is an eye-opening account of the strength required to hold a life together – a reminder to show compassion however ingrained judgement of others’ outward behaviour has become in an age of picture perfect social media.

Corpsing is published by Tramp Press. My copy was provided gratis by Turnaround UK.

Robyn Reviews: Dog Rose Dirt

‘Dog Rose Dirt’ is the first crime thriller by Jen Williams, known for her adult fantasy trilogies ‘The Winnowing Flame’ and ‘The Copper Cat’. As a fan of ‘The Winnowing Flame’ series, I was curious how her writing would translate into crime fiction – and the answer is with aplomb. ‘Dog Rose Dirt’ is a gripping, dark crime thriller full of twists and atmosphere. To those familiar with the genre, many of the twists are predictable, but they’re brilliantly written, leaving this a fast-paced and enjoyable read.

Heather Evans has been almost estranged from her mother, Colleen, for years – but when her mother unexpectedly commits suicide, she’s forced back to her childhood home to put her affairs in order. There, she makes an alarming discovery – stacks of letters from the serial killer Michael Reave, otherwise known as the Red Wolf. Reave has been in prison for decades – but the letters take on a more sinister turn with the appearance of a copycat killer, borrowing Reave’s tableau of removing his victims’ hearts and decorating their bodies with flowers. Determined to figure out how her mother knew Reave – and why she might have committed suicide – Heather teams up with DI Ben Parker to interview Reave. However, he only talks in riddles. The more he says, the less Heather understands – and as mysterious things start happening at home, Heather starts to wonder if approaching the truth is putting her own life in danger.

Heather is a bit of a mess. Once a journalist, she’s been fired from her job and picks up odd bits of work as a freelancer. She has friends, but no serious relationships – and all her friends are worried about her. She’s self-centred, rash, and has terrible coping strategies – but she also has moments of brilliance, a keen wit that must have served her well as a journalist, and a knack for knowing when others are lying. She’s not necessarily a likeable protagonist, but she’s an intriguing one, and she feels incredibly real. Its hard at times to see what her friends see in her – she asks a lot without giving much back – but then, with her mother’s death, the loss of her job, and all the other upheavals going on in her life, its understandable that she sometimes forgets that everyone else has a life and responsibilities to.

The story is mostly from Heather’s perspective, with occasional cutaway chapters showing the victims of the new Red Wolf. This works well – it makes the atmosphere darker, humanising each victim by showing snippets of their lives. The cutaway chapters increase in frequency later in the book, adding to the sense of urgency in solving the puzzle and identifying the killer.

There isn’t so much an overarching plot as several closely intertwined threads. There’s the mystery of Heather’s mothers’ death – why such a seemingly stable woman would commit suicide. Then there’s the copycat killer – or possibly even the original killer, if Reave is as innocent as he claims. Finally, there’s Colleen’s relationship with Reave, and to what extent this ties into everything else. This all works seamlessly, moving at a rapid pace and remaining engaging throughout. Many of the twists are genre tropes, lending them an air of predictability, but the way they’re done is skillful and fits the story well. It would feel unnatural if they weren’t written that way.

This is a dark story. The atmosphere is one of the highlights – there’s a constant shadow hanging over every scene, a sense that things aren’t quite what they seem. There’s a lot of foreshadowing – too much in places, with twists that may otherwise have been a surprise becoming obvious – but it lends a sense of foreboding, the reader realising secrets that Heather hasn’t clocked yet. Those sensitive to graphic violence, death, desecration of a corpse, incest, coercion, and child abuse may want to avoid this, although it handles its subject matter well – never glorifying it, and never glossing over the impact.

Overall, ‘Dog Rose Dirt’ is an excellent entry to the crime thriller genre and showcases Jen Williams’ versatility as an author. Recommended for fans of dark, atmospheric crime thrillers, messy characters, and complex family relationships.

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

Published by Harper Collins
Hardback: 22nd July 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Book of Accidents

‘The Book of Accidents’ is a slow building horror novel, gradually ramping up the tension and secrecy before unleashing terror on its characters. It draws on classics of the genre but puts its own spin on them, maintaining a feeling of freshness and uniqueness. Fans of classic horror writers and tension-packed reads can find plenty to love here.

When Nate’s abusive father finally dies, he finds himself doing something he swore he’d never do – moving back into his childhood home, this time with his own family in tow. His son, Oliver, wants a fresh start after a series of embarrassing incidents at school, and his wife, Maddie, is delighted by the idea of having her own space to fully explore her art. However, it isn’t long before strange things start happening. Nate keeps seeing his father’s ghost walking the halls. One of Maddie’s sculptures comes to life. And Oliver finds himself befriending a strange boy – one with an even stranger book who claims he can do magic. Everyone in the Graves family has secrets – and with something sinister stalking Pennsylvania, those secrets could be deadly.

At nearly 550 pages, ‘The Book of Accidents’ is a reasonably long novel, and most of what happens isn’t touched on by the blurb. This is the best way to go into it – this way, the revelations are more surprising, and the level of tension is higher. All I’ll say is that it starts off reminiscent of a haunted house story, but very quickly diverges into something much more complex. There’s a lot going on, and in places it isn’t clear what’s real and what isn’t. Wendig uses a great deal of foreshadowing and leaves plenty of clues, but there are shocks in store for even the most alert reader. It’s very cleverly done.

The story alternates between Nate, Oliver, and Maddie, with very occasional forays into other perspectives. All are complex characters with their own appeal. Oliver is an absolute sweetheart – at fifteen, he’s been sent to therapy for being too empathetic. He can physically see other people’s pain, and he finds being in crowds of people – like at school – distressing because of the amount of pain on display. However, he can’t tell anyone this because they’d think he was mad, so instead everyone thinks he’s a weirdo and a wimp. Oliver just wants to help everyone, and his isolation makes him naive and easily mislead. He makes a lot of mistakes, but its hard to dislike someone with such a pure heart.

Nate has been a big city cop for years, and going back to work in the fish and game department of the town he grew up in is a huge adjustment. His dad beat him, and Nate is determined to be better, but readjusting to a place he thought he’d escaped forever is difficult for him. His new colleagues don’t trust him, his family is keeping secrets, and he’s seeing ghosts. Like Oliver, Nate is intrinsically a nice guy – but unlike Oliver, Nate is a cynic, worn down by the world and inclined to think the worst of everyone. It’s never clear quite where Nate’s moral lines are drawn – he regularly feels one step away from doing something he’ll regret. However, he sees that in himself, and it’s that recognition and fight against it that makes him a good person.

Maddie is an artist – but not the scatterbrained type. Instead, she’s a planner, constantly overthinking and worrying and getting through life by making a hundred lists of everything she has to do. Her art is her escape. Maddie is a bit spoilt and pampered, but she loves her family and she’s incredibly practical. She knows her own worth and has an independent streak that makes her husband worry but also love her for it. Maddie takes the longest to understand, but by the end its impossible not to root for her.

The atmosphere is one of the strongest parts of this book. The hints that something isn’t right start early, and every chapter has a sense of unease and darkness. There’s also a constant sense of unrealiability – uncertainty that what’s happening is real. Even the quieter chapters become engaging and readable because of the atmosphere surrounding them.

There are a few minor quibbles. This is on the longer side for a horror novel, and it takes some time to get into. The first 150 pages are especially slow, essentially setting the scene and introducing the threat, and while from there the pace picks up and it becomes very readable, the first 150 could really be trimmed down without losing the overall atmosphere. There are also a couple of twists which are slightly over-hinted at, losing a little tension. However, these are only small blips in an otherwise excellent book.

Overall, ‘The Book of Accidents’ is an excellent, atmospheric horror novel packed with gradually escalating tension and wonderful complex characters. Recommended for fans of classic horror stories, intriguing characters, and books that leave you unsettled.

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

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 20th July 2021

Robyn Reviews: She Who Became The Sun

‘She Who Became The Sun’ is a reimagining of the life story of Zhu Yuanzhang, the peasant rebel who drove the Mongols from China and became the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. It has a few epic fantasy elements, but at its core is historical fiction. It provides a fascinating look at Chinese history and culture, along with intriguing explorations of gender identity and gender roles. This is the author’s debut, and it has a few weaknesses, but overall its a worthwhile and enjoyable read.

In Mongol-occupied China, a young peasant girl is foretold of an early death, while her brother is destined for greatness. However, when her brother unexpectedly dies instead, she decides to steal his identity and claim his fate for her own. The new Zhu joins a monastery, going from monk to soldier to commander in the rebellion against the Mongols. However, her life depends on her continuing to fool Heaven that she is truly her brother. Can anyone truly claim someone else’s destiny?

Zhu – known as Zhu Chongba for the majority of the book – is a brilliant morally-grey protagonist. Her sheer determination and will to live is inspiring and keeps her alive through the hardest of challenges. Zhu is intelligent, observant, and willing to obliterate all the rules to get what she wants – the greatness her brother was always destined for. However, that comes at a cost. Zhu must always think and act like Zhu Chongba – not Zhu Chongba’s sister. Anyone who comes close to discovering her secret must be silenced. And greatness, even destined greatness, is not an easy path – a path filled with far more enemies than friends.

Identity is a major theme throughout the book. The complexity of Zhu’s identity grows as the novel goes on – while she uses female pronouns in her internal thoughts, she mostly thinks of herself as somewhere in between male and female. Shelley Parker-Chan has stated that Zhu is genderqueer – this language didn’t exist in 14th century China, but she manages to make it clear regardless. Zhu isn’t the only character with a complex gender identity – her greatest enemy, General Ouyang, has a similar struggle, and the two have a strange kinship alongside their hatred. Ouyang was born male and strongly identifies as male, but is a eunuch. His appearance is feminine and those around him treat him as something other – not truly a man or a woman. Again, his difficulty with his outward gender identity and not being treated as a man is beautifully written, and its interesting seeing how Zhu and Ouyang’s battles with identity differ.

Another major theme is destiny. This is a very common theme in Chinese history and folklore, with everyone living a foretold fate based on their actions in past lives and their choices inevitably leading them there. Reading about how the characters view destiny, and how this affects different characters in different ways, is fascinating – reconciling a predestined fate withautonomy is easier for some than others. However, personally I found it made certain sections unsatisying. One of my favourite aspects about epic fantasy is the crafting of magic systems. ‘She Who Became The Sun’ doesn’t have a true magic system, but it has a couple of elements derived from destiny – the mandate of Heaven – and this is never explained beyond that it marks those chosen for greatness. I would have liked a little more information on this mandate and how it works, and why it gives its particular set of abilities.

One of the book’s highlights is how well Shelley Parker-Chan writes relationships. Growing up in the monastery, Zhu has a best friend – an older trainee monk named Xu Da – and their friendship is beautifully written, going from a tentative connection to a relationship more akin to brotherhood. Later, Zhu becomes friends and later more with Ma, one of the rebel’s daughters, and again the change from a light friendship characterised by teasing banter to a strong romantic relationship is beautifully done. On the flipside, Ouyang has an intensely complicated relationship with Esen, the eldest son of the Prince of Hesan and commander of his army. Esen is the height of masculinity and trusts Ouyang implicitly, and its never quite clear to what extent Ouyang wants him or wants to be him – even to Ouyang himself. Esen’s adopted younger brother, Wang Baoxiang, is another outsider, seeing himself and Ouyang as very similar – but Ouyang despises him, and the evolving relationships between Ouyang, Esen, and Wang Baoxiang are expertly written.

The main downside is the lack of connection between the reader and the characters. Each individual character is well-written, complex, and intriguing, but also seems to be kept at a distance. Each character forms wonderful relationships with other characters, but to an extent is shrouded from the reader. This is on the shorter side for an epic fantasy novel, lending it pace and easy readability, but it means the reader doesn’t have time to connect to all the characters given a perspective. Even Zhu, the overall protagonist who gets the vast majority of page time, never commands as much emotional investment from the reader as they should.

Overall, ‘She Who Became the Sun’ is a strong historical fantasy debut, heavy on the history and light on the fantasy, with an intriguing cast of characters that give a fascinating insight into Chinese history and culture. It also explores identity in a very nuanced way, taking a different approach to a common fantasy trope. The minor niggles only detract a little from an otherwise strong story. Recommended for fans of historical fantasy, Chinese history and folklore, LGBTQIAP+ fiction, and morally grey characters.

Thanks to NetGalley and Tor UK for providing am eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Tor
Hardback: 22nd July 2021

Book Review: Siphonophore

siphonophore

Siphonophore, by Jaimie Batchan, opens as an historical tale of a Scottish man, MacGregor, who in the late seventeenth century sailed to the Gulf of Darién, part of a doomed expedition attempting colonisation. The story soon morphs into something structurally original. Still narrated by MacGregor, the trials faced by his author as the novel progresses reveal much about creative conceits and process. Life being terminal, questions arise over how worthwhile it is to use limited time available to create other worlds for readers. MacGregor recognises he will only exist if he can keep the author writing – and believing his creation matters, even if only to him.    

Early on, a little of MacGregor’s backstory is revealed. Childhood is given cursory treatment. 

“My memories of that time are as happy and solipsistic as any other child of average standing and ability.”

His first jobs as a young adult did not end well, going some way towards explaining why he was recommended for an Imperial misadventure manned mostly by naval and infantry ‘hucksters and hooligans’. MacGregor did, however, leave behind a wife and offspring. Little is told of them.

These briefly mentioned facts provide bones around which to build the character of our protagonist. The lack of depth and detail provided is explained when we realise this is an early draft of a book being written, still to be fleshed out and edited.

MacGregor is often disgruntled that the author chooses not to make his life easier – particularly after he is abandoned by his crew mates.

“All that is required is for him to write something about me and it becomes true”

MacGregor is also often scathing of the author’s abilities and personal failings. Faced with his impending mortality, the author broods about his past, allowing memories and regrets – opportunities missed that were likely never available – to cast shadows over the life he is currently living. 

“He confuses being able to remember facts with actual intelligence”

MacGregor’s hope is to escape Darién, but first he must live through the story being written of him, one that is stuttered by his author’s many digressions and procrastinations.

“It’s clear that in order to communicate with a reader, I must fight through the filter of my Creator”

Of course, this meta approach to storytelling has been tried before in other guises but not, I would posit, with the brevity and wit provided here. Although cleverly constructed, this tale avoids the many pitfalls of literary pretention. The tale is both poignant and darkly entertaining.

A story of a writer and of writing, viewed through the lens of a fictional character, draws the reader to ask who is real and what of anything in life is factual. MacGregor lives through the whims of the author, but the latter is deeply invested in his character. Their symbiosis provides a fascinating if sometimes disturbing study on how an author’s mind can work.

Siphonophore is published by Valley Press. My copy was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Unwell Women

unwell women

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I read my way through Unwell Women in a prolonged and barely suppressed rage. Women and girls the world over know we are routinely demeaned – effectively silenced – and this account of historical treatment lays bare the toll it has taken on our health, mental and physical. The author presents the facts clearly, maintaining engagement and never shying away from topics rarely discussed openly – ‘women’s problems’ and how we are expected to go through life quietly, grinning and bearing. I pondered if male readers would have any interest or dismiss this well researched and presented account as a rant, females still being regarded as overly emotional – hysterical – and in need of calming down, by whatever means.

Divided into three main sections, the first of these explores how medical knowledge developed from the time of the Ancient Greeks to the nineteenth century. Throughout most of this period, women’s bodies remained a mystery. Each month they would bleed. They grew babies. They complained of pains men didn’t experience so were probably imagined. As their father’s and then their husband’s property, it mattered that females remained amenable, attractive, modest and faithful. They were vessels for men’s sexual satisfaction and, most importantly, procreation.

“They were seen as weaker, slower, smaller versions of the male ideal, deficient and defective precisely because of their difference to men … in writings that would become the foundations of scientific medical discourse and practise, unwell women emerged as a mass of pathological wombs.”

The required modesty cost lives. Women were made to feel ashamed of their bodies – sinful temptresses. In the powerful Christian world it was, after all, the first woman, Eve, who ‘ruined everything because of her desirous and disobedient ways.’ Girls and women were expected to remain covered even when seeking medical treatment, untouched by the always male physician. Ingrained shame and ignorance in medical matters led to them being regarded as unreliable narrators of their own bodily suffering. An early pamphlet written in the thirteenth or fourteenth century stated ‘the female body is inherently flawed and defective in many of its functions.’

Female healers and midwives existed. Educated women worked tirelessly throughout history to improve care but were routinely dismissed by men who retained the power to effect change.

“the male writers espousing this nonsense understood only too well that women had to be exempted from the hallowed halls of medicine if they themselves were to maintain their stranglehold.”

A great many aspects are covered in this comprehensive and gripping history, much of it disturbing and, at times, horrifying. When physicians were eventually permitted to examine women (their reproductive physiology was considered an inverted version of men’s) treatments offered for a plethora of misunderstood problems included operations to cut off clitorises and crush ovaries. Alongside the need to suppress female excitability – bad for the nerves in already nervy creatures – the ideologies of eugenics were emerging in medical aims and practice.

The second section of the book, covering the late nineteenth century to the 1940s, saw the slow emergence of hard fought for advances in women’s rights as well as medical knowledge. Doctors still regarded women as sexual objects and child bearing machines. Birth control was frowned upon, abortions illegal and therefore carried out in secret. Women reporting gynaecological pain were regarded as overly sensitive – neurotic and requiring rest away from any form of stimulation. Typical treatments offered for common ailments such as uterine fibroids, and cancers in reproductive areas, were often as dangerous as the problems they claimed to cure. Doctors were keen to further their reputations – for financial reasons as well as ego. Women – particularly those not valued, such as sex workers and the criminalised – were useful subjects for experimental procedures. Troublesome wives and daughters were readily presented for surgical interventions.

The final section covers 1945 to the present day. Although much more was now understood about how a woman’s body functioned, many female complaints still couldn’t be explained and were dismissed as psychosomatic.

“In an era when a mentally healthy woman was a serene wife and mother, almost any behaviour or emotion that disrupted domestic harmony could be interpreted as justification for a lobotomy … And the success of the lobotomy was measured according to how obligingly she resumed her household duties.”

Although much of the book focuses on the way privileged, often white, women were treated by the medical establishment over the centuries, chapters also cover attitudes towards Black and ethnically diverse women. There are accounts of how slaves were believed to have higher pain thresholds, and how entire communities in economically deprived regions were enrolled in clinical trials without being informed of potential side-effects. There may have been a need for family planning to improve maternal health, but birth control was regarded as a means of limiting procreation amongst those deemed eugenically undesirable.

I mentioned the rage I felt reading this book. Despite the impressive progress in medical treatment and knowledge, so many of the attitudes detailed here are still recognisable and widespread. They manifest as: banter, mansplaining, paternalistic teasing, bafflement when women do not appreciate a well meant gesture, anger when men feel underappreciated or disrespected. Women want to be treated as fully human, not simply a vessel available for sex and procreation.

I pondered the choices parents around the world make when offered the chance to gender select an unborn child. Boys are still widely chosen more often than girls. Biomedical research funding focuses on finding treatments for ailments suffered by men. Clinical trial subjects have, over decades, mostly been white and male. Unexplained chronic pain reported by women – even that with testable biological markers – is often dismissed with ‘withering glances, eye-rolls, smirks and heavy sighs.’ It can take years of suffering before tests are offered and treatment made available.

The medical histories detailed here are mainly USA and UK based. In these supposedly forward thinking countries, women still struggle to maintain autonomy over their bodies. Access to abortion requires a doctor’s permission and is not available in certain places, such as Northern Ireland. Many of women’s illnesses remain a mystery and are not taken seriously.

The first step in finding a solution is recognising there is a problem, making this an important work. What we need though are advocates who will be heard, not silenced as shrill and hysterical. If history tells us anything it is that the treatment of unwell women is of little interest to men while their needs continue to be met.

Any Cop?: Read this book and be aware of how ingrained and widespread the prejudices are – then learn to listen when unwell women speak.

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: Full Disclosure

‘Full Disclosure’ is a delightful contemporary YA novel about navigating school, identity, and relationships with a slight twist – the protagonist, Simone, has HIV. A debut by a teenage author, it keeps the perfect balance between a fun YA contemporary and providing an honest look at the struggles of living with HIV – not because of the disease, which is easily controlled, but because of the stigma surrounding it. Simone makes a delightfully relatable protagonist, with authentic teenage worries compounded by the added stress of her secret. This is an incredibly important book, and highly recommended to teenage and adult readers alike.

Simone Garcia-Hampton has only been at her new school for a few months, but she’s determined that things will be different. Here, she finally has best friends, she’s respected and using her talents as the director of the school play, and she’s got a crush – Miles, the only Black boy on the school lacrosse team. She’s doing great – which is why it’s paramount that her HIV status stays a secret. After all, last time it got out, things got ugly. However, when it becomes apparent that Miles actually likes her back, things get complicated. She knows that undetectable means untransmissible – but will Miles still like her when she tells him her status? Then she starts receiving threatening notes – someone in the school knows, and if she doesn’t break up with Miles by Thanksgiving they’ll tell the whole school. Now Simone is juggling a new relationship, her classes, the school play, and desperately trying to keep her secret – and sooner or later, she knows it’ll all come tumbling down.

Simone is a fantastic protagonist. Brought up by two gay dads, who adopted her as a young child, she’s had a liberal and loving upbringing – other than having to take medication every day to control the HIV she was infected with by her birth mother. Her dads and doctors have always impressed the importance of taking her medication and being careful – and she is. But now, at seventeen, she’s ready to start exploring relationships and sex – and with her diagnosis, that’s a whole can of worms beyond what most seventeen year olds have to deal with. Simone is a strong, intelligent young woman, but having bad experiences with people finding out her HIV status before has knocked her self-esteem, and she’s terrified of the idea of having to disclose it to anyone else. She’s scared to confide her worries in anyone because that would either involve having to disclose her status or talking about sex with her parents. The stress of Simone’s predicament is wonderfully portrayed. It’s clear that she always wants to do the right thing but is terrified of being hurt again, especially when her life seems to be finally going well.

Being written by a teenager, all the characters feel believable. Simone and her best friends – Lydia and Claudia – are accepting and sex-positive, yet simultaneously awkward about sex and relationships in a way that feels completely authentic. Claudia is an asexual lesbian and Simone bisexual, and its great seeing them navigate those identities and figure out which labels suit them. There are also discussions on exclusion within queer spaces – being not bisexual enough when being in a male-female relationship, for example – which are important, and it’s great seeing them handled so well in a YA book. They’re not perfect – Claudia has a very black-and-white worldview common to teenagers figuring out the world, and Lydia can be passive and indecisive – but their imperfections make them three-dimensional and generate discussion.

The most impressive thing about this book is how, despite covering some important and heavy-hitting topics, it always remains first and foremost an enjoyable YA contemporary. It never feels preachy, and it’s packed full of lighthearted and fun moments as well as the more difficult ones. Discussions around the stigma of an HIV diagnosis, bisexual exclusion in queer spaces, the importance of safe sex and consent, and the difficulty of navigating school cliques and stereotypes are woven naturally and seamlessly into the overarching plot, enhancing rather than detracting from the central story about a girl navigating her first serious relationship. It’s an incredibly mature novel yet accessible to its teenage audience.

Overall, ‘Full Disclosure’ is a powerful YA contemporary covering some crucial topics in an engaging and enjoyable way. Highly recommended for all teenagers and young adults, anyone who works with them, and anyone who wants to educate themselves on what growing up with HIV is like while enjoying a great read.

Published by Penguin
Paperback: 30th October 2019

Robyn Reviews: Seven Deaths of an Empire

‘Seven Deaths of an Empire’ is a fast-paced gritty fantasy novel that draws clear inspiration from the Roman empire. With short chapters and constant action, it has huge appeal for fans of plot-driven fantasy – but for those looking for originality or character-driven fiction, it could prove a more difficult read.

The Emperor is dead. His son will be emperor after him, ensuring the ongoing strength and expansion of the empire – but first, the emperor’s body must be returned to the capital, allowing succession to formally take place. Whoever controls the body controls the empire. In the capital, General Bordan – a veteran of decades of service to the empire – works to quell the hints of rebellion and protect the heir to the throne. Meanwhile, Apprentice Magician Kyron finds himself part of the dead emperor’s honour guard, ensuring the preservation of the body and its safety on the long journey home. With war looming on the horizon, the fate of the very empire is at stake.

This is very much a plot-driven novel, with several overarching threads. Bordan senses a traitor in the emperor’s inner circle and works to sniff them out, trying to outmaneuver them before he’s outmaneuvered himself. This feels very reminiscent of the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series and similar political fantasy, with many players none of whom can be fully trusted. Kyron, on the other hand, has more obvious threats on all sides. The forest he’s traveling through is full of tribespeople who hate the empire – after all, it’s trying to conquer them and steal their lands – and beyond that, the empire itself is mistrustful of magicians and magic, and many of his own company would happily see him dead. On top of all this, he’s been stuck with the company’s guide, a tribeswoman who challenges his opinions of the empire’s superiority. As he fights for the emperor and the empire, Kyron must decide if he’s actually on the right side.

Bordan and Kyron are interesting characters, although neither is easy to initially connect with. Kyron starts off a stroppy, entitled teenager, unshakeably convinced in the empire’s might and righteousness. His worldview is completely black and white, and he reacts to his worldview being challenged with anger and derision. Bordan starts off every inch the hard, military man, attacking first and asking questions later. He comes off argumentative, intolerant, and harsh, convinced that atrocities are worth it for the good of the empire. As the story goes on, more nuance appears. Doubt creeps into Kyron’s mind and he starts to question teachings he always took for the complete truth. Bordan starts to show signs of weariness, heart creeping in where previously the answer to everything was the sword. Both characters are complex, but as the story goes on they become far easier to relate to.

Some of the secondary characters are more intriguing than either Bordan or Kyron. Magician Padarn, Kyron’s master, is clearly an intelligent and well-travelled man who has a far more rounded view of the world and a subtle sense of humour. Emyln, the guide from the local tribes, is the best character in the entire book and I wish she had been given a perspective of her own. She’s loyal to her people but has agreed to help the empire, for reasons that later become clear, and challenges Kyron’s views in a remarkably patient manner. She’s clearly exceptionally intelligent and strong-willed, and I’m sure she’ll have a huge part to play in any sequels.

The initial pacing, unfortunately, is a slow drudge. I had to put this book down several times in the first third because nothing appeared to be happening, and the short chapters made it difficult to connect with either point-of-view character. Fortunately, once the world and situation are established and things start to happen, the action draws you in and it becomes much more enjoyable. It’s a shame the book doesn’t jump in at the fast pace it proceeds at for the majority of the novel, but many longer epic fantasy novels start slowly due to their complexity so its an understandable decision.

The worldbuilding itself will be familiar to anyone who reads a lot of epic fantasy. The setup is highly Roman inspired, with an empire gradually conquering all the surrounding lands which it sees as filled with barbaric tribes. The empire sees itself as saving these tribespeople by bringing religion – the Flame, which is clearly Christian Catholic inspired. Magic is part of the empire, but the church sees it as a stain and is highly distrustful of magicians – a nod to the Catholic inquisition. Matthews writes it well, creating a solid and believable setup, and whilst both setting and plot lack some originality they’re very readable.

Overall, ‘Seven Deaths of an Empire’ is a solid book for fans of action-packed epic fantasy with well-written battle scenes. For those familiar with the genre, little about the plot or setting is unique, but it carries out tried and tested tropes well. The beginning is a bit of a slog, but it becomes worth it for the much stronger end. Recommended for fans of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ or ‘The Rage of Dragons‘.

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

Published by Solaris (Rebellion)
Hardback: 22nd June 2021

Book Review: White Spines

white spines

Nicholas Royle collects books. He does not choose titles he wishes to read, although often he will read them. What he seeks is an aesthetic. He trawls second-hand bookshops, including charity shops, searching for suitable spines to place on his bookshelves. He could buy on-line but this doesn’t appeal. The potential for discovery when browsing eclectically curated displays in shops is a part of the pleasure he derives from his pursuit.

White Spines focuses on his Picador collection, from when the imprint was mostly consistent in cover design (1970s to 1990s). He also finds what he describes as anomalies, adding these to the back of the double stacked white shelves on which he places his finds. Although pleased when a book is in good condition, he values inscriptions and inclusions – ephemera placed by a previous owner between pages and then forgotten when the book is donated.

This is very much a book for lovers of books. Royle takes the reader on a journey around the country describing where and how he found particular titles. There is an element of memoir as he has been collecting these books for decades. His various jobs over this time have granted him access to those in the writing business – authors, publishers, agents – whose names and works will be familiar. Knowing of his obsession, some have gifted him white spine Picadors. Royle cites one incident when he solicited such books as payment, something the author involved may have subsequently regretted agreeing to.

When travelling, for whatever reason, visits to second-hand bookshops feature. Finds are described lovingly, cover artwork appreciated. There are occasional transcripts of overheard conversations, or of interviews conducted as additional research. A digression into the issues faced when another author shares your name was of interest. Short sections describe some of Royle’s dreams.

There is a degree of melancholy looking back at the time when Picador published these uniform editions, when there was more trust and freedom amongst those tasked with choosing authors and titles. Of course, it is only with hindsight that readers can see how certain of the writers and artists found lasting success. There were also those whose work was pulped without telling them.

This history certainly adds to the appeal of the book, but it is Royle’s knowledge and ability to write with enthusiasm that draws the reader in. An enjoyable window into the life of an unapologetic collector. A call to appreciate books for more than their words.

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

my picadors

Edward Explores – Lockdown Life

edward bbq

Welcome to another post keeping you up to date with how life is treating a small (but perfectly formed) teddy bear named Edward Gainsborough. When this series was introduced last month, Edward had been hoping to be out and about on exciting adventures by now. Sadly, the lifting of lockdown restrictions was postponed meaning he is still confined to his house and garden. He has, however, been working hard at keeping his bearers’ spirits up as much as is possible – a task teddies are particularly adept at.

When, for a brief period at least, the sun came out and temperatures rose, a cheering barbeque was requested. Edward enjoys barbeques. He and his good friend, Al (a build-a-bear companion made for youngest bearer) took their sunglasses and deck chair into the garden to watch an exciting table tennis match while food was cooked on flames – they stayed well back from those. Edward particularly enjoyed the chocolate stuffed banana he was given, eating it all up before it could be photographed – yum!

new bear - Helga

It is always an exciting day when a new bear comes to live at Edward’s house. Helga (a Steiff bear from the Netherlands) brought with her a tulip and a small companion who had kept her company in the box they travelled such a long way inside. Edward introduced her to all her new friends, whose names she cleverly committed to memory. She is a lovely addition to the sleuth and gives excellent hugs.

When the weather turned damp, Edward suggested a pancake night – something that brings his bearers together, drawing them out from their private spaces within the house. They listened to music and talked about football, a sport Edward was to learn a great deal more about in the weeks ahead.

pancake

With the need to find entertainments at home, the recent European football competition has provided a welcome distraction. Edward joined his bearers to watch the Scottish match, although that team’s supporting bears wanted to know where their flag was. They also wondered how to turn the big television on – in their excitement they had arrived a tad early for kick-off. Teddy bears are, of course, very patient but were keen to learn what exactly footballers did and why this was so exciting.

Although Edward’s bearers shout a lot at the players – something a quiet bear would never do – he was pleased to note that they seem to enjoy themselves, especially when their team wins the match.

football 1  football 2

There was also a birthday to celebrate this month, which required cake. The chocolate orange creation didn’t last long but was declared delicious by the young bearer it was made for. Edward agreed.

patrick cake

More football was watched and goodies eaten in celebration of the England team’s continuing success. The bears enjoyed sharing the edible balls provided. They may need more time to master the skills required to make use of the one they were provided with to kick.

football 4  profiteroles (2)

Limited as they are to home entertainments, Edward is pleased to see his bearers interest in the sporting action, even if it is only on a screen. He wishes the England team good luck in the final. He is hoping a win might result in much joy for his bearers, and perhaps another celebratory cake.

football 3 (2)