Book Review: Things Are Against Us

things are against us

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“But when do women get to dream? How about allowing us a few whims too once in a while? How about indulging women in the belief that we look okay, or that we’re okay mothers and daughters, or that we have okay things to say or do?”

Lucy Ellmann has strong opinions and is not afraid to say what she thinks. In this collection of fourteen essays she rails against the damage caused by patriarchal systems of governance, especially to the natural world and its less powerful or privileged inhabitants. Her solution to the competitive idiocy inflicted by men is to pass over control of all money to women. Her arguments are caustically persuasive – eruptions of rage and despair at what the males of our species have been allowed to get away with. If this sounds too philippic fear not; the essays are as full of wit as wisdom.

The book opens with the titular essay, an amusing riff on how THINGS make life so much more frustrating and difficult in a plethora of ways readers will recognise.

“Your alarm clock will often disturb a good dream. At other times, its battery will die and you’ll miss an appointment. The milk goes off. A water pipe will whine, or burst, and there’s not a THING you can do about it. No matter how old you are, grapefruit will always spit in your eye. The aim of those THINGS is uncanny.”

Next up are a couple of essays that focus on America, where the author was born and lived until she was a teenager. It will come as no surprise to anyone that she despises Trump and his gun-toting sycophants.

From here there is a natural segue into her arguments against the patriarchy. The sixth essay, ‘A Spell of Patriarchy’, will likely be enjoyed most by those who have watched the many classic films referenced. I have not but could still enjoy the read.

Unlike Ellmann I have never found pleasure in reading Dickens. I have, however, enjoyed some crime fiction. Ellmann really doesn’t rate crime fiction, a view she explains in ‘Ah, Men. Certain readers may take offence at this but, if they can get past what they may feel are attacks on their art or choice of entertainment, the essays herein are cleverly constructed and poke fun at many accepted behaviours.

Whilst I may not agree with all the author’s opinions, I did on the points she makes about descriptions of outward appearances in ‘Third Rate Zeroes’. She ponders how fixated so many are on what someone looks like given this is a ‘minor, accidental, and temporary achievement.’

“How much time in life and in literature has already been wasted on mean, irrelevant, and soon outdated notions of beauty? You know, so what if Cinderella was beautiful and her step-sisters weren’t? Is this really really the key to an understanding of human capacity? Is it fair? Is it even entertaining?”

‘Morning Routine Girls’ explores the disturbing growth of young girls promoting beauty products on their YouTube channels. This follows ‘Bras: A Life Sentence’. Both essays may make female readers question why they have accepted the supposed need for either cosmetic intervention.

Ellmann has a soft spot for the Little House series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, writing of this in ‘The Woman of the House. Although referring to the softening of certain hardships endured for Wilder’s intended young readership, Ellmann doesn’t mention the erasure of Laura’s dead siblings from the story, those who perished at birth or as infants. I shared her enjoyment of these books growing up but not her view that this simpler existence was, ‘Not a bad way to live, on the whole.’

Neither would I now wish to live without electricity as she considers in ‘Sing the Unelectric!‘ I do, however, concur with her views on wastefulness. The lack of longevity of many modern goods and devices is a growing concern now that mechanical operations have been replaced by computer controlled sealed units whose manufacture and disposal is so damaging to the environment. So many points made by Ellmann deserve consideration however much detail may be agreed with.

My favourite essay in the collection is ‘The Lost Art of Staying Put in which the author questions why humans choose to travel for so called pleasure. It is expensive, bad for the planet, and many tourists demand that locals not only speak their language but also provide food and accommodation to match the quality they are used to from home – why leave?

“Travel kills as much knowledge, taste and culture as it purportedly spreads. The compulsion for sameness has an insidious effect: languages, costume, dialects and accents start to die out as soon as the Coke and jeans and T-shirts arrive.”

I enjoyed that the home city focused on was Edinburgh (where Ellmann lives) rather than London or Paris – a refreshing change in literary musings.

For readers who enjoyed Ducks, Newburyport, many of these essays include lists (although also a variety of punctuation). The tenacity of the writing is familiar if more succinct.

Ellmann admits to being a tad glib at times but this approach enables her to get across the points she wishes to make pithily. She despairs of the world men have made and seeks change. Many of her observations and opinions may appear tongue-in-cheek but should not be dismissed as unintended to be taken seriously.

Any Cop?: A much enjoyed read however much may or may not be agreed with. Urgent, angry and often very funny.

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: The Nature of Witches

‘The Nature of Witches’ is an atmospheric contemporary fantasy novel that explores the burden of the ‘chosen one’ trope. Written for a YA fantasy audience, it has equal crossover appeal to readers of character-driven adult fantasy, like ‘The Once and Future Witches‘ or ‘The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue‘. The writing is beautiful, changing slightly in tone with each season and leaving an impact long beyond the final page. It isn’t perfect – it’s a debut, with some rough edges to be expected – but it’s a brilliant book.

For centuries, witches have been responsible for maintaining the Earth’s climate. However, with human-induced climate change, the climate is becoming too erratic for them to control. Their only hope lies with Clara – the first Everwitch born in a century. But Clara hates her magic – it’s dangerous, and she’s lost too many people she loves already. While everyone else tries to drive Clara to push her abilities and fight for the future of the Earth, Clara sees her only hope in stripping herself of her magic so she isn’t cursed to spend forever alone.

The book is set over a year of Clara’s life training at a school for witches. It’s split into sections based on seasons. Most witches have the power of only one season, the season of their birth – but Clara, the Everwitch, has the power of all four seasons, changing as the season turns. The price of this is that she changes to, her desires and personality as changeable as the weather. Griffin makes this work beautifully. In autumn, Clara is in flux – swinging from hope to despair, indifference to rage. In winter, Clara is more stoic, steadfast, confident in making decisions and blunt in her conclusions. This section is one of my favourites, with some of the best writing in the entire book. In spring, Clara grows and changes – passion rises, along with her power, but also a storm of worries that threatens to undo her. In summer, that tumult of emotion spikes, and all Clara’s plans are thrown into chaos.

Clara makes a brilliant protagonist – one who feels completely like a teenager with the weight of the word on her shoulders. She’s self-centred and brooding, bottling everything up until it threatens to explode. She blames herself for everything and convinces herself that far from being the Earth’s salvation, she’s defective – something that needs to be removed. But while all that self-pity can be difficult to read, it comes from a good place. Clara has a huge heart, and while all her decisions are short-sighted in the way the choices of teenagers often are, her intentions are good. Clara doesn’t just think she’s special – she knows she is, and that knowledge is immensely difficult for her to handle. The emotional immaturity, rash decision making, and insistence on solitude rather than confiding in anyone else feel authentically like the choices a teenager would make in her situation.

The counterpoints to Clara’s emotional storm are Sang and Paige. Sang, a Spring witch brought to the school to train Clara, is sunshine in human form. He has all the best attributes of spring – a constant sense of happiness and cheerfulness, a love for family, and a keen interest in life and growth. Sang forces Clara out of her brooding state and brings contentment to her life that she didn’t think was possible. Of course, spring isn’t only about the sunny days, and Sang has his clouds too. He needs human connection, and when Clara withdraws into her shell, he struggles. But Sang has the patience of spring too, and he’ll always wait for the clouds to pass over.

Paige, in contrast, is all sharp angles and biting retorts. She has the hardness of winter – the strength required to stay strong in the harshest of seasons, and a contempt for weakness in others. Paige sees Clara’s selfishness and it brings rage. But winter isn’t only cold and anger. Like Sang, Paige cares deeply about Clara, it just manifests in different ways. Where Sang uses smiles and emotional heart-to-hearts, Paige argues and insults – anything to bring Clara out of her shell. Anything to show the world that its strong enough to survive. It takes time to come to like Paige, but as time goes on she becomes a refreshing cool breeze on a warm day.

The worldbuilding is simple but effective. The story is set in a parallel version of America, but one that is aware of witches. In this America, witches are seen as the cure to everything – humanity doesn’t need to worry about endless growth and climate destruction because the witches are there to fix it. The shaders – non-witches – aren’t malicious, they’re simply ignorant of the impact their climate destruction is causing. The magic system is equally simple – magic comes only to those born on a solstice or equinox, with the magic specific to the season of birth and strongest during that season.

This is a quiet novel. The biggest villain for Clara to fight is herself – her own thoughts and worries. There’s no grand exposition about how and why magic works – it’s just there. This is a novel about climate change, but its just as much about human psychology and coming to terms with power. Those looking for action, or heroes and villains, or complex fantasy elements won’t find them here. But for those who like their stories character driven with complex, messy characters, this is an excellent choice.

Published by Sourcebooks Fire
Hardback: 1st June 2021

Robyn Reviews: Cemetery Boys

‘Cemetery Boys’ is a delightful contemporary YA fantasy about a transgender teen in a conservative Latinx community. Combining paranormal fantasy with topical issues of gender, immigration, and class, it’s an engaging and moving read. The plot is predictable, but the brilliant characters, Latinx fantasy elements, and fast pace make it heartwarming and enjoyable anyway.

Yadriel is determined to prove himself a real Brujo. In his community, women are homemakers and healers, whereas men are Brujos – people who lay restless spirits, or ghosts, to rest. Yadriel has always known he’s a man – even if his family refuses to accept it – and decides to prove it, performing the Brujo ritual in secret with the aid of his best friend, Maritza. He succeeds in summoning a ghost – except rather than the ghost he’s looking for – his missing cousin Miguel – he accidentally summons resident school bad boy Julian Diaz. Julian refuses to go quietly into death. Instead, he’s determined to figure out how he died. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian – with the assurance that once they have answers, Yadriel can send Julian into the afterlife and finally prove himself to his family. Except, the longer Julian is around, the less Yadriel wants him to leave.

Yadriel is a wonderful protagonist. All he wants is to feel accepted – by his family, his contemporaries, and most of all by himself. He’s deeply insecure, but also incredibly caring and hardworking. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and every time his family misgenders him or insinuates he can’t be a real Brujo it’s like a punch in the heart – both for him and the reader. Yadriel has been through a lot, including the death of his mother, and it’s impossible not to feel sorry for him and root for him throughout.

The other standout characters, Maritza and Julian, are both firecrackers. Maritza is completely confident in her own identity and determined to forge her own path. She’s a vegan, and as the healing all women in her community practise involves animal blood, she refuses to have any part in it, instead seeking a career crafting potajes – talismanic daggers carried by all Brujos. Maritza will always stand up for Yadriel when he’s too scared to, stalwartly loyal – but also unafraid to challenge him when she thinks he’s making a bad decision. She’s the sort of friend everyone should have.

Julian is a bit of a petulant child, but like Maritza he’s fiercely loyal. Julian has a quick temper, regularly lashing out with words or throwing things, but he’s also deeply caring about those he loves and will always stand up for a friend. He challenges everything, unwilling to admit he’s ever wrong, but is also incredibly astute in many of his observations. Julian is far from perfect, but it’s hard not to like him anyway – and the way he looks out for others is heartwarming.

The worldbuilding is exquisite. Yadriel’s family speaks partially in English and partially in Spanish, building a real sense of atmosphere, but always with enough context that the gist of the phrases can be understood. There are spooky elements – Yadriel’s family lives in a graveyard, and there are hidden crypts and both friendly and less friendly ghosts – but also a sense of a tight, protective Latinx community, with overbearing family members, communal Mexican staple meals, and traditional Mexican celebrations. The two blend together seamlessly, with an overarching sense of simultaneous unease and protection. It’s clear that Yadriel loves his community, but also that he doesn’t entirely feel at home there because not everyone accepts him for who he is.

Its also wonderful reading a YA fantasy with a transgender main character. Yadriel’s identity and his struggles with it affects everything he does. He wears a chest binder, and he’s constantly self-conscious how it looks – whether it’s masculinising his chest enough. Yadriel doesn’t pass as male, meaning things other people take for granted – like which public bathroom to use – are difficult and traumatic for him. These elements are also woven seamlessly into the book, adding another thought-provoking dimension to a multi-layered story.

The plot is the weakest element. This is a YA fantasy, and while it uses fewer tropes of the genre than some books, the twists still feel relatively predictable and it’s always clear how things will end up. However, the other elements are strong enough that the plot is almost secondary -this is more a novel about relationships and belonging than it is about the central mystery element.

Overall, ‘Cemetery Boys’ is an excellent contemporary YA fantasy with delightful characters, strong relationships, and brilliant worldbuilding. The plot is predictable, but it’s still an enjoyable and highly worthwhile read. Recommended for all YA fantasy fans along with fans of great LGBTQIAP+ books and those who enjoy character and relationship-focused books.

Published by Swoon Reads
Hardback: 28th September 2020 / Paperback: 1st July 2021

Book Review: White Eye of the Needle

white eye needle

White Eye of the Needle, by Chris Campbell (illustrated by Sandra Evans), is a collection of twenty-five poems written over a six year period and including consideration of life lived in lockdown. Many of the poems exude admiration and love for a partner, at home and on trips abroad. The settings vary, often urban but with appreciation of natural elements that spring up where not cleared away. Observations made are appealing in their simplicity and yet, in that, are at times profound.

“there’s more to life than death”

The poems written in lockdown reflect the frustrations widely felt by those confined to home, who hanker after the holidays they would be planning if permitted. There are walks by a canal and a feeling of gratitude to be sharing confinement with a loved one. Pets feature, their previously private antics observed between Zoom or Teams meetings.

‘Must all the world’s beauty be a gift?’ is a short appreciation of unaltered looks that particularly resonated.

“Our plastic wealth of plucked lips; nip and tuck,
takes all attention from our individuality
and tries to rid all life of natural luck,
adding to inner ugliness that never sags.”

‘Virtual Coo’ reminds of the sadness that milestones must now be shared over screens rather than in person – a newborn baby offered the inadequate virtual hug.

Older poems recount highlights of trips away: a ski run, art admired in St Ives, a honeymoon in Madagascar.

‘No holding me back’ jarred against the previously expressed gentle love and support with its depiction of an argument.

“your tongue is an adder
striking poison through my heart.”

It offers a reminder of the more negative reactions life’s challenges can induce.

This short collection is enhanced by the varied and skilfully rendered illustrations.

white eye pic 1   white eye pic 2

An enjoyable read that offers human connection during a time when life can feel held in abeyance.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Where?

where

Where? by Simon Moreton is a moving tribute to the author’s late father who died in 2017. It is a hybrid of: memoir, local history, art – inspired by the question, where are you from? The book is beautifully produced and provides a fascinating insight into the impact surroundings have on shaping what a person becomes. It is a reminder that places are constantly changing, that time moves inexorably on.

“In my unfocused arbitrary melancholy I raged at the loss of that place, of a building, a function. Is that how the horrific pledge to ‘the good old days’ is made? To plant my flag, while ignoring the irony of having grown up five hundred feet away, in a house built upon layers and layers of other people’s memories, angry that someone else was now doing the same to me?”

In 1987, Moreton’s father took a job as an engineer, working at a radar station serving the Civil Aviation Authority. Situated on the embankments of an Iron Age hill fort, on Titterstone Clee in Shropshire, the view from the top in fine weather was ‘so pastoral that Tolkien was alleged to have written about it and called it the Shire.’ Weather was, however, unpredictable with squalls and sudden temperature drops providing memorable challenges for staff and tourists.

The family moved from their former home in suburban Surrey to a new-build house on a small estate in Caynham, three miles from the radar station and adjacent to a then derelict stately home. The locale was rural and quiet, steeped in lore and shaped by past lives and industry. The author revisits key locations, taking the reader on a walk through centuries of past residents’ known experiences and legacies – the marks they left on the area. As a child this was his playground, a place for adventures with his older brother and friends.

“Memories of these woods – pond-dipping, mud-running, grave-visiting, absurdly bucolic pictures – form the scaffolding of my childhood identity. We were a family as any other, thoroughly unaware that the place was a human-made landscape, oblivious to the history of wealth, power, privilege and tragedy to which it was witness.”

The stories are wrapped around the bones of Moreton’s father’s illness – diagnosis, progression and then death within a matter of weeks. As the scattered family come together to keep vigil, the author muses on elements of their personal history. They moved frequently, as did he after leaving home for university. He describes certain aspects of the seventeen years that followed this quest for independence with refreshing honesty – a young man unsure and frequently messing up – and a nod to the unreliability of memory.

“I don’t know what I want. Or rather, I do, but I have neither the experiential common sense nor the emotional vocabulary to work out how to articulate it, let alone go about getting it.”

“he speaks to me about making hard decisions, and being happy, and doing what was right for me. I don’t think he even means the school work or my decisions about university; I think he means for me to stop fighting myself, and make the changes I need to make, for myself.”

The family grief at the impending death is tempered for the reader by historic stories shared – tales of others’ lives and tragedies spanning centuries. Readers are immersed in the Shropshire hills as they too keep vigil. The monochrome artwork accompanying the many accounts and recollections is as poignant and expressive as the engaging prose, photographs and clippings.

where pic 1   where pic 2

A fascinating and moving tribute to an ordinary family man whose legacy lives on through his impact on those he predeceased. A comforting reminder that, despite individual transience, the ripples we make can provide comfort in memory – stories to share and pass on, as the author has done here.

“it’s no surprise that during the period of his illness thoughts about growing up, of how our family came to be and where we were from bubbled up as we sought in trauma and in grief to find common narratives to our diverging life-courses, things that would keep us connected with him and each other.”

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

Robyn Reviews: Subject Twenty One

‘Subject Twenty One’ is a dystopian novel with an intriguing premise. The dystopian genre dominated the YA scene for several years, with The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner series’ possibly the best known examples, but since then it’s been a tough genre to crack. ‘Subject Twenty One’ is simply written, but puts a fresh spin on older ideas, creating an engaging and highly readable story. First published by Locutions Press in 2018 as ‘The Museum of Second Chances’, it’s now being reissued under a new name by Del Rey.

Elise is a Sapien – a member of the lowest order of humanity and held responsible for the damage inflicted on Earth by previous generations. Sapiens are given limited education and kept in poverty to atone for their ancestors’ crimes. When Elise is offered a job at the Museum of Evolution, she sees a chance to build a better life. Her task is to be a companion to one of the recently resurrected Neanderthals, Twenty-One. However, the job comes with risks – at the Museum, she’ll be under greater scrutiny than she ever has been before, putting her and her family’s secrets at risk. Plus, the more time she spends with Twenty-One, the more she starts to realise how little there is keeping her from a cage of her own.

The world Warren creates is excellent. Set only a few hundred years in the future, it’s changed enormously. The advent of genetic engineering has led to a race of superhumans, Homo Potiors, who run society. All skilled jobs are performed by Homo Medius – another race of genetically engineered humans, inferior to the Potiors but far superior to the un-engineered Homo Sapiens. Homo Sapiens was responsible for the destruction of the planet and extinction of untold species, and therefore cannot be trusted. All of humanity lives on four highly controlled bases – each named after a component of DNA – with the rest of the world given over to rewilding, allowing Earth to heal. Its a simple yet effective concept. As a Sapien, Elise is taught very little about her world, and it’s fascinating learning about evolutionary concepts and the structure of her world with her – and then seeing how Potior-taught truths are challenged.

Elise makes a very likeable protagonist. Her father is a sceptic, convinced that the Potior and Medius are going to move against the Sapiens, and raised her to be prepared for war and survival. Elise, in contrast, is more trusting and genial – but also lonely, as most of those around her see her family as freaks. She also has a younger brother who’s Deaf, which is seen by society as a marker her family has poor genetics. Elise is friendly and caring, always looking out for her family – especially her brother – but her friendliness means she easily forms attachments, and as a companion the biggest no-no is becoming attached to her Neanderthal. It’s interesting seeing how Elise grapples with her warring responsibilities – how her loyalty to her family starts to chafe against her loyalty to her new friends at the Museum.

The supporting cast is also excellent. Samuel and Georgina, a Homo Medius scientist and doctor respectively, are two highlights – both are always nice to Elise despite her designation, but there’s always an underlying uneasiness of how much the different classes can truly trust each other. Twenty-One, the Neanderthal, is brilliantly written – he’s lived all his life in a cage, alone except for his companion, and the way this has affected his psyche is both horrible and fascinating.

The science is kept to a minimum – Elise has never been allowed much of an education, so she barely understands concepts like evolution, let alone how the Museum is bringing back extinct animals. It makes this a highly accessible read. The language is also very simple. It took me some time to get into the book because of this – at times it felt over-simplistic – but the story is fast-paced and the content engaging, and after a while the language starts to suit the story. It’s a little unclear if this is aimed at the YA or adult audience, but given the more basic language and Elise’s age, I’d put this in the YA bracket.

Overall, ‘Subject Twenty One’ is a solid addition to the dystopian genre, with elements of Jurassic Park crossed with a standard YA dystopia. Recommended for fans of both the former, plus those who enjoy a fast-paced story and explorations of human ethics.

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

Published by Del Rey
Paperback: 1st July 2021

Monthly Roundup – June 2021

june

I have found June tough. For all the talk of lifting restrictions it seems conditions may be imposed that I personally regard as untenable – a choice to conform or accept pariah status. I am beginning to think I will not be able to make overnight trips or even go out socially in the foreseeable future. If this is to be my life – confined, repetitive and blamed for not acquiescing to the demands of believers – I find myself questioning its worth.

Day follows day and I put myself through the motions. I cycle, most often ending up at the gym where I lift weights. I run on local tracks and lanes. I deal with dishes and laundry, trying to stay on top of things for my family. I remind myself of our many privileges.

We celebrated younger son’s 21st birthday at home with cake, champagne and a takeaway. He seemed pleased with his presents. His future plans remain uncertain. I still don’t know if he will wish to return to university, especially now campus students may be required to adhere to a plethora of personal interventions. Another year learning from home would be a lonely existence.

Daughter finished her final stint working the wards in London and has now also moved home. She purchased her first car that she may commute to the job she starts in a few weeks. I am so very proud of all she has achieved but can see she finds living with us full time frustrating after her taste of independence.

Husband and elder son seem in a better place, their jobs providing structure and purpose alongside contact with colleagues.

On the blog, at the request of a reader, I started a new series that will feature one of my many teddy bears – Edward Explores. I am thinking this will be a monthly endeavour. It has proved a much needed injection of fun during what feels a particularly bleak period.

Sorry for being so negative – I hope you are doing better.

I posted reviews for eight books in June before going on hiatus. Robyn picked up the slack, posting fifteen reviews.

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

ever rest  whereabouts
Ever Rest by Roz Morris
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri, published by Bloomsbury

Everything Happens
Everything Happens for a Reason by Katie Allen, published by Orenda

Translated Fiction

yesterday
Yesterday by Juan Emar (translated by Megan McDowell), published by Peirene Press

Short Stories

intimacies
Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell, published by Faber & Faber

Poetry

owl unbound the heeding
Owl Unbound by Zoe Brooks, published by Indigo Dreams Publishing
The Heeding by Rob Cowen (illustrated by Nick Hayes), published by Elliott & Thompson

Non Fiction

screaming sky
The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster (illustrated by Jonathan Pomroy), published by Little Toller

Robyn Reviews

1alex  1hann
These Feathered Flames by Alexandra Overy, published by HarperCollins
For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten, published by Orbit

1cari  1sach
Threadneedle by Cari Thomas, published by HarperVoyager
The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, published by HarperVoyager

1tash  1avar
The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, published by Orbit
The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid, published by DelRey

1acwi  1juli
Wendy Darling by A. C. Wise, published by Titan Books
Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa, published by HQ

1emmi  1wahe
Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta, published by Harper Voyager
In the Wars by Dr Waheed Arian, published by Bantam Press

1case  1joan
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston, published by St. Martin’s Griffin
The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He, published by Text Publishing

1mile  1yoko
Artifact Space by Miles Cameron, published by Gollancz
Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada (translated by Susan Bernofsky), published by Granta

1jorDon’t Breathe a Word by Jordyn Taylor, published by Harper Collins

Sourcing the Books

Robyn is on NetGalley and is grateful for all approvals of titles requested. She also received a good number of enticing titles, gifted from publishers or purchased.

Robyn received june

I received an eclectic selection of books in the post this month and look forward to reading them all.

june 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: Don’t Breathe A Word

‘Don’t Breathe A Word’ is part YA mystery in the vein of ‘One of Us Is Lying’ and part dark academia along the lines of ‘Plain Bad Heroines‘. Like the latter, it takes place across two timelines – the present, where Eva has just started at a new, exclusive boarding school, Hardwick Academy, and 1962, where six students enter a bunker built under the threat of the Cold War – but only five emerge alive. It’s an engaging, twisty tale with plenty of surprises. There are elements that require a bit of suspension of disbelief but, taken at face value, this is a solid mystery with a highly satisfying ending.

Eva has always felt like she doesn’t belong. An accidental pregnancy, she was replaced in her mother’s affections as soon as her husband and legitimate child came along – and the final straw has seen her shipped off to boarding school against her will. At Hardwick, she’s on the outside of established social groups and more of an outsider than ever – that is, until she receives an invitation to join a secret society known as the Fives. With the Fives, she’s finally part of something – finally seen as special. But there’s more to the Fives than there first seems, and the more Eva learns, the more uneasy she becomes. Just how many secrets are the Fives ensuring stay buried?

In 1962, Hardwick Academy has constructed a nuclear fallout shelter to counter the escalating threat of the Cold War – and to test it out, six students are invited to volunteer to stay overnight. Connie would never have volunteered – except the exercise is being run by Mr Kraus, her best friend Betty’s latest obsession, and school golden boy Craig Allenby has also volunteered. She can’t pass up the opportunity to spend four days locked in with him. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more to the exercise than they first thought – and as things start to escalate, Connie starts to worry that everything will end in disaster.

Both plotlines are engaging. Reading about the threat of the Cold War and the psychological impact on those growing up in the sixties is fascinating, if horrific, as is the difference in gender roles and the way authority figures are treated. The politics of high school are incredibly familiar, and its hard not to feel for Connie. While it’s never stated on page, Connie also has a clear anxiety disorder, and it’s great to see this not glossed over and have a significant impact on how she acts. In the present day, it’s initially unclear how the timelines will intersect – but as reveals are slowly made, it becomes obvious that there’s a massive secret, and the tension steadily ramps up. At the same time, Eva must deal with the joy of being chosen for the first time in her life alongside the growing fear that the Fives are far darker than she initially thought. The way she grapples with her innate clinginess and fear of being alone is well portrayed, and while its always clear which side she’ll choose Woods does well to make her decision a difficult one.

The characters are delightfully complex. Initially, Eva can come across as hard to like – as a result of her childhood, she has an outward air of irreverence combined with an internal clinginess so strong its off-putting – but as the reader gets to know her, she flourishes into a practical girl with great instincts and a strong moral compass. Her character arc is excellent, and its wonderful to see her start to find happiness despite the circumstances. In contrast, the reader immediately feels sorry for Connie – the anxiety she suffers with is overwhelming, and she’s led along by her friend Betty who seems to mean well but doesn’t always go about things the right way. Connie is sweet and quiet, but also naive – and as events unfold, it becomes apparent that her view on things is far too black and white. Again, she has an excellent character arc, and its impossible not to root for her.

The supporting cast fall a little more into stereotypes, but they play their roles well and have enough dimension to avoid being caricatures. The story as a whole isn’t the most original, with elements reminiscent of other stories in the YA mystery genre, but again it holds its own well enough to prove a worthwhile read. Some parts are wildly implausible – its unclear how the original secret was covered up so well – but this is fiction, and allowances can be made. The story reads on the lighter side, so detailed criticisms of possibility seem unfair.

Overall, this is an enjoyable entry to the YA mystery genre with a highly effective two-timelines structure and two complex and compelling protagonists. The historical elements with the Cold War lend this a dimension which sets it apart enough from its compatriots to be highly worth a read. Recommended for fans of YA mystery and the lighter end of dark academia.

Thanks to Harper360 YA for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by HarperCollins
Hardback: 24th June 2021

Robyn Reviews: Memoirs of a Polar Bear

‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ is literary fiction with a fantasy twist – the protagonists are polar bears. It chronicles the story of three bears across three generations, each of which lead widely different – yet also incredibly similar – lives. Its a deliberately bizarre book, one which falls apart under any sort of scrutiny, but raises plenty of questions about humanity and modern life.

The story is divided into three chapters, one for each bear. In chapter one, a bear who was once a circus performer starts to write her autobiography after a chance conversation with her building’s superintendent. The memoir becomes a bestseller, eventually leading to her being forced to flee the Soviet Union to avoid internment in Siberia, becoming a refugee first in West Germany and, later, Canada. In chapter two, her daughter Tosca, who grew up in East Germany and trained as a ballet dancer, follows her mother’s legacy into circus life. This chapter is divided – told partially from the point of view of a human performer at the circus, and partially from Tosca’s – and is the most surreal of the three. In chapter three, Tosca’s son Knut – left by his mother to be raised at the Berlin Zoo – grows up raised by the human Matthias, knowing only life in his enclosure. He’s the zoo’s prize star, used to raise awareness of climate change and showed off as an adorable polar bear cub. However, when he accidentally injures Matthias, he’s left alone, with only his thoughts for company.

This is an exceptionally difficult book to review, mostly because its less a piece of fiction and more an elaborate work of social commentary The unnamed bear in chapter one lives much like a human, whereas Knut in chapter three lives like any other animal today – caged. This regression of rights throughout the book is only apparent on reflection: on a first read, it’s simply confusing why some bears have some rights and others have none. The entire book leads the reader to make assumptions and then confront why they’ve made them. Where the first bear has an excellent grasp of human languages, Tosca is mute – and thus the reader is lulled into thinking of them as less intelligent, more animal than human. But why should Tosca’s inability to speak a language make her any less intelligent? Humans jump to conclusions and cognitive biases, and Tawada takes them and frames them so subtly it’s easy to miss on a first or even second read.

Alongside these more abstract concepts, the bears make some direct and piercing observations on humanity. Why do humans always lie to try and spare other’s feelings? Why do humans turn some essential functions, like eating, into an elaborate and pleasurable performance, whereas others, like bowel movements and periods, are taboo? The bears see humans as constantly making life unnecessarily difficult for themselves, and spend a great deal of time trying to figure out why.

All the bears are artists, so there are some equally intriguing comments on the purpose of art and performance, and to what extent life is an elaborate piece of theatre. Knut, especially, having spent his entire life in a zoo, is conscious of always performing. His anxieties about this feel all too human.

While the idea behind this book is exceptionally clever, it does have issues in execution. It was originally written in German, so may flow better in its original language. The second chapter in particular starts to blur dreams and reality, leaving it very unclear what is actually happening. This more spiritual, surrealist element comes across as confusing and jarring to me personally, and makes this section quite hard to read. At times, there’s even a temptation to skip over entire paragraphs. This is also very much a book which demands reflection. Without it, it would be very easy to close the final page with a vague air of dissatisafaction and confusion and write the entire book off as failing to tell any real story.

Overall, ‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ is a strong literary novel, despite its fantasy elements, designed more to be thought-provoking than to tell a real story. Recommended for fans of cerebral literary fiction, novels which defy convention, and those with an interest in human psychology.

Published by Granta Books
Paperback: 2nd November 2017

Robyn Reviews: Artifact Space

‘Artifact Space’ is an action packed space opera with a multitude of subplots. The author’s debut science fiction novel, it has a confidence and scope that make it feel like it belongs to a master of the genre. With the constant action and sheer number of characters and threads, it can feel very confusing, and there are times when the flow is lost entirely due to the novel’s breakneck pace, but overall it’s an enjoyable addition to the space adventure genre.

Marca Nbaro has always dreamed of escaping the orphanage she grew up in and venturing into space – but thanks to her whistleblowing and a minor scandal, she’s barred from serving. Undeterred, she pools her entire life savings into simulators, hackers, and forgeries, bluffing her way into a position as a Midder on the Greatship Athens. However, leaving behind her old life isn’t so easy – and between the ever-present threat of blackmail, acting like she has a clue what she’s doing, navigating the microcosm and culture of Greatship life, and an unexpected threat to the Athens, Marca starts to realise she might have traded her dangerous life for one even more perilous. As the Athens sets off on a two-year round trip to make humanity’s most important trade – obtaining xenoglas from the only other sentient alien species they’ve ever made contact with – Marca is trapped to deal with whatever the universe decides to throw at her next.

Marca Nbaro makes a brilliant protagonist. Unusually for a novel of this length, she’s the single point-of-view character, but her perspective is an engaging one. With a horrible, traumatic background, she definitely has elements of PTSD – but she also has incredible grit and determination and a tendency to react to danger by throwing herself headlong into it. She trusts no-one, reacting warily to simple things like touch, and her lack of willingness to ever admit to weakness constantly gets her into trouble – but she’s intelligent and gutsy and easy to root for. It’s also wonderful seeing how, as the novel goes on, she starts to come out of her shell – never fully, but a huge step from where she starts. Her growing friendship with her roommate, Thea, is lovely, as is the way her respect of her colleagues starts to resemble friendship too. There’s a romance, but it’s very slow and subtle – in keeping with Marca’s triggers and defensiveness – and feels beautifully organic.

The side characters are numerous – so numerous it takes a significant amount of time to figure out who everyone is, and sometimes names are thrown in and it’s a challenge to remember who they are – but there are some real gems. Mpono is one of the highlights – an androgyne, which appears to be a third gender marker somewhat equivalent to the non-binary spectrum, Mpono is confident, talented, and takes absolutely no nonsense. They’re tough, but as Marca starts to get to know them, it also becomes clear that they also have a wicked sense of humour and really care about their friends.

The plot is constantly moving, never given a moment of rest. The overarching plot revolves around a threat to the Greatships of mysterious origin, but there are numerous subplots – Marca’s lies to get on the ship in the first place, the politics of life on the Athens, and a secret to do with the aliens they’re travelling to meet. The subplots are less woven in and more thrown into a soup, with events constantly occurring that may or may not affect the overall story. This makes the story chaotic, but somehow works – everything becomes quite unpredictable, and whilst it can be hard to keep track of everything there’s still a compulsive readability to the story.

The world-building happens organically throughout. The reader is thrown in the deep end, picking up tidbits as they go along – sometimes from Marca learning about them, and sometimes inferring from context. It’s a novel that best suits a reader familiar with the science fiction genre, as many of the basics are genre staples that would be harder for a new reader to infer. It’s essentially set in a version of the future where Earth, or Old Terra, has been mostly destroyed, but humanity has instead expanded throughout the universe thanks to technological advancement and a form of faster-than-light travel known as Insertion. There are several different factions, each based on Earth’s geography – an African faction, a US faction, a Chinese faction – each of which has home planets and their own space force for war and trade. The factions are allied, but not entirely – the friction between them is a major subplot. The use of familiar names works well, and it’s nice to read a space opera that doesn’t assume the entire Earth allied as one organisation when it conquered space.

Overall, ‘Artifact Space’ is an exceptionally fast-paced and creative novel, highly readable with an excellent cast of characters. Its scope is huge, and the sheer amount happening is regularly confusing, but despite this its easy to enjoy. Recommended for fans of space adventures and novels with non-stop action.

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

Published by Gollancz
Paperback: 24th June 2021