Robyn Reviews: The Falling in Love Montage

‘The Falling in Love Montage’ is a cute sapphic romance, but also a moving coming-of-age story that deals with grief, family, and making the most of the time you have. It balances the saccharine sweetness perfectly with hard-hitting character development, producing a novel that’s both entertaining and moving.

Saoirse doesn’t believe in happy endings. If they were real, she and her ex-girlfriend would still be together. If they were real, her mother would still be able to remember her name. If they were real, Saoirse wouldn’t be at risk of inheriting the very condition that’s confined her mum to a care home in her fifties. The last thing Saoirse is looking for is a new relationship – no point in starting one if its doomed to end. Enter Ruby – a rom-com obsessed girl only visiting Ireland for the summer. She has a loophole: for the next few months, they do all the swoon-worthy activities from her favourite rom-coms, then at the end they break up and never see each other again. Its the perfect plan aside from one tiny flaw: at the end of the falling in love montage, the characters always fall in love. For real.

Saoirse is a highly flawed character – cynical, angsty, and prone to verbally lashing out – but she’s also deeply caring, and trying to navigate the complexity of the teenage-to-adult transition with a lot on her plate. There’s her mother – in a care home with early onset dementia, a disease which is often genetic. There’s her father – unbeknown to Saoirse, in a new relationship despite her mother still being alive. There’s her future – she’s secured the envy of everyone, a place at Oxford, and she can’t quite bring herself to admit that she isn’t sure she actually wants to go. Not to mention there’s the huge breakup that has cost her both her girlfriend and her best friend. Saoirse is too proud and mistrustful to ask for help, or even admit she needs it – but for all her flaws, her intentions are good, and her growth throughout the book is amazing. She’s also a highly realistic teenager with many relatable struggles and snap reactions.

While this is a love story, there are several key relationships in this book. There’s Saoirse and Ruby – but also Saoirse and her father, Saoirse and Ruby’s cousin Oliver, and Saoirse and her father’s new partner Beth. Romantic love is important, but this also explores other forms – love between family, between friends, and love and acceptance of one’s self. Some of the book’s strongest moments involve Saoirse’s father or Oliver rather than the Saoirse and Ruby dynamic.

“I do believe there’s a right person for you at different times of your life. Whether that relationship lasts a week or fifty years is not what makes it special.”

The writing is excellent – Ciara Smyth creates a wonderful sense of place, and her pacing is spot on, the story moving quickly but also slowing for some poignant moments. There’s the right balance of romance, humour, and harder hitting content, and each character feels three-dimensional – while this is Saoirse’s coming of age story, her father also shows significant character growth, and both Ruby and Oliver have their moments. All in all, this both strives for and succeeds in weaving an additional layer of depth over the stanard rom-com structure.

If you’re looking for a fun, quick read that’s also poignant and moving, this is the book for you. Recommended for fans of sapphic romances, coming-of-age stories, and stories that explore the complexity and emotion of family dynamics.

Published by Andersen Press
Paperback: 4th June 2020

Robyn Reviews: Beartown

‘Beartown’ is a powerful novel from a master of character-focused fiction. Along with ‘A Man Called Ove’, ‘Beartown’ is probably Fredrik Backman (and translator Neil Smith)’s most famous work – and for good reason. Where ‘A Man Called Ove’ focuses on one man, ‘Beartown’ focuses on an entire community – what makes it, what ties it together, and what happens when those ties start to fray apart. Its a brilliant piece of literature, and while it doesn’t quite have the emotional impact of ‘A Man Called Ove’, it’s a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.

Beartown is a nowhere town – a tiny town in a Swedish forest growing smaller year by year as its residents gradually up sticks in search of work and opportunity. It’s also, like so many towns in the area, a hockey town: and therein lies the town’s greatest hope of a future. If their junior hockey team can reach the finals, Beartown will finally be put on the map. When that future is threatened by one person speaking up, battle lines are drawn. What matters more: the future of the town, or the truth?

The novel switches between a large number of perspectives, with Maya, Amat, and Benji probably the strongest. Maya, a fifteen-year-old musician, can’t understand the hockey obsession of the town – she’d much rather be playing her guitar. She can, however, understand their obsession with star player Kevin Erdahl. Maya is sweet and naive but also strong, with an integrity and maturity beyond her age. Its impossible not to like her, and as the mood of the town turns, to both admire and pity her.

Amat, also fifteen, lives in the poor part of town – and for that, his immigrant status, and his small stature, he’s looked down upon. His escape is ice hockey – ever since he first put on a pair of skates he’s adored it, and thanks to his obsession his hard work is finally starting to pay off. He’s been awarded a coveted place on the junior team as they aim for the national finals. Being a part of the team comes with new acceptance and community – suddenly he’s a star, his name cheered instead of sneered at, his teammates protecting him from bullies instead of bullying him themselves. But there’s a cost – and as Amat leaves his old life behind, he starts to feel uncomfortable at the new one he’s thrust into. Like Maya, Amat is sweet and naive – but unlike her steel, Amat is pliable, unable to stand up for anything when the time comes. He has a good heart, and while it’s easy to villainise those who don’t speak up, Amat shows just how hard it can be.

Seventeen-year-old Benji is the backbone of the junior ice hockey team, known for his fierce fighting and protection of Kevin, the team’s star. He’s the cool kid – but Benji has more heart than most, and while he’s crafted himself into whatever Beartown and Kevin need him to be, he’s increasingly uncomfortable with that image. Benji’s character arc is one of the strongest, a compelling secondary narrative to the main story.

Of course, there are major adult characters in the novel too – Peter, the hockey club’s general manager and Maya’s dad, roles which eventually put him in conflict; Kira, Maya’s mum and a high-flying lawyer who, as an outsider to Beartown, still doesn’t understand it; Sune, the adult team’s elderly coach and increasingly ostracised by the club’s ambition. Each of these has a part to play – but it’s Maya and Amat who have the novel’s heart.

The town is central to the story, and Backman crafts a wonderful sense of place, emphasising Beartown’s isolation and accumulating state of disrepair. Like a Swedish winter, it’s a cold and unforgiving place, not fond of outsiders or those who threaten the status quo. This is superficially a book about ice hockey, but anyone who has lived in a small town can recognise the atmosphere of it.

If you’re looking for a thought-provoking novel that captures person and place perfectly, this is the book for you. Recommended for those who enjoy books about human nature, community, and just generally good reads.

Published by Penguin
Paperback: 3rd May 2018

Jackie reviews ‘A Man Called Ove’ here. Robyn reviews Backman’s latest release, ‘Anxious People’, here.

Robyn Reviews: Iron Widow

‘Iron Widow’ is an ambitious, Chinese history inspired, YA fantasy with elements of sci-fi, romance, and social commentary. It packs a lot into its 400-odd pages, and while it tells an entertaining and fast-paced story, it does at times struggle with trying to do too much.

Huaxia has been at war with the mecha-aliens beyond the Great Wall for generations, with their best means of attack the giant Chrysalises – giant transforming robots powered by a powerful male pilot and a female concubine. The fact that the female often dies is a necessary sacrifice. Zetian, however, will never forgive Huaxia for her sister’s death – and when she enlists as a concubine-pilot, it’s purely to assassinate the male pilot responsible. When she achieves the impossible – overpowering the psychic link between them and ensuring he is the one who dies instead – it rattles Huaxia to the core. In revenge, they pair her with the most controversial of their pilots – Li Shimin, powerful and renowned for murdering his entire family. However, Zetian is not giving up her new power so easily – and by leveraging their combined infamy, she’s determined to bring the entire misogynistic system to its knees.

Zetian is fierce, determined, and full of anger and vengeance. She’ll stop at nothing to bring down her sister’s killer – and once she’s done that, to turn the entire system on its head. Her motives are admirable – she clearly loves her sister, and hates that most women simply accept being mere vessels or batteries for male power – but gradually, as her influence grows, she also starts to crave power for power’s sake. It’s subtly and cleverly done, and even when Zetian doesn’t seem to be doing the right thing its difficult to stop rooting for her after growing so attached.

Li Shimin is a more nuanced character, kept a mystery for a large amount of the book. There are horrors in his past, and its difficult to know whether to pity or revile him. However, as more is revealed, it’s clear his story is a more complex one than first meets the eye. He provides a good counterpoint to Zetian.

The other major character is Gao Yizhi – Zetian’s only friend from her original village and the son of one of the richest and most influential people in Huaxia. Unlike Zetian and Shimin, Yizhi always comes across as a genuinely nice and supportive person – not perfect, but a breath of fresh air amongst the darkness. Yizhi clearly adores Zetian, and their dynamic is always excellent.

‘Iron Widow’ is one of the only mainstream YA books featuring a polyamorous relationship, and this is exceptionally well handled. The chemistry is authentically written and the characters have some wonderful open discussions about polyamory.

The worldbuilding is solid, although clearly not the novel’s main focus – this is a plot and theme driven novel rather than anything else. The system behind the Chrysalises and the origins of the aliens is one of the most intriguing parts, and from the ending its apparent this will be delved into much more in the sequel. The ending, again, is strong, satisfying but leaving plenty open for the next chapter.

The main issue is that so much is explored that none of it can be explored to its full depths. Feminism is a key theme, but there’s minimal delving into the origins of the current patriarchal system. Power is another – but again, while this is explored, it doesn’t feel entirely satisfying. Admittedly, this is the first book in a series, so it has to leave itself revelations for the sequels – but after reading, little of the book lingers, which is a sign it didn’t quite have its intended impact.

Overall, ‘Iron Widow’ is a fun, fast-paced read, audacious in scope and solid in execution. It might have benefitted from an extra hundred pages to help it go slightly deeper into its subject matter, but if you’re looking for an action-packed YA fantasy this should fit the bill.

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

Published by Rock the Boat
Hardback: 7th October 2021

Monthly Roundup – December 2021

december

Another year draws to a close. The virus is still with us, mutating as such agents do. Governments around the world scrabble to appear in control by limiting freedoms and encouraging public shaming. Lives are put at risk as healthcare efforts focus on this one infection. Hard won livelihoods are decimated, feeding the myriad health impacts associated with stress and potential penury. It is hard not to despair at the media manipulation and fearmongering. Someone on Twitter described 2021 as ‘rather like a remaindered copy of the previous year’ and this resonated.

At the beginning of December it looked ever more likely that additional restrictions would be imposed in England. Husband and I decided we could squeeze in one more trip away before the hospitality industry became inhospitable again. The hotel we stayed at on the south coast had reintroduced a mask mandate, but the weather was good and the food provided excellent so we had a mostly enjoyable few days by the sea. We walked up and down the local cliff paths for miles. We ran as tourists in Bridport Parkrun. Of course, Edward came along with us. I wrote about his adventures here: Edward Explores: The Dorset Coast.

On returning home we cast our minds towards Christmas. Books make the perfect present so I published my roundup of recommended reads – 23 titles that particularly impressed me from the well over 100 books reviewed this past year – Annual Roundup.

Along with the other Bookmunch reviewers, I contributed to their fine Best of 2021 list.

Robyn’s recommendations came later in the month – Robyn’s Reads of 2021. She has been so busy with work her contributions to the blog have had to be curtailed.

I continue to exercise regularly although this has been somewhat limited recently by fluctuating energy levels and time constraints. Hopefully I will get out more in the New Year.

Husband and I attended two social events this month – a work dinner hosted by the company we are currently contracted to, and a dinner party with the friends husband runs with each Sunday – when he is not injured. I am rarely comfortable in social situations but these events passed without anxiety inducing incident. Phew!

I posted reviews for 10 books in December. Robyn has been too busy on the wards to add to this.

As is customary in these roundups, click on the title below to read the review and on the cover to learn more about the book.

Fiction

Pupa  glide
Pupa by J.O. Morgan, published by Henningham Family Press
Glide by Alison Jean Lester (with photographs by Andrew Gurnett)

here is where  foster
Here is Where by Morgan Omotoye, published by Open Pen
Foster by Claire Keegan, published by Faber & Faber

reset  he wants
Reset by Paolo Pergola, published by Sagging Meniscus
He Wants by Alison Moore, published by Salt

Translated Fiction

four minutes
Four Minutes by Nataliya Deleva (translated by Izidora Angel), published by Open Letter

YA Fiction

strong stuffStrong Stuff by A.F. Stone, published by SRL Publishing

Poetry

the maskThe Mask by Elisabeth Horan, published by The Broken Spine

Non Fiction

B plaguesB, A Year In Plagues and Pencils by Edward Carey, published by Gallic

Sourcing the books

Robyn received several gifts of books alongside her usual subscription copies from Illumicrate and Goldsboro.

IMG-20211227-WA0000

My monthly ‘books in’ pile was small in quantity but big in quality – two of these were read immediately.

books received jackie december

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their books 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. A New Year beckons. Let’s hope it includes moments of joy and a better appreciation of what is still our beautiful world. Whatever it brings, may we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx

Monthly Roundup – November 2021

november

There have been positives this month. I’m going to try hard to focus more on the positives.

Husband and I spent the first weekend of November in the Lake District. Despite the wet weather we had a lovely few days away. We climbed a mountain, walked around several lakes and ran a Parkrun in nearby Ambleside as tourists. We also enjoyed lots of lovely food. Naturally, Edward, my adventuring teddy bear, accompanied us. I wrote about his exploits in Edward Explores: Grasmere.

Edward had further adventures locally. I posted about these in Edward Explores: Fungi. Included is a family meal out to celebrate what should have been daughter’s second graduation, which she could not attend. We are so proud of all her achievements.

Daughter and I attended a ‘gig’ in Bath, visiting Toppings Bookshop on its reopening day. I wrote about this here.

Time has also been spent at the two gyms I frequent, with longer, loopy bike rides taken to get there – so cold at this time of year. I continue to run regularly and beat my personal best at our local Parkrun – pleasing given the course has now turned muddy and therefore slippery following recent weather. After much procrastination, I finally contacted a friend I used to walk with weekly and arranged to meet after many months of no communication. It was good to catch up with her news – we now hope to get back to walking together more regularly.

Hockey season is in full swing so the other members of my family come and go between training sessions and matches. As two of them also work shifts, it is a rare treat to all sit down to eat together.

I posted reviews for 8 books in November. Robyn added her thoughts on a further 2 books.

As is customary in these roundups, click on the title below to read the review and on the cover to learn more about the book.

Fiction

learwife  Emperor-of-Ice-Cream
Learwife by JR Thorp, published by Canongate
The Emperor of Ice Cream by Brian Moore, published by Turnpike Books

small things
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, published by Faber & Faber

Short Stories

building a wall  colchester writenight
No One Has Any Intention of Building a Wall by Ruth Brandt, published by Fly on the Wall Press
Colchester WriteNight, published by Patrician Press

Translated Fiction

Brickmakers   Byobu
Brickmakers by Selva Almada (translated by Annie McDermott), published by Charco Press
Byobu by Ida Vitale (translated by Sean Manning), published by Charco Press

Translated Non Fiction

intimate resistanceThe Intimate Resistance: A Philosophy of Proximity by Josep Maria Esquirol (translated by Douglas Suttle), published by Fum d’Estampa Press

Robyn Reviews

1tad  1susa
Far From the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson, published by Orbit
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, published by Bloomsbury

Sourcing the books

Robyn purchased her usual pile of pretty hardbacks, none of which she has yet found time to read…

robyn books november  robyn trilogy november

I received a pleasing quantity of books through the post and also made some purchases while at the Toppings gig.

IMG_20211127_175140341

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their books 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: Far from the Light of Heaven

‘Far From the Light of Heaven’ is pitched as a locked room mystery in space, with elements of space opera and elements of old-fashioned detective drama. It’s an audacious premise, and while it doesn’t entirely come off, it’s still an entertaining and fast-paced story.

Michelle ‘Shell’ Campion is from a line of astronauts, and there was never any doubt in her mind that she’d end up in space. For her first mission, she’s assigned as First Mate on the starship Ragtime – an entirely ceremonial position, providing backup to an AI captain that’s never failed. Except, when Shell wakes in the Lagos system, she discovers the AI has failed – and some of her passengers are dead. With the help of Rasheed Fin, a disgraced investigator from the colony Bloodroot, his robotic partner Salva, and a couple of unexpected allies, Shell must figure out who’s attacking her ship – before they kill them all.

The story starts strongly, introducing the main players and setting the scene organically, without resorting to reams of description of technology or futuristic culture. There’s also clear foreshadowing, with emphasis on the infallibility of the AI and hints of characters needing a redemption arc. It’s unclear exactly how far into the future the novel is set, but the Earth described retains hints of current culture whilst also showing hints of divergence, making it easy to settle in.

All the characters are likeable enough without being particularly memorable. The strongest is probably Larry, an ageing governor on Lagos Station and friend of Shell’s late father. Fin also has an intriguing backstory and brings an emotional element sometimes lacking from some of the others.

I have two main criticisms of this book. The first is that there’s a level of disconnect between the reader and the characters throughout – they’re deliberately kept at a distance, very much observing through the keyhole rather than sitting down at the table. It makes the characters seem a little two-dimensional, and also makes them less memorable. Every moment of tension loses some impact because the reader empathises less without that connection. In a book that relies on a fast-pace and constant threat of danger, that’s a major downside.

The second criticism is related to the first, and it’s a loss of believability towards the end of the novel. Science fiction and fantasy as a genre revolves around the reader believing in the major or science within the book – believing that, in this world or version of it, these things are possible. Perhaps due to the lack of reader connection, ‘Far From the Light of Heaven’ starts to lose its plausibility towards the end. There are certain elements I couldn’t bring myself to buy, and it affected my enjoyment. That being said, the novel tries to pack an awful lot into a short space of time, and I admire Tade Thompson for having the guts to try and pull something so difficult off.

The mystery element is creative, twisty, and keeps the reader guessing, so in this way the novel excels. Thompson isn’t afraid to blend genres and go down rabbit holes to hide the twists, and many of the new directions are completely unpredictable. Some of the foreshadowing is there, but it would be incredibly difficult to guess the ending before at least three quarters of the way in.

Overall, ‘Far From the Light of Heaven’ is a solid mystery novel that utilises its sci-fi setting well. For fans of character-driven stories it’s a weaker tale, but for fans of fast-paced, audacious novels that like to try something new it’s a recommended read.

Thanks to Orbit UK for providing an arc – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 26th October 2021

Robyn Reviews: Piranesi

‘Piranesi’ is the second novel by Susanna Clarke, author of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’, and one of the rare fantasy novels to cross over into the mainstream consciousness. Along with being nominated for the the fantasy staples of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards, it was nominated for the Costa Book Award and won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. With a brilliantly clever premise and engaging prose, it’s easy to see why it has such wide appeal, but personally I didn’t find the ending had quite the impact I wanted.

Piranesi lives in the House. The House is a labyrinth of endless rooms, each filled with hundreds of statues and inhabited by an ocean that intermittently floods them with its restless tides. Piranesi is one of only two occupants of the House. There is also The Other, a mysterious man who visits Piranesi twice a week so Piranesi can help his research into The Great and Secret Knowledge. Piranesi loves his House, dedicating his life to studying it. However, the arrival of a visitor to the House shatters Piranesi’s world, and all his understanding of the House and its beauty starts to unravel.

‘Piranesi’ is a novel to go into with as little knowledge as possible. It’s a short book of gradual realisation, and starting from any point but ignorance robs it of some of its impact. Other reviews I’ve seen favour the second half, where things are clearer for the reader and there’s the tension that comes with waiting for the characters to catch up; strangely, I feel the first half of the book is by far the stronger, with a sense of confusion and building tension that grows as the reader starts to connect the dots.

One of the strongest aspects of the book is the writing. Clarke uses a lot of short, sharp sentences, reflecting the very literal way in which Piranesi sees his world. She creates a brilliant sense of place and atmosphere without resorting to flowery language – her ability to say a lot with few words is excellent. For some people the style might take a little time to get used to, but it adds to the sense of tension and slight disconnect from reality.

There are very few characters in the book, making the reader’s connection with Piranesi very important. Sharing too much about Piranesi might delve into spoiler territory, but he’s an easy character to like and sympathise with.

Whether or not this book works for each individual reader essentially hinges on how well the twist works. There’s a great deal of foreshadowing and by the time the climax happens there’s a simultaneous sense of horror and satisfaction. However, I didn’t buy into it as much as I wanted to. I absolutely loved the House and the creativity of the premise, but certain elements of the twist felt more contrived and underwhelming. I also felt it tried just a little too hard to explain all the fantasy elements, which removed some of their glorious magic. There was an undercurrent of morally grey ethics which I adored, but I wanted the fantasy elements to be just a little stronger.

Overall, ‘Piranesi’ is a short book worth reading for the excellent faculties of language, creativity of premise, and crossover appeal to fans of both fantasy and more literary fare. It didn’t blow me away as much as I wanted it to, but if you’re curious about the hype, it’s definitely worth giving it a read.

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardback: 15th September 2020 / Paperback: 2nd September 2021

Monthly Roundup – October 2021

october

October has been another month of marking time. Is this what life is to be now – limited social interaction and staying mostly local? At least the lack of travel and associated consumption means less environmental pollution.

I am enjoying the photographs various friends are posting online as they return to travelling abroad. I feel a hint of regret and nostalgia but am happy they are finding ways to navigate the myriad and ever changing rules now in place around the world. I am also grateful that I live amidst beautiful countryside. I can appreciate this from my doorstep.

There have been highlights. Younger son finally secured a job and is now a ‘key worker’. It is part time but he picks up occasional extra shifts to add to his contracted hours. Daughter should have graduated this month but only the former students would have been allowed in the venue so opted not to attend. In the event she was working nights again so a good call. We celebrated as a family a few days later with dinner at a local restaurant. Our young people have missed out on so many milestones that would have been observed more lavishly in former times.

Husband’s calf injury is healing and he has managed a few short and easy runs recently with no ill effects. I continue to run several times a week. At one of my weekly Parkruns I cracked the 28 minute barrier, setting a new personal best for the course. I also set a PB over the half marathon distance, although this run required several days recovery. I am in awe of anyone who can run a marathon or longer.

My cycling has become less enjoyable as the weather turns autumnal, although I did purchase a pair of windproof gloves that have helped keep me more comfortable. Most rides eventually lead to the town gym where I strength train – these workouts are showing gradual improvements. Setting and then ticking off personal goals helps with motivation but are, I realise, unimportant in the scheme of things. We take what we can.

My teddy bear post this month saw Edward out and about locally – those interested may read Autumn.

It has been a mostly decent reading month. I posted reviews for 8 books in October. Robyn added her thoughts on a further 2 books. The non fiction titles I read inspired me to write a personal post, On Mattering.

As is customary in these roundups, click on the title below to read the review and on the cover to learn more about the book.

Fiction

case study narrow door
Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet, published by Saraband
A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris, published by Orion

Translated Fiction

bureau  winter flowers
The Bureau of Past Management by Iris Hanika (translated by Abigail Wender), published by V&Q Books
Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter), published by Peirene Press

Occupation
Occupation by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn), published by Charco Press

Short Stories

dead relativesDead Relatives by Lucie McKnight Hardy, published by Dead Ink Books

Non Fiction

northern irish writing  aurochs and auks
Northern Irish Writing After The Troubles by Caroline Magennis, published by Bloomsbury Academic
Aurochs and Auks by John Burnside, published by Little Toller

Robyn Reviews

1naom  1kate
The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik, published by Del Rey
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, published by 4th Estate

Sourcing the books

Robyn purchased her usual pile of pretty hardbacks. Now all she needs is some time between long work shifts to read them.

robyn received october 21

I was delighted to receive a fine stack of books and am looking forward to picking up many of these.

jackie received October 21

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their books 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: My Dark Vanessa

‘My Dark Vanessa’ is a challenging book – immensely uncomfortable to read but impossible to look away from. It’s also a powerful one, brilliantly written and thought-provoking. As a debut novel, it’s an exceptional achievement, establishing Kate Elizabeth Russell as a literary force. This is the sort of book you have to be in the right mood to read, but one that lingers long after the final page.

Aged fifteen, a scholarship student at an exclusive boarding school in Maine, Vanessa Wye entered into a sexual relationship with her forty-two-year-old English teacher. Seventeen years later, the same teacher is publicly accused of sexual assault by a former student, and Vanessa’s entire world turns on its head. He can’t be an abuser. The relationship he and Vanessa had was love, the greatest love story of her life – wasn’t it? As the world shakes with the #MeToo movement, Vanessa grapples with everyone’s insistence in painting her a victim – and the man she has never shaken free from a villain.

Vanessa Wye is a brilliant protagonist, but not a likeable one, which is at the heart of what makes this book such a powerful read. Aged fifteen, she’s an outcast – she’s lost her best friend, Jenny, to a new boyfriend, and as a poor kid from rural Maine she doesn’t really fit in her polished, exclusive school. Her connection with Mr Strane feels like fate – he’s the only one who truly sees and understands her.

Aged thirty-two, she’s still an outcast, but an outcast with sharp edges. Her entire life has been defined by one teenage relationship, and she can’t seem to extricate the broken pieces of herself from him; she isn’t sure that she wants to. She fills in the gaps with alcohol, weed, casual sex – men who make her feel like she did at fifteen. Sometimes, in the dead of night, she still calls him. She hates herself after, but it’s the only time she ever feels at peace.

The story is set across two timelines – Vanessa at fifteen, and Vanessa at thirty-two. The entire book is told from Vanessa’s perspective. Russell mentions in the author’s note at the end that she was advised by editors to explore Strane’s perspective, but she refused, and I think it’s all the better for it – Vanessa’s head is an uncomfortable place to be, but there’s a real tension and atmosphere from being constantly submerged in it. It forbids the reader any escape from the horrors of Vanessa’s life – after all, she has none.

“Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?… it’s my life… This has been my whole life.”

The writing style is exquisite, but also challenging. Vanessa struggles with seeing her relationship with Strane through a negative lens – part of her knows it was wrong, but she’s also always seen it as a love story. He’s the most important figure in her life. Accordingly, parts of the novel are written very much like a romance, albeit a twisted one, a narrative choice that won’t agree with every reader. This is an explicit book, and while some elements are clearly abusive, Vanessa sees others quite differently, forcing the reader to consider them through that lens too. The writing is highly readable, flowing beautifully and painting incredibly detailed imagery – but its strength forces the reader to take a step back during certain scenes because of its sheer visceral and discomforting nature.

A big part of the novel focuses on what it means to be a victim. Vanessa struggles to see herself in any of the victims splashed across the media in the #MeToo era. Can you still be a victim if you didn’t say no? Can you still be a victim if you enjoyed it? Can you still be a victim if you love your abuser? Vanessa has been groomed and moulded until she can’t look at herself without also seeing Strane. To hate him would be to hate herself. Her musings are painful but vital – it’s easy to sympathise with abuse victims in an abstract way, but far more challenging to consider the marks left behind and the effects those have for the rest of a person’s life.

This definitely isn’t a book for everyone. Anyone with sensitivities around abuse, especially sexual abuse or abuse of minors, will likely find this book too much. Similarly, those who need a likeable protagonist they can connect to won’t find that here. However, for those with interests in human psychology or who want to understand the impact of abuse, this is a powerful read. Highly recommended.

Published by Fourth Estate
Hardback: 31st March 2020
Paperback: October 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Last Graduate

‘The Last Graduate’ is the much anticipated sequel to ‘A Deadly Education‘, Naomi Novik’s foray into fantasy dark academia. Like its predecessor, it’s a stream-of-consciousness style novel packed full of El’s righteous anger, dry humour, and general over-dramatisation – but this is also a more mature novel, showing off more of the Scholomance and its place in the world, and allowing El a great deal of personal growth. It’s a compelling read throughout, gradually picking up pace and ending on a cliffhanger that demands the next book immediately. Overall, it’s an exceptional addition to the Scholomance series and sets things up tantalisingly for a grand finale.

El, Orion, and their classmates are now seniors, with just a single year to prepare for the horrors of graduation. However, El finally has something she never expected to have – a graduation alliance – which means she might just survive after all. First, she has to navigate the daily perils of life in the Scholomance – less dangerous than they used to be, but still ever-present – the complexity of actually having friends, and of course her mother’s warning. But with her death less imminently on the horizon, El starts to allow herself to dream – and those dreams might be even more perilous than anything that has come before.

El remains a sarcastic, prickly character with no tolerance for anyone else’s ineptitude, but she’s starting to become more self aware – she’s realised that, on the inside, she’s actually a nice person, and she has no idea what to do about that. All her life she’s been told she’s an immeasurable evil. The perspective shift is fascinating – and El struggles with keeping up a tough face and accepting that she’s actually a marshmallow. She also has no idea how to interact with people – other than her mum, it’s not something she’s really had to do before – so watching her try to figure out her friendship with Aadhya, Liu, and Chloe, and her maybe-something-more with Orion is brilliant.

As the entire book is told from El’s head, the perspective on the other characters is limited, but Aadhya, Liu, Chloe, and Orion are still given room and space for growth. Orion especially is fleshed out a lot more in ‘The Last Graduate’, going from the hero who always wants to save the day to a far more insecure figure. El, with her potential for mass destruction, initially seems like the morally grey one – but the more that’s revealed about Orion, the more it becomes clear that it’s a lot more complicated. I love the way Novik flips hero and villain tropes on their head and continually obscures any clear morality.

One of my favourite characters in ‘The Last Graduate’ is the Scholomance itself, which develops hugely from ‘A Deadly Education’. There, it is simply an unusual and eccentric school packed with monsters. In the sequel it becomes a character in its own right with elements of personality and almost a sense of humour. Anthropomorphic settings are one of my favourite fantasy tropes and Novik executes it well, allowing it to develop slowly – especially because El, for someone with great powers of observation and deduction, can sometimes be surprisingly oblivious to anything happening outside of her own head.

The plot starts slowly, focusing on El’s battle with herself, but the action ramps up in the second half. I actually enjoyed both sections equally – El’s internal turmoil is brilliantly written, and the action scenes and desperation in the second half are equally engaging – but I can see how some readers would find the first half more difficult going. Those who struggled with the more tangential sections in ‘A Deadly Education’ might find this takes a while to get into, but it’s worth it for the finale.

The weakest bit, for me, is the romance – but my quibbles are very minor. For a book that takes place inside El’s head, it can be very hard to see what she actually thinks of Orion – but then, El spends a lot of time trying to hide her own feelings from herself, especially any that she finds inconvenient, so it’s easy to see why. Their interactions remain frequently hilarious, and Orion around El is exceptionally sweet. It’s not a particularly healthy relationship, but El clearly acknowledges this – as do those around her, who regularly hold her accountable for her occasional unthinking selfishness.

Overall, ‘The Last Graduate’ enhances the world established in ‘A Deadly Education’, taking the excellent characters and ideas and elevating them to new heights. It’s an excellent sequel, and one that lays the groundwork for a formidable finale. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

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

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 28th September 2021