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

Monthly Roundup – September 2021

september

The mostly settled weather throughout September has enabled me to get out and about locally each day – to exercise alone as I still fear socialising may be fraught with strongly held opinions and brusque castigations. I am marking time in this way as so many lockdown restrictions remain – in people’s heads even if no longer legislated. The media continues to whip up fear that fits their agenda, with few readers appearing to dig deeper. It is hard not to despair at the apparent lack of critical thinking and bullying nature of so much commentary. Facts on issues remain a challenge to access if off message, with name calling endemic. So much of the science will not be provable until properly researched over years. The sociological and psychological effects already appear chilling.

September saw the reopening of the local gym and swimming pool I had been a member of for years before it closed its doors in March 2020. Although I have continued to run and cycle outside throughout lockdown, I missed my strength training, hence why I joined a town gym when access to such facilities was granted again. I don’t understand why it took so long for my original gym to reopen to former members but, now that this has been rectified, I am very glad to be back to regular swimming (my long unused muscles beg to differ). I am, however, considering whether I can continue to justify two gym memberships. The strength training equipment is much more extensive at the town gym but attending both feels decadent.

In addition to my local runs, I have continued to enjoy weekly Parkruns since they restarted. Husband and I attend these together, although he tore a muscle in his calf fifteen minutes into his first hockey match of the season so has since been volunteering as a marshal while I lollop around the course. I was pleased to beat my personal best time mid month. Some weeks I push hard and others I simply enjoy joining in.

Husband’s hockey may have been curtailed but our boys still train and play – for different teams this season which can make transport logistics interesting. Daughter has been working nights and then weekends so has yet to play a league game.

Younger son continues to apply for jobs – a frustrating process when everything is online and not all links provided work. He has been offered two interviews thus far, neither of which he could progress due to inoperative booking systems and a lack of contact details to be found to raise the issue.

For my fellow teddy bear fans, the month included two updates in my occasional series, Edward Explores. These were, A Happy Birthday and London in the Time of Covid.

Edward’s adventures in London occurred because I was invited to a party – an actual in-person literary event where people chatted and enjoyed themselves in a fine venue. I wrote about the evening here: Launch Party for Dreamtime by Venetia Welby.

Following this, husband and I talked of arranging another trip away, to a remote location rather than a city while access to attractions remains limited. We are, however, reluctant to book anything much in advance due to the threat of sudden changes to restrictions. We have no desire to travel abroad at this time but a short UK break would be welcome once his injury heals.

I have been pleased to note that businesses are starting to state whether behaviours such as mask wearing will be expected at events. It makes arranging attendance – or avoiding – an informed choice. For this reason I will not be at the Marlborough Literature Festival next weekend – a shame as I enjoyed this in previous years. I assume they are catering for what the majority want and that makes economic sense.

I posted reviews for 7 books in September. Robyn added her thoughts on a further 5 books. I also posted an author interview, gleaning some interesting background from Sam Reese whose latest book of short stories I reviewed.

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

Fiction

passage north  Some Rise By Sin cover
A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam, published by Granta
Some Rise By Sin by by Siôn Scott-Wilson, published by Deixis Press

passing of formsThe Passing of the Forms That We Have Loved by Christopher Boon, published by époque press

Short Stories

stories tell children  distant ridgeline
Stories We Tell Our Children by Marc Nash, published by Lendal Press
On A Distant Ridgeline by Sam Reese, published by Platypus Press

Translated Short Stories

song of youth
The Song of Youth by Montserrat Roig (translated by Tiago Miller), published by Fum d’Estampa Press.

Poetry

sun is open
The Sun Is Open by Gail McConnell, published by Penned in the Margins

Robyn Reviews

1lind  1tori
The Second Rebel by Linden A. Lewis, published by Hodder & Stoughton
The Devil Makes Three by Tori Bovalino, published by Titan Books

1tjkl  1marg
Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune, published by Tor
Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson, published by Simon & Schuster Children’s

1alexThe Winter Garden by Alexandra Bell, published by Del Rey

Sourcing the books

Robyn has made many purchases this month, including three copies of the same book and a third copy of her favourite story of all time (The Night Circus). She now earns her own money so who am I to ask questions?

Robyn received september 2021

I also received a generous stack of enticing titles. I am eager to read each of these.

Jackie received September 2021

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: The Winter Garden

‘The Winter Garden’ is an atmospheric historical fantasy novel about love, grief, friendship, feminism, and escapism, with elements of magical realism entwined with grittier steampunk. It’s beautifully written, and while it doesn’t quite have the depth it strives for it makes a compelling read.

On the night her mother dies, eight-year-old Beatrice finds herself invited to a mysterious Winter Garden – a place of wonder and magic, a nighttime refuge from all the horrors of daylight. For one glorious week it is her sanctuary – then it disappears, and it becomes Beatrice’s life goal to find it again. Eighteen years later, Beatrice is poised to marry a man all of society insists is highly eligible. Instead, she calls off the wedding, embarking on a worldwide trip to track down the elusive Winter Garden – an unimaginable scandal. Her best friend, Rosa, finds herself marrying the man instead. As their lives diverge, both find themselves with regrets. But The Winter Garden is looking out for them, offering both the chance to participate in a unique competition – with the prize a single wish. As the two find themselves combatants, their lifelong friendship is tested, and they find themselves grappling with a thorny question: if you could go back and change a single moment in your life, would you?

The biggest issue with this book is highlighted by how difficult it is to sum up in a single paragraph. This is a book about two women and the different choices they make; about the quest to find a magical garden; about regret and how dwelling on the past shapes the future. It’s about a competition, but the competition doesn’t start until around halfway through. In short: this is a book which tries to do a lot, and mostly succeeds, but by cramming in so much it doesn’t quite do each element justice. There isn’t really a single overarching narrative – not in itself a problem, but it makes this a challenging book to recommend or review.

With that out of the way, there are lots of things to like. Beatrice makes a highly compelling protagonist – opinionated, not concerned with sticking to societal convention, and deeply caring about her family and friends. She has her flaws – she cares deeply about herself as much as others, and can be unthinkingly selfish with her own privilege – but she’s incredibly relatable, and its difficult not to root for her. Similarly, Rosa is a strong character – one with different dreams to Beatrice, but equally opinionated and determined. Where Beatrice is asexual and quite content to be alone, Rosa desires a family – but she also values her independence, difficult things to balance in Victorian society. Rosa is never afraid to call Beatrice out on her flaws, and their relationship throughout the book is exceptionally well done.

The use of language throughout is excellent. Alex Bell paints beautiful pictures of gardens, of Rosa’s intricate clockwork creations, of society balls – and of course of the variety of places Beatrice explores. She also manages to nail the emotional turmoil Beatrice and Rosa experience – Beatrice’s struggles with loss, and later addiction; Rosa’s difficulty in maintaining her autonomy once she’s married, and her complex thoughts about Beatrice as they both change and grow. Bell’s imagination is also incredible – the ideas surrounding the magical realism and steampunk elements are creative and brilliantly incorporated.

‘The Winter Garden’ has drawn a lot of comparisons to ‘The Night Circus‘, and on a superficial level it’s easy to see why. Both are magical realism books about a mysterious, wonderful place which only opens at night, hosts a secret competition, and is difficult to find unless it wants you to. There are deeper comparisons too – both books deal heavily with themes of autonomy. However, ‘The Winter Garden’ is a much more plot-driven tale, more directly tackling themes like feminism and grief. It’s also a book with a message – where ‘The Night Circus’ is pure escapist fantasy, ‘The Winter Garden’ tries to translate this into messages for life, something which will likely work well for some reasons and seem a bit preachy to others.

Overall, ‘The Winter Garden’ is a beautiful and creative story, albeit one which struggles in trying to carry so many narrative threads. Recommended for fans of historical fantasy and magical realism, books about strong women, and fans of Erin Morgenstern and Robert Dinsdale (Paris by Starlight).

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

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 2nd September 2021

Robyn Reviews: Vespertine

‘Vespertine’ is the third young adult fantasy book by Margaret Rogerson, author of ‘An Enchantment of Ravens’ and ‘Sorcery of Thorns‘. Unlike her previous works, ‘Vespertine’ is the start of an intended series – although it works as a standalone, telling a complete and intriguing story. Chronicling the life of a nun who can see spirits, parts are reminiscent of stories like ‘The Raven Boys’ and ‘Ninth House‘, but overall ‘Vespertine’ is a unique and compelling tale set in a creative world with huge potential for the rest of the series.

In Loraille, the dead do not rest, rising as vengeful spirits with an insatiable hunger for the living. Those who can see spirits are bound to become nuns – cleansing the bodies of the deceased so that their spirits can pass on – or soldiers, protecting the masses from the undead threat. Artemisia is training to become a Grey Sister – but when her convent is attacked by possessed soliders, she finds herself awakening an ancient spirit to protect it. The spirit threatens to possess her the moment she drops her guard – but with an unknown threat controlling Loraille’s dead, working with the spirit and becoming a Vespertine might be her only change to save Loraille. As Artemisia travels across Loraille, she and the spirit start to reach an understanding. But the more Artemisia learns – and the closer they become – the more she’s forced to question everything she’s been taught, including whether she’s on the right side.

The worldbuilding is one of the best parts of the book. Loraille is run by a religious order worshipping the Lady and her chosen Saints – seven women who defeated the Revenants, the strongest of the undead spirits, and bound spirits to their will. The Saints are all long dead, but their power lives on in relics – objects containing a bound spirit, allowing its power to be harnessed. Rogerson avoids info-dumping, yet the story is never confusing – the worldbuilding is woven seamlessly into the narrative, with enough revealed to allow understanding yet plenty kept in the dark to maintain a sense of intrigue. Loraille feels European in inspiration, with the Clerisy sharing aspects with the Catholic Church, but there are enough differences to feel fresh. The system of dead spirits and their differing powers is also well crafted – simple in concept, thus easy to understand, but executed with impeccable atmosphere. The overall effect is a spooky book, dark in places, with a perfect combination of mystery and exposition.

Artemisia is a solid main character, but the best part about her is the contrast between her personality and that of the spirit she binds herself to. Artemisia is a survivor. Possessed by a vengeful spirit as a baby, she was rescued by the nuns – but only after her entire family died in mysterious circumstances, leaving Artemisia physically scarred and the rest of her community blaming her for their deaths. As a result, Artemisia is feared and avoided, with few friends and little knowledge of how to interact with others. She’s prickly and stubborn, with a reckless disregard for her own safety – but she’s also caring and loyal, as much as she tries to hide it. The spirit is the first companion Artemisia has ever really had – and whilst neither of them trust the other, the way their relationship grows, driven by mutual loneliness, is incredible to read. Its amazing how Artemisia’s view of herself finally starts to change as the spirit points out how differently she regards herself and others.

Unusually for a young adult fantasy, there’s no romance in this book. There are several characters who, in other books, might have developed into love interests, but Rogerson chooses to instead focus entirely on the underlying plot and Artemisia’s growth and development as an individual. Personally, I loved this – it’s nice seeing a story with the confidence to stand alone without relying on a romantic subplot to add interest, and it never feels necessary. If you’re not a fan of romance, this is definitely the book for you.

Rogerson has mentioned that there will be a few edits to the pose and flow in the final version that haven’t appeared in the advanced copy. As it stands, ‘Vespertine’ is an excellent read but one that doesn’t quite have the magic of ‘Sorcery of Thorns’. It’s hard to pin down exactly what is missing – but it’s possible that with edits that magic will be captured again so I’m excited to read the final version when it publishes.

Overall, ‘Vespertine’ is an intriguing tale about ghosts, survival, and secrets set in a compelling alternative medieval Europe. Recommended for fans of creative young adult and adult fantasy, books without romance, and exceptional character growth.

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

Published by Simon & Schuster Children’s
Hardback: 5th October 2021

Robyn Reviews: Under the Whispering Door

‘Under the Whispering Door’ is a comedic fantasy novel about death, grief, found family, and the importance of living life to the fullest. With a mixture of laugh out loud and heartwarming moments, it’s an enjoyable read – but also a superficial one that struggles to reach the depths it strives for. This is a good, gentle story after a long day, but not one likely to linger.

Wallace Price has dedicated his entire life to his company – and even then, he’s not the sort of boss you’d buy a Christmas card for. He’s outraged to find only four attendees at his own funeral – one of them his ex-wife who spends most of the ceremony talking about what an asshole he was, and one of them the Reaper ready to escort him to the afterlife. However, rather than taking him straight to the Beyond, the Reaper instead takes Wallace to a very peculiar tea shop. There, a ferryman named Hugo serves tea and cake to all who need it – including lonely souls coming to terms with things they missed in life. With Hugo’s help, Wallace starts to adjust to his death – and makes some startling realisations about his life. However, the tea shop is only a stop on the journey, not a final destination – and as deadline day nears, Wallace starts to realise he isn’t ready to move on.

At the start of the book, Wallace is a horrible person. He only cares about his company’s profit margin – not its employees. He has no real friends, an ex-wife he certainly isn’t on speaking terms with, and so little to do that he spends his entire life at work. However, the longer he spends with Hugo and his ragtag band at the tea shop – Mei, the newly qualified Reaper, Nelson, the ghost who refuses to cross over and leave his grandson, and Apollo, the adorable ghost dog – the more regrets Wallace starts to have. His distaste at their inability to bring him back to life turns to grudging respect, and finally to true friendship – and it turns out Wallace Price has a heart after all. The change is sweet, but it also happens surprisingly quickly, not feeling entirely authentic. It’s hard to match the caricaturic villain Wallace is at the start of the book with the reasonably nice guy he’s become by the middle. The message that everyone can change for the better is lovely, but there isn’t quite enough nuance to carry it off.

Mei, Hugo, and Nelson, on the other hand, are all great characters. Mei is a spitfire, full of energy and determination and unwilling to take insolence from anyone – especially not the dead. Hugo is a calm, soothing presence with a lot of wisdom – but he’s also a bit blind to what’s in front of him, and as the story unfolds it’s clear that he’s almost as lonely as Wallace is. Nelson has a wicked sense of humour, but also an uncanny knowledge of human nature and a deep love for his family. Their little family is incredible, and together with Apollo it’s easy to see why Wallace wouldn’t want to leave.

The romance is choreographed from relatively early on and more subtly written than a lot of the rest of the book. I would argue that this isn’t really the sort of book that needs a romantic subplot, but it’s a sweet relationship and it’s always lovely reading about gay couples getting a happy ending.

Stories with an underlying message are difficult to write without coming across as preachy, and while ‘Under the Whispering Door’ just about manages to avoid this, the sacrifice is a book that feels a bit twee. It’s a little too syrupy sweet and optimistic. There are darker passages – this is a story about death, and there are several subplots about grief including the death of a child and suicide – but some of their impact is lost because of the overarching sunshine-and-rainbows feel. Its a difficult balance, and some will probably love the optimism, but personally I was looking for a bit more depth and acknowledgement of just what a black pit grief can be.

One area TJ Klune is particularly strong at is humour – I regularly found myself laughing out loud while reading this. Admittedly, some of the jokes are a bit crass, but it’s hard not to laugh anyway. If you’re a fan of sitcoms, this would definitely be a book for you.

Overall, ‘Under the Whispering Door’ is a solid read but not one that I found spectacular. Fans of books with messages, sitcoms, and happy stories will likely love it, but for those looking for a more nuanced tale there are better options (like ‘A Man Called Ove‘) out there.

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

Published by Tor
US hardback: 21st September 2021 / UK hardback: 28th October 2021