Robyn Reviews: These Violent Delights

‘These Violent Delights’ is a brilliant concept – a loose Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, featuring a fantasy monster, gang warfare, and a fascinating look at colonialism – but suffers a little from the scale of its ambition. It’s certainly a fast-paced and intriguing YA fantasy, but it isn’t quite as gripping as I’d like it to be.

Juliette Cai has just returned home to Shanghai after completing her education in the USA. As the heir to the Scarlet Gang, her job now is to start integrating herself with her father’s contacts and cement her people’s loyalty to her – but instead, she finds herself entangled in a conspiracy with a mysterious – and invariably fatal – virus, and strange rumours of a monster. Even worse, her arch-enemy Roma Montagov – heir to the White Flowers – keeps showing up. Determined to solve the mystery before more of her people die – and before Roma beats her to it – Juliette embarks on a mission that will truly test her loyalty – to her family, to the Scarlet Gang, and to a particularly irritating enemy-turned-lover-turned-enemy who just keeps getting under her skin.

Juliette and Roma are both major POV characters, but Juliette is such a force of nature that she feels like the true protagonist. She’s not particularly likeable – she’s completely ruthless, almost uncaring of the feelings of others and willing to do anything to ensure her own success – but at her core is a heart of fragility and worry. Juliette has had to fight for her place as the heir to the Scarlet Gang, and she knows that one misstep will send everything tumbling down.

Roma, on the other hand, is far easier to like. He’s also a ruthless gangster, but makes no secret of how much he hates it. Roma’s position as heir to the White Flowers is just as tenuous as Juliette’s for the Scarlets, but for very different reasons – Juliette’s father is unsure of her suitability as a woman, and also slightly scared of her; Roma’s father thinks his son is soft and unworthy. He’s the sort of character you constantly want to give a hug, because everything keeps going wrong despite the fact he’s always trying to do the right thing.

The strength of this book is in the setting. It really draws you into the various microcosms of 1920s Shanghai, the feeling of multiple cities within cities, and the political tensions of a city and country in transition. Chloe Gong’s writing is gorgeous, and she absolutely captures a sense of place. I know very little about this time period or area of the world, and the way it’s depicted here makes me want to find out more.

The main issue I have with this book is that, for a Romeo and Juliette retelling, there’s very little emotional buildup. Roma and Juliette were together, then four years ago there was a massive betrayal resorting in them returning to mortal enemies. Now there’s a huge amount of tension – and potentially lingering feelings – but much of this is brushed over with a simple explanation of ‘things happened in the past’. The decision to tell us about their past relationship rather than show us a relationship developing weakens the romance, and thus the story. I struggle to understand why Roma likes Juliette when she does nothing likeable – it mostly seems to be nostalgia for a character we never see on page – and similarly, Roma seems like someone Juliette would despise for his weakness rather than fall in love with.

The other niggle I have is that the fantasy elements feel disjointed. The plotline about a virus and a monster feels discongruous with a story about gangsters in 1920s Shanghai. I absolutely adored the historical context and the glimpse into a time period and culture I know little about, and I almost wish the fantasy elements had been toned down to allow the history to shine through. The plot is mostly predictable, and I suspect part of the reason for that is so much exposition is required to make everything fit that some of the mystery is lost.

Overall, this is a solid YA fantasy with a brilliant setting, but perhaps one which takes on too much. Fans of enemies-to-lovers romance, Shakespeare, and strong characters who take no prisoners might love this, but it definitely feels like a debut.

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

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 17th November 2020

Robyn Reviews: Kingdom of the Wicked

‘Kingdom of the Wicked’ treads well-trodden ground but puts a fresh enough spin on it to become an intriguing and enjoyable story. It definitely reads like part one of a series rather than fully standing up on its own, but as long as the sequels provide some much-needed answers this can stand up as a solid addition to the YA fantasy genre.

The novel follows Emilia, one of a family of streghe – witches – living secretly amongst humans. Their family is one of twelve streghe families in Sicily, but following a powerful spell cast generations ago the families are discouraged from mixing. Emilia pays more attention to her family renowned restaurant than to magic – until she discovers her beloved twin, Vittoria, murdered, her heart ripped out, and a mysterious figure drinking her blood. Her quest for vengeance pulls her into the world of the Wicked – the princes of Sin her Nonna has always warned her about.

Emilia is a likeable enough protagonist. Previously a carefree girl whose only worries were new dishes at the restaurant and her flirtation with a completely unavailable man, she becomes a creature driven only by vengeance. She rushes headlong into situations without thought of the consequences and frequently has to be rescued. It’s slightly annoying that she spends most of the novel being pulled out of dangerous places by a man (and once her grandma, which is far more badass), but the idea of a teenage girl in over her head is certainly more accurate than most YA fantasy. Her motivations and struggles are always relatable, and hopefully as she starts to understand more about her abilities and situation in book two, she’ll become less of the damsel in distress and more the damsel of distress.

The other major character is Wrath, one of the seven Princes of Sin. Wrath is the typical mysterious male figure in YA fantasy – powerful, with many secrets and unknown motives, and also exceptionally attractive. However, I appreciate that, unlike in most books, Wrath and Emilia don’t immediately fall into a romance. Emilia’s priority throughout remains her sister, and she won’t allow herself unnecessary distractions. She also innately distrusts a Prince of Sin, a very wise decision not shared by most other heroines in her genre.

Kerri Maniscalco is known for her ‘Stalking Jack the Ripper’ series, a collection of YA mysteries. I’ve never actually read any of them, but her talent for writing mystery is absolutely on show in ‘Kingdom of the Wicked’. The plot twists and turns, with the culprit for the murders never entirely evident. There are dead ends, red herrings, and far too many potential murderers to count. When the killer is finally revealed, they come from a very unexpected direction. I appreciate that Maniscalo managed to weave a difficult-to-predict mystery without making it seem outlandish or implausible.

The highlight of this novel is the interspersing of Sicilian culture. There’s a strong focus on the food – Emilia spends a lot of time at the family restaurant, and she enjoys subjecting a Prince of Sin to mortal cuisine. Sicily is a more unusual setting for a fantasy novel, and it helped differentiate this from its peers and add depth to the characters and story.

Overall, this is a solid start to a series, albeit one that – as it doesn’t entirely stand on its own – will be greatly influenced by the strength of its sequel. Recommended to fans of A Court of Mist and Fury, The Cruel Prince, and similar story dynamics.

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

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 27th October 2020

Robyn Reviews: The First Sister

The First Sister is a book that really highlights the importance of a good ending. The twist at the end transforms a good, solid science fiction debut into a brilliantly clever book with layers upon layers of hidden meaning. I’m already looking forward to seeing where Linden A Lewis takes these characters next.

The story alternates between three points of view – the titular First Sister of the Gaens, Lito sol Lucius, a warrior in the Icarii military, and the warrior’s ex-partner, Hiro val Akira, now apparently turned traitor. The latter’s perspective is entirely in the form of audio recordings sent after their defection, in which Hiro tries to explain to Lito why they defected. These are initially the weakest section of the book, but improve as it goes on – and in hindsight they were necessary to make the story as great as it is.

The Gaens are a strongly religious sect formed of the humans from Earth and Mars. The head of their religion is the Mother, she who communicates with the goddess. The Mother sends disciplines, named Sisters, to every Gaen holding, be it planet, moon, or spaceship. The sisters are ranked, with the most senior sister on every holding named the First Sister. The First Sister we follow is on the spaceship Juno. We join her as she has manoeuvred to leave the Juno with the commanding officer, joining him in retirement on Mars – however, before she can do so, the spaceship is taken over by Commander Saito Ren, leaving her trapped. She must quickly gain Saito Ren’s favour to retain her rank as First Sister – but her fellow Sisters want the perks of being First Sister too, and the supervising Aunt, Marshae, has a task for the First Sister which could ruin her forever. Sisters cannot speak – only communicate in a sign-language known only to members of the order – and it’s fascinating how this shapes First Sister’s interactions. She spends the vast majority of the novel in way over her head, but she gradually grows in confidence and its amazing seeing how she develops. Linden A Lewis doesn’t shy away from how traumatic her life in the order has been – a distinct theme of the book – and how this has shaped her personality and thought processes. I’ll be very interested to see how she develops further in the sequel.

The Icarii consider themselves superior to the Gaens and Asters, the main other races, with a strong emphasis on scientific and military dominance. They are formed of the humans who colonised Mercury and Venus, finding a unique element which allowed massive technological innovation. Lito sol Lucius was born to a lower class family but won a highly prestigious scholarship to join the Icarii Special Forces. He feels pressured to prove himself and avoid falling back down the ladder – but after surviving a disastrous mission on the moon of Ceres, he’s one step away from disgrace. His latest mission is one that he completely detests – but he has no choice but to accept it for the safety of himself – and more importantly, the safety of his younger sister. Lito is the complete counterpoint to First Sister – where she is cerebral, spending all her time in thoughtful contemplation, Lito is a whirlwind of action, preferring the simplicity of battle to the complexity of conversation and politics. However, he is also a very emotional character, struggling to recover from the loss of his partner Hiro – and more than that, the knowledge that Hiro was a traitor. I felt for Lito just as much as I felt for First Sister – they both lack any real freedom to make their own decisions, forced to work for a regime they were increasingly disillusioned from.

Hiro is a more interesting character than Lito, and in a way it’s a shame that we only get their story through recordings. The middle child of the Val Akira’s, the scientific leaders of the Icarii, Hiro has never been what their father wanted. They finally find somewhere they feel that they belong – fighting alongside Lito as dagger and rapier – but their position as a Val Akira gives them knowledge that Lito isn’t privy to. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but Hiro’s story is the most tragic of them all. I hope that we get more time with Hiro in subsequent books because they’re a fascinating, strong character with an intriguing backstory not utilised to their full potential here.

The worldbuilding is gorgeous – I loved the premise of two factions of humans who separated to such an extend that they considered themselves almost separate species, and a third faction who literally became a separate species through extensive genetic modification. It’s a brutal world, and that isn’t glossed over, but fascinating to read about. Lewis includes great LGBTQIAP+ rep including non-binary characters and attraction to multiple genders, and the world isn’t Western-centric – the main languages are now English, Spanish, and Chinese, and Hiro and Saito are both of Japanese descent. Lito has Spanish roots. Far future science fiction can be difficult to make realistic, but Lewis does an excellent job, including incredible technology with vague plausibility (even if the element discovered by the Icarii does sound a little like it came out of a Marvel comic).

It starts slow, needing time to get going. There is a fair amount of exposition needed to paint a picture of this very different future world, and while Lewis handles this well, it can still be tedious. Hiro’s initial sections – flashbacks to distant past events – don’t feel entirely relevant, and whilst they do later turn out to be, they’re still a little jarring at the time. However, for a debut novel, this is incredibly accomplished, and the ending is almost good enough to make up for everything else.

Overall, this is a great science-fiction debut of incredible scope that should appeal to all fans of the genre. I’m looking forward to seeing where is goes next. Highly recommended.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review.

 

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 4 August 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Extraordinaries

The Extraordinaries is a fun, modern YA fantasy – funny and heartwarming in places and serious in others. The characters are cute, the LGBT representation fantastic, and I suspect modern teenagers will enjoy it. The story and setting are unoriginal – I predicted every single plot twist miles before it happened, and I’ve read several similar books before – but that doesn’t prevent it being a good read.

The main character, Nick, is sixteen and just entering Junior Year of High School in Nova City – very similar to any city in the US, except there are superheroes, known as Extraordinaries. Nick is a fan. In fact, he’s such a big fan of the city’s Extraordinary – known as Shadow Storm – that he spends his time writing self-insert fanfiction and owns a pillow with Shadow Storm’s face on it. Nick dreams of being rescued by his idol and subsequently joining him on his adventures to save the city. Of course, that’s not precisely what happens.

Nick is a sweet, naive, oblivious sixteen-year-old. He also has ADHD – this is exceptionally well written and one of the highlights of the book. With his well-known superhero crush and constant stream of random thoughts, he isn’t the most popular guy in school – but he has his own tight-knit group of friends. His relationships with them were brilliant and another strength, even if Jazz and Gibby felt more like caricatures than characters at times. LGBT rep is always brilliant, but the butch can-kick-your-ass girl and her head-cheerleader girlfriend was almost too cliché.

Seth, Nick’s best friend since they met on the swings ten years ago, is equally adorable. Orphaned at a young age in a train crash, Seth has always been a strange, chubby kid who struggled to make friends – but in him, Nick found the patient listener he needed, and Seth found the human connection he craved. I loved them – their relationship was often painfully awkward, and both of them are ridiculously oblivious, but it was pure and adorable. The reactions of everyone else around them were also perfect – their disbelief and frustration matched mine as I was reading perfectly.

Owen, Nick’s sort-of-ex and now sort-of-friend, had the potential to be an interesting character, but too much was left a mystery. I never quite knew what to think. Hopefully future books will develop him further – his arc in this didn’t feel complete.

The setting was a completely standard US city, plus superheroes, giving a thoroughly contemporary feel – except perhaps for the highly limited number of news channels, and the way everyone watched them instead of Netflix. Why the superheroes were left to continue unchecked was never explained, nor why they existed – or how. For what is essentially a YA fantasy romance, this doesn’t matter too much, but I would have liked a little more explanation.

Overall, this is a solid enough read. It’s great fun, with laugh out loud moments, and the characters are adorable – but the story is predictable, and characters just the wrong side of cliché. With the exception of Nick and Seth – who were themselves clichés – none of them were expounded on enough to take them into 3D territory, which left the novel a little lacking. But for younger teenagers, this will likely be a story to love.

 

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 14 July 2020

Robyn Reviews: Girl, Serpent, Thorn

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a Persian-inspired fairytale about a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. Kept locked away in a tower, she dreams of the day a handsome prince will come and rescue her – but when someone does, it doesn’t quite go how she expected.

The first quarter of this is a slow read and feels very trope-y, but then the story starts to take twists and turns and becomes much more fast-paced and enjoyable. I predicted several of the twists but still found the plot holding my attention. It helps that the setting is gorgeous, and the Persian-inspired elements are intriguing and give this a fresh feel even when the plot treads over familiar ground.

The main character, Soraya, is the twin sister of the Shah – the ruler of the land, blessed with the protection of the Simorgh to protect his people from evil divs. Cursed shortly after her birth to kill every animal – including humans – that she touches, Soraya stays shut in her room at the palace with very minimal contact with the outside world. As such, she’s innocent and naive, coming across younger than her years and very vulnerable. She also has a great deal of anger and resentment – at herself, her situation, and the world. Whilst at times she’s a difficult character to like, her immature emotional outbursts and naivety felt realistic and she grew significantly as a character throughout the book. I particularly enjoyed her relationship with her mother, Tahmineh, and how that changed as secrets were revealed.

With the exception of Soraya – and to an extent Tahmineh – none of the other characters felt quite as three-dimensional. I would love to read the full story of Azad, and equally the story of Parvaneh – two highly intriguing individuals who weren’t quite utilised to their full potential. The childhood relationships between Soraya, Sorush, Laleh, and Ramin would also be interesting to know about in more detail – especially the dynamic between Laleh and Soraya. But the book would not have been as fast-paced and exciting if it had stopped to delve into side characters, and they all played their part.

Overall, this is a solid addition to the YA fantasy genre and worth a read for anyone looking for a story that’s a little bit different. It takes a while to get going, but once you get past the first part it grows into itself and takes you on a journey.

 

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 7 July 2020

Book Review: Sweet Sorrow

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

David Nicholls is a fluent writer and storyteller who can draw the reader in with his gently probing insights and empathetic witticisms. Sweet Sorrow, his latest work, sits easily alongside his previous bestselling novels. The characters are relatable, their troubles universal. Events and people are recognisable from everyday life.

The story is set mostly over the long weeks of a late twentieth century English summer during which the protagonist, Charlie Lewis, leaves school and awaits his GCSE exam results. Charlie knows that he has not done well enough to move on to college and then university, a trajectory his always trying to be cool friends will rarely acknowledge they aspire to. Charlie is facing his uncertain future with a heady mixture of regret, excitement and trepidation.

In the months prior to his exams, Charlie’s family life was upended. He now lives with his unemployed father who is coping badly with depression. Charlie is worried, resentful and angry, but mostly he simply wishes to avoid parental confrontation. He needs to escape the oppressive atmosphere of home, to fill the long hours in each unstructured day and try not to think too much of the decisions he must inevitably make about what comes next.

A chance encounter leads Charlie to join The Company, a summer scheme where he must work with a mixed group of people who are very different to those he has previously befriended. Despite feelings of discomfort and detachment, he finds himself returning each day. There is a girl, Fran Fisher, and Charlie realises he is falling in love.

The joyous aspects of love stories are rarely of interest to anyone other than those directly involved. To engage the reader in such stories there need to be obstacles, misunderstandings and other problems to overcome. The author presents these aspects in the form of the difficulties inherent in being sixteen years old.

The book begins on the last day of school and introduces Charlie’s friendship group. These are boys who have ended up together through circumstance more than choice. They survive on insults and banter interspersed with regular rough and tumble. They each cultivate an image that they wear like armour.

“Though none of us played an instrument, we’d imagined ourselves as a band.”

“while some girls circled […] the group was self-sufficient and impenetrable”

Charlie is all too aware that his school friends would relentlessly mock his involvement with The Company. To take part, and therefore get to know Fran, he must learn to behave differently. There is a class and cultural divide to surmount. There is the need to work out how to talk and be with a girl like Fran.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s home life is one of fear over his Dad’s mental state and what he may find inside each time he opens their front door. There is also an interesting sub plot involving petty thieving from Charlie’s part-time job. The tension this adds got me through some of the more repetitive touchy feely sections midway where my interest would occasionally wane.

There are laugh out loud moments alongside the poignancy. Fran’s recollection of an encounter with a boy she was once besotted with is filled with humour despite the appalling behaviour. Fran comes across as surprisingly self aware for a sixteen year old. Charlie appears more typical, and it is this that is the strength of the story.

“the greatest lie that age tells about youth is that it’s somehow free of care, worry or fear.
Good God, doesn’t anyone remember?”

For anyone who has ever been sixteen years old this tale will take them back to those days with all their anticipation and fear of ridicule. The narrator, Charlie, is looking back from a distance of two decades. He offers an impressive degree of clarity as well as nostalgia. He is contemplating the lasting impact of first love.

The Shakespearean elements of the story were deployed extensively. There is, however, acknowledgement that the bard’s writing will not be accessible to all readers – something the author attempts to rectify in key passages quoted. What is captured beautifully is the maelstrom of uncertainty, angst and passion to be found in groups of young people from any era.

Any Cop?: This was an enjoyable trip down memory lane.

Book Review: The Roanoke Girls

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The Roanoke Girls, by Amy Engel, is a darkly disturbing story set in and around Osage Flats, a small town in Kansas, America. Roanoke is a rambling farmhouse a few miles outside of the town that has been added to over the years giving it a bizarrely gothic feel. The wealthy family who own it and much of the surrounding land have lived there for generations. Its comfort and isolation have been an aid to their lifestyle.

Much of the tale is told from the point of view of Lane who moves to Roanoke from New York when she is fifteen years old following her mother’s suicide. She and her mother, Camilla, had a toxic relationship so she feels little grief at her death. She is aware that Camilla was raised at Roanoke but has not been told further details of the family history.

Underage and alone, Lane has little choice but to comply when her maternal grandparents offer to take her in. She is eagerly welcomed to Roanoke by her cousin, Allegra, who is of a similar age and possesses similar traits. Allegra’s mother, Eleanor, ran away just after she had given birth and has neither been seen nor heard from since. When Lane is shown old family photographs she realises that Eleanor looked just like Camilla. They had another sister, Emmeline, who died as a baby. The previous generation endured similar fates.

‘Hearing their stories turned the faces in front of me from beautiful to tragic. They watched me now with haunted eyes. The only one left was Allegra. And me. I suddenly didn’t want a place on the wall. “Wow,” I said, goose bumps sprouting along my neck, even in the closed-in heat of the hall. “That’s a lot of dead girls.” Allegra did a quick pirouette away from me, her smile a little too wide. “Roanoke girls never last long around here.” […] “In the end, we either run or we die.”‘

To the outside world it would appear that these girls have it all. They are beautiful, wealthy, and allowed to live much as they please. Lane has never known love so is drawn to her doting grandfather who willingly provides whatever she desires. Her grandmother remains more distant.

The story unfolds over two time periods – that first long hot summer during which Lane discovers why the Roanoke girls consider themselves special, and another summer a decade later when she is forced to return to the farm because Allegra has gone missing. It is clear that although Lane may have escaped she still carries the mental scars of the family secret. The details of this are revealed to the reader early on, but the devastating effect on each of three generations of Roanoke girls is more gradually peeled away.

Although repellent to consider in places the narrative deals sensitively with the issues explored. There is a sinister undercurrent that had me anxious to know what was to happen next, fearful of what would be revealed. The tension never lets up as Lane seeks answers to her cousin’s disappearance.

This is not a story for the faint-hearted. It is tightly constructed and stunningly written but broaches topics few lay bare despite knowing they exist. The sex, drugs and small town thinking are mere backdrops to the damaging impact on all who attempt to breach the brittle Roanoke family circle.

A remarkable story that I recommend to any willing to dare. This is an electric read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

Book Review: Hex

hex

Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (translated by Nancy Forest-Flier), is nightmare inducing in the best possible way. Horror is a genre that I have come to late. When I read a book as impressive as this I am eager to discover more.

The small town of Black Spring, situated in the picturesque Hudson Valley close to the United States Military Academy at West Point, has a secret that it hides in plain sight. The town signs welcome visitors to the home of the Black Rock Witch. What they don’t admit, to anyone, ever, on pain of death, is that she actually exists.

In 1664, Katherine van Wyler was sentenced to death for witchcraft. Back then Black Spring was a thriving trapper’s colony populated by Dutch settlers. Katherine was accused of many unnatural practices and was tortured until she confessed to her crimes. Since her death she has haunted the town, walking the streets and appearing within the residents homes. To prevent her casting evil spells former townsfolk sewed up her eyes and mouth, chaining her arms to her body that she may be unable to remove the stitches. There is a deep seated fear of what could happen should her eyes ever be opened.

The residents accept the presence of this supernatural being because they have no choice. Once they have lived in the town they are unable to leave. Those who try, die.

None resent the limitations this imposes on their lives and prospects more than the town’s teenagers whose access to the outside world is strictly monitored and curtailed. When a group of them decide that they will break the rules and post details of the witch on line they set in motion a terrifying series of events. Katherine has been provoked and the outcome is worse than any of these supposedly good, American citizens could have imagined possible.

The sinister undercurrents of the tale emanate from each page yet it is more than a simple horror story. It offers insights into the power struggles within a closed community, the bullying, mob mentality that simmers just below the surface of those who live in fear. The atmosphere evoked is one of darkness and brooding resentment. Add to this a dose of teenage rebellion and the explosive, terrifying denouement is inevitable in all but the detail. That this still had the power to shock to the core shows the strength of the writing.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book but recommend approaching with caution. It is classed as horror for a reason.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

Book Review: Jakob’s Colours

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Jakob’s Colours, by Lindsay Hawdon, tells the story of an eight year old gypsy boy who is on the run from the Nazis in the final years of the Second World War. It is heartbreaking.

Based on the true but often unremarked history of the Romany holocaust it moves between three decades, each as horrific as the next. Jakob’s mother was born to a wealthy, English couple but endured unspeakable abuse in the name of a ‘cure’ for a madness that did not exist. Jakob’s father was forcibly removed from his loving, gypsy parents when the state decided that the only solution to the problem of vagrancy was to ‘re-educate’ the children.

In these days of increasing xenophobia it was a difficult book to read. It left me feeling an empty despair for mankind, that this should have happened and is still happening in so many countries around the world; that man should ever find any justification for treating their fellow human beings in this way. The fear of difference, the intolerance of a lifestyle that does not conform to state sanctioned normality remains strong. Propaganda is believed and those who are different dehumanised.

The book is beautifully written, evocative and rich in its portrayal of the natural harmony by which the gypsies tried to live. Alongside the horror were individual acts of kindness and personal bravery. There remain good people despite so much accepted evil.

I was particularly moved by the scene where Jakob’s mother and father first got together and declared themselves husband and wife. This family, who struggled so hard to survive, emanated strength and love amid the pathos of their lives.

A powerful and unusual book that I want to put in front of everyone who has ever felt justified in encouraging dislike of a race or class of people. Reading this book hurt. It is harrowing but ultimately hopeful, a tale filled with colour and wonder that rise above the oppression. Read. Listen to your heart.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

 

Book Review: Wolf Winter

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Wolf Winter, by Cecilia Ekbäck, is a haunting tale of isolation, superstition and murder set in a remote, mountain community in 1717 Swedish Lapland. Maija, her husband Paavo and their daughters Frederika and Dorotea have moved to the Blackåsen Mountain from their native Finland hoping to escape their past. It is not to be.

Whilst out herding goats with her sister, Frederika comes upon the mutilated body of one of the other settlers. His violent death is put down to a wild animal attack but, having examined his remains, Maija will not accept this verdict. Throughout the course of a particularly harsh season, a wolf winter, she stubbornly questions her neighbours about what preceded the man’s demise. It seems that everyone has secrets.

Overseeing the scattered community is a Church determined to suppress the Shamanism which Maija eschews but which still lurks beneath the surface on the brooding mountain. It is unclear what is real and what is conjured up through fear but it cannot be spoken of. Suspected witches will be tried and condemned.

The story is told from three perspectives: Maija, Frederika and a priest who is also new to the area. The prose is sparse, evoking the cold and bleak atmosphere of the setting and the challenges of staying alive in such a wild and isolated place.

As well as portraying the storms and darkness of the day to day lives of the settlers the author explores relationships with a sometimes uncomfortable realism. She skilfully presents Maija’s feelings towards her husband who has changed so much since they first met; the increasing distance between Maija and the teenage Frederika; Frederika’s burgeoning interest in a young Lapp man; the conflicts felt by the priest in his encounters with two of his female flock.

The layers and twists in this tale make for powerful reading. As secrets are uncovered the resultant truths precipitate reactions which must then be dealt with by all. The climax of the tale does not disappoint.

Beautifully written with a clear and haunting voice, this story takes the reader into the heart of a dark and challenging way of life. The cold seeps in along with the story. Wrap up well and enjoy.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.