A Symphony of Echoes – Jodi Taylor

43450940.jpgIn Book #2 of The Chronicles of St Mary’s, things are as crazy as ever. The St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research are an organisation of historians who travel back in time in order to carry out research and make sure that History stays on track. In the second instalment of the series, Max and the team visit Victorian London in search of Jack the Ripper, observe the murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett, undertake the recovery of some dodos with no survival instincts, and make a risky visit to Mary Queen of Scots in an attempt to prevent an old enemy from changing the course of History.

A Symphony of Echoes is fast-paced and action-packed. Multiple adventures are stuffed into one book, so it’s a bit full-on but very well done and so much fun. I really love the quirky humour and adventures of these books; there really isn’t a dull moment. The characters are incredibly likeable and reasonably well developed, and I enjoy the time jumps. The historical elements seems to be reasonably well researched and accurate, up to the point where accuracy becomes irrelevant due to the actions of the characters.

My only criticism would be that there’s too much going on. The plot is a bit hard to follow because it really doesn’t stop, and story-development takes a clear back-seat behind the humour and wackiness. That being said, it’s such a fun read that none of that really matters.

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Wakenhyrst – Michelle Paver

40725252Maud is a lonely child, growing up in a corner of the Fens in Edwardian Suffolk, without a mother and ruled over by her father. When, one day, he finds a medieval painting in a graveyard, unnatural forces are awakened that drive him beyond the point of obsession and into insanity. For Maud, this is the beginning of a battle to survive in a world haunted by devils, protect her beloved Fen, and uncover the demons of her father’s past.

I absolutely loved the atmosphere of this book. It is dark and spooky, with an air of menace from the very first page, which is entirely down to Michelle Paver’s brilliant writing because nothing overtly scary actually happens for the majority of the story.

Maud is one of the best characters I’ve read recently. Considering that she’s a child and a girl in Edwardian times with literally no power to do anything, she’s surprisingly ballsy. Her courage and intelligence made it impossible not to care about her. And the way she gets revenge on her father without ever attracting suspicion to herself or placing blame on anyone else is just brilliant.

I hadn’t read any of Michelle Paver’s books before Wakenhyrst, but I will definitely be correcting that in the future.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Red Address Book – Sofia Lundberg

4354190796-year-old Doris lives alone in an apartment in Stockholm. She gets very few visitors, looking forward instead to her weekly Skype calls with her grandniece, Jenny. Looking through the names in her old address book, Doris decides to write down the stories of her life – working as a maid in Sweden, becoming a live mannequin in Paris, falling in love and heading to America before the Second World War. There are so many stories to tell, and not much time left for Doris to tell them.

To begin with, I found this book quaint and interesting enough, but it didn’t really grab me. Doris and her stories did grow on me as I read on, and I did get more drawn in. The Red Address Book is a really sweet story; the actual plot isn’t very exciting but Doris is a strong and genuine character who made it a worthwhile read. It wasn’t 100% my cup of tea, but engaging and emotional nonetheless.

I do have to say that I was consistently put off by the mild obsession with beauty, but Doris and Jenny were both models and had their beauty celebrated so it did make sense at the same time as being shallow.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Complete Maus – Art Spiegelman

15195Containing both volumes 1 and 2 of Maus: A Survivor’s TaleThe Complete Maus tells the complete story of Vladek Spiegelman’s experience of surviving in Hitler’s Europe.

The first and most important thing to make note of is that this is a completely true story. It isn’t a piece of fiction based in the truth of Auschwitz, it is a true account of Art Spiegelman’s father’s life during World War II. It is a heavy and intense read, but completely incredible.

The second important thing you need to know about this book is that it is a graphic novel. It is masterfully drawn, with plenty of narration which makes it easy to read even if you’re not a regular graphic novel reader. The metaphorical representation of people is a massive part of this book. Jews are drawn as mice, Nazis as cats, the Allies as dogs, and Poles as pigs. This is an incredibly effective commentary on stereotypes, and highlights the absurdity of dividing people by nationality.

The brutal honesty about life as a Jew during the Nazi occupation is shocking and horrific, but truly, truly fascinating. On another level, the relationship between Art and Vladek is also explored, and it really shows how the children of survivors can be so affected by the experience of their parents.

Maus isn’t an easy or pleasant read by any means, but it is powerful and it’s essential. If you’re into graphic novels, you MUST read this book. If you’re into historical accounts and memoirs, you MUST read this book. If you read anything at all, you MUST read this book.

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The Familiars – Stacey Halls

41569416.jpgBased around the real 1612 Pendle Witch Trials, this compelling novel explores the rights of 17th century women and the true fate of those accused of witchcraft. Fleetwood Shuttleworth, noblewoman of Gawthorpe Hall, is pregnant for the fourth time. She has never carried a baby to term. Desperate to deliver an heir for her husband, Richard, Fleetwood enlists the help of a local midwife named Alice Grey. But Alice is soon drawn into the accusations of witchcraft that are sweeping the area, and Fleetwood must risk everything to clear her name.

I love books about witches, especially ones based on real-life events, and The Familiars really hit the mark. I know next to nothing about the Pendle Witch Trials (although I do now want to learn more), but I do know that Fleetwood, Alice and all the other characters in this book are based on real people affected by these trials. The author has used the real names of the women accused and tried for witchcraft, and built a fictional story out of the mystery of what really happened, which is truly fascinating.

The story is wonderfully well-written. The author builds a mysterious, slightly haunting atmosphere without any inclusion of actual magic. The plot is quite simple and develops slowly, but this only adds to the atmosphere and realism.

Fleetwood was a slightly annoying character (though I adore her name), but she fitted well into the story and was bearable enough to read about. Her complete powerlessness against the men around her was frustrating but, considering that the story is based on truth, realistic and frightening. I kind of hated her husband but, for the time, his actions were to be expected.

Also, how beautiful is that cover?

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

39866035When the Greeks sack her home, Briseis is taken as a captive to the Greek camp outside of Troy and chosen to become Achilles’ concubine – a prize of battle. She must quickly adjust from her life as a queen to that of a slave, serving the enemy. As the battle between the Greeks and the Trojans wages on, Briseis finds herself caught between two of the most powerful Greeks, and in an unprecedented position to observe the two men driving the Greek forces in what will become their final confrontation.

The Silence of the Girls is a re-telling of Homer’s The Iliad,  told from the point of view of a woman, held captive in the Greek camp. It essentially tells the stories of the women and girls who were unwilling participants and collateral damage in the Trojan War. It’s a really interesting point of view to read from and Briseis was a fantastic narrator, but the main character of the book was really Achilles rather than Briseis, which was a tiny bit disappointing.

The story itself was not actually the most exciting. Despite there being a war (with a good amount of gory, bloody detail), the plot was not particularly action-packed or eventful. However, it was excellently written and I was completely addicted. The characters were very strong, likeable and well-developed – even Agamemnon, who plays the ‘villain’ role. The author does an outstanding job of balancing the ‘good vs. bad’ aspect of the plot, with Briseis being surrounded by her enemies and still managing to forge friendships with them, whilst remaining loyal to her people. Although the Greeks are clearly presented as the enemy, they are not made out to be negative characters and they have likeable and individual personalities.

Some of the content is pretty horrific: the women are captured, raped and brutalised. It is not pleasant to read, but these aspects are not overly visual and are, unfortunately, an unavoidable feature of Ancient Greek fiction. To take this content out of the story would be a misrepresentation of the time.

I love Greek mythology in general, and The Silence of the Girls exceeded my expectations. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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A House of Ghosts – W. C. Ryan

40789530It’s 1914, and Lord Highmount has arranged a spiritualist gathering on his island off the coast of Devon in order to try to contact his two sons who were lost in the war. However, his guests each have their own agendas and, with the arrival of a storm, find themselves trapped on the island with the ghosts, their own secrets, and a killer.

The surface appearance of this book is that it is a ghost story. The title and cover are a little but misleading, because it is, in reality, it’s a murder mystery novel with themes of espionage, most easily compared to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. It is a bunch of different characters, bought together for a weekend of seances and spiritual contact, trapped on an isolated island when a murder takes place. With the exception of Donovan and Kate – our two detectives sent to the island on a mission by the military – every character has a motive, so every character is a suspect. There’s plenty of tension and red-herrings to keep the story interesting.

I liked Kate and Donovan and their budding romance. They made a good team and I would be interested in more books following them on future missions. I also really liked Count Orlov, but some of the other characters were a bit weaker and not so well developed throughout the book (Madame Feda and Captain Miller-White, in particular).

Despite not exactly being a key feature of the story, the ghostly elements do add a lot of atmosphere and really pad out the plot which was, at times, quite weak. I enjoyed this book, but I found it a bit too long and I did get lost occasionally trying to work out the point of every direction the plot went in.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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The Corset – Laura Purcell

39691481Determined to learn more about phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can determine whether or not they will commit a crime, Dorothea Truelove regularly visits prisoners at Oakgate Prison. Ruth Butterham is the youngest murderess Dorothea has visited, who offers an alternative theory: She claims her crimes are caused by a supernatural power in her sewing. Is Ruth mad, or a murderer?

The Corset is undoubtedly dark, but not a horror like The Silent Companions. Instead, it is more of a murder mystery story with supernatural vibes. The narrative is told through the perspective of both Dorothea and Ruth, as Ruth explains her story and Dorothea tries to get to the bottom of things. The two women come from very different backgrounds, with very different outlooks, and complement each other exceptionally well. The writing is a joy to read, with each woman’s voice clearly distinct and well-developed.

I found this book compelling, original and unpredictable, but not particularly creepy (which would be totally fine, if it wasn’t marketed as “chilling”). It also felt slightly too long at times. I’m not sure that I could pull out specific parts of the story and label them as unnecessary, but there were moments where things started to drag and I felt myself rushing to reach the end.

I have seen other readers complain that The Corset includes too many characters, but I personally didn’t fell that this was a problem. Yes, there is a reasonably large cast, but Dorothea and Ruth really hold the story and the rest, even those who play a big role, fade into the background a little. That could sound like a criticism, but it isn’t. I found this book incredibly easy to read and didn’t find myself worrying about other characters in the slightest.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

33654875During the American Civil War, President Lincoln’s beloved son, Willie, died. Newspapers report that Lincoln returned to his son’s crypt alone to grieve for his boy. Using this seed of history, George Saunders weaves a supernatural story of familial loss. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a transitional realm known as the bardo, while other trapped spirits try to encourage him to move on and squabble amongst themselves over the best way to make this happen. Told over the course of a single night, this story describes the monumental struggle Willie faces following his death, and explores grief among both the living and the dead.

The narrative style of this book is unique. The majority is told through the voices of the characters (very similar to a play-script), with some chapters built from excerpts of historical texts. This style took some getting used to and often took the story on rambling tangents, but was a very effective way of telling the story.

I loved the characters. Willie meets lots of different ghosts in the bardo, who all have their own stories and kooky personalities. There are some bizarre features (like Hans Vollman’s giant member) which I didn’t really understand the point of but they certainly helped to enhance the eccentric, unconventional vibe of this book.

I would recommend Lincoln in the Bardo, not because it’s an excellent story, but simply for the experience of reading it. It is unusual, with a unique style and a good enough plot. A modern classic, definitely deserving of its Man-Booker Prize win.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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The Malinovsky Papers – H. Jones

38315822Over nineteen days in June 1978, Professor Nicholas Malinovsky interviewed a dying Russian emigre, Dimitri Kurshunov. The stories he told were unbelievable, about the Russian revolution, the House of Special Purpose in Ekaterinburg, and what really happened to the two youngest members of the Romanov family. Going through his interviews and research many years later, Hannah Jones is left with one question: Can any of this be true?

I really liked the interview style of storytelling in this book. With the addition of Malinovsky’s notes at the end of each chapter, the story felt truly authentic. The most engaging aspect of this book was definitely Kurshunov’s story about living in Ekaterinburg and knowing the Romanovs. However, I didn’t care much for the parts about Malinovsky and his own life. The deterioration of his relationship with his own family was not particularly enjoyable to read about. Without those parts, the book could have been a lot shorter and told much quicker.

On that note, this book was seriously long, man. The pacing was incredibly slow and, although the detail of the time was truly fascinating, I could have done with things being more to-the-point.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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