Hag: Forgotten Folktales Retold – Daisy Johnson, Kirsty Logan et al

Hag is a collection of retellings of lesser-known folktales originating from around the United Kingdom. From a selection of female authors, come stories of pixies who prey on violent men, a boggart haunting a dairy farm, a woman who transforms into a panther, a silkie who spends half his life on land and half in the sea, and much more. The retellings are all female-centric and re-imagined for the modern era.

Every one of the stories in this collection was fantastic and special in its own way. Of course, there were some I liked more than others, but they were all incredibly atmospheric and well-written. The stories touch on the subjects of exploitation, grief, pregnancy and motherhood, love and domestic abuse. The different authors all bring their own unique flavour to their story, but they all have a creepy, haunting undercurrent which makes this a perfect book for Autumn and Winter reading.

My favourite stories were probably Mashuda Snaith’s The Panther’s Tale, Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Holloway, and A Retelling by Daisy Johnson (but it’s very hard to choose).

The original source tales are also provided at the end, which was a great touch for readers interested in folklore.

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

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A Trail Through Time – Jodi Taylor

43445723._SY475_Having died and been placed in an alternate universe of sorts, Max is reunited with Leon and looking forward to a peaceful life together. Unfortunately, they don’t even make it past breakfast. On the run from the Forces of Darkness, aka the Time Police, Max and Leon travel from 17th century London to Ancient Egypt to Pompeii, eventually taking refuge at St Mary’s, where the fight against the Time Police comes to a head.

A Trail Through Time has the Chronicles of St Mary’s back on the up. I was quite disappointed with the previous book, but in this one the lighthearted humour and general madness is back. As this story is essentially made up of a chase through time followed by a massive battle, the pace is fast and exciting, with almost non-stop disasters and witty quips.

I’ve always enjoyed Max as a main character, but it was definitely a relief to have her back to being less serious again. Although there are still a couple of darker, more serious themes, the overarching feeling is one of joy and general excitement, which is definitely what I want from this series.

Suffice it to say, A Trail Through Time has restored my faith in Jodi Taylor and the Chronicles of St Mary’s. This series can be very same-y, so a break is definitely needed between books, but I’m looking forward to reading the next one when enough time has passed.

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

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The Porpoise – Mark Haddon

42105243._SY475_TW: Sexual abuse and incest.

Full disclosure, I don’t really understand what happened in this book, so here is the synopsis from Goodreads:

A newborn baby is the sole survivor of a terrifying plane crash. She is raised in wealthy isolation by an overprotective father. She knows nothing of the rumours about a beautiful young woman, hidden from the world. When a suitor visits, he understands far more than he should. Forced to run for his life, he escapes aboard The Porpoise, an assassin on his tail… So begins a wild adventure of a novel, damp with salt spray, blood and tears. A novel that leaps from the modern era to ancient times; a novel that soars, and sails, and burns long and bright; a novel that almost drowns in grief yet swims ashore; in which pirates rampage, a princess wins a wrestler’s hand, and ghost women with lampreys’ teeth drag a man to hell – and in which the members of a shattered family, adrift in a violent world, journey towards a place called home.

The big negative to The Porpoise is that, having finished it, I don’t actually know what I read. The plot is based on the Greek legend of Apollonius and his exposure of a king who falls in love with his own daughter after the death of his wife, and the incestuous relationship that follows. This isn’t a story I was familiar with, but feels pretty standard for Greek mythology. However, the narrative of The Porpoise isn’t as straightforward as that. The book opens with the story of Philippe, whose wife is killed in a plane accident, developing a deeply unhealthy obsession with his daughter, Angelica – the sole survivor of the crash. Some years later, a young man makes an attempt to rescue Angelica, fails, and escapes on board The Porpoise. At this point, the book expands into a new storyline following the tale of Pericles. As if this wasn’t enough, another thread is introduced with Shakespeare, so the book ends up covering at least three stories at once and I never managed to quite work out where they all linked up.

Despite my  lack of comprehension, I still thoroughly enjoyed this book. If you take the different threads as separate stories, you can just enjoy them for what they are, which is beautifully written and quite exciting stories of familial abuse, escape and adventure.

The Porpoise is a unique and engaging novel, highly entertaining despite the uncomfortable subject matter. It certainly won’t be for everyone, but it is guaranteed to be a good read for anyone who can properly get to grips with the narrative style and multilayered plot.

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

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A Short History of Myth – Karen Armstrong

40200434._SY475_In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong takes a brief but detailed look at the history of mythology and its impact on human life from the Palaeolithic Period (c.20000 to 8000 BC) to the Great Western Transformation (c.1500 to 2000).

I love mythology, so I was very interested to learn more about the development of myths throughout time, and particularly what we humans actually use it for. However, despite being on such a fascinating subject – and the book really is interesting – the writing is quite dry and it was a bit of a chore to read. I found myself zoning out a lot, but fortunately it’s a very short book and it wasn’t too hard to power through.

I found the final chapter, on the Great Western Transformation, the most interesting, which surprised me. Armstrong explains how and why we have lost mythology in the modern world, and the effect logical thinking and lack of myth has had on religion and compassion.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher.

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The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

39837245In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus’ wife Penelope is portrayed as unwaveringly faithful and loyal, pining for her husband throughout his 20-year absence and using her wiles to trick the suitors competing to take his place. On Odysseus’ return, after killing monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he slays all the treacherous suitors, and Penelope’s twelve favourite maids who had been forced to serve the suitors in his absence. Curiously, no explanation was ever provided for the brutal murder of the maids, beyond their being bedded by the suitors without their master’s permission – which they would have had no choice about. In this contemporary addition to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood imagines events from Penelope’s point of view, as well as that of the twelve hanged maids.

Atwood has managed to pull off an outstanding retelling, keeping all the familiar details of The Odyssey but twisting them into a new, modern perspective. I really liked the way Penelope tells the story from the underworld is present day. She refers to the way the world has moved on since the time of Odysseus and his contemporaries, and is able to bring a really fresh, modern voice to the story despite being one of the original characters.

The other characters we meet in Penelope’s underworld (Helen, Amphinomus, the maids) bring a level of real comic value to what is otherwise actually quite a dark tale. These details, along with the Greek, tragicomedy-style songs and ‘performances’ by the chorus line of maids, really push The Penelopiad over the line of ‘very good’ to ‘genius’.

I would 100% recommend this book to anyone with even a remote interest in mythology, but I would say that it would help to be at least vaguely familiar with The Odyssey.

I received a complementary copy of this book from the publisher.

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Lion’s Honey – David Grossman

41187479In Lion’s Honey, David Grossman takes an in-depth look at the myth of Samson, from his birth to a barren woman, to his death after being betrayed by the woman he loved.

As this book is one of Canongate’s “The Myths” collection, I expected a (probably fictionalised) retelling of the Biblical story of Samson. Instead, Lion’s Honey is more like an analysis of the story. That’s not to say it isn’t good, but it certainly isn’t what I was expecting.

Grossman’s analysis is interesting and thought-provoking, taking a particular focus on the women in Samson’s life, his relationship with his parents, and his compulsive attraction to the Philistines.

This interpretation of the myth of Samson is compelling and entirely readable, but don’t go into it expecting the “retelling” it’s marketed as.

I received a complementary copy of this book from the publisher.

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A Second Chance – Jodi Taylor

35150831In Book #3 of The Chronicles of St Mary’s, time-travelling historian Max travels to 17th Century Cambridge to meet Sir Isaac Newton, the Trojan War, and the Battle of Agincourt.

I enjoyed the first half of this book a lot. Max’s trip to Cambridge to see Newton was as hectic and funny as ever, while the Troy adventure was detailed and (although maybe not historically accurate) really interesting. Some of it was a little bit heavy going (the Greeks did massacre the Trojans, after all), but generally not too difficult to read and added a good level of seriousness to an otherwise light and entertaining story.

However, about halfway through the book, the plot takes quite a surprising turn and the rest of the story focuses much more on some of the ongoing relationships of the series. I actually thought some of the author’s decisions were pretty lazy in terms of plot development, until things played out further and her plans became a bit clearer. Although I could accept that she had things play out a certain way for a reason – not just laziness – I’m not totally sure I liked what she did with the story.

The Chronicles of St Mary’s are still decent, funny and worth giving a go, but I hope Book #4 is better than this because there are too many of them to keep reading if they’re only going to be mediocre.

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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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