On this page you’ll find links to allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore‘s reviews of indie-published books. If you would like to contact Evie Woolmore about reviewing your indie-published book, please read the information on this page.
Restless Spirits by Kathy Bryson
Marilee Harper, jobless and locked in a complex relationship with her mother, is introduced to the somewhat mysterious and disconcertingly attractive John Smith, who is renovating an old hospital into a new bed and breakfast. Their unease around each other seems to infuse the atmosphere, which is increasingly unsettled by strange goings on, but Marilee and her mother move in and set about helping John with his project. But nothing is straightforward, for amid the romance is a sprinkling of mystery and the sparkling presence of Fair Folk, and what starts out as a journey of self-discovery becomes much more than that for Marilee.
I had the good fortune some years ago to spend a few months living in a small New England town, and anyone who has lived in a small town anywhere will instantly recognise the strong sense of community that pervades this book. Ms Bryson has peopled her novel with a large cast of well-defined characters whose interdependence and individuality form the nucleus of both a successful community and a fictional world. What sets this novel apart from other small-town romances is the paranormal twist, and with due reverence to Shakespeare, Ms Bryson has embraced the possibilities of fairies and the Otherworld. Indeed, it is just as well that Marilee has ‘a high threshold for the bizarre’ – although she revises that statement immediately to a low threshold, she has a curiosity for what motivates, ensnares and defines those around her, which I’m sure reflects the author’s own interests as a writer. This is a study of people, and there are many to keep us intrigued.
Marilee’s growth as a character is certainly key to our desire to keep reading. With my editorial hat on, I felt it could have done with a ruthless edit in the first half of the book: the pace is slowed by Marilee’s detailed self-reflection and self-analysis, and the sort of small town minutiae that are essential to local narratives don’t always translate as effectively to the fictional narrative where we need merely enough to delineate the boundaries of the story. In her gloom, Marilee also has a tendency to go round in circles at times, and though this is a good reflection of how her circumstances have trapped her, and how depressed I think she genuinely feels, it can at times have the effect of alienating the reader who relies on Marilee to drive the first person story-telling.
Nonetheless, this is a vividly drawn novel which will immediately enchant anyone who recognises themselves, their community or the twinkle in the eye of someone who is not quite what they seem!
Runaway Girl by Elaine White (at Amazon sites including Amazon UK)
I’d be the first person to admit that I don’t read much vampire or gothic fiction; my last dip into the genre was Ann Radcliffe’s classic late eighteenth century gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho almost twenty years ago, and I haven’t even seen the box set of Buffy. Nonetheless, maybe being new to this kind of fiction allows me to see it with fresh eyes, and appreciate this book as a novel in its own right, a proper story rather than seeking originality in the genre.
There’s certainly a lot of freshness about Ms White’s book, and it has a fast-paced opening with plenty of characters making an early appearance. Certainly it takes a certain flair and energy to keep several inter-connected storylines moving along, and the opening premise of a search for a figure of great significance is always going to get things off to a swift start. The reader is quickly drawn in, not merely by the compelling experiences of the characters we meet but by the comfortably engaging worlds that Ms White paints for us.
What is obvious, even to the relative vampire novice that I am, is that the fracturing of Amelia’s soul is a clever idea both in story terms and in reaching out beyond the vampire genre to readers with an interest in magical realism and spirituality. Magic aside, it’s an interesting way to explore the tensions in all our personalities and there are certainly enough tensions in this book to keep the reader thoroughly engaged.
It says as much about my reading background as it does this novel that at times I felt there was just a bit too much going on, but that is the style of fantasy fiction born of imaginative and complex worlds and if it didn’t suit me as a reader then that is, as I say, as much a comment on me. Probably if I’d had more experience of this fiction, I would have got everything straight in my head, because I would have gone into reading it with more refined expectations of what I wanted to read in this sort of novel.
Certainly, Elaine White is an imaginative writer who has crafted a very readable book, and it’s clear that without limit to that imagination, she has much more to offer her readers.
The Blackheath Seance Parlour by Alan Williams (available from Amazon)
My own interest as a writer in the spiritualist world of the Victorian and Edwardian eras drew me to this novel, but if you are looking for a good historical novel with plenty of authentic detail then there is much to appeal here. Middle-aged sisters Judy and Maggie Cloak have inherited a shop in the windswept, weather-beaten village of Blackheath on the outskirts of east London, but it is doing badly in its current incarnation as a sweetshop and the Cloak sisters are getting desperate. Judy has ambitions to escape both literally and metaphorically through a gothic novel she is writing, while Maggie seeks solace in drink from her sense of abandonment as a daughter and a prospective wife. Their lives change with the arrival of the rather mysterious Mrs Walters, a woman of some spiritual ability, who soon helps the sisters transform the shop into a focal point for many contrasting things: gossip, hope, faith, belief, mystery, and all the trappings of the occult. But the initial success of tea leaf reading is not enough for Maggie, Judy or Mrs Walters, and the story explores how the paths of each woman diverge as they seek their own resolutions with the past and the future. The novel is also intercut with long extracts from Judy’s novel, through which she explores certain aspects of her own reality and the society to which she imagines belonging.
The other main character in this book is the village of Blackheath, and Williams notes at the end of the book that he wanted to do justice to the community and its history as part of his aim in writing the novel. He captures very effectively the bleakness of the heath as it must have been in the Victorian era, and with a subplot around the murder of two girls, he infuses a certain chill in the already atmospheric spiritualist action. He has also done great justice to what must have been substantial research of spiritualism in the Victorian era. In the scenes where the sisters and Mrs Walters are reading tea leaves and the glass ball, and later the seances themselves, he has drawn very authentically on reports of the time, both of the fake and the genuine, and that level of accuracy will please readers of historical fiction and those interested in spiritualism.
It’s interesting too that he has essentially focussed on three middle-aged women, and he explores the social confinement these women must have felt in being unmarried while also seeking to be independent. Each woman is seeking something different as a consequence, and while their stories are interesting I wasn’t always as convinced by the historical authenticity of their actions and particularly some of their dialogue. Without giving too much away about how the story develops, some more spiritually-inclined readers might think it a shame that the most talented character spiritually was also the least attractive personality. It also might be seen by some readers as not doing much for a feminist agenda: the social emancipation and independence each of these women is seeking is in a way undermined by the lengths they go to to achieve what they want, and in some ways none of the women comes out of it very well. I was also a bit disappointed by the way Mrs Walters’ storyline resolved itself and not entirely satisfied with what happens to Maggie. But to discuss that at any length would be to spoil it for those who haven’t read the book.
As in my own spiritualist novels (search for Evie Woolmore), there is some discussion about the science vs religious faith vs spirituality conundrum, and this appears in the last part of the book only. It would have been interesting to do more with this much earlier in Maggie’s arguments with Father Legge, although it makes a very fitting climax dramatically in other respects. The book – though quite long – is generally well-paced, although I personally didn’t engage as much with the extracts of Judy’s novel. I think there could have been fewer of them and shorter ones too, without detracting from the part they played in reflecting some of the real-life action and the issues that arise for Judy as a consequence of writing the book.
This is a historically detailed novel, which I’m sure residents and those familiar with Blackheath will much enjoy for its local portrait, and which will provide a good escape on a wintry evening or two.
The Written by Ben Galley
I’ll say up front that I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but I loved the idea of what is written being such an important part of this story, and that was what attracted me to it – that, and the stunning cover design. So I’m delighted to say that this is a well-crafted, imaginatively constructed story that is very readable, regardless of whether you read a lot of fantasy or this is your first foray into the genre. It’s also the first in a series, which seems almost essential when writing fantasy, but will also please readers who have been quickly swept off their feet by this story.
A valuable item has been stolen, and its theft has brought a realm to the brink of war. Old enmities are being revived, and trust must be rebuilt between enemies if a far greater threat is to be overcome. But will time run out, and will the power of our hero be enough? This might seem like the plot to many a fantasy novel at the most general level, but Ben Galley has done a nice job of finessing the story with some lovely, well-imagined details. Farden, our hero (though not an enormously likeable one, perhaps) is a complicated fellow, driven yet a little lost, isolated and feared, yet inspiring fondness in his closest confidantes and strangers alike. He is also torn on the inside by a weakness that could literally render him powerless. His well-drawn vampyre adviser Durnus is very strongly characterised, as are the wonderful dragons Farden meets with their Siren riders, who are also beautifully described. I have the faint sense that Galley likes some of his characters more than others – I was less convinced by the drawing of a couple of them who I won’t name because I don’t want to hint at a spoiler – but the world of Emaneska, the towns, the huge buildings in which the most important action happens are all inspiringly drawn and will not disappoint any reader.
There’s a lot of action in this book – the fighting at which Farden is so proficient, and the use of magick (though less than I was expecting actually) – and also a lot of politics too, for this is at some levels a very political novel. It is about allegiances and loyalty, corruption and manipulation, weakness and strength. The first key revelation about two thirds of the way through was perhaps not as surprising as it could have been though, and I felt for a moment as if I was watching an episode of a US crime drama, because I was running out of possible candidates for the villain. However, this is a series, not an episode, and it is always a challenge to keep the momentum going well enough not only through this book but through those that follow. I agree with other reviewers who have pointed out Galley’s potential as a novelist, and what I think is admirable (perhaps because I don’t read a lot of fantasy) is that he has not created an over-complicated world, littered by its own creative profusion. There are not so many characters, races, languages, mythologies and so on that one cannot keep them all to mind if you put the book down for a day or two, and I don’t intend it as a weakness when I say that at its heart this is quite a straightforward tale.
If I have one particular criticism it is that the narrative writing can be very dense at times. Having a solitary hero, and seeing so much of the world through his eyes, means that narrative writing outweighs the quantity of dialogue by quite a bit and it can make the novel feel rather one-paced in places. To some extent this is a feature of the genre, but for this reader, a bit more variety of pacing and more dialogue in general would have elevated this novel beyond being what is already a very good book.
My Problem with Doors by Scott Southard (Amazon UK and US)
Jacob has a problem with doors. From time to time, when he walks through one, his life changes in a flash, transporting him across time and space, interrupting the flow of a normal life with the juxtaposition of extraordinary characters and challenging experiences. Just as he gets used to one life, one period in history, just as he builds relationships that are meaningful to him, so is he snatched away by some mysterious hand of… Well, of what? Of fate? Of God?
It’s a really interesting premise for a novel, that of a wanderer through time whose destiny and purpose is uncertain. He encounters somebodies and nobodies, revealing the truth behind some of the most notorious characters in history, and the smaller but no less significant stories of every day individuals. Indeed, in some senses this is a novel of two halves. While it begins as a narrative romp through history, told by Jacob himself who is scratching out his memoirs a candle at a time, it becomes increasingly a reflective existential analysis. What is the point of all this diversity of experience if I can’t change anything about my own life, let alone anyone else’s?
And therein lies the novel’s strength and, for me, its weakness. There is a richness of imagination in Southard’s telling of Jacob’s tale, of the places he sees, the events he witnesses, the characters he meets and falls in love and in hate with, is helped and hindered by. He witnesses some extraordinary periods in history and it would be a remarkable novel if that were what it chose to focus on as story-telling and imaginative odyssey, contrasting the values, people, places, morals, the continuity of human emotion and experience and the differences. And there is some fine, well-constructed story-telling, particularly the sections featuring the Shelleys and Byron, though less so those with Jack the Ripper. There are though some contrivances around Jacob’s increasing desire to explain why he is enduring this journey, including his desire to change the course of one particular event in recent American history which feels a little unnatural in the course of the novel. There are so many events in the history of the nation, and given that we are never really sure of Jacob’s nationality for he is not explicitly, patriotically American but rather a citizen of time and space, why does he choose to focus on that event rather than the Holocaust, for example, as a means of finding out whether his ability to move in time could change the course of history?
There is a love story too at the centre of this, and perhaps it is the most compelling theme in the novel, for it is this aspect of his life which transforms Jacob and changes him from a travelling storyteller into a journeyman of a different kind. Yet perhaps, like Jacob, we too end up with more questions than answers. I found myself wondering why Southard had chosen the events he had for Jacob’s story, why those famous historical people, why I felt dragged in and out of the story, sometimes utterly absorbed and sometimes jerkily aware of the story’s construction in equal measure. This is such an original idea for a novel which is at times really well executed but which at other times left me frustrated and wishing for more fulfilled potential.
Her Unwelcome Inheritance by J. Aleksandr Wootton (Amazon UK, Amazon US)
YA fantasy is such a rapidly expanding genre, that it can be difficult to create a story that stands out amid the usual themes of growing up, emotions, relationships and new responsibilities, even though fantasy gives an author enormous potential to create a really original context for exploring these ideas. For Her Unwelcome Inheritance, the first volume in the Fayborn series, Wootton has borrowed some very old, well-known foundations for his fantasy world in the characters many of us know from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and re-imagined them for us, immortal and brought bang up to date.
Petra Goodfellow is a descendant of a former advisor to Oberon, the Fairy King, but she is now at the heart of a power struggle as Oberon seeks to restore power to his kingdom. Petra’s mother has done her best to protect her daughter from the impact of her bloodline, but the past is catching up with Petra now, as James Oberon seeks to track her down by any means possible. But Petra wants to get on with her life, she doesn’t want to take on the responsibilities of her past and her ancestors. She just wants to enjoy her first year at college and make new friends, and no matter often she sees glimpses of the fairy world, she is determined that they just don’t exist. As a YA character, she is going to be unruly and refuse to make the journey the genre demands of her.
Wootton has spared no expense imaginatively in constructing and peopling his fairy world, and both the environment and the characters are richly and engagingly drawn. Petra herself is a strong and sparky character, a typical teenager with an un-self-conscious voice which Wootton writes well. Sometimes a third person narrator can seem too knowing for a YA character, but Petra’s internal thoughts are believable and unforced. That narrator is kept busy too, leaping about between the different factions of the fairies in exile: Oberon and his loyal supporters and family, including the utterly devious Wormsworth, the fast fading Fairy Queen and her devoted Cat, Petra, her godfather Tod, and also an unusual character, a Professor Jack Wootton, an expert in all matters fairy. Like the fourth wall in cinema, it takes a certain amount of authorial nerve to blur the boundaries the writer establishes between fact and fiction, narrator and characters, reader and writer, and – without giving anything away – Professor Wootton’s part in the story is not a Hitchockian cliché or a moment of vanity.
For this reviewer, the book’s authentic and beautifully researched world is perhaps the source of its weakness: there are so many characters, so much fairy lore, that it can be hard for the casual reader or one who reads in short bursts to keep up with what is going on. A glossary and a family tree would not go amiss in the appendix, just to help the easily confused, though for those who like a complex genealogy and lore, the book will be a comfortable and enjoyable place to lose a few hours. It also suffers slightly from ‘first in the series’ syndrome: there is a huge amount of exposition, and there are lots of storylines and narrative threads to be set in motion, and so in action terms the book is pretty slow to get going and results in quite a cliffhanger, which some readers may find frustrating. Fortunately for them, Wootton is just about to release the second in the series, The Eighth Square.
Salvation by Harriet Steel (Amazon UK and US)
How historical does a historical novel have to be? From the dramatisation of facts and characters to stories simply set in the past, the challenge for any writer is to balance authenticity with narrative drive. It might be historically accurate but is it a good story? Harriet Steel’s novel Salvation, set in the England of the first Queen Elizabeth, does a pretty good job of balancing these two aspects, and gives us a romance, a spy thriller, and a history lesson in one.
Tom Goodluck, a clerk with ambitions to be a playwright, is having an affair with Meg, a lady of reasonable wealth whose husband is thoroughly unpleasant. But when Tom’s employer is found dead, Tom is charged with the murder and must leave the love of his life to save himself. Meg too is soon forced to run away and the novel is, in one sense, a weaving of their respective stories as they try to survive in the harsh social and religious realities of Elizabethan England. But Tom has also met Alexandre Lamotte, who not only puts on Tom’s play in pre-Shakespearean London, but has a double life as a spy for the Queen’s main agent Walsingham. Ms Steel uses the stories of these three main characters to show many complexities in England at that time: the persecution of the Catholics, the tensions between England and Spain, and the brutalities of being poor.
The novel is peopled with a large number of minor characters and it covers enormous ground geographically and in the passing of time. We are reminded of how long news took to travel in the sixteenth century, and how violent that era was. There are a couple of quite brutal scenes which may make those of a tender disposition feel a little pale, but many would argue that it is the responsibility of a historical novelist not to shirk that responsibility. On that same point, for this reviewer there was perhaps a bit too much historical information at times: while Ms Steel’s dialogue and description are extremely well crafted, there are quite a lot of descriptive passages, particularly in one historically significant section near the end (which I won’t spoil by naming) and this is perhaps where the ‘historical’ overtakes the ‘novel’ at times. For in doing justice to Ms Steel’s excellent research, the pace is sometimes slowed. Nonetheless, this is a really good read, and I couldn’t help thinking at the end that it could have made an excellent first novel in a series featuring Tom and Lamotte.
These Fragile Things by Jane Davis (Amazon UK and US)
These Fragile Things is an essay on survival: what does it mean to survive? How do we define successful survival? And when one’s life has changed dramatically, how are those around us dragged in to our experience of surviving? When teenager Judy is almost killed in 1982 by a falling tree, her parents respond in very different ways. Her mother, Elaine, is bogged down by the practicalities while her father, Graham, makes a pact with God. In this intense, emotionally complex novel, we witness (in the Biblical sense as well as the literal narrative sense) how Judy’s survival impacts not only on her parents, but those around her. And we wonder – along with all the characters in the book – whether and how that pact with God has manifested itself in the deeply spiritual visions Judy then has.
This book could be seen as an exploration of the impact of the embrace of religion on routine domestic life, but that would be to oversimplify what I think the author is trying to do. This book is more about our desire to explain what happens to us, to justify the tipping of the scales of existence to one side or the other, and our desire to maintain an equilibrium when everything changes. For me, the novel became particularly interesting once Judy began to experience her visions, and the author has done a clever balancing act herself by showing the impact of these extraordinary claims by Judy on two religious figures, Sister Euphemia from Judy’s new convent school, and Father Patrick, Graham’s priest. Their negotiations of their religion with the tensions of the real world are an interesting counterbalance to Graham’s absorption in Catholicism as the means of his salvation and Judy’s.
Without giving away the plot of the novel, what becomes apparent in the last part is that Graham’s initial evaluation of what it means for Judy’s to survive is challenged. Just as the novel explores in great detail the dynamics of a marriage under pressure, and the pervasive influence of memory and the past in shaping our present choices and how we remember what is happening to us right now, it also explores the dynamics of guilt about that survival. When Judy is labelled the Miracle Girl, she becomes the focus for everyone else’s grief and trouble, not to mention the focus for some equally faithless and lurid speculation about her family. Judy is positioned as responsible for the fates of others because hers seems to have been decided by God.
I would like to have read more about what Judy herself thought about that. We learn quite a lot about Judy’s experiences of her visions, but less about the impact of their consequences on her, such as what she feels about all the people who flock to her door. And while the author has evoked the social and cultural atmosphere of 1982 very effectively, for me there is a bit of a muddling in the narrative voice between the subjective stream of consciousness of Elaine and Graham in particular, and the omniscience of the writer, which occasionally makes Elaine and Graham sound a bit too objective about what is happening to them.
This novel will be about different things depending on who is reading it: about the internal pressures on a family in a crisis; a meditation on how teenagers and their parents negotiate changes brought on by growing up; about the difference between religion and faith and the sheer power of belief. Whatever you take away though, this book will make you think.
Demon’s Grip by Tahlia Newland (Amazon UK and Amazon US)
The third novel in the Diamond Peak series by Tahlia Newland is a somewhat different book to its two predecessors. Perhaps that is not surprising, for over the course of a series of books, the pacing will vary, and the narrative will bend and flex as it moves towards its concluding volumes. Unlike other serial novels, like the Harry Potter books, Ariel is on a long linear journey, and so the books will vary on that journey.
Following the dramatic action with which the second volume Stalking Shadows ended, this novel begins in a more thoughtful and reflective fashion, and in some respects the title is a metaphor for the book as a whole. The book has fewer of the action sequences and battle scenes that characterised the earlier books, and though we now see more of the Diamond’s Peak world through different character points of view, Ariel herself is confined to two locations for much of the novel. While her mother is in the grip of Emot, Ariel herself is in the grip of her complicated feelings for Nick, and the battles she faces are against her internal ‘enemy’ – the literal and terrifying consequences of being unable to understand and manage those feelings.
That, in particular, makes this book more thoughtful in tone. The spiritual themes of this world come much more to the fore, and Ariel’s dialogues with Walnut explore that in some detail. The book is also somewhat claustrophobic in feel at times, as Ariel struggles with what she feels and the impact of it on her journey. And here is the challenge of rating this book: in terms of the series as a whole, it is an essential stage in Ariel’s journey, for the enemy she must conquer is within, and it is a timely sequel to the second volume. But as a novel in itself, this reviewer finds it less readable than its predecessors, due to its slower pacing, the long segments of dialogue, and the dominance of Ariel and Nick’s relationship in the story. Nonetheless, the end of this novel opens up some interesting possibilities for Ariel’s future on Diamond Peak, and readers will want to know what happens in the final instalment of her journey.
Beyond the Cascade by A.H. Jessup (Amazon UK and Amazon US)
Many of us can identify with the sense of having lost our purpose in life, of the encroaching of an ever-more demanding world, of the exhausting cycle of work-life-work. Many of us may also have experienced the debilitating symptoms of depression, the gathering grey-black that will not relent no matter what the distraction. Suzannah Grant, a brilliant New York academic specialising in linguistics, is struggling with a darkness that she cannot overcome. We first meet her through the eyes of her old and closest friend Christian, who is poring over the remains of her life – a few letters, some incidental personal possessions. Some mysterious event has befallen Suzannah and Christian cannot quite believe she is dead.
And then we flash back and meet Suzannah, and join her journey to the distant heartland of southern Africa, to a land, people, culture and language only once before charted by a Victorian explorer – a language which hints at the mysterious Experience Cascade. Driven on by her desire to find refuge from herself and her ever darkening existence, Suzannah submerges herself in first research and then the journey to follow in the explorer’s footsteps, abandoning little by little everything familiar in pursuit of the truth. What is the Cascade? And what can be learned about it?
What Suzannah discovers is that there is a difference between learning about the Cascade and learning from it. And it is this truth she seeks which makes the novel so interesting. Jessup has not only imagined a world for us of enormous credibility – a ‘lost’ tribe of people within a world that has been Google-mapped out of obscurity – but one which has a very strong spiritual vision. Carefully translating the language of the lost culture for her, Suzannah’s local guide Muhaybee alludes to our psychological frailties as individuals, mapping them as hills, rivers and the landscape through which they journey together, as Suzannah faces increasing physical, emotional and psychological challenges. Jessup shows us how those frailties have weakened our spirituality – regardless of our faith or religion – and how much is lost to them.
This is a very long novel, and in conventional narrative terms it does not really adopt a page-turning pace until about half way through. The multiple points of view and voices – Suzannah and Christian in third and first person, letters, journals and so on – help somewhat to keep the first part moving, but the authenticity of the detail of Suzannah’s expertise in linguistics, and to a lesser extent Christian’s professional knowledge of AI, are – in this reviewer’s opinion – at times completely overwhelming of the storyline and slow the pace too much. The writing is elegant, evocative and strongly visual, but because we spend so much time inside Suzannah’s head, at times again the long descriptive tracts can slow the pace.
Nonetheless, this is an inspiring, thought-provoking journey of a novel, and worth the investment of time and consideration by any reader interested in spiritual themes.
Brimstone by Alan Skinner (Amazon UK and Amazon US)
This is a wonderfully well-imagined novel with terrific, strong characters and a well thought out story. Jenny Swift is plucked from her woodland home aged fifteen by Richard Antrobus, the master alchemist of small city-state Vale, who has chosen her for her extraordinary healing abilities to become his apprentice. She is immediately plunged into a world of danger and intrigue when Antrobus is attacked on their way to Vale, and the first few days of Jenny’s apprenticeship become a race to find out more about her master, about the city she has moved to, and about the sciences of alchemy which seem to attract such danger.
The novel is pitched at a young adult audience, and certainly the occasional brutalities of a quasi-mediaeval style society might mildly alarm a much younger child, though Skinner has dealt with the hardships of his plot twists very carefully so as not to linger unnecessarily on the deaths that do take place. Nonetheless, there is a lovely child-like quality to this book at times, in Jenny’s journey of discovery of herself, of alchemy, and of the city that contrasts so starkly with the peaceful woodlands of her sheltered childhood. Jenny draws all sorts of attention herself, for she is one female apprentice among boys, and her mother’s exotic heritage means she looks unusual too. She has a typical teenager’s anxieties about her looks, but she is also a great role model for following your talents and doing what you’re good at, regardless of what others might think. We see Jenny make a friend in the marvellously flirtatious Emily Trickett, and her courage to help others engages both her friends in the novel and the reader.
This is a really well-written novel, a delightful read, and the next stories from Jenny’s apprenticeship will be well worth the wait.
Dark Night of the Soul by E. M. Havens (Amazon UK and Amazon US)
This is one of the most accomplished novels I have read in a long while and it is well worth a read, whether you are YA or adult. Don’t let the synopsis put you off: it is a novel about death, about suicide in particular. But it is also a creative, imaginative, thought-provoking but thoroughly readable novel in an incredibly well-imagined world. It draws very cleverly on our own environment, reflecting familiar aspects that bring lightness to what otherwise might seem dark subject matter (the Wal-Mart section is particularly good in that respect), but it also does what the very best magical realism should do, which is to make you feel that this other world is just around the corner, if only you could learn how to see it.
Jayden Schroeder has taken her own life, but finds herself plunged into a state of suspended existence with an eclectic group of companions drawn from all times and cultures. Together they must fight for the souls of the living, dependent all the while on the generosity of the mysterious He. There are rules in this place, clear rules which must be lived by under threat of serious penalty. But it is exhausting this state of being, between the physical demands of learning to fight and the emotional demands of forging alliances and loyalties to strangers. Jayden’s relationship with Marsh and Neala are very well drawn, and the pacing of the book is extremely good. And through it all, Jayden must make decisions about her own future, and reflect on the reasons she decided to take her life. This novel could easily be taken as an essay on the rights and wrongs, not to mention the collateral consequences of suicide, especially by a young person. But it is also an exceptionally well-written novel and a thoroughly excellent read.
Silent Symmetry by John B Dutton (Amazon UK and Amazon US)
Teenager Kari Marriner has had a tough start in life. Her father was killed when she was a child, but her intelligent, resourceful mother has raised a bright, compassionate daughter, keen to take in the world around her. When they move to New York it is a fresh start for them both, but Kari is soon aware that things are not all they seem to be.
The challenge for a writer of YA fantasy fiction is to create both real and alternate worlds that are believable. In this first volume of his Embodied Trilogy, John Dutton has carefully assembled the building blocks of his alternate world, the Temple of Truth. I’m not going to give too much away here, but it’s been done cleverly and carefully, although I think I would have liked Kari to happen on a few more details sooner and more gradually, so it didn’t come in a rush of revelation all together. That’s sometimes the challenge with first-novels-of-trilogies – giving enough detail early enough to bring the reader in.
The author has though done a good job of anchoring the novel in contemporary teenage New York. The city is well painted through teenage eyes, and the angsts of moving to a high school are effectively identified, though Kari is possibly a bit too at ease with change for someone who has been dragged out of a tiny Wisconsin town into a 24-7 international metropolis. Characters are very well drawn: the relationship between Kari and her mother is well-established at the beginning, showing how sometimes the relationship can change in the absence of a second parent, towards two people who are more like friends than parent and child. The two teenage guys, Cruz and Noon, whose presence looms large in Kari’s life are also authentically drawn and likeable too, and the tension Kari experiences – emotional and intellectual – in her dealings with them are sympathetically portrayed and easy to identify with.
My reluctance to give this 5* stems from two things: the first is the tone of Kari’s own voice, which at times just feels to A to be YA. I think she is about 16 or 17 in the book, but even though she has grown up to be quite an independent young woman, I feel she could be more of a girl still at times. She has quite an adult turn of phrase at times, quite sophisticated, which sticks out a bit for me. My other slight dissatisfaction comes with the ending: I felt there should have been much more drama given how the book ends, yet Kari seems to have taken it all in her stride. We are given a strong hint at how her situation is going to develop in the second book in the Series, but I would have expected there still to be a hell of a hangover from the scenes of the penultimate section of the book.
Nonetheless, this is a readable, enjoyable and fast moving story for a YA audience.
Girl in the Glass by Zoe Brooks (Amazon UK and US)
This evocative and atmospheric novel explores the close relationship between two young women, set against a harsh social and physical environment. Anya is an orphan, abandoned to live with her brutal Aunt in a hierarchical household where punishment seems endless. With her is Eva, her Shadow, from a caste whose identity is never thoroughly explained but who carry the burden of social pariah and outcast, tainting those who associate too closely with them. In this relationship we find the core of what Zoe Brooks has created here: a world which is both recognisable and not, whose elements are all too familiar and yet powerfully imagined beyond the familiar. It is magical realist in some senses but also, as some other reviewers have noted, it has a kind of otherness about it that some science fiction fans may identify with.
The characterisation is strong and interestingly cast. Anya and Eva are well drawn and we observe as they evolve their identities and their names to protect themselves as they embark upon a journey of which this novel is just the beginning. But there are enormous numbers of other characters too, from key players like Anya’s dead mother and her vicious Aunt, the King of Pharsis and Julian, to smaller bit players like dressmakers and landladies, each painted with equal care. This is perhaps one aspect which may put off some readers: the cast is so great that we sometimes feel we have abandoned members of it as Anya and Eva journey on, and they seem lost to us forever.
Likewise, the somewhat episodic nature of the book is sometimes blurred by a lack of spatial punctuation, an absence of breaths between scenes as it were, and at times this threatens to overwhelm the reader. The tone of voice is also occasionally ambiguous: for much of the time Anya speaks both in dialogue and narration in the authentic voice of her early adolescence, but at other times she seems far too adult, too literal, even though we know that Anya’s life has caused her to grow up very quickly.
The novel ends with an opening, a new beginning as it were, as Anya begins to explore the notion of a vocation, a destiny, a path into the future that is hers and not carved by circumstance. If you enjoy this novel you are likely to read the next one, for Zoe Brooks has created a world within this book that will draw you in and not easily relinquish you.
Desert Chimera by Leigh Podgorski (Amazon UK and Amazon US)
Leigh Podgorski’s biography notes “her scholarship and fascination with the diverse cultures of the Earth” and her novel Desert Chimera is a testament to both that attention to detail and her desire to do justice to the beauty and complexity of those cultures. Set over a period of less than twenty four hours in the evocatively named Desert Wolf Café located “on a lonesome slice of highway” in Death Valley, four characters are brought together to witness another two fight for control of their entwined destinies. These six very diverse individuals with lovely names – café owner Eppie Falco, handyman Leo Monroe, travellers Mack Starr and Consuelo Vasquez, and the two central characters Luke Stone and Armand Jacobi – are well painted by the author and their natural, well-rounded dialogue plays a significant part in drawing the reader in.
Luke and Armand are not simply the polar opposites of each other, a psychic visionary and a black magician, but they each know intimately the power of the other’s abilities. Luke owes something of his earlier survival to Armand, and he knows his nemesis’s motivations as well as his skills. Armand is willing to pursue that debt Luke owes him, and the novel explores the challenges individuals face when seeking independence from their past, and redemption towards their future. This is though not merely a novel which draws on the familiar aspects of good and evil, and the complexities of spirituality. It also owes a great deal to its geographical setting and the traditions of spirituality and belief that belong to the earlier inhabitants of that place, both in the specific and broader senses. Podgorski’s atmospheric descriptions of the environment of the novel echo the respect paid by the native American cultures to their environment, and at no time in the novel does the author let us forget of the intimate relationship between people and their surroundings.
The compact time period of the novel keeps the action moving along quickly, though it is interspersed with a lot of flashbacks as Luke in particular remembers his past encounters with Armand. This book has been adapted from the author’s own play, and I’m guessing the author enjoyed the opportunity to ‘fill in the gaps’ around the backstory. For example, there are some lovely echoes of Oliver Twist and Fagin in the author’s descriptions of Armand and his gang of boys in New York, though with more sinister overtones, and these flashbacks are vividly portrayed as we learn about what experiences have formed Luke and his relationship with Armand. These are useful for the narrative though I found them at times to be a bit too long and a bit too detailed. Indeed, that is perhaps where the author is both her best friend and worst enemy: in seeking to give us such a vivid insight into how each of the characters are feeling, I found the writing gets slowed down at times by the sheer volume of words she uses to describe the detail.
Nonetheless, this is a compelling first volume in the Stone Quest series, and it will be fascinating to see where Luke goes from here.
Stalking Shadows by Tahlia Newland (Amazon UK and Amazon US)
This second volume in Tahlia Newland’s YA series picks up just where the first volume, A Lethal Inheritance, finishes. Ariel has barely begun her journey to rescue her mother and she has already faced both the darkest of foes and her own internal doubts and fears. Following a fierce battle, she has barely time to regroup before she and Nick, her companion and would-be boyfriend must set off again on this, the next stage of their journey.
The will-they-won’t-they of Nick and Ariel’s relationship is well written, and we see the situation from both sides. Ariel worries, as many girls her age do, that having a boyfriend will distract her from what she needs to do to succeed, but will also turn her into someone who is less able to focus on what’s important because they are always worrying about how they look. In Ariel’s case, Newland makes it easy to sympathise with her worry about being distracted – rescuing their mother is the most important goal anyone might have – but she also shows well how contradictory our feelings can be, when we are inching into a new relationship. Nick himself is confused about how he feels, managing the conflict in his own feelings and his life before Ariel with the tension she brings. He wants to impress her, protect her, look after, but he also is overwhelmed at times by how she makes him feel. Often YA fiction sees things from only the girl’s point of view, so this is a welcome addition to the novel.
This novel has a much stronger romantic element to it than the first volume but it doesn’t overshadow what is, once again, a well-driven, well-plotted voyage through well-drawn, well-imagined worlds. Twitchet, the talking cat, is wonderfully expressed, and although the sage Walnut is absent for the first part of the novel, Twitchet more than makes up for his absence in his cleverness and his mischief. There are new friends and enemies made, and some whose allegiance is not clear. Tension is steadily built as the novel progresses and we also learn more of the metaphysical vision of this world, of how infectious darkness and self-doubt can be, and how compelling and difficult to escape too. It is impossible to talk in any detail about the plot without giving it away, but suffice to say after a steady beginning, life gets increasingly more complicated and Ariel must test herself again and again and again.
If you enjoyed the first volume of the series then this will not disappoint and will leave you eagerly anticipating the next stage of their journey.
The Red King of Helsinki by Helena Halme (Amazon UK and Amazon US)
Finnish author Helena Halme has lived in the UK for many years, and it is that fluency with both cultures which makes this cold war thriller so readable. With the current fascination for Nordic noir, this is a novel which does not rely on a good translation into English but, written in that tongue, shows enormous facility in the language and social mores of both the Finns and the British.
Set in the 1970s, in a Finland that was characterised by its geographical closeness to Russia as much by its European aspirations, former British naval officer Iain becomes quickly embroiled in an undercover investigation sanctioned by British Intelligence. His lover’s daughter Pia is participating in a gymnastics competition, but her gym teacher Leena is too infatuated with the mysterious Russian Vadi to ask too many questions about what is clearly a peculiar set up: for Pia is not a very good gymnast at all. Set in several strikingly described locations – apartments, the school, the British Council, and the trams and streets of Helsinki, the winter infuses every aspect of this story, its chill sending a ripple up the reader’s spine as the multi point of view story spins its complex web. It’s a very effective way to build tension but this is no standard action thriller in the style of Clancy. It relies on loyalties and deceptions in equal measure to raise the stakes: is Pia’s boyfriend Heikki the dropout he seems? Is Pia’s mother as blissfully ignorant as Iain hopes? And what has happened to Pia’s best friend and her diplomat father?
A surprising aspect of this book is that it would also make a good YA read, although the occasional use of obscenities might preclude making this book a YA recommendation. Nonetheless, the teenage characters are sympathetic and well-drawn and as they frame the novel’s structure it might make the book engaging to an older YA reader. My only criticism is that from time to time the story somewhat to accommodate some significant chunks of backstory, but otherwise this is a well-paced, engrossing novel. The reader will find that this Helsinki winter chills them right to the climax of the book.
Dogtooth Chronicals by Kirsty Fox
Despite its stark quasi-apocalyptic backdrop, Dogtooth Chronicals is in many ways a love letter. It is a saga, a fantasy/nightmare, an epic multi-dimensional, multi-narrative prophecy, and it is long. But – and perhaps this is where being a British reader reviewing a British novel really shows – it is truly a love letter to the cities, landscape and weather of Britain.
In many ways, A Paris Haunting is a book populated entirely by unsettled spirits, not merely the ghost of the person who has passed over but those among the living left behind, haunted by their own actions. Kay, a translator based in Paris, becomes entangled in the lives of three people — the remnants of two couples whose interconnected relationships have perhaps caused the death of the fourth person — first through a good deed, then by curiosity, and then by her own emotional and psychological involvement. To begin with, Kay does not realize that she has the capacity to help them in more than just practical ways, to help them find peace, albeit through more earthly means than might be suggested by some of the more esoteric themes covered in the book: energy healing, mediumship, psychic ability, synaesthesia.
The Paris setting is thoroughly authentic and will appeal to Francophile readers, and the book has clearly been written by someone who knows the city and France well, and loves it. There is a strong sense of the quirks of the French that might be noticed by an outsider, though despite the characters mostly being French (or half French), there is a slightly English feel to them at times and in the narrative styling too, not least in Kay’s love of drinking tea and the English bookshop owned by one of the characters.
The descriptive writing is very atmospheric though, rather like the characters’ experiences of the ghost, we get only a suggestion of the spiritual dimension of the haunting. The main experiences of the ghost are mediated through the descriptions by the most haunted character, and Kay herself (as the principal though not only p.o.v. character) only senses the presence of the ghost rather than actually seeing it. This has the effect of distancing the haunting, like a story within a story, or grounding it rather strongly in reality as characters keep asking themselves whether they really believe in ghosts. It is as though there is a strongly rational voice somewhere in the background of the novel, as perhaps even the author herself is reluctant to embrace fully the possibilities that the ghost brings, and the character’s echoes left behind in life are at times more tangible than their presence in death. Kay does become a strong advocate for the ghost’s presence, and the key to the resolution of the story, but overall this reviewer felt that there was scope to delve more deeply and engagingly in the esoteric issues covered.
There are one or two themes that also don’t quite reach their full potential in the story – the mysterious illness, the symbolic role of the cat, Kay’s psychic gift – but overall this is an engaging and readable book, which will definitely appeal to anyone who likes a ghost story.
Leah and her Twelve Brothers by William Saunders (available at Amazon UK and US)
This collection of short stories has both a timeless and a very specific period feel to it, fusing a sort of Edwardian curiosity about the world with some quite contemporary touches. Leah waits at home while her twelve brothers explore the world, and she receives from each of them four gifts, borne by somewhat caricatured natives of the cities they are visiting. Leah weaves a story from each set of gifts, and then ponders its significance with one of three gentleman callers.
It is an interesting premise for a story collection – something of Sophie’s World meets Aesop’s Fables – and they often work well when woven together with a theme or narrative. Indeed in this instance, the collection allows the author to explore some quite philosophical and metaphysical ideas, as well as some moral ones. Leah is in some ways the most interesting of the characters, though for this reader the repetitive format of her receipt of the gifts, the encyclopaedia entries, and then the long opening descriptive prose passages of each story could have taken more variety. For while we learn much about Leah’s imagination, we don’t learn much about her character. Her male companions are rather stifling of her at times, and she never really develops very much, which is a shame because despite her imaginative stories, outside of them she never becomes more than a passive recipient of her brothers’ gifts. She is described in almost exactly the same way in the collecting of the knife to open the exciting gifts in each story, a technique which quickly feels contrived. Yet surely here is a heroine who has the capacity for something more interesting than just cutting string and being tied in knots by her interlocutors. One is put in mind of Flora Poste in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm both in terms of heroine and that future/past quality of the setting, but Leah sadly does not reach Flora’s potential, which this reviewer found rather disappointing.
The other curious feature of this collection is the introductory scene and interlude in the middle which, to this reviewer, did not add anything and seemed to appear out of the blue. It isn’t used as a framing device at the end, no conclusions are drawn by those characters, so its function in the collection is not clear, and it seems superfluous when Leah’s own rituals are a strong frame in their own right. The stories themselves are an interesting collection, tending towards the dark and thoughtful, regarding death, loss and jealousy amongst other themes. There is a sense towards the end that the later stories are less strong, less challenging than the earlier ones – indeed, one of Leah’s admirers says to her after the eleventh story, “That was not much of a story”. In that case it is striking that although Leah says she wanted to “think of a sunny garden” in this particular story, as “not all has made me think well of the big wide world”, the author has not capitalised narratively on this situation for Leah, which again seems something of a lost opportunity. We also never really understand why Leah’s brothers are travelling, nor why she has been left at home, and in that sense the thread again feels a bit contrived towards the end.
Nonetheless, this is a descriptively vibrant collection drawn from a very wide range of characters in exotic locations, and its general readability should recommend it to those looking for something to dip in and out of easily.
Seven Out by Kevin Moore (available at Amazon UK and US)
This short story set in inter-war America is also in a sense a story within a story, a 1930s radio tale framed by the experiences of the man who is listening to it. Wil Driscoll and his partner in crime Albert Crow are traders-cum-theives of antiquities, and they are on a Mississippi riverboat, tailing their quarry and a historically unique prize. Wil, a former WW1 pilot, and Albert, a part-Native American historian, make a fun pair, the action hero and the thoughtful strategist, though the story is written from Wil’s point of view. It’s a straightforward tale: a deal to secure an item goes wrong and, trapped on the riverboat, our two characters must sort things out and save both the artefact and themselves. It’s got a good pace about it too, rattling along with a reasonable balance of description and dialogue, though Mr Moore does struggle at times to manage the essential challenge of the short story, which is to give enough information to provide atmosphere and context, without making it feel like an information dump, and without slowing the pace. In the opinion of this reviewer, Mr Moore is not always that successful, for the information is bulky at times in its sheer quantity – character backstory, context information, and description – and the narrative style is also a bit over-detailed. It could be that this is meant to be a stylistic reference to the radio story-telling style, but in which case it should then be more conspicuously dramatic and not just feel over-written. Sentences such as ‘The cabin door stood menacingly ajar” and “That specific piece of tangible history”, as well as the very detailed explanation of the craps game, make reading harder work than the tale deserves, in some places. If the intention is to have the story told in the style in which it might be read aloud on the radio, then some stylistic polishing would have made that more effective.
I’m also not really sure about the function of the framing narrative, the man listening to his radio at home. What is his purpose? Could it be that this story is in fact ‘real’ and that this is just the first or one of a series in which we will learn more of Wil and Albert’s adventures, and the blurring between ‘story’ and ‘frame’ will start to blur?
Nonetheless, this is a speedy, light read, which evokes the derring-do of days gone by. I sense that Wil Driscoll may have more adventures in him…
Lethal Inheritance by Tahlia Newland (available at Amazon UK and US)
In a overcrowded YA fantasy genre, Lethal Inheritance is a well constructed story with plenty of ups and downs, a clever dash of humour, and a clearly defined atmosphere. Our heroine Ariel is plunged straight into her worst nightmare when her mother is abducted by demons that literally chill her soul. And what Tahlia Newland does very effectively is to show us powerfully how any teenager must feel when faced with the choice of leaving behind a familiar world and embracing something new and challenging, not to mention dangerous.
Ariel is given plenty of opportunity to test her instincts with friends and foes – her guide is particularly well drawn, as is the attractive young man who becomes her companion while wrestling with dark demons of his own – and Ms Newland has used an interesting inversion of magical realism, infusing the magical world of Diamond Peak with elements of the real world, rather than relying simply on the more traditional approach of infusing our world with magic. The chapters in The Lures are particularly effective in that sense. She has also created a complex world at Diamond Peak with layers of good and evil that are not simply that, and the ‘mythology’ of that world is convincingly explained throughout as ever more threatening perils emerge for Ariel to face. The underlying theme of the power of love and goodness over the dark forces of anger and greed feels a little bit more adult than YA at times, for Ms Newland writes of it with an authority that comes more from experience and wisdom of an adult point of view, and less from a sympathetic YA fictional narrator.
And therein lies the missing star in this rating: for me, the narrative style has some repeated phrases and words and some explanatory content which, for me, could have been better explored through dialogue rather than description of what Ariel is thinking. That becomes less of an issue as the book goes on – the second half is much more fluent to read, a factor affected in my opinion by the dramatic increase in action and less wondering by Ariel about this strange new world she has entered.
Nonetheless, this is a really strong story with plenty to engage a YA reader – and adult ones too – and some nice Australian touches of setting. And it will be really interesting to follow Ariel on the second stage of her quest, for her challenges have surely only just begun.
When Women Were Warriors by Catherine M. Wilson (available at Amazon UK and US)
The first volume in Catherine M Wilson’s trilogy not only takes us back in time to a Bronze Age community, but also back to a time when story-telling was a foundation of identity, of learning, of sharing, of preserving the past and of religious belief. And Ms Wilson is definitely a story-teller herself, infusing the whole book with that same instructive, atmospheric and narratively compelling style that define the age-old stories her character tells.
The novel is told in the voice and through the eyes of Tamras, a girl who leaves home to join a deeply hierarchical community of women warriors and their companions, and it chronicles her relationships with, among others, three principal female characters: her friend Sparrow; the warrior she becomes companion to, Maara; and the head of the community, Lady Merin. Eager to please and eager to learn, yet driven by her independent spirit, she must learn not only her way around the complexities of the community she has joined, but also how to trust her instincts in wishing to befriend the solitary Maara, whose loyalty is doubted by the others.
One of the great strengths of this book is its fluency, both in the way it is written and its readability. Tamras, like all the women in this book, is on a journey, and there is a feeling of great continuity about the story, as though one is following just one thread in a great tapestry of life. Certainly, when the first book ends you will want to read on to the next volume. What makes the story unusual, at least to some readers, is the almost complete absence of male characters: not until about three-quarters of the way through is a male character drawn with sufficient detail to make him leap off the page. For some readers that will be an enormous asset, for others it will make the book seem a little flat. The women warrior characters have many of the personality traits that male characters might bring, but for this reader there could have been a little more variation in character tone. Ms Wilson has captured the powerful and productive intensity that strong female relationships create, and their intellectual and emotional journeys will be very familiar and inspiring to many readers. But at times the book, for this reader, felt so constantly intense that some variation – more humour, a greater variety of personalities – would have been welcome.
And there, for me, is the missing 5th star. I felt while reading this that I was always waiting for something to happen. And that it never quite did. The characters seem constantly to be waiting for something, and while their internal journeys give the book that readability and fluency I noted earlier, and while there is a neat and satisfactory ending to one particular character journey at the end of this volume, the book had the same even pacing of its age-old stories, and felt almost too “story-told” to me. I longed to see the warriors fighting, to feel more of a rush in the pacing at times, and not just to hear about it second-hand.
Nonetheless, this is a highly readable book which captures its period and atmosphere extremely well, and will lure readers on to read the whole trilogy.
The Sixth Wife by Laura Lond – (available at Amazon UK and US)
At 7,500 words, The Sixth Wife is a long short story or a short novelette. It tells the story of Adelia, a human woman, and her elven husband Ametar, from both points of view, and has a strongly allegorical feel to it, as opposed to a fantasy one, considering the nature of ageing, death and love. A well-written story with a nice flow to it, the characters convey depth despite being simply drawn and Ms Lond includes enough description to set the scenes but not so much that the pace of the novelette slows.
But perhaps therein lies the missing 5th star for me, in that while the author has mastered the shortness of the form very effectively, I felt it didn’t quite fulfill its potential because it could have been longer. The easy charm of the two central characters and their different backgrounds left this reader wanting just that little bit more, and certainly there was capacity to do more with every aspect of the story, to show us more background, to share with us more insight into their personalities and experiences, to show rather than tell us better why there is such tension in the decision that has been made about their marriage. For two characters who loved each other so much, they seemed to keep a lot of information from each other! And I confess the ending almost disappointed me in its neatness, not least because there was scope to tell us so much more about why the solution had been kept from Ametar to begin with. But again, perhaps that was a concession to the shorter form, and it does not particularly harm the story.
Nonetheless, this is an enjoyable read and would make a great addition to a set of allegorical stories were Ms Lond to consider writing more in the same vein.
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