Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Review: The Princess of Egypt Must Die by Stephanie Dray

Date Finished: 28/12/2015
2012 • 55 pages (eBook) • Rating: ★★★

This was a nice short little read I downloaded to my Kindle ages ago, and I stumbled upon it again whilst browsing for something to read. At 55 pages, it sure wasn’t one of the longest reads of my life seeing as I finished it within a half hour, but it was entertaining, if a little tragic.

As a child I loved Ancient Egyptian history, since it was one of the few historical periods they actually teach you in primary school. (Seriously, the national curriculum in English schools for teaching history is limited to the Tudors and the Ancient Egyptians. That’s pretty much your lot.) With the exception of my numerous re-watching’s of The Mummy, my interest in those groovy Egyptian’s wavered a little after my teen years. But it’s never too late for a comeback, and considering this is a novelette, it did pretty well at rekindling my curiosity.

The short story follows Arisone, the Egyptian Princess of the title, and the somewhat neglected daughter of Ptolemy I. Arisone seems to be your standard ancient world Royal princess – pushed to the back of the family circle by competitive siblings, married off to some old dude whilst still in her teens - so really it seems her life is all set to be a miserable cycle of producing babies for the next 20 years. I mean, being a novelette you don’t get to see how things pan out for her in the long run, but in Dray’s story she gets it kinda rough from the get go.

She’s shipped off, back-stabbed, betrayed, and all round shit upon before she even turns eighteen. I mean, seriously, aside from the fancy clothes and general life of luxury, royal women had a fucking hard time back then. All this watching your enemies-behind-your-back thing must have been exhausting and a complete overall mind-fuck. But hey, Arisone takes it as a life lesson and manages to go from downtrodden child-bride to fiery badass within the novelette’s short pages.

I only wish it were longer, since Arisone’s badassery doesn’t come in to full swing until the final pages and I need to read about powerful women lusting for revenge, dammit. I know this can’t be helped because I think Stephanie Dray wrote this as part of an anthology or something, but apparently she's planning to write a full novel about Arisone’s life sometime in the future so hey, swings and roundabouts.

Despite it leaving me lusting for more, this was a good little read, and at less than 100 pages it’s a handy way to spend a half an hour on a rainy afternoon.


Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Review: A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii

Date Finished: 28/12/2015
2014 • 315 pages (eBook) • Rating ★★★

Well, after finishing A Year of Ravens I did say I would rectify my slackness and begin reading A Day of Fire – the H-Team's first collaborative effort – ASAP. And I did. I downloaded it to my kindle and got started straight away. The premise of the novel is pretty self-explanatory, so even if you've heard nothing about the book itself or the authors involved, you only have to glance at the title and the cover art to have a solid idea of the kind of story you’re in for. Just in case you don’t, then let me fill you in:

Pompeii is/was an ancient Roman city near modern day Naples that was destroyed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. The scorching ash that engulfed the city froze whoever and whatever remained in Pompeii at the time of the eruption, effectively preserving details of everyday Roman life in the first century. It is actually pretty creepy. The people that stayed behind were turned in to human statues as the hot ash filled their lungs and hardened their internal organs. It’s harrowing stuff, and these authors come together to tell their own fictionalised accounts of those who were there to witness the disaster and those who fell victim to the ash that killed them.

A Day of Fire, like its successor, is written collectively by multiple authors whose characters take on different viewpoints in their own individual stories. There are six in all and being a collaborative work, there were of course some I enjoyed more than others. Sophie Perinot and Eliza Knight’s effort stood out to me most, and Knight’s story had me on the verge of tears toward the end it was so devastating. Reading a novel about the fall of Pompeii is never going to be a picnic, but it was enjoyable in that it showed just how shattering an event it was and how helpless the people of Pompeii must have felt.

I know what you’re thinking - that this sounds like a complete disaster-ride of a read that will make you want to watch re-runs of The Office just to rebalance your emotions, but this why is works. If a book makes you feel sad, or happy, or angry then I guess the author(s) is doing their job right. It’s a devastating event in history and this book brings to life the destruction of an entire city. There were just a couple of stories that I enjoyed over others, and I wished that some the characters could have overlapped in to the collective stories a little more, since a few of them appeared in their own narrative and then disappeared again all too soon.

I was surprised though when a couple of characters from another series by Kate Quinn rocked up, which I thought was pretty cool. It was weirdly reassuring to come across familiar faces amongst the commotion. Like meeting up with old pals. Overall, an entertaining and enjoyable read.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Review: A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica's Rebellion

Date finished: 9/12/2015
2015 • 483 pages (eBook) • Rating ★★★★½

I’ll be honest with you, collaborative works of fiction aren’t something I’m particularly experienced with. If anything I tend to have a prerequisite for them being a weak link in the literary canon. Why, you may ask? Well, prior to reading A Year of Ravens, I was of the mind that a novel constructed of numerous different stories each written by a different author was a recipe for a bit of a floppy narrative. I just couldn’t see how the works of different writers, each with different styles, would gel together well enough to make a coherent and enjoyable story. This book however has proved me wrong and I tip my hat to each of the authors involved in this collaborative work, because A Year of Ravens is an awesome read.

The story as a whole centres on Boudica’s rebellion against the Roman Empire and is told from various different viewpoints; from tribal warriors and slaves to Roman legionaries and queens. It’s pretty noteworthy event in history and it sparked a little glimmer of nostalgia for my primary school history lessons all those many years ago. Plus it’s an interesting little pocket of history which personally, I believe, has been neglected for too long. This however works to the advantage of the book and gives it a fresh new feel, in addition to providing the reader with an experience that is vibrant and exciting.

Sure, it’s violent and brutal as hell but its focus is one of the most infamous rebellions to ever occur on British soil, so there’s bound to be more than a fair share of bloodshed. Maybe it’s a bit sadistic to say I really liked the scenes where everyone was getting their guts ripped out and their heads hacked clean off, but I did. I’ve seen way too much Game of Thrones and Vikings for me to not enjoy a good battle sequence, and the ones in A Year of Ravens were just as awesome. Example:

“I was on my knees. When had I fallen? I was on my knees, rocking back and forth in the mud, sword clutched loose in my hand as I watched my people die.This was not battle. It was slaughter. Every blink of my lashes saw another fifty fall as the Roman swarm advanced into the chaos and left red death in their wake. I saw a small boy fall from the wagons and disappear under the trampling feet of the warriors below. I saw a scarred woman trying to beat her way free of the crush with a broken shield, going down with a sword through her spine. I saw a warrior with lime-washed hair sag, head flopping half severed - My vision skipped. I was still on my knees, limbs stone-heavy, mouth working soundlessly.”

If you love raw, emotional, and vivid narratives filled with blood curdling action then this is for you. If not, then there are plenty more mild mannered books out there, but this is gritty and brutal and filled with enough foul-mouthed characters to turn the air blue, and it’s brilliant.

Collectively the novel has a cohesive feel and I was impressed by how seamlessly each story flowed together. It follows a more or less linear structure with the odd flash back here and there, so when one story ends and another begins you know where you are and where everything is up too. Each author has his or her own hero/heroine who they focus on, but they all pop up throughout which helps to tie everything together. I loved how there were viewpoints of both the Britons and the Romans; it helped to create a panoramic and collective narrative of what the rebellion meant and felt like for both sides.

As for the authors, I was familiar with one from experience and two others in name; Kate Quinn, who is a personal favourite of mine thanks to her amazing Rome series, and Stephanie Dray and Eliza Knight who are celebrated historical fictions writers in their own right. The fellow contributors were all new to me, but I have to add particular praise to Ruth Downie for her short story entitled The Slave whose perception of events is told through the eyes of the young slave girl, Ria. Downie’s character became a favourite and I loved to see how her story continued throughout the other narratives.

I’ll admit, I was worried the individual style of each author would come across too strong, but as it turns out, they all complement each other really well. Granted, there were some stories I preferred to others but I think the novel was written with this is mind. If you don’t like one story, they’ll be another one further on that might take your fancy more. Yet I wouldn’t advice skipping chapters, because the content and the focus of each story are invaluable to the plot and it works brilliantly as a whole.

Some of the authors who worked this novel are actually contributors to another collaborative work entitled A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii which centres on the infamous eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Admittedly, this has been on my to-read list for the last year or so since I’ve somehow never gotten around to reading it. Well, I’ll be rectifying this ASAP because the H Team did such a good job with A Year of Ravens that it’s made me eager to read more of what these authors have to offer.

I think that is the key to being successful writer; to possess the ability to make their readers crave more of their writing and this novel not only made me appreciate more the authors I was already familiar with, but want to explore those that are new to me. In that respect, A Year of Ravens is a job well done.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Review: Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

Date Finished: 27/11/2015
2011 • 575 pages • Rating ★★★

Paris 1788. France is on the brink of revolution and will soon become emerged in one of the bloodiest periods in history. At the centre of the novel’s events is Marie Grosholtz, a talented wax artist whom the world later knows as Madame Tussaud. Marie sculpts numerous famous figures, from the doomed Marie Antoinette to key revolutionary figures like Maximillian Robespierre, since it is her art which acts as the medium for spreading news across Paris.

Despite Madame Tussaud being probably one of the most famous and instantly recognisable figures in history, I have to confess that prior to reading this novel, I knew very little about her. Granted, this is a work of fiction, but I knew before I read the end historical note that Michelle Moran had done a brilliant job on her research. Being set in the midst of revolutionary France, the political and historical facts were needed to give the plot its authenticity, yet it wasn’t bombarding. There are just enough historical facts to keep the story informative without it weighing the plot down, and I have to say, I was actually quite surprised at how present Madame Tussaud was in the revolution. Her uncanny ability to sculpt and carve the famous faces of Paris led her employment in making the death masks of those who had fallen victim to the guillotine, including the infamous and ill-fated Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Madame Tussaud's feelings towards the revolution are actually unknown according to Michelle Moran's historical note, but in the story she sympathises with the royals and continues her work at the order of the revolutionaries in order to stay alive.

Marie is the narrator of the story and it follows her life in her uncle’s salon on the Boulevard du Temple. Marie and her family make their living by sculpting the famous figures of the time and displaying them to the public. Marie is so good in fact that the King and Queen even pop by for a visit and she is later employed as an artistic tutor to the King’s sister, Madame Elisabeth. Of course this being a novel set during the French Revolution, as a reader you do find yourself patiently waiting for everything to fall apart and from the very beginning you’re teased with little snippets of information that lead to the fall of the Ancient Regime. Marie even has a close shave with the guillotine herself (no pun intended) and it’s actually really interesting to read about how frightening and barbaric the Reign of Terror actually was.

I think it’s always tricky for authors to write a novel set during an infamous period since the reader will have at least some idea of what is going to happen before it actually takes place. But I think that’s why I enjoyed the story because it is centred on a woman in the midst of all the action who I knew very little about to begin with. Plus, Marie is an interesting character; she smart and intuitive and it was interesting to read about the French Revolution from a character who wasn't a royal.

Being a woman of such extraordinary means and having lived what I can only describe as an interesting yet precarious life during the years of the French Revolution, I'm surprised that not more has been written about her. Nowadays, Madame Tussaud is synonymous with her wax museums, and yet I wouldn't be surprised if I wasn't the only one who knows very little about the woman herself. As noted of course, this is a novel and not a non-fiction biography and so not every word Moran writes can be taken as gospel. Nevertheless, reading the story of Marie Grosholtz and her Paris salon made me interested to look her up myself, which I did, and I can only account that to Moran’s skill in sparking my genuine interest in a historical figure she brought to life.

There are however a lot of characters throughout the story and whilst I managed to grasp most of them, some took a while to hook on to my conscious thought simply because there was so many of them. There’s Duke such-a-body and the Marquise of so-and-so and so a few of them just blended in to one character to save me from repeatedly flipping back to find out exactly who they were. I can forgive Moran this because it didn’t take away from the story and these people were kind of essential in filling in the politics of the plot, and so without them I would have been at a bit of a loss at knowing who was currently Top Dog in Paris society.

Overall, this was a brilliant read and I’ll be giving Michelle Moran’s other novels a whirl in the near future. Considering I picked this up on a bit of a whim as I was browsing the library, Madame Tussaud turned out to be one of the best historical fiction novels I've read all year. A solid four stars.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Review: Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen

Date Finished: 13/11/2015
2006 • 414 pages • Rating ★★

This is one of those incredibly popular novels that have been published in the last ten years which I somehow never got around to reading until now, not even when the film adaptation was released. I'll be honest, there are a lot of books like this on my TBR list and so I'm about a decade behind everybody else. But I'm slowly rectifying my slackness and aiming to steadily make my way towards being on the same level as everyone else. And so I decided to pick up Water For Elephants.

I've only ever read one other novel based in a circus, which, as you may have already guessed, is Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. I read it some years ago so my memory of the plot and the characters is a bit sketchy, but I remember enjoying fairly well and I need only refer back to my trusty GoodReads rating to see that I gave it four stars. I knew before I picked up Water For Elephants that this was going to be a completely different reading experience to The Night Circus; Gruen's novel is a fictional yet realistic portrayal of human experience compared to Morgenstern's magical realism.

In retrospect I think that's what I enjoyed about the novel; the realistic telling of a historic period. Set in 1930's America during Prohibition and the Depression, the story isn't centred during a time where I can wholeheartedly say that everything is 100% accurate. I mean, I watched Boardwalk Empire but that's pretty much the extent of my knowledge. The travelling circus in Depression-era America isn't my strong point, but it felt believable and had enough well-rounded characters for me to accept and understand the world of the novel.

Personally, I really enjoy characters that have a bit of an edge to them. For me, this was August, since from pretty much the get go you never quite know what he's going to say or do next. Despite Jacob being the protagonist and it being the story of his experience of working and living within the circus, I found August to be the more interesting character. He may be the villain of the story but he was the centre of all the drama and the action that made the bulk of the plot. It was the flaws of his character which made him all the more interesting and believable and I thought Gruen did a good job of depicting the fragility of human nature.

You may wonder then, why only three stars? To be fair, this isn't really the fault of the novel. It took me much longer than it should have done to read this because I've found myself in a bit of a reading slump since late October, meaning that I read the first half in sporadic chunks rather than steadily timed chapters. In all, this probably cast a dampener on the experience because I didn't feel fully engrossed in the plot until maybe two-thirds of the way through. In the end however, this was a nice little read. It's perhaps the kind of book you'd take away with you on holiday or pick up if you fancy escaping the norm for a while. I know most fiction has that effect on book lovers, but this feels more like running away and joining the circus - without actually moving from your bed.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Review: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

1951 • 335 pages • Virago

This is my fourth du Maurier novel, and whilst not my favourite, My Cousin Rachel upholds the trademark gloomy atmosphere so familiar with her novels. The story follows Philip Ashley, a young bachelor who is heir to his cousin Ambrose's estate in Cornwall. Ambrose travels to Italy one winter to nurse his health and whilst staying in Florence meets Rachel, a widowed Countess, whom he marries. So far so good, right? Meanwhile, Philip is back in Blighty while all this is happening and learns everything through Ambrose's letters, which as time goes on become increasingly less frequent. Why? It turns out Ambrose is dying of the same ailment which killed his father, and after his death Rachel comes to Cornwall to pay her respects to dead husband's heir.

Now, already there's a sense of something going on here and Philip totally picks up on this vibe, instantly disliking Rachel before he has even met her. But as it turns out, Philip is putty in Rachel's little hands (she actually has really small hands and Philip has this strange fetish towards them which is kind of weird), and his dislike of her grows in to fascination, and ultimately, obsession. The first half, even the first two-thirds of the novel is pretty slow, admittedly. Not very much seems to happen and I think this is done purposely to throw emphasis on the psychological and emotional development of the characters. Kudos to du Maurier because this novel is all about the suspense, yet unlike Rebecca or Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel for me lacked that ultimate 'shocker' moment.

The question behind Rachel's motives is left out in the open. The suspense never explodes despite the build-up. If anything, it gradually diffuses up until the final scene, leaving The Big Question deliberately ambiguous. Maybe it's needy of me to say I wanted to know, absolutely, the truth behind Rachel's character but in this case, I did. There was just too much doubt and uncertainty for me to make my mind up on my own.

The whole story felt like it had an oppressive weight looming over it much to the point where it was like I was reading a black and white film noir. I don't see this as a bad thing; I actually think it does justice to the power of du Maurier's writing. Yet there were times, more often than not, where I found Philip to be both annoying and downright stupid. He is constantly compared to behaving like a child, even in his own first-person narration. I can see where his frustration vents from his own confusion and emotional turmoil, but he's so blindly love sick that it made me want to smack him upside the head.

As for Rachel, even now I'm not sure what to make of her. Did I like her? She's got too much hiding beneath the surface for me to definitely say. I didn't completely dislike her, but there's a complexity about her which made me what to scream for Philip to run like the wind. That being said, her mysterious presence is very du Maurier-esque and for any fellow fans of du Maurier then you should give this a go. Sadly, I was left kicking myself that I didn't like this more.

Overall rating: 3 stars


Thursday, 8 October 2015

Review: The Moon and the Sun by Vonda McIntyre

Date Finished: 5/10/2015
1997 • 432 Pages • Rating: ★★

Set in the decadent French court of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV, a period in history I'm particularly interested in, The Moon and the Sun felt like a novel I should have really liked. However as indicated by the two-star rating, this just didn't make the cut.

The premise of The Moon and the Sun is not your standard historical fiction novel as it's blended with elements of science fiction. The story follows Marie-Josèphe de la Croix, a young woman fresh out of the convent who has come to court as an attendant in the household of the Duke of Orleans, the King's brother. Her brother Yves is a natural philosopher and a new favourite of the King since - and this is where the sci-fi kicks in - he has just returned from a voyage in which he has brought back with him a sea monster/mermaid whose flesh possesses the ability to grant immortality. Louis XIV gets totally hooked on this idea and plans to cook and eat the mermaid (it's referred to as a sea creature in the novel, but I'm going to carry on calling it a mermaid because that's essentially what it is) once Yves has finished with his research.This plan becomes not so straight forward after Marie-Josèphe is put in charge of taking care of the mermaid, and comes to realise that it is more human than she initially believed.

In a nut shell, that is the novel. Granted it does exactly what it says on the tin, no beating around the bush, but the fact is I just didn't care for the story. There were a few little twists and revelations concerning the truth about certain characters gene pools, but they were mentioned pretty whimsically without adding any depth to the plot, as though they were just thrown in last minute.  As a central character, Marie-Josèphe is at times painfully irritating. As far as intellect goes she's a pretty smart cookie. She studies maths, composes music, expresses an interest in the works of Isaac Newton, all in addition to her somehow possessing the ability to communicate with the mermaid. How? It's never really explained; she just kind of wakes up one morning and is able to translate and understand everything the mermaid says.

I guess I should be happy that the novel focuses on a smart female character during a period where women's education was limited to learning how to draw and play the piano (which, by the way, Marie-Josèphe can also do). Maybe I would be if Marie-Josèphe was a likeable character, but her intelligence is outweighed by her boringly repetitive dialogue and absolute naivety about the facts of life. I know she's spent time cooped up in a convent but good God, if she can be up to date in the scientific developments of understanding gravity, then how can she be so dense as to not understand anything about sex, or what the word "whore" means? Also she is forever apologising to Count Lucien, the King's adviser, for saying something she believed to be inappropriate or insulting in his presence. Most of the time she just over thinks absolutely everything because whatever it was she said that she believed worthy of an apology, can't have been that bad because it never stuck in my mind long enough to remember what she was saying sorry for. Girl, just chill.

She's not the only one. Her brother Yves is an insufferable dickhead most of the time who constantly orders Marie-Josèphe around. Our beloved protagonist of course never calls him out on his dickish ways and is forever - again - apologising for being such a let-down. There's a scene early in the story where Marie-Josèphe forgets to wake Yves up one morning, thus causing him to miss the King's Awakening Ceremony which he was personally invited to and is apparently a pretty big deal, so he tells her himself once he finally drags his arse out of bed. Dude, this is your problem. Stop being so whinny and relying on your little sister to do everything for you. There's also a love story brewing throughout, but the writing and the fact that the love story involved Marie-Josèphe meant that I no longer cared once things finally got steamy. And by steamy, I mean holding hands and having an awkward smooch in the back of a carriage. Sexy.

If the historical and science fiction collab is something you're interested in then this might be your thing. The only parts of the novel I actually liked were the lavish descriptions of the French Court, but sadly even that wasn't enough to save this for me.
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