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Wednesday, 29 May 2019

New Review: Concerto, Hannah Fielding

Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review. 

"Concerto follows Catriona, a young music therapist, who must honour an opera diva’s dying request to help her son, Umberto Rolando Monteverdi, recover his musical gift after a car accident robbed him of his sight. Ten years previously, Catriona shared a night of passion with the handsome musician that led to unexpected circumstances. Arriving at Umberto’s mansion in Lake Como, she finds him resistant to her every effort. Catriona discovers her feelings toward the blind musician are as strong as ever while battling her own secrets and the dark forces that threaten Umberto’s life – for the second time."

This gorgeous romance novel is a sumptuous read - there's really not another word for it. It's set against the backdrops of Nice and Italy, with classical music serving as the main vehicle for the plot.

 Catriona, aged eighteen, has the world at her feet. She's on course to win a competition that will give her a place at the most prestigious of music conservatoires, when she meets a composer and pianist whose fame is quickly rising. She meets him and they spend a single, passionate night together before he unexpectedly leaves for a tour in America. He leaves her with something else unexpected, too - a pregnancy with which she follows through. Ten years later, Umberto's mother begs Catriona to help her son after he loses his sight. 

It takes some persuasion, but Catriona finally agrees. When she reaches Umberto in Lake Como, however, she has to decide whether or not she will reveal the truth about herself and her son - Umberto's son. He is not the only factor at play, though. Umberto's cousin and a childhood friend/ex-lover, makes things even more tense and awkward. 

Umberto finally figures out who Catriona is, though, and they pick up exactly where they left off ten years previously. Catriona, however, still cannot figure out a way to reveal the truth about the son. Meanwhile, the stakes are only getting higher and higher. 

This book was a passionate, sweeping love story from start to finish, full of hedonism, romance, and gorgeous descriptions of some of the world's most luxurious and beautiful places. If you enjoy romance novels, then this book will appeal and then some. It's a long read, but it doesn't feel that way. Every chapter, the author introduces some new intrigue or plot twist that makes the larger story even more of a mystery with satisfying payoffs.   

An exceptionally beautiful and heart-touching read which will stay with you long after you finish.  

Thursday, 23 May 2019

New review: Kingsbane, Claire Legrand

Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review. 

Kingsbane is the sequel to Legrand's New York Times bestseller, Furyborn. Although I hadn't read Furyborn before starting Kingsbane, a quick read through of some other reviews gave me a general gist - but I do recommend reading the books in order and I intend to go back and read Furyborn so questions I have about its sequel make more sense. I wasn't sure what to expect as reviews of Furyborn were very polarising, but I'm happy to say that I've been thrilled as a reader with this novel.

Anyway. Kingsbane starts with one of its two protagonists, Rielle, having been proclaimed the Sun Queen. She is an elemental - meaning she can manipulate the elements. Only she is unusual - and special - because she can manipulate all four as opposed to one, which is most common among elementals. She is making a tour of the kingdoms, but not all is well. Controversies seemed to have reigned through her journey to becoming the Sun Queen (reading Furyborn will make more sense of that, it seems) and she is battling with her seemingly would-be lover and arch enemy, an angel called Corien. Rielle becomes aware that the Gate that separates the human world from the world of the Deep, a void to which the angels got banished during a war between angels and humans, is fracturing. It can only be repaired if she finds the original castings with which the Gate was made, although the effort and power involved could kill her.

The second protagonist, Eliana, is Rielle's daughter - except that they are separated by a thousand years. She was brought up in an adopted family and is a trained assassin. She finds it hard to accept any of her new powers and what is expected of her - namely, that she will save the world. She struggles with her mother's legacy - her mother became known as the Blood Queen (lots of murder implied with that title, though I'm not sure if that context has been provided in Furyborn or will be in Kingsbane). 

This is pure high fantasy, and I am devouring it. Rielle and Eliana are incredibly complex and richly drawn characters, although Eliana falls into the YA female lead tropes at times. There is also some LGBT+ representation in the book, which - while refreshing - is also not forced in as points for diversity and inclusion. 

There is a huge supporting cast of characters and plots as well. I would very much be interested to see the spreadsheets or mind maps Legrand used to keep track of them all! She holds all the threads of the story together, so even though the plot may seem sprawling at times - on several occasions I had to flick back to previous chapters to pick up the thread of a plot point I'd missed - as a writer she seems in control of it all.   

Kingsbane has all the markings of a great fantasy - magic, monsters, implicit history, excellent worldbuilding - while also making it all seem new. It has reinvented the wheel, as most fantasies do, in a compelling and page-turning way. Already I'm impatient to read the conclusion to this rich tapestry of a story. 

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Upcoming review - Kingsbane Blog Tour

I'm excited to be a part of the upcoming Kingsbane Blog Tour!

Kinsgbane follows two fiercely independent queens, Rielle Dardenne and Eliana Ferracora, who, although separated by a thousand years, are connected by secrets and lies. Both Rielle and Eliana must continue their fight amid deadly plots and unthinkable betrayals, which will test their strength, their hearts, and their power, as they are faced with the choice of saving the world…or dooming it.

Although Claire Legrand, the author, was inspired by the world building in the classic fantasy novels of Philip Pullman and J.R Tolkein, she recognised their books often followed heteronormative and Eurocentric narratives. Claire wanted to create a landscape in which the characters reflected the world she saw, leading to the birth of fiercely feminist epic Empiruim series, where complex bi-sexual heroines, female sexuality and minority and LGBTQ characters are celebrated through their inmate and intricate depictions, within an epic new fantasy world.

Look out for my review on the 23rd May!

Review: Ink, Alice Broadway

INK is a YA fantasy story set in the town of Saintstone. It is a town in which everyone is marked with tattoos that display the stories and events of their life. Their belief is if tattoos tell your stories and secrets, your soul will not be burdened and when you die, you can enter the afterlife.

The story's protagonist is a young woman called Leora, on the verge of finishing her schooling career, when she loses her father. After a person in Saintstone dies, their skin is removed and made into a life story book, which then gets judged. If one passes, your stories will be remember forever. If not, your story gets thrown into the fire and you will be 'forgotten' - the worst sentence that can be bestowed.

Leora's ambition is to become an Inker (a tattooist). During her training, however, she begins to find out that things are going wrong in Saintstone. Her father's last words to her were, "Don't forget the blanks", meaning the unmarked, who have been banished. However, the new Mayor wants to be stricter than ever, to root out Blank sympathisers and mark them as forgotten, with a crow.

The writing and plot itself follows the standard YA model, but the setting is different and original enough to keep it interesting. I wasn't a particular fan of Leora - she seemed to be the same unassuming, quiet, self-deprecating, emo type that one sees in a lot of YA fiction - but enough of her surrounding characters were interesting and had enough depth to make me care about what happened to them.

I think there was a lot of potential to this book that didn't get realised. For me, it simply seemed to be following the standard beats and plot points of a story without fleshing them out as fully as it could have been. I didn't get enough of the sense of the history of the place, or why I should care about this war between the Marked and the Blanks. I'm sure that the writer has a lot of this going on in her mind, and maybe that's just the nature of YA writing.

It's a very promising story and I probably will read the sequels, but overall I was left hoping for more than what it was.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris

This book is based on the extraordinary and gut-wrenching story of Lali Sokolov, (formerly Eisenberg), and his survival through three years of being at Auschwitz, and his torturous journey home to Slovakia in order to find his family and reunite with the love of his life, (Gita), whom he met in the camp.

The book has been disparaged by some who claim it is not an authentic or factually accurate enough  story of the Holocaust, despite being based on the true story of Lali. Despite the author working with historians, other experts of the Holocaust claim there is too much dramatic license used.

Despite this, the story is powerful and moving - anyone with a layman's understanding of the Holocaust will be able to recognise symbols and landmarks used, from the slave labour to the gas chambers. Lali (spelled Lale in the book) is a clever man with a survival for instinct. He never makes friends with any of the guards - that would be impossible - but he knows what to do in order to collect favours and keep himself and his friends alive.

The love story between Lali and Gita is desperate, slow-moving, and high stakes. There is no way of telling in the novel whether they end up together or not, which adds to the already compelling nature of the story.

As a whole, I found the writing a bit rushed at times - this may be due to the nature of it having been written as a screenplay first - but the characters and relationships between them were absorbing enough to gloss over that at times.

This story isn't - and was never intended to be - a truly deep insight into the Holocaust itself. No single book could ever do that. But it is a powerful story of love, survival, and humanity against all odds.

Monday, 29 April 2019

Review: The Effortless Mind: Meditation for the Modern World, Will Williams

Note: I received a proof copy of the book in exchange for a review.

"The Effortless Mind is renowned meditation teacher Will Williams' must have guide for modern-day meditators. Suffering from chronic stress and insomnia, Will undertook years of research and training with leading experts from around the world, which led him to find the cure he was looking for in Beeja meditation."

 This book is such a powerful, fulfilling, and important read. It's not just about meditation, but about the science and psychology of it as well. Will starts with an engaging and clear breakdown about our evolutionary brain - most notably, the role of the fight or flight response. It is this understanding of our brain which underpins the whole book and why meditation is so important and useful. In a world in which our fight or flight response is triggered most of the time, when it is biologically meant to be in case of emergencies only, we need to find ways to put our minds at rest and recalibrate.

Will doesn't just explain the theory, though. He includes extensive personal stories in the book - not only of his own journey but those of his clients as well. All of it comes back to a particular form of meditation known as Beeja Meditation, the purpose of which is to calm one's brain down by playing a personalized sound in your mind for twenty minutes, twice a day.

As stress affects so many parts of the human biology and psychology, it follows that resting affects them positively. Beeja Meditation, as attested by the many stories in this book, is one provable form of effective self-care. Clients' stories in this book range from the open-minded to the highlight skeptical, but they all end with one conclusion - Beeja Meditation has helped them for the better.

Will doesn't just talk about Beeja Meditation, however. Throughout the book are different meditation exercises that are clearly explained for the reader to try. I did try some of them myself, and it is quite radical how much of a difference they make. There are some other practical, simple tips as well, designed purely to help us cope in a highly digital society, such as making your bedroom a digital free haven.

Overall, this is one of the most fascinating, fulfilling, and insightful books I have ever read. As Will says in the book, we simply are not built to be on high alert 24/7, with handfuls of days or weeks littered throughout the year to relax. Busyness should not be a sign of success - it's a toxic way of thinking that needs to stop. Good physical and mental health is the most basic and crucial of things to get right - and that should be our goal.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

New Review: The Strawberry Thief, Joanne Harris.

I was lucky enough to listen to, and meet, Joanne Harris in person when she visited Kenilworth as part of her book tour. Fans of Joanne Harris, most particularly her "Chocolat" series, will be delighted with 'The Strawberry Thief'. I was confident that I was going to love it, but even so, it's been a while since novel had me quite so spellbound as this did.

This can be read as a standalone novel, but I would recommend reading, at the very least, 'Chocolat' before this so you can have the better understanding of the characters and circumstances that led up to this point. Names like Armande, Narcisse (on whom much of the story hangs), and Zozie deserve to be known - honestly, you're doing yourself a favour if you read the three books that come before this one.

But anyway, back to the subject at hand. Vianne is feeling as settled as she can be in Lansquenet-Sous-Tannes, despite the call of the wind enticing her to move on. She has put down roots; the chocolaterie is well established and frequented, even during Lent; she has even almost made a friend in the Priest, Reynaud. She longs as only a mother does for her firstborn, Anouk, who is making a life for herself in Paris. Her second child, Rosette, is unlike any other child - but in a way that Vianne is sure will enable her to keep Rosette with her forever. Rosette is really the star of this book, but Vianne and Reynaud have important journeys to go on, as well.

The inciting event, as it were, is the death of Narcisse and the subject of his will. His daughter and son-in-law, absent for many years, have made many appearances for the past two years, which is of course nothing to do with the fact that Narcisse is nearing the end of his life and therefore set to leave a substantial inheritance. In a splendid trick that infuriates his daughter, he leaves her and her husband all of his land except for the most valuable part - a special wood which contains a strawberry field. This, he leaves to Rosette. He also makes Reynaud, whom he never particularly liked, the executor of his will, as well as leaving a long document for only Reynaud to read - a confession of sorts.

Vianne, though happier in a general sense, seems to suffer a consistent undercurrent of anxiety. Firstly over her children (as any parent can understand), but it becomes more acute when Narcisse's flower shop is let out. I won't write about who rents it and for what purpose, but what I will say is that it forces Vianne to confront things about herself that she thought she had quashed - for her own sake as well as her children. It's never really clear whether the proprietor of this shop is someone we are supposed to be wary of or empathise with - it depends whether you are reading from Vianne's or Rosette's POV, and more particularly if the name 'Zozie' means anything to you. However, what I will say - and this probably isn't too spoilery - is that this person seems, in some ways, to be a mirror image of Vianne, or the parts of Vianne that she feels she needs to put away.

Rosette is easily my favourite character in this book. She's talented, imaginative, open-hearted and guileless (for the most part). She's powerful, too, and what the rest of the town sees as 'wrong' with her (i.e. she doesn't necessarily present as neurotypical), is what makes her extraordinary. As the story goes on, we find out more about why she is the way she is. She is pulling the strings of a lot of different parts of the story, although she may not be aware of it.

I am so, so glad that Joanne Harris invited her readers back into this world with her. It has the right combination of freshness and familiarity, a good dose of mythology and magic, (I was most intrigued to find out that the word 'hurricane' is named after Hurakan, the Mayan god of the wind), and, of course, the sensual feast that compelled readers to love 'Chocolat' in the first place.

'The Strawberry Thief' is available in all the usual places, but if you get it from the link below, you get a beautiful signed edition that comes with a bonus short story: