Category Archives: literary

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of The Stranding by Kate Sawyer #BrainfluffNETGALLEYbookreview #TheStrandingbookreview

Standard

To be honest, I’m still not quite sure why I decided to go ahead and request this one, given that I’ve been in quite a dark place. Except that some of my decisions have been a tad skewed, what with one thing and another. However, I’m glad that on one of my spells of energy, I got sufficiently carried away to get hold of this one, as it has provided me with one of the reading highlights of the year…

BLURB: Ruth lives in the heart of the city. Working, drinking, falling in love: the rhythm of her vivid and complicated life there is set against a background hum of darkening news reports from which she deliberately turns away.

As a new relationship becomes increasingly claustrophobic, and the discussions of impending political crisis are harder to avoid, she starts to dream of water; of escaping entwining tentacles through deep blue seas. She sets out to the other side of the globe to find that vision of freedom, and to decide who she wants to be when she returns. But when she arrives at her destination, she finds instead that the world, and life, she left behind no longer exists.

REVIEW: I won’t deny that there’s a devastating event that occurs right at the heart of this book. It’s tied up with the whale in an unusual way and sets the tone for what happens to Ruth during the rest of her life. If it had been written differently, it could have been unbearable to read. But Sawyer’s beautiful, poetic prose does exactly what literary writing should do – it supports the story by deepening the emotional impact and giving us an immersive, sensory experience. This isn’t instead of a cracking plot and well depicted, believable characters, which happens all too often when the writing is at such a wonderful standard – it’s in addition to those other vital ingredients.

The result is a stunning book that hooked me in and had me reading till my eyes ached. There were times when I cried and times when I held my breath – until I finally surfaced, feeling lightheaded and slightly euphoric. Though with that familiar sense of loss that there was no more time to spend in this story. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, as while the blurb gives a sense of what happens – there is so much more that the reader should discover on Sawyer’s terms. Her crafting of this plot worked perfectly for me – and I loved how I increasingly came to be more and more in Ruth’s corner as the story wore on. And if you pick this one up and find that in the beginning, you don’t like her all that much – do persevere for a bit longer. I promise that she will grow on you…

This is a remarkable book by an author who knows exactly what she is doing. It’s an ambitious book – to define the life of a character through such a major event and I don’t know many that could pull it off. Sawyer does more than that – she has created a highly memorable read that will stay with me for a very long time. And although we are only just over halfway through the year, I do know The Stranding has already made my list of Outstanding Reads of 2021. Very highly recommended. While I obtained an arc of The Stranding from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
10/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwarb #BrainfluffNETGALLEYbookreview #TheInvisibleLifeofAddieLaRuebookreview

Standard

I have a fondness for these types of books, where the protagonist is somehow caught up in a situation outside the norm – see my reviews of The Fifteen Lives of Harry August and one that this reminded me of – The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North.

BLURB: France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets. Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.

REVIEW: I really enjoyed this one. Addie’s reason for making the deal and her whole mindset really engaged my sympathy, so that very early on in the book I was right alongside her. This is important, because while Schwarb goes on to describe her trials and travails in poignant and gripping detail, those very experiences could have taken her outside the everyday orbit of the rest of us and make her less relatable. This is the problem that I sometimes encounter in North’s writing – while I enjoy reading the alterative premise, I’m conscious of a gulf opening up between the protagonist and myself.

However, Schwarb’s poetic, accomplished prose didn’t allow that barrier to occur – which allowed me to continue to very much care for Addie, and later on – Henry. What I hadn’t expected, was the stunning quality of the writing. The descriptions of the span of experiences in Addie’s life – the terrible lows and the marvellous highs, are brilliantly captured on the page. Schwarb’s writing encompasses the full range of sensory experiences, so that we not only can visualise it, we can smell, taste and touch it, too. It takes serious writing chops to pull it off, such that the author not only encapsulates all of that – she does so within the confines of the narrative arc, in a way that doesn’t derail the pace and tension.

I am not a huge fan of literary fiction, as far too often the style prevails over the story. So I’m very impressed that Schwarb has managed to produce nuanced, complex characters who interact in a really complicated way with each other. Luc and Addie’s relationship is a tortured one, and the story hinges on our understanding of just how complex that becomes. I absolutely loved the whole narrative arc, particularly the final twist.

In short, this is a tour de force – a really intriguing read that has had me pondering Addie’s plight since I put it down, and executed by a writer at the height of her powers. Very highly recommended for fans of the literary end of fantasy – and those who simply love a cracking read with an interesting premise. While I obtained an arc of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
10/10

Friday Faceoff – When snow falls, Nature listens… #Brainfluffbookblog #FridayFaceoffsnowcovers

Standard

This meme was started by Books by Proxy, whose fabulous idea was to compare UK and US book covers and decide which is we prefer. This meme is being nurtured by Lynn’s Book Blog and this week we are featuring covers depicting SNOW. I’ve selected Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.

Bloomsbury, 2009

This offering, produced by Bloomsbury in 2009, is a strong image and was the reason why I chose this book. However the sense of chilly isolation is spoilt by all the chatter cluttering up the cover – and for once, I’m not a fan of the large author and title fonts as I think they overwhelm the image.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 1994

Published in September 1994 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, this is the default cover for the book, which is a real shame. The cedar forest on the side of the cliff is certainly atmospheric and it would be ideal with the title was MIST OVER CEDARS – but it’s not. The title mentions snow – and there isn’t any. Oops. But that didn’t stop a raft of other publishers adopting this cover, anyway. Worse, the title and author fonts are so small and underwhelming, so they disappear in thumbnail and aren’t all that visible when full size.

Portuguese edition, February 1998

This Portuguese edition, published in February 1998 by Relógio D’ Água, has taken a different path with a painting. It looks lovely, but I’m not a fan of the border that grows into a textbox across the top of the cover, though at least the title and author name are clearly visible.

German edition, February 2013

This German edition, published in February 2013 by Hoffmann und Campe and is clearly influenced by the default cover above, in that it is a close-up of cedar branches in the mist. At least the title and author fonts are more effective in this cover design and work well within the image, in addition to being clearly visible in thumbnail, as well as when full sized.

French edition, 1996

This French edition, published in 1996 by France loisirs, at least features snow falling – a sleeting blizzard that makes me shiver just looking at it. I’ll forgive the lack of cedars to have some snow – and a suggestion of a river in full spate with snow-shrouded branches growing over it. Though whatever they are, they’re not evergreen cedars. I think this cover is the most successful in capturing the mood of the book, as well as evoking the title. Which is your favourite?


*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North #Brainfluffbookreview #ThePursuitofWilliamAbbeybookreview #WyrdandWonder2020

Standard


I enjoy Claire North’s writing – see my reviews of The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. So I was delighted when I was approved to read this intriguing offering. I will be linking this review to the Wyrd and Wonder 2020 event, featuring all kinds of fantasy.

BLURB: South Africa in the 1880s. A young and naive English doctor by the name of William Abbey witnesses the lynching of a local boy by the white colonists. As the child dies, his mother curses William. William begins to understand what the curse means when the shadow of the dead boy starts following him across the world. It never stops, never rests. It can cross oceans and mountains. And if it catches him, the person he loves most in the world will die.

Every book North has written under this current pen name – see my review for A Madness of Angels – Book 1 of The Midnight Mayor by Kate Griffin – has ostensibly been a standalone. However, there is a theme developing here. Individuals who, by luck or some kind of genetic predisposition, find themselves coping with an unusual trait that takes them beyond everyday life and into the realms of the paranormal. William is another of these unfortunates – having been cursed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time – and when his shadow approaches, he divines the truth of those around him. And as his shadow gets ever closer, he is forced to babble that truth aloud.

This adventure stretches from the 1880s, and ends in 1914 in a field hospital during World War I, so you won’t be surprised to discover that it isn’t long before William’s unique ability draws down attention from the British Empire intelligence services and their department Nineteen. In return for keeping William on the move, so that his shadow is never able to completely catch up with him, he goes where they send him and learns the truth from ambassadors, princelings, other agents all around the world. It gives North an ideal opportunity to chart some of the political shenanigans that goes on during that turbulent time, which she does in impressive detail.

This is, indeed, an impressive book. The prose is impassioned and elegant, the character caught up in a horrible situation so that he is so far out of his comfort zone, he is almost drowning. And yes, if you’re sensing a but, you’re right. I didn’t really like William all that much. I didn’t like anyone all that much. While I sympathised with him intellectually, I simply found him too annoyingly wet and steeped so deeply in his own self-loathing, that I was unable to truly bond with him. And that’s a real shame, because the book is a magnificent achievement. I don’t think I’ve encountered a more impassioned and literate critique of our social value system, both then and now.

I just wish there had been a few more shafts of light and humour, which I know North is capable of writing brilliantly – because by the time I was two-thirds of the way through this one, I was conscious that I’d become a bit numbed to the ceaseless acts of violence against the poor and powerless. That might just mean I’m a really shallow person, but my sense is that if that burning anger against the social injustice of the capitalist, elitist mindset had been just a bit less intense, then there would have been room for me to jump on board, too. I’m also not a fan of the ending.

I’m conscious this sounds like one long moan – but if someone offers me the chance to read her next book, I’ll take it like a shot. North is a remarkable talent, who sees the world in a particular way and although I often find the journey alongside her uncomfortable, there is too much to admire to want to miss it. Recommended for fans of magic realism adventures with a literary edge. The ebook arc copy of The Pursuit of William Abbey was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest opinion of the book.
8/10


Friday Faceoff – Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness… #Brainfluffbookblog #FridayFaceoffautumncovers

Standard

This meme was started by Books by Proxy, whose fabulous idea was to compare UK and US book covers and decide which is we prefer. This meme is currently being nurtured by Lynn’s Book Blog and the subject this week featuring on any of our covers is AUTUMN. I’ve selected The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, which I absolutely loved.

 

This edition was produced by Random House in June 2010 and is an extraordinary design. The Japanese landscape is depicted in bold bright colours and for once, I cannot quarrel with the treatment of the font, which has been given a 3-D effect – I suspect so that it resembles those boxed Japanese landscapes you often see depicted in ivory. I love this – it’s quirky and different, yet beautiful, just like the book. This one is my favourite.

 

Published in March 2011 by Sceptre, this edition is another lovely effort, though completely different from the previous cover. The Japanese woman, half turned towards the reader, offering an apple, is both eye-catching and appealing. I love the way the apple contrasts with the muted blue of the kimono and background. The fact they are the same shade shouldn’t really work – but I think they do. And the font lettering is also beautiful. I may be influenced, because this is the cover of the book I owned, signed by David Mitchell. While I don’t love it quite as much as the previous offering, I still find it very appealing.

 

This Serbian edition, published by Laguna in 2013, goes back to the Japanese landscape for inspiration. Another lovely rendition – I do like the shadow effect of the leaves around the sky. And this one is clearly depicting the Japanese trade delegation on the island of Dejima watching the foreigners approach in their boats, so I appreciate the fact it relates directly to the story. Another attractive, well crafted cover.

 

It wasn’t until I saw this Croatian edition, published by Vuković&Runjić in 2014, that I realised how relatively rarely pouring rain features in a landscape. And here it’s coming down in stair rods – that chilly, miserable soaking stuff that drills right through to your bones so that you feel you’ll never be dry or warm again… Again, I also love the treatment of the font – this was so very nearly my favourite.

 

This Thorndike Press edition, published in January 2011, is another gorgeous affair. This is again, a typically Oriental setting with the beautiful fire-red acer trees blazing out amongst the sculpted order of the Japanese garden, with the classic bridge over a stream. The colours are lovely and so is the setting. This one was yet another close contender. This week, there isn’t a dud amongst my selection, so I’m fascinated to see which you will choose as your favourite… unless you dislike all of them, of course!

Friday Faceoff – Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace… #Brainfluffbookblog #FridayFaceoff

Standard

This meme was started by Books by Proxy, whose fabulous idea was to compare UK and US book covers and decide which is we prefer. This meme is currently being nurtured by Lynn’s Book Blog and the subject this week featuring on any of our covers is ABANDONED BUILDINGS, so I’ve selected a post-apocalyptic read, Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Tom Sweterlitsch.

 

This hardback edition was produced by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in July 2014 is a really interesting cover as it features a mirror design with two different skylines of Pittsburgh. The interesting thing to note is that the post-apocalyptic world is the one where the air is fresher and the sky is blue, whereas the pre-apocalypse scene depicts large chimneys belching out smoke to the extent that the vista is a sickly yellow. This one is my favourite as I also really love the treatment of the font.

 

Published in May 2015 by Berkley, this cover features the protagonist’s wife. It’s an interesting cover, especially as parts of her image is starting to disintegrate – which is a clever reference to one of the main themes in the book. I would have liked this cover more if there wasn’t quite so much chatter cluttering up a strong, eye-catching design.

 

This edition, published by Headline in July 2014, is another strong contender, this time focusing on the protagonist, John Dominic Blaxton. I love the way this outline is tilted and we then get paler copies of him in various attitudes of his former life – a cool reference to the book. I think this cover gives a strong clue about the genre, which is a big plus in its favour. Once again, the font is done well and it was a close-run thing between this one and the first cover as to which was my favourite.

 

Produced by Heyne Verlag in April 2015, this German edition is eye-catching and effective. The twisting building reflected and fractured in the mirrored background provide big clues as to the futuristic aspect of the genre, which is always a major plus. Once again, I love the treatment of the font, which works well. My one grizzle is that I would have liked a greater colour contrast between that twisting building and the background which would have given a cover with more visual impact.

 

This Polish edition, published by Buchmann in March 2015, goes back to the shattered landscape of Pittsburgh. I love the silhouette of John against the dramatic cityscape as the title reaches into the boiling clouds. It works really well. This week there isn’t a bad cover here, so it’s all a question of personal preference – this is another one that could easily have been my favourite. So this week in particular, I’m fascinated to see which cover is your favourite – do let me know!

Friday Faceoff – This is the priest all shaven and shorn… Brainfluffbookblog

Standard

This meme was started by Books by Proxy, whose fabulous idea was to compare UK and US book covers and decide which is we prefer. This meme is currently being nurtured by Lynn’s Book Blog and the subject this week featuring on any of our covers is a PRIEST OR MONK, so I’ve selected The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.

 

This edition was produced by Harvest Books in September 1994. I think is a shocking cover, when you look at it really closely. The row of skulls in the black darkness are raining a stream of blood onto a wall, spattering the kneeling priests and almost obliterating the king seated on the throne. The title font is well executed with that bloody wall as a backdrop. I think it effectively represents this remarkable book which has stayed with me ever since I read it soon after it was published, though it isn’t my favourite.

 

Published in June 1983 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (NYC), this cover has gone for a full-on medieval vibe. It is depicting some of what is going on within the confines of the abbey, where it should all be about praying and contemplating God. It is certainly colourful and eye-catching, though whether it gives a sense of the murder mystery at the heart of the book is debatable.

 

This edition, published by Vintage Books in April 2004 is my favourite. It is beautiful, with the star-studded sky, the gold author font jumping out from the black backdrop and the red-tinged abbey providing more than a hint of menace. I particularly love the lovely curling title font which finishes the effect.

 

Produced by Picador in October 1984, this one is a close contender for my favourite. It’s such a cleverly designed cover, using the medieval script to highlight the period and setting of the book. Not only is it featured in the title, which is beautifully linked to the drawing of the rose, but also used in the blurb to explain the book. And for once – this cover chatter which is always a pet peeve of mine – absolutely works. This so very nearly is my favourite…

 

This edition, published by Vintage in 2004 is another attractive, eye-catching offering. However I think the title font could have a bit more punch and their approach to the author font is plain odd. Who else wondered whether the author is called Vintage Eco when they read it? Such a shame to make such a fundamental, silly mistake, given the strong execution of that lovely rose illustration. Which is your favourite?

Review of LIBRARY book The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Standard

This book was highly recommended by a number of my book blogging friends, so I was delighted to discover a copy at the local library…

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

And that is as much as the rather chatty blurb as I’m willing to share, given it goes on to happily give away plotpoints that occur more than a quarter of the way through this hefty read. But the other main protagonist is Angelica Neal, a courtesan trying to find another protector to maintain her lifestyle, now that the duke who looked after her has died.

First, the good news – the writing is absolutely beautiful and the historical period brilliantly realised in a series of lovely scenes that leap off the page. Gowar can certainly write. The plotting is interesting and I enjoyed the fact that just when I thought the story was going in one particular direction, it suddenly took an unexpected turn. This happened a couple of times, especially during the first two-thirds of the story. The theme of the mermaid works well as a device that both powers the plot forward and also as a symbol for the restless striving after novelty and learning that characterised those turbulent times. Though don’t pick up this one because you love the idea of a mermaid character, because that isn’t what this book is about. The first two acts in particular, were full of incident and interest.

However, I wanted to love this one more than I did. For while Gowar is clearly talented and her portrayal of the period is masterful, I didn’t ever bond with any of the characters. The rather fractious nature of the conversations between every single one of the characters left me feeling rather distanced – I found myself wanting to shake them all until their teeth rattled at one stage or another. Angelica’s flighty attitude was off-putting and just when I was beginning to care about her, the events in the third act shut her right down, putting her on the edge of the action and beyond the scope of the main story.

The pacing is also odd – instead of steadily gathering momentum, it takes a while to get going and then during that last act, which is the weakest, it suddenly drops right away again. Hm. That third act – it seems as though Gowar had several main themes that she’d wanted to weave through the story and so bundled them all into that third section, thus bringing the narrative to a juddering halt and entirely disempowering her main protagonists. We have a couple of ugly scenes, presumably to demonstrate just what a nasty time it was for women – particularly if they were black or elderly. The only reason this one didn’t go flying across the room, was the quality of the writing and the fact that I hoped the ending would rescue the story.

In the event, the ending was better than I’d begun to fear, but I just wish a large part of that final act was either cut or rewritten as I think this could have been a great book, rather than a very promising effort by a highly talented writer.
7/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc novella Prime Meridian by Silvia Moreno-Garcia #Brainfluffbookreview #PrimeMeridianbookreview

Standard

I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Beautiful Ones by Moreno-Garcia – see my review here – so when I caught sight of this novella on Netgalley, it was a no-brainer.

Amelia dreams of Mars. The Mars of the movies and the imagination, an endless bastion of opportunities for a colonist with some guts. But she’s trapped in Mexico City, enduring the drudgery of an unkind metropolis, working as a rent-a-friend, selling her blood to old folks with money who hope to rejuvenate themselves with it, enacting a fractured love story. And yet there’s Mars, at the edge of the silver screen, of life. It awaits her.

I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting – but it wasn’t this. Less escapist space opera and far more dystopian, very-near-future, this novella packed a punch. I’ll be honest – given what else was going in my life, this was not the read I would have chosen to pick up. But I’m glad I did.

Amelia has edges – and quite right, too. So would I if I’d endured the lack of opportunity and dead-end options facing her. She has fixated on going to Mars – right from the time she was old enough to be ambitious and despite having had a series of unlucky breaks, she still is determined to get there. It’s the only thing that really matters… so it is painful to read of her constant struggles that seem to go nowhere. She is constantly angry and hostile to those around her – not ideal when one of her hard-scrabble jobs is to sell her companionship in response to an app.

The world is richly depicted – which seems to be Moreno-Garcia’s trademark, along with indepth characterisation that doesn’t impede the storyline. She nearly has the pacing nailed, but I did feel the ending was a tad hurried in comparison to the rest of the story. Having said that, novellas are fiendishly difficult to get right.

I enjoyed the story and the awkward dynamic between Amelia and the rest of the characters. The times when she is most at peace with herself and those around her, are when thinking of Mars, or watching the movies with an ageing actress who employs her to listen to her past. And if you think that sounds rather poignant, you’d be right.

I would love to read a sequel to this thought-provoking story as I find myself wondering about the character and what happens next. Recommended for fans of literary fiction. While I obtained an arc of Prime Meridian from the publisher via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
9/10

Friday Faceoff – In the bleak midwinter…

Standard

This meme was started by Books by Proxy, whose fabulous idea was to compare UK and US book covers and decide which is we prefer. This week the theme is a snowscape, so I’ve chosen Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.

 

This is the cover produced by Reagan Arthur Books in February 2012 and frankly, I don’t know what they were thinking. It is pretty enough – indeed, looks appropriate for a cute childen’s tale. But this book is nothing of the sort – it is a wonderful portrait of survival in a hostile environment, of despair and gritted determination and a miracle. Or is it? So this cover is completely inappropriate.

 

This edition, produced by Headline Review in February 2012 is more like it. I love the simplicity of the deep blue with the outline of the girl and the fox in white. It is eye-catching and gives a far better sense of the book. While it isn’t my favourite, it is certainly a huge improvement on the previous effort.

 

Published in July 2012 by Polirom, this Romanian cover is an unfortunate throwback to the first cover. It looks far too juvenile for this remarkable book which covers very adult themes, even if the prose is at times ethereally beautiful.

 

Thank goodness this cover, produced in September 2014 by Tinder Press, is a much better effort. The snowscape is still beautiful. I love the looping font the footsteps leading away from it towards the smudge in the trees that may or may not be the child. Lovely and entirely in keeping with the content.

 

However my favourite is this Serbian edition by Laguna, published in January 2013. I love the cool blue of the cover and the delicacy and detail of the frosting around the edge of the cover – how beautiful! And it isn’t the snow child portrayed on the cover, it is the heavier figure of the woman, searching for her… As you may have gathered, I’ve become a tad overwrought about these covers – but which is your favourite?