BLURB:“My mother’s going to kill herself . . . That is, if I don’t kill her first.” When Alexandra Richards approaches professional declutterer Ellen Curtis to ask her to help sort out her mother’s chaotic flat, Ellen gets the impression Alexandra doesn’t like her mother very much. But after hearing the local news, Alexandra’s exasperated words don’t seem such a joke…
REVIEW: And that’s as much of this very chatty blurb that I’m inclined to share – don’t read it as it spoils far too much of the plot. I loved this one – indeed, it’s on my Outstanding Reads of the Year list. Ellen is a lovely character, who is briskly efficient and clearly extremely intelligent. She also has dealt with a devastating tragedy in her life with fortitude and resilience. And yes… I know she’s fictional, but I finished this book full of warmth towards this wonderful, three-dimensional protagonist. Brett is an accomplished, experienced author whose main characters are often a bit larger than life, but Ellen isn’t one of those. Her thoughtful, quieter outlook drew me right into the story as she tries to unpick what appears to be an accidental death that she increasingly feels is something else.
Ellen is also surrounded by a strong supporting cast – I love her relationship with her ebullient mother, who is clearly dissatisfied with Ellen’s life choices and delights in emphasising her closeness with Ellen’s daughter. Unlike so many fictional families, they don’t get to hurl hurtful truths at each other that in real life would probably cause complete estrangement. And I also found Ellen’s relationship with her son, who suffers from clinical depression, achingly realistic.
I’m conscious that I’ve managed to make this one sound a rather fraught, dreary read – and it’s nothing of the sort. Set in my neck of the woods, I found myself spluttering with laughter at Brett’s pithy descriptions of local settings. Meanwhile, the murder mystery is beautifully plotted. The pacing is spot on, there are a satisfying number of potential suspects – and of course, I’d spotted the perpetrator. Until halfway through the denouement scene, when I realised it wasn’t who I thought it was… Nicely done! All in all, this is by far the best written murder mystery I’ve read this year and while I’d recommend that you grab the first book, just because it’s also a cracking read – it isn’t necessary to appreciate this gem. Very highly recommended. While I obtained an arc of An Untidy Death from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own. 10/10
I encountered The Silence of the Girls last September – see my review – and it blew me away. While it was a powerful, disturbing read, I have always had a soft spot of Greek myths and this retelling really stayed with me. So I was thrilled to see this turn up on Netgalley – and even more thrilled to be approved to read it.
BLURB: Troy has fallen. The Greeks have won their bitter war. They can return home as victors – all they need is a good wind to lift their sails. But the wind has vanished, the seas becalmed by vengeful gods, and so the warriors remain in limbo – camped in the shadow of the city they destroyed, kept company by the women they stole from it.
The women of Troy.
Helen – poor Helen. All that beauty, all that grace – and she was just a mouldy old bone for feral dogs to fight over.
Cassandra, who has learned not to be too attached to her own prophecies. They have only ever been believed when she can get a man to deliver them.
Stubborn Amina, with her gaze still fixed on the ruined towers of Troy, determined to avenge the slaughter of her king.
Hecuba, howling and clawing her cheeks on the silent shore, as if she could make her cries heard in the gloomy halls of Hades. As if she could wake the dead.
And Briseis, carrying her future in her womb: the unborn child of the dead hero Achilles. Once again caught up in the disputes of violent men. Once again faced with the chance to shape history.
REVIEW: As should be evident from the punchy blurb, there are trigger warnings for rape and violence. Although I’d like to emphasise that there is nothing graphic or sensationalised about the plight of the women who find themselves part of the booty looted from Troy. Probably the most visceral scene is King Priam’s death – and that isn’t as grisly as some of the vicious hand-to-hand fighting depicted in epic fantasies written by the likes of John Gwynne, Joe Abercrombie and Miles Cameron.
What is undeniable is the power of Barker’s prose, as she immerses us in the daily lives of the captured women, experienced in first-person pov by former Princess Briseis, who witnessed the death of her family at the hands of Achilles in the early stages of the Trojan campaign. And was then captured by him. Now he’s dead, her life has once more become uncertain – particularly as she is carrying his child. It’s Briseis who tries to make life easier for the newly captive women, traumatised by the death of their husbands, fathers and sons – and are now having to cope with being owned by those responsible for killing their families. Barker could have so easily turned this into a sensational, stomach-churning read, but her immersive, intelligent writing – while not in any way belittling what is going on – gives us a ringside seat in the camp where the Greeks are still living. For despite being the victors, they are now imprisoned on the shores where they’ve been living for the past decade…
The unfolding story of what happens within that camp, as political alliances shift and rebalance in the light of the Greek victory, makes a riveting read. I fell in love with beautiful, brave Briseis in The Silence of the Girls and this book has only strengthened my admiration for her. If you enjoyed The Silence of the Girls, then this sequel comes very highly recommended. And if you like the idea of reading a retelling of the Trojan war and haven’t yet done so, then I suggest you look out The Silence of the Girls. This engrossing series gives you a version of the story from the viewpoint of the women caught up in it – something the Greek canon never bothered to do. While I obtained an arc of The Women of Troy from Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own. 10/10
That cover first attracted me – and then the blurb. Any parent will recognise that opening line as the battlecry their offspring invariably use when they want the latest gismo – and the truth of it snagged my attention. And the fact that Tammy of Books, Bones and Buffy was highlighting it also made me look twice – she has a great knack for sniffing out the special ones…
BLURB:Everybody’s getting one. Val and Julie just want what’s best for their kids, David and Sophie. So when teenage son David comes home one day asking for a Pilot, a new brain implant to help with school, they reluctantly agree. This is the future, after all. Soon, Julie feels mounting pressure at work to get a Pilot to keep pace with her colleagues, leaving Val and Sophie part of the shrinking minority of people without the device.
Before long, the implications are clear, for the family and society: get a Pilot or get left behind. With government subsidies and no downside, why would anyone refuse? And how do you stop a technology once it’s everywhere? Those are the questions Sophie and her anti-Pilot movement rise up to answer, even if it puts them up against the Pilot’s powerful manufacturer and pits Sophie against the people she loves most.
REVIEW: Initially, I started this one waiting for the family dynamic to twist into something darker… For there to be a hidden, nasty past that would catch up with Val or Julie; for there to be something dire about the children’s origins; for an alien something to come crawling out of the woodwork and capitalise on the Pilot. And I’m delighted to say that nothing like that happened. This book is more intelligently plotted than that.
Instead, it is a real look at a likely scenario that could unfold within our present near-future if an app is invented to increase the brain’s ability to multi-task and focus – and it’s ongoing impact on a specific family over a number of years… And if that sounds a bit dull, or workaday, it isn’t. While this isn’t the book to go to if you want full-on action with lots of explosive battles, the dilemmas created by using the Pilot had me turning the pages waaay into the night to discover how it pans out. And what happens to those who can’t or won’t use the Pilot, once it has been successfully rolled out to most of the population…
I loved both Val and Julie, who are thoughtful, caring parents who want the best for their children and agonise about David’s desperate desire to be able to keep up with his richer classmates. Julie, who works for a high-profile politician, also comes under pressure to acquire a Pilot to keep on top of her boss’s schedule. And then, there’s Val who hates the very idea of having anything so intrusive anywhere near her brain, especially as their daughter, Sophie, will never be able to have one fitted because of her epileptic seizures. We follow their fortunes as the consequences of their difference decisions unspool over a number of years.
The depth of the characterisation, the quality of the narrative arc and the final fallout worked really well for me. In particular, I found David’s plight really poignant – and I would just add a trigger warning for drug abuse and PTSD. I’m aware that I might have made this sound rather drearily worthy. It’s nothing of the sort – there are shafts of humour within the family snark, the prose is punchy and the tight pacing keeps the story rolling forward at a brisk lick. I haven’t encountered this author before – but this certainly won’t be the last time I’ll be reading her work. Highly recommended for both sci fi fans and those who enjoy reading family-centred stories with an unusual dynamic. While I obtained an arc of We Are Satellites from Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own. 10/10
I treated myself to this one with some of my birthday money, after it was recommended to me by one of my book blogging buddies – and I’m so sorry that I cannot recall who! If you do remember my gushing over it, feel free to come and nudge me in the ribs and I’ll namecheck you…
BLURB: Fourteen-year-old Mona isn’t like the wizards charged with defending the city. She can’t control lightning or speak to water. Her familiar is a sourdough starter and her magic only works on bread. She has a comfortable life in her aunt’s bakery making gingerbread men dance. But Mona’s life is turned upside down when she finds a dead body on the bakery floor. An assassin is stalking the streets of Mona’s city, preying on magic folk, and it appears that Mona is his next target. And in an embattled city suddenly bereft of wizards, the assassin may be the least of Mona’s worries…
REVIEW: This one is a solid delight. I absolutely loved it. Mona is such a superb protagonist – having been orphaned and then looked after by her aunt and uncle, her life is jogging along quite nicely. But then the appearance of a dead body in the bakery upsets everything. And from then on, Mona’s life becomes a lot more complicated.
The setting is a medieval city state where most of the subjects are just about coping, though there is widespread poverty. I believed in the world, the politics and the way prejudice against folks with magical ability had been subtly stirred up – it was nicely done. But what makes this book really stand out is the magic. Or rather – Mona’s magic… It’s a joy. Both funny and completely believable, the way Mona’s desperate efforts to save the day made this a gripping read so that I stayed up far too late to discover what happened. And I’ve been mourning the loss of this world ever since I stopped reading it. I even dreamt about it…
I also liked the depth of the supporting characters – as well as Mona’s anger at the adults’ inability to sort things out, so that it’s down to her. Such a natural reaction, but one I don’t see all that often in these sorts of adventures. I very much hope that Kingfisher finds that her lovely heroine won’t leave her alone – and that she, too, misses Mona. Because I’d love to read more about this gutsy, quirky teen. 10/10
The wonderful books I’ve encountered during this horrible year have, at times, kept my head straight when other pressures have added an extra twist of awfulness due to the pandemic. I have encountered a number of talented authors I’d previously not had the pleasure of reading (I’m looking at you Mary Robinette Kowal, Elisabeth Bear, Marilyn Messik and T. Kingfisher) and managed to complete 11 series, while working my way through 66 other series. I’ll get more nerdy in my post about the stats relating to my 2020 reads, later in the week.
During 2020 I read 184 books and wrote 155 full reviews, with 23 still to be published. In no particular order, these are the books that have stood out for me. It might be that I didn’t originally give them a 10 – but these books have stayed with me, which is why they made the cut. And let’s forget any top ten nonsense – whittling down my list to this paltry number was painful enough!
Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky Despite reading this one back in January, I often found myself thinking about brave, clever Emily and what she underwent. That is the mark of a special book – when it won’t leave you alone. I think it’s one of Tchaikovsky’s best, and given the man’s towering talent, that’s saying something. See my review.
AUDIOBOOK Ancestral Night – Book 1 of the White Space series by Elizabeth Bear Elizabeth Bear is another wonderful author I discovered this year – and the good news is that she has a pleasingly long backlist. This one was an utter joy to listen to – Haimey’s first-person narrative held me throughout, even though the pacing was somewhat leisurely at times. This book at 500+ pages has it all – vivid action scenes, nail-biting tension, and plenty of plot twists and shocking reveals. And of course a space cat – who could resist that? See my review.
You Let me In by Camilla Bruce By rights, this shouldn’t have worked for me – I really don’t like books featuring an abused child. But the way Bruce posits this situation is masterfully done, as Cassie narrates her adventures with Pepperman, a grumpy and dangerous fae entity, who draws the small child into the world of the fae. This book has also stayed with me throughout the year. Read my review.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Macksey This is such a simple book with lots of pictures. The story of four different creatures, who come together to help each other. It could so easily have turned into a treacly, sentimental mess. But it doesn’t. My lovely sister-in-law gave me my copy and it has been beside me ever since. Read my review.
TUYO – Book 1 of the Tuyo series by Rachel Neumeier The opening sequence of this book immediately hooked me and wouldn’t let me go. I enjoy Neumeier’s writing, anyway. But this amazing world and the vividness of her characters still have me regularly thinking about them. In particular, the depiction of being ensorcelled was brilliantly portrayed – I’ve never seen it done better. Read my review.
AUDIOBOOK Deep Roots – Book 2 of The Innsmouth Legacy by Ruthanna Emrys This riveting world has left me yearning for more after reading the first book Winter Tide, which made my Outstanding Reads of 2017. So I was thrilled to discover this offering. Aphra is still coming to terms with the loss of her parents, friends and relations when confronted with a new danger. Once more I was pulled into a tense adventure where Lovecraftian monsters were only part of the threat. Read my review.
Last Dragon Standing – Book 5 of the Heartstrikers series by Rachel Aaron This is as much about the celebration of this quirky, enjoyable series, as much as it is about the climactic battle that wraps up the story. Peopled with shape-shifting dragons, a powerful ghost who assumes the shape of a cat and an enraged nature goddess, this urban fantasy reaches epic proportions, with all sorts of surprises and twists along the way. Review to follow.
The Book of Koli – Book 1 of the Rampart trilogy by M.R. Carey I very much enjoyed The Girl With All the Gifts, but I liked this even better. Koli is an endearing character with his youth and restless energy that gets him into far too much trouble within his village. This book is set in post-apocalyptic England, where even trees have become feral – but there are welcome shafts of light, too. Read my review.
AUDIOBOOK The Mirror and the Light – Book 3 of the Thomas Cromwell series by Hilary Mantel This whole series is a tour de force and I loved listening to this extraordinary conclusion to Cromwell’s life, as an embittered Henry VIII becomes ever more difficult to deal with – and Cromwell’s many enemies begin to circle. I wept at the end, which was wonderfully handled – and I’m still trying to work out how Mantel managed to keep me spellbound for so long, when I already knew the outcome before listening to the first chapter. Read my review.
Relatively Strange – Book 1 of the Strange series by Marilyn Messik This was one of those books I picked up and couldn’t put down again. Messik’s writing is utterly addictive, as far as I’m concerned and Stella is now my new best friend. I finished this one far too fast and was miserable until I picked up the next one in the series. I think this was the worst book hangover I endured during the year. Review my review.
The Relentless Moon – Book 3 of the Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal This is another of those wonderful authors I discovered this year – and this series just blew me away. I loved Elma York and her battles to gain recognition during the first two books in the series – but when this story introduced me to Nicole, who finds herself trying to track down a saboteur on the Moon, I not only loved every single minute of the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, afterwards. Read my review.
A Memory Called Empire – Book 1 of the Teixcalaan series by Martine Arkady I tracked down this one, after hearing it compared to the great C.J. Cherryh’s immersive writing style. And I wasn’t disappointed. I loved watching poor Mahit, replacement ambassador to the enigmatic Teixcalaani empire, flounder as she tries to work out just how her predecessor died. This tense murder mystery played out in the far future kept me up far too late as I couldn’t put it down. Read my review.
AUDIOBOOK Charlotte Sometimes – Book 3 of the Aviary Hall series by Penelope Farmer I have always enjoyed reading Children’s fiction, because the very best is far too good just to leave to the kids. And this gem certainly falls into that category. A children’s classic that was published in 1969, it is written with depth and sophistication about two schoolgirls who cris-cross into each other’s times. Until something happens to Charlotte… I loved this one. Set in 1918, the period is beautifully portrayed and the bittersweet ending has stayed with me. Read my review.
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher This is another of those books for children, which engrossed and delighted me. Mona is a baker’s apprentice with a small magical talent, who suddenly finds herself caught up in a murder. Events snowball entertainingly – and I found myself thoroughly enjoying Mona’s ingenious creations to try and stay ahead of the baddies. Review to follow.
AUDIOBOOK The Stranger Diaries – Book 1 of the Harbinder Kaur series by Elly Griffiths I enjoy Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, so decided to try this latest series and absolutely loved it. There is a tongue-in-cheek Gothic vibe that I found very appealing. Though I have a shocking memory, the twists and turns of this enjoyable murder mystery have stayed with me. Read my review.
The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken – Book 3 of the Vish Puri series by Tarquin Hall I was utterly beguiled by Vish when I first encountered him during the fifth book of the series, The Case of the Reincarnated Client earlier in the year and have been eking out the rest of the series ever since. Vish Puri is fond of calling himself the Indian Sherlock Holmes and his energetic attitude and passion for justice are very endearing – even if he does dismiss his clever, streetwise Mummy-Ji, who often takes a close interest in his cases. This book has an extra dimension and Hall is adept at dealing with hefty issues of the painful events around India’s partition in a respectful manner, without making it dreary. Read my review.
While I’d like to think that each one of these books offers some brain fodder, none of them are gloomy, downbeat reads as this year I needed to escape. And my favourite book of 2020? Probably Ancestor Nights, though I’m likely to claim it’s The Relentless Moon if you ask me the same question again tomorrow. And then there’s Relatively Strange, of course…
I’ve resumed reading more Children’s fiction since I’ve been listening to audiobooks, as I’ve been working my way through my grandson’s list. And I’m so glad, because it’s brought me some really lovely reads this year. But this one has capped them all and is going to be one of my all-time favourites…
BLURB: It’s natural to feel a little out of place when you’re the new girl, but when Charlotte Makepeace wakes up after her first night at boarding school, she’s baffled: everyone thinks she’s a girl called Clare Mobley, and even more shockingly, it seems she has traveled forty years back in time to 1918. In the months to follow, Charlotte wakes alternately in her own time and in Clare’s. And instead of having only one new set of rules to learn, she also has to contend with the unprecedented strangeness of being an entirely new person in an era she knows nothing about. Her teachers think she’s slow, the other girls find her odd, and, as she spends more and more time in 1918, Charlotte starts to wonder if she remembers how to be Charlotte at all. If she doesn’t figure out some way to get back to the world she knows before the end of the term, she might never have another chance.
REVIEW: This is time travel with spikes on – Charlotte and Clare find themselves alternately cris-crossing each other, spending one day in their own time zone – and the next in each other’s. There isn’t any real explanation as to why this is happening, but the effect on Charlotte is beautifully described. This is a sophisticated book, written for children with a precocious understanding of how surroundings and loss can impact on someone, so they somehow keep going.
There aren’t any major outbursts in this book. It isn’t a tale of horrendous persecution – though one child is singled out in a distressing manner and nothing much is done about it, reminding me that back in the day, children were expected to cope if they were being victimised. Because this is a book that was first published in 1969, though other than some of the attitudes, the density and pacing – it hasn’t particularly dated, because it is set in the past. It very much reminded me of my own childhood, as I was brought up by my grandparents in a house full of large, dark furniture. Though we had a television, long days were spent amusing myself with toys such as solitaire, spillikins and, of course, books…
I loved this one. Charlotte is in the middle of an ongoing nightmare on one level. And yet she also makes friends and strong connections with other people in the 1918 timeline. The exquisite prose, beautifully narrated by the wonderful Hannah Gordon, produces a wonderful, nuanced portrayal of her experience. It’s simply a recommended read for anyone interested in a child’s view of 1918 – because it’s one of those magical books that might have been written with children in mind, but due to Farmer’s layered writing, it can also be thoroughly enjoyed by adults, too. I particularly recommend the audiobook version and am rather devastated to discover that this is the only story in the series that has been turned into an audiobook.
There is just something about this author’s writing that gets right under my skin. I feel so miserable when I finish reading one of her books – that I’ve broken one of my rules. I’ve gone straight from this book onto reading the next one in the series – read my review of Relatively Strange. I’m linking this review to #Sci Fi Month 2020, as this quirky series is one of my reading highlights of the year and deserves to be FAR better known. And I want to spread the joy…
BLURB: With the swinging sixties staggering, shamefaced and flustered, into the slightly staider seventies, life for Stella, isn’t going as smoothly as she’d like. As an ordinary person, who happens to have some extraordinary abilities, it’s frustrating to find that something as simple as holding down a job, throws up unexpected hurdles. She’d be a darn sight better off if she could ditch the conviction she knows best which, together with a chronic inability to keep her mouth shut and her nose out of other people’s business, has led her more than once off the straight and narrow into the dodgy and dangerous. Plans for a safer future, include setting herself up in business, squashing her over-active conscience and steering clear of risky and unpleasant. Unfortunately, the best laid plans can lead to the darkest places.
REVIEW: I just love Stella. The depiction of this bossy, short-fused, and unwilling telepath is absolutely gripping, as well as being both funny and terrifying by turns. Messik has managed to produce one of the most compelling protagonists I’ve read in a long time and I can’t get enough of her. In addition, I find the prose absolutely addictive, which is a real shame because I am inhaling this series, far too fast. I want to know there are more books due to be published – because by the time I finished the next one in this series I am going to come down so hard, I’m liable to crack my reading glasses.
The writer in me is still scrambling to work out just why these books have got me in their thrall. No doubt the sparky, clever first person narrative has drawn me in; the series of hair raising adventures that teeter between farce and danger certainly kept me turning the pages right through into the early morning; and it’s also got to have something to do with the fact that the 1960s and 70s are portrayed with pin sharp accuracy. There is also a lovely group of supporting characters – it’s a pleasant change to find a character with such unusual powers surrounded by a very tight-knit, loving family and friends, who completely accept her for what she is, even if most of them aren’t aware of exactly what she is. No wonder she has such a strong sense of her own worth – and quite right too.
As ever, when confronted with such a wholly delightful reading experience, I’m conscious that anything I say here won’t fully convey the full measure of my emotional response. I’m not going to claim that these books are high literature – they aren’t. But they are a thumping good read that has completely transported me away from my own issues and into Stella’s world. Highly recommended. 10/10
I had read the previous two books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies back in 2014 and had this one on pre-order. And the reason why it has taken so long to get through it, is that it is some thirty-seven listening hours – and I play anything with a dense writing style at a slower speed.
BLURB: England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves. Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?
Once again, we are in Cromwell’s head in present tense, third-person, deep point-of-view. Even though I had read the previous two books and was used to Mantel’s writing style, it still took a couple of paragraphs and reducing the listening speed before I was fully comfortable again in this unique viewpoint. Cromwell is now older and established as King Henry’s chief advisor. We are plunged in the middle of his efforts in ensuring Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour goes smoothly. For Henry is also older and bitter at Anne Bolyn’s betrayal and the ridicule he is sure he has been exposed to after her infidelities have been noised across Europe. Always a tricky personality, he becomes increasingly difficult to deal with as a leg injury begins to persistently bother him.
Meanwhile, day on day, Cromwell continues to do the work of ten normal men, increasing his efforts to shut down the monasteries, which he regards as corrupt, given his own beliefs that God needs no intermediaries in his daily dealings with his flock. The big problem that Mantel is confronted with in this book is that we all know the ending. This happens to be the period of history I know most about – and yet I found it a complete joy. Mantel’s style allows events to unfold completely from Cromwell’s viewpoint, so we see his interactions with Chapuy, the Spanish ambassador, his run-ins with Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of London, and his warm, affectionate relationship with his nephew, Richard and his own son, Gregory.
Any niggles? I suppose if I was going to be extremely picky, I would mention that the pace does flag slightly after Anne of Cleves comes on the scene – but I personally feel that might be a subconscious desire to back away from the inevitable downfall that ensues. In the event, it is beautifully handled and I came away from this book with a real sense of loss that I will no longer have Ben Miles’ outstanding narration accompanying me in my everyday chores, recounting the life of a remarkable man who rose and fell during the reign of probably the most charismatic king we have ever had. This outstanding book is highly recommended if you enjoy reading, or better still, listening to this particular slice of history. Though whatever you do, please start with Wolf Hall. 10/10
BLURB: After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region. Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.
REVIEW: This one firmly nails its colours to the mast with the very title – Mexican Gothic. So, never mind about the quality of the writing… the characterisation… or even the ingenuity of the plotting – does this book hit all the genre conventions of a classic noir gothic novel? Oh yes – right down to the era, as this book is set in the 1950s. Comparisons have been made with Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and, indeed there are some striking similarities, though equally important differences. We have a large, mouldering house miles away from anywhere and seemingly perpetually shrouded in mist with faded furniture and a musty smell under the fraying grandeur. We also have a hostile and rather creepy housekeeper, though this one is known as Florence, instead of Mrs Danvers. Though her disapproval of our feisty heroine, Noemí, is every bit as prune-faced and sneering. She particularly dislikes her smoking in her room – which back in the 50s was unusual, given that lots of people smoked as a matter of course. And Noemí is also an important difference. Because, let’s face it, the second Mrs de Winter was toe-curlingly wet and naïve. However, Noemí is quite a different proposition. A young debutante who moves amongst the smart set in Mexico City, she is sophisticated, tough-minded and a little spoilt – which in these circumstances is a very good thing…
I love Noemí, who is also intuitive and intelligent with a strong instinct for self preservation under that careless, thrill-seeking exterior. And as forces within the house stir at the prospect of fresh meat, she is confronted with things that would send a less feisty character shrieking into the night… The pacing is a joy. Because the gothic genre requires a slow build-up of tension as things begin to go wrong, steadily gathering momentum as the stakes continue getting higher – until the climax crackles with horror and a real sense that our heroine may well not prevail. This being Moreno-Garcia, I didn’t discount that option, either…
There are some really ugly issues dealt with in this book. The Doyles, an outwardly respectable English family, proud of their unsullied heritage, had to leave England as rumours about their activities became too persistent. They pitch up in this depressed settlement, free to continue their vile practises. Slavery, physical and sexual abuse, murder and the nastiest sort of racism all surface within this story, though there isn’t anything too graphic. But neither does Moreno-Garcia flinch from what goes on, either. Suffice to say there is one of the most magnificently vile antagonists in this book that I’ve encountered in a while. All in all, this is a wonderful example from an author at the top of her game and very highly recommended for fans of gothic horror. While I obtained an arc of Mexican Gothic from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own. 10/10
I was rather taken by both the quirky cover and the even more quirky blurb at a time when reading about anything remotely similar to what is going on around us was unbearable. So I was really pleased to be approved to read this one.
BLURB: 10/10 Jared does not have friends. Because friends are a function of feelings. Therefore friends are just one more human obligation that Jared never has to worry about. But Jared is worrying. Which is worrying. He’s also started watching old films. And inexplicably crying in them. And even his Feelings Wheel (given to him by Dr Glundenstein, who definitely is not a friend) cannot guide him through the emotional minefield he now finds himself in.
REVIEW: The blurb rambles on for a bit longer – but to be honest, I don’t think it is particularly helpful as it manages to omit the bit that is important. Jared is a bot, built and designed to be a dentist – a job the humans in our future society don’t particularly want to do. This is set in the near future, where bot labour does most of the dangerous, difficult tasks. But most bots are encased within fast-growing human bodies and able to communicate fluently and reasonably naturally. The big difference is that they don’t have any feelings – don’t experience boredom, loneliness or unhappiness, or love, friendship and delight. As they are programmed to put human lives above their own, they are ideal as construction workers, firefighters and… dentists. While humans concentrate on creative and artistic pursuits, rather than the soul-sapping jobs they used to do. Except that Jared starts to feel emotions… The story is told in first-person viewpoint and I absolutely loved the quirky voice of the bot, which I found absolutely enchanting. Though I’m aware it is something of a risk, because if that highly individual voice annoys a prospective reader, it would be impossible to get through this one. As it happens, I fell in love with it.
Naturally, Jared finds the world around him becomes quite a different place, as he learns to navigate the odd sensations assailing him, using the Feelings Wheel that Dr Glundenstein, his sympathetic human friend and neighbour gives him. Dr Glundenstein advises him to go the movies and watch films – not the modern rubbish which is all about killer bots on the rampage – but older films which get shown in small, shabby little cinemas. One of the ongoing delights is trying to identify classic films from Jared’s quirky descriptions throughout this story. As I cared about Jared, I quickly became invested in his story.
It won’t be a huge surprise that this book is actually an exploration of what makes us human, as well as what happens when we start to regard other folks living among us as less than human. While this is an oft-trodden favourite science fiction trope, I thought this particular take on the whole subject interesting and immersive. And while I was grinning through a lot of the book – there were also moments of great tenderness and sadness, with moments of lovely poetic beauty. All in all, this is a real gem and one of my favourite reads of the year so far. Highly recommended for fans of well-told A.I. tales. The ebook arc copy of Set My Heart to Five was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest opinion of the book. 10/10