‘The Once and Future Witches’ – Alix E. Harrow

Once upon a time there were three sisters. They shared a bond like no other, but their father was wicked and turned them against one another. The elder sisters left, each feeling they had been wronged, leaving the younger alone with their father until she could take no more of his dominance. She runs, and finds her way to a new town.

The three Eastwood sisters – James juniper, Agnes Araminta and Beatrice Belladonna –  reunite very early on. They are very different characters, but they are united in their determination to have a world where they can be in control of their destiny. They want everything they are denied on account of their gender. So, how do they propose to get it? Through witchcraft.

This story explores attitudes to female emancipation and developing gender roles, mixed in with a fascinating account of practising witchcraft and magic.

Nobody in this is quite what they seem. Some of the elements of the book are fantastical to say the least, but I loved the three sisters and their respective struggles to live the life they choose.

 

‘The Mystery of Mrs Christie’ – Marie Benedict

Agatha Christie is one of those authors that I know very little of. I’m aware that she had links to the village I now live in, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the stories by her that I’ve read. However, perhaps because of the time she lived in I am not particularly aware of any biographical details of her life.

I did not know that she actually disappeared for eleven days in 1926, so of course the idea behind this book had me interested.

Initially, I found myself wholly engaged. We follow the story through Agatha’s eyes of her meeting with Colonel Archibald Christie. The two developed what could best be described as an infatuation and it appears to be a wholly romantic story. For this reason I found it fascinating that the narrative was interspersed with the story told through Archie’s eyes of the days following his wife’s disappearance. This paints quite a different picture, and clearly depicts a relationship in turmoil with both parties determined to get their own way.

The story was fine, though as we neared the end it started to feel a little slow. As readers we knew from the start that Agatha was in control of this scenario, and it was frustrating to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

When I summarised the story for my husband he said ‘like Gone Girl’. That manipulation and careful orchestration of people to lead a plan through its stages of execution definitely wasn’t lost on me. Neither Agatha nor Archie came out of this particularly well. They both seemed inherently selfish, and yet I couldn’t help but admire Agatha for having the ability to strategise at such a tumultuous time.

 

‘The Wife Upstairs’ – Rachel Hawkins

Much as I love Jane Eyre, there are elements within that never quite sit right with me. I often wondered why Jane didn’t show the strength of will and defiance of expectations to really push the boat and do something truly shocking at the end. The whole mad wife in the attic scenario lent a more sympathetic portrayal to Rochester than he perhaps deserved. Yet it’s a book that I deeply enjoy, and I was more than a little nervous when I realised The Wife Upstairs was transposing many of these elements to a modern setting.
Having now finished the book I have to say I really enjoyed it as a concept.
In our version, Jane is running from her past but she is now a dog walker in an exclusive neighbourhood as she tries to find her way into the life she craves. We follow her interior monologue, so we know she has more than her fair share of secrets and that she is just as happy to manipulate someone if it suits her. For this reason, I found myself feeling less concerned for Jane’s welfare than I did in the original. She makes some silly choices and fails to see some potential issues that she really should have factored in.
Our Mr Rochester is Eddie, a charismatic man who is having to live with the mysterious disappearance of his wife, Bea. Neighbourhood gossip reveals a little more to this story than Jane was told, and it was pretty obvious that we would be watching this story unravel over time.
There are, perhaps of necessity, some changes to the original ‘Jane Eyre’ and these do work fairly well. If you read this with no knowledge of the text then you have a great thriller with some well-timed reveals and shocks. Even with those with knowledge of the text won’t be disappointed. I confess to waiting for some of the ‘twists’, but there are still surprises. I also really liked the ambiguity of the ending, which leaves us – and Jane – in a rather difficult position.

‘Concrete Rose’ – Angie Thomas

In the latest (I think, inevitable, bestseller) novel from Angie Thomas we focus on the early life of Star’s father, Maverick.

Set seventeen years before the events focusing on Star’s story we get to see Maverick Carter as a seventeen year old. From the outset we see glimpses of the man Maverick becomes, but we also get an insight into just how hard he had to fight to get to that stage.

The story feels familiar, knowing some of the details that are referenced in The Hate U Give. We watch Maverick dealing with the reality of becoming a father; the issues he faces each day with a father in prison; the expectations placed upon by him by others; his relationship with Lisa; school and work.

While I can’t begin to claim to understand his experiences, Thomas writes about them in a way that encourages you to empathise with him and the many like him. There’s some great characters ‘behind the scenes’ in his mum and Mr Wyatt, the mentor-like figure who helps him see his own worth. Of course there are some characters that it might be nice to hear a little more about but we see enough.

I did feel that some of the incidents/events were quite easy to predict, but I’m not sure how much of that is because they’re referenced in the later book or because these events are the fairly obvious ones for certain characters. Regardless, I liked the way we see Maverick grapple with his own shortcomings and prejudices as he starts his journey to where we’ve first seen him.

 

‘Fable’ – Adrienne Young

 

Fable took me somewhat by surprise, and though it was an incredibly frustrating ending and my irritation at having to wait for book two before I find out what I need to know is high, I can’t rate this highly enough.

Our main character is hardy and spirited, not necessarily through choice, and I couldn’t help but hope for the best for her from the outset. Clearly talented, the skills Fable has around gems suggests there’s more info to come.

We are encouraged to jump into her adventures immediately, watching as she ekes out a living dredging what she finds at the bottom of the ocean. We quickly learn that one of the merchants who is feared by many has more of an interest in Fable than she is able to reveal, and she has to decide who to trust in order to get what she wants.

Full of adventure and more than enough hints at an intriguing backstory. I am desperate to know exactly how Fable’s mother fits into this, what West is hiding and exactly why Zola is so keen to have done what he has.

I got caught up in this immediately, couldn’t wait to learn more and am desperate to be approved for book two on NetGalley (strong hint).

‘When the World Was Ours’ – Liz Kessler

While this story will seem familiar in some ways, it offers an approach to the topic of the Second World War that will not fail to impact on readers.
At its heart this is a story about faith, love and having the courage to stay hopeful even in our darkest moments. It covers a period in history that cannot fail to shock, but what struck me in this was the emotional impact the book held.
Our story focuses on three children – Max, Leo and Elsa. Best friends, their story begins with a memory of a wonderful birthday celebration where they rode on a fairground ride, shared cake with one another, smiled and laughed. They each have a picture of that day. That picture becomes significant.
Told through their alternating perspectives, we start to see the fracturing of their idyllic childhood. Living at a time when fascism is on the rise, we know things are going to get tense. When we learn that Elsa and Leo are Jewish, we sense the personal conflict to come. Once we learn that Max’s father is becoming a much respected member of the Nazi party we get an inkling of how this might go.
Ambitious in its scope, we focus on a substantial period of history. We are given facts about the experiences the children have, while learning about the reality of the period. Disturbing, yes, but necessary if we are to ensure people do not forget what happened. There are details that will shock and upset readers – but I think this is inevitable when grappling with this historical experience. Told from the views of the children there is a simplicity to their accounts that, perhaps, renders events a little less upsetting.
Each of the children has a very different war-time experience. Leo manages to flee to England with his mother, desperate for news of his father who was sent to Dachau. Elsa remains with her family through many of the indignities bestowed on her simply because of her faith, but she is separated from them when they are taken to Auschwitz. Max has always been desperate for his father’s approval, and his need to belong and gain admiration makes him susceptible to the indoctrination of the Nazi party. As his father rises in power, Max follows. He too ends up in Auschwitz.
As we drew to the close of the book I had to face the stark reality that these three characters were not all going to get their happy ending. Some might not even survive the experience. By the end, that picture had come back to haunt us. Such a simple image, but it came to mean so much.
I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me to read this in advance of its late January publication, and will have no qualms about recommending it to readers.

 

‘Plain Bad Heroines’ – Emily Danforth

I had seen reviews of this on NetGalley, and could not believe the UK release was so long after the US one…so I requested the audiobook on NetGalley, and when I was sent an ARC I jumped straight in.

I listened to the opening with such a sense of anticipation, and found myself captivated but also repulsed by the opening. Our story begins in 1902, with Flo and Clara – two young students of Brookhants School for Girls who have a shared fascination with a scandalous book. Unfortunately, their story ends abruptly, and in ways too horrific to dwell on. I dislike intensely the thought of being stung, so this was a particularly macabre scene with which to open the novel…though the story definitely intrigued me.

I soon found my tendency to read a couple of books at the same time, and my relative unfamiliarity with audiobooks, meant that I soon found myself totally lost by this. The shifting perspectives and chronology is one of the strengths of the story – having now finished it, I am in awe at how cleverly constructed this is – but trying to listen to it in short bursts with gaps in-between was not working out. It got set aside until I knew I could do it justice.

Finding myself with the arduous task of stripping a bathroom, what more excuse could I find but to try and use the time wisely? Back to it…

Second time round – and actually listening to it for hours at a time over two days – meant I found myself immersed in the story from the outset. Listening to/reading the stories surrounding Brookhants School for Girls and its mysterious ‘curse’ was a joy.

In the publicity material we are told that this is a story of parts – queer love story, Gothic horror and Hollywood satire. The focus is on a number of stories tied to Brookhants over time: that of Libby Brookhants and her lover, Alex; poor Flora and Cara and, lastly, Harper Harper and Audrey. The one thing that unites these three stories is the mysterious Brrokhants School for Girls and the scandalous memoir that seems to hold the key to the purported curse.

I don’t want to say too much because Danforth reveals all, and the way she chooses to do this gave me physical chills. I never felt as if I could tell exactly what was happening, and the events unfolding – in whichever timeline we were focused on – were beautifully described. The narrator on the audiobook gave a different perspective on the experience, and this is certainly a book I will have to physically read too.

A huge thank you to the publishers Harper Collins and NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to its release.

 

‘People Like Her’ – Ellery Lloyd

 

People Like Her is meant to be a timely reminder to consider the role played in our lives by social media. How far does it impact on us? To what extent does it influence our behaviour? Pertinent questions, but this book – sadly – didn’t really hit the mark for me.

Our main character, Emmy, is a popular internet phenomenon. The face behind ‘mamabare’, Emmy lays her life out for public scrutiny. She courts fame, purely to achieve more likes, and this is a lifestyle that more than pays the bills. Making a life out of selling your family might not make sense to many, but everyone will have experience of social media. We all have opinions on online presence, and how far is too far. For this reason I can see the book tapping into a fairly large audience.

Though the book begins slowly as we’re introduced to our couple, it shifts by the end into a much more dramatic affair. From early on we are aware that someone is unhappy with Emmy and wants her to pay for a perceived slight. They are a threat, but how do you ward off threats when they are safe behind a veil of anonymity?

Unfortunately, the character of Emmy was problematic for me. Initially she seems somewhat dizzy, a little naive and determined to milk her cash cow while she could. There was little to really encourage me to empathise with her as everything she did was about her public profile. When she is under serious threat I felt for her, and yet she had acted with such callousness towards those she claimed to care for that I struggled to not blame her a little for what happened. Victim blaming is never going to be a good thing, but it’s so hard not to do that with Emmy that I fear this will ensure some of the comments raised by this book will miss their mark.

Another problem character for me was husband, Dan. A writer in name, who seems to actually do very little, he infuriated me. He seemed to have reservations about this venture, but never took steps to challenge it. What little action he took to offset the influence held by his wife’s job was ineffective, and his final action was – perhaps – even more cynical than those we’d been encouraged to criticise in his wife. Yes, he helps resolve things…but what he does at the end suggests that the influence of the media is more insidious than we might think.

Thanks to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan for granting me access to this prior to publication in exchange for an honest review. I’m convinced this will be lapped up by many, but the cynicism shown by our characters left me without the requisite sympathy I feel was needed to make this wholly successful.

‘The Girl Who…’ – Andreina Cordani

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this before publication. It didn’t go quite as I expected, but it is definitely one I’d recommend reading.

When I first started reading I couldn’t make my mind up about either Leah or Ellie. These two had more in common than was suggested at the start, but it was a rollercoaster ride to get them to realise it.

Leah and Ellie are both reluctant to let the other get close. They have their reasons, and the hints at the secrets they were keeping totally lead me up the garden path in my thoughts of what might happen.

Their respective parents have got together so the family are at the awkward stage of adjusting to life together. Ellie is the life and soul of her world, while Leah is more circumspect. However, the narrative from Leah’s view shows us she’s not quite what she makes out.

It was clear that Leah was somewhat fixated on the events surrounding her dead mother and sister. She wanted revenge on the gang member who stabbed them, but her interactions with her family keep this hidden. Only as we near the end do we see just how dangerous her fixation could be.

I liked the split narrative as it kept just enough unclear to prevent it all being obvious, but it also helped us develop a less negative view of each girl. The inclusion of narrative from a third character was, initially, confusing but it became interesting to see the developing role this character played. I wish we could have seen a little more on this.

Unfortunately, I’m not wholly convinced by the way things were resolved but I’m prepared to admit this was because I expected something so different.

 

‘The Last Thing to Burn’ – Will Dean

 

The Last Thing to Burn is a book that will haunt me. Will Dean has written a book that I read with an increasing feeling of sickness and disgust, but was deeply touched by the hope and strength of spirit shown by the female characters.
Our main character is ‘Jane’, who when we are introduced to her in the opening chapter sounds like a young child. She is running away from the farm where she lives with Len, and it quickly becomes clear that things are not at all as they seemed.

‘Jane’ is a Vietnamese woman, trapped in a hostile environment. Lured to Britain under the promise of a better life, she has been held captive and forced to endure the kind of life that nobody deserves or should have to live.

Watching the emotional and physical abuse this woman was subject to was awful. It was very clear why she did not try to escape, but I spent most of the book imagining just what it might take for her to snap and decide the risk was worth it.

Viewing events through Than’s eyes I was filled with horror that such events could ever occur. When she is forced to become privy to another woman being taken prisoner, it felt as if I was watching a dry tinderbox waiting for the match to be lit and send everything up in flames.

Her situation alone was bad enough, but once she becomes a mother it felt as if it were only a matter of time before something snapped. That was, indeed, the case and what transpired towards the end was bleak, though it gave some semblance of hope. It was certainly testimony to the strength of the human spirit.

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication. Highly recommended.