‘The Vanishing Half’ – Brit Bennett

This was a story that I’m so pleased I had the opportunity to read thanks to the publishers and NetGalley, and I can’t wait to see what others make of what I genuinely feel is a must-read story.

Desiree and Stella Vignes are twins, and the main focus of our story. When they were little they witnessed their father dragged from his home by white men and killed. They live in a small town called Mallard that cannot be found on any map, where anyone with dark skin is looked down upon. Is it any wonder that after such a beginning they might not feel comfortable here?

The girls leave Mallard for a new life. Together, they feel they can take on anything, no matter how difficult it gets. Illegal work in a laundry and sleeping on a friend’s floor is not ideal, but they’re managing. Then one day Desiree comes home to discover Stella has gone.

Our story is told through the viewpoints of a number of characters (Desiree, Stella, and their respective daughters) and piece by piece we establish what each has done and how their early life has set up their present. From Desiree escaping an abusive marriage to return home with her dark-skinned daughter, to Stella living in constant fear that she will be found out for passing as white for so long. We watch Jude leave the racist taunts for a new life in California where she finds love with Reese, a man facing his own battles, and we follow Kennedy as she tries to find herself and come to terms with the truths she learns about her mother.

We are set in a changing world where race and attitudes to it remain something to examine. There were so many painful stories, and though I understood the choices Stella made it still felt unbearably hard that she should feel that was necessary.

The main characters of the twins had a complex relationship, but it was their daughters who I found fascinating. In these two girls there were signs of shifting attitudes on a number of subjects, and their stubborn refusal to ignore each other gave an indication that family connections run deeper than we might think.

 

‘Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know’ – Samira Ahmed

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication, and introducing me to a story that reeled me in slowly.

The title stems from a phrase used to describe the poet, Lord Byron. I wasn’t sure how this phrase could possibly link to the story, but it eventually became clear.

Our narrator is Khayyam, a seventeen year old American student who is fascinated by Art History but who is smarting from her most recent essay being discredited. While on holiday in Paris with her parents, Khayyam meets Alexandre Dumas (yes, really) – a descendant of the writer. They get talking, and before we know it a strange kind of hunt for missing treasure begins.

Both are convinced that Dumas had links with the painter Delacroix, and think that the link has something to do with a mysterious raven-haired beauty mentioned in works by Dumas and Byron, and featuring in paintings by Delacroix. Alongside this story in the present – which, in itself, would have been intriguing – we have the story of Leila, a young woman in the 1800s who has been the favourite of the Pasha, but who cannot bear him children.

It takes a while for the links between the characters and their stories to become clear. The hunt itself took something of a backseat for me as I was captivated by the attitudes to women and how history has, often, overlooked so many stories simply because of the gender of the person telling the story.

This was definitely a story that appeals on a number of levels. Yes, there are some amazing coincidences in this hunt, but the exploration of identity and the passion coming through for the subject was evident.

‘The Kingdom of Back’ – Marie Lu

In some ways I think this is a story that could have been told many times over, that of a talented young woman denied the chance to share her talent purely because of her gender.

Our focus is Nannerl, the older sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A girl I had never heard of, yet the author’s note suggests her talent was comparable – if not, in some ways, more than that of her lauded younger brother.

We follow Nannerl as she recounts her forays into composition, and her growing frustration at the way her talent is ignored by her father as he touts his young children around the world in an attempt to ensure the name of Mozart is never forgotten.

While the historical element of the story is interesting, I was more entranced by the fantasy elements Lu employs to examine Nannerl’s feelings about the events she lives. We watch as she conjures up The Kingdom of Back, a mystical place, and is persuaded to undertake a number of quests in order to achieve her heart’s desire.

This was, evidently, a story that had captivated Lu and one that seems to have taken her years to finish/share with the world. It will certainly introduce someone overlooked to readers, but it also offers us the opportunity to see an imaginative exploration of two very talented children and how their relationships develops over time.

 

‘Chain of Gold’ – Cassandra Clare

Cassandra Clare…you’ve done it again.

Another group of characters tightly bound by their bonds/expectations and desires…where things aren’t always quite what they seem, and where we end up in dangerous situations with nobody batting an eyelid.

There’s a lot of characters in this, and it was a bit confusing to start with. However, as we start to focus on the main group it became a lot easier to follow.
The story is one of those that seems to become more complex the more we learn. It focuses on our Shadowhunters trying to learn who might be responsible for conjuring demons that are killing Shadowhunters. There’s clearly some link with key Shadowhunter families – and we do get some answers.

Once I felt the characters we were focusing on were little more established, I got quite taken in by this. There were enough hints of action to come and suggestions of potential plot strands to make me curious to see what comes next, and I was definitely in turn amused and upset by/for Cordelia, James, Anna, Matthew and Alistair – amongst others.

 

‘Daisy Jones and the Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Everyone knows Daisy Jones & The Six, but nobody knows the reason behind their split at the absolute height of their popularity . . . until now.

Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock and roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things.

Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by the brooding Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend Camila finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road.

Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to supercharged success is to put the two together. What happens next will become the stuff of legend.

A very different story, yet one that feels like it will be played out time and time again.

On the surface it’s a story about a band forged and manipulated in a way we’re all too familiar with now, watching them rise to the giddy heights and then implode. It’s also a love story – played out with a number of characters – that everyone can identify with in some way.

While I spent the first part of the book trying desperately to work out if this was a real band or not, it felt as if it could have been. The passion for music shone through, and it was fascinating to see the way Reid chronicled the art of writing and producing music. However, it also had a seedier side – the chronicling of people at their very worst, driven by demons they have little to no control over and feeling it was a precarious tight-rope that could have gone either way.

I found the interview format rather disconcerting initially, but as I settled into the story it allowed us to see many facets to the characters and their interactions.
I’ve heard great things about the audio version of this, and definitely want to listen to it at some point. I’m also curious to see the TV adaptation of the story – and can’t wait to see who plays Daisy who was not always the most likeable character, but from the moment we’re introduced to the vulnerable child Daisy she was someone I was rooting for.

 

‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’ – Taylor Jenkins Reid

I’d heard lots about this book over the last few months, and the fictional Evelyn Hugo seems to have created quite a stir. The premise certainly made me curious – I couldn’t imagine what would possess someone to marry seven times – but I was reluctant to start this in case I didn’t feel quite the same way.
From the outset we are spun a story about the woman the world knows as Evelyn Hugo. We learn that her daughter has died and she is going to auction some of her well-known dresses to raise money for cancer charities. For reasons that we are not permitted to know until much later on, reclusive Evelyn agrees to an interview – but she insists on a relatively inexperienced journalist called Monique being the one she’ll talk to.
Though Evelyn holds the cards here, we follow Monique as she meets with Evelyn and prepares to interview her. Upon their first meeting we are told that Evelyn wants Monique to write her biography. We know there’ll be a reason for this, but we don’t get told what it is until we’re truly invested in the situation.
I was intrigued by the press excerpts from the time as they showed the reality of the world Evelyn was part of. We are given Evelyn’s frank account of her relationships and her determination to rise to the top of her profession. We follow Evelyn through her marriages to her co-stars, a well-known singer, a director and her best friend amongst others. We see the price she was prepared to pay for her fame and her feeling of wanting to achieve what she felt she should. What we are told fairly early on is how she sacrifices so much for her true love, the one she has never spoken of until now.
While Evelyn herself was not always the most likeable of characters, she was presented in a way that elicited sympathy. Sometimes she made terrible decisions, but she often made these decisions from a desire to do right by those she loved. I felt quite angry for her and Harry, and so many other characters, that they could not be honest about themselves because of attitudes in the world they inhabited.
Monique was a character that I couldn’t quite fathom. Her interactions with Evelyn allowed us to slowly learn about her life, and the time devoted to her background and situation certainly had me thinking she would be more integral to the story than she initially seemed to be. By the time we have revealed the exact link I was imagining all sorts. The revelation certainly justified Monique’s somewhat ambivalent attitude to Evelyn, and it made sense of her actions towards the end.

 

‘The Mercies’ – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Having only read Hargrave’s fiction for younger readers I was unsure quite what to expect of this. The subject immediately made me think of The Crucible and I was intrigued by the remote physical setting and the historical setting. Having just finished, I am struck by the immersive quality to this. It caught me quite unawares and I have to say that for such an unpleasant subject it was a pleasure to read.

The book begins relatively slowly. We’re introduced to the islanders and we begin with the depiction of the dreadful storm that killed all but a handful of men. Watching Maren and the other women as they realise their husbands/sons/brothers are never coming home was a heart-wrenching moment.

Knowing that from this point forwards they would have to find ways to live with the unimaginable immediately created sympathy with their experience, which certainly helps when we see what is in store for them.

I have been fascinated by the posts Hargrave has shared on Twitter showing her visit to the place which inspired this read. It was remote, and it reminded me of the books I’ve read about life on places such as St Kilda. Even in the modern world such places are remote, and it takes a certain mindset to survive in such conditions. To do so in the time in which this story is set must have been tough.
Following the details we’re given about the island women I was unsure why we suddenly switched to the character of Ursa, the daughter of a shipowner who lives in relative ease in Bergen. When her father organises a marriage to Absalom Cornet we learn that Ursa is to become the wife of this man she’s never met before – a man sent from Scotland to travel to Vargø and investigate the lives of the women left behind.

Although we’re told this focuses on the real-life events on Vardø and the witch trials of 1621, the sense of unease created once Ursa arrives on the island was distinctly uncomfortable. Seeing this young girl struggle to develop as she becomes little more than the property of her husband was uncomfortable. Though she grows closer to Maren it doesn’t take long before relationships fracture and the hunt begins.

Once the details of the witch hunt were in the open, Hargrave holds little back in depicting the true horror of this time. At the time of reading I was struck by the obvious pride felt by Absalom and others at what they were doing. Seeing the way the women turned on each other was definitely uncomfortable, and yet there were little glimpses of positivity in the way Maren and Ursa turned to each other and sought comfort where they could.

This is one of those stories that I could imagine reading again, delighting in the depiction of setting and characters. It is both brutal and tender. The ending left many questions, but it also served to resolve some of the concerns raised. I can’t wait to see what others I know make of this.

 

‘Things in Jars’ – Jess Kidd

In the dark underbelly of Victorian London, a formidable female sleuth is pulled into the macabre world of fanatical anatomists and crooked surgeons while investigating the kidnapping of an extraordinary child in this gothic mystery—perfect for fans of The Essex Serpent and The Book of Speculation.

Bridie Devine is a character you can’t help but warm to. From her humble beginnings to her current situation, our detective is shrewd and motivated by a keen sense of justice.

The first thing that struck me with this story was the need to suspend disbelief with regard to some of the plot-line. The depiction of Victorian England was clear and spirited, though we are privy to some dark and dangerous events.

Bridie is asked to investigate the disappearance of a child. We soon learn that the child is unusual, and her appearance/behaviour is a difficult idea to comprehend. Before we know it we’re plunged into a murky underbelly of schemers and ne’er-do-wells.

Though we have an assembled cast of characters, there were some that stood out. A villain he may have been, but Gideon Eames was certainly interesting. From the details given of his childhood to the present he is certainly a dangerous adversary.

 

‘The Clockwork Sparrow: The Sinclair’s Mysteries’ – Katherine Woodfine

This first in The Sinclair’s Mysteries series is certainly of a type, but for fans of Robin Stevens this is a must.

Our main character, Sophie Taylor, has not in the most auspicious of circumstances. Her mother died when Sophie was little, and her father has recently been killed at War. For reasons which are never fully explained, Sophie’s home has been sold from under her and she is now responsible for herself. Sophie is clearly resourceful and has secured a position as a milliner’s assistant in Sinclair’s store – a wonder of the time.

Unfortunately, on the night before the grand opening a mysterious object – the clockwork sparrow – is stolen along with a number of valuable jewels. Sophie is accused of the theft, but we know – from the events we’ve watched – that this is not the full story.

From the outset we are plunged into a world of espionage, where young adults get to show they are cleverer than established detectives. There’s the occasional red herring and we are kept in the dark with certain characters/links.

While I was frustrated by some of the mysteries remaining hidden, there was enough there to make me think the Baron will be a recurring feature of these novels – and I wondered if he would end up being a little closer to home than Sophie is prepared for.

 

‘Hitler’s Secret (Tom Wilde 4)’ – Rory Clements

When I requested this on NetGalley I was fascinated by the idea of the story, and had no idea this was part of a series. I was concerned that it would make little sense on its own – and I’m sure some of these characters and their relationships would be clearer if you knew the previous books – but I worried needlessly.

In this book, Tom Wilde is called upon to carry out what can best be described as a foolish mission: to travel to Germany and remove a package of extreme importance. What nobody tells him is that the package is actually a ten year old girl thought to be the secret daughter of Adolf Hitler.

From the outset we are witness to some unpleasant events. This is a regime built on terror, and some of the behaviours shown are chilling. There’s still good guys, and though we’re not always sure of the boundaries we have to place our trust in them.

The book takes us through a number of terrifying scenarios. It’s enough to make anyone applaud the bravery of those who risk their life for such situations, even if we’re also shaking our heads in sorrow at the brutality and callousness shown by some inherently selfish characters.

The backdrop to the story seemed plausible, and the blending of fact and fiction creates an interesting atmosphere. I was pleased that we were offered another viable reality for Klara at the end of the book, but I’m guessing there’ll be more to come from Wilde.