‘The Raven’s Tale’ – Cat Winters

Cat Winters is one of those authors who seems to delight in the macabre and unusual…I’ve enjoyed every one of the novels by her that I’ve written, and this is another hit in my mind.

Seventeen-year-old Edgar Poe counts down the days until he can escape his foster family—the wealthy Allans of Richmond, Virginia. He hungers for his upcoming life as a student at the prestigious new university, almost as much as he longs to marry his beloved Elmira Royster. However, on the brink of his departure, all his plans go awry when a macabre Muse named Lenore appears to him. Muses are frightful creatures that lead Artists down a path of ruin and disgrace, and no respectable person could possibly understand or accept them. But Lenore steps out of the shadows with one request: “Let them see me!”

Following the life of Edgar Allan Poe, this is clearly based on meticulous research but with a wonderfully macabre style that pays homage to Poe’s writing.

Poe at seventeen is about to head to university. He wants to write, but is discouraged by his foster father. Poe tries to ignore his dark muse, Lenore, but we see him struggle with his passions and interests as he adjusts to life as a student. Spiralling debts burden him and Poe cannot bear to abandon the one thing that gives him pleasure though it leaves him open to criticism.

For those familiar with his writing/life I imagine this will add another rich layer, but it’s a fascinating story regardless.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me access prior to publication and to Cat Winters for her quirky imaginative style being let loose on such a rich topic.

‘Monsters’ – Sharon Dogar

1814: Mary Godwin, the sixteen-year-old daughter of radical socialist and feminist writers, runs away with a dangerously charming young poet – Percy Bysshe Shelley. From there, the two young lovers travel a Europe in the throes of revolutionary change, through high and low society, tragedy and passion, where they will be drawn into the orbit of the mad and bad Lord Byron.
But Mary and Percy are not alone: they bring Jane, Mary’s young step-sister. And she knows the biggest secrets of them all . . .
Told from Mary and Jane’s perspectives, Monsters is a novel about radical ideas, rule-breaking love, dangerous Romantics, and the creation of the greatest Gothic novel of them all: Frankenstein

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me access to such a complex and fascinating read.

Some of the stories surrounding Frankenstein are well-known, and I admit to finding the book at its most absorbing when it focused on the events of this time. However, in this we have an imagined account of the life of Mary Goodwin, her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley and a character I’d never heard of – half-sister Jane/Claire.

Initially the book felt slow in approach. A meticulous and, at times, off-putting focus on the build-up to the relationship between these evidently fascinating characters. There’s a clear sense of the time and beliefs around these characters being brought to life. It was definitely interesting to see how their lives may have intertwined and linked.

While the story was fascinating, I found myself intensely irritated by Shelley and the selfishness with which he acted. The attempt to show his appeal and positive traits is clear, but it didn’t quite succeed.

‘All the Invisible Things’ – Orlagh Collins

Vetty is taking time to work out how she feels about all sorts of things. It was easier when she was younger: her mother was alive, her best friend knew her instinctively and she didn’t have to worry about people trying to label her.

For the last few years they’ve lived in Somerset with her aunt, struggling to come to terms with losing mum. Now the family are moving back to London and Vetty is trying to pick up where she left off.

Some of the initial interactions we watched Vetty have were very self-conscious. It was hard to know how we felt about her and her friendship with Pez. As the two talk, it’s evident that Vetty has feelings for boys and girls and is going to have to think about what’s important to her.

I felt Vetty was a really engaging character. She didn’t always get things right, but it was easy to identify with her uncertainty.

Thanks to NetGalley for granting me early access to this in exchange for my review.

‘Station Eleven’ – Emily St. John Mandel

The first thing to say about this book is that it’s very different to anything I’ve read before. Puzzling, but breath-taking in its approach, I have to admit that for a substantial part of the reading I was wondering quite how these characters/their stories linked.

The second thing to say is that this was a book that made me feel I was constantly reaching for something, only to have it tugged away at the last moment. It was elusive, but not in a frustrating way. Having just finished it I’m aware of feeling unsettled, as if I need to read it again to get a firmer grasp on its message.

Station Eleven is the title given to a comic book series that features at moments throughout the book. It’s a work of love by Miranda, a character within the story, that explores the idea of a hidden civilisation.

Very often when reviewing a book I focus on the general plot and give my reactions to it. Station Eleven felt, for a lot of the time, like a book with no story – more an exploration of the timeless ideas of what makes us who we are/what it means to be civilised. So, why does it feel like a book that’s so important?

There’s no simple answer.

The book opens with famous actor Arthur Leander dying on stage as he performs Lear. It’s a moment that foreshadows the events to come. For, at the same time as trainee paramedic Jeevan is trying to resuscitate Arthur, a deadly virus is spreading the world. Within hours of coming into contact with this virus, people come down with flu-like symptoms. Within hours they are dead.

Civilisation as we know it is coming to an end.

The timeline skips and, at times, I found this disconcerting. We flit between the time Arthur is dying and the immediate aftermath to twenty years after the end of the world. We also venture into the past to learn more about the five characters central to the story. They are connected in ways that seems most unlikely, but reinforces the sense of humanity.

My somewhat random thoughts here do, I think, reflect what a strange read this was. That’s a good thing, but not one that immediately feels comfortable.

‘Internment’ – Samira Ahmed

One to introduce important ideas to younger readers, and it explores timeless concepts, though its blunt approach feels unnecessarily heavy-handed.

Set in a not-too-distant future America we are put in the situation where we watch Layla and her parents taken to a camp specially set up to house Muslims. There they are subject to appalling racism and inhumane treatment simply because of their religion.

We read open-mouthed as people are separated by skin colour, beaten for refusing to follow camp rules and ‘disappeared’ for daring to challenge the Director. We hear of external disagreement with what’s happening, but nobody seems keen to challenge orders from up high.

Layla is a rather immature teen at the start. She becomes a rather more interesting character as she’s forced to confront her new reality and consider the extent to which she’ll challenge it. She decides to (risking) place her trust in one of the guards and there’s hints of romance that get subsumed by the need to advance the plot.

I’d love to say the Director was a caricature; that nobody would believe someone so blatantly racist, sexist and generally unpleasant would ever exist. Sadly, that’s not the case.

And it is the parallels we might draw between contemporary events and those of the book that show just why this is a necessary thing. Personally I’d have liked a more nuanced read, with some focus on the build-up to these events and the reactions of those on the outside. However, for what it is the story is paced well and delivers its message with force.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to read in exchange for my review.

‘A Danger to Herself and Others’ – Alyssa B. Sheinmel

Only when she’s locked away does the truth begin to escape…

Hannah Gold is a top student, precocious and destined for great things. She insists on telling us this throughout the time we are with her. What Hannah doesn’t tell us is why she’s in an institute, meeting regularly with a doctor who makes notes on a sheet that states Hannah could be a danger to herself and others.

We learn that during her time at summer school, Hannah’s room-mate was hospitalised after falling from a window. Hannah is blamed for the accident, but is sent to the institute for a psychiatric evaluation.

As is the wont with unreliable narrators, we believe what Hannah tells us but slowly start to pick up on clues that perhaps all is not as she says.

During the course of the novel we learn that Hannah’s reality is not quite what she thinks. The friends she recalls don’t exist. Hannah is coming to terms with a previously undiagnosed mental illness, and it takes time for her to accept the fact she’ll need treatment for the rest of her life.

Hannah was not – at times – a likeable character. There’s more than one or two clear suggestions that she was, indeed, responsible for what happened to her room-mate. But to what extent can we hold her responsible for what happened when we understand that her reality is quite different to many?

I felt irritated by the parents of Hannah. Absent for much of the novel – with hints that this a theme of her life – their horror at learning their daughter was not ‘normal’ was palpable, and their answer seemed to be to throw money at the situation. While the situation would be a shock to them, I couldn’t help but think about all those people in this kind of situation who don’t get the help offered to Hannah, or who don’t get the treatment they need because they can’t afford it.

This is definitely a read to recommend and I’m grateful to NetGalley for providing me with access in exchange for my thoughts.

‘This Child of Ours’ – Sadie Pearse

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with a topical and thought-provoking read.

Riley is seven and a strong character. At the start of the book a long time is spent showing us how cosy and (dare I say it) comfortably middle-class her parents are. They were even a little irritating. However, when she announces that she wants to be a boy, so many things are questioned and the parents veer into unknown territory.

Do they support Riley in what is expressed, or, at seven, should they keep things ‘normal’ until their child is older and better able to understand the consequences of their actions?

There’s no escaping that this has no answers. Who’s to say what you do for the best in such a situation? I’m sure some readers will be outraged that the parents take the actions they do and others will be horrified by the bigoted response of certain characters.

I don’t think this is something anyone expects to deal with, but it was certainly something that encouraged me to look at a range of views and consider why each felt as they did. I felt that Riley’s behaviour at the end made it all rather easy and I don’t think some of these experiences would go as they do in the novel. Still, a timely look at a subject that many will have strong views on.

‘What If It’s Us?’ – Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

I wanted to wait for my physical copy, but NetGalley gave me an ARC and I couldn’t resist…so now I’ll get to read it again, soon.

This did not go where I wanted to, it didn’t do a lot of the things I hoped it would but I still fell for it hook, line and sinker.

When Arthur and Ben meet one day in New York, the chances of them seeing each other again are pretty slim. But where would the fun be in that?

Through a varied range of ingenious actions they find each other and have a date. It doesn’t work brilliantly, so they try again…and again. There’s lots of other factors impacting on their attempt to have a relationship, but they keep trying. Even when things are clearly heading into car-crash territory these two come out of things smelling of roses.

Every character in the story sparkles on the page, and this was a gooey lovely thing. For the most part. Not always – because nobody’s life could be that amazing – but it came fairly close.

Even the ending – which totally goes against what part of me really wanted to happen – was perfect.

‘Sawkill Girls’ – Claire Legrand

Sawkill Girls is something of a puzzling book. Touted as horror, when I got granted access to the opening chapters on NetGalley I was struck by what seemed to be a dark fairytale quality to the writing. Having just finished the book I am torn between being genuinely unnerved by the creature unleashed on Sawkill and fascinated by the tales told and the events depicted here.

Marion and her family arrive on the island and strange things are immediately obvious. There’s a connection to Val Mortimer and her family, and girls are regularly disappearing from the town. Nobody is sure what’s happening but there’s a dark energy to the place, and lots of very unusual occurrences.

The book was one that sucked me in. It had a few moments that got me uneasy, and the key relationship makes a lot more sense once we get to the end. It’s a genuinely tricky book to pin down but it is definitely one to recommend.

‘The Towering Sky’ – Katharine McGee

Welcome back to New York, 2119. A skyscraper city, fueled by impossible dreams, where the lives of five teenagers have become intertwined in ways that no one could have imagined.

So, last part in the trilogy and I really didn’t know what to expect.

The opening sets up an idea very clearly and had me wondering what on earth might lead to that conclusion. Then our action switches to three months earlier and we are shown some of the details that bring us to the end-point.

I found myself trying to recall some details from the previous two books, but here we see how the teens have been affected by Mariel’s death and the way they’ve been coping with events since then.

Avery has herself a new boyfriend, Max, and is toying with the idea of moving to study in Oxford. But her love for Atlas is not going to die easily, and their father’s election leads to some awkward situations.

Watt and Leda – possibly my favourites of the group – drift together and we see them piecing together the events of the last few months. Rylin and Cord are very different, but we learn sometimes the differences aren’t such a barrier. Calliope, stuck in her con for the first time ever, is struggling to stay true to herself. Thankfully, some matters aren’t left in her hands.

While the ‘ending’ was dramatic, I was pleased that not everything was as clear cut as we expected. I was surprised by one or two revelations, but it felt this could have been tightened up.