Romantic novel explores the power of music

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

‘Over the years, they’d seen everything in the music shop. There were the regular customers, of course, who came to find new records, but often people wanted something more. Frank had helped them through illness, grief, loss of confidence and jobs, as well as the more everyday things like football results and the weather. Not that he knew about all those things but really it was a matter of listening, and he had endless patience.’

1988. Frank owns a music shop. It is jam-packed with records of every speed, size and genre. Day after day Frank finds his customers the music they need. Then into his life walks Ilse Brauchmann. Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music. His instinct is to turn and run. And yet he is drawn to this strangely still, mysterious woman with her pea-green coat and her eyes as black as vinyl. But Ilse is not all she seems.

This isn’t my usual kind of book. Generally I steer clear of romances in favour of thrillers or fantasy. But in 2012 I read Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and fell head over heels for its quirky charm and awkwardly loveable characters. So her latest book, The Music Shop, has been on my radar since it was released last year. And this month, I finally got around to reading it.

This is the kind of book that warms your heart and leaves you with a smile on your face. Joyce has once again shown her deft touch in creating realistic characters with human flaws and weaknesses, and a story that will give you a spring in your step.

Main character Frank is guarded and private, but at the same time empathises with his customers so well that he can recommend the exact music they need at any given point in their lives. He is awkward and sometimes standoffish, but the journey he takes throughout the course of the book is wonderful to watch unfold. It took me a little longer to warm to our other main character, Ilse, but once her motives are revealed her actions all make sense.

Joyce has a wonderful gift for writing about music in a way that immediately makes you want to listen to every song she describes. Music has got to be one of the most amazing things we do as human beings, and Joyce shows just how powerful the right song can be.

The subplot about property developers wanting to take over Unity Street, where Frank has his record shop and where many of his friends have their shops too, gives added depth to the story. Each of these shop owners is lonely in some way, but they have built a small community here that they are reluctant to let go of without a fight.

Admittedly, the ending is incredibly cheesy, but it will also leave you smiling. The trend of ‘up lit’ (optimistic novels about everyday heroism and human connection, like Gail Honeyman’s excellent novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine) shows no signs of abating, and The Music Shop is the perfect example of a genre we could all use more of.

If nothing else, it’s sure to give you a new appreciation of your favourite playlist.

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Bewitching novel explores folklore and superstition

Folk by Zoe Gilbert

‘Turn away from the heather slope, to the seaward side of the hill. Sniff the air, catch the smoke. The men and women are already lighting torches, passing them along the line. All the villagers of Neverness are here: fishers and farmers, shepherds and huntsmen, fowlmonger, fiddler, brewer and beekeeper, seamstress, midwife, miller and bard.’

The remote island village of Neverness is a world far from our time and place. Harsh winds scour the rocky coastline. The villagers’ lives are inseparable from nature and its enchantments. Verlyn Webbe, born with a wing for an arm, unfurls his feathers in defiance of past shame; Plum is snatched by a water bull and dragged to his lair; little Crab Skerry takes his first run through the gorse-maze; Madden sleepwalks through violent storms. The tales of this island community interweave over the course of a generation.

I was surprised to find that this book is more a collection of short stories than a straightforward narrative – a fact that makes sense when you realise Zoe Gilbert won the Costa Short Story Award 2014 and which seems to have put some reviewers off. However, once you get to grips with the structure, readers will soon find themselves under Folk’s dark spell.

Gilbert is a fantastic writer, there’s no doubt about that. She excels at describing the harsh, windswept village of Neverness in language that is atmospheric and wonderfully evocative, with a bewitching rhythm that makes each sentence into an incantation. The reader is plunged headfirst into a terrifying world where, it seems, anything is possible. The island of Neverness is a frightening place ruled by superstition and plagued by vestiges of dark magic.

I do wish that Gilbert had done more to elevate her characters above the stock types found in folk and fairy tales. I found them likeable but not altogether memorable; as we only spend one chapter with each character we don’t have enough time to get to know them properly. As such, it lacks the emotional connection that would make this a truly great book.

I did enjoy the interweaving of time and character, the way we are never quite sure how much time has passed but are given subtle hints to guide us. Our footing is never quite secure in Neverness; we can never be sure where we stand.

Each of these tales is bewitching and full of magic, but each also has dark and bloody edges. The images are stark and vivid, conjuring an atmosphere as beautiful as it is unsettling. Children become convinced their parents aren’t who they say they are, a boy is burned alive, and hysteria drives people to terrible actions. There is bound to be at least one story here that sends a chill down your spine.

Folk is strange and memorable and dream-like in its intensity. If you are interested in folklore, myths and superstition, I’d strongly encourage you to pick it up. It is not a book you will easily forget.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Harrowing novel explores slavery in America

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Liberty was reserved for other people, for the citizens of the City of Pennsylvania bustling a thousand miles to the north. Since the night she was kidnapped she had been appraised and reappraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale. Know your value and you know your place in the order.

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.

I’m aware I’m a little late in reading The Underground Railroad. In 2016, it was the book on everyone’s lips. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. So to say that my expectations were quite high is an understatement.

It starts off very well, plunging you into the hellish world of the plantation on which Cora lives and works and where violence and rape are a matter of everyday life. The portrayal of violence is truly shocking, but their power lies in the fact that these kinds of things did happen in real life rather than the fact that we care for any of the characters. Each secondary character is no more than a brief sketch, so even though we wince at their pain, we’re not as emotionally invested in their journey as we should be.

Cora starts off with great potential; an incident involving her wielding a hatchet in the early chapters bodes well for her as a character. But after her and Caesar’s escape I still didn’t know enough about her to really care about her as a character. Caesar has nothing but his name to make him memorable; we know so little about him as a person that it hardly matters when he disappears from the narrative.

We are further put at a distance to the characters by the flitting between different characters’ points of view and the overly formal style of writing. Some sentences I had read over two or three times, they were so dense with language.

In Whitehead’s novel, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Some reviewers have complained that this tipping over of the book into fantasy territory takes away from the true experience of slaves. But I personally enjoyed Whitehead’s clever metaphor for the darkness of the journey through America for people of colour. After all, this is fiction, not a history lesson.

I enjoyed the first three-quarters of this book, but towards the end Cora’s journey began to feel very repetitive. She travels somewhere new, things seem okay for a while, something terrible happens, and she is forced to flee again. By the end I was glad to finish the book as I was starting to become bored.

Despite its faults, The Underground Railroad is a book worth reading if only for its astonishing, harrowing portrayal of a horrendous time in American history, and the shocking parallels with the world today.

True crime novel tells the story of a brutal murder

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

‘Whicher exposed the corruptions within the household: sexual transgression, emotional cruelty, scheming servants, wayward children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing. The scene he uncovered aroused fear (and excitement) at the thought of what might be hiding behind the closed doors of other respectable houses.’

On a summer’s morning in 1860, the Kent family awakes in their elegant Wiltshire home to a terrible discovery: their youngest son has been brutally murdered. When celebrated detective Jack Whicher is summoned from Scotland Yard, he faces the unenviable task of identifying the killer – when the grieving family are the suspects.

This true crime novel from Kate Summerscale is a classic Victorian whodunit. Summerscale succeeds at taking a murder, examining the pieces and putting them together again to create a fascinating picture not only of a crime, but of Victorian society as a whole.

Summerscale uses the Road Hill House murder (as it became known) as a jumping off point for a discussion about a number of interesting tangents. Some reviewers have found this irritating but, if you are interested in the Victorians, you will find much to enjoy here.

At the time of the murder, police detectives had only really been around in England for the past eight years, and the public were less than keen that these ‘lower class’ men were forcing their way into middle class homes and digging up family secrets in search of clues. Nevertheless, detective fiction was quickly increasing in popularity and authors such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins captured the public’s imagination with their tales of clever detectives solving terrible crimes.

The Road Hill House murder made Victorians uncomfortable not only at the thought that someone was capable of such a horrific crime, but because it drew back the curtain on respectable family homes and exposed the secrets within. People began to wonder what others might be hiding. In an era in which the Englishman’s home was his castle, the idea that violence and insanity might be lurking within was truly a terrifying one.

Summerscale is let down only by the lack of information readily available about titular character Jack Whicher, who remains an indistinct figure throughout despite being one of the main characters. I never really felt as though I got to know him.

Although it’s not particularly difficult to work out who committed the crime, it’s still fascinating reading about the various twists and turns of the case, the trials and questioning of suspects, the miscarriages of justice, and the effect of the crime on each of the key players who were in the house the night the boy was murdered.

True crime fans will love this fascinating account of a Victorian murder that shocked the nation and exposed sins and secrets along the way.

New book releases May 2018

The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J. Harris

Synaesthesia paints the sounds of Jasper’s world in a kaleidoscope of colours that no one else can see. But on Friday, he discovered a new colour – the colour of murder. He’s sure something has happened to his neighbour, Bee Larkham, but no one else seems to be taking it as seriously as they should be.

This debut novel examines themes of isolation, bravery and morality, and has already been touted as one of the best books of summer 2018.

Release date: 3rd May

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

Carcassonne, 1562. Minou Joubert receives an anonymous letter at her father’s bookshop, containing the words: SHE KNOWS THAT YOU LIVE. Before Minou can decipher the message, a chance encounter with a young Huguenot convert, Piet Reydon, changes her destiny forever.

Mosse returns to the Languedoc setting of her bestselling trilogy (Labyrinth, Sepulchre, Citadel) with this first book in a new series. Promising adventure, conspiracies and betrayal, it sounds like the perfect beach read.

Release date: 3rd May

The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve

Leo Stanhope is an avid chess player, assistant to a London coroner, in love with Maria, and hiding a very big secret. For Leo was born Charlotte, the daughter of a reverend. He fled his family home at 15 and has been living as a man ever since. But when Maria is found dead, Leo is accused of her murder.

This is the first in a new historical series set in Victorian London and has been described as ‘wonderfully atmospheric’.

Release date: 3rd May

Snap by Belinda Bauer

On a stifling summer’s day, 11-year-old Jack is left in charge of his two sisters in a broken down car while his mother goes to get help. But she doesn’t come back. Three years later, Jack is still in charge – of his sisters, of supporting them all, and of finding the truth about what happened to his mother.

As C.L. Taylor says, ‘no one writes crime novels like Belinda Bauer’, and her latest offering promises to be a gripping, terrifying thriller.

Release date: 17th May

The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molley

They call themselves the May Mothers – a group of new mums whose babies were born in the same month. Twice a week, they get together for some much-needed adult time. When the women go out for drinks at the hip neighbourhood bar, they are looking for a fun break from their daily routine. But something goes wrong, and one of the babies is taken from his crib.

This is another of the most anticipated books of the summer and there is already a film in the works starring Kerry Washington.

Release date: 1st May

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The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

Imagine a world very close to our own: where women are not safe in their bodies, where desperate measures are required to raise a daughter. This is the story of Grace, Lia and Sky, kept apart from the world for their own good and taught the terrible things every woman must learn about love. And it is the story of the men who come to find them.

This literary debut has been compared to Hot Milk and The Girls, and has been called ‘eerie, electric, beautiful’ by author Daisy Johnson.

Release date: 24th May

The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

The king’s three daughters know the only chance of resurrection for the struggling nation of Innis Lear is to crown a new sovereign. But their father will not choose an heir until the longest night of the year, when prophecies align. Refusing to leave their future in the hands of blind faith, the daughters of Innis Lear prepare for war.

Even in 2018 it’s still rare to find a fantasy novel that centres on female characters, so I have high hopes for this epic, blood-soaked debut.

Release date: 17th May

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

War orphan Fang Runin grew up with poppy. Her adopted family smuggles it, making a living on the misfortune of those addicted to its smoke. But when Rin’s parents force her into an arranged marriage, Rin refuses to accept her fate and fights her way to a prestigious military academy.

This powerful epic fantasy novel has its roots in the 20th century history of China, and Booknest has raised expectations by calling it ‘one of the best grimdark/military fantasy debuts of all time’.

Release date: 3rd May

The Outsider by Stephen King

When an 11-year-old boy is found murdered in a town park, reliable eyewitnesses point to the town’s popular Little League coach, Terry Maitland, as the culprit. DNA evidence confirms the crime was committed by this well-loved family man. But Maitland has an air-tight alibi. A man cannot be in two places at the same time. Can he?

Stephen King’s latest offering has been called ‘a compelling and chilling suspense novel’ – just what King does best.

Release date: 22nd May

Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence

This sequel to Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister sees Nona Grey struggling with the choice of which path to take: the red of a Martial Sister, the grey of a Sister of Discretion, the blue of a Mystic Sister or the simple black of a Bride of the Ancestor.

Although the first in this fantasy series, Red Sister, had its flaws, I’m still looking forward to the sequel to see where Nona’s path takes her next.

Release date: 17th May

Prize-winning author returns with fantastic feminist retelling of Greek myth

Circe by Madeline Miller

‘Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting. I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.’

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft. When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, Zeus banishes her to exile on a remote island. But Circe will not be alone.

Madeline Miller, the Orange Prize-winning author of The Song of Achilles, returns after six years with Circe, a tale inspired by Homer’s Odyssey. The Song of Achilles was a book I completely fell in love with, so Miller’s new novel was one of my most anticipated books of 2018. Thankfully, all those years of waiting paid off.

Miller has crafted an exquisitely written feminist fable featuring a woman who dares to take power into her own hands. Circe is a wonderful character and I loved spending time with her, watching her grow from a young nymph painfully aware of each and every one of her supposed shortcomings, to a woman taking control of her powers. Tired of always being at odds with everyone and everything around her, she decides instead to bend the world to her will using witchcraft.

Although this is very much Circe’s story (and, told in first person, we get to know her very well), we also meet many famous Greek characters along the way, including Prometheus, Athena, Icarus and the Minotaur.

No word is wasted in Miller’s evocative, precise prose. She conjures battles at sea, magical transformations and tense arguments between powerful gods with clarity and vivid descriptions. She captures both the awkward stirrings of first love and the wearying ache of immortality with equal skill.

Anyone interested in Greek mythology will find much to love here, but Miller isn’t only concerned with gods and goddesses; she is also keen to examine what happens to those who wield such immense power. She peels back the myth to expose the man – or woman – beneath. She transforms immortal beings with terrifying, fantastical powers into characters who feel like real people. Even with nymphs and monsters running amok throughout the story, the world Miller has created is utterly believable.

This book will surely become a classic; a feminist retelling that turns a tale of suppression into one of empowerment and one that truly deserves a place on your bookshelf.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Gritty epic fantasy lacks depth and detail

Blackwing by Ed McDonald

‘Somebody warned them that we were coming. The sympathisers left nothing behind but an empty apartment and a few volumes of illegal verse. A half-eaten meal, ransacked drawers. They’d scrambled together what little they could carry and fled east into the Misery. Back when I wore the uniform the marshal told me only three kinds of people willingly enter the Misery: the desperate, the stupid and the greedy.’

The republic faces annihilation. When a raven tattoo rips itself from his arm to deliver a desperate message, Galharrow and a mysterious noblewoman must investigate a long dead sorcerer’s legacy. But there is a conspiracy within the citadel, and far across the wasteland known as the Misery a vast army is on the move.

I was sucked into the world of this story from the first page, but unfortunately, after the thrilling opening this book started to let me down. The more I read, the more bored I became and the less concerned I felt about what was going to happen.

This is a gritty epic fantasy that starts off well. There’s a lot of jargon thrown at you in the first couple of pages but the action is so exciting that it doesn’t matter at the time. But this world doesn’t have enough depth and the writing is strangely lacking in detail for a fantasy novel, so I had trouble visualising the world.

There are plenty of interesting concepts in this book; I particularly liked the Spinners, people who can spin energy from moonlight and use it to unleash powerful blasts of magic, and the Misery, a desert wasteland inhabited by horrible creatures warped by magic. But all the clever concepts in the world won’t save a book if you don’t care about the characters, and that was my main problem with Blackwing.

Our protagonist is Ryhalt Galharrow: fighter, alcoholic and cliché. I understand what McDonald was trying to do and, don’t get me wrong, I love a story with an antihero protagonist. But Galharrow is an awful person. He goes on about how much he hates fat people and judges many of the other characters based on their appearance. McDonald seems to think that having a character swagger around is enough to make up for an absence of personality.

Even if you didn’t know the name of the author of this book, you would still be able to tell it was written by a man, because the female characters are walking mouthpieces saying whatever the author wants them to say, rather than acting like real people. This is particularly true of Ezabeth, the ‘mysterious noblewoman’ mentioned in the blurb, who is a plot device rather than a character (she could have been replaced by a powerful magical object and it wouldn’t have made much difference). This is a prevalent problem in fantasy; why is it some authors can conjure fantastical worlds that stretch the boundaries of imagination, but they can’t imagine that women are people too?

My other main problem is the writing. McDonald writes with very strange pacing, so events that should have been major moments were rushed over in a few sentences. Subplots were left hanging or else resolved without any explanation. The style also swung wildly between melodrama (particularly in the romance scenes) and gritty realism. As a reader it was hard to know where I stood.

From all the reviews I’ve read I seem to be in the minority here. Unfortunately, this is a book that fails to live up to the hype. It’s the first in a new trilogy, but I won’t be reading the rest in the series.