Feminist fairy tale reinvents the story of The Little Mermaid

The Mermaid by Christina Henry

‘So she crossed the ocean and came to the place where there was land. The mermaid spent many days watching the people on shore and the ones who came out to the sea on boats. Always, always she was careful to avoid the hooks and lines and cages and nets, because she had found her freedom and she loved it, and she would not be bound to someone else’s will again.’

Once there was a mermaid trapped in the net of a fisherman. She evoked a magic that allowed her to walk upon the shore and for many years they lived as husband and wife. Stories of this strange and unusual woman travelled, until they reached the ears of a man whose business was in selling the strange and unusual. His name was P.T. Barnum, and he’d been looking for a mermaid.

Last year I picked up Christina Henry’s Lost Boy, not expecting a great deal from it, but it fast became one of my favourite books of 2017. Henry’s latest book, The Mermaid, lacks the emotional punch of Lost Boy, but is still an interesting and enjoyable read.

The main problem with this book is its use of fairy tale language and tropes to establish the characters. This meant that all the characters in The Mermaid lack the complexity to make you care about what happens to them. Levi in particular never felt like more than a few loosely collected characteristics – his only real job was to be there for Amelia (the mermaid) to fall in love with. There was great potential with P.T. Barnum – a man ‘with a cash register in place of a heart’ – but he never became more than a stock villain.

The writing is riddled with clichés and isn’t atmospheric enough to conjure a feeling of the time it was set in. Attempts at creating original similes and metaphors tended to be jumbled and confusing, and the story in general was repetitive and dull; it lacked any driving force to keep me engaged.

Despite its lack of intriguing characters, Henry explores some interesting ideas. Amelia is a wild being who struggles to fit in with humans. Though she appears to be human, when others find out what she really is they tend to view her as an animal, a creature who should be kept behind bars.

Henry also uses Amelia’s otherness to explore the position of women in the 19th century, who were treated like property and expected to be subservient to their husbands. Amelia dares to question the rules that keep women confined – physically in corsets, and socially by forcing them to be obedient.

This book certainly has its flaws, but for those who enjoy feminist fairy tales it has a lot to offer.

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

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Historical fiction novel is perfect for Game of Thrones fans

Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

‘I could have hung on that cliff all day, if they hadn’t broken my fingers. My hands have always been strong, but when bones crack, there is no true anchor, not even for an ocean of rage. Yet I clung on for a time even so. Near the end, as I glared at them without pleading or begging, all their laughter and mockery died away, which gave me some small satisfaction. That little crowd of men and women stood around the edge, just waiting for me to fall. They watched me hold on to crumbling earth with torn and swollen hands and yet remain to spite them.’

In the year 937, King Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, readies himself to throw a great spear into the north. His dream of a kingdom of all England will stand or fall on one field and the passage of a single day. At his side is Dunstan of Glastonbury. His talents will take him from the villages of Wessex to the royal court, to the hills of Rome – from exile to exaltation.

Conn Iggulden is a hugely popular historical fiction writer, known for his series depicting the rise and fall of empires. In this standalone novel, he has turned his attention to the creation of England as one united country, shown through the eyes of Dunstan, who was Archbishop of Canterbury and was later canonised as a saint.

In Dunstan, Iggulden has created a fascinating character whose actions don’t necessarily give the impression of a holy man. Instead of being humble and devoted to prayer, he is ruthless and unlikely to worship anyone but himself. Iggulden excels at creating a character who does terrible things in pursuit of what he wants, and yet we find ourselves rooting for him anyway.

At a young age Dunstan is taken by his father to live in a monastery. There he is bullied by other boys, but also begins piecing together the aspects of his character that will later see him become advisor to a number of English kings. Iggulden also offers fascinating explanations for the supposed miracles that later saw Dunstan canonised as a saint.

The book bears many similarities to Game of Thrones, with its delicate political machinations interspersed with scenes of battlefields and bloody murder. Each character is fully fleshed out and intriguing enough to warrant their own standalone novel.

The writing is brilliant. Iggulden knows when to show us detail and when to stand back and let the reader fill in the gaps with their imagination. There are also flashes of humour to alleviate the often dark subject matter.

The one problem I had with this book was its treatment of women. You could argue that the misogynistic opinions presented throughout the book are the views of the main character, who after all was living in the 10th century when attitudes were very different. But I found it incredibly frustrating that Dunstan dismisses all women as being easily corrupted and likely to corrupt the men in their life in turn. We are shown no examples of women with any redeeming qualities, and this became extremely tiring, especially considering the strength and variation in Iggulden’s male characters.

There are a few moments when the pace of the book slows to a crawl, and the ending felt very rushed, but overall this is an engrossing and fascinating book, with a brilliant main character and enough tension and intrigue to keep you reading long past your bedtime.

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

New book releases June 2018

The Mermaid by Christina Henry

Once there was a mermaid trapped in the net of a fisherman. She evoked a magic that allowed her to walk upon the shore and for many years they lived as husband and wife. Stories of this strange and unusual woman travelled, until they reached the ears of a man whose business was in selling the strange and unusual. His name was P.T. Barnum, and he’d been looking for a mermaid.

Last year I read Christina Henry’s Lost Boy and fell in love with her thrilling, atmospheric style of writing. Her newest release is a historical fairy tale based on the ‘real’ Fiji Mermaid of Barnum’s American Museum.

Release date: 19th June

The Poison Bed by E.C. Fremantle

In the autumn of 1615, scandal rocks the Jacobean court when a celebrated couple are imprisoned on suspicion of murder. Some believe she is innocent; others think her insane. He claims no knowledge of the murder. The king suspects them both, though it is his secret at stake.

This new novel by historical fiction author E.C. Fremantle has been described as ‘a Jacobean Gone Girl’ – what more do you need to know?

Release date: 14th June

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Romy sees the future stretch out ahead of her in a long, unwavering line – until news from outside brings a ferocious urgency to her existence, challenging her to escape her own destiny.

This portrait of life inside a women’s prison sounds both fascinating and funny, and is sure to appeal to fans of Orange is the New Black.

Release date: 7th June

The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

Two years after people’s shadows start disappearing – and with them, their memories – Ory and his wife Max have escaped by hiding deep in the woods. They have settled into their new reality, until Max loses her shadow. Knowing the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become, Max runs away. But Ory refuses to give up.

This science fiction book from debut author Peng Shepherd has been called ‘exciting, imaginative, unique and beautiful’ by bestselling author Darin Strauss.

Release date: 28th June

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton

Louise is struggling to survive in New York. Juggling a series of poorly paid jobs, she dreams of being a writer. And then one day she meets Lavinia. Lavinia invites Louise into her charmed circle, takes her to the opera, shares her clothes, her drugs, her Uber account. Louise knows this can’t last forever, but how far is she prepared to go to have this life?

This kind of idea has been done a thousand times before by different authors with varying degrees of success, but Social Creature has been described as ‘a Ripley story for the Instagram age’ and I just can’t resist the sound of that.

Release date: 14th June

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The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

When Harriet Westaway receives a letter telling her she’s inherited a substantial bequest from her grandmother, it seems like the answer to her prayers. There’s just one problem – her real grandparents died more than 20 years ago. But she knows the cold-reading techniques she’s honed as a seaside fortune teller could help her con her way to getting the money. Once she embarks on her deception, there is no going back.

This new psychological thriller from the author of The Lying Game and The Woman in Cabin 10 sounds deliciously dark and creepy.

Release date: 28th June

Still Lives by Maria Hummel

Kim Lord is an avant-garde figure, feminist icon and agent provocateur in the LA art scene. Her ground-breaking new exhibition is comprised of self-portraits depicting herself as famous, murdered women. As the city’s richest art patrons pour into the Rocque Museum’s opening night, all the staff hope the event will be enough to save the historic institution’s flailing finances. Except Kim Lord never shows up to her own gala.

This intriguing novel asks important questions about art and representation, and how society objectifies and victimises women.

Release date: 5th June

Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

On the surface, Lydia Fitzsimons has the perfect life – wife of a respected judge, mother to a beloved son, mistress of a beautiful house in Dublin. That beautiful house, however, holds a secret. A secret Lydia’s son, Laurence, is about to discover.

From the bestselling author of Unravelling Oliver, this novel about a Dublin family whose dark secrets and twisted relationships are suddenly revealed sounds like the perfect read to get caught up in this summer.

Release date: 12th June

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

1945. London is still reeling from the Blitz. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, are apparently abandoned by their parents, left in the care of an enigmatic figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and grow more convinced as they get to know his eccentric crew of friends. But are they really what and who they claim to be?

From the author of The English Patient comes this thrilling novel of violence and love, intrigue and desire, set against the backdrop of World War II.

Release date: 7th June

The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson

The President is missing. The world is in shock. But the reason he’s missing is much worse than anyone can imagine.

This unusual new book is said to contain details only a President could know, and the kind of suspense only James Patterson can deliver. Expect to see it being read on beaches all over the world.

Release date: 4th June

Brilliantly bonkers murder mystery

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

‘Thirty seconds. That’s how long I hesitated when I first spotted her and that’s how far away I was when she was murdered. Thirty seconds of indecision, thirty seconds to abandon somebody completely.’

It is meant to be a celebration but ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed. But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot. The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is determined to prevent him ever escaping Blackheath.

There has been a lot of hype surrounding this book since its release earlier this year. It’s on the ‘must-read books of 2018’ lists in Stylist, Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire. It’s been described as ‘Agatha Christie meets Black Mirror’ – and I loved each and every second of reading it.

It boggles belief that this is Stuart Turton’s debut novel. He writes with great confidence, creating such an intricate plot I can only imagine the amount of planning that must have gone into it. Any of the myriad small details could prove to be the key to unlocking the case, so it’s vital that you pay attention.

The story takes place in a familiar setting – a crumbling country house in the 1920s, which has more than a few shades of a Victorian haunted house as well. But the story itself is anything but familiar. Turton takes the murder mystery and the locked room thriller and turns it on its head, creating something entirely new and original.

The cast of characters is large but each one is vividly crafted so you’ll have no trouble telling them apart. Although our main character is technically several different people, there is enough consistency to make you empathise with him and care about what happens to him. Interestingly, each of his hosts threatens to overwhelm the original Aiden; they get stronger with each new body he inhabits, until he can barely distinguish himself from the person he is currently wearing.

Although the main mystery is the question of who murders Evelyn Hardcastle, there are many other mysteries that will need unravelling before the book is done, and each one is just as clever, complex and interesting as the last. The pace never lets up, so each time you pick this book up you’ll feel the need to take a deep breath before plunging back in – and once you do so, you won’t want to put it down again.

There might be times when you have to go back and read over a certain passage just to make sure you know exactly what’s going on, but in a book this brilliantly complex, that’s a small price to pay – especially as you’re bound to have loads of fun reading it.

This is a fantastic book with a brilliantly clever plot. It’s completely and utterly bonkers, but in the best possible way. I urge you to pick up a copy.

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 for April 2018

Circe by Madeline Miller

In the house of Helios, god of the sun, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and 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.

This is the highly anticipated novel from the Orange Prize-winning author of the brilliant novel The Song of Achilles, and is inspired by Homer’s Odyssey.

Release date: 19th April

Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

When a drug bust turns into a bloodbath it’s up to Inspector Macbeth and his team to clean up the mess. He’s rewarded for his success with power, money and respect. But, plagued by hallucinations and paranoia, Macbeth starts to unravel.

This book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Series, which sees Shakespeare’s works told by bestselling novelists of today. Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play, so I’m looking forward to reading this new interpretation.

Release date: 5th April

Just Before I Died by S.K. Tremayne

Kath lives with her husband Adam and daughter Lyla in a desolate stone longhouse deep in Dartmoor National Park. One day Kath wakes up from a coma, with a vague memory of a near-fatal car accident. She hugs her daughter and husband close. Then Kath learns that the car crash wasn’t an accident.

This is the new release from the author of Sunday Times bestseller The Ice Twins, a fantastic psychological thriller, and promises the same tense exploration of family dynamics.

Release date: 5th April

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

Greer is a shy college freshman when she meets the woman she hopes will change her life. Faith Frank, dazzlingly persuasive and elegant at 63, has been a central pillar of the women’s movement for decades. Astonishingly, Faith invites Greer to make something out of her directionless sense of purpose, leading Greer down the most exciting path of her life.

This new release has been called ‘the perfect feminist blockbuster for our times’ by Kirkus Reviews and examines themes of friendship, ambition and power.

Release date: 3rd April

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain by Ian Mortimer

The period from 1660 to 1700 is one of most exciting times in history. It is the age of Samuel Pepys and the Great Fire of London; bawdy comedy and the libertine court of Charles II; Christopher Wren in architecture, Henry Purcell in music and Isaac Newton in science. The civil wars are over and a magnificent new era has begun. But what would it really be like to live in Restoration Britain?

I’ve already read Ian Mortimer’s time traveller’s guides to Elizabethan England and Medieval England, and marvelled at the way he brings the past to life, so I’m very much looking forward to the next in this series.

Release date: 6th April

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Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam

When Bea Hanlon follows her preacher husband Max to a remote island in the Pacific, she soon sees that their mission will bring anything but salvation. For Advent Island is a place beyond the reaches of even her most fitful imaginings. Bea gradually adapts to life on the island, but the arrival of an unexpected guest threatens their already tentative peace.

Named a Stylist must-read book of 2018, this story of religious mania set on a remote island promises to be both ‘darkly humorous and atmospheric’ (Book Riot).

Release date: 5th April

I Still Dream by James Smythe

17-year-old Laura Bow has invented a rudimentary artificial intelligence, and named it Organon. At first it’s intended to be a surrogate best friend, but as she grows older, Organon grows with her. As the world becomes a very different place, and technology changes the way we live, love and die, Laura is forced to decide whether to share her creation with the world.

This novel has been called ‘the best fictional treatment of the possibilities and horrors of artificial intelligence that I’ve read’ by the Guardian, and sounds like it would be perfect for fans of Black Mirror.

Release date: 21st April

Trespassing by Brandi Reeds

Veronica’s grasp on the world is slipping. Her latest round of fertility treatments not only failed but left her on edge and unbalanced. And her three-year-old daughter has a new imaginary friend, who seems much more devilish than playful. So when Veronica’s husband fails to return home from a business trip, what’s left of her stability begins to crumble.

This sinister psychological suspense novel follows a young mother’s quest to find her missing husband, and the dangerous path she will walk to uncover the truth.

Release date: 1st April

Never Greener by Ruth Jones

When Kate was 22, she had a passionate affair with a married man, Callum, which ended in heartbreak. 17 years later, life has moved on. Kate has a successful career, a husband and a baby daughter. Callum is also happily married. But then Kate meets Callum again. And they are faced with a choice: to walk away, or risk finding out what might have been.

The debut novel from Gavin & Stacey actress and writer Ruth Jones examines second chances, messy relationships and why we make the mistakes we do.

Release date: 5th April

The Battered Body Beneath the Flagstones, and Other Victorian Scandals by Michelle Morgan

A grisly book dedicated to the crimes, perversions and outrages of Victorian England, covering high profile offences – such as the murder of actor William Terriss, whose stabbing at the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre in 1897 filled the front pages for weeks – as well as lesser-known transgressions that scandalised the Victorian era.

It seems we can’t get enough of Victorian crime, and this latest offering in the genre promises to examine the gruesome crimes that both shocked and delighted the Victorians.

Release date: 12th April