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August 2022 Reading Round Up

August was a good month for books. I read more of The Venatrix Chronicles, swiftly, because the three books take place right after each other (it’s essentially three different sections of the same event). And I started The Ruby Red Trilogy; it was a recommendation from a friend who likes YA fantasy.

All books are works of fiction.

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Kerstin Gier: Ruby Red – For the last few centuries, certain people from Gwen’s family have been born with a time-travelling gene. This generation cousin Charlotte was set to be the traveller and had been preparing for it all her life but as it turns out, the traveller is Gwen. When she tells her mother about the minutes she’s been spending in the past for the last couple of days she’s swept into a society she never knew about and a secret that no one, not even the society, knows the details of. Great plot, otherwise problematic.

Kristin Harmel: The Forest Of Vanishing Stars – Yona was stolen from her parents by a mystic who believed the parents were bad people. Yona grows up in the forest and knows how to survive; when Jeruscha dies in the first years of WW2 and Yona comes across an injured child in the forest she has a choice to make – help survivors of the Nazi ghettos survive or stay away as she has always been taught? A brilliant novel in all ways.

Sylvia Mercedes: Dance Of Souls – The wedding is happening, they hope. Ayleth is commanded to attend the celebrations and it’s just as well because the Phantomwitch probably isn’t just going to let the sister of the woman she took marry the Prince either. A brilliant book for the series – the pacing is swift, the time covered is short and thus full of detail, and nothing lets up even for a minute.

Sylvia Mercedes: Tears Of Dust – Continuing the story of the events after the marriage. The pace continues to be swift.

Sylvia Mercedes: Queen Of Poisons – Continuing the story some more. The pace slows slightly but the story remains a page-turner.

The pacing of the Mercedes books is incredible; in book 3 it started to become quicker and the books listed here, 4-6, speed up even faster and do not let go on the pace at all. I’m expecting the final book will slow down a bit, at least for a time, but suffice to say I’m incredibly glad for Intisar Khanani’s tweeted recommendation of the series and will be looking to choose another series soon. Ruby Red was okay. It’s a book that I’d split into three sections for review: the plot is very good – enough that it keeps you going; the writing not at all good (though I believe the fault to lie equally across the original German, English translation, and American copy-editing of the translation); the main character switches between being believable for her 16 years and then behaving like a 10 year old. The Harmel I love and I’m currently trying to choose which book of hers to read next.

As well as more books by Mercedes and the second Gier book which I’ve started, I have E C Fremantle’s The Honey And The Sting to read in September, as well as Kate Glanville’s The Peacock House and a mystery, A Gilded High Note by Cecelia Tichi. I’m looking forward to all of them!

 
Kristin Harmel – The Forest Of Vanishing Stars

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Publisher: Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 356
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-982-15893-4
First Published: 6th July 2021
Date Reviewed: 10th August 2022

Yona was raised by Jerusza in forests in central and eastern Europe; at twenty, Yona knows how to survive. With war beginning, she comes across a girl in the woods who has been injured; the girl is Jewish and, once better, she leads Yona to her parents, the three of them escapees from a ghetto established by the Nazis. Yona has always been alone and not lived in a society, but this is the start of years spent helping others to survive against the odds.

The Forest Of Vanishing Stars is a wonderfully told story of bravery amongst awful circumstances. Told with care, Harmel presents a story grounded in true history, showing a situation not often covered.

The history is that of over a thousand Jews who survived the war by hiding and learning to live in a forest, people who escaped death and banded together. Harmel takes the concept as her basis and includes the group as reference, creating a different, smaller group effectively led by her fictional resident of the forest, Yona.

It is Yona who makes the fiction. Taken from her German parents by an old woman with a sixth sense who sees a bad future for the then toddler if she’s left there, Yona grows up with an effective mystic who teaches her everything about survival but doesn’t stop her from learning about the outside world, just from living in it. Yona can speak many languages, can read, and knows about religion and history. She also knows how to kill.

This all means that the majority of the book takes place in the forest and Harmel does well in keeping you reading, knowing when to change things up. The fiction she weaves around the history is compelling and, when appropriate, satisfying. And Harmel tells you everything no matter how horrible – this book has one of the worst scenes of death in WW2 books I’ve read so far.

Harmel’s success, then, lies not only in the telling of her story but in the specific choices she makes. There are moments that seem very fictional but you never need to suspend your belief for them to work, however little the odds were of them happening. And the author’s care in itself, as an element on its own even, is also a big reason for the success.

Whilst the plot is inevitably highly important, character development is more so. You see the individuals, always, and you see the very human thoughts and impulses that go on even in survival mode. And again, Harmel’s dedication to her relatively small group of primary characters helps make this novel as good as it is. Whilst things do come to a head at points, and there is some spillover into the wider world, that is still small, and the vast majority of the book concerns the group living away from the war itself, in it but also outside it.

The ending is potentially a surprise depending on your own reading of the book. Either way, it provides a very suitable conclusion to the entirety. There are ‘big’ heroes and ‘small’ heroes and all help the whole.

The Forest Of Vanishing Stars is excellent. It pulls at your emotions, it involves fascinating history, it delivers satisfaction, and it’s written beautifully.

 
Megan Nolan – Acts Of Desperation

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Publisher: Jonathan Cape (PRH)
Pages: 279
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-787-33249-2
First Published: 4th March 2021
Date Reviewed: 21st June 2022

Our unnamed narrator recounts the time of her long-term toxic relationship a short while previously, showing us exactly why things happened and what happened, whether or not she fully understands it yet herself.

Acts Of Desperation is a compelling tale; the plot is scant and not much actually happens, however it is in the telling of the story that the interest lies – Nolan’s writing, both the literal words and the way she imparts meaning and uses subtext to very often show more to the reader than the narrator may even know herself, takes this far beyond the simple plot and character development it has (character development’s scant also) and elevates it to something unique, different, and of page-turning quality.

Others have produced a similar effect before but on a different ‘pathway’; the book that most reminded this reviewer of what she was reading in Nolan’s prose was Rebecca, the comparisons being in the extremely self-minded narrative (I hate to say ‘self-concerned’ because that’s not quite right) and the way the background context is so important. (There are no ‘ghosts’ in Nolan’s book and whilst there’s the equivalent of a first wife, it’s not something to be used in a comparison. Indeed liking the du Maurier is in no way a factor in how much you may or may not enjoy Acts Of Desperation no matter my comparing them.)

The book at hand is, then, the story of a young woman who is obsessed with the initial feelings of falling in love – or what she misinterprets her feelings of addictive ‘romance’ to be – who falls for a toxic older man who she thinks is a catch (unnecessary spoiler alert: he isn’t) and finds herself at the mercy of his whims. The ending that you hope for from very early on is the one Nolan delivers – that the plot is predictable may indeed be part of the author’s point.

On points, the predictability shows that women and people in general are apt to fall for the personality that we see in Ciaran (he is graced with a name when the narrator is not – likely another point), and arguably the biggest point of the novel is to show how often it happens, that it’s understandable, and to present the reasons why young people in particular get caught up in it, as well as showing hope for the future, even if that hope is tempered by the fact that true healing and personal growth away from the mindset that allows that kind of thing to happen (and its been noted many times that women are taught by society to expect certain things for a relationship to be true, so I won’t continue there) can take a while, much like this sentence. The narrator is not a completely new person at the end. She may make mistakes again – it’s likely. But they won’t be the same mistakes and it’s unlikely that she will fall for the same personality in future. We hope.

So our narrator is annoying, childish, ruminating, and utterly hard to enjoy reading about. She’s also someone to root for, understandably immature, and ‘writes’ well enough that you will speed through the book.

Is this story a thinly-veiled memoir? It’s difficult to say that it could be; unlike other novels that are situated in thoughts, there is a study here that suggests a lot of planning and research, a lot of consideration of many stories. It also doesn’t really matter.

The shortness of this review is owing to the plot and character development which, as said, by design is contained. Which is, especially considering a book tends to at least have one or the other if not both, a testament to Nolan’s talent. Is Acts Of Desperation actively enjoyable in that escapist way? No. Is it a stunning example of the literary fiction genre and enjoyable in that vein? Absolutely. This is a particular book for a particular mood and time, and you have to match those correctly. But do that and you’ll have an exceptionally literary experience.

I received this book during the promotion of the Young Writer of the Year Award.

 
Sylvia Mercedes – Daughter Of Shades

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Defying her destiny.

Publisher: Self-published
Pages: 408
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-942-37925-6
First Published: 28th July 2019
Date Reviewed: 21st June 2022

Ayleth is a Venatrix who hunts Shades – a woman of the Evandarian Order, her soul, in keeping with the needs of her Order but at odds with the rest of humanity, is intrinsically linked, inside her body, to that of a being from the Haunts. She and her Shade, Laranta, hunt other Shade-taken bodies to rid the earth of the evil beings. Ayleth’s worked with Hollis for a long time; until one day she finds out about an opening in another borough, a job requiring a lot of experience to keep the Crimson Devils and Witchwood from gaining further power, and she decides to travel to petition the Golden Prince for the role. That she’ll be up against more experienced Evandarians doesn’t phase her – she wants this. And when she comes across a wandering servant of the prince and saves his life, he spurs her on.

Daughter Of Shades is the first in a seven-book Young Adult fantasy series about hosts of so-thought (and maybe actually, who knows yet) evil beings, the personal journeys of our young heroes, and questions of religious truth. An easy, fast-paced read, it has echoes of successful previous publications such as Stephenie Meyer’s The Host in terms of its basic concept and, for its questions of religion, a slight resemblance to Northern Lights dealt with in a new way.

We’ll start with the pacing – it’s quick. Mercedes uses easy language that ensures a swift read-through and, however much Ayleth is the be-all-end-all in this book, the plot is a determining factor. It helps that Mercedes sticks to this plot – there are no extraneous scenes and little in the way of banter or anything that would keep the book going just to keep it going. There are moments when the previously seemingly very mature heroine gets a little silly, however this is coming from a reviewer that is an adult; whilst many readers of this book will likely also be adults, the recommended age is teenage so these ‘blips’ make sense. (This is in fact a compliment to the author – the book is heaps of fun for the older audience too.) There is a good balance between showing and necessary telling.

Most things are introduced in this book to get us started on the right foot ready for the continuation later – the religious questions we know are going to follow Ayleth are included here in a matter of sentences to give you an idea of where the series might go, as are the other factors of romance and general development. (That the religion has similarities with Christianity but sports a goddess is intriguing in itself.)

The romance is worth noting – for this book at least (because it’s obvious by the end) there is a fair amount of time wherein the reader isn’t sure who will be the love interest and it’s done with aplomb, Mercedes managing to make a relatively simple question into a compelling element whilst also assuring you there will be no stereotypical triangle as per Young Adult in years past.

The characters are well-developed for the scope of the book, there aren’t too many and secondary characters are nicely few and far between.

It’s worth noting that whilst there is an ending to this book, the second is effectively recommended by the text – the first part of what may or may not be the defining element of the series reaches a half-closed half-open point, leaning heavily on open. It’s also worth noting that book two starts immediately where book one finishes, which will be a welcome change for many (there are few repetitions) but do indeed mean that if you enjoy this book you’re going to want to buy the other six in the series and likely sign up to the author’s newsletter to get the prequel.

Daughter Of Shades is an incredibly strong beginning, a fantasy tale with a small journey but mostly personal development, and a good example of progression in a genre as a whole.

 
June and July 2022 Reading Round-Up

I read a fair amount in June and July, including some exceptional reads. It was an incredibly enjoyable two months for reading; every book had something particular about it that made things special.

All books are works of fiction.

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Chloe Timms: The Seawomen – On the isle of Eden, women are married off and must produce a child within a year if they are not to be cast into the sea. As Esta draws nearer to her own adulthood, she starts to question everything she’s been told about the evils of the sea and the mermaids therein, and when she runs away from a gang of young men and runs into the water to escape, she meets a man from the sea who offers her a different story to the one she’s always been told. An absolutely fantastic dystopian tale that has become one of my most favourite books.

Megan Nolan: Acts Of Desperation – Our unnamed young narrator is addicted to love and relationships and whilst everyone around her looks askance at her becoming the girlfriend of older Ciaran, our narrator doesn’t care. He’s perfect in his darkness, and it’s worth the hurt, the tears, the drunkenness and cigarettes. We hear from her looking back at the relationship a couple of years into the future from where she has the hindsight to assess the time with a more critical eye. This is a very focused book with a narrator that’s incredibly difficult to like and due to the focus it doesn’t really ‘go’ anywhere in terms of plot or location – this is one to read for it’s literary value and I say that because in that context it is fantastic. Just prepare for moodiness!

Natalie Jenner: Bloomsbury Girls – 1950s London, and the years following the war have been difficult for women who’ve gone from being needed in the workplace to being pushed aside. Vivian definitely feels this as a member of staff at Bloomsbury Books (shop), and Grace in the back offices. But now there’s a new girl, Evie, starting in the rare books section upstairs and it gives Vivian in particular the push she needed to start making changes at the shop. Their days will include breaking the 51 rules the management has in place, sharing a table with some of the biggest literary stars of the day, and Evie’s secret plan to make up for her not receiving a job in academia she was the best candidate but wrong gender for. A lot of fun, Jenner’s inclusion of Daphne du Maurier as well as her inclusion of book auctions and little-known writers is a joy to behold.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Starling Days – Mina throws her shoe over the railings on the bridge but tells the ambulance staff the police she wasn’t looking to jump. Oscar is not convinced and when the opportunity arises for them to work on his father’s flats in England, the couple go there to have a break. Mina’s given up work for a break, and she takes it, but soon Oscar has to return to the US and Mina is left alone, with Oscar’s friend’s sister. It’s difficult to sum this book up but suffice to say it’s brilliant.

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Sally Page: The Keeper Of Stories – Janice ‘collects’ the stories of her clients, homeowners who she cleans for. She doesn’t have a story herself. Or does she? When she begins working for elderly Mrs B, Janice meets her match – another person who likes collecting stories and who doesn’t believe that Janice does not have her own. An excellent page turner with a wonderful slow build-up of character development, a great personified dog, and a very satisfying ending.

Sylvia Mercedes: Daughter Of Shades – Ayleth has been training to become a shade hunter for years (shades take mortal host bodies) and works with Hollis as a team in their local borough, but she wants more. When a call is put out for candidates to work in the most dangerous borough, Ayleth goes against Hollis to travel to the palace and pitch for herself, but of course she’s not the only one after the job and the others have a lot more experience. The first in a seven book series, this novel gives small hints as to the wider theme but concentrates on the basics of an introduction, to create a whole that is incredibly fun and full of promise in terms of concepts of fantastical religions.

Sylvia Mercedes: Visions Of Fate – Ayleth starts work with Terryn in her bid to become the next Evanderian in Wodechran Borough. Not quite as good as book one, but the promise is there for book three.

Sylvia Mercedes: Paths Of Malice – As Terryn and Ayleth continue to investigate the problems of the Witchwood and Terryn continues to avoid calling his shade by its name, the second attempt at a marriage for Prince Gerald begins with Fayline’s convent novice younger sister. Will a marriage happen this time or will Celine suffer a similar fate to her sister and be taken over by a witch? Much better than book two, this is where the series starts to get incredibly good and is, I can say with hindsight, the last book before the pace goes at a rate of knots.

The use of fantasy and religion in both the Timms and Venatrix books (the three Mercedes) was brilliant – they’re very different (Timms is literary fantasy, Mercedes genre). I also really liked the writing for the reader that Nolan does, a feeling of Charlotte Brontë in a book nothing like the classic author’s, whereas the Jenner was great for its look at literary auctions and past literary figures that aren’t often (if ever?) included in fiction. The Hisayo Buchanan was just great in general, better still than her first book. And Sally Page can write a page turner for commercial fiction as good if not better than any thriller.

It won’t surprise you that so far in August I’ve read more from Mercedes (at the point of posting here, I’ve one more book left to go of the seven). I’ve read Kristin Harmel’s The Forest Of Vanishing Stars for both pleasure and podcast (though on that first alliterative word it’s a difficult book to read due to its subject), and I’ve a Young Adult historical fantasy trilogy waiting on my shelves for a couple of days’ time – I need more fantasy fiction right now!

 

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