Thursday, 22 February 2018

Review: 'The Hoarder' by Jess Kidd

An ancient, once-grand home? A feisty, resourceful young woman taking on a grumpy, lonely old man? Sarcastic saints? All of those things sound awesome and I wish more books put together this exact combination of random yet brilliant elements. As you can see, The Hoarder seemed right up my alley, promising generational bitterness and dark mystery. And The Hoarder delivered on many levels, if perhaps not on all of them. Thanks to Canongate Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/02/2018
Publisher: Canongate Books

Maud Drennan - underpaid carer and unintentional psychic - is the latest in a long line of dogsbodies for the ancient, belligerent Cathal Flood. Yet despite her best efforts, Maud is drawn into the mysteries concealed in his filthy, once-grand home. She realises that something is changing: Cathal, and the junk-filled rooms, are opening up to her.
With only her agoraphobic landlady and a troop of sarcastic ghostly saints to help, Maud must uncover what lies beneath Cathal's decades-old hostility, and the strange activities of the house itself. And if someone has hidden a secret there, how far will they go to ensure it remains buried?
The Hoarder beautifully walks the line between a contemporary mystery and a Magical Realism-adjacent fiction book. I had not read anything by Jess Kidd before although I had seen other bloggers raving about her previous work, and after reading The Hoarder I can see why they were so excited. Kidd has that gift that makes something utterly odd seem utterly natural, while something perfectly normal becomes eerily terrifying.Whether it's Cathal Flood's mansion, that goes from imposing to terrifying within seconds, or the saints, who effortlessly go from handing out sarcastic comments to fore-spelling danger, Kidd's The Hoarder will keep you on your feet.

Maud Drennan is a fascinating protagonist. She is a seemingly no-nonsense, straightforward woman who just wants to get the job done, even if that means entering a spooky house haunted by a cantankerous old man. She lives with a delightful if troubled landlady who provides many of the most humorous phrases in the book. But Maud isn't all that she seems. She has her own secrets, buried away so far even the reader doesn't know if they'll ever be uncovered. And then there are the saints that keep appearing, at once helpful and distracting to Maud's mission to declutter Cathal Flood's house and her own mind. Kidd crafts her carefully, never making her too perfect to be relatable, while also dipping into the trope of the unreliable narrator. How much can we trust what Maud is telling us? She is only one person in this tale, after all, and every tale has at least two sides, no? There are some heartbreaking moments in this novel when it comes to family and the history one crafts for oneself. What I mean by that is the tragedy of when we have to face that the life we have crafted for ourselves may not be based on fact, that every family has a closet containing a skeleton or two. The way Kidd allows Maud to confront herself in this novel, gently but determinedly, losing and finding her way as she goes, was fascinating to read.

As I said above, Jess Kidd's writing has a particular magic that makes everything uncanny and beautiful at once. I was gripped by the novel almost immediately, loving the way Kidd crafted her narrative. The Hoarder is filled with absolutely stunning imagery. Whether it's Cathal Flood's mansion, its winding corridors or Maud's childhood memories, Kidd crafts these scenes in delicate and emotive detail until I genuinely felt I could picture them if I closed my eyes. Kidd brings an Irish charm to her novel, largely in Maud's characterization, that made me want to dig deeper into Irish literature as well. One thing that did leave me a little disappointed was that I figured out the "mystery" part of the novel relatively quickly, about a hundred pages before the main character did. Although this didn't lessen my enjoyment of the novel's beauty, it did mean that some parts exploring the mystery dragged a little bit. However, towards the end of the novel there were still a number of twists that made for an exciting finale.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I raced through The hoarder at an unbelievable pace. Even though I figured out parts of the plot beforehand, I wanted to know exactly where Kidd was going to take this story. Full of touching and beautiful moments, The Hoarder has made me determined to get my hands on her next book as soon as I can!

Review: 'Folk' by Zoe Gilbert

Fantasy is my jam, and so are short story collections. When you combine the two you basically get a collection of awesome fairy tales, the kind of thing that allows you to steal away into a completely different world for some beautiful escapism. I have chased these types of books down relatively successfully, but clearly the Fates think I haven't done well enough because suddenly Folk appeared on my path. And God was it good! And how beautiful is that cover? Thanks to Bloomsbury Circus and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 08/02/2017
Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus
Every year they gather, while the girls shoot their arrows and the boys hunt them out. The air is riddled with spiteful shadows – the wounds and fears and furies of a village year. 
On a remote and unforgiving island lies a village unlike any other: Neverness. A girl is snatched by a water bull and dragged to his lair, a babe is born with a wing for an arm and children ask their fortunes of an oracle ox. While the villagers live out their own tales, enchantment always lurks, blighting and blessing in equal measure. 
Folk is a dark and sinuous debut circling the lives of one generation. In this world far from our time and place, the stories of the islanders interweave and overlap, their own folklore twisting fates and changing lives. 
A captivating, magical and haunting debut novel of breathtaking imagination, from the winner of the 2014 Costa Short Story Award.
As I said, both Fantasy and short stories are my thing. My love for them started when I was very young. In my childhood home we had a shelf in the bookcase dedicated purely to fairy tales from all across the world. One of my favourite things to do was pick a book at random from this shelf and sink away into all these different stories that were somehow connected yet all independent as well. There is a magic to fairy tales that doesn't just come back to the actual magic in them. Rather, their magic lies in how they expand the mind, how they cast a different light on old issues, how they mix sweetness with bitterness and beauty with horror. Fairy tales don't explain themselves, at least not the original ones. There are morals there, sure, but you will have to find those for yourself. There is a sense of the ancient to them which nothing else really matches. Where do these stories come from? What inspired them and how do they still inspire? Because of their mysterious origins, fairy tales can belong to anyone and everyone.

In Folk, Zoe Gilbert tells us the stories of Neverness, a mysterious village on a remote island. Each story is told by a different character in the village. These characters come from all ages, different parts of the village and island and even from the different generations living there. This approach allows for Folk to create a sense of connection and tradition without having to info-dump the reader. Characters mentioned casually in one story will become the narrators of another. Events that take place in the foreground in one tale will be referenced in a later tale. Although this is perhaps confusing initially, it really pays off later on in the stories. There is no world-building as such, as one might expect. How did the island come about? Why do the people in Neverness seem so touched by magic? Where do their traditions come from? There are no clear answers to these questions, rather the stories just exist as they are, to be enjoyed as they are. I loved this about them because it allows you to sink into the beauty of each separate story without demanding more from it.

Zoe Gilbert's writing is beautiful. From the very first story she manages to infuse her writing with a sense of suspense , danger and beauty. As the reader gets accustomed to Neverness and its particular peculiarities, Gilbert consistently manages to conjure up a sense of magic and mystery. She moves seamlessly across the village and island, describing its stunning and powerful nature and the effects it has on the island's inhabitants. Her characters are sparsely but carefully drawn. You never get tired of her characters as she keeps their characterisation just subtle enough to make the reader think there must be more, to want to dig deeper. I'm wowed by the fact this is Gilbert's first fiction book, because the deftness with which she writes is masterful. Folk is also beautifully illustrated by Isobel Simonds, the author's aunt. They feel as ancient as the stories and are an incredible addition to the book. I can't wait to get my hands on a hard copy of this book in order to see how the illustrations and stories interplay.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

I absolutely adored Folk. From the first story I was drawn in by Gilbert's mysterious island and its magical inhabitants. The stories are beautifully human despite the enchantment hovering just below their surface. I can't wait to read more from Zoe Gilbert! I'd recommend this to anyone interested in Short Stories and Magical Realism.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Short Review: 'Hidden Women: The African-American Women Mathematicians who Helped America Win the Space Race' by Rebecca Rissman

I come from a family that is in love with space. Whether it's Star Wars, From the Earth to the Moon, actually applying to ESA, or studying Astronomy, we love the stars. So of course we loved Hidden Figures and the attention it brought to the African-American women who worked tirelessly to support the American space programme and yet weren't recognised for it. Since the movie came out I have been looking for more information on these women, and Hidden Women was a great introductory read. Thanks to Capstone and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/02/2018
Publisher: Capstone

Tells the gripping story of four female African-American mathematicians who literally made it possible to launch US rockets--and astronauts--into space. Tells the thrilling tale of how each woman contributed, the struggles and resistance each experienced, and the amazing results. Consultants currently work for NASA.
When Hidden Figures came out, it spawned a whole range of books on the women central to the story. There were a plethora of them and I found it quite difficult to choose one to start with. African-American women have often had their hard work erased, either by actively hiding their involvement or giving the praise to those already in the spotlight. You can see it even now in America, where African-American women are a leading force in preventing people like Roy Moore winning elections, or organising protests for women's rights. What also adds interest to the women in Hidden Women is that they are a rare breed: women working in STEM. Although at university level women are more likely to study these subjects and do well in them, women still struggle against preconceptions in these fields. From young girls being told to pick Barbies over building sets, to young women being harassed in laboratories, a lot of obstacles still stand in women's ways. It is my hope that books like these, by bringing the stories of these women back, it will inspire more young women to enter these fields and have their contributions rewarded.

Rebecca Rissman does a great job at introducing the various women she describes. She tracks Katherine Johnson, Miriam Mann, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Annie Easley and Christine Darden, as well as some of the women currently working for NASA. She shows how these women worked their way up, as well as the challenges they faced on the way. African-American women then and now find themselves struggling not only against misogynistic prejudices, but also have to overcome racial stereotypes and active racism. Rissman really manages to convey their passion for the work they do, as well as their determination to let nothing stand in their way. Hidden Women is a great introductory read, giving you some of the details without getting too bogged down. I call it introductory because I would have loved some more information, for Rissman to dig down a little bit deeper into the circumstances of the women, the actual work they did, etc. But this isn't necessarily the book for that. Rissman made sure to consult people currently still working at NASA and the bibliography at the end of the book makes a great jumping off point for future research and reading.

I give this book...

3 Universes!

For those who want to know a little bit more about the African-American women who worked for NASA during the space programme, Hidden Women  is perfect. However, I'm still looking for a book that will really dig into their lives and their work. Recommendations anyone?

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Review: 'The Wicked Cometh' by Laura Carlin

I'm always looking for historical fiction and mystery stories with female protagonists set in Victorian England. Sadly I have also often been burned during that search. It takes a deft touch to combine all those different aspects and not have one of them become disastrous. So when I saw The Wicked Cometh I was immediately intrigued. People are going missing? Wickedness in London? A bright young woman in the midst of it all? I am SO here for it! Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/02/2018
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
'We have no need to protect ourselves from the bad sort because we ARE the bad sort . . .' 
'This newspaper has taken note that the past month has been remarkable for the prevalence of cases where men, women and children are declared missing. Scarcely a week passes without the occurrence of an incident of this type' - The Morning HeraldTuesday 13 September 1831 
Down the murky alleyways of London, acts of unspeakable wickedness are taking place and the city's vulnerable poor are disappearing from the streets. Out of these shadows comes Hester White, a bright young woman who is desperate to escape the slums by any means possible. 
When Hester is thrust into the world of the aristocratic Brock family, she leaps at the chance to improve her station in life under the tutelage of the fiercely intelligent and mysterious Rebekah Brock. 
But whispers from her past slowly begin to poison her new life and both she and Rebekah are lured into the most sinister of investigations, dragging them into the blackest heart of a city where something more depraved than either of them could ever imagine is lurking. . .
In a sense The Wicked Cometh is a mystery novel that tries to answer a straightforward question: why are people disappearing? But Laura Carlin uses this as a way to address class which, in my eyes, definitely elevates the plot. Hester is poor, incredibly poor, living among equally poor and hungry and cold people in London the 1800s. But her life wasn't always like this. When her parents were alive she enjoyed comfort and education, but now, as an orphan, she has not much to hope for. That is, until pure chance literally throws her in the way of the Brock family where she gets another chance. Through Hester, Carlin is able to show the harsh divide between the rich and poor, how the former can look down upon the latter with disgust and zero awareness of how they came to be poor. The constant clash between expectations and reality are really interesting and add an extra layer of meaning to The Wicked Cometh.

In the next paragraph I'm going to discuss two different themes running through the novel, however, these are pretty much spoilers. So please ignore the rest of this paragraph if you want to remain unspoiled! Still with me? Ok, let's go! At the heart of the wickedness taking place in London lies the working on human corpses in the hope to gain, at least initially, medical knowledge. It is something that also popped up in Rawblood, the contemporary terror of people at the mere thought of human corpses being operated on in order to advance medical knowledge. Carlin strikes a successful balance in showing both the understandable fear of her characters, as well as how her bad guy has lost his subjectivity when it comes to his endeavour. It was done really well I thought, especially combined with The Wicked Cometh's focus on class. The disregard with which the upper class considers the lower really comes out through this plot line. Another theme was love, especially love between women. Carlin worked this out so beautifully in The Wicked Cometh that I was rooting for it before the characters themselves were even truly aware of their feelings. Not once did it feel Carlin would exploit their love for sensationalism, rather she treated it like the previous thing love is.

The Wicked Cometh is incredibly atmospheric and this is all due to Laura Carlin's beautiful writing. Her London comes to life through her descriptions which are incredibly evocative, whether it's the dirt on the streets or the sound of the crowd. The houses, the people, the weather and mood, it's all described in a way that draws the reader in straightaway. I felt like I was watching a movie sometimes, with the amount of detail Carlin managed to confer to me. Carlin takes a lot of time at the beginning of the novel to set her scene and establish her characters, which may not work for everyone but I loved it. Also, I adored Hester, she was such a scrappy and determined main character who stayed true to herself as much as she could. Carlin makes some choices towards the end of the novel which felt a bit rushed, as if she was trying to tie every story line together into one thread and thereby stretched some of them a bit too far. In a way some of these choices reminded me of the Gothic novels of the time, deeply dramatic and a bit too much, but sadly it didn't really work and betrayed some of the strong plot choices made earlier in the novel. However, this didn't really affect my opinion on the overall novel that much, compared to a different novel I read recently.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I adored The Wicked Cometh with all of its sumptuous details and lovable heroines! I was sucked into the plot straightaway and loved all of the dramatic twists and turns. I would definitely recommend this to anyone interested in Historical Fiction and Mystery. I will definitely keeping my eye out for Laura Carlin's next novel.