Review: Changing Perspectives by Jen Silver


This is such a delight of a book – I enjoyed it so much that I read it in two days and then felt sorry there wasn’t more. Set in the early 90s, Changing Perspectives is more than just a romance. It also sensitively unpacks the whole concept of kink and why some girls (and guys) are into it.

Dani is a talented artist and graphic designer who doesn’t really care what the world thinks about how she looks, who she loves or how she spends her night. When she encounters Camila – the beautiful and well-heeled financial director of a client’s company – there’s chemistry from the start. But this is not a simple story of opposites attract – it’s much deeper than that. Camila is still trying to come to terms with the death of her former partner, Allison. And even if she can bring herself to commit to another relationship, she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to embrace Dani’s penchant for kink.

It’s a deftly told story, perfectly paced, which spins out enough twists to keep you gripped. And the characters are believable and charming – Dani is a wonderful blend of fragile/tough while I really felt for Camila as she attempts to bury her grief and loneliness beneath work and an ice-maiden persona. There’s also plenty of humour to balance out the tension, often supplied through ironic references to the 90s which kind of made me nostalgic. Absolutely loved it, and if Jen Silver is thinking about penning a sequel, I’ll be queuing up for more.



Review: Mother of Souls by Heather Rose Jones


Another beautiful installment of Heather Rose Jones’s Alpennia series, which  introduces us to composer Luzie Valorin and Serafina Talarico, a vidator who is blessed with the power to see fluctus but not invoke it. Serafina appeared briefly towards the end of the second book The Mystic Marriage, but here her story is taken up in full. Born in Italy to Ethiopian parents, she escapes a loveless marriage to pursue her study of thaumaturgy, lodging with Luzie, a widow and musician who struggles to make ends meet following the death of her husband.

All the other major characters from the previous books are also given their own stories and the book emerges as a complex weave of narratives, each subtly related but distinct in the way they represent different aspects of Alpennian life. And while the book doesn’t draw all the individual strands of the story to their conclusions, the ending is really satisfying and leaves you hankering for more. Having said that, I did feel that as more characters are thrown into the ensemble, there’s not always enough focus on each one. I feel the author might have gone for broke and even doubled the length of the book to deliver more insight into the lives and relationships of these characters who never fail to fascinate.

That, however, is just a grumble which proves how much I love this series. It’s expertly penned, the prose style is tense and concise, it’s convincing in terms of characterisation and you just find yourself completely absorbed by the whole idea of Alpennia and its mysterious inhabitants. Can’t wait for more.

Review – Nutshell by Ian McEwan


To be honest, I was in two minds as to whether or not I ought to give Nutshell a read. I mean, I love Ian McEwan’s novels – he’s an absolute master when it comes to manipulating the reader’s expectations. But I just had this feeling that this was one literary conceit too far. Hamlet retold from the perspective of an unborn child? Please.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so mistaken about a book before. This is such a masterpiece in terms of the way McEwan turns his source material on its head and also because of the dark simmering wit which runs through the entire novel. Our foetus soliloquizes – because I guess the unborn are natural soliloquists – on the impending betrayal of his father, on his mother issues and on the nature of the world he’s about to be born into with all the verve of an accomplished raconteur. And he’s also something of a wine connoisseur – his mother Trudy is drinking for two – a uterine philosopher and ultimately, like his father, a poet. But this isn’t just one long Shakespearesque monologue. The story also works perfectly as a thriller, and it leaves you guessing right up to the end how on earth McEwan will translate the bloody, corpse strewn finale of Hamlet into a contemporary tale of marital betrayal. Take it from me, it’s worth waiting for.


After reading Nutshell, I decided it was time to revisit Hamlet itself. There’s a great podcast discussing all aspects of the play from the BBC radio series In Our Time here:


Review: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor


If I had an adolescent daughter, I would give her this book to read. It’s a story which just makes you realise we’ve been missing the point with sci-fi and fantasy for so long. It takes one look at all those tired old tropes of generally white, generally male fictional heroes and says…no. We’re not going there.

Instead, the protagonist of this coming of age narrative is Binti – the first of her people to attend Oomza University, a girl who grasps her own destiny with firm hands, defying expectation and prejudice to live her dreams. And at the same time doing her bit to bring about some inter-planetary harmony.

“There’s more vivid imagination in a page of Nnedi Okorafor’s work than in whole volumes of ordinary fantasy epics,” wrote the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin. And it’s true to say that every page lights a fire under our complacency about science fiction – from the concept of maths as a mental state, through to Binti’s casual acceptance of difference and diversity as a fact of interplanetary lore and life. And running underneath all of that is Okorafor’s subtle challenge to white-centric sci-fi narratives. It’s a book which makes you cry out for more heroes like Binti, who proves her strength when she seems at her most vulnerable. A must read.


Review – The Runaway Knight (Empire of Dragons #1) by Rob May


This seems to be something of a new direction for Rob May’s fantasy series, which started with the Dragon Killer books. Rather than focus on the main character of earlier instalments (Kal Moonheart), The Runaway Knight focuses on a few unlikely adventurers who unwittingly find themselves on the trail of the same ancient enemy. Kal herself is back and fighting like the pro we already know her to be, forced out of self-imposed exile when her name appears on what could be a hit list. Out on the barren steppe, however, we are introduced to a new unlikely hero, Temus Sansar, who forsakes his destiny as his tribe’s chief in exchange for adventure. And in the frozen city of Zorronov, young queen Alexa  refuses to be manipulated by her advisers, embarking on a dangerous journey to protect her people. The story moves along at the same breathless pace as the previous books, but this is far more along the lines of epic fantasy, with the hint of a quest, the real presence of dragons and monsters, and a whole host of wonderful secondary characters from the conniving  Lieutenant Dogwood to power craving twins Marla and Meeka Firehand. A really entertaining read which promises many more adventures to come.


Review – Leonardo da Vinci The Biography by Walter Isaacson


This first thing that struck me about this book was simply what a feat it must have been to write. Walter Isaacson had access to the 7,200 extant pages of Leonardo’s notebooks, and his biography explores every area of the polymath’s life, from his paintings, sketches, stage sets for pageantries and  architectural drawings to his scientific endeavours in anatomy, geometry and engineering. It’s a book which really does give you a sense of the true extent of Leonardo’s genius while at the same moment bringing home just what a normal, fallible human being he was. The artist apparently found it difficult to keep his attention from wandering, often starting a new project before he’d finished earlier ones.  This led to a lot of his work never being completed at all. Isaacson also reads between the lines of Leonardo’s notebooks to find evidence that he suffered from bouts of depression throughout his life.

On top of that, you get a sense of what a modern figure Leonardo was: comfortable in his sexuality, and unashamedly unorthodox in his views on religion and science. Isaacson, however, also emphasises the collaborative nature of Leonardo’s efforts. That genius, he suggests, was not fostered in a vacuum, but germinated precisely because of the hothouse atmosphere of Italian city states like Milan and Florence where exchange of knowledge and ideas had reached fever pitch.

This is a truly beautiful book. I nearly made the mistake of just downloading it on my kindle, but am so glad that I didn’t, as almost every page contains coloured illustrations of Leonardo’s work. It’s also insanely fascinating. I must have driven my partner mad while I was reading it because every page brings a new surprise worth shouting about – “Oh my God, he invented a diving suit!” “Now he’s made groundbreaking discoveries in anatomy!” “No way – he redesigned a city!” It’s a book which gets you thinking about the nature of genius and about human potential in the  most positive way. Strongly recommended.


Review – A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel


It takes nerves of steel to write a novel on the French Revolution. I can’t even begin to imagine how you’d approach such a project given the complex, ambiguous weave of personal and political motivations and relationships which contributed to this watershed in European history. On the other hand, it is an irresistibly dramatic subject: the  notion of an ideal which rots even as it takes root. And the very fact that the “reign of terror” was ultimately birthed by staid, middle class, respectable lawyers somehow prefigures the cold calculations of the Nazi death machine – the Nazis, it should be added, employed the guillotine during the second world war.

Hilary Mantel’s narrative is a dizzying, polyphonic masterpiece. Rather than isolating a single character and their perspective – as she does in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy – we hear from many characters caught up in this political maelstrom, their voices rising and fading in succession, sometimes blurring into each other. While the story pivots around the relationship between Desmouslins, Dantons and Robespierre, we encounter their wives and lovers, their families, business associates and relations, aristocrats, Jacobins and Girondistes. And the text itself has an almost collage-type structure, laced with reports from newspapers and pamphlets, the prose sometimes slipping into pure dramatic dialogue. It’s a chaotic, mind-bendingly complex narrative which sometimes seems to teeter on the brink of losing its form, but Mantel keeps it all together with virtuoso skill.

The narrative is punctured by a robust wit and an eye for irony which somehow deflates our notion of these men and women as icons or emblems – and allows the reader to encounter them on a very human level. Robespierre’s belief in his own value to the revolutionary project, for example, contributes to his failure to save his childhood friend Desmoulins from the guillotine, while Danton – orator and man of the people – is revealed to be permanently on the take, determined to make his fortune and get out of the revolution while the going’s good. Ultimately, of course, it is the revolution which devours him before he can make good his escape.

What I also really appreciated about the book is how many women’s voices we hear, whether it’s the frustration of female politicians such as Anne Theroigne and Madame Roland, straining against the misogyny of male revolutionaries, or wives and lovers – Lucile Desmoulins, Louise Gély and Eleanor Duplay. So often in narratives of the revolution, these are the voices which get suppressed and it becomes male-oriented. The historical role of women has gone unacknowledged, but Mantel brings their voices to the fore, emphasising their insecurities, their own private tragedies and their political influence.

This is a novel which drops you headfirst into Paris at the end of the eighteenth century without too much of a lifeline. But if you’re prepared to take on the challenge, it’s a book which absorbs and fascinates, which prompts you to research as you’re reading, and offers a sustained and intense insight into the minds behind one of the most frightening episodes in European history. Worth not one read, but many.


Review – Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones


It’s quite hard to explain how much I loved this book. Let’s just say I’d already bought the sequel before finishing Daughter of Mystery simply because I knew I’d be paying another visit to Alpennia shortly.

The novel is an exquisitely crafted romance, deftly paced and with engaging characters, exciting enough to keep you turning the page, cerebral enough to get you thinking deeply about the culture and politics of the world – or rather the country – which Heather Rose Jones has created.

Set in an imaginary central European state at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the narrative pivots around the actions of two young women brought together by the stipulations of an old aristocrat’s will. The rules of social hierarchy seem an insurmountable barrier to their love, and yet Margarit – an ingénue and burfro or bourgeois – finds herself struggling to understand the feelings she develops for her armin or private duellist. The novel also explores by proxy the way in which women of this period were denied anything approaching a meaningful education or intellectual fulfilment and stimulation, forced into culturally ordained roles which proved restrictive and demeaning.

The fantasy element of this novel is fascinating. The working of miracles and invocation of saints carry beyond the realm of the mystical in Alpennian society, having a tangible impact on the everyday lives, the politics and the traditions of the nation. Margarit’s abilities as a vidator, capable both of perceiving and working miracles brings risk as much as privilege. In pursuing her scholarly interests, she finds herself plunged into a world of deceit and intrigue which threatens to destroy her and those she loves.

The world building is superlative – I never felt that I was being spoon-fed when I read this novel. The author fleshes out sufficient space for the reader to make sense of Alpennia as both a reflection of 19th century Europe and its ‘other’ – a realm of fantasy in which our awareness of religion and history might be turned on its head. The prose style both challenged and entertained, and I found myself unable to stop turning the pages as the narrative reached its climax. Which means I’m going to have to give it another read to pick up on anything I might have missed. But first I’m off to read The Mystic Marriage – part two of the Alpennia series.


Review: The Caphenon by Fletcher DeLancey


I realise I’m a bit late to the party on this one, as the sixth instalment is due out in three days, but that only makes me regret not having read it sooner. Anyway, I’ve not done much reviewing for a while, so here goes…

I recently heard a radio interview in which Neil Gaiman was discussing the work of the late Brian Aldiss. Science fiction, suggested Gaiman, is a vehicle for speculation – a genre which should always make us ask ‘what if?’ It is precisely that curiosity, that desire to interrogate and push at the boundaries of possibility which drives Fletcher DeLancey’s novel The Caphenon. What would happen –  the book asks – if empathy could be used as a defensive weapon? What if faster than light travel were possible? What if gender fluidity were the norm?

These are the kinds of questions which feed into the compelling narrative of this novel – a story which fuses romance with adventure against a well realised backdrop of interplanetary politics. DeLancey’s world building is simply outstanding. From the beginning, the reader is thrown headfirst into the language, culture and traditions of Alsea, largely seeing it through the eyes of aliens who crash land their ship onto the planet. Suspicious of each other at first, Alseans and Gaians are forced to  confront issues of trust and respect if they are to have any chance of defeating a common enemy, .

While I worried at first that the main characters came across as being just a little too perfect – a lot of angst and soul searching took place within the opening chapters – they turned out to be flawed enough to seem genuine and attractive. There was always just enough tension and mistrust between Alsean leader Lancer Andira Tal and Gaian captain Ekatya Serrado to make their relationship a fascinating one. And the engaging quickfire dialogue between Serrado and her anthropologist girlfriend Lhyn was offset by scenes which revealed just how deep their love really ran.

My only misgiving about the book was the fact that – particularly towards its end – there was a tendency to relay certain scenes through Tal’s thoughts and memories, effectively info dumping. And while I understand that this was because the author probably had other priorities to focus on, some sense of the characters’ firsthand engagement with these events would have given the action greater immediacy.

However, that’s a very subjective observation. Overall, I just thought this was sci-fi writing at its very best and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book in the series.


Review – The Miniaturist – by Jessie Burton

Well its been a while since I was last able to get some reviews out, as I’ve been involved in various projects which have proved quite time consuming. But finally, summer is here and I hope to be posting regularly again!

So here’s a review of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist.


It’s something of a truism to point out that historical fiction has been reappraised as a genre in recent years, with authors like Hilary Mantel, Emma Donoghue and Sarah Waters commanding the respect of critics and readers alike. What makes the new wave of historical fiction so special is the way it interrogates our relationship with the past. Rather than feeding us romantic, heroic, Walter Scott style narratives, contemporary authors look at history side on, inviting us to consider the minor narratives which are so often ignored or even annihilated by conventional readings of history. In particular, this includes a focus on the secret, the hidden and the repressed – on the way in which issues such as gender, sexuality and race interact with a general preconception of European/Western history as white, masculine and straight.

In this respect, Jessie Burton’s exquisite novel The Miniaturist is no exception. It is a story which the reader somehow unpeels or unwraps, each layer shedding yet more secrets. The literary equivalent of a Rembrandt or Vermeer, it is to the shadowy areas of Burton’s “canvas” that our eyes are drawn. What is it that the light is hiding? What ironies or subversions are hinted at?

It is 1686, and child bride Petronella Oortman marries into the Brandt household, her husband Johannes a wealthy Amsterdam merchant. Petronella (Nella) also encounters Johannes’ enigmatic sister Marin, whose piety and self-repression soon emerge as camouflage, enabling her to act out the role of a devout Protestant spinster. Bored and lonely, Nella sets about furnishing her dolls house – a wedding gift from Johannes – receiving parcels containing dolls and scaled down furniture from the mysterious Miniaturist. As the story unfolds, it seems that the Miniaturist has an uncanny knack of predicting – or possibly even controlling – the lives of the real house’s inhabitants.

The Miniaturist reveals how, even in  the most repressive of environments, space can be found for autonomy and self-awareness. The Miniaturist’s first message to Nella insists that she can challenge those conventions which restrict her as a woman and as a wife: “Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.” As readers, we might anticipate Nella’s emergence as that stock character in historical fiction: a romantic figure who finds release through love. Instead, this is a journey into independence and freedom. As the world about her starts to disintegrate, she becomes stronger, increasingly resilient and resourceful. In short, she becomes herself.

Just a joy to read. Perfectly paced, The Minaturist yields its secrets one by one, couched in a sinuous, lyrical prose. A beautiful book.