Legacy by Michelle Lowe: Book Review

LegacyVeteran indie author Michelle Lowe gave me a free eBook copy of her seventh book Legacy — the first in a seven-part Steampunk series — in exchange for an honest review. Not wanting to let the author down (and I must apologise to Michelle for taking so long to get around to reading it as well; I generally don’t do well reading books off of computer screens), I was really delighted when Legacy turned out to be a well-written, fast-paced adventure that takes place across both sides of the English Channel. It features a whole host of well-illustrated characters that I couldn’t help but love.

Archie Norwich, son of the nobleman Tarquin Norwich, is sent out by his father to find the notorious Pierce Landcross — a wanted fugitive and a thief. Tarquin wishes to interrogate Landcross on the location of the mysterious toymaker Indigo Peachtree and his even more mysterious journal which contains the key to world domination. Accompanying Archie, Pierce and Tarquin in their race for the journal are Archie’s plucky and resourceful sister Clover, his troubled alcoholic brother Ivor, Pierce’s possessed brother Joaquin, an airship manned by Apache slave-liberators, gypsy travellers, vampires and more.

Without a doubt, Michelle’s beloved anti-hero steals the show. Pierce Landcross is the absolute highlight of this book with his debonair wit, glittering cleverness and inconvenient moral compass that gets him both into and out of scrapes with reckless abandon. He played well off of the staunchly uptight, feckless Archie, whom I wanted to strangle several times, and both he and Archie had a really endearing relationship with Archie’s little sister Clover. Michelle is really good at “show don’t tell” when it comes to her writing, and she isn’t afraid to knock her characters about a bit either. Characterisation is definitely her greatest strength.

Michelle LoweFor me personally the plot was a little bit all over the place. Whilst being fun and really quite complex with a lot of twists and turns to keep me guessing, we did end up travelling great distances across the country from one place to another without any major inconveniences. Everyone seemed to know straight away where their targets were (this is discounting Mother of Craft’s supernatural hints to Tarquin) and were able to find each other just a little too easily despite being miles apart. There were also a couple of points that threw me out of the story completely, such as the baffling Prologue (we never hear from Jack Pack and Thooranu again) and the mysterious Mother Of Craft, although her role will most likely play out in later books. World-building was also regrettably thin on the ground, the Steampunk elements in particular being quite downplayed; the Apache airship was the only real tell that I was able to pick up on and I think Michelle can definitely afford to up the ante in later books.

Overall I really enjoyed Legacy and feel it sets up the series very well. I really loved all the characters and thought Michelle’s writing was tight and nicely paced, completely devoid of purple prose and overly long sentences that notoriously bog down the fantasy genre. I recommend it for anyone looking for well-written, fast and rollicking adventure. I am really looking forward to Book 2, and I hope to actually buy a copy this time!

Verdict: 3/5

S.E. Berrow


For more information on Michelle Lowe and the world of Legacy, please visit the below links:

http://www.michellelowe.net/
http://www.nordlandpublishing.com/titles/legacy/

Michelle also has a really lovely little .PDF where you can meet all of her characters! Totally stealing this idea for my own website at some point. Watch this space…

 

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Hysteria: The Disturbing History by Andrew Scull: Book Review

hysteriaI picked up Hysteria: The Disturbing History when I went to visit the Bedlam Exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on 8 October 2016 with my writing partner, K.F. Goodacre. Due to the fact that asylums feature in The Mayor, I was hoping to learn a little bit more about the treatment of the patients in the hospital during the 18th century, attitudes to madness during those times, patient recovery (if any) and also about the hospital itself. However, the exhibition was significantly more art and literature-based than I was expecting and I wasn’t able to glean much that was informative or useful, so I was hoping that this book – along with a few others that I picked up in the shop – might fill in the gaps.

This book is very well-written and I found Andrew Scull’s narrative style engaging, despite having to refer to the glossary upon occasion to look up words I’ve never heard of (e.g. ‘parturition’, or childbirth). Starting with the first use of the term ‘hysteria’ in 1602 up until it’s disappearance from modern-day diagnoses, Scull gives a relatively short historical account addressing changing understanding, treatments and attitudes of the medical profession over a long period of time. He also explores how doctors struggled to pin hysteria down to physiological causes, the notion of a mental illness at the time being virtually non-existent. One particular chapter about the ‘shell-shock’ suffered by soldiers during World War I being thought of in terms of ‘male-hysteria’ I found particularly interesting given my perception of hysteria as being thought of only as a ‘woman’s disease’, linked to their ‘inferior’ biology and repressed sexuality; a tool used by men to diminish them and write off their emotions and experiences as nonsense.

Certainly this book does dwell on this latter aspect of the disease quite a bit. If you’re a woman and hadn’t felt before that being called ‘hysterical’ was insulting, you certainly will after reading this book! There’s plenty of gory, upsetting detail as to some of the more brutal treatments of hysterical patients contained within these pages, including female genital mutilation and Freud’s, quite frankly, disgusting treatment of his sexually abused patient Ida Bauer. Surprisingly, the opposite end of the spectrum for treatment – manual genital stimulation – that famously led to the invention of the vibrator – is completely ignored. Scull does not even go so far as to briefly acknowledge this particular avenue of history. I found this very odd considering how Scull also went to great lengths to illustrate how some doctors felt victims of hysteria were taking ‘flight into illness’ for the secondary gains that a sick role could provide.

bedlam-the-asylum-and-beyond
One of the art installations at the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition: Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond

It’s actually in relation to this last point that I dropped my rating from five stars to four. In the conclusion to his book, Scull talks about the disappearance of the disease of hysteria, and how it has since been redefined as post-traumatic stress disorder, post-natal depression etc. However, rather than talking about a more developed scientific understanding of mental illnesses and changing cultural attitudes towards women, Scull then spends an inordinate amount of time almost discrediting those who claim to suffer from mental illnesses to conclude that hysteria (in it’s more stereotypical, hypochondriac form) has never really disappeared, citing Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) and chronic-fatigue syndrome as particular sources of contention. This gave me a bad taste in my mouth, as whilst our modern-day understanding of mental illness is by no-means perfect, ever-changing, and often driven by the profits made by Big Pharma, simply dismissing claims of mental illness as being all in the victim’s head is completely counter-productive. The very definition of a mental illness is that it is in the victim’s head, but that doesn’t mean that their suffering is not real or unworthy of treatment. To automatically assume that the patient is making it up for attention is as pervasively dangerous as it was 200 years ago.

Despite Scull’s conclusion being a bit of a let down, overall I really enjoyed this book. I do not read non-fiction very often so to keep me engaged for 200-odd pages is an achievement in itself.

Verdict: 4/5

S.E. Berrow


Andrew Scull presently resides as a faculty member at UC San Diego, specialising in researching the development of modern-day psychiatric medicine. A list of his works and courses are available on the UCSD website:

http://sociology.ucsd.edu/people/profiles/faculty/andrew-scull.html

Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond is an exhibition currently running until 15 January 2017 at the Wellcome Collection in London:

https://wellcomecollection.org/bedlam

Nod by Adrian Barnes: Book Review

nod-adrian-barnes“In theory it was, around now, Literature. Susan hated Literature. She’d much prefer to read a good book.” – Susan Sto-Helit, Soul Music (1994)

This nugget of wisdom from the late Sir Terry Pratchett is the first thing that came to mind once I’d turned the final page of Adrian Barnes’ refreshingly original take on a zombie apocalypse, Nod.

The concept is fantastic: protagonist Paul wakes up one morning to discover that the whole world, including his wife Tanya, did not sleep the night before. The very significant few who did manage to sleep, Paul included, all dreamed the same golden dream of a magnificent light. The next night comes and still no sleep. The world begins to panic. Scientists are baffled. The media is in full-blown scaremongering mode. Then comes the next night. And the next. And the next. Gradually over the course of approximately one month, those who cannot sleep fall victim to the side-effects of absolute sleep-deprivation: lank hair; poor hygiene; irritability; decreased motor skills, hallucinations; psychosis; and eventually, death. Society breaks down, and those who lived on the fringes of the old world step up to herald in the new.

In Nod, the apocalypse comes not in the form of a cataclysmic event, but something far more sinister. In this sense I was reminded strongly of one of my favourite books, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, which also depicts the end of the world in the form of gradual starvation and decay (oh, and killer plants, but they’re mostly an afterthought). Suffering myself from a severe lack of sleep whilst reading Nod on my arduous daily commute, I found myself getting a headache, so easily was I able to put myself in the characters’ positions. Like The Day of the Triffids, there is something so creepy and unsettling about the end of the world coming along in such an understated, chillingly relatable way.

But — and this is a big But — despite a great concept and being so fantastically well-written e.g.

Life’s a scab, and it’s our nature to pick at it until it bleeds.

Nod had one fatal flaw: it was boring.

etymology
Sounds like a fun game…

After civil order breaks down and Paul well and truly finds himself in the land of Nod, it soon becomes clear to the reader that there isn’t much of a plot. Paul embodies the ultimate ‘hood ornament’ character archetype as he is driven around from one crazed group of Awakened to another, presumably so that Barnes can showcase as much of his apocalyptic landscape as possible. The etymology theme that permeates, nay dominates the novel, whilst objectively interesting, seems a bit tacked on and doesn’t really fit or help explain anything. Lastly, if you’re expecting some kind of payoff or answers to any of your questions, prepare to be disappointed. Paul is possibly one of the least inquisitive characters I’ve ever read and seems to feel no desire to learn how Nod happened, why, or even how to resolve it.

Nod‘s author, Adrian Barnes has spoken of how he wished to explore the fragility of civil order versus disobedience in Nod. For me personally, I think he failed; this was not clear enough. I interpreted Nod to be more an exploration of the use and history of words that just happened to be set in the midst of a rather bizarre and surreal zombie apocalypse. Whilst I cannot stress enough how beautifully this book is written, I just can’t help but feel disappointed that such an original concept was seemingly wasted on trying to be too ‘literary’. The end result is a disjointed, meandering novel that I found really quite unsatisfying to read. I am thrilled to be moving on to something else.

Verdict: 2/5 stars

S.E. Berrow


For more information on Adrian Barnes and Nod, please visit his (short!) blog:

https://theauthorabout.wordpress.com/

There’s a really interesting video where he talks about the role the city of Vancouver played in Nod and offers a bit more background on some of the locations.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer: Book Review

CinderThis one had been on my ‘to read’ list for a while, largely due to its futuristic concept of a cyborg Cinderella. Instead of the dainty little ash girl we are so familiar with, the Cinderella of this story (Linh Cinder) is a strong-minded and intelligent mechanic. She is also the ward of a jealous and neglectful stepmother who, along with her daughters, is dependent on Cinder to make cash. Cinder also happens to be a cyborg – a human with mechanically enhanced limbs and brain interface – and is thus seen as a second-class citizen by most inhabitants of New Beijing.

When delving into faerietale retellings, I expect to read something completely different and unique whilst still maintaining a sense of the familiarity and spirit of the original. In this sense, Cinder succeeds. Unfortunately, a few of the ideas are not developed enough. Why, for example, are cyborgs seen as second-class citizens when they’re effectively just humans who have been injured and patched up by science? This is never explained. How have the Lunars come to be so powerful and why do they want to go to war with Earth? Also, despite being set in China (where the earliest known version of the tale originates), there is very little evidence of Chinese culture and customs here; it all seems very westernised, in a manner that doesn’t seem realistic despite being set a significant way into the future. The plot is also incredibly predictable, to the point that you can guess the ending within about ten pages (and I’m not talking about the traditional storyline here).

Nevertheless I’m really intrigued by the concept and considering that this is very obviously part of a series (entitled The Lunar Chronicles), the world and ideas contained herein may yet be developed further in future books. I fully intend to read the follow-up, Scarlet, when I eventually manage to get my hands on it.

Verdict: 2/5

S.E. Berrow


For more information on Marissa Meyer, Cinder and The Lunar Chronicles please check out the author’s website:

http://www.marissameyer.com/

A Series of Mini-Book Reviews

As some of my readers may have noticed, I’ve fallen rather behind with my book reviews. Essentially I had a few problems collating my thoughts for one or two of them, and then the next thing I knew, I’d read six more. As of today I am 10 books behind, so I think you’ll agree it’s got to a point where I’ve no hope of catching up. I have therefore chosen to write a series of mini-reviews to bring myself up to speed and talk about all the great – and not so great – books I’ve read since my last review (Under The Skin by Michel Faber).  Then we should be back to business as usual.

So, here it goes:


Life And DeathLife And Death: Twilight Reimagined by Stephanie Meyer

Originally written as bonus material for the 10th Anniversary of Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling Twilight saga, Life And Death quickly expanded into a full-length novel in which the sexes of all the characters are swapped over. Instead of the human Bella, we have Beaufort (or Beau, as he understandably prefers to be called), and instead of the vampire Edward, we have Edythe, and so on. Stephenie Meyer said that she wrote the book in response to criticism that Bella is too much of a Mary-Sue, damsel-in-distress-type character, and her belief that if the sexes were swapped it would make no difference to the love story. It’s an interesting point, but falls flat, given that Edward/Edythe’s aggressive, controlling treatment of Bella/Beau is still as unhealthy as it ever was. Stephenie Meyer also relished the opportunity to change words and scenes that had bothered her since publication, and to add in a few extra conversations that she wished she had written in the first place. These were not needed, and bogged down an already bloated book.

Verdict: 1/5


GreyGrey by E.L. James

Sadly there is very little, indeed nothing to be praised about E.L. James’s rehash of the eponymous first book in her Fifty Shades trilogy: Grey is essentially the same story as Fifty Shades of Grey but told from Christian’s point of view. For those of you who have been living in a cave for the last four years, Christian Grey is the multi-millionaire dominant who introduces protagonist Anastasia Steele to the dark and seductive world of Bondage, Discipline and Sadomasochism (BDSM). Clunky, overwrought and just plain badly written – a quick Google search will direct you to any number of cringe-worthy examples usually involving an overly ‘agreeable’ part of the male anatomy – Grey offers a disturbing insight into the sociopathic, deranged car crash that is Christian Grey’s brain. It is an insight that apparently many fans ‘asked and asked and asked’ for, but most certainly didn’t need.

I hated this book so much that I was forced to abandon it halfway through. It is so badly written, so angry, so vile, violent, un-erotic and unoriginal (even the very idea of a retelling from the perspective of the male love interest was nicked from its source material – Stephenie Meyer’s unpublished Midnight Sun) that it is going to be the first book that I have ever had to rate…

Verdict: 0/5


H Is For HawkH Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald

As voracious a reader as I am, non-fiction is generally not something I read for leisure; Helen Macdonald’s beautifully written, touching memoir H Is For Hawk is most definitely the exception to the rule. I found that I simply had to read it after witnessing the majesty and deadly grace of the hawks, owls and falcons during a trip to Leeds Castle with my boyfriend over Christmas. A gorgeously written introspection on grief, the retreat into nature and the predatory ‘otherness’ of birds, H Is For Hawk is also a sensitive biography about T.H. White – the tortured genius famous for penning The Once And Future King – whose lesser known work The Goshawk the author finds she identifies with strongly, despite its terrible advice on hawking. I absolutely adored this book; I recommend it especially to those who generally dislike non-fiction as much as I do, but wish to foray into it.

Verdict: 5/5


 

That’s all I have the energy for right now. More mini-book reviews to come!

Take care,
S.E. Berrow


If, despite my negative reviews, you would like more information on Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James, please visit the below links:

http://stepheniemeyer.com/
http://www.eljamesauthor.com/

Helen Macdonald doesn’t have a website, but she is on Twitter often and is really fun to follow; she posts such beautiful hawking pictures:

https://twitter.com/helenjmacdonald/

For example, here is one of her with Mabel, the titular hawk in H Is For Hawk:

Helen and Mabel
So much cute in one picture ♥

Under The Skin by Michel Faber: Book Review

Under The SkinMichel Faber’s debut novel Under The Skin is a reviewer’s nightmare, because it’s one of those books that you cannot really adequately cover without giving too much away. The book defies all categorisation, masquerading as a thriller, science-fiction and horror all at once. There are also elements of allegory and satire woven throughout. Suffice to say, as far as the plot is concerned, it is about a woman called Isserly who is obsessed with driving around the Scottish highlands and picking up well-muscled male hitchhikers. What starts out as a run-of-the-mill sexed-up thriller soon descends into a malebolge of unsettling and repugnant horrors that stole my sleep and left me unnerved for days.

The first half of the book – where revelations are slowly drip-fed to the reader – is the strongest. Michel Faber does a fantastic job of ratcheting up the suspense and the ever-permeating sense of dread by revealing just enough to send the reader’s imagination running wild without fully satisfying their questions. This makes Under The Skin compulsively readable, despite the repetitive events of Isserly’s daily grind; find a hitchhiker, pick him up, find a hitchhiker, pick him up…

Comparatively, the latter half of the novel does not maintain this momentum. Climaxing roughly in the middle with a truly horrific midnight hunt in the dark, after this I had the facts necessary to piece together enough of the truth that my interest waned. A couple of latter attempts on Michel Faber’s part to gross me out failed, and whilst some of the debate surrounding speciesism, classicism and what makes us human were truly interesting, it didn’t quite seem to fit with the ambiguously eerie and unsettling beginning and had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It is also worth noting that if you – like me – are the kind of reader who looks up words they don’t understand, there are a couple of made-up words thrown in here that I would advise you not to investigate; words like ‘icpathua’ and ‘vodsel’. Never forget that the web is dark and full of spoilers…

The Woman
Scarlett Johansson stars as Isserly’s equivalent – The Woman – in Under The Skin (2013)

Despite these quite major sticking points, I really did enjoy Under The Skin. There’s definitely no other book like it, and its opaque ambiguity and downright weirdness is what makes it simultaneously so fascinating and frustrating to read.

Shortly after I finished reading Under The Skin, I watched the 2013 film of the same name starring Scarlett Johansson. I thought the film – which is only a very loose adaption of the book – was just as good, if not better; a fantastic transition from page to screen. Honestly, I would recommend both, so if you cannot bring yourself to read the book based on my rating, it’s definitely worth checking out the film.

Verdict: 3/5

S.E. Berrow


For more information on Michel Faber and Under The Skin (2013), please visit the below links:

http://www.canongate.tv/authors/michelfaber
http://undertheskinmovie.com/

 

Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb: Book Review

Fool's QuestFool’s Quest is the second book in Robin Hobb’s latest epic fantasy trilogy, Fitz and the Fool. It is the eighth book told from the perspective of protagonist FitzChivalry Farseer, and the fifteenth book in the Realm of the Elderlings series as a whole (excluding the novellas and short stories). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the work of Robin Hobb, I highly recommend that before you read another word of this review, you go away and read all preceding books in the Realm of the Elderlings series, including The Liveship Traders and The Rain Wild Chronicles (though please do not be put off by The Rain Wild Chronicles‘ far inferior quality). Each book is of a rather mighty and intimidating size, but I can assure you that you will become so engrossed in Hobb’s exquisite characters and beautifully engaging writing that you will soon be finished in no time! You can thank me later.

Fitz has been reunited with the Fool at last, albeit under devastatingly violent and harrowing circumstances. Whilst a blissfully oblivious Fitz attempts to heal his friend within the confines of Buckkeep Castle and dissuade him from his quest for vengeance, his daughter Bee has been abducted by the mysterious Servants and their hired Chalcedean mercenaries, who believe her to be the long-awaited ‘Unexpected Son’ of the Fool’s prophecies. With Withywoods in disarray and a drastic political upheaval at Buckkeep Castle that will likely have every long-term Robin Hobb reader punching the air for joy, Fitz has much to contend with if he wishes to get Bee back. It may also mean that he will be forced to take up the Fool’s quest for vengeance after all…

The title is somewhat misleading, as said quest does not actually begin until the Third Act of the narrative. Similarly, the plot (like many of Robin Hobb’s previous works) is a slow-burner, the focus firmly upon the characters’ fears, loves and motivations. Despite huge chunks of seemingly nothing happening (Fitz continues to agonise endlessly over his decisions), these passages are rarely ever boring to read, and do not feel unnecessary. This is testimony to Hobb’s excellent grasp of wordsmithery. Her writing is as sprawlingly beautiful as ever, with the power to illicit incredible amounts of feeling and emotion in her readers with the simplest but most devastating of sentences. As a veteran reader, it is simply breathtaking when you take a step back and realise exactly how much has changed and developed since Assassin’s Apprentice, when Fitz was still Nameless the Dog Boy, the Skill badly practised, the Wit utterly forbidden and dragons nowhere to be found.

Despite this, things do sag in the middle when the reader is forced with Fitz to wait an age before any action can be taken to rescue Bee. Whilst this frustration is echoed within Fitz himself and encourages the reader to empathise with his position, it makes for some pretty exhausting reading. Real effort must be made to continue wading through the sheer hopelessness of the situation, particularly when combined with the dramatic irony that the reader knows precisely the danger that Bee is in. Whilst some might argue that this as a writing strength, personally it just got on my nerves, especially with so little pay-off in terms of story/quest progression. Those of you who have read my 1/5 star review of Blood Of Dragons on Goodreads (click here) will perhaps have some idea of my disappointment when things come to a head in the city of Kelsingra of all places.

On the subject of Bee (whose point-of-view chapters were such a pleasant surprise in Fool’s Assassin) her appearances are far fewer here. She has perhaps maybe five point-of-view chapters in total, and all of them are much, much shorter than a standard Fitz chapter. Given how much I loved Bee’s narrative voice in Fool’s Assassin, this did not bother me anywhere near as much as I thought it would; it was lovely to spend so much time in Fitz’s head again. Unbelievably stupid and hellishly frustrating he may be, one cannot help but love him as a character; we as readers have been through so much with him already.

All in all, this is a typical middle-of-the-trilogy Robin Hobb book, which is to say that it is not her best, but still excellent. The groundwork has been laid, the catalyst has been set in motion, the emotional fallout from the first book’s events have been dealt with, and there is a promise of great and exciting things to come in the conclusion – Assassin’s Fate – due out later this year. I simply cannot wait!

Verdict: 3/5

S.E. Berrow


 

Disclaimer: For some reason, I found this review really, really difficult to write, so apologies that it is so long-coming and not up to my usual standard.

For more information on Robin Hobb and the Realm of the Elderlings, please visit her official website:

http://www.robinhobb.com/