Fantasy origin stories, a child’s view of music, and time-looping murders

Some odds and ends collected over the last week(s), including magical origin stories, music inspired by a child’s music box, and a time-looping game influenced by Groundhog Day.  

This week I’ve been reading…

Tempests and Slaughter, Tamora Pierce (Random House, 2018)

Tempests and Slaughter is a charming book and a thoroughly enjoyable read. It tells the early story of Arram Draper, also known as Numair Salmalín from Pierce’s Immortals series. It follows that well-worn formula of: boy goes to magic school, boy learns to do magic, boy gets into various magical scrapes. This book is not exactly full of surprise and novelty, but Pierce does this formula so well. The magical classes, the teaching masters, and the various deities who pop up in unexpected places make a book that essentially revolves around a school timetable far more exciting and interesting than it should be.

Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce

It’s been some time since I read Pierce’s Immortals series, so I wasn’t overly invested in the book as a portrayal of Numair’s early years. I was quite happy to read this as a separate fantasy adventure story rather than an origin story. Reading it as such it’s perfectly enjoyable, although an awareness of what’s to come perhaps helps explain the lack of subtlety in some areas, such as the inevitable breakdown in the relationship between Ozorne and Arram.

I did find Tempests and Slaughter a little lacking in areas. There is very little plot. There are a few areas of tension, but these are not resolved within the course of the book and are clearly meant to unfold over the course of the series. I’m particularly interested in seeing how the tension develops surrounding Carthak’s exploitation of slaves. The one, possibly climactic, moment of tension is resolved within a couple of pages. The result is an enjoyable meander through Tamora Pierce’s imagination, but look elsewhere if you like a plot-filled page-turner.

Thank you to Tamora Pierce and Random House via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This week I’ve been listening to…

Sound of Cinema: Father/Daughter (BBC Radio 3, 30 June 2018)

There’s nothing I like better than listening to Sound of Cinema on my morning commute (a 45-minute walk through Milton Keynes parklands). Matthew Sweet provides engaging and intelligent commentary, and the music allows me to drift into my imagination while I enjoy the scenery. I love the unapologetic emotion of film soundtracks, and Sound of Cinema always chooses a good mix of familiar and lesser-known scores. This particular episode revolved around the theme of fathers and daughters, and featured tracks from The Little MermaidInterstellar, and How to Steal a Million. The classic score of the week was the main titles from To Kill a Mockingbird, composed by Elmer Bernstein. Matthew Sweet told us that in the main titles, Bernstein was inspired by the child’s perspective of To Kill a Mockingbird: using piano, vibraphone, and celesta to remind of a music box. He also confined himself to an octave range – the range of a child’s voice.

This week I’ve been playing…

The Sexy Brutale (Cavalier Game Studios and Tequila Works, 2017)

I’m not much of a gamer, so it’s a big deal for me to say that I’ve finally completed my first game – all the way through to the final credits. It should come as no surprise that the game I’ve completed is compelling both in gameplay and narrative. Sexy Brutale is an adventure-puzzle game in which the player is trapped in a mansion where the guests are murdered one by one. The player, in the guise of retired preacher Lafcadio Boone, is trapped in neverending loops, Groundhog Day-style, and can only escape if they can figure out how to prevent each murder from happening.

The Sexy Brutale Artwork

This game has everything – gorgeous visuals, brilliant electro-swing soundtrack, and some very creepy henchmen. The puzzles are challenging enough to be satisfying but not so difficult that I had to cheat (that often). The narrative of each of the individual murders and the overarching mystery of the mansion is cleverly balanced, leading up to a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching finale. The developers say the story-telling style is inspired by immersive theatre, where the story is happening around the audience member, but the audience can also influence the outcome.

Screenshot The Sexy Brutale

It’s fascinating to read about how the game was developed – because the same day is repeated over and over again in different areas of the mansion, the game had to be plotted with pin-point accuracy. Design Director Charles Griffiths said, “It always felt like …‘We can’t go full Groundhog Day’. Because then every piece of music would have to be timed to the second with the actions taking place and every single character’s movement would have to be completely choreographed. That would be tricky to tell the story, that would be tricky to do puzzles, it would tricky to do everything. But it was the cleanest and most exciting form of the idea.” Despite the challenges, they’ve achieved a satisfying, entertaining, and heartfelt game that’s every bit as finely tuned as one of Reginald Sixpence’s clocks.




Mock mascots, indistinguishable twins, and a portrait of questionable identity

Since I’m constantly wading through an overwhelming queue of books and thoughts and discoveries to write about, I’ve decided to share some snapshots of my reading week. Enforced deadlines and brevity — the two friends of the over-worked (and over-ambitious).

This week, I’ve been reading…

Jaclyn Moriarty, Becoming Bindy Mackenzie (also known as The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie and The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie, depending on where you read it) (Young Picador, 2006)

bindy mackenzie.jpg

I’m probably a little older than this book’s intended audience, but I still found it completely relevant to my own current dreams and dilemmas. I like to think that’s because Moriarty’s writing is universal, rather than because I haven’t yet developed beyond typical teenage woes. A book full of joy and anxiety, with a dose of adventure and mystery that’s not present in Moriarty’s other Brookfield/Ashbury novels. I read it in a day, and it was the perfect few hours of escapism. I particularly love Moriarty’s scrapbook style, which draws together Bindy’s journal entries, philosophical musings, memos to and from her fellow students, and correspondence to and from the School Board. Easy to read but not at all lacking in depth or inventiveness.

Georgette Heyer, False Colours (Cornerstone, 2011)
Needless to say, not the cover of the 2011 edition.

I read this looking for a romantic escape, which I find Heyer can normally be relied upon to provide. Whether it was my own levels of distraction or the book’s lack of substance, I find I wasn’t engaged as I normally was. Brilliant cast of eccentric characters, and some great mistaken identity escapades. As usual, wonderful Regency detail in both setting and vocabulary. Fun in a predictable way, but less heartwarming than some of her other novels.

This week, I’ve been watching…

Mascots (2016, dir. Christopher Guest)

A mockumentary examining the world of competitive mascotting. Mascottery? Mostly light-hearted but not without the odd dose of painful reality, particularly in the desperately, irrevocably broken marriage of Ollie the Octopus and Tammy the Turtle (Zack Woods and Sarah Baker). The word “off-beat” could have been invented for this film, with its mascot routines of slapstick hedgehogs climbing aspirational ladders, oversized plumbers and break-dancing turd, and armadillos doing interpretative dance. I laughed a lot, sometimes in spite of myself.

This week, I’ve learnt…

The “Chandos” portrait of Shakespeare was the first portrait to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, in 1856. It feels somewhat appropriate that a portrait of our national poet forms the basis of our national portrait collection.

NPG Chandos
© The National Portrait Gallery

The NPG website entry claims that the sitter is associated with 96 portraits, which is surprising, given that we only have two representations of Shakespeare we can be really confident are of him (one an engraving printed in the First Folio, the other the memorial bust in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon). The Chandos portrait forms the most likely third portrait of him, and it’s certainly the most compelling image, with a hint of a smile, rakish earring, and the knowing eyes gazing at us out of the darkness. What Shakespeare looked like has produced endless consternation and many hundreds of pages. The prevalence of interpretations of Shakespeare’s portraits combined with doubt the authenticity of the original images creates something of a paradox. As Bill Bryson writes in his book on the playwright: “we recognize a likeness of Shakespeare the instant we see one, and yet we don’t really know what he looked like” (HarperPress, 2007, p.7.).

See also: Tarnya Cooper, Searching for Shakespeare, 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 2 March – 29 May 2006), p.53.

I’ve also had the privilege to be working on the third installment in the Perry Webster murder mystery series, soon to be released by The Book Folks. Stan Jackson is a brilliant and engaging writer, and his creation of a philosophy professor turned private investigator is inspired. His third book is a slice of classic murder mystery with all the style, intrigue and intelligence of an Agatha Christie.


Unfettered imagination: The Sea Beast Takes a Lover

The Sea Beast Takes a Lover is a work of supreme imagination. Michael Andreasen’s writing breaks down boundaries of time, space, and genre to create a multi-faceted jewel of story-telling. In the title story, a sea monster has taken a ship hostage, and is gradually enfolding her in its many-tentacled embrace (you can read an illustrated version of the story in Signature). In these stories we encounter a cannibal admiral, a girl without a head, and a boy who can’t touch the ground.

Andreasen’s stories are paradoxical: surreal but relatable; familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. A boy trying to find his family, a young man frustrated by familial expectations, a family saying goodbye to an elderly relative. It just also happens that the boy lives in a post-apocalyptic circus world and is guided by a bear, the young man is caring for his sister who has no head, and the elderly relative is going to be loaded into a crate and dropped into the sea.

One of Andreasen’s many strengths is in his experimentation with voice. How often do you come across a story written in first person plural, or in the form of baptismal rites? Such voices collapse the gap between narrative and reader, and after all, isn’t that what reading is all about?

One of my favourite stories begins as an average school trip: ill-prepared students, absent teachers, sugar overloads, and vomit buckets. Except the subject of your school trip is time travel, and so the lesson features debates about the observer effect, causality, and the scientific rigours of Back to the Future. At the Time Travel Institute, the travellers “go straight to the source: history in its rawest, purest form” (loc 2407). But when the time travel device starts leaking, time telescopes and collapses as students become adults and dinosaur bones grow fleshy. Disaster must be avoided. “‘Will you make sure that I’m not erased?’ they ask again as they tuck one another into bed.”

The Sea Beast Takes a Lover is full of remarkable imagery: a child’s drawing of a grandfather in his wheelchair at the bottom of the sea, an abandoned amusement park, and my favourite, the Saint of Dubious, Possibly Mythical Origin, whose indefinable iconography results in an ever-shifting form. “His past is only lore, existing in the imagination of perhaps a dozen conflicting medieval scrolls and apocrypha. He is not a saint that was, but a saint that might have been, surviving through enough stories that enough people want to believe, which is often all a saint needs to be.” (loc 1602-1608). The only constant is his battle with the Beast, “But here in the pre-bellum moment, Saint of Dubious, Possibly Mythical Origin is at his least confused. He perfectly comprehends the ever-shifting amalgam of his own iconography, the animal barking of his own brain. In this moment, he is the most consistent and real that he will ever be” (1615-1618).

As much as I loved the creativity of these stories, I felt I was left never quite knowing where I stood. We are dropped into the middle of scenarios and often lifted out of them as abruptly. There are no explanations or backstories. For me this created further paradox: the sheer joy of unlimited imagination conflicting with the need for tangible explanations. In the story of the elderly relative, for instance, a family prepares to say goodbye to a man reaching the end of his life. He is about to be “crated”, that’s to say, he’s about to be loaded into a crate and dropped into the sea. It’s a beautiful story, full of arresting imagery and real human anguish, shame, and sadness. It’s a story of family and memory and it’s delightfully odd. But I couldn’t help feeling like I was missing something. Was crating a metaphor? For the isolation of the elderly? The need to ship our relatives off to a care home when they become burdensome? A very literal exploration of “sleeping with the fishes”? Asking myself these questions, I’ve made far more sense of this story than many of the others. In one of my favourite stories we meet a collection of saints, in some form of afterlife. There are overarching questions: why have the saints been gathered together? where are they? what is the voice they collectively hear? But such questions are never addressed. The answers to the questions seem less important than simply observing the characters – until we’re not, and we’re on to the next story. Instead of these stories ending with a full stop or a sigh of revelation, they seem to end on a comma. They just stop. I was left feeling unsatisfied.

Perhaps though, I was looking for the wrong thing from these stories. Perhaps it is not important to “get” something, or interpret, or explain. They are simply quirky, often macabre, flights of fancy. Enjoy being surprised. Enjoy the unexpected. Don’t look for explanations, just enjoy the questions. They’ll stay with you far longer than the answers will.

Favourite quotation:
“Before receiving the tongue of flame, Saint Tongue of Flame never had much of a gift for oratory. Imagine then how disappointed he must have felt when that same artlessness followed him into his evangelical career. True, the tongue of flame had allowed him to proselytize to all peoples in all languages, but it had failed to imbue upon him the requisite oratorical charisma to ensnare the hearts and minds of men in the crook of his fervor…The last of the Pictish tribes had evicted him at spear-point, and the Saracens had found him too tiresome to bother beheading.” (loc 1557-1562)

Michael Andreasen, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover (Head of Zeus, 2018)

Thank you to Michael Andreasen and Head of Zeus via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Unapologetically creative: in search of Mary Shelley in Fiona Sampson’s new biography

To mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, Fiona Sampson sets out to understand the experiences that shaped the mind behind the first science-fiction novel.

The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein

I was so excited to read a biography of Mary Shelley. I first read Frankenstein and The Last Man while at university, and fell completely in love with Shelley’s exquisite writing, complex ideas, and boundless imagination. And yet I knew next to nothing about the woman herself, beyond how she seemed to be defined by her relationship to those around her: daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, friend to Lord Byron, wife to Percy Bysshe Shelley. So my expectations soared when I read in Sampson’s introduction that she hoped to “hugely enlarge” Mary, and bring her into the foreground, so that she might be understood on her own terms.

I enjoyed the biography immensely, it’s beautifully written, well researched, and tangibly evokes the lives of those it considers. But I’m not quite sure that Sampson achieves what she claims she will in her introduction.

Sampson structures the biography around a series of imaginatively detailed vignettes, such as Mary’s birth, or sitting around the fire telling the ghost story that would become Frankenstein. Sampson is open about this structure, calling her work “a freeze-frame biography” (loc 110). She’s also explicit about its potential drawbacks, acknowledging that the vitality of a person cannot truly be understood through a series of stills. Each of these scenes is atmospheric, often intensely visceral, the details almost tangible. Of the elopement of Mary and Percy, Sampson writes: “In the next scene she lies exhausted by seasickness and fear on board a small wooden sailing vessel. The boat is being dwarfed by storm waves that swell under and around it in the moonlight. The time is just before midnight…” (loc 1132-35). But the evocation almost undermines the reality — we have to consciously remind ourselves that we’re not reading a novel, we’re reading a biography.

This freeze-frame structure also means that Sampson picks and chooses the scenes from Mary’s life that most interest her, or that have been deemed most significant by posterity. Of course, biographies are inevitably an exercise in gap-filling; as Hermione Lee writes, “Biographers try to make a coherent narrative out of missing documents as well as existing ones; a whole figure out of body parts.” (Body Parts, p.8). But as a result of all this picking and choosing, I felt Mary Shelley’s voice was marginalised in favour of Sampson’s.

Sampson chooses to focus predominantly on the beginning of Mary’s life. She is aware, again, of the pitfalls of her approach, talking of the potential of “foreshortening”: “the later years of a life — of anyone’s life — do not build a personality, and they don’t go on to affect a future. They are that future. Frankenstein is not unconnected to what comes after it in Mary’s life. On the contrary, it changed her life just as it has changed our cultural imagination. But that’s the thing: Mary’s first novel informs her future; her last does not inform her past” (loc 118). As such, Sampson’s biography spends one single chapter on Mary’s later life (essentially after the death of Percy Shelley). But if we’re “in search” of “the girl who wrote Frankenstein“, isn’t it also valuable to be in search of the woman whose life was informed by the creation of Frankenstein?

The freeze-frame structure also means that time is telescoped. In the first “scene”, before Mary is even born, we have flashed back to examine her parents’ relationship, and flashed forward through the first 10 years of Mary’s life. Perhaps this lack of chronological integrity helps to explain Sampson’s proleptic tendencies: “In the next fourteen months, shockingly, Mary is going to lose both her surviving children…But that’s in the future. For now the party are making fairly rapid progress through France…” (loc 2592-2598). It is unclear to me if such moments were for dramatic effect. They certainly result in jolting the reader out of their immersion in the story. Perhaps Sampson is acknowledging that the form of biography is inherently proleptic. Even if we do not know the details, we know that in the coming pages, Mary will write Frankenstein, she will be widowed, and will eventually die.

Mary Shelley
Richard Rothwell’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1840 (National Portrait Gallery)

Playing with time is just one of the creative liberties Sampson takes with the past. The Mary Shelley of In Search of Mary Shelley feels very much like a construction by someone other than Mary herself. In this narrative, Mary is cast as heroine, her father, husband, and step-sister as unsympathetic villains. Sampson asserts that “Claire…will never once express a whisper of guilt or regret” (loc 2678-80). Talking of Mary’s letters to Percy, Sampson writes of Mary’s self-conscious manipulation of her letters, which are designed to “win” “masculine approval” by “not being intelligent” (loc 1555). One can’t help wondering how we can know for sure. How can we know Claire never spoke an apology to Mary? How can we know for sure that Mary’s letters were manipulative rather than genuine? While Sampson’s position as biographer is one of supreme (if unfounded) authority, she does also occasionally invite readers in to hypothesise with her. Of Godwin’s response to Mary’s birth she writes, “Time stretches out. One imagines a clock ticking. It is the wolf hour. Does he feel tired? Or is he wired by adrenalin? Does he long for a coffee?” (loc 274-279). However, these moments of acknowledged uncertainty are anomalous.

I struggle, too, with the difficulty of liberating Mary from being defined by other people. Sampson fails to pay great attention to Mary outside of her relationship with Percy. Life after his death is at once judged and defended by Sampson as a “slip” into “domestic comfort” and “an end to intellectual and creative stamina” (loc 3800). The BBC Radio Four Book of the Week adaptation of In Search of Mary Shelley is perhaps an illustration of this (although it is worth remembering that Sampson was not responsible for the abridgement). Three out of the five episodes are about Mary’s life while she was in a relationship with Percy. The first episode is about her childhood, and the last episode is about life after Percy’s death. This is despite the fact that 45 years out of Mary’s 53 were spent not in a relationship with Percy. Even that final episode is about Mary’s work editing and publishing Percy’s writing. And this is the problem: it’s difficult to “liberate” Mary from Percy because she defined herself by him, perpetually “chained”, as it were, to him, as Percy wrote of monogamy in his poem ‘Epipsychidion’ (which is, of course, addressed to a woman other than Mary). I agree with Sampson when she writes of the portrait we have of Mary, “The black velvet Mary wears to sit for her Rothwell portrait, seventeen years after Percy’s death, is a statement not only of her grief but also of her continuing identity as Percy’s widow” (loc 3424-3425). And let’s not forget after he died she kept his heart for the rest of her life. It seems Mary would rather actively define herself by her relationship to someone else, than passively be subject to our desires to isolate and examine her.

I think the problem is that the portrait feels so curated, with such imaginative painting of scenes, sections of life removed and glossed over, that it does not feel authentic. That’s not to say this is not a valuable exercise, but the result is more evocative than it is informative, and may offer as much insight into Sampson as it does to Mary Shelley. Sampson’s tendency to assert certainty where there is none means that no matter how well researched, In Search of Mary Shelley feels more of a creative exercise than an academic one. This saddens me, because I agreed so whole-heartedly with Sampson’s assessment in her introduction that “Mary does not need fictionalising. She deserves better than imaginative reconstruction: she deserves to be listened to” (loc 86). Perhaps Sampson has listened to Mary Shelley. It’s simply that each of us in listening to the same person will interpret the facts in their own individual way.

Sometimes the expectations you bring to a text define it far more rigidly than the text deserves. Remember James Thurber’s story about the woman who reads Macbeth as a murder mystery? I came to this, quite simply, hoping to learn more about Mary Shelley. I find myself unable to be sure of whether that expectation has been fulfilled. I know a few more facts of her life, and those of the people she encountered. I know a little more about life in the 19th century. But I am reluctant to trust in the character Sampson has created. My ideal biography would probably be extracts from letters and novels with heavily footnoted commentary. It might be quite dry. But I’d at least know what I was reading was attempting authenticity. This isn’t that type of biography, but Sampson doesn’t apologise for that, and while I was frustrated by In Search of Mary Shelley, I can’t help but admire its brilliance.

Favourite quotation:
“If we can think of Mary’s life as a series of portraits, this one is nothing like a painting fixed in oils. It reminds me of the flicker of a video installation: the grainy black-and-white bleached by wilful exposure into near-invisibility, its jerkiness reproducing the apprentice technologies of the very earliest films. We can barely distinguish between the figures themselves and the markings of the wall on to which they’re projected. Nothing is certain; everything keeps changing.” (loc 1509-1515)

Fiona Sampson, In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl who wrote Frankenstein (Profile Books, 2018)

Thank you to Fiona Sampson and Profile Books via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Worthy and unsettling successor to a classic: Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek

Gabriel Utterson witnessed the downfall and death of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde seven years ago. When a man claiming to be Jekyll arrives in London, Utterson’s life is turned upside down. Everything from his inheritance to his sanity is threatened by Jekyll’s apparent return from the dead. Utterson sets out to find the truth: “If he be Mr Hyde, I shall be Mr Seek.”

Anthony O'Neill Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek

I often get quite protective of my favourite novels when they are rewritten by contemporary authors. P. D. James’s “sequel” to Pride and Prejudice — Pemberley —for instance, is a fun but slightly incongruous return to characters I know and love. It’s enjoyable, but not something I’d ever consider a true successor to the original. Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek, however, not only convincingly reimagines Stevenson’s novel, but it does so in such a way that expands on and enhances the original. A dialogue is established between the two, so that each enriches the other.

O’Neill’s writing puts us very convincingly in the world of Victorian London. Everything from the setting, style, and even narrative structure is reminiscent of Stevenson. The novel starts as a Gothic romp in Victorian London (with a jaunt to Edinburgh, Stevenson’s hometown, which I particularly appreciated). But it quickly unravels. As Utterson fights to prove the new Jekyll is an impostor, he is assailed by doubts. The Gothic romp becomes a deeply unsettling portrayal of a deteriorating mind; a study of madness and obsession.

Since Utterson can’t tell if he can trust anyone, including himself, he becomes an unreliable narrator. The readers are left not knowing what is real and what is not. This is particularly effective as any so-called “liberties” taken with the original novella can be undermined depending on which version of the facts you choose to believe. Nothing is certain.

A only 133 pages, you race through it, barely able to pause for breath. A dark and discomforting tribute to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, this is also an excellent read in its own right.

Favourite quotation: “Hyde is concealed deep within Dr Jekyll, and safely imprisoned at that. He is a scoundrel and a malefactor, true, but no more evil or dangerous than all the other scoundrels and malefactors that today lie hidden in this very court. For whom among you does not harbour his own Mr Hyde?…Who does not daily, hourly, suppress the urges of his horrible Hyde?…[W]hile you have every reason to deliver a verdict on Mr Hyde, you can no more condemn Dr Jekyll than you can condemn yourselves. We are all Jekylls, yea, but equally we are all Hydes.” (loc 769-781)

Anthony O’Neill, Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek (Black & White Publishing, 2017)

Thank you to Anthony O’Neill and Black & White Publishing via NetGalley for a copy in an exchange for an honest review.


The ultimate surveillance nightmare – Broadcast by Liam Brown

David is a vlogger, and has found fame telling millions of followers about the intricacies of his ordinary life. He keeps nothing from his adoring public. Then MindCast offer him the opportunity to broadcast his thoughts 24 hours a day. A small operation, a tiny chip in his brain, and he will be the most famous person on the planet. How could he say no?

Broadcast by Liam Brown.jpg

Broadcast is a fast-paced and intriguing exploration of the dangers of our social media-obsessed society. The world Brown describes is just one small step away from our own. In fact, MindCast is the next logical step in our social media journey — not even a short step away, but a shortcut to instant gratification.

I loved this most when it was talking about the philosophy of surveillance and celebrity culture, especially the celebrity of the everyday. The consequences of the chip, such as David not being able to use passwords and PINs, not even being able to think negatively about a restaurant without risking being sued, are extremely well thought-out. The anxiety this provokes is hugely convincing.

A number of reviews I’ve read have focused on how unsympathetic David is. While he’s certainly not someone I can immediately imagine being friends with, I didn’t find this in any way a barrier to my enjoyment of the novel. David’s character — vapid, self-obsessed, often thoughtless — was believable if not likeable. He barely thinks about the consequences of having the chip implanted: the decision is made apparently on a whim, spurred on by his competitive nature and desire for fame, but this was completely in-line with his character.

The last quarter of the novel is more dramatic and action-based, which I personally found less appealing. I wish too, that Alice’s role and character in the latter part of the novel had been explored further. That said the ending is tremendously unsettling and a worthy conclusion to well-executed book with a fascinating concept.

Liam Brown, Broadcast (Legend Press, 2017)

Thank you to Liam Brown and Legend Press via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Magic ordinary and extraordinary: The Toy Makers by Robert Dinsdale

Cathy Wray, 15 years old and newly pregnant. Fearful of losing her baby, she runs away from her family, responding to a job advert in the newspaper: “Are you lost? Are you afraid? Are you a child at heart?” This is Cathy’s introduction to Papa Jack’s Emporium, a place where lost souls gather to experience the spectacular magic of Papa Jack’s toys. She meets the intimidating Papa Jack, the charismatic Kaspar, and his long-suffering brother, Emil. We follow their fortunes over the course of 50 years: births, marriages, war, bankruptcy, and magic.

The Toy Makers Robert Dinsdale
Cover by the hugely talented Laura Barrett

Despite the fact the story covers such a long period of time, the plot never stumbles. Hours passed as I was reading without me realising, and even when it reached the small hours of the morning, I could not stop. I wish I could put my finger on what makes this book so brilliant. The writing is gorgeous, vivid, and visual. The narrator often acts as a guide, inviting us in to explore the labyrinth of the emporium, the minds of the characters. It seems redundant to say the characters are well developed. They weren’t characters to me. They were real people, with all the hopes and dreams, fears and foibles of real people. I shared in their pain, their uncertainties, their unexpected joys.

Robert Dinsdale’s story-telling has a peculiar magic. Reading his writing it is as though the words fade away to reveal the scenes he describes, played out in front of you. Inanimate toys are wound up, and they stand to attention. But what is this peculiar magic that makes toys act beyond the expectations of their mechanisms? The magic that makes Dinsdale’s words reach out, take your hand, and drag you along with the story? It feels like his writing, just like his toy soldiers, is alive.

The book succeeds because its foundation is a study of human life, and watching four generations of a family succeed and fail. It’s also a book about nostalgia, sentimental but never mawkish. It’s about how toys can make us feel like children again, and the trials of one family trying to bring some joy into a troubled world. But it’s also about magic. The ordinary magic of love and hope, and the extraordinary magic of what might happen if, just if, a toy were to one day come to life.

Favourite quotation, the wisdom of Papa Jack:
“But can a toy come to life? My dear…it isn’t foolish at all. All of the magic, all of the love we pour into them. I should think the only foolish thing is to wonder why it doesn’t happen all of the time.”

Robert Dinsdale, The Toy Makers (Penguin Random House, 2018)

Thank you to Robert Dinsdale and Penguin Random House via NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Gamification of the library experience: Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library

“Knowledge not shared remains unknown.” – Luigi L. Lemoncello

Mr Luigi Lemoncello, the world’s most famous gamemaker, has completely redesigned Kyle Keeley’s local library. When Kyle and his friends are invited to an exclusive sleepover before the library opens, they find they have to solve Mr Lemoncello’s ultimate puzzle: how can they escape the library, using only the resources inside it?

Escape from Mr Lemoncello's Library

I was fairly sure I’d like this book just on learning the title. After reading the first few chapters, I was certain I would love it. I am the kind of person who will read a book just because it has “library”, or “bookshop”, or “museum” in the title. So I hadn’t initially realised it was written for children (ages 8-12) until I went hunting for it at my local library (appropriately enough). But it being a children’s book wasn’t going to put me off—I’d just discovered the Artemis Fowl books for the first time, and had read them obsessively. I get rather cross when people talk about being “too old” to read a certain book.

And how glad I am I found it, nestling among the low-hanging books of the children’s bookshelves. This book has everything. A tightly plotted adventure, literary references galore, outrageous puns, and a healthy does of parable-type moralising. It even has a few irresistible puzzles for the reader. Above all it’s a love letter to libraries and the power of stories and knowledge.

For adults, it’s a fun afternoon read to make us fall in love with reading again. For children, it’s a must for encouraging them to read books and visit their library. Although they might be disappointed if it doesn’t contain a holographic tiger—I’m certainly hoping my local library will be installing a Book Nook Café soon.

Favourite quotation: “A library doesn’t need windows, Andrew. We have books, which are windows into worlds we never even dreamed possible.”

Chris Grabenstein, Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library (Yearling, 2014)

Immersive and convincing historical fiction: A Pearl for My Mistress by Annabel Fielding


Both Hester and Sophie are trying to escape. Hester dreams of travelling. She has left her family and her home, abandoning her working class vocabulary and Northern accent to become the perfect lady’s maid. Sophie longs for independence, to free herself from the rigid shackles of her aristocratic upbringing. In trying to escape, they find each other. But it’s 1934 in England, so can their relationship survive the threat of war, financial instability, and slander?

A Pearl for My Mistress Annabel Fielding.jpg

When I began this book I imagined it would be an easy read; your average romantic novel. How wrong I was. This book is so much more than a love story. Yes, the pace nips along nicely and the story is totally immersive, but the historical context adds great depth and intrigue, and the prose is beautiful, elegant, and expressive.

This book is not merely set against a backdrop of the 1930s, but is completely immersed in the time. Fielding’s writing is so evocative that it’s easy to imagine every last detail of life in 1930s England. A Pearl for My Mistress is clearly thoroughly researched, and the historical context is effortlessly intertwined with the plot. Fictional narrative merges with real-life events and characters, moving seamlessly from intricate details of high society life and working class drudgery to broader political themes. While the details are intricate and informed, they never overpower the story. The political climate of the era is profoundly complex, and so the book benefitted from a range of viewpoints. I imagine Lucy, given her support of the Blackshirts, is a somewhat divisive character, but her motivations are perfectly justified, even, at times, sympathetic.

My only gripes were very minor—the commitment to telling the story in the voice of both Hester and Lucy meant some immersion was lost when they were together and the reader had to jump between the two perspectives. I was sad, too, that Hester faded a little into the background towards the last third of the novel.

There’s so much to love about this book: the vividly described historical context, the convincingly flawed characters, the sensual, sentimental, and oh so relatable descriptions of love (which Fielding describes beautifully as like “velvet”). I also loved Fielding’s descriptions of writing and reading, and the power of words and legends to inspire and even control. Fielding’s passion for the era and for the writing process itself is infectious. This is no simple romance, but a story about misplaced trust, self-destructive behaviour, and how characters can survive and thrive against manipulation on a personal and political scale.

Favourite quotation: “Lucy Fitzmartin lay in the darkness, feeling absolutely no inclination to sleep. Her mind was ablaze with stories, with thoughts, with possibilities. She could feel the spectres of a thousand plots at her fingertips. Words flared up in her head, colliding and intertwining with one another, forming sentences and paragraphs of the stories yet to be written. Now she had someone to read them.”

Annabel Fielding, A Pearl for My Mistress (HQ Digital, 2017)

Thank you to Annabel Fielding and HQ Digital for a copy in exchange for an honest review.

The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire by Brian Keaney

I loved the concept of this. Take one unexplained event from the life of a literary genius, add a splash of fact and a generous dose of fiction, and bake, until the resulting mix has increased in size and scope a hundred times over. The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire follows three disparate characters and their intertwining lives in early 19th-century London. Tuah, an ex-slave; Anne, a prostitute; and a young Thomas de Quincey. Weaving through the story, dealing out pleasure and pain in equal measure, is the ominous presence of opium.

Brian Keaney The Alphabet of Heart's Desire

I was really excited to read this, having been introduced to Thomas de Quincey’s work while at university. I haven’t read ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’ (which inspired this novel), but I loved his morbid satirical essay ‘On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’. In preparation for this I tried to look up my study notes, but all I could find was an elusive reference to it in an essay on the poetry of Browning. Disappointing for me now, but no doubt at the time I thought my passing reference was very witty and intellectual.

The narrative is told from the perspective of each of the three main characters. Each character has an individual, if slightly contrived, voice. Tuah’s speech is peppered with the Bible verses introduced to him by the ship captain who taught him to speak English. Anne’s speech is full of the grammatical idiosyncracies one might expect from your run-of-the-mill 19th-century street urchin. She is a street urchin with learning, however, and every word that might be considered too erudite for her is italicised. I found this a little distracting, but I think it emphasises that however much she may learn the ways of the upper classes, she will never leave behind her impoverished roots. While Thomas might use those words naturally, for her they come from a world beyond her own. She cannot forget it, and neither can we.

The characters themselves are well developed, and while they do give a cross section of 19th-century society, they do not feel stereotyped. By far my favouite character was Archie, whose philosophy and wit were sunshine among the clouds. I thoroughly enjoyed his conversation with Tuah about reading having “cured” him of his hunchback. Seeing Tuah’s puzzlement, he responds, “You are tempted to point out that it is still there…Literature is the great leveller…for when I read I stand as straight and true as any man.”

The writing is good and often wryly funny, although I was rarely completely absorbed by it. The highlights are certainly the descriptions of early 19th-century life in London. Particularly the more unpleasant aspects. Racism, child sex, rape, torture. Keaney certainly doesn’t shy away from describing these in vivid, macabre detail, confronting the reader with the gritty reality we are often all too happy to ignore.

For me, the pacing felt a little off. I enjoyed exploring the backstories of each of these characters, but wasn’t fully invested until Thomas and Anne finally meet. It was a shame not to spend more time with this and the fall-out of their relationship. Since the consequences of this are not explored, the ending comes abruptly and is a little anti-climactic.

An enjoyable read for fans of literary historical fiction but this didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

Favourite quotation: “he lay down flat with his ear to the ground and listened. At first it was no more than a whisper, like the sound of the wind breathing through the sedge beside some ancient and forever sunless sea. But gradually the murmur grew and Thomas knew it then for what it was: the footsteps of all those who had ever walked, or ever would walk upon the face of the earth. He listened harder, knowing there was a meaning in those endlessly changing patterns, if only he could understand it.”

Brian Keaney, The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire (Holland House, 2017)

Thank you to Brian Keaney and Holland House via NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.