A fresh (and female) take on an old tale: Betsy Cornwell’s The Forest Queen

In many ways, The Forest Queen is a fairly standard, though very good, adventure story. It is, in essence, a gender-reversed retelling of Robin Hood. Sylvie runs away from home with her childhood friend, Bird, and sets up camp in the forest. As she rebels against the injustices enacted by her brother, who is the acting Lord of the Manor, she gradually attracts a band of rebel brothers and sisters.

And yet, there is something in the subject matter and sensitive writing that lingers with you. This is not a gender-reversed retelling for the sake of doing something new. Every detail – of Medieval life, of day-to-day arboreal existence, the realities of childbirth – is described with a visceral clarity. One example of such detail is the image of Sylvie lying on a tree branch, enjoying the breeze as it stirs the hair on her legs. Such a small thing, but it stayed with me. Firstly, because it’s a lovely moment of calm in amongst the running about and rescuing and rebelling. But also because it normalised the idea of a pseudo-Medieval woman, living in the forest, not shaving her legs. This shouldn’t be refreshing, but it was. I remember being baffled when I watched The Croods, because all the cavewomen were so smooth. Armpit hair in a children’s film was apparently taboo.

The Forest Queen Betsy Cornwell.jpg

There’s a great deal of darkness to be found in Cornwell’s writing. The book deals with rape, abuse, and suicide, but such themes are sensitively handled. This darkness made it seem appropriate for an older audience than it is perhaps intended for. While dark and twisty feelings are not a shortcut to character depth, they certainly help here. All the characters are convincing, with no question of their female iteration being a mere gimmick. It took me a while to warm to the central character and her defensiveness even though this characterisation was justified. But I did warm to her, and she became a hero you could really rally around.

I read and enjoy a lot of young adult fiction, but aspects of this novel felt like they would satisfy the recommended audience of 12+ more than they could satisfy me. I sometimes found the dialogue a bit simplistic and lacking in realism. While I was invested in the romance, the tension felt contrived – barriers preventing the two characters getting together were entirely self-inflicted.

Overall a very enjoyable forest romp with unexpected depth. And how can you say no to a female Robin Hood?

Favourite quotation:
“High in the trees of Woodshire Forest on a sunny day, the light doesn’t seem to come from above you at all. Light springs out of the leaves there, a round robin of tree and sky: it streams off every twig, drips into the edges of each ebbing shadow until the whole canopy floods with gold, until the air itself smells like light, bittersweet and fresh. You can drown in green sunshine up there.” (loc 17-20)

Betsy Cornwell, The Forest Queen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018)

With thanks to Betsy Cornwell and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Murder with a light touch: Sophie Hannah’s The Mystery of Three Quarters

My rather patchy knowledge of Poirot comes from watching David Suchet’s excellent interpretation, so I cannot judge this book on Christie authenticity or how it might fit into the Poirot cannon. Nevertheless, I would consider myself a Poirot enthusiast, so it was with great excitement that I embarked on my first literary Poirot adventure. Normally a purist when it comes to chronology, I was pleased to find that this works perfectly well as a standalone from both Christie’s books and Sophie Hannah’s more recent contributions. The Mystery of Three Quarters has everything I’d expect from a great Poirot story – obviously murder and intrigue – but also puzzles, the charm of the 1930s setting, eccentric characters, and exquisite moustaches.

The Mystery of Three Quarters Hercule Poirot Sophie Hannah.jpg

Returning home from luncheon Poirot is accosted by a woman who claims to have received a letter from him accusing her of murder. Affronted, Poirot attempts to explain he has sent no such letter, and knows nothing of her or the supposed murder. He is as much a victim as she is. Over the next few days, Poirot learns of three others who have been sent the same letter, accusing them all of committing the same murder. Every letter is signed “Hercule Poirot”. Poirot is hooked, so sets out to clear his name and to find out if there is indeed a murderer among the four.

Poirot, as usual, is several steps ahead, but Hannah leaves enough clues that you feel as if you almost have enough information to solve the mystery yourself. This was a refreshing change for me, as too often with contemporary crime fiction I can’t get invested in solving the mystery myself, because I know some final revelation in the last few pages will be what clinches it – information I had no chance of working out on my own.

Though the subject matter might be dark, Hannah has a light touch and there are many humorous moments that help you skip through the pages with ease. I did feel Hannah held our hands just a trifle too much – quite simply, both showing and telling what was going on. I don’t mind recaps and summaries – they help me keep track of what we’ve learned and what we need to find out. But there seemed to be a tendency to over-explain where I would have preferred to make connections for myself.

I didn’t feel anything was gained in switching between Poirot’s third person narrative and Catchpool’s first person narrative (who, it turns out, is the narrator retelling Poirot’s narrative too), but I appreciate this may be traditionally how Christie’s stories are written.

Overall, an extremely enjoyable read; light, intriguing, and pleasingly puzzling.

P.S. More Fee, please. She features heavily at the beginning, but disappears, leaving behind only her cake, which is a great shame.

P.P.S. As an aside: there is great significance surrounding a typewriter with a broken lower case ‘e’ key. Why then, at the very end, does Edward Catchpool comment on the unbroken ‘E’ in his own name? Upper case ‘E’s have not been mentioned at all in the mystery of the broken typewriter!

Favourite quotation:
“Poirot removed his hat and coat with less care than he usually took, and handed both to George. ‘It is not a pleasant thing, to be accused of something one has not done. One ought to be able to brush the untruths aside, but somehow they take hold of the mind and cause a spectral form of guilt – like a ghost in the head, or in the conscience! Someone is certain that you have done this terrible thing, and so you start to feel as if you have, even though you know you have not. I begin to understand, Georges, why people confess to crimes of which they are innocent.’” (loc 141-146)

Sophie Hannah, The Mystery of Three Quarters (HarperCollins, 2018)

With thanks to Sophie Hannah and HarperCollins via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The magic of memories: Peng Shepherd’s The Book of M

My review of Peng Shepherd’s The Book of M is comprised more of feelings than analysis. The book is so full of satisfying little surprises that I am reluctant to reveal anything more than what is explained in the first few chapters. So here it is, a selection of different ways to write, “I think The Book of M is brilliant.”

On the surface level, The Book of M is about a pandemic loss of memory. Across the world, people begin losing their shadows. With their shadows, they lose memories. And as they forget their past, they forget who they are. So The Book of M is about a world in crisis, but it’s also about love, and about what makes us human. About how we, as a race, react to tragedy and to chaos. About hope, fear, and magic.

The Book of M follows four separate narratives, Naz, an Olympic-level archer from Tehran; Max, who records her memories on a tape recorder even as they slip away from her; Ory, her husband. And the amnesiac, the one with a middle but no beginning, who lost his memories but kept his shadows. “What can you lose and still be you?” is the question asked by Peng Shepherd that rests at the heart of The Book of M. It’s full of the darkness of what can happen when we lose our humanity, our memories, our personal histories. But it’s also hopeful.

The Book of M Peng Shepherd.jpg

It is perfectly paced and plotted. It’s unpredictable, and full of surprises that make you stop in your tracks. And yet whenever the story takes a new twist you can’t help but think “oh yes, of course that had to happen”. It’s that feeling of the last jigsaw piece slotting into place. Because it’s full of perfectly curated surprises, I’m unwilling to reveal more than the bare minimum of what will encourage you to make these discoveries yourself. Expect heartbreak, bravery, magic, the universal appeal of stories, and an investigation into what makes each of us, as individuals, who we are.

It defies categorisation. Yes, it’s post-apocalyptic, and bears a passing resemblance to the brilliant Station Eleven, but it’s unlike any post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read. It contains its own particular brand of imagination. There are elements of magical realism, and of fantasy.

This is one of those books I had to keep reading, cramming reading into stolen slivers of time on tea breaks, bus rides, and the late hours of the night. I’m sure I’ll re-read it, and wish I could experience reading it again for the first time. But I hope, too, never to forget it.

Favourite quotation:
“When he reached the other side of the long, silent walk, he didn’t recognize anything at all. Washington, D.C., looked nothing like Washington, D.C., anymore. What remained was a city that had been lit on fire down to the last crevice and then doused with winter death. Black scorch marks covered everything. The roads, the earth, the sides of buildings, the roofs were all the same burnt darkness. And from the sky, a perpetual rain fell, a kind of freezing drizzle that felt heavier than water as it settled on him. The city would have glimmered, charred onyx overlaid with diamond, if not for the dark gray clouds that trapped all light. He was a tourist at the end of the world.” (loc 1986-1991)

Peng Shepherd, The Book of M (HarperCollins, 2018)

Thank you to Peng Shepherd and HarperCollins via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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)