‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ by Susanna Clarke

Touted as the Harry Potter for adults, Susanna Clarke’s ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ is set in an alternate version of 19th Century England rife where magic is very much present. From the theoretical magicians that gather across the country to the hundred of people across the northern counties still waiting for their Raven King to come back and claim his throne, magic has an undeniable impact on everyone in the kingdom, rich or poor.

StrangeBut while magical societies discuss the great feats of the past, in Yorkshire one man is determined to bring back practical magic. Surrounded by his precious books, the reclusive Mr Norrell heads to London to lend his help to the war effort and defeat Napoleon. Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange stumbles across magic as a profession almost by accident. Inventive, passionate and eccentric, his style and approach to the study and practice of magic is entirely different from Norrell’s – leading to an inevitable clash of opinions.

England is split into ‘Strangites’ and ‘Norrellites’. A war of words is played out through the magical journals. Increasingly great and ambitious magic is played out on the battlefields of Europe, the savage English coastline and the drawing rooms of the English aristocracy. People are raised from the dead, rain takes on solid forms, darkness falls for days on end and cities, roads and forests are moved to a magician’s whim. But beyond all of this lurks shadowy figure of the Raven King and the malevolent world of faerie looking to reek havoc on those that dare to lay a claim on English magic – bringing dark and unforeseen consequences.

It is undoubtedly an amazing feat of world building. There’s a whole bibliography of fictional titles mentioned throughout the book, each with a fictional author and subject matter, as well as a complete magical history stretching back for almost 1000 years. This history is recounted along with numerous stories, legends and folklore relevant in long explanatory footnotes that make the book seem almost like an academic work rather than a novel.

This does help to give a great sense of context, but at some points it did get a little frustrating, especially when I was nearing the end of the novel and more interested in the actual characters than an exhaustive story that seems in no way connected to the story. At these points, it was probably a good job that I was listening to this as an audiobook – as I would have been sorely tempted to skip thorough these whole sections.

One up-side of the impressive length, however, is that each and every single character is completely and utterly brought to life. Everyone is given his or her own backstory and individual characteristics, again helping to totally immerse the reader in Clarke’s world. The book is packed with black humour and subtle social commentary that continues to drive the story along even through the more intense sections dedicated to historical magical debates and incidents.

Another thing I loved was the ending, which worked really well and made me smile. I actually enjoyed it so much that I haven’t been able to get really interested in another book since – always the sign of a good read!

Also, for anyone interested and those that have already read the book, it’s recently been announced that the BBC are producing a TV adaptation starring Eddie Marsan and Bertie Carvel in the title roles.

‘The Rose Petal Beach’ by Dorothy Koomson

One seemingly normal evening, Tamia Challey’s life is shattered by a knock on the door. Her husband, Scott, has been accused of something terrible, and his accuser is Tami’s best friend. Placed in an impossible dilemma, Tami has to face the fact that one of the people that she trusts most in the world is lying to her. But which one?

the-rose-petal-beach-1As Tami becomes increasingly suspicious of the people in her life, tragedy strikes and the situation escalates still further. Over the course of the book, Tami’s life gradually falls apart as she’s forced to make some hard choices and face up to some devastating truths.

As well as the main thread following the present day crime and its implications, The Rose Petal Beach also reaches back through time to give us a back story of Tami’s relationships with the main players in the story. This not only helps to build up a picture of the past, but also to allow readers to understand how tensions have reached breaking point.

The Rose Petal Beach is a dark and intense thriller that not only aims to solve a crime, but also to offer a deep insight into the psychological effects of events as they unfold. Seen through the eyes of three very different women, we’re presented with three very different perspectives on the situation. Together, these three narratives merge to create an overall picture that just doesn’t quite fit together.

Ultimately it’s a study of relationships, whether that’s between parents and their children, between friends or between lovers. For me, the aspect of the novel that carried the most weight was that no matter how close we are to people, you can never really know everything about them.

The author writes cleverly and emotionally, really connecting her readers to the characters. It was the perfect holiday read, but I can’t help thinking that Dorothy Koomson has used this formula before. That said, you can’t argue with something that’s tried and tested and she continues to come out with gripping and thought-provoking reads.

‘The Innocents’ by Francesca Segal

Francesca Segal’s The Innocents received a great deal of critical acclaim. Not only did it win the 2012 Costa First Novel award, it also won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in Fiction and made the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. But does it live up to the hype?

InnocentsLoosely based on Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Francesca Segal’s debut novel follows childhood sweethearts Adam and Rachel. Their lives are threaded together in every way – from their intricate family relationships to the fact that Adam is a trusted employee of a business run by Rachel’s father – so their engagement comes as little surprise to anyone in their immediate circle. But while Rachel is busy planning the perfect big day, Adam is having a crisis of confidence.

Full of self-doubt, Adam is torn between Rachel, as well as the inherent expectations that lie on him as a member of a tight-knit Jewish community, and her alluring, vibrant and vulnerable younger cousin Ellie.

Ellie is the antithesis to Rachel, the family black sheep with a devil-may-care attitude to life. For Adam, already questioning his mapped out future as the perfect Jewish husband, her appearance is the catalyst that pushes him over the edge.

Some people have criticised this book for its in-depth descriptions of Jewish culture and community, but this was actually the aspect of the book that I most enjoyed. It’s the most detailed discussion of Jewish society that I’ve ever read, and I found it really interesting.

However, I just didn’t feel that the central figures were in any way likeable. This was probably because we see everyone else from Adam’s perspective, and for me, Adam is nothing but self-centred and weak. As a result we see Rachel alternatively as either a homely and loving safe haven or a clingy and vapid black hole sucking him into a life that he’s not sure he wants.

I’m not even really sure who can really be considered as ‘innocent’. Adam is lacking in any life experience, Rachel is clueless to all of her fiancé’s misgivings and Ellie has her own childhood traumas leaving us questioning whether she’s an instigator of trouble or a victim of her own troubled past. This may have been the very point that the author was trying to convey, that we are in fact all innocent in our own ways. But while the book read really well and I did enjoy it, I just couldn’t relate to any of the characters.

Essentially, it all boils down to one simple question. How do we know if the grass is really greener on the other side, and is what we have ever good enough?

Andrew Fukada’s ‘The Hunt’

I’ve been struggling to put this book into words. I suppose it could be described as a sort of warped version of The Hunger Games. Except in this case we have a world dominated by vampires embarking on a once-in-a-decade human hunt, with the lucky hunters drawn from the population by lottery.The-Hunt

However, one such hunter is actually a human, or a heper as they call them, living in disguise amongst the vampires. Knowing that he will be exposed as soon as the hunt starts by his inability to keep up with the pack and his unwillingness to tear their prey apart with his fake vampire fangs, he is rapidly running out of time to come up with a way out. With the help of some unexpected allies, his world is changed forever as he uncovers hidden secrets that go against everything that he’s been taught.

I have to start by saying that The Hunt is written really well – it had a great pace, plenty of action and it was quite addictively readable. However, while the concept was interesting, there were some gaping holes in the plotline that managed to completely distract me from the main story on several occasions throughout the book.

There are numerous points that I just cannot get my head around. Whether that’s because the author has failed to think things through or because he simply hasn’t bothered to explain them, I’m not sure.

My first gripe is how our main protagonist has managed to attend vampire school for years without detection. I don’t know how he’s managed to get hold of fake fangs or contraband razors in the first place, but those basic difficulties aside, I don’t see how it is possible to have never coughed, sneezed, sweated, blushed or spilled a single drop of blood in the presence of vampires (who never show a shred of emotion and scratch their wrists instead of laughing).

Secondly, vampires are under the impression that humans are totally extinct outside of government activity. But since there are several secret humans revealed throughout the book, from a relatively low pool of characters, you have to assume that there are lots of fake vampires running around unnoticed. Despite this, there’s no testing of any kind?!

And then there are the things that are just plain weird. The vampires in this book don’t kiss, they rub armpits. And nowhere does it explain how they are able to reproduce, if they do so in the same way as humans, and if not, how fake vampire humans/manage to have babies without shedding any blood at all (as this can apparently be smelt from miles away).

There are plenty more, but I don’t want to reveal any spoilers. If anyone can offer up an explanation for any of the above, I’d love to hear it!

‘The Age of Miracles’ by Karen Thompson Walker

One day, the world wakes up to find that the rotation of the earth has begun to slow. As the days continue to stretch and the minutes pile in, the very notion of time is distorted thrown out of proportion and has to be redefined. This has a catastrophic effect on nature, throwing life as we know it out of kilter.

age of miraclesThroughout the novel, we have only one narrator. Julia is eleven years old when the slowing begins. Her perspective shapes the entire book, from her views on her parents’ marriage to her experiences of loss, death and change. This has a really interesting narrative effect and I thought it worked incredibly well.

We don’t know anything about the rest of the planet other than what we hear from Julia. Throughout the whole novel, Julia is more involved in the immediate problems of school, friends, bras and first crushes than with the impending disaster that continues to turn everything she knows about the world upside down. The news about the progress of the world is reported rather than dwelled upon, and as society fights to retain a sense of normality, Julia’s attention is absorbed by the small details of daily life.

That’s the main difference between ‘The Age of Miracles’ and other dystopian, end-of-the-world fiction. It’s such a stark contrast that I’d probably classify this as more of a coming of age novel. Rather, than focusing on the cause and solutions of the global crisis, this book is much more concerned with human relationships.

It raises some interesting questions. Does the slowing really affect Julia’s childhood, or are her experiences common adolescents all over the world, in every culture, no matter what the situation? It also drives home some truths. Relationships will always be put under strain. People will always disagree. Society will always marginalise certain groups that go against the norm. Humans will always adapt and find a way to survive.

Others have commented that they thought the pace was a bit too slow or that there wasn’t enough of a focus on the science fiction aspect, but I really enjoyed this book. I found the ending in particular really interesting. I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t read it, but it draws together all of the themes set out in the book and it continued to play on my mind for hours after I turned the last page. All in all I’d definitely recommend it, just make sure you’re not expecting it to be something it’s not.

‘Honour’ by Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak’s Honour hinges around one horrible crime. The nature of this crime itself is revealed within the first few pages, and the rest of the book is spent examining the lives of the people affected and the events that led up to and contributed to the event.Honour

It’s a story that spans four generations, split between the remote villages of Turkey and the metropolis of 1970’s London. When Pembe and Adem leave their home country to build a new life in Britain, their children must find a way to mesh new traditions with the old, to speak two languages and to adapt the cultural norms of their heritage to new situations.

In Honour, Elif Shafak examines how gender, history and expectations combine to have a powerful impact on our behaviour and our future actions. It’s also fair to say that this book is an exploration of immigrant culture. It looks in detail at the relationships between parents and their children and how a rich cultural history is blended with new experiences.

I actually read this book while I was in Turkey, and the sections set in the villages really came to life for me. However, it felt as though it was lacking in the crucial emotional connection to the central characters. The narrative style, which tends to jump around between different times and different viewpoints, also made the novel quite hard to follow. It also meant that certain events were revealed out of sequence, taking away some of the tension from the main plotline.

Honour does a great job of setting out facts and events and of creating a very real and powerful backdrop, but at no point does the author really use her position to give an opinion on the twin cultures that she’s describing. It’s up to us as readers to make the observations for ourselves. In doing so, I think the author misses out on an opportunity to get across what has the potential to be a very powerful statement.

A review of ‘Snake Ropes’ by Jess Richards

On a remote and isolated island off the edge of the map, Mary is searching desperately for her little brother, missing since the day the Tall Men came to trade. Convinced that someone on the island knows more than they’re revealing, Mary will not rest until she finds him. But Barney is not the only boy to have disappeared lately, and the women of the island are calling on all their power, as well as their knowledge of ancient rites and rituals, to find the perpetrator.

Snake-RopesElsewhere on the island, Morgan, the ‘hidden daughter’, is confined behind a tall fence and a padlocked gate, the key of which never leaves her mothers grasp. Living life through the characters in her books, she dreams of the day when she can escape to the mainland.

Snake Ropes is a book made up of a fascinating combination of myths, legends, fantasy and folk tales. It’s a book of shadow selves, buried truths and keys that can talk. It’s a book where ghosts can cross paths with the living, where poisoned hair spreads across the sea onto the shores, and where seals shed their pelt to walk on the sands.

It’s a book of mysterious and mystical places that cannot be explained, from the Weaving Room, where the women decide on the fates of wrong-doers, to the mysterious and deadly Thrashing House, which can be controlled by no-one and which never relinquishes its hold on its victims.

Snake Ropes is a real exploration into the unknown, and I really enjoyed how the author played with our perceptions of what’s real, what’s not real and what we can make real through the power of our beliefs. It’s a really interesting debut novel, and it’s easy to see why it was nominated for awards.

However, I do have one thing that I have to criticise. While the writing style is certainly interesting, at some points I found that the unusual style, and the numerous diversions into fantasy, took away from the story rather than adding to it. It was quite intense, which also meant that it could be a little confusing. For me, this made it difficult to keep track of the main storyline.