Book Review: City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende

Book - City of the BeastsThis is an unusual book – magical yet almost believable, mythical yet real. It is the story of a boy (Alex) and his eccentric grandmother (Kate) travelling deep into the mysterious Amazon rainforest, further and further from civilisation, in search of ‘The Beast’, a strange and ancient creature which may or may not exist. I had read other works by Allende, and enjoyed them. This is different – a kind of modern fable aimed at younger readers.    Continue reading

Time Travel with a Twist – A Book Review

Jodi Taylor bookJust One Damned Thing After Another by Jodie Taylor gives you time travel with a twist. It’s got all the best elements of Doctor Who and Harry Potter rolled into one and, better yet (for historians like myself), it’s full of genuine, historical research, alongside plenty of humour. Madeleine Maxwell (Max) finds herself a job at St Mary’s, a crumbling old house full of intriguing characters, explosions and surprises. She becomes a trainee historian, learning the ropes, until one day she gets to actually travel back in time. And then the excitement really begins…    Continue reading

Pre-Raphaelite Women: Poetry in Response to Art

La Ghirlandata by Rossetti

La Ghirlandata by Rossetti

I have always been attracted to the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, and intrigued by the lives of the women who modelled for their paintings. Muse by Dawn Marie Kresan is a collection which focuses on these women, particularly on Elizabeth Siddall, who was actually a poet and artist in her own right. Bethany Rivers’ pamphlet Off the wall also takes much of its inspiration from artwork, and contains some poems on similar themes to those explored in Kresan’s book.   Continue reading

Poetry Review: A Whole Day Through From Waking by Jacci Bulman

Jacci Bulman poetry collectionWritten in a bare, modest style, Jacci Bulman’s first poetry collection explores life in all its frailty and vulnerability. The language hooks you in, following the story inside each individual poem. Bulman plays with punctuation and form to reveal a raw, broken humanity. Themes include the uncertainties of youth, the agonising reality of grief and illness, and a celebration of life and hope.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness

Book - The Last Hundred DaysSet in communist Romania, in 1989, The Last Hundred Days is a fascinating, vivid portrayal of the last months of the Ceauşescu regime. The absurdity of living in a city full of corruption, lies and paranoia is emphasised by the fact that the story is narrated by a young, nameless English student, an outsider who is adrift and immune, in a world full of danger and repression.    Continue reading

Book Review: Requiem by Berlie Doherty

book requiemBerlie Doherty has written numerous books for children and young adults, short stories, plays and poetry. Requiem (one of only two novels which she has written for adults) was first published in 1991 and has recently been republished by Cybermouse Books. It is an intense, emotional story told from the perspective of young, talented Cecelia Deardon. Cecelia is intelligent enough to win a scholarship to the local convent school, but she will always stand out as the girl who has no money. She loves singing, but Mother Mary Rose forbids her from joining the choir, humiliating her at every opportunity.    Continue reading

Book Review: Cove by Cynan Jones

Book - Cove by Cynan JonesA man out at sea in a kayak is struck by lightning. He awakens, injured, confused and adrift, with no idea where he is or how he got there. He must, somehow, survive. This is a story which you will read in one sitting. It is acute, addictive and raw. The writing is stripped down, simplified, becoming more potent in its purest form. It is filmic and close, mimicking patterns of thought. Continue reading

The Magic of Medieval Poetry – Simon Armitage Translating Pearl

Medieval Poem PearlSpeaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Simon Armitage admitted that, when translating the Medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, someone literally had to take it off him, before he would allow it to be finished. “Translation is addictive,” he explained, “and much easier than writing your own poetry, because you can concentrate on it for longer, and it’s far less open-ended”. He added that “working with poets from the past is like tracing family members or finding ancestors; it’s like harmonising, like singing along to the Beatles in the car, two voices together.”    Continue reading

Book Review: Addlands by Tom Bullough

Book - Addlands by Tom BulloughAddlands is a book that takes you to another place – a rural mid-Wales that no longer exists, where time was slower and life was hard. It begins in 1941, as the farmer, Idris Hamer, ploughs his land with determination, content with his place in the natural world, surrounded by his dogs, his horse, “seacrows, starlings and lapwings”. We move from moment to moment, gaining vivid, brief impressions of life in the Funnon, passing through the years, chapter by chapter, until finally we reach 2016, where the story concludes, aeons away from its beginnings.    Continue reading

Poetry Review: The Immigration Handbook by Caroline Smith

Poetry - The Immigration Handbook, by Caroline SmithThe Immigration Handbook is an impressive collection which varies in tone and style. Smith uses simple language, small details and powerful imagery to present to us the extraordinary lives of ordinary people, caught up in situations beyond their control. As the asylum caseworker for a London based MP, she has spent years helping immigrants to navigate the complexities of an underfunded, overstretched bureaucratic system.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Unforgotten by Laura Powell

Book - The UnforgottenThe plot of The Unforgotten twists and turns, keeping the reader gripped until the very end. I read it in two days, and I would certainly recommend that if you’re going to start reading it, you clear your diary first. It begins in 1956 with a series of horrific murders in the small Cornish seaside village of St Steele. Betty Broadbent, aged fifteen, has left school and now helps her eccentric mother to run a boarding house. She is shocked and scared by the murders, but feels sorry for Mr Forbes, the local butcher, whom everyone suspects.    Continue reading

Book Review: Pigeon by Alys Conran

Book - PigeonPigeon is a moving story of childhood friendship, heartache and survival. It starts with the boy, Pigeon, and his friend Iola, as they race up hill towards the ice-cream van, united, hopeful, yet haunted by the bleak world that surrounds them. The novel is set in North Wales, in a small impoverished town. It was published simultaneously in Welsh and English, and plays both on ‘pigeon’, (the unloved, overlooked, yet ever-present bird), and ‘pidgin’ (the power of language, and the enigma of bilingualism).    Continue reading

Book Review: My Falling Down House by Jayne Joso

Book - My Falling Down HouseMy Falling Down House is a philosophical portrayal of what it means to be reduced to nothing, to become a nobody, to fall to the very bottom of reality and to question what it is to be human. The book transports the reader to Tokyo and a young man named Takeo Tanaka, former employee of a company hit by the financial crisis. He loses his job, his girlfriend and his home in quick succession. Having lost everything, he moves into a frail, abandoned house, made entirely of wood and paper, and attempts a total withdrawal from society.    Continue reading

Book Review: The White Camellia by Juliet Greenwood

Book - The White CamelliaSet in 1909, The White Camellia focuses on the women’s suffrage movement, a group less well-known than the suffragettes who, for years, had been meeting in tea rooms and campaigning peacefully for women’s rights. The book follows the story of Bea, a young woman forced to leave her beautiful home, Tressillion, and move to London, where she finds herself responsible for the welfare of her mother and younger sister. It seems like her only option is to marry her cousin, Jonathan, who inherited the estate, but then Bea stumbles upon The White Camellia, a women’s tea room, and discovers a world of excitement and possibility.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker

Book -The Truth About The Harry Quebert AffairThe Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair is a very difficult book to put down. But the plot twists about so much that you need some breathing space every now and then to process all of its complexities. The narrative follows the story of Marcus Goldman, a young writer whose debut novel caused a sensation, and who is now suffering from writer’s block. Under pressure from his publisher, he eventually seeks the help of his old friend (and famous writer) Harry Quebert, staying with him for a while in the small seaside village of Somerset. Soon afterwards, the body of Nola Kellergan, a fifteen-year-old girl who disappeared over thirty years ago, is unearthed from Harry’s back garden.    Continue reading

Book Review: Black River by Louise Walsh

Black River - bookBlack River is a fictional novel based on a true event: the Aberfan disaster of 1966, when a coal tip collapsed, engulfing the village school and killing 116 children and 28 adults. It begins with a description of the ghostly scene which greets the eyes of Harry Roberts, a local journalist, as he arrives in Aberfan moments after the slip. He is stunned and shaken by what he sees. Unable to focus on journalistic objectivity and overwhelmed by the tenacity of Fleet Street reporters getting in the way in their attempt to find the most sensational story, Harry gives up, returning home with nothing to report.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Truth in Masquerade by Carole Strachan

book The Truth in MasqueradeThe Truth in Masquerade follows the story of opera singer Anna Maxwell as she comes to terms with her husband’s sudden decision to leave her, without explanation, after years of happy marriage. The book has a slow build up, but is exceptionally and beautifully detailed, as we follow Anna to her next role, performing ‘the governess’ in an outdoor operatic adaptation of the ghostly Henry James novel The Turn of the Screw.    Continue reading

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

book harry potter cursed childThis script, based on a story written by J.K.Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, is perfect for any Harry Potter fan. I was a little uncertain about reading it in script form, but once you get going, you soon forget that it’s not a novel. The plot moves very quickly at first, spanning a number of years, as Harry and Ginny’s three children grow up, but then things take a turn for the dramatic, and that’s when it gets really interesting.    Continue reading

Poetry Review: Gardening With Deer by Kathy Miles

Poetry Book Gardening With DeerGardening With Deer is a full-bodied, elegant yet accessible collection of poems which hold tightly together but also incorporate a range of topics, from art and myth to personal experience. It opens with an unnerving poem entitled ‘Bear’, which creates a sense of underlying fear, as we contemplate the “growling dark” and “the shadow on the wall that could be bear”. This theme continues throughout, as a prowling, dangerous presence, lurking just beneath the surface.    Continue reading

Book Review – Masque by Bethany W Pope

MasqueWhy would someone take a well-known story, which has been re-invented many times over, and attempt to re-invent it again? Masque is based on The Phantom of The Opera, the French novel by Gaston Leroux, published in 1911. Since then it has been re-told in various films and novels, and on stage. I wouldn’t have considered reading this book, but I attended the regular ‘First Thursday’ event run by Seren Books, and heard Bethany Pope reading from it. I was entranced, hearing the story from the point of view of each character in turn, and wondering whether it would be the same as the original. These words are printed on the front of the book: ‘This is not the story you think you know…’    Continue reading

Book Review: The Unravelling by Thorne Moore

Book - The UnravellingThe cover of this book, and the words ‘Children can be very, very cruel’, immediately drew me in, hooked into finding out what horrendous thing could possibly have happened to the protagonist (Karen Rothwell) as a child – something so traumatic that she has forgotten it, until now. At first Karen seems strange, in the way she remembers, the way she interacts with her colleagues and other unusual behaviour, but gradually you realise that something which happened years ago has had a profound and devastating effect on every aspect of her life.    Continue reading

Book Review: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

suite francaiseSuite Française, translated from the French, is made up of two uncompleted works (Storm in June and Dolce) by Irène Némirovsky, who died at Auschwitz in 1942, before she was able to finish her planned novel sequence. In fact, the story of her own life is printed in the back of the book, and is just as fascinating a read as the novels themselves.    Continue reading

Book Review: Defiance by Sarah Jayne Tanner

Book - DefianceDefiance is a book about justice. It’s about standing up for what you believe in, even if it means risking everything. The narrative follows a young man called Noah who makes a living by fighting in a combat club. He lives in the Pit, the poorest area, at the bottom of the city, where it’s hard to find a safe place to sleep and enough food to stay alive. The city contains other levels – through the Cloisters and Arcade to the Spires, where the rich people live, at the very top.    Continue reading

Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Book: All the light we cannot seeAll The Light We Cannot See follows the stories of Marie-Laure (a blind Parisian girl) and Werner (a German orphan) during the Second World War. It is poetic in style and epic in scope. Each chapter gives us an impression, a short glimpse into another world, often just one or two pages long, brimming with poignant images. It begins in 1944, then moves back ten years and gradually fills in the gaps, leading up to the moment when the lives of these two characters will intersect.    Continue reading

Book Review: I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers

Book: I Saw A Man by Owen SheersI Saw A Man begins with the moment when Michael Turner (writer and recently widowed) walks into his neighbours’ house (Josh and Samantha and their two daughters – a family he has grown close to, since moving back to London). Sheers cleverly takes us back in time to see how Michael began his career as a writer, how he met his late wife (Caroline), how he coped after her death (hit by an American drone bomb whilst working as a TV news reporter) and the back story of his neighbours, Josh and Samantha.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Girl In The Red Coat by Kate Hamer

Book - The Girl In The Red CoatThe Girl In The Red Coat follows the story of an eight year old girl (Carmel) who goes missing whilst attending a storytelling festival. It begins from her mother’s perspective, as she reflects back on the years of growing up, how Carmel was always different to other children, drifting, unattached. I began reading this book whilst attending the Hay Festival, and found myself more aware than ever of how easy it could be for a parent to lose their child in such a busy place.     Continue reading

Book Review: Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

Book 'Snowdrops' by A.D.Miller‘Snowdrops’ is a Moscow slang term for the dead bodies which end up buried under snow, revealing themselves as it eventually begins to melt in the spring. The book is written as a confession from Nick, an English lawyer who has spent some years living in Moscow, to his fiancée. It is also a justification, an explanation of what happened and an attempt to understand why. He is brutally honest and, from the beginning, you sense that something went badly wrong, but it isn’t until near the end that all is revealed.    Continue reading

Re-inventing the Mabinogion

Mabinogion - White Ravens and The White TrailIf you live in Wales for any length of time, you cannot avoid noticing the love of storytelling that has filtered down through centuries of tradition. The Mabinogion is the name given to an assortment of Welsh legends dating back to a pre-Medieval era of mythology and Arthurian romance. Seren books commissioned 11 Welsh writers to re-write these tales for a modern audience, bringing them to life in twenty-first-century Wales.    Continue reading

Book Review: My Own Dear Brother by Holly Müller

My Own Dear Brother thumbMy Own Dear Brother is a powerful depiction of life in occupied Austria during the Second World War. But it is not a book about war, or a book about occupation. It is a book which makes you realise that anyone is capable of anything, that evil comes not only from outside, but also from within. And it also demonstrates the brutal and unfair treatment of the vulnerable members in society.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Illusion of Innocence by Jacqueline Jacques

Book - The Illusion of Innocence by Jacqueline JacquesI know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but this cover (with its simple, elegant design, Victorian camera, steam train and the word ‘mystery’) drew me in straight away. The Illusion of Innocence follows Archie Price, police artist and painter, as he helps to solve a mysterious crime in which the robber (Freddy Porter) stole a box of illicit postcards and murdered his victim. He meets Polly, sister of the accused, desperate to get away from Freddy and his gang, and all three end up on the same train, travelling to Chelmsford for the trial. A sudden and terrifying derailment turns everything upside down and, while Polly and Archie are looked after by a local family, Freddy is nowhere to be found.    Continue reading