Girl in the Tower – Katherine Arden (and The Bear & the Nightingale…)

As you can imagine my house contains an awful lot of books. There are bookcases in almost every room and even the rooms without actual shelves contain a small stack of reading material – it is hard to get bored here! However, this does result in the fact that I can lose track of what I’ve read and what is still waiting – especially if I’ve got a pile of goodies all at once and I have to squeeze them in to whatever shelf space is free. This also means that, sometimes, I forget to add books on to the right line of my spreadsheet (or even to add them at all). This is what I found had happened when I started reading Katherine Arden’s Girl in the Tower – about 20 pages in and I realised that I had the previous volume in the series (the first in fact) sitting in my living room, looking very lonely. Luckily it was good enough to be a very swift read so this will be a review of both…

33797941In the Bear and the Nightingale we meet Vasilisa, a young girl, and her family. They live on an estate at some distance from Moscow back in the early days of Rus’ (the forerunner of Russia), in the 14th Century. This is not so much a historical novel, although the settings are obviously very well researched and the rise of Christianity plays a very important role, but one of the battle between the old ways and the new. Vasilisa (or Vasya, as she is known in the traditional way of Russian naming) is a headstrong girl who resists the role she is expected to take up as a dutiful daughter. She has no interest in marriage or love, unlike her older sister Olga, but prefers to run wild with her brothers and to listen to the stories told by Dunya, the children’s nurse. These stories all revolve around various spirits and magical creatures – personifications of Frost, Death and the like and small household spirits who are connected to the hearth, home and stables – but Vasya, unlike her siblings, knows that these beings are real because she can see them. When their father remarries, their devout step-mother tries to quash the old ways (although she can also see the house spirits she believes them to be demons) and the consequences are felt by all. Vasya must fight to retain the old ways and to avoid her stepmother’s plan to either marry her off or incarcerate her in a nunnery. To make things worse dark powers, who were previously kept at bay by the household spirits, are stirring in the forest…

35004343In the second book, the Girl in the Tower, we move to Moscow – not yet the city it is today but still the home of the rulers of Rus’ and also of Vasya’s married sister, Olga. This is a vastly different world – women are confined to their luxurious homes, apart from visits to church, and politics and intrigue are at the front of everyone’s mind. Religion is of great importance – Olga is waiting for the return of her favourite brother, now a sort of warrior priest – and the old ways are nowhere to be seen. Into this world bursts Vasya who has run from her home, dressed as a boy, after tragic events have left her without most of her family and accused of witchcraft. Her actions against a group of bandits who are roaming the countryside, burning villages, stealing young girls and then vanishing, bring her to the attention of Dmitri – the Grand Prince of Moscow and, coincidently, her cousin. He assumes she is a boy, as does everyone else aside from Sasha (the warrior monk brother), and brings her back to Moscow as a reward. Sadly, dark forces once again follow Vasya and worse, she falls foul of Moscow’s strict gender rules when her true identity is discovered.

Both of these books are an almost seamless blend of Russian history and folklore set in a world where both the magical and the grimly political are very real. The characters are all beautifully well-drawn (and you have to pay attention to them all – even the seemingly minor can reappear as major sources of danger and romance), and the plot is richly detailed. The love story, which began tentatively in Vasya’s childhood, grows with her and she faces both passion and peril with intelligence and fortitude. I’ve not been so gripped by a series for years – I really hope the final volume comes out as promised in August: I can’t wait to see how this story ends.




The Feed – Nick Clark Windo

I like to think that I am, in general, an optomistic person. I think I try to see the positives when I can and like to give people the benefit of the doubt when I can. But, somehow, I am really, really attracted to post-apocalyptic fiction. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is a world which is scarily possible and yet not real? Or the chill you get when you realise that it is a reality which is only one or two facts away from actually existing? In the case of this debut novel I suspect it is the latter…

The Feed is, basically, the logical extension of our current obsession with social media. In fact all knowledge and communication for those connected to the Feed goes directly to the brain thanks to a bio-implant. There are a few who are not part of the Feed for political or ethical reason but the majority of humanity can have information fed directly to them without having to learn and are party to every nuance of emotion of those they communicate with. Knowing what we do about how easy it is to get obsessed with checking Facebook and Twitter it should come as no surprise to find that society shudders to a halt when the Feed itself suddenly cuts out. People die from the shock of disconnection. They literally can’t even…

34326012The story follows Tom and Kate, and their daughter Bea, born after the Feed disappeared. They live with a small group of survivors who are trying to cope with a lack of food, huge gaps in their memories and language and, more chillingly, the possibility that, in their sleep, they will somehow be changed and their essential being lost. Everyone must be watched while they sleep in case they are ‘Taken’, their mind replaced with a mysterious, alien mind: if the watcher sees you being taken they kill you rather than let your body live on with the wrong mind. For Kate and Tom this is their worst fear – until Bea is physically abducted shortly after she turns six years old.

This book shows a bleak and chilling possible future – and one which we bring on ourselves – but there is also hope. And maybe it is that air of hope, in the face of nameless terror, which I most enjoy about post-apocalyptic fiction…


Yorkshire: A Lyrical History of England’s Greatest County – Richard Morris

I’ve lived in Yorkshire now for nearly 17 years – I’ve lived in the North for most of my life even though I’ve never quite picked up the accent – and I have, on Yorkshire Day, taken the declaration of integrity. Yorkshire is now home and, by declaration, I am a Yorkshirewoman (even if trips down to Essex to see my Mum are referred to as ‘going home’ – home is also where your Mum is…). I am fascinated by the history, geography and people of my adopted home so was very keen to read Morris’ book – I do also love the idea of history being ‘lyrical’!

34807279Years ago I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel which explained, among other things, how geography guided the way that civilizations, represented by guns and steel, spread around the world. Reading this book reminded me of this – the part that Yorkshire’s geography, the rivers, hills, valleys and coasts,  played in history. In where settlements were built, where roads led and where industry developed: which, in turn, led to art, poetry and literature, and, maybe more importantly, to the Yorkshire character. It is not a linear history – we move back and forth through time to a certain extent – and it isn’t just about places. People feature strongly some, like J.B. Priestley or Winifred Holtby, well-known and others either known locally (like Richard Oastler in Bradford) or just to their families. Some should be better known, in my opinion, and, like so many good history books, this one has suggested lots of subjects I need to find out about. If you don’t know much about Yorkshire then read this book: you’ll learn a lot. And if you think you do know a lot about Yorkshire (am I looking at Rob here? possibly…) then still read this book: there’s so much more to know than you think.


Fear – Dirk Kurbjuweit

I think I’ve written before about my little problem with some psychological thrillers – namely that the ‘unreliable narrator’ is so often female, giving the impression possibly that women are less reliable than male characters. It is interesting that men, in these books, are often the victims it doesn’t sit well with me sometimes. Women as either victims or evil villains? It would be nice to see them as just, well, people… It is gratifying then to pick up a book featuring a couple which is largely focussed on the husband. In fact, the whole premise of Kurbjuweit’s novel is an exploration of how far a man will go to protect his family.

34844900Randolph Tiefenthaler, his wife Rebecca and their children seem to have a wonderful life. He is a successful architect and they have recently moved to a lovely Berlin flat. The marriage isn’t perfect, which seems more realistic than if it were, but Randolph’s main response is to sneak off alone to eat in a variety of high-class restaurants. This is a life which could plod along but which is turned upside down by the actions of their downstairs neighbour. Dieter Tiberius is an unemployed loner who become obsessed with Rebecca, sending her love letters and poems. When these overtures are ignored he becomes more dangerous – not with physical threats but with accusations of child abuse against both parents. This story is interspersed with that of Randolph’s early life – a childhood in Cold-War Germany with a father whose only interest seemed to be in protecting his family. By collecting guns.

We tend to associate this kind of gun-centred psychology with America but the Cold War background makes it totally believable – East Germany and the rest of the Communist Bloc is, after all, on their doorstep – but it still made me feel deeply uncomfortable. Randolph feels pretty much the same way – hating the time spent with his father at the shooting range, fearing that one day his father could turn one of his many weapons on his family – but, when Dieter Tiberius threatens his family, he begins to understand his own father’s fears. This book is an interesting twist on psychological thrillers – a little bit more literary, perhaps, and which made me think about issues of class and gun-ownership. The author has had a number of novels published in Germany but this is the first to be translated and released here – I shall watch with interest for any others which may follow.


The Book of Joan – Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch is not an author I’ve come across before. Considering she writes feminist speculative fiction with a strongly literary feel this should probably come as no surprise – there are many excellent writers in genre fiction but most of the ones that make the shelves are male and not looking to write ‘literature’ just a good story.  They probably form part of a trilogy at the very least – and a series that gets into double figures is not unusual – but I don’t think many of them pack quite so much into less than 300 pages.

9781786892393The basic premise of the book is that the human race is pretty much doomed. Earth is a blasted wasteland after an environmental catastrophe ends a long and bitter global war. The rich and powerful now live in a space facility known as CIEL and fritter away their time inscribing their own bodies with something like a cross between tattoos and self-harm. The survivors of humanity have become, somehow, pale, hairless and without any sexual characteristics – sexual acts themselves have become punishable offences but the body adornments they favour are usually erotic tales. The most powerful figure on CIEL is Jean de Men – who seems to be leading a bloodthirsty cult – and his nemesis is Joan, a young girl, originally from France when such a place existed, who seems to hear voices and has strange powers over the Earth itself. Much is made of the parallels with the historical figure of Joan of Arc and her fate seems to be much the same as this Joan is burnt to death. Or possibly not, according to her faithful followers both on Earth and CIEL.

This wasn’t an easy read. It is very literary in tone, with very strong language used throughout, and is definitely speculative rather than sci-fi. The reasons for mankind’s transformation isn’t explained, nor are Joan’s powers, but the story and language are gripping. Worth persisting with.


Love, Hate & Other Filters – Samira Ahmed

Our book group met earlier this week and we spent most of our meeting checking our privilege. We’d been reading Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult and, despite being a group of women, including one lawyer and at least three with connections to nursing and midwifery, we quickly realised that we do really need to spend more time considering how many advantages we have in life simply because we are white and western. I’d like to say that this is something I try to do, consciously, every day but I think I’d be telling an untruth – like most people I think mostly about being me, not about how others live their lives. So, I do what I usually do when I need to learn about something – I read…

36275385In Love, Hate & Other Filters I was learning about the experiences of a young Muslim girl, seventeen year-old Maya Aziz. She is planning for her future, for college, for potential romance, for life. But her parents are also planning and their ideas are subtly different: a nice Indian boy, a safe career choice and staying close to home and family. They will certainly need some persuading to accept Maya’s dream to study film in New York. And when there is a bombing which seems to have involved a young man with the same surname as Maya’s family her parents are even more keen to keep her close at hand.

This was an interesting story, which helped to explain the issues faced by young Muslim women wanting to fit in with the Western way of life without sacrificing their religious principles (or those of their families). Although, to be fair, Maya doesn’t really mention religion other than to be shocked when her potential love-interest Kaleem drinks wine. Any girl feeling a bit over-protected could sympathise with Maya’s position but it is also vital to understand how everyday events can affect various groups. I appreciated the fact that this was a family with no connections to extremism but who were targeted simply for sharing a surname with a suspected terrorist. My only issues really are that this book was more about her families Indian culture than their Muslim faith – and, of course, that it is USA based. I’m still waiting for the YA novels about young people with a Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage set in the UK (and preferably Yorkshire) – these are the girls I meet every day and whose stories I’d like to hear.


Turning for Home – Barney Norris

A number of my Facebook friends (some writers, some academics, some teachers) have recently been reacting to a Guardian article about modern literary fiction and how it has, in many cases, sacrificed good storytelling on the altar of beautiful writing.  This, to be honest, is one of the reasons why I rarely read or review books from the more literary end of the spectrum. I’ve said it before: I can recognise wonderful use of language when I see it but I prefer to read a gripping story so long as it doesn’t mangle english so much that my brain hurts. Whisper it but, most of the time, I’ll even turn a blind eye to poor spelling, rogue apostrophes or random punctuation so long as I can make out the intended meaning easily enough. Since a large part of what I read is advance reading copies (which have often not yet been proof-read) this is just as well. I did, though, do a degree in English Literature – more years ago than I care to mention – so when language, story and plot do combine I like to think that I can appreciate it. Barney Norris seems to be an author capable of this feat in my eyes.

31551199This, Norris’s second novel, is centred around a party being held by Robert Shawcross a retired senior government official who used to work in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The party is a big annual family gathering but Robert isn’t looking forward to it – his beloved wife has recently died and he realises that the party was more about family than himself, despite it being held to celebrate his birthday.  His granddaughter, Kate, is staying with him but she seems to have her own problems – this is her first attendance at a party for three years and she is dreading seeing her mother. This domestic scene is set against the Boston Tapes – which really did get made in the early years of the 2000s, a series of recorded interviews with both Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries. The participants were assured of anonymity so they confessed to more than just the motivations the interviewers were expecting – murders and other atrocities – and so, inevitably, the British government is very keen to get hold of the tapes. A figure from Robert’s past, Frank Dunn, arrives at the party to reprise their roles from the 80s – liaisons with the British government and IRA respectively.

All the action in the book takes place over one day – the day of the party – but there are plenty of flashbacks: to the aftermath of Enniskillen, to the early days of Robert’s relationship with his wife, and, in the case Kate, to her difficult relationship with her mother, the love of her young life and the accident and illness which changed her world. This doesn’t sound like a lot of plot or story but there is enough there to keep you thinking about your own life and family. And the way it is written, the actual words on the page, is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Proper literature…