Review: The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale

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Picture credit: http://www.netgalley.com

The Toymakers sounds initially like such a good book. Magical realism! The world of the toy shop! Set in the first half of the twentieth century! Romance! Excitement! What’s not to like?

What a disappointment I was in for! My feelings about this book started off great, then descended gradually towards apathy and boredom as it dragged on…and on…and on…yawn. I started off thinking that the novel could be given a five star review but soon changed my mind. Such a shame.

The Toymakers is the story of Cathy, a pregnant teenager. She runs away from home to avoid having her child taken off her for adoption and ends up working at Papa Jack’s Emporium, a magical toy shop in London. She befriends the owner’s sons (Kaspar and Emil Godman) who give her a place to stay and raise her child. However, the First World War strikes and leaves Cathy literally holding the baby. The war changes the Godman family forever, and a rift between the brothers begins a slow decline of their lives together.

At first, The Toymakers is utterly enchanting. The world of the toy shop, the special magic that makes Emporium toys just a little bit more real, the ideas that the family have for creating the most fantastic playthings are all completely spellbinding. The world of the Emporium is beautifully crafted and the magical realism reminded me of The Night Circus or The Paper Magician. There’s a floating castle, paper trees that shoot out of boxes, wind up animals that behave like real pets…I loved the sense of excitement and inventiveness.

However, as time passes and the war begins I began to loose interest in the story. There’s a slow decline in the profits of the Emporium but there’s very little action except for a slow burning resentment between the two brothers. It’s almost as if the author himself began to get bored, as the years begin to turn faster and faster. The lack of interesting plot began to depress me, as none of the characters are happy and things start to fall apart.

I initially liked the gumption of Cathy – the desire to see the world, her resolve to keep her baby and her work ethic all made me warm to her. However, as the book progressed she seemed to get dragged down (along with the rest of the plot) and she became a bit wooden. I hated – HATED – the stupid half love triangle depicted between her and the two Godman brothers, especially when Emil effectively claims Cathy and she doesn’t protest. Neither of them appear to be particularly enamoured with her and Cathy seems to grow out of any feelings she had for either Kaspar or Emil (until the rubbish ending). It seems like a competition between the boys as to who can win Cathy and I thought the book would have been much better without the odd tension.

I really liked little Martha (Cathy’s daughter) and I thought a lot more could have been done with her character. It’s such a shame that she jumped from being a child to a 27 year old woman in the space of one sentence. I would have liked to know more about her life and it could have provided some light relief through the depressing middle section.

The ending to the book is beautifully depicted (although ridiculous and annoying) but I’m afraid that even the breathtaking scenes at the very end couldn’t salvage the storyline. I’ve never read a book that manages to be so good and so bad at the same time.

Overall, I loved certain parts of this book and thought that the inventiveness and creativity was great. I loved the world of the Emporium, the language used and the sense of wonder that was portrayed. Sadly, I felt that the book lost its way and it really dragged towards the end.

Overall rating: 3/5
Inventive, exciting and magical…for the first few chapters at least. All downhill from then on.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley!

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Review: The Taste of Blue Light by Lydia Ruffles

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Picture courtesy of http://www.netgalley.com

Um….what was this book about? Seriously, I finished it last night and I just had to flick through the last few pages to remember what happened. Something about an art school…trauma…questionable consent issues…that was pretty much it.

So, in the spirit of turning every negative into a positive, this the perfect opportunity to do my first pared down bullet point review! Here goes!

The Storyline
– A teenage student (Lux) wakes up in hospital with no idea of how she got there; she just knows that she was on a night out then it’s all a blank
– She convinces her parents to let her return to her liberal arts boarding school despite her amnesia, migraines, obsessive behaviour, synaesthesia (where your senses get confused and you hear colours or see smells etc.) and other indicators of trauma
– She does literally no art despite the book spanning her final year of ART school and first job after graduation
– She has therapy where she just repeats “I can’t remember”
– She meets a boy and begins a relationship despite being clearly traumatized (more on this later)
– She’s eventually triggered by a painting (not hers) and remembers what happened
– She gets a job and has a relationship that breaks up
– She goes to see an exhibition made by an old flame
– The End.

Can you see why I forgot the storyline?

The Good Points
– It was quite an easy read
– It was very different to anything I’d ever read before (it’s questionable whether this is truly a good point)
– The was some representation of LGBTQ+ characters (although they didn’t have much agency)
– There was great representation of female friendships – this is probably the strongest point of the whole book
– There was realistic representation of drug addicts who looked like everyday people

The Bad Points
– None of the characters had any agency. They were all acting under other people’s orders
– As the main character, Lux was difficult to relate to. She did absolutely nothing to try to work out what had happened to her – which was understandable but didn’t make for an engaging storyline
– There was literally no point to many of the “interesting” things about the book. The main character had synaesthesia but it didn’t affect the plot in any way. The book was set in an art school but none of the main characters did any art AT ALL. 
– Insta-love
– The big reveal about What Happened That Night came two thirds of the way through the novel. That left one third with no suspense or intrigue

Stuff That Made No Sense
– The storyline. Surely if you can’t remember the night before you ask the people you were with?
– The outcome of What Happened and how it had been handled was fairly preposterous. Lux was deeply traumatised but was left with her friends to look after her and the occasional session with a counsellor?
– There was a photo that taken of the back of Lux outside the big famous building where she was an intern that went viral and yet no-one recognised her.
– This question suggested for a book group discussion of the novel;

“Did you find the book funny? Why is humour important to the story?”

Ermmm… are we talking about the same book? Was this meant to be a humorous take on trauma?

Stuff That Is Too Important To Bullet Point
I found the relationship between Lux and her sort of boyfriend Cal really troubling. Lux is obviously in a state of shock and is trying to process a harrowing ordeal. You can tell this from her behaviour, the way she talks, her physical symptoms, her appearance, the way that everyone is talking about her…she’s clearly very unwell and in desperate need of love and support. So, I think it’s pretty inappropriate for Cal to try to have sex with her, however much she encouraged him.

THIS IS NOT OK.

There’s even a scene where they start kissing (there’s a clear implication that they’re going to have sex) and she disassociates and floats out of her own body to look down on the scene. Thankfully, she stops the situation and Cal gets off her, but it’s the idea that he doesn’t even notice that she’s not actively engaged and enjoying herself that I found disturbing. I also especially disliked the fact that the author noted that Lux had had sex before – which enables her to live up to her reputation – like that has anything to do with it and clearly implies slut shaming. 

ALSO NOT OK.

Conclusion
– The plot was lacking in so many different areas that I wasn’t gripped at all
– The book petered out after the big reveal
– There were lots of things that didn’t make sense
– There was an issue with consent and slut shaming

Rating: 2/5 stars
A meandering plot, a reveal that came way too soon and questionable issues around consent meant that I really didn’t enjoy this novel.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley!

Review: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham

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Photo credit: http://www.netgalley.com

I’m a big fan of Chris Peckham. I have fond memories of him on the Really Wild Show as a child with his blonde mohican haircut and his passionate, borderline obsessive interest in animals and the natural world. As a fellow nature lover, I’ve also enjoyed watching him on Springwatch and Autumnwatch, especially trying to spot when he was  shoehorning The Jesus and Mary Chain or The Smiths lyrics into his pieces to camera. Therefore, I was excited to see that Chris had written his autobiography, “Fingers in the Sparkle Jar”. I was hoping for something exciting, a bit off the wall and just…different, a bit like Chris himself.

Well, this book is certainly different.

Unlike many autobiographies, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is a series of captured moments, mostly from Chris’ childhood in the 1970’s. There’s a heavy emphasis on the wildlife he went in search of and the pets that he and his family owned. Interspersed throughout the text are more emotional passages about personal life (bullying, failed attempts at chatting up girls etc.) Every so often, there’s a jarring passage about Chris’ counselling sessions, where it becomes obvious that he had, at some point, been suicidal and had clearly suffered from bouts of depression. It’s clear that Chris’ dark thoughts were related to his inability to get along with other people (the book is full of references to how he simply didn’t fit in with his peers) and it becomes obvious that something else is going on. It transpires that, although not diagnosed until years later, Chris has Aspergers – although I’m not sure if this is made clear in the text or if I just knew that already. It’s so sad to see how much Chris suffered, but also uplifting to see how his focus and attention to detail made him into one of the foremost British naturalists alive today.

The book itself is almost entirely focused on animals. In some ways, Chris had a really idyllic childhood, free to roam the countryside to birdwatch, catch frogs, collect birds eggs etc. Occasionally this obsession with animals can become a bit gross – there’s a lot of examining poo, dissecting dead creatures and putting tadpoles in your mouth to see what they tasted of. In some ways Chris almost came across as cruel when he did things like steal birds eggs from nests, trapped insects in jars until they died and at one point even stole a live bird of prey from the wild to raise as his own pet. However, I think this was just an example of an autistic child trying to understand the world around them and not considering the feelings of others when there was something that he wanted.

Throughout the book, Chris recounts many of his memories involving animals and in particular, a very touching relationship with his pet Kestrel. Much of the book is focused on this relationship, with almost no discussion of his feelings towards his family (I sense that he pretty much ignored them) or friends (I don’t think he had any). It seemed that Chris put all of his emotions into caring for the bird and it was heartbreaking to see what happened when it inevitably passed away.

I did find the way that this book was written quite hard to follow. There’s an approximation of linear progression but the narrative does jump around, making it difficult to imagine what age Chris is and what events have happened previously. It’s obvious that Chris is highly intelligent but he uses very flowery prose to frame each vignette of memory – to the point where his allegories, similies and metaphors were so opaque that I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. This made me feel like I was almost being kept as arm’s length as a reader – as if by explaining the scene as poetically as possible Chris could skip the emotive part. As such, I found it difficult to connect to the book and really struggled to get into it.

There’s a TV programme that went along with the book which was shown on BBC2 and went even further into Chris’ life. Even though many of the stories in the book were discussed, the programme also focused on Chris’ personal life and we got to see his sister, his partner and his stepdaughter from a previous relationship. Seeing Chris in the context of his family really helped me to engage with his story and I enjoyed the programme far more than the book.

Overall, this book is a truly honest, brave memoir of a troubled boy/young man and his escape into the natural world as a coping mechanism. It’s sad, funny, disgusting, weird and wonderful – exactly like Chris himself. I just wished I could have engaged more with the writing, as the accompanying TV programme was brilliant.

Rating: 3.5/5
A raw, visceral account of a difficult childhood. Honest, revolting and moving in equal measure, but written in a way that I found difficult to follow. It’s almost like Chris wanted to keep the reader at arms length…

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #6 Read a book about nature.

Review: The Confession by Jo Spain

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Picture courtesy of Netgalley.com

Sadly, my little run of five star reviews is over and its all thanks to one book – the hugely over-hyped “The Confession” by Jo Spain. Not only is this book not really about a confession (the police seem to have worked out what has happened before anyone confesses anything – unless this refers to the character who turns himself in initially, which isn’t a confession from reader’s perspective because we literally see him commit the crime) it’s also nowhere near as good as the blurb makes it out to be.

On first glance, the novel sounds incredibly intriguing. The premise states: “You find out who did it on the very first page. On the last page you’ll find out why”. Oooh, I thought. This will keep me in suspense! Except, this wasn’t a truthful description either. You find out exactly what happened towards the end of the novel (you can work it out for yourself before the characters confirm everything) but it’s definitely not a last page cliff hanger.

At first, you do see a crime being committed (at least this part lives up to the snappy premise) which is unusual but the novel quickly descend towards the formulaic police investigation with a timeslip back so the reader can see how events unfolded from the p.o.v of the victim’s wife and the perpetrator. Folded into this story are the events of the financial crash in Ireland (oooh, exciting) and one of my major bugbears was that the situation wasn’t explained in nearly enough detail. The whole event was discussed through the eyes of Julie, the victim’s wife, who “didn’t understand” banking – despite her husband owning a bloody bank and I felt like this was a bit of a cop out by the author. I was a business student during the early 2000’s so I could vaguely remember the “Celtic Tiger” but for younger readers or those who are non-UK/Irish then the whole boom and bust situation really needed more depth. I also felt that the term “Celtic Tiger” was waaaay overused by the author and by the end of the book had really started to grate on me.

As far as characters go, this book features some of the most unlikeable people ever. There’s Harry, the stereotypical super rich banker – all flash cars, prostitutes and drugs; J.P., the somewhat derranged poor-person-perpetrator and Julie, the totally wet “I’m so in love with my twat of a husband” wife. Of all of them, I found Julie the most frustrating. She was all “I think my husband is cheating! I can’t confront him though!” and “If I leave I’ll have no money and nowhere to go!” despite the fact her husband was so rich she could have easily squirrelled some cash away, she had a full time job and was from a big family who were all on her side. Even when certain allegations about Harry come to light -serious, criminal allegations that potentially put her in danger – she still goes back to him. The explanation given is that “she loves him” and she believes marriage is for life. There’s no suggestion that she’s abused or has any kind of mental health issues (at first) so, personally, I found this pretty hard to stomach.

I was surprised to learn that the author, Jo Spain, was a woman as she just doesn’t write realistic, relatable female characters. For instance, when Julie has a period (pertinent because, of course, Julie wants a baby despite all of the problems in her marriage) she refers to it as “a telltale splash of blood in the toilet each month”. Now, without getting graphic, that’s just not what happens. I genuinely found the way that she depicts women incredibly old fashioned and sexist – the book literally reads like something by Stephen King in the 80’s. All of the women were described by their personal attributes (i.e. size of their boobs), they all threw themselves at Harry and the only female character with any agency was one of the police officers, who was described as obese, with thin flat hair. I’m not saying that you can’t be super hot as an overweight woman with fine hair (because you can) but just to clarify that this woman is not the same as the others (who all have large breasts, pretty faces, skimpy dresses and are slender – because that’s what all men everywhere like) one of the other officers makes some kind of sexual innuendo towards her and she acknowledges that he’s clearly throwing her a bone.

So – pretty girls are sexual playthings of the big strong cocky men, clever girls are fat and ugly. Got it? Then I’ll continue…

I could have forgiven *some* of the above points if the story was actually shocking or exciting – but it kind of wasn’t. Once you work out how everyone relates to everyone else, you expect some kind of super salacious twist – but it just wasn’t there. The ending is actually pretty humdrum. Yawn.

Overall, I really didn’t enjoy this book. I’m not a fan of a crime thriller in general, so perhaps if you really enjoy this genre you may get more from this book than I did. It really wasn’t for me though.

Rating: 2/5
Great premise but annoying characters and a dull ending ruined it.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley!

Review: The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn

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Picture courtesy of Goodreads

I don’t know what’s happening to me. I am notoriously stingy when it comes to dishing out stars for my book reviews. I’m happy to rant and rave about a novel but still give it four stars because there’s usually some tiny details that I feel could be improved upon. However, I recently gave a five star review (for The Girl in the Tower) and…uh oh….I think it’s happening again! Aargh!

I would define The Woman in the Window as a dark thriller (I just made that category up, I don’t know if it’s real or not). It’s being made into a film (yes, even before it’s release as a book – I think that tells you everything you need to know). Unusually, I am actually looking forwards to the film because the book is so cinematic and has so many other film noir references that I think it could be made to look like a beautiful black and white Hitchcock style movie. I doubt this will actually happen but it would look AMAZING. Just saying, all-the-Hollywood-producers-who-don’t-read-my-blog.

The book stars (do books have stars?) Anna, a psychologist living with agoraphobia which is so severe that she can’t leave the house. Unable to work and with alcohol dependency issues, she finds solace in online communities talking to other people in similar positions. Anna is also an avid watcher of people and knows everything that’s going on in her neighbourhood with the help of her trusty zoom lens camera. Most of the events that she glimpses are fairly mundane, until she spots what she believes to be a crime happening in the house next door. However, Anna’s diet of merlot and anti depressants make her a thoroughly unreliable narrator. Did she see what she thought she did? Is her mind playing tricks on her?

I read this book almost in one go, it was *that* good. Unfortunately, I started it in the bath, which made for one very cold and tired Lucinda so if you do decide to give it a read then please, make yourself comfortable before you begin. I really did find the novel unputdownable, it was so fast paced and there was so many twists and turns that kept me guessing right to the end. I did half work out part of what was going on but there was still enough red herrings included to make the outcome utterly unpredictable.

It’s at this point that I feel I should mention the elephant in the room – the comparison to Gone Girl. I fully expect the advertising for this book to begin with the line “fans of Gone Girl will love…” and it’s true that the overall “domestic drama” tag can be applied to both novels. Despite the similarities (unreliable narrator, female-centric, lots of twists and turns) there are also a lot of differences. Gone Girl is very much a 21st century novel, whereas The Woman in the Window has a much more vintage feel. Gone Girl has a major twist, The Woman in the Window has lots of little twists that help you to gradually build a picture of what’s going on. Gone Girl has a bit of a let down ending, The Woman in the Window finishes with a real bang. I loved both books but it’s important to note that The Woman in the Window is not the next Gone Girl, but a brilliant thriller in its own right.

I loved how beautifully dark and twisted The Woman in the Window was. Anna’s obsession with old black and white films, the restricted setting, the references to old Hollywood actresses all made the book feel like it was a revision of a play or an adaptation of a script from the 1950’s. I thought that the level of violence was just right – enough to provide a shock but not so much that it’s turned into a gore fest. The overall tone was a sense of foreboding dread, something that I think is really hard to maintain throughout an entire novel but which was dealt with brilliantly by the author.

I adored Anna’s character and I thought that her psychological problems were handled really well. It was good to see a middle class, educated person struggling with their mental health whilst also receiving treatment – usually if a character has money their problems are swept under the carpet. It was great that Anna’s character showed that depression and addiction can affect anyone and can be incredibly difficult to treat, regardless of how much you know your behaviour is irrational and self destructive.

The only teeny tiny criticism that I have of this book is the cover. Seriously, who came up with such a dull picture? I’ve also seen one that features the side of a building’s external fire escape (literally nothing to do with the story). I guess there’s been a very limited budget given to the artwork because I’m sure that once the film is released there’ll be a terrible “Now a major motion picture” cover but still, could they not have come up with something more intriguing in the meantime?

Overall, I absolutely loved this book. It had me gripped from the start and kept me in suspense right to the end. I loved the old Hollywood film noir feel juxtaposed with the gritty realism of alcoholism and depression. A great novel to get lost in.

Rating: 5/5
Just one more chapter!

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #20 Read a book with a cover that you hate.

Review: Everless by Sara Holland

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Photo credit:www.netgalley.com

Welcome to Everless, the most generically generic YA novel ever written!

Starring…

Generic protagonist girl! From a village! Super poor since the death of her mother! Thinks people won’t recognise her if she covers her hair!

Generic love interest boy! Playmate from childhood grown up all sexy! Lives in a generic castle!

Generic evil Queen! Straight out of Disney! Pale and cold! Rumoured to eat the generic hearts of other generic characters!

Generic insta-love! Between two generic characters not attracted to each other for 95% of the book!

Also featuring…

Generic peasants! Generic horse riding! Generic kitchen staff! Generic taverns! Generic guards!

With a special appearance by everyone’s favourite… generic honey pastries!

Critics have given it 3 stars, calling it “middle of the road” and “mildly enjoyable”.

Available now!

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A few months ago, I read this hilarious post by the lovely Orangutan Librarian entitled “Worst Fantasy Novel Plan Ever”! And we laughed, because satire, and then we commented with more satire, and laughed some more because surely no-one would include ALL of the generic fantasy tropes in one novel?

Cut to a couple of months later, when I started reading Everless and lo and behold – all of the tropes. In. One. Novel.

Wow.

Everless is the story of Jules (ok, so maybe the stupid fantasy name trope was avoided – although her surname is Ember, so I’m not sure – it depends if she goes on to set the world alight in books two and three) who lives with her father in a small village. Struggling to make ends meet, she volunteers to work at Everless, the castle and estate owned by the local nobility (the family are hiring extra staff for the wedding of their son to the adopted daughter of the Queen). Jules is already familiar with the castle, having lived there as a child, and quickly works her way up into a senior servants position. Her access to the royals gives her an insight into what really goes on, and as she starts to uncover some of their closely guarded secrets she begins to make sense of her own puzzling background.

Yes, the “my life has been a lie!” trope.

Despite the incredibly obvious plotline, the saving grace of this novel was the idea that time could be “bled” out of people (literally – by making them bleed) then bound into metal coins. These coins could then be used as currency or eaten to give the owner additional time. This meant that rich people could live for centuries, whereas poor people had to sell their own time to stay alive. Now, there are many, many flaws in this idea (how does someone’s youthful essence get bound into their blood? What happens if you just cut your finger? Do people who die of anything other than old age have their bodies bled? The very idea of cutting your life short to stay alive is counter productive? etc…) but if you don’t think about it too hard then the concept is interesting, and adds a new dimension to the story. (I’d like to add in here that I’ve not seen the movie “In Time” but I believe it’s broadly the same idea. So perhaps the concept is not as interesting/unique as I’d originally thought.)

Unfortunately, there were quite a few parts of the book that didn’t really make sense. Some are big gaping plot holes, like why Jules flagrantly disregards everything her father warns her about or why, considering she was banished from the castle as a child, everyone is fine with her return. On the other hand, there’s also quite a few small inconsistencies throughout the text that really, REALLY got on my nerves. For example, here is a direct quote from the text;

“We’re both startled by the deep, clear peel of a bell…As a child, I’d heard many of Everless’s bells – there are bells for weddings and deaths, New Year’s and royal proclamations. I’ve never before heard the bell of the Crown, reserved solely for the Queen.

Of all the bells I remember from my childhood at Everless, this song is the deepest and most beautiful. It means that we are to assemble for Her Majesty’s arrival.”

So, um, you’ve never heard this bell before but you instantly know what it means? Despite there being literally loads of other bells that must be hardly ever used, like royal proclamations? And you know that it means you should assemble somewhere? And you also know where that assembly point is?

Unless this bell sound is actually a public service announcement, you cannot possibly have obtained that information. Aargh!

Also – bells do not sing songs, they chime or toll.

There’s a similar inconsistency later on when Jules is asked to pick the incredibly rare, so-prized-we-built-an-entire-garden-around-it ice holly, which takes pride of place, um, growing underneath all the other flowers that have been planted on top of it. I hope there is some significance to the ice holly (as it was never mentioned again) otherwise I’ll have spent an entire chapter reading “ice lolly” and having to go back and correct myself.

I also had a problem with idea that the security protection on the family vault door consisted of a dye to stain your hands. If the dye was rare and permanent then fine – but it washed off after a couple of days and was commonly used in the castle for other purposes (so presumably lots of people had stained hands). And yeah, ok, the door could bleed time from you, but if you’re breaking into a vault stuffed with magical time money then you could just eat it all back again, no?

Apart from that, I got very, VERY annoyed at the ending. There’s a real opportunity for Jules to take charge of her own destiny and actually get a little bit of agency (something she completely lacks) but no – she just “develops” a total insta-
love crush over the space of two pages. I CALL BULLSHIT!

However….

The very, very weird thing about Everless is that despite it’s myriad flaws, generic storyline and annoying characters it isn’t actually a bad story. Yes, I kept getting annoyed, and yes, parts haven’t been fully thought through, but if you don’t analyse the storyline too hard then the novel is fast paced, there’s lots of action and Jules keeps discovering things which suggest a far better premise for books two and three. I think younger readers, or those who absolutely love YA will lap this book up (indeed, there’s a hell of a lot of hype surrounding it). It was just too much like a manufactured pop song for me – ticked all the boxes associated with the genre, squarely aimed at teenagers, easy and catchy – but ultimately lacking in depth and meaning. I’m afraid it’s been done before – and far better than this.

Overall rating: 3/5
Generic but fast paced literary fluff. An exciting novel as long as you don’t think too hard about it. Middle of the road rating with an extra half a point for not using stupid fantasy names. If the main character had been called Jyules it would have been a DNF.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #16 Read the first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series.

Review: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

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Picture courtesy of Goodreads.co.UK

I could rename this review “the one where Lucinda thinks she knows what her book of the year is, but then changes her mind in the middle of December” because this book…is PERFECT.

I just love it so much.

I absolutely adored the first installment of the Winternight trilogy (The Bear and the Nightingale – review here) and I was sooooooo excited to receive a pre pre pre release copy of the sequel (literally – I did a little scream). Therefore, it has taken a supreme effort to resist reading The Girl in the Tower as soon as I got it. Even though I’m frantically trying to finish off my reading challenges for the year and I’m about six months behind on my netgalley requests, I just can’t wait any longer. The weather is perfect (brass monkeys, snowing, dark, lit by twinkly Christmas lights) so I’m diving in.

And oh, how beautiful it is.

The Girl in the Tower picks up from where The Bear and the Nightingale left off, with Olga in Moscow, Sacha working as a monk and Vasya fleeing her village to avoid either being married off or sent to a convent. Unfortunately, Vasya stumbles upon trouble and has to pretend to be a boy in order to help. This leads to her experiencing the most thrilling adventures as she battles against the forces of evil to keep the local people safe.

That brief summary doesn’t even begin to do justice to this story – but I really REALLY don’t want to ruin it for anyone. You’ll just have to trust me when I say it’s really, REALLY good.

The Girl in the Tower is a full on emotional rollercoaster of a novel. Normally, my notes when I’m reading are pretty sparse, but just look at how much I wrote for this book:

0% – I’m so excited!
1% – What a great opening line. This is going to be good.
5% – stertorous – good word! *files under “potential           countdown conundrums”*
Still 5% – Surely that’s not…hmm, I’m intrigued.
8% – You bastard! It is!
9% – A serpent headed sword? As we all know, nothing good ever comes from serpents. Clearly, this is going to go tits up. 
Still 9% – Ooh, irony. Bashyna Kostei translates (I think) as Tower of Bones, which makes sense as the area was named after the third starving winter. Feeling smug after reading a Goodreads comment saying “I don’t get it!”. Ever heard of Google love?
12% – I wonder where Vasya is. She’s my favourite.
13% – Yay, there she is! Pleased to see people still mistake her for a boy.
15% – Yes! You don’t need no man/frost demon. Except some of that gold would be useful…
23% – Please don’t die!
24% – Ooh, romance! I know a lot of other bloggers have said they missed a love interest in the first book so maybe this will satisfy them.
25% – Just read the words “hungry eyed”. Now I can’t stop singing “HUNGRY EYES! One look at you and I can’t disguise, I’ve got…HUNGRY EYES!” Probably not what Katherine Arden wanted, especially as I’m now picturing Morozko as Patrick Swayzee.
28% – Clever use of male/female ambiguity in names. Gold star for Ms Arden!
Still 28% – What can kill, creates fire everywhere but leaves no tracks…is it dragons? I REALLY BLOODY WELL HOPE IT’S DRAGONS
36% –  A sennight? Like a week? Half of a fortnight? I thought Americans didn’t use these words?
41% – Wait, is her dad…not dead? Maybe?
47% – Yay but OH NO!
50% – CUT YOUR HAIR, VASYA!!!
53% – WHAT?!?
56% – Oh, I love Vasya and Marya together. Also love how hungry Vasya constantly is and how she seems to survive exclusively on bread and cake and pie.
65% – Oh no!!!!!! This is not good. I don’t trust that Prince. I have a theory about why Morozko thought he saw something (someone) at the feast too. 
67% – Ok so now I REALLY don’t trust that Prince. Also, I’m a little bit confused about who Olga is married to?
68% – The golden horse is fitting in with my theory…
70% – BASTARD!!!!
75% – I knew it!!!
74% – OH MY GOD! How do they know each other? 
81% – Kick him in the balls Vasya!
83% – I was right about my Tower of Bones translation!
84% – OH NO!!!!!
90% – is it…her grandmother?
99% – WOW. JUST…WOW.

As you can see, there’s a bit of everything in this story. Intrigue, romance, magic…dragons? I can neither confirm or deny that last one, you’ll have to read it to find out. You can also see how the excitement builds as my notes get shorter and my use of swear words/caps/exclamation marks increases. Sorry about that.

I think that one of the best things about the book is the usage of language. It is just so. beautifully. written. You could turn to any page and get at least one exquisite quote. I loved how descriptive the storytelling was, and because the novel is set in Russia the dark, snowy environment leant itself perfectly to such a magical, dark fairytale. It was incredibly atmospheric and evocative, and I loved how Katherine Arden wove Russian words into the narrative in such a way that you understood their meaning even though they bore no resemblance to their English counterparts. So clever.

I really noticed the development of the characters from book one and I loved how we got to find out more about each of them now that they had grown up a bit. I was initially worried that this novel would be the awkward middle bit, where everything is set up for a big finale but not much happens, but it isn’t at all like that. Instead, The Girl in the Tower could almost be read as a stand alone novel as it has a proper beginning, middle and end and a narrative arc all of it’s own.

In terms of character development, one of the most noticeable changes from The Bear and the Nightingale is the introduction of a bit of romance. I know other reviewers felt that this was missing from the first book (I didn’t, but each to their own) so I’m sure they’ll be pleased to see a relationship developing. As ever, I thought the way that it was written was absolutely perfect, it didn’t detract from the main action and I loved the fact that the male character was waaay more romantically invested than the female character, who basically had bigger things on her mind.

In keeping with that tone, I did detect a strong feminist ideal running through The Girl in the Tower. Vasya sees that as a girl her options are severely restricted – she can either be a princess locked in a tower producing babies for her husband, or a nun locked in a monastery…not having babies. I loved that she was a total rebel against this repressive society, so she just pretended to be a boy in order to do what she wanted (ride her horse, see the world, have fun etc.) I really liked how hardy and capable she was, and in particular I ABSOLUTELY loved that she wasn’t beautiful and didn’t care about what she looked like. I also adored the fact that she ate cake, pies and wine at every opportunity, was constantly hungry and hardly ever washed. That’s my kind of heroine.

There are so many other brilliant things about this story that I could go on for hours – the use of “real” Russian mythology, the family dynamics, the relationship between Vasya and her horse Solovey…but I would literally be here for days. Instead, I urge every single one of you to just go and read it for yourselves.

Rating: 5/5 obviously. Favourite book of 2017 by far.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley!