Apricots and Wolfsbane – KM Pohlkamp

I was provided with a copy of this book by the publisher and the author, in exchange for an honest review.

Apricots and Wolfsbane – KM Pohlkamp

unnamedLavinia Maud craves the moment the last wisps of life leave her victim’s bodies—to behold the effects of her own poison creations. Believing confession erases the sin of murder, her morbid desires are in unity with faith, though she could never justify her skill to the magistrate she loves.

At the start of the 16th century in Tudor England, Lavinia’s marks grow from tavern drunks to nobility, but rising prestige brings increased risk. When the magistrate suspects her ruse, he pressures the priest into breaking her confessional seal, pitting Lavinia’s instincts as an assassin against the tenets of love and faith. She balances revenge with her struggle to develop a tasteless poison and avoid the wrath of her ruthless patron.

With her ideals in conflict, Lavinia must decide which will satisfy her heart: love, faith, or murder—but the betrayals are just beginning.

According to the press pack I got from the author, this book was inspired by an ancient female poisoner, Locusta, and the essence of her story was transported to Tudor England, with additions and diversions along the way.

Apricots and Wolfsbane was inspired by the life of Locusta, the notorious poison master from Gaul.

In AD 54, Empress Agrippina conspired with Locusta to murder her husband, Roman Emperor Claudius, with a batch of poisoned mushrooms in order to place her son, Nero, on the throne. While Locusta was subsequently imprisoned in AD 55, Nero sought to secure his throne by contracting Locusta to craft a poison to murder Claudius’s son, Britannicus. When the concoction failed initial tests, Nero flogged Locusta with his own hands. Her second attempt succeeded. Upon Britannicus’s death, Nero bestowed Locusta with pardons, lands, and lavish gifts. He also sent pupils to study with the poison master.
But all good things come to an end. In AD 68, the Roman Senate tired of Nero’s rogue practices and the Emperor took his own life with a dagger before facing punishment. The Senate’s attention then turned towards Locusta, and without protection from the Emperor, she was convicted with an execution sentence. Some accounts say she was raped to death by a giraffe and then torn apart by wild animals. While that tale tantalizes
the imagination, it is more likely she was led through the city in chains and executed by human hands.
The plot of Apricots and Wolfsbane is inspired by Locusta’s life, but is not a replication. The essence was lifted out of Ancient Rome and placed into two fictional shires of early 16th century England at the height of the Catholic church. Those familiar with Locusta will recognize bits of historical reference within the tale, but the novel is full of unpredictable twists in a unique examination of morality.

I decided to read and review this book on the back of a comparison to Poison Study, and the space that it could have to grow into an adult book. Apricots and Wolfsbane is an adult historical fiction novel, focused on a female assassin, and is certainly an interesting ride.

First things first, this book is beautiful. The cover art is gorgeous, the typesetting is lovely, and the chapter headers are in the most elegant font – it would look wonderful on any shelf, as it’s certainly clearly been crafted with love. That said, though, there were numerous typing errors which could and should have been picked up by the proofreader. I found several of them near the beginning, which put me on edge for the rest of the book, as I was then more aware of them. I know that no editor is infallible, but there were a lot of typos in this book, which was disappointing in such an otherwise beautiful copy.

Those are minor concerns, though. The bulk of the review should be about the content of the book!

So much of this book was really great. The prose was elegant, the history clearly meticulously researched, the characterisation considered and the variety of perspectives shown was thrilling. Apricots and Wolfsbane was a thrill of a read, and I read it in only two days, sprawled across the couch as I dreamed of being dressed in fine clothes and jewels with Lavinia and Aselin.

I also really appreciated the detail that the author included on Lavinia’s poison development – I knew throughout that the poisonous plants mentioned were real, but didn’t realise until the post-novel notes that Lavinia was attempting to develop ricin throughout the book.

An interesting point which is probably unique to me – although I’ve read plenty of books about assassins and poisoners, including Throne of Glass, the Night Angel trilogy, and the Chronicles of Ixia, I’ve never actually read one before that was straight historical fiction, and not also fantasy. So throughout this book, I was kind of expecting magic to jump in somewhere. This was, of course, ridiculous, because this was Tudor England, and faithful to the modes of the period, but I was still waiting for it. Not sure why.

I had only a few complaints about this book which stopped me from rating it a full five stars.

The first was a plot point from early in the book. If Lavinia was a young woman alone, and needed to marry, as far as society was concerned, how had she been maintaining the appearances she needed for the three years preceding the book? While we know that she was able to support herself with the income from her commissions, what lie was she spinning to society at large to explain how a yeoman woman was able to keep not only herself and her house, but also two orphans, with no discernable source of income? So much rich detail was included in the book that the omission of this particular detail really rankled.

Secondly, I never really connected with Lavinia. I couldn’t understand how she could reconcile her piousness with her abject need for murder. Although this was developed and nuanced in the book – ably demonstrated by the testing phases in the latter parts of the book – I just wasn’t able to get into her head and sympathise with her. Because I didn’t understand her religious convictions, and therefore didn’t support them, she then lost a lot of her humanity for me. So as an assassin that I didn’t connect with, I had no real support for her, and she failed as an anti-hero. I didn’t particularly want her to succeed, although I didn’t want her to fail either.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t have any real religious faith, but I totally failed to understand how Lavinia could reconcile her murders with her confessions, and definitely didn’t understand her feeling of cleansing after confession. Aselin’s cold-blooded lack of belief and self-contained interest was much more comprehensible.

I think, however, that the lack of connection with Lavinia was more me than the book, and might not have affected anyone else, so I didn’t knock a star off for that.

Finally, there was some strange muddling between tenses, but a finish that I really didn’t see coming, so I was left surprised and pleased at the end of the book.

I think that Lavinia’s apprentice Aselin will appear in a follow-up in the future, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for that. I think perhaps her colder nature might make her easier to warm to, because I’d be better able to understand her. But we’ll see!

Four Stars
****

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The Tattooist of Auschwitz – Heather Morris

I received a copy of this book on NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

With massive hype around it, this book is the #4 bestseller on Amazon today, release day. With a great publicity campaign around it and an absolutely stunning story, it’s not hard to see why it’s so popular already. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is published today, 11th January.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz – Heather Morris

36468473The incredible story of the Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist and the woman he loved.

Lale Sokolov is well-dressed, a charmer, a ladies’ man. He is also a Jew. On the first transport from Slovakia to Auschwitz in 1942, Lale immediately stands out to his fellow prisoners. In the camp, he is looked up to, looked out for, and put to work in the privileged position of Tätowierer– the tattooist – to mark his fellow prisoners, forever. One of them is a young woman, Gita, who steals his heart at first glance.

His life given new purpose, Lale does his best through the struggle and suffering to use his position for good.

This story, full of beauty and hope, is based on years of interviews author Heather Morris conducted with real-life Holocaust survivor and Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov. It is heart-wrenching, illuminating, and unforgettable.

The story told in this book, of Lale Sokolov and his partner Gita, and their struggle to survive the horrendous circumstances in Auschwitz-Berkenau during WWII. If this review were solely of the power and hope of this story, I would have no hesitation in giving it five stars. This true story of love, hope, survival, and the atrocious human cost of the Holocaust is powerful, moving, and almost too horrendous to bear. That both of them survived beyond Auschwitz and went on to live long lives together, remaining in love, is an unforgettable story which I read in a single sitting on a Monday night, completely enthralled.

However, I take serious issue with the presentation and marketing of this book. With Heather Morris credited as the only author, and marketed as a fiction book, it does a disservice to the story of Lale and Gita. This is not fiction. This is a non-fiction book, and shouldn’t be marketed as fiction. Nothing in this book, the foreword, the afterword, the acknowledgements, suggests that Heather Morris had anything to do with the plot, the development, or the structure of this book, other than to frame the story of Lale and Gita as it happened. I really feel like this book is a memoir, written with the assistance of Heather Morris, or a biography, a snapshot of a true story. It’s not fiction, or historical fiction, and to mark it as such (and even the book categorises itself as historical fiction) is to do a disservice to it.

My other huge complaint about this book was that it was adapted from what was originally written as a screenplay. And boy, does that show. The narration is stark, with no emotion or description other than what is absolutely necessary. It’s so clear that this was a screenplay, and all of the emotion, the framing, the detail that makes it real, was supposed to be provided by the actors, by the direction, and by the production of the film.

So as a book it’s stark. Not in a way which makes it feel like a stylistic choice, but in a way which makes it feel like a lazy adaptation of an alternative media.

The story, the tale of Lale and Gita is so memorable. But the framing and the presentation of it lets it down so badly. To allow Lale’s words to tell his tale with assistance from Heather Morris would, I think, have been a better tribute to this story of love, and perseverance, but to categorise this story as historical fiction and market it as a novel is to do a huge injustice to it.

Three Stars
***

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A Life Without You – Katie Marsh

I can’t remember how or why I bought this book. I think it was part of a 3 for 2 deal on Audible or something. At any rate, at some point last month I started listening to this book in my car, but then Christmas came along, and I got distracted, so it took me a long time to read this. According to Goodreads, I started it on December 18th, and finished it yesterday, January 8th, so that’s a surprisingly long time for me to read an audiobook. Normally it’s only about a week. But either way, I was glad I read/listened to this one, as it was full of lovely sentiments.

A Life Without You – Katie Marsh

28387285Can you ever outrun the past?
It’s Zoe’s wedding day. She’s about to marry Jamie, the love of her life. Then a phone call comes out of the blue, with the news that her mum Gina has been arrested. Zoe must make an impossible decision: should she leave her own wedding to help?

Zoe hasn’t seen Gina for years, blaming her for the secret that she’s been running from ever since she was sixteen. Now, Gina is back in her life, but she’s very different to the mum Zoe remembers. Slowly but surely, Gina is losing her memory.

As she struggles to cope with Gina’s illness, can Zoe face up to the terrible events of years ago and find her way back to the people she loves?

A Life Without You is a stirring and poignant novel about the power of the past – and the possibilities of the future.

I haven’t read anything by Katie Marsh before, but I definitely will read more by her. Although the opening chapter of this book makes it sound like it will be a zany adventure of a woman running out of her own wedding, it turned out that it was actually far more poignant than that. Zoe hasn’t seen or spoken to her mother, Gina, in twelve years, since a horrendous event in her past, from when Zoe was sixteen. When she get a phone call on her wedding day, Zoe throws aside the past ten years of non-contact and goes to rescue her mother from a police station.

Over the next few months, Zoe faces up to the reality of what her mother’s life is like, and the consequences of her decision to cut contact more than a decade before. As Gina’s memory fails and her quality of life deteriorates, Zoe finds herself facing up to the reality of her mother’s illness and the history between them, as well as confronting her relationship with her sister and her father.

I really enjoyed this book. There was a lot of heart in it, and a lot of feeling behind it. Once I really got into the swing of it (as in, once I was back at work last week) I was swept up into the story of Zoe and her mother, and repairing their fractured relationship.

There were a couple of points I found a little hard to deal with, or which I felt could have improved the book very slightly. Lily, Zoe’s younger sister, got sidelined throughout the narrative. This was very much a book about Zoe and how she dealt with her mother and her life, but she’s as much Lily’s mother, and I didn’t really feel like enough emphasis was given to that.

As well as that, Zoe’s change of heart, after not talking to her mother for ten years, to going to rescue her in her wedding dress, was a little too abrupt to be believable. Although it’s explained – somewhat – later on in the book, I didn’t feel like it was really justified enough to convince me that this kind of extreme reaction was proportional or even likely.

Thirdly, each chapter is closed with a letter from Gina written to Zoe on each of her birthdays. While the first are well-written and totally believable, as the narrative continues, more and more things coincidentally happen on Zoe’s birthday to make it a bit of a stretch to credit them. From the top of my head, a graduation, a job move, divorce papers, and the fateful event which triggers the schism between Zoe and her mother all happened on her birthday, and that’s just too much to credit. Similar to my lack of belief in One Day, there’s just too much coincidence involved here. For the sake of the story, though, I let it slide. I guess you kind of have to go with the flow when the birthday letters are used as a narrative device.

This book, incidentally, did answer a question which had been rattling around in my brain for a few months – would I cry at an audiobook? I cry at real books, and at films and tv shows, but not at songs. So then I wondered would the audio experience trigger those tears?

The answer, incidentally, is yes. There was one chapter where my eyes and nose started burning, but I staved off the tears, but I was caught completely by a scene late in the book, set on a beach.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and after finishing it, went home to hug my mum as hard as I could, and tell her that I loved her.

Four Stars
****

 

 

Housekeeping: For 2018, I’m going to try and post twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but we’ll see how it goes. 

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Favourite Books of 2017

It’s still only the 4th of January, so it’s okay that I’m not finished posting about last year yet. I figure I have at least a week before I have to start actually thinking about 2018.

So when I was planning this post, I actually had it in my head as ‘Best Books of 2017’. But then I thought, actually, who am I to say what the best books of 2017 were? All I can really say is what my FAVOURITE books of 2017 were.

So here are my top books that I read in 2017, and the reasons why I thought they were so great. All of these books are five-star reviews.

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

41F2ytTU1wL__SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Because I read this late in the year, I didn’t actually get around to reviewing it before I was starting on my annual round-ups and challenge summaries. But don’t let the fact that I didn’t review it deter you. There are literally hundreds of reviews of THUG online, most of them lauding it as one of the greatest books of 2017. They’re not wrong. Angie Thomas’s story of Starr, a 16-year-old who sees her best friend shot by a police officer, deserves every accolade it received since its publication. It got not one, but two Goodreads Choice Awards, debuted at the top of the NYT bestseller list, and is already in production as a film adaptation. It’s heartwrenching and searing, humane, and also really funny. I thoroughly recommend you read it.

16283014

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

This is a classic. I had never read it before this year, although obviously I knew the story. Honestly, I don’t think there’s any way you can improve on this heartwarming story of a proper Scrooge who learns to love the spirit of Christmas. That is, unless you included muppets. The source material for so many adaptations and reimaginings of classic holiday films, A Christmas Carol is a timeless classic that will endure.

Fortunately, The Milk – Neil Gaiman

Screen-Shot-2013-08-14-at-3_11_39-PM-640x451I think what really got to me about this book was how unexpectedly hilarious it was. I assumed it would be something like Gaiman’s other children’s books, Coraline, Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but it’s nothing like those. Fortunately, The Milk is witty, well-plotted, pacy, offbeat, and incredibly entertaining.

The Invasion – Peadar Ó Guilín

27394921The followup to last year’s The Call, The Invasion actually isn’t published until March of this year, but I got my hands on a copy of it early, at YALC. It’s superb. Taking all of the creepy elements of The Call and beefing the story up so that it’s more humane, more interesting, and more creepy, this is a truly excellent sequel, better than the original.

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

If you had asked me at the start of 2017 whether I liked Neil Gaiman, I would probably have said that he’s alright, but I don’t love his stuff. So imagine my surprise when I realised that not one, but two of his books made it onto my top ten for 2017. 51Z4sNF1E0L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

But both of those places are heartily deserved. Neverwhere was a really fabulous book. Funny and touching, with characters I really supported, as well as characters I really hated, I was enthralled in this book. Listening to it on Audible, I found myself reluctant to get out of the car after reaching my destination because it would mean that I had to leave behind the under-London for however long it would be until I could sit down and immerse myself in the world again. Sweet, tragic little Door who at first seemed a helpless child and evolved to be so much more, and an ANGEL named Islington – there is so much to recommend in this book that I don’t know where to start. Gaiman created a world which was so believable, so intertwined with our own, that I was looking out at tube stations to see if I could find the Earl’s Court.

Countless – Karen Gregory34299826

I was utterly blown away by the beauty of this book. I thought it would be melodramatic and overblown. An anorexic, pregnant teenager? That truly sounded like a recipe for hype. But Countless is so delicately, beautifully written that I truly believed every word of it. I was here on this journey with Hedda, battling with and against Nia, and sucked into the horrendous, endless nightmare that is anorexia. Combined with meeting her new neighbour, and learning how to deal with the life she’s nurturing inside her, this book charts an incredible journey which is harrowing, difficult, and life-affirming. Hedda’s story, from the start to the end of this book, filled me with compassion, and completely sucked me into her world. That Karen Gregory can do that, especially when I went in not expecting a whole lot, is a testament to her skill as a writer, and part of the reason why I recommend this one so heavily.

The Princess Bride – William Goldman21787

This is a classic, I know, and to be honest I’m quite surprised it took me this long to get around to reading it. Although it took me a while to get into this, as the structure of introductions and introductions, as well as a book within a book, took a little while to get my head around, I soon grew to appreciate the intense planning and humorous payoff that comes with the unique setup of this book. By creating a fictionalised author with a fictionalised son, as well as the imaginary childhood of that author, Goldman is able to add layers of depth to this book which make it far more than just a subverted fairytale, but something else entirely, something that I’ve never quite seen the like of again. The cultural touchstone that is the Princess Bride is something that passed me by until 2017, and if it has passed you by, I say no more! Read the book! Watch the film! Enjoy the ridiculous and fantastic world that Goldman has created here.

One Of Us Is Lying – Karen McManus32887579

The only crime book on this list, although I read many of them this year, there’s a good reason why this one made it. One of Us Is Lying is, at its heart, a murder mystery. But what made is so excellent wasn’t trying to figure out the murderer – I had that pegged fairly early on, actually. No, what I really enjoyed in this book was the secret lives of the four murder suspects unravelling around them, through the mysterious tumblr account and media interest in their case. Five teenagers in a locked room. Four of them have reason to want the fifth dead, to protect their secrets. But as Simon ends up dead and the secrets keep coming out, what’s to stop these desperate teens from doing even more to protect themselves?

This was a super thriller, as well as a super portrait of the pressures high schoolers face, and the insanity of American high schools. Thoroughly recommended.

Spellslinger – Sebastien de Castell

25181955When your world is structured on strength of magic, and you’re rubbish at magic, what do you to? Well for Kellen, what he does is befriend a rabid squirrel cat and a wandering salesperson, and use his intellect, wit, and sometimes his inherent clumsiness to get by. Built on a system of great inequality, de Castell has created a world which is nuanced and fascinating, with Kellen only beginning to realise the depths of corruption which are visible in his sheltered, privileged life. Expanding in the final chapters to depict a larger world which Kellen will begin to travel, Spellslinger is a complete and satisfying story on its own, which introduces us to my favourite animal sidekick of the decade – Reichis, a bloodthirsty, vengeful, gambling-addicted squirrel cat. You’ve gotta read this one.

Frogkisser! – Garth Nix

33784725I’m sorry, but did you expect anything different from me? Garth Nix is my favourite author. Subverted fairytales are a genre I’m totally here for. The wit and wisdom of this book, the talking dog sidekick, the younger princess on a quest to save her elder sister’s frog boyfriend, the wizard, everything about this book made me smile and made me laugh. There’s no way it wasn’t making my top ten of 2017. Plus, how gorgeous was that hardback? The endpapers had frogs on them. A ribbon separates the pages and marks your spot. The spine has a leaping frog. I’m here for all of it. Especially the frog on the front cover. It’s wearing a crown!

Those ten books aren’t in any particular order, by the way. Or actually, they’re in the reverse of the order in which I read them. I didn’t want to rank them from top to bottom, because I think that they’re all great, really.

And, of course, there’s also time to pick my ten favourite cover arts which weren’t already mentioned in this post. Watercolours may feature heavily…

It would appear from these ten covers that I really like white text, white backgrounds, and watercolours. What can I say? I have a style, and this is it!

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Looking Back, Looking Forward – 2017/18

As I suspected might happen, I finished 2017 without any more blog posts. I was too busy visiting friends and family, talking to my sisters, drinking hot chocolate, and thoroughly enjoying my Christmas holidays, as well as squeezing in those last few books!

So according to The List for 2017, my final count was 189 books and 16 short stories. That’s actually two fewer than 2016, which was 191 books, but I’m not that bothered about that.

I completed my three A-Z challenges, Title, First Name, and Surname.

According to my GoodReads, I read 67,937 across 206 books, which actually means there’s one item on my GR list that isn’t on my own list, but I have no idea what that might be! My GoodReads Year in Books is here.

The longest book I read was A Storm of Swords, at 1,218 pages, and the shortest was A Minor Raven Boys Holiday Drabble, at only 2 pages. On average, I read books of about 333 pages. I think GoodReads said 336, but it’s more fun to say 333.

My average book rating was 3.3, meaning that I’m quite generous really.

The book I read that most other people have read was Pride and Prejudice (shocker…), and the least popular was A Cargo of Ivories, a short story by Garth Nix.

Later this week I’m going to post with my top books from 2017, and finalise what my reading challenges for 2018 are going to be. I’ve already set my GoodReads challenge at 100 books, which I would be highly disappointed if I didn’t achieve, but I’m going to pick something else too, so that I have a goal to work towards this year. I’m going to have to look at the Modern Mrs Darcy and Popsugar challenges, as well as seeing if I can make one up myself, and come to a decision before too long!

I’ve just started a new job, so I don’t know how it’s going to affect the landscape of my life. There is a lot of space in my new office, so I could easily create a reading nook, but I don’t know how well it would go down with my bosses if I was constantly sitting on the corner devouring books instead of working. But I can hope!!

 

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A-Z Challenge: Author Surnames

 

A

Renée Ahdieh

(The Wrath and the Dawn, The Mirror and the Maze, The Crown and the Arrow)

B

Emily Barr

(The Truth and Lies of Ella Black)

C

Jennifer Chance

(Courted)

D

Sebastien de Castell

(Spellslinger, Shadowblack)

E

Laura Elliott

(The Lost Sister)

F

Jamie Farrell

(Blissed)

G

Karen Gregory

(Countless)

H

Claire Hennessy

(Like Other Girls)

I

Julie Israel

(Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index)

J

Penny Joelson

(I Have No Secrets)

K

Dorothy Koomson

(When I Was Invisible)

L

Emery Lord

(The Start of Me and You)

M

Nicola Moriarty (although she just beat out her sister, Liane Moriarty!)

(The Fifth Letter)

N

Sophie Nicholls

(Miss Mary’s Book of Dreams)

O

Martina O’Reilly

(Things I Want You To Know)

P

Jodi Picoult

(Small Great Things)

Q

Susan Kaye Quinn

Open Minds

R

Michelle Redmond

(The Marriage Pact)

S

Krystal Sutherland

(A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares)

T

Heather Tullis

(A Perfect Fit)

U

Jean Ure

(Skinny Melon and Me)

V

Siobhan Vivian

(The List)

W

Elizabeth Wein

(The Pearl Thief)

X

Xenophon

(On Horsemanship)

*note – I know that Xenophon only has one name, so I debated whether this would be counted as a first name or a surname. I decided in the end that it was probably a surname, because he’d be listed under X in a library.

Y

Felicia Yap

(Yesterday)

Z

Markus Zusak

(Underdog)

 

It took a lot of finagling, and even when writing out the lists, I accidentally duplicated people, but there is no duplication between the three lists – none of the authors listed for first name or surname wrote the books on the title list, meaning there are 26×3 different books making up my 2017 alphabet challenges. After consulting a calculator, that means I have 78 books in my challenge, so I’m really happy I managed it – it took me up to the week before Christmas, so I didn’t exactly finish it up with weeks to spare!

Today is the 22nd December, and I’ve finished working in the Irish Embassy. I’ve also mostly finished working in the university I was in up til now, with just some marking to do next month. But as of this evening, I’m officially on Christmas holidays, with nothing to do until I start my new job on January 2nd. I won’t be posting on Christmas day, but I’ll try to get a post or two up before the year ends.

If I don’t, then I hope you have a happy and peaceful Christmas, and that your New Year is filled with joy and glorious books!

 

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All I Want For Christmas…

It’s that time of year again – Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat, please buy Aislinn some books.

Now that I’m finished my 2017 reading challenges (although I still have one more blog post to write), I’m starting to look ahead, and think about what I’m going to read in 2018, and whether I’m going to do any reading challenges. I’ll set myself a GoodReads target of 150, and hope to fulfil that, and I’ll check out the PopSugar and Modern Mrs Darcy reading challenges, but as well as those, I’m thinking about setting myself a backlist challenge.

There are currently about thirty books stacked up in my bedroom looking balefully at me as if to recriminate me for not having read them yet. There’s also a book sitting accusingly on top of my bed headboard, since my sister gave it to me last Christmas, and I haven’t read it yet. But convention between us says I have up to two years, so it’s only a half-baleful look.

As well as thinking about what challenges I’ll set myself for 2018, I have a few thoughts about what books I’m going to read in 2018, and therefore what books I would like for Christmas…

La Belle Sauvage

The first book in Pullman’s new Book of Dust trilogy, I’m almost certain I’m going to get this for Christmas, because I asked my uncle for it specifically, and he’s wonderful. So I’m looking forward to diving back into Lyra’s world of alternate Oxford and shape-shifting daemons.

As well as reading La Belle Sauvage, I think I’m going to have to try and re-read the His Dark Materials trilogy, which I’ve been meaning to do for a year now, to immerse myself in the world fully.

Dividing Eden

Joelle Charbonneau, who wrote The Testing trilogy, is an author I like to look out for every now and then. Dividing Eden is her new standalone fantasy, about a pair of twins who are set against each other to decide the order of succession. Sounds super. Can’t wait!

Trouble Never Sleeps

I’m super looking forward to the appearance of the third Trouble book, Trouble Never Sleeps. Now admittedly, this won’t be out in time for Christmas, but it’s one of my most-anticipated 2018 releases, so I’m including it in the post for fun.

Oh My God What A Complete Aisling!

This book has been topping bestseller lists in Ireland for months. Like an Irish Bridget Jones, Aisling is just a small-town girl who’s moved to Dublin and is still trying to find her feet, heading back home every weekend to her boyfriend, and living the life of a college graduate. I’m super excited to read this novel, which was spawned by a Facebook group, and has two sequels coming out later as well.

The Power

I actually bought this as a present for someone else, but I’m going to badger them to let me read it before too long. Ssssshhh.

Something Else

My sister always gets me books for Christmas, so I’m also looking forward to seeing what she comes up with for me to read as quickly as possible, so that she, too, can read it after I finish.

I can’t believe there’s only five days left before Christmas! It’s come up so fast! I haven’t even finished my Christmas shopping! Someone stop the clock, I need to wrap things!

I tried to wrap presents last night, and finished not one, not two, but three rolls of sellotape. So I was left a frustrated ball of irritation with half-wrapped presents in front of me while my mum cracked up. Gah. That’s what you call Christmas Spirit.

 

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First Name A-Z Challenge

For 2017, I set myself a challenge of reading 26 books by authors which first names which spanned the alphabet. Below is my final list of authors, and the books and short stories that I read to include them on the list. The three Violet Vaughns are clearly a trilogy, as their matching cover art shows, and I feel like this is a good spread of genres. The only re-read on there is A Little Princess, the rest were all new this year!

A

Alice Feeney

(Sometimes I Lie)

B

Brendan Reichs

(Nemesis)

C

Colleen Hoover

(It Ends With Us, Confess)

D

Denise Grover Swank

(The Player)

E

Eithne Shortall

(Love in Row 27)

F

Frances Hodgson Burnett

(A Little Princess)

G

George RR Martin

(, A Feast for Crows, A Dance With Dragons, The Ice Dragon, The Hedge Knight, The Hedge Knight II: Sworn Sword, The Hedge Knight III: The Mystery Knight, The Rogue Prince)

H

Heidi Heilig

(The Ship Beyond Time)

I

Ian McEwan

(Nutshell)

J

Jennifer Mathieu

(Moxie)

K

Kristen Ciccarelli

(The Last Namsara)

L

Lindsey Kelk

(I Heart Christmas)

M

Margaret Atwood

(The Handmaid’s Tale)

N

Nigel McDowell

(The House of Mountfathom)

O

Oscar Wilde

(The portrait of Dorian Gray)

P

Peadar Ó Guilín

(The Invasion)

Q

Quenby Olson

(The Bride Price, First Position)

R

Rowan Coleman

(The Accidental Mother)

S

Sally Nicholls

(Things A Bright Girl Can Do)

T

Trish Moran

(Mirror Image)

U

Ursula Le Guin

(A Wizard of Earthsea)

V

Violet Vaughn

(Craving for Love, Lease on Love, Rush for Love)

W

Will Hill

(After The Fire)

X

Xavier Neal

(Havoc)

Y

Yann Martel

(Life of Pi)

Z

Zoe Folbigg

(The Note)

 

It took me almost to the very end of the year, but I suppose that’s what you really want from a challenge, since it’s no real challenge if you’re finished by June!

In other news, yesterday I put up my Christmas tree, played three hours of Christmas carols, wore a Christmas jumper, and read A Christmas Carol, so I am very much in the mood for Christmas.

I also have a lovely new bookmark which my friend and colleague Joseph McParland very thoughtfully chose for me, and definitely didn’t just happen to find in a cracker, which I’m using to mark my place in The Hate U Give, which is a) excellent and b) gripping!

 

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A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin

This was a re-read for me, although the first time I read it was way back when, at least fifteen years ago, as I was definitely in primary school.

I read this largely because the author’s first name begins with U, so I was able to cross another category off my challenge list (the full version of which is coming next week, when I finally finish it). I didn’t remember much liking it when I was small, and I really didn’t much like it now either.

A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin

imagesQJZKXWJRThe first book of “Earthsea” is a tale of wizards, dragons and terrifying shadows. The island of Gont is a land famous for wizards. Of these, some say the greatest – and surely the greatest voyager – is the man called Sparrowhawk. As a reckless, awkward boy, he discovered the great power that was in him – with terrifying consequences. Tempted by pride to try spells beyond his means, Sparrowhawk lets loose an evil shadow-beast in his land. Only he can destroy it, and the quest leads him to the farthest corner of Earthsea.

Okay, so maybe Earthsea is a seminal children’s fantasy series, and the adventures of Sparrowhawk are a key part of any fantasy-reader’s childhood. But I just wasn’t gripped by this. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, per se. There’s certainly a decent enough story, and a solid world rich in detail. But there was nothing there to hook me. I didn’t care about Sparrowhawk. He had no human ties to keep him going. He had no real interest for me as a person, being nothing more than arrogant and hot-headed. And his quest for a shadow was, frankly, dull.

So maybe this is a classic of children’s fantasy literature. But I found it dull. There was nothing really wrong with it, and reading it didn’t incite within me the furious anger of other books I’ve read this year, but there was nothing really right with it either. A very middle-of-the-road book.

Three Stars
***

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Zenith – Sasha Alsberg, Lindsay Cummings

31394234It’s very nearly the end of the year. With less than two weeks left until Christmas, that means there’s less than three weeks until 2017 is over, and we’re starting all over again in a new year. I’m actually starting a new job on January 2nd, so 2018 is getting off to a start of big changes for me. But even though today I went out for lunch with my new workmates, and it’s only three weeks away, it really doesn’t feel like the start of this new job is that close – it doesn’t feel like the start of a new year is so close! Is it not still only about April of 2017? Where has the year gone?

In any case, with only a few weeks left in the week, there isn’t much time left for reviews. But Zenith, which has been on my to-read list since I picked it up at YALC, and was bumped up largely because it starts with a Z, so was helpful for my Title Challenge, is one that I finally finished this week, and really enjoyed… except for that ending.

Most know Androma Racella as the Bloody Baroness, a powerful mercenary whose reign of terror stretches across the Mirabel Galaxy. To those aboard her glass starship, Marauder, however, she’s just Andi, their friend and fearless leader.

But when a routine mission goes awry, the Marauder‘s all-girl crew is tested as they find themselves in a treacherous situation and at the mercy of a sadistic bounty hunter from Andi’s past.

Meanwhile, across the galaxy, a ruthless ruler waits in the shadows of the planet Xen Ptera, biding her time to exact revenge for the destruction of her people. The pieces of her deadly plan are about to fall into place, unleashing a plot that will tear Mirabel in two.

Andi and her crew embark on a dangerous, soul-testing journey that could restore order to their shipor just as easily start a war that will devour worlds. As the Marauder hurtles toward the unknown, and Mirabel hangs in the balance, the only certainty is that in a galaxy run on lies and illusion, no one can be trusted.

Zenith was one of the proofs that people queued for absurd lengths of time for at YALC. I was one of those people, not because I had heard all the hype about it, but because the queue was sitting down, and my feet hurt, so I was pretty pleased with getting a free book out of it as well. Zenith tells the story of an all-girl crew of space pirates – like Firefly, but with less sudden but inevitable betrayal.

Actually, is there less betrayal? Perhaps there isn’t.

In any case, the premise of Zenith is one that I could totally get behind. Four girls from different ends of the galaxy, all running from something in their pasts, scraping by on petty piracy jobs, and being boss friends. Which was pretty interesting. I would’ve liked a book about this space girl pirate crew. But that’s not really what we got.

I also think that I would’ve liked a book about what’s going to happen in the second book of the Androma saga. But what I didn’t really like was the book we actually got.

So this book was actually kind of a mess. There was one major plot thread running through it which was resolved about 50% of the way through the book, and then the following 50% was all a mess. There was a whole load of unresolved plot threads, and the rest of the book wasn’t particularly enjoyable.

Zenith ends on a massive cliffhanger – setting up for the second book in the saga. And to be honest, I was disappointed in it. There was some interesting relationships between Andi and her crew, some interesting discussion of the family that you choose for yourself.

But honestly, this book had too much backstory and too much faffing. The actual action was limited to the last hundred pages or so, and I was disappointed in that. This book could easily have been condensed down to half the size it was, and the second book in the saga probably tacked on to the end of it. I hate series which are unnecessarily extended into multiple books when they could be easily condensed down into a single, punchy book.

There’s a lot of other stuff I could probably criticise here, including the flimsy supporting characters and the lack of actual romance between the main and the romantic interest. But I don’t know how interested I am in that.

This book was co-written by a massive booktuber, with over 100,000 subscribers, and so it’s subject to a lot of discussion online about whether it’s written on the back of her fame, whether it’s any good, whether it’s ghostwritten, how much success it will have, etc. I actually had never heard of Sasha Alsberg, because I’m not into booktube at all, and have no opinions on her getting a book deal on the back of her booktube fame. So that’s a kettle of fish for someone else to deal with.

Zenith was interesting, but not brilliant, and I don’t know if I have any interest in reading the sequel. It seems like it’s a vehicle for a lot of controversy, and to be honest, it doesn’t really feel like it’s a good enough (or bad enough) book to have this much excitement over it.

 

Three Stars
***

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