New Read: The Lioness and the Spellspinners

Earlier this year, I read The People the Fairies Forget by Cheryl Mahoney, the third charming, fairy tale re-imagining I have enjoyed from Cheryl’s Beyond the Tales series. Luckily for me, I already had the fourth book and prequel to the series, The Lioness and the Spellspinners, lined up to read. (If you are unfamiliar with this author or series, never fear, I don’t think these books necessarily need to be read in order).

This book takes us back to Marilegh (before the famous dancing princes curse) which is a kingdom made up of many islands. On one of the smallest, remotest islands lives young Forrest and his family, who enjoy a quiet, peaceful life of farming intertwined with the family tradition of magical spellspinning. However Forrest’s safe world is to be dramatically turned upside down by the arrival of a more unpredictable and dangerous form of magic, that also coincides with him unceremoniously finding Karina, a prickly, knife-wielding girl, sleeping-rough in his family’s barn one morning.

Stuck on the island, Karina is taken in by Forrest’s kindly, indomitable mother, no questions asked, but after growing up as an orphan on the tough streets of the capital, she finds it hard to trust this strangely hospitable and trusting family. And when they claim they can knit spells of protection, luck and health into their garments, that really doesn’t help either. From her dark past she knows magic exists, but magical knitting that’s just ridiculous … right?! This scoffing at their family tradition raises the hackles of the protective Forrest, who initially eyes this newcomer with suspicion yet, like the rest of his family, he is willing to give her a chance.

However when the chickens start laying golden eggs; the horse starts talking in rhyming couplets and Forrest’s parents are suddenly called away, Forrest and Karina will crucially need to get over their misgivings and work together to figure out the cause of this series of fantastical and inexplicable magic before it can become something more dangerous. So unravels a new tale of magic, friendship, danger, theft and betrayal – all of which is brought to life beautifully by Cheryl with some great description, imagination and humour. Also, for those who have read the other books in the series, there are subtle, clever nods to characters and adventures that are to come, with an amusing cameo from a younger incarnation of a certain ‘Good Fairy’; sparkles and all!

Overall, I thought The Lioness and the Spellspinners was another well written, witty and thrilling adventure, that still gently pokes fun at the traditional fairy tale tropes. Both refreshing and comforting to read. Now, I need to wait (not so) patiently for Cheryl to write another book. Great read.

Thank you to the author for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or anything else by Cheryl Mahoney?

10 Books of Summer 2017 – 7/10

New Read: The White Queen

Since watching the BBC’s wonderful adaptation, I have long wanted to read The White Queen, the first book in Philippa Gregory’s popular Cousins’ War series. Gregory retells the bloody history of the battles between York and Lancaster – what we now call the War of the Roses – through the eyes of the indomitable women caught up in it all; starting with Elizabeth Woodville, the White Queen.

It is famed that Elizabeth was an extraordinarily beautiful and ambitious widow, who stood on the side of the road to petition the new, young York king, Edward. After catching the eye of the handsome, roguish Edward, Elizabeth secretly marries him and rises to the exalted position of queen consort. But her position is still fragile, with the continued uprisings in the name of the deposed Lancastrian king, Henry VI and even rumblings of discontent among Edward’s own followers at his unsuitable choice of bride. To secure herself and her family, Elizabeth must wisely play the intricate and dangerous game of marriage alliances, political intrigue and war.

I love that Gregory has chosen to tell this series from the perspective of the women: the secret, often silenced but no less important players in these wars of men. While I didn’t always ‘like’ Elizabeth, I have to praise Gregory for creating a fascinating character to read about, with believable shades of light and dark. On one hand, Elizabeth is a strong, brave and fiercely loving wife and mother, on the other hand she can be a deeply proud, ambitious and vengeful woman. Only one bad choice will lead to death, pain and loss, and her children trapped as pawns in a deadly stalemate with her enemies.

And this cleverly gives Gregory an opportunity to explore and give her own explanation for the mystery that has confounded historians for centuries: what really happened to ‘the princes in the Tower’? Were Elizabeth’s sons, Edward and Richard, coldly murdered by their uncle, Richard III or are there more sinister plans and shadowy players involved? In her notes, Gregory concedes that her ideas are only conjecture, however her well-educated surmises of those who had the most to gain from the deaths of the two princes are interesting and certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

Now, what lifts this up from being just a very good piece of historical fiction is the supernatural elements. Through her mother, Elizabeth really was a descendant of the Dukes of Burgundy, who cherished the tradition that they were descended from the water goddess, Melusina. Combining this legend and the known accusations of witchcraft, Gregory has cleverly weaved a realistic thread of magic to Elizabeth and her mother Jacquetta. They truly believe they can raise storms, place curses and have visions of the future. However Gregory leaves us wondering if the effects of these ‘spells’ are real or just coincidence?

Overall, I thought The White Queen was a brilliantly written and researched piece of historical fiction, with wonderful touches of romance, mystery and magic. I look forward to reading the next book in the series: The Red Queen, about Margaret Beaufort the mother of Henry Tudor. Great read.

Have you read this? Or anything else by Philippa Gregory?

10 Books of Summer 2017 – 6/10

New Read: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar

I have to admit to having had a soft spot for naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham, ever since watching the popular children’s wildlife series The Really Wild Show (1986-1995) as a child. More recently I have enjoyed seeing him present the BBC’s annual nature shows Springwatch and Autumnwatch. So as soon as I found out he had written a memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, I had to read it! Plus how good is that title?!

In this memoir, we discover that young Chris was an introverted boy, who was only truly happy when out having feral adventures in fields, rivers, ponds and woods, or hidden in his bedroom; bursting with fox skulls, birds’ eggs and sweaty jam jars of live creatures. But when Chris stole a young kestrel from its nest, he embarked on a friendship that taught him what it meant to love, and which would have a profound affect on him. In this rich, emotional and exposing memoir, Chris brings vividly to life his childhood in suburban 1970s England, with his ever pervading search for freedom, meaning and acceptance in a world that didn’t understand him.

From his TV persona, I would never have guessed the difficulties Chris has had to face in his life. Although no specific condition is mentioned in this memoir, as an adult, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which would account for the obsessive behaviour that others found so hard to understand. Chris candidly shares moments of hurt, pain, embarrassment and confusion he experienced due to this misunderstanding, balanced with the love, joy, surprise and pleasure he found in the natural world. This made for an emotional rollercoaster ride of a read for me, which I had to take my time over but it was well worth it.

Recently, I read a description that said this memoir will be unlike any you’ve ever read, with which I have to wholeheartedly agree! Chris cleverly subverts our expectations of the memoir genre by writing several events involving himself in the third person, for example through the eyes of his teacher and neighbours. Also, we flick around in time, with the Summer with his kestrel playing a central role, and each sub-book ends with a discussion looking back on his childhood with his therapist; shortly after he almost committed suicide. Not only did this make for a refreshing change in style, I think it also helped to convey Chris’ confusion and frustrations, as well as giving us a view of him from others’ perspective.

Overall, I thought Fingers in the Sparkle Jar was a beautifully wrought, powerful and candid recount of a difficult childhood for Chris Packham. A side to this successful, much loved naturalist and TV personality I never knew about before. Great read.

Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Are you a fan of Chris Packham?

New Read: Wendy Darling, Volume 3: Shadow

After devouring Volume 1, last year, and Volume 2, earlier this year, I was very keen to get my hands on this: the third and final volume in Colleen Oakes’ young adult Wendy Darling series, inspired by J M Barrie’s Peter Pan. (If you are unfamiliar with this author or series you may instead want to check out my thoughts on the first book: Wendy Darling, Volume 1: Stars).

At the beginning of this series, Wendy and her brothers were whisked away by the wild, magical Peter Pan to Neverland; a fantastical land of turquoise seas, glimmering beaches, mermaids, pirates and freedom. However, Wendy soon discovered all was not as it seemed and she was forced to take shelter with the dreaded Captain Hook. Together they have hatched a dangerous plan to bring down the blood-crazed Peter for good, but it will involve Wendy returning to Pan Island and the clutches of Peter. The fate of her brothers, her beloved Booth and the whole of Neverland is in her hands.

It was wonderful to see this interesting re-imagining from the point-of-view of Wendy, and she was again joined by a host of colourful characters, including: the adorable Michael; the thoroughly dislikeable John; the big-hearted Smith (Smee!) and, my personal favourite, the infamous Captain Hook. While I haven’t always ‘liked’ Colleen Oakes’ re-imagined characters I do think they are realistic and much better fleshed out than in J M Barrie’s original tale. I also loved being able to delve deeper into the settings too, which Oakes’ brought vividly to life through her beautiful descriptions.

Sadly I did have a small issue with some of the language used in this final instalment – considering the main protagonists are meant to be from Edwardian London. There was the more harmless use of the Americanised ‘toy store’ instead of toy shop, but then there was the far more dubious use of ‘f*nny’ … Now, I believe in America this is slang for ‘ass’ or ‘bottom’. Here in the UK though, it means a much more intimate part of a lady! Fortunately, Oakes weaved such a wonderful tale of adventure, danger, magic and love with so many twists and turns, that the small slips in language didn’t majorly affect my overall enjoyment. Plus what an ending – I didn’t see that coming!

Overall, I thought Wendy Darling, Volume 3: Shadow was another enjoyable fantasy adventure and a satisfying end to this interesting re-imagining of Peter Pan. Previously I have read and loved another of Colleen Oakes’ series, Queen of Hearts, and I really, really hope the final instalment of this comes out soon! Good read.

Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or any other books inspired by Peter Pan?

10 Books of Summer 2017 – 5/10

(Coincidentally, Wendy Darling, Volume 1 was also my 5th read for last year’s 10 Books of Summer!)

New Read: Sandokan, The Tigers of Mompracem

After enjoying several swashbuckling classics, I was thrilled to be offered the chance to read another, Sandokan, The Tigers of Mompracem by Emilio Salgari, by its translator Nico Lorenzutti. So I put it on my 10 Books of Summer 2017 list to make sure I got to it at last.

Sandokan, the feared “Tiger of Malaysia”, and his loyal band of rebel pirates are the scourge of the colonial powers of the Dutch and British empires in the South China sea. Mercilessly they roam the seas attacking ships and islands seeking vengeance, wealth and the destruction of their Western oppressors. Then return with their bounty to the safety of their fortified island of Mompracem, where they have lived happily and untouched for many years. But the fate and fortune of Sandokan and his “tigers” is to suddenly change when they learn of the lauded “Pearl of Labuan”.

While on the surface our protagonist Sandokan appears to just be a blood thirsty villain, as we read on we come to discover he is actually a prince, who was brought low to piracy after the British and their local allies murdered his family and stole his throne. Since then Sandokan has sailed the seas in righteous anger. With his faithful friend Yanez De Gomera, a Portuguese wanderer and adventurer, by his side. Yanez is a more charming and cool headed character, who is a more instantly likeable character. But the love and devotion Yanez and the “tigers” have for their leader helps to show a more likeable side to Sandokan.

However everything is to change when Sandokan hears of the extraordinary “Pearl of Labuan” and risks a trip with two of his ships to the island of Labuan in hopes of catching sight of her. Yes her, as the “Pearl” is not the type of treasure you may have first imagined, but instead she is a young Western woman; famed for her beauty, golden hair and her kindness to the natives of the island. Pretty much on first sight Sandokan falls in love with the “Pearl” and decides to move heaven and earth to obtain her. In the process selfishly risking the lives of all his men and their home of Mompracem, although if he didn’t we wouldn’t have an exciting story to read.

Apparently since Emilio Salgari wrote this adventure novel in 1900 it has been, for more than a century, Italy’s second most famous love story. As a modern reader though I couldn’t help thinking the love was all a bit quick and while we are assured it is a mutual feeling, we get to know little about how the lady thinks or feels. In fact she sadly proves to play a small, passive role in the adventure, except for crying and fainting quite a bit. This is a reflection of the time period is was written in though. Fortunately I didn’t pick this up for love. Instead I was looking for adventure and boy did Salgari give me that in spade loads. With battles at sea, deadly storms, jungle ambushes, clandestine meetings, disguises, sharks, faked deaths and impossible odds! And it is this that kept me wanting to read more.

Overall, I thought Sandokan, The Tigers of Mompracem was a rip-roaring adventure (and love story) that swept me back in time and across the seas to an exotic dangerous land. Good read.

Thank you to the translator for providing a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or any of Sandokan’s other adventures?

10 Books of Summer 2017 – 4/10

New Read: Pyramids

About two years ago, I started to work my way through, from the beginning, the books from the epic Discworld series by Terry Pratchett which my father and I already own between us. Next up was Pyramids the seventh published Discworld novel.

In Pyramids, I was taken to a new-to-me part of Pratchett’s magic, weird and fantastical creation: the tiny kingdom of Djelibeybi (pretty much the Discworld counterpart to Ancient Egypt). This is a land steeped in history; covered in pyramids and obsessed with tradition, which sees its world, quite literally, turned upside down when young Teppic is suddenly thrust upon the throne after the sudden death of his father. It’s bad enough being new on the job, but Teppic hasn’t a clue as to what a pharaoh is supposed to do. And so ensues a boggling, roller coaster ride of mad priests, sacred crocodiles, marching mummies, mathematical camels, a headstrong handmaiden and a monstrous, time and space bending pyramid. Djelibeybi is never going to be the same again!

Our hero Teppic’s ignorance is due to the fact that since childhood he has been away training at Ankh-Morpork’s famed assassins’ school. Now he is a modern stranger in his own backward land. While I often wished he would grow a spine, I certainly sympathised for him as he meets opposition to every change he proposes: from installing plumbing to outlawing the practice of throwing people to the crocodiles! We soon learn the real power lies in the hands of the high priest Dios, who mysteriously seems to have always been there to see tradition is strictly followed. Fortunately along comes the feisty handmaiden Ptraci, who has enough spine, attitude and get up and go for herself, Teppic and the land combined.

Terry Pratchett is a well loved author of mine and I was very sad when he passed. For me the best way to do him tribute is to continue to read and share my thoughts on all his wonderfully fun books. Pyramids is the ninth Discworld novel I have read, but the seventh published, and with my pre-existing love of anything Ancient Egyptian this book was always going to be a winner for me. Although I am now trying to read the books I already own roughly in order, I don’t believe this is a series you necessarily have to read in order, as the stories often follow various different groups of characters. Except for Death, there were no character I recognised in this book so I could have easily read this as a stand alone novel.

Overall, I thought Pyramids was another extremely fun, wacky, Egyptian-inspired instalment in Pratchett’s fantastical Discworld series. I look forward to reading more – the next instalment we own is Reaper Man. Great read.

Have you read this? What are your favourite Discworld novels?

10 Books of Summer 2017 – 3/10

New Read: First of the Tudors

Having previously enjoyed Joanna Hickson’s Red Rose, White Rose about Cecily Neville, a figure torn between both sides in the War of the Roses, I was really looking forward to trying this, her newest historical novel, First of the Tudors.

In this new novel, Hickson again takes us back to the War of the Roses, however this time we are firmly on the Lancastrian side, as this story focuses on Jasper Tudor. Jasper is the younger son of Queen Catherine and her second husband, Owen Tudor, who has grown up far from the intrigue of the royal court. But as young men, he and his older brother Edmund are summoned to London, by their half-brother, King Henry VI, who takes a keen interest in their futures – bestowing Earldoms on them both which helps to bolster the support around him and his precarious hold on the throne.

Until now Jasper Tudor has been one of those key historical figures that is always there on the perimeter of many a historical novel. So I was thrilled when I heard Hickson had chosen him to be the protagonist for this, and what an excellent job she has done bringing him to life. Jasper comes across as a sensible, loyal, brave and intelligent man, who has a true affection for his fragile king and takes real care in the responsibilities he is given. And he will need all his guile and courage to preserve the throne and his family from the rising threat of their Yorkist cousins.

As well as seeing Jasper through all the political intrigue and hard battles, we also see him as a loving family man. His first, thwarted, love was for the heiress Margaret Beaufort, who had a short and doomed marriage to his brother Edmund, and his devotion to her never wavers. Fortunately he does find true comfort in the arms of Jane Hywel, a Welsh cousin. While Jane is a fictional character, Hickson has cleverly pieced her together from a real name and the fact Jasper did have two illegitimate daughters. Jane is also our second narrator through whom we have a window into the domestic life of Jasper, which helps to make him a more well rounded, believable and likeable character; and their love gives a more personal jeopardy to the war.

Overall, I thought First of the Tudors was a brilliantly researched and written piece of historical fiction, that had me enthralled from the beginning to the end; my only niggle would be I wanted more! However at the end of the book, Hickson’s promises another book from the point-of-view of Jasper’s nephew Henry, so I look forward to that. Great read.

Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or read anything else about Jasper Tudor?

10 Books of Summer 2017 – 2/10