Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

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Title: Hex
Author:
 Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Publisher:  Hodder & Stoughton
Date of Publication:  28 April 2016
Number of Pages: 384
Read between: 24 Aug – 06 September 2017

Rating:  stars

What a TRIP! This book is fantastic. If you’re looking for Halloween fiction that will legitimate scare the crap out of you, this is the book!

Hex is a bit of a slow burner for the first 50 or so pages but once the momentum grows, it’s an absolute rollercoaster. The level of creep increases and increases and you’re constantly feeling uncomfortable. It’s brilliant. Try reading it as the sun starts to go down and you’re about to walk home in the twilight.

Yes, it’s violent. Yes, it’s physical violence against women but the male characters experience far worse. Yes, it’s so far-fetched it doesn’t seem real BUT you have to suspend your disbelief.

Some people have critiqued Hex saying it’s misogynistic and yes, if you’re inclined to deconstruct a text from a feminist point of view, you’ll have an absolute field day. Now on some levels I don’t disagree but if the reader takes the text from a humanist point of view, you get a morality tale that exposes the very best and worst of us as people. I also feel that some readers take up a book and immediately start to look for the negatives and the flaws. I try not to do that. I only pick up books I think I’m going to like and if I don’t like them, I simply stop reading them and return them.

This is going off track but what I want you to understand is that this book is hard to read because it does expose us. It does challenge us to think about how we treat other people. It does challenge us to think about others ahead of ourselves. The greater good and the opportunities we shut down because of fear.

Just read it. I doubt you’ll be disappointed and if you are, isn’t that equally as great.

Summary: Whoever is born here, is doomed to stay until death. Whoever comes to stay, never leaves.

Welcome to Black Spring, the seemingly picturesque Hudson Valley town haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a seventeenth-century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut. Blind and silenced, she walks the streets and enters homes at will. She stands next to children’s beds for nights on end. So accustomed to her have the townsfolk become that they often forget she’s there. Or what a threat she poses. Because if the stitches are ever cut open, the story goes, the whole town will die.

The curse must not be allowed to spread. The elders of Black Spring have used high-tech surveillance to quarantine the town. Frustrated with being kept in lockdown, the town’s teenagers decide to break the strict regulations and go viral with the haunting. But, in so doing, they send the town spiralling into a dark nightmare.

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The Other Mrs Walker by Mary Paulson-Ellis

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Title: The Other Mrs Walker
Author:
 Mary Paulson-Ellis
Publisher:  Picador
Date of Publication:  23 March 2017
Number of Pages: 448
Read between: 18-24 August 2017

Rating:  2-star

I don’t know what to make of The Other Mrs Walker.  Yes, it was interesting and quirky but it lacked substance and solidity. There was a lot to be read as believable but it just wasn’t believable. Now I know there are services in the UK that are dedicated to tracing the nearest blood relative of someone who has passed away and that local councils have a role in this but Margaret Penny, just walking into the job seems a bit unreasonable and farfetched. Even if she is the daughter of a friend who knows someone who needs someone to find the relatives of a dead woman.

I’m genuinely, completely baffled by this book. Yes, it was engaging enough for me to finish but nothing happens. It’s all a little ho hum. It’s both fascinating and boring at the same time. I feel a little cross having spent a couple of hours reading it to be left hanging in such an unsatisfactory way. It’s not even as though a second one could follow because this story line was too unique.

The Other Mrs Walker is just a book that I didn’t like particularly much but felt I had to finish because there was just the smallest chance something interesting might happen. I think part of the problem is how unlikely the setup is and how the odds are so greatly against it ever actually happening, you can’t really suspend your disbelief. I’m not the only person to have found that either.

It’s not a bad book but would I recommend you taking the time to find a copy and read it? No. There’s better choices.

Summary: Somehow, she’d always known that she would end like this. In a small square room, in a small square flat. In a small square box, perhaps. Cardboard, with a sticker on the outside. And a name…

An old lady dies alone and unheeded in a cold Edinburgh flat, on a snowy Christmas night. A faded emerald dress hangs in her wardrobe; a spilt glass of whisky pools on the carpet. A few days later a middle-aged woman arrives back to the city of her birth, her future uncertain, her past in tatters. But what Margaret Penny cannot yet know is that in investigating the death of one friendless old lady, her own life will become enriched beyond measure.

The Dog Master: A novel of the first dog by W. Bruce Cameron

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Title: The Dog Master: A novel of the first dog
Author:
 W Bruce Cameron
Publisher:  Forge Books
Date of Publication:  04 August 2015
Number of Pages: 416
Read between: 07-08 August 2017

Rating:  3-star

Summary: Thirty thousand years ago, ice was storming the planet. Among the species forced out of the trees and onto the steppes by the advancing cold was modern man, who was both predator and prey.

No stranger to the experiences that make us human–a mother’s love and a father’s betrayal, tribal war and increasing famine, political intrigue and forbidden love, joy and hope and devastating loss–our ancestors competed for scant resources in a brutal landscape.

Mankind stood on the cold brink of extinction…but they had a unique advantage over other species, a new technology–domesticated wolves.

Only a set of extraordinary circumstances could have transformed one of these fierce creatures into a hunting companion, a bodyguard, a soldier, and a friend. The Dog Master by W. Bruce Cameron is an evocative glimpse of prehistory, an emotional coming-of-age saga, a thrilling tale of survival against all odds, and the exciting, imaginative story of the first dog.

Review: You know those books you postpone reading because part of you knows you’ll dislike it but part of you feels obliged because it was a Netgalley ARC? This is one of those. To clarify though – I didn’t like it but I didn’t not like it either. Indifferent is probably the best word. I don’t feel as though my life has been changed for having spent a day reading it but I was on holidays so I didn’t lose anything either. The only note I made was, “not what I expected – kind of repetitive but I can’t not finish”.

Looking back, The Dog Master is over simplified in terms of the historical aspect. There was a kind of stasis that didn’t sit well for me. In trying to portray hardships faced by the different kin / ethnic groups, it ended up feeling sanitised and clean. A lot of the problems had no resolution and there was no attempt at correlating the tensions between the different groups.

There was a lot of othering as well – we start with the Kindred and automatically, from this name, we’re supposed to understand that these are the good guys but with an internal bad guy. Then there’s the Wolfen who, as the name suggests, follow the wolf and throughout the text are, supposedly, no better than animals and these two groups all try to evade the Cohort, because they just kill and rape everything that moves. It was all a bit melodramatic.

As you’re reading this review, you’re probably thinking, yes, humans but what about the first dog. Well this is where the tenuous link between the title and the content comes into play. A female wolf is attacked by a lion and subsequently births her pups in a cave. She’s found by Mal who looks after them and ultimately, keeps the female pup with him until she’s tame and loyal. It’s how most animals are tamed or broken. There’s nothing new here. As for it being “the first time”, well, it’s all just a bit easy.

Would I recommend this book to other readers? Yes. Do I think it’s worth the time of reading it when there’s so much else out there? Eh. Maybe. Would I call The Dog Master an epic or a masterpiece as some of my reading brethren have? No.

Master of Shadows by Neil Oliver

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Title: Master of Shadows
Author:
 Neil Oliver
Publisher:  Orion Books
Date of Publication:  10 September 2015
Number of Pages: 442

Rating: stars

Summary: In fifteenth-century Constantinople, Prince Constantine saves the life of a broken-hearted girl. But the price of his valour is high.

John Grant is a young man on the edge of the world. His unique abilities carry him from his home in Scotland to the heart of the Byzantine Empire in search of a girl and the chance to fulfil a death-bed promise.

Lena has remained hidden from the men who have been searching for her for many years. When she’s hunted down, at last she knows what she must do.

With an army amassing beyond the city’s ancient walls, the fates of these three will intertwine. As the Siege of Constantinople reaches its climax, each must make a choice between head and heart, duty and destiny.

Review: I wanted to hate this book because of a run in I had with Oliver on Twitter. It can’t have been a big spat though because I don’t remember what it was about now but at the time, I wanted nothing more to do with anything that had his name on it. All things pass though and now, I’ve read his first foray into fiction and I must say, more please. Master of Shadows is a fantastic romp that takes the reader all over fifteenth century Europe and the summary provided does not tell you in anyway, just how good this book is going to be.

Every word in every sentence is clearly thought out and included for a reason. The writing is also decisive and clinical, a throwback to Oliver’s factual writing and presenting. For some, I imagine, this style of writing is cold and impersonal but for me, it was this surgical precision that advanced the story, never left you feeling lost and always kept you engaged with the plot. I was watching a movie in my imagination with this book and there were a couple of times I was glad my tube stop was the final destination as I didn’t notice the stations passing.

If you’re into historical fiction, this is for you. If you want your historical fiction to include a little bodice ripping then this is not the book for you. Either way, I doubt you’ll be disappointed and if you are, well, that’s what makes life interesting.

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In Review – January 2017

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I’m not entirely sure how we’re already at the end of January (obviously, I know it’s the cycle of days but there must have been a few missing?)

January started the year well but it is also the month I started reading Anna Karenina and I have a feeling not much more will be read until mid to late February. I knew that reading classic literature and histories would slow me down this year and I’ve adjusted my Goodreads goal accordingly.

What can I say about this group of books?

Bleak House is simply superb. I adore Miss Summerson. Lady Deadlock is intriguing. Mr Guppy is a fawning fool and Mr Tulkinghorn is delightfully wicked. I know he’s essentially ‘the bad guy’ but I can’t help but like him. Dickens is a master of the craft – a book of this length, without all our modcons and phone apps, created entirely from his enormous brain and more than likely, copious notes. I am in awe of him that he managed to keep the narrative flowing and interesting and didn’t give the reader any information or instruction that wasn’t one hundred percent necessary.

One Day in France was interesting in a different way. Partly, I think, because it didn’t need to be an entire book. Jean-Marie Borzeix has written a fascinating family history of a town during WWII, however, it could really have been a slightly better edited essay in a history magazine or a journal. It felt like a stretch needing to have it produced as a book. This is in no way meant to detract from the story he tells. Those of us who are also keen on family history will share his excitement at meeting individuals connected to our own tree and also individuals connected to other trees you’ve been distracted by. It is truly a fascinating read.

The Simple Act of Reading is also falls into the ‘not necessarily an entire book’ category. The book is a series of short essays by Australian authors and describes the way they remember becoming a reader. Individually, their stories are fascinating. As a whole book, they’re a little monotonous. Had they appeared in a national magazine, newspaper or international blog site, it would have made more sense. I would recommend this book but it is one to dip in and out of, rather than consume in one sitting.

The Yellow Wallpaper is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. I still think about it now, nearly two or three weeks later. If you haven’t read it and want something a little creepy before bedtime, this is my recommendation.

Magna Carter by David Starkey was a random selection one weekend at the library. I had only gone in to return a couple of books but as usually happens, left with a few more finds in my bag. For anyone who doesn’t know much about Magna Carter, this is a great starting point. Starkey breaks the history of the document down to focus only on the period it was written in. He introduces you to King John and the rebel barons and links them to the Pope and France and makes the relevance of the document clear. I’m not convinced it’s as important as some historians make out but the world would be a very different place if we didn’t have it. The only problem with the book is that it feels as though the editing was rushed. There are sentences that suffer from strange structuring and a lack of punctuation. If you ignore this though, which on some pages is easier said than done, you’ll understand a period of English history a little better.

Average rating for the month 3.6

If This Is A Woman

If This Is A Woman

Publisher: Little Brown
Publication Date: 1 January 2015
Pages: 768

5 Stars

~~Language Warning~~

In May 1939 a Nazi internment camp, specially for women, was opened north of Berlin. The horror that ensued, covered in subtle but powerful and disturbing detail in Helm’s book, defy belief. Astonishingly, the camp, Ravensbrück, seems relatively unknown outside the world of holocaust historians. This is a shameful negation of the the tens of thousands who died here and at sub-camps.

As a woman, an anthropologist, a human, this work has left me speechless, horrified and changed. I want to risk using an escape clause I dislike seeing and that is people far smarter than me have commented and analysed this far better than I can or ever could. I’m not lying. This is true. The study of Nazi / WWII history is a subject many people spend their lives engaging with and only ever scratching the surface.

Some numbers:
– 5-6000 women executed in late 1944 when the SS regime realised they could not win.
– 30-50,000 who died from cold, starvation, beatings, poison and experiments
– 980 German concentration camps
– 30,000 slave labour camps
-500 brothels

Again, this is tip of the iceberg stuff.

If This Is A Woman has taken me two and a half weeks to read.

It has been harrowing and terrible. People watching me on the tube don’t need to think to hard on what it is I’m grimacing or looking angry over. The reactions are involuntary. Every story invokes a reaction. Be it disgust at the “medical procedures” or sympathy pains for the “rabbits”, be it a strange sort of patriotism for the women of the Red Army, be it the revulsion at descriptions of the mountains of bodies waiting to be incinerated, be it the strong feelings of disappointment when, at the last moment, a woman’s freedom is revoked.

Helm has witness testimony that shows the prisoners were wondering if the world knew of their suffering, wondering if anyone cared, wondering if they would ever be saved. Helm also has proof that the truth was suppressed at various levels because they believed civilians wouldn’t believe the reports. The people who decided to hide the truth and decided not to reveal what they knew of Ravensbrück were, in a way, right to do so.

Reading about the plight of these women now, in an environment that is quite sanitised to the horrors, I have to admit that there are moments I couldn’t believe something like this could have been perpetuated. It all seems more suited to a horror movie than real life. The barbarism is mind-blowing.

Even before I was 10 pages in I was wondering what kind of perfect storm occurred that such an enormous clusterfuck was the end result. Hitler, Stalin, Himmler, Gebhardt, Oberheuser, Binz, Suhren, Koegel, Treite – again, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

One thing I do find disappointing from some of the “professional” reviews is the position taken, that If This Is A Woman is a feminist history of the Holocaust. I feel, far to often, a book about women is deemed feminist when there is no legitimate connection. Feminism may have allowed for a woman to write a book about women but this is hardly a text arguing a cause for women. A history book that focuses only on the role of men and excludes women – and we know their are thousands of them, are reviewed for their historical accuracy and the amount of work that has gone into the production of the finished product. Helm’s book, focusing on women, with an astonishing amount of research is now a feminist history. This double standard is ridiculous but it also steals the focus from the women of Ravensbrück.

I can’t help but think we could all learn something from Yevgenia Klemm, leader of the Red Army women – and if you don’t understand what I mean, then I recommend you find a copy of this book and discover just how amazing she is.

The Girl in the Photograph written by Kate Riordan [Review]

The Girl in the Photograph

Title: The Girl in the Photograph
Author: Kate Riordan
Publisher: Penguin Books UK
Date of Publication: 15 January 2015
Number of Pages: 448
Genre: General Fiction (Adult), History

Rating: 3 stars

Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Summary:  In the summer of 1933, Alice Eveleigh has arrived at Fiercombe Manor in disgrace. The beautiful house becomes her sanctuary, a place to hide her shame from society in the care of the housekeeper, Mrs Jelphs. But the manor also becomes a place of suspicion, one of secrecy.

Something isn’t right.

Someone is watching.

There are secrets that the manor house seems determined to keep. Tragedy haunts the empty rooms and foreboding hangs heavy in the stifling heat. Traces of the previous occupant, Elizabeth Stanton, are everywhere and soon Alice discovers Elizabeth’s life eerily mirrors the path she herself is on.

Review:  The Girl in the Photograph is a nice, easy going read but one I feel, will be easily forgotten. I cannot pick a standout moment but I also cannot pick a weak moment. The story is well told and flows in a logical way, however, there are moments where it seems Riordan has played it safe both in the phrasing of her sentences and also in direction she wants the story to go. There isn’t really any part that takes a risk or makes you think wow. It all seems terribly pedestrian. The slowness of the story, however, in some ways, mimics the boredom of a long hot summer and the nine months spent waiting for a child to arrive.

By no means am I saying this is a bad book. If you enjoy Kate Morton you will like this novel. Think of it as Morton light. I cannot agree though, that this is in any way similar  to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. I can see why they use this as a promotional line but other than the main character, Alice attempting to learn more about the previous mistress of Fiercombe Manor, there is no comparison.

The book suffers from being a little long winded. There is a lot of repetition that doesn’t progress the story. Alice is slightly one dimensional and dim. Elizabeth is far more interesting but isn’t given sufficient voice. The Girl in the Photograph may have worked better had the two women had their positions reversed. The opposing decades are also played down. The two women could have had their stories told at nearly any point during the the mid to late 19th century. There is also the question of the ending which is exactly what was expected and exactly what wasn’t wanted.

What The Girl in the Photograph does well though, is communicate the relationships between mothers and daughters – the things unspoken, the misunderstandings and the reconciliations. There is also a believability in the dialogue that a lot of historical novels miss. No modern linguistic phrases worked their way in.

In sum. An okay read but ultimately one I was glad to finish.