Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Book review
The Bear and the Nightingale is Katherine Arden’s initial novel, but I wouldn’t have guessed it was her debut. The book flows beautifully, and I was swept up into the harsh Russian winter.
This book weaves together original characters, old Russian folklore and Russian history. Perhaps it was my deplorable lack of knowledge of the two latter but I felt they blended together seamlessly.
My only issue was the multiple names and nicknames all the characters had, doubtless that is more natural, but it made it hard to keep track of the characters at times, especially as there was a large cast of characters. If I had a greater knowledge of Russian history or literature perhaps this wouldn’t have been such a problem.
Whilst this story is about Morozko, the Frost King who’s fairy tale is told near the start of this book, this is really the story of a strong-willed girl growing up in a culture where by being a woman she can never have a fraction of the freedom she wants. Vasya is stubborn, wild and independent and neither her Father or her nurse or her older siblings can keep her penned up and demure for long. The really interesting part of this to me is that none of these characters are cast as villains, as is sometimes the case in modern books set in the past. They love Vasya and want what is best for her and to protect her. Indeed as a reader at times I was endeared by her family and at other times frustrated.
There is a fantasy element from almost the start, when it is revealed that Marina, Vasya’s Mother, has some magic running through her and has a little of the sight. The novel opens before Vasya is born with Marina realising that she is pregnant and that this daughter is going to be special. Both her husband and Dunya, the children’s nurse, urge her to get rid of the child as they think she is not strong enough to bear them. She refuses and dies in childbirth, and there is a sense of this hanging over Vasya as she grows up.
Vasya too, has the sight and sometimes has troubling dreams but she can also see all manner of creatures, like the household spirits, which are invisible to everyone else. In an area where Christianity is beginning to take hold, this starts to cause problems, as the old spirits start to fade as people begin to stop believing.
There are evil spirits as well as good ones, yet the antagonists I found most chilling were two people who enter Vasya’s life as she grows up. Yes, they are influenced by the supernatural, but what they become as the novel develops is through their own decisions, and the different ways fear affected them both was quite chilling.
This book is the first in a trilogy, and the second is to be published in December. I will definitely be reading further, and I look forward to seeing how this world is developed and to find out more about Vasya and her siblings.
I read Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless earlier in the year and I think if anyone read and enjoyed that they may like this different take on Russian folklore set in a different time. If anything I enjoyed Arden’s novel more as I felt I empathised more with the characters and Deathless felt like quite an uneven read. This may also appeal to fans of Naomi Novik’s beautiful Uprooted. 
The Bear and the Nightingale builds slowly and never moves at break neck speed. Personally, I found that to be a positive, but I can understand that the relatively slow pacing and the lyrical, fairy tale tone throughout would not be to everyone’s taste.
This has made an excellent addition to my autumnal reading, and is the second book I have read for the RIPXII challenge, the first being Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird.
I was lucky enough to be given a copy of this in exchange for an honest book review by Random House publishing, through Netgalley.
#RIPXII
#Netgalley
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My Week in Books, 8th Oct

This has been a fairly productive reading week for me and so far I have managed to steer clear of any re-reads which are always my downfall when it comes to working through my to be reads.

One day I’ll work up the courage to do a post on my TBR pile, and gather them all together and count them. Possibly the shame and guilt will cause me to do something about it, but I do so enjoy buying books. So I doubt it.

This week I finished Josephine Pullein- Thompson’s DCI Flecker trilogy of crime novels. Pullein- Thompson and her sisters and Mother were famous for their numerous horse stories. I have to be honest, I haven’t read any of those, however this trilogy is available cheaply on Kindle if you don’t mind the odd error in the print. They are quite horsey but it doesn’t take over the story. There are several mentions of fox hunting, particularly in the first novel, which I couldn’t quite make my peace with. But the novels were written in the fifties so I tried to let it wash over me. The puzzles were never particularly enthralling but they formed my comfort reading for the week. The trio starts with Gin and Murder. 

I also recently joined Netgalley, and I just received my first book for review, the Russian fairytale The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden which I have been engrossed in for the last couple of days, even if it has shown up my complete lack of knowledge of Russian history and folklore. I will hopefully finish and digest this and put up a review in the next week or so.

The only other book, although it is hefty enough, which has entered our household this week is The Victorians by A. N. Wilson. The blurb sounds interesting:

“People, not abstract ideas, make history, and nowhere is this more revealed than in A. N. Wilson’s superb portrait of the Victorians, in which hundreds of different lives have been pieced together to tell a story- one which is still unfinished in our day.”

The Other Half bought it for his studies, after I heard it mentioned somewhere, but I think I will add it to my to be read list as well. I always feel less guilty reading non-fiction, maybe it feels more productive? Or at least that’s how I justify it to myself.

My only reading failure this week is my continued stall on Ilona Andrew’s Magic Shifts. I need to make it clear, this is entirely my fault rather than that of the book. I love Ilona Andrews’ books with their strong female heroines, magical weirdness and great supporting characters. I flew through the three Innkeeper novels (which I would highly recommend) at the start of the year. The most well-known series is that of Kate Daniels starting with Magic Bites for anyone unfamiliar with the husband and wife authors. They are great urban fantasy novels with lots of world mythology thrown in. I had fallen somewhat behind in this lengthy series and when I recently had a fortnight off I decided to read it in full. This currently consists of 9 novels, 1 tie-in novel, 4 novellas and several short stories. I am on the second last book, and so I have been for the last fortnight. I think I have run out of steam after reading so many in close succession. I may admit temporary defeat and come back to this series in a month or two.

Has anyone else read anything good this week? Or can any Ilona Andrews fans get me back into the right mindset to finish this fun series?

 

Book Review: Elizabeth of the Garrett Theatre by Gwendoline Courtney

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Another blast into the past for a book review of this charming children’s novel by Gwendoline Courtney, originally published in 1948.

It was initially published as Stepmother and then in the US as Those Verney Girls and re-published in Britain as Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre. Unusually, I actually prefer the changes to the original title. I wonder if it had only been titled Stepmother if I would have sought it out?

This is the story of the four Verney sisters: the eldest, quiet and shy Alison who adores her Father; Elizabeth, the heroine, who is stubborn and wild and loves to act; Susan who has no imagination; and the youngest Georgie who is full of attitude and always getting into scrapes.

Their Mother died young and the girls have been allowed to run wild ever since. Their Father loves them but other than encouraging them to read widely leaves them to bring themselves up.

Their lives are interrupted by their Father having to go on a business trip to America, and while he is gone the stern housekeeper gives notice that she is leaving. In the midst of the chaos and excitement this brings, a letter from Mr Verney arrives. He will soon be home and he is bringing a wife.

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The novel revolves around the four girls learning to live with their new stepmother and slowly beginning to enjoy a life where they have to abide by some rules. Alison and Elizabeth start to grow up and develop. Alison to overcome some of her timidity and Elizabeth to learn to control her temper and think about her future. Susan remains placidly the same and Georgie provides copious amounts of comic relief. She is one of the highlights of the novel with a new plan for when she is grown up every other week and an impressive ability to say the most inappropriate thing at any given time.

As can be guessed from the title of the re-print amateur dramatics abound, and they have none of the tediousness they can have in some novels, where I tend to skip plays and recitals to get back to the plot. The protagonists also have to contend with their village neighbours who look down on the wild Verney girls, and their Stepmother’s family who brings some more surprises into the mix.

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Overall, I found this to be a delightful, gentle read where everything is tied up neatly in the end. It’s perfect to enjoy curled up with a cup of tea on a rainy day. I’ve read this twice this year.

Sadly, this novel is not in print, although copies do become available fairly frequently at not completely horrendous prices. I think I got my copy for less than £10. If I have tempted anyone to try Gwendoline Courtney, Sally’s Family is also well worth tracking down. A number of her novels have been re-published by Girls Gone By Publishing although sadly Sally’s Family is no longer in print and they have not yet re-published Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre. I wonder which title they would pick if they did?

Has anyone else read this book or any others by Courtney? Are there any other of her titles that would be highly recommended to read?

Book Review: Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott

Book review

Today’s book review of Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott was an unexpected purchase which managed to skip rapidly up my queue of books waiting to be read. I stumbled accidentally upon Rotherweird while searching for something else on Amazon. The cover looked interesting and the Kindle price was tempting, although I had never heard of the author. I like my fantasy with one foot in the real world and in a strange kind of a way this seemed to fit. It was actually published this year, and as such might be my first read of 2017 that was actually published in 2017… it only took me until September. Even better I think the weirdness and darkness fits in with RIPXII letting this be my first book for this challenge.

The premise is quite simple and rather intriguing. Rotherweird is a small town in rural England, however, Rotherweird is not part of the UK but its own independent state as decreed by Elizabeth I. An interesting concept, and the main thread running through the novel is the gradual uncovering of the closely guarded secret of why this occurred. For the reader this information builds up and intersects in two ways. Firstly, there are semi- frequent sections set in the past, gradually telling the story of the run up to Rotherweird’s independence. The main part of the novel is set in the present in Rotherweird itself and clues and tidbits come to the attention of various residents of modern day Rotherweird, for the people of Rotherweird do not know their own history. History prior to the 1800’s is forbidden to them, and they are not even allowed to keep family keepsakes like letters or photographs after a family member dies.

The novel opens with two newcomers to Rotherweird. The first, Jonah Oblong, is a history teacher who cannot control his classes and has just been summarily dismissed. When he sees an ad in the paper he is happy to agree to teach only modern history and move to the mysterious Rotherweird (which never normally accepts “outsiders” within it’s walls) as he is not asked for any references.
The other character is the shadowy Sir Veronal Slickstone, who is used to getting what he wants and has managed to worm his way into Rotherweird with promises of lots of money.
This is quite a long book and there is a second planned. Although it does come to a conclusion, I don’t think it quite works as a stand alone book. In my opinion there were too many questions left unanswered for the ending to be truly satisfying. However, it has gently humorous moments throughout in contrast to the dark secret at the heart of the novel which adds to the engaging strangeness of Rotherweird.
I enjoyed it and I read it quite quickly, considering that it is quite lengthy. It wasn’t without issues though, and I imagine if I stopped to think about the practicalities of Rotherweird for any length of time the world Caldecott has built would come tumbling down. But I think that is probably true for most books set in our technology strewn present.
Above I briefly described only two characters but there are a whole slew of characters to spend time with both in the past and present and it rather felt as though every time I settled down with a character and started to appreciate their foibles I was moved on to another character’s perspective. Particularly in the smaller snippets set in the past this meant that I just didn’t appreciate characters motivations as I spent so little time with them and I never got to see any redeeming features in the baddies.
However, I really liked a lot of the extremely eccentric cast of characters and I imagine that in a second book, with a lot of the world building out of the way the characters could really be developed into more complex people. The sheer size of the cast of characters and the constantly changing perspectives meant that it was nigh on impossible to really delve deeply into anyone in this volume.
While the villains were nasty through and through, the unruly band of heroes were not all paragons of virtue. They all had some good and some bad characteristics and were all to some degree flawed and I think along with uncovering the mystery were what really kept me engrossed in the novel until the end.
This review sounds quite negative but actually I flew through the book and have every intention of seeking out the sequel. I think although this book didn’t quite work for me it was full of potential and I am really curious to see where Caldecott goes next.
Has anyone else read and enjoyed, or otherwise, this novel?

Book Haul the Second

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As ever I continue to buy books at a much greater rate than my capacity to read them. As such a mere two weeks after initially finding the delightful Abbey Books in Paisley I returned for a more in depth perusal. I quickly found their room of crime novels, and promptly added to my collection of classic whodunnits.

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Somehow, I have never read any Margery Allingham before but I have heard that Tiger in the Smoke is brilliant, with a post World War Two setting which is right up my street.

This is my second Michael Innes, and for once for me they actually match up, both being ratty old, falling apart green penguins. Michael Innes was the pseudonym of J I M Stewart a Scottish writer. I always like to add Scottish writers to my shelves and I am really looking forward to reading these (although admittedly I have had the first novel on my shelves for some months).

My final golden age crime novel was Edmund Crispin’s Holy Disorders. I read and adored The Moving Toyshop last year. I rarely literally laugh out loud when reading, but I found the sheer absurdity hilarious. Admittedly, not a whodunnit to read to find out who done it, but the giggle filled ride to the nonsensical conclusion was worth it in my opinion. I sincerely hope I find his other novels as enjoyable. I was also lucky enough to pick up a paperback in excellent condition with a lovely front cover.

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I picked up three very different autobiographical works, all by authors I have not previously read. I am looking forward to all of them, although I am a little nervous about reading Graves’ Goodbye to All That which is an account of his time as an officer during World War One. I am sure it will be excellent, but I think I may need the light-hearted relief afterwards of Monica Dicken’s account of getting a job as a cook in the 1930’s, or Nichols’ gardening book. I really do hope I enjoy Down the Garden Path because I am hopelessly non green-fingered, and have a tendency to kill all plants within a month of them coming into my possession.

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I like the look of my Beverley Nichols hardback, even if it is dust jacketless, and the Robert Graves is a nice tidy Penguin Modern Classics copy of Goodbye to All That. However, I am not sold on the cover of One Pair of Hands, although I suppose I should just be grateful that this work from a female author from 1939 is still in print unlike so many others.

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My final purchase was Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, which I must confess I bought because I felt like I should have already read it and I had heard of it mentioned in several mediums. However, it is written by a female author and was first published in 1936, which in my book are already points in it’s favour. It is also set in a girl’s school which I have always found fascinating, girl’s boarding school stories having made up a large portion of my childhood reading. Finally, Winifred Holtby herself sounds fascinating although she only lived to be 37. In fact this novel, her most successful, was rather sadly published posthumously. My copy of it, like the Margery Allingham, was published by the Reprint Society, London.

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I think I have outdone myself this time as far as publication dates are concerned. I can’t blame the book seller for his amusement when ringing up these books as the latest book, The Man from the Sea, was initially published in 1955. I do read books published in this century too, honest! If anyone has any advice on which book I should tackle first I would be most interested.

 

 

Madensky Square by Eva Ibbotson

I’ll start by saying that in contrast to my last review, this book is actually currently available and available pretty cheaply for Kindle on Amazon, in the UK at least.

Until recently I was only vaguely aware of Eva Ibbotson as a children’s author. This novel, from 1988, was a revelation to me. Certainly not a book aimed at children, this book was charming. It also made me really think about myself and how I might judge people without knowing the whole story. For a novel to do this without being even slightly preachy or heavy handed, I found very impressive.

It is a book of small things, and the little realities of life. I just loved it. The book is set in Vienna in 1910 in a quiet square where the main protagonist, Susanna, has a dress store. I must admit I have a weakness for books set in Austria for which I blame my childhood fixation on the Chalet School books.

Susanna’s life story slowly filters through to the reader. Parts of her current life and her past are illuminated as we learn the stories of Susanna’s neighbours, friends and lodger.

I think the real beauty of this book is not only in the setting but in the non-judgemental tone of the author. Adultery plays a large part in the novel, and I don’t think I have ever seen it portrayed so sympathetically.

There is a fairly large cast of characters but they never blend together. The characters have a reality about them too. I think the female characters are drawn more strongly than the male ones, but there is an absolutely delightful male character who owns a string of Butchers shops and whom we meet as he is about to enter a very strange marriage.

Aging opera stars, neglected child prodigies, butchers, anarchists and blue stockings are all given interesting, intersecting story lines.

I have only one gripe with this novel, and it is very minor indeed. In fact I wouldn’t even have registered it if I hadn’t enjoyed this story so much. After finishing this I promptly scurried off to investigate more of Ibbotson’s back catalogue. I picked The Star of Kazan, which I would also highly recommend, even if it was probably originally intended for a younger age group.  This book was published in 2004, almost 20 years after Madensky Square, however it is set in 1908 and part of the novel takes place in a small square in Vienna. Separately the two are delightful, but I wouldn’t recommend reading the two back to back as I did.

If you are looking for something action packed this is probably not the story for you. But if a bittersweet, character driven novel where everyone is at least a little flawed (although never completely beyond redemption) appeals, then I cannot recommend this novel highly enough.

Clover Coverdale by Verily Anderson

imag0067.jpgI’m not sure why I plumped for this as my first review apart from having recently read it for the first time. I have a few books I want to rave about (and no doubt will) but perhaps something about the very oddness and unexpectedness of this novel appealed to me even if it was never destined to become a favourite or even to be re-read.

This is the first of Verily Anderson’s books that I have read. She wrote a series of memoirs as well as a number of children’s books about Brownies. It was published in 1966 and seems to have been one of her few stand alone novels for children.

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It felt as though there was a surprising amount of tragedy in the story for a book of that time period. Right from the beginning we are informed that Clover has been in an accident leaving her without a home and in severe pain, and as soon becomes apparent, without family.

Further, the adults in this novel never seem to have what is best for Clover in mind, and Clover herself seems unsure what she wants in life although, this is not altogether surprising considering that she is 15. Clover had a carpenter Father and had left school to go to work before this novel had opened. It was really interesting to see this as I have found most girl’s own style novels have focused on much wealthier or aristocratic families.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the plots twists to reveal that Clover’s Mother had actually come from such a background and had been disowned for marrying Clover’s Father. The novel revolves around Clover trying to understand her new found relatives and her new life.

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There were many potentially engrossing aspects to this novel: Clover’s desire for a job; dealing with the loss of her family; gaining a new family from a completely different background; understanding her Aunt and Uncle’s complicated past relationship with her parents; and, which has particularly stuck with me, her Aunt’s babying of Clover and almost using Clover as the replacement for the child she could not have. If any of these aspects had been the focal point of the novel I think it would have been so interesting. Instead, these are just hinted at as other more generic mysteries are peppered through the plot.

I did enjoy this novel, and finished it in one sitting. It was an easy read. However, I think it should have been longer. There was a fairly large set of characters and I didn’t feel that they were quite fleshed out enough for me to sympathise with them in the way the author seemed to intend me to. The story also seemed to rush to its conclusion, tying up several threads very quickly. Overall, I found this to be something of an oddity but I think it may appeal to grown up fans of girls own stories. However, having said (written?) all of that, if I came across another book by Verily Anderson I would almost certainly buy it. I have heard her memoirs are well worth getting one’s hands on.

It is perhaps needless to state that this book is no longer in print. My copy has a lovely, mostly intact dust jacket. I love the photograph of Verily Anderson in the back flap too. I think I was sold on this book as soon as I saw the cover and the little hint at it’s previous owner inside. If anyone is tempted by this story it seems to be available relatively cheaply secondhand on Amazon and eBay.

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