book review

Review: Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Publishers: Windmill Books

Genre: Historical fiction

Pub date: 22 Apr 2021

Thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

I was very excited about Cunning Women and loved the premise. It’s set in 1620s Lancashire, after James I had published Demonology and when God-fearing communities suspected anyone different of being witches. Sarah and her family are healers, who live away from the village and suffer their judgement while selling them healing salves and poultices on the side. When Sarah meets Daniel, son of the wealthiest man in the village, she starts to imagine another life for her and her family.

I love stories about witches – I recently read AK Blakemore’s The Manningtree Witches, set in a similar time, and adored it – but for me, this book really fell flat. It was essentially just a love story that happened to be set in 1620s Lancashire. And though that’s not really what it sells it as, I would’ve been able to get on board because I do love romance novels. But the romance in this book is instantaneous and inexplicable – Sarah and Daniel see each other for a moment and then are obsessed with each other for the rest of the novel, for no apparent reason. It felt unrealistic and therefore I couldn’t get on board with it and so didn’t care about it – and as that was the driving force of the novel, I really started to struggle.

I also found the plot weak – there’s a ridiculous part where the main character puts on the outfit of a milkmaid (so a clean dress and a bonnet) and no one recognises that it’s her! Even people who have seen her up close. Other than this, there isn’t too much plot to speak of, and I found picking the book up quite a struggle. Reading it definitely began to feel like a chore.

This book certainly wasn’t for me, and I wouldn’t recommend it to others either. If you’re looking for something witchy, I definitely recommend The Manningtree Witches. This novel is compared to The Essex Serpent on the blurb, which isn’t a fair comparison (they aren’t alike at all), but The Essex Serpent is also another book you should read instead of this one!

book review

Review: The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Pub date: 1 June 2021

Thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

The promotional materials for The Other Black Girl describe it as The Devil Wears Prada meets Get Out – I would say this is pretty accurate, though more weighted on the Get Out side of things. The Other Black Girl follows Nella Rogers, an editorial assistant and the only Black employee at Wagner Books. She’s delighted when Hazel, also a Black girl, joins the company – but before long things start to get weird between them, and Nella starts to receive notes telling her to leave the company.

The Other Black Girl is an intense and thrilling read. I thought it was paced really well – Harris leaves enough breadcrumbs throughout to build the tension, which meant that it carried the slower parts of the novel for me, because you always want to know what the hell is actually happening. This novel combines a sort of horror-esque vibe (though, if you’re not a horror reader, don’t worry because it’s not actually scary, more wild/suspenseful) with a commentary on racial tensions/relations (and outright racism) in the workplace. The author brought these episodes to light really well – and it (sadly) felt all too real and realistic, making you feel for Nella and feel rage on her behalf. This is really insightful and interesting commentary on racism in a majority white workplace, and as someone who works in publishing, it’s a lot of food for thought – and I hope it will spark a lot of conversation and the industry and what people can do better.

Where I think the book falls down is the coming together of the different narratives and plots in this book. I felt like the horror element could have been pushed much, much further (as I said, it’s not scary or even that creepy, just suspenseful). I also think too much was left to resolve at the end of the book, and I felt like the different threads didn’t necessarily gel very well (the thread about Kendra Rae and Lynn felt like it wasn’t really wrapped up, and I feel like it wasn’t all that clear what was actually happening). Nonetheless, I still really enjoyed it and found the whole book fascinating, thought perhaps the last chapter was unsatisfying.

The Other Black Girl is a well-written, gripping novel, and I think there’s so much to unpack/discuss about it and its commentary on race especially.

book meme

WWW Wednesday | 26 May

Welcome back to WWW Wednesday, which is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words and the three Ws to be answered are:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading?

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I’m currently reading The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward. I’m about 75% through it. I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews of this one, and I really liked the first 50% but I’m not sure about the next part of the novel. A lot of people say that it’s not like anything they’ve ever written, and I’m not feeling this yet – it feels like a typical thriller to me. I’m hoping maybe something amazing/very surprising is going to happen in the last 25%.

I will say it’s very readable and engrossing though – I read that first 75% all in one go!

I’m also listening to an audiobook of The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie. I only started this one today so I don’t have much to say about this.

What did you recently finish reading?

After a very slow start to the month, I’ve not done so bad recently!

I’ve finished:

  • The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. I really enjoyed this and I posted my review today, you can check that out if you’re interested.
  • A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson. I found this a really fun and cleverly plotted YA mystery. Though you do have to suspend your disbelief, once you’re over that, it’s a really enjoyable ride and it keeps you guessing! My review is here.
  • The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie. This was my first Agatha Christie book, it’s the first Miss Marple and it was also my first time listening to a fiction audiobook! I really enjoyed this – I think it’s the perfect sort of book for audiobook, and I loved the humour and vivid characters Agatha Christie creates. The narrator was Richard E Grant, who does a really good job of bringing her characters to life. Though slightly convoluted, I also thought the mystery was pretty great, and Christie writes the sort of closed-room mysteries I prefer.

Overall, it’s been a really good reading week!

What do you think you’ll read next?

I don’t think I’ve successfully predicted what I’m going to read next for approximately the last 2 months or so… I’m reading aimlessly with no rhyme or reason! But I’m enjoying it, which is what matters. So I think I will just see where the next week takes me and will let you know next Wednesday!

Have a good week everyone!

book review

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

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Rating: 5 out of 5.

My grandmothers called it kweluma. That is when oppressed people turn on each other or on themselves and bite. It is as a form of relief. If you cannot bite your oppressor, you bite yourself.

The First Woman is a feminist coming-of-age novel set in Uganda during the 1970s. It follows Kirabo, a child who was brought up in rural Uganda by her grandparents. We meet her first as a 12 year old, but follow her as she grows up in a world shaped by patriarchy, colonialism and Idi Amin’s regime.

I loved that this novel fully transports you to Uganda and immerses you in the history, language, culture and mythology. It’s a beautifully written novel which very vividly depicts the place its set – Natteta, the village Kirabo grows up in, is so strongly realised, even though she actually only spends the first part of the novel living there. You learn so much about the village and the people that live there and how they intersect with Kirabo’s life.

As well as being a coming-of-age novel, this is in parts a family saga, focusing specifically on the women in Kirabo’s life (her two grandmothers and her obsession with finding her mother). Kirabo’s family is filled with secrets, and part of her growing up is discovering the answers to these secrets, and how they change her perceptions of people. Kweluma – defined in the quote above – and mwekanonkano (a concept similar to feminism) are driving forces and themes in the novel, and as Kirabo gets older she starts to see kweluma at play in her relationships and the relationships of others.

This is a lively, engaging read, that sometimes feels like it’s heading in a purposeful direction and sometimes feels like it’s snippets of Kirabo’s life connected by the themes of mwekanonkano and kweluma. Despite this, Kirabo’s character pulls the novel together and drives you through. I found it charming and engrossing, and I will be definitely be looking into the author’s first novel, Kintu.

The First Woman won The Jhalak Prize 2021 the day before I was planning on posting this. Congratulations to Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi – I think this is a much deserved win for such a beautiful, engaging, human novel.

book review

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

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Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Five years ago, teenaged Andie Bell goes missing and everyone suspects her boyfriend, Sal Singh. Though he’s never arrested, the entire town believes his guilt. Apart from Pip, an A-Level student who decides to investigate the murder as her EPQ (basically a final-year project, if you aren’t from the UK) as she has never believed in Sal’s guilt. As she digs deeper into the case and starts to uncover secrets from five years ago, it becomes clear someone desperately wants these things to stay hidden…

I will admit, the premise for this book is completely unrealistic. There is no way that a 17-year-old girl would get as far in investigating the murder as she does. There’s also no way a school would ever condone her doing this as her EPQ project. But, if you are willing to suspend your disbelief, what you’re left with is a really clever, intricate and entertaining murder mystery/thriller.

I sped through this book, finding it extremely readable, with a loveable set of characters. I thought the formatting was clever – it’s told through standard third-person narration, a first-person diary-esque ‘production log’ Pip keeps with notes (and occasionally pictures/diagrams) of her research, and transcripts of interviews she does. To be honest, I sort of wish I’d listened to this on audiobook because the set-up would really work for it.

I did suspect what had happened, but I was never 100% sure – it’s too cleverly plotted for that, I think. The author did a good job of balancing quite a few characters/suspects, but never feeling like she was being too expositional or dry.

I found this book so entertaining – I loved it! And, the highest compliment I can give is that I immediately wanted to buy the second book in the series when I finished the first. This was a genuinely clever, enjoyable and fun thriller/mystery – I definitely recommend it for fans of those genres or true crime podcasts!

book review

Review: Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

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Rating: 1 out of 5.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

I love the idea of Greek retellings – especially Greek retellings that aim to give the overlooked women in the stories voices. However, this book really didn’t hit the mark for me, and I think the issue is that the author really didn’t give these overlooked women very much to say or do.

Ariadne follows Ariadne and her sister, Phaedra, Princess of Crete, daughters of Minos. After winning a battle against Athens, Minos takes 14 Athenian youths every year and feeds them to the Minotaur, who lives in a labyrinth under his palace. One year, Prince Theseus of Athens is among those selected to enter the labyrinth. Disgusted with her father’s actions, Ariadne helps Theseus, giving him the knowledge he needs to defeat the Minotaur. However, Theseus then betrays Ariadne, leaving her on an island on the way back to Athens.

Now, that about sums up any real plot in this book, and that happens within the first three chapters or so. From here, instead of inserting Ariadne and Phaedra into the story, giving them character development, choice and agency, the author keeps them as bit players, observing events that happen around them. This is partially, I think, to highlight how women were mistreated at the hands and for the whims of men – but it doesn’t really work in a first-person narrative. It means that the book is boring, and any events that happen are only explained to the characters through pages and pages of other characters describing it to them. This method of storytelling became really wearing really quickly.

I also found the character development shallow, and in this case I think the author was really limited by the Greek myths she was adapting. One moment Theseus is telling Ariadne he loves her and asking her to marry him – the next he is deserting her on the island – and nothing happens in between. We’re never given a good explanation for this, and I think it’s just because it has to happen because that’s what happens in the original. Throughout the novel, this became a problem, with inconsistent, changeable and shallow characterisation adapting with how the story had to go – rather than the story being powered by the characters.

I found this book difficult to get through, and almost put it down a number of times. I pressed on, and I thought the last chapter (pre-epilogue) was probably the strongest part of the story – but this made it all the more frustrating because it wasn’t properly built to at all.

Perhaps some people will get on better with this book – I’ve seen a lot of better ratings – but I don’t think it works particularly well either as a retelling or as a novel in its own right.

book meme

WWW Wednesday | 12 May

Me? Doing a WWW Wednesday post two weeks in a row? Is it a miracle? I hope everyone’s doing well and that, if you’re in the UK, you’ve been enjoying some of the lockdown easing. I can’t believe we’re able to hug people next week! Mad, isn’t it? I will be exercising caution and won’t be going around madly hugging anyone and everyone, but when I do see my family again I will be giving them an extra tight squeeze! Anyway, on to the books…

As always, WW Wednesday is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words and the three Ws to be answered are:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading?

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. I’m not too far into yet – maybe 6 chapters or so, and I think it’s so interesting and the writing is really gripping. It’s set in Uganda in the 1970s and tells the story of Kirabo. When we meet her, Kirabo is about 12 years old, but this is supposed to be a coming of age novel, so I assume she’ll grow up as we read. What I’m loving about this novel so far is how it transports you to Uganda and immerses you in the history, language, culture and mythology. It can trip you up a couple of times, if you’re not used to reading about the culture, but I like that – why should the novel pander to the Western reader?

What did you recently finish reading?

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I finished The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters a couple of days ago. I gave it four stars in my review – I thought it was compelling and atmospheric, but it was a little bit too long. It was my first Sarah Waters novel and I do think I would like to read more by her – any recommendations?

What do you think you’ll read next?

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As I mentioned last week, I have Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee to review, which I would really like to get to soon – and which I’ve heard really good things about!

The Little Stranger and The First Woman are both quite long reads, so I think I would like to read something a bit shorter next. I mentioned The Divines last week, which is still a possibility, or maybe I will mix things up and go with a YA read. I have A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, which isn’t short but I think will be quite a quick read.

I also have some Audible credits to use up. I usually only listen to nonfiction books, but I would like to go out of my comfort zone and try a fiction book. I’m working from home by myself most of the time at the moment, so I think I could get some good listening time in. Does anyone have any good fiction audiobook recommendations? I have no idea how to tell what will make a good audiobook, really!

book review

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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The Little Stranger is a subtle ghost story, set in a crumbling mansion in the 1940s, during the rise of socialism and the professional classes which were threatening the existence of the landed gentry. It follows Dr Faraday, a working class man whose mum used to work as a nanny at Hundreds Hall, as he befriends the current occupants – Mrs Ayres, Caroline and Roderick – after being called out there to see to a patient.

This book put me in mind of Shirley Jackson’s A Haunting of Hill House, and its subtle, creeping, eerie feeling. The Little Stranger is a similar style – it relies on the build up and tension of what may be going on, rather than any real encounters between the protagonist and and ghostly phenomena, and, at 500 pages long, it’s definitely a slow burner. This book will not be everyone, I don’t think, especially if you want more outright ghostliness.

The Little Stranger is just as much a comment on class hierarchies in England at the time, which were crumbling as much as Hundreds Hall was physically. They discuss many times in the novel what could be causing the ghostly happenings – whether it is just mental illness in the inhabitants or some violent, unearthly force – and I think it’s important to note that these things only start happening after Dr Faraday, who embodies the professional working classes, arrives at Hundreds Hall. This novel is detailed, beautifully written, with well realised characters and multiple levels. I’ve had a lot of fun thinking about the ending since I stopped reading and what it could mean (hello, English Lit student).

I’d describe this novel as part ghost story, part historical fiction. I expected it to be more ghostly when I started it – and I do think the ghost story elements aren’t what really fascinates Waters here, and could have had more done with them. I would also say that the book is probably slightly too long – you could cut some length and it that elevate some of the tension of the ghost story, I think. Luckily, I also liked the more historical threads to the novel, and Waters’ writing style.

Faraday also became a wearying character at times, as he was so self-involved and blind to a lot of what was happening.

The Little Stranger marries the eerie and atmospheric with a detailed and compelling narrative. I definitely want to explore more of Sarah Waters’ work after this!

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WWW Wednesday | 5 May

Hi all and welcome back for another WWW Wednesday, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. I really enjoy doing these as I feel like my reading rate has slowed down a bit so I don’t have as many reviews to post – but it means I can still check in with you all!

So, the three Ws to be answered are:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading?

The Little Stranger: shortlisted for the Booker Prize: Amazon.co.uk: Sarah  Waters: 9781844086061: Books

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. This is a ghost story set in a crumbling 1940s mansion. This is my first Sarah Waters book and I’m really enjoying it so far! It feels quite Shirley Jackson-esque to me, though much, much longer – I think my edition is about 500 pages? It’s a real slow-burn; I’m about half-way through and most people are still not admitting there’s any form of haunting happening. So it’s definitely not for people who love a fast-paced plot! However, I’m really enjoying getting to know the characters and experiencing the post-war world and class struggles that Sarah Waters is depicting.

One of the things I loved about The Haunting of Hill House (review linked) is her use of terror – it’s the anticipation of something bad happening, rather than the actually bad thing, that’s truly scary. And I can definitely see hints of that in this book, which I’m really enjoying – so I’m hoping the second half of the novel can keep me as transfixed and happy as the first!

What did you recently finish reading?

Since my last WWW Wednesday post (4 weeks ago!), I have finished four books:

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  • The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse, which I was enjoying when I last wrote one of these posts, but which I ended up giving only 2 stars to. I found it disappointing, especially the reveal at the end.
  • The Manningtree Witches by A.K. Blakemore – I absolutely adored this book! Wonderfully written, really clever and poignant. I gave this five stars and I definitely recommend you read my review then pick it up!
  • Ariadne by Jennifer Saint – this was a NetGalley ARC, and I haven’t posted my review for this one yet, but I really didn’t enjoy it. It’s a ‘Greek retelling’ of Ariadne (who appears in the Minotaur myth – she’s the Minotaur’s sister), but I found this novel really boring and dry. It’s supposed to retell the myth from Ariadne’s point of view, but it does that quite literally – not adding anything new or giving her more agency or a different role to the original myths depict. I found it a real disappointment as I was very much looking forward to it.
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  • Sadie by Courtney Summers – this book is told partly by first-person accounts from Sadie, and partly through transcripts of a podcast that is investigating her disappearance. I thought this was well-written and I read most of it in one go, but it is an incredibly bleak novel with no lighter moments to balance it out. It felt like Summers had thought ‘what are all the bad things that could ever happen’ and then made them all happen to Sadie. I’m not adverse to gritty, realistic or dark novels (in fact, they are usually my favourite kind), but this was too much for me.
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

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    I have no idea… my TBR has really flown out the window in the last couple of months. The Little Stranger was on my February TBR! I think I’ll see what I’m feeling, but potentially The Divines or maybe The First Woman. I also have Cunning Women to review and am really looking forward to it – but wanted to leave enough space after The Manningtree Witches as they are both books about the witch trials in the 1600s.

    book review

    Review: The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore

    Rating: 5 out of 5.
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    The Manningtree Witches is a fictionalised account of the puritanical witch trials that swept across England in the 1640s, during the English civil war. We follow Rebecca, who lives with her widowed, disreputable mother (the Bedlam West) in a small Essex town, when Matthew Hopkins (later to be known through history as the Witchfinder General) comes to stay and starts to ask questions about the marginalised women in the town.

    I loved this novel. This is AK Blakemore’s debut novel, but she have previously released poetry collections – and you can tell. Her writing is beautiful, inventive and sharp – she has such a turn of phrase but it never becomes purple or dense and it is mellowed by wit and wryness running through the narration. It’s mainly told in first person but does switch to some third-person sections; I would usually not enjoy this sort of switching but she handles it really well. It did take me a chapter or two to get used to the writing style, which captures the language of the time – but once I adapted to it, I loved it!

    Blakemore beautifully depicts the feeling of the time – the jealousies, the outrage, the fear that makes neighbour turn on neighbour. There is a claustrophobic, eerie feel to the novel, foreshadowing what is to come and setting you on edge throughout. It’s slightly uncomfortable at points, which is something I quite like in a novel. Blakemore doesn’t steer away from the dirtiness and the difficulty of the lives that some of these women lead – she puts a spotlight on it (some of the descriptions of Mother Clarke felt so real that I felt a bit sick).

    Rebecca is an excellent protagonist – a keen observer, witty, entertaining. But we also see her terror and her powerlessness as events unfold. All of the women accused of being witches were excellently rendered – after all, Blakemore has made the decision here to focus on the persecuted, not the persecutor. But I was particularly impressed by Bedlam West, Rebecca’s mum, who I think may be the stand out character for me. She refuses to conform, she’s confrontational, she drinks too much and she’s bawdy. But that’s balanced by a tenderness, kindness and love, which comes out at different points across the novel and never failed to take my breath away/make me feel quite emotional.

    Like all of the best historical fiction, Blakemore is also talking just as much about the modern day as she is about the 17th century (or, at least, that’s how I read it). The women that were hunted were those that did not conform to society’s expectations of what they should be as women, and so are hunted and persecuted and are accused of sleeping with the devil. It doesn’t take too much of a leap of logic to align this with today’s standards, where successful, powerful or unconventional women (including trans women) are torn down by the media just because they happen to be in the public eye.

    I think I could talk about how amazing this book is for days and days, but I don’t want to give too much away, and I think it would just be easier if you read it for yourself to find out! This is a phenomenal story which gives life and humanity to the persecuted in the witch trials – Blakemore’s writing is beautiful and sharp, and her characters come alive. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for her next novel, and exploring her poetry in the meantime!