Blog, Books

Review: ‘The Fourteenth Letter’ by Claire Evans

April 4, 2017
The Fourteenth Letter

No one was more surprised by my enjoyment of Claire Evans’ The Fourteenth Letter than me.  It looked like the kind of book I would enjoy as a fun distraction, but nothing more.  And I was sorely in need of a fun distraction.

The Fourteenth Letter opens with a grisly murder.  What follows is an historical mystery with a classical twist, blending old world British Gothic with new world American ingenuity.  It was a book about madness, privilege and eugenics, and while it didn’t keep me guessing through the whole reading experience, it definitely swept me along for the ride.

I was impressed with Evans’ characterisation.  Her characters were deeply flawed, mysterious, but personable.  Their experiences created a sense of real personal growth.  The William Lamb of the end of the novel was virtually unrecognisable from the character we’d met at the beginning, but his growth and development were so natural that it really gave his character depth.  Savannah Shelton, the American gunslinger as well, was introduced as a rough and hardened criminal.  Even she proved to have real depth, while Evans’

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans

masterfully omitted the details of her erstwhile crimes, leaving the reader to judge the character on her personality and deeds through the novel rather than her sordid past.  The remaining heroes were appropriately heroic, with the generic good-guy police constable who served to move the plot at an even pace, and the villains were appropriately dark and menacing.

The pace, plotting and characterisation, however, were belied by The Fourteenth Letter’s title and branding.  The cover is more evocative of a feminine gothic family saga/romance.  There was nothing that screamed historical murder mystery.  The titular ‘Fourteenth Letter’ as well, was introduced far too late in the plot for it to have any real impact or meaning.  This was the book’s biggest letdown.  The big reveal was hardly a reveal at all, as I hadn’t even known in was an option up until that point.

All in all The Fourteenth Letter was a strong entry into the historical crime genre.  It was a fun read that was equal parts cliché and original that was just really, really enjoyable.

Blog, Games

The Mass Effect Franchise in Review

March 19, 2017

I’ve come quite late to the Mass Effect franchise.  Despite it being my most recommended game series to date, I just never really felt the urge to pick it up.  With such an extensive Steam back catalogue, and being primarily an MMO player there have always been other calls for my time.  Being an adult sucks like that.  But when I saw the launch trailer for Mass Effect Andromeda (the music supervisor for that trailer deserves a huge raise by the way) I was blown away and decided that I just had to play the series in preparation.

I’d tried Mass Effect 1 before, and while I enjoyed it, I found the Citadel quests a little monotonous, so when I stopped playing for a few days I just didn’t start it up again and promptly forgot about it.  But with all the constant recommendations I decided that this time I was going to stick with it.  And I was not sorry!

The overarching story is deep and immersive.  The attention to detail is second to none.  Walking past characters you can’t even interact with and listening to their conversations made the world seem real.  It’s the joy and danger of truly immersive, interactive, player-driven storytelling.  Commander Shepard wasn’t just a character I was playing.  I was her.  She was an extension of me.  Her choices were my choices.  I didn’t treat her as an object to move through the game. I treated her as an extension of myself.  I refused to let myself restart missions for different outcomes.  I committed to my choices having a lasting effect.  Which is why the ending let me down so much.

Mass Effect 1 was a good game, but not a great one.  The story was brilliant, and the way my Shepard created her own little family on the Normandy was exceptional, but the side quests and planet exploration were repetitive and clunky.  The combat was enjoyable, and I liked speccing my character to suit my play style, but overall the game experience of ME1 didn’t blow me away.  Still, the story kept me going for Mass Effect 2, which is where the series really started to come into its own.

Mass Effect 3 Kaidan AlenkoMy female Shepard had romanced Kaidan in ME1.  The romance was a cute distraction at the time, but I didn’t feel any deep connection. It was masterful in ME2 that, despite Kaidan being only in a few minutes of the game it actually made me care about him in a way that the first game hadn’t.  The storytelling and interactive dialogue really improved in ME2, and for the first time, I was invested in all the characters.  Building a new team and creating a sense of loyalty in my crew gave them all depth.  I’d briefly considered setting up a new romance in ME2, but when I met Kaidan on Horizon, his reaction to seeing me with Cerberus was so real and believable that I was pretty shocked.

That moment in ME2 on Horizon seemed to get a pretty negative reaction for Kaidan, but for me, it appeared to be a very real way to react.  I was a little disappointed when he walked away from me in anger, but I understood, so I let my reaction to that filter into my conversations with other characters.  I thought then that I could probably move on and try to romance someone else to get the full game experience, but every time I went into the Commander’s quarters I saw his picture there, the truth was that I as a person just couldn’t do that to Kaidan, especially after his apology message, so ultimately my Shepard just couldn’t either.

While the romance seemed a little gimmicky on paper, by Mass Effect 3 it had me completely immersed.  It made me personally invested in the characters.  They weren’t pixels on a screen.  They were my friends and family.  Everything my Shepard was doing wasn’t just to save the earth and a bunch of strange NPCs I’d never meet; they were to protect these people who had been with me from the beginning.  That is why, when the ending came, at first I wasn’t too disappointed.  Part of that reason for me was the fact that I was so hooked that I’d played all three games non-stop in less than a week.  I played for full days, sometimes until 4 or 5 in the morning.  I just couldn’t stop!  I had to know what happened to these characters, and having my Shepard sacrifice herself for those who she loved made sense.  It hit me right in the feels, but it didn’t feel wrong.

But, after the buzz of non-stop play and the immersive story came to an end, and I had a chance to sit back and think about it, I found myself getting a little angry.  The story up until that point had been masterful.  It had an internal logic, but on closer inspection, the end just didn’t.  It would have made sense to have all the existing options there as other players had made other decisions up until this point, but there was a fourth option that was what my Shepard had been building toward that the game simply didn’t address.

Every decision I’d made up until that point would have brought my Shepard to one, logical conclusion.  Convincing the Crucible of the fallacy of his argument.  The narrative and my decisions had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the cycle could be broken.  I’d negotiated peace between the Quarians and the Geth, and the Geth were helping rebuild Rannock, the Quarian homeworld.  EDI was free to self-actualise and discover her individuality and was a valued member of my team.  The inevitable ending that the Crucible had foreseen was not inevitable in my world.  That should have been my ending. But instead, my Shepard’s decisions and choices were bastardised for shock value.  And that’s what it felt like.  So many hours that players spent investing in the character and their future ripped from them in a moment, thanks to a blatant plot twist for the sake of it.

I’m not going to lie, the franchise is still probably the best video game series I’ve played to date, and despite my disappointment at the ending, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  The suicide mission of ME2 is probably the most immersive well developed final mission of any game I’ve ever played.  Ever.

Mass Effect Andromeda has some pretty big shoes to fill, but I’m definitely excited to play it.

Blog, Books

#BooksforChange

March 1, 2017
Books for Change

Virago Press are doing #BooksforChange for the month of March.  Every day we get to share our most influential and favourite female writers and female characters.   I can’t wait to see everyone else’s favourites and maybe discover some new books to read!

This March, we are running a month-long social media campaign, which we’re calling #BooksforChange. Inspired by the official hashtag for International Women’s Day 2017 #BeBoldForChange, we’re going to spend the whole month sharing inspiring books by women, and we want you to get involved. Every day we’ll be sharing Virago books that match the theme, and we’d love to see your choices too! Will you be joining us? Let us know your choice for day 1 in the comments below, or share a photo using #BooksforChange. #virago #viragopress #viragomodernclassics #vmc #viragobooks #tbr #books #bookstagram #igreads #newbooks #classicbooks #illustration #currentread #currentlyreading #amreading #readwomen #winter #london #iwd #feminism #onthisday

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On day 1 of #BooksforChange, the book that made me feminist is without a doubt The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.  That woman’s writing changed my life.  She writes across genres in a way that just drew me in from such a young age.  I devoured everything she’d written when I was in high school.

If you’ve never read any Margaret Atwood you must!

Blog, Books

Review: ‘Rattle’ by Fiona Cummins

February 25, 2017
Rattle

Rattle won’t deliver anything new or provide any unexpected twists and turns, but what it does provide is a pretty gripping read that I devoured in only a few sittings.  Fiona Cummins gives us a strong, albeit formulaic, addition to the crime thriller genre that seethes with menace and tension.

I don’t want to give a plot outline because I honestly think that it will detract from the reading experience.  But what this book does have is a pretty unique psychopath and a bevvy of damaged characters who are just trying to get through life the best they can.  We see the abduction of their children affect two families in very different ways, and best of all, Fiona Cummins has included some interesting details about dealing with Natural History collections and biological specimens.  As a former museum curator, I loved reading about that part of her story.

Rattle is full of rich descriptions.  There is one passage that I thought was so beautiful I just have to share it:

Ribbons and sheets of ossified matter.  Stalagmites and bridges.  Twisted plates and bony nubs… He stands alone in the hallway, and drinks in the glory of the skeleton in its glass case, mesmerised by its distortions, the incursion of bone into thoracic cavity, the calcified trimmings decorating his spine.  A young boy trapped in a prison of stone.

It makes the human body sound like a work of art.  I’d heard of Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive before under its more commonly used name, ‘Stone Man Syndrome’ but I didn’t know a lot about it.  Rattle managed to give it a human face as I realised how difficult it must be not just for the sufferer, but for the families who have to see their children become trapped in their own bodies.  The Frith family were strong, but damaged, and had very real reactions to the reality of living with a sick child.  The Frith’s grew as characters as the novel progressed, and I was impressed with the reality of their emotions and the way Fiona Cummins wrote them in a way that ensures empathy rather than pity.

DS Etta Fitzroy was an interesting character herself, although not entirely original.  Every crime novel these days needs a disgraced detective with a tragic backstory, so she seemed more like an archetype than a real, fleshed out character.  She also made stupid mistakes unbecoming of a detective that felt contrived to bring a bit more tension to the narrative rather than for any reason that made sense to the story.  It was moments like these that brought the quality of Rattle down for me.

For me, my biggest disappointment with Rattle was its lack of any real resolution.  I’m not sure if Fiona Cummins was setting it up for a sequel or to become a series, but because of this, the whole novel felt somehow, unfinished.  Instead of making me want to desperately pick up the next book when it’s written, it made the preceding parts of the story feel somewhat lacking.  I just needed more from it.  I needed more explanation, more detail, more motivation and more resolution.  The ending betrayed what had, up to that point, been a stellar novel.

All in all, Rattle was a gripping, enjoyable read.  But if you’re looking for something groundbreaking that will reinvent the genre, then you’ll have to keep looking.  While the villain was interesting and unique, the plot, in general, was on crime thriller rails.  If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll know where it’s going.  But at least you’ll enjoy the journey.

Blog, Books

Review: ‘Perfect’ by Cecilia Ahern

February 10, 2017
Perfect and Flawed

Perfect is the second (and it seems final) book in Cecelia Ahern’s Young Adult Series Flawed.  Everything that made Flawed such a surprise was still there, but somehow Perfect just doesn’t pack the same punch.

Celestine North was the perfect teenager until she runs afoul of the law by standing up for an elderly gentleman on a bus who just happened to be branded Flawed by an all-powerful government entity called The Guild.  Branded Flawed herself for the infraction Celestine finds herself the unwitting figurehead for the movement to destroy the guild.  On the run, with no one to trust, Celestine must find the evidence to clear her name, and stand in defence of all the other Flawed.

There is nothing new or original here.  It’s every YA dystopian novel ever written, all amalgamated in to one.  There wasn’t anything original in Flawed either, but because of the strength of the writing and the narrative style it was easy to forgive.  Perfect has as many moments of tragic, visceral violence as its predecessor, and has just as many truly emotional moments that kept me reading in to the wee hours of the morning.  So why then could I not enjoy this one as much as the first?

Cecelia Ahern made one mistake with Perfect.  She broke the fourth wall.  She made the mistake of using current pop culture references in her narrative which broke me out of my suspension of disbelief and brought the whole plot and concept come crashing down around my ears.

When something is set in a similar society with its own rules and logic I can believe how entities like the guild come to be.  But when an author suggests that this fantasy world is somehow akin to my present, then there had better be some really deep and well thought out world building to make me believe it.  But there wasn’t.  So I didn’t.

As soon as the one flaw comes out in a book the house of cards that was narrative believability came crashing down.  All of a sudden, I was thinking about what was happening in the rest of the world.  Why is the UN not stepping in for human rights violations?  Why on earth would people allow this dictatorship to start in the first place, especially since they still have a democratic voting system and the Flawed are still allowed to vote?  As soon as I was reading a book about my world, and not some alternate fantasy world, the questions just kept coming and coming and the book failed to be in any way believable.

Celestine was still a decent character, but I still needed more development of the satellite characters.  There was a feeble attempt at a love triangle that went nowhere, and Celestine’s relationship with Carrick was just not developed enough to convince me that they’d do everything that they did for each other.

Perfect wasn’t bad, and it did bring the two-book series to an end in a satisfying way.  Despite its flaws, Flawed is still a much better series than Divergent and was really fun to read.  I read the book in a day, because I just needed to keep reading to see how it ends.  No matter what else I say about the book, that’s probably the most important.  It was enjoyable. (If not entirely believable).

Blog, Books

Review: ‘Under a Watchful Eye’ by Adam Nevill

February 4, 2017
Under a Watchful Eye

I’ve long been a fan of Adam Nevill, so when Under a Watchful Eye was released my expectations were naturally high.  When I started reading, I must admit I wasn’t entirely sold.  The book has a slow moving, brooding narrative, and I found myself at one point thinking I’d need to come back to it when I was in more of a leisurely reading mood.  But I kept reading, and the experience was better for it.  The dread was palpable, and the way Nevill writes is darkly beautiful with a lyricism that you rarely see in horror novels.

Seb Logan is a well-known horror writer, working on his new book from his comfortable seaside home.  His idyllic life is crashed into disarray when a friend from his past appears and threatens everything Seb has worked so hard to achieve.  What follows is a descent into the darkest recesses of the self, where Seb must confront sinister forces from within and without.

Adam Nevill taps into the everyday fears we all have and writes them in a way that makes them terrifying.  We, as readers, see ourselves reflected in his characters and that is what makes his works so frightening.  His prose is florid and expressive with an originality that makes him a unique writer in the genre.  He is descriptive in a way that builds his world naturally, without forcing too much information on the reader.  The fact that we can build our fears into his descriptions is what gives the weight of real horror.  With an antagonist like Thin Len (who will no doubt visit me in my dreams for many nights to come) he is so terrifying because he will appear differently to every reader.

The characters in Under a Watchful Eye are not the most deeply developed.  Some appear only for a few pages before disappearing into obscurity, and the motivations of some others I found to be a little ambiguous in places.  At first, this is what made me enjoy the book a little less, but the more I read, the more I realised that it was essential to making this novel so chilling.  Seb is a character who is trapped, and by minimising his interactions with other characters, it only serves to heighten the feeling of isolation that surrounds him at almost every turn and makes us question his sanity, just as the characters around him do.  We experience Seb’s subjective reality, one that Nevill manages to make real in all its terrifying and grotesque glory.

Under a Watchful Eye felt a lot more subtle than Nevill’s previous works which initially threw me.  But once I was engrossed it proved itself to be a creeping tale of horror that was both visceral and stimulating. It was a story that blurred the line between life and death and fiction and reality with allusions to one of his previous novels, Last Rites, that help tie everything masterfully into his fictional universe.

Adam Nevill is a master of horror and a writer that every reader who considers themselves a fan of the genre should become acquainted.  Under a Watchful Eye has proven his versatility and talent as a writer and is a must read.

Blog, Books

My Top 10 Fantasy Series

February 2, 2017
I Blame Wizards - Top 10 Fantasy Series

Picking my Top 10 Fantasy series is such a subjective task.  The books I love carry with them the weight of not just my own tastes, but also my nostalgia.  Some of the books I’d put in my top 10 aren’t even objectively the best books, but they are books that I have loved at some point in my life and want to share with people.

Some you may have heard of, others, perhaps not. I’ve not bothered putting Tolkien or Pratchett on the list because if you don’t’ love Tolkien or Pratchett you don’t love Fantasy. But these are my personal Top 10 fantasy series of all time (in no particular order).

 

The Name of the Wind

The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss

First Book: The Name of the Wind

When The Name of the Wind was first released, my mother came home with a hardback copy.  She’d picked it up on the way home because it sounded like something I might like, and did I ever!  I would go so far to say that this series is the best of modern fantasy.

It is a story of youth, told by a man who is to become the world’s most renowned magician.  It’s full of action, adventure, romance, friendship and above all, magic!

 

 

 

BattleAxe

The Axis Trilogy by Sara Douglass

First Book: BattleAxe

When I was twelve a friend of the family gave me a book for my birthday.  That book was Sara Douglass’ Threshold.  Looking back I was way too young to have been given that book, let alone be reading it, but it started my life-long love affair with everything Sara Douglass.  I loved her so much I even applied to be her shadow for my year 10 work experience.  Even though it didn’t happen, I still have the reply that she sent me to this day.

The Axis Trilogy is an epic series full of family feuds, the magic of the stars and doomed romances.  It has strong female characters, tackles issues of abuse and religious zealotry, environmentalism, xenophobia and is the series that I come back to again and again.

 

 

The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Gentleman Bastards Sequence by Scott Lynch

First Book: The Lies of Locke Lamora

This whole series is irreverent and darkly humorous. Locke and his compatriots carry out schemes and heists and are the perfect anti-heroes that you can’t help but fall in love with.  The characterisation in this series is superb and the setting is so rich you almost feel you could step into its pages.  It’s a long series that is barely halfway through, but it’s one that is so worth committing to.

The characterisation in this series is superb and the setting is so rich you almost feel you could step into its pages.  It’s a long series that is barely halfway through, but it’s one that is so worth committing to.

 

 

The Dark is Rising

The Dark Is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper

First Book: Over Sea, Under Stone

This is the series that made me want to become an historian and started my lifelong love affair with everything Arthurian.  I read the series in the fifth grade, and turned to my parents and told them that I wanted to find The Holy Grail.  When they asked me how, I said research!

This is such a fantastic series for adults and children alike and is so woefully overlooked.  They are darker than a lot of children’s fantasy novels which is very welcome.  The first book is more of a seaside adventure story and the books get darker as they progress until they end with an epic battle of Arthurian proportions.  The Dark is Rising Sequence will make you fall in love with reading all over again.

 

 

The Earthsea Quartet

The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula Le Guin

First Book:  A Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula Le Guin is probably as influential as Tolkien.  Many of the series in this list have clearly been influenced by The Earthsea Cycle.  So many modern fantasy series rely on appendices, family trees, and other extra information to help build their worlds.  With Earthsea though Le Guin offers us a master class in world building.  The evil itself is largely abstract; a force rather than an evil with a face. The series tackles the huge task of covering themes like life and death.

The first three books act as a Trilogy and can easily be read on their own.  The fourth book Tehanu is usually packaged with the first three (while the last two books are largely ignored) but is a largely different book in substance and style to the three that came before.  This series is a must-read for anyone who loves fantasy.

 

 

Taliesin

The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen Lawhead

First Book:  Taliesin

I picked up the first two books in this series from my school library when I was in my early teens.  Since then I’ve tried to get a copy of the whole series, but they’re surprisingly difficult to get hold of (especially if you want the whole series with the same covers – seriously publishers, WHY?).

Arthurian legend is a subject covered in literature time and time again, but in my opinion, this is one of the best.  It mixes Arthurian legend with Celtic history and even myths of Atlantis with elements if historical Minoan culture!  It’s a fantastic mix of fantasy and historical fiction that is so well researched you could almost believe it to be true.

 

 

Hood

King Raven Trilogy by Stephen Lawhead

First Book:  Hood

The Legend of Robin Hood is known by pretty much everyone.  It’s been made into countless films and plays and stories, but never has it been done in such an original and well-researched way. Lawhead sets his trilogy in the time of the Norman Conquest on the Welsh borders and gives every element of the story its own place in history.

 

 

 

 

Obernewtyn

The Obernewtyn Chronicles by Isobelle Carmody

First Book:  Obernewtyn

I must admit, my obsession with The Obernewtyn Chronicles has waned somewhat over the years.  I was absolutely obsessed with the books in my childhood, but as more time passed between her releasing books and  I got older, I simply lost interest.  There was nearly a decade between book 4 and 5 and there is only so long I can keep my expectation for a series going, especially since she started other series during that time.

Still, despite my brief disenchantment, The Obernewtyn Chronicles remain a seminal work of YA literature.  Like most post-apocalyptic novels this series covers everything that a coming-of-age story needs and goes further covering deeper elements of prejudice, tolerance, responsibility and even human and animal rights.

After 28 years the series was finally finished with the 7th novel released in 2015, so you’re safe to pick it up now.

 

 

The Screaming Staircase

Lockwood & Co. by Jonathan Stroud

First Book: The Screaming Staircase

It’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited for the release of new books.  I describe the Lockwood & Co. series as if J. K. Rowling had written The Woman in Black.  While it’s technically middle-grade fiction there is a lot here to be excited about.   The prose is witty with beautifully fleshed out characters with completely unique personalities.

There are chills galore and an overarching story that makes me desperate to read on. I can’t recommend this series enough!

 

So there they are, my top 10 fantasy series.  And the best thing?  There’s still plenty more out there to discover!

 

Top 10 Fantasy Book Series

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Review: ‘Fir’ by Sharon Gosling

January 16, 2017
Fir by Sharon Gosling

Sharon Gosling’s Fir was an interesting addition to the already extensive collection of YA horror, but like many books in the genre didn’t quite live up to expectations.

Fir tells the story of the Stromberg family, who leave their comfortable inner city Stockholm life to move to a remote tree farm where the Stromberg patriarch hopes to rebuild the lumber business.  But there is something out in the old growth forest that begins terrorising the family, while they try and survive the harshness of Sweden’s remote winters.

There were some fascinating elements in Fir.  The forest had character, and the descriptions of the woods, the cold, the dark and the isolation were incredibly well rendered.  There were some promising moments with the introduction of old world mythology which had the potential to make this a much deeper story and Gosling took the opportunity to make some important and tactful observations about environmental ethics without coming across as forceful or on the nose.

Unfortunately, despite these elements, Fir utterly failed to be believable.  Within the first few pages, it had already fallen into the YA trap of choosing just to have unreasonably rubbish parents to mask the fact that it’s difficult to write a believable relationship between a teenager and a parent once you’re past the age where you no longer rely on them.  I say difficult, which is why so many YA authors just either omit the adults of the story entirely (I’m looking at you Leo Hunt) or make them such caricatures of bad parenting that the focus naturally sways toward its teenage protagonists. Their reactions to situations and lack of communication with their daughter were simply not believable, and so made the plot feel entirely contrived.

One of the most effective elements was that the plot developed to allow for some ambiguity as to the truth of the ‘supernatural’ occurrences in the book.  I liked this, as it left it entirely open to interpretation, and made the premise of isolation even more frightening.  Letting the characters’ experiences speak for themselves made the local mythology even more interesting, as it highlighted how remote isolation could give rise to fears like these.  Had the book ended before the appendix I might have rated it far higher, but instead, Gosling chose to spoon feed the readers a supernatural ending that detracted from the whole narrative.  A book is only as good as its ending, so had it ended a few pages earlier, it would have been a much better book.

Overall, Fir was a quick and easy read.  It wasn’t particularly cerebral, certainly didn’t bring much to the YA horror genre, but was most definitely full of unrealised potential.  The plot had the potential to be unique with a critical message about environmental responsibility,  but instead just read as a generic supernatural YA story about bad parenting.

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Review: ‘The One Memory of Flora Banks’ by Emily Barr

December 31, 2016
The One Memory of Flora Banks

The One Memory of Flora Banks was an interesting if problematic book.  It tackled a very interesting subject matter, but I’m not entirely sure it did it wholly effectively.  I enjoyed the book since the narrative was sweet and interesting, but I’m not entirely sure it was the healthiest portrayal of chronic illness.

Flora Banks is a teenager who has anterograde amnesia.  A tumour when she was ten made it impossible for her to create new memories and so she lives her life in a state of confusion, with the memories of a ten-year-old, but the body and emotions of a teenager.  One night, she kisses a boy on the beach and for the first time she has a memory that stays.  What follows is the story of her trying to hang on to that memory, a story that will twist and turn and take her on an adventure to the other side of the world.

Flora is an incredibly memorable character.  As the narrator, her quirks and mannerisms show themselves in interesting ways.  A lot of the narrative is repetitive for that reason because we are experiencing the way that Flora’s mind works, but the repetition had just enough difference as to keep it interesting.  I found the way it was written fascinating rather than boring.  Flora writes things down (think Memento) to remind herself of them, and builds a physical trail of memories for her future self to follow.

The other characters in the book have no real characterisations of their own.  Instead, we experience them through Flora’s eyes, and for obvious reasons, she proves herself a rather unreliable narrator.  What is true of the people that she knows in one chapter can be completely turned on its head the next.  We see Flora’s parents how she sees them at certain times in the narrative, and the same goes for the boy she kissed and her best friend.  It made for very interesting reading and stylistically I simply can’t fault this book.

The big problem with this book, and indeed with so many books dealing with any kind of chronic illness, is that it doesn’t always deal with said illness in the best possible way.  Despite the characters of the novel responding to her positively and appreciating her for everything that she is, Flora herself latches on to the one thing she feels she needs to be; normal.  It is this idea of normalcy that makes this novel so problematic, especially when we factor in the layers of self-deception practised by her family, and by herself on more than on occasion. It is this self-deception that needed to be tackled to give this book the depth that it needed.  For me, one of the most tragic and underdeveloped characters of the whole novel is Flora’s mother.  At times she is painted as a villain, but reading between the lines you can see a deeply troubled woman with her own mental illness to deal with who is given virtually no page time.  The One Memory of Flora Banks had the potential to delve so deeply into the subject of chronic illness, but instead, it seemed to romanticise it and ultimately raised more problems than it solved.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading The One Memory of Flora Banks, even if I didn’t really love where it went.  It was beautifully written, with a unique style and a memorable protagonist.  With a bit more depth I think it could have been a great, and indeed important work of YA fiction, but it is not quite there yet.

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Review: ‘The Doll Funeral’ by Kate Hamer

December 29, 2016
The Doll Funeral

The Doll Funeral was a novel that attempted to be a great many things and proceeded to be none of them with great aplomb.  It had the potential to be a touchingly deep story about domestic abuse and the difficulties of coping with adoption, both as the adopters and the adoptees, but instead, it got bogged down in a swamp of mystical weirdness that did nothing to help the story along.

Kate Hamer’s The Doll Funeral tells the story from the point of view of a teenage girl who lives with her adopted parents in the Forest of Dean.  Her adopted father Mick is abusive but she finds solace among the trees and with a shadowy friend who has always been in her life.  The narrative follows her search for her real parents, while simultaneously weaving the story of her parents and how she came to live with Mick and Barbara.

The way Kate Hamer writes is beautiful.  She weaves her words with talent and imagination.  She paints a great picture and really brings the Forest of Dean to life as a character in its own right.  The forest plays such an important part in the lives of all its characters that her characterisation of it really made the narrative.  The plot is bleak, dark and otherworldly with a cast of quirky characters who were interesting enough to keep me reading.  The Doll Funeral wasn’t fast paced, or action-packed.  It plodded along slowly and steadily and had a decent pace for a relatively serious novel that dealt with some pretty deep issues.

The big problem with The Doll Funeral is the way it chooses to deal with those issues.  The paranormal elements of the narrative fell flat and didn’t serve to heighten Ruby’s story in any way.  The weird Sixth Sense-esque skills that Ruby possesses simply made so much of the plot feel convenient and off-kilter all at the same time.  The novel deals with abuse, poverty and mental illness.  By adding the supernatural into the mix it somehow detracted from the gravity of what I feel the novel was trying to achieve.

Ruby herself wasn’t even particularly believable as a character.  She is 13 years old at the beginning of The Doll Funeral but her voice doesn’t match her age.  Her characterisation is much younger, as are the other ‘child’ characters in the novel.  The adults of the novel are largely absent during the narrative which ultimately felt a little too convenient in places, and her supernatural abilities are never really explained in any way.  This is a criticism I often level at works of supernatural fiction; your paranormal elements need to have their own internal logic to them.  I need to be able to believe that these things exist and the way that they manifest themselves as a reader.  In The Doll Funeral, they simply felt like convenient ways to move the plot along rather than as essential elements in the characterisation of Ruby.

That Kate Hamer can write with talent is not in any doubt.  There was a lot to commend The Doll Funeral for, but ultimately I just felt like it was lacking in some sense.  I needed it to be more or less of everything that it was.  I either needed no paranormal elements or they needed to be rendered with more depth, or I needed more focus on the very serious subject matter of the novel with characters that were interesting for who they were, and not for some weird powers they either did or didn’t possess.  It was a novel with great promise that simply didn’t deliver.

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