• The Way of All Flesh – Ambrose Parry

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    — DISCLAIMER: I received a eARC of this novel via NetGalley – thank you to both Netgalley and Canongate Books! All opinions expressed in this review are my own. —

    STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶

    PUBLICATION DATE: 02/10/2018

    SUMMARY: Will Raven begins his medical apprenticeship with the eminent Professor of Midwifery in Edinburgh in the mid-19th century, when he stumbles upon a series of women who have died with their bodies contorted. He suspects that there may be more than the police suspects, as these are women of lower social standing that would not usually be seen as important cases. Over the course of his investigation, he, and the house maid Sarah, become entangled in a much bigger web than expected…

    OPINIONS: What I liked best about this historical crime novel is that the characters are actually human. The authors (Ambrose Parry is a pseudonym for the authorial team) kept surprising me with their multi-faceted protagonists. Both Raven and Sarah, the two central characters, are utterly understandable and have reasonable flaws. The relationships between the different characters evolve organically, which makes for a wonderful read. Through Sarah, a smart, curious house maid, they also address the social implications of being a woman, and even foreshadow the suffragette movement later in the century. As they say, it needs women willing to fight for change to instigate changes happening.

    Another really cool aspect was the detailed use of the state of the medical profession in Edinburgh at the time, going into practical midwifery, but also public surgeries, and even the beginning use of anaesthesia. This is a subject I didn’t know much about beforehand, and I found it fascinating to learn more about how medicine worked and developed in a period not that far from ‘modern science’, but often perceived to be almost as dark as the Middle Ages in popular conception.

    I really enjoyed the novel, and could barely put it down at times, even if the culprit of the overarching mystery was rather obvious to me – though it made sense from the characters’ point of view that it took them so long to figure out the solution. The resolution at the end was well crafted, and gave the book a nice stand-alone end (although there are going to be further novels in the series).

     

  • State of Sorrow – Melinda Salisbury

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    STAR RATING: 5/5 ✶

    SUMMARY: Born immediately after her older brother tragically died, killing her mother in childbirth, Sorrow was named so, ‘for that is all she brings us.’ She grew up at the court of Rhallon, her father the chancellor, and lost in grief and drugs. After her grandmother, one of the few positive figures in her life, died, Sorrow has taken up the day-to-day running of things to cover for her father. She is poised to take over for real as the only heir, when events change everything she’s ever known.

    OPINIONS: What a wonderful and surprising book! I picked up the paperback in London on a whim a few months ago, taken by the pretty cover and the fact that it was signed, without any expectations. I had been pushing out reading it since then, as the synopsis on the back made it sound like a generic fantasy novel, but randomly packed it for a week-long trip to the Scottish countryside – which is wonderful and gave us the opportunity to read so many books! Although the beginning makes you expect the usual YA fantasy tropes, this book is so much more. It is twisty and turny and unexpected, full of flawed characters trying to do their best, and it gets better continually.
    It is rare that a book truly surprises me, but Melinda Salisbury manages all that and more. I couldn’t stop reading, simultaneously almost crying and loving it so much. My main point of criticism is that events escalate very quickly in the last few pages, leading to a massive cliffhanger – PLEASE SEND ME AN ARC OF BOOK TWO I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! It is probably one of my top five books I’ve read this year, and I have read way too many already. It is so good that I had a massive amazing-book-flash, and couldn’t really get into any books for a couple of days; I don’t remember the last time that has happened to me.
    I can’t quite believe that I keep gushing so much about State of Sorrow, I’m usually much more critical of things I read. As the people who know me might know, I am currently working on writing my first novel, and this is such inspiration for implementing many of the subtler ideas I want to be part of my own story. My favourite part, if I had to choose, is probably the way Melinda Salisbury manages to work in subtle social criticism and political workings without being obvious about. She makes people think, and finely analyses how a political system works – and should work – and what makes a good leader. When to follow rules, and when to break them is also a crucial point, something Sorrow must learn: Just because people care about you and give you advice with the best intentions, doesn’t mean that they are necessarily right. Everyone is fallible in this story, and I believe that that is an important message to confer.

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    This book was cool enough for me to share with my friend Simon (you can see his hand in the picture above), who’s usually not really into this kind of YA fantasy novel, and he loved it too. I asked him to write down a few opinions as someone who’s more into intellectual literature and literary theory as a kind of mini-guest-blog.

    SIMON’S OPINIONS:
    Enthralling narrative that deviates from the usual fantasy setting in its turn towards political intrigue and a focus on the consequences of being forced into a roll by the societal norms and traditions.
    Strong in its description of personal dilemmas and the way they are addressed and dealt with. The philosophical question of what makes a good leader is not a new one, however, the narrative manages to address and consequently de-familiarize its readership through the world and characters at hand, providing a critical point of view and maybe encourages to ponder the implications of leadership and democracy a bit further.
    Unfortunately, the story’s last part culminates too quickly and leaves some plot-development and character intentions behind for a classical cliffhanger.
    Will definitely read book two.

  • Titans of History – Simon Sebag Montefiore

    Titans of History by Simon Sebag Montefiore

    — DISCLAIMER: I received a free e-arc of this book via NetGalley – thank you to NetGalley and Vintage! All opinions expressed in this review are my own. I should also add that I am a trained historian and as such will likely be biased in reviewing a history book. —

    I know this blog says it reviews YA novels, but please allow me the excursion into my other passion, history, as I feel that I have important things to say about this.

    STAR RATING: 2/5 ✶

    ABOUT THE BOOK: In this book, Montefiore tries to assemble a group of people who shaped our world as we find it today and writes short (a few pages per person) biographies of them, and how they have influenced history. His work spans from early antiquity to the late twentieth century, with a focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I understand that this is a new edition of a work that was originally published in 2012.

    OPINIONS:

    When I first found out that I would be reviewing a book written by Simon Sebag Montefiore, I couldn’t contain my excitement, as back when I was a baby student and wrote my very first history paper for university, his book on Stalin and Molotov was one of my main sources and I really enjoyed it. But to be honest, I had a hard time with this book. I tried very hard to shut off my academic historian voice and keep in mind that it is intended to be a popular history book, however, I feel like some of the issues I had with it were intensified when considering that this would be read by people who might not have read anything else on this subject.

    In the beginning, I felt like the choices were made well in respect to diversity, both gender and location, and I even found out about a couple of medieval women I need to read more on (sadly, women were much less prominent as the volume continued…). But as the book went on, these choices seemed more and more skewered to me. Less than half of the book is dedicated to ancient and medieval figures, leaving out many of those I believe are crucial, but so far, so good – I’m a medievalist and am biased, and most people don’t care about that time period (which is a shame!) so he might not have wanted to force it on them. However, while the Renaissance and the early modern period get slightly more attention, the last third of the book is solely 20th century. To me, that does not make much sense at all, as many of the important people of the twentieth century were resting on the shoulders of thinkers much earlier. But this issue can be put down to preference.

    What makes me worry much more, is the fact that the book is incredibly western-centric. Most figures originate from Europe and North America, a bunch – maybe around 10% if we’re feeling generous – from Asia, and at most a handful for Africa and South America. In today’s xenophobic society, telling the average person that no one important came out of these large areas aids with the right’s nationalism and fear of difference. Right now, society needs a reminder that our western culture is not the only one of importance and that, in their core, humans are equal, no matter how they look or where they hail from.

    A second point that worries me in respect to this being aimed at the public is the historical methodology that seems to be lacking in crucial points. There are no references – at least not in the review version I received – and there is a lack of critical commentary. This is something I especially noticed in the areas where my expertise lays – theories are presented as facts without critical analysis or any mention that they are theories. Furthermore, supposed quotes of the subjects of the chapters are taken as granted, without reference to how they made their way to us, which makes them untrustworthy. A good example for this is the medieval muslim ruler Saladin: Montefiore gives a supposed quote, but does not refer to where this originated. Given the context, I could well imagine the quote having come from a western chronicler of the crusades, intent on making his side look good. Perhaps I am overly worried by this, but I feel like such portrayals might prejudice readers, and give society a much more biased image.

    And now, let’s end on a couple of ‘technical’ issues. First and foremost, the chapters were too short. Reading a Wikipedia article on the person in question might give a reader more information. Especially the earlier chapters amount only to very few pages. As I read the book on my kindle, it is hard to judge, but I feel like the later entries were much more detailed and longer than earlier ones. The second of these is that the people are organised by their year of birth. Especially in the twentieth century that makes for an interesting reading experience – Margaret Thatcher coming before Anne Frank, for example. I believe that it would have made more sense to organise the biographies by the years where a particular person had the most impact. This could easily have been done in the background and the portraits kept as they are now, making for a smoother reading experience.

  • Untamed – Madeline Dyer

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    — DISCLAIMER: I received a free digital copy of this novel via NetGalley – thank you! All opinions expressed in this review are my own. —

    STAR RATING: 3.5/5 ✶

    Summary: In a world where the human population is divided into “Enhanced” and “Untamed”, we are thrust into the world of the Untamed, the underdogs in this system. We meet Seven, who is abducted by the Enhanced, but soon rescued by her own people. The story focuses on her struggle between the side that is now supportive of the Enhanced, and her upbringing as one of the Untamed, with the belief that death is preferable to life as an Enhanced.

    Opinions: Seven is a conflicted character – an unwilling heroine. She is thrust into adventure against her will, as all she wants is to be at peace with her family. Her relationship with Corin grows organically, along the usual lines of the enemies-to-lovers trope (which is one of my favourites). While they used to be friendly, Seven’s semi-transformation into an Enhanced makes matters more complicated and they are continually bickering and denying any interest until they are in a situation where they simply have to face their growing feelings. The end is one huge cliffhanger, and there are quite a few unexpected plot twists over the last 20 percent or so of the book. However, there are also many passages which are predictable and fall into YA clichés. Nevertheless, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good dystopian read!

     

  • A Darker Shade of Magic (collector’s edition)

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    This is one of the books that will always have a special place in my heart and deserves more than the traditional 5 ✶ rating. As my old paperback copy has gone missing – I’m notorious for forgetting who I lend books to – I used the opportunity to order myself the US collector’s edition. However, before I could start on my reread, I came across the UK collector’s edition at Forbidden Planet and couldn’t resist getting that one too. Both of them are absolutely wonderful, and signed, and contain the same art on the inside, even if laid out slightly different. If I had to choose, I would go for the US edition, as I am very picky with fonts, and I find that one less cramped and easier to read.

    I really hope that the rest of the series ends up getting the same wonderful treatment in time, so I can get a matching set! I still only have the paperbacks of book 2 and 3, but kind of don’t want to get the white cover hardbacks if they get released in black at some point… I will have to make up my mind soon though, as I’ll get to go to V.E. Schwab’s Boston signing in October! It’ll be my first signing (we don’t really get those in Switzerland…) and I’m super excited. Very lucky to have hit the exact right dates with the conference I’m speaking at (Harvard Celtic Colloquium, if anyone’s interested).

    Now to the actual book review: Set in four different parallel Londons, the series tells the story of Kell, an Antari adopted by the royal family in his London. On his travels, he encounters Delilah Bard in another London, who ends up following him back. Together, they work to save their world from collapse. The world building is spectacular, and the characters are all multi-layered and morally gray, which makes for an interesting and gripping read. Without going into any spoilers, my favourite part about this series is how the characters interact, and how romance is but an aside rather than the main focus of the plot, as is so common.

    I wish I could meet Kell and Lila in person, as I feel that they are just my kind of people – stubborn, opinionated, and passionate, without caring too much for the rules or social convention. And even more than that, I wish I could steal Kell’s coat – he wears a reversible coat with an unknown number of different sides, which lets him fit in visually in the places he goes to. Books two and three continue in the same vein and are equally wonderful, introducing further fantastic characters, such as the pirate Alucard. I recommend these books to my friends on a regular basis, and so far, everyone has loved them. If you haven’t read them yet, GO AND DO SO, they are wonderful!