Welcome back to another week of Monday Minis – a literary historical novel I quite liked, and then two that I sadly didn’t get along with at all. I wish I could love every book I read! Nevertheless, many thanks to the publicists for giving me (e)ARCs of all of these titles for review, and as usual, all opinions are entirely my own.
Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth is a historical novel set in London’s theatres of the Victorian era. It follows Zillah, a young actress, born and raised in London, but playing a Black savage on the stage due to her mixed heritage. But her comfortable life is disturbed when she meets Lucien, a fellow Black man and grocer, who leads her to question her role on the stage and in life, and introduces her to new ways of thinking. Around the same time, she learns of another Black woman held captive by the owner of the theatre she works at, and so Zillah starts her own investigation into what is right and wrong. A captivating story with a strong leading character who undergoes a huge growth arc over the course of the book, this was one I did really enjoy. I thought parts of the resolution were a bit simplistic in its execution, but I loved the overall message that the book ended on. Definitely one to check out if you are into historical fiction at all – a story verging on a mystery, with a romantic component.
I struggled a lot with The Gift Book 1: Eleanor by RA Williams. This is a dark fantasy novel set in the first half of the twentieth century between the wreck of the Titanic and the beginning of World War II. It includes elements of Indiana Jones-esque hunts for antiquities, a ruthless, smart and driven protagonist and an obsessive mystery. However, I had two major issues with the book. First, the writing is rather clunky – it is not immersive and I felt that it would have needed further editing to reach a level to be ready for publication. This is not aided by the story jumping through years, weeks and months at will between chapters, making it harder for the reader to keep up while reading, rather than telling a coherent story. The other thing that I struggled with a lot is that it does not interrogate any of the events or privilege in the story – for example, Eleanor, the main character, moves to Berlin in the 1930s as a Jewish woman, and any concerns about Nazi Germany are pushed to the side as irrelevant as the family has plenty of money. And that sort of callousness isn’t something I’m happy to just take in the age of diverse books – privilege is fine, but use it as a platform to discuss issues from, to see it as a springboard for other things, not as an excuse to gloss over anything you want to ignore. So in a book where I felt iffy about the story already thanks to the writing, that lack of depth put me off, which means this is not something I will recommend.
I was extremely excited for Emily X. R. Pan’s An Arrow to the Moon. I fell in love with the writing in her debut which charmed me with its haunting and lyrical ways despite being quite a bit outside my usual taste, so having more of that in a contemporary fantasy retelling of Chinese myth sounded like a dream come true. An Arrow to the Moon reimagines the story of Chang’e and Houyi in 1990s US – which I didn’t realise from the blurb. I assumed it was set in the present day, and it read like it was, except for the lack of communication devices. And I get how the existence of the internet would have messed up some of the plot points, but also, the setting felt rather clumsy and like an afterthought. I guess that is how I feel about most of this book – there are some great ideas and concepts, but ultimately in execution a lot doesn’t seem to be quite thought through enough, or shown to the reader to the extent that demonstrates why they should care. Apart from many small gripes I had with this book throughout, it felt unfinished – like a draft that doesn’t actually tie up the loose ends, but rather serves to get the story down and then to identify those. It made me really sad because I was so hyped for the book and I realised quite early on that I was only continuing to read on because I hoped that it would get better. So sadly this one is a miss for me too.