Review: Pah by Orla Owen (2021)

Blurb

Susan Brown is trapped. She lives in nurses’ accommodation she hates, on the run from a past she detests, desperate for a future she can’t afford. Yet.

Calton Jonas is lost. He travels across the country, from beach to city, settling in a small town with a job at the morgue.

Jeffrey Jeffreys is happy as long as life provides him with enough whiskey and beer.

Their lives cross. Old wounds open. Susan takes control but not all of them can survive…

Review

First things first, Orla Owen is one of the nicest people on Book Twitter – endlessly supportive, a real champion of other authors and of bookbloggers. While I was obviously delighted to be offered a copy of Pah in exchange for an honest review (many thanks to Orla), there was, therefore, a small moment of trepidation before I started reading – what if I didn’t like it?! She’s so nice!

Fortunately, and I say this with complete honesty, I loved Orla’s book. Also, unlike her, it is NOT NICE. I mean that as a compliment! Ooh, it is gloriously dark, folks, and the characters, especially Susan, are deeply unsettling and complex. Susan is an utterly fascinating protagonist – her coldness and her calculating nature make it hard to find any redeeming features, but every time we get a glimpse of her past, it becomes more and more obvious why she is the way she is. The small slivers of her childhood that Owen offers up are just enough to keep the reader from detesting her – how could anyone emerge from that upbringing unscathed? And there is also, again, let’s be honest here, a kind of peverse pleasure to be had in watching a character who so deliberately and cruelly subverts the norm, who takes self-preservation to a whole new level, so much so that at times I almost had a grudging respect for her. Susan really is one of the most interesting characters I’ve come across, and in herself is a strong argument against the whole ‘protagonists should be likeable’ thing. No, they should be interesting, and Susan is certainly that.

Jeffrey is also pretty awful, but he provides much of the novel’s dark humour. Calton, though, is different – he isn’t exactly a saint, but there’s a sense in which you’re rooting for him more whole-heartedly than Susan, and the delay in their paths crossing makes for a delicious sense of anticipation (even if it made me want to shout “Run, Cal!”). There’s something quite timeless and eerie about the prose in Pah – it’s hard to know exactly when or where this taking place, and it adds a real flavour of mystery and originality. I certainly can’t think of anything I’ve read that I could easily compare to this book.

I really enjoyed the immersive experience of being dipped in Susan’s chilly bitterness, and I also think the book is really bold on the theme of unwanted motherhood. This is something that is being explored more frequently in fiction, and it’s so important – not everyone ‘finds their purpose’ when they become a mother, and although Susan is an extreme example, it is still refreshing to see. I am really excited to note that Orla Owen’s previous novel, The Lost Thumb, has some of the same characters – I will definitely be reading it, and anything else this talented author writes in the future.

PAH by Orla Owen is out now and is available to purchase here.

Do follow Orla on social media: @orlaowenwriting on Twitter, and check out her website: https://www.orlaowen.com/

A Hundred Million Years and a Day by Jean-Baptiste Andrea translated by Sam Taylor (2021)

Blurb

When he hears a story about a huge dinosaur fossil locked deep inside an Alpine glacier, university professor Stan finds a childhood dream reignited. Whatever it takes, he is determined to find the buried treasure.

But Stan is no mountaineer and must rely on the help of old friend Umberto, who brings his eccentric young assistant, Peter, and cautious mountain guide Gio. Time is short: they must complete their expedition before winter sets in. As bonds are forged and tested on the mountainside, and the lines between determination and folly are blurred, the hazardous quest for the Earth’s lost creatures becomes a journey into Stan’s own past.

This breathless, heartbreaking epic-in-miniature speaks to the adventurer within us all.

Review

Many thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

This novel combines two things that I have very little knowledge or experience of, but am oddly fascinated by: palaeontology and mountaineering. There are elements that reminded me of the documentary Touching The Void (which I was also weirdly obsessed with!) as we see the men facing life-threatening conditions on the mountain. The descriptions in the novel are so vivid and cinematic: I think this might be the only book I’ve read that has actually given me vertigo.

The writing is exquisite. So many times, I went back to reread a sentence in order to fully appreciate its beauty. For a book that spans a mere 170 pages, it feels much fuller than some longer novels, and the brevity of both the text as a whole and the sentences creates a sense of impact and motion. The book works on many levels – as a straight-up adventure story it is exciting and tense, but beneath the thrills there are some beautifully profound observations on life and meaning and even the very nature of reality.

There is drama here, but also humour, the eccentricities of individuals heightened by the extreme circumstances and close quarters. The narrative ebbs and flows between the mountain-top adventure and scenes from the past, and it is never less than compelling. The figure of Stan’s father, the Commander, looms large and terrifying, and some of the most powerful scenes in the novel are between the tyrannical father and his son. The contrast between the domestic setting and life on the glacier is yet another aspect that gives this book so much depth and resonance. For both backstory and main narrative to be so nuanced and complex is an astounding feat for such a short novel. And yet the length feels just right – a suspension of breath for the space of its crisp, perfect pages, and an exhalation on finishing that feels cathartic, cleansing as cold mountain air.

There’s a special feeling on finishing a book that you KNOW you’re going to reread – it becomes a kind of treasure, a reassurance just to know you have it and can return to it again and again. This is a book to become obsessed with – I certainly am.

A Hundred Million Years and a Day by Jean-Baptiste Andrea translated by Sam Taylor is published by Gallic Books, and this gorgeous new paperback edition is available to purchase here.

Review: Ariadne by Jennifer Saint (2021)

Blurb

As Princesses of Crete and daughters of the fearsome King Minos, Ariadne and her sister Phaedra grow up hearing the hoofbeats and bellows of the Minotaur echo from the Labyrinth beneath the palace. The Minotaur – Minos’s greatest shame and Ariadne’s brother – demands blood every year.

When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives in Crete as a sacrifice to the beast, Ariadne falls in love with him. But helping Theseus kill the monster means betraying her family and country, and Ariadne knows only too well that in a world ruled by mercurial gods – drawing their attention can cost you everything.

In a world where women are nothing more than the pawns of powerful men, will Ariadne’s decision to betray Crete for Theseus ensure her happy ending? Or will she find herself sacrificed for her lover’s ambition?

ARIADNE gives a voice to the forgotten women of one of the most famous Greek myths, and speaks to their strength in the face of angry, petulant Gods. Beautifully written and completely immersive, this is an exceptional debut novel.

Review

I got a copy of this beautiful book from my wonderful Squadpod friends as part of my birthday present, and I’ve been reluctantly saving it for a gap between ARCs. In the end, I couldn’t resist, and although my TBR pile is teetering, I treated myself to what I knew would be a guaranteed top read. I am a total Greek geek – I studied Ancient Greek at A-level and did a module at university (I’m not a true classicist as I gave up Latin much earlier – for me the stories weren’t as good!) and I once attended a two-week Ancient Greek summer camp, for which I endured much cruel mockery from my dear siblings. Anyway, what I am trying to say is that I LOVE the Greek myths, and Ancient Greek literature is my spiritual home, so I knew I was going to love Ariadne.

The style of this novel was absolutely bang on for me. It felt, at times, like reading a really beautifully rendered translation of an ancient text, complete with epithets and similes I recognised and delighted in. Rosy dawn makes a few appearances, and although the wine-dark sea mentioned here is more literal than metaphorical, it still felt like a nod to the classics. I loved the language, the way it approaches poetry at times, and then brings you back down to earth with a bump. It falls somewhere between a stylised and a naturalistic mode, and I really think Saint has found the sweet spot that allows her text to feel authentic while also exploring the voices of those who are usually forgotten in the myths.

Ariadne and Phaedra are presented both as products of their culture and as much more than society regards them as – the insights we get through their first person narratives reveal complex, rounded, imperfect individuals who are subject to the same weaknesses as any human, and yet, as the gods really do exist in this world, they each contain a spark of something more – the inheritance they have received from the sun-god who sired their mother. I am always curious how the divine is going to be handled in classical retellings, and I have to say, I absolutely love it when it is just an accepted, literal fact that the Olympians exist. AND my favourite god of all, Dionysus, has a really important role in this book, so that for me was the icing on my geeky Greek cake!

I love how heavily the book leans into the myths and stories, how it doesn’t seek to explain them from a modern perspective, but instead utterly immerses the reader in that ancient, mythical world. And yet we do get a peek behind the curtain – we see the way in which Theseus constructs the legend of his own heroism, how a seemingly all-powerful ruler like Minos is in fact clinging on by (excuse the pun) a thread. We see gods shaken and disturbed by the acts of men, we see queens struggling with motherhood, we see monsters nursed and pitied. The disruption of the traditional mythic mode is subtle, but it is there, and it’s so clever.

Safe to say, I absolutely adored this book, and I am beyond excited that in her next novel, Jennifer Saint will be focusing on Elektra, one of my all-time favourite characters. Enough geeking out from me – read Ariadne, it is wonderful.

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint is published by WIldfire Books and is available to purchase here.

Review: Colouring In by Nigel Stewart (2019)

Blurb

Colouring In is the story of James Clifton, a chronic underachiever who has failed to fulfil his potential and exists too easily in a world where he shouldn’t belong. 

As the 1980s draw to a close, James is lurching from drama to crisis to impasse. His present and future are inhibited by his reliance on a rose-tinted vision of his past. His talents as an Artist are submerged in a morass of indecision and poor self-esteem. He is holding too many last straws. 

But when it seems James has reached the very bottom of all that is wrong, a letter arrives that changes his life forever. An admirer, who James cannot place in his previous history, becomes the catalyst for transformation and evolution. He learns that not everything he holds dear is quite as he wants to remember it. 

He finds himself on a path that reveals a new future, based on a different past. 

Colouring In explores the ways in which inadequacy, perceived or real, can become a block to creativity and ambition. It is also a love story. 

Review

Many thanks to the author for reaching out and for sending me a copy of Colouring In in exchange for an honest review. Apologies that it has taken me a long time to get around to reading – no reflection on the book, just my own teetering TBR pile!

Colouring In is a close study of a character whose flaws and weaknesses emerge through a pattern of repeated behaviour. We see James Clifton attending parties, drifting through work social events, hanging out with old friends, harking back to his Hereford adolescence with a kind of Peter Pan syndrome, refusing to let go of the past. At first, I found the cyclical nature of James’ habits a bit repetitive, but I gradually realised that the author is setting up the trap that the protagonist has found himself in so that he can be sprung from it, with the help of Laura.

Just as I was getting to the point where I really wanted something to HAPPEN, it DOES, and in the most dramatic fashion. At this stage the book really picked up for me, and the ways in which James breaks free of his imagined restraints and starts to forge a new path is psychologically complex and fascinating. This is a very philosophical book, both in its tight focus on one character’s emotional journey, and in the way the characters relate to each other. No conversation seems entirely casual – there is always an attempt to read each other, to analyse, to delve beneath the surface. This makes for a surprisingly intense read, even when the plot itself is backgrounded. The emphasis on James’ psyche occasionally felt claustrophobic, especially as I didn’t find him particularly sympathetic as a character, but again, I think this effect is necessary so that we can follow him on his transformation. The female characters really come into their own in the second half of the book, and I enjoyed the latter part of the novel a lot.

If you like intelligent, detailed character portraits with a psychological focus, you will find much to enjoy in Stewart’s novel. This ‘portrait of the artist as not such a young man’ is intriguing and thoughtful, and although it was a slow burner for me, I very much liked where it ended up.

Colouring In by Nigel Stewart is published by Purple Parrot Publishing, and is available to purchase here.

January to June 2021: The Big List!

Just for fun, here is the full list of everything I read in the first half of 2021, with links to my reviews where relevant! Reading-wise it has been a great year so far – a massive thank you to all the authors, publishers and publicists who have sent me books to review! I’ll never get over how lucky I am to have access to so many amazing reads!

  1. A Sparrow Alone by Mim Eichmann
  2. Lost Girls by Ellen Birkett Morris
  3. The Mothers by Brit Bennett
  4. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
  5. Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero translated by Frances Riddle
  6. The Care of Strangers by Ellen Michaelson
  7. The Clearing by Samantha Clark
  8. The Man Who Died by Antti Tuomainen translated by David Hackston
  9. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  10. Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
  11. Havana Year Zero by Karla Suárez translated by Christina MacSweeney
  12. Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal
  13. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  14. Kololo Hill by Neema Shah
  15. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  16. The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson by Helen Kitson
  17. The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley
  18. Nightshift by Kiare Ladner
  19. The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie
  20. Old Bones by Helen Kitson
  21. Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
  22. Fortune’s Hand by R.N. Morris
  23. The Push by Ashley Audrain
  24. Call Me Mummy by Tina Baker
  25. Backstories by Simon Van der Velde
  26. Little Bandaged Days by Kyra Wilder
  27. From My Balcony to Yours by Nino Gugunishvili
  28. Manipulated Lives by H.A. Leuschel
  29. The Smash-Up by Ali Benjamin
  30. Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding
  31. My Brother the Messiah by Martin Vopenka translated by Anna Gustova Bryson
  32. What Beauty There Is by Cory Anderson
  33. Empower Your Kids by Judy Bartkowiak
  34. Another Life by Jodie Chapman
  35. The Dig Street Festival by Chris Walsh
  36. The Summer Job by Lizzy Dent
  37. Sybelia Drive by Karin Cecile Davidson
  38. Chauvo-Feminism by Sam Mills
  39. Absorbed by Kylie Whitehead
  40. Outsiders edited by Alice Slater
  41. Boys Don’t Cry by Fíona Scarlett
  42. Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie
  43. Among the Beasts and Briars by Ashley Poston
  44. Charity by Madeline Dewhurst
  45. Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden
  46. Fridge by Emma Zadow
  47. Yes Yes More More by Anna Wood
  48. The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex
  49. Mrs Narwhal’s Diary by S.J. Norbury
  50. 100neHundred by Laura Besley
  51. Catch The Rabbit by Lana Bastasic
  52. Still Life by Sarah Winman
  53. The Five by Hallie Rubenhold
  54. The Big Four by Agatha Christie
  55. The Stranding by Kate Sawyer
  56. Gold Fury by Kieren Westwood
  57. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  58. Assembly by Natasha Brown
  59. The Mesmerist’s Daughter by Heidi James
  60. Wounding by Heidi James
  61. The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper
  62. So The Doves by Heidi James
  63. Grown Ups by Marie Aubert translated by Rosie Hedger
  64. Black Water Sister by Zen Cho
  65. Fallen by Mel O’Doherty
  66. My Broken Language by Quiara Alegría Hudes
  67. The Sound Mirror by Heidi James

Which ones of these have you read? Have you got any on the TBR? Do let me know in the comments, and here’s to another 6 months of great books!

Happy reading!

Ellie x

Review: The Idea of You by Robinne Lee (2017)

Blurb

EVERYONE IN THE WORLD KNOWS HIS NAME . . .BUT IT’S YOU HE WANTS.

To the media, Hayes Campbell is the enigmatic front-man of a record-breaking boyband.

To his fans, he’s the man of their dreams.

To Solène Marchand, he’s just the pretty face that’s plastered over her teenage daughter’s bedroom wall.

Until a chance meeting throws them together . . .

The attraction is instant. The chemistry is electric. The affair is Solène’s secret.

But how long can it stay that way?

Review

Huge thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The tagline on the proof I received read ‘Warning: This Will Keep You Up All Night” – and it wasn’t lying.

I stayed up till 2am reading The Idea of You in one sitting. It is totally compulsive reading, and it threw me back to the joyous days of devouring Jilly Cooper novels and not even entertaining the idea (oops, little pun) of there being a world outside of the book until I was done. I also have to admit that being exactly the same age as the protagonist created the perfect opportunity for a bit of fantasising that I was in her shoes (although I can’t walk in heels, and Sol is a million times more glamorous and poised than I am!). I’m not going to lie, reading about a 39 year old woman having hot sex with a gorgeous 20 year old was a very pleasant way to spend an evening. I also managed to paraphrase a line from Friends and tell my husband, “Don’t worry, with you it’s like I’ve got two 20 year olds.” Great fun all round.

However, as well as being undeniably HOT, this book is also a really clever examination of the reality behind the fantasy. We’ve all imagined what it would be like to hook up with someone famous, but here the rose-tinted glasses are ripped away, and the actual consequences of being in a relationship with someone with such a high profile are explored in detail. The opposing forces of Sol’s attraction to Hayes and her responsibilities are powerful enough to create explosive conflict in the plot, and you may well be surprised by how much sympathy you feel for both Sol and Hayes.

This is the PERFECT book for summer escapism, for a whirlwind trip around some of the most glamorous locations on the globe, for a story that will utterly immerse you for the hours it takes to devour it. And god knows we need to be taken away from our own reality at the moment! And the ending – well. Read it and find out.

The Idea of You by Robinne Lee is published by Penguin and is currently only 99p on Kindle here.

Review: Line by Niall Bourke (2021)

Blurb

That’s the problem thinks Willard.
In the Line the dead still have a say, and their say counts for double.
It’s a necrocracy and so everyone left alive walks into tomorrow facing backwards. 

Willard, his mother, and his girlfriend Nyla have spent their entire lives in an endless procession, where daily survival is dictated by the ultimate imperative: obey the rules, or lose your place in the Line.

Everything changes the day Willard’s mother dies and he finds a book hidden among her few belongings.

Line is speculative fiction at its most ambitious, leading the reader on a journey to make sense of a world that is ultimately not so different from our own.

A stunning debut from a major new voice in Irish literature.

Review

A big thank you to the author for sending me a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review – and apologies that it took me a while to get to it!

I thought this book was utterly brilliant. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no idea how to write a review of it, because the danger of spoilers is ever-present. I am going to have to keep this much briefer than I would like, and implore you to trust me, read it, and then find someone who has read it to talk to about it. I’ve already pressed it on my husband and said he’s got a week before Line: The Book Club.

Here is the little that I can say: as I stated on Twitter, this book is like steampunk Cormac McCarthy. It has echoes of The Road, and the same McCarthy-esque blend of beauty and violence. From the start, it grabs you and throws you into the dystopian world of the novel, a future which gradually becomes more terrifyingly plausible as the driving forces are revealed.

I read Line in one sitting, completely captivated by Bourke’s vision. There were three or four points where I had to close the book and take deep breaths, so shocking and emotional were the revelations laid out on the page. But as well as being an incredibly powerful, intelligent novel, it is also sharp-witted, full of a dark humour and a sense of knowingness that adds a real frisson to the unfolding narrative. It isn’t exactly parody – it’s something more complex – a sly, wry turning inside-out of our own stark reality, and yet there is love at its centre, there are characters to root for, and the experience of reading is not entirely bleak.

I wish I could say more, I really do, but I can feel myself teetering close to spoilers as it is, so I will stop there. If you enjoy speculative fiction, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of the genre. And when you’ve finished, you’ll understand exactly why I am I so desperate to talk about this sharp, clever, original, terrifying novel.

Line by Niall Bourke is published by Tramp Press and is available to purchase here.