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The Vengeance of Samuel Val by Elyse Hoffman - Review and Blog Tour

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Hello and welcome to my blog for my stop on the tour for The Vengeance of Samuel Val by Elyse Hoffman! It is a pleasure to welcome you here. Please do have a click round and read some of my other reviews. 

So this is a novella and I think it counts as Young Adult because Samuel is himself a young adult through the book. The book is set in World War Two. Samuel is Jewish and he is in synagogue one morning with his family - mother, father, and three little sisters - when one his sisters needs something from home. He goes to find it, but while he is gone the Nazis move in and set fire to the synagogue, killing everyone inside. Samuel runs to the scene, but is shot by a Nazi leader. Samuel is Russian and his entire village is gone. 

He is saved by the Black Foxes, an underground resistance movement. He swears vengeance on the Nazi, but he also gets involved in the resistance movement and is given the task of getting a fellow Jew to safety. He escapes prison in an SS uniform, with the other person, Amos, alongside. He has to get Amos to safety with another Black Fox, but as he does, he gets the chance to take his revenge. Will he do it? 

I liked this novella and would read something else by the same author definitely! You know I like World War Two fiction anyway, and especially that to do with the Jewish experience of such. This is a good addition to the work, especially because of the age of the protagonist. I'm giving this four out of five. Thank you so much for having me along on the tour! 

Where the Light Goes by Sara Barnard - Review

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

When I was at Northern YA Lit Fest in July, Sara Barnard was one of the panellists and she was as always brilliant and she was talking about this book so I bought it and got her to sign it. I picked it up a couple of weeks ago and although I found it a very hard read I also thought it was absolutely brilliant. 

You see, it is about a sixteen year old girl, Emmy, whose famous sister, Beth, takes her own life. That is a harrowing subject anyway, but this is also something I have personal experience of. My dad took his own life way back in 2008 when I was just 24. I fully believe that I lost my mind for a while afterwards in the grief, and I have certainly never been the same person since. I have spent the last fifteen years trying in small ways to destigmatise suicide and I've read with interest The Samaritans' tips on how to report suicide, and I never use the phrase "commit suicide" for instance as it's just SO bad. So I was immediately interested when Sara talked about the fact that she lost a friend to suicide a few years ago and that she is a volunteer for The Samaritans and that she had paid good attention to the media rules and had woven this into the book. She made the point that we should never know exactly how someone high profile has died which is definitely not something that the press has done in recent years and which they definitely should be ashamed of. 

I spoke to Sara briefly about this as she was signing the book and mentioned my dad and said how I feel like having police involved in a death is just adding insult to injury. It's horrible when you have to do a public inquest and your own dad is in the newspaper and stuff like that. I feel like because Beth in the book is famous, this point was really brought across to the reader because obviously there's massive press interest in her story, in her life and in her death. 

So Beth has been famous since she was sixteen and at the time of her death she is twenty one. She got famous on something a bit like The X Factor with her band, The Jinks, which was comprised of Beth, aka Lizzie Beck, and her best friends Jodie, Aiya, and Tam. However, she has had drug and alcohol problems and she was on the verge of leaving the band. She had been in rehab. Her and Emmy's dad, Malcolm, was one of the band's managers, so in the weeks after her death he is quite absent, doing band things. 

Emmy is sixteen and has just finished drama school, at a place called Shona Lee, but she hopes to return to it for the sixth form. She absolutely idolised her sister and she is a singer herself and wants to be famous too. But she understands that there's a difference between Lizzie Beck the pop star and Beth her sister. She knows that Beth was far from perfect, but she just can't get her head round Beth's suicide. She has a best friend, Grey, and two other girls she's really close with, but she ends up pushing them away because she just doesn't know what to say. She also pushes away her boyfriend, Scottie. 

The story is so well told, told in the ninety days following Beth's death. The times when Emmy just can't put herself together. The times she needs her mum, who hides herself away and won't talk to Emmy. The times when she needs her dad, who is still busy with the band, who Emmy thinks have betrayed Beth. The times when Emmy herself does bad or misjudged things which are the reader you TOTALLY get. As I say, I did some fucking weird things in the aftermath of my dad's death, and I was a fully grown adult who was married and had a job! Suicide is its own particular kind of pain and Sara encapsulates that beautifully. You can tell she has experience of it. 

I will also mention the writing. The book isn't told in prose, wholly. There's more prose towards the end and I think this is when Emmy begins to see the light at the end of the tunnel. At the beginning, when she's massively grieving and is just reeling from the shock, the writing is all over the place. There are just little vignettes as Emmy lurches from day to day. I think this is a brilliant way of writing grief. 

I would recommend this book a hundred percent if you think it's something you can cope with. The writing is beautiful. The story is lush - you desperately want Emmy to be okay, you want to give her a hug, and I wanted to tell her that she would survive, that she would not only survive but she would thrive, that she would be happy again, and that she would always always miss her sister, but she would always honour her memory too. If I could give this more than five out of five, I would. 

The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes = Review

Saturday, September 23, 2023

This was the third novella I got out of the library at the same time and A Meal in Winter and A Month in the Country and I'm really glad I got it because I liked it, even though I'm not sure I understood it entirely. I've got the film to watch too, which I'll try to get to soon. I also think I'll ask people at book club if they've read it because I bet they have! The hype around this book (it won the Booker Prize in 2011) totally passed me by at the time but I'm glad I finally got to it! 

So, the book is narrated by Tony, who at the time of writing is in his late sixties. He is divorced, but remains friendly with his ex wife Margaret. They have a daughter together, Susie, and she has at least two children. Tony is removed from her but can't really explain why. He is a very unreliable narrator, speaking 'truth' at one point but then contradicting himself only a paragraph later. 

Tony relates his youth and his time at sixth form and university. He and his friends Alex and Colin were studying history in the sixth form and were firm friends, and were then joined by Adrian. He was much cleverer than them and their lessons got very philosophical. The four boys would engage in really quite deep philosophical thought with their teachers, which I liked reading about. They all went off to university - Adrian to Cambridge, and kept up via letter (where they would use really pompous language to each other which was funny and endearing).

Tony met Veronica and started going out with her. Although they explored sexually, they didn't have 'full sex' until 'after they broke up' as Tony first tells it - but then makes it sound like SHE didn't know they had broken up at the time! It's bonkers. Anyway he visited her family with her and felt slighted by her dad and brother - who is also at Cambridge - but welcomed by her mother. It is confusing as to what is actually real in this visit and what isn't, but no matter. 

Tony then gets a letter from a solicitor telling him that Veronica's mother, Sarah Ford, has died and left him five hundred pounds in her will, alongside Adrian's diary as a bequest. Adrian died by suicide aged around 22, I think, something which the other three young men thought about in detail at the time and found to be a really noble ending, in a philosophical sense (sorry to keep using that word, but there's a lot of it in the book). Adrian and Veronica had been going out after she and Tony broke up, and Tony wrote a very angry letter to them afterwards which, when you as the reader see it, explains some things. 

However, Veronica will not hand over the diary. Tony starts to harass her by email, wanting to understand what happened and why he's public enemy number one. I do believe he was sorry for sending the letter, even if time had meant he had somewhat forgotten what it said. There's a lot in the book about time and memory and old age, which I did like.

I'm not really sure though if I fully understood the ending. I've looked at some reviews since I finished it and they all seem to say that it was obvious and that there are clues throughout. I'm really not sure if there are, unless you're massively misogynistic. However, I did like the book and I'm giving it four out of five. It's thought provoking for sure!

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell - Review

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

I chose this book last year as my choice for my book club. I had bought it when it came out around September 2022 and I thought it would be a good book for book club. It was September's choice and I picked it up right at the end of August so that I could get it read as it's quite a hefty book. I wanted to read it in a certain number of days so I broke it down into pages per day and actually ended up keeping to that. It helped that I had an empty weekend which meant I had a lot of reading time in the mornings and at night. It is worth every one of it's 450 pages, in my opinion. 

I can't even remember why I bought it, but I probably saw a review of it or something. I have really enjoyed the Maggie O'Farrell books I've read so far - The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox which I read in the late noughties, and I Am I Am I Am which I read in 2019. So I knew this would be good too. By the time I picked it up though I had totally forgotten what it was about. 

It's about Lucrezia de' Medici, a princess of the Medici family who was brought up in Florence, firstly in Palazzo Vecchio and then Palazzo Pitti. At the beginning of the book she is at a country fort with her husband, Alfonso, and she is utterly certain that he is going to kill her. He brought her there without any of her ladies in waiting or other staff, and by the end of the book we have seen just how cruel he was to her and why she would definitely think he was about to kill her. 

But we also read about Lucrezia's early life in the palace, her family and her education and how she was ostracised from the family. She had two sisters and several brothers, but somehow never fitted into the bosom of the family. Her eldest sister, Maria, was betrothed to Alfonso - who is over a decade older than Lucrezia - but she died and it was decided that he would marry Lucrezia instead. She has a little reprieve as she hasn't yet reached menstruation, but as soon as she does, the two are married and Lucrezia is off to Ferrera, never to see Florence again. 

As with any novel about real people, it is hard for the reader to decide what is real and what isn't real. I resisted the urge to read about Lucrezia's life until after I had finished the book, although I did read that she did die aged sixteen and that there were rumours that her husband had poisoned her, but that it is now thought she died of TB. I think because of that I did see some of the twists of the book coming, but that didn't spoil my enjoyment of the book. At the end of the book there's a note about some of the ways that the book deviates from reality, which I found really interesting. I think for book club I will put together some notes about that for discussion. It is interesting in how much novelists can deviate from reality and at what remove - I feel like Lucrezia de' Medici is up for grabs because she died five hundred years ago. There are few people left who would care about her, surely? But the closer we get to today, the less readers will let authors get away with stuff like this - imagine writing a similar book about the Queen, for example. 

I also think it is interesting about how little power or choice women had in this period. Lucrezia is a pawn in her own life, used between powerful men to gain even more power. She lives a spoilt, pampered life, but she also has no rights to choose what to wear, how to wear her hair, etc. I liked the little rebellions she had, I really liked her as a character.

I also really liked the stuff about the painting of 'the marriage portrait' which doesn't actually exist but which poet Robert Browning wrote about too. I hope most of that stuff was true because it was so interesting!

In all I'm giving this five out of five because I really liked it! I'm interested to see what everyone at book club thought about it!

Whistlers in the Dark by Victoria Williamson - Review and Blog Tour

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Hello and welcome to my stop on the tour ofr Whistlers in the Dark by Victoria Williamson! It is nice to welcome you to my blog today. Please do have a click around and read some of my other reviews. This is my second Victoria Williamson book and I really liked it too! You can find my review of Norah's Ark here. 

So this book is set in the second century AD, in what is now Scotland. Jinny is from the Damnonii tribe, who are native to the area. The area has been colonised by the Romans, who have built the Antonine Wall across the land, meaning the Damnonii can't graze their cattle on land they still see as theirs. Jinny is twelve years old and angry about the situation. Before the beginning of the book, something happened that hurt Jinny's brother and she blames Felix, a Roman boy, because it's easier that blaming herself. She was partly blamed, though, and she wasn't allowed to partake in the coming of age ceremony alongside the other girls in the tribe her own age, who were allowed. She's still given child's chores, because of that, and she's steaming mad about it. 

Felix, meanwhile, is half Damnonii. His dad is Roman and he's been sent up north with his soldiers in order to map the land up there. He's been gone ages though and everyone is beginning to think he's dead. That threatens Felix's place in the fort, because of his Damnonii mother (now dead) and the fact he's not a 'pure' Roman. He has acted as translator between the Damnonii and the Romans (the 'metal men' as Jinny calls them) which resulted in Jinny's brother's accident. Bram and Felix had been friends before, but since the accident Felix has avoided Bram and the tribe.

One day, Jinny sees Felix and, still angry with him, chases him in to the sacred stone circle that the tribe has. She fires a stone at him, but ends up damaging one of the stones. She then believes she has woken the stones and that they are walking across fields to come and get her. Then four people from the local area go missing - which Jinny thinks is further proof that she has woken the stones. 

The two have to work together to sort all of this out! It's a really good book, fast paced with a lot of peril involved. I liked both Felix and Jinny and wanted them both to succeed. I really liked the setting and could picture it perfectly, even though it felt like the story was modern and that any kid would empathise with what was happening. I liked the bits of history I leant - I didn't know there was a wall other than Hadrian's Wall! So it taught me something too. I'm giving this four out of five and would thoroughly recommend it!

Scareground by Angela Kecojevic - Review and Blog Tour

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Hello and welcome to my blog for my stop on the tour for Scareground by Angela Kecojevic! It is so nice to welcome you to my blog - please do have a look round some of my other reviews! 

I liked this middle grade historical fiction book. It's about Nancy, who is twelve years old and who lives with the Crumpets, who are the local bakers. They adopted her after she was found abandoned as a baby. Their house is filled with love and flour and salt, but Nancy still has questions about what happened to her birth parents. Why was she found in a ghost carriage, for example. 

Nancy has a best friend, Arthur, whose father is the local doctor. She slips out of the bakery at night to jump across the rooftops to meet him. The two send letters to each other too. One day they find a black balloon with a raven's feather tied to it, and then they learn that the Scareground fair is coming back. It's run and owned by the Tombola family and by Skelter Tombola in particular. The Crumpets are unhappy to hear that the fair is back and ban Nancy from going. But she's so intrigued that she knows she must secure a ticket for herself and for Arthur. 

Nancy has two secrets. Firstly is the birthmark on her wrist that is shaped like a silver horse. She was teased about it at school so she never shows it anymore. Secondly is the fact that she can talk to the sky and the sky talks back. She's a bit of a loner but she and Arthur do get on well. They head off to the fair and come face to face with Skelter... 

This is a cute middle grade book with some genuinely scary parts. I liked the symbolism and the mysteries contained within the fair. The blurb says the book is suitable for fans of Jennifer Killick but I think it skews for a slightly younger audience than that. I would say it's best suited for ten to eleven year olds. I liked it though! 

The Oracle Code by Marieke Nijkamp - Review

Sunday, September 10, 2023

I bought this for my friend Chloe for Christmas and then when she'd read it she lent it to me - I need to give it back to her actually, and not forget! I had bought this on a recommendation from my friend Lucinda, who clearly got it bang on here. Chloe and I are both interested in representations of disability in fiction and her interest is in graphic novels specifically, I would say. She writes a graphic novel herself about two young men who fall in love after meeting when one of them has suffered a spinal injury and become paralysed. So this was right up her street! I don't read a lot of graphic novels but when I do I do enjoy them. 

So, this is set in Gotham City and is a DC novel. I know literally nothing about Gotham City except that Batman lives there, but Lee assures me that Commissioner Gordon is a regular in that universe and so is his daughter Barbara. She is the main character of this book. She's wounded in a shooting and ends up having to use a wheelchair. She goes to a rehab centre which is in a huge mansion, where she has therapy, learns how to manoeuvre her wheelchair, and works out in the gym. She really does not want to be there, so she keeps to herself even though several people try to make friends with her. 

Barbara is a hacker, and has a friend who is also a hacker, but he hasn't really been in touch with her since the shooting. She misses him and she reaches out, and she also reaches out to her dad, because she's convinced that there are weird things going on in the mansion. Her dad doesn't believe her though. But there are people disappearing, aren't there? Even if the system says differently... 

Barbara does learn through the book about things she can't do any longer but also about things that she CAN do now (like play wheelchair basketball!). She comes a long way even in not many pages, and she works on a mystery too. I also really liked the artwork in the book - it's pretty dark and dingy with bright flashes of orange and purple. It felt kind of punk to me. 

I liked this, I'm giving it five out of five. 

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli - Review

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

This was another of the novellas that I had seen in Waterstones in July and then ordered from the library. I took it away on holiday with me when I finished Death of a Bookseller so that I knew I would have something else to pick up. It's only 150 pages long so didn't take me long to read. I'm glad I didn't buy this as I definitely wouldn't read it again but I do like having read it, if that makes sense. 

So the story is about three Nazis, members of a Jew killing death squad, who, stationed in Poland in an extremely cold winter during World War II, leave their barracks and go out to try to find a Jew to take back to kill. They have a harsh commander and don't want to stand outside in the cold killing Jews who have been brought back the previous day, so they go above their commander's head and ask for permission to leave the barracks first thing in the morning. They are given permission so they head out in the freezing cold and walk for a long time. It's hard to understand the main character very much, but you do get more of a look at his companions. One of them is really worried about his wife and son at home, but the narrator has the benefit of knowing that he will die only a few months later. The other one is called Bauer and definitely seems like the most Nazi of the three - he comes across as hard and sadistic. 

The three discover a Jew hiding in a hole in the forest and they walk with him towards an abandoned hovel. The narrator is scathing towards the Polish owners of the hovel, as well as towards the Jew, aptly showing his hatred towards any number of people (please don't forget he is a Nazi!!!), but he is kind of moved by an embroidered snowflake on the Jew's hat and the idea that his mother may have made the hat for him. They put the Jew into the store room of the house and try to get the stove working. There is no fuel so the Nazis have to burn the door in the house, etc. They have some cornmeal that they want to make into a soup, and then it turns out that Bauer stole some provisions from the barracks before they left, meaning they can make a delicious broth. The rest of the novella is taken up by this simple act. But will they share their food with the Jew? What will they do with the Polish soldier who also turns up? 

It is a really tightly wound little book with a lot of drama packed in and a lot of tension. I'm not much into books which give sympathy to Nazis - for example those whole Tattooist of Auschwitz books and others like them - so I was a bit worried going into this. But on the whole I think these soldiers show themselves up for exactly who they are; it really works. I'm giving this three out of five. 

Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater - Review

Sunday, September 3, 2023

I have been hearding about Death of a Bookseller all over the place so I knew I wanted to read it soon! I don't follow Alice on twitter but I know people who do and she always seems like a really solid person so I was excited to read this. I happened to catch a tweet when it was 99p so I bought it on Kindle and picked it up in mid August. I am sort of behind with reviews so these might all appear in a weird order for a while - I'm sorry! I'm sure they'll be fine to read though. But yes I picked this up over a month ago and was very excited for it.

It really did not disappoint! It is a great, compelling, weird, horrible little book. I will get on to the plot in a minute but I do want to talk about true crime for a minute and the way that women especially consume it and the way that the tide is turning on that. I didn't mention it in my review for Penance by Eliza Clark because my review was already long enough but Dolly in that book was obsessed with true crime and called herself a "Columbiner" ie someone obsessed with the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre (something which I remember alllll too clearly, being fifteen at the time) and Roach in this book is also obsessed with true crime. And it's true that women tend to be more interested in true crime and I do think there are interesting reasons for that (I once read something suggesting that it's because by knowing so much about it we believe we can keep ourselves safe or something, even though most violence against women and girls is perpetrated by people already known to them... I think there's some truth in this, but I digress...) and I do think that some people are drawn to the really icky and gruesome parts of it and that that's a bit of a problem. I like some true crime myself, I won't pretend I won't, but I have also lived through something which got reported on in the (local) paper and it's really horrible, so I do wonder about the families of those left behind. For instance, if you're writing about Jack the Ripper that feels fine because everyone involved is dead, but if you're writing about the Yorkshire Ripper you're still dealing with very much alive people who are still living with the consequences of Peter Sutcliffe's actions and how should that impact upon them? But I will say I consume true crime media too so I'm far from perfect - I just think it's interesting that it feels like we're all very much part of this conversation too. Alice did a brilliant job I think in making the reader think beyond just the headlines and I am so happy that intelligent fiction like this is coming to the fore. 

So, the story. First of all there is Laura. She is mid 20s, living alone in a cheap flat in Walthamstow, and she works for national bookseller Spines. She moves around though - she's on a team that goes into a shop to try to improve it if it's underperforming. On this team are Sharona, the boss, and Eli, with whom Laura has an ongoing will they won't they kind of thing. Laura's mum was murdered when she was a teenager and she writes found poetry around this subject, also performing at poetry nights. She drinks too much and appears to not actually eat anything throughout the whole book. She also has certain style things that I did feel were cultivated to give her like a 'look' rather than it being her actual personality. For example, she wears rose perfume oil, and always matches her cardigans to her ballet flats. I feel like I knew this girl back in like 2006! But I did like Laura and sympathised with her throughout. 

Then there's Roach. She's twenty four and she works in the bookshop and has since she was sixteen. Her first name is Brogan but she's known as Roach as there was another Brogan in the shop years ago. She is obsessed with true crime but she's not like the "normy" girls who listen to all the podcasts. When she meets Laura she immediately clicks on to the somewhat shared interest in true crime and is certain that if Laura just gave her a chance they would get on brilliantly. But she's just way too full on, the whole time, and Laura is put off by that. Plus Roach is obsessed in a way that Laura isn't, having living through something traumatic herself, so she just tries to keep Roach at arm's length. But Roach just will not take no for an answer and ends up going way, way too far in trying to befriend Laura and emulate her too. 

I did feel some sympathy for Roach. She is a really awkward person and really just wants to be loved. She really reads as autistic or otherwise not neurotypical to me which I feel impacts on how she acts towards people. She is frustrating but I think a lot of us would empathise with at least one part of her personality. I couldn't work out where exactly the book was going but it was a really good ending - it fitted well and may not have been what everyone wanted but I think in context it really worked. 

I also think that the shop itself is almost a character in this book! I saw someone who used to work at Waterstones say that it was a really truthful look at bookselling and it certainly felt that way. It felt like the author had drawn back the curtain to show us all the good and bad parts of working in a bookshop. 

I am so glad I read this and I'll definitely read something else by Alice. I'm giving this five out of five for being so compelling, slightly gross in parts, and just so well written! 

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