The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell

The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell was such an unexpected delight. Provided to me by NetGalley and the publishers (both of whom I thank for the opportunity to read and review), I confess the rather unusual and slightly formal title didn’t prepare me for the marvellous and very different content.

The novel is essentially two books in one, both of which are framed by the conventions of the world’s most popular genre: romance. The main narrative centres around two sisters: Lilly and Neave Terhune, and it’s primarily their voices that tell their utterly compelling story of growing up and entering the adult world pre and post World War II in small town America. The second narrative, which interweaves Lilly and Neave’s story, is called The Pirate Lover and it uses the usual romance conventions of the stricken heroine, wealthy, dashing and dastardly hero and a terrible villain to tell its tale of love, loss, and triumph over evil.

30319080While The Pirate Lover is a rollicking romance in the grandest sense, played out in Parisian salons and the high seas, what occurs between the characters is echoed meaningfully and with chilling consequences in the sisters’ story. Both narratives also deal with the social expectations of women; how marriage is regarded as an inevitable outcome that should socially elevate them. Independence of thought action and through being financially independent is an outrageous prospect for women yet it’s precisely this that nevertheless, Lilly and Neave embrace. In this regard, both stories, but particularly, Lilly’s and Neave’s, portray a particular slice of cultural history – including, through their brother Synder, pop culture history (and I love the way Pywell plays with the devaluation of that; how it’s discredited as meaningless froth by most) – in really evocative and accurate ways.

Lilly could not be more different to her more forthright and yet romantic sister, Neave. When Neave is still quite young, she is hired by a wealthy woman to read to her daily, and it’s the relationship between the woman and Neave and the stories and books they share (and those they don’t – Neave steals a romance novel), that provide Neave with not only imaginative foundations, but emotional ones as well – which, for better or worse, will guide her throughout life.

In the meantime, Lilly embraces life, refusing to think too deeply about people’s motives or lack thereof or enter into arguments. Lilly is there for the moment; understanding and reflection can, if it does, come later… if not too late.

Establishing a successful business together, proving that women aren’t just ornaments or objects of men’s desires, Neave and Lilly, with their bond that transcends life, use their knowledge and business acumen to empower other women towards autonomy and freedom: social, economic, romantic and sexual.

But it’s the very same ability to forge careers and be single-minded and pragmatic, that also drives them towards men who don’t have their best interests at heart. When Lilly disappears, Neave’s world – real and imagined – collide in ways she never could have foreseen. Deadly danger stalks her and the family she loves and, unless she is able to utilise the help she’s being offered from beyond, then she, and the business she and Lilly worked so hard to build, is doomed.

While the novel draws on romance conventions, it also deconstructs and plays with them, weaving elements of magical realism, fantasy, history, crime and other genres into the tale. The writing is lyrical and lovely and, even if you think you don’t “like” romance” (all books are at heart, romance, even if it’s with the reader), the parallel stories – one very literary, the other more clichéd, draw you in and have you turning the pages.

My one slight issue is I felt the last quarter of the book took the magic realism element a tad too far. While I was happy to go along for the afterlife ride, it reaches a point where it’s difficult to suspend disbelief. Without spoiling the tale, there were elements to certain characters and the focus they were given at the end, which detracted slightly from what should have been their primary purpose – a purpose we’d been led to believe was the reason they still existed (albeit on another plane) in the first place. It strained even the credibility required to accept what was happening (which had been easy up until then).

Nevertheless, this is a tiny gripe about such an original, beautifully written and lovely story with lead characters to whom you lose your heart. Recommended for readers of romance, history, and damn fine books.

 

 

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Sisters of the Fire by Kim Wilkins

29937614The second book in the Blood and Gold series, Sister of the Fire is set a few years after the thrilling events of the first book, Daughters of the Storm, conclude. Once more, we’re drawn into the lives of the five very different sisters as they hurdle towards their unknown and dark destinies. Whether it’s the fierce and loyal Bluebell who’s on a mission to locate a sword that’s been crafted for the purpose of slaying her and which she fears one of her sister’s possesses; or forlorn Rose, the princess set aside by her Trimartyr husband, King Wengest, and who’s forced to live away from the man she loves and with her aunt and son – that is, until she learns the life of her daughter, the indefatigable Rowan, is in danger. We also follow the struggles of Ash as she comes to terms with the terrible power she wields, the fate she sees for the realm and will do anything to prevent. Then there are the twins, Ivy and Willow. Weak and ineffectual in comparison to her sisters, Ivy has been given in marriage to a man she doesn’t love and whose chronic illness threatens to unbalance the city she holds in care for her beloved sons. Then there’s the zealot, Willow. Having turned her back on the faith she was born into, Willow has become a warrior-priestess for Maava and, in her efforts to prove herself worthy of her cruel god’s love, will do anything – even betray the family and kingdom who remain steadfast to her.

Vast in scope and setting (the reader is taken from rocky shores, craggy islands, deserted towns, bustling cities to mystical forests and arcane castles), Sisters of the Storm is a tour de force of the imagination. Each of the main women in the story, and the men who either exploit or love them fearlessly, as well as the children the women love unconditionally (if not always well), are masterfully realised and sometimes brutally rendered. Wilkins doesn’t shy away from exposing their great strengths and tragic and even irritating weaknesses. You believe in these people, these flawed, majestic beings and the goals they pursue, and their need to forge or at least control their fates to the best of their ability. Just as they love with great ardour and conviction, so the reader does too, as we segue from one sister’s path before stumbling upon another’s, championing their individual or collective causes or mourning their dreadful decisions. The prose is evocative, moving and, at time, violent.

There’s no doubt, Wilkins, as story-teller par excellence, has a flair with words – a few well chosen ones conjure the depths of despair, the ache of maternal or passionate love, the fury of betrayal. Likewise, landscape is rendered minimally but with no less impact. You hear the ocean, smell the forest, and enter the bloody battles with your heart racing and your senses afire. The novel is imbued with wildness, mystery and beauty and these are carried through every page of this marvellous conclusion to a terrific series.

I also appreciated the fact that as you reach the final lines, not all doors are closed, not all paths end. I hope Wilkins returns one day to tell more tales about these divergent, complex sisters’ and their families, and the epic, but always recognisable world she’s created.

PS. I also have to say, I think the cover is simply stunning and reflects the contents beautifully…

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Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb (#2 in The Fitz and The Fool)

Where do I begin with this second instalment in The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy, Fool’s Quest? It is simply astonishing in its scope (and by that I mean in its ability to draw together, not only the events that occurred in the first novel of this particular series, Fool’s Assassin, but in all the books Hobb has written and through which she builds this incredible, rich and diverse world, with its warring cultures, diversity of faith, magic, dragons, Skill, Wit and three-dimensional, emotionally deep characters and the mayhem that follows in their wake), the quality of the writing, and the way in which the tale itself unfolds, building to heart-stopping, truly riveting and gut-wrenching scenes. Though it’s a very long book – almost 800 pages, I didn’t want to leave this world and felt quite bereft when I finished – and not only because the climax is phenomenal and the cliff-hanger beyond marvellous.

23157777Yes, I am waxing lyrical about this book – about the entire series (including the Rain Wild Chronicles and the Liveship Traders’ books, never mind all the Assassin/Farseer novels) – and deservedly so. This is world-building and writing at its absolute finest and it’s such a treat and privilege to lose yourself in this complex, wonderful and dangerous universe Hobb has painstakingly and lovingly created.

If you haven’t read the first book, read no further because here be spoilers… The first book finished with Fitz being reunited with the Fool who he mistakenly stabs – almost to death – Bee’s kidnapping and the slaughter of innocents at Withywoods – leaving the reader reeling and anxious about Fitz’s daughter’s fate and his ignorance about what has befallen her. When this book opens, we’re at Buckkeep where Fitz, having brought the Fool to the castle in an attempt to get him urgent medical attention, remains unaware of what’s befallen his beloved daughter and staff back at home. Thus, from the moment we begin reading, though we tread the familiar corridors of the castle, learn with horror of what befell the Fool in his absence and enjoy seeing Fitz being recognised for the good and capable man he is (and one seriously flawed, which makes him all the more relatable, special and believable), any pleasure is constantly undermined by our knowledge of what has happened to Bee – knowledge that Fitz does not yet possess. Anxious as to what will happen when he finds out, the heartache and guilt we know will consume him, our awareness and trepidation forms a wonderful yet uncomfortable counterpoint to events at Buckkeep. This is such clever plotting and means Hobb holds not only the emotions of the characters in her hands, but the readers’ as well – and does she pluck at them or what?

Needlesstosay, when Fitz learns of Bee’s fate, he wants to tear the world apart to find her. Only, he doesn’t know who has taken her or why (again, knowledge to which the reader is privy). Forced to wait, gather intelligence and prepare, Fitz is consumed with rage, remorse and so many other negative and conflicting emotions. We live every single one with him and understand why he wavers between stasis and action. We also understand why he resists many of the opportunities to form Wit-bonds offered to him, or even other relationships. If he can’t protect his daughter, he feels he deserves no attachment; he cannot be relied upon – he is a failure of the worst kind – only he’s not, and we know that.

As usual, the person hardest upon Fitz is himself.

And then, of course, he has the Fool to contend with, and all his complex problems and the reawakenings his presence let alone the demands he places on Fitz and promises he extracts demand. Their shared history (and the other bond they share and of which we learn) means they both compliment and distract from each other in fascinating ways.

I don’t want to spoil this book any further expect to say I have barely touched upon what happens. Readers of the series have fallen in love with the principal characters (Fitzchivalry, the Fool, Chade, Kettricken, Verity, Tintaglia etc. etc.) long ago, and this book will only deepen that relationship as our understanding of what makes them tick, insights into their histories are expanded upon and shared with other characters and we see broken fences mended, torn hearts repaired and, of course, new and painful wounds opened and a deadly quest embarked upon.

Segueing between Fitz’s frustration and triumphs, as well as Bee’s journey with the White Folk and Chalcedean mercenaries, the novel is nail-biting, heart-wringing, and page-turning. I cried, laughed, called out a few times (sending my dogs and cats fleeing in fear!) and could barely tear myself away from its pages. I read one review where the reader declared they felt as though they’d been ripped through a Skill-Pillar. I thought what an apt and quite magnificent description.

That I have to wait until 2017 to read the next book is almost unbearable, though I am seriously thinking of reading all Hobb’s books again to assuage my longing – only I’m uncertain I could stand repeating the emotional roller-coaster that forms the heart and soul of these rollicking and amazing tales.

Fool’s Quest is a sublime addition to what’s going to be remembered as one of the finest fantasy collections/worlds/story/characters ever created.

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The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

It’s hard to know where to begin with this book. Recommended to me by a dear friend, Kerry, who, when I said I wanted a novel to lose myself in, asked, “Have you tried Patrick Rothfuss?” I replied in the negative (though I had heard of him – you’d have to be deaf to the literary and fantasy community not to have), and picked up the first book in his Kingkiller Chronicles a little unwillingly. Unwilling because, with the exception of Kim Wilkins, Juliet Marillier, and Sara Douglass, I’ve read very little fantasy since George RR Martin. I’ve nothing against it; on the contrary, I am a huge fan and have been since I read Prince Caspian when I was eight. My bookshelves bulge with fantasy novels and my first foray into publishing was in that marvellous genre as well. It’s just that having to research my own work and loathing the interminable wait between instalments in fantasy series, I’d deferred my reading in this genre (apart from authors above) indefinitely. I’m just not patient enough and understand completely why my friend, Joy, waits until all books in a series are out before commencing them.

So, I picked up The Name of the Wind reluctantly…

Oh. My.

What a book.

What a reading sensation.

imgres-8How had I deprived myself of this work for so long? Beautifully structured, holistically conceived, filled with characters in whom you believe and a world that is so rich and complex, I found this book impossible to keep away from. I’d rise in the morning and drift towards it; begin to eat and flick it open, regardless of the company (so rude, I know); record a favourite television show (yes, even Game of Thrones) to watch later and read instead; stay up till all hours wishing I could remain in Rothfuss’ world.

And this is why (without, I hope, spoiling the experience).

When the book opens, we’re introduced to Kvothe, the youthful inn-keeper with an incredible past that involves, wizardry, death, monsters, music, women, wine and song, sharp intellect and no small degree of talent, as well as incredible adventures, abject poverty, suffering, brutality, violence, academic and physical lessons, hope, resilience, hard work, love, bets and the lurking ill-will of dire enemies. So how did this amazing red-haired man with a colourful and unbelievable past, who when we meet him seems to have lost the will to live, end up running an inn in a remote, quiet place while the world around him plunges into darkness?

Against his better judgement, Kvothe begins to tell the story of how he became a legend in his own life-time to a man whose been searching for him in order to record his memories – the Chronicler.

And so Kvothe’s tale, from itinerant performer to wunderkind, is told – in Kvothe’s first-person voice in the past before switching to a third person present. The language is poetic and moving, the dialogue snaps one minute and brings you to tears in the next. Kvothe is irreverent, honest, modest (except when he’s not) and completely convincing and lovable, even has he grows into what you can tell will be formidable powers. He’s possessed of a wicked sense of humour, a strong sense of justice and refuses to be a victim, no matter what life metes out. I went through every conceivable emotion and then some reading this book and grabbed the next one immediately (it’s almost a thousand pages), delighted I would be able to spend more time with someone who has fast become one of my favourite characters of all time.

Elegant, original, magnificent in scope yet humble in execution, this is imgresa book any lover of reading would enjoy. Furthermore, Rothfuss is very open with his many fans about his writing, the world he’s created and his ambitions for the writing future. Only, in getting to know him as a writer through words other than those in his marvellous novels, I’ve also learned that the third book in this series, Doors of Stone (there are novellas and short stories connected to the world as well), despite being promised earlier, might not be available until 2016. This brings me back to why I stopped reading fantasy all together –the waiting when you willingly give yourself over to a new book and world is painful. However, in this instance, I make an exception. Learning that Rothfuss doesn’t want to let DoS go until he’s absolutely satisfied it’s as good as it can be, makes sense to me and kudos to him.

Despite the wait ahead, I’ve no regrets I read these books – such is the power and beauty of what Rothfuss has accomplished and my faith in his very impressive abilities – I was poorer without this experience.

Just a marvellous read. I’ll try and be patient… really.

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Book Review: Daughters of the Storm by Kim Wilkins

This is an extraordinary novel that once I started reading it, found it hard to tear myself away from. Actually, I didn’t read this book – I devoured it – greedily. In Daughters of the Storm, Kim Wilkins, a masterfulDaughters of the Storm storyteller, presents us with a rich and detailed historical fantasy featuring a poisoned king, his five very different daughters, and a land in existential and leadership crisis.

Drawing on her vast knowledge and love of Anglo-Saxon England, Wilkins gives us a vivid and diverse world where faith, magic and individuals collide and geographical borders are only as strong as the leader enforcing them. When the King of Thyrsland lapses into a magic-induced sleep, suspicion turns not so much outwards as one would expect, but inwards towards his family. His eldest daughter, the formidable warrior, the wonderfully named Bluebell, determines to rescue her father from this grave enchantment – not only because she loves him dearly and blindly, but also for the sake of the kingdom she will one day inherit. Recognising the power that keeps him comatose is the wild “undermagic” and the only one who can help them is someone of their own blood, Bluebell employs her sisters’ help. Along with her mostly unwilling siblings, she embarks on a journey to find a cure and in doing so bring the kingdom back from the brink of war. Tall, scarred, strong, capable and tattooed, Bluebell inspires loyalty and loathing in equal measure, and not just from her men or the enemies she encounters but, as she’s to learn, from those closest to her as well.

What Bluebell doesn’t bargain on is her sisters and the terrible secrets they hide, secrets that have the potential to not only undo her intentions, but tear the family apart as well.

While this is at one level a quest novel, the journey the main characters undertake is not simply physical, but psychological and emotional. So it is with Bluebell and her sisters who are also forced to examine the past and their own choices, in relation to the present and, indeed, the future. Mostly estranged from each other, they’re presented to the reader as three-dimensional characters with their flaws, foibles and strengths on display. Whether it’s the unhappily married mother, Rose, the mystic Ash, or the twins, the sanctimonious Willow and hormone-charged Ivy (both of whom you often want to slap in the face), they feel real and whole and thus you can appreciate the choices they make, even when you wince or wonder why. Complicated, and passionate, the shifting viewpoint in the novel allows us to get to know each of them over the course of the story and you find yourself allying with one then another, or despairing at what you know the outcome will be… only, in typical Wilkins’ fashion, you don’t know. They are not always likeable either, and I love that Wilkins has taken such a risk as making her major characters unattractive at times – just like real life. You may not always like them, but you do understand them – this is clever writing that doesn’t condescend to readers.

This is also where Wilkins excels as a novelist, in her ability to present readers not only with a terrific tale, but with complex, fascinating characters with their own rationale for action, gently exposing the deep motivations that drive them, even if they take a little while to be revealed. But it’s not only the women who are represented this way either. Daughters of the Storm also has some wonderful and imperfect male characters as well – from the slumbering king, to the bitter Wylm, the brutish Raven King, Hakon, the lonely undermagician, and the love-lorn Heath.

With a kicker-twist at the end, this is a marvellous book and my only disappointment is that I have to wait for part two of what is a simply brilliant addition to one of my favourite genres and from one of my favourite writers.

 

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