April Reads | Book Review

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I blinked and then April was over.

I’ve no idea where this month has gone. It seems as though I frittered it away on wedding planning, gardening, and whinging about the weather. I’ve been lazy with both writing and reading this month, and I’m honestly ready for May to come along and reinvigorate me with some summery inspiration. But this is England, so it’ll probably just rain some more.

Right. Let’s talk about books!

The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden

I was expecting to be blown away by this literary fairytale, and while I did enjoy it, it fell a little flat for me in some places.

The story follows Vasya, a young woman who is descended from witches and can see the mythical spirits which guard the homes and lands of a remote Russian town. When a new priest arrives and strives to banish the “demons” which protect the land’s people, Vasya realises that Christianity is doing more harm than good, and she is swept up in ancient fairytales in an attempt to save her town.

The book opened on an engaging premise, but I felt the pace dragged in the first half. Although I suppose it was important for us to fully understand the reasons for the priest’s arrival, I found myself not caring; I was far more interested in what Vasya was getting up to in the woods. In the second half the plot picked up, and I think this was because we followed Vasya more closely and, well, exciting, magical stuff actually happened.

I realise that this is the first book in a trilogy and in that context the reams of backstory and explanation make sense. There were characters who were described in detail and to which I became attached, only for them to leave the town behind and never make another appearance once the story really took hold. Perhaps we’ll come across these characters again in books two and three, but I felt it was to the detriment of book one. The first half was a bit of information dump, and the second half, when the fun bits happened, felt a little rushed.

Nonetheless, the imagery created by Arden is rich and engaging, and really paints a picture of the unforgiving climate of northern Russia. Vasya is a strong, determined protagonist and had me rooting for her, and I think I’ll probably follow her journey through the next two books in the series.

29 Seconds, T.M Logan

This book is just over 400 pages long, but it has 85 chapters. 85 short and snappy chapters, each of which ended on a cliff-hanger or half-way through a scene. Now, the problem with a book like this is that you think, “Oh, the chapters are only tiny, I’ll just read one while I wait for by PC to boot up. I’ll just read another while I wait for the kettle to boil. I’ll just read one more while I take a quick breather from my work.”

Then, boom! All of a sudden, you’ve read 10 chapters and you can’t put the damn book down and you find you’ve spent an hour reading when you should have been doing “important” things like working or cleaning or feeding the cat.

29 Seconds is a story that’s incredibly relevant to the recent Hollywood scandals and #MeToo movement. Our protagonist, Sarah, works at a university which is controlled by a very powerful man. Alan Lovelock is a famous scholar who brings huge amounts of cash to the department. He’s also a complete bastard. He uses his position of power to prey on the women in his department, and Sarah is his most recent victim. She’s desperate for a permanent contract to achieve financial stability for her and her kids. Lovelock will only give it to her if she sleeps with him.

With the HR department and the university dean on Lovelock’s side, Sarah is unable to report his appalling behaviour to anyone with any power. If she tries, she’ll get the sack. If she doesn’t play Lovelock’s games, she’ll also get the sack. One day, Sarah is offered a way out; a Russian criminal offers to repay a favour to her; she can give him a name, and he’ll make that person disappear.

I ate this book in two days. I’d have done it in one if I’d had the time. It sucks you into a horrifying dilemma in which there seems to be no way out for Sarah. Lovelock makes you feel utterly revolted and you’re desperate to see him being taken down, but you can’t help but read on in horror as he appears to become more and more powerful. There are unexpected twists and turns throughout, and by the time you reach the final chapters you’re amazed at the bombshell resolution.

But it also left me feeling, if I’m honest, a bit hopeless. I felt hopeless on Sarah’s behalf almost all the way through the book because she’s completely and utterly trapped by a powerful man in an environment run by even more powerful men. At the end of the book things begin to work in her favour, but only because the fictional world in which she lives affords her the opportunity to have a Russian mob (read: yet more powerful men) help her sort things out.

[Spoiler] Sarah got the justice she wanted in a way, but it wasn’t direct justice for the things she went through. She had to cheat the system and lie and manipulate to see her abuser behind bars. And sure, she was free of him and so were the other women in her department. But what about other women across the country – across the world – who are trapped in similar situations? I guess there’s no hope for them unless they have an underground criminal organisation on their side.

I know, I know, I’m probably overthinking it. This was a thriller, and having Sarah seek justice through the boring old methods of HR reports and tribunals just wouldn’t have been thrilling. This is fiction, after all. But because Sarah’s situation so closely mimics that of the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, because it mirrors real lives so closely, it made me feel hopeless that Sarah’s resolution is simply not a practical or realistic option for the real women going through similar injustices.

Overall, a great read, but certainly one that makes you think. And it might make you mad and sad, too.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams

I don’t read a whole lot of sci-fi, but that’s something I want to change because…why not, eh? It’s good to challenge ourselves to read outside of our comfort zones – it opens us up to new ideas and makes our imaginations work harder. So, I thought, what better way to get into sci-fi than with the biggest comedy sci-fi series of all time?

I bought the ultimate edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide which features all five of Adams’ original books in the series. I managed to get through the first two, and then my brain needed a break. I’ll go back to finish the rest, for sure, but there are only so many zany adventures around the universe that I can handle in one sitting.

The books made me laugh out in many places, particularly when the stupidity of Earth’s inhabitants was pointed out. But in others, I found myself zoning out, getting a bit fed up with long-winded – if funny – explanations of planets or civilisations or time travel or technology. Perhaps for frequent sci-fi readers these elements have more impact because they satirise stereotypes frequently found within the genre. For me – as someone ignorant to the tropes of space operas – they went a little over my head.

Marvin the depressed robot was probably my favourite part of The Hitchhiker’s Guide but… [spoiler] the human motherfuckers sacrificed him. I’m hoping that some technicality in improbability or time travel will bring him back in future books, because I am seriously living for a robot that hates its existence as much as hate my own (joking, joking, I promise).

All in all, I think I have a love-hate relationship with The Hitchhiker’s Guide and we need to take a break for a little while so that I can figure myself out. It’s not the book; it’s me.

WordPress Favourites

Froth, Matthew J Richardson – A powerful story that starts with beer and ends with a heart-stopping twist.

Keeping Up with the Days, Hip To Be Snark – A witty reality TV show script about the days of the week.

Upgrade, A.K. Caggiano – Starts as a story about a bickering couple, and then… WHAT. A. TWIST. Go read this. It’s short but it’s so good.

The Usher, Michael James – A moving tale about a man who takes the loneliness out of death.

One Last Thought

I’m thinking of switching up my book reviews and posting one per book, as and when I finish them, instead of rolling them all into monthly posts. It’ll probably work out as one review a week.

What do you think – yes? No? Couldn’t give a flying fuck?

All I’m thinking is that I want my reviews to be short and sweet for short attention spans, and then every month I dump a post that’s 1500 words long. Kinda defeats the point, y’know?

I’ll think about it, but if you do have any preferences leave me a comment below.

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Author: Ellie Scott

Ellie Scott is a freelance copywriter and fiction writer from Sheffield, UK. She writes speculative and silly short stories and flash fiction. She has published two short story collections - 'Merry Bloody Christmas' and 'Come What May Day'. In 2018 she was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize Short Story Competition. She can often be found loitering on Twitter (@itsemscott), Instagram (@tinysillystories) and Medium (@elliemaryscott).

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