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Thursday, 25 August 2016

Review: The Muse, Jessie Burton

The Muse is the second novel from the bestselling author of The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton. Where do you go after such a smash hit of a debut novel? Burton more than rises to the challenge and produces another novel steeped in history, rich characterisation and settings abundant in detailed description.

We begin with Odelle in June 1967, an immigrant from Trinidad. These days it might as well be 1967 with the feelings that the word 'immigrant' may evoke, and the London that Odelle is promised is not the London she finds, at least at first. Despite her prestigious qualifications, she finds many doors closed and works in a shoe shop with her friend Cynthia, until one day a woman named Marjorie Quick employs her as a typist in the Skelton gallery. Finally, Odelle thinks she's getting somewhere.

However, ill - sort of - circumstances strike again when Cynth gets married, moves out, and Odelle finds herself lonely again. A man with a painting turns up and promises excitement and mystery, not least with Marjorie's reaction to seeing the painting.

We are soon transported to 1936, Spain, and meet the Schloss family. There is Harold, an art dealer, Sarah, a glamorous woman missing society and suffering with depression, and their daughter, Olive, a closet artist, whose dilemma is whether or not to accept an offer to study Fine Art in London.

Into their lives arrive Isaac and Teresa Robles, and although their arrival is met with joy and gratitude, danger follows in their wake. For Olive is inspired to paint like never before, paintings full of complexities and substance, though they are never credited to her. The backdrop of this story is the revolution in Spain, to-ing and fro-ing between the left and the right, with the innocents, as ever, taking the fall for the ambitions of a few powerful men.

Therein, the story flits between 1936 and 1967, with Odelle getting closer and closer to discovering the story of the painting, and the mystery of Marjorie, though not without battling her own demons in terms of her relationship with her writing. She says, "My writing became the axis upon which all my identity and happiness hinged" and it's interesting to wonder how much of this came from Burton's own feelings.

Burton combines substantial research, complex characterisation and a flair for scene setting that makes The Muse a novel to truly immerse yourself in. From visualising yourself in Olive's stool as she pours herself into her paintings, to tense conversations with Teresa and Isaac about the state of Spain, and walking around late 60s London, The Muse gives you a rich depth of experience that reminds you how reading can be so enjoyable, inspiring and enlightening all at once.

Link for purchase:

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Review: Stardust, Neil Gaiman

Delve into a rich world of surreal markets, gnomes, unicorns, witches and a quest for true love in this luscious, imaginative tale by Neil Gaiman.

Tristan Thorn, besotted by a woman called Victoria from his village, resolves to go on a quest over the other side of the Wall to retrieve a fallen Star, in the hopes that his success will win the Victoria's hand.

With some guidance from his father, a wall-crosser himself in his youth, Tristan - a gangly, innocent sort of young man - makes the journey, unaware that there are others whom seek this star for more nefarious purposes.

What he doesn't realise is that on this side of the wall, fallen stars are not just clumps of rock but people - and this star is not impressed.

With rich world building, complex character development and a huge cast of players, both mortal and supernatural, Stardust is richly imagined, cleverly plotted and humorous - definitely a tale to cosy up on the couch with.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Review: Kings or Pawns, J. J. Sherwood

Note: I received a free ebook copy of this novel in exchange for a review. 

Blurb from author: 

"The elven city of Elvorium has become corrupted to the core by politics. With his father dead and the Royal Schism at his back, Prince Hairem ascends the throne as king of the elven world on Sevrigel. Young and bold, Hairem is determined to undo the council’s power, but the brutal murders by an assassin loosed within the city threaten to undermine the king’s ambitions.

As corruption and death threaten to tear Elvorium apart from within, the warlord Saebellus threatens the city from without, laying siege to Sevrigel’s eastern capital. With the elven world crumbling around him, Hairem finds himself in a dangerous political balance between peace and all out war."

This novel draws on a lot of different factors to weave together a strong story with plenty of substance: strong world building, complex characters, political intrigues with a love story weaved in through. In style and substance, Sherwood's writing can be compared to Jim Butcher, his strengths lying in bringing together plenty of strong characters and handling different story lines that come together as a whole. Like other great novels, there are characters that you love, characters you love to hate, and characters for whom you wish luck in frustration because they certainly have none. 

The descriptions, while extensive, are easy and natural and allow the reader to fully immerse themselves in this Elven world. From the palaces to the streets of the city, to the swamps and lands of ice, Sherwood handles his world with flair and ease. It is the kind of writing of which everything, down to the last rock placement, has been carefully considered.

I would definitely recommend this novel to fans of high fantasy - it's an offering that will find hard to stop reading and will eagerly await the next installment.

Links/Sample: Amazon or Goodreads

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Thursday, 4 August 2016

Review: The House by the Sea, Santa Montefiore

Generally, I dislike the terms "beach read" etc but if you were picking a mini library to take away with you on holiday, then this is a book I would recommend.

Flicking between two time points, (1966 Tuscany and 2009 Devon), the story focuses on a young girl, Floriana, and her obsession with La Villa Magdalena - most notably, its beautiful gardens - and Marina, a woman living in Devon who runs a hotel called the Polzanze with her husband and step-son. The Polzanze, on the brink of financial ruin, hires an artist-in-residence to attract more attention to the hotel. After a few excruciatingly cringe worthy interviews, Marina finally finds an artist, a devilishly handsome Argentinian man called Rafa, though after a conversation Rafa has with his mother the reader is shown that not all is at it seems and Rafa has an ulterior motive for being there.

The descriptions of the Polzanze are detailed and intimate, as if Montefiore built it herself in real life. You get Marina's struggles as a childless woman and the love she pours into the hotel as if it is her own flesh and blood. You also feel her pain as she longs to connect with her step children, particularly her step daughter, Clementine, who sees Marina as nothing more than the woman who stole away her father from her mother.

This is wonderful human story with relationships at its heart. The locations in it, while beautifully and lusciously described, are mere devices to tell the stories of different people from all walks of life and classes crossing paths and making their marks on each other. While some of the dialogue seems a bit cheesy at times, you find yourself moving past this in order to discover the surprisingly richly layered story, building up to a big reveal at the end.

Definitely one for the happy-ever-after lovers.