The Memoirs of Lady Trent – Marie Brennan

The first two books in this series are covered in an earlier review.

After a wait for Voyage of the Basilisk (acquired through inter-library loan), I devoured the last three books of this series. The setup for the twist in Within the Sanctuary of Wings was sufficiently obvious through that I had spotted it mid-series. Especially once Isabella married.

But whatever the lack of surprise, it is more than made up for by the fast-paced adventures, foolishness and the Victorian woman willing to risk her family life in order to make scientific discoveries. The “science” is good fun, and the weaving in of other disciplines adds depth. Regular readers may recall I was quite taken by a drive to discover a lost language, and the Temeraire series which is another non-traditional “dragon history”.

If fast-paced fantasy novels are your thing, then these are good reads, and Isabella makes a fabulous heroine, always ready to try something foolhardy and usually win out. At a fair few points I could only bring myself to keep reading in the knowledge that as the writer of her own memoir, she surely couldn’t die in this adventure.

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A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents – Memoirs of Lady Trent – Marie Brennan

As a lover of both science writing and fantasy, especially that not set in pseudo-medieval worlds, this appealed to me instantly when recommended, and was promptly ordered from the library. Lady Trent is a wonderful character, a wilful daughter of the aristocracy when scientific careers are only permitted for men, and finds her own way to happiness.

There are wild dragons, but in England they are tiny insects for a young girl’s imagination to be captured. But as she grows into a woman, she has a systematic study of the sparklings rather than just a habit of watching them. But as a woman she cannot (yet) speak in the scientific societies, but instead has to carve her own, more difficult route.

These books are wonderful for their dragons, Isabella’s passion, the science and the feminist journey. I am ordering book three as soon as I’ve made a dent in my TBR pile. For some reason that one is missing from the library set, so I can’t get hold of it that way.

What not to do if you turn Invisible – Ross Welford

This is a very silly book, correlating teenage self-conciousness with a true desire to be invisible. The teenage years are always fun as a lack of ability to think through the consequences is so very believable to extremes which would be incredible for adults.

I was hoping that what she would discover about herself would be more introspective, but at least it was played well, and there were clear connections and good foreshadowing. But more importantly, I laughed. I laughed at bad gags, and at the foolish decisions that were being taken and the coincidences that made everything connect smoothly.

I’ll keep an eye out for more of Welford’s books at the library.

History of Wolves – Emily Fridlund

History of Wolves stands out for its sense of place. This is a book in which the setting stands out on its own, for its beauty and isolation. We are given a strong feeling that how the plot unravels is because of the lake between Linda and Paul.

The plot however is not one I enjoyed. There was too much blame placed on the teenager, although of course as the narrator she would look to blame herself. And it was generally just exploring the worst sides of human nature: weakness, selfishness and cowardice. Although the narrator’s lack of action is understandable, and she does somewhat redeem herself as she begins to forgive as an adult.

I think the three plots tied in here muddy each other, and despite the title there is a distinct lack of wolves within the story, with the “History of Wolves” itself being a very minor plot point. And despite the importance of religion to the direction the plot goes in, it is again barely mentioned.

However the writing was very good, and as mentioned earlier, the sense of place was brilliant. The impression is given that the place itself matures towards being more civilised as these actions were left behind.

Autumn – Ali Smooth

This is not any autumn, this is the drawing in of autumn Street the Brexit referendum, with the shock and disbelief spreading through the country and anger against imigrints at a high. But it is also about parenthood and nostalgia.

Elizabeth starts to understand her childhood, and how inspired she was by the musician who lived downstairs and frequently looked after her. At the same time her (previously presumed straight) mother falls in love with her female childhood icon from tv. This is intertwined with current affairs as the country tried to understand what it had just voted for.

The writing style is quite modern and detached, making the pages fly by. The sort of style that gets a book into a Man Booker shortlist.

I appreciated how at the end we just broke into the personal lives of the direct characters, and ended on a note of hope that maybe we could take the he best of the nostalgia with us.

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands – Natasha Solomons

This has merely a single vanished husband, but a gallery full of portraits. A nice fluffy story, about love, loss and beauty.It is also about a small close Jewish community, motherhood, and the cost of family values. Most the the plot is about a husband who never appears in the pages of the book, and a bohemian artistic community that Juliet finds herself falling into.

This was the third book in a week to mention Constable’s sky studies, so I wandered down to the Manchester Art Gallery to see this one in real life. Its beautiful and I’ve been back twice since in my lunch break to visit it and tour the gallery a bit more.

Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood

This was part of my (not yet complete) attempt to read the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist for 2017. One of two which I purchased rather than accessed through the library, this one didn’t make the shortlist so was dropped into the guilt pile.

This was Atwood’s reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and there are two main ways that such a reimagining can take place: the character names and plot can be uplifted and used in a different setting without ever mentioning the source material, or a “book within a book” device can be used to include it directly. Atwood chose the latter option for Hag-Seed, which largely revolves around a production of the Tempest, as well as lifting the plot and characters. This enables her to delve deeply into analysis of how the plot works whilst creating another layer around it, and it works well.

The depths were enjoyable, and the revenge angle made this into the sort of book which cannot be put down, as I was desperate to find out how the plot would unfold.

BlueEyedBoy – Joanne Harris

I am more used to Harris’s magical realism, but this crime mystery novel is way outside this genre. I love the style it is told in: the protaganist’s blog posts and discussions in the comments. It reminds me of We Need to Talk About Kevin, a book which I didn’t keep, but found a good strong read.

The setting is of course as grim and gritty as is expected in this style of book, and in the absence of magic we instead have synaesthesia, because Harris can never have characters who are entirely normal human beings. As the characters are built, we get the feeling of the rug being shifted under us, with nothing ever quite fitting the picture I already had. But despite knowing a twist must be coming, the one taken was not what I expected.

A disturbing but satisfying read.

The Secret People – John Wyndham

The Secret People is a scifi classic with a setup reministent of Blyton (plus extramarital passion). We have a rich boy with a private jet who manages to crash it in the most inconvenient place possible. But then we take a swift turn into the underworld and discover “The Secret People”.

I loved the main concepts of this: environmental changes and evolution of races of peoples. It also considers zenophobia and true fears. Everything hangs together well on the two central characters and their investigation of this world. My only quibble is that the ending could have been improved above the current one!

The Temeraire Series (9 titles) – Naomi Novik

I first started the Temeraire series some years ago, but ran out of momentum on book 6 (The Tongues of Serpents) which had a very weak ending. But on this reread I felt driven to continue on through the rest of the books, which return the series to the high standards of the series start.

Set in Napoleonic times, dragons are as important to the defence of Britain as its’ navy is, and Temeraire is a large and talented dragon, so obviously forms a key part of this. But he is not given just this simple role, but instead we learn about more of his talents as he undergoes character development and finds his own place in the world. His companion Laurence has similar struggles as he makes life-changing moral decisions and deals with love, the war and friendship on firstly the terms of others, and gradually his own terms.

Each book moves around the world, although some settings are returned to, and the cast around Temeraire evolves as life for a deployed member of His Majesty’s Service continues. I like the imaginative way that dragons become part of the Napoleonic era without displacing true history too much, and how they do not instantly solve problems but instead present new ones. But the best subplot is the one around dragons’ personhood, set against a backdrop of the abolition of the slave trade by parliament. This beast that can destroy ships and kill soldiers without effort has far more interest as a political being than as a warrior.