Orbit, 29 April 2021
Available as: PB, 496pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy provided by the publisher
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Beautiful Ones via NetGalley and for inviting be to be part of the Social Media Blast.
The Beautiful Ones is an engaging fantasy-romance with a hint of magic. Originally published a couple of years ago as an e-book only, it's now getting a deserved wider release from Jo Fletcher Books.
The book is set in Levrene, a country like... well, perhaps a bit like somewhere in central Europe, on a planet a bit like Earth, around the turn of the 20th century. While clearly an imaginary world, many of the place names, both local (Loisail, Montipouret, Luquennay) and remote (Port Anselm, Yehenn, Carivatoo), evoke that, as does the atmosphere of carriages, telegraphs and newly built railways.
Despite these stirrings of modernity it is still a ferociously traditional society, not to say patriarchal, with women's roles in particular narrowly constrained by the rules of etiquette and the fear of what Society will make of any scandal. A woman's only asset is, it seems, her reputation.
Against this background we follow the lives of Antonina (Nina) Beaulieu, a young woman from the country in the capital for her first Grand Season and Hector Auvray, 'a castaway who had washed up on a room of velvet curtains and marble floors'.
Nina would rather be at home collecting beetles and exploring the woods. She'd certainly prefer not to be under the dominion of her martinet Aunt Valérie. Valérie despises Nina and takes delight in being cruel to her. Nina, young and inexperienced, chaffes at the restrictions imposed on her and unknowingly torments Valérie with visions of what she has lost.
Hector is a performing magician - and here we meet the first feature that makes this book a little different. Hector is not just a conjuror, but can, in reality, perform magic. He can move objects by thought alone and has made a spectacular career of this. The place of magic in this book is well thought out - it's not high fantasy, we have no duelling mages here, and on the whole, 'Talents' as they're called are accepted, if treated with a bit of suspicion. But there's no doubt Hector is an outsider to the carefully modulated social set who call themselves The Beautiful Ones.
This isn't only because of his abilities. Hector is of humble birth and that isn't forgotten, but he has amassed a fortune, and The Beautiful Ones do crave money for the upkeep of their ragged castles and their lavish lifestyles. ('Nothing matters more than money to us, the proper people who walk down these city streets in pristine gloves and silk-lined garments').
In fact, the quest for money via an advantageous marriage is ever present in this book, giving distinct echoes of Austen: Aunt Valérie in particular wouldn't be out of place in a drawing room weighing up newly arrived officers and considering which daughter should pair off with who. But there's more to Valérie than that - a tragically romantic past that has marked her life and drives her still. It wouldn't be too much to say she's the presiding spirit of this book, setting much of the plot in motion and pulling strings behind the scenes to get what she wants. It's a chilling, at times frightening role that makes one both hate and pity her. Warped by having had to conform herself and enter a loveless, childless marriage, she's something of a cross between Lady MacBeth and Anna Karenina, now determined to inflict the same on others, her own hatred a measure of the love she believes she could have had.
I enjoyed the way Moreno-Garcia makes Valérie both the voice, and the victim, of the stuffily rigid society. This is a very character-driven, people-focussed story - beyond names and cultural trappings we don't learn a great deal about wider society, we don't see ordinary people at work or anything of the politics (apart from learning, in a couple of throwaway lines, that there is a King). Yet by skewering that one aspect - the position of women in the more privileged layer - we can I think infer the rest.
A very enjoyable read, with characters who felt real to me and about whom I found myself caring a great deal, and gripping to the very end.
For more information about The Beautiful Ones see the publisher's website here - or any of the other sites taking part in the Blast - see the poster below!
And now for something a little bit different... I'm joining the Random Things Tours blogtour for the new Books on the Hill kickstarter.
If I have a purpose on this blog (and, let's face it, on a bad day it can be hard to tell) it's to share my love of reading and of what I read. Reading for me is an escape, a space to call my own, a window into other worlds - a thing that can help me empathise with others, or simply get me out of myself when I need to.
I feel enormously privileged to be able to take part in the world of books, comics and magazines.
It's a cruel fact that that world isn't equally accessible to everyone. There are a number of different reasons for that, and today's blogpost highlights an effort to overcome one of them - the lack of accessible books for adults with dyslexia. You may already be aware of Books on the Hill as a bookshop - well here they are, as a publisher, BOTH Press, tackling that problem.
Books on the Hill is Alistair Sims. He is the manager and commander-in-chief of the bookshop (though his partner, Chloe and his mother, Joanne, who set up the bookshop with him, may disagree with this description ). Alistair is dyslexic and has a PhD in history and archaeology. Alistair could not read until he was 13 and is passionate about helping anyone who has difficulty reading. He is the driving force behind BOTH Press and has been involved in every step in this project, from finding award winning authors to contribute, the cover design, and the road to publication, including setting up for distribution.
'Books on the Hill is passionate about helping people who have dyslexia, or have any difficulty with reading, to access the joy of good fiction. There are great books out now for children with dyslexia, with specialist publishers like Barrington Stokes and mainstream publishers such as Bloomsbury doing their part. However, there are sadly very few books for adults with Dyslexia in traditional mass market publishing.
Dyslexia is a learning difference that primarily affects reading and writing skills. The NHS estimates that up to 1 in every 10 people in the UK have some form of dyslexia, while other dyslexic organisations believe 1 in 5 and more than 2 million people in the UK are severely affected.
Dyslexia does not stop someone from achieving. There are many individuals who are successful and are dyslexic. Famous actors, such as Orlando Bloom; Entrepreneurs like Theo Paphitis, and many, many more, including myself. All of who believe dyslexia has helped them to be where they are now. Dyslexia, though, as I can attest to, does not go away. You don’t grow out of it, and so we are acknowledging that and trying to without being patronising, create a selection of books that will be friendly to people who deal with dyslexia every day.
Since we started the project in 2019, Books on the Hill have had many adults customers with dyslexia come in shop the asking for something accessible to read. For example, one customer asked if we stocked well known novels in a dyslexic friendly format. Unfortunately we had to say no, as they just don’t exist. We explained what we are trying to achieve by printing our own and she replied:
“I have been reading [children dyslexic] books but they are a bit childish so am really happy I have found your company!! Thanks so much again and thank you for making such a helpful and inclusive brand - it means a lot."
This response is not isolated. We have had many adults come in to the shop with dyslexia, who do not read or struggle to read and they they believe dyslexic friendly books would have real impact on their reading for pleasure.'
So what are Books on the Hill doing?
They're making exciting good quality fiction accessible to a minority group currently not provided for by today’s UK traditional mass book market and providing a new tool for booksellers to use in their drive to increase diversity and inclusion.
The immediate aim is to publish and print 8 titles of dyslexic friendly books for adults. The longer term goal is to continue publishing good quality adult fiction to produce a wide range of books for people who have challenges when reading.
Who are they working with?
Books on the Hill have persuaded many great authors to contribute to this project. All are brilliant authors and are names I am sure you will recognise.
|Design by Julia Lloyd|
I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance e-copy of Near the Bone via NetGalley to consider for review.
Near the Bone is an exciting and absorbing, if at times harrowing, read. Above all it's a MEGA page turner - if you pick this one up, you'd best clear your diary for a few hours because you won't want to put it down again until the last page.
We first meet Mattie, out in the woods where she lives with her husband William on a remote mountain in the US, on an errand. Mattie discovers something new and strange. Mattie debates what to do. Should she stop and investigate, at risk of making herself late? Or should she hurry on? We soon see that her dilemma is framed entirely in terms of what William would want her to do.
She's terrified of getting it wrong.
And she will get it wrong. Because William is a manipulative abuser who has Mattie at his mercy. ('She wasn't going to think of how strange it was, because William told her what to think and she was sure he wouldn't like her thinking on this').
I won't give much more detail on that, because it would be spoilery. Henry reveals the detail of what has happened to Mattie slowly, layer by layer, building up a picture and showing us Mattie's unenviable life, every detail calculated to keep her under William's sway: starved, beaten, denied any warmth or humanity ('That's why William was always starving you, always working you when you were exhausted. Without food and sleep you couldn't think, couldn't fight him...') Much of her own history is lost to her, and it is only revealed as we learn about it, over a harrowing and desperate period of two or three days which turns her life inside out.
I also do not want to be too specific because there are some really dark themes here - themes of abuse and control - which may be triggering for some. For me, it was a mark of how good Henry is at spinning a story that even in the darkest moments I wasn't tempted to put this book aside. I had to know what would happen. It helps that, alongside the tense drama between Mattie and William, there is another strand here - that discovery of Mattie's leads to glimpses of something strange and deadly in the woods. Something that has been killing the local game. Something with uncanny grace and strength, and a greater than animal cunning.
William becomes obsessed with this thing, whatever it is, seeing it almost as a supernatural test of him. That might have given Mattie some respite except that is short-lived as other complications come into her narrow world. And the one things she has learned in her life with William is that complications are trouble, and trouble is HER FAULT.
This story was creepily, scarily believable, William a true monster but one who seems, increasingly, familiar, his attitudes those of men that we all know about, his sense of entitlement and dominance recognisable from tragedies that happen aria and gain. The comparison of man and monster is explicit: William in the cabin is bad, the beast outside apparently worse, and Mattie is trapped between the two of them. For other writers that dilemma might seem overdone, but Henry's writing gets under the skin of both Mattie and William so well that it just seems, well, true.
This is both a cracking good read and a real exploration of human darkness. Not a dark fairytale, despite the overtones of big-bad-monster-in-the-wood, but much more uncomfortable, closer to home and raising urgent questions.
Finally, they say never judge a book by its cover but... that cover!
For more information about Near the Bone, see the Titan website here.
|Cover design by Terri Nimmo |
with Zainab's Echo
I'm grateful to Will O'Mullane at Weidenfeld and Nicolson for an advance copy of Empire of Wild to read and consider for review.
Set in among a community of Canadian Métis people, Empire of Wild skilfully blends indigenous legends with those from further afield, orchestrating a clash on several different levels between the local people and the outside.
To begin with, Dimaline gives us a vivid sketch of the community: the town of Arcand, its much relocated population (moved on by the 'new Colonial authories', ie the United States, the it acquired their island in the 1820s, then further inland when the seashore they settled became desirable for fishermen and second homers, still being chivvied around to make way for pipelines, mining and resource extraction, but also, still clinging on. Joan ('of Arcand' - names are significant here, as with the Reverend Wolff who we'll meet later) is the main protagonist, heartbroken after her husband, Victor, disappeared nearly a year before. Consoling herself with drink, she's not contributing much to the family building firm but has formed a touching bond with her nephew Zeus.
Dimaline is prone to go off on slight digressions, which add to, rather than detracting from, her story and one is the sad tale of Zeus, abandoned by his unfaithful dad because he shows no talent for traditional dancing. Joan seems to be the only adult in Zeus's life who really cares for him and the relationship between them is well observed and touching, offsetting Joan's wilder moments.
The story takes off when hungover Joan staggers into a revival tent one day and becomes convinced that the charismatic preacher she sees there is her lost husband. He denies all knowledge of her, and claims to have been on the mission trail for three years. Can he really be Victor? And who is going to believe Joan anyway? As she sets out to investigate, she doesn't suspect that things will take a supernatural turn, or exactly how, why and by whom the travelling mission is being used.
Empire of Wild was a compelling read. We're given little hints of what is really going on - there are bits written from Victor's point of view, and his experience is truly baffling until near the end - as well as from various members of the mission. There is Cecile, a young woman devoted heart and soul to its success (but also to own prominence within it) plays a role, and has another of those digressions, mapping out a rather sad life which has left her insecure and craving reassurance. We also meet a man called Heiser, of Germanic extraction, who brings a different set of myths with him to cross-breed, and fight, with the Métis 'Rogarou'.
Blending these legends with revival Christianity and the ingrained folk Catholicism of the Arcand people, Dimaline creates a powerfully symbolic narrative within which the personal histories and dilemmas of her characters take life and play out their consequences. The central characters of Joan and Zeus are really well drawn and they pull the reader into this story, increasingly so as events move to a climax.
Relatively short, Empire of Wild portrays a haunting world and compelling characters. It's a book I greatly enjoyed reading and would strongly recommend.
For more information about Empire of Wild, see the Weidenfeld and Nicolson website here.
|Jacket art by Tommy Arnold|
Design by Jamie Stafford-Hill
Harrow the Ninth is essentially Gideon the Ninth but dialled up several notches more (how is that possible?) with even more moving parts and a LOT more bones. It must have been exhausting to write.
Having survived the spooky, far future "And Then There Were None" of Canaan House, and finally achieved Lyctorhood, Harrowhark Nonegesimus finds herself in a remote space station, the refuge of the Emperor and his Saints, accompanied by some of said Saints, a motley lot. They are supposed to be training for the ultimate showdown with a Resurrection Beast and its Heralds, and there is much discussion of tactics - but Harrow is more concerned that somebody is (or somebodies are) trying to kill her. Again.
The story plays out over several months leading up to... well an event that I won't name for spoiler reasons although it is well foreshadowed. Muir plays evil games with her timeline, popping back and forward months, weeks, hours, always anchoring things on that event, but only coming to describe it very late in the book.
She also includes side-trips back to Canaan House, where an alternate version of the events in Gideon the Ninth seems to be playing out, a darker version (really!) with a slightly different cast of characters. That's related to events in Harrow's present(s), of course, but it also gives an opportunity to reacquaint oneself with the rich cast of characters from the earlier book. We also meet the rest of the Lyctors (that motley crowd) in the "now". They really are a beguiling, infuriating, varied lot, having survived ten thousand years as servants of their Emperor and acquired ten thousand years' of grudges and regrets.
It's clear that there is a great deal going on here - plots and politics, personal agendas, romance and long-nurtured rivalries. It all goes back to the roots of the Emperor's necromancy but also casts light on more recent events - some of those flashbacks are to Gideon's and Harrow's early lives and we learn a great deal about them. I didn't follow everything that happened - perhaps the decision to listen to the book, rather than reading it, and over several weeks, made this harder, although it brought compensations: the vivacity with which the narrator, Moira Quirk, reads the story, creating dozens of different personas for the various characters and actually morphing from one to another when certain things take place. (Without spoiling things, I will say that precisely who some of these voices are at particular points is important, and sometimes unexpected).
Overall, a treat for fans of necromancy (and who isn't?) though this is not a book to read - or listen to - unless you have read the first part of the trilogy. Not only will you be at sea but you'll miss various riffs on the first book and some things which are absolutely revelatory here will lose their power if you read them out of order.
For more information about Harrow the Ninth, see the publisher's website here.