Whoopsy-doodle. The summer has gotten away from me (though, in my defense, we don’t really have much of a summer here in Scotland…). The dissertation monster is eating up all of my time at the moment, as I’m planning to submit soon-ish.
But I’ve been meaning to write a few reviews of books that I’ve read recently and wanted to shout about on the (internet) rooftops. Books that made me lose sleep, books that made me cry with despair or with joy (or writer’s envy), books that made me leap off the couch and gush excitedly to my chap, who listened good-naturedly and tried to ease my book hangovers afterward.
First up, the book I have been recommending to everything with ears: A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab. She is my new favourite author. Holy cat snacks – this book blew my socks off. I would describe it as a historical fantasy thriller, and I devoured it. It was delicious. Kell – dashing and angsty – draws you in immediately, and then Lila Bard – knife expert and aspiring Pirate – picks his pocket. From there, all hell breaks loose, and they traverse a multi-verse of magical Londons to try and right the wrongs they have done. It’s fast and elegant and witty and gorgeously written, with characters and descriptions that will make you try to run through the wall to get to Red London (which I may or may not have done).
Read this book. You will not be disappointed. And – just a minor spoiler alert – the sequel comes out in 206 days. Yes, I’m counting down. Look at the paperback cover!
Next up, Citadel, by Kate Mosse (2012). This was a Christmas gift from my chap last year, who remembered my fan-girling over Mosse’s earlier novels. She has a gift for weaving these immersive, spooky historical fictions that have a slow, cumulative burn. Labyrinth was the first in this loosely-connected series of books that take place in the Languedoc region in the south of France. It was set in the 13th century and the present day, while Sepulchre, the second book, was split between the 19th century and the present day. Citadel is set in the midst of World War II. France is occupied, but Sandrine and her sister and friends do all they can to help the Resistance in their village, and to help find a lost Codex of the Bible.
This is a brilliant book that interweaves characters and details (and ghosts) from the earlier books, but which can be read on its own. It’s romantic and nail-biting and gut-wrenching. Mosse doesn’t just write – she evokes. You can feel the heat of the summer sun, or hear the boots of the soldiers on the cobblestones. The hairs on your neck will lift as she describes the crackle of a thunderstorm coming down the Pyrenees. Her books are also heartbreaking. I don’t want to give much more away, so I will finish by saying that this book sticks with you long after you’ve read it.
A non-fiction book I read recently was Barbara Sjoholm’s The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O’Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea (2004). I found this at my favorite used bookstore (the Book Barn in Niantic, CT). It’s a travelogue and history all in one. Sjoholm starts her voyage on the west coast of Ireland – as the title says – in search of the pirate queen Grace O’Malley. After Ireland, Sjoholm travels north through Scotland and its islands, up to the Faroes, to Iceland, and to Norway, uncovering tales and legends, myths and poems about ladies of the sea. Some were ship captains (like Erik the Red’s daughter Freydis Eriksdottir), some were fisherwomen, and some ran shipping companies.
Sjoholm also folds some autobiographical details into her story, including memories of her late mother, and her decision to change her surname after her voyage ends. It’s a fascinating account that brings together Celtic and Norse goddesses of the sea, selkies, sea-witches, smoked herring, over-eager American tourists, and lots of rain and fog. I loved it.
Right now I’m reading Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre (who I think would win the ‘Best Historical Fiction Author Name’ Award, if it existed). This is set in 17th-century England at the court of Charles I and centres on a real couple: Sir Kenelm Digby and his wife – the famous court beauty – Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby. It has more of a literary flair to it, as the main plot is mostly that Venetia is growing old, and losing favour at court, so she turns to a quack medicine known as Viper Wine. I’m about halfway through it, and the Viper Wine is starting to take effect….
It will be interesting to see what happens as Venetia – and her alchemist/bibliophile/wonderfully eccentric husband – try to regain their standing at court. The period details are rich and the dialogue is clever, with lots of 17th-century banter. Some of the reviews are calling it ‘a post-modern take on historical fiction’ and I think I’d agree.
That’s all for now, as I’m doing more PhD reading than fiction reading at the moment. I’m also getting into the show Turn from AMC, and re-watching The West Wing. Feel free to share any books or shows you’ve discovered lately in the comments.