Catch-Up Quickies 13

First a quick explanation!

Due to some severe health issues over the last few years, and a lingering chronic condition, my planned review schedule went right out of the window and I have been scrabbling ever since to get it back on track.

In my latest attempt to try to regain some lost ground, I have been scrunching some of my (overdue) NetGalley reviews together into one or two posts each week: shorter reviews, but still covering all of the points I intended to.

That’s the plan anyway; and so far, so good…!

Title: Mrs Death Misses Death
Author:  Salena Godden
Publisher:  Canongate

Blurb:  Mrs Death tells her intoxicating story in this life-affirming fire-starter of a novel.

Mrs Death has had enough. She is exhausted from spending eternity doing her job and now she seeks someone to unburden her conscience to. Wolf Willeford, a troubled young writer, is well acquainted with death, but until now hadn’t met Death in person – a black, working-class woman who shape-shifts and does her work unseen.

Enthralled by her stories, Wolf becomes Mrs Death’s scribe, and begins to write her memoirs. Using their desk as a vessel and conduit, Wolf travels across time and place with Mrs Death to witness deaths of past and present and discuss what the future holds for humanity. As the two reflect on the losses they have experienced – or, in the case of Mrs Death, facilitated – their friendship grows into a surprising affirmation of hope, resilience and love. All the while, despite her world-weariness, Death must continue to hold humans’ fates in her hands, appearing in our lives when we least expect her . . .

Review: This book is incredibly original in both content and style, defying genre categorisation (although, hopefully, not description!).

Written partly in poetry and partly in a breathless, desperate, stream-of-consciousness prose, which carries you with the flow, deeper and deeper into the world of death, this world of death and the life in death.

The book tells the story of writer Wolf and his subject and muse, Mrs Death, and numerous other stories along the way, all featuring death in one of its many forms. Expect to see every kind of death, from world events to newsworthy murders, to endless personal, private stories. Expect to find illness and injury, murder and mishap, war wounds and peaceful passings – everywhere death happens, there is Mrs Death and her faithful chronicler.

It is left open to the reader to decide whether this is a fantasy-esque novel, in which death is personified in an elderly black woman who can visit someone in person to tell her stories, or whether Wolf is suffering from undiagnosed (or maybe diagnosed but undisclosed) mental health issues and is vividly hallucinating the conversations he records. Or maybe both are true, simultaneously?

Regardless, this is a beautifully written stroll through the life of death, her womanhood, her varied experiences and her sorrows. And while the content may seem morbid to some, it is also somehow reassuring. I rather like the idea of death personified… the personal touch as you head into the biggest unknown of all.

Purchase Link: Mrs Death Misses Death on Amazon

Title: The Charmed Wife
Author:  Olga Grushin
Publisher:  Hodder & Stoughton

Blurb:  And they lived happily ever after . . . didn’t they?

Cinderella married the man of her dreams – the perfect ending she deserved after diligently following all the fairy-tale rules. Yet now, two children and thirteen-and-a-half years later, things have gone badly wrong.

One night, she sneaks out of the palace to get help from the Witch who, for a price, offers love potions to disgruntled housewives. But as the old hag flings the last ingredients into the cauldron, Cinderella doesn’t ask for a love spell to win back her Prince Charming.

Instead, she wants him dead.

Endlessly surprising and wildly inventive, The Charmed Wife is a sophisticated literary fairy tale for the twenty-first century that weaves together time and place, fantasy and reality, to conjure a world unlike any other. Nothing in it is quite what it seems, and the twists and turns of its magical, dark, swiftly shifting paths take us deep into the heart of romance, marriage and the very nature of storytelling.

Review: This book isn’t at all what I had expected from the ‘fairy tale retelling’ description.

Yes, the main character is Cinderella and she has two little talking mouse friends, and married Prince Charming. But this is no simple retelling, nor even a ‘twisted’ one. Instead it is a thorough and – at times – dark exploration of womanhood, marriage and motherhood in their different aspects and experiences.

The story begins in the middle, as the disillusioned princess must decide whether to go through with cursing her prince to death and is then told mainly in cauldron-vision flashbacks to explain to us (and to her – her memory of events often differs from what is revealed) how she reached her current point. With the guidance of a wicked (or is she?) witch and a good (or is she?) fairy godmother, Cinderella chooses her path eventually. Then we continue to follow her as she faces the consequences of her actions.

The emphasis is on unreliable narration, false memories, dreams and delusions, and the expectations inherent in fairytale logic are constantly warring with the intrusions of ‘reality’ as we know it. By the end, it is left ambiguous as to whether this is a fantasy that magically merges into the ‘real world’, or whether these were the fantastic imaginings of an unwell, unhappy woman seeking to escape the reality of her own choices by reimagining the very world around her.

There is a sub-plot featuring the dynasties, development and philosophical ponderings of generations of mouse companions, with some scathing side commentary about how they are used and neglected by their oblivious human ‘friend’. I mostly enjoyed these excursions into a lighter, more humorous satirical realm as a break from the despair and anger of a princess who is discovering that adult, married, maternal life is not the fairytale she had thought it would be.

Not a quick, easy read or the usual kind of fairytale retold, this book is a more of a literary exploration of the female experience, with no simple answers or happy-ever-afters.

Purchase Link: The Charmed Wife on Amazon

Title: Before I Saw You
Author:  Emily Houghton
Publisher:  Random House UK, Transworld Publishers, Bantam Press

Blurb:  Alice and Alfie are strangers. But they sleep next to each other every night.

Alfie Mack has been in hospital for months recovering from an accident. So when a new patient is put in the bed beside him, he’s eager for someone different to talk to. A new face on the ward is about as exciting as life gets for him right now.

But it’s clear he won’t be seeing a new face anytime soon. Alice Gunnersley has been badly burned and can’t look at herself yet, let alone allow anyone else see her. Keeping the curtain around her bed firmly closed, it doesn’t stop Alfie trying to be friends. And gradually, as he slowly brings Alice slowly out of her shell, might there even be potential for more?

Can you fall in love with someone you’ve never seen?

Review: This is technically a romance, but is really more of a self-discovery and self-recovery story, with just hints of romance on the side.

Alfie and Alice, the two main characters whose viewpoints we follow, have very different personalities but both are struggling with recovery from some very serious physical injuries which have resulted in even more serious emotional and mental scars. Alfie has lost a leg in a car accident, but is haunted more by what else he lost at the same time, and Alice has severe facial burns and has lost all confidence in being seen or heard or valued in any way at all.

The ‘unseen love’ tag line makes it clear that the two are destined for some form of HEA, but I’m not really sure I felt much in the way of romantic chemistry – it felt like more of an intense friendship and protective bond that was forming between them. Still, I really liked that the author didn’t fall into the easy trope of love ‘fixing’ them or their problems. Instead, she makes it clear that the issues Alice and Alfie face – trauma recovery, loneliness, depression, self-doubt, people-pleasing – are all long-term issues that they need to keep working on and struggling with for the foreseeable future. The only difference is, having someone there to hold your hand.

I enjoyed reading this story and the characters in it, but I never quite felt like I fully engaged emotionally in the way I would like to. It is a brilliant concept for a story and well-written, and while not an ‘easy’ read in terms of content, it was a quick and smooth read with some sensitive insight into trauma and the path to recovery.

Purchase Link: Before I Saw You on Amazon

Title: All Our Hidden Gifts
Author:  Caroline O’Donoghue
Publisher:  Walker Books

Blurb:  I’ll give up the tarot readings. I’ll apologize to Lily.

But Lily doesn’t come to school on Monday. Or Tuesday. It’s not until Wednesday that the police show up. 

Maeve Chambers doesn’t have much going for her. Not only does she feel like the sole idiot in a family of geniuses, she managed to drive away her best friend Lily a year ago. But when she finds a pack of dusty old tarot cards at school, and begins to give scarily accurate readings to the girls in her class, she realizes she’s found her gift at last. Things are looking up – until she discovers a strange card in the deck that definitely shouldn’t be there. And two days after she convinces her ex-best friend to have a reading, Lily disappears.

Can Maeve, her new friend Fiona and Lily’s brother Roe find her? And will their special talents be enough to bring Lily back, before she’s gone for good?

Review: Wow! I loved this dark, coming-of-age/fantasy story!

The story follows Maeve as she is drawn into meddling with forces she doesn’t understand, resulting in the loss of her childhood best friend, Lily. As she desperately tries to rectify her mistakes, avoid the creepy local cult, find her friend and find the strength to be herself instead of trying to fit in. The errors she makes and her regrets feel very relatable and it didn’t take long for me to be completely engaged and rooting for her to succeed.

Throughout the story, the author explores the spectrum of identities – non-binary, gender fluid, sexuality, race, class – touching upon the internal and external struggles of the characters against their own upbringings, other people’s prejudices, and some overt hate crimes. That said, whilst the exploration of said identity issues does form a central theme, it is not the only one. There are strong morals here about being true to your beliefs, standing up for what is right, and loyalty to one’s loved ones.

And with all of that, the author didn’t forget to also deliver a nicely-paced, well-written plot which kept me gripped from start to finish, and some fascinating, well-developed characters that I was desperate to hear more from. Plus, The Housekeeper literally haunted my dreams for weeks after reading!

I can’t wait for the sequel, The Gifts That Bind Us, to be out (3rd Feb 2022) and to bring you my thoughts on what is in store next for Maeve and her ‘coven’ of allies.

Purchase Link: All Our Hidden Gifts on Amazon

Title: Spellmaker
Author:  Charlie N. Holmberg
Publisher:  47North

Blurb:  Dead wizards, stolen enchantments, and broken promises force a young spellbreaker out of the shadows in the next thrilling installment of the Spellbreaker series by the bestselling author of The Paper Magician.

England, 1895. An unsolved series of magician murders and opus thefts isn’t a puzzle to Elsie Camden. But to reveal a master spellcaster as the culprit means incriminating herself as an unregistered spellbreaker. When Elsie refuses to join forces with the charming assassin, her secret is exposed, she’s thrown in jail, and the murderer disappears. But Elsie’s hope hasn’t vanished.

Through a twist of luck, the elite magic user Bacchus Kelsey helps Elsie join the lawful, but with a caveat: they must marry to prove their cover story. Forced beneath a magical tutor while her bond with Bacchus grows, Elsie seeks to thwart the plans of England’s most devious criminal—if she can find them.

With hundreds of stolen spells at their disposal, the villain has a plan—and it involves seducing Elsie to the dark side. But even now that her secret is out, Elsie must be careful how she uses the new abilities she’s discovering, or she may play right into the criminal’s hands.

Review: Firstly, I haven’t read book 1, Spellbreaker, at the time of reading and reviewing this sequel (a flaw which I intend to rectify soon!), but I can therefore assure you that doing so isn’t necessary to understand and enjoy this instalment of the duology.

Elizabeth Peters’ Peabody books are one of my favourite series of all time, and I definitely got something of an Emerson/Peabody vibe from the chemistry between main character Elsie and her love interest, Bacchus. In fact, all of the characters (well, the ones on Elsie’s side, anyway) are both endearing and engaging, and often amusing as well.

The worldbuilding in terms of the magic systems and the societal mores built around them are fascinating and well-constructed – easy to understand for a newbie, and yet with layers and complexity to uncover as the plot unfolds.

And said plot is packed with action, mystery, romance and magic in fairly equal measures. The whole read just flew by and left me desperate for more of Elsie, Bacchus, Ogden and Emmeline, and the rest! I want to know what happens next with Elsie’s family history, her romance and friendships, her future as a spellbreaker. I want more of her solving magical crimes with her intrepid comrades. I want spin-offs featuring minor characters, so that I can explore other aspects of magic use and how it all works in the world.

In short, I will definitely be going back to read the first book, and fully intend to purchase and read everything else this author has written too!

Purchase Link: Spellmaker on Amazon

This round up seemed to take a little longer to put together than some of the others, but I really have no idea why, as it contains three solid ‘likes’ and two rapturous ‘adores’. Perhaps I thought I couldn’t do them justice?!

Although four of these five have fantasy elements, they were all very different reads in their tone, style and content, and I’m sure you will all find something to curl up with on these long and chilly nights.

Happy reading and shine on, lovely book-lovers! 🙂


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