Book Chat: ‘The Swan Thieves’ by Elizabeth Kostova

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I’m very much a plot driven reader. I read a lot of fantasy and crime/thrillers because what I want more than anything when I’m reading is a solid, driven, well-paced plot. Fewer things are more likely to have me putting a book hastily back on a bookshop shelf than phrases like “brilliant character study” or “wonderfully descriptive”. I obviously want my books to have well-developed characters and to include immersive descriptions, but I don’t want either to be all I’m going to get. I’m also by no means an art aficionado; I like an art gallery or museum as much as the next person but I would be the first to admit that it just isn’t something I know a lot about. I tell you all of this so that you’ll know that on paper, I should have hated The Swan Thieves. Slow, meandering and with so much detail about art.

I bought it at least nine years ago just as I was getting back into reading because I’d read and loved The Historian. My tastes changed all the time in that phase so I shelved it and ignored it for years. I was never quite disinterested enough to get rid of it but it also never pushed its way up my TBR. It might not have done now but for me randomly putting it on a shortlist of the titles I’d owned the longest for my husband to choose from, and him actually choosing it! Which would have been stupid because I actually really liked it.

Not a lot happens in The Swan Thieves. Early on, renowned artist Robert Oliver is put into the pyschiatric care of Dr Andrew Marlowe after attacking a painting in the New York National Gallery of Art with a knife. Robert refuses to speak so Dr Marlowe spends the rest of the novel trying to piece together his life using a pack of old letters that he finds amongst his possessions and interviews with his former partners. We get a few perspectives – Dr Marlowe’s, those of the women he meets as they recount the stories of their relationships with Robert, and the letters between two 19th century artists. There’s a sort-of mystery surrounding those artists but, for the most part, this is the story of Robert’s life and how that artist mystery affected him. For 600+ pages.

And yet the writing makes this seemingly undramatic plot something really amazing. Shortly after meeting Robert, Andrew visits the National Gallery of Art to look at the painting that Oliver tried to take a knife to. The description was so incredible that I googled the name of the painting and the artist so that I could see it. Neither exist. I swear, it seemed so real that I could clearly picture that painting. I still can. Kostova makes the art in her novel seem vital and interesting. She makes art itself seem vital and interesting. It was a stunning feat. Even the descriptions of characters painting was captivating, and even writing that I know that seems bonkers.

It took me two weeks to read the hefty novel, which would also usually frustrate me. With The Swan Thieves, though, I just settled into it. Reading it was…soothing somehow. I was totally wrapped up in all of the stories, especially the historical story told through the letters and, later on, its own chapters. Some of the historical characters were real, some weren’t. They all seemed pretty bloody real to me.

I gave this four stars in the end because there was something about Dr Marlowe’s story that just didn’t quite ring as true for me as the rest of the novel. We’re told repeatedly that he’s a brilliant psychiatrist and yet he spends barely any time with his patient (shouting at him fairly regularly when he does see him), choosing instead to drive around the US meeting with his former partners and researching a group of century-dead artists. I mean, clearly I understand why because that’s sort of the point of the book but it seemed like a bit of a weak link in the middle. It didn’t ruin the book for me but it did make some of the segues pretty rocky and knocked off that all important fifth star.

Overall: This isn’t a book for everybody. There’s a lot I’d usually grumble about – middle class characters with what really are inconsequential problems in the grand scheme of things that they whine about regularly, meandering musings on the nature and permanence of art, and an admittedly slightly clumsy romantic plot. And still I loved it. If you want something a little more quiet and ponderous with some fantastic writing, I’d genuinely recommend digging out this backlist title.


Date finished: 24 May 2020

Pictured edition published: by Sphere Books in 2010

Source: Bought

Book Chat: ‘The Hunting Party’ by Lucy Foley

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

All of them are friends. One of them is a killer.

During the languid days of the Christmas break, a group of thirtysomething friends from Oxford meet to welcome in the New Year together, a tradition they began as students ten years ago. For this vacation, they’ve chosen an idyllic and isolated estate in the Scottish Highlands—the perfect place to get away and unwind by themselves.

They arrive on December 30th, just before a historic blizzard seals the lodge off from the outside world. Two days later, on New Year’s Day, one of them is dead.

The trip began innocently enough: admiring the stunning if foreboding scenery, champagne in front of a crackling fire, and reminiscences about the past. But after a decade, the weight of secret resentments has grown too heavy for the group’s tenuous nostalgia to bear. Amid the boisterous revelry of New Year’s Eve, the cord holding them together snaps.  Now one of them is dead . . . and another of them did it.

Keep your friends close, the old adage goes. But just how close is too close?

Agatha Christie is one of my favourite authors, and my absolute go-to if I want a quick comfort read fix. If publishers declare one of their books as a book for fans of hers, I’ll almost definitely be lured in but you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m judging that book just a little more harshly than I otherwise might. Thankfully The Hunting Party fared well even with the Christie comparison lurking in the back of my mind.

The premise isn’t that unique – a group of old friends head to a lodge in the middle of nowhere in the Scottish highlands for a New Year’s Eve celebration. A snowstorm sweeps in and cuts the lodge off from the rest of civilisation, which becomes all the more unfortunate when one of the group is murdered. There are plenty of novels treading that familiar ground. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say The Hunting Party was a complete revelation in crime fiction, there is enough that will keep you guessing to make it worth a few hours of your time on a gloomy evening this winter. In this slight twist on the classic, readers are kept in the dark not only on the identity of the murderer but also the identity of the victim. Obviously we know that someone has died from the opening couple of chapters, but not who. There are chapters following the group on New Year’s Day after discovery of a body, while most are set a couple of days earlier and show the celebrations starting out and gradually souring.

To be honest, there were moments where I would have been happy for every single one of the characters to be the unlucky one. If you’re one of those readers who needs to like and identify with the characters in a novel, The Hunting Party probably isn’t for you. This bunch of Oxbridge graduates is pretty gross. They’re all varying degrees of pretentious, selfish and mean-spirited. They treat each other appallingly and there are grudges and secrets that gradually out. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend one actual night with the group but I was completely obsessed with reading about them. I know it’s a cliche when it comes to thrillers but I did absolutely tear through this and it’s so easy to just keep turning the pages.

Alongside all of that victim-murderer headline plot are some smaller, more personal mysteries. Looking after the lodge guests are Heather and Doug, both of whom clearly have their own reasons for taking a job on an estate in the middle of nowhere. The novel shifts perspectives, with Heather and Doug both providing  outsiders’ views on the central group and narrating the ‘present day’ sections. In some thriller novels, there are chapters that are weaker and there to just move along the plot but I was still invested in Heather and Doug and there were no lulls in pace for me. Just a solid thriller all round!

Overall:  Winter is the perfect time to pick up The Hunting Party! For British readers, it’s also surprisingly nice to read a book with British slang and current cultural references. It’s sharp and so readable and witty. Get on it.


Date finished: 10 December 2019

Pictured edition published: by HarperCollins UK in January 2019

Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley

Book Chat: ‘Nevernight’ and ‘Godsgrave’ by Jay Kristoff

I just finished Godsgrave by Jay Kristoff. Not as in ‘most recently’, as in about an hour ago. I wanted to spend most of this morning reading and I’ve tried picking up a non-fiction book but can’t think about anything other than the ending to Godsgrave so I’m just giving up and wallowing in/sharing my feelings about the Nevernight series as far as I’ve got.

Where to start? Let’s kick off with Nevernight, the first in the series. The basic premise that Mia Corvere has grown up in the shadow of her father’s execution for rebelling against the incumbent government. Her mother was imprisoned in a cruel jail and her baby brother is presumed dead. She’s pretty cross about the whole thing and has sworn her life to killing those she believes were responsible. She also happens to be a ‘darkin’, able to manipulate shadows and communicate with her shadowy non-cat, Mister Kindly (who is fabulous – what’s not to love about a sarcastic sort-of-cat?). Desperate to join the Red Church, an organisation of assassins, she quests off into the desert and pits herself against some brutal challenges and fellow apprentices and our story begins.

I love me a good boarding-school-with-trials story and this was no exception. I adored it. It’s gritty and dark and harsh but as Mia forms friendships and learns more about herself, there’s some light relief too. Be warned though, some of those friendships will break your heart.  Kristoff isn’t shy about killing people off. I’ve cried and stared at my Kindle in shock fairly regularly during both this and the next book. Deaths don’t feel gratuitous but that just makes them all the harder to read. Brace yourself!

Surprisingly enough for a series that’s already about assassins and a pretty vicious republic, Godsgrave manages to up the ante. Shit gets very real. There is much blood and many deaths and it’s not for the faint hearted. Without any spoilers, most of the book focuses on trials of the ‘gladiatii’. Yes, you guessed it. Not only do we have assassins, we also now have battles to the death between gladiator warrior types. The first part of the book (after a very handy refresher on the series so far) is split between catching readers up on how our characters have ended up where they are and in following this new plot line. It was a smidge disorientating at first but a few chapters in, I was hooked. There’s more of the fantastic world-building and character development from the first, with new threats, more political intrigue, more moments to make your heart hurt and twists and turns and…well, everything. It’s bloody brilliant.

There’s a whiff of Terry Pratchett about the series too (albeit very much Pratchett for grown-ups), with a wry, all-seeing narrator chipping in for prologues and epilogues and the occasional footnote. I’ve seen reviews by other readers saying that the footnotes ruined the book for them. I personally like them because they appeal to my fairly dry sense of humour and help expand the world a bit with back stories of towns, myths characters refer to or sayings they use. Read a few and see what you think but if they do bug you, you can skip them and you’ll miss nothing of the main story.

All of which is to say, if you’re a fantasy reader, you really NEED to read this series. If you aren’t usually a fantasy reader, it’s not too heavy on the fantastical side and there isn’t a lot of magic so I wouldn’t say it’s only for the hardcore fans by any stretch – definitely worth giving a try! The hype has died down but it’s one of the best series I’ve read in recent years. I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the day I’d bought and started the final instalment (the cliffhangers at the end of the second books are killing me) but I’m trying to hold out for a little while…

Book Chat: ‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes

Like any self-respecting science fiction fan, I’ve seen Flowers for Algernon on countless ‘best of…’ lists. I’ve owned the Gollancz SF Masterworks version for a good couple of years and have passed over it so many times. And so begins another review that kicks off with me chastising myself for allowing such a great book to languish on my shelves for so long.

I loved Flowers for Algernon. It tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 68 who sweeps the floors and makes deliveries at a local bakery. He is chosen as the first human research subject by doctors trialling a new operation that will turn even those with limited intelligence into geniuses, following in the footsteps of a white mouse, the eponymous Algernon. The novel charts Charlie’s journey from his selection, his “rise” to genius and beyond. As with all the best science fiction, that story is only part of why the book is so ruddy good; the rest is in the questions that it raises and forces you to think about. In this case, it’s whether ignorance really is bliss and whether we should ever really meddle with our nature (which is a question that I expect is as relevant in 2019 as it was in 1966, if it isn’t actually more relevant).

And even with all of that, what really makes Flowers for Algernon that little bit more special is the writing. Charlie’s story is relayed in his own words through progress reports that he writes and submits to the doctors supervising him. The spelling and grammar in the early entries is dreadful and reading it is jarring but as Charlie’s intellect develops, so does his writing. In the early chapters, as a reader you can see Charlie being the butt of his colleagues’ jokes even where Charlie doesn’t. The painful dawning of realisation was wonderfully written, as is the confusion that Charlie experiences as his intelligence outstrips his emotional maturity. It’s clever and sensitive and outstanding.

The only reason I didn’t give it five stars was that there was a middle portion of the novel that I found a little bit repetitive. Perhaps only 30-40 pages or so but enough that there was a noticeable slow down and I got that slightly fidgety feeling I get when I’m reading something that is going a little rogue. It picked back up relatively quickly but it made what would otherwise have been perfect just really bloody great.

The ending broke my heart and I cried quietly into my paperback through the final few pages and for a good few minutes after. You know what’s coming for a while and I thought that I was prepared but no. Even with the build up, it still somehow manages to sneak up on you. I’d defy you to read the last few chapters without at least a few tears in your eyes. Thinking about it now nearly a week later still makes my heart clench.

Overall: I’m so glad that I finally picked this up. Flowers for Algernon is a showcase of masterful writing and very moving. I’m not surprised Gollancz included the novel in its Masterworks series and I can’t wait to pick up some more of the novels chosen to sit alongside it.


Date finished: 09 April 2019

Pictured edition published: by Gollancz in 2000

Source: Bought

Pop Sugar Challenge Prompt: N/A

Book Chat: ‘Shadows on the Tundra’ by Dalia Grinkeviciute

Translated by Delija Valiukenas

In 1941, 14-year-old Dalia and her family are deported from their native Lithuania to a labour camp in Siberia. As the strongest member of her family she submits to twelve hours a day of manual labour. At the age of 21, she escapes the gulag and returns to Lithuania. She writes her memories on scraps of paper and buries them in the garden, fearing they might be discovered by the KGB. They are not found until 1991, four years after her death. This is the story Dalia buried. The immediacy of her writing bears witness not only to the suffering she endured but also the hope that sustained her. It is a Lithuanian tale that, like its author, beats the odds to survive.

Reading Shadows on the Tundra reminded me just why my main reading goal for 2019 was to read more translated literature. I’ve been to Vilnius, spending days exploring the city and reading about the country’s history in museums and galleries, and even after that I realise now how little I really got the history until I read this. It’s relentless. Brutal. Unflinching. Raw. A thousand similar adjectives still wouldn’t quite convey just how powerful this book is. It isn’t for the faint-hearted – Dalia’s record of her experiences of the Soviet Gulag doesn’t make for easy reading and I often felt physically uneasy while reading what she endured – but it was absolutely worth it. Every grimace and every tear.

I knew about Lithuania’s history but, as with so many things, it’s the personal accounts that get you to see past the overwhelming statistics and stark facts and understand what these sweeping events really meant to individuals. This account is beautifully written and, told as it is from Dalia’s personal experience, doesn’t get lost in trying to convey the scale of the deportations – it’s one young girl’s story of what she and her family went through, and a hugely impactful one at that.

What I suppose is remarkable is that while it’s undeniably dark, there’s hope. I wonder if that’s in part because Dalia wrote this account when she had managed to escape, or if she always did have such a conviction that she’d survive.  Either way (and I know that this sounds melodramatic) there’s something life affirming about Shadows on the Tundra. Even while the Lithuanians were subject to appalling cruelty, there are those that refuse to lose hope, those who show compassion and refuse to give up on their humanity. There’s just so much to take from these 200 pages.

One thing (among the many things) that I love about the books that Peirene Press publishes is that they’re all short enough that you can comfortably read them in one go. Even if that hadn’t been the case, I’m not sure I’d have had much alternative with Shadows on the Tundra. The writing is urgent and direct and almost impossible to wrench yourself away from. There aren’t chapter breaks and it’s often difficult to tell how much time has passed. I’m not always a fan of that type of writing but the stream of consciousness style suits this narrative – the flow and passage of the pages mirroring the flow and passage of Dalia’s days perfectly. People come and go as they pass in and out of Dalia’s life. There are deaths of people you as a reader have only known about for two pages and even those are heartbreaking, not only because they were obviously the deaths of real people but also because death has become so commonplace that each is simply told without emotion.

Read it, cry over it and then please come back here so that we can talk about it.

Overall: I know that book reviewers wheel out this phrase all the time and it can feel like a worn out old statement but this book really is important. There isn’t much more I can say. I finished it yesterday and it’s still playing on my mind. I expect that it will be for some time to come.


Date finished: 09 March 2019

Pictured edition published: by Peirene Press in June 2018

Source: Bought – publisher subscription

Pop Sugar Challenge Prompt: A novel with no chapters/unusual chapter headings/unconventionally numbered chapters

Book Chat: ‘A House of Ghosts’ by W. C. Ryan

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A House of Ghosts popped up in my inbox one day pitched by NetGalley as “And Then There Were None meets The Silent Companions“.  One of my favourite books of all time crossed with one of the best books I read in 2017? There was absolutely no way I could resist requesting it. My expectations were sky high when I first downloaded it so I suppose it’s probably a good thing that I left it a couple of months before I actually picked it up.

In some ways, I feel like it’s slightly unfair of me to burden those of you who are also big fans of either one of those books with my lofty expectation too because A House of Ghosts isn’t quite either of them. The conclusion that I’ve come to though is that actually in a way it is fair because it might nudge you to read this and then your life will be just a little bit better. Because while A House of Ghosts might well not be either of the novels that it seems to be being likened to, it is a really good one.

It’s set during World War I, on a remote island off the southern coast of England where Lord Highmount has convened a group of family and friends to host a seance to attempt to contact his two sons, who are believed to have died while serving on the Western Front.  After all of the guests have arrived, a storm cuts off the only route on and off the island, phone lines are tampered with (obviously) and events take a turn for the creepy.

The plot is one of those delightful tangles where everybody seems to have a solid motive for wanting at least one of the other residents of the abbey dead. I know that it’s a bit of cliche but as soon as the guests start feeling threatened, the secrets start tumbling out. Most of the story is told from the perspectives of Kate Cartwright and Captain Donovan, tasked with keeping an eye on Blackwater Abbey’s residents. I loved them both individually for different reasons and together they are perfection. Their relationship is so well written and them getting to know each other is the heartwarming light touch to what is an otherwise quite dark narrative.

Because not only is A House of Ghosts a cracking mystery, it also taps perfectly into the emotional effects of World War I, both on those that had served in the army and made it home and on those bearing the whole tragedy out at home.  The fraught emotions, the awful uncertainty of not knowing what happened to family members who were pronounced “missing, presumed dead” and the distrust of those in positions of power making decisions affecting thousands, including the story’s very own Lord Highmount, owner of an arms manufacturing empire. Murder alongside war might sound a bit much but the fine line is trodden sensitively.

Even with all of the mention of seances, I didn’t quite expect the novel to be as…otherworldly as it is. I don’t think that it’s a spoiler to say that the book doesn’t just hint at ghostly goings on, it properly commits to the paranormal. You might need to suspend your sense of disbelief fairly regularly but I didn’t find it too much, even if it was a little disorientating at first. Readers of ‘traditional’ crime fiction might not be a fan but if you’re ok with your hauntings being more literal, you’ll be just fine.

Overall: The writing is sharp and so wonderfully British feeling. The plot is well paced and A House of Ghosts is nothing if not a page turner. If you’re looking for a winter read that is just a little bit different, this one should be appearing on your wishlist.


Date finished: 25 November 2018

Pictured edition published: by Zaffre on 04 October 2018

Source: Received from the published in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley