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: ’55’ by James Delargy

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

I was completely lured into 55 by the premise. On a hot afternoon in Willbrook, a small remote town in West Australia, an injured man stumbles into a police station and speaks with Sergeant Chandler Jenkins. He claims that he was drugged and taken to a cabin in the woods to be chained to a wall. His name is Gabriel, and he was kidnapped by a man named Heath who told Gabriel that he would be victim number 55.  A little while later, another man is brought in to the station. He tells Chandler that his name is Heath, that he was kidnapped and imprisoned by a man named Gabriel, a man who told Heath that he would be victim number 55.  COOL, RIGHT?!

And for a while, it really was. The two men continue to give conflicting statements and the police try desperately to puzzle out which one they ought to be protecting. The stifling heat, the small town police force facing dealing with a serial killer, the confusion. It was also really nice to read a book set in Australia and the way that the novel plays on the unforgiving environment is brilliant. The first third was taut, tense and everything else that you could want from a thriller.

Unfortunately, it loses its way. Fearing the local force to be in over its head, a larger force is drafted in to help. Sadly for Chandler, they’re led by Mitch, an old friend-turned-enemy. Chandler and Mitch seemingly hate each other, apparently caring more about undermining each other than about stopping a serial killer. Running alongside the main plot is a story from both men’s past that I think is meant to explain the animosity. Only it doesn’t. We’re meant to believe that one of these men has let the other down so badly that they’re almost incapable of working together. We’re told it frequently, but I never bought it. The side story was also very repetitive and got rather annoying rather quickly. I’m sure that a manhunt in the Australian wilderness is in fact very repetitive but I just don’t want to trudge through reading numerous pages of walking and the same ‘should we/shouldn’t we call this off?’ musings.

Those chapters were short enough that I still found 55 very readable but they did disturb what was otherwise quite a clever plot. The characters were all pretty one-dimensional (there’s a New Constable, a Womanising Constable, a Nagging Mother and so on…) but I’m fairly relaxed about overlooking failings like that for a good twisty thriller. But then came the ending. Oh, the ending. From a browse of Goodreads (carried out after finishing with a shocked look on my face no doubt), some readers love it because it is different and certainly unexpected. Others, like me, don’t. It’s hard to really grumble without spoiling it for readers who do still love the sound of the plot but I just felt completely blind-sided. It’s ambiguous, which I can sort of live with, but it’s also very unsatisfying. The book lost a whole star in a few pages. I’m still grumpy about it 24 hours later and I feel cheated.

Overall: This is tricky. I don’t feel like I can whole-heartedly recommend 55 knowing full well what readers are running into. And yet it’s actually quite an entertaining read, and something a bit different to the more often seen thrillers set in the US and UK. I suppose actually that’s the best thing to take from this review – there’s good, there’s bad and it’s all very confusing and conflicting emotions will abound!


Date finished: 25 January 2019

Pictured edition published: by Simon and Schuster UK in April 2019

Source: Bought

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: ‘The Raw Shark Texts’ by Steven Hall

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars


If you are reading this, I’m not around anymore. Take the phone and speed dial 1. Tell the woman who answers that you are Eric Sanderson. The woman is Dr Randle. She’ll understand what has happened and you will be able to see her straight away. Take the car keys and drive the yellow Jeep to Dr. Randle’s house. If you haven’t found it yet, there’s a map in the envelope – it isn’t too far and it’s not hard to find.

Dr Randle will be able to answer all your questions. It’s very important that you go straight away. Do not pass go. Do not explore. Do not collect two hundred pounds. The house keys are hanging from a nail on the banister at the bottom of the stairs, don’t forget them.

With regret and also hope,
The First Eric Sanderson

Just look at that for a blurb. How good does that book sound?! Add to it a note on the back billing The Raw Shark Texts as “Jaws meets The Matrix meets The Da Vinci Code” and my expectations were super high. Like so many others, I’ve had the book on my shelves for ages. At the end of last year when I’d already decided that 2019 would be the year I finally focussed properly on reading the books already on my shelves, I picked this up as the first of the bunch because I was almost certain I’d love it.  Spoiler alert: I didn’t really.

The start was excellent. Eric Sanderson wakes up in a house he doesn’t recognise and can’t remember a thing about who he is or how he got there. He receives a letter that purports to be from himself in the past (‘The First Eric Sanderson’) and is left to try and unravel the mysteries of himself and his life.  The writing is sharp and hugely entertaining and there’s plenty of plot to go at. It felt like a real ‘cult movie’ of a book and I was genuinely excited to be reading it.

“I did not know who I was. I did not know where I was.

That simple.

That frightening.

Within 100 pages, I was confused and a bit grumpy. While I do love fantasy and science fiction and some magical realism, I found the plot of The Raw Shark Texts baffling. I just couldn’t get a handle on what was going on. I’m not sure how much to say without straying into spoiler territory. Eric finds out early on that he is believed to have lost his memories following an accident in which his girlfriend was killed and in dealing with the loss somehow managed to attract the attention of a “conceptual shark” called a Ludovician which “feeds on human memories and the intrinsic sense of self”. I think I liked what the shark was there to represent but it was all frankly just too off the wall for me, the novel eventually coming to feel like an overworked extended metaphor.

I didn’t put the book aside because there was always enough that I was enjoying to keep me reading. Eric’s relationship with a vaguely mysterious character called Scout, the cat called Ian who was the most perfect illustration of a cat I’ve ever read, and the development of Eric’s character as he tries to work out what kind of person he is and how he fits in the world, including how he reacts to those who knew the first Eric Sanderson and want to imprint that Eric’s personality onto this later Eric. There were plenty of moments, though, where I was just reading the words on the page and not really engaging with them. They were abstract and bonkers and didn’t translate themselves into anything like meaning in my head. Or where they did, it was just weird. Not dissimilar to when somebody is trying to tell you about a dream they had.

You know those books where in the last couple of pages there’s something that changes how you see everything that’s gone before? Those reveals that make you realise that what you thought you were reading was perhaps something else entirely? I hate them. I don’t like labouring over a book that makes no sense while you’re reading it only to have an author show me in the last two pages what was going on. While I might eventually come to acknowledge that the book was clever, my main takeaway will still almost always be how annoying the reading experience was. That’s The Raw Shark Texts. While I can objectively admire a lot of what Steven Hall does with the pages of the book and the ultimate fate of Eric Sanderson, I’m still irritated that I was made to wade through some surreal borderline nonsense first.

Overall: If you’re into magical realism or you like your fiction particularly quirky, I’m sure that there’s a lot about this book to love. It plays around with language and uses text art in a way that does add to the story rather than just take up space and  I would never deny that it’s clever.  If you like to feel like you understand what’s going on in the book that you’re reading, or if you aren’t a fan of the surreal, I’d pass on this.


Date finished: 05 January 2019

Pictured edition published: by Canongate Books in March 2017

Source: Bought

Pop Sugar Challenge Prompt: A debut novel

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