Category Archives: Book Review

The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes

the children of jocasta

As I’m sure regular readers of this blog are aware, I’m a big fan of novels that give a new spin on an ancient myth, and I was delighted to hear Natalie Haynes speak at last year’s Hay Winter Weekend, allowing me to pick up a copy of her second novel, The Children of Jocasta.  If you do get the opportunity to hear Haynes give a talk, please do go – I found her talk at Hay to be incredibly interesting and extremely amusing.

In The Children of Jocasta, Natalie Haynes retells the Oedipus and Antigone myths to reveal a new side of an ancient story…

My siblings and I have grown up in a cursed house, children of cursed parents…

Jocasta is just fifteen when she is told that she must marry the King of Thebes, an old man she has never met. Her life has never been her own, and nor will it be, unless she outlives her strange, absent husband.

Ismene is the same age when she is attacked in the palace she calls home. Since the day of her parents’ tragic deaths a decade earlier, she has always longed to feel safe with the family she still has. But with a single act of violence, all that is about to change.

With the turn of these two events, a tragedy is set in motion. But not as you know it.

The Children of Jocasta retells the stories of two Greek plays – Oedipus Tyrannos and Antigone.  I was familiar with the tale of Oedipus in the broadest terms – it’s difficult not to be when Freud borrowed his name to describe certain feelings towards one’s opposite sex parent – but Antigone’s tale was a new one to me.  This didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the novel at all, and I felt that it worked as an introduction to these plays.  The novel alternates between the two narratives, and while the two plays are separate, they are connected, and I loved the way that Haynes intertwined the two, revealing a clue in one to explain something in the other.

The tale of Oedipus is told from the perspective of Jocasta, a relatively minor character in Sophocles’ play, despite the important role that she plays, and I thought that this was a nice spin on the story.  Indeed, Oedipus is all but relegated to the side-lines, not appearing until quite late in the novel, and then playing a relatively minor role.  Similarly, the second narrative is told from the perspective of Ismene (Isy) – again a minor character in the play, given a new voice by Haynes in order to tell the story from a different point of view to those traditionally used.

Haynes admits to playing fast and loose with some of the detail in her author’s note at the end of the novel.  I’ve no issue with this, and I wouldn’t have been aware of many of the changes had she not pointed them out herself.  And I think that to tell the story from the perspectives she did that this was necessary.  It’s difficult to focus on Jocasta and yet show Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx, for example – you can’t have both, and so the Sphinx becomes a bandit horde terrorising the area around Thebes that Oedipus does battle with, mentioned in passing, rather than being a key scene1.

I haven’t gone into any detail of what happens in either narrative – this is one of those novels where you either know the key details or I’d have to spoil it for you – but this is an entertaining retelling of two Greek tragedies that I’d recommend to fans of Madeleine Miller and Emily Hauser.

Rating ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Also, the riddle of Sphinx can’t be done any more brilliantly that in Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids.

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Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill

sea of rust

I was drawn to Sea of Rust when it was first published in 2017, attracted to the idea of an end of the world novel in which humans are extinct and it’s now the turn of the robots and AI that we developed to serve us.

HUMANKIND IS EXTINCT.

Wiped out in a global uprising by the very machines made to serve them. Now the world is controlled by OWIs – vast mainframes that have assimilated the minds of millions of robots.

But not all robots are willing to cede their individuality, and Brittle is one of the holdouts.

After a near-deadly encounter with another AI, Brittle is forced to seek sanctuary in a city under siege by an OWI. Critically damaged, Brittle must evade capture long enough to find the essential rare parts to make repairs – but as a robot’s CPU gradually deteriorates, all their old memories resurface.

For Brittle, that means one haunting memory in particular…

With humans out of the way, you might expect that the world would run more smoothly, and be managed according to logic rather than the whims of a few individuals who have, by luck or judgement, gained power over their respective areas of the map.  It couldn’t be further from the truth.  Now that humans are extinct, there are two One World Intelligences (OWIs) – vast mainframes with intellect and capabilities outstripping those of individual robots – seeking domination.  That domination entails destroying the other OWI, as well as absorbing the memories and knowledge of each individual robot for their own purposes.

Sea of Rust follows Brittle – a robot designed as a caregiver, supporting the ill and elderly in their day to day needs.  Left with no purpose (as with most robots, her purpose expired with the human race) Brittle now wanders around the desert that is all that’s left of the American Midwest, seeking out spare parts to repair herself as bits and pieces begin to fail, and trying to avoid being absorbed by the OWIs.  I found Brittle to be surprisingly human, and I liked the contrast of introspection, which I wouldn’t expect from a robot, combined with the abilities to make precise calculations as to distance, speed etc. that I would expect.  Her end goal might be different to that of a human left at the end of the world – finding parts rather than food or medicine – but the challenges are the same as she tries to find what she needs whilst avoiding other robots who are doing the same.

As well as sharing her own story, Brittle also reflects upon the last days, months, and years of the human race, explaining how and why the war started, and how it ended as it did.  Once war was declared, I think that the result was inevitable, and most robots – whatever their original purpose – were involved in the fight, seeking out and killing any remaining pockets of human resistance.  I thought that this was a fascinating, if worryingly plausible, scenario, but it was good to understand why there were no humans left, and I really enjoyed these parts of the story.

Sea of Rust is a fantastic end of the world saga, but an original one in that our own world has already vanished, leaving it in the hands of robots as the two remaining OWIs fight it out for supremacy.  I loved that there are robots – like Brittle – who don’t want to be absorbed by these vast mainframes, and just want to be themselves, and this novel raises interesting questions about identity and individualism.  At the same time, it is an excellent story with plenty of action and a great plot, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

a brief history of everyone who ever lived

Today I’m sharing my review of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived – one of my rare forays into non-fiction.

This is a story about you.

It is the history of who you are and how you came to be. It is unique to you, as it is to each of the 100 billion modern humans who have ever drawn breath. But it is also our collective story, because in every one of our genomes we each carry the history of our species – births, deaths, disease, war, famine, migration and a lot of sex.

Since scientists first read the human genome in 2001 it has been subject to all sorts of claims, counterclaims and myths. In fact, as Adam Rutherford explains, our genomes should be read not as instruction manuals, but as epic poems. DNA determines far less than we have been led to believe about us as individuals, but vastly more about us as a species.

In this captivating journey through the expanding landscape of genetics, Adam Rutherford reveals what our genes now tell us about history, and what history tells us about our genes. From Neanderthals to murder, from redheads to race, dead kings to plague, evolution to epigenetics, this is a demystifying and illuminating new portrait of who we are and how we came to be.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is split roughly into two halves.  The first half covers the history of homo sapiens – where we came from, how we spread to inhabit so much of the world, and what we did along the way.  As this is a book about genetics, it looks at our history from the perspective of what DNA evidence can tell us about our past, using those few remains discovered in conditions permitting DNA to be recovered, as well as what our own DNA reveals about our history.  The second half focuses more on where we are now, and what recent developments in what is still a relatively young science can, and perhaps more importantly, can’t tell us, and I found it to be an interesting read.  Many of the ideas behind this are incredibly complex, but Rutherford explains things in such a way that they are understandable to those with little background knowledge on the subject.

I’m not going to go into the science at all – it’s not my area of expertise, and I’d only do it badly – but this book covers the history of the science as well as what that science can now tell us.  And there are some wonderful parts of our history explained, such as our fraternisation with homo neanderthalenthis (we have, on average, approx. 3% Neanderthal DNA, so, you know, that came from somewhere), and our tolerance to lactose to name but two.  There’s also a wonderful (if slightly gruesome) explanation of the bubonic plague, and exactly what caused the symptoms that are so well documented, and I found that to be extremely interesting.

Whilst the topic as a whole is fascinating, there were some wonderful little anecdotes included that I particularly enjoyed where DNA had, rightly or wrongly, been used to prove something or other.  As an East Midlands gal, the exhumation of Richard III from a car park in Leicester a few years ago was local news.  It was interesting to see this unfold from the perspective of the investigations that went into proving the identity of the remains.  As a contrast, there was an example of a book published a few years ago purporting to have discovered the identity of Jack the Ripper via DNA evidence.  One of these investigations was run with the utmost care and attention to detail and a thoroughness that leaves the result beyond doubt, the other… was not.  Let’s just say there’s a reason I remember the Richard III story and not the other, despite them occurring at a similar point in time. 😉

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is written in an extremely engaging style, and I loved the footnotes that were both helpful and often amusing (I still can’t get over the scientific name “ba humbugi” for a species of snail, or “gorilla gorilla gorilla” for a Western Lowland Gorilla found in Africa (it’s ok, he said I could laugh about this)).  Rutherford makes the complex science behind these ideas accessible to the reader, and it’s wonderful to read a book that shouts about its topic whilst still being clear about its limitations.  Recommended.

Blog Tour: The Golden Orphans by Gary Raymond

the golden orphans

I’m delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for The Golden Orphans by Gary Raymond today – a novel I was immediately attracted to when I read the blurb.

Within the dark heart of an abandoned city, on an island once torn by betrayal and war, lies a terrible secret…

Francis Benthem is a successful artist; he’s created a new life on an island in the sun. He works all night, painting the dreams of his mysterious Russian benefactor, Illie Prostakov. He writes letters to old friends and students back in cold, far away London. But now Francis Benthem is found dead. The funeral is planned and his old friend from art school arrives to finish what Benthem had started. The painting of dreams on a faraway island. But you can also paint nightmares and Illie has secrets of his own that are not ready for the light. Of promises made and broken, betrayal and murder…

The Golden Orphans offers a new twist on the literary thriller.

The novel opens with our unnamed protagonist attending the funeral of his friend and mentor, Francis Benthem.  He is the only person in attendance, until a small convoy of four strangers (to the narrator, at least) arrive to pay their last respects.  Their identities and their relationship to Francis is unknown, but it’s clear to the reader that there are questions to be answered here.  I think that this opening scene is extremely clever.  It’s deceptively simple, but immediately raises questions as to who the narrator is, what Francis was doing in Cyprus, and, of course, who these attendees at his funeral are.  It sets the tone for the whole novel, which has an almost dreamlike quality – there’s something surreal about it all, and I was immediately captivated by the slightly strange atmosphere.   It’s obvious that things aren’t quite what they seem, and this successfully pulls the reader into the story.

Set on Cyprus, I thought that the location worked brilliantly.  The island’s history is new to me, but Raymond incorporates this into the novel in such a way that I’m interested to learn more whilst knowing enough to ensure that the story makes sense.  I won’t go into the details because this history is central to the plot, but I loved the way that what initially seemed to be a random if striking setting came to be such a key feature, and so unexpectedly.  It takes a little while for the relevance of the island’s past to become apparent, but it’s a real “a ha!” moment, as things start to become clearer to the reader.

I found the pace to be pleasingly slow as the narrator – who goes unnamed throughout the whole novel – begins to understand Francis’s work, and how he might continue with this unusual project.  Whilst unravelling this mystery, he also has his own problems to deal with, and I think that the opportunity to work abroad comes as a welcome relief – the situation with his girlfriend and how to solve that particular problem becoming clearer with distance.  Whilst the reader doesn’t know the narrator, there’s plenty of insight into his character and his relative cluelessness comes across as endearing.

The Golden Orphans is a wonderful literary thriller, and I enjoyed the artistic and historic elements to the story which make this a unique tale.

The Golden Orphans is published by Parthian Books.  Many thanks to the publisher and to Emma of damppebbles blog tours for the review copy and the opportunity to take part in the blog tour.


Make sure you check out the other stops on the blog tour:

The Golden Orphans banner

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

a natural history of dragons

I first came across A Natural History of Dragons on Susana’s blog A Bag Full of Stories (if you don’t already follow Susana’s blog, please do give her a follow 😊) my interest immediately piqued by that lovely cover, and, well, dragons, to be perfectly honest!

You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart – no more so than the study of dragons itself…

From Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, Isabella, Lady Trent, is known to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning and natural history defied the stifling conventions of her day. Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects and her fragile flesh to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

A Natural History of Dragons is written as a memoir, the first of those of Isabella, or Lady Trent, and allows the reader to see her as a child, first stumbling across Sparklings – smaller, more common relatives of dragon (and much easier to handle!) – and her earliest misadventures.  It is written in a formal style, and carries the tone and language one might expect from a Victorian lady.  I loved the style in which it’s told, and I enjoyed the way in which Isabella, now older, wiser, and vastly more experienced, was able to look back on her youth with both pride but also moments of embarrassment at her youthful antics.  It is an honest account, highlighting both good times and bad.  Dotted throughout the novel are drawings sketched by Isabella on her adventures which I loved, and that I thought gave it a little something extra, bringing the narrative to life.

If the tone of the novel evokes the Victorian era, so too does the setting.  It’s set in a fictional world, rather than our own with added wildlife, and is richly imagined.  It has a feel similar to our own in terms of the technology at the time, as well as the nature of society, with women considered to be frail beings not needing much by way of an education.  This becomes another hurdle for Isabella to overcome, it being considered unseemly for women to study natural history (of any creature, never mind dragons) or to travel anywhere beyond civilisation.  As you might have guessed, she is more than up to this challenge.  One thing I particularly liked in this novel is that she had people around her that were sympathetic to her nature.  Her mother is entirely against her being anything other than a prim and proper young woman, but her father respects and, if not openly encourages her tendencies, at least makes it possible for her to continue in her early studies.  Her husband too, respects this element of her nature, and doesn’t try to crush it.  I thought that Brennan did this very well and without it seeming to be patronising of Isabella – they aren’t indulging her, or letting her act upon her whims, rather, they assist her in making her dragon-fuelled dreams become a reality.

The story starts slowly as the reader gets to know a young Isabella and sees her develop from child to young woman, allowing the reader to understand the tenacity of the protagonist, as well as her cleverness and impulsive nature.  As she heads out on her first expedition, the pace speeds up, and the story went in quite an unexpected direction.  There are dragons, adventure, the politics of travelling to a foreign country, and several hairy moments.  Needless to say, I loved every minute of it.  It’s a great story, and one that had so much more to it than I expected.  I can’t wait to read the next memoir of Lady Trent, The Tropic of Serpents.

A Natural History of Dragons is published by Titan Books, and is the first in a series of five featuring Lady Trent’s memoirs.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Blog Tour: Paris in the Dark by Robert Olen Butler

paris in the dark

It’s my stop on the blog tour for Paris in the Dark­ by Robert Olen Butler – the fourth novel to feature US reporter and undercover agent Kit Cobb.

Autumn 1915. The First World War is raging across Europe. Woodrow Wilson has kept Americans out of the trenches, although that hasn’t stopped young men and women from crossing the Atlantic to volunteer at the front.

Christopher Marlowe ‘Kit’ Cobb, a Chicago reporter and undercover agent for the US government is in Paris when he meets an enigmatic nurse called Louise. Officially in the city for a story about American ambulance drivers, Cobb is grateful for the opportunity to get to know her but soon his intelligence handler, James Polk Trask, extends his mission. Parisians are meeting ‘death by dynamite’ in a new campaign of bombings, and the German-speaking Kit seems just the man to discover who is behind this – possibly a German operative who has infiltrated with the waves of refugees? And so begins a pursuit that will test Kit Cobb, in all his roles, to the very limits of his principles, wits and talents for survival.

Fleetly plotted and engaging with political and cultural issues that resonate deeply today, Paris in the Dark is a page-turning novel of unmistakable literary quality.

The novel starts slowly, giving the reader a neat introduction to the time in which Paris in the Dark is set.  At this point – 1915 – President Wilson has kept America out of the war, and the American volunteers who are taking part are doing so under their own steam.  Kit Cobb is ostensibly there to report upon the efforts of these volunteers, focussing particularly on those who are driving ambulances between the front lines and the hospitals being used to treat those who are injured.  I thought that period in which Paris in the Dark is set was fascinating, and I loved the noir feel to the novel.  The First World War isn’t one that I’ve read a lot about in fiction, but Butler gives the reader an excellent sense of both time and place, and I loved the inclusion of little historical details that bring the story to life.

If the novel starts slowly, the pace soon picks up as Kit is given a new assignment by his intelligence handler.  A number of bombings have taken place in Paris, and it’s believed that a German operative has infiltrated the city under the guise of a refugee in order to sow destruction and to demoralise the Allies.  The German-speaking Kit is the ideal man to investigate, and the novel soon reveals itself as an intense spy thriller as Kit’s investigation proves to be anything other than straightforward.  This isn’t my usual kind of read, but it’s one that I really enjoyed, the setting and the wider context making this a fascinating novel that is rich in historical detail whilst still being, ultimately, an exciting espionage thriller.

Paris in the Dark is excellently plotted, and I loved how the various storylines came together by the end of the novel, building up to a thrilling conclusion.  There is action, a little romance, and the plot twists unexpectedly as Kit’s investigation gets underway.  Paris in the Dark an excellent read, and one that I’d recommend to both those who enjoy a spy thriller or those who might be new to the genre.  Whilst this is the fourth novel in the series, I felt that this worked well as a standalone novel, and the reader doesn’t miss out on anything by having not read the earlier books in this series.

Paris in the Dark is published by No Exit Press.  Many thanks to the publisher and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for the review copy and the opportunity to take part in the blog tour.


Make sure you check out the other stops on the tour:

Paris In The Dark Blog Tour Poster

 

Out of Bounds by Val McDermid

out of bounds

Out of Bounds was, would you believe, my first Val McDermid novel, and I can honestly say that it won’t be my last as I really enjoyed it.  I won Out of Bounds (over a year ago!) in a giveaway on Susan’s blog Books From Dusk Till Dawn, and if you don’t already follow Susan’s blog then you really should. 😊

There are lots of things that ran in families, but murder wasn’t one of them…

When a teenage joyrider crashes a stolen car and ends up in a coma, a routine DNA test could be the key to unlocking the mystery of a twenty-year-old murder inquiry. Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie is an expert at solving the unsolvable. With each cold case closed, justice is served. So, finding the answer should be straightforward, but it’s as twisted as the DNA helix itself.

Meanwhile Karen finds herself irresistibly drawn to another case, one that she has no business investigating. And as she pieces together decades-old evidence, Karen discovers the most dangerous kinds of secrets. Secrets that someone is willing to kill for…

As I’ve said, this is my first Val McDermid novel, but the astute amongst you will realise that it is the fourth book in the Karen Pirie series.  Yes, I’m a naughty reader who hasn’t started at the beginning of the series!  This did not hinder my enjoyment in any way whatsoever – there are references to Karen’s past, but with sufficient detail that I didn’t feel in the dark at any point due to not having the full background, so I’m fully prepared to recommend this to readers who are also new to McDermid, or perhaps just new to this particular series.

DCI Karen Pirie heads up an historic cases unit, and I thought that the investigation into cold cases, whilst not unique, added something a little different to the police procedural genre.  Technology has been a massive boon in solving crimes, yet historic cases may require a little more traditional sleuthing as new forensic evidence in a twenty-year-old case may be harder to come by.  Of course, it’s a routine DNA check that prompts this particular case to be reopened, but from that point on, understanding what happened is left to Karen to discover via witness statements and going back to re-interview those witnesses from the time, piecing together what happened from the evidence collected during the original investigation, and trying to look at it in a new light.

Karen Pirie is a great character, a no-nonsense individual who does not suffer fools gladly.  Impatient but thorough, she has a healthy amount of disrespect for her superiors, but manages to get away with it due to her successes in solving historic cases which garner a lot of media and public support.  She’s incredibly stubborn, and once she has her teeth into something, she’s reluctant to let go, no matter how many times she might be told to back off.  For me, Karen’s character is one of the real joys of the novel – I loved reading about her efforts to solve these cases whilst coaching Jason, her protégé in investigating historic crimes who has a fair bit to learn, but whose heart in the right place.

I loved McDermid’s writing style, and I thought that the two cases featured here were fascinating – both had me hooked, and I couldn’t read this fast enough to find out ‘whodunnit’.  The cases are wonderfully complex, with everything wrapped up neatly by the end, and I can’t wait to read more of her work.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐