A Gift from Woolworths by Elaine Everest — New Review (Blog Tour)

A Gift From Woolworths

I’ve never been part of a blog tour before, and I thought it would make me feel like a Legitimate Blogger (TM), so I jumped at the chance to review A Gift from Woolworths. I haven’t read any of Elaine Everest’s previous books in this series, but I love Call the Midwife, and I thought this might be similar. I was, sadly, disappointed. The emotional moments that work in A Gift from Woolworths are similar in tone to what I love about Call the Midwife — the main characters helping one another out, healing rifts between them, or standing up for their right to do their work — but there are just as many moments that didn’t land for me. In some cases, this may be because I had trouble keeping the characters and their relationships straight (something I imagine readers with the four previous books under their belts would manage better), but even characters introduced for the first time in this novel managed to leave me cold.

“For a while she’d felt as though her dream had been snatched away from her, but now she could almost smell the roses round the door and see the years ahead with her making a home for her husband, Alan Gilbert, manager of a Woolworths store.”
A Gift from Woolworths, Elaine Everest

What I most enjoyed about A Gift from Woolworths was the exploration of the gender dynamics, particularly around women working. It was honestly just sad to see the lengths the female characters would go to in order to ensure their male friends and partners wouldn’t feel jealous of their success. While this was almost certainly accurate to the period, I did struggle to sympathise with some of the men as a result.

“She’d found it best to get home from work and remove her office clothes, wash off the make-up and turn back into a wife and mother before he came home from the workshop.”
A Gift from Woolworths, Elaine Everest

Elaine Everest managed moments of genuine humour, and at least one thrill late in the story. I think my lack of investment in the characters really hindered my enjoyment, especially as this was written to be a ‘goodbye’ to an established group of friends. 300 pages into the book, I still wasn’t sure which one was Sarah. I’d recommend A Gift from Woolworths to people who’ve already read the first four books in this series, though as I haven’t read them, I can’t really compare how this measures up. Don’t take my word for it, I really recommend you check out a few of the other stops on this blog tour! I particularly recommend the review by GingerBookGeek, who had read the earlier novels.

A Gift From Woolworths Banner6

Next, I’ll be reading Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov.

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The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen — new review


Reading the blurb on the back of The Lost Letters of William Woolf, I expected an interesting story about tracing the origins and intended recipients of the letters that get lost in the post. To be absolutely fair to Helen Cullen, what little there was of that was great! The girl who found some fossilised whale vomit and tried to send it to Royal Geological Society was a delight, and William reuniting a firefighter’s letter with the boy he rescued from a burning building was the highlight of the book. Sadly, none of that was the focus of the story.

“When William discovers letters addressed simply to ‘My Great Love’ his work takes on new meaning. Written by a woman to a soulmate she hasn’t met yet, the missives stir William in ways he didn’t know were possible, and soon he begins to wonder: Could he be her great love?”
The Lost Letters of William Woolf, Helen Cullen

It’s clear from the book’s cover that there’s going to be a romantic element to The Lost Letters of William Woolf. What absolutely isn’t made clear is that our protagonist, William, is already married. It was this key fact that made the book so different from what I expected. Instead of a whimsical, romantic epistolary novel, I got the story of a marriage in trouble. Worse still, I honestly didn’t like either member of the married couple. Nor was it at all clear whether I was supposed to root for William and Clare to get back together, or for William to find Winter, the writer of the letters. I spent a lot of time hoping that Winter was an elderly woman, because William assumes she is his age on absolutely no evidence, and I wanted to see him get his comeuppance.

“If she wasn’t monitoring his behaviour constantly, would he try harder without the scrutiny, or give up the ghost altogether?”
The Lost Letters of William Woolf, Helen Cullen

I struggle to imagine any ending to this book that could have satisfied me, because I found both William and Clare unsympathetic, and Winter is offstage for so much of the novel that it’s hard to get invested in her. The ending as written isn’t so much disappointing, then, as it just seems rushed. Suddenly it’s ‘a year and a day later’ and all the loose ends are tied up, with no indication of how this happened. There’s a little character development for Clare through the novel, but William’s arc seems confusing and ill thought-out.

Next, I’ll be reading A Gift from Woolworths by Elaine Everest.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn — New Review

The Salt Path was a gift from a friend who knows I collect and read books with lighthouses on the cover, and wasn’t the kind of book I’d usually pick up to read. The premise — a married couple, one of whom is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and who have lost their house, decide to walk the South West Coast Path — sounded like it was going to be self-consciously uplifting, which tends to grate on me.

“You’ll see many things, amazing things and suffer many set-backs, problems you’ll think you can’t overcome.” He reached forward and put his hand on Moth. “But you will overcome them, you’ll survive, and it will make you strong.” We looked at each other, wide-eyed, mouthing a silent ‘what?’. “And you’ll walk with a tortoise.”
The Salt Path, Raynor Winn

In actual fact, The Salt Path was more boring than anything else. While there are some nice descriptions of coastal scenes, nothing really happens. Ray and Moth walk, they camp, they eat and then they walk again. There’s some social commentary about homelessness, infrequent and brief meetings with other walkers, and just not a great deal else. It wasn’t bad — it was neither as grating or as depressing as it could have been, given the subject matter — but neither was it engaging. I found subject changes between one topic and another quite abrupt, and never really felt there was much point to anything.

The Salt Path did, at times, remind me of G K Chesterton’s The Rolling English Road, but that is both a quicker read and – in my opinion – a better one.

Next, I’ll be reading The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik — New Review

I was expecting Spinning Silver to be a solid reworking of a fairy tale, which would be enjoyable enough, but nothing to blow me away. I am delighted to have underestimated Naomi Novik in this instance, because Spinning Silver was absolutely fantastic. The early chapters drew me in by giving my excellent women to care about; women who help each other in the face of useless and abusive men. The different perspectives were so well handled that I thought I was going to be reading a novel told entirely from the viewpoints of the women in society, which I now think Naomi Novik could handle masterfully. Its almost a shame that isn’t what Spinning Silver ended up being  — but not really a shame, because I did enjoy the glimpses she provided of the male characters thought processes.

The only thing that had ever done me any good in my father’s house was thinking: no one had cared what wanted, or whether I was happy.
Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik

While I wasn’t blown away by Naomi Novik’s previous novel, Uprooted, I did enjoy the writing style, and Spinning Silver goes one better than that. The early chapters are so atmospheric that they reminded me of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, but what really impressed me was the use of metaphor throughout. The contrast between silver and gold is present in ways that are subtle at first, which build and build on each other as the story unfolds. Naomi Novik does some really clever things with world-building, too, using the tropes of ‘fairy tale logic’ to further both character development and the plot. That said, Spinning Silver isn’t anything so simple as just a retelling of Rumplestiltskin, it’s a story in its own right, which only takes elements from the original fairy tale, and most of those elements it twists in a clever way to make them more dramatic and more interesting. What I mean by fairy tale logic are the rules of magic in Naomi Novik’s rule, the rules of bargaining and promising, which feel familiar, but have also been given new significance.

He poured them back into the bag and pulled the drawstring tight around the golden light, like closing away a sunbeam, and the bag vanished beneath his long cloak.
Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik

For an author I felt only lukewarm about before, Spinning Silver has absolutely made me into a fan, and I am excited to see what Naomi Novik’s next project will be. I really hope she does more novels in this style — and I’d particularly love for her to tackle The Snow Queen. I should mention that she’s funny, too, at least in little highlights here and there. I’d recommend Spinning Silver to anyone who enjoyed The Snow Child, or Stardust, or anything ever by Patricia C Wrede.

With a demon wanting to devour me, I was feeling inclined to be devout.
Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik

Next, I’ll be reading The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.

The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch — New Review

When I picked up The Sandcastle in a tiny cafe-and-bookshop in Little Walsingham, it made me laugh within the first hundred words, and I felt that was a pretty good reason to buy and read my first work of Iris Murdoch’s. I had no expectations going in, and my first impression was that the descriptions were lovely, but I had no idea what the book was going to be about. At first, I enjoyed the gentle happiness of the main character’s good mood, though I wasn’t sure I liked Mor – or any of the characters. Whether or not the cast of characters are likeable, they certainly develop as the story goes along, and the book continued to be funny, in a dry sort of way, in describing their adventures.

So that, it seemed obscurely to Mor as he walked back, to tell Nan the truth would really be to mislead her.
The Sandcastle, Iris Murdoch

The Sandcastle is a very well-plotted book, with things that seem only to be humorous asides returning in bigger roles, giving the book a very coherent feeling which I was impressed with. The tone throughout much of the novel does create a distance between the reader and the events, and the characters. That might be as much down to the time and style Iris Murdoch was working in as anything else. There was one chapter, describing Donald’s misadventures at St Bride’s which was genuinely exciting, and really stood out amid the rest of the narrative. The prose is quite elegant, and there were many admirable turns of phrase.

He felt like a man with one cheek exposed to the fragrant breezes of the spring, while upon the other is let loose an autumnal shower of chilling rain.
The Sandcastle, Iris Murdoch

Possibly the cleverest thing about The Sandcastle is in the early chapters, where it’s obvious to the reader that Mor is lying to himself, as well as to everyone else in his life, without it ever being explicitly stated. Mor himself doesn’t realise what is happening, and yet as a reader I never doubted my own impressions. I’d love to know how exactly Iris Murdoch accomplished that.

I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoyed The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, as well as to anyone who enjoys elegant prose and descriptions of houses and places.

Next, I’ll be reading Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik.

The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I by Carolyn Mackler — New Review

As a teenager, I read two of Carolyn Mackler’s books, and if you’d asked me earlier this year I’d have said I loved Love and Other Four Letter Words a lot more than The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things. I reread both, because I knew I’d be writing this review, and was surprised to find my feelings were totally the other way around. I loved The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things in audiobook and was exciting to read Carolyn Mackler’s sequel.

Sadly, rereading The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things so close to reading The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I really threw into focus how similar they are. I noticed that a lot of the character and relationship development in the first book is reversed in the early chapters of The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I. Virginia’s relationships with her dad, her best friend and the popular girl at school completely revert to what they originally were, rather than building from where they ended. Even the event that throws the plot into motion — Virginia’s brother being accused of date rape — is the same between the two books.

If I looked like her, my parents would love me unconditionally. They wouldn’t care that I’m a crappy driver and I can’t speak French and I swing a golf club like it’s a baseball bat.
The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I, Carolyn Mackler

 
The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I isn’t a bad book. It’s exciting to read, it handles character development and family relationships well and is probably one of the better books-for-teenagers I’ve read. It’s not even a worse book than The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, it’s just that in many ways it’s the same book, and that was disappointing. I’d recommend The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I if you know you liked Carolyn Mackler 15 years ago, but can’t actually remember the plots of her novels very clearly.

Next, I’ll be reading The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch.

Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre — New Review

I don’t read science-fiction, but I’d enjoyed Black Widow by Chris Brookmyre, so I thought I’d give Places in the Darkness ago, hoping it would be more  a detective story set in space than a science-fiction novel. It turned out to be an equal mix of both. I was impatient with the sci-fi worldbuilding which needed to happen before the detective work could begin, and my initial feeling was that Places in the Darkness was too much like hard work. The narrative didn’t properly catch my interest until Alice and Nikki met up, and their two perspectives started to overlap to tell the story.

This is the most advanced place in the history of human civilisation, and yet some people seem intent on recreating a mid-nineteenth-century frontier town, or maybe Chicago circa the 1920s.
Places in the Darkness, Chris Brookmyre

Places in the Darkness isn’t the kind of crime novel you could solve as you were reading, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The narrative does include clues to things which happen later, but they’re working more on a system of keeping the reader interested in uncovering the truth about the world than they are actually helping fit pieces together to solve the central puzzle. There is so much going on in the novel that at least once Chris Brookmyre returned to a clue he’d planted and I’d forgotten about it — not something that happens with straightforward murder mysteries. Chris Brookmyre does something similar with the themes of the novel, laying the groundwork well in advance of the dramatic reveal, which makes the whole novel feel really clever.

That selfish voice inside her asks why she is prepared to go through this in a probably doomed attempt to rescue some crazy girl she’s barely met and who is most likely already dead anyway. But then, that selfish voice has been running the show for too many years, and nothing got better for her listening to it.
Places in the Darkness, Chris Brookmyre

Combined with the setting, the occasional moments of clever wordplay in the prose put me in mind of Douglas Adams, though nothing about Places in the Darkness feels absurdist or random. Chris Brookmyre has clearly carefully plotted the novel, and the twists took me by surprise in exactly the right way.

Places in the Darkness is an exciting book, and I’m glad I ventured outside my comfort zone to read it. I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoyed Ex Machina. 

Next, I’ll be reading The Universe is Expanding and so Am I by Carolyn Mackler.

The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard — New Review

I positively raced through The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr. After a slightly disorientating beginning — there were a lot of capitalised nouns clustered together in the first few pages, and I found it was affecting the way I voiced the prose in my mind — it was very easy to read. Elvira suffers from a Condition, and the book is written from her first person perspective, but it’s very clear. I did wonder at times how accurate it was to nuero-atypical people, because some of the terminology wasn’t what I’ve come across before. I definitely found myself rooting for Elvira right from the beginning, wanting her to succeed at life and grow as a person.

Maria found a CD called Chilled Classics, not one that Mother owned. “We give it go,” said Maria. “Perhaps it calming.”
It wasn’t.
The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr, Frances Maynard

The mystery aspect didn’t live up to the strong character development, at least for me. There are things that Elvira doesn’t understand, because of her Condition, which were quite obvious to me as a reader, and that meant I always felt like I was one step ahead with working out the plot about her father. I read quickly because I wanted to get to the point where Elvira solved the mystery, but none of it was really surprising. I enjoyed reading about Elvira going out into the world and meeting new people more than I enjoyed any of the answering of suspenseful questions.

I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys strong character development in their novels, but probably not to anyone who reads primarily for plot.

Next, I’ll be reading Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre.

 

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta — Reread Review

Picking up Finnikin of the Rock was a no-brainer for me. I already loved Melina Marchetta from reading Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son, so discovering that she’d also written a series in my favourite genre was pure delight. I bought Finnikin of the Rock in ebook form, so it was only when I came to write this review that I realised The Lumatere Chronicles are apparently shelved as children’s/teenage fiction. I’d argue that’s a miscategorisation, because Finnikin of the Rock gets dark. Melina Marchetta has a habit of putting her characters in truly bleak, awful situations – and then rescuing them. At points, especially in the first half, it reminded me of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. The horror of what happens to these characters got under my skin in the same kind of way.

Finnikin’s last image of Lumatere, as he slid beneath the jaws of the iron gate, was of a family separated.
Finnikin of the Rock, Melina Marchetta

The whole book revolves around themes of exile, of losing a home – a kingdom – and the choice between trying to take it back or trying to settle somewhere else. These are themes that really resonate with me, as someone who grew up moving between countries, and they’re what I remembered most from my first reading of Finnikin of the Rock. The idea of a whole kingdom of exiles, separated from their native land by magic, isn’t one I’ve seen in any other fantasy novel. It feels original, and though Finnikin of the Rock does feature a few fantasy tropes, they’re used in ways that feel different.

Lumaterans were nothing if not sentimental, drawn to any place that resembled the physical landscape of their lost world.
Finnikin of the Rock, Melina Marchetta

Above all else, though, Finnikin of the Rock is a deeply emotional novel. Melina Marchetta writes heartrendingly about loss, family and war. I really felt what the characters were feeling, and Finnikin of the Rock gets the dubious honour of being added to my ‘made me cry‘ shelf on goodreads. The second half — and it is nearly half, though I’d compressed it into a few chapters in my memory — is about recovery, and rebuilding. It’s much more hopeful, and the story ends on a satisfying high note. I didn’t absolutely need to rush out and read the second book in the trilogy, and this could honestly work as a standalone novel, but I’ll read Froi of the Exiles sooner or later anyway, because I love Melina Marchetta so much.

I’d recommend this to anyone who likes any of Melina Marchetta’s works, and to anyone who enjoyed the emotional impact of Outlander.

Next I’ll be reading The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard.

The Fandom by Anna Day — New Review

Before I read The Fandom by Anna Day, I had this idea that I don’t like books in which real-world characters are sucked into a fictional or fantasy world. The Fandom and The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay made me reconsider. I think actually what I don’t like is that inevitable moment of dramatic irony where the reader knows (because it was on the back of the book) that the characters are in a magical/fictional world, but that characters haven’t figure it out yet, and their monologue is about how it’s such a convincing film set, or whatever. From a character realism perspective, you have to have that moment, but narratively it adds nothing, and it makes me cringe. Luckily, The Fandom didn’t dwell on that for too long, and started to immediately do far more interesting things.

Their physiques aren’t quite right — too skinny, slightly stooped, broad in the wrong places. I actually feel a little relieved, just seeing their humanity staring back at me.
The Fandom, Anna Day

The idea of Violet, the main character, experiencing her favourite book and movie as a real place was intriguing, and pulled me quickly into The Fandom. Violet’s emotions vacillate between excitement at meeting beloved characters and horror as the violence and deprivation of a dystopian society unfold around her. There are even meta-fictional references to tropes found in dystopian YA novels, which I appreciated despite the fact that’s not a genre I’m terribly familiar with. More than that, Anna Day clearly put a lot of world-building into The Gallows Dance (the book-within-a-book), and it pays off as Violet observes how much richer and more detailed the world is than the novel was able to convey. It made me wonder what details I would notice if I was transported into my favourite novel, but it also made me grateful I don’t have to experience quite that much ‘adventure’.

I notice the poster of President Stoneback hangs from the wall, softened by rainwater and torn by wind, same as the film. But this president has horns drawn on his head and a noose scribbled around his throat: detail which didn’t make it into the book, or the film, or my own mental image.
The Fandom, Anna Day

The plot, once it gets underway, keeps up the momentum and is genuinely exciting. Most of the characters are pretty great, and although the emotion didn’t get me in the way books sometimes do, it was definitely an enjoyable read. I have to admit, there was one aspect of the ending that I predicted a mile off, but even with that in the back of my mind, there were unexpected twists that I think Anna Day pulled off successfully.

Overall, The Fandom has a lot going for it. I’d recommend it to readers who enjoyed The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay, The Magicians by Lev Grossman or Frozen.

Next, I’ll be rereading Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta.