Category Archives: Modern Fiction

Book Review: House of Names by Colm Toibin

“If the gods did not watch over us, I wondered, then how should we know what to do?  Who else would tell us what to do?  I realized then that no one would tell us, no one at all, no one would tell me what should be done in the future or what should not be done.  In the future, I would be the one to decide what to do, not the gods.” Clytemnestra

house of names

This is a retelling of the ancient Greek story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and their children.  Of the sacrifice of their eldest child, Iphigenia, and the revenge of Clytemnestra on her husband then the revenge of her remaining children upon her.  The story will be very familiar to many readers they form part of the Odessey and the legends of the Trojan War and are in the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides.  Despite their relative familiarity I think a retelling is a good idea as they are such interesting and dramatic tales with loads of scope for new interpretations and lots of opportunity to flesh out the characters and twist the reader’s sympathies this way and that.  Having said that I don’t think this particular retelling worked and I just found it dull.  I found it dull in the beginning but decided to give it a chance, I started to quite enjoy it and found the writing style quite relaxing and there were a few nice scenes but my generosity ran out and by two thirds through I was finding it dull again.  I was very happy when I finally finished it and was free to move on to something more lively!

If someone is interested in the tales of Agamemnon and his family I would recommend finding a good production of one of Aeschylus or Euripides on this subject and giving this book a miss.  I think if this had been my only experience of this legend I would be left thinking ‘what a boring story’.

2/5

Zoe

If you do want to give this book a try you can borrow it from Brent Libraries

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Book Review: Red Queen and Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard

red queen.jpg

These are the first two novels of a four part teenage, fantasy series.

The books are set in an alternative universe, or possibly our own future, we don’t really know.  The planet is like earth with towns, cities, rivers, mountains, etc etc. but the people are rather different.  In this world people are divided in two, there are the Reds and the Silvers.  Reds are just like us, humans, with red blood; Silvers look and more or less act like humans but they have silver blood and even more dramatically have what we would regard as magic powers, the Silvers call them ‘abilities’.  Some Silvers can control fire, some water, some can run amazingly fast others are incredibly strong, some have none physical powers like being able to read minds or perform mind control or see into the future.  There are a large range of abilities which tend to run in families.

As you may have guessed with such amazing powers the Silvers become the ruling dominant section of society – and they do not use this power benevolently!  Reds and Silvers live separately (except when Silvers need servants) the Reds live in all the poorest least desirable areas and are used by Silvers to perform all the horrid tasks in life; cleaning, hard labour, dangerous factory work etc.  And even worse, they are used as disposable foot-soldiers in the wars Silvers wage between their different groups and factions.  All young Reds must spend time serving in the Silver army and many don’t live out their conscription period, others come home physically broken, mentally scarred or both.  Obviously the Reds don’t like living this way and some do try to rebel but it is not easy when any insurrection can be crushed by superhuman Silver soldiers who the Reds cannot possibly beat in a fight.

So this is the set up for the novel.  In The Red Queen we meet 16 year old Mare who is a Red, living in poverty, trying to avoid conscription and help her impoverished family by petty thieving.  But one day something incredible happens, Mare discovers she has an ‘ability’ too, just like a Silver, except her blood in definitely Red and if anything her power appears stronger than that of an average Silver.  Her unique power is discovered by the ruling family of her country and they quickly decided the discovery must be kept quiet; their whole social order partly depends on everyone agreeing that Silvers are naturally superior to Reds.  By threatening the safety of her family she is forced to live in the palace and masquerade as a Silver so they can keep a close eye on her and study her developing ability.  I don’t really want to say much more about the plot as I don’t want to spoil it for you, there are lots of unexpected twists and turns which is a real strength of the novels.

In the second instalment, Glass Sword, we see Mare leaving the confines of the palace and taking her ability out into the wider world as she goes on a search to find more Reds like her.  This is a dangerous quest as most Silvers are determined to hold on the power and squash any threat to the existing hierarchy.

Overall these are very exciting fun books, though the Red Queen is a slightly slower burner.  After the interesting set up to the story then exciting revelation that Mare has powers this book becomes a little more steady paced as Mare spends time in the palace learning how to act like a Silver; etiquette, history and dance lessons included (yawn).  The only thing to really spice up this dull section is an intriguing love triangle developing between Mare and the two half-brother princes of the Silver royal family.  I did reach the point when I decided to give up on the series as the Red Queen was a bit too boring…but then the final chapters are so thrilling and unexpected that I just had to find out what happened next!

Glass Sword does not disappoint, it is a thrill ride from the opening pages.  It is an improvement from the Red Queen in that there is constant movement and peril and a team of other characters helping Mare on her quest.  My only criticism of this book is that in the dialogue the characters can come across as a bit one note, everyone seems angry all the time!  It is a pet hate with some teenage books in that the authors seem to think the best way to demonstrate that the characters are spirited is to make them endlessly snappy and irritable!  Also, although some anger is expected in times of difficultly and peril, how come all characters seem to react to stress in the same way?  In the real world some people react to bad stuff by becoming quiet and withdrawn, or deflecting how they feel with humour, or being depressed, or over the top positive etc etc.  In Red Queen world everyone just seems to get cross so there is a lot of dialogue where everyone is snappy and angry with everyone else and the voices seem to become interchangeable.  BUT this is not a novel to choose for subtly drawn characters and sensitive dialogues it is all about the action so this fault is not difficult to forgive.

I look forward to the next instalment.

4/5

Zoe

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glass sword

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Book Review: City of Masks by S D Sykes

Poor Oswald De Lacy is in a bad way.  He is running from grief in his past and internal mental torment when he finds himself stuck in Venice.  “That doesn’t sound so bad” do I here you say?  But this isn’t Venice of today filled with light, beauty, energy and tourists this is the Venice of deep winter 1358.  The city is under siege due to a conflict with Hungary.  Provisions are running low.  The city has barely begun recovering from the black death.  Suspicion and paranoia rule in the form of the mysterious and autocratic ‘Council of Ten’.  The secret police can seize anyone suspected of spying or immoral behaviour and drag them away for torture and even execution.

He finds himself here after being diverted from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his mother.  They take accommodation in the home of an old family friend, John Bearpark, a rather bad tempered old man who chargers them for their stay and is far from a gracious host.  Along with a couple of odd fellow pilgrims the household is also consists of the Bearpark’s young pregnant wife Filomena (who Oswald finds himself disturbingly drawn to), his hard drinking party loving grandson Enrico and a handful of rude servants.

I suppose the best our Oswald can do is keep his head down and stay quiet until the siege is lifted and he can move on…some hope!  First he is persuaded to join Enrico in his partying and gets mixed up with some rather rough people, gets in trouble with too much gabbling and attracts the unwelcome attention of the Council of Ten.  The last thing he needs is to stumble across a mutilated corpse…but that is what happens.

Compelled to investigate the crime by pressure from his host who wants to avoid potential scandal he embarks on a quest that puts him in danger from every side.  He must seek out a murderer in a city where asking questions can see you accused of spying.  He must explore the underworld of Venice at a time when any moral transgression, or mere suspicion of it, can see you burned at the stake.  A tricky task indeed!

The best thing about this book is the setting.  The dark, spooky canals of medieval Venice help increase the sense of peril.  I also liked an historical book set in an era that has not been overdone, as I sometime feel the Tudor period has.  The characters were also good, I was left wanting to know what happened next to the characters (…those who survived that is!).

It’s a fairly exciting story but I felt the mystery itself was the weakest aspect.  I think the characters and setting would have been even more enjoyable if this hadn’t been a ‘who-done-it’, this aspect felt a bit shoehorned in, I could almost picture the meeting in the publishing house when they decided this had to fit into the crime genre because historical detectives are so popular.  The novel would have worked just as well if it had been the same characters in the same setting experiencing a number of things including murder but without following the formula of a detective character investigating the crime.

4/5

Zoe

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city of masks

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Book Review: Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris

bring me backThis is an easy to read fast paced mystery/thriller.

We meet Finn, a 41 year old financial trader who lives with his fiancée near Cheltenham.  12 years earlier Finn experienced an awful tragedy when his much loved girlfriend, Layla, disappeared – assumed kidnapped and murdered – while they were on holiday in France.  After briefly being a suspect Finn was released without charge and has worked hard to rebuild his life and has finally found love again.  But no body was ever found, so closure has not come easily.

His uneasy peace is then blown away.  An old neighbour reports seeing Layla at their old cottage in Devon.  There have been fake sightings before, all turned out to be hoaxes or mistakes, but this is different, the old man knew Layla well plus it coincides with other strange happenings.  Layla always carried the smallest of a Russian doll set as a good luck charm and childhood memento, tiny Russian dolls start appearing on the walls near Finn’s house, they are sent to him in the post and left for him to find in other places he visits.  He also starts receiving emails from a stranger, again this has happened before with trouble makers and attentions seekers claiming to know where his lost girlfriend is, but this stranger seems to know things only he or Layla would know.

Despite this Finn is adamant Layla is dead and it must be a hoax or cruel trick.  But why is he so certain?  Has he been telling the full truth all these years?  Does he know more than he has told the police?  And if so, why did he lie?  What is he hiding?

It’s a great set up to a mystery.  I really enjoyed the early stages and trying to guess the twist I felt was coming (in case you are wondering, I suspected from page 15, convinced by page 136 – well done me!)  One reasons I enjoy mysteries is trying to guess the twist and in my experience guessing it either right or wrong needn’t spoil the rest of the book.  But in this case I do feel the story went downhill a little towards the end.  I liked the idea Paris had but didn’t feel it was perfectly executed and at times the plot veered from ‘crazy but possible’ to far-fetched.

Still a very good read and hard to put down once you have started.  I look forward to reading more from B.A. Paris.

3.5/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach

 

This is a good Read.  It takes us back in time to Amsterdam in the 17th century.  Holland is in the grip of ‘Tulip Fever’ when tulip bulbs were exchanged for huge sums of money and fortunes won and lost on this rather bizarre craze.  But our focus, at least to begin with, is on Sophia a young wife married to a much older husband who is about to have her portrait painted.

Bored and unhappy married to a man more than 30 years her senior she throws caution to the wind and embarks on a love affair with the artist employed to paint her.  Her only confidant is her maid who is a sympathetic ear (at least to begin with!) as she too is in love and willing to help her mistress pursue romance.  But how will it end?! If Sophia is discovered her reputation would be ruined and although she does not love her husband she relies on his good opinion and generosity to support her impoverished family.  Has she really found true love with her artist or just lust?  Will her servant keep her secret?  Will the lovers have a happy ever after or be disgraced by their reckless passion?  You’ll have to read it to find out!

There are plenty of twisted and turns to keep the reader engaged and a good dose of humour along with more serious moments.  I really liked the way Moggach moves the reader’s sympathy this way and that – I think we pity Sophia one moment as she is trapped in a marriage (and marriage bed!) with a man more than twice her age and longs for love and passion and fun with someone her own age.  Next we sympathise with her husband who is kind, loving and trusting – if lacking awareness as to how his wife might feel – he has a kind of oblivious vanity in assuming his wife is satisfied with him but is basically a good soul and doesn’t deserve what is coming to him…

A good light-hearted read ideal for a holiday or commute.

4/5

Zoe

Like the sound of it?  Borrow this book from Brent Libraries

Tulip Fever

 

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Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Are you happy? He once asked Jude (they must have been drunk).

I don’t think happiness is for me, Jude had said at last

 

This is a brilliant and heart-breaking novel.

The main character is Jude St.Francis.  We follow him, and his friends, from young adulthood to middle age with detours into flashbacks along the way.

Jude’s childhood and adolescence was the stuff of nightmares.  Abandoned by his parents and then abused by those who should have cared for him.  Along with his mental scars this abuse left him horribly injured and physically disabled for life.  The focus is how he copes, or doesn’t cope, coming to terms with his past throughout his adult life.  As an adult he is a successful man is many respects with an impressive career, a good income, friends who love him and acquaintances who admire him but he can never escape the horror of his past and carries his childhood trauma with him his whole life.

As you may have gathered this isn’t a happy novel!  At times it is almost unbearably sad.  Jude is such a pitiable and compelling character and you long for him to find peace.  So it is not an easy read but nor is it a not stop tale of misery for the entire 720 pages!  Yanagihara inserts lighter moments to keep it just the right side of bearable, there is hope and joy in the friendships Jude manages to make, friendships that endure from his college days.  There is also a lot of content most of us can relate to.  As well and the more dark and serious struggles Jude has with his physical and mental health and haunting memories of child abuse are the more mundane dilemmas around career choices, growing up, moving from young adulthood to full adulthood and the transitions this involves.  Jude isn’t always the focus either, we also get to know his three closest friends who, while they have their own fair share of troubles, haven’t faced the living hell Jude went through as a young man.  So it is also a novel about growing up and finding your way in life.

I would recommend it to everyone.  It really moved me.  It also made me reflect on my own life at times.  Not many of us will go through what Jude did (thankfully!) but we all do have our own demons to face, our own painful memories to confront or forget, and our own life struggles.  It was a very human book, the focus was an extreme example of human suffering but I think through that came reflections and messages about the types of pain we all experience: loss, disappointment, shame, weakness.  No solutions offered I’m afraid, but the realisations that humans are bound by these common experiences and emotions was poignant.

5/5

Zoe

A Little Life

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Guest blog: Life changing stories about changed lives

*This blog is a guest article part of the Foster Care Fortnight campaign. It was written by Brent Fostering in collaboration with Brent Libraries staff. We would like to thank everyone for the wonderful titles they recommended.

 

Placing decent work and social justice at the core of policy making is simply a recognition of the obvious: none of us can build a better future for ourselves unless we include others.

Guy Ryder

 

We must work to help all families and all communities realize their dream of a better future.

Christine Gregoire

Future means different things for different people, but one thing is clear – future means change, and change is the only constant in life. With this in mind, we always strive for change for the better that leads to brighter futures. When it comes to writers and their published works, many writers have dedicated thousands of pages to stories of people growing to become better humans thanks to others’ love and support.

In fostering, which is our area of expertise, we try to change things by finding loving families for Brent’s looked after children. When we see these children become successful young adults, we know that we have done something right – we chose the right people to change their futures.

Inspired by our children’s stories, we decided to write this short piece about the good reads out there about changed lives. This way we hope to show that even though it is hard to keep under control a situation where inequality leads to children suffering, there is hope thanks to loving and devoted adults who become foster carers. Between 13 and 26 of May we celebrate fostering, the foster carers and the children during Foster Care Fortnight. This year we are focusing on changed lives and how fostering has changed children’s future in Brent. Discover what we’re planning for Foster Care Fortnight.

With this in mind, we asked our colleagues from Brent Libraries to recommend some powerful reads about changed lives. With their help we managed to put together the list below that we hope you’ll enjoy.

harry-potter-and-the-philosopher-s-stone-3

 

  1. Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling

Harry was an orphan child fostered by his uncle’s family. While this isn’t a positive fostering example that we would like to hear about in the service, we have to admit that Harry’s story is truly inspiring. The way this young boy stays positive during his time with the unloving Dursley family and how he fights the evil to discover his strength is empowering. Just like with fostering, challenges never end and things are never easy; the same happens in the story where Harry and his friends have to fight the evil in order to find peace and happiness. The novel is also a great because it speaks about the hard life of children without parents who relies solely on friends to find their sense of belonging. The mystery and the suspense it creates coupled with the humour and the imaginative descriptions make all the Harry Potter books a read suitable for everyone aged 8 to 80.

Find copies of Harry Potter on our catalogue .

  1. Lost and Found Sisters – Jill Shalvis

Sarah Smith, Library Development Manager recommend this novel “to curl up with on the weekend with yummy food. This is about what happens when chef Quinn finds out she’s adopted whilst still going through bereavement for a sister lost. A whole new world opens up when her birth mother whom she met without knowing, whilst in a coffee shops listening to two women discussing post-menopausal sex life (too funny but stick with me…), leaves her an inheritance with some challenges. Yes, another death but it’s the beginning of an adventure laced with lots of laugh out loud moments. I’ve just discovered this author and will definitely look out for more of her work. Go check it out!”

Find a copy to borrow in a Brent Library near you.

book thief

  1. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

Recommended by Andrew Stoter, Library Stock Manager, this is a book perfect for children and adults alike. “By her brother’s graveside, Liesel’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, left behind there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordian-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.

In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.” For a realistic experience of the 1939 Nazi Germany, Find a copy to borrow here.

a little princess

  1. A Little Princess – Frances Hodgson Burnett

Recommended by both Fiona Heffernan, Development Officer and Zoe English, Culture Services Marketing Officer, this novel follows the story of “motherless Sara Crewe who was sent home from India to school at Miss Minchin’s. Her father was immensely rich and she became ‘show pupil’ – a little princess. Then her father dies and his wealth disappears, and Sara has to learn to cope with her changed circumstances. Her strong character enables her to fight successfully against her new-found poverty and the scorn of her fellows.”

Discover the story of Sara and how she grows up to be stronger while shaping her own personality in the absence of her father by borrowing a copy from the library.  We also have the ebook available.

oliver twist

  1. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

Or The Parish Boy’s Progress, tells the story of orphan Oliver who was born in a workhouse and sold into apprenticeship with an undertaker. After escaping, Oliver travels to London, where he enters a system of exploitation run by a member of a juvenile pickpockets’ gang. Crowned with a happy ending, this novel speaks about how the life of Oliver improved after overcoming the obstacles far too challenging for a young boy. The story gives us the opportunity to reflect on how far the English social care system has come since the 1800’s, and it is a reminder of how much poverty impacts the lives of innocent children, hindering their development.

If you fancy a read, you can borrow Oliver Twist from our libraries or download the ebook

Catalina

 

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Book Review: Z by Therese Anne Fowler

Z

This is a fictional account for the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, focused, as you’d expect, on her marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It takes us though the gay years of their time as the darlings of the Jazz Age, through their financial problems and Scott’s literary triumphs and failures on to alcoholism and mental illness.

I think the strongest parts of the novel came at the beginning and the end.  The establishment of their relationship and its eventual decline, there are parts of the mid-section that become a little dull, a little ‘…and then we went here, and then we went there and then we did this…’ in style but that is my only real criticism of the novel as overall it is a very good read.

“For days, while at my morning and afternoon dance classes, while I ate, while I bathed, while I tried but failed to sleep, I considered how I might become more like the woman I respected and admired.  Surrounded as I was by such ambitious, accomplished women, I couldn’t ignore the little voice in my head that said maybe I was supposed to shed halfway and do something significant.  Contribute something.  Accomplish something.  Choose.  Be. “

A running theme throughout the novel is Zelda’s conflict with her role in life as a wife, a sidekick if you like, Mrs F. Scott Fitzgerald, merely an extension of her famous successful husband.  There are times when she enjoys the luxury Scott’s earnings bring and enjoys spending without having to earn and basking in his reflected glory, she enjoys helping with his novels and short stories without the credit.  But there are other times when she feels a niggling dissatisfaction with the life she has and wants to achieve more herself and explore her own creative talents.

It is well written because the author is not implying she is any kind of feminist heroine, Zelda doesn’t particularly have any interest in feminism or campaigning for women’s rights.  Zelda is an imperfect confused character who could perhaps be accused of wanting it all – but then who doesn’t?  It is a very human portrait and so is Fowler’s writing of Scott.  He can be quite controlling of Zelda and jealous of any attention she gets independent of him but we also see that he is sensitive and insecure and can be a loving and generous husband when at his best.

An interesting tale of two flawed people in a flawed marriage.

3.5/5

(This novel was made into a TV series, Z: The Beginning of Everything with Christina Ricci on Amazon.  I recommend this very highly and in some ways found the adaptation more insightful and entertaining than the novel itself).

Zoe

Z poster

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Book Review: The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

She had thought that ageing would bring calm and indifference and impersonality.

This is basically a novel about a bunch of posh people dealing with ageing and mortality.

The main character is Fran.  She is fairly obsessed with death and ageing.  And it’s not surprising!  Not only is she facing her own old age but she works as a consultant on the design of retirement homes.  Her long term partner has died quite recently.  Her ex-husband, who she still sees frequently, is becoming increasingly infirm and is almost bed ridden.  Her closest friend has just moved into an old people’s sheltered accommodation, even though she in excellent health, in preparation for expected infirmity laying ahead.  Fran’s oldest childhood friend is dying of cancer.  Her son’s girlfriend has just died suddenly of a severe allergic reaction.  Death and ageing are all around Fran.

We follow Fran and her friends, family and acquaintances over the course of a month or so as they all deal with ageing and mortality in different ways with differing concerns and approaches.  That is about it really, there isn’t a whole lot in the way of plot, it’s more of a reflective thoughtful piece of writing.

It is quite enjoyable and has nice moments.  But it is never gripping (and probably isn’t supposed to be).  None of the characters really engaged me and I didn’t feel much of a connection or affinity with any of them.  It sort of just drifts along and is well written I guess, there’s just no real impact and I doubt I’ll think of it again once I have returned the book to the library and posted this review.

3/5

Zoe

dark flood

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Book Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

The Muse

This was a pretty good book, the downside is that I felt it should have been even better.

The action of the story is divided between 1960s London and 1930s Spain.

We begin in London where we meet Odelle.  Odelle is an aspiring writer who has immigrated to London from the West Indies.  After a few unsatisfying years working in a shoe shop she gets a better job as a typist at a top art dealers.  Here she meets the enigmatic and charismatic Marjorie Quick.  The arrival of a mysterious painting upsets Quick and awakens Odelle’s curiosity about both the painting and Quick’s relation to it.  The story then jumps back to 1930s Spain on the eve of Civil War where we find out about the creation of the painting.

In 1930s rural Southern Spain we meet the Schloss family and their brother and sister Spanish servants Teresa and Isaac.  The Schloss family are parents Sarah and Harold and teenage daughter Olive, they are from a British and Austrian background and have just arrived in Spain.  There are a myriad of tensions in this household: Olive is attracted to Isaac and they share an ambition to become artists, Harold is conducting a secret affair that young Teresa accidentally discovers, beautiful and glamourous Sarah suffers from depression and possibly alcoholism, Teresa is drawn to Olive and is jealous of the attention Olive is giving her brother…and on top of all this Civil war is brewing…basically there is a lot going on!

This is quite a plot driven piece and it’s hard to say more without risking spoilers (which I don’t want to do as this is definitely worth reading for yourselves).  The Spanish plot is compelling and keeps you wanting to know what happens next.  But we keep jumping back to the 1960s which is a bit irritating as it is rather dull in comparison.  I don’t think Burton convinced me at any stage of the necessity for Odelle to be in this story, we don’t need her to reveal the 1930s action as the author can tell us that without Odelle discovering clues to what did or didn’t happen.  Odelle has potentially a good story of her own, coming to Britain, facing racism and struggle to establish herself, but this story does not really get room to breathe – if Burton wants to tell that story she should have given Odelle her own book and not tried to shoehorn her into to a story mainly about art and the Spanish Civil War.  Burton tries to imply that the stories of Olive and Odelle are linked as they are both creative young women struggling with their art in different times, but I think each story was strong enough to stand alone and the piece is weakened by trying to slot them together somehow.

I think Burton introduces an interesting situation in Spain with intriguing characters but doesn’t quite develop either characters or plot quite fully enough (I had a similar criticism of the Miniaturist, although I think The Muse is much better).  I felt the book could have been longer and more detailed (not something I often say as I am generally a fan of short books).  It is good, but felt a little rushed and underdone.  Jessie Burton is a good writer through and imaginative – I would definitely read more of her work, I just think she should be more ambitious, there were all the ingredients for a great epic tale here rather than just an enjoyable OK story.

4/5

Zoe

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