Review: Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’


Though it is always fun to visit the Regency era, this one was a challenging read. At 440 pages, Mansfield Park counts among Jane Austen’s longer novels. It is also a strong contender for her most dated, controversial work.

Fanny Price is less than ten years old when she is uprooted from her loving but impoverished home and sent to live with her mother’s wealthy relatives in Northamptonshire. Lesser in looks and education than her accomplished cousins, Fanny grows to womanhood in the awkward post of ‘poor relation’, consoled only by her beloved Edmund, who alone among the Bertram clan regards her with kindness and consideration.

With its swooning admiration of clergymen and unashamed advocacy of kissing cousins romance, it is fair to say that Mansfield Park is a classic that shows its age. The overall fustiness is not helped by the fact that Fanny is the wettest of the author’s heroines, embodying a romanticised ideal of meek frailty. Even the most committed Austen fans may find themselves fighting the urge to dismiss Miss Price as a pathetic lettuce.

Yet, is there more to Mansfield Park, and to Fanny’s wearying weepiness, than meets the eye? It seemed I had good reason to hope. Similarly to Persuasion (which I adore), Mansfield Park is the story of a downtrodden woman realising her self-worth. True, Fanny’s transformation never promises to be as dramatic or far-reaching as Anne’s, but she is just 18, and starts from a place of lesser advantage. I was prepared to give her every chance.

Those who have not more must be satisfied with what they have.

With its slow start and an extended, uneventful middle passage, Mansfield Park is a test of patience. Though I was more engaged and invested towards the end, the final act seemed an insufficient reward for the struggle to get there. For me, this was an extremely long read, picked up and put down many times over the months it took me to finish it.

I do not like to criticise any book on the basis of its characters’ personalities – even the soggiest biscuit may still be convincing and well-written – but my main issue here was that I could never bring myself to root for Fanny, despite the narrative’s sympathy and tacit agreement with her moral principles. It is true her circumstances are less than perfect, but given that Fanny enjoys a luxurious lifestyle beyond the wildest dreams of her destitute siblings, her failure to recognise and capitalise on her relative good fortune makes her incredibly annoying. She is also an unrepentant snob, demonstrated during a visit to her family in Portsmouth. Rather than showing any sympathy for their poverty or gratitude for having been lifted out of similar circumstances, Fanny spends the entire trip wrinkling her nose at their lack of refinement – get in the bin!

Fanny is not the book’s only hard sell. Obviously, romantic love between cousins is distasteful to modern audiences (particularly when said cousins have been raised as siblings), but I have to say it wasn’t just the incestuous quality of the relationship that sank Fanny x Edmund for me. Another fundamental issue is that Edmund is an arrogant dullard. Where the rest of the family regard Fanny with tired indifference, he does deign to treat her like a human being, but that is the sum total of his charm. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I think a credible love interest ought to bring a bit more to the table than basic human decency.

There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere, and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere.

Another issue is the fact that Fanny struggles to emerge from the shadow cast by her rival in love, Mary Crawford. Capricious, strong-minded and sure of herself, Mary brings more personality to each scene she features in than Fanny manifests during the entire book. Sure, Mary is bad news and just as unlikeable, but she is hands down a more interesting character than Fanny, who seemingly exists to give shy introverts a bad name.

Austen has few rivals when it comes to incisive social commentary, and this does make some appearance in Mansfield Park. The best parts of this book demonstrate her deep understanding of human psychology, as well as her characteristic wit – there are a few moments of snort-inducing humour. I did not find this novel anywhere near as sharp as the author’s other works, however. Though I have yet to read Emma, I feel I can say with some confidence that Mansfield Park is the drabbest Austen. Despite some thought-provoking themes, it lacks the resonance of more popular classics. I also think the ending is a major copout, serving to justify Fanny’s moral high ground at the expense of character development (and realism).

Austen at her worst is a cut above many authors at their best, so I am glad I gave this book a go, but I must bow to general opinion about its ranking at the bottom of her bibliography. Mansfield Park is not a classic I will be making time to reread.

Review: Kameron Hurley’s ‘The Light Brigade’


After much umming and ahhing, I’ve settled on four stars, rounded up from 3.75. The Light Brigade is a standalone military sci-fi novel, with emphasis on military. Kameron Hurley portrays a far-flung tomorrow, complete with time travel and interplanetary teleportation, but these futuristic elements do not overshadow the narrative’s human struggles. At its heart, this is a novel about the futile brutality of war.

Our protagonist, Dietz, is an army grunt in Earth’s crusade against the Martians, who are responsible for blinking São Paulo out of existence. The setting is extremely dystopian, with control of Earth’s citizens split between six giant corporations. Those who do not qualify for corps citizenship are poverty-stricken ‘ghouls’, and the Martians are alleged communists, hungry to dismantle everything that hardworking corps citizens have built. Dietz is, loosely, a disillusioned right-wing nationalist. From the first, her eyes are half-open to the lies she has been fed, but she is not quite brave enough to accept the need to fundamentally reassess her worldview. Her qualms about the corps’ rampant capitalism and the system’s role in her traumatic childhood are belied by her desperate wish to retain her self-image as a holy warrior, defender of the righteous. To this end, she remains fully subscribed to the threat of leftist bogeymen, even though she has never actually seen a Martian.

Pacey and action-packed, The Light Brigade is nonetheless a surprisingly thought-provoking novel. Generous splattering of gore aside, this is the first military sci-fi I have come across that makes some effort to flesh out its politics. Hurley also brilliantly captures the way the meat grinder of war depersonalises soldiers. Stripped of her name and sex (which is not revealed until the end of the novel), Dietz lives most of this narrative as a cog in the machine. She is nothing, and has nothing, without her gun and her bulletproof armour.

“They think they have chosen their servitude, and that makes them individuals, powerful. Freedom to work? Ha! Freedom to die on the factory floor, behind a desk, pissing in place because they don’t get bathroom breaks. Freedom to be fired at the whim of a boss bleeding you dry on stagnant wages you can only spend at the company store. But the choice of the whip or the chain is a false choice. Sometimes you have to leave people behind. They’re part of the old world. They aren’t capable of building something new.”

Being brutally atomised and blasted across the solar system at the speed of light isn’t the most relatable experience, but Hurley still manages to imbue Dietz’s frontline chapters with a palpable sense of the squalor and despair that active combat entails. The disconnect between command and the battlefield, the changing faces of Dietz’s squad and the relentless slaughter come together in an evocation of desperate violence that feels extremely real. And that’s without mentioning the torture. Personally, I do not find bookish gore all that disturbing, but sensitive readers may want to steer clear of this bloodbath, especially for lunchtime reading.

The time travel is also well presented. Thrown randomly into past or future at the start of each deployment, Dietz’s disjointed wartime experiences are chaotic and frightening. Another aspect that feels true to the realities of conflict is the fact that no one knows what the heck is going on, least of all the expendables dropped into the firing line. The non-linear plotline is a bit confusing to follow, but since Dietz is in the dark a lot of the time, this messiness seems purposeful, allowing the reader to share in the struggle to figure out which way is up.

I am aware that a number of reviews of this book have made a talking point of Dietz’s gender-neutral narration, but personally I think this is a fuss over nothing. For one thing, the way the other characters interact with Dietz gives a solid inkling early on. Also, Dietz is generally a rather ambiguous character. The sexless narration is not distracting, but this is arguably because Dietz’s voice has no distinguishing characteristics. Even in first-person, our protagonist is elusive. The pace of the narrative allows her little time for clarifying reflections in the wake of major losses and lifechanging realisations.

This is something we don’t talk about . . . what happens when you are presented with a truth that contradicts everything you believe in? The widespread proliferation of information in the early days of the open knu, back when it was the wild net, should have made truth easier to find. But it turns out most of us don’t want truth. We want stories that back up our existing beliefs. Flood the world enough with information, and I will pick out only those bits that uphold the virtue and rightness of whatever corp I’ve been taught to love.

Most of the book’s philosophy is conveyed through its dialogue. We’re talking dramatic monologues. However, because we don’t really know what is going on in Dietz’s head, it is hard to tell what she actually believes. The narrative is a journey towards the light, in which Dietz is forced to confront the possibility that she is no more righteous than any fascist state’s knuckleduster, but it is unclear how deep a transformation is taking place. A protagonist of limited intelligence, it is never certain that Dietz understands her own actions well enough to regret them.

This disconnect extends into Dietz’s relationships with the other characters. Jumping back and forth through the timeline, our would-be hero serves alongside many fellow soldiers, but her bonds with her squad are limited. Despite forming tentative relationships and alliances, she remains friendless, distant. Even when she cradles broken bodies in her arms, Dietz does not let us inside her head. This makes it hard to assess the weight of her losses, and their impact on her decisions.

The Light Brigade features many, many references to other sci-fi works. Subtle homages mingle with direct quotations on every other page. As an Easter egg hunt, it’s all very well, but I did find myself wondering how much of the author’s own philosophy is actually present. With so many links to sci-fi greats, there is a sense that the end product is more a mash of existing ideas than a work that embodies its own vision. Dietz’s journey towards redemption is also somewhat hamstrung by the ambiguous ending. Our protagonist might have gone full revolutionary, or she might be in the middle of a mental breakdown. Who knows? The big finish is weakened by this uncertainty.

I will say, this is the first military sci-fi I have come across that has left me with something to think about, so on that score I think this book is a winner. I did not always agree with the writing choices, but overall I think The Light Brigade reveals the great potential of an often underwhelming subgenre.

Review: Sosuke Natsukawa’s ‘The Cat Who Saved Books’


The Cat Who Saved Books is an easy, feel-good read about courage, cats and the magic of reading. Translated from Japanese, the prose has a gentle, storybook vibe, reminiscent of traditional children’s fiction.

Rintaro Natsuki is a teenage boy, and a hikikomori (a recluse). The sudden death of his grandfather, a second-hand book dealer, leaves Rintaro alone in the world. Numbly grieving, he retreats between the shelves of his grandfather’s bookshop, scorning school, social contact and all the bustle and noise of the outside world.

It seems there will be no escaping into the pages, however, or at least not in the way this antisocial reader had planned. Rintaro’s muted existence soon becomes a great deal more lively thanks to Tiger, a talking tabby cat who hands out literature-saving quests to people who truly love books.

‘Books can give us knowledge, wisdom, values, a view of the world, and so much more. The joy of learning something you didn’t know before, and seeing things in a whole new way, is exciting. But somehow I believed they gave us something more important than that.’

This is a story for book lovers, for readers who enjoy the smell of crumbly old paper and the soft flutter of pages. The sensory experience of reading differs for those who favour e-readers, it’s true, but paperback or otherwise, I think all of us can agree there is no joy quite like a steaming brew, a cosy nook and a riveting page-turner.

The Cat Who Saved Books captures these sentiments, offering a warm hug towards anyone who has found truth, hope and comfort in stories. It’s just a pity the narrative is so simple. Cute and cosy is all very well, but this book is also rather twee. Child-like wonder becomes a bit much when a novel feels an actual children’s parable. Though Natsukawa often namedrops of literary classics (none of them Japanese, strangely enough), the book has an innocent, cutesy vibe. It could easily be shelved in the 8-12 bracket.

Ultimately, I see no reason why adults cannot enjoy the nostalgic pleasure of children’s fiction, but The Cat Who Saved Books is also rather tepid in exploring its themes. As a book about grieving, which it sort of is, it feels rather limp. Even if a certain introversion can be said to be a common feature of Japanese literature, there is a considerable difference between understated subtlety and narratives that lack emotion. Had Natsukawa allowed Rintaro some more feeling, I think the book might have been able to tap into something more profound. As it is, our grey, uncharismatic protagonist renders his own story rather washy. I also think the overall ‘books are love’ message lacks a certain nuance (there are, after all, bad books, and books that promote bad ideas).

As a closing remark, this is a sweet, pleasant little read, but it doesn’t leave the reader with much to think about.

Review: Michael Pollan’s ‘This Is Your Mind on Plants’


Part research, mostly memoir, This Is Your Mind on Plants (2021) is a loosely scientific text about three mind-altering substances that can be derived straight from the plant. Opium and caffeine require no introduction, but the third, mescaline, is a more obscure hallucinogen, present in a handful of cacti species from the Americas.

Pollan never explains why he chose to focus on these three substances in particular, but given that they are, respectively, a depressant, a stimulant and a psychedelic, together they offer a broad picture of our relationship with medicinal plants. I think the inclusion of something legal and widely used contrasts well with the two heavily regulated substances, even though caffeine is a pretty tame example of substance use.

If you are looking for a deep dive into the science of medicinal plants and their interactions with the human brain, best prepare for disappointment. This Is Your Mind on Plants is more journalistic than scientific, and talks about the culture of each substance’s use rather than the brain chemistry involved. Most of the emphasis falls on the author’s own experiences as someone who has cultivated opium, quit caffeine and ingested mescaline. There is some general information and historical context about each of the three, but this is scattered between long passages of Pollan’s personal observations.

My main issue with this book was its grating narrative voice. Pollan has a tendency to relate everything the text mentions back to his own experiences, regardless of whether these experiences are interesting. Also, though the author is in his 60s, the text reflects a lack of worldliness, as well as a certain immaturity. I did find some parts very interesting, but the overall impression is extremely self-absorbed, to the extent that a more fitting title would have been This Is My Mind on Plants.

To both the Greeks and the Romans, the poppy flower symbolized both the sweetness of sleep and the prospect of death. We’re evidently not as good as they were at holding two contradictory ideas in our heads, for today who has a good word to say about opiates or opium? “Blessing” no longer comes to mind, except perhaps at the deathbed. But what is true of the opium poppy is true for all the medicines that plants have given us: they are both allies and poisons at once, which means it’s up to us to devise a healthy relationship with them.

Of the three chapters, Opium is the longest. In this section, Pollen mainly discusses the infamous war on drugs, as well as the OxyContin scandal. (In short, this highly addictive opioid was falsely marketed as a safe, non-addictive painkiller, leading to hundreds of thousands of fatal overdoses.) These topics are framed around an article the author wrote in the 90s. Drawing on his own experience as a gardener who liked poppies during a time of heavy crackdowns on backyard opium producers, he documents the legal jeopardy that surrounded opium poppies at this time.

Though the Caffeine chapter is not as strong, it still presents some fascinating ideas. On face value, the theory which states that the arrival of tea and coffee in Europe triggered the Enlightenment seems exaggerated, but the evidence is surprisingly compelling. Less so, the Mescaline chapter, which is incredibly self-conscious and navel-gazey, to the point of overshadowing the Native American rituals and traditions it strives to respect. I fell asleep whilst reading this section, which seems a more damning comment than any I can make in words.

Something the book discusses throughout the three chapters is the political framing of substances throughout history, and how this has changed public perception. During the Prohibition era, opium tinctures were considered a surprisingly respectable indulgence. By contrast, the Opium Wars brought devastating levels of addiction to China, collapsing the nation’s economy. As an example of improved public relations, the mescaline-laden peyote cactus, once frowned upon as the Devil’s plant, is now widely accepted as a cultural medicine, bringing communal healing to America’s tribal reservations.

I think the book would have benefitted from more history and science. It also seems worth remarking on the omission of tobacco and alcohol from these narratives. In a way, it doesn’t make sense to talk about legal substance use without including the main players. I’m not sure I could have made it through much more of Pollan’s narration, however, so I was quite happy to finish this book at 250 pages. Overall, This Is Your Mind on Plants is a bit annoying, but it remains an accessible read about an interesting subject.

Compared to psychedelics in the West in the 1960s, peyote’s role in the Native American community is notably conservative. (Yet another reminder of the critical role of [mind]set and setting in any psychedelic experience.) The use of peyote in the Native American Church gives us a moral model of drug use. That such a model exists (and it exists in other traditional cultures as well) requires us to reconsider the whole concept of “drugs” and the moral failings we associate with them.

Review: Elodie Harper’s ‘The House with the Golden Door (#2 The Wolf Den Trilogy)


A compelling read! Whilst I did enjoy The Wolf Den, I felt the first book in this series had problems that the strength of the story and characters were never quite able to overcome. Happily, The House with the Golden Door goes a long way to smoothing things out. Even at 490 pages, this is a pacey, gripping read, easy to fly through in a single sitting.

Having taken her chances, made her sacrifices and fought the odds, Amara is a freedwoman. Finally safe in the loving arms of a wealthy, powerful patron, it seems she may now reap the rewards of her long struggle. This blissful picture is only surface level, however. Grieving, traumatised and living an uncertain existence in which her resources and sanctuary are entirely dependent on Rufus’ affections, Amara has really succeeded only in exchanging the brutality of the brothel for a different set of restrictions. There is no forgetting, and her life remains very much under someone else’s control.

From the first, Rufus’ charm is wearing, revealing a jealous penchant for cruelty. This turns what might have been a lull, or lowering of stakes, into an intense, nail-biting narrative in which Amara has a great deal more to lose. Our heroine’s newfound wealth gives her scope to make bigger choices, but also mistakes of greater consequence. Unused to the luxury of indulging her feelings, Amara soon sets off on a path of no return, making dramatic, heartfelt decisions, the repercussions of which haunt the entire narrative.

“You are a whore who caught the eye of a rich man, who has nothing of her own. And you owe your former master several thousand sesterces. I don’t think you are in a position to turn down anyone’s generosity, especially not mine.” Felix is staring into her eyes, and Amara has no choice but to stare back, not wanting to provoke him by looking away. “We’re the same, you and I. And I know you see it.”

In essence, this is a story driven by lapses of judgement. Brimming with misplaced faith, Amara makes some truly questionable choices, and throughout the novel she shows a streak of carelessness that is totally at odds with her precarious situation. Given that our heroine knows exactly what will happen if she loses Rufus’ patronage, pushing the limit of his tolerance seems unwise, especially in light of the fact that Amara has people depending on her. Her downfall, we know, will be much more devastating for those whose freedom is less than paid for.

Unfortunately, a lot of the jeopardy in this book relies on cementing Rufus’ status as an Evil Man. The subtleties of Amara’s gratitude and fear of abandonment are lost to a rather two-dimensional rendering of his possessiveness. It seems realistic, but this would arguably have been a more interesting story had Rufus been characterised as a more complex antagonist. I think some of this simplicity reflects the continued struggle between the author’s ideas and the strength of the writing. Though I rated this book at four stars because it is such a page-turner, the prose is still pretty mealy. Overall, this seems to be a series that relies more on personality than presentation.

Another thing which The House with the Golden Door carries over is the theme of female friendship as a means of survival. Only, things are more complicated this time around. Outside the Wolf Den, the only thing Amara has in common with her sister prostitutes is their shared trauma. Her changed status rewrites many of her relationships, making for losses and betrayal. Aside from Britannica’s unexpected move to centre stage, none of it is particularly surprising, but there is definite sense of tragedy. I am confident that the setup we have been left with will lead to a huge emotional payoff in the trilogy’s finale.

“I suppose you think I am a fool for ever trusting her.”

“No.” Britannica starts walking again. “Even I not see this. Though I know she is bad.”

There are no stepping-stones to cross the language barrier that sits between Amara and Britannica. All the shades of meaning that could lie within the word bad, reduced like everything else Britannica says into blunt, unsophisticated phrases, even though Amara has long suspected she is anything but.

Amara remains an interesting character, but her self-image is quite different to reality. Despite her belief to the contrary, her behaviour is less that of a level-headed strategist and more that of a hopeless romantic with trust issues. Quick to follow her heart, and then to distrust it, she does not always consider how she makes other people feel, nor what they may do as a result. At times, this makes for very frustrating reading, particularly given that the text does not seem fully aware of this characterisation.

I suppose it would have been a dull novel, however, had Amara simply made a cold-hearted commitment to playing the long game. Rufus falling hopelessly in love with her, whilst she quietly waited for her pot of gold to grow big enough to free all her friends, would not have offered such suspense and tension. Also, whilst Amara makes some poor decisions, it is hard to blame her for wanting to snatch what happiness she can. Having given so much for her freedom only to find herself in another cage, perhaps a certain disillusionment and disregard for consequences is understandable.

November feels like a long wait for trilogy’s third instalment, The Temple of Fortuna, which I am really looking forward to. With the volcanic end of Pompeii in sight, and given the dramatic fallout of Amara’s decisions in The House with the Golden Door, I am expecting an explosive final arc full of messy consequences, perhaps offering some lasting redemption for this troubled, complex character.

Review: Elodie Harper’s ‘The Wolf Den’ (#1 The Wolf Den Trilogy)


3.5 stars. The Wolf Den is a 450-page historical fiction novel, set in Ancient Italy. We meet Amara – once the affluent daughter of a Greek doctor – in Pompeii. Enslaved as a brothel-working ‘she-wolf’, Amara remains determined not to submit to the shame of her circumstances, though little remains of the educated young woman she once was. Riches to rags, all she has left is her desperate desire to find a way out of this grimy, violent existence.

I had such high hopes for this book. Though I do enjoy mythical retellings about forgotten voices and overlooked characters from Ancient Greece and Rome, the mythic retelling genre has a strong focus on characters of noble birth. Even for princesses, life in ancient times was no picnic, but it does seem worth remarking that many of these feminist takes on ancient stories are presented through women who embody the highest extremes of wealth and privilege. In short, it is rare that we encounter characters from the Ancient World whose lives truly embody the word ‘downtrodden’, making The Wolf Den a welcome departure from the norm.

Needless to say, life at the bottom of society’s ladder is far from pretty. Amara’s world is a crude, violent place, and everyone in it is cruel, depraved or downright traumatised – in some cases, all three. Yet, Amara is able to find the strength to endure through the comfort of the sisterly bonds she shares with her fellow prostitutes. The alpha female is proud, fearless Victoria. Then we have Cressa, Beronice and Dido. The most vulnerable and beautiful of the cohort, Dido is the only true light in Amara’s life, and her dearest friend.

“Either we choose to stay alive, or we give up. And if it’s living we choose, then we do whatever it takes.”

Though Amara is determined to leave the brothel behind her, no matter the cost, this remains a story of sisterhood and shared survival, of women caring for and protecting one another, often in the face of unimaginable trauma and suffering. PTSD is common among sex workers, but it is rare to see such lives framed in a manner that is non-judgemental, or kind. On this point, the book is a real success. I think Harper is one of very few authors whose claim about giving a voice to forgotten women holds real water.

It is a shame, however, that the ambitious ideas and admirable sentiments that drive this novel are not matched by its actual writing. For one thing, this book is a ghastly example of misplaced use of the present tense. Through repeated exposure, I have mostly overcome my aversion towards present tense narratives, but there are definitely times when it does not work as a creative choice. The advantage of the present tense is its sense of immediacy. Writers can use it to create an illusion in which the reader ‘lives the narrative’ alongside the characters. For texts set in modern or futuristic settings, particularly those written in first-person, it can add tension and intimacy, but I agree with the view that it is rarely a good choice for historic narratives. In the context of pre-Vesuvius Pompeii, this modern flavour is nothing short of jarring. Constantly contradicted by the archaic realities of the Ancient World, it makes no sense.

For the most part, the prose is very average. It took me a long time to find some interesting quotes for this review, because The Wolf Den contains few memorable turns of phrase. The writing seems to reflect the author’s struggle to do justice to their ideas, though I don’t think this is necessarily due to Harper’s ability as an author. More likely, it relates to that fact that writing about people for whom degradation is an everyday norm is extremely challenging. I think one of the reasons we see so few narratives with sex workers as protagonists is because they are inherently difficult to write in a manner that dignifies the characters and their struggles. Harper succeeds in this most crucial aspect, but the overall presentation leaves a lot to be desired.

May men fall to me as this offering falls to you, Greatest Aphrodite. May I know love’s power, if never its sweetness.

Amara is a dark heroine. Not quite an antihero, but gritty. Circumstances have pared her personality back to a place where her actions are governed by need and necessity rather than morals and feeling. She is not a nice person, but in most contexts this is because she cannot afford to be. Choice is a major narrative theme – most of the characters are on a journey towards rebelling against or resigning themselves to a lack of it. Following Amara as she cuts her path to (relative) freedom, The Wolf Den encourages the reader to reflect on challenging moral questions. Amara might be manipulative and cunning, but is deception wicked in situations where lies are the only thing that can save you?

Another thing I liked about this book is that it feels true to the brutal realities of brothel slavery. Harper succeeds in creating a palpable sense of the danger and volatility of such an existence. Striking a very precise balance, the narrative shows the gore and seediness in enough detail that it feels real, but we never cross the line into gratuitous violence. As far as writing about disenfranchised people goes, this is an excellent example of creating a credible escape narrative, whilst still representing and respecting a reality that very few had the opportunity to escape from. The only noticeable omission is the lack of venereal diseases, though I can understand why Harper may have decided to sacrifice this extra dose of realism for the sake of dignity.

The book has a large cast, which does make it difficult to get to know anyone in great detail. Though Amara is closest with Dido, she has much more interesting, complex relationships with Victoria and Felix, their abusive pimp. In the sequels, I think we are likely to see more of these two. I am also curious about what will become of poor Paris, a born-to-the-brothel male prostitute, who Amara and the other women treat with a spectacular lack of sympathy. The wealth of potential makes it particularly unfortunate that The Wolf Den fails to maintain its page-turning lure until the very end. The weak, inconclusive ending closes things on a flat, unsatisfying note. It does leave a lot for the sequel to pick up on, however, so though I did not rate this book as highly as I hoped to, I am looking forward to seeing where the story will go in The House with the Golden Door.

Review: Stephanie Foo’s ‘What My Bones Know’


There is no escaping the past. For all that we may try to comfort ourselves with ideas about free will and the power to choose our own destiny, it is difficult to argue that past experiences in no way shape our personality and the roads available to us. Perhaps the only choice we ever have is to take what we are given and make the best of it, but given that it is statistically evident that trauma blunts our potential to find lasting happiness and fulfilment, is the attempt to marry a difficult past with hope for a better future just naïve?

For those affected by complex trauma and the mental illnesses that often result, questions about the purpose of the struggle can pose a significant challenge. After all, what is the point of trying to heal, if the insidious nature of the affliction will in all likelihood undermine the effort? As someone who lives with Complex PTSD (c-PTSD), Stephanie Foo is perhaps in a position to answer this with something stronger than pithy quotes about strength and survival. In this candid memoir, she documents her own struggles and personal journey towards peace.

Where PTSD can be caused by a single traumatic incident, such as a violent car accident or the terror experienced during a home invasion, c-PTSD more commonly stems from prolonged exposure to a repeated cycle of trauma – in Foo’s case, her abusive childhood. Frequently beaten and ultimately abandoned by both her dysfunctional parents as a young teenager, the author spent her twenties exploring psychotherapy in all its forms, desperately searching for a viable path to healing.

It was only then, in the wake of so much I had demolished, that I realized I had done this to myself, and I had done it because it had been done to me. My anger was a reflection of two people who had self-immolated with their own anger. I could see I was already kind of an asshole, and if I continued down this path, I would transform into them.

But how was I to begin letting it go when anger was the force that gave me momentum? My anger was my power. It was what protected me. Without it, wouldn’t I be sad and naked?

What My Bones Know (2022) is an extremely honest autobiography. Foo discusses the violence and emotional abuse she endured in graphic detail, and is open about her unhealthy coping mechanisms and perceived failures on the road to recovery. This is no modern fairytale, in which the heroine slays the dragon and gallops away into the rosy sunset. It is a story of desperate, protracted struggle against an insurmountable foe. There is no grand victory, no final battle in which Foo triumphs over the odds, and at the close she admits that maintaining her hard-won happiness will be a lifelong effort.

Yet this book is, decisively, a work of hope. In chasing a silver bullet for c-PTSD, Foo might not have found the answer, but she certainly made some helpful discoveries along the way, including several techniques to effectively manage her condition. Stumbling from EMDR to IFS therapy, from restorative yoga to SSRIs, Foo’s journey serves as a whistle-stop tour of modern psychotherapeutic practice. The various approaches to therapy are seldom discussed outside of textbooks written by psychologists, so I found it refreshing to read the perspective of someone seeking instead of providing these treatments, though admittedly the exploration of each therapy is rather fleeting. The book is more concerned with Foo’s personal growth than the success of any psychotherapeutic method she encountered.

The strength of What My Bones Know is its rawness. Living in a time defined by the urge to compare ourselves with others, in which we have never cared more about what other people think of us, it takes great courage to publicly declare ‘I am not a good person’. Foo does this, then delves through the sordid misery of her childhood to understand why she turned out the way she did. She might not apologise for her mistakes, but she does analyse and own them. In places, this text is a great example of the strength and liberation that comes with the willingness to be vulnerable.

Since reading about damaged PTSD brains, I’d been losing faith in my own mind. Every time I tried to touch a memory, doubts and questions multiplied around it, preventing me from being about to see my own past.

How much of my own experience had I projected onto other children because it was happening to me, because I hadn’t wanted to be alone?

Foo often presents her life through the lens of her Asian American heritage. Having grown up with a mother who might be described as a grotesque extreme of the ‘tiger mom’ stereotype, Foo ties her experiences to a wider cultural narrative of intergenerational trauma. There may be something to this, but I must say I found this aspect of the book rather clumsy. Foo makes a number of sweeping generalisations about her Malaysian relatives and the wider Asian continent, painting a portrait that feels incomplete, and unnuanced. It is also obvious that her reading of certain cultural behaviours is informed only by her own (very American) perspective. Sometimes her opinions seem arrogant, or downright ignorant.

Also, though I found this a gripping read, I am not sure how useful it is for readers who hope to use Foo’s journey as a template for their own healing. I read this book from a different research angle, hoping it would help me write more realistically about characters with trauma, and in this regard I cannot say it was particularly helpful. Overall, What My Bones Know is less about sharing wisdom that may enable readers to find their own healing, and more about the author’s individual journey. In some ways, I think this might actually be grim reading for other people affected by c-PTSD, since Foo’s treatment plan so obviously benefitted from her relative wealth and journalistic connections. Many of the resources this book mentions are simply not accessible to the average person living with c-PTSD. I also feel that Foo irresponsibly glamorises her experiences with shrooms.

In places, the book gets a little naval-gazey and repetitive. Despite her brutal self-awareness, Foo comes across somewhat immature and spoilt. However, there is no denying her courageous tenacity and earnest desire for self-improvement. The will to thrive is what gives this book its strength and character. Ultimately, whilst I cannot rate this as the best autobiography or the most informative case study on c-PTSD, I think it is an excellent motivational text. Foo might be a divisive character, but What My Bones Know remains a moving, inspiring testament to a very determined person’s fight to make something good of their life.

Review: Matt Betts’ ‘Gone Where the Goblins Go’


My reviews are always unbiased, but in the interest of transparency, please note I received a free copy of this book ahead of its publication (Manta Press, May 2023).

At 260 pages, Gone Where the Goblins Go is a fast-paced sci-fi adventure. Tilly Coleman, our American protagonist, is an ex-army pilot, rather maladjusted for civilian life. When a private sector contract comes up, she leaps at the opportunity to fly again, agreeing to ferry a team to China in order to track down a group of conservationists who have gone missing in the wilderness. The details are rather vague, but the pay is good, and anything beats drifting aimlessly from hostel to hostel, or so Tilly thinks. It soon becomes obvious this is a rather more dangerous mission than the corporate spiel suggested.

Tilly represents a common character archetype in military sci-fi: the badass tough girl with a streak of hidden sensitivity. With her mohawk hairstyle and fire demon tattoos, she projects an aura of ‘don’t mess with me’, but it is obvious from the first that this is a front. Not far below the surface, she is actually a rather haunted person who copes with her trauma by refusing to acknowledge it. Because, of course, denial is the most healthy, effective way to deal with any problem…

If I’m being completely honest, military sci-fi is not my favourite subgenre. I find it is commonly peopled by characters who lack emotional intelligence. Also, the protagonists tend to be a variation of the same person: a seasoned or former soldier who is unable or unwilling to access mental health services, and who copes with their chequered past by indulging in mild substance abuse. Tilly fits this mould, but I did initially warm to her. There is a sense that she is trying to make a new life for herself. She might not be ready to face up to her demons just yet, but she is more honest about this with herself than many a similar hero. I found her quiet self-awareness rather poignant.

In the early chapters, this book reminded me of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. The premise – a team of specialists deployed to a weird wilderness in search of missing people – is distinctly similar. Gone Where the Goblins Go is a simpler, less subtle narrative, however, packing more gunfire and action than creep factor. Mashing military sci-fi, fantasy, eldritch horror and the psychology of complex bereavement with a dusting of Chinese mythology, it is fair to say that Betts packs this short text with more breadth than depth. However, once the plot gets moving (a little slowly from the starting gate), Gone Where the Goblins Go is a fun, feisty adventure, reminiscent of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Unfortunately, I think this book is let down by its characters. Besides Tilly, the cast are cardboard. Also, whilst Tilly shows initial promise, she is ultimately rather a passenger in her own story. Nothing provokes her to action. When she makes discoveries, they are accidental. Even when clues fall into her lap, Tilly is not prompted to actively investigate or to ask meaningful questions. Perhaps there is an element of disillusion, a conviction that ‘if I’m not being paid to deal with it, it isn’t my problem’, but this attitude does not hold water in the face of an increasingly dangerous situation. At several points, Mingmei, the novel’s only Chinese character, literally tells Tilly what is going on, and our protagonist’s indifferent reaction amounts to ‘cool story, bro.’ Given that Tilly never does anything with the information she is given, we can only assume she does not care what happens. This presents a problem, since if the protagonist does not care, why should the reader?

Tilly’s ‘team’ are not the slickest operation. Aside from Tilly and her co-pilot, Saburo, there is a distinct lack of cooperation and basic competence. Forced, reluctantly, to take command (in the loosest, most unenthusiastic sense) before the useless team leader, Harrison, gets everyone killed, Tilly must singlehandedly drag herself and her burden of idiots through hostile, dangerous territory. It would be all very well, if Tilly gave us any reason to believe in her commitment to the mission. I found it hard to root for her success, and it is unsatisfying that the novel never explains why the people sent on this ill-fated crusade are so ill-suited for its demands. This includes Tilly, whose supposed combat experience is rather diminished by the fact that she has never killed anyone, and does not believe she has it in herself to do so – incongruous, I think, with a military career.

Given that the story is set in China, it is also a shame that Betts makes little use of the setting’s rich culture and abundance of unique wildlife. The Yellow River as it is presented here might be, in truth, any river. There is next to no tangible description pinpointing the area Tilly traverses as a real place – we could just as easily be in the Amazon, or the Thames Estuary.

Overall, I think this narrative is decently structured, and Betts clearly has good ideas. For me, it’s a memorable book, since it is such a strange, wild ride. The story and worldbuilding could do with some more meat on the bones, however, and it’s a shame about the weak characterisation. To sum, Gone Where the Goblins Go is a bizarre, beguiling read, in which the scale between good weird and bad weird weighs roughly even.

Review: Scott Lynch’s ‘Red Seas Under Red Skies’ (#2 Gentleman Bastard)


The problem with the best books in any genre is that they set the bar incredibly, unreasonably high. Even if the sequels of such books are excellent reads in their own right, there is no avoiding a judgement based on comparison. I mention this to explain my long hesitation in getting to Red Seas Under Red Skies. It’s not that I didn’t want to pick this novel up. It’s just that it took a while for the magic of The Lies of Locke Lamora to fade – it needed to, if I was going to give the sequel a fair chance.

A chunky 630 pages, Red Seas picks up two years after the events of the previous book. Locke and Jean are back, and they are no longer adolescent rogues. A dynamic duo, seasoned in skulduggery, our boys are now men with battle scars. There is a pleasing sense of continuity, in that whilst our antiheroes survived the perils of Camorr, Red Seas does not present them with a clean slate. They come to this new adventure with the burden of some serious baggage.

Having slaked his thirst for vengeance, Locke is a changed character. He is older and (marginally) less cocky, but more fundamental than this is the fact that he now has different motivations and priorities. Having done the work of avenging his fallen brothers, he is tired. He does not want to win so much. On some level, he even wants out of the game. This brings interesting implications to his dynamic with Jean, who is used to relying on Locke’s vicious intellect.

“Gods, when did we discover how easy it is to be cruel to one another?”

If you enjoyed The Lies, you will like Red Seas, at least to some extent. I feel I can wager this with safe certainty, since the two books have a great deal in common. They are both antiheroic heist narratives seasoned with a generous dose of vengeance, both square Locke and Jean against some truly evil villains, and they share a pseudo-Venetian setting. Lynch carried forward many of the qualities that made The Lies such a gripping read – in many ways a good thing – but it must be remarked that the staging feels familiar. The move to a new but very similar city seems like a waste of time, so it’s probably just as well we do not spend the whole narrative there.

True to the title, large chunks of Red Seas are spent beyond the harbour. Highly skilled thieves, Locke and Jean must nonetheless learn the tricks of a different class of a criminal as they dabble in piracy. Or something like. The ‘pirates’ who people the secondary cast are an odd bunch. Compared with the grittiness of Lynch’s overall worldbuilding, it seems worth remarking that Captain Drakasha and her crew are strangely cuddly.

As far as piracy goes, it’s very family-friendly. Aside from the fact that these pirates are upstanding citizens who steal only from vessels that can afford to lose their cargo, there are literal infants on board. I don’t see why pirate captains cannot be parents, but is it realistic for them to juggle such roles successfully, and with breezy ease? Lynch would say yes, but I think presenting the brutal, murderous lifestyle of a marauding seadog as a lifestyle compatible with young children is to present piracy in a manner rather removed from the profession’s essential nature. In a softer setting, it would probably be less noticeable, but the stark contrasts with this series’ dark tone and violence make this arc seem rather sanitised, and a bit silly.

Of course, what I’m really here for is the bromance. I love reading about complex platonic relationships. Give me soul sisters and devoted brothers-in-arms. I don’t want to read about kisses. Instead, I want kindred. The sense of brotherhood is one of the things that elevates The Lies to the top tier of fantasy, so I was hoping for more of the same. I did get it, but to a much lesser extent. There is no denying that Jean and Locke love each other. They are brothers, and they would die for each other, but Red Seas relies on the fact that we already know this. Unhappily for those who delight in poignant moments of intense fraternity, Locke and Jean’s relationship is presented here as a given. The subtle changes to Locke’s personality do force Jean to adopt a position that is less faithful follower and more loyal protector, but the development is minimal.

“Only one way to win when you’re being chased by someone bigger and tougher than you. Turn straight around, punch their teeth out, and hope the gods are fond of you.”

Red Seas instead places its emphasis on our heroes’ relationships with the secondary cast, which is unfortunate. As someone who reads a fair bit of fantasy, I have learnt to maintain low expectations of the genre’s romantic subplots. Sometimes one comes along, however, that is impossible to ignore. The romantic subplot in Red Seas is one such, and not for good reasons. This romance is, in a word, excruciating. To avoid spoilers, I shall simply describe it as a pus-ridden boil upon the face of love.

For a four-star review, I do seem to be racking up quite the stack of criticisms, so perhaps it’s fair to accuse me of being a little harsh. Cringe factor aside, I will say that Red Seas is a respectable and well-written sequel. Lynch is a very neat writer, and this narrative is tightly crafted. It is difficult to write about brilliantly intelligent minds – epiphanies and ingenious solutions rely on the author’s ability to fathom them – so there is no denying Lynch’s dexterous hand for plotting. The writing is also good, especially the dialogue, which shows a fun, crass sense of wit.

At the close, I can’t say I loved this book, but there were certainly aspects that I really liked. Unfortunately, there is just no resisting the urge to compare this novel to its predecessor, and the question of which is the better book is a no-brainer. I now look to the series’ third instalment, Republic of Thieves, with a mite less expectation, but I would be lying if I said I was completely out of enthusiasm. There is still a lot we do not know about Locke’s childhood, and there are other questions I would like to see answered. For one thing, what was that thing in the Parlour Passage? Maybe we’ll find out, maybe we won’t. Either way, I shall certainly be joining Locke and Jean on their next adventure. Review in due course!

Review: Lana Harper’s ‘From Bad to Cursed’ (The Witches of Thistle Grove #2)


From Bad to Cursed is a contemporary romance novel with a Halloween kick. Technically, this is a sequel to Harper’s debut novel, Payback’s a Witch, but I don’t think there is much narrative overlap. Based on the blurb, I thought this was a standalone, and I read it as one without issues.

Isidora Avramov is a modern-day American witch, and an unrepentant thrill-seeker. With her Slavic aristocrat roots, a head full of necromantic hexes and a penchant for summoning demons, our girl is something of a danger to herself and others. This is not unique among the Avramov clan, who live by the motto ‘I serve my goddess, my ancestors, and above all, myself.’ Our protagonist’s unsubtle personality, expressed in full force through snarky first-person narration, gives this book a strong YA vibe. Forays into carnal territory push us into the New Adult bracket, but the characters in this novel who have any real measure of life experience are few and far between.

With her brash personality, foul mouth and take-no-prisoners attitude, Issa strives to project an air of Boss Witch. To the surprise of no one, this is actually a front, shielding her insecurities and anxiety, and the fact that underneath it all she is really a rather sensitive artiste. In truth, this not my favourite type of character. Childish adults are seldom very endearing people, and those whose lack of personal responsibility comes from having never faced any difficult situations are hard to muster sympathy for.

“You’re the one who sent me an engraved invitation via a whole-ass raven, like some kind of evil sorceress who lives in a tower,” he pointed out. “Instead of texting or calling like a normal human being. So why don’t you tell me. I mean, for real, what the f*ck was that red ink? Was I supposed to think that was actual blood? Because I hate to break it to you, but real blood doesn’t dry like that.”

“What can I say?” I spread my hands, the picture of innocence. “Couldn’t find you in the phone book.”

Better to grow up late than never at all, however. When a dangerous curse breaks loose at the summer festival, injuring one of the community’s young witches, Issa must team up with her arch nemesis, holier-than-thou Rowan Thorn, to unravel the mystery and bring the culprit to justice. There is just one problem: Issa and Rowan despise each another. Where her magic stems from death and darkness, his green heritage is the stuff of life and light. Still nursing a seven-year grudge from an altercation that occurred during their brief spell as colleagues, Issa is determined the shared investigation will not thaw their mutual hatred, not by one degree… though admittedly Rowan’s smouldering good looks would give anyone a few butterflies. Whilst Issa squares her prejudices against Rowan’s pretentiousness, our male lead must wrestle with a lifechanging realisation: sexually confident young women who dress like sexy vampires are, in fact, sexy.

Though in places I was ready to roll my eyes into the back of my skull, it’s hard to fault this book for its vision. It gives a fun, sultry romance, and the setting is a witchy town by a magical forest lake. What’s not to love? I think the only real issue here is that the author mistakes texture for substance. Sniff out some pumpkin spice, search Pinterest for the cottagecore aesthetic, romantic goths and zodiac witches, and you will see the vibe Harper is going for. What this book presents is certainly cute, but fashions and furnishings do not make the people who inhabit them inherently interesting characters. Also, there is little here which addresses wider themes.

Greater introspection would certainly have made this a much deeper and more interesting book, but in fairness I do think From Bad to Cursed achieves its goals. Warm and cosy, it ticks the boxes for easy comfort reading.

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