The Old Ways by R K Summers

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The night Thomas Rhymer’s young sister is stolen away by shadows and smoke, he discovers there’s more to life than the fields and forests he knows so well. If he has any hope of rescuing Alissa, he must first cross into a realm where magic is lifeblood, and where shadows dance with dragonfire.

With the help of the seelie faery Thistledown, Thomas embarks on a treacherous quest, deep into the heart of war-raved Albion. But getting his sister back means pledging aid to Mab, the usurped Queen of the Old Ways, against the tyranny of the Dark Prince.

Yet danger and deceit lie around every corner, and some secrets are better left untold.

RK Summers has woven her own particular magic into this adventurous retelling of Thomas Rhymer.  As a self-proclaimed enthusiastic as all things mythological, I am heartily dismayed at myself for reacting to the following sentence with revelatory surprise: “The Old Ways by RK Summers is a wonderful retelling-with-a-twist of the tale of Thomas Rhymer”. (inspired-quill.com)

The revelations were thus; first that Thomas Rhymer had a tale to retell and second that he was a real life person of some sorts from the old days (see what I did there?) of Bonnie Scotland. My self-disgust was soon assuaged with a huge wave of gratefulness to RK Summers and Inspired Quill for educating me and providing a new story bow for my folklore quiver. I think you should read it too, and here’s for why.

Thomas Rhymer is someone I think we can all relate to. He’s minding his own business, living his average life, trundling to market of a Wednesday, until he is enlightened about his family’s past. This swiftly plunges him into darkness before he begins to fight his way back to normality with the help of his loyal friends (and a sprinkling of magic).

I’m still undecided on Mab. She is the embodiment of magic, the loyal queen of her realm and leader of her magical folk. Yet, despite all of these strong accolades, she is weakened by the Dark Prince. She is in a constant downward spiral, resisting the magnetic pull of the prince while protecting her subjects.

Like Mab, I’m sure I shouldn’t, but I quite enjoyed the character of the Dark Prince. Severe mood swings and abusive behaviours aside, he did show a flash of occasional humility and a sharp, if a little warped, sense of humour. Maybe ‘enjoyed’ is the wrong word, but the tension created from his unpredictability was certainly intriguing.

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Like any fantasy worth its salt, The Old Ways submerges us into a whole other world, which means a whole world full of characters to get to know. You have your handful of main characters, of course and the hoards of extras (think warring armies a la LOTR/ GOT). Then there are the middling characters; those who are bequeathed a name but are forgotten pretty rapidly as the next slice of action begins. There was a little too much time given to these middling characters (or too little depending on how you feel about grizzly old men in guest houses, invincible monsters or murderous siblings). The Dark Prince has far too many offspring, which are difficult to keep track of as a reader, never mind at family gatherings. No wonder they went the way they did. Speaking of, I’m not sure that I believed said offspring’s reactions to what was happening considering who their father was. But I am treading very close to spoilersville and so I will shut up.

I was always going to love this one. It has faeries and talking horses and magical realms and everything. The Old Ways would make a lovely Christmas gift for fantasy fans and/or a selfish treat! You can buy The Old Ways here. Enjoy!

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Red August by H. L. Brooks

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On the cusp of womanhood, August Archer wakes up from powerful erotic dreams of werewolves to find her real life is even stranger, more violent, and more passionate than she ever could have dreamed in this modern-day telling of the Red Riding Hood story.

Hlbrooks.com

An adult retelling of beloved fairytale Little Red Riding Hood by author H. L. Brooks. Like the classic, there is a young girl named (August) Red, a grandmother living in a questionable, foliage bound residence, some pretty terrible parenting and of course the dangerous wolf with big eyes, big ears, big teeth and in this case, a rather large something else…

Unlike the story we all know and love, Red August contains a beast which is not entirely human nor entirely wolf, an errant mother who is definitely hiding something and an apothecary lady who deals in some rather unsavoury substances.

This is certainly a tale for the grown ups and not one that I would snuggle down to with my nephew and/ or niece of a Sunday eve. In other words there’s LOTS of sex in it. I don’t see this as a bad thing (so long as it’s true to the character, you can write whatever the heck you like my friend), but some people can be put off by this kind of fiction. If that’s you, Brooks has written a very interesting blog post explaining why there is quite a bit of sex in this book which you can read here.

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I enjoyed the way that Brooks played with the well known story, bending the rules a little so that we could see alternate angles, and introducing us to characters and their backstories to enrich the experience.

My favourite element of the book is the setting. The deep dark woods with the flowing stream, which encompasses Grandma’s quaint if generously proportioned home. Then there are the occasional references to the family’s homeland, Scotland, which wasn’t explored nearly enough for me.

Like all good books, Red August is awash with mystery and intrigue. As we slowly unravel the family secrets, and learn more about Red’s past, her current situation does make more sense but I wanted more. I sometimes felt a little out of touch with what was happening, but I guess that’s how Red must have felt among her family for a little while.

For a writer, an amazing part of the storytelling process is to share an important message that transcends the superficial storyline and reaches readers on a personal level. Bearing this in mind, I think Brooks has missed a trick in this book. (Dear author, please do forgive me for the next paragraph if I’ve interpreted this wrong. I feel inclined to tell you here that I am on a very tight schedule what with me being very busy and important with work and studying. Also, last night my cat decided that I was not looking nearly fancy enough for slumber and so he rolled himself out into a furry wrap and donned my chest, stretching from shoulder to shoulder, and proceeded to purr with volumes to rival the deepest thunder, between the hours of 3am and 6am making me a very sleepy human today.)

What I mean by that is I feel that the author sometimes glosses over some of the heavier subjects. Allow me to illustrate. Towards the beginning of the book, following an intense bout of bullying, August is sexually assaulted in a most brutal manner by a boy from her new school. This whole episode is soon forgotten however when the rest of the story kicks in. There is no mention of this violent, sexually explicit experience later on, even in relation to August’s many sexual fantasies and later on in her intimate encounters with Faolon.

Whether this is to demonstrate August’s resilience to the mental effects of the attack (an attribute worthy of her new found family history?) or whether the whole incident is an example of unnecessary background information on the author’s part, I haven’t quite worked out yet. I’m inclined to go with the latter. The boy who attacked August is left out of the book altogether, once he has been ruthlessly dealt with. There is already so much going on in the book that this episode serves little purpose but to paint August as an unfeeling robot, which of course we know she isn’t. It could also be construed as a way to show August’s protective relationship with her mother (as she shields her mother from hearing about her attack) but their relationship is shown in various other ways anyway.

Either way, it adds a certain darkness to the story.

I enjoyed the whole concept of the Red August. You guys know I bloody love a fairytale with a modern twist.

I look forward to the next instalment of the Red August series, which I believe is due out in 2016!

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Thanks Heather for sending me a copy of Red August to read and review.

The Medium Path by Elizabeth Davies

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Ruby died nearly one hundred years ago. She saw spirits of the dead when she was alive, and now she is dead she has become a spirit guide who helps ghosts pass on.

When ghosts start being taken by darkness instead of the light, Ruby is forced to seek help from a handsome and unwilling medium, who awakens emotions in her that she thought had died long ago.

elizabethdaviesauthor.co.uk

I’m such a sucker for a ghost story. You know those weekends away in b&bs in the back and beyond with rows of crusty books on bookshelves wearing dust and spiders? If there’s a book of ghost stories and/ or local folklore on there, you’ve lost me. You can hike that mountain/ take in the scenery on your own my friend. I’ll be scaring myself witless in these ghostly tales thank you very much. (This rule does not transfer to scary films. I will never watch a horror lest it take over my brain for many proceeding months. One word. The Conjuring….)

As many of you will know, I am a judge-a-book-by-its-cover kind of gal. When Elizabeth Davies sent me The Medium Path (please see exhibit A, above) images of dark alleys infested with bubbling cauldrons flooded my expectations. While there are witch like characters and many a ghost here, my initial presumptions couldn’t have been further from the truth. For a start, the setting is thoroughly contemporary.  There are smart phones and everything.  Despite this, there isn’t a whole lot of the real world to cling onto at all. We spend most of the narrative betwixt this world and the next, accompanying Ruby on her mission to persuade the recently deceased to pass into the light.  Ruby is essentially a dead Melinda Gordon for the Ghost Whisperer fans among you. Just like Melinda, Ruby has her fair share of unruly spirits to contend with.

Davies gently infuses the main story led by Ruby, with seemingly unconnected mini stories from the ghosts she is trying to help, stirring them all into the pot with a cunning haphazardness. Before you know it, all the peripheral characters are suddenly essential to each other, pushing the plot to a rather pungent boiling point.

Ruby is not a typical leading lady. Because she is dead. At first glance, this somewhat removes any vulnerability that would lead to any dire peril and therefore does not inspire much empathy from the reader on her behalf. Because she is dead. What else can happen to her? Well, as it turns out, there are worse things than death. And Ruby is just about to find out what that is.

The Medium Path can be purchased in paperback or kindle form here.

The Mermaid’s Sister by Carrie Anne Noble

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There is no cure for being who you truly are…

In a cottage high atop Llanfair Mountain, sixteen-year-old Clara lives with her sister, Maren, and guardian Auntie. By day, they gather herbs for Auntie’s healing potions. By night, Auntie spins tales of faraway lands and wicked fairies. Clara’s favorite story tells of three orphan infants—Clara, who was brought to Auntie by a stork; Maren, who arrived in a seashell; and their best friend, O’Neill, who was found beneath an apple tree.

One day, Clara discovers shimmering scales just beneath her sister’s skin. She realizes that Maren is becoming a mermaid—and knows that no mermaid can survive on land. Desperate to save her, Clara and O’Neill place the mermaid-girl in their gypsy wagon and set out for the sea. But no road is straight, and the trio encounters trouble around every bend. Ensnared by an evil troupe of traveling performers, Clara and O’Neill must find a way to save themselves and the ever-weakening mermaid.

And always, in the back of her mind, Clara wonders, if my sister is a mermaid, then what am I?

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I was first attracted to this book by its fairy tale influences and also mostly by its pretty cover. This is because I am a shallow human being and fully accept that dark side of myself that judges books (and all things in life) by their covers. I’m also going through a bit of a fairy tale phase at the minute. Can’t get enough. Sometimes you just need to immerse yourself in a world where dragons are pets and mermaids are credible beings. I think I read somewhere that this book was a re-invention of The Little Mermaid. (It is possible that I may have imagined this.) Aside from the fact that there’s a mermaid in the story that experiences some metamorphosis along the way, there is little similarity. This isn’t a bad thing. Noble’s story is much more inventive: she has dragons in her story, which Hans Christian Andersen failed to utilise. Rookie mistake. (Just kidding Hans. I adore you).

As would be expected, Maren the mermaid is devastatingly beautiful. Clara, her human sister, pales in comparison, or at least this is what we are led to believe by Clara’s first person narrative. At first I felt sorry for Clara. It must have been hard for her growing up with such a stunner as her sister.  Believing herself to be second best both physically and competently, Clara defensively clings to propriety and manners. But the favourable reaction that she provokes among the male characters indicate that she is being somewhat of a self-deprecating attention seeker. Because of this, I didn’t particularly warm to Clara but I did want her to succeed in her mission, if not for her, for the people around her.

There are lots of clever little twists in the plot that link each character, whether they are main players or background fixings. Noble puts equal depth into all her characters, good and evil alike, creating a well-balanced narrative. She allows an empathetic experience across the board, exposing cruel Soraya’s compassion, and devoted O’Neill’s spineless indulgence.

The use of a first person narrative allows a steady, sing song like feel, which Noble sometimes steps out of with the use of dialogue and/or, (my favourite) when a character within the story tells a story of their own.  This is how we learn about Auntie’s past and how she came to live on Llanfair Mountain; a fairy tale within a fairy tale if you will. Very nice. All in all, an exciting, imaginative fantasy somewhere between the realms of The Night Circus and Shrek.

Can I just say (I can, its my blog) that there are a few negative reviews of this book on goodreads by people who have admitted to reviewing it despite only getting about 30% through. Not clever, people. Especially as a lot of the comments don’t even hold up if you read the whole book. I’m not against negative reviews, but I am opposed to bad reviews and bad reviewers who can’t even finish a book before ripping it to shreds. That is all.

I would just like to take this opportunity to thank me for buying this book so that I could read it and write an honest review about it. You’re welcome.

Sugar and Snails by Anne Goodwin

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At fifteen, Diana Dodworth took the opportunity to radically alter the trajectory of her life, and escape the constraints of her small-town existence. Thirty years on, she can’t help scratching at her teenage decision like a scabbed wound.

To safeguard her secret, she’s kept other people at a distance… until Simon Jenkins sweeps in on a cloud of promise and possibility. But his work is taking him to Cairo, and he expects Di to fly out for a visit. She daren’t return to the city that changed her life; nor can she tell Simon the reason why.

Sugar and Snails takes the reader on a poignant journey from Diana’s misfit childhood, through tortured adolescence to a triumphant mid-life coming-of-age that challenges preconceptions about bridging the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be.

inspired-quill.com

I want to start by thanking Anne Goodwin for asking me to review Sugar and Snails. It’s the first book I’ve read in a long time that provoked the words ‘I can’t actually believe that just happened’; ‘I did NOT see that coming’; ‘Orange is the New Black can WAIT! I HAVE to read the next chapter’ exit my mouth. For these reasons and some others, it’s one of the books that I have been most excited about reviewing since starting out on my little reviewing sideline. Its one of those books that I want to talk and talk about but because of my religious beliefs (Thou Shalt Not Provide Spoilers) its the one book that I can’t talk about at all! Because much like the classic Bruce Willis thriller The Sixth Sense, once you know the twist, you’ll never see it the same again. But I’ll give it a go…

Sugar and Snails follows Diana, a middle aged, moderately successful psychology lecturer. Despite her good education and a position at one of the top universities in the country, her head is firmly stuck in the sand, but is at serious risk of being dislodged through the efforts of an ever helpful friend and a prospective love interest.  The story is told through Diana’s voice. I’m not often a fan of books with a single voice, but I can’t imagine Diana’s story being told any other way. She narrates her life in the first person, with a graceful poise that transcends the upheaval that she has encountered on her journey. Goodwin delicately navigates through Diana’s memories and emotions with a nimble dexterity, gently guiding the reader as we plunge into Diana’s psyche with a tenderness that was never afforded our heroine. That is until we discover Diana’s secret around half way through when it feels as though we’ve sidestepped into a raging torrent of ice; not because of what the secret is, but because of Goodwin’s sudden shift from softly subtle to pointedly direct.

It is around this point that I realised how perfectly this book is written. With one sentence, Goodwin forced me to simultaneously question all preceding events while doubting my expectations for the remainder of the book. It felt like being frozen in a tangled crossroads of possibilities; a deer caught in the headlights moment, if you will, which is how I imagine Diana must have felt more than once throughout her life.

Anne Goodwin

The Author, Anne Goodwin

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Sugar and Snails is the  classic example of why one should absolutely never begin writing a book review before the reading of said book is finished. When reviewing, I always make a few mental notes as I read, thinking about what I’ll say about the book, themes I’ve picked up on etc. Inevitably, very few of my Sugar and Snails notes have proved useful due to the surprising turn of events circa 56% in (thank you Kindle with your ever precise page counting techniques), but there is one such note that I think is still valid. It is this: The book’s main focus is a decision made by a 15 year old, and the consequential lifestyle and doctorate research led by Diana about the ability of adolescents to make meaningful decisions. In real life, adolescents are made to make some of the most important decisions of their lives, especially with regards to their education and future careers. They also think that they are the only ones having to make these decisions and that nothing will ever be simple again and the world will probably end next Wednesday. I’m sure we can all agree that for the most part, these are all very correct and reasonable observations for teenagers to make. I therefore think it would be very useful to have this book available in all high schools. Either in the library or as part of a lesson taught by an open minded teacher who is not easily embarrassed. Because despite some controversial topics, or maybe because of said controversy, and while not everyone faces Diana’s dilemma, we could all be better rounded people for learning about said dilemma in order to support those who do have such a decision to make.

Sugar and Snails deserves to be pushed to the front of the queue in all book club reading lists. The depth of the characters and the intricate problems that they face will provide so many discussion points. Now that I know the twist, I am excited to reread Sugar and Snails and to pick up on the many muted clues sprinkled throughout the text.  So please, for me, read this book. If you can’t do it for me (rude) do it for you. Just go now. Buy it. Read it. Then come talk to me about it. Because it is absurdly brilliant.

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Truth: The Oleah Chronicles by Michelle Johnson

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What would you do if everything you thought
to be true in your life was a lie?
Sixteen-year-old Angel Seriki must face overwhelming truths about her family when she meets Zander Black, a new student to her high school who is smart, charming and devastatingly beautiful. The revelations he uncovers to her about her family’s past changes everything, and as her relationship and feelings for Zander deepen, so do the risks involved. She must now accept her fate and face the true reality of who and what she is. Even if that means giving up everything, including being human.
 oleahchronicles.com

 

Truth is the first in a series of books by Michelle Johnson, an imaginative young writer with a penchant for mythical creatures and all things creative.

In Truth, Johnson has created a very interesting cast of characters, made even more so by introducing some of them in one world, before ripping them away and depositing them unceremoniously in another. This displacement is for good reason; if an evil queen threatened you and the entire population of your home planet, you’d probably jump ship too. No? Then you clearly have never crossed paths with Satan’s little sister before.

Truth is essentially a vamped up story about coming of age. We watch Angel grow from a regular teenager into a fierce heroine as she survives persistent vampires, homicidal demons, earthquakes, an unwanted 17th birthday party and worst of all, high school boys.  Despite all the other-worldly characters, and planet hopping, Truth is a very down to earth book. The characters are believable, which is made apparent in the closing chapters: when Angel is forced to give up her whole world, literally, the reader can’t help but feel her agony, particularly at the loss of her friend who she will do anything for. It is this deep friendship that spurs our reluctant heroine on to save the world, rather than the throngs of Oleahs bowing before her on her home planet.

The story kept my attention from page 1. I enjoyed the relationships depicted and the believable tensions and ensuing arguments that arose throughout. Johnson has got the balance between sci-fi, fantasy and the plausible spot on by dealing with everyday issues in a supernatural reality.

I look forward to the next installment!

 

Wonder.land: a new musical by Damon Albarn and Moira Buffini

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Welcome to wonder.land, where you can be exactly who you want to be.

A brand new musical inspired by Lewis Carroll’s iconic
Alice in Wonderland, with music by Damon Albarn and
book and lyrics by Moira Buffini.

The adventure will start here.

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When I found out I was going to see wonder.land, (which was approximately 35 minutes before the show started courtesy of a brilliant birthday surprise from my dear friend Gem), I was super excited, but didn’t know quite what to expect.

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“Meet me at The Palace Theatre at 7pm …”

I hadn’t heard much about it but the hot pink, semi faced Cheshire Cat on the billboard astride the Palace Theatre told me that I could expect some Alice and Wonderland type shenanigans with a modern twist. Sold. After the obligatory purchase of  showtime sustenance (giant buttons, obvs) we descended into our seats in the rafters (seriously, there should be parachutes or some kind of safety apparatus provided in those seats. I felt very much like a seagull coming to roost on a steep cliff face. But without the wings. I’m quite sure I developed vertigo.)

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View of the stage from the rafters at the Palace Theatre

The show began with our modern day Alice (Aly) in her rather drab bedroom, introducing us to her life and the other life in the game Wonder.land that is about to swallow Aly and the audience whole.  Aly uses wonder.land to escape her world, in which she is struggling to fit in at a new school that she has moved to due to a breakdown in her family. The drabness of her room is soon replaced by a psychedelic array of colours, textures, special effects and sounds that appear to filter from her imagination as she begins to play the game. Here, she creates an avatar that looks like the classic image of Alice that we all know and love.

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The White Rabbit and Aly’s avatar, Alice (theskinny.co.uk)

There is a wonderful amalgamation of real actors and visual effects on stage which creates a very other-worldly feel.  The Cheshire Cat is a little bit creepy, gliding across the stage in his ethereal, projected form, while the mad hatter (a real humanoid) pops up every so often throughout the musical in various locations, guiding the characters into ever mischievous adventures.

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The Cheshire Cat

I enjoyed the modern back story, which depicted the adolescent Alice’s attempt to survive a new school environment and wove together with Lewis Carroll’s original characters. As Aly guides Alice through Wonder.land, she meets these other characters, such as an egg and a lizard who are fellow students of Aly’s. We also meet the Caterpillar and of course the ominous White Rabbit who must be followed!  I thought some of the scenes were a little inconsequential and didn’t really add to the story. Some of the scenes with Aly’s errant dad felt a little forced like they were trying to eke out the story.

My absolute favourite character (I think possibly of all time) is Alice Manxome, the slightly delusional and very hilarious head teacher at Aly’s new school. She was just brilliant. She provided the most laughs, had the best voice by far and gave the musical a bit more oomph for the adults in the audience, the rest of the show being aimed more at teenagers. A particular favourite line was during a conversation between Ms Manxome and an errant student, which went a little something like this:

Student:

But Miss, I have dyslexia!

Ms Manxome:

We didn’t have dyslexia in my day. We had a condition                                called Thick.

Controversial, perhaps but that got the biggest laugh/ applause of the evening. This one line essentially sums her up. I love her.

Alice Manxome and her manipulated version of Alice with Aly watching helplessly on. (scscircle.com)

Alice Manxome is also a very cleverly placed, pivotal character that links the two worlds together. After confiscating Aly’s phone and placing her in detention (Ms Manxome delights in the habitual humiliation and incarceration of her students) the cruel head teacher provides our villain as she develops from simple Alice to a rather vicious Queen of Hearts character. She does this by assuming Alice’s avatar, making her as manipulative and malignant as she is. This of course causes problems for Aly who has to fight to save her character from the judging eyes of the other players (i.e. her fellow students at her new school) and worse, complete deletion from wonder.land.

While at times I did feel that I had stumbled into a show for the young ‘uns, I did enjoy it very much, weirdness and all. As well as being very entertaining, the show provided many good messages for the audience, young and old alike. There is a strong emphasis on “being yourself” and accepting yourself when others maybe don’t. Another message is to stand up to bullies, whether they be your peers or your superiors. There is also a strong commentary on the overwhelming use of technology in every day life. We’re all guilty of obsessively starting into our smartphones while dismissively grunting at the people in the real world who want to talk to us. When did it become socially acceptable to reach for your phone before saying “good morning” or playing games in lieu of having a conversation of an evening? It’s just rude, people. Look up and get a life. But read this blog first because its really good, then get a life.

Wonder.land has finished its run at The Palace Theatre in Manchester but it will be continuing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland 150th anniversary celebrations in London from November 2015. You can watch the trailer here and read more about the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland here and here.