The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

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Title: The Bedlam Stacks

Author: Natasha Pulley

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus

Published: 1st August, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 352

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: An astonishing historical novel set in the shadowy, magical forests of South America, which draws on the captivating world of the international bestseller The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

Deep in uncharted Peru, the holy town of Bedlam stands at the edge of a forest. The shrine statues move, and anyone who crosses the border dies. But somewhere inside are cinchona trees, whose bark yields quinine: the only known treatment for malaria.

On the other side of the Pacific, it is 1859 and India is ravaged by the disease. The hunt for a reliable source of quinine is critical and in its desperation, the India Office searches out its last qualified expeditionary. Struggling with a terrible injury from his last mission and the strange occurrences at his family’s ruined estate, Merrick Tremayne finds himself under orders to bring back cinchona cuttings at any cost and dispatched, against his own better judgement, to Bedlam.

There he meets Raphael, a priest around whom the villagers spin unsettlingly familiar stories of impossible disappearances and living stone. Gradually, he realises that Raphael is the key to a legacy left by two generations of Tremayne explorers before him, one which will prove more dangerous and valuable than the India Office could ever have imagined.

~*~

Ex- East India smuggler, Merrick Tremayne is at home in Cornwall, recovering from an injury to his leg that inhibits activity for him when the India Office contacts him about an expedition to Peru to fetch some quinine to help treat malaria outbreaks in India. Tremayne instantly knows it is a bad idea : every able-bodied explorer has been unsuccessful, paying with their life, so he questions how he, a disabled explorer, will cope, survive and succeed. Lumped with orders to go, Tremayne is accompanied by a friend, Clem, and they venture into Bedlam, a holy town in uncharted Peru that holds many secrets of the past, and a sense of magic and history that will slowly unfold throughout the five parts of the novel, and reveal secrets about a Tremayne ancestor that Merrick had been unaware of. Accompanied by a priest, Raphael, whose presence indicates something a little out of the ordinary, lending to a sense of fantastical and magical realism within the novel.

The Bedlam Stacks is steeped in history and colonialist ideas and expectations of “The Other”, typically seen through Tremayne’s companion, Clem, whose ignorance and the sense that he felt his knowledge was superior came through at times, in contrast to Tremayne, who I felt made the efforts to understand and communicate effectively with Raphael and show his appreciation for what Raphael was doing for him. In 1860, when disability and injury might be more likely to inhibit what one is able to do, Tremayne copes, albeit with help when he needs it, and in what felt realistic, he is shown to struggle, but readers also get to see what he is capable of, in all areas of his person. It is a travel story with a difference, where the explorers are faced with the harsh realities of an unknown world that challenges their sense of being and self, and shows them just how human and vulnerable they are. They need rescuing by locals, and at times, they are shown to be imperfect, punctures to their egos that their upbringing might have inflated.

I liked Merrick’s sense of humility, and ability to stand back and let Raphael talk. It was refreshing to see this move towards equal standing of characters of vastly different backgrounds, much of which are extrapolated through flashbacks, cleverly inserted into the text without disrupting the flow of the story, and the vast majority is told in first person, with the exception of one chapter towards the end that gives the reader insight into Raphael and his past. Raphael’s absences of long periods of time are explained as catalepsy – by Merrick, who hears of Raphael’s symptoms and urges him to see a doctor – perhaps a marker of how he sees the world, juxtaposed with Raphael’s acceptance of things being the way they are. In doing so, Pulley has illustrated how two different worlds collide, and through this collision, have attempted to find a way to communicate.

Throughout the novel, odd things happen at different times, marking this as more than just an expedition into history and unexplored, uncharted areas of the world as they would have been in the 1860s. These instances hint at elements of fantasy and magical realism, and this makes it a very intriguing novel, as the layers of each chapter and part are revealed slowly to bring the story to it’s conclusion and the wrapping up of the characters and their lives, but at the same time, leaving some aspects open for interpretation and maybe another novel.

It was a enjoyable novel, and has made me want to read Natasha’s first novel. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. An enjoyable novel, and highly recommended for fans of historical fiction, mysteries and novels with that little bit of a difference that make them stand out.

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Carnivalesque by Neil Jordan

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Title: Carnivalesque

Author: Neil Jordan

Genre: Magical Realism, Fiction, Fantasy

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Published: 1st April 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 288

Price: $24.99

Synopsis: It looked like any other carnival, but of course it wasn’t…

 

It had its own little backstreets, its alleyways of hanging bulbs and ghost trains and Punch and Judy stands …

And at the end of one he saw the Hall of Mirrors. There were looping strings of carnival lights leading towards it, and a large sign in mirrored glass reading ‘Burleigh’s Amazing Hall of Mirrors’ and the sign reflected the lights in all sorts of magically distorted ways.

To Andy and his parents, it looks like any other carnival: creaking ghost train, rusty rollercoaster and circus performers. But of course it isn’t.

Drawn to the hall of mirrors, Andy enters and is hypnotised by the many selves staring back at him. Sometime later, one of those selves walks out rejoins his parents – leaving Andy trapped inside the glass, snatched from the tensions of his suburban home and transported to a world where the laws of gravity are meaningless and time performs acrobatic tricks.

And now an identical stranger inhabits Andy’s life, unsettling his mother with a curious blankness, as mysterious events start unfolding in their Irish coastal town…

~*~

Andy’s story begins quite innocuously, with a detour to a carnival that catches his eye on the way to a shopping centre with his parents. They enter, and soon, Andy’s world is turned upside down in the Hall or Mirrors, where he is left behind at the carnival, and someone who looks like him, but is not quite him, leaves with his parents. Andy, now Dany in the carnie world, must come to terms with the life of travelling around and setting up the carnival, discovering it’s secrets with Mona and the others, adjusting to a new life, whilst the Andy impersonator resides with his parents, calls them mother and father, and casts shadows into the family that worry his mother, Eileen, and do not bode well for their futures.

The story is told in alternating chapters, through the eyes of Eileen and Andy/Dany, and sometimes with a couple dedicated to one character. As Dany adjusts to his new life, the new Andy and his unusual ways of speaking, and acting worry Eileen. The dual storyline shows the complexity of the story, and allows the reader to follow the intriguing mystery of how the real Andy’s (Dany) disappearance affects his family, and hints that tragedy may soon befall them.

As Dany journeys with the carnival, he becomes a part of it, though he still remembers his home and longs to return, the carnival offers him a different life, one that he could never have imagined.

Written by Oscar-winning film director (The Crying Game, The Company of Wolves) and novelist, Carnivalesque is his latest creation, and I quite enjoyed it. It has a feel of intrigue and mystery about it, with questions that won’t necessarily be answered, nor some things resolved properly. It fits in nicely with Neil Gaiman’s works in the magical realism and fantasy worlds. A great read for fans of Jordan’s previous work, Gaiman fans or anyone who enjoys fantasy and magical realism.

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Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

bone-gapTitle: Bone Gap

Author: Laura Ruby

Genre: Magical Realism, Fiction, Young Adult

Publisher: Faber & Faber

Published: 22nd February 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 400

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: A masterful and seductive tale of love, magic, regret and forgiveness. Winner of the 2016 Michael L. Printz Award.

He’d been drawn here by the grass and the bees and the strange sensation that this was a magical place, that the bones of the world were a little looser here, double- jointed, twisting back on themselves, leaving spaces one could slip into and hide…

Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps – gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza goes missing, the people of Bone Gap aren’t surprised. After all, it isn’t the first time someone’s slipped away and left Finn and Sean O’Sullivan on their own. Finn knows that’s not what happened with Roza. He knows she was taken, ripped from the cornfields by a man whose face he can’t remember. But no one believes him anymore. Well, almost no one. Petey Willis, the beekeeper’s daughter, suspects that lurking behind Finn’s fearful shyness is a story worth uncovering. But as we, like Petey, follow the stories of Finn, Roza, and the people of Bone Gap – their melancholy pasts, their terrifying presents, their uncertain futures – the truth about what happened to Roza is slowly revealed. And it is stranger than you can possibly imagine.

~*~

Bone Gap is a small town in America, where strange things occur to ordinary people. Roza appears in Bone Gap, in the barn of Finn and Sean O’Sullivan, two boys abandoned by their mother, and with a dead father, they fend for themselves, finding a way to work together. Sean drives the ambulance, and Finn is finishing school, but can’t recognise faces: it is a quirk that people in Bone Gap find odd, that they don’t know how to respond to for much of the novel. Especially when Roza disappears and Finn knows who did it – the man who moves like a cornstalk – but can’t describe his face. It is Petey, the beekeeper’s daughter, who starts to believe him and befriend him, and their relationship grows over the summer. It reaches a climax where Finn is determined to set things right, and it swept me along, longing to finish it and find out what had happened.

There is romance in this novel – Roza and Sean, Finn and Petey, but it’s something that lingers as the mystery of Roza’s disappearance and Bone Gap emerge. A different person, usually Roza and Finn, tells each chapter with the occasional side character such as Petey and Charlie Valentine, the old man who keeps chickens and hides secrets. Who is Charlie and what role does he play? Is he dangerous, or simply a lonely old man who longs to be a part of something? And who is there to believe Finn about the man who moved like a cornstalk, but whose face he couldn’t describe – a face, that to Finn, looked fairly average and indistinct? It’s Petey who does, whose kind words push him into action. She is as much a friend as a girlfriend to him. Their relationship works as either, and it was the friendship they shared at the beginning that I enjoyed the most, and this aspect continued to come through, even in moments of doubt from each character.

Both romances were almost secondary to the character development. The arrival of the black horse brings the magic into it, and shows Finn that the world isn’t what it always seems to be. I enjoyed Bone Gap – it was different to many things I have read but it had a sense of mystery and magic that were hard to resist, flawed characters who didn’t have all their secrets revealed at once or at all, so reading on was the only option. And a relationship between brothers and how it healed that became more important than the romance – refreshing to see different kinds of love and relationships represented in Young Adult literature.

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Frostblood by Elly Blake

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Title: Frostblood

Author: Elly Blake

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton

Published: 10th January 2017

Format: paperback

Pages: 376

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: The first in a page-turning young adult series in a world where flame and ice are mortal enemies.

In a land governed by the cruel Frostblood ruling class, seventeen-year-old Ruby is a Fireblood who has spent most of her life hiding her ability to manipulate heat and light – until the day the soldiers come to raid her village and kill her mother. Ruby vows revenge on the tyrannous Frost King responsible for the massacre of her people.

But Ruby’s powers are unpredictable…and so are the feelings she has for Arcus, the scarred, mysterious Frostblood warrior who shares her goal to kill the Frost King, albeit for his own reasons. When Ruby is captured by the Frost King’s men, she’s taken right into the heart of the enemy. Now she only has one chance to destroy the maniacal ruler who took everything from her – and in doing so, she must unleash the powers she’s spent her whole life withholding.

FROSTBLOOD is set in world where flame and ice are mortal enemies – but together create a power that could change everything.

~*~
Ruby’s life is one of peace and quiet, but also fear. She must hide her Fireblood talent from the world because of a ruthless King, determined to continue the war that the country has been in, and who is also determined to enforce Frostblood rule over everyone. After her unpredictable powers lead to betrayal, death and imprisonment, Ruby must train to destroy the ruler everyone fears, whilst learning to control her powers. She is rescued by an order of monks and a young man, Arcus, who hides secrets as well – secrets that cannot be revealed, much like the plan the monks have devised to destroy the Frost King, King Rasmus, with the Ruby’s help. Yet there is a darkness that Ruby must fight to gain control of, and with the help of the monks, Arcus, Marella and a few other unlikely Frostblood allies, she is destined, to overcome this darkness.

Ruby’s character overcomes several obstacles on her journey that make her into a flawed and believable character, one who has the potential for good or evil, depending on the perspective of the people she is with. Her reasons for revenge against the Frost King differ to those of Arcus, however, they will find that if they combine these reasons, they will be stronger together, and be able to fight together effectively.

Elly Blake’s debut novel introduces the reader to a world where fire and ice are enemies, where prejudice is built into a class system where abilities that haven’t been asked for are either valued, or hunted down and feared. In a way this mirrors our own world, where certain characteristics and features that people have no control over are valued more than others, or denigrated in the favour of others – whether consciously or subconsciously. In Ruby’s world – Tempesia – these prejudices are ingrained and conscious – for many characters, they fear the repercussions of speaking out, or not going against the ruling class – perhaps another real world parallel that can be found in history. Old stories and rumours are used to justify actions in Blake’s world – and she has effectively shown the spectrum of the prejudice, and how people can learn to trust those whom they’ve been taught to hate, and how hate can only take a person so far – that loyalty and friendship is stronger.

I only wished we found out more about Marella, another intriguing character with shades of grey. A member of the Frostblood court, befriending a Fireblood at great risk to her life, yet still withholding some information can make for an interesting character when done right – and the set up by Elly Blake seems to have started something with great potential.

I enjoyed this debut novel and introduction to a new series – I hope that book two is not far behind, and that the adventures of Ruby and Arcus continue. In a world ruled by frost, can frost and fire ever work together? We shall have to see what the following books have in store.

A great read for fantasy lovers and readers of YA fiction. A novel with a touch of Frozen magic about it, yet a little more complex, Frostblood will hopefully become a much loved series to sit alongside Narnia and Harry Potter.

Monarch of the Glen by Neil Gaiman

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Title: Monarch of the Glen
Author: Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Daniel Egnéus
Genre: Fiction/Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Headline/Hachette
Published: 8th November 2016
Format: Hardback
Pages: 160
Price: $40.00
Synopsis: We first meet Baldur ‘Shadow’ Moon’s in AMERICAN GODS, where he gets caught up in a war between gods in the USA. In THE MONARCH OF THE GLEN, Shadow’s journey has brought him to the north coast of Scotland, where he finds himself a bouncer at a party.
Shadow Moon has been away from America for nearly two years. His nights are broken with dangerous dreams. Sometimes he almost believes he doesn’t care if he ever returns home. In the Highlands of Scotland, where the sky is pale white and it feels as remote as any place can possibly be, the beautiful and wealthy gather at a grand old house in the glen. And when the strange local doctor offers him work at a party, Shadow is intrigued. He knows there is no good reason for him to be there? So what do they want with him?

~*~
Neil Gaiman revisits the world of American Gods in this short novella, revolving around Shadow and his ongoing journey, battling monsters and gods, and many other aspects of life beyond the confines of what the rest of the world knows. Shadow’s journey has taken him from America to Europe and now, to Scotland, where the job from the mysterious doctor at a strange, remote gathering for many wealthy people, organised by Mr. Alice, and taken to the place my a Mr. Smith. Shadow is unsure of what awaits him, thinking he is there for security or another job. But what awaits him, and the decision he must make, is more terrifying and stranger than he could ever have imagined, even after what he has been through.

The black and white, mostly line illustrations by Daniel Egnéus add to the atmosphere of the story – they represent the characters in a way that isn’t idealistic or perfect – to show that their imperfections on the outside. Whilst the words hint to their inner imperfections and flaws, the secrets they hide and their true intentions, and allow the reader to enjoy the story through the words and visual representations of the characters.

Neil Gaiman’s work covers a wide range of characters and stories, taking the reader into a world that they know but at the same time, is unfamiliar, and uncertain at times – speaking to the fairy tales and myths that have been told and retold for many generations – and reinventing them for a new audience. Having read a few of Neil’s previous novels, I am used to his style and characters. For those who enjoy urban fantasy, fantasy and in a way, magical realism, these books, and indeed Monarch of the Glen, are wonderful reads. Gaiman’s stories do not sugarcoat the reality of the worlds he creates – he shows the good, the bad and the grey, and his characters are complex and the kind that are not predictable, who face challenges and decisions they’re not sure what to do about. Shadow is one of these characters. Another great Neil Gaiman to add to the collection.