Category Archives: fantasy


Ruth Patchett is back. She’s 84 and living in the High Tower, one time love nest of her rival Mary Fisher who now haunts the tower. A senile Bobbo (whom Ruth plotted to send to prison in THE LIFE AND LOVES OF A SHE DEVIL) is ensconced in the uppermost Lantern Room and the rest of the tower complex is home to the staff and supporters of IGP, the Institute for Gender Parity, set up when Ruth realised the opportunities for pretty and plain girls would never be the same so decided to focus on goals such as closing the pay gap instead.

One of the residents is Valerie Valeria, young, ambitious and an altogether different kind of feminist from Ruth.Valerie’s plans for IGP include glossy catalogues, a bullet proof Mercedes and much spectacle and expense reuniting Ruth with her estranged children and a surprise grandson, Tyler.

This isn’t nearly as good as THE LIFE AND LOVES OF A SHE DEVIL, which I remember devouring when I first discovered it, but Weldon has written another funny and smart reflection on gender politics and how it affects our every day lives. Especially interesting is how she integrates new debates about gender and sexual identity – albeit not as thoroughly or as deeply as they deserve. Valerie persuades Ruth’s grandson Tyler to transition, a story line which affords plenty of opportunities to reflect on the impact of testosterone and oestrogen, but leads the she devil to some rather suspect conclusions. Other characters  touch on the way feminism has evolved and the differences between various struggles for equality. Weldon’s satire is genuinely non discriminatory and she directs it with equal savagery at all, and especially at those who seek to use feminism to pursue their own goals. As one of the older women in the tower, Dr Simmins, remark at one point: “So whatever changed, except perhaps, these days, gender? There were nice people and nasty people and some of them were M and some of them were F: and a whole lot in between.” Despite these themes, Weldon’s wit and story telling powers mean there’s nothing worthy or overly earnest about what is a gutsy, gleeful if somewhat less radical novel than is predecessor, and one that builds beautifully to the most fitting of deaths for the ultimate she devil.


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I was in Brighton last week and unexpectedly given a copy of this book by someone who had come across my blog and was amazed that I’d made it to this point in my life without reading any Neil Gaiman. I didn’t have time to explain that this blog only covers the books I’ve read since turning 40, especially as he was correct – there has been a Neil Gaiman shaped hole in my life until now. He comes highly recommended and not just by my friend. Of THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, Joanne Harris declares “Some books you read. Some books you enjoy. But some books just swallow you up, heart and soul” and the novel won Book of the Year at the National Book Awards in 2013. So what’s all the fuss about?

A fairy take of the dark and dangerous kind, rather than the saccharine reinvention of the genre, Gaiman’s book captures the powerlessness, fear, beauty and trust of childhood. At it’s centre is an unhappy, lonely boy (nobody came to his 7th birthday party), whose name we never learn and who lives in the Sussex countryside next door to the remarkable Hempstock family, consisting of 3 generations of women. Lettie Hempstock, a few years older than him, offers to help out when an opal miner, who was lodging with the boy’s family, ends up dead, his kitten disappears and he has nightmare about a coin getting stuck in his throat that turns out to be real. Lettie explains these odd things are happening because a supernatural being has found its way into the world. But when the pair try to find the spirit and bind it, another force sneaks through the tear between two worlds via a worm hole that lodges itself in the narrator’s foot.

Enter Ursula Monkton, who takes up residence in the boy’s home as the new housekeeper. She seduces his father, deceives his mother and indulges his sister. It’s only our narrator who sees Ursula for the evil, destructive being she really is. Alienated from his family and locked in the attic by a vengeful Ursula, the boy flees to his neighbour’s one night, escaping via a window and down a drain pipe, surely what many a child dreams of doing though few wish for the horrors that require it. The Hempstocks come to the rescue and it involves some powerful magic. They remove the fragment of Ursula’s escape route that’s buried in his foot, confront Ursula and, when she refuses to leave voluntarily, call on “hunger birds” to devour her. These scavengers are ruthlessly efficient and once they’ve seen off Ursula, they turn their attention to the tiny bit of her that lives on in the boy’s heart, and will not return to their world unless they can fully complete their task. The Hempstocks try to keep him safe but the birds are angry at being thwarted and  start to destroy the surrounding world instead, devouring trees, sky and, our narrator fears, his own family and everything else besides. Unable to bear the weight of such responsibility, he runs out from the safety of the Hempstock’s farmhouse to offer himself up, but Lettie is on his heels and as the birds swoop in, she tries to protect him. Lettie’s grandmother finally sees the birds off but not before her granddaughter is badly hurt.

Gaiman’s story starts and ends in the present when our narrator is a grown man who occasionally visits his childhood home. When he’s there he recalls what happened to him as a boy, but those memories don’t get carried into his future, and nor does he tend to remember that he’s made previous visits. On each occasion he sees the Hempstock family, who feed him the wonderful meals that nourished him as a child, let him gaze upon the two moons that appear on different sides of their house, and reassure him that Lettie is safe and well, travelling in Australia. They also let him sit by the ocean at the end of the lane, which may only look like a small pond but which contains universe upon universe and whose waters contain knowledge about the nature of everything.

This is a beautifully written book in which the monsters and horrors of magical realism are nothing like as frightening as those the boy encounters in the real world. I was especially struck by how he tackles the idea that damage done to our hearts as children translates into emptiness and loneliness when we reach adulthood; by how big everything is, and how small we are in comparison, doesn’t have to be frightening and can be quite comforting; and by how a childhood where you realise adults are not invincible can feel like the most terrifying place on earth. Mythical, poignant and utterly convincing, Gaiman’s tale did indeed swallow me up.


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A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness


“Stories are wild creatures. When you let them lose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?”

I was expecting to weep bucket loads at this but managed to get almost to the end before shedding a tear. The very premise of the book is sad and painful though and when I did cry, I really cried. Conor is 12 and his mum has cancer. His life is one long struggle with school bullies, overly sympathetic teachers, a stressed grandmother and a regularly occurring nightmare. One night at 12.07 the yew tree he can see from his bedroom window comes alive as a monster. It tells him three stories with unexpected endings and then demands that Conor reciprocates with the story of what happens in his nightmare.

The monster’s stories are designed to illustrate that we all have good and bad within us and that it’s our actions that count in the grander scheme of things, not what we think. They reveal the contradictions that make up most of us, the power of being honest with ourselves yet how difficult it can be to tell the truth. Simple fairy tales on one level, they go far beyond your standard moral fables, and Conor’s angry and physical responses to the monster’s words do nothing to detract from the sense that multiple and complex interpretations are possible, each one depending on our unique experiences, feelings from moment to moment and openness to different ideas or meanings. The layers of understanding and sensitivity woven through each page make this  a wonderful book for children and adults alike, whether dealing with loss, grief and guilt or not.

What I didn’t know until reading A MONSTER CALLS is that the idea originally came from another writer, Siobhan Dowd, who died of terminal cancer before she could finish writing the story. By all accounts, Ness has done her great justice and I very much hope the film adaptation retains the simplicity and clarity that allows the book to make such a profound impact.

NB The Kindle version I read isn’t illustrated and I’d really recommend reading a hard copy.

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You Only Live Once. That’s what people said, as if life really mattered because it happened only one time. But what if it was the other way around? What if what you did mattered MORE because life happened again and again, consequences unfolding across centuries and continents? What if you had chances upon chances to love the people you loved, to fix what you screwed up, to get it right?

Jerome Anderson has spent his life researching the possibility that consciousness can survive death. He’s travelled the world documenting incredible cases of children who remember previous lives in huge detail, ache for contact with their previous families and, in some instances, bear birthmarks that are haunting clues to the manner of their previous deaths. Now, diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia and the prospect of rapidly losing access to much of his language and vocabulary, Anderson is racing against time to publish his findings and include one more compelling case that will appeal to US audiences.

Janie Zimmerman is Mommie-Mom to 4 year old Noah, conceived during a one night stand on a holiday in Trinidad, and struggling with a son who refuses to be bathed, has horrific nightmares about being pushed under water and incessantly pleads to be taken home. When Noah’s teachers involve protective services out of growing concern over his behaviour and vivid stories, Janie takes to Google in desperation, stumbling upon a link to Anderson’s work. With Noah increasingly distressed, a stream of psychiatrists bleeding her financially and emotionally dry, and her successful career as an architect stalling in the face of crisis after domestic crisis with her son, Janie reaches out to Anderson.

Denise Crawford is just about holding down a job at an old people’s home. Her teenage son, Charlie, is fed but that’s about it, and her musician husband Henry spends his time on the road away from home, trying to escape the memories of  their other son, Tommy, who disappeared at the age of nine and whose body has never been found. Seven years on and Denise still puts up flyers with Tommy’s face on them, urging people to get in touch if they have seen him, hoping beyond hope that theirs will be one of the miracles she’s read about in the papers and Tommy will be returned to them.

THE FORGETTING TIME brings these narratives together in what’s a moving, though somewhat predictable, story.  Guskin captures Anderson’s plight particularly successfully, but all the characters are convincing and touched me hugely. The moments when Denise meets Janie, and Noah meets Charlie are charged with enormous amounts of tension and Guskin rises to the occasion without resorting to cliches or platitudes. Janie’s reflection that the man made constellations she’s replicated on Noah’s ceiling is “the most all of us could handle of the universe” implies Guskin is a true believer in the phenomenon her story explores, but there’s a healthy dose of scepticism throughout and what emerges in the very satisfying Epilogue (for which full marks to the author) is more a sense of how valuable clinging to explanations can be, as we seek comfort in our lives and deaths.

Part mystery, part Jodie Picoultesque women’s fiction and part something undefinable, THE FORGETTING TIME is definitely unforgettable.

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harry potter and the cursed child

What to say, other than this is just what you might expect from Rowling and the wizarding world. Harry is married with 3 children and working at the Ministry of Magic, headed up by Hermione, also married – to Ron. Both couples’ children go to Hogwarts (of course!), where Professor McGonagall is  the Head Teacher. Lots has changed but plenty hasn’t and anyone who loved the Harry Potter series of books won’t be disappointed by this new adventure. Written as 2 plays designed to be seen back to back, it tells what happens when Harry’s misunderstood youngest son, Albus, and his best friend, Scorpius Malfoy, decide to go back in time to rescue Cedric Diggory, the “spare” Voldemort slayed when both he and Harry won the Triwizard Tournament in HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE. A time turner, polyjuice potion and the Hogwarts Express all play their part, and although the play format means some aspects of this story feel a little too sudden, it’s faithful to all we know so far and the wonderful world Rowling created. Not as dark as the later books but  definitely one to read and relish – and if you are lucky enough, to watch on stage

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a year of marvellous ways by sarah winman

Marvellous Ways is the 89 year old daughter of a mermaid. She swims every day in the Cornish Creek whose banks are her home and to which she clings, like a limpet, until, during the year of her life in which we share, she recognises that it’s time to let go.

When the book opens, Marvellous is waiting for something. She’s not quite sure what, because the image, by way of her long-gone soul mate Paper Jack, is incomplete, more of a sense carried on the tail feather of a dream. But she’ll know it when she sees it. Or rather, it turns out, him – Frances Drake, not long returned from the battlefields of France, who washes up on her doorstep weighed down by a broken heart and a last letter from a dead soldier to a grieving father.

As the two get to know one another we are gifted with the remarkable stories of their lives, featuring, in no particular order, a baker called Peace, a haunting poker game, a lighthouse where love lives, a ceiling plastered with hand written notes,  sloe gin, a bridge, and the endless tides of the sea. As these stories unfold so too does their friendship, of the kind that takes up residence in the centre of your chest and reveals life. Friendship that’s about renewal, freedom and the forever.

Twisting from past to present, A YEAR OF MARVELLOUS WAYS is poetry in motion. Winman’s prose is as captivating as her characters, and she has woven and an enchanting, suspenseful novel that celebrates memories, love and the healing power of nature. Even better than her debut, WHEN GOD WAS A RABBIT, it marries magical realism with the stark reality of old age, grief and war. The result is something nourishing, bewitching and deeply moving, if a little sentimental at times.

This kind of book’s not everyone’s cup of tea but, as with all the best fairytales,  if you can suspend disbelief and just go with the ebb and flow, you’ll be richly rewarded. For me, the delight was amplified by the remarkable similarities between Marvellous and a long, grey-haired woman from Cornwall I happen to be lucky enough to know and who could also be the daughter of a mermaid…..


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THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern

the night circus by erin morgenstern

I remember seeing this book in the shops, reading the back cover and deciding that, for some unknown reason, it didn’t really appeal. But someone recommended it to me recently and I am really glad I gave it a second chance.

Marco and Celia are bound from an early age into a contest between two schools of magic, with a circus full of “possibilities you cannot fathom” acting as the arena. Each creates spectacle after spectacle to rival the previous, in what turns out to be an elaborate courtship ritual, but neither understands the rules of the game nor how a winner will be declared. In the meantime, Celia in particular carries the circus on her shoulders and in her hands. She casts all kinds of magic on the troupe to keep them safe and to protect the adoring fans who visit the circus night after night, as well as its original creators. But it requires an immense effort of concentration and total control of her own emotions to stop the growing circus from breaking apart under the strain of the contest, so much so that when she even contemplates unleashing her growing love for Marco she places the whole endeavour, and the lives of those she holds dear, at huge risk.

Morgenstern has created a stunning ensemble of characters, from the troubled designer of extravaganzas, Chandresh, to the twins Poppet and Widget that come into the world on the circus’ opening night, but the real star is the circus itself. Appearing overnight, without warning, it’s a black and white affair that, like the novel, is sensual, elaborate and dazzling. Made up of interconnected circles, that encourage you to wander, dream and get lost. The writer really can conjure with words and this is a visual feast of a book that celebrates the mystery and glamour that surrounds circuses. It touches on something a little deeper from time to time – there’s some darkness with the light, and everything is not black and white after all – but the overall effect is pretty rather than edgy, with even murder and spilt blood getting the theatrical treatment.

Some books are so magical you cherish every page, willing them to last forever, and this is one of them. This one hasn’t changed my perspective on the world, challenged what I think I know or feel, even got under my skin. Nor is it what Widget, towards the end of the novel, describes as “a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose”. Rather, the book, much like the night circus for which it is named, is a captivating escape from all that’s dreary in the real world – a place to experience joy, sadness and love. A place of “wonder and comfort and mystery all together”. An illusion, if you like, beneath which there’s nothing very substantial but which, nonetheless, is hugely enjoyable.

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