The Bear and the Nightingale

I have a soft spot for fairy tales. I think in the mystical, the fantastical, the other-worldly, stories can inhabit a special, revealing place, and I love getting swept up by a narrative that takes me to a different space.

The Bear and the Nightingale (Del Rey, out now in hardback; paperback releasing in October 2017), is a Russian fairytale, all about the sinister and unknown things which may lie around us, in the deep and unknown woods. The story, in its snowy, rural setting, is written in a lyrical and beautiful style, with vivid descriptions and exquisite pacing.

This is one of those books which hooked me from the blurb:

"In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.

But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods... "

I mean. For someone who loves a bit of Gaiman, Pullman and Morgenstern...that's my kind of intro!

The story follows Vasya, our headstrong, wild girl, the youngest child in the Vladmirovich family. Growing up without her mother, who died shortly after Vasya's birth, she is the baby of the family, who is doted upon by her older siblings. Vasya has inherited her mother's gift of the second sight and spends her time in congress with the spirits and guardians of the land around her. She befriends many of the spirits and tries to aid them as the rest of her village start to move away from them and from the ancient magic. Concerned that Vasya will never marry without changing her ways and becoming a dignified and proper young lady, her father remarries. From here, things begin to unravel, and the forces of the old magic and the modernising ways are thrown into conflict.

This is an evocative, unputdownable book, full of elegant prose and beautiful moments. I found myself gripped as the story unfolded and missed my tube stop on more than one occasion as I was so gripped by the world if snow, folklore, old gods and hearth-spirits. Recommended.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.
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Before the Rains

I have a confession to make.

Before I did my one-month internship at Penguin last year, I'd never read a Dinah Jefferies book. I'd heard of the books, and heard good things, but hadn't ever picked one up or added it to my reading list. And truly, I'm not sure why. I love a bit of romance, and books set in far-off climes, but for some reason I hadn't gravitated to Dinah's books.

Which is a shame, because they are lovely.

While I was interning at Penguin it was all systems go to promote The Silk Merchant's Daughter, Dinah's smash hit novel of 2016. It's a great read, full of detail, and I very much enjoyed it (after mailing out oodles of copies, bound up with pretty ribbons, I had to get a copy to satisfy my curiosity - I'd seen the cover so often!). Flash forward to this year and Dinah has another book releasing, and I was delighted to be asked to be part of the blog tour for it.

Before The Rains (Viking, releases tomorrow!) is a charming, stirring tale of love, duty, forgiveness and finding where you belong. Set in an India blooming into being as the days of British Rule were beginning to fade and as the first overtures towards independence were being made, this book is full of colour and life, and describes quite wonderfully a time now long gone. Jefferies captures the raw beauty of the subcontinent, the majesty of the castles and palaces, the prim and proper British ways, and serves up a story full of twists and delights.

The protagonist, Eliza, is a thoroughly modern woman, and I enjoyed understanding more and more of her story as the chapters unfolded. I enjoyed that she was not a woman without flaws, but rather a multifaceted, interesting woman. This made me really want to root for her to have a happy ending, whatever form that might take! Her passion for photography and her wish to improve the lives of others we truly admirable.

The romance in the book is handled quite beautifully, something which I think is no mean feat - all too often I've read romances where the love and lovemaking can descend into a cheesefest, but the love story here is full of tension, more than one twist, and some poetic, magnetic moments. I really wanted the central pair to end up in one another's arms, which is always the sign of a good romance, non? I also liked that the stakes were high, and that the plot truly kept me guessing right up to the end to see how things might play out!

Before the Rains is a lovely book, and I tore through it on a couple of long train journeys - this is interesting, vivid, readable fiction. Thank you to Viking for asking me to be part of the blog tour - you can check out what other bloggers are saying by visiting their pages too (details in the image below).   

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.
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Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi (Viking, hardback released on January 5th), is a beautiful book, both inside and out (I mean, look at that stunning cover. I know you shouldn't judge a book by its outer beauty, but this vivid cover of pattern and orange certainly caught my eye!). Filled with beautiful prose, following a story of epic proportions, this is wonderful fiction, and I was delighted to receive a copy to enjoy.

Effia and Esi: two sisters with two very different destinies. One sold into slavery; one a slave trader's wife. The consequences of their fate reverberate through the generations that follow. Taking us from the Gold Coast of Africa to the cotton-picking plantations of Mississippi; from the missionary schools of Ghana to the dive bars of Harlem, spanning three continents and seven generations, this is a book about life, destiny, family and hope.

Gyasi writes beautifully and the entire book is a masterpiece of pacing and scene setting - the writing is vivid and masterly throughout. In many stories you will encounter the point of view of one, two, or a few characters - in Yaa Gyasi's novel we encounter 14. The book tells the story of Effia and Esi, before following their families through the years that follow. Gyasi is a born storyteller and weaves these many stories with ease, telling a tale of a family divided by time and space, but held together within the pages of this novel.

This book includes big questions on colonialism and imperialism, and I felt glad to be reading it in such a month as this, when certain factions would have us embracing a mentality of us-and-them once again. This is a beautiful, well-crafted, and enjoyable book, and it's an important one too.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.

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How To Be A Grown Up

You know how some writers just chime with you?

How when you read their poetry, or prose, or journalism, and you feel you could be kindred spirits, so close to the nerve their writing goes? The writers who you feel 'get' you, who tick all those lovely empathy boxes?

For me, one of that select bunch is Daisy Buchanan. And for many others too, as evinced by her thousands of twitter followers, agony-aunt-for-Grazia gig, and her widely enjoyed and discussed writings for many other publications (seriously, I could list but we would be here a faves are her witty, outspoken, wonderful writings for The Pool. I have such a soft spot for that site!).  Imagine my delight then when a couple of months ago I spotted some tweets discussing an upcoming book by the divine Ms B, which I clearly had to get a copy of to review.

A little tweeting and a quick request later, my very own hot pink proof of How To Be A Grown Up (Headline, releases on April 6th) arrived, and I devoured the thing over my winter break. This is a simply marvellous book, full of humour and intelligence, but more than that, full of kindness. Daisy writes about everything, from friendship to career, love to money, the bedroom to the boardroom and fills each chapter with wisdom, as well as funny stories and interesting anecdotes aplenty. Like sitting down with a trusted friend and catching up over a drink or two, this book is not only entertaining, you come away from it feeling enriched, like you've got some extra hints and tips to take away.

The book seems to be pitched for twenty-somethings (it certainly seems to be the case on Amazon etc) but even being in my mid-thirties there was plenty I could reflect on and learn from, as well as plenty of cringey moments I could enjoy with a little distance from my teens and early adulthood! I would have loved to have read this when I was a little younger, but could still relish it in my current season of life.

This book straddles two very different genres with skill - it's both a funny, entertaining read and a book chock-full of actionable, useful advice - combining the two is no mean feat! Throughout Buchanan's talent for a story and her ear for a well-crafted line shine through, and this is a wee gem of a read. When it releases I'll definitely be gifting a few copies to some of my best girls. Well worth your time - I'll be looking out for this bright pink cover on my commutes to work later this year!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.
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I am a sucker for a book about families, love, loss, and the ties that bind. And Relativity (Corsair, paperback releases tomorrow) is a novel packed to the brim with all of those things and more. A story told through the eyes of the charismatic and charming Ethan and his parents Claire & Mark, this book asks us to consider what it is that brings us together, and what it is that keeps us together.

Ethan is an exceptionally gifted young boy, obsessed with physics and astronomy. He spends his life with his single mother, Claire, who is fiercely protective of Ethan and keen to shield him from the darker, harder moments of life. Thousands of miles away is Mark, Ethan's father, living on the other side of the world and estranged from his son. When life conspires to bring them back together, you have a recipe for revelations, growth and change.

This is involving, spirited fiction. I found the sections on physics diverting and interesting, the relationships vivid and real, and the plot unusual enough to hold my attention throughout. It's a book that really took me with it, I was propelled along in its path.

This book is the debut novel by Antonia Hayes, and with this charming, beautifully crafted book which truly pulls on the heartstrings she's bound to make a heck of a splash. If you enjoy hard-to-put-down reads and character driven stories, I'd advise you to give it a try; I found it uniformly charming. 

This review is the part of the Relativity book tour taking place all this week - you can see the other Wednesday blogs in the image below. We're only one day of the tour too; if you check out the #relativity hashtag over on twitter you'll find even more reviews and info!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.
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The Dry

Set against the drought-ravaged backdrop of the town of Kiewarra, The Dry (Little Brown, released January 12th) is an involving and undulating crime novel, full of hard-to-fathom characters, plot twists, and unexpected revelations. The chorus of praise for Jane Harper's debut novel has been close to deafening, and I too have some plaudits to add to the pile; this is a clever, interesting book which had me gripped throughout.

Initially the plot is very much detective novel 101, with detective Aaron Falk, the prodigal son of the town, returning from banishment to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke Hadler. In a town full of secrets and discord, Luke's suicide and the deaths of his wife and son have shattered the community, and the tensions already present in Kiewarra as the whole town struggles in the bitter heat of the drought bubble up to boiling point as the murder and the investigation uncovers intrigues, secrets, and lies. Aaron Falk finds himself drawn to the investigation, and in trying to uncover what happened to his friend and his family, Falk discovers some secrets which mean Kiewarra, and he, will never be the same again.

This is a book about small towns and the secrets which bind them, the ways that people try to control those around them, and the thousand of tiny cruelties that unfold as the years roll by in a small town where rumours can make or break you. Falk returns after two decades to the town that cast him out, and as the story unfolds we learn both what happened to the Hadler family, and what happened in Aaron's past, too. The pacing of the story is exquisite and so assured - the story is relentless, but also evocative. Harper's painting of the town and its surroundings, arid and full of horrors, both seen and yet-to-be-revealed, is breathtaking.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Dry and feel relieved that the hype was entirely justified - this is a fantastic, beautifully written and plotted cry novel.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.
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Hold Back The Stars

I first heard about Katie Khan's Hold Back The Stars (Doubleday, releases January 26th) in autumn of last year. I spotted the beautiful cover on twitter (it's so pretty and I am constantly a sucker for a blue-and-yellow combination). I tweeted to the publisher and was lucky enough to receive a copy to review, and it wound up being my final read of 2016.

And man, what a way to finish.

Part sci-fi, part YA, part romance, this is beautiful, well-crafted fiction at its very best, and despite sneaking in at the very close of the year, it's firmly one of my favourite reads of 2016, and I think it's going to be an absolute smash in 2017.

Max and Carys are floating far above the earth too far away from their spacecraft to reach it safely. With just 90 minutes of air left, you are immediately drawn into their predicament, and left wondering whether they will make it back to their ship, and home to Earth. My heart was with them as they attempted to make it back.

An Earth, by the way, which looks little like the planet we now inhabit. After a series of disasters and conflicts, this near-future Earth is a planet scarred by its past, and a new kind of civilisation has sprung up - elements of which fell familiar and others which felt new and alien. The construction of this new way of life read a little like the scene setting of the Hunger Games for me - Khan skillfully weaves a new way of life which still feels like it relates to our current one. The tidbits of information we read about different locations really helped to conjure up where the new places had once been on our map. 

Max and Carys are both well-drawn, interesting, flawed and multi-dimensional characters. Neither is pure hero or pure antihero, and their relationship, told in flashbacks which alternate with the present action as they float in the darkness of space reads as a real relationship, full of love, hope, worry and potential. You can see why they've got to this place. I also loved that Carys was the science whizz!

I enjoyed the whole book, but must give particular praise to the barnstorming final third, which made me cry, left me guessing, and took me to places I wasn't expecting. I tore through the final section and parts of it are flashing up in my memory often since I finished this book. Over on goodreads I gave Hold Back The Stars 5 out of 5 stars - this is charming, moving, entertaining fiction. 

It's also much beloved by tiny tortoiseshell cats....

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.
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The Watcher

The dark days at the end of the year and the cold days of January are always ripe with thrillers, horrors and chillers. There's something almost comforting about curling up under a cosy blanket with some excellent post-Christmas snacks and a big old cup of tea and reading something dark and twisty. I always seem to read lots of these genres when the weather is cold, misty and dreich - nothing like a bit of suspense in the winter's chill.

The Watcher by Ross Armstrong (HQ, releases today) is the latest thriller I've read in this season, and it's a great, taut little psychological thriller. The story begins with a familiar set up - the nosey neighbour! From the publisher: Lily Gullick lives with her husband Aiden in a new-build flat opposite an estate which has been marked for demolition. A keen birdwatcher, she can’t help spying on her neighbours. One day Lily sees something suspicious through her binoculars and soon her neighbour Jean is found dead. Lily, intrigued by the social divide in her local area as it becomes increasingly gentrified, knows that she has to act. But her interference is not going unnoticed, and as she starts to get close to the truth, her own life comes under threat.

I enjoyed this book and truly didn't see a few of the twists and turns in the narrative. The first-person style of the writing added an immediacy to proceedings and meant you were always left wondering how reliable our narrator might be. This device lent the novel a sense of unease and claustrophobia, ideal for this Rear Window-esque story. The writing of London also chimed well with me - I used to live in an area much like the one where Lily lives, where different lifestyles, housing set-ups and tax bands live next door to one another, and the overlap and the tension this can create at times is written in an involving and observant way.

Inasmuch as I enjoyed this read, there are elements in the later chapters that I feel may divide readers - but surely that's half the delight of a good mystery? I found the denouement really satisfying, and this was a fantastic pageturner. This was a great little winter thriller to read and I think there's lots within the book to tempt readers of the genre - I'll certainly be passing my copy on to my mother next (the woman adores the darker tomes) and I'm excited to hear her take on it too.

Ross writes with confidence and poise - I didn't realise this was a debut until after the fact! Having enjoyed this book, I'll be looking out for his sophomore effort.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.

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Rules for Modern Life

I love a good etiquette guide. Having spent much of my childhood reading and rereading our family copy of Debrett's (a wedding gift to my parents, which as a present was either thoughtful or incredibly shade-filled now I think of it) and thoroughly enjoying modern tomes such as The Fabulous Girl's Guide To Decorum, I have a soft spot for books filled with hints, tips, and ways to navigate the social minefields we encounter every day.

I was delighted, then, to receive a copy of Rules for Modern Life (Portfolio, £9.09) written by the icon that is Sir David Tang. I always look forward to his agony uncle writings when we take the Financial Times, and this book is a witty, funny compendium of Sir David's tips for ensuring smooth passage through the social waters (avoiding the many icebergs which await us all). This is an etiquette guide written with flair and wit, with its tongue firmly in its cheek. Sir David is charm itself and the book is filled with great ideas and helpful hints, but it never takes itself too seriously. I was very pleased with how quick and enjoyable this was to read.

I was also pleased by how many of the pieces of advice were inclusive and warm and (much like my own idea of manners), grounded in common sense and consideration for others. Some etiquette guides get very hung up on which fork to use or how to address an earl - here Sir David focuses on manners that will help you and make life more pleasant for those around you. As the author himself says, "as far as etiquette is concerned, I am always in favour of common sense, rather than pointless conventions."

This is a fun, witty, charming book, and would make an excellent gift. I know I'll be referring back to it in the new year - particularly the hugely helpful chapter on Technology.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.
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In these dark wintry days, sleep is never far from my thoughts. Much like a bear or a badger, I'm all about those deep winter sleeps, and as a self-proclaimed sleep evangelist I am passionate about getting good quality sleep and the impact that can have on your health and wellbeing. When I'm well-rested and replenished I bring more to the table at work, in relationships, in my writing - you name it, if I'm getting my rest I'll be better at it!

Imagine my joy, then, when the gorgeous Julia from Penguin Life sent me a copy of Sleep by Nick Littlehales to read and review. Nick has worked for years with elite athletes at the very top of their fields, and in Sleep he distills his findings from these years of works into easily digested chapters for mere mortals to apply to their own lives. This was a quick, enjoyable read, and I enjoyed Nick's lightness of touch - he's not afraid to get scientific, but doesn't meander off into vast swathes of dense jargon. This is a practical, useful book.

I enjoyed the tips and the methods for creating good sleep habits, and I rarely need convincing on the matter of naps. This book handles the whole topic with skill in a really accessible way. If increasing your sleep health is a priority for 2017, I'd heartily recommend this book. Happy reading - and sweet dreams!

Our whole household takes sleep seriously!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.

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Currently Reading

I love getting books to read for review, and thought I'd start doing a quick post every couple of weeks to update on what books are rocking my TBR (To Be Read) pile! All of the below are copies or proofs from publishers, but I know I'll receive a few books as gifts at Christmas too - bring on the reading!

 I've just finished Sleep by Nick Littlehales (Penguin Life) and I really enjoyed it. I'm passionate about the impact that good sleep habits can have on wellbeing, so am excited to review this soon here on the blog.

 Sir David Tang's Rules for Modern Life (Portfolio) is bringing me such joy. As a child reading Debrett's was my idea of a good time (I never claimed to be the most normal child) so this witty, clever book is proving a most enjoyable read as a grown up.

 I found Hold Back The Stars by Katie Khan (Doubleday, release date 26th January) utterly gripping - charming, vivid and unusual (and as the photo above shows, Leela approved).

 How To Be A Grown Up by Daisy Buchanan (Headline, release date 6th April) is a book I've just started and have fallen for, hard. Like a conversation with trusted friends over a few glasses of wine, this is stirring, inspirational stuff, full of advice, asides, and humour. Loving it so far.

 I've only read three chapters of The One by John Marrs (Ebury, release date 26th January for ebook, 4th May for paperback) so far and I'm already freaked out. Excellent stuff.

What are you reading?

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My Sister's Bones

There's something about the dark days of winter that makes a good, twisty, dark thriller seem so inviting. As the world darkens and the mercury drops, there's something so satisfying about curling up with a book that keeps you guessing.

And My Sister's Bones certainly does that. The debut novel from author Nuala Ellwood, released already as an ebook, with the hardcover debuting on February 9th, is a masterpiece of taut, creepy fiction, full of horror, humanity and more twists than you'd believe.

The story of the Rafter sisters, Kate and Sally, and the journeys they both take after a childhood scarred with horrora is full of special moments and intriguing characters. They both react to what they've been through in very different ways, with Kate becoming a successful war correspondent, launching headlong into the chaos and confusion of conflict and Sally trapped in a cycle of self-hatred and drinking. Kate is the sister who has managed to escape their upbringing, but that all changes when their mother dies, forcing Kate to return to the family home. There Kate tries to make sense of some unusual occurences and to reveal the truth before something very, very bad happens...

The book builds the suspense of the situation beautifully and Ellwood is astute in showing new information and fresh twists slowly and in a staggered manner - some of the changes in the narrative I really didn't see coming.

When the true villian of the piece emerges, they (haha, I'm not giving you a pronoun clue!) are truly hideous and the final third of the book is a huge crescendo - having set up the characters and the scenario so well here Ellwood has free rein to end proceedings with a bang.  Or several bangs, to be more precise.

My Sister's Bones is a story of family, a story of forgiveness, and a story which manages to end on a note that is tinged with hope as well as sadness. If you're looking for a real page-turner, I'd strongly recommend this book. I am so excited to read more from Nuala Ellwood in the future!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.

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I'm Claire, a thirty-something teacher, writer and blogger living in London.

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