Book Reviews, Historical

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt Review

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Rating:  ★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

As a huge fan of true crime, I have always been interested by the case of Lizzie Borden, accused of murdering her father and step-mother with an axe in 1892. Although she was acquitted at trial, Lizzie remains the main suspect in the murder, and I was really looking forward to reading See What I Have Done, which is a retelling of those events. The book benefits from the fact that the events of the book are so infamous, however, because the plot is so simple in that you know what happens, there needs to be more to make the book worthwhile. which in my opinion, See What I Have Done lacked.

In particular, as I said above, I was excited to see how Sara Schmidt presented Lizzie Borden herself, and the aspects of her character which led her to not only supposedly murder her parents, but to dominate her complicated relationship with her sister, and live the rest of her life in the very town where she allegedly committed the crime. Unfortunately, I think the book failed to make Lizzie interesting to me, and instead she was just annoying and simplistic. The Lizzie Borden in the novel is childlike in tone, throwing tantrums and manipulating those around her, but I felt like the dark side to her just wasn’t dark enough. It didn’t strike fear into me, and if the events of the story weren’t based on real life events, I don’t know that I would have suspected that she was even capable of the crime. Most of the characters had an issue along these lines for me. Apart from the set character that they were assigned in the story – Lizzie is childlike and scheming, Emma is the older sister who feels trapped by responsibility, the maid Bridget wants to go home to Ireland – there was nothing else to them. There were no grey areas or complexities, and I didn’t really care about any of them.

The second issue that I had with the book was the slow, lugging pace of the plot and the overuse of minor details. For example, I could barely tell whether the events of the book were simply focusing on the day of the murder, or the days leading up to it and after, because nothing really happened – apart from the murder itself, that is. It seemed like every single action by the characters was one of three options – eating pears, eating mutton, or struggling with food poisoning. I suppose that these details were meant to add to an atmosphere of claustrophobia in the house and increasing tension, like a ticking time bomb, but in reality it just felt repetitive and irrelevant after a time.

Regardless of the lack of action, the book could have been saved by more faceted character exploration, but as that was also lacking, I just felt like I was trudging through mud trying to finish this book. I think it could have been saved by some more character interactions, as they actually barely spoke to each other, but I suspect perhaps that Schmidt did not want to take any artistic liberties adding in events that are not historically proven.

I think Sarah Schmidt was perhaps trying to cast doubt on the belief that Lizzie committed the murders by including the chapters with her uncle and Benjamin, a man hired to teach Mr Borden a lesson. However, she didn’t really go through with it and kept with the story that Lizzie was guilty, which then just made me wonder what the point of these narrators were. I would have preferred for there to be a tighter focus on the Lizzie and her immediate family, or even just Lizzie and her sister Emma, exploring Emma’s suspicions, instead of having so many narrators. This would have made the book much more interesting that simply all of these characters eating mutton and pears.

Overall, I wish that I had loved this book, but it just failed to make me feel that tinge of terror and curiosity that I love getting from the Lizzie Borden case and other true crime stories. It was too weighted down with attempts to create an atmosphere, which simply fell flat for me and felt repetitive and boring.

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Book Reviews, Contemporary

A Song For Issy Bradley – Carys Bray Review

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Rating: ★★★★★

I’m currently on a mission to get through the books I have acquired over the years and have not yet read, and A Song For Issy Bradley has been sitting on my shelf for over a year. I was not expecting much from it, not being a huge fan of contemporary fiction, but this book blew me away. I found it to be really moving, and couldn’t put it down.

Issy Bradley is the youngest daughter of Ian and Claire. The Bradley family also includes daughter Zipporah, or ‘Zippy’, and sons Alma and Jacob, and the family are devout Mormons. The book opens on Jacob’s birthday, and mother Claire is struggling to prepare for the birthday party she will throw for him as Ian is away on church business. She is so busy that she doesn’t have enough time to check on Issy, who has been feeling poorly, and by the time she does, she realises that Issy’s illness is far worse than the flu. Before she has time to process it, Issy is in intensive care with meningitis, and despite the family’s prayers, Issy passes away.

The rest of the book follows each member of the Bradley family as they grieve, or struggle to grieve, in their individual ways. Ian feels comforted by his faith, and his confidence that he will be reunited with his daughter in the afterlife helps him to continue with his normal life. Meanwhile, Claire cannot see a way to move on, and Zippy has to step into her mother’s shoes, cooking and cleaning while dealing with confusion over dating in a religious setting. Alma’s love of football is tainted by memories of playing with Issy, and Jacob is faithful that God will answer his prayers to bring Issy back. Each chapter follows a different family member in turn, and follows their individual storylines in conjunction with their grief for Issy.

I loved each character’s story, which I think is a rare feat in a multiple-POV narrative. I think this was assisted by the fact that each character had such a different tone. Jacob’s belief that he can resurrect Issy is a humorous break from Claire’s incredibly sorrowful chapters. Zippy and Alma are struggling with challenges outside of Issy’s death, but in fear of adding to their family’s problems, they try to deal with it themselves. Ian and Claire’s relationship is crumbling under the strain of the loss and the now evident differences in their faith. The novel is a really beautiful and moving look at how a family deals with loss, individually and as a family, coming together to put the pieces back together.

Carys Bray’s writing is simple but not basic, with the emotions that the characters feel being clear and moving. I think she was really good at giving each character a strong tone that stood out from the others. Alma is angry and resentful of the way his father’s religion has crushed his childhood dreams of being a footballer, Zippy is growing into a woman and Jacob is naive and sweet. This made it easy to deliver into the characters of the different narrators, their lives and their minds, and to really understand them.

I also found the insight into the Mormon faith and lifestyle fascinating, and the different perspectives, from those who were confident in their faith and found peace and comfort in the teachings, to those who struggled with it and those who altogether turned away from it. In my opinion, it was a delicate and subtle insight into religious life and the challenges that come with growing up and living in a religious community.

Overall, I really loved A Song for Issy Bradley and thought it was truly moving. Despite the heavy subject matter, it was not difficult to get through, and the different characters narrating the story did not confuse or distract from the story.

Book Reviews, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

Gilded Cage – Vic James Review

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Rating: ★★

Gilded Cage was my first foray into the dystopian genre in a while, and while I was really excited, it failed to deliver. I liked the blend of dystopian and fantasy in a modern, urban, British setting, which we don’t see very often. There were also certain characters that I liked and would happily read more about, but overall, I found the story boring, and some aspects of the story and characters were just not quite there.

In the world of Gilded Cage, society is divided in two. At the top, are the ‘Equals’. They have Skills, or magical powers, and rule Britain. Then, there’s everyone else, and they are each required to spend 10 years of their lives in slavery to the Equals. These 10 years can be taken at whatever point in life they wish, and most people are sent to slavetowns, where they work in factories. At the heart of this story is the Hadley family, who elect to sign up to do their ‘slavedays’ as a family while they are still young enough to survive it. Whilst they think that they are all being sent to the estate of the Jardine family, one of the ruling families of Britain, Luke Hadley is actually sent to Millmoor, a slavetown. There, he gets wound up in a revolution, whilst back at the estate, his family serve the Jardine family, trying not to fall foul of the rules of the imposing Lord Jardine, and his three sons,  Gavar, a brute, Silyen, a mysterious figure with dark powers, and Jenner, the Skill-less disappointment.

I’ll start with what I did like about this book, and that was the whole concept behind the world. I really liked the way that Vic James’s Britain has some alternate history aspects to it, dystopian aspects, and fantasy. All of that together was very interesting. I liked reading about the political set up of this alternate Britain, the way that the Equals governed and their families, and the political intrigue. Quite a few of the Equals are scheming constantly, trying to outsmart each other to get to the top spot. My favourites of these were Bouda, who in my opinion did not appear enough. She is set to marry the Jardine heir, and is only in it for what it can do for her. Her goal? To be the first female leader. I don’t care that she’s a bit evil, she’s like a mini-Cersei, a Slytherin through and through, and I want more of her. Even more interesting, and also unforgivably underrepresented, was Silyen Jardine. He’s the slightly creepy middle son of the Jardine family, and there were hints of him being ready, and almost eager, to betray even his own family to get what he wants. The only parts of the book that I really enjoyed included Silyen, including an eerie chapter in the middle of the book where he steps right into someone’s memories. I loved Silyen and his dodgy ways. Give me more Silyen. In fact, I propose abandoning the story, and just following Silyen.

Now, for the not-so-good parts.

Honestly, the story at the Jardine estate was plain boring. Abi is the main protagonist of this part, and she is a completely passive character for most of the book, doing next to nothing (until the last two pages). The only thing that she does do is, of course, fall in insta-love with Jenner Jardine. This relationship was difficult to buy into because (apart from the slave/master thing) both Jenner and Abi had zero personality, apart from just being nice, so not only could I not see what had attracted them to each other, but I literally could not care less. Further, I was disappointed in the way that the Hadley parents are completely ignored. They might as well have not been mentioned, and it made the whole family dynamic and the premise of the story – their family decision to become slaves – difficult to understand. The only remotely interesting character in this set-up was Daisy, the little sister, who showed potential to be spunky, but wasn’t quite there. Even so, I still found her story flawed, as I found the idea that a ten year old would be charged with taking care of a baby quite hard to believe. Am I the only one? Maybe it’s just because I’m 21 and children terrify me.

Luke’s story was far better, although the characters still suffered from the same one-dimensional characterisation issues. They were just popping up randomly, and then disappearing, and apart from a few central characters, I couldn’t tell you much about his gang of rebel misfits. Still, Luke actually does stuff, and so this story was more exciting.Towards the end of the novel, the action really amps up, and over the course of a few chapters there is literally stuff going on left, right, and centre. It’s full on. Guns are going off and things are blowing up. BUT I had literally no idea what was going on. I think Vic James was trying to capture the characters’ shock in her writing, but it just felt too disjointed in parts and confusing.

Overall, this book had potential, but I think it just failed to deliver in terms of plot and characters. The characters were flat, and the plot was slow. While I didn’t enjoy Gilded Cage, I do feel that it has potential. It is a shame that the book waited until the end to delve into action, but I see a lot of promise for where the story is going in the sequel, Tarnished City, and for the characters themselves. I really hope that the characters are developed more in the sequel, as I think that this was the main flaw of Gilded Cage and was what really held back the story.