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Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
by Jung Chang
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing and moving account of life in China through three generations, 29 May 2012
Wild Swans chronicles the lives of three generations of the women of the author's family, from 1909 to 1991. The book begins with her grandmother, who became a concubine to a local warlord at her father's insistence. After the warlord's death, she flees from his house where she has been forced to live with his other wives and concubines, taking with her her baby daughter, Jung Chang's mother. In spite of family disapproval, she gets married to a Manchu doctor who gives everything up to live in poverty with her. Jung Chang's mother grows up in an area of China which is under Japanese rule and the Chinese people are considered second class citizens. An intelligent girl, she is recruited by the Communist resistence and begins working towards a free, egalitarian China. She falls in love with a young Communist party member and they have several children, including Jung Chang herself, but each regime change, relocation or shift of opinion brings renewed suspicions, even for those as devoted to the cause as Chang's parents and so she grows up amid the violence, intimidation and uncertainty of the Cultural Revolution.

This book blew me away with its scope, its attention to detail and the way that it made everything make sense. I had a vague notion of life in Communist China before reading Wild Swans but this book made me able to see how and why everything happened, the subtle shifts and insidious changes as well as the grand sweeping ones which lead to the situation in China being what it was.

As an outsider, I've only ever seen the end product, but Wild Swans makes it perfectly clear that Communism in China was a very positive thing when it set out. Its aims were clear, its systems logical and its demands for gender and social equality admirable. Given that Jung Chang has provided the reader with a context in which to set this by describing the story of her grandmother, sold by her father as a concubine for political and financial gain, the changes seem all the more attractive. This is where the book excels: although Chang talks about the political changes that take place, these are inextricably linked with the very personal, relateable stories of the lives of herself and her family. It transforms the political ideas and dictates from abstract notions into concrete things which have a real and immediate impact on the family. It's all well and good to read about family members being split up as the party sends them to different locations, but it makes it real and heartbreaking to read about Chang's elderly grandmother journeying across China, largely on foot, to be with her daughter only to be sent back to her home town almost immediately, or Chang's mother miscarrying from the harsh journeying conditions because her husband refuses to favour her by letting her ride with him in his car as she is of a lower rank than he is.

Chang manages to describe a time that is very confusing politically and to convey that turmoil and uncertainty without once confusing me as a reader. Her prose is lucid and quite spare but very effective. Wild Swans is the perfect blend of the personal and the political and is an amazing testament to the powers of endurance and the integrity of all of Chang's family, not just the women. It is at once a compelling story and a fascinating, insightful account of life in a time and place so different it's like reading about another world.


The Prince Of Mist
The Prince Of Mist
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A good, eerie, first novel, 29 May 2012
This review is from: The Prince Of Mist (Paperback)
The Prince of Mist tells the story of Max and his family who move from the city to a sleepy seaside town in order to avoid the effects of the war. Max and his elder sister Alicia soon make friends with Roland, a local boy who shows them around and takes them diving by the wreck of an old cargo ship. However, though the town is quiet the Carver family house is full of mystery and has a tragic past. The statues in the walled garden seem to move, a strange cat adopts the family and voices can be heard in the walls. Then disaster strikes, causing Max and Alicia to be left alone in the house to face the enigmatic Prince of Mist.

One of the things that I remember about The Shadow of the Wind is how well Zafon conjures up atmosphere, and The Prince of Mist continues that; although it is a young adult book and a very swift read it is gripping and immersive. The contrast between the quiet, unthreatening setting where Max cycles around on his own, buys sticky buns from the bakery and `gossip moved at the speed of boredom` and the chilling atmosphere which accompanies the main action of the story is cleverly achieved. The supernatural elements seem even more eerie because of the stark way in which they stand out against the cheerful little town which Max's father has specifically (and ironically) chosen as somewhere to keep his family safe.

Although this is the third of Zafon's books to be translated into English, it was his first novel in Spanish, and it lacks some of the polish of The Shadow of the Wind (although this may partially be because of the different target audience). There are several aspects of the novel which would benefit from a clearer, more defined explanation. Amongst other things, I wanted to know why the statues in Max's garden kept moving and what was the significance of that beyond general menace. I enjoy a bit of supernatural ambiguity in novels like this, but in The Prince of Mist it felt less like deliberate concealment for dramatic effect and more like things which just weren't explained. Apparently this is the first book in a trilogy, so I can only hope that some of these things are expanded more fully in the later books. Nonetheless, Zafon writes a compelling story and I shall be continuing to collect them as they are translated into English.


The House at Riverton
The House at Riverton
by Kate Morton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting story that fails to live up to its potential, 29 May 2012
This review is from: The House at Riverton (Paperback)
The House at Riverton is the story of Grace, once a housemaid at Riverton and later lady's maid to Hannah Hartford. Now an elderly lady, she finds herself looking back on her life and the memories of the tragedies that she has tried to forget for so long begin to surface, in part prompted by a visit from a filmmaker who is directing a film about the goings on at Riverton. But only Grace is left who knows what really happened.

This is a tricky book to review. I enjoyed it and found the story engaging and the conclusion pleasing. I raced through it in the time it usually takes to read a books half this size, which is impressive considering the numerous distractions that the book was up against. Morton conjures up the changing eras well, reflecting the huge shifts in priorities, ideas and societal norms from the pre war years, through the Great War and into the roaring twenties. It is an entertaining read and, all in all, a promising debut novel. However, I had several problems with The House at Riverton which prevented me from finding it a really great book.

The book starts out with, in my opinion, a huge mistake. It opens thus: "Last November I had a nightmare. It was 1924 and I was at Riverton again." Naturally, this instantly brings to mind the famous opening line of what is the quintessential English-country-house-with-a-dark-secret novel, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. The conscious mimicing of such a well known beginning creates a certain set of expectations which, unfortunately, The House at Riverton never quite lives up to. Yes, it's a novel in the same genre and yes, it's quite good, but Rebecca it isn't. Which is a shame, because I don't think I'd have been quite as disappointed by the novel not quite being what I had hoped if it hadn't encouraged me itself to set my hopes so high.

Kate Morton writes a good story, but I didn't necessarily feel that she had it entirely under control at all times. I'm all for layers in a novel, but here there are were so many strands of mystery and so many Dark Secrets that sometimes it becomes difficult to feel any specific anxiety about any of them. A Dark Secret will be hinted at, but then abandoned as Morton focuses on one of the other aspects of the book or a different Dark Secret, and while her writing is sufficiently skilful that this is never confusing, it dissipates much of the tension which might have been created. Instead of worrying about all of these things I found myself unable to worry over much about any of them most of the time. I felt a vague sense of impending doom thanks to the numerous explicit statements that doom was indeed impending (I really hope this is something that improves; subtelty is key in conjouring up the sort of atmosphere which makes the best gothic country house novels) but I feel the story might have benefitted from a sharper focus to the doom at times.

I also found Morton's writing style to be not entirely to my tastes. She has a fondness for using lots of short sentences (it is quite rare for a sentence to have more than two clauses), many of which are predicate sentences which lack a subject for the verb. She is particularly keen on the single sentence paragraph, usually used at the end of a section or chapter to emphasise the aformentioned impending doom, such as `But by then the seed was sown` (p. 318). All of these have their place and can be incredibly effective when employed judiciously, but having the majority of the writing in this style feels jerky and stilted. I personally would have preferred it had some of these odd little sentences been joined together to make the writing flow more elegantly. The book is saved, however, by having lots of dialogue which Morton writes extremely well and believeably, and so I only had to wade through the stop-start short sentences occasionally rather than continuously.

My final niggle was the abandoning of the first person narrator when it became inconvenient for the story. On the whole, I think that the use of Grace as a mouthpiece was excellent: as a servant she is well placed to observe what goes on and people happily talk in front of her (though admittedly I don't think it would have been quite as free as in the novel) but she is still removed from most of the direct action and so provides an outside perspective for the reader. This works well for most of the novel, but later the stroy develops in such a way that Grace cannot always be present watching and listening to important events and so these sections are related in the third person. Morton partially works around this by having Grace explain that other people later told her what happened, but the descriptions of what happened and how people felt and thought are too detailed for this to be believeable. While I understand the need to work around the limitations of a first person narrator, I wish it could have been accomplished in a different way which hadn't made me feel as though the author was taking over Grace's story for a bit and then giving it back to her when it was convenient.

I think that's the most negative sounding review I've ever written for a book to which I've given three stars, but these are small things which just prevent the book from achieving its full potential.


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Penguin Classics)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Penguin Classics)
by Arthur Conan Doyle
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £5.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hugely entertaining short stories, 6 Dec. 2011
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes comprises twelve short stories chronicling the escapades of Sherlock Holmes, as told by Dr John Watson. Although the scenarios are all very different, each follows the same formula: a client comes to visit Holmes, usually with Watson conveniently there too, in a degree of agitation and bringing news of a seemingly impossible mystery. Holmes then makes deductions and conducts cursory investigations, usually while leaving the reader and the hapless Watson mostly in the dark, before everything is revealed to work out exactly as he suspects all along.

This is an enjoyable collection of short stories. Although I appreciate that arrogance and intellectual superiority are an integral part of the character of Sherlock Holmes and one of the main factors contributing to his appeal, I found this much less irritating in the short story format than he can sometimes become in the longer novels. Because the narratives are shorter, there is no time for quite as much opaqueness and so many meaningful silences; instead, they race entertainingly from knotty problem through speedy investigation to brilliant revelation. Impressed as I am by Sherlock Holmes after reading this volume, I am far more impressed with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for inventing such a variety of different situations and mysteries for his fictional detective to solve.


Alexander's Bridge (VMC)
Alexander's Bridge (VMC)
by Willa Cather
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting first novel, 6 Dec. 2011
Alexander's Bridge tells the story of Bartley Alexander, an American engineer famed for building bridges. He lives a perfect life in Boston with his loving, supportive wife Winifred. However, his life starts to unravel when business takes him to London and he meets Hilda Burgoyne, an Irish actress with whom he had been in love when he was younger. He begins to question how happy he really is and soon finds himself divided in two and under the terrible strain of leading a double life.

Cather later distanced herself from this first novel of hers, saying that it `does not deal with the kind of subject matter in which I now find myself most at home` and that: "The difference in quality in the two books is an illustration of the fact that it is not always easy for the inexperienced writer to distinguish between his own material and that which he would like to make his own. Everything is new to the young writer, and everything seems equally personal. That which is outside his deepest experience, which he observes and studies, often seems more vital than that which he knows well, because he regards it with all the excitement of discovery."

She continues: `The writer, at the beginning of his career, is often more interested in his discoveries about his art than in the homely truths which have been about him from his cradle.' Certainly, this book was not what I was expecting from what I have heard about Cather's later and more famous works. Alexander's Bridge has quite an urban focus, which I hadn't anticipated, and the way that it develops puts me in mind more of Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence than what I had been awaiting from Cather. The plot does feel a little strained at times, and this may well be because she is trying to mimic other literature than to write her own, although equally it may reflect the tensions between the characters, echoed in the bridges that Alexander builds.

However, I do not agree that this makes Alexander's Bridge a book filled with `youthful vanities and gaudy extravagances' as Cather terms these early works of a writer; although the plot is somewhat lacking there are moments in the writing of quiet introspection and deep beauty. For all it feels as though she is writing someone else's plot, she still does so from her own perspective and with her own perceptive vocabulary, allowing the emotions of her characters to shine through in a way that is instantly understandable. Take, for instance, her description of Bartley Alexander's thoughts as he becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his perfect life: "His existence was becoming a network of great and little details. He had expected that success would bring him freedom and power; but it had brought him only power that was in itself another kind of restraint. He had always meant to keep his personal liberty at all costs... He happened to be a engaged in a work of public utility, but he was not willing to become a public man. He found himself living exactly the kind of life he had determined to escape. What, he asked himself, did he want with these genial honours and substantial comforts? Hardships and difficulties he had carried lightly; overwork had not exhausted him; but this dead calm of the middle life which confronted him -- of that he was afraid. It was like being buried alive."

Moments like this one make the novel worth reading, despite the disappointing storyline. It shows a thoughtfulness, an insight and an awareness of humanity which hopefully develops into something really special in her later works. I can't wait to continue on my journey through Cather.


Our Tragic Universe
Our Tragic Universe
by Scarlett Thomas
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another good book from Scarlett Thomas, 6 Dec. 2011
This review is from: Our Tragic Universe (Paperback)
Thomas' novels that I've read have never been about the plot so much as they have the ideas contained within it and this one, if you couldn't already tell from that blurb, is no exception. In fact, Our Tragic Universe takes this even further by having probably the most plot elements of any of her books so far, none of which really come to anything. There is Meg's friend Libby's unhappy relationship in which she vacillates between her lover and her long term partner, which remains unresolved as the novel draws to a close. Meg's own humdrum relationship with her boyfriend, Christopher, which might be a major point in any other book, is a non-issue even after she leaves him in order to concentrate on her work. Events just sort of take place on the sidelines rather than being important in any way.

Character is similarly unimportant, the most distinctive character in the entire book being Meg's dog Bess (surely one of the most appealing and lifelike dogs in literature), although an honourable mention goes to Christopher's brother Josh. It is interesting that these are both secondary characters however, and none of the people that one might expect to be significant and well developed are particularly distinguishable.

The important part of Our Tragic Universe is the bizarre theories and philosophies that it contains. With Thomas' books it is impossible to say at what point unlikely fact becomes improbably theory and improbable theory becomes crazy fiction, but frankly I never care because it's all so confusing and fascinating at the same time. In this particular instance, the theory is that at the end of the universe there will be so much energy compressed into such a small space that it will be used to create a new universe in which everyone who has ever lived will exist eternally. This leads on to questions about the point of existence and the nature of reality and, as in The End of Mr. Y, these theories somehow end up being linked to literature and fiction, what it is and what it does: "In Newman's never-ending universe there'd be time to write an infinite amount of novels, and even finish reading all the books I'd ever begun, and all the books I'd never begun. But who'd care about fiction any more? We only need fiction because we die."

Later on, Meg and a friend debate the comparative merits of unpredictable storyless stories over familiar, formulaic fiction: "You should read Aristotle again, because he tells you not just how to write those bottle-of-oil stories, but proper, meaningful tragedies. And yes, they're predictable too, sort of. But he says that one of the key things the writer has to do is to make the person who hears or reads the story feel astonished, even though the story itself has a formula and is written in accordance with cause and effect. It's a great art to make someone surprised to see the picture, and even more surprised when they realise they had all the pieces all along."

This is a rather apt quotation as, abstract as this novel is, it does feel a bit as though Scarlett Thomas essentially writes the same book over and over again, possibly for the very reason that it is the ideas which drive her books rather than the more usual forces of plot and character. All of the narrators feel as though they are variations on Thomas herself (the author gave up smoking while writing this book and ate a lot of clementines instead, so naturally Meg does the same) and you could replace the name `Meg' with the name `Ariel' in this book and it would slot quite happily into The End of Mr. Y without there being any jarring character differences. However, strangely, I don't mind this at all. Because, as these books don't feel as though they're written for plot and characters, I don't read them for those things. I read them for the wonderful, imaginative, crazy ideas that Thomas has and that she continues to experiment with and expand with each of her books that I encounter. These never fail to surprise, for all the reader has the pieces all along.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 29, 2012 9:56 AM BST


Wedding Tiers
Wedding Tiers
by Trisha Ashley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Good and fluffy, though predictable, 6 Dec. 2011
This review is from: Wedding Tiers (Paperback)
Josie Gray is a thirty-something woman living an idyllic life in the small Lancashire village of Neatslake. She lives in her grandmother's old cottage with her childhood sweetheart, Ben, growing and trading for as much of their produce as possible, and supplementing their income with Josie's weird wedding cakes, her column for the cult magazine Skint Old Northern Woman and Ben's occasional artwork sales. When Josie's oldest friend Libby returns to the village and decides to launch a wedding business in the nearby manor house, Josie becomes drawn in to help. However, Ben is spending more and more time in London and soon it transpires that he has been less than honest with Josie, leaving her disillusioned. She vows never to believe in love again, but photographer Noah Sephton seems determined to change her mind.

There are no surprises in this book but, to be honest, I didn't expect any. The plot was formulaic but then it usually is in this type of book, and that was exactly why I read it when I wasn't feeling up to much mental exertion. It's a book which just requires to relax and enjoy being entertained. Because entertaining it is, for all I knew what would hapen before I opened the book. Ashley may follow a preordained plot, but the setting in which she chooses to place it is rather lovely. I enjoyed reading about Josie's homely life in the country with her chickens, her bartering and her gardening. Her kitchen activities, making jams and wines and various cakes and biscuits are particularly appealing and the recipes at the back of the book make this aspect of the novel seem particularly real and important, enabling the reader to follow suit if they so choose. Baking is something that I love doing, given half a chance, so I was able to relate to that and it engaged my interest.

The society surrounding Josie is also rather sweet and pleasant to read about. The secondary characters all have individual personalities, from the three eccentric Grace sisters who knit, crochet and embroider for all they're worth to womanising soap star Rob to Josie's loyal uncle Harry who takes great delight in outliving his friends. Although none of them are particularly realistic, they add colour and interest to the story.

If Josie herself were any more dense she would have her own gravitational pull. Even if this hadn't been the sort of novel in which it is a truth universally acknowledged that the seemingly perfect boyfriend with whom the heroine begins the book will turn out to be an utter bastard by the halfway mark, I could have guessed that Ben was having an affair long before Josie does. In fact, she never does manage to guess, despite a number of hints to that effect which are as subtle as being hit with a brick, and eventually has to be told. Later on in the novel she proves equally dim when new romantic opportunities present themselves. Had she not been such a likeable character for other reasons she would have been very annoying, but as it stands she is saved by her sweetness and by the charm and wit she displays in the excerpts from her magazine column which begin each chapter.

I'm not exactly sure what Ashley was trying to add by introducing a subplot of potential incest. It doesn't add tension because this is clearly the sort of pastel covered book in which everything works out for the best and no one gets hurt (except ex-boyfriends, who get what they deserve, naturally), it isn't treated sensitively and seems to be a sort of throwaway plot device which is resolved so quickly and effortlessly that it seems pretty pointless. In fact, I found it rather distasteful and an incongruously serious subject for such a fluffy novel.

Incest aside, I rather enjoyed the distraction from dental pain provided by this light, fun, quick read. It's a good, solid example of the genre and a pleasant way to spend a lazy afternoon when you don't want to think too much.


Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons
Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons
by Gerald Durrell
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not Durrell's best, but still a great read, 6 Dec. 2011
In this particular volume of Durrell's memoirs of his journeys he travels to Mauritius with the dual aim of educating a Mauritian student in the conservation of the local wildlife and catching some of the more endangered species to take back to his Jersey zoo to start breeding programmes. It sees him and his companions encountering marijuana growers in the high forests and scrambling around on exposed rocky islands chasing after skinks, all told with Durrell's characteristic humour and flair for recounting anecdotes.

This isn't my favourite of Durrell's books that I've read so far, probably because it seems to focus more on the zoological aspects of Durrell's expedition than some of his other books. Although Durrell's animal stories are wonderful, it's his descriptions of human antics that accompany them which I enjoy the most and I think the balance between the two isn't as even in Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons as in others, particularly his Corfu stories.

Nonetheless, it remains an entertaining book, not least because of some worrying illustrations of Gerald Durrell in the sort of terrifyingly short shorts worn only by teenage girls and British men of a certain age when on holiday in hot countries where they think no one will notice. Dodgy clothing choices aside, his stories never fail to elicit a chuckle. His account of chasing skinks over Round Island is a joy to read, and he is able to characterise animals in an unfailingly vivid and comic manner. Take for example his description of some monkeys: "We rounded one corner and came unexpectedly upon a troop of eight Macaque monkeys, sitting at the side of the road, their piggy eyes and air of untrustworthy arrogance making them look exactly like a board meeting of one of the less reliable consortiums in the City of London."

Although it may not have been my favourite of his memoirs, Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons has reaffirmed Gerald Durrell's place in my heart and on my bookshelf as a sure writer for a cheering book.


The Mill on the Floss (Wordsworth Classics)
The Mill on the Floss (Wordsworth Classics)
by George Eliot
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully and passionately written, 23 Nov. 2011
Maggie Tulliver is an intelligent, impetuous little girl who lives in the Mill of the title. She plagues her mother with her unwillingness to behave in a neat, respectable way; she adores her straightforward but proud and litigious father; and she worships her older brother Tom, living for the times when he comes home from school. As she grows up, the Tulliver's fall on hard times and she is forced into more subdued behaviour, although her passionate nature and readiness to love remain simmering beneath the surface. Slow and forthright Tom finds his place in his sister's affections challenged by other men and Maggie faces difficult decisions.

Instead of focussing on romance as I expected, The Mill on the Floss is a book which explores relationships of all different kinds. It examines the ties that bind an extended family network of aunts, uncles and cousins together through thick and thin, so that the relatives who scold and tut and say "I told you so" can nonetheless always be relied upon to provide support and lend a helping hand where necessary. There are people drawn together out of pity, duty, friendship and tolerance. The romantic relationships depicted in the book vary widely in their nature, their causes and their means of expression; some arise out of kindness and mutual loneliness rather than love, while others are due to restlessness and adventure. Some relationships are easy and others are difficult and these are not always the ones that the reader might expect. And of course, there is never any doubt that the two most important men in Maggie's life are her brother Tom and her father Mr Tulliver.

Maggie herself is a fascinating character. As a quick-witted, volatile little girl of violent passions she is utterly believeable. Her emotionally charged decisions to cut off her hair or to run away with the gypsies are shown as being perfectly logical through Maggie's childlike reasoning, though her repentence following these irrevocable decisions is swift and easily anticipated by the reader. Her growth into a quieter, more mature and subdued figure is equally believeable, although it is not a little disappointing to see her spirit being crushed by circumstances. She is not the sort of character that is always likeable, but she is constantly fascinating and the reader genuinely wants her to find happiness.

The best aspect of the book, for me, was George Eliot's prose which is always insightful and heartfelt. Unfortunately, I found myself loving The Mill on the Floss right up until the ending, which I loathed. I'm desperately trying not to give anything away, but it is overly sentimental and completely out of keeping with the rest of the novel up to that point both in content and tone. I really wish that it had ended differently.


The Circle Cast
The Circle Cast
by Alex Epstein
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.95

4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting take on the story of Morgan le Fey, 26 Oct. 2011
This review is from: The Circle Cast (Paperback)
The Circle Cast aims to fill in the gap between the time when Morgan is first seen as the daughter of Ygraine and Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and when she later reemerges as Arthur's seductress and the mother of Mordred, his eventual downfall. How does a young girl who is sent into exile, either for her own protection or simply to keep her out of the way as Uter Pendragon begins a passionate relationship with her mother, become a powerful and vengeful sorceress?

Perhaps because Alex Epstein chooses to address Morgan le Fay's childhood, an area of the legends which is not traditionally covered (in fact, only The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley springs to mind) and so is able to create entirely new material, I found this book rather enjoyable. It used a familiar setting and some familiar characters but it didn't trespass on the traditional stories: it added to them instead and I found this a refreshing and interesting approach.

Morgan, or Anna as she begins the story, is a surprisingly complex character who develops convincingly throughout the course of the novel. She starts out curious, questioning and vulnerable but quickly acquires a steely resolve and an adult mindset as she is forced to mature by her circumstances. She's so controlled and self-sufficient for much of the book that I don't find her a particularly sympathetic character, but she's still really interesting and a great strong female protagonist for a young adult story. I thought it was particularly poignant and a clever touch that what she works towards in Ireland, unification under one High King, is exactly what Arthur later works towards in Britain.

Of course, approaching such well known stories in any way, even Epstein's rather oblique one, creates a set of problems for the author and reader. It can be difficult to create tension an excitement in a story where the reader already knows the ending, and I was well aware that the question posed on the back cover of the book, `But when Morgan meets the handsome son of a chieftain, will she choose love or vengeance?` was not really a question at all. Almost everyone reading this book will know that Morgan returns to Britain, seduces Arthur and gives birth to Mordred. The tension then has to come from the writer either making the reader forget that the conclusion of the novel is inevitable or making the choices that the characters have to make so agonising that the reader wishes there were some other option. Every time I go to see Blood Brothers I always find myself hoping against hope that this particular time it might end differently, despite all rational thought meaning I know it can't, so I know that this can be achieved. in The Circle Cast Epstein manages it as well, by and large, and even though I knew what Morgan would decide her situation was compelling enough that I caught myself wishing that this wasn't the case.

I also liked the way that, although the reader was never allowed to forget the connection to the Arthurian story, Epstein worked in other stories subsidiary to Morgan's which provide context. I particularly liked the story of Luan who wanted to live a Christian life of prayer rather than the life of a chieftain's daughter. The way in which she dealt with achieving her aims in a male dominated society provided a contrasting counterpoint to Morgan's situation which added richness to the story.

However, in spite of my enjoyment of Morgan's story I have two problems with this book, the first zoological and the second temporal. They may be relatively minor quibbles but both of them jolted me out of the narrative rather an immersing me further in the story. Problem number one then. There are two rather strange wildlife appearances in the novel. The first is when Anna is travelling by boat across the Irish Sea from Cornwall to Ireland and the following description cropped up:

"When Morgan woke they were sailing through a vast flock of pelicans, thousands of them floating on the water, hundreds more reeling above their heads. One of them dove at the water and came up with a fish."

Now, to the best of my knowledge, there are no pelicans in the Irish Sea, nor have there ever been. Puffins, yes. Seagulls, yes. Pelicans, no. A quick Google suggests that they don't come any closer to the British Isles than the extreme south east of Europe. The other issue was equine, when Morgan discovers a three-toed horse, which she takes as a special creature. Once again, the best of my knowledge is largely represented by Wikipedia and consultation with some horsey friends, but nevertheless sources seem to agree that equus has one toeand the mesohippus shown on this diagram with three toes horses died out around 40 million years ago, which is a little old for Morgan to be riding one. I am of course not an expert on historical zoology and this isn't to say that I'm not wrong; Google, after all, is not infallible. However, even if these animals are technically correct, they don't feel as though they fit within the locale and time period that Epstein is evoking and so they would have been better substituted for more typical wildlife which instantly suggests Dark Age Britain. Edit: Apparently I'm wrong about the horses. They do occasionally come about as a genetic throwback, and Julius Caesar's horse Beaucephalus had three toes. Knowing this, it actually makes Morgan's three toed mount a rather clever idea rather than a slightly peculiar one, as it places her in a context of great leaders. Thanks to the author for clearing that one up.

My other problem with the book was the inconsistent timescale: the amount of time that Morgan spends in slavery seems to vary hugely. When she escapes to join the Christian community, we are told that `Morgan tucked into her first proper meal in eight years` (p. 142); later she rescues the Greek slave who came to Ireland with her from Cornwall and `she could see he was trying to turn the twelve-year-old he had lost into the sixteen-year-old in the white cloth and gold that stood before him' (p. 240); later still she meets the man who enslaved her and `The head on the grass was ten years older' (p. 244). Even a brief glance shows that these timings don't match up, and I wish that some more careful editing had picked this up so that it could be fixed.

With these two exceptions I really enjoyed this novel. I like Alex Epstein's writing and I get the feeling that we'd get on rather well if we ever met, and would spend hours geeking out over Arthurian legend. I hope he continues to write more stories in this vein, perhaps continuing with Morgan's tale, as I'd really like to read them.


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