Book Review: The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter by Rod Duncan

This month I didn’t choose a book to review, it chose me. The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter by Rod Duncan was given to me by someone who thought I might enjoy it, and they weren’t wrong. It’s a beautifully written novel that proves itself to be my favourite fantasy/steampunk book of the year, with plot twists and complicated characters that kept me on edge until the very end.

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As the genre suggests, this novel (the first in a series) is set in an alternative 1973 England. From the very start we’re thrown into this world, with an eloquent writing style reminiscent of Thomas Hardy and a character attire that screams of old England. The story starts in Leicester, and within a few pages the history of this reality is introduced. England is split in two; there’s the aristocratic Kingdom and the Anglo-Scottish Republic. The difference between the two halves is highlighted most prominently by the clothing worn in them. Bright, bold colours are always worn in the Kingdom (even with skirts hitched a little above the ankle), whereas dark, dull colours are worn in the Republic. Whether this stark colour difference is to highlight the rich/poor divide or the desires of the protagonist is up to you to decide.

Had I been a man, I could have strolled into that dark warren of narrow streets, blind alleys and iniquity…but the Back is no place for a lady…thus I strolled along Churchgate attired and disguised as a young gentleman.

An opening to be remembered for sure. Introducing Elizabeth Barnabus, our happily unmarried heroine who turns her back on the expectations of women and does what she wants. A feminist lead to be reckoned with, she refuses to get married, despite the many disapproving conversations she gets for it. And yet she’s smart enough to accept this sexism and manipulate it to her advantage.

Her income comes from being a private detective. Knowing that she can’t work this as a woman, she dresses up very convincingly as Mr Barnabus, her brother. Not only does she go to work herself, but she changes between her natural female form and her male disguise frequently, using the fact that she’s a woman to get the best results.

My most prominent memory of Elizabeth is when we first see her transformation.

I ripped the false hair from my cheeks and upper lip then snatched the hat from my head, revealing the lacy head-covering beneath.

Within seconds she removes her disguise and sits looking just like the woman she is, in all the correct attire. It’s a beautiful picture that Rod Duncan has artfully painted, showing off Elizabeth’s knowledge and skill so we know exactly what she’s about from the start.

Courageous, smart and witty, Elizabeth proves to be a proud woman. She’s proud of her gypsy heritage and of her beloved boat. And, she’s such a kick-ass ball of sass that she barely bats an eye at John Farthing, a man who repeatedly shows interest in her.

 

Julia Swain, a young girl Elizabeth is tutoring, develops the most over the course of the novel. She starts out as a young lady led firmly by the law and quick to fall in love. She’s idealistic, naive, but has the potential to become so much more. And she does. By the end she’s breaking rules and shows a fierce loyalty to Elizabeth that can only be admired.

One of the scenes I remember the most is in the second half of the novel, and is a moment where Julia really rapidly matures. Elizabeth is trapped by the Duke of Northampton’s men, but comes up with a brilliant plan to escape them. She leaves her hiding place without her travelling case, using her skills of disguise to alter her appearance. Then she sends Julia to collect her belongings and hide them in a larger case for her.

It’s a truly wonderfully written bit of prose, with tension rising throughout at the risk of Julia being caught. It proves to be a brilliant plan too, showing Elizabeth’s intelligence and skills. More than anything though, it shows how far Julia is willing to go out of her comfort zone for her friend, a quality to be admired above all else.

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The story proves to be a mystery at heart, a true detective story with a real problem to solve. There were moments when I truly feared for Elizabeth’s life, and others where I thought the mystery was about to be solved when in fact the truth was further away. Duncan has a real knack for storytelling, writing a fast paced tale full of twists that I couldn’t have predicted.

He cleverly puts Elizabeth in a situation that should be safe and comforting but that instead is full of danger and doubt, tricking us into a false sense of security. She grew up in a circus, and to solve the mystery she must once again join one. The man in charge, Harry Timpson, knew her father well and seems to appreciate her heritage. You’d think this safe, familiar setting with family connections would be comforting, and it is for a while, but just as I began to relax into it Duncan put me back on edge.

He has a great skill for putting in backstory without making it seem forced. By the end of the book I felt like I knew just as much about Elizabeth’s history as I did the adventure I’d just read about, and it’s an exciting one too. It’s written in naturally, and just rolls off the page.

The ending though is truly magnificent. There’s a M A S S I V E twist that I did not see coming, and I really don’t want to say more about it because I’ll give away the ending, but I really enjoyed it and it’s just the perfect end to the book. Not very informative for you, but I’m sure you’ll forgive me once you’ve read it yourself.

 

My favourite scene encapsulates all of my favourite things in the story; Elizabeth’s courage and intelligence, her magical transformation, the tricks of the circus and the unforgiving, bitter bad guy. They’re blended together in a way that reminds me what I love so much about Rod Duncan’s writing.

Elizabeth is being taken to her death in the back of a horse-drawn carriage. Fumbling through the boxes around her, she leaves a trail that looks like an escape then hides in one of the crates. While her executioner follows the red heron she makes her escape, transforming quickly into her brother and walking confidently down the road. It’s clever, it’s cheeky, and it’s most definitely the scene from the book that sticks with me the most.

 

I’m going to stop now before I give anything away. I could so easily write another thousand words on this book, but instead I’ll just leave you with this. The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is a unique and immaculately crafted novel that everyone should read, whether they’re a fantasy novice or expert. Angry Robot have found and nurtured a magnificent writer in Rod Duncan, and I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.

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Book Review: Five Nonsense Poems

I’ve recently discovered Candlestick Press, a small publisher of poetry in Nottingham, and I am so happy to have done so. The highlight of their publications is their collection of ‘cards’ for children that they make. These contain a selection of poetry to give in lieu of a traditional greetings card. After browsing in my local Waterstones, I finally picked one out to have a read.

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Out of the entire selection on the rotating rack, it’s Five Nonsense Poems that caught my eye. The striking blue of the cover along with the fun illustrations appealed to me, and with my young nephew’s upcoming birthday on my mind I just couldn’t resist.

The paper quality is fantastic. It feels great in my hands; a top quality feel of thick, textured card that tells you it’s been printed and produced by someone who cares. Inside, the pages are just thick enough so that you can’t see through them to the print on the back, with meticulous printing of the ink on each page. There’s not one mistake to be seen; the sign of a talented editor who knows exactly what they’re doing.

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I feel that I cannot comment on the actual writing within the pages, as the poems are all selected from previous works, but whoever selected them chose them well. You can’t have a selection of nonsense poems without featuring Spike Milligan, and Carol Ann Duffy’s poem is a great choice for the opening. It was a slight surprise though; I was expecting new poetry from new poets, but what is there does not disappoint. And, if I had bothered to read the blurb rather than being focussed on the cover design, I would have seen the names of all the poets in there and known.

The highlight by far though is the beautiful illustrations by Ruth Green. They’re bold and bright and just what a book of nonsense poems needs. I especially love the illustration that goes with Pauline Clarke’s poem – it’s fun and neat and looks great alongside the poem. Green’s imagination and creativity is what attracted me to the collection in the first place, and her art is the perfect fit for the poems. And, as a collection advertised as being perfect for children, it’s beautiful enough even for the youngest of readers to enjoy.

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As a present, it really is wonderful. It comes with a striking blue envelope as well as a high quality bookmark and sticker with illustrations from the collection on them. They’re a nice little touch that gives something extra to the collection. There’s even nice touches on the inside to, like a ‘to’ and ‘from’ page and a page at the back for the receiver to write their own poem or draw their own creature.

 

I really do love this collection of poetry. It makes a perfect gift for a child or an adult, and has a great quality to it that lets you know the publisher cares. The other collections look equally appealing; in fact, I might go buy the collection of cat poems now.

Book Review: The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2, edited by Teika Bellamy

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 is a collection of short stories written by various writers on the theme of mythology and fairy tales. Published by Mother’s Milk Books, a Nottingham based publishing company, it’s a creative triumph that really shows off the talent of emerging and established writers.

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The collection is a great read, I think especially for fans of mythology and fantasy. Unfortunately though, it’s the weakest story in the collection that serves as our first taste. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a decent story, but to me it lacked the originality and flair that the other stories are brimming with. It seemed to fall flat at the end, with no clear conclusion or resolution, resulting in the feeling that the story has just been cut off. I imagine if this story were in the middle of the collection I wouldn’t have noticed these small flaws, but I always hold the first story of an anthology to a very high standard as it’s that piece that will make me decide whether to read on or not. It’s a shame that this one didn’t quite hit the mark, but nonetheless I read on and the rest more than made up for it.

My favourite story in the collection is The Jungle Goddess, written by Anuradha Gupta. I love the exotic setting that stands out amongst the dull English background of the other stories. It’s vibrant and refreshing, with a spark of energy that brings the tale to life. Gupta has written the story in the present tense, and whilst it’s very unusual it’s done so well that I couldn’t help but enjoy it.

The drummers drop their sticks and a silence falls over the crowd. Men and women, all turn to stare at the vision before them. Gungun, with her dark untamed locks tumbling down over her bare shoulders and breasts, adorned in nothing but a silver anklet, stares back absently at the blazing fire and the grey shadows that stand all around it.

The story is new and the writing is truly excellent. This extract is just a small example of the imagery and innovative writing that Gupta uses in the story. It’s a fantastic story that really shines out in the collection.

Little Lost Soul, written by Marija Smits, is very different to the other stories in the collection, mainly because of the writing style. I find Smits’ writing to be very literary and of a high quality that could easily produce the next Penguin Classic. It’s hard to find the right words to describe it. I guess the closest I can think of is to compare it to the writing of Philip K. Dick. For me, it resembled his writing very much, with its industrial, futuristic setting and amazing writing. I look forward to reading more of Smits’ work in the future.

Lilasette is a story that for me really embodies the spirit of the publishing company, whilst giving us a true fairy tale. It has a great evil queen that steals her servant’s newborn baby so that she can have a daughter to shape into her own image. Despite not being a main character, it’s the servant who really stands out in this story. Her empowerment is to be admired and she really helps to shape the story into something that reminds you of why mothers are so important.

It’s also worth giving Ana Salote’s story a quick mention. Her fairy tale twists what we know and gives us a refreshing take on a fairy. I think it is great writing and I really enjoyed the 21st Century, slightly gritty realism of the story. The title Grimm Reality is very well chosen, and embodies Salote’s writing style.

On the whole the book is very well put together. It’s a good collection of varying stories and has been edited and produced very professionally. I was a bit disappointed to see that the same fairy tale has been used twice in the book. Up until the very last story I was really impressed that I hadn’t come across any obvious repetitions, but the last one was a little too similar to the first for me. However, the editor clearly recognised the similarity as they’ve started and ended the collection with these two pieces. If you can’t avoid a repeat, embracing it like this is the best way to do it.

The real highlight of the book is the illustrations. I don’t know where Teika Bellamy found Emma Howitt but she’s the silent shining star in the book. Howitt’s illustrations are beautiful and intricate and really help to bring each story to life. I hope more people take notice of her work, because it’s so beautiful that it deserves to be scattered across books everywhere.

 

Overall this book really is worth a read. I loved the stories, especially the modernised ones, and felt that they all slotted in well with each other. Having not read The Forgotten and the Fantastical 1 I can’t really compare the two, but if that one is anything like this one it’s most definitely worth a read. Full of fairy tales for adults brimming with truly fantastical characters, this collection belongs on everyone’s bookshelves.

Book Review: The Troll by Nicola Monaghan

Modern day fairy tales are often full of tired clichés and annoying attempts at 21st century twists, but Nicola Monaghan’s The Troll is a beautiful exception. It tells the chilling tale of three old school friends who become the target of an internet troll, who threatens to bring to light events from their dark (and to us, unknown) pasts. Although most internet trolls stay hidden firmly behind their screens, this story speculates on what would happen if one were to enter reality.

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The story is split into three novellas, each an exciting story of its own. Each starts and ends with a blog post that sounds like a classic fairy tale, yet enriched with the tone of a spiteful villain. I love this twist, where the tale is told from the point of view of the villain of the story, and it makes me think of The Brothers Grimm fairy tales. The blog is a great way to move the story along in general, and is used at many points during the story to great effect.

One day, they learned how to get to Fairyland. Back then, this trip was much cheaper and *so* much easier. They needed only to find the magic beans, or the small squares of enchanted paper, to take them far, far away.

This section from one of the blog posts is also a great example of how the writer manages to describe drugs from the perspective of a user. It’s an unusual way of describing them, but works really well in the context of the narrator.

As far as imagery goes, this story is full of it. In every good book there’s always at least one image that sticks in your head, and this one is no exception. For me, it’s the image of a dead rabbit strewn across one of the character’s front gardens.

…a rabbit whose head had been dragged around like a pen to make a message…she picked up the animal’s body parts and entrails, heaving as she went. She put it all into the bin bag. She was pretty sure it wasn’t recyclable, and had no idea if it was legal to put dead rabbits in your rubbish bin.

This is my favourite scene in the story because it’s so well written and the imagery is amazing. I love how the writer has paired such a disturbing image with humour without going over the top. It’s the narrator’s internal monologue that makes this such an amusing scene. Without hearing her thoughts, we’d undoubtedly just find it horrifying. This addition of light humour adds to the tension of the piece and keeps it gripping.

There are two narrator’s in the story; Kelly and Louisa. Kelly is my favourite narrator. She’s such a likeable character, with her Bridget Jones-esque life and ‘fuck it’ attitude. I found myself loving her and sympathising with her troubles; it was almost like she was my own friend. Her voice is strong and funny, and even when she’s talking about serious things there’s always the edge of humour there.

Lousia, however, is a character I could do without. Don’t get me wrong, she’s written so, so well and exists off the page just as much as Kelly does, but I just straight out do not like her. I found her to be annoying and irritating, constantly with her head in the clouds and not knowing what she wants. And then when she knows what she wants, she never goes for it. She acts innocent throughout the story but she isn’t, and deep down I’m sure she knows that. The writing of Louisa though is fantastic. Her insecurities are shown very subtly through her narration, and Jack (her husband) humanises her a lot.

Jack himself is a very interesting character, especially when compared with his brother, Adam. Adam, Kelly and Louisa are the three being terrorised by the troll, and so have been good friends since they were very young. Jack is very different to them though. He’s sensible and reliable, which contrasts with Adam and Louisa’s uncontrolled chaos of lives. This contrast makes him an interesting character as it helps to highlight how unpredictable Adam, and helps me to understand why Louisa is sometimes wanting more from him.

My only issue is with the end of the story. I can’t really say much without ruining it, but what I can say is that I wish Kerry and Louisa’s lives had both changed to the same extent. I mean, I’m happy with the ending and it works, but it’s a little too perfect in parts for me. As horrible as it sounds, I wanted it to be a little less happy in some ways so it balanced more between them (Sorry if that doesn’t make sense, but hopefully when you read it yourself you’ll get what I mean!).

Even if you find yourself not liking this story (which I highly doubt), you’ve got to admire it’s style. Not only is it a fairy tale with a troll entirely based in the world of social media, it even reads like social media. When it’s Kelly’s turn to narrate we see ‘@kelly’, and for Louisa ‘@louisa’. And in Kelly’s parts, the hashtags are hilarious. Kelly is a local celebrity, a radio DJ, so is always on social media. So of course naturally her narration also reads like it’s come straight from Twitter. ‘#shit’. I love how in character they are too, for example ‘The #SinsOfTheMother and all that’, ‘#FiftyShadesOfSomething’ and ‘The last thing she needed was another #nutter in her life’. They read so naturally and well, it strengthens Kerry’s character and makes her even more loveable.

It’s also worth mentioning, from a literary point of view, the metaphors and descriptions in the story. There’s one part where Louisa is reminiscing about her past, but rather than the usual smells or sounds taking her back and being the prominent image it’s colour.

Orange inlaid with purple on wallpaper in her aunt’s living room. Green with a lighter green on a pair of curtains at their gran’s house. Puke green.

I love how this is a different way of remembering and describing the past in a story, without making it boring and forced.

Kelly’s metaphors are what really get me going though. My favourite being ‘it felt like the circus had come to town…the clowns were doing somersaults and the lions were roaring’, used to describe a hangover. Not only does it sum up the general idea we get of Kelly in the book, but it also creates quite an unusual and interesting image.

The story itself is full of suspense, and like good sex it builds us up numerous times and backs away just as we get close to reaching the climax. At some points it even gets frustrating. It builds to a point where we finally feel like we’re going to find out about what happened that summer, and then the chapter abruptly ends and we’re back to drunk Kelly, or Louisa’s mundane love life. ‘#fucksake’.

The book itself, as an object (and of course by object I mean e-object), is professional and looks like it could be available in bookstores. The cover designs are great and the typesetting on the inside is very professional. It looks amazing and just shows how much of an impact indie publishing is making in the publishing world. I love it.

 

Nicola Monaghan is an indie writer to look out for. Her previous work (The Killing Jar, Starfishing) is only the beginning of her career, and each piece gets better (and a little darker) than the last. She’s a great writer, with gritty, bone-chilling stories that strike at the heart of real issues like drugs, cyber-bullying and relationship problems. It’s rare that I give a 100% positive review (seriously, take a look at my others here), but this story truly deserves it. I’ll definitely be keeping my eye out for Ms Monaghan’s next work.