historical fiction

REVIEW: Sherwood by Meagan Spooner

Narrated by Fiona Hardingham.

Robin of Locksley is dead. Maid Marian doesn’t know how she’ll go on, but the people of Locksley town, persecuted by the Sheriff of Nottingham, need a protector. And the dreadful Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff’s right hand, wishes to step into Robin’s shoes as Lord of Locksley and Marian’s fiancé. Marian never meant to tread in Robin’s footsteps—never intended to stand as a beacon of hope to those awaiting his triumphant return. But with a sweep of his green cloak and the flash of her sword, Marian makes the choice to become her own hero: Robin Hood.

I have such mixed feelings about this book. I listened to it on audio and it took me a while to get into the story because I couldn’t get on with the accents the narrator chose to do. Though, if I had not have been listening to the audiobook, I probably would’ve stopped reading it. Sherwood is quite slow to get going and even when there were fights, they were often predictable.

I had such a love hate relationship with Marian. Sometimes she was kind and thoughtful and clever, but then other times she’s so dense, self-centred and reckless it’s infuriating. She is written to be better than Robin of Locksley in every single way, she’s better at archery, she’s smarter, she’s more loyal. It’s weird and contradictory because she’s constantly putting Robin on a pedestal in her mind but at the same time often says things a long the line of “Robin could never do this”. I liked her relationship with her maid Elena but that’s probably because I liked Elena as a character more than Marian a lot of the time.

The “romance” between Marian and Guy of Gisborne was not good. It’s a problematic relationship from the start as they both use and manipulate one another and Guy is needlessly stupid when it comes to not realising that the Robin Hood he’s chasing, and the girl he’s attempting to woo are one and the same. The author tried to give Guy more of a backstory make him more sympathetic and all the time I was like “Why are you trying to make this bad guy misunderstood?!” and this character development was done so slowly that where his character ends up at the end seems so rushed.

Speaking of rushed, the ending of Sherwood became really rather convoluted as there were too many plot threads that were attempted to be addressed in the big final showdown. It was hard to keep track of where characters were, who knew what, and what they were trying to achieve.

I think my main problem with this book is that it is a retelling, and a retelling of a story and characters that I hold dear. I’ve read and enjoyed retellings before like The Lunar Chronicles, and I’ve read retellings that I didn’t really like, like Frankenstein in Baghdad but my dislike of it wasn’t due to it being a retelling. Previously when I’ve read retellings, they’ve been based on stories I’ve had little to no attachment to and then it’s fun to see the new twists on a well-known story.

With Sherwood, I didn’t like what the new twists did to characters I like. My Robin Hood story is Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and I’ll admit the versions of the characters in that film are the ones I know and love. Here, none of the Merry Men get any sort of character development. Will Scarlett is nothing more than a wet weekend while Little John, Alan-a-Dale and Much are only recognisable by their names. I liked the idea of Marian being good with a sword and independent, but it becomes far too close to her being Not Like Other Girls that it’s cringey.

Perhaps Sherwood would’ve worked if it hadn’t had been a retelling. If it was the story of a noble young lady wanting to help people and making friends and having adventures separate from the Robin Hood myth it might’ve worked. Because naturally Sherwood lends itself to comparisons of not only the original story but to the many adaptations that have come before it, and in those comparisons it is found severely lacking.

When I started writing this review I thought I’d give it two stars, but as I was writing I came to the realisation that there was far more that I disliked about Sherwood than liked, and if I hadn’t had it on audio from my library, I definitely would’ve given up on it.

I love the premise of Sherwood but the execution leaves much to be desired, especially when it tears down other characters to make its lead a Strong Female Character, and unfortunately the majority of the story and its characters fall flat. 1/5.

READ THE WORLD – Portugal: Raised from the Ground by José Saramago

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

A multigenerational family saga set in twentieth-century Portugal. Raised from the Ground follows the Mau Tempo family, a family of poor landless peasants, as they try and make a life for themselves as national and international events take place around them. But nothing really impinges on their grim reality until the first communist stirrings in the country.

The way Raised from the Ground is written took me a long time to get my head around. It’s like there’s an omniscient and omnipresent narrator, telling the lives of the different members of the family as each generation grows up. This style means there’s no speech marks when people talk and there often are very long sentences with many commas in them. The long sentences aren’t so bad, it’s the paragraphs that are anywhere between a page long and four-pages long that cause problems. It is very easy to get lost in those long paragraphs.

The story itself is not memorable and the characters, of which there are a lot, are not well developed. When the story shifts focus from one character or relationship to the other, it’s hard to remember or keep track of who is related to who. While the first 80 pages or so are engaging, the dreary existence of this peasant family becomes repetitive and dull as there is little chance for them to better themselves. No doubt this is the point of Raised from the Ground, but a novel can’t just make a point, it must also be interesting and unfortunately this one wasn’t.

Raised from the Ground pans around sixty years and the verbose narrator also talks about events that happened before the books beginning multiple times. Across those years different national and international events are referenced (including two World Wars) and the little footnotes that explained a reference to an important event in Portugal was appreciated. Though the way the book is written, focusing so closely on one family’s struggles, meant that the historical context was never fully explained so the impact of these events on the family and their community was never really felt.

I’ve read multigenerational family sagas before and on the whole I rather enjoy them. However, Raised from the Ground is not one of the ones I enjoyed. The combination of the writing style and the story meant I often felt my eyes glazing over. I did like the little titbits of Portuguese history speckled throughout the novel, though there wasn’t enough of that to keep me interested. 1/5.

READ THE WORLD – Spain: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Pulp fiction writer David Martín is holed up in an abandoned mansion in the heart of Barcelona, desperately writing story after story while becoming increasingly frustrate and disillusioned. When he is approached by a mysterious publisher, Andreas Corelli, makes him an enticing offer David leaps at the chance. But as he begins to research and write this novel, and after a visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, David realises there’s a connection between his book and the shadows that surround his dilapidated home, and maybe his publisher might be hiding secrets of his own.

The Angel’s Game is set in the same universe as The Shadow of the Wind, but I don’t think it matters if you haven’t read that book or if you haven’t read it for a while. I read and reviewed The Shadow of the Wind four years ago so naturally I can’t really remember much about the book, but the only connections I noticed was the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and the dilapidated tower home the main character in this novel came to live in. (After writing this review I googled the series and realised that The Angel’s Game is in fact a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind though apparently each book in the series is supposed to be able to stand on its own from the others, so it really doesn’t matter what order you read them in.)

Set in the 1920s and early 1930s, The Angel’s Game really makes use of both the time period and the city its set in to add to the mystery and eeriness of the story. Not being able to get hold of a character, or instances of mistaken identity are rife, and both increase the tension at key moments. The city of Barcelona truly becomes a character in its own right in The Angel’s Game. The narrow alleyways, abandoned houses, tiny shops and the often-bleak weather, makes the city a wonderful setting for a gripping mystery. The descriptions of the city are vivid making the few times characters venture elsewhere, even more stark and different to what we already know.

David is an interesting man. He’s often unlikable as he pushes away those who care about him when he’s obsessed with writing and is unsure how to love or be loved in return. He’s always had affection for the daughter of a friend’s driver, Cristina, but circumstance and society keeps them a part. His reluctant friendship with Isabella, an inspiring writer who is many years younger than him is surprisingly sweet and while their relationship isn’t without its troubles and miscommunications, their honesty with one another is truly needed by both of them.

The mystery of the tower house, its previous owner and what happened to them kicks in about the third of the way through the book. Andreas Corelli seems to be connected to it all though it takes a long time for David to figure things out. David becomes obsessive, both about his writing and the secrets his home holds, looking for reasons behind the deaths and strangeness that appears to be following him. The Angel’s Game is told in the first person from David’s point of view, meaning that as the story progresses and things get weirder, you begin to doubt what you’ve been told so far as David’s grip on reality seems to slip.

I shan’t say I picked up all the threads of the mystery before they were explained to me, nor that I totally understood the ending, but that didn’t make me like this story any less. The Angel’s Game was a very readable book and the whole gothic take on Barcelona fully pulled me into the story. Would it have been nice if the story wasn’t quite so convoluted and weird? Yes, but it’s still a book that I ended up enjoying more than I remembered enjoying its predecessor. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Latvia: Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

A nameless woman tries to follow her calling as a doctor but then the state steps in. She, along with her daughter, are banished to a village in the Latvian countryside where she’s deprived of a career, her sense of self, and her relationship with her daughter. As her sense of isolation increases, will she and her daughter be able to return to Riga where the beginning of political change begins to stir?

Translated by Margita Gailiyis.

Soviet Milk is told from the alternating perspectives of an unnamed mother and her unnamed daughter between the years 1969 and 1989. During this time Latvia was a part of the Soviet Union and it’s clear from the outset how the state keeps a close eye on its people and the affect it can have on their lives. The alternating perspectives did through me a bit at the beginning as I didn’t realise that’s what was happening but as some of the passages were told from the two characters different points of view, I got the hang of it.

I enjoyed both the mother and the daughter’s point of view. It basically begins when the daughter is born and so you see her grow up, how she learns different things from her mother, and how she begins to see the restrictions placed on her and her family. When she’s a young child she is brought up by her grandmother who is also unnamed (nearly all the characters are unnamed and are instead referred to by their familial status), their relationship is very sweet and the time she spends with her grandmother and step-grandfather are moments of true childhood innocence.

After her mother’s medical career is dashed and they have to move away from the city and her grandparents, that’s when the daughter has to grow up as more often than not, she has to look after herself and her mother. Her mother’s struggles and depression are vividly realised, and the book is well-written enough that makes her actions sympathetic and not solely selfish as one might think.

Soviet Milk was an interesting insight into the psychological affects of living in your homeland when it’s occupied by an outside force. Previous books that I’ve read for the Read the World Project that have been set in countries during the time of the Soviet Union, have either been from a child’s point of view so they don’t understand the gravity of the situation, or its about characters who have just got on with everything. I think this is the book I’ve read where being a part of the Soviet Union had a real affect on the mental health of one of the protagonists. There was still the food shortages and secrets, but there was also the desperate need to be free which the mother had even when living in her own country.

Soviet Milk is a moving and poignant story about the love between a mother, daughter and grandmother and how the Soviet occupation can affect multiple generations. It was a compelling read even though each perspective was just a couple of pages long. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Estonia: Burning Cities by Kai Aareleid

Translated by Adam Cullen.

Destroyed by German and Soviet armies in the war, Tiiana’s home city of Tartu in Estonia has a lot of secrets and she’s slowly unravelling them. The adult world is of cryptic and hushed conversations and Tiiana experience both great events like Stalin’s death, and personal events like the disintegration of her parent’s marriage from the periphery. Ultimately, she is powerless to prevent the great and defining tragedy of her life – the suicide of a loved one.

I liked the way the story was told. Chapters (if they could really be called that) were often only a few pages long. They each began with a year and they’re like a little snapshot into that period of the characters’ lives, especially at the beginning when there weren’t many chapters set in the same year. As the story progressed and Tiiana got older, you spend more time with her in each year, seeing how her life changes in small and big ways.

Burning Cities begins in 1941 when Tiiana’s parents Liisi and Peeter meet, after a few short chapters Tiiana is born in 1946 and then you follow her as she grows up to the year 1962. There are a few chapters set in the 1990s and 2010s throughout the book and as you’re never properly introduced to the narrator in those chapters, it takes a while to make the connections between them and Tiiana as a child.

A lot of things to do with the Second World War or how it was in Estonia before the war doesn’t really register in Tiiana’s every day life, especially when she’s a child. She knows that other children and adults don’t like the Russians but she’s not sure why and when she becomes friends with a Russian boy from the school next door to hers, she questions whether her father’s uncertainties about the friendship is because he’s a boy or because he’s Russian.

Tiiana is a well-written and believable child. She learns to observe people from a young age and is fascinated by books and how there’s apparently different eras that the adults talk about. She’s smart but also sheltered, because of her father’s job she never wants for anything unlike some of her fellow classmates. It’s the little things that make the city of Tartu a strong presence in the novel. It’s a place that’s being rebuilt but there’s so many parts of it that aren’t whole or are broken. This mirrors Tiiana’s parent’s relationship as they drift apart and attempt to hide things from Tiiana to no avail. As Tiiana gets older she becomes more outspoken but she’s still quiet young and naïve and, much like her parents, doesn’t talk about how she feels.

Burning Cities is a story of family secrets and tragedy told, through the most part, through the eyes of a child. It’s a well-written story that often paints a vivid picture, but it still has a hazy quality to it as much of it feels like a memory with some events or people more solid than others. It’s a book that pulls you in from the very beginning, with interesting characters and a haunting writing style. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Côte d’Ivoire: Allah is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma

Birahima is ten years old when he becomes a child-soldier. After his mother’s death he travels to Liberia to find his aunt but on the way there he gets caught up in rebel fighting and must become a child-solider in order to survive.

I found the way Allah is Not Obliged was written was unlike anything I’d really read before. It’s from Birahima’s point of view and it really feels like a child is telling the story. There’s lots of long sentences, as if he’s gotten excited, there’s a lot of repetition of sentences in the space of a couple of paragraphs, and he often stops to explain something mid-sentence or goes off on a tangent. There’s also the brutal honesty that comes from a child. He talks about how he and other child-soldiers are high, they don’t have a lot of food, the way they are in danger; it’s all just a fact of life for him and he tells his story with more wisdom and humour than any ten-year-old should have.

Allah is Not Obliged is set in the 1990s and it blurs the line between fact and fiction. I didn’t google every single name of the war lords and rebels Birahima mentions, but I definitely noticed that the first half of the book there seemed to be more fictional war lords, whereas in the later half of the book, it got quite detailed about what happened in various coups, and the war lords and politicians involved. In the second half of the book, those people Birahima named, were real people. This gave me an insight into West African history that I knew next to nothing about.

Birahima’s story takes place in a number of countries on the West African coast. He gets caught up in different conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone as he travels back and forth, trying to find his aunt while also trying to stick with the men who appear more powerful and therefore are more likely to keep him safe.

Allah is Not Obliged doesn’t shy away from the brutalities of war and because how Birahima’s voice is so knowledgeable and factual about the whole thing, it’s easy to forget he is a child. One thing’s for sure, this book definitely shows how the children who become child-soldiers are forced to grow up very quickly, but at the same time, don’t fully understand everything that is happening around them.

While Allah is Not Obliged is a reasonably short book at just over 200 pages, I found it to be a slow and often dull read, especially towards the end of the book when it got quite dense with the more fact-heavy stuff. it was never a book that I felt compelled to pick up again as the Birahima’s meandering story never really pulled me in. It has an interesting writing style, with Birahima’s voice shining through almost constantly, and it has a weird blend of the brutalities of war and the dark humour these young people have to embrace in order to stay somewhat sane.

READ THE WORLD – Sierra Leone: The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

The story of three men in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s. Old academic Elias Cole lies in a hospital bed reminiscing about his life in Freetown in 1969 and his love for Saffia Kamara, the wife of his charismatic colleague. Elsewhere in the hospital is Kai, a gifted young surgeon, is tormented by nightmares from the civil war while British psychologist Adrian Lockheart is working at the hospital, trying to help those who have been affected by the civil war, and trying to find meaning in his work. The three of them meet in different ways and are more connected than they realise.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and this is definitely one of those books I would’ve DNF’d if I was physically reading it. I really didn’t like The Memory of Love for a lot of different reasons.

Firstly, there are the three main characters. Chapters are told from each of their perspectives and Holdbrook-Smith does a good job at distinguishing between these characters with his voice. The three men have a lot of similarities, they’re all smart, stubborn and reserved but the only one I didn’t have a huge problem with was Kai. Kai is kind, thoughtful and a great uncle, his relationship with his eight-year-old nephew is the best. The big difference between Kai and Elias and Adrian, is his attitude towards women. He’s more respectful than the other two, though can still be infatuated. Elias becomes obsessive and almost stalkerish when it comes to Saffia, the way he describes her was unsettling, especially those moments when he could tell he made her feel uncertain or uncomfortable but didn’t care. Adrian has a wife and young daughter in the UK, but that doesn’t stop him cheating on his wife with musician Mamakay. He gets very jealous over Mamakay before they’re even together, and he is often ignorant and patronising of her life. Adrian likes to think he has a connection to Sierra Leone as his mother was almost born there, but really, he’s the white saviour type character and he doesn’t even realise it. Adrian and Elisa both made me angry at different times in the book, and their love stories weren’t that loving or romantic to me.

The story itself was quite dull and very slow. It takes a long time for the connections between these three men to become clear and they all seem to drift through their lives. The Memory of Love is a story about love but it’s not a particularly romantic or even emotional story. I was never engaged with any of the characters or their pasts. There are many examples of how war as affected the country and its people, but it is always like a footnote in the three men’s lives. The people and the country have suffered a great deal of trauma, but I never really felt the full affects of that.

This is a personal taste thing but as someone that can’t watch medical dramas on TV because of the blood and the surgeries, I found listening to some of the description in The Memory of Love really hard going. When Kai is in an operating theatre everything is described in vivid detail; what he and the other medical staff are doing, the blood, the bones, the pus, and it honestly made me feel a bit queasy at times. Another thing that’s described in minute detail is Adrian’s diagnosis of various patients and the ins and outs of various mental health issues. This attention to detail made it feel more like a medical journal than a historical fiction book and made the story almost grind to a halt when it was being all educational.

In The Memory of Love two out of three of the main characters are unlikable, and at times infuriating, the story wasn’t engaging and nothing about it was memorable. I was just going through the motions listening to this on audio, just like the characters were and their lives and romances weren’t captivating at all. 1/5.