Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

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The Half Life of Valery K

Natasha Pulley’s latest novel, a historical fiction thriller that is based on real historical events, is set to publish on June 23rd, 2022.

It’s 1963 in the Soviet Union, Valery wakes up in his prison camp bunk in Siberia. A KGB van drives up to the camp and Valery is transported to a secret research facility.

The facility, known as the Lighthouse within City 40, is in the middle of an irradiation zone – think Chernobyl and it’s surrounding areas. Valery notices the dying flora along the road towards City 40 and is pretty certain he’s supposed to become a human guinea pig for irradiation tests. Fortunately for him, he’s actually supposed to follow up on his biology/biochemistry work in the field.

To cut a long synopsis short, Valery meets his former mentor Dr Resovkaya at the Lighthouse, as well as KGB man Shenkov, who might shoot Valery at the slightest misstep. Yet, instead of just intimidating Valery, Shenkov seems to care for him and even starts helping him uncover a conspiracy about the facility that has been blatantly obvious to Valery from his first moment in the restricted zone. And just like a Matryoshka doll, there is another conspiracy hidden beneath the first, and maybe one more underneath that one. It’s soon clear that Shenkov and Valery are destined to find each other, but, in typical Pulley fashion, there is at least one woman blocking the way to their happily ever after. Here it’s two, Shenkov’s wife Anna and Valery’s mentor Elena Resovkaya.


For the first time, since we started this blog, I’m at a loss for words. I was looking forward to reading this book and hence very happy when I was approved for an ARC. Now that I have finished, I just don’t know how to review and rate the book.

Well, I should preface this review with some information. I really like Pulley’s style of writing, her books manage to draw me in every time, despite knowing that there’s certainly going to be at least one female character that is supposed to be the bad guy (or better gal) who is sabotaging the M/M romance. Further, I have lived behind the Iron Curtain and, although that doesn’t make me an expert in Soviet culture, I wish this book had had at least one sensitivity reader, because the anachronisms and cultural/language missteps were jarring and jarringly obvious to me. Last but not least, the book was listed under Sci-Fi, which is probably for its science content.

Here are just a few very basic things which make rating this book so very hard for me:

  • The anachronisms and cultural/language missteps that might have been bread crumbs for the big Sci-Fi plot twist weren’t bread crumbs at all. They were annoying and took me out of the story every time they happened. Some examples:
    • people were boiling water for tea or coffee in their offices in electric kettles – not 100% certain, but 95% sure people didn’t use electric kettles and especially not in their offices
    • kitchen roll was mentioned – definitely not in general use
    • TV remote controls – I’m still laughing about this one
    • people driving to work in their private cars – public transport to work; if a family owned a car, they’d most likely use it for long distance travel
    • expressions like “oi, mate”, “btw”; referencing James Bond
  • Valery is a bit of a sociopath. He’s supposedly unable to read social cues, yet he manages to manipulate the people around him using social cues. He suffers from PTSD and is constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, but plunges ever deeper into the danger zone. Well, like any good anti-hero would do.
  • Shenkov is this tough KGB guy, who shoots people (off page) for remarking that the Kremlin might be lying to the people at the Lighthouse and City 40. Yet he’s a softy at heart who, strangely, never shows any remorse at having to kill. He’s obviously just following orders. He also loves his four children dearly and would turn heaven and earth to protect them.
  • Anna, Shenkov’s wife, is a brilliant physicist who agreed to have children with Shenkov only when he takes care of them. She would probably leave her children and husband behind without a second thought should the opportunity arise.

!!!Big Spoiler to the Ending ahead!!!

To punish Valery, Resovkaya manages to nap Shekov for her radiation poisoning trials. Valery must rescue him from being used as a human lab rat. Together with Anna, who has just told Valery that she has terminal cancer and is going to divorce her husband, they come up with a plan to use radiation poisoning to free Shenkov and a bunch of other people from Resovkaya’s top secret radiation poisoning lab within the top secret lab facility. Lo and behold, Shenkov and Valery make it out of City 40, but terminally ill Anna and her four children, one of which is dying of leukaemia, stay behind. Valery and Shenkov then get a new life under witness protection in the UK where they live happily ever after.

What.The.Actual.F?

Shenkov, who would die for his family, leaves them and never looks back? Never wonders whether they got out of City 40? Doesn’t turn heaven and earth to get them to join him? Anna suddenly likes taking care of her children so much that she wants to spend her final days with them, and is certain she can protect them from whatever trouble will come her way after the stunt they just pulled? Valery is just fine with … all of it?

See, at a loss for words.

2.5/5 Harpy Eagles

Bloodlines – take two

In my post about the first book in the “Take Them To The Stars” series by Sylvain Neuvel, I mentioned that bloodlines are important; they still are in book two of the series Until the Last of Me, published 29 March 2022.

The first book started in the 1940s, with Mia, the one hundredth incarnation, extricating Wernher von Braun from Nazi Germany. The second book starts in 1968, Mia is a middle-aged woman and has to flee from the Tracker with her young daughter Lola. Their flight takes them to the US, where they try to live an inconspicuous life, which is not very easy especially once Lola turns into a teenager.

Without giving away too much of the content of the book, it follows the two women and the family of the Tracker with flashbacks to earlier incarnations of the two bloodlines. There is also a quest when a former friend of Mia’s mother sends them pictures of a bow, which belonged to one of their fore-mothers and has a message carved into its sides.

The story takes us from the Moon Landing, the Space Race, the Voyager probes, to the Spaceshuttle, but also to Victorian London, ancient Egypt, as well as Iron Curtain Russia and China.

Neuvel left the story at a mild cliffhanger. This means, that although part of the plot has been wrapped up, there are, of course, some things unresolved. I’m wondering where he’s taking us next, apart from To The Stars.

3.5/5 Harpy Eagles (that makes it 4/5 stars on Goodreads)

Quick reviews – March ’22

A.J. Hackwith’s The God of Lost Words, first published 02 November 2021.

This is the last book in the Hell's Library trilogy. Even days after finishing it, and I savoured it slowly, I am still what the title says: lost for words that is, not a God/dess; just in case you were wondering. It's the perfect ending to the trilogy. Claire, Hero, Brevity, and Rami are trying to save the Library from falling into the clutches of Hell's demons. The dream team have to  outsmart Malphas by showing a united force to be able to save the Library of the Unwritten, or face obliteration. 
Hackwith poured her love for her characters and books into this story. She wrapped up this truly unique trilogy nicely, giving it a fitting ending. 

5/5 Harpy Eagles

The Drowned City & Traitor in the Ice by K.J. Maitland, published 01 April 2021, 31 March 2022 respectively.

It's 1606. James VI/I sits on the British throne. Daniel Pursglove sits in his majesty's prison suspected of performing witchcraft. 
On the anniversary of the foiled Gunpowder Plot a huge tidal wave destroys large parts of Bristol. Enter Charles FitzAlan, close adviser to the king, who offers Daniel a chance to win his freedom. Daniel is to go to Bristol to find one of the members of the Gunpowder Plot who managed to escape arrest and is now recruiting Jesuits. 

Unfortunately, the pace of the book is rather slow, and the verbose descriptions -although creating a wonderful atmosphere- slog down the story further. 
Just one year later, 1607, and paranoid Kind James sends Daniel to infiltrate a Catholic household that is said to be full of supporters of the pope; among them the traitor Daniel already pursuit in the first book. Soon the bodies start piling up and Daniel is determined to uncover the killer, in a house where no one is who they pretend to be. 

The second book in this series couldn't hold my attention to the end. I kept skimming pages, because of the slow pace. The writing is good, but too descriptive for my taste. 

2/5 Harpy Eagles for either novel

Quick Reviews – January/February 2022

Near the Bone by Christina Henry

Well, this was a page turner, although or despite not being as bone chilling as I had expected.
Mattie lives in the woods, with her husband William. When checking the rabbit snares she finds strange bear-like tracks. There's a beast hiding on the mountain. 
William is much older than Mattie, very brutal and the reader soon understands that something is not right here. 
Mattie remembers impossible bits from her past. Three college students are in the woods tracking the creature. William bought bear traps and grenades to kill the beast. 
Any idea how this will end? 
The sinister part reminded me of Neville's The Ritual. I was rooting for Mattie, but there were moments when I despised her for being such a wuss, nevertheless I kept turning the pages because I wanted to know whether my prediction of the outcome was right. 

3/5 Harpy Eagles


Pandora by Susan Stokes-Chapman

Review based on an ARC provided by the publishers.

Pandora "Dora" Blake's parents were killed in an accident twelve years ago. Her uncle took charge of Dora and of the antiquarian shop Dora's parents built and has nearly run it to the ground. Dora knows her uncle is hiding something and eventually finds Greek antiquities in the cellar. She enlists the help of Edward Lawrence, a book binder and antiquarian scholar, to find out whether the items are genuine. Soon they discover that the large vase Dora found has more in store than helping Edward to achieve an academic future and Dora to restore her parents' shop to its former glory.

Pandora is a historical novel set in Georgian time. It's a mystery novel as much as a historical novel. The writing is good. The descriptions of London and the characters are vivid. The three POV give each of the three characters their own voice.

At times, though, the use of anachronistic words took me out of the story, but that might have been rectified before publishing.

3,5/5 Harpy Eagles


Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge, translated by Jeremy Tiang

In Yo'ang humans and "strange beasts", human-like mythical creatures, live together. Each of the nine interconnecting chapters of the book is dedicated to a different species of "strange beasts". The nameless narrator tells us about the origins, appearances and habits of the different beasts. It was interesting, but the repetitive nature of the stories soon got boring. 
It's surrealism, or magical realism. 

3/5 Harpy Eagles


Fortune Favours the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

It's the late 1940s. Willowjean Parker ran away with the circus years ago. In New York she comes across the famous detective Lilian Pentecost, who hires her as an assistant. 
Fast forward to three years later, Mrs P and Parker are hired to solve a locked room mystery. The widow of a rich industrial magnate was killed after a seance at the family's Halloween party.
The murder could be anyone from the husband's business partner, to the children, the medium present at the seance, to the ghosts of the past. 
I liked how Pentecost and Parker faced the usual trials and prejudices of women in that time. It was done well, I never had the impression that the women behaved anachronistically. Pentecost further has to deal with a chronic illness that makes her job very hard at times; from personal experience, I can say that the author depicted Mrs P's problems very accurately. 

4/5 Harpy Eagles

Quick Reviews – January ’22

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (GER edition) by Laini Taylor, 2011.

The first book of a YA fantasy romance trilogy featuring angels and demons and a blue haired girl with lots of tattoos. The human girl Karou grew up among chimera. She's an arts student in Prague, but she's also dealing in teeth for her 'adoptive' father, the chimera Brimstone. 
When, on one of her errands for Brimstone, an angel attacks her, and subsequently all the doors to Brimstone's workshop are magically burnt shut, Karou has to face the angel Akiva to find answers about her life and a way back to the shop. 
I've read Karou's and Akiva's story several times. This time I read it in German with my daughter. 
The story is still as good, the translation leaves room for improvement though. 

5/5 Harpy Eagles – because we enjoyed the mistranslations very much


The Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons by Kate Khavari, expected publication 7 June 2022. (ARC provided by the publishers through NetGalley)

A murder mystery set in London in the 1930s with a strong female heroine. 
Saffron Everleigh is working on her PhD in botany. As a woman in academia, in the 1930s, she has to fight a lot of uphill battles already. When the wife of one of the professors of the department is poisoned at a party, Saffron is determined to proof the innocence of her mentor. 
There are some really villainous villains and a lot of very dumb detectives; and there's chemistry between Saffron and her sidekick. 
Brimming with botanical information that isn't at all dull, and, most importantly for me, not too obvious plot twists.

5/5 Harpy Eagles


Evershore. A Skyward Flight novella by Brandon Sanderson and Janci Patterson, published 28 December 2021.

This is Jorgen's story and it's taking place at the same time as the third Skyward Flight novel Cytonic. 
Jorgen is trying to master his cytonic abilities. He's training with the alien Alanik. This is how they pick up a transmission from Evershore, the Kitsen home planet. Jorgen and part of Skyward flight travel to Evershore, where they meet Kitsen, see clouds, the sea and beaches for the first time; and find out - among a lot of other things - that sand truly gets everywhere. 

4/5 Harpy Eagles


Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows by James Lovegrove, published 2017.

Lovegrove knows how to spin a yarn, just as well as Dr Watson. 
Three manuscripts, by Dr Watson, were found. Those manuscripts are the true accounts of what Holmes and Watson faced. 
In 1880, logical Sherlock Holmes comes up against the occult for the first time. Lovecraft's Elder gods are roaming Victorian London. Can Sherlock Holmes' rational reasoning handle the inexplicable? Magic? 

Has this been done before? Sure. 
Did it entertain me? Couldn't put it down. 

4/5 Harpy Eagles


Cackle by Rachel Harrison, published 5 October 2021.

Annie, after being dumped by her BF of ten years, moves from Manhattan to a small town in a rural area. The quaint town offers her a new start. Alas, Annie is a doormat and hence gravitates towards the self-confident and charismatic Sophie, who surprisingly wants to be Annie's friend. She wants Annie to recognise her true self. Annie wants her ex back, wants a man in her life, wants to drink her body's volume in alcohol. Honestly, this woman drinks a lot.
Tension? Horror? Not really. 
Female empowerment? If that means you should be obnoxious and rude, then no. 
Best character, even though he was more like a children's book character, the pet-spider Ralph. 

1/5 Harpy Eagles

Quick Reviews – September ’21

Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis, published 21 July 2020.

I had been interested in this book since before it's publication; it has aliens and linguistics. Alas, I could not get over the redundant writing and gave up soon after the aliens were introduced, or when part 2 of the book started. The story might be intriguing, but the novel could have done with a lot more editing. Especially since it is written from the POV of a former linguistics major, who should know how to write concise sentences. 

2/5 Harpy Eagles

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Barker, published 6 October 2020.

The name Deborah Barker is the pseudonym of Seanan McGuire, author of the Wayward Children series; or rather this retelling of The Wizard of Oz is a book within a book. It's been referred to in Middlegame several times. The story is supposed to be targeted at middle-grade students, yet I thought that there was a lot of between the lines commentary directed at more mature readers. The sequel Across the Saltwise Sea is on my review copy TBR. 

3/5 Harpy Eagles

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, published 4 May 2021.

Shortlisted for the Booker Price 2021. This book has two story-lines, one follows Marian Graves, who wants to be a pilot and circumnavigate the Earth from pole to pole. The other story-line follows the actress Hadley Baxter, who's playing Marian in the film based on the latter's logbook found in the Antarctic ice years after her plane was lost on its last leg of the journey. 
I truly enjoyed the Marian part of the story, and although it was interesting to read about Hadley's story, this Hollywood-starlet story-line never really gripped my attention. The last 100 pages of the book, mostly focusing on Marian's circumnavigation, were the best part of the story. 

4/5 Harpy Eagles

Phosphate Rocks. A Death in Ten Objects by Fiona Erskine, published 17 June 2021.

"The demolition crew found the body."

This is how Erskine's novel starts. A body was found in the ruins of what used to be the fertiliser plant in Leith. A body that was encased in phosphate rocks. Ten items are arranged on the desk in front of the body. And those ten items eventually help the former foreman John Gibson and the police to narrow down the time of death and the identity of the person. 

I really enjoyed this mystery. It was full of lighthearted "nerdy-ness": some of the chemicals used in the process of making fertilisers are explained in an entertaining and not too scientific way. Erskine further has first hand experience having worked at the fertiliser plant herself, which gave her lots of material for the story's characters and their anecdotes.

4/5 Harpy Eagles

Two Rivers series by Ann Cleeves.

At last a series of whodunits/mysteries that I couldn't solve right at the start of the books. I really enjoyed the first book of this new series by bestseller author Cleeves. The Long Call (2019) introduces the investigative team surrounding inspector Venn. He and his husband live in North Devon in a small community. When a body washes up on the shore, Venn's investigation brings back memories of his past in an evangelical community. 

Book two, The Heron's Cry (2021), is set only months after the first book. We get to see character development of the investigative team, as well as some secondary characters of the first book make an appearance. A clever mystery that even I had not fully unveiled before the big reveal. 

4/5 Harpy Eagles, for each

Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell, published 02 February 2021.

This book is hard to review. I want to say it's a Sci-Fi book with an arranged M/M marriage romance on the side, but it's the other way round. This is a romance novel about a M/M arranged marriage set in a Sci-Fi world. In order to uphold the treaty between the Iskat Empire and its vassal planet Thea, the two MCs, Jinan and Kiem, have to get married right after Jinan's period of mourning his late husband is over.
  
Rake Kiem has to be reformed. Uptight Jinan has to loosen up. They both have misgivings about the marriage at the beginning. When they find out about a plan to overthrow the treaty, they have to work together. Which leads to them getting to know each other much better and trusting each other. Cue traps, damsels -well, spouses- in distress, and a happily ever after. 

3/5 Harpy Eagles

A Long Petal of the Sea

A Long Petal of the Sea was my first Isabel Allende book, although I’ve had her on my radar for quite some time. That’s to say there are at least three other books either waiting on my shelf or my e-reader which I haven’t gotten to yet. My interest was renewed after watching her TED talk Tales of passion. So when I was recently stranded without a book and hours to kill, I did the only sensible thing. I went straight to a bookstore and bought an emergency book – this one.

This family saga covers decades and two continents, as we follow the main characters Victor and Roser. Their story starts during the Spanish Civil War, during which Victor works as a doctor and Roser waits for the return of Victor’s brother Guillem to return from the war in time for the birth of their child. Instead of being happily reunited, Victor and Roser have to flee the country after Franco overthrows the government. After learning of Guillem’s death, they marry to use to opportunity to embark on a sea voyage organized by Pablo Neruda (yes, the poet) to start a new life in Chile. They are unlikely partners, but throughout the book we see them connect and grow into an impressively strong unit.

My prior knowledge about Spanish history really lacked, so it was very interesting to learn about that time period in this well-researched piece of historical fiction. I was really surprised that Pablo Neruda played such a huge part in that time, and found it very fitting to start each chapter with a short quote by him. The book title is also taken from one of his poems about Chile. My only issue with the writing was that it sometimes read too much like a report – but I guess that is hard to avoid when you want to cover such a large amount of time with multiple character lines. Although these characters offered a very obvious chance for a fated lovers trope, Allende didn’t take that path and I’m really grateful for that.

4/5 Magpies

Bloodlines

Fantasy is full of bloodlines; the (hidden) heir to the throne, magic running in the family, the chosen one, and so on. But how might a bloodline based Sci-Fi novel look like?

The plot of A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel, published 02 February 2021, is based on two feuding bloodlines. We have women who pass their historical, scientific and personal knowledge down through the generations; and seem to be identical replicas of each other. And there’s a group of men who’s been trying to track them down and kill them over the centuries.

The story starts during the 1940s, with Mia being sent to Nazi Germany to help extract Wernher von Braun before the Russians get to him. Mia is the hundredth generation of identical women who have shaped the history of humankind in order to “take them to the stars” and it’s her duty to get the space race going no matter the costs.

The women have left a lot of carnage behind them during the thousands of years they have tempered with human history. They have shed their own blood and that of innocent people, all in the name of a set of certain rules that will allow them to protect their aforementioned knowledge and use it to help humans to get into space.

Their enemy, ‘the tracker’ is not just one person, it’s a group of a father with his four sons. They have been trying to find these mother-daughter duos for ages, literally tracking them since they first appeared on Earth, and likewise leaving dead bodies in their wake.

Yet, are those two factions enemies, or was a huge part of the knowledge lost in the early days of the one hundred generations of women? When the enemies do collide, it seems that the male side knows more about their origins and alludes to a first contact story-line that will hopefully be picked up in the sequel.

I liked the idea of the story, but it reminded me a lot of the film Hancock, just that we don’t have immortal beings here, but immortality is gained by practically reproducing identical replicas with each new generation. Georg Mendel, him of sweet pea fame, would love this; he’s mentioned in the book.

3/5 Harpy Eagles

Robespierre might have been a magician?

Or, what if the French Revolution wasn’t just fueled by monetary inequality (I’m over-simplifying it), but also by the inequality of use of magical power?

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians by H.G. Parry, publishing day 23 June 2020.

In this alternate history set in the late 18th century, spanning the abolitionist movement and French Revolution, magic is hereditary, but only aristocrats are allowed to use it; unless it’s necromancy or stems from vampirism. Dark magic is forbidden and the Knights Templar police the use of magic rigorously.

At more than 500 pages, this novel is on the thicker side. What makes it hard to read are endless pages of dialogues or debates with no action. There was hardly any female character other than the family members of the protagonists, well-known figures of that time like Robespierre, Pitt, Wilberfur. Furthermore I felt that although the story starts with the kidnapping of a young African girl by slave traders, her story wasn’t very well represented – at least not until I DNF’d at about 50%.

The reading experience reminded me of Clarke’s Strange & Norrell [DNF’d], and history lectures at uni [finished that degree]. In other words, I found it interesting, but boring.

2/5 Harpies – purely for research into the historical facts well-done

News from the Belvedere

Or, the sixth book about the sleuthing adventures of Veronica Speedwell and Revelstoke Templeton-Vane. At the beginning of An Unexpected Peril by Deanna Raybourn, published 02 March 2021, Veronica and Stoker are helping setting up an exhibition in honour of a female mountaineer who died in an accident climbing the legendary ‘Teufelstreppe’ [fictitious mountain in a fictitious Alpine country].

As can be expected, they find evidence for the mountaineer’s death having been murder. Trying to investigate this, at Stoker’s loud refusal, leads the two of them down a very interesting path indeed; Veronica has to impersonate a head of state, while Stoker has to try and keep her alive as death threats arrive.

If you’ve read the previous five books, you know what happened at the end of book five, A Murderous Relation. If you further think that those events, which I am not going to spoil here, might influence the dynamic between the duo, you are wrong. The two of them still banter, the air between them still crackles, and it’s still great fun to read.

Okay, I’m going to say it, I love Veronica and Stoker. But I didn’t love this story as much as the ones before. For the main part, the twists were very predictable. When the previous books mentioned to surprise me here and there and I couldn’t put them away until I had read the story, this instalment I kept putting away for other books.

Anyway, the last lines hint at another story for Veronica and Stoker, and I will gladly come back to Victorian London to investigate whatever Deanna Raybourn has thought up for them.

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