Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

I am a big Stiefvater fan, having read The Wolves of Mercy Falls series and Books of Faerie (Lament and Ballad – still waiting for that third book, Maggie!) years ago. The Scorpio Races had been on my list for so long, but to be brutally honest I wasn’t sure about the premise. Flesh-eating water horses? A standalone?? No sequels???

How wrong I was. This novel is perfection! Yes, I am gutted that there won’t be a second or third instalment, but the story tied up so neatly at the end that I can’t even complain.

TL;DR Every November flesh-eating water horses crawl out of the sea onto the island of Thisby, and riders race them on the beach to win money. The boy who wins every year wants to buy his horse off the stables he works for. A girl who’s parents were both killed by the horses needs to win enough money to save the house she and her brothers live in. Throw in magic, rituals, an island with its own personality and a supporting cast of vividly drawn characters, and you’ve got The Scorpio Races.

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5 stars

This book has one of the best opening lines in all of literature (according to me):

“It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.”

If that doesn’t suck you into the story and make you want to read it, nothing will. But I’ll go on anyway…

Stiefvater (pronounced steve-otter, the things you learn listening to audiobooks) based the book on the myth of the Capaill Uisce (pronounced ca-pull ish-ka – again, audiobooks), which is a legendary Celtic water horse that lives in the sea and eats human flesh.

At the end of the audiobook, Maggie read her Author’s Notes, and explained some of the inspiration for the story. She got the idea to write about water horses when she was younger, but she was never happy with the story she created or how the myth fit into it. In the end, she realised she could pick and choose which bits of the myth she wanted and which bits to discard. So, her version of the Capaill is different to every other.

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Back to the story, then. The action takes place on an island just off the mainland called Thisby. We’re never told the name of the mainland, but the audiobook is narrated by two Brits, so I like to imagine it’s England, and Thisby is maybe the Isle of Wight? The aesthetics of the island fit for me, and the Isle of Wight is a major sailing mecca, so the idea of Thisby as a big racing community (albeit, on horses instead of yachts) makes sense to me.

The island is almost a character within itself, the residents regularly refer to Thisby as though it is a living thing rather than a piece of land. Especially, when the riders each had to make a blood sacrifice to mark their participation in the races, I felt that the island was more than just the place where the characters lived, it had a power over them.

“Tell me what to wish for. Tell me what to ask the sea for.”
“To be happy. Happiness.”
“I don’t think such a thing is had on Thisby. And if it is, I don’t know how you would keep it.”

One of the major themes in the book is the choice between staying on Thisby and leaving for the mainland – this is the root of one of the main conflicts of the story. For many, the island has a grip on them that they don’t understand, for others, the island is oppressive and they need to get away.

The mystical elements in the book were really interesting – the horses themselves and the magic they seemed to possess, convincing humans to walk into the sea and be dragged under or eaten. The luring power of the sea to both the horses and the men – Sean is constantly referred to as having one foot on the land and one foot in the sea. The festival where the woman in the horse head mask gave Sean a seashell to wish upon. There were lots of references to superstitions, rituals and beliefs held by the people of Thisby.

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My favourite thing about the book, though, was the characters. Sean is a stoic, reserved nineteen-year-old, whose father was a rider before him, and has won the Scorpio Races four times in the last six years. He has a way with the horses, both normal and Capaill Uisce, and his Uisce mount, Corr, is the fastest and most loyal horse on the island. Kate, or Puck as everyone calls her, is a strong-willed, resilient girl, living with her two brothers since the death of both of their parents at the hands of the Capaill Uisce. She decides to take part in the Scorpio Races, despite her brothers’ protests, in order to win enough money to make sure they don’t lose the house they grew up in.

Both Sean and Puck had such strong motivations and reasons for winning that I found it impossible to decide who I was rooting for to win.

I loved the incredibly slow-burning romance between them, it was far more believable than many YA romances, especially with two such independent, stubborn and hard-headed characters. They were a perfect fit!

“I think every now and then about Sean’s thumb pressed against my wrist and daydream about him touching me again. But mostly I think about the way he looks at me – with respect – and I think that’s probably worth more than anything.”

I gave The Scorpio Races 5 stars, it’s my new favourite by Maggie Stiefvater, but I have heard nothing but good things about The Raven Cycle, which is next on my list now!

The one question I have left over is whether the book has any further links to A Midsummer Night’s Dream than the names of Thisby and Puck? I Googled it, but haven’t found a definitive answer. I’m just curious because the names of some of my characters (Auberon, Xander and Baz Demitree) are inspired by the play too (Oberon, Lysander and Demetrius).

If you read and enjoyed any of Stiefvater’s other books and haven’t picked this one up yet, do it now! It’s the best audiobook I have listened to in months, if not ever. The performances were excellent, with Steve West reading for Sean and Fiona Hardingham for Puck.

Have you read The Scorpio Races? Did you love it? Tell me in the comments, I must know! And, how perfect is this image? She reminds me so much of Puck 🙂

Lyndsey

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I am a member of the Book Depository affiliate program, so if you click through and buy any of the books mentioned in this blog I might make a little commission, but I am not paid to review books and all reviews are my own opinions!

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Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Phew! That was a bit of a whirlwind read, I haven’t read a paperback that fast in months, especially when I’m not even on holiday.

I’m a bit late to the party with this one, but if you haven’t read The Girl on the Train yet, here’s my little review. It’s a tense, twisty roller coaster of a book where no one comes out unscathed, and I loved it! I went in knowing relatively little, I wanted to read the book before watching the film, so if you want to avoid knowing too much, don’t read on. I try not to include spoilers, but this is one book where you’re best off starting with absolutely no idea what will happen.

If spoilers don’t scare you, read on!

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4 stars

In a nutshell, Rachel takes the same train into London at 8:04am every morning, and back to Ashbury every evening where she rents a room from an old friend. On the way she passes Witney station, and the house she used to share with her ex-husband before their divorce, two years ago.

The train usually stops at a signal, allowing Rachel to spend a few minutes looking into the back gardens of the houses by the tracks, including her old home. A few doors down, a young, attractive couple are often sitting on their roof terrace or patio drinking coffee, and Rachel likes to imagine who they are and what they might do for work, etc. One day, she sees the wife with another man, and a few days later she sees an article in a newspaper stating that the woman has been reported missing. Feeling like she knows these people after months of watching them from the train window, and knowing that suspicion usually falls on the husband when a woman goes missing, she decides to tell the police and the husband that his wife was having an affair.

The thing is, Rachel is an alcoholic. And she’s been harassing her ex-husband and his new wife for over a year. When Anna, the new Mrs Watson, sees Rachel on the day of the missing woman’s disappearance, she reports it to the police, and as a result Rachel becomes embroiled in the investigation. Suffering from blackouts caused by her heavy drinking, Rachel remembers being outside her old home on that night, she remembers an argument and having blood on her hands, but nothing else.

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I’ll leave it at that for fear of giving too much away, but suffice it to say this was a book filled with twists and turns, an unreliable narrator who can’t remember crucial events, and a supporting cast of very flawed, complex characters, none of which are completely innocent.

I’m giving it four stars because I really enjoyed it, I was gripped and got through it quite quickly, but there were some slightly frustrating parts. It wasn’t a completely satisfying read for this reason. I feel like the climax could have been even more tense and exciting as the whole book built up towards it and I was so ready to find out what really happened by the end.

I really enjoyed the writing style, it’s written almost like diary entries from the points of view of Rachel, Anna (Rachel’s ex’s new wife) and the woman who is missing, herself. We see the day-to-day run up to ‘that night’ and the aftermath from Rachel, with the occasional counter from Anna, and the events that lead up to it over the course of the last year from the missing woman.

I loved seeing the story from all three sides, each woman was completely different – they were all such fully formed and layered characters, each with their own traits and flaws. Hawkins is a brilliant writer, the story is well crafted, and I found the pacing was just slow enough for me to be desperate for more every time I read, but satisfied with what I had discovered so far.

If you like a good thriller, you’ll love The Girl on the Train. Even if you saw the film and weren’t convinced, I’ve heard it’s nowhere as good as the book and that they changed a few things – I’ll have to watch it now to compare!

Go and get the book, and let me know what you think in the comments below.

Lyndsey

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PS. Paula Hawkins has a new book coming out soon, Into the Water, and it sounds just as suspenseful and thrilling as The Girl on the Train!

I am a member of the Book Depository affiliate program, so if you click through and buy any of the books mentioned in this blog I might make a little commission, but I am not paid to review books and all reviews are my own opinions!

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Currently Reading:

Paperback

The Shadow Queen by C.J. Redwine

I just started reading this last night and only managed the prologue so far as I was really tired, but I love a good fairy tale retelling so I’m anticipating enjoying this one. I ran a Twitter poll to see what I should pick up next and this won so there are lots of you out there who loved it!

Audiobook

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

I am so in love with this book! I’ve enjoyed everything by Ms. Stiefvater that I’ve read so far, I’ve got The Raven Boys lined up on Audible next and I know that’s most people’s favourite of her series, so I’m really excited to get stuck in, especially after loving this one. The voice actors who play Puck and Sean are absolutely fantastic, they really bring the characters and the whole world she has created to life. I’ll do a review of this when I’m finished as it’s a standalone and I honestly can’t praise it enough!

Second draft word count: 11,066

(I’m about 1/7th through my second draft and it’s going really well so far, keep your fingers crossed for me! I’m writing a post about second drafts so I’ll be sharing that soon.)

Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

I just finished listening to the audiobook of The Muse by Jessie Burton, and thought I’d do a little (read: long) review. Read on, my friends…

TL;DR it’s an interesting culture clash between a Trinidadian girl in Sixties London and an English girl in Thirties rural Spain. Key themes include art, war, love and death.

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3.5 stars

I bought The Muse in the Audible sale after Christmas. It was 99p and had good reviews on Goodreads, so I thought I’d give it a chance. I’d never read any Jessie Burton previously, but I’d heard a lot of buzz around The Miniaturist and The Muse.

The Muse is a Sunday Times Number One Bestseller, and The Miniaturist is a million-copy selling bestseller too, so I knew I was in good hands.

Split between two POVs and two very different settings, the novel focuses on Odelle, a woman in her mid-twenties from Trinidad who has been living in London for the past five years, working in a shoe shop and sharing a flat with her best friend Cynthia. Cynth is now getting married and moving in with her new husband, leaving Odelle alone.

Odelle dreams of being a writer, so when she is invited for a week’s trial as a typist at the Skelton art gallery she jumps at the chance. There she meets the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, co-director of the gallery and a woman with many secrets. She immediately takes Odelle under her wing, encouraging her writing aspirations and taking her into her confidence.

“I thought I deserved them, the sort of people you found only in novels. Quick.”

Odelle meets a boy at Cynth’s wedding whose mother has recently passed away leaving him a painting. This painting leads us into the second part of the story – Arazuelo, a small rural village in Spain, not far from Malaga, on the cusp of the Spanish Civil War.

Harold Schloss, an Austrian art dealer, Sarah, his beautiful English wife who suffers from depression, and Olive, their artistic and naive daughter, are renting a finca on the outskirts of the village. On their arrival, the mysterious Isaac and Teresa Robles turn up, ostensibly to work at the finca as groundskeeper and maid. Isaac is also an aspiring artist, and an active Republican.

“A Depressive?’
‘Smiles in ballrooms, weeps in bedrooms. Ill in her head.’ Olive tapped her temple. ‘And here.’ She touched her heart.”

Nineteen-year-old Olive has been accepted to a prestigious art school in London, unbeknown to her parents, who don’t seem to recognise her talent or worth.

She instantly falls for the exotic and distant Isaac, using him as inspiration to paint some of her best works (I believe he is the eponymous muse). When Sarah commissions Isaac to paint a portrait of her as a gift for Harold, Olive insists on being in the painting too, jumping at the chance to spend more time with Isaac.

I won’t say any more about the plot, for fear of completely spoiling you! Suffice it to say, the origins of the painting and how the events of 1936 effect the story in 1967 are revealed to devastating effect.

There is a strong theme of foreignness that permeates the whole book – Odelle is constantly seen as foreign by strangers who comment on her ‘good English’ because of her accent and the colour of her skin. Harold, Olive’s father, left Austria because of the First World War, and the Schlosses emigrate to Spain in search of a more peaceful, relaxing way of life as a balm for Sarah’s mental health issues. Having listened to the audiobook on Audible, the various accents and voices used by Cathy Tyson really brought the book to life, possibly emphasising the different languages and cultures, especially when Odelle and Cynthia speak to each other in their distinctive Caribbean patois.

The book also has strong feminist undertones. It’s clear that Olive is expected to marry like her peers back in England, and that being an artist is not considered a suitable life for a girl. In fact, Harold all but says out loud that women are not as talented or creative as men. Olive is defiant, but in a quiet, subtle way. She doesn’t want to leave her family, so she ignores the letter from Slade School of Fine Art, following her passion in secret by painting in her bedroom when everyone is asleep. Her works are considered far superior to Isaac’s, and she is humble and modest, uninterested in money or fame.

“As far as Olive saw it, this connection of masculinity with creativity had been conjured from the air and been enforced, legitimised and monetised by enough people for whom such a state of affairs was convenient … ”

Sarah and Marjorie are both stylish, modern women, wearing trousers and having their own money and careers in a time when women had less freedoms than today. Odelle is a brave, independent woman – moving across the world to England in search of opportunity.

Other themes that are woven through the book include war – Odelle’s father was in the RAF and died in the Second World War, Harold was displaced from Austria by the First World War, and the devastating events of the Spanish Civil War are seen in fine detail in the book. Love vs. infatuation also features, as well as death.

I enjoyed The Muse, it took a while to get into but once the story got going I was intrigued and wanted to keep listening. There was one particular twist towards the end that had me saying ‘Oh my God!’ out loud.

The backdrop of the civil unrest in Spain in the Thirties, with the hindsight of the war to come, gave the sections set in Arazuelo a real sense of urgency and tension. The mystery of how Marjorie Quick ties into the whole story of the painting kept me hooked until the very end.

I’m giving The Muse 3.5 stars, it’s not my usual genre or taste, but I definitely enjoyed it. I wasn’t as fully absorbed as I’d hoped, but the narrative that Burton has created is detailed and layered, and she has clearly researched her settings thoroughly.

I found the ending slightly frustrating. Whilst most of our questions are answered, not all of them are and Burton even has Odelle address these, expressing her own frustration that she couldn’t get to the bottom of it all. I know this is more realistic than getting an explanation for every little thing, but it left me feeling every so slightly unsatisfied.

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Trigger warnings

I’m never quite sure what can act as a trigger so I’ll stick to the main ones, and if anyone can educate me in the comments it would be appreciated!

There are a few instances of suicide in the book, linked to depression and mental health issues, as well as terminal illness. They are briefly mentioned in passing rather than described in detail. There is also a lengthy scene of torture, more mental than physical, which is quite harrowing.

Take care, readers!

Have you read The Muse? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

Have you read The Miniaturist? Would you recommend it?

Lyndsey

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I am a member of the Book Depository affiliate program, so if you click through and buy any of the books mentioned in this blog I might make a little commission, but I am not paid to review books and all reviews are my own opinions!

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