Thursday, 6 November 2014

Book Review: Grimm Memories by Janna Jennings



Last year I reviewed A Grimm Legacy and said at the time I expected a sequel. Well here it is, set six months after the end of the first book and sees the four teenagers, Andi, Dylan, Quinn and Frederick return to the land of Elorium, home to the characters brought to life in Grimm's Fairy Tales.
As in the previous book the four youngsters are all well written characters, the girls, Andi and Quinn more than hold their own physically, are bright and brave yet still argumentative, rash and proud, Jennings allows them to make mistakes. Likewise the boys, Dylan and Frederick are by turn brave, resilient, funny and awkward. In short they are believable. Elorium too is a believable place. I'm a sucker for fantasy land - call it Narnia Syndrome - and Elorium is right up my street, it is the sort of place you wish existed despite the dangers than may lurk there.
And dangers do indeed lurk in Elorium, the nightmares Andi and Dylan have been experiencing that cause them to return to the land they just managed to escape from are quite harrowing and the eventual reason they experience them even more so. Grimm Memories is certainly a dark read at times, however, this well crafted story still retains a sense of humour and fun, it's still a book that middle grade as well as young adults will enjoy. My one criticism of the previous book was I felt the antagonist wasn't fully explored, he again doesn't make an appearance until quite late in this book but this time it works. We learn more about his past and his motives, he feels far more rounded and so a more interesting character.
 I enjoyed A Grimm Legacy but I enjoyed Grimm Memories more, the plot feels fresher and more original. There is actually less here from the original tales than in the first book but the little touches work well. I'm not sure if there will be another book in the series, the ending could be final but I believe there are still enough loose endings to mean a further return to Elorium. I'll certainly be reading it if there is.
Thanks to the author for my arc of Grimm Memories in return for my honest review.

Grimm Memories is published by Patchwork Press and is available through Amazon for Kindle in the UK.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Book Review: Exigency by Michael Siemsen




I have read two previous books by Michael Siemsen, A Warm Place to Call Home and The Many Lives of Samuel Beauchamp, both part of his (a demon's story) trilogy and have recommended them several times, they are both fantastic reads. I've been eagerly awaiting the third book in the series but while I have to carry on looking forward to that one, I was immediately tempted by this new book but also intrigued - the previous books are both urban fantasies, despite the presence of demons they are set in our world, with its familiar surroundings. Exigency however, is a science fiction, set mostly on an alien planet in the future. Would I enjoy this different style as much?
 The book opens with the crew on board a space station orbiting an Earth like planet. They are on a no return mission from Earth -  they embarked on the mission knowing they would never go home and after travelling nineteen years to reach their destination are now in their eighth year of orbit. This immediately creates an interesting dynamic  between the characters, they are colleagues but living under such conditions and away from the rest of the world, for the rest of their lives, means they have also become like a family. Naturally there are conflicts to be resolved and relationships are formed. The principal character, Minnie is in a relatively new relationship with Aether but this is awkward as Aether was previously the wife of mission commander, John. As the story progresses it is the changing relationship between these three characters that forms a large and important part of the story. The rest of the crew however, are still well-rounded and interesting in their own right, I felt this was a novel that could have worked equally well as a different story had it concentrated more on the secondary characters.
Exigency is, as I said, science-fiction and so naturally there is the advanced technology you'd expect on board a spacecraft of the future and it's done very well. The tech is beyond what we have currently yet still completely believable. I particularly liked the references to what people on Earth are doing with the technology, it isn't just available to those in space, mankind as a whole are using and benefiting from it. The story at this point was involving enough that I'd have been happy if it was solely based on the craft. However, a sudden catastrophe means the crew are forced to evacuate to the planet they have been studying. This planet, Epsilon C is divided into two hemispheres, one inhabited by the more advanced Threck, the other by the savage and primitive Hynka.
What follows is an exciting and tense tale of adaptation and survival. Both the humans and aliens are multidimensional characters who make surprising, often seemingly irrational decisions and as the reader I found my emotions were pulled one way, then another. The planet too is a completely believable yet still strange, different and often dangerous world.
I'm happy then, to say that the answer to my question about whether I'd enjoy this sci-fi novel as much as the previous books by this author is a resounding yes. Exigency is one of the most enjoyable books I've read this year, it's an easy cliché but I genuinely couldn't put it down. It treads a difficult line between creating a world that is alien both in term of its inhabitants and the technology available and one that is still believable and relatable, and it does so with great skill. I cared about the characters, loved the twists and can easily imagine further stories set in this compelling world. I will certainly be reading more by Michael Siemsen very soon.

Exigency is published by Fantome Publishing.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Book Review: Dodger by James Benmore




Dodger is one of those books I've been meaning for a while. When I still lived with my parents we had a Jack Russell called Dodger so it was almost fate! I have to admit however,  I'm not generally a huge fan of Dickens' books but I do make an exception for Oliver Twist and when somebody strongly recommended me James Benmore's book I immediately added it to my to be read list.
From the first few pages I was hooked. As in Dickens' novel The Artful Dodger is arrested and transported to Australia, unaware of the fates of Fagin, Bill and Nancy. This part of his life is skipped over here and we meet Dodger again on his return to England five years later when he is accompanied by an Aboriginal man called Warrigal, ostensibly his servant, having apparently made his fortune exporting wool. It swiftly becomes clear however, that Jack Dawkins hasn't  gone straight. He is actually in search of the Jakkapoor Stone, a valuable jewel with an dark history. What follows is a thrillingly exuberant adventure story, occasionally poignant and with clever twists and turns, featuring a cast of vibrant characters who would fit into any Dickens novel. We learn more about Dodger's childhood, with Fagin, here a more sympathetic character (drawn as he is from Dodger's memories), meet some of Fagin's other kinchins again, now grown up, and are even treated to a brief mention of Great Expectations' Abel Magwitch. Naturally though it's Dodger himself who is the star of proceedings and his character leaps off the page. He's an anti-hero really, unlike many of Dickens' characters who find retribution, Dodger feels no remorse for his crimes. Quite the opposite in fact, he's proud of his prowess as a pickpocket and as our narrator frequently boasts of his skills. Nevertheless we still cheer him on, willing him to succeed in his quest and to avoid a dreadful fate at the hands of the villain of the piece. He is open (except when it suits him) about who he is, an honest thief then who takes pride in his work but does so without malice. He steals because he wants something but he isn't bitter that the rich have more. The life that Oliver Twist eventually found would never suit The Artful Dodger.
It would be remiss of me to fail to mention here Dodger's beloved London, almost a character it's own right. This is Dickens' dirty and seedy London evocatively brought back to life. It's perhaps not as dark as Dickens' city because it's being described to us by Dodger, a man in love with his London who sees its flaws as part of its charm.
Dodger is one of those genuine couldn't put down books, the sort I walked around reading with the book in front of my face. It's actually been a few weeks since I read it but I've thought of it often. Luckily for me there is already a sequel, Dodger of the Dials and there is to be a third book, Dodger of the Revolution so I can look forward to more. If you are a fan of Charles Dickens read this book, if your main reference point for Dodger is Jack Wild singing Consider Yourself in Oliver! read this book, if you're not a fan of Dickens or musicals but enjoy well written and well plotted stories then read this book.

Dodger is published in the UK by Heron Books.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Book Review: The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix by Paul Sussman




I was lucky enough to win The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix when Doubleday were hosts of #bookadayuk on Twitter. As soon as it arrived, with its gorgeous cover illustration by Lynn Hatzius I decided the people at Doubleday are either genius or psychic because it's exactly the sort of book I'm drawn to!
On the face of it Raphael isn't a sympathetic character, he is after all a serial killer and an unrepentant one at that. Yet this darkly humorous novel had me cheering for our unlikely anti-hero. It's wholly unbelievable of course, this man who spent years living on the streets who also spent time as a Hollywood star and was at various times a prisoner of war,  a butler and and member of a successful rock band, The Executioners when in his sixties, with the whole sex, drugs and rock n roll lifestyle that came with it. However, rather like The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared it's the sort of book that delights in its sheer incredulous nonsense. The story is told by the elderly Raphael who has a suicide pill ready to end his life on his hundredth birthday (Raphael Ignatius Phoenix - RIP) but has decided to document his extraordinary life before the time arrives for him to end it. He decides to write his memoir on the walls of the castle he now lives in, describing his murders and the events leading to them in reverse chronological order. This in itself creates moments of drama and humour, will his ageing body be up to the task? Will he be able to write his words on the damp and musty castle walls? And has he bought enough pens?
It's not the done thing of course to sympathise with a murderer and yet as each story unfolds it's Raphael who the reader is cheering for. He is often a man driven to the brink of exasperation by others and finally flips. His methods of dispatching his victims are as unique as the man himself and shouldn't be given away here. You'll need to read the book to see why cream cakes, pumpkins, teddy bears and alligators are involved.
It's probably not a book to everybody's tastes but it's one of the most memorable books I've read this year with a surprisingly touching ending and I loved it. I was saddened to read that the author, Paul Sussman died suddenly in 2012 without ever seeing its publication, having consigned it to a drawer while he wrote other books. His wife thankfully managed to have it published posthumously and it's a fitting legacy, an absolute treat to read.

The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix by Paul Sussman is published in the UK by Transworld.

Book Review: Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín



There are some books that rack up the tension and have you on the edge of your seat as you are compelled to keep turning the pages to find out what happens.
Nora Webster is not that sort of book. However, as much as I love the former there is also a place in the book world for the quieter, more observational stories. This latest book by Colm Tóibín falls into the category. It follows the eponymous Nora, a young widow in Enniscorthy, County Wexford in Ireland as she adjusts to her life without her husband and with two young sons and two elder daughters. As I said previously this isn't a book of high tension, Nora deciding whether to buy a record player or join a union is about as exciting as it gets. Yet it's still a compelling read, a beautifully observed character study of a woman dealing with the obvious loneliness, fear and grief while having to cope with more practical matters too, financial insecurity, her children's problems, the watchful eyes of her family and the local town. Nora is a flawed character, strong yet stubborn, ready to stand up for her children yet frequently, lost as she is in her own grief, blind to their needs. She is often stifled by the town she lives in, where everybody knows everybody else's histories but nevertheless still often reliant on this close community albeit at times begrudgingly. The story covers a few years as gradually Nora comes to terms with her loss and makes peace with her past, finding solace in music and singing. Set against a backdrop of an Ireland going through political upheaval, the scandal of Charles Haughey being implicated in the Arms Crisis while in Northern Ireland, Bloody Sunday politicises people both sides of the border, Nora Webster is a deeply evocative, insightful and honest novel which proves you don't always need high drama to create a memorable and touching read.
My thanks to the author and publishers for my copy received through NetGalley in return for my honest review.

Nora Webster is published in the UK by Penguin.

Book Review - Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon by Linda Newbery



This is a difficult review to write, not because I didn't enjoy it, quite the opposite in fact, but it's a story that's teeming with secrets and I'm mindful to give nothing away.
The basic premise is that Anna's then teenage sister, Rose disappeared twenty years ago. No body was every found and the family have no idea whether she chose to leave or was taken and whether she is still alive. Twenty years of not knowing takes its toll on the family, Anna struggles to commit to her relationship with Martin, even forming a friendship with his ex-wife Ruth. Meanwhile her parents, Sandy and Don finally decide to sell their family home with all its memories but with so much unsaid between them can they go through with it?
The story cleverly switches between the present, the past before Rose's disappearance and even further back to when Sandy was a teenager. Gradually secrets are laid bare as the readers and the family learn of the decisions made by them and by others that eventually affected them all.
Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon is a compelling, often achingly sad novel. It's a well structured family drama with unexpected twists and believable, sympathetic characters. This is Linda Newbery's first adult novel, I very much hope to read further books from her in the future, in the mean time I recommend you read this one.
My thanks to the author and publishers for my copy received through NetGalley in return for my honest review.

Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon is published in the UK by Doubleday.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton




Set in 1682, The Miniaturist tells the story of Petronella (Nella) Oortman, an 18 year old from the country who after a hastily organised arranged marriage moves to her new husband, Johannes' imposing home in Amsterdam. She quickly discovers it's not just the house that is imposing, Johannes' unmarried sister, Marin is a cold and formidable presence. Meanwhile Johannes himself is barely present and Nella is thrust into a life of little purpose - despite her marriage, it is Marin who is undoubtedly woman of the house - and wedded to a virtual stranger. When Johannes brings home a wedding present for Nella, a cabinet sized replica of their house, she finds a miniaturist who makes perfectly scaled down models and vows to become mistress of this house if she can't be mistress of her actual home.
Things take a strange and potentially chilling turn though when she begins to receive gifts from the miniaturist that reflect or even foretell actual events within the household. And this is a household teeming with secrets and lies. In an Amsterdam where society's morals are controlled by an unforgiving church, these secrets threaten to tear all their lives apart.
This is a beautifully written, vivid and absorbing book with a plot that captures perfectly the attitudes and politics of the time, particularly the oppressive lives women were forced to endure. If I have one small complaint it's that I felt I would have liked to have learned more about the miniaturist. In some ways and hopefully without giving too much away I was left feeling there was more to come and I wondered if there will ever be a sequel that uncovers more secrets about the mysterious miniaturist. That's probably just wishful thinking on my part however, and shouldn't take anything away from this assured and compelling debut novel.
Thank you to the author and publishers for my copy received through NetGalley in return for my unbiased review.

The Miniaturist is published in the UK by Picador.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Book Review: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes



Broken Monsters is one of those novels that are impossible to pigeon hole. At first glance it's a police procedural thriller but it quickly becomes apparent there is a supernatural, urban fantasy element to the book and the reader is treated to a story that is dark and creepy but also a thought- provoking look at what makes a monster.
Detective Gabrielle Versado is the single mom homicide detective who believes she has seen it all. When a body is discovered that is half boy, half deer somehow fused together Versado realises this is weird even for Detroit. It's worth mentioning here that the city is a central player in the novel, in Beukes' hands it comes alive, the bankrupt city still vibrant despite its dark and dangerous reputation.
Much of Broken Monsters focuses on Versado's teenage daughter, Layla and it is here that the book really shines. As nail-biting as the hunt for the serial killer is, what particularly stood out for me was the light Beukes shines on the murky darkness of the internet. It's not just the paranormal monsters we should be scared of, there are monsters of a different sort sat behind a computer screen who also have the ability to tear lives apart. The power the internet gives people is perhaps more chilling and unsettling than anything.
Broken Monsters is a multilayered, intelligent thriller that will set your heart racing. It's the sort of compelling page turner that will have you reading long into the night - but then you might need to sleep with your light on!
Thanks to the author and publishers for my copy received through NetGalley in return for my honest review.

Broken Monsters is published in the UK by Harper Collins

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel


Station Eleven opens with a performance of King Lear, cut short by the sudden death by heart attack of its lead actor, Arthur Leander. Within a week most of the people present will also be dead, as well most of the world, all victims of the Georgian flu.
What follows is a stunning and haunting look at how humanity might adapt to a devastating apocalypse. It's a bleak thought but Emily St. John Mandel has written a novel that finds hope where things may have seemed hopeless and  beauty amongst destruction.  The narrative switches between twenty years after the flu and the years leading up to it. Despite Arthur Leander's early death he turns out to be a pivotal character as we follow the lives (amongst others) of his ex-wives, best friend, would be saviour and perhaps most notably Kirsten, the little girl who witnessed his death then years later became a member of The Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who like the travelling minstrels of the past move from settlement to settlement performing to audiences often desperate for something else; as their mantra states, "Survival is insufficient" and for people who have lost everything it is the works of  Shakespeare which provides both a link to the past and a belief in the future.
Indeed the arts features heavily throughout the book, not just Shakespeare but music, literature, the graphic comic books drawn by Miranda, one of Arthur's ex-wives and inspiration for the title, Station Eleven, even the Travelling Symphony's mantra comes from television - it was taken from Star Trek. We are reminded that whilst people are able to adapt and survive, it's through the arts that humans connect and find themselves. That's not to suggest that Mandel's imagined future is a bed of roses, it's far from that. Survival is a struggle, it's dangerous and difficult, both through the loss of technology that we take for granted and because as is always the way there are always some people who want more, and some people who believe - or choose to believe - they have a divine right to take what they desire.
Post-apocalyptic novels can be overblown affairs akin to a Hollywood blockbuster. Station Eleven is not that, it's a thoughtful, quiet look at how ordinary people might adapt, survive and live after everything they hold dear is taken from them. Despite the sombre subject matter it's a book filled with hope and one that will stay with me for a long time. Definitely one of the best books I've read this year.
My thanks to the author and publishers for my copy, received through NetGalley in return for my honest review.

Station Eleven will be published in the UK on 10th September 2014 by Picador

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Sunathon!


It's been a little while since I posted a review, I've still been reading but life seems to have got in the way of review writing. With the summer holidays here I will have to play catch up soon!
In the meantime I recently took part in Sunathon, the brainchild of Emma Louise over at EmmaLouBookBlog The idea was to set aside a week for reading as much as possible and to share the books you read on Twitter, using the hashtag #sunathon.
I didn't manage to read a huge number of books, I went camping with just my youngest from Thursday to Friday and so that curtailed much of my reading time. I did however, read The Last Family in England by Matt Haig, John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix by Paul Sussman.

Reviews for all three will be posted in a while, I loved two but was underwhelmed by the third, I'll leave you to guess which! I've also been reading a few chapters a night of Shadow Forest by Matt Haig to my daughter.
Thank you Emma for suggesting and hosting #sunathon and I'm delighted to see the announcement that there is more to come - count me in!

Monday, 7 July 2014

Book Review: The Shadow's Curse by Amy McCulloch




Last year I was fortunate to win The Oathbreaker's Shadow in a Goodreads giveaway. It's always lovely to win something, especially if that something is a book and even more so if it turns out to be a hugely enjoyable fantasy adventure with strong characters, a compelling mystery and a tempting cliffhanger to end with. The only drawback has been waiting for the sequel!
Thankfully the wait is over and  I could find out what happened to Raim and Wadi in the second book of the duology, The Shadow's Curse. I don't want to give too much away in case readers of this review haven't read the first book yet but things were looking pretty bleak at the end of the first book for oathbreaker Raim and Wadi, a brave and fierce member of the desert living Alashan tribe. This time the narrative is shared between the two characters and so we learn of both their stories firsthand. Raim is desperate to rescue Wadi, the girl he loves but realises that won't be possible while he bears the scars of the ultimate taboo. He needs to discover who the mysterious woman shadow is who has saved his life more than once. Does she have the answer as to why he unknowingly broke an oath when he made a promise to protect Khareh, his childhood friend and now despotic Khan? Reluctantly he and his haunt Draikh head to the dangerous south to find out the truth about his oath. Wadi is in Khareh's clutches. Can she discover his weaknesses without putting herself in even more danger? Meanwhile Khareh is raising a Shadow Army and plots against King Song, ruthless leader of the south.
Being the second part of the series questions are answered but there are plenty of twists before any big reveals. As before Raim and Wadi are equally likable, both strong and brave protagonists and the alternate chapters work well. The other characters too, both male and female are well written and complex personalities. The Knots books are the best sort of fantasy, exciting and based on an intriguing premise, in this case that promises made are binding and breaking them, even inadvertently can mean becoming an outcast. More than that though the story considers such themes as fate, duty, ambition and honour. The long wait to read The Shadow's Curse was well worth it, a gripping and fitting sequel to The Oathbreaker's Shadow. I thoroughly recommend both books.
Many thanks to the publishers and author for my free copy received through NetGalley in return for my honest review.

The Shadow's Curse is published in the UK by Random House Children's Books.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Book Review: Parasites Like Us by Adam Johnson




"After trashing his cherry '72 Corvette, illegally breaking into an ancient burial site, and snacking on 12,000-year-old popcorn, Hank Hannah finds that he's inadvertently unleashed the apocalypse. Hank, a professor of anthropology back in the days when there were still co-eds to ogle and now one of only twelve humans still alive on earth, decides to record the last days of human civilization for whomever - or whatever - might replace us."

The description for Parasites Like Us led me to believe that it would be a post apocalyptic novel but actually the vast majority of the book describes the events that gradually lead to disaster. It's a very odd book if I'm honest, I enjoyed the story but not always the writing. Taken as a straightforward tale of how ordinary people inadvertently bring about disaster then it's an enjoyable enough premise. The characters however, aren't the easiest to engage with, Hank veers towards the clichéd, jaded professor with a sometime alcohol problem and the other characters whilst of some interest being quirky, damaged types don't always feel well-rounded and are somewhat stereotypical. Despite this I read on - and was met with some dialogue I really shuddered at. Would a college professor really say, "She carried a sheaf of paper, a wad of tissue, and a bottle of water as she strode before us in a charcoal suit that was all business, except for a V of ultrawhite skin that plunged deep into her num-nums." Perhaps even worse, "Oh, the caprice of history was limitless, and it was my job to tame this bitch."
For a time I considered giving up but as I said before the story itself whilst not absolutely compelling was enough to keep me reading and finally I was rewarded with a few chapters of genuine tension with humanity laid bare as I'd expect in a novel of this sort. If only more of the book could have been the same. Not a classic then but a mostly fun read.
I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for my unbiased review.

Parasites Like Us is published in the UK by Transworld Publishers


Friday, 27 June 2014

Book Review: A Handful of Stardust by Jake Arnott




Yet another Doctor Who Time Trips novella, a series of short stories written by different authors featuring our favourite Time Lord. A Handful of Stardust features many people's least favourite, the Sixth Doctor with Peri, a companion who divided opinion. As a child I loved her but I know many people rank her among the worst companions. It's not then a story that starts from a place of overwhelming nostalgic warmth!
Mostly set in  England in 1572, the Doctor and Peri meet John Dee, "Doctor of divinity and of mathematics. Alchemist, astrologist, navigator, I am, sir, Her Majesty’s most noble intelligencer. And the greatest mind of our time." Dee is rather like the Doctor, a robust character with a thirst for knowledge. He is aided by Thomas Digges who develops quite the crush on Peri. The characters are the strongest part of the story for me, Arnott doesn't quite capture the Sixth Doctor, he has his ebullience but not his crotchetiness but it's a decent enough characterisation of such a polarising figure, Peri doesn't do much of note but the relationship between her as a Twentieth Century Botany student and the Sixteenth Century scientist Digges is a nice little subplot. Happily and without giving too much away there's a properly bad enemy this time. However, the story itself is just a bit dull and forgettable. I didn't really care what happened and it was also sorted out far too easily. Of the Time Trips I've read so far this has been my least favourite, it's worth a read if you're a Who fan but I don't know if I'd read it again.
Thanks to the publishers for my free copy received through NetGalley in return for my unbiased review.

A Handful of Startdust is published in the UK by Ebury Publishing

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Book Review: Salt of the Earth by Trudi Canavan




Another in the Doctor Who Time Trips series, this one features the Third Doctor and his companion Jo Grant. Jon Pertwee's tenure as the Doctor was a little before my time and whilst I've seen some of his performances I'm not familiar enough with them to say whether the Trudi Canavan accurately captured his portrayal of the character or his relationship with Jo. Therefore this was the first of the series I've read without any preconceptions and it was the plot more than the characterisation that would hook me.
So did it succeed? The answer is a hesitant yes. Set in Australia (the Third Doctor was of course exiled on Earth by the Time Lords for some time), we are first introduced to a local farmer who despite his dog's obvious fear tries to rescue some stranded sheep. Something is terribly wrong though and slowly but with no hope of escape he is turned to salt. Meanwhile the Doctor and Jo are intending to have a beach holiday but instead the Tardis lands them in the outback. Whilst blokarting they come across macabre salt statues of a man and some sheep. The Doctor quickly realises something is not right and after meeting local hobby farmer, Sunny learns about the "bad salt" responsible for turning people into statues before they're destroyed by the elements.
What follows is the Doctor's investigation into what is causing this phenomenon. I enjoyed the idea of the already harsh environment turning against its inhabitants and felt the emotion and stress of living in constant fear of the immediate surroundings suddenly becoming mortally dangerous was well handled. However, as is sometimes the case with short stories I just found the explanation and conclusion was dealt with too swiftly and easily meaning the narrative lost its sense of menace. I understand the constraints of these novella formats but still can't help wishing the denouement was a bit more complex. In the end I felt it was an enjoyable story that didn't quite live up to it's early potential.
Thanks to the publishers for my free copy through NetGalley in return for my honest review.

Salt of the Earth is published in the UK by Ebury Publishing



Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Book Review: Tigerman by Nick Harkaway




Lester Ferris is a burnt out British sergeant who after seeing too many horrors of war is sent to serve out his last days in the army on the island of Mancreu, a former British colony where he is to be Brevet-Consul until the island is destroyed, Mancreu is a toxic island with an underbelly of mutant bacteria living in its volcanic core. With the island in legal limbo the  Black Fleet lies just offshore, illicit ships where drug factories, dodgy hospitals, money laundering and torture chambers exist unchallenged. Now under the jurisdiction of the NATO and Allied Protection Force on Mancreu (NatProMan) many of the islanders have already left and with more poisonous clouds predicted to erupt soon full evacuation seems to be inevitable. Most of those remaining are law-abiding citizens but some have turned to dodgier dealings. The Sergeant though has orders to act only as village bobby, and do little more than "walk, take tea and say hello".
He strikes up a friendship with a mysterious comic-obsessed young boy, a protégé who talks the language of the internet (Zomg! Total win!), seems to know most of the secrets of the island but won't talk about his own home life. The Sergeant realises he wants to adopt the boy and to look after him when it's time to evacuate but tragic events mean that their lives are thrown into turmoil. Lester can't stand back any more, not when the boy is in danger. The boy decides what Mancreu needs is a superhero. Can Tigerman foil the villains? Are they who he thinks they are and can this condemned island be saved anyway?
Tigerman is a truly engaging and original book; for all the nail-biting tension, humour, superheroic deeds and a brilliant twist there is also a deep and honest heart to it. The secondary characters are a richly described group of disparate individuals but it's the relationship between the boy and the man, these flawed and damaged people who we fear and hope for and who are better together but may not be able to stay that way, that makes this book so very human.
This is easily one of the best books I've read this year, in short, and to quote the boy, Tigerman is "full of win".
Thank you to the author and publishers for my free copy of Tigerman from NetGalley in return for my honest review.

Tigerman is published in the UK by William Heinemann

Book Review: The Setting Sun by Bart Moore-Gilbert


Bart Moore-Gilbert's father died when he was a young boy and his memories are of a brave and honourable man who influenced his son both in life and in death  - the loss not only of his father but also his home and everything he knew meant he spent years feeling an exile in England and eventually gave up his childhood ambition to be a game ranger like his dad to become a professor of Postcolonial Studies at London University. When he receives a letter from a colleague asking for information about his father's time in the Indian police as a young man he is at once intrigued. He realises how little he knows about that time, especially after discovering his father may have written a secret memorandum about the Parallel Government (an armed underground movement formed after Gandhi's imprisonment in 1942). Moore-Gilbert decides to visit the country himself to find out more, particularly when his historian colleague's emails start to become more erratic and vague.
However, shortly after arriving in India he is shattered to learn his father may have been involved in the abuse of civilians. What follows is a captivating and compelling look at India, both the country as it is today and how it was in the last years of British rule. His journey is both physical and emotional as he travels across India gradually learning more about his father and the dying days of the British Empire. It's also a memoir about the author's childhood in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and his relationship with his father as he is compelled to re-examine his memories of that time.
I really enjoyed The Setting Sun, Bart Moore-Gilbert writes movingly and honestly about his relationship with his father and his feelings as he realises he was a more flawed man than the hero of his memories. Both India and the Africa of his childhood are evocatively described and it's also rich and thoughtful look at the politics of the past and their effect on the present. Sometimes the most interesting, thought-provoking stories are those that are from real life and The Setting Sun is one such book; even if you don't usually read much nonfiction I thoroughly recommend it.
Thanks to the author and publishers for my free copy from NetGalley in return for my honest review.

The Setting Sun is published by Verso Books.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Book Review: Not the End by Kate Vane




 The death of an eighty eight year old woman, Maud Smith is the catalyst for the events in Not the End as in turn we are introduced to Neil, the cemetery manager who is responsible for her funeral, Brenda, the woman who found her body washed up on the beach, Jim, the probate researcher, Elizabeth, Maud's neighbour and Olive, her former love rival.
Slowly their lives become entangled as we learn more about them and their families. This isn't a whimsical fluffy story set in a seaside town, it's a look at real lives and what makes them so complicated at times, marriage breakdowns, sibling relationships, mental illness, deception, jealousy, hope, fear, friendship and love all feature here. Although she never actually appears in the novel, Maud still affects each of them in different ways and often influences the decisions they make. We don't actually discover much about her later life and death but there are revelations about her past which have an impact on a few of the characters.
There are a lot of story threads here and although they often intertwine it did take a while to feel I really knew the characters and occasionally I found myself needing to check back to remind myself particularly who lesser characters were and I warmed more to some characters and their storylines more than others. However, once I had a grip on who was who I enjoyed Not the End very much. It's a thoughtfully written and often poignant without being sentimental look at the often complex lives of ordinary people. Despite the sometimes serious subject matter however, it's not a depressing read, there are enough lighthearted moments to keep the overall feel of the book a positive read and I think one that many people would enjoy adding to their summer reading pile.
Many thanks to the author for my copy of this book in return for my honest review.

Not the End is available on Amazon for Kindle.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Book Review: Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert




Gabriel is a professional hacker and he's very successful at it. Previously he worked for Eyestorm, an organisation that studied Remote Viewers (those able to use telepathy and clairvoyance) and utilised those skills in investigations that the likes of the police and regular private investigators were baffled by. Gabriel was apparently very good at "slamming the ride"- the term used by remote viewers when they entered somebody else's mental space - but left suddenly under a cloud. Now his ex girlfriend is back with a request, her adult stepson is missing and the police have drawn a blank. Can Gabriel use his skills to find out what happened?
At first he is reticent but soon becomes drawn in the investigation and into the lives of the beautiful, intelligent and mysterious sisters, Minnaloushe and Morrighan who seem to hold the key as to what happened to Robert Whittington. Before long the professional and personal are intertwined, Gabriel spends more and more time with the sisters and as he reads one of their diaries he falls in love - but is he in love with a murderer? And could they really be witches?
 It took me a while to get into Season of the Witch, I found Gabriel arrogant and thought giving the sisters such unusual names was predictable rather than interesting, the speed at which he developed a close relationship with them too seemed somewhat unbelievable even given their possible powers. As the story progressed though I found myself more involved as it became an often exciting thriller with references to witchcraft, alchemy, hacking, professional espionage and memory palaces. The story on the whole however, just felt too unevenly paced, parts of the plot never rang true and it had an epigraph I felt was unnecessary. I never really engaged with any of the characters either unfortunately, I don't mind how I feel about a character as long as I feel something and I just didn't care that much about any of them. In the end it wasn't that I didn't enjoy Season of the Witch, it was an easy read with some good moments and much to enjoy for fans of gothic thrillers but personally it's just not a book that I will remember much about.
I received a free copy of this book through Netgalley, in return for my unbiased review.

Season of the Witch is published by Portable Magic Ltd.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Book Review - Keeping Up with the Joneses by Nick Harkaway





Another Doctor Who Time Trips novella, this time about the Tenth Doctor. With a title like Keeping up with the Joneses it's likely you'll think as I did that the Doctor will be accompanied by Martha Jones on this adventure but instead he meets another face from his recent past, Lady Christine de Souza, last seen in Planet of the Dead...but is it really her? After the Tardis hits a temporal mine, the Doctor finds himself in Jonestown. In fact the Welsh town in somehow in the Tardis. How can this be? Who is Christina really and most importantly what is the Doctor going to do about the violent storm threatening not just Jonestown but the entire universe?!
Of the Time Trips books I've read so far this felt the closest to a TV episode. Nick Harkaway captures David Tennant's Doctor on paper almost perfectly. There's the self-assured cockiness, the stream of consciousness monologues, the belief in life and in change tempered by that darker side willing to seek vengeance, "no second chances". Christina is likeable with enough mystery about her to make you question her motives and reliability. Other characters too are pleasingly fleshed out in a format that doesn't always allow for much in the way of characterisation, the monster in particular is a fantastic conception.
 So the characterisation is excellent but what of the story? Happily that too is believable and engaging. It's a well-structured story which is exciting, tense and thoughtful. It has the required sciencey bits that fit a Who story, not necessarily the sort of science that holds up to critical analysis but the time wimey stuff that so suits the Doctor's adventures. The ending thankfully doesn't feel rushed and makes sense which isn't always the case with short stories.
This has been my favourite Time Trips so far, it was a pleasure to read and has whetted my appetite both for more Doctor Who stories and more books by Nick Harkaway.
I received a free copy of this book through Netgalley in return for my unbiased review.

Keeping up with the Joneses is published in the UK by Ebury Publishing.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Book Review: The Death Pit by A.L. Kennedy



 A little while ago I reviewed Into the Nowhere by Jenny Colgan which I thoroughly enjoyed and vowed then to read more of the Doctor Who Time Trips series of novellas. The Death Pit is about the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker or as I grew up in the 70s, "my Doctor". I've not rewatched any of his episodes as an adult so my memories are only those from my childhood and I felt A.L. Kennedy captured the Doctor as I remember him;  eccentric, mysterious and fun but also a little scary. The prose here is simply written, it seems to be more of a children's book than Into the Nowhere; this isn't a criticism, I felt it fits well with the classic Who series', from my memories of it growing up it was a children's programme that some adults watched rather than the family show it's widely accepted to be today.
 The story is set on Earth in 1978 at the Fetch Brothers Golf Spa Hotel where guests are mysteriously disappearing. Then an enigmatic man turns up who may be able to explain why. The Doctor's one off assistant for this adventure, hotel receptionist Bryony Mailer is a well written, appealing character and the strange hotel guest, Ian remained likeable even after we learn more about the reason for his being there. The antagonists too are pleasingly dark. So in all it was a story I was enjoying...until I reached the conclusion which left me terribly disappointed. After an intriguing build up it was all over too quickly which is probably a drawback of the novella format. Whilst the main mystery was solved there were other loose ends that I just didn't feel were satisfactorily explained. In the end whilst I think there was much to enjoy in The Death Trap unfortunately I just felt too let down by the rushed ending to wholeheartedly recommend it as I'd have liked.
Thank you to the author and publishers for my free copy from Netgalley in return for my honest review.

The Death Pit is published by Random House UK

Friday, 21 March 2014

Book Review: That Dark Remembered Day by Tom Vowler



It's 2012 and Stephen should be happy, he lives near the sea with a loving wife and child and has fulfilling job as a university technician. In fact he's angry, angry enough to risk losing his job when in a moment of madness he loses his temper. Now on suspension he is spending more and more time drinking in the pub. Then comes the phone call telling him his mother is ill and asking him to return to the place he has tried to forget. Something awful happened in Stephen's past, something that tore his family and town apart and changed several lives forever. Now he has to go back and face his memories and people who may not be ready to forgive.
In 1982 Mary hopes she is moving towards her dream life, her  run down house and outbuildings need several repairs but in time she hopes they will be able to take on paying guests and live an increasingly self-sufficient lifestyle. Her teenage son Stephen is in his last year at school and has his first girlfriend, her daughter Jenny is about to start secondary school. They're just waiting for Richard, her husband to finish his last few days in the army. Then Argentina invades the Falkland Islands...
That Dark Remembered Day is an absorbing story of secrets and loss, lies and forgiveness. Beginning with Stephen's present day difficulties, the story switches to the past where first through Mary and later Richard we are led gradually but inevitably to the tragedy of that devastating day in 1983.  This is an often anguishing read, the sense of isolation, both the physical and mental is almost palpable. I was lost in its pages unable to stop reading until the early hours of the morning. It's still early in the year but I know come December this will be on my list of the best books I've read in 2014. A disturbing but utterly compelling read.
My grateful thanks to the author and publishers for my copy received through Netgalley in return for my honest review.

That Dark Remembered Day is published by Headline.


Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Bobby Ether and the Academy by R Scott Boyer




A boy loses his parents, discovers he has unexplained powers and is whisked off to a mysterious academy where he'll be taught how to use his gift. Sounds familiar? Thankfully despite the obvious initial similarities Bobby Ether isn't another Harry Potter and the Academy is most definitely not Hogwarts.
Bobby isn't magic, we quickly learn at the start of the book that there is no such thing as magic. Instead a few people are able to control energy and use it to work for them - or against others. Bobby discovers by accident that he has this rare gift and what follows is a thrilling and well-crafted adventure.
There are the ubiquitous friends and enemies at the Academy of course, the most likeable and engaging being the eight year old genius Jinx, brother to Ashley, who swiftly becomes Bobby's nemesis, and son of the Headmistress of the Academy. The children in the story are for the most part pretty simplistic in this first novel of the series and it's obvious as to which side they're on but I imagine there will be further character developments as the series progresses. The adults I found to be more interesting with some ambiguity around their morals and motives. I did guess some of the plot twists although not enough to spoil my enjoyment of the book. The mix of Eastern mysticism with scientific advancements and some pleasingly dark and sinister moments plus a superb cliffhanger made for a book I would recommend, particularly to older children and young adults but even as a not so young adult I am looking forward to the sequel to Bobby Ether and the Academy.
Thanks to the author for my free copy received through Netgalley in return for my honest review.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Book Review: Benediction by Kent Haruf




Benediction, recently shortlisted for the Folio Prize, is the third Plainsong novel but true to form I haven't yet read the other two. Fortunately this doesn't matter because it's not a sequel rather a look at some of the other residents of Holt, a quiet country town in Colorado. In particular it follows the last few months of Dad Lewis who at the start of the book is diagnosed with terminal cancer, his wife Mary and their adult daughter, Lorraine. Next door Berta May is adapting to life with her eight year old granddaughter following the death of the girl's mother and Willa, an elderly widow and her unmarried daughter Alene are good friends to both families. The town also has a new preacher, Reverend Lyle, a man whose heartfelt but contentious beliefs will divide the town and his own family.
The writing here is sparse and stripped bare of metaphors. Adjectives are plain and functional. Haruf has even foregone speech marks meaning prose and speech blend into one. This I must admit took a little getting used to but it's actually a very effective device for these quiet voiced people, they are as much a part of the landscape as the dirt tracks and open fields that surround them. The characters themselves are somehow straightforward and complicated at the same time, they are regular people, with regular lives and regular deaths, flawed individuals living in a repressive small town where narrow-mindedness and fear can lead to sudden violence yet still there can be gentle acts of compassion. Haruf never judges his characters nor tells us how to feel, they are what they are;  loyal, scared, bitter, dogmatic, angry, moral, obligated and kind. It's a book that is more complex than its deceptively simple prose would at first have you believe, a reminder both of the footprints left by each individual and yet the relentless continuity of life.  I enjoyed it immensely and look forward to reading the first two books, Plainsong and Eventide soon.
Thanks to the author and publishers for my free copy of Benediction through Netgalley in return for my honest review.

Benediction is published in the UK by Picador.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Book Review: Glow by Ned Beauman



This is a tricky review to write because I'm not really sure how I felt about the book. Glow tells the story of Raf, a young man from south London. Raf fed up with his lot, he has a sleep disorder - non-24-hour sleep/wake syndrome causing his circadian rhythm to be out of sync with the rest of the world, meaning he can't keep a regular job, has recently split from his girlfriend and is living on the fringes of society. He spends his time working on computer programmes, looking after a guard dog for a pirate radio station and searching out the latest street drugs. Then his boss disappears and Raf turns investigator.
What follows is an international tale that involves dodgy multinational companies, missing Burmese people, a mysterious girl, silent white vans, the drug Glow and lots of foxes. It manages somehow to be entirely believable whilst also seeming completely ludicrous; the book covers in-depth pharmaceutical chemistry, the sudden industrialisation of a remote village thanks to the arrival of a mining company and even the internal conflict in Burma, meaning the story whilst not always easy to follow always feels confidently erudite.  The oft-used metaphors are sharply observed too,
"At first dilapidation would reveal the differences, but later it would begin to elide them: the two worlds would diverge and then converge, in the way that two half-siblings might look the same as kids, different as adults and the same again as skeletons."
However, somehow it never really grasped me and I'm not entirely sure why. I liked Raf, enjoyed the writing and generally found it an intriguing plot. I just never felt the tension, it struck me as thriller without the thrills. I was waiting for the heart-racing moment and although it came close it didn't quite deliver. I liked it but I never had that "I need to find out what happens next" feeling and I could go a few days without wanting to pick it up.
Ultimately I guess it's a bit like the old Blind Date days when a couple would meet and really get on but there was no romance. I did enjoy Glow but for me it just didn't have that spark. I'm sure many people will feel differently though and I hope it gets the readers and acclaim it deserves.
I received my copy of Glow from Netgalley in return for my honest review.

Glow will be published in the UK on May 8th 2014 by Hodder & Stoughton.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Book Review: The Memory Book by Rowan Coleman




As a mum to three girls I was immediately drawn to The Memory Book when I saw it was a book about the relationships between mothers and daughters.  It focuses on three generations of women, Claire who has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease, her daughter, Caitlin who has to make her own life-changing decisions whilst watching her mum deteriorate rapidly, and her mother, Ruth who lost her husband to Alzheimer's and now faces the loss of her only daughter. So emotional stuff then and it would be foolish of me to deny that it made me cry several times. However, this is not in any way a depressing read, despite the sombre subject matter it is a warm, often funny and always touching look at a family learning to deal with the massive changes they are facing. Claire is the main narrator of the story and we see her fear and frustration as she slowly loses who she is. This is sensitively and believably handled, particularly in the scenes where her memory loss is apparent. The Memory Book of the title refers to a book Claire is filling in with memories of her past, her teenage pregnancy, years as a single mum, her love affair and subsequent marriage to Greg, the birth of her second daughter, Esther (who is a thoroughly real small girl with all the charm, humour and tyranny they possess) and always her relationship with Caitlin and Ruth. Caitlin, Ruth and Greg also add their memories to the book and so we see what they're going through watching the gradual loss of such a significant person in all their lives as some chapters are narrated in their voices, something that works very well and creates a fully rounded family  whose plight is easy to identify with. I sympathised with them, of course but the writing is such that I didn't ever pity them.
I lost my own mum to breast cancer when I was 22 and so have always been a motherless mother to my own three girls although have been fortunate to have a wonderful mother-in-law. I miss my mum every day but still feel blessed that I learned how to be a mum from her. The Memory Book really touched me, it's a truly lovely reminder of the relationship between mothers and daughters. I thoroughly recommend it. Many thanks to the author and publishers for my copy from Netgalley in return for my honest review.

The Memory Book is published in the UK by Ebury.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Book Review: Stoner by John Williams




Stoner was first published in 1965 but has only recently found success, 19 years after the death of John Williams. I finished it a few days ago but have been struggling to know how to write this review. It's not that I didn't enjoy it, quite the opposite actually, I'm just not sure if I can do it justice. The Stoner of the title refers to William Stoner, son of a farmer who originally goes to the University of Missouri to study agriculture but falls in love with literature and eventually drops his science courses in favour of philosophy, ancient history and English literature and ends up teaching at the university for almost forty years. And that in an essence is it, there are no great dramas and no shocking plot twists. It's a quiet character study of a quiet man who goes to college, finds work, marries (the wrong woman), has a child and eventually dies. He does nothing extraordinary and yet this is a book that moved me to tears and will stay with me for a long time. Stoner himself is unremarkable and we are told remembered rarely after his death but this gentle man who lives for much of his life unloved is still able to feel deep love for others and for literature and is a character who reminds us that we all have our stories, our successes and failures even if we will be forgotten by history. Achingly sad at times but wise and truthful, it was chosen as Waterstones Book of the Year for 2013. It took me a while to read because I wanted to savour this deceptively simple novel that covers a man's entire adult life in under three hundred pages but never feels rushed. If you love literature and the power of a perfectly structured narrative then I highly recommend you read this deservedly lauded book.

Stoner is published by Vintage Classics.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Book Review: The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan




The Last Werewolf is the first in a trilogy and follows Jacob (or Jake) Marlowe who at the start of the book discovers he is the very last werewolf in the world and that a vengeful member of WOCOP (World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena) intends to kill him (werewolves can be killed by silver bullets, of course but also by beheading) at the next full moon. Jake however, doesn't much care, over 160 years of transforming and killing and avoiding bounty hunters have taken their toll and he is tired of the lupine life. In human form he is an erudite, chain smoking, rich loner, his main companion an elderly man called Harley who is clearly in love with him. The call of the wolf is never far away though and the animalistic drive surges through him for much of his time, not just when he has changed. So he is tired of it all and much to Harley's horror decides he will make it easy for his  would be killer the next full moon...except some people don't want him dead. Without giving too much of the plot away, Jake Marlowe staying alive is as important to some as Jake Marlowe being dead is to others. He finds himself at the centre of a fight for his life without caring much for the outcome. Will either side triumph and will Jake find a reason to want to live?
The familiar werewolf tropes are here, the transformation at full moon, the silver bullets, the heightened wolf senses and the violent killing and eating of humans but The Last Werewolf is more literary than genre fiction. Told in the form of a journal and littered with cultural and literary references this is always an intelligent and sharply observant read,
"Perhaps Jacqueline was right: humanity's getting its metamorphic kicks elsewhere these days. When you can watch the alchemy that turns morons into millionaires and gimps into global icons, where's the thrill in men who turned into wolves?"
It's also frequently very graphic with no holds barred descriptions of sex and violence. Whilst shocking it never felt gratuitous, Jake is part wolf and so driven by the needs of the animal within.
For a while however, I struggled a little with the book partly because I didn't know what to feel about Jake. I don't need to like a character to enjoy a book so whilst his amorality didn't concern me, I think his disinterest in his life did affect how I engaged with him for a time. I wasn't sure if I would care much if he lived or died if he didn't care himself. The middle of the book whilst having some unexpected twists was perhaps a little too plot driven for me. After a beginning that left me enthralled with its rich use of language I didn't exactly lose interest but I did begin to question if Jake was just going to have things happen to him without really doing anything proactive. I felt we were both passengers, along for a ride that had its surprises so we kept going but ultimately we never really felt involved. Thankfully another twist changed all that and the final third of the book became a gripping, fun, exhilarating and sometimes poignant tale. By the end I did care about what happened to Jake, both the human and wolf and I'm now very much looking forward to reading the other two books in the trilogy.
Many thanks to Canongate Books and Netgalley for sending me a copy of The Last Werewolf in return for my honest review.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Book Review; The Martian by Andy Weir




I have Liz from Liz Loves Books to thank for drawing my attention to  this book. Her enthusiastic tweets convinced me it was a book I needed to check out.
The Martian is set some time in the near future when Mars landings have become a reality. The first two missions were a success but the third ends in disaster when a storm means the crew of Ares 3 are forced to evacuate just six sols (Mars days) into the mission, leaving behind Mark Watney who they believe has been killed in a freak accident...except Mark has survived and is now alone on Mars. He has no way to communicate with Earth and only enough supplies to last six people for the length of their planned 31 day stay on the Red Planet. Can he find a way to let NASA know he is still alive and stay alive until a rescue is possible, if indeed a rescue is possible. Luckily he is a botanist and engineer so has the much needed skills to make survival at least a possibility but nevertheless the odds are stacked against him.
As the central character who dominates the book it is vital that the reader roots for Mark and I really did. Throughout the book I was with him every step of the way, desperately hoping he'd survive but having no idea whether he would. He is brave, resourceful, optimistic and more than a bit cheeky. This is a book that really puts the science in science fiction, there is lots and lots of science and the book could have become too technical and dry but the sheer force of Mark's personality keeps the story one of remarkable human endeavour. A rollercoaster of a read with plenty of laughs, heart in mouth white knuckle tension (particularly the conclusion), moments that had me wiping away tears and The Dukes of Hazzard -  The Martian has it all! If you enjoy a gripping and intelligent story with humour and heart then I strongly recommend you check it out.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for providing me a copy of the book and thank you Liz for your tweets!

The Martian will be published in the UK by Del Rey on 13th February 2014.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Book Review: One Night at the Jacaranda by Carol Cooper





I don't tend to read many romance novels but when Carol Cooper asked if I would like to review her debut novel the interesting premise immediately tempted me.
It follows several characters who meet at a speed dating night - the eponymous One Night at the Jacaranda - and each chapter switches between them, offering their own individual take on proceedings. Among the characters are Sanjay, a young man facing the end of his life following a terminal testicular cancer diagnosis, Karen, a single mum to four children, Dan, newly released from prison, Geoff, a divorced GP who desperately misses his young son, Laure, a lawyer pretending to be a hairdresser and Harriet, a journalist who is there for the byline, not the romance. They briefly meet, chat, flirt, ask questions, tell lies, tick boxes and make decisions about who they want to see again.
Most of the book though is about what happens after that night. There's love, sex, children, illness, death, deceit, loneliness, fear, anger, grief and laughter. It's not really a romance, rather a look at each of the characters' lives during the few months featured in the book and all the more interesting for it. The main characters are a varied bunch but on the whole likeable despite their flaws. The secondary characters are perhaps a little less well fleshed out but as they are mostly on the periphery of the story this is only a small gripe. Carol Cooper is a doctor and uses that experience both in the believable and sensitive medical scenes and in her empathetic observations of how people behave.
This is a well plotted story, there are lighthearted moments but it has a darker edge than many romantic novels. If you're looking for something that is more than the predictable boy meets girl this Valentine's Day you may well want to check out One Night at the Jacaranda yourself.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Book Review: A Warm Place to Call Home (a demon's story) by Michael Siemsen




The concept of a malevolent demon didn't exist in human society until relatively recently, when a mistranslation and simplification of two similarly-defined words, angelos and daimones, both messengers from God, forever broke the two into distinct entities - one benevolent, and the other the servant of the recently-established devil. Before that, philosophers and scholars freely discussed the human soul, or daimon, and its ability to continue on, transcending the human body after death.

A few months ago I read and loved Michael Siemsen's second book in his (a demon's story) series, The Many Lives of Samuel Beauchamp. A Warm Place to Call Home was the first book published so I have read them out of order but would this matter?
A Warm Place to Call Home doesn't feature Samuel - this time our demon is Frederick. And he is very different to Samuel who I found a sympathetic and likeable character. Frederick on the other hand is pretty amoral, whereas Samuel wanted a family to love, Frederick is a thrill-seeker who sees the bodies he uses as a means of getting what he wants. He takes over a person's body when he feels like it and when he decides it's time to move on he discards them, leaving an empty shell. When he meets and wants Melanie he has no qualms about taking over her boyfriend, Joseph's body, he is merely a means to an end. Frederick then is not that likeable. Yet I did grow to like him. This isn't the dark thriller that Many Lives is but is no less an enjoyable and thoughtful read. It suggests there is a sliding scale between evil and good and examines what motivates people in the way they behave towards others. How good is a benevolent act if it's self-serving? Can love change a demon?  A Warm Place to Call Home is challenging and intelligent with plenty of twists and turns and an ambiguous ending, it kept me guessing and I was engrossed throughout. Michael Siemsen says he wrote the books so they work either way and I'm pleased to say I agree with him. I didn't feel my enjoyment of either was impaired by the order I read them in. There are hints about the other story in both books without giving anything away and they complement each other perfectly. I'm now eagerly awaiting the third book, Frederick & Samuel.

A Warm Place to Call Home (a demon's story) is published by Fantome Publishing.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Book Review: Echo Boy by Matt Haig




I have made no secret of my love for Matt Haig's previous book, The Humans - not only was it my favourite book last year, it's also one of my favourite books ever. So I have been eagerly looking forward to reading Echo Boy ever since Matt first announced it was to be his next book. It's not due to be published until March but thankfully I was able to acquire an advance copy through Netgalley (I could pretend that I didn't obsessively check to see if my request was approved several times over the weekend but that would be a lie!) I downloaded it to my Kindle yesterday and finished it this morning and I'm happy to say that whilst this isn't The Humans it's a wonderful and moving book in its own right.
Echo Boy is set about two hundred years in the future, in a vastly different world to ours, climate change has meant some countries are partly or wholly underwater and some have become almost uninhabitable deserts, it's possible to cross the Atlantic in minutes, humans have colonised the moon and families are served by Echos (Enhanced Computerised Humanoid Organism), flesh and blood cyborgs hardwired to unquestionably obey orders. It follows the story of Audrey a fifteen year old girl who is forced to consider and reconsider everything she has been taught and learned to believe following the death of her parents, and Daniel an Echo who should be emotionless but instead feels a connection to Audrey and a desire to protect her from terrible danger. So it's going to be categorised as a sci-fi YA novel but genres really just tell you where to look for a title in a bookstore. What Echo Boy is actually about is love, loss, the fear of being alone, belief, pain and trust. It's about what makes some people monsters and what it is to be human. Matt Haig writes sentences that pierce my heart in one chapter and envelop me in a warm blanket of hope in another. Echo Boy is both a warning of what could happen if we allow technology to take the place of actual human interaction and a reminder of just how wonderfully flawed and complicated we can be. I loved it.

Echo Boy will be published on 27th March by Random House Children's Publishers UK.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Book Review: Into the Nowhere by Jenny Colgan


As a long time fan of Doctor Who I am ashamed to admit I've read very few DW books (although I did enjoy Patrick Ness' Fifth Doctor story, Tip of the Tongue recently). If they're all as good as Into the Nowhere (part of the Time Trips series) then I've been foolishly denying myself and have some serious catching up to do.
This is a beautifully described story which manages to be chilling at one moment then touching the next. The Eleventh Doctor and Clara come across a mysterious planet  without a name and with no information about it. At first The Doctor is reluctant to land but of course his curiosity is piqued and soon they discover a desolate land populated by skeletons and littered with death traps. Having skeletons as the planet's inhabitants was, I thought, a masterstroke and very Who. I often think that Who monsters are scariest when they're ordinary and recognisable. Skeletons are naturally frightening but walking skeletons who live on a planet where there is danger everywhere and who have a particularly gruesome way of communicating are even more bone-chilling (do you see what I did there?!) As for our heroes, I could hear the voices of the Doctor and Clara while I was reading, the Doctor was typically mad man with a box enthusiastic yet had that darker and less forgiving side and if anything I preferred book Clara and would like to see more of her in the show.
I just wish it had been a bit longer, if I have any criticism it would be it felt a little uneven, the last part felt perhaps a little too rushed and whilst the villain was suitably evil I would have liked his character to have been explored further. This is mostly me being spoilt though, I want more!

Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers



Before reading this I checked out the reviews on Goodreads and it certainly seems to be a book that divides opinions. For every person who loved it there seems to be another who vehemently loathed it. After reading it I can say I'm mostly in the loved it camp - although that's not to say I loved everything about it, but more of that later.
It's a memoir borne of tragedy, Dave Eggers' parents both died of cancer 32 days apart, leaving Dave, his sister Beth and brothers Bill and Christopher (Toph). At just 21 Eggers became the primary carer for eight year old Toph and they leave the suburb of Chicago they grew up in to start a new life in California. This book loosely follows what happens next, how Eggers adjusts to his new father figure role whilst attempting to start up the magazine, Might with his friends. I say loosely because this isn't a straightforward telling, it meanders through narrative that is often a stream of consciousness and is neither fiction or non fiction but something in between. I do wonder if it's a book that needs to be read at the right time, I found the self-centred constant awareness of the jumble of thoughts and ideas was something I could identify with but I don't know if I would have felt the same way had I read it years ago. It was almost exhausting to read at times, there are parts that are gut wrenchingly beautiful, "I like the dark part of the night, after midnight and before four-thirty, when it's hollow, when ceilings are harder and farther away. Then I can breathe, and can think while others are sleeping, in a way can stop time, can have it so – this has always been my dream – so that while everyone else is frozen, I can work busily about them, doing whatever it is that needs to be done, like the elves who make the shoes while children sleep.” then later that ego that so polarises opinion, "We are the bright new stars born of a screaming black hole, the nascent suns burst from the darkness, from the grasping void of space that folds and swallows--a darkness that would devour anyone not as strong as we. We are oddities, sideshows, talk show subjects. We capture everyone's imagination.”
By the end of the book I was able to truly appreciate what Eggers has done here, it's often a frustrating read but nonetheless penetrated my thoughts in such a way that I couldn't put it down. I empathised with him, could understand the chaos raging within him but there is an underlying brittleness that just kept me from completely loving it. I really enjoyed it and will read more Eggers, I just need a little more warmth to totally fall for a book.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Book Review: After the Bombing by Clare Morrall



With girls called Alma, Curls, Natalie and Giraffe and a girls boarding school as the setting, the start of After the Bombing could have been the beginning of an Enid Blyton type school story. However, as the boarders of Goldwyn's school are rushed to the air raid shelter everything is about to change for them. This is Exeter on 3rd May 1942 - the night of one of the Baedeker raids when, in retaliation for the bombing of Lübeck, German bombers attacked historical English cities given a 3 star or above rating in the Baedeker Tourist Guide. When the girls emerge from the shelter later half their school has been destroyed and Exeter city centre is in ruins. Destruction and as we soon learn, death, has burst into their previously safe lives.
Twenty one years later and Alma is now a teacher at Goldwyn's. Living alone in her old family house, she believes herself to be content until the death of the long serving headmistress brings a sudden change in the form of Miss Yates who is determined to modernise Goldwyn's. With the arrival too of a new pupil, the daughter of Robert Gunner, a man Alma hasn't seen since 1942 she is forced look back on a time when she and her friends suffered terrible losses whilst still experiencing the exuberance of being girls on the cusp of womanhood.
The story switches between the summer of 1942 and 1963 and is a moving study of the long term effect the war had on those at home, particularly young women. Clare Morrall writes people very well; with their quirks and their inner dialogues, there aren't good and bad guys in this book but real people with dreams, regrets and flaws. It was an easy book to read -  by which I mean it was a believable world which I could easily immerse myself in, yet the complexity of the characters meant it was also a poignant and enthralling read and one I very much enjoyed.
Disclosure: I received my copy of this book through Netgalley in return for my honest review.

After the Bombing will be published by Sceptre on 27th March 2014.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Dr Seuss Reviewed by my Youngest Daughter


We've re-read a few Dr Seuss books recently, they've been a favourite with all three of my daughters over the years and after reading Green Eggs and Ham to my eldest on the bus years ago a couple of the passengers came and told me how much they'd enjoyed listening to it too!
Maggie, my youngest daughter is six and likes to discuss the books we've shared. Here are some of her thoughts on some of the Dr Seuss books.


Fox in Socks
"The fox is rude and mean. He knows that his master can't say the rhymes but he keeps trying to make him say ones that are harder. In the end though he can't say it and he gets shoved into a bottle. He does look cute in socks though."
(She has decided Mr Knox must be the fox's master as he calls him "sir").


The Cat in the Hat
"The cat is really rude to keep coming into the house without being invited and he makes a mess. He doesn't actually tidy up properly, he just hoovers up all their stuff which means that they don't have it any more so that doesn't count. I wouldn't like Thing One and Thing Two to come here but I like the fish, he's cool."


Green Eggs and Ham
"He keeps saying he won't try them and he doesn't like them. He just says no, no, no, but then in the end he gives in and he does like them. I learnt I should at least try something new."


How The Grinch Stole Christmas
"This is really funny but I don't know why he's called a Grinch. At the end he says that maybe Christmas is something more so this book taught me you should never hate Christmas."

She says her favourite is The Grinch and I've promised her I'll read her some more Seuss soon. She sums up her reviewing with "Mr Dr Seuss is so good at making up stories that rhyme isn't he?" Do you have a favourite?

Monday, 6 January 2014

Book Review: A Grimm Legacy by Janna Jennings


Following my review of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman recently, I couldn't resist this children's book inspired by the stories. Set in modern times the book follows four teenagers who are suddenly whisked from their regular lives and end up in the fairy tale land of Elorium. Fairy Tales in the modern world isn't a new idea of course, currently the TV shows One Upon a Time and Grimm both feature the characters from the stories as "real life".
Nevertheless this is an enjoyable and well plotted adventure story. The four main characters are strong and likeable and there is a good mix of the famous and the lesser known tales in the book. I didn't feel the bad guy was used enough and his character needs more fleshing out but this is the first book of presumably a series and so I'm sure more will be forthcoming there. In all I think A Grimm Legacy is a solid start to a new series and will particularly appeal to children aged around 9-13 years.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book through Netgalley in return for my honest review.

A Grimm Legacy is published by Patchwork Press.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Book Review: Sinful Folk by Ned Hayes




In 1377 in the village of Duns in the northeast of England five young boys were burned to death in a house fire.  It was rare then for English peasants to travel more than twenty miles from their homes but five men from the village loaded the burnt bodies of their children on a farm cart and undertook a risky 200 mile journey to London. They presented the bodies to the King and  demanded justice against the Jews. Although all Jews had been killed, forcibly converted or expelled from England in 1325 it was still common for them to be blamed for tragic or malicious events.
This real life tale provides the inspiration for Sinful Folk, the author has taken the story, of which little else, including the names of any of the men is known, and written a thoughtful and absorbing medieval mystery. The main character, Mear is believed by the other villagers living in Duns to be a mute man but as readers quickly learn she is actually a former nun called Miriam who has been hiding in the village for a decade with her young son, Christian. After Christian and four other boys are burned to death in the home of Benedict, the tailor, she decides to join the other fathers on their perilous journey to London with the bodies of their dead children as they seek justice from the king.
As the story progresses we learn that Mear is not the only character with secrets and that one of the men travelling with her may be responsible for the shocking deaths of the children. Can Mear keep her own secrets, find out what happened to her son and survive the dangerous journey where her life will be threatened by the weather, lack of food, bandits and treachery? Why is she disguised as a man and what else is she hiding? What are the stories of the men who travel with her and can they be trusted?
I very much enjoyed this book, the author vividly brought to life a time when starvation, the Black Death and the brutal violence of the period meant death was a constant threat. Miriam/Mear is a strong and likeable woman and her story is absorbing if often bleak and unflinching. Although I guessed some of the plot I was still keen to find out what would happen to her and her companions and it kept me turning the pages until the last.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publishers through Netgalley, in return for my honest review.

Sinful Folk is published by Campanile Press.