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 L├╝beck, 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.