Monday, 28 September 2015

Book Review - The Contrary Tale of the Butterfly Girl by Ishbelle Bee



I know the old cliché is to 'never judge a book by its cover' buh a cover as gorgeous as this how could I possibly resist? The blurb then sealed the deal;
A dark and twisted Victorian melodrama, like Alice in Wonderland goes to Hell, from the author of The Singular & Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath.
Two orphans, Pedrock and Boo Boo, are sent to live in the sinister village of Darkwound. There they meet and befriend the magical and dangerous Mr Loveheart and his neighbour, Professor Hummingbird, a recluse who collects rare butterflies. Little do they know that Professor Hummingbird has attracted the wrath of a demon named Mr Angelcakes.
One night, Mr Angelcakes visits Boo Boo and carves a butterfly onto her back. Boo Boo starts to metamorphose into a butterfly/human hybrid, and is kidnapped by Professor Hummingbird. When Mr Loveheart attempts to rescue her with the aid of Detective White and Constable Walnut, they too are turned into butterflies.
Caught between Professor Hummingbird and the demon Angelcakes, Loveheart finds himself entangled in a web much wider and darker than he could have imagined, and a plot that leads him right to the Prime Minister and even Queen Victoria herself…

The Contrary Tale of the Butterfly Girl is a sort of sequel to 'The Singular & Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath', true to form I haven't (yet) read that title but fortunately while it features some of the same characters (Loveheart, Detective White and Constable Walnut) it works just as well as a stand alone novel.
It's hard to write a normal review of this book because it isn't a normal book. The closest I think I can come to describe it is to think of Roald Dahl at his darkest, Alice in Wonderland, Hilaire Belloc and a bit of The League of Gentlemen all mixed together with cakes and body parts in a kaleidoscope. It's the most colourful, inventive and fun novel I've read for a long time. Mr Loveheart in particular is a complete delight of a character, Lord of the Underworld, a killer (but only of bad people) who decorates his garden with decapitated heads, and a lover of puddings,
'The tearooms appear! Manifest before me. A pot of tea and an enormous slab of chocolate cake will be mine, for I am a Prince of the Underworld, and I do love a moist piece of cake.'
Boo Boo is also a wonderful character, at first seemingly a Dickensian type orphan but after Mr Angelcakes visits her she is transformed into a deadly weapon who violently and gleefully dispatches her victims. And Loveheart and Boo Boo are the characters you'll be rooting for, evil Heap is something else again! The characters though aren't all there is to love here, the plot while outrageous and often laugh out loud funny is still a gripping and thrilling adventure.
The body count in The Contrary Tale of the Butterfly Girl is high, blood flows freely, despite my comparison to Dahl this is not a book for young children. Yet it's still a fantastical story, a nod to the brutality of fairy tales of old and Victorian melodramas while remaining fresh and playful throughout. I loved every mad moment.
Many thanks for my ARC of The Contrary Tale of the Butterfly Girl by Ishbelle Bee received from the publishers, Angry Robot Books through NetGalley in return for my honest review.


Thursday, 10 September 2015

Book Review - The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas


The Seed Collectors is centered on the Gardener family, the dysfunctional offspring of botanists who went missing years ago searching for mysterious seed-pods that have mystical but fatal powers. Named after plants - Fleur, Plum, Clem, Bryony etc - the book follows them after the death of Great Aunt Oleander, and after they are left the aforementioned seed pods in her will. Naturally in a family drama there are dark secrets to be uncovered but there is also sharp humour and a lot of sex, frequently quite brutal and loveless, and usually of the illicit kind.
I finished The Seed Collectors a few weeks ago but have put off writing a review because I'm still not really how I felt about it. I disliked the characters, any sympathy I briefly felt for a character could easily dissipate in a subsequent chapter . but that in itself isn't enough to put me off a book, I've enjoyed plenty of novels where I wouldn't want to know the characters in real life. There were parts I really liked, it's a funny, ambitious and beautifully written tale. The plot meanders between characters, there isn't a sole focus to the book, each chapter is from a different viewpoint, even from that of a robin in the garden. While I appreciated the skill involved in weaving the story I did find it all a bit disjointed, and missed the flow of a book that follows a less fragmented path. I found it was a book that I could become distracted from, there are some books that pull me in and I lose myself in. The Seed Collectors wasn't like that, I could read a chapter and love the writing but then with the abrupt change of focus lose interest and end up putting the book down for a few days.
I don't want this to be a negative review because I do think it's a  beautifully written novel with some truly thought- provoking parts, it perhaps wasn't the book for me but I can admire and appreciate it nevertheless.
Thanks to the publishers, Canongate for my copy received through NetGalley in return for my unbiased review.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Book Review - The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness




Not everyone has to be the Chosen One is the premise of Patrick Ness' latest YA novel. Instead of focusing on the likes of Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, The Rest of Us Just Live Here is about ordinary teens who are more concerned with getting through day to day life than with saving their school.
Each chapter begins with a short paragraph outlining what the indie kids - the Finns, Satchels and Kerouacs - are dealing with. They are up against The Immortals and it's a life or death battle. We are just given a glimpse of this though as the real story is about Mikey, his sister, Mel, their friends Henna and Jared and new boy, Nathan.  Occasionally their lives clash with the indie kids but they are content to let them deal with whatever the latest threat is while they contend with their own battles - OCD, anorexia, love, anxiety, parents...
The Rest of Us Live Here though is not an issues book. Mikey is struggling to cope with his compulsions but they are not all his character is. The book is more nuanced than that, it's moving and perceptive but also funny and clearly affectionate about books featuring One True Hero.
Ultimately I think it's Patrick Ness' love letter to young people. It's telling them they are important, that feeling insignificant doesn't mean they are insignificant and their problems may not be the sort that risk the lives of all humankind but they still matter. It's saying that adults remember more than teenagers might think but have also probably forgotten more than they (the adults) realise and most importantly it's a reassurance that things don't have to stay the same. Things will change, it can get better, not in a patronising "and they all lived happily ever after" type way but hang in there, it won't always feel like this.
Not everyone has to be the Chosen One but (and I apologise in advance for this pun) I hope this book is one chosen by many people. (I'll get my coat now, you go and buy the book.)

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is published in the UK by Walker Books

Monday, 29 June 2015

Book Review: The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul E. Hardisty



The Abrupt Physics of Dying isn't the sort of book I'd be drawn to if I saw it in a bookshop so when I received my copy from new publishers Orenda Books it took me a little while to start reading it. However, when I finally did pick it up I was reminded yet again not to judge a book by its cover!
There is no gradual building of tension in this story, the reader is immediately thrust into a nail biting thriller as the main protagonist, a South African former soldier called Claymore Straker has been kidnapped by Islamic terrorists along with his driver, Abdulkader in Yemen. Straker now works as an engineer for an oil company who unsurprisingly have some dodgy morals. Until now Straker while unaware of the worst excesses of the company he works for, has been complicit in their shady dealings and has been responsible for offering dozens of bribes to local officials to facilitate business. However, what is first a reluctant investigation into the sickness afflicting the village of Al Urush, carried out at the behest of his kidnapper in return for Abdulkader's life eventually becomes something more personal, a desperate race to expose the truth and to stay alive.
The Abrupt Physics of Dying has been described as an eco thriller as it exposes the dark side of the oil business where money is all and children poisoned by polluted water are seen as acceptable collateral damage in the quest for wealth and power. What I thought was going to be a forgettable page turner actually turned out to be something far more thoughtful, both on a wider scale and at a more personal level as the story examines the dehumanising effect of conflict on Straker. The writing is beautifully descriptive, Yemen is vividly and evocatively brought to life yet alongside this the action is often unflinchingly and brutally violent. It's not without its flaws, as seems typical with this sort of thriller it did at times seem as if Straker had almost super powers, such was his ability to keep going despite suffering horrific injuries. And despite my praise for the descriptive language I did occasionally feel it became a little too wordy, it's a long book that perhaps could have been a little shorter without losing any of the thrust of the story.
However, despite these small reservations it was a book I enjoyed very much, an intelligent and contemporary thriller with plenty of twists, Straker is an interesting character with much potential for future books and his love interest, a journalist called Rania is strong and likable and importantly more than just window dressing, I suspect there is more to be revealed when it comes to her character. The front cover compares the book to Bond and Bourne and I can easily imagine it as a movie, I believe it would transfer well to the big screen. I look forward to the next instalment having learned my lesson!
Thanks to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for my copy sent in return for my honest review.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Book Review - Return: Book Three of the Matt Turner series by Michael Siemsen



You know how sometimes you come across a book you fall in love with? Then you search out previous works by the writer, devour them and are then left to tap your fingers waiting for their next book to be released? After reading The Many Lives of Samuel Beauchamp (one of my best books of 2013), Michael Siemsen became one of those writers for me and so I've been impatiently anticipating the publication of Return, the third book in his Matt Turner series.
For those not yet acquainted with Turner, he is a highly sensitive psychometrist; he has the ability to discover facts about people or events by touching inanimate objects.
As with the previous two books, Turner's talent is in demand and he is sent a request to read historical objects in order to find out what has been kept secret. Naturally the person wanting his help isn't asking for altruistic reasons and Turner's involvement is likely to put him in danger. The Matt Turner we meet in Return however, is very different from the man first introduced in The Dig and then follow again in The Opal. He has matured, has come to terms with his extraordinary gift and learned more about controlling it. This story alone is an exciting and often tense thriller but what really sets the book and indeed series apart is that we are treated to a second story, as we learn about the imprints Matt reads from the object. In this case he has a keystone from the Great Library of Alexandria and so we also follow the exploits of Patra, a female steward desperate to protect the scrolls held in the Library knowing an invasion from Rome presents a terrible danger to the citizens of Alexandria and the wealth of knowledge held there. What could be confusing works perfectly, the story switches from present to past and across the continents but the pace never lets up and any slight disappointment as the action moves away from a particularly tense moment soon dissipates as the reader is caught up in the next stage of the story.
There is always a worry when you love an author's books that this one will be the one you don't love. Happily this is not true for Return, it's an intelligent and exciting adventure that not only kept me turning the pages but also inspired me to read more about Ancient Egypt and some of the events and people portrayed in the book. If you haven't yet discovered Michael Siemsen and Matt Turner then I recommend you start with The Dig but rest assured Return is a treat to look forward to.
Meanwhile I'll be tapping my fingers again...!

Return is published by Fantome.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Book Review - Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig



On 13th August 2012 my brother killed himself. In the days, weeks and months that followed I found some respite in books from the multitude of conflicting thoughts that had invaded my brain. So I read, and I read and I read... When it was too dark to read I listened to audio books. Reading transported me, if only briefly, to a place where I wasn't overwhelmed with the pain, the guilt, the hurt, the anger...
Then, in June 2013 I read The Humans by Matt Haig. Although by then the raw grief had subsided I still felt lost. The Humans became both my anchor to cling to when the world felt too fast and the beacon of light I so desperately needed.
When Matt first said he was thinking of writing a book about depression I fervently hoped that he would. I'd read his blog posts about the illness and had found them honest and insightful. After my brother's death I'd started my own blog, at first as an outlet for my grief but it's since become my way of talking openly and honestly about mental illness and addiction, hopefully in some small way helping to reduce the stigma around these illnesses.
I didn't really understand depression when my brother died, I still don't truly because I've never been depressed but since then I have read as much as I can to try and better understand and now in Reasons to Stay Alive I have a book that I know I will turn to time and again, for answers, for advice and for hope. It wasn't always an easy read, to read of the pain Matt felt and to know my brother must have felt something similar until that day when it overwhelmed him and he could take it no more. However, despite having to stop reading a few times I constantly found myself drawn back to the book, I thought about points raised when I wasn't reading it and it became a book I needed to read regardless of how hard it was.
I can't bring my brother back, he never found his reasons to stay alive. What I can do now is to not shy away from conversations about depression, to listen and to learn. That's why Reasons to Stay Alive is so invaluable, for those suffering from depression it's somebody telling them they're not alone, they're understood and most importantly that they can get better. To quote from the book,
"It may be a dark cloud passing across the sky, but - if that is the metaphor - you are the sky.
You were there before it. And the cloud can't exist without the sky, but the sky can exist without the cloud."
For those of us who desperately want to understand here is somebody telling us; it's searingly honest, wise and beautifully written. In a world in which mental illness is still stigmatised, when people still feel they should "admit" to depression or are scared to say they suffer for fear of how it may affect their family lives or their jobs, we need to keep having the conversations, to bring the subject into the open. It's too late for my brother, my hope now is that other families can be spared the pain we feel and that those afflicted by this terrible illness can find the belief that it can get better. Reasons to Stay Alive is a book everybody needs to read.

Reasons to Stay Alive is published in the UK by Canongate.

(My blog about coping with my brother's suicide can be found here; After Simon)

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Book Review: The Liar's Chair by Rebecca Whitney



The Liar's Chair isn't a novel that eases you gently into the story, on the first page we learn that married Rachel is having an affair and is now driving back home, still drunk from the night before. Within a few pages she will run over and kill a homeless man then conceal his body in nearby woods.
Not a character to warm to then, yet Rachel whilst never a likeable character is at least somebody to pity, unlike her manipulative and abusive husband, David. The Liar's Chair is certainly an unusual book in that it's hard to think of any redeeming qualities for any of its characters; Rachel's lover Will is possibly the easiest to like and he's a cocaine dealer.
Nevertheless despite the lack of protagonists to warm to, this is a book that hooked me, it follows Rachel's life as it spirals unrelentingly out of control, as she goes from being a successful businesswoman in a marriage that to the outside world looked perfect to somebody barely hanging on to her sanity and taking crazy risks that put her life in danger. David is a truly chilling character, an example of the devastating power of the abuser, both verbally and physically.
As the book progresses we gradually learn more about Rachel's past and while her present day actions often can't be excused we do at least understand more about why she has become the woman she is. My only slight criticism would be David's shady double life, it felt a little like over-egging the pudding, we already know he's a bad person but I'm not sure it was completely necessary or entirely believable for the boss of a reality TV production company to also become so involved in organised crime. However, despite my questioning the believability I can't deny it helped ratchet up the tension so I won't say it didn't work, just that it made me raise an eyebrow now and again.
The Liar's Chair isn't a light and cheerful read, it's disturbing and twisted meaning I can't say I enjoyed it as such but it's a brilliantly written and constructed psychological thriller that I couldn't put down.
With thanks to Sam Eades and Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan for my copy of The Liar's Chair, published in the UK now.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Book Review: Death in the Rainy Season by Anna Jacquiery



Death in the Rainy Season is the second novel in the Commandant Serge Morel series but true to form I haven't yet read the first book, The Lying-Down room. It's always a concern when reading subsequent books in a series without having read the first, do I need prior knowledge of the characters for this book to make sense? Thankfully in the case of Death in the Rainy Season the answer is no and while I intend to read the first book now I felt this one can be read and enjoyed as a standalone book as well as part of a series.
Set in Cambodia, the story begins with a break-in and we almost immediately learn there has been a murder, the house-breaker knew the victim but at this point we don't know if he was responsible for his death. We soon find out the victim was Hugo Quercy, a Frenchman working for a NGO, Kids at Risk. Crucially he was the nephew of the French Interior Minister who is concerned there may be a political scandal and so Commandant Morel, currently holidaying in the country his mother was born in, is reluctantly brought in to assist on the case.
Death in the Rainy Season isn't a heart-racing thriller, instead what we're given is a novel superbly crafted to slowly remove the layers as secrets and lies are gradually revealed. Often dark and with an uncompromising look at the seedier side of life it's a deeper and ultimately more fulfilling book, one to immerse yourself in, with its vivid descriptions of Cambodia and in particular Phnom Penh. It's more than just a crime novel, exploring as it does the effects of Pol Pot's brutal regime, both on families who lived through it and those who managed to flee. If I have any criticism it would be that perhaps the subplot was tied up a little too easily, I'd have liked a little more tension there first. However, this is only a minor gripe and this is a compelling novel I thoroughly enjoyed.
With many thanks to Sam Eades and Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan for my ARC, Death in the Rainy Season will be published in the UK on 9th April 2015.