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Monday, 12 June 2017

Review: Ruby Red, Linzi Glass

Johannesburg and Soweto might not be far away geographically but are worlds apart socially and politically. Ruby, from an extremely privileged area in Johannesburg, is caught between two worlds. With a politically active father and mother, who both do their utmost to help the oppressed black population, she knows the necessity of keeping secrets and acting as if her family is no different to anyone else.

After her mother discovers a young black artist called Julian at a local underground art show, the need for secrets becomes even more apparent - especially when people from his own neighbourhood want to bring him down. After a brutal attack, Ruby's parents bring Julian to live with them permanently so he can paint in safety.

Meanwhile, while watching her school's rugby team play fiercely against a local Afrikaans school, Ruby inadvertently gets caught up in another world that's as fiercely off-limits as mixing with black people. She makes friends with an Afrikaans girl - Loretta - and starts dating Loretta's brother, Johann.

But mixing different worlds in a country where a different skin colour or speaking a different language can erupt quickly into anger and chaos, Ruby finds it increasingly difficult to be her true self.

It's a brilliant YA book that delves into the themes of identity; being true to yourself and the cost that can require; first love; and dealing with villains at high school. All of this is set cleverly against a country that is at the height of oppression but it's slowly becoming clear that the oppressed are not going to take it for much longer. Ruby is a very impressive heroine, and it's great to see a book in which a character's relationship with her parents - both of whom are still living - is so thoroughly explored. Each of the characters, however minor, has their own arc drawn out in detail, and while the ending is not necessarily a happy one, it feels right for the plot.

It's definitely a story I would recommend, for YA and adults alike.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Review: The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Hector Bowen - most famous for his stage name, Prospero the Enchanter - receives an unexpected surprise in the form of his young daughter, Celia. Her mother has committed suicide, so Celia is now solely in her father's charge. Upon finding out about his daughter's powers, however, the prospect does not seem so bleak to Hector, and he instead looks to see how he can use her. He calls his old friend, Mr A-H-- and proposes a contest between his daughter and someone of Mr A-H-'s choosing. The rules of the contest are unspecified to the reader, but known completely to the two competitors.

About a decade later, a man called Chandresh Christopher Lefevre, at one of his famously mysterious midnight dinners, brings together an illustrious group of artists, renowned in their respective fields. He proposes a new form of circus but unlike any other the world has seen. It was be solely at night; it will arrive in its locations without warning; it will be an ever-growing circus of many tents; and only the best and most magical performers will be on show.

Marco - Chandresh's assistant and Mr A-H-'s chosen competitor - and Celia Bowen meet as Celia auditions for the circus. Marco soon realises that Celia is to be his opponent, whereas Celia does not realise this for some years.

The story is told in a series of episodes, flitting back and forth between years, sometimes the previous century, which can get confusing but also could be representative of the unpredictable nature of the circus itself. The episodes are either from a specific character's viewpoint, or written in second person as the reader is guided through the circus itself. The characterisation is deep and complex - a great feat considering the size of cast - and the circus itself is rich and magical. You can find yourself envious of the reveurs, (dreamers) - the biggest fans of the circus who make it their life's mission to follow the circus as much as they can.

You could stay absorbed in the world of the circus forever, but as time goes on, the cracks begin to show. Celia is holding the circus together. Several features of the circus itself, like the ever-burning bonfire, are key elements without which the circus would break down but themselves getting harder to hold. Celia and Marco, after discovering their unintentional rivalry, find themselves slowly falling in love, and weary of this contest between them. All of this points to the finale ending in tragedy - but I won't spoil it. Suffice to say, it's a suitably enigmatic and satisfying ending for a story that contains as many moving and surreal parts as it does.

It's really a triumph of imagery and atmosphere, with many endearing and sympathetic characters that you hold in admiration and wonder. Pity is there as well, knowing their lives are not completely their own because of the ego and ambition of Hector and Mr A-H. It's an incredible feat of writing.

Review: Thin Air, Michelle Paver

Five Englishmen set out on a quest to conquer the third highest peak in the world - Kanchenjunga. The night before they set off on their journey,  Stephen - our narrator - stumbles into the presence of Charles Tennant, a mountaineer who joined the team of Edmund Lyell in 1907.  Charles Lyell, however, warns him not to go ahead with the expedition, but will not explain why. All Stephen knows is that, for some reason, Charles is still terrified by what happened.

The closer the team get to the mountain, the more Stephen feels a malevolent presence around them. The higher they get, the more they have to contend with - not just mentally, but physically. Mountain sickness, freezing temperatures, frostbite... and, in Stephen's case, the presence of what he is sure is a ghost.

He finds this to be the case - Arthur Ward, one of the members of the Lyell expedition, was reported dead but his body never found. As Stephen finds out the shocking truth, the closer he is to tragedy.

The plot itself is fairly simplistic but it's the slow-build suspense of it that makes it a really enjoyable read. There is gorgeous and atmospheric description of the journey towards the mountain itself, and a frank representation of British imperialistic attitudes and treatment of the "coolies" and sherpas that makes post-colonial Brits feel embarrassed. Without them, after all, not a single Westerner would have ever climbed up to the summits of the highest peaks in the world.

I found this more of a suspenseful thriller rather than a ghost story. It was a very absorbing read, with complex relationships between the mountaineers adding depth to the big picture of the expedition that is the main plot. I would definitely recommend it.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Review: The Hand That First Held Mine, Maggie O'Farrell

Two very different worlds and the lives of two different women are explored in this rich and deep novel by Maggie O'Farrell.

Lexie Sinclair, a woman who knows her own mind and isn't afraid to show it - even during a time when that was a particularly undesirable trait in a woman - catches what seems the luckiest of breaks, even though she doesn't want to acknowledge it at first. A man and a broken down car is all it needs for Lexie to seize an opportunity to up sticks from her stifling home in Devon and carve out a life for herself in London. She falls in fiery, passionate love, suffers a tragedy and yet carries on, and works hard to give herself the kind of life she wants and deserves. I loved her tenacity, her determination, her resolve to do what she wants and be beholden to no man, whatever their relationship.

Elina, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. Unrecognisable from the woman she was before she went through a horribly traumatic birth that she doesn't even remember, her days are spent with her newborn living through moments that feel like eternities, wondering if this is all her life will be. I found O'Farrell's narration of Elina's life painfully recognisable - but even if you don't, you can't help but feel a gutting sympathy for her. Not only is there the baby, though, but her husband, who seems to be going through strange lapses relating - he thinks - to his loss of memories of his childhood.

It takes a while before you see how the stories are connected, but when you do it's with a gasp of, 'oh no'.

The writing is heartrending, painfully authentic, and beautiful. And the ending hits you like a smack in the face. Don't finish it at night. Personally, I had to wake my husband up so I could sob all over him. Luckily for me, he took it with good grace.

If you enjoy writing that is elegant yet sucker-punching, a story with romance but without the cheese, and are not averse to a bit of story induced sobbing, then this book is for you.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Review: Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys

With the seeming overabundance of historical fiction about World War Two, it's sometimes hard to find a story that is a completely fresh perspective on this period (which isn't to say those stories aren't good). With Ruta Sepetys' novel, "Salt to the Sea", you find something that is fresh, well-written and absorbing, and educational.

The book is divided between the POVs of four people - Joana (Lithuanian), Florian (German), Emilia (Polish), and Alfred (German), each haunted by dark secrets that are revealed in turn.

Joana, Florian, and Emilia are fleeing Eastern Europe with the Red Army hot on their heels. They have heard the horror stories. They also know that no official evacuation orders have been given so they have to be careful. Their aim is Gotenhafen, where evacuation ships await - so they hear. 

They meet in a forest under extreme circumstances. Emilia, beset upon by a Russian soldier, is saved by Florian just in time. Though he has no interest in her tagging along with him, she does so anyway. They meet a small group of people, of which Joana is a part. Other characters include a cobbler dubbed 'The Shoe Poet', a blind but extremely perceptive girl called Ingrid, a small boy whose grandma did not wake up, and a woman called Eva. They travel together towards Gotenhafen, though some of them are uncomfortable with having Emilia as part of their group. 

The group reaches Gotenhafen, but it is here that disasters start to happen. One of their number is lost beneath the ice. Gaining boarding passes for the ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, is immensely tricky. And even once they are on the ship, all is not yet safe. 

The short chapters really help with the sense of pace and urgency these characters would be feeling in their flight towards the ship, and the promise of safety. Certain events are told from more than one point of view, just so we can feel empathy in all its forms. If this was on a cinema screen, the camera would often be darting around every few seconds. As each secret is revealed, your empathy is necessarily increased. None of these characters were necessarily persecuted in the way that we know victims of the Nazi regime were treated, but that does not render the devastation of their lives any less awful. These characters have lost every part of their lives but their own bodies - and even then, they are not fully perfect. It seems so important to have stories like this that tell just a small part about the tens of millions of lives in between Germany and the Soviet Union - the Soviet Union may technically have been on the Allies' side, but it was no less brutal than any other country who took part in the war. 

I would encourage everybody to read this if I could. Books about the Holocaust, the fighting in Britain, France, Germany, and other European countries will not become less important, but we need more stories like this, stories of civilians who suffered immensely just because they were in Hitler's sights for lebensraum. 

Review: Whispers in the Sand, Barbara Erskine

"What you need, my dear, is a holiday." So says our protagonist's (Anna's), Aunt Phyllis, during Anna's visit following a recent divorce. Phyllis speaks of Anna's great-grandmother, Louisa Shelley, a renowned artist, and Anna becomes inspired to retrace Louisa's journey through Egypt. Armed with Louisa's diary and mysterious small glass bottle, Anna books herself onto a cruise.

As soon as she arrives on the cruise, it becomes apparent that two men (Andy and Toby) are competing for her affections - but is it her affections they desire, or her diary and bottle? Both seem eager to examine the two possessions, and Anna has to struggle to fight them off. Not only is it them she finds herself battling against, however, but it soon transpires that there are mysterious and malevolent presences around Anna. 

She confides in Serena, a woman who partakes in the mystical arts, most notably those of a modern-day Isis worship. She sensitively explains and explores what could be happening. 

The longer the journey goes on, the more intense these presences get - and they no longer affect Anna alone.

Interspersed with Anna's story is that of Louisa Shelley, whom we get to know through Anna reading the diary. Louisa was gifted the bottle by her dragoman, Hassan, whom had no idea of the apparent curse surrounding it. For the most part, it causes no trouble except for when an English nobleman tries to wrestle it off Louisa, which leads to tragedy. 

This was a very enjoyable read, with a a blend of historical narrative, exploration of ancient mysticism and spirituality, and gorgeous descriptions of Egypt's landscape. There was one bugbear, however, and that was the ending. It just stops without a final resolution. Erskine wrote an "Afterthought" in which case she deliberately wanted to leave the story there, but it left me feeling unsatisfied. I know books, once finished, become independent of their authors, but I wanted to know Erskine's ending, not imagining one of my own. 

I would recommend this book, but if you would feel frustrated at a non-ending, like me, it might be best to leave it as it's not the shortest of reads!

Monday, 3 April 2017

Guest post: Dan Whitehouse

Today's post comes from Dan Whitehouse, from an organisation called "Into Forward."  Into Forward is a cutting edge, industry recognised technology and future trend predictions blog. We use a special blend of machine learning and search data for all our trend predictions! Plan from three years from now and you'll never fail. We'll share all we know to keep you in the loop with the next biggest thing in technology, the markets, green tech and many more.

Dan wrote an article about Latest Books and Reading Trends. I hope you'll enjoy it!

You would think in this technological age that books would not be so popular anymore. The truth is that books are actually making a comeback because of electronic books that can be read on devices like Amazon Kindle. The popularity of digital books has increased tremendously in recent years and they are only getting more popular. Not only that, but independent authors now have an easy way to publish their own books to an audience without needing to hire a traditional book publisher or invest their own money into printing copies of the books.
Also, Amazon has a service through their subsidiary company “Createspace” where independent authors can actually self-publish printed books online. The way it works is when someone purchases the print book, Createspace will manufacture that book specially for the customer and then the author will get a royalty on that sale. This means the author doesn’t have to investment any of their own money into printing copies and then hoping they sell. Instead, they can just have Amazon print the copies when they sell and then deduct the printing costs from the money already received. As more authors are discovering Createspace, more self-published printed books are being brought to the marketplace.
Of course, it is still hard for self-published authors to get their books recognized and selling like crazy. Instead, you’ll see more publicized authors like Bill O’Reilly or John Grisham having an easy time selling their books. Bill O’Reilly, who is the host of the “O’Reilly Factor” on FOX, has published numerous books within the last few years which are still trending. These books include Killing the Rising Sun, Killing Kennedy, Killing Reagan, Killing Patton, and Killing Jesus. Despite how negative these titles may sound, they actually touch upon some very sensitive issues about great American men of the 20th century.
With all the success of movies like “Fifty Shades of Grey” and the “Harry Potter” series, the books that the movies are based on are becoming increasingly popular. Fans of these franchises are discovering additional books and storylines which have not been made into movies yet. For Fifty Shades of Grey fans, there is a trilogy of the three books that you can purchase in a package called the Fifty Shades Trilogy. It contains the books Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed. Fans of Harry Potter are currently flocking toward the bestselling book “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”