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Friday, 18 December 2015

Review: Crossed Stars, Christy Blow

Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for review. 

From the Amazon page: "Aurelia Winters, nearly drowns one cold October night. She awakens and suddenly finds herself in a strange new fantasy world called Purgatory. In this middle world lurks angels, holy and fallen, that are in a constant battle as to how they will control the fate of humans on Earth."

My first thought upon completing this book was that it was almost like Twilight with angels instead of vampires, and how much teens would swoon over Cassiel, one of the story's central characters. 

The first couple of chapters read like a picture-perfect existence for Aurelia (the main character), her mother, Clem and Clem's mother. Just when one is thinking that things are too good to be true, things start creeping out of the woodwork and Aurelia's existence isn't quite what it seems. 

The strongest part of the novel lies in the descriptions. Blow has a strong sense of space and place, and its easy to get drawn into Aurelia's world. Some of the characters are more convincing than others, the most interesting development in the character of Belial. There were also some discrepancies at the start of the novel in Cora's name, but this is ironed out as the novel progresses,

Overall, a nice, easy read, and definitely ones for fans of Twilight and its ilk.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Review: Room, Emma Donoghue

Jack, a five year old boy, lives in a single room with Ma. We meet Jack and Ma on the morning of his fifth birthday. Slowly we learn about the extent of their tiny world and how they came to be there. The answers are heartbreaking and leaves the reader with an utter sense of helplessness.

But there is hope. Ma and Jack come up with a plan for their escape, which mercifully works, and the remainder of the novel focuses on Ma's return to, and Jack's introduction to, the real world.

It's hard to imagine how a huge part of a novel that takes part in one room can be so absorbing, but that's down to how brilliantly Jack's character is constructed and how good a mother Ma is. Since they're just in this Room, she's going to make it as exciting as she can. Their games are endlessly imaginative, Jack is learning a lot despite limited resources, and she keeps him out of sight from Old Nick, their captor.

With Jack's introduction into the outside world, one of the most interesting things is his longing to go back to Room. It was a prison but it was the only world he knew, and his identity bound up with it. Adjusting to the outside world, even for Ma, is not easy.

What's also interesting is that after the escape the focus remains entirely on Jack and Ma and not on the details of Old Nick's conviction and ongoing case. Jack does surprisingly well with meeting new people and engaging in new experiences, while it's Ma who seems to regress. Eventually, they come back together and start to try and rebuild their lives.

Intensely moving, heartbreaking and told so innocently, this is a powerful tale that leaves you with a profound longing for justice, complete admiration for Ma and a mourning for lost childhood.

Review: Before I Go To Sleep, S. J. Watson

Christine Lucas wakes up in a state of utter confusion. She has no idea where she is, how she got there, or what to do next. In fact, it's a while before she realises that she is not who she thinks she is - in terms of age, anyway. She is greeted by her husband, Ben, who explains to her what has happened - she was in a terrible accident which left her without any memories after her 29th year.

When Ben goes to work she receives a call from an unknown person, Dr. Nash, whom claims to have been working with her on her memory. She agrees to meet with him, and he gives her a journal, which he says is hers. When she reads it, the first words that she is greeted with are "Don't trust Ben."

This book is a slow burner of a suspenseful thriller. The tension throughout builds so much so that the reader is constantly left with doubt of who exactly to trust. The only thing the reader can supposedly trust is Christine and the fact that she will lose her memory each night when she sleeps. Yet occasionally she has vivid flashes of memories, which both spur her on and leave her feeling frustrated, especially when she uses them to test whether or not Ben is lying to her. Though necessarily repetitive in some parts, Watson throws in just enough curveballs to keep the reader hooked while not straying from the central fact that Christine loses her memory every night, and so every morning has many of the same things to learn. Some of these curveballs are particularly heart wrenching (but I won't mention them here to keep spoiler free) and are such that they throw the reader into the arms and trust of Ben and Dr. Nash at different points.

The finale of this book contain some of the most nail-biting passages I've ever read (again, not described because spoilers). It is one of those that has you rushing ahead to find out whether or not everything will be okay, and then going back to reread while your heart slows down a bit.

I loved one of the themes of this book in particular, which was memory and how vital it is to our sense of identity. It's easy to think that our sense of identity is almost always intact, but would we think the same if we had no memory of things that had happened in our lives, things that have shaped us and made us who we are now?

Before I Go To Sleep is a powerful, moving, suspenseful story that leaves the reader thinking about so much more about Christine and her experience, and how grateful we are to have our memories secure.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Review: The Bees, Laline Paull

An hypnotic and poetic tale of totalitarian society, hierarchical mechanisms, and how one character's struggle to break from convention can result in both freedom and chaos.

Flora 717, a lowly sanitation worker in the Hive, becomes far from ordinary. Blessed with speech - unlike the rest of her sisters, Sister Sage of the priestess bees brings Flora in to the nursery to feed the Queen's new offspring. However, soon after it transpires that another bee has been laying - a violation of the bees' most sacred law (only the Queen may breed) - Flora has to leave the nursery, but not before a long encounter with the Queen herself. The Queen is kindly and loving, and to be near her is to not feel a care in the world, only the love of her Majesty. She is soon pushed out by the jealousy of the ladies-in-waiting, but it is not long before she finds a new opportunity - to fly and bring back nectar and pollen for the Hive.

Amidst all of this, Flora discovers a secret, something for which she would face The Kindness if it were to be revealed,

One of the many incredible things about this novel is the intricate way the society is built; its complexities, injustices and factions as carefully constructed as an impressive human regime. Within this context the reader is drawn into a web of intrigue, betrayal, compassion for the lowly and fascination of a world hitherto unknown.

There are other issues, too, drawn out as powerfully as they are subtle. Pesticides, for instance (though never named), and the other marks of human interference that threaten the bees' existence,

Flora is the kind of heroine over whom you agonise. Humble, loyal, devoted to her hive, vulnerable to the machinations of others and yet a born leader. Yet she is no open book as Sisters Sage think; there are things she discovers for which she will not compromise and some of the bees claim her audacity can be argued as threatening the well-being of the Hive. Yet, she remains unwavering and continues to demonstrate her love for her sisters and herself in the face of mounting obstacles.

Superbly written; richly imagined, and ethically-minded. This is no environmental manifesto but rather a vivid, mysterious and sometimes chilling reading about one of the most undervalued species on earth, whose importance to the planet is sadly ignored.

Easily one of the best and most enjoyable reads of the year.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Review: The Fire Sermon, Francesca Haig

It can be easy to read the blurb of 'The Fire Sermon' and think,  'when will this plethora of Dystopian fiction end?' as much as with vampire fiction did at the Twilight-peak days. But this is a YA Dystopian fiction you don't want to miss.

In a post-apocalyptic world torn apart by the Blast (presumably a nuclear disaster, but it's never explicit) the world becomes strictly divided. Everyone is born as twins - one perfect (the Alpha), one with some kind of imperfection (the Omega), seen or unseen.

Cassie is one of the Omegas whose claimed imperfection is hidden. She is a seer, a fact which she desperately attempts to hide from her twin, Zach, and her parents. And, for thirteen years - a record - she manages to do so until Zach, frustrated by the ostracism of their unsplit-ness, calls her on it. She is thus sent away and lives fairly quietly for a few years until men come for her to take her away.

She is taken to the Keeping Rooms, a place where powerful Alphas - one of which Zach has now become - keep their Omega twins, lest they be used against them. For almost four years Cassie doesn't even get to glimpse the outside, and is routinely mentally tortured by a powerful Omega called 'The Confessor' until she is finally able to devise an escape plan.

But she doesn't escape on her own. Having discovered a room full of tanks that keep Omegas in them she manages to free a boy close to her own age who does not remember anything about his former life. She calls him Kip and together, they break free and make for the island, a rumoured refuge for Omegas, knowledge of which The Confessor has been probing Cassie's mind for.

What makes this book different from other YA Dystopian fiction is its treatment of a particular issue, rather than just another oppressed heroine rising up to beat 'the system'. Its treatment of disability is bold, of the evils of segregation passionate, and Cassie's daring to hope that the divide might be stopped, audacious. For when one twin dies, so does the other. Cassie is pretty much the only character who sees that one death is not really one death, but two. The other good and different thing is that Haig does not cling onto characters for sentimental reasons - if it's necessary and logical for them to be let go of, then they are. Neither are the twists too 'out there' to be plausible, and when you work them out, you wonder how you didn't know all along.

Pace, plot and characterisation are well-wrought and managed, particularly the rise and fall of action vs lulls that are little more than temporary breathers for Cassie and Kip.

Overall, an outstanding debut novel, its sequel eagerly anticipated.

Review: Oh Dear Silvia, Dawn French

Silvia Shute may be one of the most interesting characters one can ever read about without her even uttering a word. We meet her in a coma, after a fall from a balcony, and one by one people close to her gather around her bedside - for their own purposes or for hers, it's never really decided upon.

This is more of a character study than a story as such, because there isn't really much story to be gained from a narrative that simply consists of characters whom do not interact with each other until the end of a book, each of whom are talking at Silvia. We learn about Silvia through several different lenses: Ed, the ex-husband; Jess and Jamie the estranged children; Winnie, the ever-optimistic nurse; Tia, the housekeeper; Jo, the eccentric and jealous sister; and Cat, the friend/lover. With Silvia being in a coma, she never gets to defend herself from the charges laid at her door, with the result that that we get several patches of a quilt that is simply unable to be sewn together.

There are several threads that French starts but doesn't quite see through to completion and by the time I finished the novel I had lots of questions - not in the philosophical sense, because it's always good to finish a novel and have questions, but questions that simply were not answered because they were almost forgotten about. Overall, it feels more like an almost-finished draft, but because French was already famous before, the amount of further editing and polishing that would be required from a non-famous author was simply skipped.

The variety of characterisation, on which such a novel necessarily relies, was good in its potential, though it does revert to stereotypes. Winnie's speech, in particular, was hard to navigate as her Jamaican accent was written phonetically and almost got stronger as the novel progressed with the result that I found myself saying the words aloud to make sense of them. Not that it's a bad thing to write in the accent of your character, but it wasn't always helpful. Tia, too, was an unfortunate stereotype - described in another review as simply, "the Asian maid who steals from her employer".

Silvia is given only one redeeming feature in the book - I'm assuming the purported 'secret' which the blurb hints at - but it is one of those threads that is started but not finished, so we don't get to see Silvia in the light in which she could have been presented. All we see of her is the cold wife, the distant and unforgiving mother, the cruel lover. The only chance she gets is from Winnie, the nurse, and the 'what ifs' providing she wakes up from the coma.

In summary, it's an interesting book that never quite stretches to an actual story, despite its interesting characters and flashbacks.  

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Review: The Immortals, S.E. Lister

I was incredibly excited when Sophie asked me if I would like to read and review the novel ahead of its September released. I absolutely loved her debut, Hideous Creatures, available here:

So, The Immortals. The protagonist, Rosa Hyde, is the daughter of a time-traveller - she and her family are stuck in 1945, forced to relive that year over and over again. As she grows older, she longs for something more, even if it means breaking away from her family.

Eventually, she manages to do just that and her first taste of a new time takes place in our very own. Equally fascinated and terrified, she spends a great deal of time in London before slipping away to a previous century. Here she meets Tommy Rust, a veteran of time travel, who shows her the ropes. They slip in between decades and centuries, sometimes together, sometimes separately. Their journeys are vast and breathtaking, but eventually they take their toll, no matter what Tommy thinks, certain of their immortality.

The premise of the story is bold and ambitious, and it does not fall short of the mark. The journeys Rosa and her fellow time travellers undertake are as complex and rich as the characters themselves. One minute, you're in a feasting hall watching Rosa teaching her hosts about the wonders of the future, and next you're at the beginning of the world, freezing and desolate, thinking about life and what it all means.

There are so many layers to this story that S. E. Lister weaves in so effortlessly it's almost unfair. The yearning to belong somewhere, with someone, while wrestling to be free. The fun and fanfare of fabulous riches and adoration while you wonder if there is more to life. The difficulty of facing your own mortality. In Rosa and Tommy's case, this becomes far more painful when they've lived their life on a plane far different from others'.

The novel is awash with beautiful descriptions and strong settings of place, so even when it's time to move on to the next destination the reader has a keen sense of what has been left behind, sometimes mourning for it like Rosa does. I had no idea how a novel like this could possibly end, but Lister handles it brilliantly. It's a fitting close for a story that dared to do and show so much.

Review: Godiva, Nerys Jones

Britain, 1045. A mere 21 years before the Normans storm the UK, and Britain is a hotbed of conspiracy and ambition. Godiva and her husband, Earl Lovric of Mercia, are drawn against their will into the games of King Edward the Confessor and must fight for their family and their lands. 

The novel opens with a murky, almost despairing description of Coventry and the daily toils its inhabitants face. As if using a bird's eye view the reader is taken to the manor at Cheylesmore, the dwelling of Godiva and her husband, Lovric, whom has just returned home. His news for Godiva includes relating that their sons are in danger, and that King Edward the Confessor has demanded her presence in Winchester. Their journeys back and forth test loyalties, bring up conspiracies, question their very faith, and above all measure their ability to play the game that they have unwittingly been placed into by their King. 

Godiva is a brilliantly crafted character in this book. Not only ruled by passion for her family, she channels that into being the leader that her town really needs her to be. She is plagued with anxiety at the thought of being a pawn in Edward's game, and is constantly second-guessing herself, but she keeps up business for her people, putting them first in a way that many as rich as her would not. Her husband, Lovric, is similarly complex. He is a warrior, but he knows that cannot always be the first course of action. A man of many secrets, he loves clearly loves Godiva and is unlike most men of the time in that he lets Godiva seemingly be the leader in Coventry. 

Edward the Confessor was the most interesting character for me. Since he is usually little more than an acknowledgement in the story of the Norman Conquest, it was surprising and fascinating to see how the author had fleshed him out. He is not simply a pious man as History titled him. In fact, it was difficult to know whether he was pious at all, or whether it was just all a veil. 

Where characterisation soars, however, the use of language sometimes seems quite clunky. Adverbs are strewn all over the place, and quite often there is the dreaded use of "telling, not showing", which didn't seem consistent with the otherwise sophisticated and clever narrative. 

Overall, however, this book was an interesting and enjoyable read. There doesn't seem to be much historical fiction about the Middle Ages, so this retelling of a myth that has endured for nearly a thousand years, in a way that is compelling and invites the reader to discover the truth, was a very welcome discovery.  

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Review: Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

A post-apocalyptic world with a difference.

This isn't about kids fighting each other to the death at the mercy of the small, powerful elite, nor is it about challenging in the system while hiding within it.

This novel begs the timeless question about what it means to be human.

Arthur Leander, an ageing Hollywood actor, dies on stage while performing King Lear. That same night, a virus arrives in Toronto and, within a few weeks, 99% of the world's population have died. The story is constructed through flashbacks and present day, following the lives of a few different characters, whom are connected in fragile ways, but nonetheless their stories are in part bound up with each other.

There is the Travelling Symphony, consisting of musicians and actors, who travel from place to place to perform for free. While it might not seem much of a priority to keep up a culture from a world now dead while there are more important concerns - namely food, water and shelter - their reasons for doing so are summed up in a Star Trek quote: "Survival is insufficient." This group is the main focus of the present day storyline, where time is now measured in years that begin from the outbreak of the virus - e.g. 20th October Year 1. They come to a settlement which they have visited before, except now it is run by a man whom only refers to himself as the Prophet, convinced that they have been saved for some higher purpose.

The flashbacks follow the story of the actor, Arthur, whom works his way steadily from small-island boy to blockbuster Hollywood hero, and in large part his first wife, Miranda, who spends years working on her own comic book series, Station Eleven, after which the novel is named.

At first it seemed strange why so much of the novel tells the story of Arthur, and the world before by extension, but when a huge focus of the novel is on what it means to be human, and what it means to live rather than just survive, it's a harrowing and moving component. The difficulties and trials of the before and after are physically different but they still face the deep questions that humanity have sought for thousands of years to answer.

The writing is beautiful, mournful, even lyrical. It is philosophical without being pretentious, and the cast of complex characters drive the plot extremely well. You are caught up in their journeys, you mourn with them and understand - at least with the older characters - their wistfulness and grief for their former world. There isn't so much a longing to be back in the data driven world, with technology at your fingertips, so much as a trying to understand the senselessness of the situation they find themselves in. There is also the need to deal with how very small and helpless they are and were in the face of so great and deadly a virus that was impossible to survive.

When I was reading the inside jacket before starting the story, I was struck by what Jessie Burton (author of The Miniaturist) said, that it left her  'wistful for a world where I still live'.  That was true of my experience reading the book. I would look around the living room where I was reading, or out the window, and feel profound relief at my safe surroundings while not quite believing it was real. The novel reached that level of immersion.

Read it. It's an extraordinary story.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Review: Rarity from the Hollow, Robert Eggleton

Note: I received an ebook copy of this book in exchange for a review.

Blurb from author:

"Lacy Dawn is a true daughter of Appalachia, and then some. She lives in a hollow with her worn-out mom, her Iraq War disabled dad, and her mutt Brownie, a dog who's very skilled at laying fiber optic cable. Lacy Dawn's android boyfriend has come to the hollow with a mission. His equipment includes infomercial videos of Earth's earliest proto-humans from millennia ago. He was sent by the Manager of the Mall on planet Shptiludrp (Shop 'till You Drop): he must recruit Lacy Dawn to save the Universe in exchange for the designation of Earth as a planet which is eligible for continued existence within a universal economic structure that exploits underdeveloped planets for their mineral content. Lacy Dawn’s magic enables her to save the universe, Earth, and, most importantly, her own family."

Rarity from the Hollow is unlike any book I have come across before. If one were to put it into a genre it would probably be classed as Science Fiction but that is too simple. There is a lot of social commentary in the book, provided through the way Lacy Dawn's family live. Her father is a veteran with PTSD and her mother is (at first) submissive, walking on eggshells because of her husband's condition, careful not to provoke his rages, and does not have enough social capacity to mother her daughter like she needs to. Consequently, Lacy Dawn is much more complex - and more messed up - than others of her age. Thanks to the 'plug in' sessions with her android boyfriend, who seems to want to download all of human knowledge into her brain, she acts as kind of a psychotherapist to the kids at school, all of whom seem far too aware for their age what is wrong with them and why. One of her best friends we soon find out to be a ghost, and Lacy Dawn regularly talks with the trees near her house who try to help her navigate this tricky stage of life. All Lacy Dawn wants to do is to save her family and make it into sixth grade.

That's just the stuff on earth. When DotCom (the android boyfriend) takes Lacy Dawn and her father to Shptiludrp, they find out that part of Lacy Dawn's mission to save the universe involves a huge amount of shopping, by taking things to sell on earth, in order to save earth from exploitation of its minerals and other precious resources. Lacy Dawn gets into tough negotiations with the Manager of the Mall on Shptiludrp, in order to protect earth, before finding out the real danger to Earth, and consequently, the universe (spoiler alert....................a mammoth infestation of roaches).

This book won't be for everyone. It certainly isn't easy reading, but it is very interesting, and a lot of what happens that seems pretty painful and messed up is authentic and tugs on the heartstrings, its authenticity no doubt due to the author's social work background. Eggleton certainly has a flair for the complex and weaving in many issues without a plot overload. It works because he gets the characters right. 

In summary, if you're up for a challenging read, and are prepared to face some hard questions and - maybe like me - tough it out through some bits, then give it a try. It'll certainly be like nothing you've tried before. 

Author info:

Public Author Contacts:

Monday, 10 August 2015

Review: The Queen of the Tearling, Erika Johansen

Shortly after her nineteenth birthday Kelsea Raleigh Glynn waits on her doorstep for a troop of Queen's Guard from the Royal Keep. They have come to bring her back to the city and claim the throne. The journey, however, is fraught with danger. Her uncle, the Regent, has placed a bounty on her head and sent the Caden, infamous and skilled assassins, to kill her before she has chance to claim her birthright.

The Tearling was founded as a socialist Utopia but quickly fell into a feudal-style class system, complete with a thriving Black Market and a slave trade - a shipment of slaves is sent every month to the neighbouring Mortmesne, presided over by the Red Queen. Kelsea decides to put an end to this as soon as she arrives at the Keep, pleasing the masses but angering the few yet decidedly powerful, particularly Arlen Thorne, the head of the Census. Meanwhile, the Red Queen tries to keep a watchful eye over the goings on in the Tearling but is unable to see Kelsea herself, much to her chagrin and (though she wouldn't admit it) growing fear.

This is a brilliant fantasy read with a Dystopian undercurrent, with a host of interesting and absorbing characters. Kelsea is a fantastic heroine. She does not shy away from danger, meets the threats to her life head on, and has an acute sense of social justice. Her nemesis, the Red Queen, is alluring but dark and ruthless, her mystery enhanced by the fact that we do not know her name or much of her background apart from that she carried out a coup to become Queen of Mortmesne and quickly conquered the neighbouring lands. The Captain of Kelsea's guard, Lazarus, is fierce, perceptive, smart and unflinchingly loyal. And Carlin and Barty, Kelsea's foster parents, though not seen much on the page are shown to be extremely brave, clever, wise and insightful.

The main moral dilemmas in the story manifest in a man called Javel, a gate guard, whose wife was taken in the shipment some years previously, and who has to decide whether he will do business with Thorne to get his wife back despite knowing that there will be a heavy price to pay in terms of humanity.

All at once this novel is an adventurous fantasy, social commentary, a challenge to belief systems, examinations of different forms of evil, and uncomfortable moral questioning. It's a story that absorbs you and forces you to think deeply about the questions it poses. It is well-paced and structured, with viewpoints of different characters showing the reader the different parts of the Tearling and Mortmesne. Through the different character perspectives we see a range of motivations, fears and hopes of those who live in the Tearling. It's a highly accomplished debut that promises future literary gold from Johansen. The Queen of the Tearling and its sequels certainly promise to be an obsession, and probably one of the best trilogies of recent times.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Review: Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey

We all know the feeling of going into a room and forgetting why we've gone in there. Sometimes I ask someone a question and they answer, but I've forgotten the question I asked in the first place so the answer makes no sense. And I'm sure most of us have left the hob gas on without meaning to, or boiled the kettle only to remember it thirty minutes later so we boil it again.

Thankfully, for most of us, these experiences are sporadic. Not for Maud, however, our protagonist. At about eighty years old, she is living this, hour by hour. The only things that keep her anchored are the notes that she keeps in her pockets, but even some of them confuse her because they may be old and irrelevant. Except for one. Her friend Elizabeth is missing, and despite what anyone tells her she is convinced of that fact and will do anything to find out the truth, no matter how frustrated she makes her carers and daughter, Helen. The trouble is, any time she tries to do something to solve this mystery, she forgets what she's doing as she's doing it, or doesn't remember that she has done something already. This storyline runs parallel to another mystery, this one much older - that of her sister, Sukey, and her mysterious disappearance after the end of the Second World War.

Part mystery, part crime, part thriller, "Elizabeth is Missing" is a confident, dramatic, moving debut from Emma Healey. Wandering through life with Maud is a bit like trying to see everything through frosted glass - you can almost make it out but the uncertainty leaves you with nothing but frustration. It's a sad, haunting portrait of someone living with Dementia, and the worry and stubbornness this can bring, portrayed so well through Maud. Simultaneously scared of being a burden, and cross at being treated like an imbecile, the sheer energy is takes to make it through a day living with this condition is vividly shown. It is structured interestingly, with small details of the older Maud's life evoking old memories, which tell the story of her missing sister, Sukey. Sometimes the memories overlap, so Maud can be talking to an old character in her present.

Eventually the reader comes to know that the real question of the novel is not what happened to Elizabeth, but something altogether darker and more tragic. The ending of the novel gives a good sense of closure while leaving the reader in no doubt of what Maud still has to contend with as life goes on.

"Elizabeth is Missing" is the kind of story that can keep you reading on into the early hours of the morning, and it's astonishing to think that this is the author's first novel. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce

I'd seen this on the shelves of Waterstones, and had even bought it for a friend, but it took a while before I picked it up myself. While searching for holiday reads, though, it seemed to be a good candidate.

Harold Fry lives with his wife in Kingsbridge, almost as South as one can get in England. A recent retiree, his days seem to consist of quiet, routine boredom - until, one day, he receives a letter from an old friend, Queenie Hennessy. The letter tells him that Queenie has cancer, which he has no idea how to bear. He spends a long time trying to write a reply, but in the end words fail him and he writes a rather lame apology for her situation. He takes it to the postbox, but knows that once he posts it through, he has to return home. He walks a bit further to the next postbox, to the post office itself, to the post box beyond. It isn't until he has an unlikely conversation with a girl who works in a garage that his brainwave happens upon him, and it is with some glee that he decides to walk to Berwick-upon-Tweed - approximately five hundred miles from home. By doing this, he believes he can help save Queenie's life.

There are plenty of moments for Harold to doubt himself, particularly in the beginning when he is trying to explain to people what he is trying to do. To his surprise, however, most people are rather taken with the idea and offer encouragement and support. He wishes his wife, Maureen, could do the same. Their marriage has been one of coldness and silence for the past twenty years and he knows what she would say to such a quest like this, but he is desperate for her to understand.

It is very apparent that Harold is not walking to Queenie because he is in love with her. She really is just an old friend, but one whom he feels he has let down and this walk is some kind of atonement. During the walk we meet characters whom act almost as beacons for Harold, from the first woman to offer him water and a sandwich, to a doctor from Eastern Europe whom can only find work as a cleaner in England. The walk also becomes more than trying to save Queenie - Harold is trying to find himself, and figure out who he actually is. Through flashbacks and memories the pieces of Harold's character are filled in, which paint him rather tragically to some degree, but with the effect that you cannot help but cheer him on. Haunted by his mother's abandonment, his father's neglect and his own failings as a father, he is desperate to atone for all his perceived sins and come to some place of peace in one area he believes he can make amends in.

Joyce employs description to great effect in this novel, and the reader feels transported to walking alongside Harold, drinking in the same scenery that he is. She paints the cities through which Harold passes as almost fatal distractions to Harold's walk, scary places that threaten his journey through otherwise simple and peaceful countryside. Each chapter is structured as a new piece in a patchwork quilt, both completing the map of Harold's walk and filling in information about himself. Her characterisation of primary and secondary characters is polished - there is no one in this novel who ought not to be there for the sake of the story.

Not only are we invited into Harold's story, but Maureen's, too, and discover the reasons for the breakdown in their marriage. She wishes she could be there but is held back by fear and the pattern of the past twenty years. She looks at who they once were and wonders whether they can ever be there again. The longer Harold is away, the more she is forced to look inwards, and decide whether to go along on this process that may eventually bring healing, or ignore what is happening and continue on as before.

Beginning at deceptively light and airy, this novel progresses towards the deep, profound, and even points of grieving. It is a gorgeous read that is both moving and entertaining, funny and tragic. Above all, it shows that it is never too late.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Review: The Mine, John A. Heldt

Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review.

Good looking, charming, and a Houdini of impossible situations, Joel Smith is just about to finish college when he makes a decision that literally alters the course of his life. While exploring an abandoned mine in Montana he comes across a portal that sends him back to 1941. His cellphone and money are useless, so with only his wits to guide him he sets off on a journey to Seattle and throws himself into a society that is gradually drifting towards war. After saving a man called Tom, who invites him home for dinner and a place to stay, he immerses himself in a solid friendship group and quickly becomes loved wherever he goes. However, as time goes on and his tracks are getting harder and harder to cover he has to make a choice. Will he stay, or will he try to go back to his own time? The decisions are difficult, especially when it comes to Grace - a beautiful, engaged woman when he first meets her, whom eventually breaks things off with her fiancé to be with Joel.

This book was an extremely enjoyable read. Time travel plots can be tricky, but Heldt focusses on the story and society in which Joel finds himself rather than swamping the reader in how he got there. The cast is an extremely likeable and relatable group, and invites the reader into their easy intimacy. It is a picture of America in a golden time for young people, with one exception - the inevitable approach of war. Joel alone knows what is coming - including the devastating Pearl Harbour - but cannot do anything about it except be there. It's a bubbling undercurrent that provides an interesting and needed tension in an otherwise picture perfect life.

Heldt's sense of place is fantastic. His use of description - detailed without being laboured - results in authenticity and a complete picture of Joel's new, small world. From bars and diners to Mount Rainier and the beach, the reader is invited into a great tour of this little corner of America and makes them yearn for such a golden era again.

My favourite character, I would have to say, is Ginny, whom Joel quickly realises is his grandmother. Smart, independent, loyal and generous, she is probably the most well-fleshed out and complex character of the group. Perhaps this is because not only does Heldt have the young Ginny to play with but also Joel's memories of his grandmother.

With an intriguing plot, good pace and characterisation, and opportunities to ask the bigger questions, "The Mine" is a story that I would highly recommend.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Review: The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

A heavy mist has settled over England as Ishiguro introduces us to his newest novel. Axl and Beatrice are two of many who have enjoyed years of uneasy peace after wars swept the land. They set out to find their son whom they have not seen for many years. Though they know they are married they know little of their lives together, and wonder if the mist is the cause of all the trouble.

Their path to find their son quickly detours as they meet the warrior Wistan, a young boy named Edwin, and an old knight and nephew of King Arthur, Sir Gawain. They travel together through the mist and rain, not knowing immediately knowing whether they encounter friend or foe along the way.

The Buried Giant is a sweeping, lyrical, dreamy story that inextricably weaves love, pain, mystery and fantasy together. As a reader it feels like you're being swept along with the characters, with no clue of where you might be taken. What becomes clear is that no one is who they seem and you quickly learn to second guess yourself as you come upon new characters. As Axl and Beatrice get closer to discovering the cause of the mist and hope to get rid of it, old memories stir but still linger out of sight.  Motives remain unclear and the main characters' peace with each other remains as uneasy as the peace that hangs over the entire land. Briton and Saxon coexist, but who knows for how long?

Axl and Beatrice are a couple whom you fear for and hope for. Despite their age they seem as innocent as children, yet the bond which ties them could not have been forged but for being many years together. Wistan, though deep, is straightforward in his purpose and quickly takes Edwin, a brave but troubled young boy, under his wing. Sir Gawain is the mystery. He preaches and pouts honour and valour and his service to his uncle, King Arthur, but his arc is complex and his character not so easy to define.

What began as a simple journey for Axl and Beatrice to visit their son develops into a quest of self-discovery. You will be moved at their love and devotion to each other. You root for Wistan and Edwin, and wonder at Sir Gawain. Ishiguro masterfully ties delicate threads of half-remembered lives into an almost fantastical tale from a time buried in myth and legend. It's nothing like the books or films you read or watch about Medieval England. The rawness and reality of the story quickly puts aside all romantic notions of that time.

Despite its bleakness the story evokes hope. Despite its pace, it is gripping. The mysteries will keep you glued to the pages and the characters will keep you watching and waiting for their victory.

A highly recommended read.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Review: The Sunrise, Victoria Hislop

This is Victoria Hislop's fourth novel and by this point it is very clear that she is a mistress of both substance and style.

Set in Famagusta, Cyprus, in 1972, the story opens with a rich, detailed and immersing description of Famagusta that is so picture-perfect it almost made me go to check out cheap flights for Cyprus (I held off). "Here was a glimpse of Paradise," Hislop writes, and I could certainly see it. The first few pages lay extensive groundwork that give the reader a secure sense of place, the better to understand the interweaving stories that follow. 

We are soon introduced to Savvas and Aphroditi Papacosta, a couple with a dream of building the most fabulous hotel in Famagusta (support by Aphroditi's father). Their vision is realised, in expensive, luxurious detail, and soon The Sunrise hotel becomes the place where anyone who is anyone wants to be. It seems set to be a perfect life for Savvas and Aphroditi, but for a few things. Aphroditi's mother is still heartbroken over the death of Aphroditi's brother, Dimitris, in the fighting between Greek and Turkish Cypriots eight years previously. This information being sown early on gives a nice undercurrent of bubbling tension - Savvas Papacosta works extremely hard to create a perfect image for his guests but there are some things even out of his control (not to say he doesn't try to fix that). 

We're soon introduced to a range of diverse and complex characters: Markos Georgious - Savvas' right-hand man - and the Georgious family; the Ozkans; and Frau Bruchnmeyer, whom came to Cyprus on holiday and never went back to Germany. At first their lives cross over but a little. However, as time goes on, and relationships and dynamics became complex - and even fraught - the cast of seemingly separate characters are drawn inexorably more and more into each other's lives, with little say so from them. 

This is none so evident as when the Turkish invade Cyprus and capture Famagusta. The bright, sprawling, jewelled of Cyprus becomes a ghost town, with but a few within - the Ozkans and the Georgious - whose lives become a fight for survival. The juxtaposition of their lives within The Sunrise, which becomes their refuge, and the narrative of life at the hotel before the invasion is startling. It is a refuge in both capacities, but for very different purposes.

Hislop gives us blue skies, golden beaches, love, heartache, thrill, fear, and more. Richly layered, this is a story one could read several times over and draw out something new each time. The main reason I will pick up anything by this author, even without knowing anything about the story, is that I can guarantee I will be entertained, moved, and be inspired to learn more about the bit of history she was woven within her narrative. Hislop's talent for writing compelling stories based on lesser known historical events is immense. If I could have read it in one sitting, I would have. A hugely enjoyable and moving read. 

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Review: Way Station, Clifford D. Simak

This is the first book in a long time that I've read in one sitting. One factor is that it was 218 pages but mainly because it is just a really really good story - incidentally, the winner of the Hugo Award in 1964.

The book opens with a description of a devastating vista that we later learn was a scene of the American Civil War of which Enoch Wallace, our protagonist, is a survivor. The language is jarring and gorgeous: silence hanging over a place which, just moments before, had been home to screams and scorched earth.

The short first chapter is followed immediately by a conversation between two men whom work for the US government. One man, Claude Lewis, approached an Intelligence Agency to tell him of his work - namely, his spying on Enoch who lives on his family farm and seemingly does nothing. He also never seems to age, and of course they are curious. The chapter ends with an astonishing - but not yet revealed- discovery, before the viewpoint switches back to Enoch.

He, of course, is aware that he is being watched. He chooses to leave well enough alone. As the keeper of a Way Station for interstellar travel - he is the only human to know about alien existence -he knows the best thing to do is simply keep his head down. His story switches between present day and flashbacks, and it is cleverly done. Something will happen in his present that reminds him of an alien visitor he once had, or something he once did. Although the flashbacks are a large part of the book they never interrupt the flow and help build up a gradual picture of Enoch's life, which also explain better his present day dilemmas.

The story itself is set in the context of the Cold War, and one scene in the book shows Enoch poring over a map, convinced that a formula belonging to another alien race that helps predict global patterns must be wrong, since everything about it points to war. With the end of World War 2, particularly the atomic bomb, being but a recent memory, he knows how devastating it would be for the world to be drawn into another all out war, this time with destruction a hundred times worse.
It is also heartbreaking on another level, because to go to war again would be forever being barred from the galactic network, of which the Way Station is but a tiny part

The cast is small and well developed. In Enoch's neighbour, a coarse hillbilly family with a deaf-mute daughter (who possesses an ability towards the supernatural), we see a real juxtaposition of broadened horizons with their amazing potential and narrow-mindedness, bent towards violence and fear at anything out of the ordinary. In the postman, with whom Enoch talks every day, there is kindness, curiosity, and a kind of pity. In Claude Lewis, who later plays a major part, there is wonder and humility. And Enoch himself is a real mix - humble, lonely, welcoming, and secretive (for good reason). It's a wonder how in such a short space of time Simak manages to capture the struggle of the human condition, a plethora of deep human relationships, addressing of profound, eternal questions, and a simply great story to boot.

This is one of the best and most enjoyable reads, and a must for any Science Fiction fan.

Monday, 25 May 2015

The Banana Tree - a poem

The second of the poems I found from my exchange trip to Kenya, aka a 14 yo's experimentation with metaphor:

The banana tree, standing there in its splendour

Its leaves green,
Its trunk tall,
Its bananas, ripening ready for the picking.

But not many people see the wilting
When its leaves go brown

They don't realise the tree's subjects aren't truly living
As they should do

They don't realise the tree's subjects are wilting

The Market - A Poem

While clearing out some old paperwork I came across two poems that I wrote while on a Student Exchange trip to Kenya in 2004. The first, called 'The Market', was inspired by a drive we had in either Kisumu or Nairobi (it's been 11 years). Anyway, I think my fourteen-year old self was on to something ;)

Into the market they're there
Children, tapping on the sheet of glass separating you from them.

A riot of noise, people starting to sing and dance
Making a pathway for us
Making us feel like celebrities
People waving and shaking our hands,
All because of our skin
Being burned by a sweltering yellow star.

There's no room for what they consider to be lessers
Being shunned aside as if they're contagious
Trying to touch our skin to see if we are what we look like.

We see the fish hut
Rotten smells and tiny scavengers with wings catch our noses and eyes.
"That is our dinner," we say.

We emerge from the cool and brave the sweltering heat,
Climb back into the machine that will carry us out
Of the town.

Out of the market they're there,
Children, still tapping on the sheet of glass

Separating us from them.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Review: The Distant Echo, Val McDermid

What would you say if someone told you that the next time you went out on the lash, a series of unfortunate events would brand you as a murder suspect?

That's what happened to Alex, Mondo, Weird and Ziggy. Four friends studying at St Andrews university, taking some well-deserved time out at Christmas, happen upon the body of a young woman in a cemetery on a freezing December night. They recognise her as Rosie Duff, a barmaid in a pub they often frequent. They run for help... and end up being treated as suspects, not mere witnesses.

The book is split into two parts. Part 1 is the discovery of the murder and the initial investigation and the reopening of the case twenty five years later. During the first half of the book, though you know the main four characters are innocent, you find yourself questioning whether it was actually one of them because it is impossible to think about who else could have been responsible. Since they live in a small town, the four characters quickly become notorious and victims of abuse, particularly from Rosie Duff's brothers. They take any opportunity they can to deliver their personal brand of justice to those whom they believe to have taken their sister's life without caring about the consequences.

Part 2 is the reopening of the case for a "cold case review" and here we meet Graham McFadyen. He is Rosie's long-lost son who had been adopted since Rosie got pregnant with him as a teenager. He sets off on his own personal mission to avenge his mother.

The story was, overall, well-paced and interesting, although it felt a little dragging in places. This could have been simply because it was reflecting the tedium of every day life and the frustrating nature of police work. It picked up much more quickly during the last third of the book, and it becomes one of those cases where you are skimming to the point of skipping in your desperation to get to the "whodunnit". McDermid does a really good job of making you think who it is, who it must be, up until the last moment coming. I didn't see it coming a mile off, though now I wonder how I could have ever thought otherwise.

Overall, a really good, engaging read with well-rounded characters. The slow boil to the climax point and aftermath is well pitched. McDermid crafts a great story with plenty of suspense and insight into the motivation of a potential killer.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Review: Coastliners, Joanne Harris

If there is one thing this novel will tell you, it is that island life, no matter how picturesque the dressing, is far from romantic. Islanders can harbour the deepest of secrets, iron-clad bonds, and grudges that seem ancient as the Classics.

Le Devin, the setting of the book, is split into two sides: La Houssinière, prosperous, tourist-friendly, and claiming the most habitable part of the island; and Les Salants, a poor fishing village with little to recommend it to the tourists that descend on the island each year. It is no surprise that rivalry has existed between the two communities for as long as anyone can remember, mainly thanks to La Houssinière's complete control over the island's only beach, the main source of prosperity.

It is into this community that Mado, the book's protagonist, enters. Returning to the home that she left when she was small in order to care for her father, she quickly sees that Les Salants is suffering from an almost incurable sense of hopelessness, and desperately wants to wake it up. She meets Flynn, someone not from Le Devin but is treated as one of Les Salants, anyway, and tries to reacquaint herself with the small community. She quickly learns to distrust Claude Brismand, a La Houssinere entrepreneur who essentially seeks to own the whole island, and openly allies herself with Les Salants with the hope that in doing so, they will allow her to help them rejuvenate their part of the island.

It's easy to get swept along in Harris' evocative style, despite the oppressiveness that you can feel at the lack of hope in Les Salants. You can almost taste the salty air, feel the crisp breeze, and your heart aches at the thought of the Les Salants community dying because no one knows how to fix it, or is willing to find out why. However, Harris gradually starts to inject hope like a drip feed. Mado finds out what is happening to the beach and works with Flynn to find a solution; the beloved Saint, lost in the sea at her own festival, miraculously returns; the rivalries within Les Salants itself is put aside for the sake of banding together and doing what they can to put Les Salants on the map. But just when everything is going swimmingly, disaster strikes. Betrayals, hurts, secrets come out into the open and you wonder why they bothered putting in the effort in the first place.

It's a story that can never have a true ending, only a kind of pause, and Harris chooses the pause well. It's difficult to say goodbye to the characters, for whom you feel admiration and pity in equal measure, as you want to know that they're going to be okay. Yet, their lives will go on; it's just unfortunate that we don't get to witness it.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Review: Chocolat, Joanne Harris

This is an old favourite that I pick up every once in a while, but had never reviewed properly. I read it again whilst on a coach to London for a school trip just before Easter - let's just say the journeys there and back were long enough for me to complete the whole book on those two legs!

Vianne Rocher and her daughter, Anouk, arrive in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes on the day of a merry carnival, just before the Lenten period begins. Vianne and Anouk travel where the wind takes them, and may have even passed through Lansquenet in favour of another location had the carnival not enabled them to take notice. Anouk is begging to stay and Vianne agrees. They rent a property and work on opening a Chocolaterie, much to the dismay of the local priest, Reynaud. On the surface, the ensuing battle seems to be between tradition versus change, but as the story progresses it becomes much deeper - as Reynaud sees it, the might of the Church being challenged by pagan beliefs that he believes will tear his flock away. Vianne hopes that the two could live side-by-side but she is not naive. She knows what her choices can cost in such a tight-knit, devout (on the surface) community. Nevertheless, she sticks to her choices and makes great friends. She becomes instrumental in the transformation of people and relationships - Josephine Muscat, Armande and her grandson, and much-needed welcome to the travelling community who stop briefly in Lansquenet, much to the dismay of Reynaud and his cronies. She quietly shakes things up and encourages people to think differently - not necessarily swaying them from their beliefs but merely to look at things for themselves rather than through Reynaud's lenses. It's a good lesson to anyone with faith or no faith, and certainly was to me. 

From the very first page, this book is a feast for the senses. Everything that Harris describes, you wish it were in front of you at that moment to devour. She blends in magical, ancient twists to the very process of Vianne's chocolate-making - Vianne relates how her mother would have decried this as a waste of talent, but Vianne is content. She knows it makes people happy, and, moreover, it makes her happy. This time around reading the book made me wish even more that I could find Vianne, drink some of her hot chocolate, have her guess my favourites and show me something that I'm missing. There are so many ways to read this book, so many messages you can take from it. It's one of those stories where you can find something different with each read. Most certainly a keeper for the bookshelves, and the soul. 

Friday, 27 March 2015

Review: The Wise Man's Fear, Patrick Rothfuss

Day 2 of the spectacular Kingkiller chronicles, during which Kvothe reveals more of his past to Chronicler and Kvothe's friend, Bast.

We meet young Kvothe again at the University, and his long-running feud with Ambrose reaches a peak, resulting in Kvothe being firmly encouraged to take a term off away from the University. Despairing, since this has been his sole ambition, and with no idea what to do, he is rescued by his friend Threpe. Threpe has been in contact with the Maer of a place called Severen. This man happens to be very rich and powerful and Threpe and Kvothe think the same thing - a patron for Kvothe may finally be in sight.

 From his quest to help the Maer find a wife, to tracking bandits, encountering the Fae and lovely Felurian, to following one of his fellow mercenaries to Adem and learning the way of the Lethani, this novel opens up so much more of this world than we have previously seen. Kvothe, who relates this in first-person, is rich is detail and gives the reader as wide a view as is possible to see from a first-person narrative.

What I found more fascinating, though, is what the reader is not told. We have breadcrumbs - we know that Kvothe holds himself responsible for the war, the scrael, and other pieces of darkness we met in Book 1 and are followed up in Book 2. We know that he and Bast are extremely good friends, but why? And why does Bast keep calling Kvothe 'Reshi'? After meeting the Cthaeth in the Fae world, the reader is given another piece of the puzzle. However, it's one of those awkward middle pieces that you know will be important once you've found its place, but finding that place is terribly difficult.

When I first started to read these books, I remember the warning one of my friends had given me a couple of years previously - maybe hold off until the publication of the third book is announced, because it's so good and it will be really hard waiting for the third one. Sage advice. As it stands, I'll probably find myself reading the first two books again way before the third is announced just to try and fill in more blanks.

This is a compelling, rich, dazzling world, highly recommend for lovers of fantasy.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

We meet our narrator on the day of a funeral. On his drive, he comes to a house that he remembers from his childhood and it stirs up old, dark memories from his childhood which he begins to explore by the pond that his friend, who he can't quite remember, called an ocean.

As he sits he remembers living in a house just up the lane, and meeting Lettie Hempstock and her family, who seem older than logically or physically possible - Granny Hempstock remembers the Big Bang.

They meet Ursula Monkton, a dark, ancient creature, in her huge, decaying tent form, and she uses the Narrator to leave her land and try to claim his family and the land for her own. Ursula seduces the family as a kindly, efficient housekeeper, while tormenting the young boy, though everyone else is unaware of it.

It's a dark, rich, tale that examines childhood memories and the dark fantasies that lurk at the edges of our imagination. It blurs the lines between what we know to be real and what could be real, especially as children, and we sympathise with the Narrator's frustration at how the family can't see who Ursula Monkton really is - a monster.

The story is gripping and never without a dull moment, and you can find yourself longing for the safety and comfort of a family home like the Hempstocks'. Highly recommended fantasy read.

Review: The Shock of the Fall, Nathan Filer

'I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.’

This book is an extraordinary insight into a man's descent into mental illness. Matthew's brother's death has haunted him for years; the puzzle has to how it happened is assembled throughout the book, and even though we see dark, tragic glimpses the full story is still heartbreakingly shocking. We don't find out the exact nature of Matthew's illness until near enough the end of the book's close, either, and though it seemed somewhat of a mystery, the reveal makes complete sense.

It is a beautifully written book, disordered and muddled in places as we try to trace Matthew's inner monologue - he seems to go off on various tangents, filling in pieces of the backstory as he goes - but it wouldn't make sense to be otherwise. It's one of those books that can fill you with such deep sadness and compassion that you want to cry but just don't feel able to. A brilliant work from a debut author.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Review: Life after Life, Kate Atkinson

What if you had an infinite number of chances to live your life over and over again, until you finally got it right?

During a snowstorm in 1910 a baby is born but dies almost instantly.
During that same snowstorm in 1910, the same baby is born but lives.
A few years later, she drowns in the ocean.
In those same circumstances, she is saved by a painter.

Confused yet?

Life after Life is an astonishing story that discusses what could happen if one had the chance to keep living your life, but a slight change of circumstance or decisions change the path.

To give one such example:
On her sixteenth birthday, a friend of Ursula's brother forces a kiss on her. When he later comes to visit her, he rapes her in a back hallway. Her aunt gets her an illegal abortion, and some time later Ursula marries a man, Derek Oliphant, who reveals himself to be extremely violent. That life concludes with him beating her to death.

In the next version of her life, on her sixteenth birthday Ursula rebuffs the brother's friend's advances with a well placed right-hook and kick to the shin. Because of this, Ursula does not get pregnant, have an abortion, or meets Derek, but instead dies in an air raid.

The book is (obviously) complex but Atkinson handles it well, mapping out each of Ursula's life with great skill. It never feels unrealistic - all of the events that happen in Ursula's different lives probably did happen to various people - and the only notion that Ursula has of all these different lives are strange premonitions, the feelings of deja vu. In several cases, she tries to take it into her own hands - when she feels a dark premonition she does something to make it go away. One such instance was pushing a maid down the stairs, resulting in the maid breaking her arm, because Ursula is terrified that if the maid (Bridget) goes to London for Armistice celebrations something bad will happen (in the previous version of life, Bridget brought back influenza from the celebrations).

My description of the above shows how it would be so easy to get lost in this kind of narrative, so richly layered and complicated, but Atkinson guides the reader through well. The repetition of certain events doesn't get stale, because you're left wondering what will change. The darker thread running through, as well, is Ursula's thought of what would have happened if Hitler had never gotten a chance to live - would World War 2 have happened? What the world have been like?

It's an enjoyable, absorbing, and heart-wrenching (in places) read but well worth the perseverance.

Review: The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss

"It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts."

Kote is an innkeeper, assisted by his friend, Bast. One night in the woods, Kote meets a man who is known as Chronicler, and saves his life from the scrael, huge spider-like creatures. Kote brings Chronicler back to the inn, and Kote is soon revealed to be Kvothe, a man of great renown. Chronicler is desperate to record his story, and Kvothe eventually agrees. From being the son of troupers, to befriending an arcanist named Abenthy, to seeing his family get murdered by the Chandrian and struggling for years in Tarbean, and finally his long trek to the University, Rothfuss maps out Kvothe's life in intricate, breathtaking detail. The language is rich and flowing, the characters leave you no option but to get attached - whether through love or hate - and the world itself is so present. It reads like a parallel reality, what the Renaissance could have been like had there been true magic in the world. And it's just so clever - Kvothe is immensely intelligent and resourceful, making his triumphs feel even more satisfying and his lows even more painful.

I don't think I've ever read fantasy that is this good. I hardly even knew where to begin this post - how does one sum up this book in just a few lines? It's the kind of book which necessitates a lot of free time to read - I started reading it on a school night (mistake) and was in the constant dilemma of just reading one more chapter or getting the sleep desperately needed to face five hours of teaching the next day. Needless to say, one more chapter usually won out.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Review: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, P.D. James

I think this may be the year when my enthusiasm for crime fiction may need to be curbed, as it would be so easy to not read much of anything else! Granted, I've only read two crime books, and by only two different authors, but they are such a thrill to read and so satisfying to find out the 'whodunnit'.

Enter Cordelia Gray, the protagonist of the book. Cordelia is clever, quick, and perceptive, and when she inherits the Private Detective business from her boss (who commits suicide at the beginning of the book) she wastes no time in diving into a case that's handed to her on a plate (a sorely needed case, as the business was not doing so well). The case is a suicide - a scientist in Cambridge had a son who committed suicide and he wants to find out why he did.

Every so often throughout the book, we're treated to a kind Guy-Ritchie-Sherlock-Holmes scene, in which Cordelia looks upon a situation remembering what her late boss would have told her - examine every detail, the kinds of details she needs to be looking for, etc.

The book is paced well, the description flowing without bogging down the reader, and just enough detail to tease without giving it away. It's not just a simple whodunnit, either - the story carries on for a while after we find out the truth, in which the motives are examined. It's refreshing, since a flat ending it seems such an easy trap to fall into.

Thoroughly recommend for anyone who wants to venture into crime fiction but doesn't know where to start.

Review: The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr.

Is it just me, or has anyone else ever read a book that you felt you couldn't quite grasp? This was that for me, at first... I honestly didn't feel, I don't know, clever enough to get into the complex narrative of it.... I haven't felt that since I tried reading "Pride and Prejudice" when I was 13. It didn't feel easy, at first, but I am glad I persevered. It's truly a wonderful fantasy tale. 

The protagonist of the story is a rooster called Chautecleer, in charge of a flock of hens. He's proud, impatient, but does care deeply for his flock. Little does he know, however, that they have been placed upon the Earth to protect it from an ancient evil called Wyrm, who is desperate to escape but cannot just yet. 

We are then introduced to another rooster called Senex, in charge of a different flock. He's old and has long lost the respect of his flock, particularly as he has not been able to produce an heir. Wyrm speaks to him in a dream, and soon after, Senex lays his own egg that hatches into a Cockatrice. Cockatrice kills Senex and rapes the hens in order to father basilisks, with the long term plan of conquering the land in order for Wyrm to escape. 

Chautecleer soon meets a hen who has escaped from this flock, though it takes her a long time to communicate the horrors she suffered. Thereafter, they have to prepare for war. 

It's a book examining the classic good versus evil, with Wyrm perhaps representing Satan and Cockatrice his servant from Revelation in the Bible. The overwhelming message, though, is hope and the importance of unity, and even though we are flawed we can keep great evil at bay through acts of kindness, compassion, and solidarity. It seems particularly important in these times when we have witnessed multiple atrocities in the short time since the start of the year: Charlie Hebdo, the massacre in Nigeria, the ever-growing threat of so-called Islamic State, and persecution around the world. This book has served as a good reminder to keep looking out for the good in the world, especially when it threatens to be consumed by evil. 

Good stories such as this. This really shows some of the best of humanity:


New Year, New books, hooray!

So, I didn't blog at all in January. Fail on my part. And I haven't been reading as much. Double fail. I've managed to carve out time for writing, but since I'm of the opinion that I need to read more than I write, the balance is kind of askew.

There are many things I'm excited for this year in the world of literature. Personally, I am thoroughly enjoying revising my work-in-progress, 'The Dome'. I read an excellent article on the kinds of things that redrafts need to involve - when I first read it I could feel my heart sinking to the floor, but the more I reflected afterwards the more I felt ready to take on the challenge. I've changed tenses and I've been brutal with examining and experimenting with every sentence and phrase, spotting how the nuances have affected the tone.

Once that is completed, I'm planning on getting back to my new novel that I started writing in the Autumn of 2014. It's much darker than anything I've ever imagined, and the narration is inspired by Joanne Harris' "Blackberry Wine." It's definitely an experiment, and it'll be fun to take my time exploring that.

There are lots of books I'm looking forward to reading this year (though, sadly, The Winds of Winter is not going to be one :( George R. R. Martin, you're breaking out hearts!) including The Fire Sermon. I've read the teaser, I've read more than a few reviews, and it's going to be really interesting to read a book where disabilities and treatment of people with them is strongly examined. Francesca Haig is, no doubt, going to be heaped with plaudits.

I've just started reading The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, and I've never examined a book so closely to try and figure out how exactly the author has made it so damned good (except, perhaps, The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King. My friend Jennie has to vet the Stephen King books I'm allowed to read, though...)

I also resolve to be on Wattpad a lot more, just because it seems like an amazing community of writers and I want to be a part of that. I also need to start experimenting again with free writing... it can be so easy to get bogged down in a first, second, third draft, and sometimes miss why I love writing - there's nothing like the feeling of creating your own worlds.

That's it for now, I guess... I've got some new reviews that need writing, after all!