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Monday, 14 August 2017

Review: The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas

Sixteen-year-old Starr is an inhabitant of two worlds. One world is the poor neighbourhood in which she grew up. The other is the private, predominantly white (she is one of only two black students), high school that she attends. For her, the two worlds means acting as two different Starrs, even in front of her close friends and (white) boyfriend, for fear of misunderstanding and ridicule.

After witnessing her friend, Khalil, being shot dead by a police officer in a seemingly unnecessary traffic stop, Starr has to make some tough decisions. Will she give witness? Will she use her voice to speak up against the authorities or stay silent as there's no way Khalil would ever get justice?

Angie Thomas' writing is powerful, authentic, and hard-hitting, from the description of the neighbourhood in which Starr lives, to the murky waters of navigating high school as a person of colour. There are some very tough passages in it which brilliantly encapsulate the struggle people of colour face when trying to get justice.

There are some bright spots, though. Two of my favourite characters are Starr's parents. They are down to earth, warm, funny, and aware of how lucky they are at this point in life. None of their children are directly involved in gangs; Starr's dad owns a store, and Starr's mum has a steady, secure job at the local clinic. Considering Starr's dad spent some time in prison going down for someone else, they are doing okay for themselves. Reading about their family dynamic - the complexity and frustration and their love - is one of the most sincere and compelling parts of this story.

Angie Thomas tells this story incredibly well, but it feels so raw because you can see it on the news, particularly in America. In fact, we pretty much have seen this story on the news, time and time again. It exhorts us to stand up for those who have been oppressed. For those of us who are privileged to check it and to use it for those whose voices are trying to be quashed. It's as much a call for justice as being a damn good story.

Review: Island of Secrets, Patricia Wilson

London-born Angelika, known in the story as Angie, decides to travel to Crete to find her mother's family before she gets married. Her mother has always been unwilling - to the point of terrified - to talk about what happened in her past. Angie tries to coax her grandmother into talking about it. 

She does, but starts the story a lot further back than Angie would like. Instead of just finding out about her mother, she finds out about the Nazi brutalities and massacres in Crete, a little known but hugely impacting event in the Second World War. Angie hears of her grandmother's loss in her son, Petro, and her fight to keep her two other sons alive. 

The story flits between past and present quite regularly, which can be quite a welcome breather for the reader. The more Angie learns about Crete, the more bound she feels there but also guilty about her mother who had not returned to the country since she left as a teenager. 

Bountiful and lush description abound along with great characters and gripping plot twists. The juxtaposition of the picturesque, tourist-trap Cretan idea with the horrors of its past are quite jarring. The more of these stories we find out about, the more we realise that the Nazis left behind more tragic histories than just the concentration and death camps. 

Though this story is a work of fiction it is based on true stories of real life Cretans, which makes Patricia Wilson's story telling even more powerful and spellbinding. 

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Review: The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, Patrick Ness

Do you ever wonder what happened to the people who aren't the Chosen Ones? Students at Hogwarts, Forks High School, the rest of the districts in the Hunger Games?

The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, does exactly that. It's a YA novel with an element of the supernatural, but focuses on the ones who aren't risking their lives to save the world. They're doing everything they can just to live.

Mikey and his friends are those in question. The novel begins with them doing what a typical high school senior is doing - trying to make it to graduation - when the world starts to fall apart around them - again. One of the so-called indie kids runs out of the forest chased by someone who is actually glowing. While curious, Mikey and his friends aren't immediately caught up in it so they go back to their own issues.

And there are a fair few, most particularly Mikey and his sister, Mel. Mel is recovering from a severe eating disorder and Mikey suffers with severe anxiety and OCD, relating to his sister's severe illness. And both of them are fiercely protective of their younger sister, Meredith, particularly against their alcoholic father and politically ambitious mother.

There's the other normal high school stuff, too, like who likes who, what's everyone doing for prom, trying to get through finals, etc, authentically written with warmth and humour.

One of the most interesting things was the structure of the book - each chapter starts with the supernatural story, yet it's very much in the background. We're made aware of its happening but it's definitely not the most important thing to our characters.

If you're a YA fan and wanting both a dose of the ordinary and extraordinary, then this is the book for you. Well-written with almost two stories running concurrently; complex characters; a balance of humour and depth (particularly with the mental health themes); The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a novel that will stay with you long after you've read the last page. 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Review: Grandpa's Great Escape, David Walliams

Jack loves his Grandpa more than anyone in the world, and doesn't care that he seems to be losing his memory and becoming more and more stuck in the year 1940. What Jack cares about is his Grandpa's stories and his love, and is genuinely excited about all the things Grandpa tells him. 

Unfortunately, not everyone in the family feels that way.

It all comes to a head when Grandpa is found in the middle of the night atop of the town church's spire, convinced he's back in his spitfire plane, battling against the Luftwaffe. After negotiating with his parents, Jack convinces them to let Grandpa live with them, so they can keep a better eye on him.

This all sounds like a great plan until Grandpa goes missing for a week and they find him asleep in a Spitfire in the Imperial War museum.

Grandpa is taken to (and dumped off at) Twilight Towers, an old people's home. But there is something suspicious about the place and Jack can't let it go...

Grandpa's Great Escape is a brilliant story that, though written for children, adults will surely love as well. It's heartwarming and funny with a genuinely good story that pulls you in and has you shouting 'No, no, no!', when you think all is lost (it's not). I'd say it's most targeted for children between 8-12 but I was laughing as much as this age group would be. David Walliams is on to another winner with this one. 

Review: Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness

The final book in the Chaos Walking trilogy. It's a long read - one that will necessitate pauses due to vicarious battle fatigue - but a great ending to the series.

The Spackle are coming, in their tens of thousands. The Return (the Spackle who escaped in book 2) has reported the monstrous crime and the Land (the actual name for the Spackle) have come to fight for their very existence.

The new settlers we met in book 2 (Bradley and Simone) are hesitant to get involved. They came to this world for peace, not to fight in new wars. But Viola (much to Mistress Coyle's delight) ends that discussion decisively when she sees Todd in danger. She fires one of the ship's missiles into the Spackle. The Spackle's near certain victory is snatched away from them.

Most of the book is a series of battles, skirmishes, and guerilla warfare. It's interesting to see how Mayor Prentiss' character develops in this one. Todd's mantra is that the Mayor is not redeemable, but we start to think he is. He chooses to do some things that are good - the reason being, according to him, that Todd is making him a better man, but his conduct over the series makes the reader think their is something underhanded going on.

Once the Spackle and the humans realise that they will come either to a stalemate or equal slaughter on both sides, peace talks begin. The Return (whose voice we also read in this volume) is dead against this and wants to ruin it. His conversations with the Sky (the leader of the Land) reveal deep bitterness, hurt, and betrayal built up over many years. He wants nothing more than to kill the Knife (Todd) yet when face to face with another human connected with Todd, he can't do it. Things have become less black and white than he thought.

Just by nature of the plot and the end game of this book, I found it the most intense and tiring of the three, but this is by no means a negative thing. Trilogies sometimes suffer their third book being the weakest and slapped together, but this is certainly not one of those. Beneath the action of the book, there are deep, necessary questions asked like, how do we live together despite our differences? How can differences in politics and ideologies be resolved without going to war? Is anyone ever irredeemable?

It's no wonder this trilogy got so much critical acclaim. From detailed world building and complex characters, to well-developed plot and uncomfortable questions posed, it's a story that will enrich you and open your mind.

Review: The Ask and the Answer, Patrick Ness

After a long and traumatic journey, Todd and Viola have made it to Haven, the very first settlement on New World. But they have not received the welcome they wanted.

Mayor Prentiss, the clear villain so far, has cleared the town so he can talk to Todd especially. He tries to break Todd early on with a clever mixture of cruelty and kindness, even more piercing with the surprise of the kindness. Mayor Prentiss is on a mission to know everything, it seems. Knowledge is power.

Viola, meanwhile, is elsewhere, healing up in one of the Healing Houses run solely by women. Mistress Coyle, the head of one of the houses, quickly gets a measure of both Viola and the mayor and plans accordingly. Her plan, as it turns out, is to resurrect 'The Answer', a insurgent group (or terrorist, depending on your lens) that helped to defeat the Spackle years ago, in order to defeat the Mayor and rid Haven (now New Prentisstown) of him.

What I enjoyed most about this second installment was all the questions of right and wrong it posed. For example, the Answer's methods are violent, but are they the right means to the end? Is Mistress Coyle the saviour she is purported to be, or just Mayor Prentiss with a different leaning? Is Todd's joining in with the enslavement of the Spackle cowardly or practical, a way of biding his time until he can help them? Carrying on despite finding out that the Mayor killed all the Spackle (but one, who he knows Todd will help escape) and blaming it on the Answer?

Todd and Viola are separate for most of this book so the reader's perimeters get wider. We see both more of New World, and more new characters, including people who have just landed in a scout ship ahead of a new settlement ship.

There is more focussed action in this book, the goal being for Mayor Prentiss to rid the town of the Answer, and for Mistress Coyle to get rid of the Mayor.

But at the end, this all comes to a halt. And what happens now signals the start of a bloody and savage battle for the right to claim New World.  

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go...

...contains probably the most fabulous first line of a book I've ever read. "The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say."

Todd is a boy in a town of only men, mere weeks away from his thirteenth birthday - the day he becomes a man, according to the tradition of Prentisstown. We find him exploring a remote part of the land in order to get away from the Noise of the town - the population are on a different planet, and when they arrived, the men caught the Noise 'germ', the consequence of which is that their thoughts are as clearly audible as the words they speak.

Out in the wilderness, though, Todd discovers something strange. A hole in the noise.

When he returns home to his guardians, Ben and Cillian, they give each other one of those looks, and send Todd on his way, instructing him to run as fast and as quickly as possible. They don't tell him why, and they don't tell him why they can't tell him (this all becomes clear later).

On the other side of the swamp, Todd meets someone who he thought didn't exist any more - a girl. It's a while before we find out her name (Viola) or why she's there, but when we do the journey becomes more necessary.

Their destination is Haven, but the distance is not their only obstacle. Hot on their heels is the mayor and the men of Prentisstown, but Todd and Viola are helped by many along the way.

It's a brilliant, explosive (sometimes quite literally) start to the series, and probably my favourite of the three. Of all the characters we meet in this book, Wilf is probably my favourite, so open and guileless and deep. It's a fast-paced read but doesn't sacrifice character or world building (helped a lot by the page count). We slowly find out answers to some of the many questions posed - what happened to the women, the noise, the indigenous species (the Spackle)... but it also opens up a lot more.

A really good read for fans of dystopian fiction and good worldbuilding.

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.”

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Review: Heartbreak Hotel, Deborah Moggach

Despite me never reading the book The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, on which the film adaptation is based, I had a feeling I would love "Heartbreak Hotel", since it's written by the same author.

I was right.

Our hero is Buffy, a retired actor with a confusing collection of ex-wives, children and step-children which requires a detailed family tree of which to keep track. One day, he finds out he has been left a B&B by one of his dearest friends (whom he consequently had lost touch with for a while) near Wales. He takes the leap and moves away from London into the shabby B&B and starts out on a little adventure.

He quickly realises, though, that he needs to offer more than the standard service - particularly because the B&B itself has seen finer days. He has an idea to run "Courses for Divorces", different things that exes might recently find themselves unable to do as their ex used to do it - car maintenance, cooking etc.

Interspersed with Buffy's plans are an array of chapters about different people whom end up on these different courses. For most, it is a welcome week away; for others, it represents the start of a whole new life.

Moggach's book is written with warmth, humour, and the belief that while one doesn't necessarily need romantic relationships, they can be wonderful to the people that are in them. It's not just romance, however - friendships are made and rekindled, pasts reconciled, and new avenues explored. It really is a little gem of a book that will keep you smiling and laughing the whole way through.

Review: The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

South Carolina at the height of segregation, and racial tension is at its highest. Lily, a fourteen year old living on a peach farm with a harsh father and a black servant (her only friend), longs more than ever before for her mother - a mother she believes she killed.

One afternoon, Lily accompanies Rosaleen to register to vote. However, three white men stand in the way. Refusing to kowtow, Rosaleen gives them a piece of her mind but unfortunately gets more back than that.

Lily helps Rosaleen break free from the hospital in which she's being kept (after said men came to the prison to beat her to within an inch of her life). The only route Lily can think of going is a route marked out by a picture of a black Virgin Mary.

The road leads them to the home of three beekeeping sisters; August, June and May Boatwright. They offer sanctuary to Lily and Rosaleen, as well as (in August's case) warmth.

Rosaleen is entirely at ease straightaway, but Lily takes a little longer since she has lied about why she has come. Fearing she might be sent away, she keeps the truth inside but her suspicions are that August knows.

Free from her father's fearsome shadow, Lily is able to rebuild herself with the help of August, whom shows her the ways of beekeeping. By the time Lily realises she needs to tell the truth, however, terrible events occur that make her hold the truth tighter still.

 It's refreshing, though, to see a historical novel about black women whom are the mistresses of their own lives, rather than trying to display their own identity within the constraints of their white masters and mistresses. The women clash and bond and look after each other, and there's no question of August, June and May being beholden to any one else. They are well known and respected in the community and the honey business does not suffer with the knowledge that the creators are black. Relationships - familial, romantic, platonic - form the heart of this story with an undercurrent of racial issues being explored. It's a rich novel with substance and depth, with much of what we know about the time being questioned within the microcosm of the Boatwright family.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Review: Little Face, Sophie Hannah

Alice Fancourt steps out of the house for the first time without her baby. It's a momentous step but hopefully just a short one. However, when she returns from her errand - visiting a gym for which her mother-in-law has paid for membership - the unthinkable happens.

She goes upstairs to check on her baby but her baby is not there.

There is a baby there, but Alice swears it is not hers. Her husband, David, thinks she's mad or lying. Alice turns to the police, but they think she's bonkers, too. What is she going to have to do to prove herself?

Eventually, the story turns not just into a question of getting Florence, the baby, back, but more. Alice sees a darker, more sadistic side to her husband and feels the suffocating 'love' of her mother-in-law even more. It becomes a battle not just for a baby, for the truth, but for herself.

It's a fantastic thriller/mystery novel, and Sophie Hannah keeps you guessing at every turn. What really is going on in Alice's mind? Who should she trust? Who should we trust? For a story that is almost closed set - the settings don't range much between the house in which Alice and David live with their mother-in law, the gym, and Alice's workplace - it is hugely absorbing and fast paced.

Fans of Gillian Flynn and the unreliable narrator style of novels will hugely enjoy this.

Review: My Husband's Wife, Jane Corry

The Husband's Wife by Jane Corry is a tense, gradually building psychological thriller that has the question "what if?" at its core. What if Lily had not come home from work early that day? What if her boss had sent someone else to interview Joe Thomas, the prisoner Lily was sent to defend? The thousands of daily decisions that we make can make huge ripples with effects even years later, which this novel explores. 

Lily MacDonald is a solicitor whom her boss has chosen to meet with a man called Joe Thomas, serving life for murdering his girlfriend. While visiting him, Lily is warned by a prison officer to keep strict boundaries, lest she become conditioned by Joe. It's our first signpost that something huge is going to happen. 

Her husband, Ed, works as a graphic designer but has dreams of being an artist. Both Lily and Ed have secrets from each other, but Lily thinks hers is too horrific to be shared with anyone, whilst Ed's later comes out during a visit to his family. 

Their neighbours are an Italian woman, Francesca, and her daughter Carla. They have never had anything much to do with Lily and Ed until, one day, Carla is brought home early by a teaching assistant and Lily offers to watch her as Carla's mother is out. 

From there blossoms what we think will be a lovely friendship, but knowing the genre of this novel, we know it will turn sour. The question is when and what the effects will be.

Just a few simple decisions means the lives of the characters end up entangled is furiously complicated ways that have devastating effects for all of them. It's a hugely addictive read - fans of The Girl on the Train and The Husband's Secret will enjoy this. 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Review: Where My Heart Used To Beat - Sebastian Faulks

Time and space are frequently traversed in this masterful novel by Sebastian Faulks. The protagonist, Robert Hendricks, is a doctor with a past that, if he's not keen to hide he's certainly keen to forget. That is until he receives communication from a man called Alexander Pereira, whom wishes to meet Hendricks and discuss a subject of mutual interest.

The main themes brought out in the novel are those of memory and the seemingly inevitability of the brokenness of humanity that must be faced. According to Hendricks, anyway. The 20th Century, to him, is that of psychosis - a century in which the world truly saw the worst of the human race. And, to be fair, he isn't exactly wrong.

From the lesser known battlefields of Italy in the second world war, a desperate love story that is so fragile and beautiful because of its necessary transience, to the search for hope through curing the seemingly invincible battles of the mind, the threads of Robert's journey are brought together and examined. Individually and collectively, they are significant, Pereira encourages him.

What Hendricks seems to fear most is an empty and wasted life. He has seen more than humans should ever seen, done both physical and mental battle, and he feels it is pointless. However, through his visits to Pereira, he starts slowly to examine them in a different way. By the end of the novel, he has found if not some sort of peace, then acceptance.

The end of the novel is, I think, the most heartbreaking and moving part of the story. An undercurrent of the novel is Hendricks' relationship to his father, or lack thereof. He was only two when his father died and his mother was unwilling to speak of him. Pereira, after much agonising, draws back the veil and Hendricks finally gets some kind of closure, but still while confirming some of his fears of mankind. However, it's not all bad. What Hendricks gets from his father is that which he needs - the knowledge that he is loved and that love, despite everything else, can bring meaning and wholeness to things that can otherwise be seen as fruitless and empty.

Review: Spindle's End, Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley brings a new shape to an old tale, Sleeping Beauty, that packs a punch and laughs in the face of the damsel in distress type.

In the land where the tale is set, magic pervades everything. One humorous example is that residents have to ask good-willed fairies to come and de-magic their kettles at least once a week, for the fear that they will get something altogether different from the desired hot water.

Magic and non-magic people live together harmoniously - mostly. And this is where the conflict enters. On the princess' name-day, a day of tumultuous celebration after the many years of the queen trying and failing to conceive, Pernicia, (a wicked fairy), arrives, having taken exception to the fact that she wasn't invited. She lays the famous curse upon the child and leaves all to panic.

Katriona, a young fairy from Foggy Bottom in the north of the kingdom takes the baby away for safety. Only the King and Queen's closest fairy adviser knows, and promises to send a sign when the time is right. Katriona, who only came because she was chosen by lot, is utterly bewildered by the change in circumstances but does not shy away from the challenge.

After a few months' hard journeying, she arrives home with the baby - whom she decides to call Rosie, from the baby's given 21 names - and reveals all to her Aunt. Her Aunt, knowing the gravity of the situation, casts a glamour over the village so they just think Rosie is another niece of Aunt's.

All is well for the next twenty one years, for the most part. Rosie grows up strong, confident, assured and finds her place with the local blacksmith. Aunt and Katriona, however, are aware that the older Rosie gets, the more desperate Pernicia will be to find them.

The story really diverges from the original when Pernicia appears at a ball given for the princess' 21st birthday. When the guests are consumed by the magic sleep, only Rosie, Narl (the local smith and a closet fairy) and the animals are awake. They do battle with Pernicia and her horde of evil creatures, and the triumph of good over evil is brought to a satisfying close.

Written with spunk, confidence, and humour, Spindle's End is a great read for anyone with a love of fantasy and magic, but also a healthy dose of feminism/subversion of the damsel in distress. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Review: The Summer Book Tove Jansson

A grandmother and her granddaughter, Sophia, spend summer together on an island, whiling away the days and hours. Sophia's father is there, too, but never spends much time with them. 

Sophia and her grandmother spend most of the time exploring the island. Sophia seems to demand a lot from her grandmother, quite often shouting at her when she thinks her grandmother isn't telling things right. Her grandmother, in turn, remembers and regrets all the things that she used to do that she cannot do now.

The book itself is told in a set of sort-of vignettes - all the same characters and settings are in place, but each with a different focus. 

The pace is slow, languorous and dreamlike. The island is like a tiny idyll, an escape from the world and you could forget that a world outside of the island actually existed. Time doesn't seem to exist here; everything just happens in the present and there isn't any thought of the future until the very end when things have to be packed up for Autumn. 

It is a short read but very pleasant, a novel to be enjoyed at a steady pace.   

Review: Billionaire Boy, David Walliams

So many of my younger male students have been reading books by David Walliams in my English class, it was high time that I checked them out for myself. On the recommendation of my colleague's eight year old son, I tried Billionaire Boy. It was only a few pages in that it became easy to see why Walliams has children reading his books in droves.

Joe Spud is a billionaire, thanks to an amazing invention of his dad's, Len Spud. It's a product called Bumfresh and it's a revolution in the bum-wiping industry.

Together in Bumfresh Towers, they live the high life. Joe can have anything he wants, and then some.

But Joe is lacking one thing - a friend. At his snooty private school, no one wants to be Joe's friend because of where his money came from. So, he asks his dad to move him to the local comp.

So far, so good. Joe makes friends with a boy called Bob but doesn't reveal his billionaire status until he is accidentally outed by the local friendly shopkeeper, Raj.

After some back and forths between Joe and Bob, plus a whole load of drama when everyone else in the school finds out about Joe, they both realise that what they just want is to be friends, no matter what else.

Billionaire Boy is written with warmth, intelligence, and a whole lot of good humour. If you want a genuinely good children's book read (for you or your little ones) I highly recommend this.

Review: A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness (based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd)

I was looking through the huge stash of books that I had borrowed last summer from my school library but hadn't managed to read yet. I picked up A Monster Calls, not knowing anything about it or that a film adaptation was about to be released. The librarian had recommended it, so there it was in the pile.

I tore through the book in just a couple of hours. For those who don't know anything about the story, it is about a little boy called Conor who has to deal with something that all of us would hope never to experience - a parent (in this case, Conor's mum) living with cancer.

Conor wakes up having had a nightmare - the nightmare - which has been afflicting him for months. All he wants is some help, but help comes in an unexpected form; a monster, which appears outside his window. Conor doesn't know whether or not to believe that the monster is real, but over time, he accepts that he is. The monster has appeared to tell Conor three stories, none of which seem very helpful or fair at first. Conor is also suffering at school, isolated and bullied in turn. When Conor finally understands what the monster is trying to tell him, he reveals what his nightmare has been about, and this is a huge moment of catharsis.

It is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking books I've ever read. Building on Siobhan Dowd's original idea, Patrick Ness has created a story that gets you in the heart and soul. It definitely needs a box of tissues to hand, even if you're not a usual crier.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Review: Snow is Falling, Nora Roberts

Nora Roberts is something of a legend in the publishing world. She has over 190 books to her name and many of them bestsellers.

Snow is Falling contains two stories: Gabriel's Angel and Blithe Images.

Gabriel's Angel: classic meet-cute. Gabriel, a tortured artist, is hiding in a cabin in the woods while he tries to rediscover his passion for painting, While driving back from town with supplies through heavy snow, he very nearly has an accident with another vehicle. Cursing when he realises he has to help the driver, he is in for a surprise. The driver of the other vehicle is a woman, Laura Malone, who also happens to be very heavily pregnant. Gabriel takes her back to the cabin to await rescue.

It's a classic romantic formula - they slowly fall in love, marry, and Gabriel vows to raise the baby as his own. Laura is frightened that her former life will catch up with her and the baby will be taken away. Through Gabriel and his parents, however, she finds peace, security, and slowly but surely creates a space for herself.

Blithe Images: This one I had a little more trouble with, simply because of the male protagonist (more on that later). Hilary Baxter is a small town girl creating a storm as a successful model in New York. But when she meets Bret Bardoff, a magazine mogul with a vision for a winning spread, Hilary finds herself losing control of her heart (and seemingly mind, in places). Bret Bardoff is basically like a Christian Grey character, so I had little time for him. Turning up unexpectedly at Hilary's flat and other places she should feel safe; constantly teasing her and controlling her by turns; appearing at Hilary's family home telling her parents (not asking Hilary) that he's going to marry her; I couldn't warm to the story the same way I cosied up with Gabriel's Angel. I can't fault the writing, it's classic Nora Roberts style and it works. But definitely not my kind of 'romance'.

Review: According To Yes, Dawn French

Rosie Kitto, a former primary school teacher, packs up her life in England and starts a new adventure in Manhattan, secretly desperate to escape the sadness of her former life and to start fresh elsewhere. With her warm heart, creativity, and positive outlook on life, everyone loves Rosie.

Except for Glenn Wilder-Bingham, whom also happens to be Rosie's new employer. Determined to keep her twin grandsons shielded from their parents' messy divorce, she hires Rosie to take care of them and give them some stability.

The whole family, from the twins and their eighteen year old brother, to Glenn's husband, love Rosie. Glenn, meanwhile, feels like Rosie's arrival means she is slowly losing her iron grip on her small kingdom.

I loved the characters in this book, particularly Rosie and the twins. Their relationship is very sweet but not shallow - Rosie knows why she is there and is determined to love the twins fiercely and be a calm port in their storm.

However, where the characters are genuine and substantial, other parts of the novel don't feel quite as good. The dialogue and description sometimes felt a bit clunky down to technical issues, inserting commas where there should be full stops. It gave the effect of not being able to pause for breath. Certain events in the book (SPOILER ***********Rosie ends up sleeping with not just Glenn's husband but also with the twins' father AND the twins' older brother***************) and their consequences don't feel quite believable in how they are dealt with.

Overall, though, it was a nice read - very funny in places, heartwarming characters, and a nice happy ending.