Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Review: The Smoke Hunter by Jacquelyn Benson

2016 • 585 pages • Headline

Eleanora Mallory is an educated young woman living in Victorian London but she is restricted by the strict social codes of the late nineteenth-century. She’s a historian, a suffragette, and is years ahead of her time much to the chagrin of her male work colleagues at the Public Records Office. After losing her job and finding a mysterious map abandoned on her former employer’s desk, Ellie decides to take a chance at an adventure. She packs her bags and sets off on a journey to Central America, where the map shows the way to a legendary historical city. It’s the expedition of a life time, but little does Ellie know that a team of fortune hunters are hot on her trail.

I do love a good adventure story. Sometimes you just need to sit down with a book that gives you twists and turns at every opportunity and The Smoke Hunter definitely achieves that. For a novel of nearly 600 pages I flew through this surprisingly fast and while there were some parts of the plot I had a little trouble with this was overall very entertaining.

The Smoke Hunter runs along the same vein as the Indiana Jones and The Mummy movies – lots of fast paced action with plenty of history at its core. It was refreshing to read a historical fiction novel set outside of Europe – it’s lively and exotic and if you’re in the mood for some real escapism then this ticks all the boxes. Plus, if you like a bit of romance with your adventure then it’s got that too. Ellie teams up with the smooth talking Adam Bates, a fellow explorer who also defies society’s rules to live a life of adventure. Their relationship is fuelled by sarcasm and wit and you know pretty much where it’s going from the get go, but it’s still a lot of fun and I liked how they bounced off one another.

As entertaining as it was there was a few things that really grated on me whilst reading this I think the time period has a lot to do with it. Ellie is certainly an extremely intelligent and well educated woman for her time, and she does give her male counterparts a run for their money. However, there comes a point in the story where the men kind of take over and Ellie gets shoved to the side lines. I know this is meant to be reflective of the period but I was a little disappointed with how Ellie started to become a bit of a spare part while the male characters took charge of everything. Like, this is her adventure and the men just kind of treat her as though she’s a piece of spare baggage. She gets called a hysteric at one point which just ended up just annoying me so for the most part of the middle of the story I was waiting for Ellie to get her comeback and piss the chauvinists off, which does happen eventually but good god it seemed to take a while to get there.

I enjoyed this, I won’t say I didn’t because I devoured a near 600 page novel in three days so there was enough packed in to this to keep me interested. Sadly with most of the other characters, with the exception of Adam, I wanted to do nothing more than to teleport in to the story and kick them in the dick. Being a woman in the late nineteenth century was hard.

Overall rating: 3 stars

My copy of The Smoke Hunter was sent to me by The Bookbag and my original review was published on their website.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Review: Tales of the Peculiar by Ransom Riggs

2016 • 160 pages • Penguin Books

A fork-tongued princess. A boy who can control the currents of the sea. Cannibals who feast on the limbs of a village of peculiars. These are just a few of the brilliant stories to be found in Tales of the Peculiar, all of which hold mystical information about the peculiar world  - a place familiar to many of us since its first introduction by Ransom Riggs in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The stories in this collection explore peculiar history and folklore in a wonderfully imaginative way, and also include some beautiful illustrations to accompany each of the tales.

Ransom Riggs has successfully created a selection of stories that manages to be both delightful but also educational. The stories and the world of the peculiars are of course fictional, but that doesn’t mean the morals of these tales lose any of their merit. At their core they explore ideas concerning fate and destiny, about finding love, the complexity of possessing a peculiar talent, fighting prejudice and sticking to your principles. Plus, they are thoroughly enjoyable to read! The writing style is sophisticated and thoughtful, with each story feeling more imaginative and quirky than the last.

If you enjoy reading classic fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault, then I’m sure you’ll take great delight in reading this collection. Tales of the Peculiar is full of macabre events but the stories are also injected with a brilliant, kind of deadpan humour, which I loved. It’s a magical collection of stories, but also thoughtful in its execution. I felt as though I was reading something truly different as I explored each of the tales, which is exactly what I want from a reading experience – to be surprised yet enchanted.

A couple of my favourites included The Splendid Cannibals, which tells the tale of a group of wealthy cannibals who feast of the discarded limbs of peculiar folk. It’s fantastically written and explores the consequences of how wealth can become corruptive. Another tale that stood out to me was  The Girl that Befriended Ghosts, which follows a young woman who can talk to ghosts and wishes to connect with the spirit folk who live in her house. Again, this was a lovely story that was both funny, yet heartfelt.

What’s more, you don’t need to have read Riggs’ original trilogy to enjoy these tales. I didn’t pick up Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children until after I finished this, but I didn’t enjoy it any less than a dedicated fan. If anything it made me want to explore the peculiar world more.

Overall rating: 5 stars

My copy of Tales of the Peculiar was sent to me by The Bookbag and my original review was published on their website.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Review: The Yellow Room by Jess Vallance

2016  272 pages  Hotkey Books

Sixteen-year-old Anna lives an ordinary, uneventful life with her workaholic mother after her father left them both years before without a single word since. However, Anna’s simple life is suddenly changed when she receives a letter from Edie, her father’s girlfriend, telling her that he has died and she would like for them to meet. Anna isn’t sure how to feel at first – she was estranged from her father but the news has still come as a shock, and so Anna agrees to meet Edie and they start up an unlikely friendship.  Edie is eccentric and warm and offers Anna the companionship she lacks with her own unemotional mother, so much so that Anna manages to gather up the courage to tell Edie about the troublesome secret she has been carrying deep inside her.

Jess Vallance is an author I’ve only just discovered this year but I can fast see her becoming one of my favourites. She’s written a compelling story about family relationships that had me engrossed from the start with its effortless writing style and clever story. I love books that appear simple on the surface; books that set up a straightforward idea which gradually turns in to something intriguing and becomes so much more than what you expected. There’s a sinister atmosphere which clouds the familiarity of the story – you can sense something isn’t quite right and you know that something is going to happen. I could feel it stirring within the pages and it’s executed brilliantly. I was completely invested in Anna’s story and her growing relationship with Edie, and the build-up of tension which echoed throughout gave the story a powerful edge.

The Yellow Room is marketed as a novel for young adults but I liked how this felt different from other YA novels. It isn’t clich├ęd nor is it your standard coming-of-age story; instead it’s a challenging and lightly thrilling exploration of a young girl dealing with complex human relationships. The story is filled with twists and turns so I don’t want to say too much about the plot but there’s plenty to keep you gripped: bullying, blackmail, secrets, and lies, all which make for a book that is hard to put down. In addition to being realistic and engaging, it’s also quick – you’re thrown in to the story straightaway and for a book of only 272 pages the plot and character arcs are very well crafted.

If you’re looking for something a little different then I definitely recommend giving The Yellow Room a go. It’s well written and thoughtful contemporary fiction which I flew through easily and loved every minute of it so I’ll be keeping my eye out for more of Jess Vallance’s work in the future. After finishing this I immediately went and bought Birdy which is Jess Vallance’s debut novel and it's just as brilliant as its successor. It’s much darker and the twist sneaks up on you unexpectedly, but it’s completely engrossing so I highly recommend checking it out.  

Overall rating:
4.5 stars

My copy The Yellow Room was sent to me by The Bookbag and my review was originally published on their website.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Review: Arrowood by Laura McHugh

2016  288 pages  Century

Arrowood lies amongst the ornate historical houses that line the Mississippi River in Southern Iowa - a house rich with money, history, and mystery. It has been nearly twenty years since Arden Arrowood’s infant twin sisters vanished under her watch, never to be seen again. The disappearance of the twins broke Arden’s family – her parents divorced and they moved from the house that has been in her family for generations. But the mystery was never solved and now Arden has inherited Arrowood, allowing her to finally return to her childhood home. Still clinging to the hope that her sisters might still be alive, Arden is anxious yet determined to finally uncover the truth about what happened that fateful summer day.

I was really intrigued by the premise of this novel. A mystery thriller concerning two long-lost sisters, told from the perspective of their older sister who, just a child herself when they vanished, has been trying to make sense of what happened. The story was quite slow to begin with and it took a little time for my interest to really be captured which left me thinking this wouldn’t likely get higher than three stars for me. There isn’t anything particularly extraordinary about McHugh’s prose and even now I feel that four stars might be a little bit generous, but the act is that once holes began to appear in the original theory behind the twins’ disappearance, I was hooked and just had to know what happened. It’s not the fastest moving thriller but it still manages to turn out to be an enjoyable story, suitable if you want a quick entertaining beach read that isn’t too heavy.

The story is told in first person narrative by Arden, who comes across as a bit of an unreliable narrator – she’s clearly gone through some distressing times since her sisters disappeared, and her desire for the truth about her sisters is clouded by what she wants to believe is true. Arden is approached by amateur detective Josh Kyle who has read in to the twins’ disappearance and believes there were faults in the primary investigation. But digging up the past means revisiting all parts of Arden’s old life: her former best friend and old love Ben, her sordid family affairs, and her childhood memories which she increasingly starts to doubt. There’s definitely a lot more to this story than meets the eye and even as things slowly begin to make sense, yet more secrets emerge. It looks very simple on the surface but there are lots of layers to this story which is what made it so gripping – it really feels like you’re delving in to the complicated past of a family full of secrets.

Arrowood is a very quick read and despite its relaxed start I found it to be a worthwhile and intriguing mystery that had me constantly questioning what the outcome would be. Are the twins alive? Are Arden’s memories correct? Everything is cloaked with ambiguity and you’re never sure which direction things will go in. Getting past the first couple of plodding chapters paid off because ultimately I did end up liking this a lot more than I initially thought I would.  

Overall rating: 4 stars

My proof copy Arrowood was sent to me by The Bookbag and my review was originally published on their website.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne

2016  330 pages  Little Brown UK

Erm, okay?

I have really mixed feeling about this. Parts of it I enjoyed, mainly the magic and the nostalgia of being back in the Wizarding World, but mostly it was just… meh?

For me, Harry Potter ended with the Deathly Hallows. The story had come full arc and everything got resolved, so as far as I’m concerned, the book is very much closed. No pun intended. The Cursed Child was always going to be a completely separate entity, something that I always intended to keep far away from the original stories and in many ways, I’m glad it met my expectations in that respect. I don’t hate it because there was a part of me that did love being back at Hogwarts and back in the world I love so much, but a lot of this seemed to border on ridiculous and I put my head in my hands more times than I could count.

For starters: the FORMAT. I love plays and I have no problem reading them. Some of my favourites are ones that I’ve yet to see performed so I believe it’s perfectly possible to write a play and it be enjoyable to read. But in this case, it doesn’t work. A lot of what happens just doesn’t translate well on paper; it relies heavily on dialogue which only serves to make the whole thing feel flat and the stage directions are just as a bad. This one almost had me laughing out loud:

Draco walks up stage and stands beside Ginny. This is almost a Spartacus moment. There are gasps.

I mean, what? I understand that this is a play, and plays were written to be performed and interpreted. I get that. But this just feels so lazy. A Spartacus moment? Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t take it seriously. But to be honest, pretty much all of it felt ridiculous. I didn’t have any particular high hopes, but I went in to this very open minded and was prepared to make up my own mind regardless of previous reviews, but I have to say I agree with a lot of what people are saying. This read like a fanfiction and a farfetched one at that. The ‘big’ twist in the plot was just ludicrous and had more holes in it than a worn-out pin cushion. But you know what? I’m not even angry, just confused as to why the story explores plot ideas that were never set up in the first place. It feels forced and I don’t really understand why it’s needed.

But it’s strange because it goes from the completely ridiculous and overstretched to the downright weak. The characters, the beloved characters, are shadows of themselves and again this is something I put down to the format because they just do not translate well in script form. Ron felt like he was there because he was expected to be, nothing more, and the personality of some of the characters seemed to change completely. Some of the things Draco Malfoy comes out with felt so out of character and in some ways, I was kind of glad he’d redeemed himself but it felt too odd, too detached, and I could never quite get my head around it.

I think to see it would be a completely different experience. Visually, it sounds amazing and maybe the story would work better on stage, but to read this comes across as nothing more than mediocre fan-fiction. I won’t deny there were parts where I giggled a little at the small parts where the old Harry Potter style and humour shone through, but there’s such a mixture of things going on that the parts I did actually like got overridden by the farce of the story which was juxtaposed with the more emotional issues. It doesn’t gel well and I’m strangely not as upset by it as I thought I would be because as I said, this is a completely separate idea to me from the rest of the Harry Potter novels.

I don’t care what the marketing for this book says; I refuse to think of this as the canon eighth book in the series. Would I still see The Cursed Child if I ever got the chance? Yes, I would. I actually think it would work better and I might even be able to forgive the countless inconsistencies and the ridiculousness of the plot because I think the nostalgia and the atmosphere would be enough to turn this in to something more enjoyable. But the story needs to be left alone now; the characters and the world have been explored enough and to mess with it anymore would be unfair.

Overall rating:
1 star


Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Review: The Queen's Poisoner by Jeff Wheeler

2016  336 pages (eBook)  47North

Fantasy novels aren’t usually the kind of books I tend to go for, but when I read the premise for The Queen’s Poisoner I was interested to find out more so I downloaded a copy to my Kindle. As it turns out, it was a good shout because I really enjoyed it. It’s well written, well-paced, and it was exactly the kind of book I was looking for at the time. An easy read that isn’t too complex but also doesn’t plod or drag.

So, the plot: Owen Kiskaddon is the youngest son of the Duke of Kiskaddon, the latter of whom is accused of treason and so must hand over one of his children to the King to act as a hostage. Eight-year-old Owen is sent to the palace at Kingfountain where he must learn to survive and elude the King’s spies, all whist fearing the wrath of ruthless, and possibly murderous, King Severn. It is a mysterious woman, known as the Queen’s Poisoner, who vows to help Owen by assisting him in gaining the King’s favour and proving his worth, something that will prove vital when Lord Kiskaddon is again accused of betraying the realm, leaving Owen’s live to hang precariously in the balance.

Child narrators are tricky and reading novels told from this perspective normally make me a little hesitant, especially with books that aren’t in a contemporary setting. I find they tend to be unreliable and not characterised as well as adult protagonists, but I managed to see past that with this book. The story was enjoyable and Owen turned out to be a clever and intuitive character, despite him being clouded with a childish awkwardness. There are a few moments like this: *gasp* "She just spoke back to him! To an adult! Can you believe it?!" Owen gets tongue tied around the King a lot of the time, but I can’t say I blame him because he comes across a pretty intimidating kind of guy.

The novel itself is classed as fantasy, but the reading experience felt like historical fiction and I know exactly why. From just the first few chapters I could sense strong parallels between this story and the War of the Roses – the hunchbacked uncle accused of murdering his nephews and claiming the throne for himself was a clear giveaway, so I didn’t even need to get to the Author’s Note at the end to learn the influence behind the book. It kind of felt like an alternate history retelling of what could have happened had Richard III won the Battle of Bosworth and not Henry Tudor, with of course elements of fantasy mixed in. This in itself is an interesting premise but I’m glad Wheeler decided to write a fantasy novel rather than an outright historical fiction retelling, because this works really well and I actually found the magical elements and the world building to be subtle, yet intriguing.

This isn’t the kind of high fantasy you get from Game of Thrones, but the history behind the Kingdom of Ceredigion and the magical power of the Fountain/Fountain Blessed people, was all really interesting and well thought out. As I said, I don’t read a lot of fantasy but this was a nice balance for me. Magic obviously exists and everyone knows about it, but it’s rare and Wheeler weaves in to the story delicately.

As a whole, the novel is clear and clean cut. It’s full of espionage and plotting and Wheeler shows you can write an exciting narrative without any explicit violence or sex needed. I whizzed through this in a couple of days and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Overall rating: 
4 stars


Monday, 25 July 2016

Review: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

2016  304 pages  Corgi Childrens

Whilst the Second World War rages throughout Europe, eleven-year-old Annabelle McBride lives a quiet life on her family farm in the small Pennsylvanian town of Wolf Hollow. But peace is disrupted when new student Betty Glengarry arrives and Annabelle quickly learns just how manipulative and cruel Betty really is. Things soon grow worse when reclusive war veteran Toby becomes a target for Betty’s scheming ways, and before long the whole town is involved in a man hunt fed entirely by rumour and fear. Annabelle however knows the truth, and she must somehow find the courage to be the only voice of justice as tensions throughout Wolf Hollow begin to rise.

This novel is simply delightful. Its poignant story and effortless writing style make for a memorable reading experience and I didn’t want it to end. Wolf Hollow has been compared with To Kill a Mockingbird and I can certainly see where the similarities lie – Annabelle, like Scout Finch, is a young country girl who explores the fight for justice and witnesses the consequences of false accusations. Whilst I don’t know the true inspiration behind the story there are parallels that can definitely be felt throughout, especially with Toby who acts as a Boo Radley figure. Despite this the novel works wonderfully and the story stuck with me long after I’d turned the final page.

Child narrators can sometimes be difficult to master but Annabelle is a brilliant heroine, with Wolk managing to evoke just enough childlike innocence in to her character to be believable. Annabelle is strong and brave and rather than simply watch the events that are unfolding in her town, she actively becomes involved in trying to create a solution. Whether her actions always prevail or not, it was pleasing to read about a young female character who is active and who is aware of what’s happening around her. I also liked how the book highlighted the importance of relationships between adults and children. Toby is a shy, nomadic figure haunted by war but Annabelle has only ever seen kindness from him and the friendship they grow to have is lovely. Annabelle learns from her parents, like most children, how to behave and treat others and I loved how this family relationship ran continuously throughout. The novel explores how adults lay the foundation for who their children become and the positive experience gained from reading this was really touching.

The writing flows easily and the tone of the story is so atmospheric that I flew through the pages quicker than I anticipated. I loved the rural Pennsylvanian setting and the details behind the name of Wolf Hollow are a nice touch – everything just worked so well and the end result is simply charming. I think what I loved about Wolf Hollow so much is that I was surprised by it – I wasn’t expecting to read a story that was so haunting and captivating. The book is marketed for middle grade readers but this is well worth a read for those of us past our school days, because I absolutely loved it. One of my favourite reads of the year so far. 

Overall rating:
4.5 stars

My proof copy Wolf Hollow was sent to me by The Bookbag and my review was originally published on their website.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Review: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

2016  368 pages  Oneworld Publications

Twenty –two year old Tess is a restless graduate from a broken family. With the intention of finally starting her life, she moves to New York City with no real plan but a need to do something. She manages to get a job at one of the most exclusive restaurants in town as a back-waiter and Tess is thrown in the comforting commotion of New York life. It’s at her new job that she becomes fascinated by two people: Simone, a know-it-all server and Jake, a handsome yet moody bartender. While the restaurant becomes her home and her colleagues her new family, Sweetbitter follows Tess through a year of her life as she grows and learns about the complexities of human relationships.

Author Stephanie Danler certainly has an intricate way with words and throughout reading this I had to remind myself that this is a debut novel, and not the work of a writer with many years more experience. If I could describe Sweetbitter in one word it would be raw - everything is stripped of glamour and the claustrophobic, monotonous daily cycle of Tess consumes you. The flair in Tess’s life is food and wine, things that are both treated as an art form in the world of the restaurant, and to say that Danler did a good job at creating a world within a Union Square New York restaurant might sound bizarre, but it’s true. It’s a microcosm of New York life – everything is always moving and it’s the chaotic, punishing routine of a back-waiter that awakens Tess’s appetite for food, for love, and for life.

At times this felt like a novel I could really relate too thanks to the details Danler provides of Tess’s experience working as a waiter. Having worked as a waitress myself for many years the similarity between Tess’s working life and my own were incredibly similar, and even if you’ve never worked in a restaurant environment before the overall tone of the novel has a strong sense of nostalgia. The whole story seems to capture and echo the general commotion of everyday life and I thought it was very clever how Danler managed to capture that in her writing.

The prose, the style, and the execution of this novel are all excellent, but I found this to be a rather slow, quite gentle read. When I was reading, I was interested to continue but this isn’t a novel I devoured in a few days, and I don’t mean this in a bad way because some books you feel you want to take your time with. Sweetbitter for me is one of those novels. It’s dreamy and raw and ultimately a study of a young woman as she learns about life and about herself. There isn’t a lot going on in terms of plot and with the exception of Tess I didn’t particularly like many of the other characters. As I said, this novel isn’t sugar coated and the characters have their flaws – in many ways it was the reality of the story that made it so enchanting.

Overall rating 3 stars

My proof copy Sweetbitter was sent to me by The Bookbag and my review was originally published on their website.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

2011  369 pages  Del Rey

This was boss. I can’t really think of any other way to describe my reading experience of The Martian other that it totally rocked and I loved every minute of it.

The story follows Mark Watney, an astronaut sent on a mission to Mars with five other crew mates. As you probably guessed, things go a bit wrong and during their evacuation Mark gets hit in the dust storm causing the rest of his crew to believe him dead and leave without him. Of course, he’s actually still alive and is now left on Mars with a limited supply of food, no way of getting back to Earth, and no communications to contact NASA. If it was me I’d give up hope there and then but Mark Watney is smart guy and gets to work figuring out how he’d going to survive, potentially years, on a planet that wants to kill him.

Again I feel this is book I’m a bit late to the party with, but I’m so glad finally jumped on the bandwagon and gave it a whirl because it’s one hell of a ride. I haven’t read an awful lot of science fiction but I love space and because I’m such a massive nerd the whole concept of this story – the science, the engineering, the rockets (hell, yeah) was all really fascinating. Admittedly a lot of it went over my head but Andy Weir made it all sound so cool. Plus you don’t really need to understand all the mathematical jargon to follow the story since you know how things are going from how Mark Watney sums every up as either, “Well, that’s fucked” or “Yay! It worked!”

Which brings me to my next point: Mark Watney is an awesome protagonist. He’s funny, super smart, and both equally optimistic and pessimistic to be believable for a guy in his position. The story is broken up in to different scenes which take place in various different places, the primary narrative being told by Mark as he runs us through what he’s doing with his extended time on Mars. His narration is told through a series of ‘logs’ he keeps whilst the rest of the time the story skips to the guys at NASA and what they’re up to, or the rest of Mark’s crew as they journey back to Earth. The story definitely needed these multiple narratives because having just Mark’s viewpoint would have felt claustrophobic and repetitive. Mixing it up and adding more characters stopped it from feeling isolated.

Having said that, there’s only one Mark Watney and he’s essentially the only well-developed character in the entire book. It’s his story after all I guess, plus you don’t really need too much character development where everyone else is concerned since they’re all just focused on the same thing and that’s the Get-Mark-Watney-Home campaign. They all pretty much say the same things with a load of science talk thrown in which is fine because they’re just there to fill us in, and Mark holds the entertainment side of things pretty well on his own. He’s got quite a boyish, cheeky-chappy sense of humour complete with boob references and lots of sarcasm which did make me chuckle a few times. The basic plotline is obviously a very serious one but Watney’s character added some comic relief whilst still maintaining a continuous feeling of anxiety towards the gravity of the protagonist’s current situation (no pun intended).

I’m going to end the review with a quote from the book: “Every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out.” That is essentially what The Martian is. One man is stranded on a foreign planet and the rest of the world try their best to get him home, with Watney relentlessly fighting death along the way. Watney and the rest of humanity refuse to give up hope and I think that’s pretty great. We should all help each other out more often. 

Overall rating: 5 stars

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Reading Challenge 2016 Update

We’re over halfway through the year already (2016 is flying by, guys) so I thought now would be a good time to check in and give an update of where I am in my Books to be Read in 2016 challenge. Although if you follow my reviews, you might have noticed it isn’t exactly all going according to plan.

Up until now I’ve read one book from my selected list of novels which have been sat neglected upon my shelves, and that’s Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. My review will tell you all I felt about this book but my general overall impression was that I enjoyed it, despite it not being exactly what I expecting. It was an interesting reading experience to say the least, although I’ve yet to decide if I’m going to continue the series. Time will tell. Check my review out here if you fancy a read.

Until then, I have only six months to make as much of a dint in my list as I can and whilst I am determined to finally getting around to reading these books, it’s proving a little more difficult than I thought. This is due to a number of factors: one being that you sometimes just aren’t in the mood for a particular book, and that’s okay. I don’t want to force myself to read a book just because it’s on a list because it might end up feeling like a liability. There’s a time and a place for every book.

Another thing to consider is the length of a novel. I love 600-page stories the same as the next girl, but again there is a time and place. Big books like that take time and dedication and sometimes it isn’t always possible to spend every waking minute reading. Sadly.

Also, over the past few months I’ve been writing reviews for The Bookbag which I’m really enjoying. It’s giving me the opportunity to read books I would never normally read or perhaps even consider, so I love all these new and interesting titles they’ve been sending me. Check out their website for reviews of upcoming books throughout the year.

But there’s still plenty of time for me to get around to reading those books that have been on my TBR list for too long. This year has been a good reading year so far, I have to say. Having graduated from university it means I have more time to read what I want and I’ve read some amazing books these past few months. Let’s see what other books the rest of the year holds. 

Friday, 24 June 2016

Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

2015  336 pages  Doubleday

This was one of the big It Books from last year and I very rarely read books when they’re new and surrounded by hype. I don’t have any particular indie pride or anything; I just have to be in the mood for certain books. It was the same with Gone Girl and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so when I found a second hand copy of The Girl on the Train last week I felt like I fancied a thrilling read.

I’ve heard a lot about The Girl on the Train being referred to as the New Gone Girl, or more specifically, Gone Girl 2 and I can kind of see where people are coming from with that. The plots have a similar ring to them: a young, suburban housewife goes missing and an investigation gets underway to try and find her, with the initial finger being pointed at her husband as being the guilty culprit. Only this time the story is told by someone on the outside, someone who saw something from the train the day before she went missing, and it’s this information which sets everything off.

Sound pretty good from the get go, and as it turns out, it was a really good read. I didn’t necessarily love the story in its entirety – the characters are all terrible people one way or another, but I couldn’t put it down and I finished it in less than two days.

The story is told from the perspective of three different women who appear in the book. The main narrator is Rachel, the ‘Girl’ on the train, who takes the same train in to London every day and passes the same block of houses. Bored on her daily commute, she notices the same couple when the train pauses behind their house and she fantasises about what their lives are like, giving them names – “Jason” and “Jess” – imagining them to have this perfect, happy marriage. Of course one day she sees something that puts a spanner in her fantasy couples life and she gets drawn in to the life of these two strangers.

From reading this blurb-style synopsis you’d probably think that Rachel is just doing her bit to help the investigation – a woman goes missing, she saw something that might help, she goes to the police. Job done. Only it’s never as simple as that, obviously, because Rachel is a hot mess and is frankly one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve ever come across. The house of her fantasy couple “Jason” and “Jess” is actually just a few doors down from where Rachel used to live with her now ex-husband, Tom, and his new wife Anne – who he cheated on Rachel with. So every day she sees the home she once shared with the man who left her for another woman as they raise their baby daughter together. But then, you find out she’s taking the train in to London everyday despite the fact that she lost her job months ago and she’s trying to act normal so as not to raise the suspicions of her flatmate. On top of that, Rachel has a serious drinking problem and is forever getting wasted and blacking out, which makes for a very disjointed read.  I mean, it’s a mystery thriller so you’re not really supposed to know what’s going on but you get the idea – you’re trying to piece the story together along with Rachel.

Oh, but there’s more; it turns out Rachel was in the neighbourhood the night “Jess” (or Megan Hipwell which is her actual name), disappeared. But of course she was blackout drunk and can’t remember a thing, so she spends a lot of time trying to remember what happened that night and if she saw anything. Like I said, very unreliable narrator.

The other two narrators are Megan, the woman who went missing, and Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband Tom. The latter of whom I took an immediate dislike to and I was ready to label her a Complete Psychopath almost instantly. It’s not even that I disliked her because Anna and Rachel hate each other, she was just annoying – all wrapped up in her perfect life with her perfect husband and the parts written from her POV never let you forget that. But like I said, all of these characters are terrible in their own ways and none of them are particularly likeable. Even Rachel, who made me physically cringe every time she got smashed and did something embarrassing. Her ex Tom, who Rachel still pines after quite tragically, comes across as a self-involved, womanising, asshole and the whole time I’m thinking, why Rachel do you want to go back to that cheating douchebag? It sounds like I’m slagging the book off here and I’m not, the mystery and the thrill and the who-done-it feel to the story are really good. But the characters are terrible people and I think that’s the way they were meant to be.

There’s also another Gone Girl similarity I picked up on: Megan and her husband, who is actually called Scott, feel very much like Nick and Amy. They look like they live this perfect, domestic life but there are cracks beneath the surface and whilst Megan isn’t any Amy Elliot Dunne, they’ve both got dark secrets. Megan is also the third narrator and her parts are told in a different time frame, taking place months before her disappearance and fill you in on the events that led up to what Rachel witnesses from the train. And this is just a head’s up: the chapters are all dated and it’s important that you take note of these because the time jumps can be confusing if you just dismiss them. It didn’t irritate me or anything, but they could be quite easy to forget about.

On the whole, I really liked this and it kept me up late so I could finally find out who-done-it which is why I’m giving this four stars. Sometimes you just need a book that grabs you and you can’t put it down until you’ve cracked it and this fulfilled my expectations very well. I’ll admit, I’m not great at sussing out mystery thrillers so the ending came as a nice satisfying surprise, plus I’m actually quite excited to see the film adaptation later this year which I have high hopes will be as gripping as the book.

Overall rating: 4 stars

Review: Cleopatra's Shadows by Emily Holleman

2016  419 pages  Sphere Books

Egypt. 58 BC. Arsinoe has been abandoned by her father, Ptolemy XII, who has fled Alexandria and taken her beloved sister Cleopatra with him. It is now Arsinoe’s half-sister Berenice who has seized the throne, leaving the young princess to fight for survival in the bloodthirsty and treacherous royal court. Berenice too has her own demons to face – having taken the throne from her weak-willed father she now has to prove herself worthy of being queen, as the possibility of her father and Cleopatra’s return forever threaten to crush her new found power.

The first book in an upcoming series, Cleopatra’s Shadows is a fascinating novel that covers a small period in Ancient Egyptian history that most of us probably know nothing about. Cleopatra is of course perhaps the most famous of Egypt’s pharaohs but she features very little in this novel, with Emily Holleman choosing to tell the story of her sisters Arsinoe and Berenice – but they’re no less interesting. The narrative is written from the perspective of both sisters and the balance between chapters is handled very well, with both Arsinoe and Berenice getting plenty of page time to tell their stories. Arsinoe I think was my favourite of the two – she’s young but fierce, and her character packs a lot of punch for someone who was only eight years old when she was abandoned by her family.

Holleman has also done an amazing job creating such a vivid representation of first century Alexandria. There are plenty of details about culture, religion, and history without the story feeling weighed down or dull and it all adds to the richness of the narrative. It’s a vivid tale and whilst not a sweeping epic, it’s definitely a work of historical fiction you can really get your teeth in to. There’s conspiracy and treachery behind every corner and although there aren’t great mounds of action or battle sequences, there’s a genuine and contemporary flavour that courses throughout which kept me hooked right up until the final page.

Arsinoe and Berenice feel very different to begin with and despite being sisters, wars within the family have led them in different directions until circumstance throws them together. They both have their flaws but they’re both interesting characters and I liked how despite their weaknesses, they both come across as strong young women in what was a very male dominated world. As the story goes on you see how similar they are – both struggle to know who to trust and each of them only wants to survive, but living in such a dangerous time leads to sad truths and ultimately, it makes for a moving read.  An enchanting historical tale that I enjoyed immensely.

Overall rating:
4 stars

My copy of Cleopatra’s Shadows was sent to me by The Bookbag and my review was originally published on their website.


Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
2013  427 pages (eBook)  Picador

The Miniaturist is a fairly recent discovery that caught my eye due to it being set in seventeenth century Amsterdam. It’s no secret that I love historical fiction set during this period and reading a story based in the Netherlands made a welcome change from the novels set in England and France that I’ve read of late. I read The Miniaturist when I was on holiday in Spain a couple of weeks ago and whilst not your traditional beach-read kind of book, it was a very pleasant experience.

The story follows Nella Oortman, an eighteen-year-old country girl sent to Amsterdam to marry Johannes Brandt, an older but wealthy merchant. While Nella is eager to prove herself a good wife, her new husband is kind yet distant and his sharp-tongued sister Marin still acts as mistress of the house. But when Johannes presents Nella with a cabinet replica of their home as a wedding gift, Nella enlist the help of a miniaturist to furnish her gift and the tiny, real life counterparts begin to reveal secrets about the enigmatic Brandt household. Nella’s obsession with this mysterious artist leads to a series of events that set her new life on a dangerous path, and it seems only the miniaturist can see the fate that awaits them.

I confess I didn’t really know much about the story beyond the basic plot when first I started reading it, and I found it went on a different route than I initially anticipated. I don’t really know what I was expecting but the overall result I enjoyed more than I thought I would. The character of the miniaturist is elusive and uncanny so there are elements of magical realism coursing throughout, but the actual story is very much focused on family and emotion and Nella trying to understand the details of her new life. Nothing is ever as it seems and it’s quite creepy, yet interesting, to see how the tiny objects the miniaturist sends to Nella foretell the outcome of events.

On top of that you’ve got the oppressive and pious Amsterdam society – the Dutch Golden Age may have been one of prosperity but it was a harsh, unforgiving place. Johannes’ financial success sparks the jealously of many and there are challenges in Nella’s married life which she did not bargain for. It’s a cruel time and very much a dog-eat-dog world and I think it was the realism of the story that really shocked me – I wasn’t expecting the novel to be filled with such harsh truths and bittersweet consequences, but this is why I liked it. There’s obviously the slight magical element running through the story which binds everything together, but everything else – relationships, emotions, society – all paints a bigger picture which made the story stay with me after I finished it.

I feel as though I can’t really say much more without giving anything away. If you do decide to give this a read you might find you’re able to piece together certain things as you go but for me to say them outright would only ruin the story. Also, maybe it’s because of the Amsterdam setting but The Miniaturist reminded me of Girl with a Pearl Earring – very similar mood and feel so if you enjoyed the latter I’d definitely recommend this. An easy yet pleasant read which is surprisingly captivating. 

Overall rating: 
4.5 stars

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Review: Art in the Blood: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure by Bonnie MacBird

Art in the Blood by Bonnie MacBird
2016  336 pages • Collins Crime Club

It’s the winter of 1888 and Sherlock Holmes is languishing. After a devastating result concerning the mysterious Ripper investigation, Holmes can find no solace and falls back in to his troublesome relationship with cocaine. Not even his good friend Doctor Watson can cheer him – that is until an encoded letter arrives from Paris from a young French cabaret star who claims her son has vanished. Intrigued, Holmes explores the case only to uncover that the disappearance of a young boy is only the tip of the iceberg. Journeying to Paris and then to the Lancashire countryside, Holmes and Watson become involved in a dangerous investigation, concerning a prized stolen statue, child slavery, and murder – but who is the culprit behind it all?

Art in the Blood is an entertaining adventure that took me right back to the nineteenth century and to the original Sherlock Holmes stories. Its gloomy Victorian atmosphere is powerful but not stuffy, and although MacBird kept the narrative in the perspective of Doctor Watson like Doyle’s original works, I could definitely sense some modern voices coming through. I could almost certainly picture some scenes as though they were Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock himself but don’t take this as a bad thing. I personally am a fan of the modern TV adaptations of Doyle’s work and I liked how I could see elements of that in MacBird’s versions of Holmes and Watson; they felt fresh but recognisable and I thought MacBird did a very good job.

The portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in this novel is interesting because although he comes across in his usual brilliant and unconventional way, he wasn’t overly characterised. The story does have a feel of the dramatic but Holmes doesn’t always come across as the omniscient genius everyone believes him to be. He’s still brilliant, but he’s also more subtle and I liked the human touch this gave to his character. You can sense Watson’s frustration in the narrative at times towards Holmes and it’s quite amusing, but Watson is the same as always and shows never-ending concern and affection for his friend.

There’s also plenty of action – chases and fights and of course Sherlock Holmes donning one or two of his brilliant disguises. Saying that there are lots of scenes designed to fill in the blanks so there are a few chapters dedicated to keeping you updated on what is happening elsewhere. Again this isn’t a bad thing and it’s kind of necessary in order to follow the mystery, but it can be a little long-winded. The case itself is good; full of intrigue and danger and if you don’t mind a bit of a slow build-up this is a rewarding read. Die-hard Doyle fans may find their faults with this book, but I for the most part found myself having a lot of fun reading it and found it to be a fresh take on the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

Overall rating: 3 stars

My proof copy of Art in the Blood was sent to me by The Bookbag and my review was originally published on their website.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Review: Minette by Melanie Clegg

2013  242 pages (eBook)  Madame Guillotine 

Born in the heart of the English Civil War and smuggled out of England as an infant, Princess Henriette has lived most of her life as an exile in the French Court. The youngest daughter of the unfortunate Charles I, Henriette and the rest of her family wait in hope of their fortunes being restored as she is brought up in the decadent and treacherous court of Louis XIV. A rags-to-riches story, Minette follows Henriette’s early adolescence as she and her family fight to survive.

This was a nice little book – not a sweeping epic, but still very entertaining. Henriette (or Minette to her family) led a very turbulent life from a young age and anyone familiar with her story will know that things were never smooth sailing for her. During her refuge in France she lived pretty poorly due to her family's allowance being scarce, and what money they did have was shared with the other English aristocrats in exile or sent to England for the war effort. She didn’t exactly live the life of luxury accustomed to a seventeenth century princess but her character was charming; she’s sweet and attentive and I found her to be an interesting historical figure. I read this book already knowing about Henriette’s later life so it was fun to see how Clegg dealt with depicting her childhood.

Despite her seemingly hectic early years very little seems to happen to Henriette, at least until the final third of the book. Living in exile isn’t the most glamorous of positions to be in and there’s a lot of hearing about thing happening elsewhere - what her brother, the soon to be Charles II, is up to, the battles being fought away from the French court, and what occurred before Henriette was born. I’m not saying it isn’t interesting but there was a limit to what a seventeenth century princess could do and for Henriette it’s lots of parties and lots of waiting.

It’s not until Charles II is welcomed back to England that things really start to change for her. Her family finally have money and respect once more so that’s an up, and once that happens people start to take notice of her in a kind of she’s-the-sister-of-a-king-and-we-need-an-alliance sort of way. Henriette’s a pretty sad figure – her life was full of early family deaths and strained relationships so this isn’t the happiest read of your life but it’s still very good fictional portrayal of an unconventional historical princess.

Clegg is apparently working on a second novel about Henriette which will probably pick up where this story left off so I’ll be sure to check that out when it’s published. 

Overall rating: 3 stars
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