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.
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