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

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