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Monday, 31 December 2012

A Year Of Reading

So it's that time of year again, when we reflect on the trials and successes of the year and of course geek out over reading stats...I abandoned my Goodreads challenge fairly early on in the year after a nasty eye problem left me unable to read for a month, but think I have managed an average of around a book a week which I'm fairly content with - although well aware I am left eating the dust of many other bloggers who have read double that!

However I like to think it's quality rather than quantity that counts and luckily I've discovered some gems over the past 12 months (although I don't think any of these are 2012 releases). My favourites are listed above, books that I've urged onto various friends and relatives. It seems I am a sucker for a red, white and black colour scheme.

I'm off now to curl up with a blanket and a large coffee and browse the internet for everyone else's Best Of 2012 lists for some inspiration to add to my TBR. Wishing everyone a Happy New Year and all the best for 2013.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

I was very intrigued by the reviews I read of Alys, Always when it was first published back in February, but it was one of those books that was added to my wishlist and promptly forgotten about in favour of newer titles. But then a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to win a giveaway on Twitter hosted by Harriet Lane herself, and when a festively-wrapped copy landed on my doorstep I dived right in.

Frances Thorpe lives a modest and uneventful life in North London. A thirty-something and single sub-editor on the books pages of a struggling newspaper, she spends her humdrum days at work and passes solitary nights in a shabby but comfortable flat. She has few close friends and her family don't understand her.

Driving home one night from her parents' house in the country, Frances happens across the scene of a terrible car accident and hears the last words of the victim before she dies. As the last person to speak to her, the police ask if Frances would mind meeting the woman's family to provide some closure in their mourning period. Her first instinct is to steer well clear, but her curiosity is piqued when she learns that Alys was the wife of Laurence Kyte, one of the country's most well-known literary darlings. She stops thinking about the emotional comfort she can provide to the Kyte family and instead begins to consider how ingratiating herself with the Kytes might benefit her social life and job prospects.

Frances is such a terribly Machiavellian character - but I loved her! I always thoroughly enjoy reading about characters who appear dull and innocuous to the outside world but are actually wickedly perceptive and manipulative. Frances is a masterful introvert and uses lots of careful listening and the occasional well-placed casual phrase to beguile those around her and wrap them around her little finger. Her cunning is so subtle that the reader is often left wondering how much of her relationship with the Kytes occurs by chance and how much happens by her own clever design. Her ultimate goal is never clear and the ending came as a complete surprise to me.

The novel is short but very well-written and peppered with witty observations of British life. I recognised the privileged Polly Kyte in several acquaintances from my university days, and smiled at Lane's hilarious descriptions of Frances' parents and their Middle England lifestyle.

When I hear the phrase 'psychological thriller' this is not necessarily a book that would spring immediately to mind, as the pace is slow and there is little 'action'. If you read it expecting a thriller in the traditional mould you might be disappointed. But let me tell you, while I was reading the final few pages there were hairs standing up at the back of my neck with anticipation of how it would all end.

I have just about finished this in time for it to make it into my best books of 2012 and at many points it reminded me of the very first book I read this year, and another one of my absolute favourites - The Talented Mr Ripley.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

A Merry Christmas To All!

This post is scheduled in advance as on the day itself I shall be working a 12-hour shift in A&E (bah humbug), but I wanted to make sure to wish all my readers and followers the very best of season's greetings. I hope that you all have a relaxing week however you choose to spend it.

And just for fun, here's a little sneak peek at the bookish delights that some of my friends and family will be unwrapping under the Christmas tree this morning...

Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre - my younger brother has requested a copy of Ben Goldacre's eye-opening book about the influence that big drug companies have over doctors and the ways in which they cleverly manipulate clinical practice in a manner that is not always best for patients. I was only too happy to oblige as I am keen to read this one too, so hopefully will be able to borrow it after he's finished and fulfil the non-fiction category of my Literary Exploration challenge. 


Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch - Dad has really enjoyed the first two installments of the Rivers Of London trilogy, and the third novel provoked a startlingly enthusiastic response from the staff in my local bookshop when I presented it at the till. It's definitely on my radar as one to try in 2013.

The Boy In The Suitcase by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis - I have to admit this one is a bit of a wild card. My Dad loves his Scandinavian crime and this sounds a bit different from the norm so I picked up a copy purely based on multiple positive reviews from trusted bloggers. I'm always a bit apprehensive about giving gifts of books when the recipient hasn't already expressed an interest in it - what if they hate it? - but at the same time there's nothing better than introducing somebody to a surprise new favourite.


Disgrace by Jussi Adler-Olsen - Dad & I both loved Mercy by this author so I hope he will be happy to catch up with Detective Carl Morck and his assistant Assad in the next book in the Department Q series.

Total Recall by Arnold Schwarzenegger - My boyfriend is a big Arnie fan and you have to admit he's had quite a colourful life. From being born in a year of famine in a little village in Austria he's managed to make an international name for himself first through bodybuilding, then as a major Hollywood superstar and more recently in his political role as governor of California. There are always so many celebrity autobiographies around at this time of year and often I can't help but wonder how some of these people manage to fill a book when they've only been in the public eye for five minutes, but I bet Schwarzenegger has countless stories to share.

I feel I have done a good job picking books that my nearest and dearest will love but that also all (with the exception of Arnie) happen to be on my own wishlist! However did that happen...

Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Age Of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

No matter what else in life seems uncertain, we can always be sure of the rising and setting of the sun. But what if a time came when even this basic truth seemed doubtful? Julia is only 11 years old when she experiences exactly that. For reasons unknown to even the cleverest physicists, the world begins to slow on its axis. The changes are subtle at first but before long the planet is taking 70 hours to complete a single rotation. The hot summer days feel as unrelenting as the boundless nights.

I found this premise completely irresistible and as soon as a copy fell into my hands I had to start reading straight away. The world slowing down - what could be more simple? It's such a clever idea that appealed to my love of good sci-fi/dystopian fiction. And it soon becomes apparent that Karen Thompson Walker has thoroughly thrown herself into the scenario and considered it from every possible angle. It's not only about long days and long nights; we read about the effects on the clocks, the tides, the pull of gravity, migratory birds, the weather, every detail is covered.

The decision to tell this story through a child's eyes is an interesting one. Julia is so young that she has only a limited understanding of what is happening to the world around her. At 11 it can feel like the end of the world when the boy she likes doesn't look at her at the bus stop. Her simple observations highlight the fact that human nature can't change even when the planet is falling apart around us. Best friends will still argue, people will still have affairs.

Unfortunately I was disappointed by the way this narrative served to diffuse a lot of the tension and terror that I was expecting from the story. The threat of impending apocalypse was looming over the characters, but as a reader I felt mild peril at best. The novel felt like a coming-of-age tale that just so happened to be set in this uncertain period of time where the world was slowing, almost as if that was just a side plot to distract from Julia's worries and her family dramas. I'm not a fan of coming-of-age novels at the best of times, and didn't find Julia's character lively enough to hold my interest. She is a very meek, docile 11-year-old, and rarely seems to get enthusiastic or angered by anything that happens around her. In addition, the narrative voice is actually provided by adult Julia looking back and remembering her childhood, but that isn't always clear because she doesn't share any of her new, adult insight into what happened at that time.

I still love the concept of this book and wish that it had concentrated more on the numerous ways in which the slowing of the Earth would create sheer turmoil in peoples' lives. It is a story that has been very well received by many other readers and may be one to try if you are a fan of child narrators or coming-of-age stories. Just don't expect much suspense or pre-apocalyptic action and thrills.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Circulation by Thomas Wright

It seems to have taken me ages to finish this book, but that's not because I haven't been enjoying it. You just can't rattle through non-fiction in the same way as a novel, can you? Unfortunately I'm not the kind of reader who can dip in and out of a non-fiction book while having some fiction on the go at the same time. While on one hand I am quite interested in the history of medicine, on the other hand I don't tend to read many history books at all as I can find them quite dry. But I was keen to read Circulation as it won this year's Wellcome Trust Book Prize and luckily I found it both informative and entertaining.

William Harvey was a doctor who, in 1628, published his theory of circulation detailing the workings of the heart and vascular system, much as we know them today. The cover of the book describes this as a 'revolutionary idea' which seems maybe a little far-fetched until you consider the state that the world of medicine was in at that time. Harvey's idea was more than just clever and even more than merely unconventional - it went against ideas that had been almost universally accepted as gospel truth for centuries, since the teachings of Galen in Roman times. Think about the kind of confidence (arrogance?) and innovation that it would take to challenge such widespread scientific beliefs and you will begin to realise that Harvey was the kind of strong and curious character that is really quite interesting to read about.

In the preface, Thomas Wright explains that many personal manuscripts of Harvey's and papers detailing his research have been destroyed over the centuries, victims of political unrest during the English Civil War and also in the Great Fire of London. I worried initially that this wouldn't bode very well for the rest of the book, but Wright does a great job of filling in the blanks to paint a lively portrait of society as a whole in Renaissance-era England. It's about so much more than Harvey himself. I really enjoyed reading about the gory details of Harvey's education in anatomy at a time when medical students were notorious for fighting in the streets and terrorising the town (anyone who has ever stumbled across a medical student pub crawl during Fresher's week might argue that little has changed). It was equally interesting to learn about his studies in natural philosophy and how some of his first supporters included the likes of Descartes. Wright also covers the attitudes of society at that time to issues that still prove controversial today, such as vivisection.

I felt that this was quite an objective account of Harvey that by no means views him through rose-tinted glasses. As someone who doesn't read many memoirs I was struck by the way Wright not only provides a running commentary of a person's life, but places it firmly in context by vividly illustrating the world they lived in.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Literary Exploration Challenge 2013

I don't tend to do too many reading challenges and in fact I was actively trying to avoid signing up to any for 2013. I'm no good at trying to read 'on demand' and I feel like they can put too much pressure on the reader and take some of the fun away. But when I saw this challenge over at the Literary Exploration group on Goodreads (, I couldn't resist signing up. It seems like the perfect way to broaden my reading horizons as well as allowing me to get through plenty of the books already sitting waiting on my TBR pile.

"Interesting in becoming a Literary Explorer? In 2013 Literary Exploration is challenging you to try out new genres; with a 12 book, 24 book and 36 book challenge. We give you a list of genres and anyone participating in the challenge has to complete one book from each genre over the course of the year."

There are three levels of participation - you could go for Easy, Hard, or go the whole hog like me and go for the Insane Challenge, which involved reading a book from each of the following genres over the next 12 months:

Insane Challenge

Adventure - The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Chick-Lit - Rachel's Holiday by Marian Keyes
Childrens Book
Classics - Breakfast At Tiffany's by Truman Capote
Fantasy - Alif The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
Graphic Novels
Gothic - The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Hard-Boiled - The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Historical Fiction
Horror - The Woman In Black by Susan Hill
Literary Fiction
Magical Realism
Mystery - Raven Black by Ann Cleeves
Noir - Strangers On A Train by Patricia Highsmith
Non Fiction
Post-Apocalyptic - Wool by Hugh Howey
Romance - Emotional Geology by Linda Gillard
Science Fiction
True Crime - Forty Years Of Murder by Prof. Keith Simpson
Urban Fantasy - Rivers Of London by Ben Aaronovitch
Victorian - Gillespie & I by Jane Harris
Young Adult - The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

Some of these will be easy for me and I can already think of several books on my shelf that will fit the bill. There are some genres that I'm feeling more apprehensive about, though. Fantasy, for example, is a genre that I usually avoid like the plague. I wouldn't have a clue where to start with poetry as it isn't really something I've ever tried to read before (unless John Cooper Clarke counts!). And I'm a little confused as to what counts as Educational rather than Non-Fiction. So I'll have a little think and prepare myself to launch into this challenge in the New Year. You can probably expect to see some requests for recommendations in some of these categories in the near future!

What are your thoughts on reading challenges/readalongs? Some bloggers seem to participate in so many, I don't know how you'd be able to keep up the pace. I enjoyed hearing other thoughts on this topic over at The Readers podcast.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The Sick Rose by Erin Kelly

There are some books you read because they are classics, there are some books you read because you love the author's previous novels, there are some books you read based on the recommendation of a trusted friend. But The Sick Rose (or The Dark Rose depending where in the world you are) is a first for me, as I have to admit that I bought it after someone from Hollyoaks mentioned it on Twitter. I already have a copy of Erin Kelly's first novel, The Poison Tree, on my TBR. I can't remember what exactly the tweet in question said but it must have been a pretty tempting 140 characters to make me pick this one up first.

The Sick Rose Erin Kelly

Paul is 19, and should be looking forward to an exciting and happy few years at university. Instead, he faces a long winter of manual work and community service in the gardens of Kelstice House after getting mixed up in a terrible crime back at home. Louisa is the skilled botanist leading the project - from a wealthy background and approaching middle age, to the outside world she appears to be happy and settled in her chosen role. But underneath her cool exterior she is an emotional wreck, haunted by events in her past. The two of them form a bond, each recognising the other as a kindred spirit with something to hide. The shadow of the past lingers over their relationship and there is a constant fear that the skeletons in their respective closets will catch up with them.

The derelict Kelstice House with its overgrown gardens provides a really atmospheric and moody setting. Although I am not a fan of this phrase I can safely describe this novel as 'a page-turner'. It kept me up late and I read it in big chunks. The narrative effortlessly flits back and forward between the past and the present day and between the two characters' lives, never feeling stilted or confusing. There are plenty of twists to keep the reader guessing and I didn't see a single one of them coming - not least the ending, which holds surprises until the very last line, and provides a very satisfying conclusion.

I really enjoyed reading Paul's story; it was so sad to see how such an intelligent and conscientious young man could have his life turned upside down through making a few wrong decisions. His impressive and unrelenting loyalty to his childhood friend turns out to be a double-edged sword that gets him in more trouble than he can imagine. I really felt for him and hoped that everything would turn out for the best in his life.

On the other hand, I felt that something was slightly amiss with Louisa's character. Her teenage years are very realistic and Kelly paints a truly convincing picture of a confident and sexually adventurous young woman. However, for me, the adult Louisa lacks warmth. At first I could accept that this reflects the overwhelming and all-encompassing nature of her feelings for her ex-lover Adam, and that her obsession with this failed romance leaves no room for anything else in her life. However, even after she tentatively begins her relationship with Paul we see little change in her personality. I did not like her and found it difficult to understand the attraction she held for Paul.

I enjoyed seeing the mysteries of the plot unravel. Unfortunately I was less interested in the protagonists' relationship and struggled to believe in them as a couple. This was where the novel fell a little flat for me. However my opinions may all be inconsequential; having just publicly identified myself as a Hollyoaks fan, is anybody going to be able to take any of my reviews seriously ever again?!

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

1Q84 - Books One, Two and Three

I have a confession to make...the eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that I have neglected to follow through with one of my plans for this blog. Back in August (!) I announced my intention to read Murakami's 1Q84 and review it on a book-by-book basis. Then a few weeks later I chickened out and decided to wait until I'd finished the whole thing to post my thoughts. And now here we are, almost in December, and that review is nowhere to be seen!

So why the delay? Well partly it's because I was enjoying this trilogy so much that I eked out the reading experience as much as possible. I left a fairly long gap in between books two and three simply because I didn't want it to end, which goes to show just how much I enjoyed it. The other problem, though, is that I have been putting off writing a review for a good few weeks because I just didn't know where to start. It's so difficult to write a review of a novel by an author who is already one of your favourites - how to be objective, how to review the book rather than Murakami himself? So here goes, I am going to try and keep it short and to-the-point, before this descends into a rambling, gushing mess of praise.

To be honest, I think I set the scene quite nicely in my initial post about this book. The novel finds us in Tokyo in 1984, where Aomame is living a double life. To the outside world she is a solitary but pleasant gym instructor, but in her spare time she works as an assassin, killing men who have been violent towards women. A bizarre encounter with a taxi driver serves as a catalyst for a sequence of unusual events that lead her to feel that something about the world around her has intrinsically changed, and this feeling intensifies when she notices a new, second moon in the sky.

Meanwhile, across town, Tengo is an aspiring author who gets an offer he can't refuse: to re-write a debut novel by the peculiar teenage Fuka-Eri in order to give it enough polish that it might become a literary bestseller. As he gets drawn further into Fuka-Eri's surreal yet captivating fictional environment, he too begins to think that the real world he is living in is not quite as it was before. Unbeknown to each other, Aomame and Tengo's lives become linked as they both get more and more involved in the curious world of 1Q84.

Much of this book represents business as usual for Murakami and his brand of magical realism. There is something enchanting about the way in which he takes ordinary, unremarkable characters and transplants them into extraordinary settings. But I especially loved the eccentric supporting cast he created here - the sinister gangsters Buzzcut & Ponytail, repulsive private investigator Ushikawa, beautiful Fuka-Eri who manages to be enigmatic and socially awkward in equal measures. Every single person who appears in the book is vividly drawn and perfectly pitched, and each sub-plot is as engrossing as the next. I really enjoyed reading about Tengo's strained relationship with his father, about the dowager's personal crusade against violent men, and about the shady cultish commune of Sakigake.

The only real criticism I have is that it is just a touch too long. As I mentioned above, I took a break between books two and three and when I returned to it I found myself growing impatient - there's a good 150 pages or so where very little happens, and I did feel that a lot of it was covering old ground. However, when you consider the delay between books two and three being published in Japan, this becomes a bit more understandable. And just as I was really starting to become disillusioned everything picked up again for the wonderful ending (which really did tug at my heart strings, and I am not usually a soppy reader).

What you really need to know is this: if you're already a Murakami convert, you'll adore this book. If you are new to his work, this probably isn't the easiest place to start. I don't know if 1Q84 has the same special place in my heart as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle but it definitely comes close.

What do you think - are you a Murakami fan or is it all a bit too surreal for your liking? And how do you find reviewing books by authors who are already favourites? Do you have any tips on how to remain objective?

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Care Of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

Things have been a bit quiet on the blogging front this week as I've been going through a tough bit of the rota at work - a 64-hour week immediately followed by a 54-hour week doesn't leave much time for reading, never mind blogging! But I have managed to finish one book that I really want to share.

For ages now I've heard avid readers and bloggers gush about the bargains they've picked up at The Works and have been left slightly puzzled. To be honest, when I have snatched quick glances at the window display in the past it has always struck me as somewhere one step up from a pound shop, full of cheap diaries and stocking fillers for kids and not much else. But a few weeks ago I sought shelter from the rain in one of their branches and was delighted to find several books from my wishlist including a lovely hardback copy of Will Wiles' debut novel for a mere £3. I am definitely a convert to shopping at The Works!

In Care Of Wooden Floors we follow an unnamed protagonist as he leaves his home in London to be a flat-sitter for an old university friend somewhere in Eastern Europe. His friend, the fastidious Oskar, has had to go to the USA to sort out his divorce, so he has asked our narrator to keep an eye on his beautiful home and look after his two cats. Initially it seems like it's going to be a breeze - with no work obligations to distract him, he can spend lazy days doing a bit of sightseeing before coming home to relax with a bottle of red wine and working on his novel. However soon he begins to realise it's going to be a more stressful job than he first thought. I had so much fun reading this book and it made me laugh out loud on a couple of occasions. It's a sort of comedy of errors, a succession of increasingly ridiculous accidents and mishaps that have you groaning along with the protagonist every step of the way.

I loved the way this book made me think about how we choose our friends, and how people with fundamentally clashing personalities can be very close. It is one thing to see a person socially on a regular basis but another thing entirely to be let into their home and take responsibility for their sanctuary. Oskar is a constant presence in the book despite the fact that he is halfway across the world and there is something overbearing and irritatingly smug about his personality. Nevertheless, at times I found myself relating to him more than the protagonist. I can be quite a messy person but at the same time a bit of a control freak (it's an 'organised mess') and I struggle to think of many friends who I'd be happy to let take control of my space, even for such a limited time!

It also made me think a lot about how the simplest scenario can take a disastrous turn when red wine is involved. Ohhh, red wine...

The whole thing is very well written and it's remarkable how Wiles keeps things interesting considering the fact that maybe two thirds of the story takes place within the apartment itself, and also that there are very few characters (the protagonist, the absent Oskar, his friend Michael and a cleaning lady who doesn't even speak any English).

I was in The Works again today - and remarkably managed to refrain from spending any money, might I add - and this is still in there for a bargain price. It is the best £3 I have spent in a while. I'd definitely recommend it.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Perfect People by Peter James

At around the same time as the Wellcome Trust Book Prize winner was announced, I was finishing one of the shortlisted books, Perfect People by Peter James. Mark Lawson, chair of the prize judges, has said: "The judging panel includes representatives of literature and of medicine and our hope was to find a work that met the toughest judgements in both disciplines." Unfortunately I don't think Perfect People holds up to tough judgement in either field. There was a lot that I didn't like about this book, but to its credit it gave me a lot to think about and it has taken me longer than usual to process my thoughts on it.

Perfect People is a thriller with a sci-fi twist that delves into the shady world of eugenics. John and Naomi Klaesson are a couple who have been left heartbroken by the death of their son by a horrible hereditary disease. Desperate to have another child, but wanting to be sure the same fate will not befall them again, they hand over their life savings and their bodies to the infamous Dr Dettore and his shady offshore genetics clinic. He promises that he can make their dreams come true and when Naomi falls pregnant it seems like their wish for a perfect family life is about to become a reality. But has Dr Dettore got something to hide? (yes) (I hope that isn't too much of a spoiler) The Klaessons must contend not only with the stresses of pregnancy but also with the general public who consider what they have done to be an abomination, that they are meddling with Mother Nature.

To begin with, I didn't enjoy James' prose at all. I have never read any of his Roy Grace novels, and I gather that this represents quite a departure from his usual writing style. On the whole it isn't that bad but some of his turns of phrase really made me cringe:

'Naomi was awake; John could hear the faint crunching sound of her eyelashes as she blinked'

...what? I have just sat here at my laptop for 30 seconds, furiously blinking away, and can firmly state that eyelashes (mine, anyway) are entirely silent. What a bizarre sentence. I also found myself squirming at the one sex scene in the novel, which is really dreadful.

I found Naomi and John to be generally unlikeable protagonists. They throw themselves into Dettore's clinic with almost unbelievable naivety, particularly given the fact that John is supposed to be a scientist with a background in biology. Initially this made me feel sympathetic towards them, but as the story progressed it got on my nerves. John in particular makes a couple of terrible decisions that put me off him as a character quite early on in the book. And setting aside the difficulties they face with their children, I found their attitude as parents to be quite questionable at times. The more I reflect on this book, the more I am starting to consider the fact that maybe the reader is supposed to see them as very flawed human beings. I'm still not sure though, and the fact that I couldn't engage with either of them certainly affected my enjoyment of the book.

I believe that Peter James spent 10 long years researching and writing this novel but I have to be honest and say I don't think it really shows. It's not that he has included lots of false information or poorly-explained facts, he hasn't. It's more that there just isn't that much science included in the book. And to borrow from the Wellcome Trust Book Prize blog: "The science in the novel is very much fiction". For example, in the acknowledgements at the end of my copy he thanks a certain professor for providing him with material on 'Genetic dissection of neural circuits controlling emotional behaviours', and I can't identify where in the book this type of technical information has been used. Maybe it is unfair of me to talk about this in my review as it isn't detrimental to the novel at all - maybe the opposite, as there's nothing I hate more that when authors try to tackle scientific/medical topics head on and fail miserably. I would much rather they gloss over the details or avoid going into too much depth. It was just a point that interested me when I read the author's acknowledgements at the end.

As I have already said, though, from an ethical point of view the book gave me lots to think about. The morals of genetic engineering, for both medical and aesthetic reasons, could be debated all day. It's also interesting to ponder the mindset of the Christian sects who are dead against genetic engineering of the embryo but at the same time urge the Klaessons to opt for an abortion or even plot acts of violence against them. At the moment this is a topic that makes for exciting fiction but who knows what might be possible in the future? So even though my overall impression of Perfect People was not great and it kind of annoyed me, I am glad to have read it.

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Wellcome Trust Book Prize 2012 - Winner

I am a little behind with this post as I was firmly convinced that the winner of the Wellcome Trust Prize was to be announced tonight, when it was actually awarded two days ago. I often see bloggers refer to their blogging journals and schedules and vaguely dream about how it would be to be that organised. I can't imagine ever being someone that manages to review books to deadlines for publishers, for example. Maybe I will make a New Year's resolution to get my blogging act together a bit more! Until then, dear readers, you will have to be content with enjoying two-day-old news, so please put on your best surprised faces and let me announce that the winner of the 2012 prize is: Circulation by Thomas Wright.

You can read my initial post on the shortlist here. This was one of the books I was most interested in reading so I'm definitely going to get my hands on a copy this week. Mark Lawson, chair of judges says that it "combines scholarly science with such narrative excitement that it will be a great surprise if we do not eventually see 'Circulation: The Movie'". I'm not sure it sounds like a concept that I would enjoy watching on the big screen but I will reserve judgement until after I've read the book!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Passage by Justin Cronin

When I have a few days off work I like to try and tackle one of the heftier tomes taking up space on my bookshelf. There's something so indulgent about immersing yourself in a really BIG book, the sort of book that you wouldn't usually pop in your handbag or take on the bus because it's just too unwieldy. So last week I was browsing my options and this Justin Cronin tome caught my eye. I didn't know too much about it but had swapped for a copy after reading several rave reviews of the recently published sequel, The Twelve. And at 900-something pages it fit the bill, as well as counting towards my RIP VII challenge.

The Passage is basically divided into three parts. The novel opens in the present day, where we see the US authorities conducting a dubious secret experiment which involves twelve Death Row prisoners and an abandoned 6-year-old girl named Amy being inoculated with a mysterious new virus. An accident results in the spread of the virus around the United States, resulting in national disaster as its victims exhibit vampire-like (vampirish? a real word?) qualities. Skip 100 years or so down the line and we meet Peter, one of the few humans untouched by this epidemic thanks to the bright lights that illuminate his Colony and keep the 'virals' away. But for reasons I will keep under wraps, he and his friends are finally forced to leave the safety of The Colony and go seeking a new life and a solution to save the human race.

The first third of this book is absolutely excellent. I was totally gripped. There is something really cinematic about Cronin's descriptions of devastation and chaos, and the scenes played out in my head as if I was watching them on the big screen straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster. What's more, we meet a host of engaging and human characters who I was sorry to leave behind as the story moved on in time.

Unfortunately my interest dipped in the middle third of the novel, as the focus moved to Peter and the other inhabitants of The Colony. I didn't really find him to be a particularly inspiring hero, nor did I like any of his friends or neighbours. Much of this section seemed superfluous to the plot and I think I would have enjoyed the book just as much had large sections been cut. After they left the safety of The Colony walls, though, the action picked up again and I found myself engrossed, desperate for them to find the answers they were seeking.

I didn't love The Passage overall but it did hold my interest and I imagine I will probably read the sequel at some point, if not any time soon. The plot is excellent but for me it fell short when it came to the characters, with none being particularly distinctive. I loved that Cronin has taken pains to create a solid backstory for this post-apocalyptic landscape as I feel it's something lacking in many similar works. Nevertheless, I would have liked more information on why exactly the US government were conducting this ghoulish experiment in the first place - there were a few sketchy letters between scientists featured in the early chapters but I didn't feel their meaning was clear. The closest comparison that kept springing to mind as I was reading this is to I Am Legend (and it more closely resembles the movie adaptation starring Will Smith rather than the original novel) so definitely one to check out if you like your landscapes bleak and your vampires vicious (not handsome and sparkly!).

I read this book as part of my RIP VII challenge!

Monday, 5 November 2012


So my first blog challenge has come to an end and a whole lot of spooky fun it was too. I pledged to read four novels as part of RIP VII and to be honest I thought I'd struggle to manage that, but I actually got through six. So the books I picked to scare myself with were:

The Possessions of Dr Forrest by Richard T. Kelly
Turn Of Mind by Alice La Plante
The Vanishing by Tim Krabbé
Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson
The Apprentice by Tess Gerritsen - no review for this one as I didn't really enjoy it and wasn't even stimulated enough to come up with any points of interest to write about.
The Passage by Justin Cronin

I don't generally choose my reading material according to the season but there is definitely something satisfying about cosying up on a dark evening with a book that is packed full of suspense. Although when working the night shift on Halloween itself it may not have been the best idea to read a couple of chapters of The Passage on my break, having to then walk back from the break room along deserted hospital corridors, convinced that vampires were about to spring from every nook and cranny, eeek!

Halloween may be over but the peril doesn't have to end there...the main site for RIP VII is here and there are literally hundreds of reviews on there for you to browse should you find yourself with a notion to read something a bit dark.

Thanks to Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings for facilitating the challenge.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Jacquot And The Waterman by Martin O'Brien

I think I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog that I am on a mission of sorts to find a decent crime fiction series that I can get hooked into from the very beginning. On one of my regular blog-rounds I spotted a review of one of the Jacquot series by Martin O'Brien - unfortunately I can't remember now which blogger it was who brought these books to my attention but the premise immediately appealed to my inner Francophile so I quickly secured a swap for the first book in the collection.

Daniel Jacquot is an ex-rugby player with a glittering career behind him, having achieved national fame scoring the winning try in a Five Nations final. Sadly, a troublesome injury put paid to his sporting talent and he has returned to his home town, Marseilles, as a chief inspector with the homicide squad. In this book we find him on the hunt for a serial killer who the tabloid press have dubbed 'The Waterman' due to his nasty habit of leaving his victims to a watery grave.

I found this to be a really solid, well-written thriller. It started slowly and took me a while to get into it, but after about the 100-page mark I was gripped. The whole thing is meticulously plotted with a large cast of supporting characters, and O'Brien takes the time to develop even minor players and give the reader a real insight into their thoughts and behaviour. The narrative is made up of fairly short chapters that flit back and forth between different locations and characters. This ensured I stayed engrossed throughout, as I was constantly wanting to read 'just a bit more' to find out what would happen in my favourite plot strands. Martin O'Brien spent a number of years as travel editor at British Vogue and I suspect he may have spent a decent amount of time in Marseilles to paint such a vivid picture of the city with its lively seafront and seedy underbelly.

Aside from the slightly silly tagline (WHO says drowning is easy?!! They are wrong!) the only quibble I had with this book was with the ending. It initially seemed really abrupt and something of a cop-out - the author seems to have spent so much effort building a complex back-story with multiple plot strands and much of it is irrelevant to the final solution of the mystery. On reflection, though, I think I only felt disappointed because the finale was unexpected and didn't pan out the way I had wanted it to. Now that a bit of time has passed I feel that could actually be viewed as a positive.

I have already obtained a copy of book two in the Daniel Jacquot series so you can tell I was quite impressed by this one.

In other news, I am heading to London this weekend and have some time to kill with bookish company in the form of Justin Cronin's The Passage. If anybody has any recommendations of cosy places to while away an hour with a good cup of tea and maybe cake, please share them!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Vanishing by Tim Krabbé

As the nights start drawing in and a chill settles in the air I am finding myself drawn to the more spooky titles on my bookshelf, keen for a scare. The Vanishing has been in my possession for ages but I have always been reluctant to read it until now, as the 1988 adaptation is one of my all-time favourite scary movies and I was worried that the book just wouldn't live up to my expectations.

The RIP VII challenge seemed like a perfect excuse to finally give this novella a chance, so on a blustery autumn day I curled up with a big mug of tea and read it in almost one single sitting.

The Vanishing (or Het Gouden Ei as the original Dutch novel was called) centres on Rex, a young man whose girlfriend disappears at a service station one summer evening and is never seen again. In the years that follow, his life is profoundly affected by what happened and he invests a huge amount of time and effort in trying to track Saskia down - sometimes at the expense of other close relationships. It soon becomes apparent that whoever is responsible for her disappearance is closer than Rex had imagined. But how far will he go to find the answers he has been waiting for?

This is a short but perfectly formed book. For me, it excels in giving the reader a glimpse into the mind of a killer. It is chilling to read the simple and matter-of-fact thought processes that lead a seemingly ordinary human being to commit murder. Krabbé's villain is so scary precisely because he is so 'normal', a man that you can easily imagine passing by in the street or bumping into at the supermarket. The tension builds and builds until the terrifying finale. Even though I knew exactly what to expect, having seen the film, I was at the edge of my seat for the last chapter.

It's difficult for me to say which I would recommend doing first - watching the film or reading the book? Usually the book wins every time, but in the case of The Vanishing I'm not so sure. I think if you're unfamiliar with the story then to be honest I'd probably recommend watching the original Dutch movie first, as the ending is one of the most shocking and memorable I can think of. However, even if you know what's coming, this little book is still a really worthwhile read and a good one to pick up for Halloween.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Wellcome Trust Book Prize

So this evening is an exciting one for the literary world and my Twitter feed is buzzing with anticipation of the Booker Prize announcement later this evening. I will of course be keeping an eye on the outcome - for what it's worth, my money's on Swimming Home by Deborah Levy - but tonight I want to highlight another literary prize that interests me more and doesn't get anywhere near the same recognition.

The Wellcome Trust Book prize "celebrates the best of medicine in literature". It looks at releases that put an interesting spin on a medical topic, be it through fiction or through non-fiction. Now you may be put off by this prospect and suspect that the shortlist might be full of dusty, dry, science-heavy offerings, but happily this is not the case. After a long day at work in the hospital the last thing I want to do is curl up on the sofa with a glorified textbook! However, I do enjoy reading books where the author has managed to present a medical topic in an inventive way with a depth that goes beyond just science. I also love seeing how authors can make such topics accessible and fascinating to readers who have no medical background. I have recently read and loved last year's winner, Turn Of Mind, so when the 2012 shortlist was announced a couple of days ago I was very interested to see what the judges picked.

Shortlist 2012

Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif
I would like to read this story of Alice Bhatti, a nurse who is not only an ex-convict but also a Christian woman in love with a Muslim man living in chaotic Afghanistan. It sounds like it's full of drama and covers some quite weighty issues.
Perfect People by Peter James
The only one of the shortlist that is already sitting on my TBR pile, this is a thriller about the sinister world of eugenics, and one couple's experience when they attend an unorthodox clinic who claims to be able to help them have a baby without a hereditary disease.
Merivel: A Man Of His Time by Rose Tremain
I know Rose Tremain already has a loyal fanbase who loved the first installment of this series about Robert Merivel, king's physician in the 17th century. I'll probably give this one a miss, though, as I'm not a big fan of historical fiction and haven't read Restoration.
The Hour Between Dog And Wolf by John Coates
I have to admit to knowing little to nothing about economics, so this might be a good place to start learning. John Coates is an ex-trader turned neuroscientist and has written this account about the role that biology and hormones play in the financial market. We like to think that investment bankers work in a logical and systematic way, but ultimately they are at the mercy of adrenaline and testosterone and have the same stress reactions as the rest of us. I won't be rushing out to buy a copy of this but may well end up reading it at a later date.
The Train In The Night by Nick Coleman
A memoir of music journalist Nick Coleman's experiences of sudden onset deafness and tinnitus. This has had excellent reviews and is certainly one I'd like to pick up.
Circulation by Thomas Wright
A biography of William Harvey, the 17th-century scientist who caused controversy and contradicted the firmly-held ideas of the time to come up with his theory of how blood circulates around the body. This is one that really interests me. One of my all-time favourite works of fiction is An Instance Of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears, and that book covers some similar themes.

So there you have it - what do you make of the shortlist? Are you tempted to try any of these? I will be reading Perfect People soon and also have a couple of titles from the longlist that I am disappointed didn't get through (Intrusion by Ken Macleod and The Evolution Of Inanimate Objects by Harry Karlinsky). The winner will be announced on 7th November 2012.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Heft by Liz Moore

Some of my favourite bloggers have reviewed this recently and it sounded right up my street - what can I say, I'm a sucker for a good cover. So understandably I was delighted when the lovely Mrs Mac offered to send me a copy, and it was pushed right to the top of my TBR pile!

Charlene Keller is a single mother living with her 18-year-old son Kel in a downtrodden corner of New York State, struggling to get by in more ways than one. All she wants is for her boy to get into college and make a good life for himself, but Kel has other ideas. In desperation Charlene turns to her former mentor and friend, college professor Arthur Opp, for help. Little does she know that Arthur himself has struggled since they last met, growing morbidly obese and confining himself to the walls of his Brooklyn home. In Heft we learn how the two men deal with the trials that life throws at them through chapters that alternate between Arthur's and Kel's points of view.

The overwhelming impression that I have been left with after reading Heft is that it is a deeply sad novel. I'm not generally one for getting weepy over books but have to confess that even the first few pages of Arthur's story left a lump in my throat, and the tone doesn't really lighten up until the very end. Arthur's intense loneliness is expressed so vividly that you cannot help but empathise with him, and for poor Kel it is really just one disaster after another - just when you think things can't get any worse for him they do.

Even though I was tempted to give up at times and the doom and gloom all felt a bit much, the wonderful characters kept me reading. Both Arthur and  Kel are really lovable despite all their flaws and insecurities. I was especially surprised to find myself relating to Kel as sports-mad teenage boys are usually the last characters I take to, but it is testament to Moore's great writing that I was willing him to succeed on every page. Charlene was maybe a little less strong of a character. Try as I might I couldn't reconcile the young Charlene of Arthur's memories with the down-at-heel present-day Charlene. I also found it a little odd that there are frequent references to the fact that she suffers from lupus, without any explanation of what that means or how it affects her daily life. When she has so much else going on in her life, it felt a bit unnecessary and maybe confusing for readers who are unfamiliar with the disease. Although I suppose it did briefly reinforce my appreciation for the NHS (not that I really needed it), as I find it unthinkable that someone with a chronic debilitating condition such as lupus would have to forgo treatment simply due to lack of personal funds.

I am undecided as to my overall impression of this book. I think it was really well written and the main characters are impeccably drawn. But I can't say I truly 'enjoyed' it as for a large part of the book I had a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach and an imaginary grey cloud hovering over my head.  This had mostly resolved by the final page but there is still some ambiguity about the ending and some plot strands that are not neatly tied up and resolved. I am by no means a lover of fluffy happy chick-lit but did occasionally find Heft to be hard work. So I suppose I would recommend it but with a caution that it makes for bleak reading at times and is maybe one that you have to be in the right mood for.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Late to the party - Before I Go To Sleep

I wish I could lay claims to being one of those book bloggers who has her finger firmly on the literary pulse, but alas it's just not the case. It feels almost pointless adding this review because judging by the number of Goodreads contacts in my list who have already read Before I Go To Sleep, I am later than late to the party. By the time I got my hands on a copy it had already been passed around all the members of my immediate family, and several other friends had given it a glowing recommendation. But I can't help but share my two pence worth because at times I have to admit to wondering if I was reading the same book as everyone else!

The premise of this novel is excellent and I was really looking forward to giving it a go. Christine suffers from a rare form of amnesia meaning that she can only create and retain new memories during the day - while she is asleep they are all lost. This means that each morning she awakes to a world of the unknown. Her only aid comes in the form of a diary in which she logs the intricacies of her life and her relationships on a daily basis, to jog her barely-existent memory when morning comes around again. Because of course even if you don't know what else in your life to rely on, you can always trust what's written in black and white in your own hand. Or can you?

Unfortunately this story was just too implausible for my liking. I just couldn't get away from the fact that there are not enough hours in the day for Christine to have documented her every action in such detail, let alone having time to read through her previous entries as well. In addition, I felt like the way Christine was treated by the authorities was unbelievable - without wanting to give too much away, the final 'twist' relies heavily on the supposed incompetence of her carers. In reality there would be far too many safeguarding measures and red tape in place to ensure that something like that could happen (I hope?? Please fill me in if anyone knows of any such real-life examples!).

Plot intricacies aside, I found the novel as a whole to be somewhat lacking in tension & intrigue. I have to admit that I actually abandoned the whole thing at one point because I didn't really care what happened, only picking it up again because I was reaching the end of my holiday and had finished all the other books in my suitcase! It is a shame because Before I Go To Sleep has obviously offered so much to entertain so many other people. Well, we can't all agree on everything, can we!

I read this as part of my RIP VII challenge!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Turn Of Mind by Alice La Plante

Usually I read purely for enjoyment but every now and then a book comes along that is so powerful that I know it will impact upon my everyday life for a long time. Big words, but Turn Of Mind is definitely one of these books.

Firstly, I just want to mention the marketing of this book which I feel is maybe a little off key. The edition that I have bears an unfortunate resemblance to a certain blockbuster series that you will almost certainly recognise, and in fact two separate friends on two separate occasions spotted it lying around my flat and exclaimed 'ugh, you aren't reading one of those Twilight rip-off books are you?'. Another problem that has been mentioned in a couple of other reviews I've read is that the blurb suggests this is a fairly traditional crime thriller which has led to false expectations and disappointment for some readers. Turn Of Mind is neither of these things but it is a truly unique and thought-provoking novel.

An elderly woman is found murdered in her home in a gruesome manner, and bizarrely, her fingers have been expertly dissected away from her hand and can't be found. Naturally the police immediately turn to her best friend and adversary Dr Jennifer White, an eminent hand surgeon. The problem is that there is no concrete evidence, and Jennifer herself is well on her way into the slow decline of Alzheimer's disease. Jennifer is unable to even remember that her friend is dead most of the time, never mind remember if she was the one who killed her.

The murder provides an interesting backdrop to what is really a fascinating study of the turmoil that Alzheimer's disease, and dementia in general, inflicts on the mind. The prose is disjointed, the paragraphs short, the timeline flits back and forth as we travel between Jennifer's more lucid periods in the present and the old memories she escapes to. LaPlante vividly illustrates the sickening impact that dementia can have on the individual as well as the whole family unit. What's more, she explores the attitudes of society as a whole to individuals with dementia. It really made me reflect upon my behaviour towards my own patients and gave me a whole new awareness of their potential level of insight into their condition. I have also regularly seen quite dubious behaviour from colleagues, relatives, and other patients towards people with dementia on the ward, and reading this book made me want to actively challenge that.

Murder mysteries are always scary but for me the most terrifying thing of all was contemplating the prospect that any one of us could succumb to this very common condition, which is the worst way to live out old age that I can imagine. The plot is intriguing and the ending is satisfying but I think that all of us could potentially take a lot more than that away from this great book.

This book counts towards my RIP VII challenge!

Monday, 1 October 2012

The Adult by Joe Stretch

I was always a fan of Joe Stretch's band Performance, and keenly read his first couple of books as soon as they were on sale. I loved his witty yet uncomfortable prose and I have to admit that the novelty of recognising familiar Manchester locations amidst the pages held quite a silly sort of appeal for me. So I don't understand how the release of The Adult almost managed to completely slip under my radar. It wasn't until a week or so after I got my copy that I saw the first review of it in print (courtesy of The Guardian) and even now I haven't heard any buzz about it anywhere else. Which is a shame, as it's an excellent novel.

Usually I prefer to summarise plots in my own words rather than doing a sneaky copy-and-paste from Goodreads or Amazon, but here I am going to make an exception and use the official blurb because I think it sums things up rather well:

"Jim Thorne. He wants to understand love.
His mum. Her three sisters have epic perms. And they're famous.
Dad. Dad's focused on a vital question: Mario or Sonic?
It's England, 1989-2009. So expect a little history."

That's all there is to it - this book is about Jim and his life and his family. About the struggles of having to be an adolescent man in a family full of women. About growing up with unhappy parents in the North of England. Although this makes it sound like little more than a character study and it really runs a whole lot deeper than that. I suppose you could call it a 'coming of age' tale, but I won't because I don't usually enjoy stories with that label, and moreover I'm not sure whether Jim ever actually does grow up or 'come of age' or learn anything about how to relate to people in the end.

One thing The Adult never is, is a comfortable read. There were times when I found myself cringing on Jim's behalf and my heart ached for him, but equally there were times when I felt he was a repulsive human being who deserved no sympathy whatsoever. Either way, there is a constant horrible  sense of inevitability. Jim is unquestionably one of life's strugglers. His clumsy awkwardness - is that a real word? - is portrayed perfectly. This unease is nicely balanced by the dry humour that I loved in Stretch's earlier books. There is also a healthy dose of 1990s nostalgia backed up by numerous pop culture references that manage to highlight some of the things that were terrible about that decade while simultaneously making me wish I was back there. It's quite cleverly done without the aid of any sentimental rose-tinted glasses.

The main thing that strikes me about this novel is how much more sensitive and, I suppose, more 'human' it is than its predecessors. There is definitely a more emotional undercurrent running through The Adult than either Friction or Wildlife and this makes it much more accessible. While I thought both of those books were great, they are certainly bleak and often shocking. Some of my friends couldn't finish them and I definitely wouldn't pass them on to my mum, whereas I think Mum would quite enjoy this one. When he starts writing novels that my Grandma would read I might start to worry, but for now I think Joe Stretch is definitely onto a winner and I hope The Adult gets some more recognition over the coming autumn.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Possessions Of Doctor Forrest by Richard T. Kelly (RIP VII)

Since starting this blog I haven't participated in any challenges, readalongs or events. But over the past couple of weeks I have spotted this icon on several of my favourite blogs and felt really keen to take part in the RIP VII event:

Readers Imbibing Peril is a two-month event that celebrates all things scary, spooky, ghastly, unsettling, whatever you want to call it. It's hosted by Carl and there are several different ways to participate. I've chosen to go for Peril The First, which means I will strive to read at least 4 novels over the next two months from the following categories:

Dark Fantasy.
Or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above.

This should hopefully be easily do-able, as I've already read a few that fit the description on my holiday last week and have plenty more on the TBR!

So without further ado, let's look at the first of my choices - maybe not the most suitable novel I could have thrown into my suitcase to read on the beach, but certainly one that fits well within the RIP VII parameters.

Three Scottish doctors - Grey Lochran, Robert Forrest and Steven Hartford - have been friends since their medical school days. As they have grown into middle-age they have grown somewhat apart and practice in very varied fields, but still keep in regular contact. When Dr Forrest suddenly disappears without a trace, his old colleagues are baffled and the police are unable to turn up a single lead. And although Robert is no longer around, his friends continue to feel echoes of his presence in everything they do. Old secrets are unearthed and it becomes certain that there is something sinister afoot.

The first thing that struck me about this novel is that the title is an odd one - Dr Forrest's possessions did not seem to me to play a vital role in the tale. Never mind the fact that Grey and Robert are both surgeons, so surely he would be a Mr Forrest and not a Dr? But when I stopped nit-picking and got over these essentially unimportant quibbles of mine, I enjoyed this mystery with its strong Gothic influences.

The story is told through diary entries and letters from the points of view of several characters, with a final chapter from Dr Forrest revealing all. This was a really effective plot device when it came to letting the reader know about certain secrets and keeping particular characters out of the loop, but it was a shame that none of the characters' voices was particularly distinctive. Kelly clearly draws on some Gothic classics for inspiration but does so very well. Suspense builds slowly throughout and I was left with a strong sense of unease when it came to the finale, with no idea what was going on.The ending is surprising if a little drawn out - the whole story is essentially re-told from Forrest's point of view and I became quite impatient for it to finish, although really I can't think of another way that Kelly could have done this and still managed to tie up all the loose ends and explain everything properly.

This is a really solid tale of horror and suspense and if you are in the mood for something spooky (perhaps thinking of joining in with RIP VII?) then I'd definitely give it a go. Although perhaps it's one to curl up with in front of the fire, with rain battering the window and a mug of hot chocolate on your knee, rather than lying on a beach in the sunshine as I did!

Monday, 10 September 2012

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One is set in a dystopian vision of the year 2044 in the USA. Fossil fuels are running out, global warming is taking its toll on the planet, the economic recession is getting worse and worse. The majority of the population find solace within the OASIS, a huge online game set within a virtual world that anybody can escape to just by putting on a visor. And participating in the OASIS becomes even more exciting when its founder, the reclusive J. Halliday, passes away. Halliday has no heirs and leaves his entire fortune and control of the OASIS to whoever can solve his clues (which are all based on his unrelenting obsession with 1980s pop culture) and unlock challenges hidden around the virtual landscape. An international frenzy ensues as the whole world competes for the prize - from ordinary teenagers such as protagonist Wade Watts and his friends, to the massive global corporation IOI who want to seize the OASIS in order to charge sky-high membership fees and make millions.

This was a perfect holiday read for me. I would bury my nose in the book and emerge some time later, having been completely oblivious to my surroundings and feeling the same slight disorientation that you get after becoming hooked on a new computer game for hours and hours. Not that you necessarily have to be a fan of computer games to enjoy this! I have to admit that most of the references to early gaming and video arcades went well over my head. However, I absolutely adore my 1980s teen movies and loved geeking out over the constant references to my favourites ('Answer the question, Claire'!!).

The pop culture references are certainly what set this book apart from similar stories, but while I enjoyed them, I did feel like it got a bit much at times. Cline obviously has a great passion for the books, films and games that he writes about, and it occasionally seemed like he might be name-dropping some of his own favourites just for the sake of it. Some of the more obscure references were accompanied by detailed explanations that didn't do much to further either plot or character development. This was a shame because equally there were some really great concepts that I felt could have been expanded on.

I liked the idea that Wade and Art3mis were motivated to win Halliday's quest in order to save the planet and fix things for the human race as a whole, and I would have loved to read more about the nature of their plans. In addition, the book delivers an anti-privatisation message that is touched upon but not developed as much as it could have been. The OASIS functions as more than just a game - children attend virtual schools there, virtual libraries, churches etc. and all these services would be threatened if the IOI won the quest. I would have liked to read more of Wade's thoughts about the impact that this would have on his life. Furthermore, Cline raises questions about reality and the pros and cons of functioning in a virtual world. Wade and his friends form tight bonds based on their online personae, but would they have become such good friends had they met in real life first? Does meeting online mean that people see each other for who they really are rather than making snap judgements based on appearance, or do we only see the sides of people that they choose to display to us?

This book is the most fun novel I've read in ages and certainly a must-read for anyone who has a passion for computer games, 1980s pop culture or anything remotely 'geeky'. It has a lot more to offer as well, but if you are someone who isn't at all interested in those areas then you might find it hard work.

1Q84 - Book Two

Well, I am back to the blog after a little hiatus while on holiday in Spain. I have been incredibly busy lazing around on the beach, eating copious amounts of tapas and working hard on my tan (I'm delighted to have turned all the way from alabaster to pale beige) but not to worry, I managed to squeeze a fair bit of reading into my tight schedule so there will be some reviews coming up soon.

I just wanted to quickly mention the progress that I have made with Murakami's 1Q84 trilogy - you may remember from my last post that I was planning to tackle each book in turn and post mini-reviews as I went along. Well, having finished Book Two before I went away, I have decided to abandon that initial plan. It's just too difficult to write anything worthwhile about Book Two in isolation without revealing spoilers for Book One! But of course when I've finished the trilogy I will do a proper post with an overview of my thoughts (I warn you now, it may well just end up being a disorganised ramble of gushing praise, as I have completely adored the first two novels).

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen

No matter how full my bookshelves are, no matter what eclectic mix of genres I have piled up in my TBR at any one time, you can always guarantee I'll have some crime fiction to hand. Crime is an absolute staple in my personal library. It provides the perfect solution to so many of my 'what do I read next' dilemmas. Need something to fill the breaks on a night shift, something engrossing enough to keep me awake but needing minimal effort to concentrate on during the 4am brain fuzz? Perfect. Looking for the literary equivalent of a 'palate cleanser', a quick and enjoyable read in between heftier tomes? Absolutely. Going on a trip with limited packing space so need to bring books that can be swapped and shared between family and friends? Crime fiction appeals to almost everyone, doesn't it?

Usually my crime novelists of choice are European. I do tend to favour the Scandinavian authors in particular. My most recent love has been Camilla Lackberg, but after finishing The Drowning I was in the mood to start a new series from the very beginning. I have spotted a few favourable reviews of Tess Gerritsen's latest release on some of my favourite blogs, and she is an author that had previously passed completely under my radar. I must admit that my interest was piqued further when I discovered that she used to be a medic before leaving the profession to write full-time. A few swap requests on Read It Swap It later and I had the first two titles in the Rizzoli & Isles series sitting on my shelf waiting to be read.

Dr Catherine Cordell is a beautiful and dedicated trauma surgeon who was abducted and subjected to the indescribable trauma of sexual assault by a twisted serial killer whose precise surgical technique had already claimed multiple victims. She shot her attacker dead and escaped by the skin of her teeth, moving away to Boston to try to forget and start her life anew. Two years later, she is horrified to discover that women in her neighbourhood are falling prey to another killer who uses the exact same methods as The Surgeon did in the past. It is up to detectives Moore and Rizzoli to work out who the copycat killer is...because of course The Surgeon couldn't be working from beyond the grave?!

This is one of those books that I just can't make my mind up over. I think I thought it was only OK. It kept me turning the pages and I was keen to find out how it ended, but I didn't feel particularly shocked by the ending (although I never guessed whodunnit either) and there were no real 'twists' to speak of. I wasn't expecting this to be as gruesome as it is. While I am by no means squeamish, some of the descriptions of the killer and his habits had me throwing half of my lunchtime sandwich in the bin in disgust. Rizzoli and Moore are both decent lead characters and I think Rizzoli in particular will benefit from more development in the subsequent books.

Gerritsen has understandably drawn on her medical experience to write The Surgeon and there are a number of scenes detailing the intense environment of Cordell's workplace and the stresses she is subjected to as part of her job. To be honest, I felt that some of these passages could be a little much for readers without any medical training as they contain lots of technical jargon and acronyms (if you have read this book - what did you think?). I found some of the events slightly unrealistic but enjoyed other points, such as the scene where Cordell discusses a 'do not resuscitate' order with a patient's relatives. This isn't an issue that I have seen tackled in fiction before and I feel it's something important that could be highlighted more. It annoyed me that WOW was Cordell unprofessional at times though. She invites a junior colleague 'over a few beers' to discuss his poor performance in the workplace and break the news that he won't be allowed to continue with his training. How is that appropriate?! She also volunteers to the police that she has been having a nosey in the medical records of the killer's other victims, and hands over those records without even a thought for her duty of confidentiality.

So I wasn't completely convinced by this book, but as I have mentioned, I already have the second installment in the series on my shelf and I am sure that once the characters are a bit more established I will enjoy them a bit more.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

1Q84 - Book One

It was my birthday last month and my brother was kind enough to give me a gift that has been right at the top of my wishlist for some time - a beautiful copy of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, books one, two and three. I love Murakami and couldn't wait to get stuck into this. He is one of the few authors (him and Kurt Vonnegut, probably) who I feel could even write the list of ingredients on the back of a tin of beans and I would still be mesmerised by it, thanks to the calm, deadpan, relaxing nature of his prose. However, several of the negative reviews I have read so far have complained about what a hefty tome this is and felt it was too long for its own good. While I have always found Murakami to make for easy reading in the past, I have decided to tackle 1Q84 as the three separate books it was initially intended to be. I will do a quick post on each of the books as I read them and then review the whole thing properly at the end.

The book opens in the middle of Tokyo in the mother of all traffic jams. Aomame is stuck in a taxi with a rather bizarre driver and is late for an important meeting, so she makes the decision to get out of the car in the middle of the motorway & get back to street level via the emergency staircase at the side of the road. Her taxi driver gives some mysterious words of warning:

"Please remember: things are not what they seem. It's just that you're about to do something out of the ordinary. Am I right? People do not ordinarily climb down the emergency stairs of the Metropolitan Expressway in the middle of the day - especially women...And after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before. But don't let appearances fool you. There's always only one reality"

Sure enough, Aomame soon begins to recognise subtle changes in her solitary and regimented lifestyle. She lives her days as before; teaching her martial arts class, going out to bars to pick up men, working with her friend 'the dowager' at a shelter for victims of domestic abuse. But there are cracks appearing in the foundations of everything she thought she knew about the world around her. Has her environment changed, or is it Aomame herself?

In the next chapter we meet Tengo, maths teacher by day, frustrated novelist in his spare time. He has been approached by his editor to take part in a scam - to secretly re-write the first draft of a novel written by eccentric teen Fuka-Eri, in order that it can be submitted to win a prestigious literary award. Tengo becomes engrossed in Fuka-Eri's strange story and is increasingly intrigued by the girl herself.

Book One really serves to set the scene and introduce the characters. Murakami does this so well and I think it is really worth taking the extra time and page space to get to know Aomame and Tengo. The story is told in chapters alternating between each character's point of view. It is clear that their lives are connected in some way but we are yet to find out how. There has been just a hint of the surrealism that I know and love from reading Murakami's other novels and I am sure that will be developed in the next book! I am really enjoying it so far, as I had expected to, but I must say that I am yet to read anything that wows me to the extent of setting 1Q84 apart from my other Murakami favourites.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

It has been difficult to avoid seeing glowing reviews of The Night Circus over the past year but it was never something that sat particularly high up on my TBR list. I tend to approach magical fiction with a touch of suspicion. While some of my favourite books contain more than a hint of the surreal or supernatural, books that overtly reference 'traditional' magic spells, hocus pocus and wizardry can leave me cold. There are always exceptions to every genre though, so when I had the good fortune to win a copy of The Night Circus over on Kim's Reading Matters blog I just couldn't resist the beautiful cover any longer and had to dive in.

Prospero the Enchanter is the best illusionist the world has ever seen - forget Paul Daniels or even David Blaine, this guy is the real deal. And for years he has been playing an ongoing game with his enigmatic friend and rival known only as Mr A.H. The two men get their kicks by each picking a young child to train up in the arts of magic and charms, and then pitting their protegés against each other in a sort of battle. So when Prospero wakes up one morning to find Celia, his long-lost daughter, abandoned on his doorstep, he can't resist challenging his opponent to one last showdown. And where better for the game to take place than in the most unique and mystical circus in history?

I absolutely loved this book and read it greedily in just over a day despite my aforementioned usual slight aversion to books with a heavily magical theme. Without wanting to make lazy comparisons, it really did evoke exactly the same feelings in me as reading Harry Potter as a young teenager (which is a definite compliment!). I wanted to run away and join the Night Circus just as I used to wish my school was as exciting as Hogwarts - the creativity and imagination behind each of the black-and-white circus tents is astonishing and it is all described so vividly down to the last detail. It also shares a certain darkness behind its enchanting facade, and shows magic to be both exciting and deadly scary. The Ice Garden, The Cloud Maze, The Labyrinth...each attraction is a real gem. I have never been to a real circus but if they really existed in this model I would be there like a shot, not a clown or caged animal in sight!

Morgenstern's vivid imagery is so good that the plot itself almost feels like a lesser issue, but it is really engrossing. The story is not told chronologically and the chapters jump around an awful lot from one year to the next. This really messed with my head initially, but after 100 pages or so I became accustomed to it. While I didn't feel especially strongly towards either Celia or her competitor, Marco, the wide cast of supporting characters are great. I found my heart melting a little bit for Bailey, a young visitor to the circus who falls in love with one of the performers he meets there. I was also a fan of Mr Barris, an engineer who inadvertently gets swept along with the circus and provides a really lovely dull-as-dishwater contrast to the flamboyant characters who surround him.

If you haven't picked this up already, I'd recommend it in a heartbeat, particularly if you are a grown-up who enjoyed the Harry Potter books and are looking for something else to excite your inner child at the same time as making you think!