about       archive       goodreads

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Wonder Girls by Catherine Jones

I was lucky enough to win a beautiful hardback copy of this book in Lindsay's giveaway over at The Little Reader Library. You can find her review here if you'd like to read a different take on it!

Wonder Girls follows the stories of a group of women from the 1920s to the present day, from the peace and quiet of a small South Wales seaside town to the hustle and bustle of the Big Smoke. It is loosely divided into two parts, although there is plenty of overlap between the two plot strands. The first half is mainly concerned with Ida, a headstrong teenager who is determined to become the first person ever to swim the treacherous Bristol Channel, and Freda, her rebellious misfit best friend. We see how their friendship develops as they struggle to fit the small-town social norms that are expected of them, and move to London to try and make something more of themselves. In the second half of the novel the reader hears from Cecily, an elderly lady in 2009 who is recounting her life story to a young friend. It soon becomes clear that the lives of these three women are intimately linked to each other and to a newborn baby girl.

I loved Catherine Jones' understated writing style throughout this novel. The relationships between the women are delicately illustrated and their emotions are portrayed in a really subtle way. There were times when I found myself reading passages over again, thinking - what exactly just happened between these two? Did I pick up on a hint of sexual tension there? Is X angry with Y or not? It was refreshing to read something in this style when all too often I come across authors who overstate all their points and deliberately explain every plot development in a way that feels patronising to the reader.

The characters feel very real. I was expecting them all to be exemplary figures of womanhood, to inspire and amaze me with their perseverance and ambition at a time when ladies were expected to do nothing more than stay at home and look after the children. However they are all flawed and emotionally wounded in their own way.

On the whole, I wouldn't say that the plot of Wonder Girls is the most gripping I've ever read but Jones more than makes up for it with her wonderful writing & character development. I'm excited to discover whatever she writes next.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Caught by Harlan Coben

I am a relative newbie to Harlan Coben's novels. I absolutely adore the film adaptation of Tell No One, so while I was studying in France and happened across a French language copy of the book I bought it, intending that tackling a story in French would help me immerse myself in the culture. It was probably a mistake - I finished the book and kind of enjoyed it, but never quite got past that awkward stage of reading in a foreign language where you're painstakingly dissecting almost every sentence to make sure you understand exactly what's being said, despite the fact that I was living there and my spoken French was pretty much fluent (at the time! alas it has lapsed somewhat). If I'd have read it in English, I'm sure I would have really loved it. So when a copy of Caught popped up in a ReadItSwapIt swap request list I thought it was definitely time to give this author another try.

It's actually proved quite difficult for me to write a decent synopsis of this one. The plot is really quite complicated! The opening chapter follows Dan Mercer, a social worker who helps disadvantaged children, as he answers a call from a distressed teenage girl. The situation turns out to be a set-up, a sting by news reporter Wendy Tynes and her crew who are working on a project to catch paedophiles in the local community. Incriminating photos and e-mails are found on Dan's computer, and though he is never actually convicted due to a technicality, his reputation and life are ruined. But information comes to light that makes Wendy reconsider and doubt her conviction that Dan is guilty...

There is a whole lot more to this plot and at times it does feel rather convoluted. A missing girl, a vigilante father, a group of old Princeton graduates, Wendy's own struggle to come to terms with the death of her husband at the wheels of a drink driver many years ago. I enjoyed it, certainly, but there is a hell of a lot going on and it all got a bit distracting. The end of the book made me dizzy with the sheer number of twists and turns required to pull all the plot strands together! I also didn't understand why the book is split into two parts, when part two essentially carries straight on from part one. I was impressed with the conclusion as it takes real talent to tie up so many loose ends neatly without leaving any gaps or unresolved issues. OK, so it felt a little far-fetched, but was just about plausible - and who doesn't like their fiction to occasionally be a smidgen far-fetched anyway?

Sometimes with crime novels a simple concept with a simple solution can be the most powerful and surprising. That's why I enjoyed this, but didn't love it. I will definitely be reading more by Harlan Coben and might well pick up a copy of Tell No One in English next time!

How do you feel about reading books in other languages? Do you enjoy it or find it a bit stilted?

Sunday, 15 July 2012

City of Thieves by David Benioff

The frozen Neva river

Last year I was lucky enough to visit St Petersburg and was completely entranced by this majestic city. There is a remarkable contrast between the beautiful architecture at its centre and the harsh and bleak weather conditions. It is a city with such a rich history and such an imposing atmosphere that you just know that every street corner you turn and every block of stone in the pavement has a wealth of stories to tell - not just the stories that fill the history books, but the undocumented tales of centuries of ordinary inhabitants.

City of Thieves is one of those stories. It opens with David, an American writer, asking his grandfather about what he did in the war. City of Thieves is the narrative that follows. Lev, a 17-year-old chess fan, is arrested in the dead of night for looting the body of a German paratrooper. On the same night, Kolya, a soldier, is caught and arrested for deserting his colleagues. Their execution seems inevitable, but the next morning they are taken before the colonel and granted a bizarre opportunity - if they can find him a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake, he will reward them with their lives.

The desperate quest for some 'Holy Grail' type item is a theme that has been covered in literature countless times before. I have seldom seen it done quite as well as here, though. The use of eggs is an inspired choice. The fact that finding such a commonplace ingredient seems like an unsurmountable task emphasises the hardship & utter deprivation of the time. Furthermore, the fact that the eggs are needed for something as frivolous as a large wedding cake provides a further stark contrast with Lev and Kolya's own desolate circumstances, which is really clever. And to top it all off - what is more delicate, more easily destroyed than the fragile shell of an egg? So you see at the beginning of the book their assignment seems nigh on impossible to complete, but the loveable characters and their warm friendship have the reader inwardly urging them to succeed.

I must say that the first chapter had me convinced that this was a true story (not least due to the fact that Lev's surname is Beniov) and I was initially a teensy bit disappointed to find out that's not the case. I didn't see the point in including that introductory scene at all. After some consideration, though, I've decided I really like it - because even though this particular story may not be based in fact, the fact that it potentially could be is amazing. How many other people out there across the world have got grandparents, neighbours, an elderly local shopkeeper with a story like this waiting to be told? For that generation, war was often something not to be spoken about, to be pushed to the back of the mind while you got on with the rest of your life. So it wouldn't surprise me if there are many real life people out there who share Lev's reticence.

I don't know what more to say other than that I can't think of anyone I wouldn't recommend this book to! It has everything - adventure, romance, great characters, warm friendships, danger...a real gem.

I am more than aware that this blog post has been a long time coming - night shifts and illness have thwarted my attempts to write reviews - but hopefully I shall be more organised from here on and have a few posts on the way this week!

Monday, 2 July 2012

Eleven Hours by Paullina Simons

It feels like quite some time since I last posted, although it has only been a few days. I think the problem is that I expected to be done with this book a lot quicker than I have been. It looks like the kind of pacy thriller that usually sucks me right in and has me turning the pages right the way to the end without putting the book down once. I could blame the delay on the fact that I was on night shifts all last week, or that we had friends to stay over the weekend, but the truth is this one just wasn't for me.

Eleven Hours follows the traumatic events that are imposed upon Didi, a happily married mother who is 9 months pregnant and lives a usually happy and uneventful suburban life. One day, a run-of-the-mill trip to the shops to buy a few last-minute bits and bobs for the birth takes a sickening turn when she is kidnapped by a stranger. The chapters alternate between Didi's perspective and that of her husband Rich, who, together with the FBI, tries to track her down before it's too late.

This is certainly a fast-paced and dramatic novel but sadly something about it just didn't work for me. The story just jumps right in almost immediately with Didi's kidnapping, and I felt that not enough time was spent developing her character and building up a bit of a back story. It was almost as if the mere fact that Didi is so very pregnant is supposed to be enough to make the reader really care about what happens to her, and (for this reader at least) it wasn't. The second plot strand involving Rich and the FBI was more enjoyable and I could relate to him as a character a little bit more. Nevertheless, the extent of his involvement with the FBI and the investigation is unbelievable! The whole book builds towards a frightening climax which, I have to say, I found a bit too graphic and explicit for my tastes.

I must say that I read this as part of a book club and most of the other members seemed to really enjoy this. Wouldn't a book club be boring if we all agreed! I also note that several of the reviewers on GoodReads.com say that this is completely different from Paullina Simons' other work and a number of readers who didn't like Eleven Hours have really loved her other books. So I may just have another go if I stumble across something else by this author. 

Next on my list to tackle is City Of Thieves by David Benioff. I've been looking forward to reading this one for some time and hope it will be what I need to get my reading mojo back!