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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 proteg├ęs 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!

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Mountain High - Europe's 50 Greatest Cycle Climbs

Now as a general rule I'll try to keep this blog strictly fiction, as I'm not a big non-fiction reader. And I was trying my very hardest to avoid any Olympic talk, seeing as I have spent the past few weeks in a grouchy mood and generally feeling a bit of a Scrooge about the whole thing. But I will make an exception to quickly mention this bookish treat that dropped through my letterbox this week.

Spectator sports are just not my cup of tea, but my other half is a mad cycling fan - both watching cycling and taking part himself. The Tour de France is the highlight of his year and he will happily while away spare hours watching DVD repeats of his favourite stages even when the action is over. So when I spotted a giveaway with a cycling theme on Twitter courtesy of Quercus Books I had to give it a go. And lo and behold, it was my lucky day (or my boyfriend's lucky day depending on how you look at it).

Mountain High is a gorgeous coffee table book detailing Europe's 50 best cycle climbs. It is packed full of lush photographs of some of the most spectacular scenery this continent has to offer, a real treat for the eyes. At the same time it is very informative and tells you anything you could hope to know about the cycle routes themselves. The data is presented in an accessible way and any serious cyclist could easily be inspired to challenge themselves to take on one of these climbs after reading this book. It would make a fantastic gift for any cycling fan, be it someone who has loved the sport for many years or someone who has only recently become enchanted with the likes of Bradley Wiggins thanks to Team GB and their Olympic success!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

I am ever so slightly embarrassed to admit this, but we've all been there, haven't we - bought a gift for a friend that we secretly want for ourselves? I was struggling to think of anything my Mum might like for Christmas so in desperation turned to the book that was pretty much at the top of my own wishlist at the time, The Sisters Brothers. We have similar tastes so I felt fairly confident she'd enjoy it, and there was of course the added bonus that she could pass it on to me when she'd finished! Unfortunately I didn't account for the fact that Mum's TBR is almost as big as mine and it took her about 6 months to get round to reading her Christmas present. I should have just given her a bottle of perfume and bought the book for myself!

After all that anticipation, it might not be that surprising that I was initially disappointed when reading the first 1/3 of The Sisters Brothers. I had so many preconceptions of what the book would be that were just plain wrong. I mean, I only had to cast an eye over the amazing cover for my mind to subconsciously make the snap decision that this would be one of the best books I'd ever read. I then went on to read countless reviews in the press and online that drew all sorts of parallels to such varying references as the Coen brothers, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Bukowski, Jim Jarmusch...to name but a few that I have randomly selected from a spot check on Goodreads just now! My head was in a spin with all of this and I had somehow decided that The Sisters Brothers would be a fast-paced, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, rock-and-roll kind of tale of outlaws and the underbelly of America during the California Gold Rush. What I was really hoping for was to read something similar to Stone Junction by Jim Dodge but without all the supernatural bits. How wrong I was!

Eli Sisters is a professional hitman who works with his brother Charlie to assassinate & exact revenge upon anyone and everyone for their enigmatic boss The Commodore. As the book starts we see them set out on yet another mission to track down and kill one Hermann Kermit Warm. The Gold Rush is in full swing and their path is paved with all manner of setbacks and scoundrels. But the job is also complicated by Eli's uncertain morality. His conscience is tiring of killing and he longs to settle for a quiet life with a nice lady. Will this assignment be the last for the Sisters brothers?

As I have already suggested above, it took me a while to get into this book as there is not a great deal of action in the first few chapters. Yes, Eli & Charlie get up to all kinds of mischief (read: outrageous acts of violence) and meet some interesting characters but none of it really drives the plot forward very much. These initial scenes primarily serve to illustrate the relationship between the brothers and allow the reader to get to know Eli properly as he tries to find love and struggles to manage his increasingly disabled horse. DeWitt's prose is very precise and measured which contrasts nicely with the shocking acts of the brothers, but didn't make me feel like I was having very much fun reading it. I think some of the humour that other reviewers have picked up on was lost on me as well, even though I do generally like my humour a bit dark.

Once I passed the halfway point, though, something clicked and I really started enjoying it. Eli is bizarrely loveable in comparison to his psychopathic brother and you cannot help but feel for him when he is torn between his desire to leave the life of crime behind and his desire to stay loyal to Charlie. Their relationship is pitched perfectly. And as the plot picked up momentum and their mission was drawing to a close I really struggled to put the book down.  So in the end I really enjoyed this book and would definitely read more by this author in the future - I will just steer clear of the hype next time to avoid forming too many preconceptions!

As a little aside - if anybody can recommend me something to read that is actually similar to Jim Dodge's Stone Junction I would be very grateful!

Thursday, 2 August 2012

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

I do love a good bit of dystopian fiction. Some of my all-time favourite books are sci-fi reads and I am learning to kick my inner book snob to the kerb and enjoy some of the current crop of young adult dystopian adventures that are all over the shops at the moment. So of course I was going to adore this chilling prediction of a future police state which apparently went on to inspire such classics as 1984 and Brave New World.

The One State is a vast urban expanse that sprawls under the confines of a glass roof and walls, separating it from the outside world. Its inhabitants (or 'ciphers') wear identical uniforms and go about their business in unquestioning serenity according to a strictly planned minute-by-minute timetable. The walls of their bedrooms and apartments are made from clear glass so that nobody can hide anything from their fellow citizens. The State is presided over by the all-seeing Benefactor and his team of Guardians, who are elected annually in an open and unanimous vote. They have commissioned the building of the spaceship Integral to celebrate the one-thousandth anniversary of their seizing power of the whole world. 
"And of course, the only things that are aware of themselves and conscious of their individuality are irritated eyes, cut fingers, sore teeth. A healthy eye, finger, tooth might as well not even be there. Isn't it clear that individual consciousness is just sickness?"
Our story is told through the eyes of D-503, who is writing a diary to place on the Integral to explain the ideals of the One State to any extraterrestrials that might come across it. He is generally happy with his lot - he holds an esteemed position as Builder of the Integral, he is regularly allocated tickets for Sex Days with his chosen partner O-90 and he finds comfort in the mathematical equilibrium of his surroundings. That is, until he meets the mysterious cipher babe I-330 who slowly makes him question everything he had ever believed about himself, his relationship, and the One State itself. 

I absolutely loved every minute of this book. D-503 is such a charmingly naive protagonist and you can really tell that despite his almost total lack of freedom he really believes that the Benefactor and the One State are forces for good. As the story progresses, you feel exactly what he is feeling as the foundations of everything he knows are shaken to the core. The whole second half of the book illustrates his inner turmoil so well without ever becoming incoherent or rambling.

It is clear that Orwell was influenced by We when writing 1984 (my copy even had a quote from him on the back cover!). I believe he started writing it a matter of months after reading Zamyatin's work. However, for me the two novels both excel in different aspects. In 1984 Orwell masterfully depicts the social and political workings of Airstrip One down to the last detail, introducing us to such concepts as Newspeak, Big Brother and thoughtcrime. I feel like We is less imaginative than this but goes much further to describe the effect of such a totalitarian rule on the individual - the narrative has more humour and human insight. This may well be because Zamyatin drew on his own experiences of living through the Russian Revolution to write his book. He even had to smuggle it out of the country in order to get it published outside of Soviet rule. 

There is so much more I could say about this book if I had the time to sit down and arrange my thoughts in a more coherent manner. Every page is thought-provoking and I know I'll be thinking about it for a long time. Let's just say it is a must-read for any fans of dystopian fiction. I would also recommend having a read of the author's life story as it is just as fascinating as the novel itself!