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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
Auto-Biography/Biography
Chick-Lit - Rachel's Holiday by Marian Keyes
Childrens Book
Classics - Breakfast At Tiffany's by Truman Capote
Cyberpunk
Drama
Dystopian
Educational
Erotica
Espionage
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
Humour
Literary Fiction
Magical Realism
Mystery - Raven Black by Ann Cleeves
Noir - Strangers On A Train by Patricia Highsmith
Non Fiction
Paranormal
Philosophical
Poetry
Post-Apocalyptic - Wool by Hugh Howey
Romance - Emotional Geology by Linda Gillard
Science Fiction
Steampunk
Supernatural
Thriller
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?!