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Friday, 20 December 2013

Literary Exploration Challenge 2013 Wrap-Up

Well, as the end of the year is fast approaching I am reaching for more and more ideas to put off doing my Christmas shopping and distract myself from doing any work. So let me pour myself a mug of mulled wine and reflect back upon the reading challenge that I set myself twelve months ago; the Literary Exploration Challenge.



I set out in January with good intentions but sadly I didn't manage to succeed in reading one book from all the categories in the insane challenge. Nevertheless, given the massive reading slump and blogging hiatus I had for a few months there, I don't think I did all that badly. Here's a list of all the books I read for the challenge, along with links to my reviews where available:

Insane Challenge

Adventure - The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Auto-Biography/Biography - Autobiography by Morrissey
Chick-Lit - Rachel's Holiday by Marian Keyes
Childrens Book
Classics - Breakfast At Tiffany's by Truman Capote
Cyberpunk
Drama
Dystopian - The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Educational
Erotica
Espionage
Fantasy - Alif The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
Graphic Novels - Ghost World by Daniel Clowes (re-read)
Gothic - The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Hard-Boiled - The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Historical Fiction - The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
Horror - The Woman In Black by Susan Hill
Humour - Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
Literary Fiction - Rites by Sophie Coulombeau
Magical Realism
Mystery - Raven Black by Ann Cleeves
Noir - Strangers On A Train by Patricia Highsmith
Non Fiction - What Is Madness? by Darian Leader
Paranormal - The Twelve by Justin Cronin
Philosophical
Poetry
Post-Apocalyptic - Wool by Hugh Howey
Romance - Emotional Geology by Linda Gillard
Science Fiction
Steampunk - The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters by G.W. Dahlquist
Supernatural - Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Thriller - Dark Matter by RD Cain  
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

So all this gives me a final score of 26/36 which is OK, I guess. Of the genres I missed, I had specific books lined up for a few of them but just never got round to them or didn't find myself in the mood (Children's fiction, Cyberpunk, Espionage). There were some that I am kicking myself about not getting, ones that should have been really easy but slipped by as I wasn't keeping a close enough eye on my progress (Magical Realism, Science Fiction). And the rest are categories that were always going to be a struggle.

I definitely think taking part in this challenge has encouraged variety in my reading habits over the past year. I have really enjoyed taking part and am considering doing the whole thing again next year. Those of you who are interested can take a look at the updated guidelines for the 2014 challenge here on Goodreads. There are some new categories, bonus challenges, and a range of entry points if the Insane Challenge feels a little overwhelming. Do let me know if you'll be participating!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

If I may, let me give you a little insight into the review-writing process here at Girl Vs Bookshelf. It is a Sunday afternoon, and I settle down on the sofa fully intending to write a blog post. But wait! Something is amiss. The laptop is plugged in to charge over on the other side of the room. I sigh wistfully, and stare into the middle distance for a time, remembering how much easier life used to be when I was a child. A while later, I call my boyfriend and ask him to bring me the computer. I switch it on and am suddenly struck by how chilly the room is feeling, so I pass some minutes trying to reach for a blanket. Alas, it is too far away from the sofa, so my efforts are abandoned. Wouldn't things be easier if I lived a simple life in the country? Maybe I should have asked him to make me a cup of coffee as well. I look at the clock. It will be time for dinner in around an hour. There's really no point starting writing now.


 If you are enjoying this so far, you will just LOVE Oblomov, as it takes him 100 pages or thereabouts to even get out of bed - a struggle I can truly relate to:

"When the tea had been consumed he raised himself upon his elbow and arrived within an ace of getting out of bed. In fact, glancing at his slippers, he even began to extend a foot in their direction, but presently withdrew it"

Born into the landed gentry in 19th century Russia, Ilya Ilyich Oblomov has lived a charmed life with a very sheltered rural upbringing. As is expected for a young man of his social standing, he has moved to the city to seek an occupation and make a name for himself. Unfortunately a few days' work in the civil service proves far too arduous so he retires to his crumbling apartment with his loyal manservant, Zakhar. And Zakhar's almost as lazy as his master.

You would think a novel about such a bone-idle character would be very dreary, but I loved it. It's full of fascinating ideas about the perils of indolence, on both individual and societal levels. Oblomov himself is a real existentialist and underneath his slothful exterior is a mind asking important questions; primarily, what is the point of living the busy lifestyle of all his peers? In the grand scheme of things it really so essential to fill all our hours going to parties, socialising, burning the candle at both ends in a job we don't enjoy, and generally trying to keep up with the Joneses? And if somebody wants to spend his days minding his own business and doing not much of anything at all, why should anybody else try to stop him? There's also a lot of commentary on the wider state of society in Russia. In particular it's interesting to see how the lackadaisical attitudes of the upper classes might have contributed to the downfall of their huge country estates as they neglected to involve themselves in their own affairs, preferring to entrust all the hard work to distant managers.

This possibly all sounds a bit dry and serious, but there is a wonderful humour throughout the whole novel that is really heart-warming and completely endears Oblomov to the reader.

This might not be one of the most renowned classics of Russian literature but it is certainly the 'friendliest' I've read, so I hope I've brought it to the attention of anyone trying to expand their literary horizons or read more classics. It is not a quick read and requires patience, but I found it entirely worthwhile to spend the time absorbing it. Even if it was a little alarming to find how much I identified with Oblomov's sloth myself...

Friday, 13 December 2013

Autobiographies in Autumn

Despite my recent absence from the blog, my Literary Exploration Challenge has still been nagging away at the back of my mind. There's no way I'm going to get through all the genres by the end of the year but I don't think I'll end up doing too badly. One of the categories I was least looking forward to when the challenge started out was the goal to read one biography/memoir over the course of 2013. I am just not a biography reader. I am vaguely aware of a flurry of celebrity memoirs being published in the run up to Christmas every year but otherwise they just don't hit my radar. Unusually, then, I ended up reading two of the things over the past few weeks!



Morrissey - Autobiography 

 

They say 'never meet your heroes'. Well, let me recommend a new variation on this guideline: 'never read their autobiographies either'.

I jest! But having waited a long time for Morrissey's book to finally materialise, I was left disappointed to say the least. Morrissey has always been a controversial figure who polarises opinion, and I have always stood firmly in the 'massive fan' camp, seeing him as a local Manchester legend. And I have to say, I love the story that he refused to publish anything less than a Penguin Classic. Who else could get away with that? It's so audacious, so very Morrissey.

His lyrics are unparalleled, both in his work with The Smiths and his solo material, so it's no surprise that this way with words is firmly reflected in his Autobiography - he can certainly write well. I enjoyed the descriptions of his early years growing up in Old Trafford, interspersed with encyclopaedic recollections of his favourite records and TV shows from childhood. But as the book progresses, his gloomy wit becomes less and less charming and strays firmly into bitter whingeing territory. It seems like he hasn't a good word to say about anybody but a tiny handful of his closest friends, and that everything that has ever gone vaguely wrong in his life can be blamed on somebody else. Ultimately it makes for a very dreary read.

So I will be content to stick with the music I adore from now on. As the man himself sang:

"There's more to life than books, you know, but not much more"



Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? - Mindy Kaling

 

I'd be hard-pushed to think of a more polar opposite memoir to Morrissey's than this one. It was passed on to me by my Aunt at a time when I was really busy and stressed, and work was getting me down. I really enjoy watching The Office (the US version) which is written by Kaling, although I haven't seen her starring in The Mindy Project. I suspected this would be a quick, light and fluffy read that wouldn't require too much concentration, and I was exactly right - it turned out to be just what I was in the mood for.

This is a less conventional biography than others I've read, in that it's a bit of a mixed bag of tricks. There are the expected chapters about Kaling's childhood and her rise to success in the male-dominated comedy industry, of course. But additionally the reader is treated to lots of shorter passages and mini-essays about...well, anything that pops into Mindy's head, really. Some of these are really funny. I particularly enjoyed her observations on chick-flicks and romantic comedies. Unfortunately, elsewhere I found these interludes to be somewhat distracting. I was left unsure whether or not there was supposed to be a narrative flow from start to finish, or if it was all just meant to be a bit random.

All things considered, this is good fun - the bookish equivalent of going to a girlie sleepover and having a gossip with your best friends. If you're a fan of The Office you'll almost certainly appreciate her brand of humour.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Top Ten Books On My Winter TBR

I've never really been into blogging memes or regular weekly features before, but Top Ten Tuesday is something that has always appealed to me. The themes that they choose over at The Broke and the Bookish are always fun and I look forward to reading everybody else's choices. I'm more likely to vastly expand my wishlist on a Tuesday than on any other day! So I've decided to join in from time to time when there's a topic that particularly catches my eye.

This week, book bloggers have been sharing what's on their Winter TBR. As I'm getting back into the swing of blogging, it feels like a perfect time to let you know what I'm hoping to get through over the next couple of months. I'm not really into 'themed' reads with Christmassy settings, so this is a mix of review copies, buzz books, and things I just really fancy getting stuck into.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Yes, it's that massive one that won the Booker. An involving Victorian mystery novel with a host of delicious characters, prospectors and opium dens. It sounds irresistible. What better to curl up with on a cold Winter's weekend?
Shift by Hugh Howey

This is a bit of a cheat, as it's what I'm reading now. I absolutely loved the dystopia Howey has created in Wool when I read it earlier this year, so I'm surprised it's taken me so long to get around to this prequel.







Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

I've just finished reading the third book in Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series. Usually I try to leave a decent period of time in between reading each installment of a serial, but Whispers Underground was just so good I don't think I'll be able to wait very long for this one. Peter Grant's adventures just keep getting better and better.






In The Woods by Tana French

I'm always on the lookout for a good crime fiction series, but even more so over the holiday period for some reason - festive, eh? I've heard really good things about Tana French and her thrillers set in Ireland, so when I spotted this first book in a charity shop recently, I snapped it right up. I love the simple but striking cover, too.





A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is up there as one of my all time favourite authors, so much so that I try to carefully ration my reading of his work because of a fear that one day I'll have no more Murakami left to enjoy. But I've realised that I haven't read any of his books at all yet in 2013, and that is something that needs to be rectified. A little bit of magical realism over the Winter period sounds just perfect.






Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

Months ago I picked a handful of the Women's Prize For Fiction longlist that I really wanted to read, and this is the last of them that is still hanging around on my shelves. I'd like to finish it sooner rather than later, and it seems like a fairly easy, breezy read that will happily occupy a couple of lazy days over Christmas.





Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway

This unconventional piece of police noir is on my Winter TBR primarily because I received it as a gift from my brother last Christmas and still haven't read it! Usually I make a big effort to read gifts as soon as possible, so I don't know what happened here. It's one of those that was high on my wishlist at the time but has always taken second place to newer, more 'exciting' books. It's supposed to be really excellent, though, so I'm looking forward to finally getting started. 




The Goddess And The Thief by Essie Fox

A maharajah, a medium, a healthy dose of mysticism...this latest Victorian Gothic offering from Essie Fox sounds like so much fun! I was lucky enough to win a copy of this in a recent Goodreads First Reads giveaway, and I can see myself being absolutely enchanted by the plot to steal a sacred Indian diamond. Definitely think this is one I will be reading very soon.





Let The Games Begin by Niccolo Ammaniti

Now this is a book that I received for review from NetGalley a few months back and promptly forgot about - oops! I've fallen a little behind with my NetGalley reviews while I had some time off blogging. So I need to get around to reading this over the next few weeks. Based on the official blurb, it sounds a bit mad, but in a really good way:

"WARNING: Contains Satanic cults, intoxicated supermodels, Olympic refugees and man-eating hippos"

 
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Am I the last person in the world to read this series? Maybe, just maybe. I have certainly turned my nose up at Suzanne Collins' trilogy before, but a couple of weeks ago I was bullied by a friend into watching the two movies and I think I might be hooked. The cliffhanger ending at the end of Catching Fire slayed me. That'll teach me to watch a film before reading the book! I can't possibly wait another year for the next film to be made, so I'm going to have to catch up on the novels as soon as possible!



So there you have it - my Winter TBR. I doubt I'll get through all of these, and will probably get distracted by other books along the way, but I'll be happy if I can read half of them before the season is over. What are you planning to read over the festive season?

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam

A few weeks back I found myself listening to The Readers podcast with interest as they discussed the relative merits of reading confronting books rather than more comforting choices. It gave me a lot to consider as I am not averse to picking up novels with grim or controversial subject matter that others might shy away from. I think it is something to do with curiosity and a desire to try and understand how the mind works and why people behave the way they do. I find it interesting to read reviews that say things like "this book was accomplished, it was thought-provoking, but I cannot say I enjoyed it". Is it possible to enjoy passing time with a book if the plot is about a topic that makes you uneasy in real life?

All this made me think of this excellent book I read a few months ago that tackles the horrible subject of child abduction. This one came to my attention when it was longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction earlier this year.
You might think David Lamb is a man who should have little to complain about, but a certain middle-aged dissatisfaction is creeping over him. He has a great job, but has lost all his motivation to succeed at it. His marriage is in tatters and his father has recently passed away. He is involved in a lacklustre affair with a beautiful younger woman who is devoted to him, stringing her along just because he can. Just as he is approaching crisis point, a chance encounter with eleven-year-old Tommie gives Lamb a new purpose in his life; to take this vulnerable, awkward girl under his wing and treat her to a better way of life. And Tommie herself jumps at the chance to escape her bullies and run away from her mundane existence at home.

Bonnie Nadzam has written a really powerful character study in David Lamb. Many comparisons have been made between this book and Nabokov's Lolita, but other than the basic plotline I didn't find them to be all that similar. Lamb lacks the overtly sexual tones present in its predecessor, which makes for a more ambiguous read. I was often unsure to what extent he truly believed he was doing the right thing by Tommie, even when it was startlingly clear to the reader that his actions were deplorable. It is both fascinating and chilling to watch the situation snowball out of control as Lamb gets a buzz from his power and manipulation. A strong sense of foreboding builds as events progress, and I had absolutely no idea how things were going to end for Lamb and Tommie.

As a reader I am usually drawn to vivid characterisation and tight plot first, and language and prose second. But I cannot stress enough how beautiful Nadzam's writing is. I was seriously impressed by her lyrical turns of phrase. The book is peppered with descriptive passages that are absolutely gorgeous, drawing a lush picture of the isolated countryside around Lamb's cabin. It is a really accomplished novel, and even more so considering this is her debut.

I think this is a perfect example of how books can be 'confronting' in subject matter but at the same time be enjoyable to read, thanks to the lovely way it is written. How do you feel about reading 'confronting' books? Do you have any to recommend to me?

I was grateful to receive a copy this book for review from Netgalley via Random House UK.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

When I started reading this a couple of months back, I didn't expect that I would end up writing about it on this blog. "Surely I must be the last person in the world to read this book", I thought. "Surely this is one of those mega-successes that has received almost unanimous praise, and nobody needs to hear yet another opinion of how great it is". But as I made progress and worked my way through the chapters, something surprised me. I was struck by the number of people getting in touch on Goodreads, on Twitter, and in real life to ask me how I was finding it. And every single one of them had the same thing to say. "I've been meaning to read that for ages", they'd say. "It's been sitting on my shelf for the longest time and I've heard it's really great. But it's just so big, right?".

So this goes out to the many of you who have been put off reading Susanna Clarke's masterpiece by the sheer heft of it. I understand, I really do - in fact, I probably wouldn't have got around to picking this up had I not swapped my hardback copy for a lighter paperback. But by holding out on this one you are missing out on an absolutely magical read. By the time I finished it, I felt that it wasn't long enough!


We find ourselves in England in 1806, and the country has been a largely magic-free zone for many years. The sole exception to this is Mr Norrell, England's only practising magician. He is a lofty, academic type; he loves attention and laps up any praise and wonder at his magical skills, while at the same time being very cautious and reluctant to share his knowledge lest it fall into the wrong hands. But as his talents become more infamous and demand grows for magical assistance in many areas of society, it becomes clear that there is too much work for one man; Mr Norrell will have to take on an apprentice. Enter Jonathan Strange - a young man whose temperament differs from Norrell's in almost every regard other than his natural aptitude for enchantment. With the number of magicians in London now doubled from one to two, the supernatural forces at work in the city become stronger and stronger, and it isn't long before the men find themselves having to deal with some sinister and otherworldly opposition.

This is just a great book, flawlessly written, and a joy to read from start to finish. As I said above, I was genuinely disappointed to turn the last page and leave Clarke's charming world behind. The London she creates is completely immersive - fantastical and fun as well as being impeccably researched and with enough historical detail to make it believable. It is intimidating, sure, but once you pick it up you realise just how readable and witty the writing is. I struggle to think of anybody who I wouldn't urge to read it. Fans of historical fiction, fantasy, or literary fiction will all be particularly enchanted.

So if you are tempted - and if not, why oh why not?! - please do put your reservations about long books to the side and read this. It is perfect to cosy up with under a blanket on a cold day, and perfect to get lost in at this time of year when reading challenges are winding down and you might have a bit more time to enjoy it rather than worrying about review deadlines or TBR targets. Even better, the cast has recently been set for a forthcoming BBC mini-series which is due to commence filming soon - so get reading the book before all the TV buzz kicks in! You won't regret it.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach

I'm back, and feeling all refreshed after my not-so-little blogging break. Thanks so much to everyone who left comments wishing me well! Things are still hectic at work, and my exam is looming on the horizon at the end of January, but I have really been itching to get blogging again. And really, nobody can work all the time, can they? We all need diversions to keep us sane, and for me that diversion happens to take the shape of a big stack of books. That said, I've had a much-needed week at home this week which has been a long time coming. Let me share a novel that has kept me company while I've been carving out a groove in the sofa over the past few days.


Over the summer I was lucky enough to win a copy of this book in a giveaway over at Prose and Cons. It has had a decent amount of blogger buzz and I loved the wonderfully clever, creepy trailer - a must-try for any Facebook addicts out there! So I was delighted to find myself absolutely gripped when I finally got stuck into the story this week. It has left me bleary-eyed after keeping me up way past my bedtime.

Leila lives a quiet life - some might say reclusive - but it suits her. She owns her own modest little London flat and has a job that allows her to keep the hours she likes so that she might while away the rest of her days playing World of Warcraft and debating ethics and philosophy on her favourite online forum, Red Pill. And she is content to keep this routine until one day she is contacted by an administrator of the site asking if she would be prepared to take on a special job. She learns about Tess, a slightly older woman who wishes to end her own life but is worried about the heartbreak that this would cause to her family and friends. Would it be possible for a tech-savvy individual like Leila to use internet profiles and social media to make them believe that Tess lives on?

Straight away this scenario offers so much food for thought around the fact that we are placing increasing chunks of our lives and personalities on display online. The premise seems outlandish at first, but as the story progresses Moggach makes it feel scarily plausible. Think of all the contacts you have on Facebook and Twitter, the passing acquaintances, old schoolmates, past work colleagues - would you really notice if one of them was an imposter? If somebody made the effort to do as much meticulous research as Leila does in this story, you might have difficulty discerning that something was amiss with even quite familiar friends. And then consider how much of your own information is published on the Web for the taking. How easy would it be for a complete stranger to impersonate you, or to manipulate your identity to further a cause of their own?

For me, the real strength of this book was Leila herself - I found her to be a very complex and intriguing character and could never quite decide in which direction the needle on her moral compass was pointing. She is a great unreliable narrator and really seems to be one of those characters that polarises opinion - in other reviews I've seen people describe her as a naive young innocent but also as a sinister sociopath, in equal parts likeable and unlikeable.  Sure, Leila has difficulty understanding the nuances of interaction on Facebook, and finds it easier to engage in logical and measured debate than friendly conversation. But I wasn't sure whether this represented some form of personality disorder or whether it stemmed from a sheltered adolescence spent almost exclusively in the company of her dying mother. Furthermore, I had difficulty regarding Leila as a victim, groomed by the shady but charismatic leader of Red Pill. There certainly seemed to be a clarity of reasoning that led her to act as she did, even if the morality behind her actions was dubious. But then I wonder if that in itself is part and parcel of the grooming, though - to make the victim believe that they are making their decisions independently without any coercion. Perhaps Leila is trying to 'groom' the reader to make us view her actions in a sympathetic light.

I was really impressed by this story - not necessarily because of any spectacular prose, or because I think it should set the literary world alight, no. But in Kiss Me First, Lottie Moggach has managed to spin a web of subtlety and ambiguity that has had me musing over it all day. Her observations are timely and relevant, and I think that anybody who considers themselves a part of 'the internet generation' will find it a very thought-provoking and compelling read.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Where have I gone?

Please accept my apologies for my recent unannounced absence from this bookish corner of the internet! Many things have conspired against me and my ability to blog. Firstly, I started a new job at the beginning of August which has turned out to be a whole lot busier than I had anticipated. Secondly, I have a big exam coming up in a few months and am spending a lot of time studying for that. Both of these things have meant I have much less spare time than usual and I'd rather spend it reading than blogging. So Girl Vs Bookshelf is on an indefinite hiatus for the time being. I have a few NetGalley reviews that I want to honour but otherwise things will be pretty quiet around here. Hopefully it won't last too long - and I'll still be checking in and commenting on my favourite blogs when I can! You can still keep track of what I've been reading on both Twitter and Goodreads. Hope you are all keeping well and getting stuck into some good books.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

I seem to have spent this month finally getting round to some of the "books EVERY other blogger has already read" from the last year or two. You know how it goes, you read the reviews, believe the hype, need to buy yourself a copy right now this minute and then leave it languishing for months in the middle of Mount TBR in favour of newer, more exciting reads. So I apologise in advance if this blog seems to be sooooo last year for the next few weeks. I just can't resist offering my own two cents on top of everyone else's!
The year is 1914 and for Grace Winter it's a time for new beginnings as she and her new husband, Henry, are making a trip on board the Empress Alexandra after their honeymoon period in Europe. The voyage is a tense one for numerous reasons. Whisperings of war murmur around the Captain's table, but Grace is preoccupied with worries closer to home as she prepares to meet Henry's well-to-do family for the first time. These anxieties are eclipsed when the ship runs into trouble and she finds herself stranded on an overloaded lifeboat with 38 near-strangers. Little does she know that she will soon be on trial for her life.

I must start by praising Charlotte Rogan's lyrical writing in The Lifeboat which is a pleasure to read. The descriptions of the sea are beautiful and at times I found myself re-reading sentences to savour every word. I really appreciated the way she conveys the majestic and terrifying power of the waves.

This novel raises some meaty ethical and philosophical questions. It is interesting to consider the way in which the different characters react under pressure and to what extent that influences their survival. Some turn to God, some (such as the seaman Hardie) adopt a more practical approach, some become hysterical, others keep their cool. The high-pressure, claustrophobic setting reminded me in some ways of Lord Of The Flies. Like that book, it made me think about my own character and how I cope in emergency situations. I don't think I am naturally extrovert, but do I stand my ground or am I easily influenced by others who are more forthright? It is difficult to imagine what we might be capable of in such an extreme scenario when the survival instinct is in overdrive.

The aftermath of the incident also gave me plenty to muse over. The victims of the shipwreck will forever be revered and remembered as angels, even martyrs, despite the fact that several of them may have been absolute scoundrels in life. Hints are dropped that Henry, Hardie and some of the other passengers may have been plotting some underhanded schemes. But it is the survivors, Grace and the other women, who are given a hard time. The jury, the public, the press - all are quick to judge these ladies, though none can even begin to imagine the physical and psychological hardship they faced during their ordeal at sea.

"What is this? A witch trial? Is the only way we can prove our innocence by drowning?’ I replied that perhaps there was a more profound point to be made about innocence, that perhaps a person could not be both alive and innocent"

It is true that their innocence is questionable, but as I said above - it is difficult to know where to draw the line when judging a person's actions taken in the name of self-preservation, when their natural fight-or-flight instincts have kicked in. Given the historical setting, I also wondered if the accused had been treated differently because they were women.

Unfortunately, despite its strengths I could only give this novel a fairly average overall rating simply because I just could not muster up any feelings for any of the characters. I felt disengaged from their plight and didn't care who lived, who died, who was guilty or otherwise. I think for a book of this nature it is essential for the reader to really care about the characters involved and I just didn't. Something about it felt a bit half-done and there could have been much more detail. There are lots of funny looks exchanged between characters that were probably loaded with meaning that I just didn't understand. I wanted more to convince me that Grace truly is an unreliable narrator, more on Hardie's mysterious agenda and his dispute with Blake, more on Henry and his wheeling and dealing. Subtlety and ambiguity can be great and I'm not saying that I necessarily wanted every single plot strand tied up in a neat bow, but a bit more tidying up at the end would have been perfect.

Lots (lots and lots!) of others have read this book and absolutely adored it, so it's a shame it didn't quite wow me in the same way. While the story didn't win me over, it certainly sparked lots of contemplation and reflection and for that reason I think it would be an excellent book club choice - I bet it would create loads of discussion. I'll be interested in whatever Rogan works on next as I really enjoyed taking the time to read her prose.


HISTORICAL FICTION

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Catching up with Department Q


I absolutely loved the first book in Jussi Adler-Olsen's Department Q series, Mercy. It was an extremely gripping mystery that introduced some great characters. I bought my Dad the second one for Christmas and was trying to wait for a polite interval to pass before borrowing it back from him to read myself. And as the third book, Redemption, has recently been published (I was lucky to receive a copy for review from Penguin Books via NetGalley), now seemed like the perfect time to pick up where I left off.

Disgrace (also published as The Absent One)

After solving the Merete Lyngaard case we read about in Mercy, Department Q are firmly in the force’s good books. The downside of this is that their offices are full to bursting with closed and unsolved cases for their perusal. How do they choose which one to devote their attention to? When a folder appears on Carl Morck’s desk out of the blue he is somewhat bemused – nobody will own up to bringing it to his attention, and besides, the case is closed and resulted in a conviction for murder of a pair of siblings twenty years ago. But the more he looks into the matter, the more he agrees that some digging into the past is needed. Unfortunately, the one woman who can help him most is living on the street and will do whatever it takes to make sure nobody can contact her. 

Now from the beginning it is clear that this represents a departure from Mercy in a significant way - that is, we find out very early on who the wrong’uns are, making Disgrace more of a howdunnit or a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit. I don't often find this to be the most gripping kind of mystery novel and wasn't looking forward to spending a lot of time reading as Carl works out what the reader already knows. But it's well-written and very enjoyable on the whole with plenty of twists and turns to satisfy the seasoned crime fiction fan. The characters shine and we get a really good insight into the psyche of the criminals.

In Mercy, Department Q essentially just consisted of the dynamic duo of Carl and Assad. In Disgrace we see them become a trio with the addition of an eccentric new assistant, Rose. I found her really annoying at first but over the course of the book her quirks became more endearing to me and she seems like a character with promise. I am looking forward to see how her role is developed as the series progresses. 

When dealing with series, sometimes it's so difficult to review a book it in its own right rather than making lazy comparisons to its prequels. With this one I couldn't help it even though I enjoyed it and it captured my attention. The main take-home thought I was left with is ‘Well, it isn’t as good as Mercy’. But it's well worth reading for the backstory of the main characters and for continuity in order to get the best out of the series as a whole.



Redemption (also published as A Conspiracy of Faith)

Can you think of anything more romantically mysterious than finding a message in a bottle? That’s how Redemption starts – when an unusual bottle is washed up on the bleak North Scottish coastline. It sits on a shelf gathering dust for years until some bright spark comes to the realisation that it contains a desperate plea for help. And it’s written in Danish, so of course it ends up on the desk of Carl Morck ready for Department Q to look into. He ends up on the trail of a cold-hearted serial killer and master of disguise who has managed to infiltrate some of the country’s most insular and reclusive religious sects. The criminal is still at large and, to make matters worse, is targeting children.

As if Department Q didn't already have enough on its plate, Assad can't help sticking his oar in with one of the cases that is troubling the regular police force upstairs. A spate of arson attacks has plagued the city and the only clue to a possible solution is the bizarre finding of several charred skeletons with severed fifth fingers.

I'm delighted to report that Jussi Adler Olsen is back on top form in this most recent instalment in the series! It’s a really satisfying crime novel, a perfect mix between past and present narratives, action scenes and introspection, a nice sprinkling of humour, boom! I felt like it was very well-researched when it came to the details about the various religious organisations, too.

The best thing about these books is that aside from all the suspense and action you can enjoy some great character development. Rose is gone but not forgotten as her equally odd sister Yrsa stands in to cover her workload. I love the relationship between Carl and Assad and am particularly fond of the teasing hints that are slowly being dropped about secrets in Assad's past, carefully uncovering another side to his personality as we progress through the series. There are times when he feels like a bit of a racial stereotype, but he certainly provides comedy value with his speech that is peppered with bizarre proverbs and misunderstood idioms. It’s a credit to the translator that this language barrier is conveyed in convincing broken English from the original Danish. If I didn't know better I'd be convinced that this novel had originally been written in English.

After Disgrace left me feeling very underwhelmed, I was so pleased to read such a solid follow-up. Redemption has reignited my interest in this series and I will certainly be picking up any further installments. This book would work very nicely as a standalone crime thriller, however, I think for full appreciation the books should be read in order.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by G.W. Dahlquist



Regular readers might have noticed that I’ve dropped the ball recently when it comes to the Literary Exploration Challenge. For the past couple of months I’ve been really busy at work and also seem to have had an array of way-too-tempting titles at hand that just didn’t fit in with the specifications of the challenge. But I’ve given myself a good pep talk and have resolved to carry on in earnest. Even if the chances of completing the list before the end of December are looking slim, at least I can carry on pushing my own boundaries and discovering new avenues.


With that in mind, I turned to one of the genres that I have been most intrigued to tackle: STEAMPUNK. In principle it appeals to me. Daring adventurers, a hint of the fantastical and maybe a bit of science fiction, all on a background of the grubby glamour of the Victorian age. How could I resist? Unfortunately when searching for examples of the genre to try, I found that the Steampunk market seems to be flooded with lots of samey YA trilogies, and while I’m sure some of these are really entertaining, as a newcomer to the genre it’s difficult to differentiate between the gems and the tripe.

Enter G.W. Dahlquist. I cannot for the life of me remember how this series landed on my radar but it had been on my wishlist for a while and I snapped it up in the charity shop next to my dentist's as a treat after a particularly nasty filling. Glass Books of the Dream Eaters is quite an imposing book but I had the impression that putting the effort in would reap rewards. It seemed to be a more ‘grown-up’ Steampunk choice that would satisfy my inner literary snob.

The plot of Glass Books of the Dream Eaters is complex and almost impossible to summarise. We make the acquaintance of three characters from wildly different backgrounds and with completely separate agendas who get thrown together, finding themselves fighting a common evil. The well-heeled Miss Temple is a refined lady who is trying to find out why her ex-fiancĂ© had a sudden change of heart about their forthcoming nuptials. Svenson is a doctor – though you wouldn’t believe it from his incessant chain-smoking – who is acting as chaperone to the wayward young prince of his obscure Germanic state. And the (almost) blind assassin Cardinal Chang is shocked when he turns up at his latest job to find someone has already done the hard work for him, leaving a still-warm corpse in their wake. Somehow this unlikely trio end up working together against a deadly league of soldiers, aristocracy, prostitutes and general wrong ‘uns.

The first thing I need to do is state the obvious and warn you that this is a very long book. And to be honest, it’s longer than it strictly needs to be. Be prepared to read through lengthy descriptive passages and lots of scenes of action and killing that don’t serve to further the plot in any significant way. I wouldn’t class it as a particularly ‘easy’ read, either, being a novel that really demands your attention and needs to be devoured in thick wedges to maximise your enjoyment. There are countless extraneous characters with unpronounceable names to try and remember. But I found it to be worth making this effort.

Dahlquist has created an enchanting environment rooted in 19th century England but with just enough ‘off’ details to make it feel slightly otherworldly. It has all the classic hallmarks I was hoping to find in a Steampunk novel – horse-drawn carriages, a labyrinthine manor house, alchemy, dodging of bullets, airships, and heaps of derring-do. There’s a lot of action and a lot of fun. At the same time there is a subtle eroticism running through the whole thing, and not in a Fifty Shades way. I also adored the sparky dialogue, particularly the ascerbic wit of Miss Temple:

"First you say I am a murderer - an agent in league against you - and now I am a deluded heartsick girl! Pray make up your mind so I can scoff at you with precision!"

It is strange that despite finding this novel a dreary slog at times, I couldn’t put it down. I would find myself thinking ‘oh come on, get on with it’ but at the same time was compelled to read more. It is a flawed book in many ways but gets away with it as there is so much really great stuff in there too. I wonder if it might have benefited from a more ruthless editing process to prune out the filler. In any case, I found it very enjoyable and would definitely consider finding out what happens to the trio in the next volume of this series the next time I have some spare hours on my hands.

Since finishing this book I’ve discovered that the Literary Exploration blog has written a handy post which is a good place to start for anybody considering dabbling in Steampunk. Does anybody else have any recommendations of Steampunk favourites for me to try?

Monday, 29 July 2013

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

I left it far too long between reading the promising first installment in the Rivers Of London series and picking up this second book. But after giving away a copy as part of the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop, and then meeting Ben Aaronovitch at the Newbooks magazine Readers' Day last month (he is a great speaker, really, really funny) I thought it was high time I got on with Moon Over Soho. And I am very happy that I did!

Last time we met Peter Grant he was finding his feet in his new role as apprentice magician to the Met. He had played a big part in shelving his first case and had just about got to grips with how to follow clues left by magical 'vestigia'. Now London is a city that never sleeps, so things haven't let up at all for Peter as we begin book two. If anything, his workload has increased. Someone - or something - has been doing the rounds of the city's nightspots, seducing unsuspecting victims and having a good chomp on the most delicate parts of their anatomy. And at the same time, something is amiss within the city's jazz scene. Several jazz musicians have met an untimely demise in suspicious circumstances and it seems like magic might have had a part to play in their deaths. Unfortunately the big boss, Nightingale, is on extended sick leave, so Peter is essentially left to keep things ticking over single-handedly at The Folly.

On reading Rivers Of London I was bowled over by the author's world-building. I loved the characters and found the dry humour irresistible. The main reservation I had was that the plot felt a bit vague and meandering, and didn't grab me as much as I had hoped. I am delighted to say that I found Moon Over Soho much more satisfying in this regard. The mystery/crime-solving element is solid and I was gripped from the start.

I liked Peter Grant already, but even more so after reading Moon Over Soho. He's a really strong and engaging protagonist and I can't see myself tiring of him any time soon - I can imagine this series will run and run. Sure, he has his moments of idiocy and a fondness for a pretty face that often clouds his professional judgment, but at the same time he shows real skill and intelligence. I love reading about his thought processes and the experiments he conducts to attempt to understand how magic works. A quibble I've often had when reading other fantasy books with a contemporary setting is that I find it irritating when a character is confronted by something extraordinary or supernatural and swiftly accepts it without question. Peter uses magic on a daily basis but retains an acute awareness that his situation is incredibly bizarre, and is always trying to find a scientific basis for the paranormal phenomena he observes.

It's a delight to read, chock-full of genuine laughs and great one-liners. I have been tentatively increasing my Kindle reading lately, and while I'm not a fan of the 'popular highlights' function it was very interesting to note the significant number of highlighted passages in Moon Over Soho compared to any other book I've encountered. It's very quotable:

"For a terrifying moment I thought he was going to hug me, but fortunately we both remembered we were English just in time. Still, it was a close call."

"It’s a truism in policing that witnesses and statements are fine, but nothing beats empirical physical evidence. Actually it isn’t a truism because most policemen think the word ‘empirical’ is something to do with Darth Vader, but it damn well should be."

I have Whispers Underground lined up to be read very soon, and this time I don't think I will be leaving it quite so long to catch up with events at The Folly. And if you're one step ahead of me, the fourth book in the series, Broken Homes, is available to buy in the UK since last week!