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Thursday, 31 January 2013

Dark Matter by RD Cain

Now it's no secret that I have a soft spot for crime fiction and I think I've also mentioned a few times on here that I am always on the lookout for a new series to get hooked into. When ECW Press e-mailed me offering a few new crime titles to review I tried my very best to refuse because this ongoing Girl vs Bookshelf battle is hard enough without temptations like that flying into my inbox. However after reading an excerpt from the first chapter of the second installment of RD Cain's Steve Nastos series, I was gripped and simply had to know what happened next. Bookshelf 1, Girl 0.

Dark Matter RD Cain

So as I've mentioned this is the second book in a series and usually I'm not keen on starting a series partway through, but I didn't find it to be a major problem here. We meet Steve Nastos at a difficult time in his life, having recently been publicly disgraced and lost his job in the police force. An old friend, Carscadden, has helped him out with a private investigating job and he's less than enthusiastic about getting involved as his wife is piling on the pressure for him to settle down to a quieter life. But when a wealthy family from one of Toronto's most prosperous suburbs gets in touch asking him to track down their missing teenage daughter, Lindsay, his thrillseeking tendencies get the better of him and soon he is sucked into the case.

The book opens with that intriguing first chapter I've already mentioned, where we find Lindsay trapped in a basement with several other teenage girls with no recollection of how or why she got there. Nastos finds out pretty quickly that she was adopted and spent most of her formative years on the wrong side of the tracks. So the book contains a whole host of seedy suspects including one of the most inhuman and depraved guilty parties I've come across in a long while. Some of their actions were quite literally jaw-dropping, my mouth was hanging open wide reading about the lengths they went to to get away with their crimes. Nastos himself also comes across as verging on sociopathic, to be honest, and doesn't hold back from doing anything it takes to get the information he needs.

Having a protagonist who is so impulsive and pushes right to the limits of what is generally socially acceptable certainly makes for unpredictable and exciting reading. Nevertheless, I also feel that Nastos' cold and impetuous personality was a drawback in other ways. He was difficult to like or engage with. A more sensitive side was hinted at only slightly when his daughter was mentioned and I would have liked to see this developed a bit more.

I don't often read crime thrillers in this mould, preferring to try and work out whodunnit for myself and having it revealed at the end. But it was certainly entertaining and I'd consider reading more in the series. It's interesting to note that RD Cain has worked as a paramedic, a firefighter AND a police officer which must give him a pretty unique take on life and I bet he has a wealth of experience to draw on when writing future books.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Rites by Sophie Coulombeau

In 2011 Route Publishing chose Sophie Coulombeau as the winner of their "Next Great Novelist Award 2012", the prize being that her first book Rites was seen through to publication. I have a special place in my heart for both debut novels and novels set in my beloved Manchester, so it is no surprise that I enjoyed this a great deal. 

Rites Sophie Coulombeau

Rites is a story of four adults looking back on a scandal that rocked their teenage worlds back when they were 14 years old and had made a pact to lose their virginities to one another. Ten years later, an unidentified inquisitor is interviewing them and members of the local community to establish what exactly happened. It quickly becomes clear that memories have become blurred with time. What seems solid truth at first is later called into question as we read a variety of different accounts of the same events.

The teenagers in this book are portrayed wonderfully. They are so realistic. Coulombeau has perfectly captured that period of adolescence where you feel like you somehow know everything about life and yet nothing about it at the same time. The years when you have your first taste of independence and are not quite sure what to do with it.

"What else there is to do has nothing whatsoever to do with why kids hang around on street corners. They do it because they've figured out that it's intimidating, and they like it. When grown-ups walk by, grown-ups by themselves, they're not exactly scared but they shut down a little, they tense, they brace themselves in case you're trouble, in case you're going to hassle them...There's nothing like a taste of power when you're fourteen"

The protagonists as teenagers are described with a real naiveté which made me feel quite sympathetic towards them. On the other hand, some of their adult selves are much less likeable and didn't seem to have reflected on their pasts with a very discerning eye. We meet the sneering Damian, who has fashioned himself into some sort of infamous anti-hero. Then there is Nick, who remains somewhat flippant about the whole affair. It really made me think about how we all judge situations slightly differently and about how bad we tend to be at taking a truly critical look at our own actions.

I find that novels with multiple narrators can be hit or miss but it works very well here. There are around 10 different perspectives so it's remarkable that each one has their own distinctive voice and I was never left flicking back the pages trying to remember who was talking, which I often find a problem with this kind of narrative. With so many versions of the same story you will find yourself wondering not only who is telling the truth but even: is there such a thing as an objective truth or does it depend on who you side with?  How many situations might you have encountered in your life where the truth has seemed clear cut but might have looked a whole lot different seen from another perspective?

As soon as I finished reading Rites I wanted to go and tell everyone I know to read it, because it would be a great one to discuss and pick over with a group of friends or a book club. Everyone will be left with their own opinions about what exactly went on, and everyone will sympathise with some characters more than others. It has prompted a good dose of self-scrutiny and I think it's a story that will stay with me for a long time. So please go and pick up a copy, and then come back and tell me what you think so we can have a natter about it!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

So for my next Literary Challenge I decided to tackle a genre that I have had mixed successes with in the past...
I don't have an aversion to Young Adult fiction as such. I've read the whole Twilight quadrilogy from cover to cover to cover! And you know I love a good bit of sci-fi, so I have read and enjoyed quite a few of the YA dystopian novels that have been all over the place in the past year or so. But there's a certain something about the writing style that seems common to the genre and has thus far prevented any YA reads from really wowing me. For this challenge I thought I'd try a new-to-me author with a huge cult following who is often heralded as a particularly intelligent and witty voice in the world of YA fiction. I chose a novel that has had seriously overwhelming positive reviews (4.5 and 4.8 star average rating on Goodreads and Amazon respectively). How could I go wrong?

The Fault In Our Stars

Hazel was diagnosed with metastatic thyroid cancer at the age of thirteen. Three years later the disease is being kept at bay indefinitely thanks to an experimental new drug. Her days are spent carting her oxygen tank between college, home, and Cancer Kid Support Group. Her treatment regime means that she has little time for friends her own age, and besides, now that she's a Cancer Kid most of them don't know how to behave around her anyway. So she is intrigued to say the least when an attractive and witty young man named Augustus Waters turns up unexpectedly at support group one week.

The predominant niggle that stopped me from really losing myself in this book is that Hazel and Gus just don't come across as realistic teenagers at all. They both have this incredibly verbose, Dawson's Creek-esque way of speaking that is laden with cheesy metaphors:
"My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations"
The whole thing is narrated by Hazel, and the insight that that gives into her thought processes and inner dialogue makes her just about relatable, but Augustus feels like he's reading from a script the whole time. I had this sense that for every frank exchange of emotions between them, they had spent five minutes flipping through a thesaurus beforehand. I found this really annoying to the point that it prevented me from becoming emotionally invested with either of the characters. To be fair, this is not a problem that's unique to The Fault In Our Stars, though - it's a stumbling block that I have encountered several times before in YA literature.

What it does really well is illustrates how immensely trying it must be to be a sick teenager, be it with cancer or any chronic disease. I believe John Green drew on his experiences of working as a chaplain at a childrens' hospital to write the novel, and he has certainly made plenty of astute and unsentimental observations about the realities of living with illness. At just the age when you should be finding your independence and forging a groove for yourself in the world, you are forced to rely more heavily on the adults around you than ever. A 16-year-old is legally allowed to get married or join the army but when it comes to making decisions about their own healthcare the law is complex. They can give consent to medical care but if they want to refuse a particular treatment their wishes can be overridden by their parents or doctors. It's no wonder that Hazel talks about herself and her fellow Cancer Kids as feeling experimented on. And she's got the extra burden of guilt of knowing that her parents have to forgo treats and holidays because of the costs of her medication and care.

The tragic relationship between Hazel and Augustus is what this book is all about - there's a slightly strange side-story about taking a trip to Amsterdam to meet Hazel's favourite author, but other than that there is not much plot to speak of. It's for that reason that I think so much of a reader's enjoyment of this novel will depend on their own personal world view and experiences of cancer, illness, and losing loved ones. The subject matter is so emotive that it's bound to provoke an almost visceral response that runs much deeper than any assessment of the words on the page. It wasn't for me, but you can't argue with the widespread acclaim it has received that shows it has tugged on the heart-strings of many.

I got my copy of this book through the Spinebreakers Pass It On Competition. I loved the idea of forming a book chain and think it's such a great promotional strategy, but the timing just wasn't right - the book arrived about a week before Christmas when I was working ALL the hours, and the closing date for entry was 4th Jan. But I feel really bad that I've got a free copy of the book and not used it for the purpose it was given, so if anyone wants my copy just send me an e-mail or something. As long as you pass it on to someone else afterwards!

Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

So, 2013 is upon us and my Literary Exploration Challenge has started in earnest...I'll be honest and say that I am feeling a teeny bit apprehensive, have I bitten off more than I can chew? To kick things off I picked a classic detective novel off the TBR that I have been meaning to get around to for ages, Dashiell Hammett's famous work, The Maltese Falcon. After scratching my head for a short time trying to decide whether this would satisfy the Noir or Hard-Boiled category, I consulted Michael's handy guide to pulp fiction (a must-read for any beginners interested in dabbling in this genre) over at the Literary Exploration blog and have decided to put a tick on my challenge list next to...


Maltese Falcon

When the stunning redhead Miss Wonderly walks into Sam Spade's detective agency to request his help, offering to pay him handsomely for the job, he thinks it's going to be a good day. But a few short hours later we find his partner shot dead and the police sniffing at Spade's door asking questions about a second man's murder. He is plunged headlong into a search for an artefact so precious that there are a cast of colourful characters out there who would kill to take its possession.

Despite the grim setting of prohibition-era San Francisco, there is a strange kind of grubby glamour that makes this book quite captivating. The dialogue is clipped and sharp in contrast to Hammett's wonderfully vivid descriptive passages:

"The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. His eyes, made small by fat puffs around, were dark and sleek."

For me, though, Sam Spade himself is what makes this book so compelling. It's rare that I encounter so enigmatic a lead character. Spade is one tough cookie and doesn't think twice about double-crossing people or manipulating situations to get his own way. He is sometimes cruel, he is disrespectful to women, but despite all this he remains very much the hero of the story and you can't help admiring his cunning ways. Hammett has quite cleverly avoided sharing any of his internal dialogue or thoughts at all, which shrouds him in intrigue and leaves the reader guessing at what exactly is on his mind.

I enjoyed my introduction to hard-boiled detective fiction very much, and would like to watch the classic film based on this book soon. It will be interesting to see if I notice any difference between hard-boiled and noir when  I get to that point in my challenge, and whether I enjoy noir as much. I would love to hear any recommendations you have of good hard-boiled novels to try in the future!

Monday, 7 January 2013

The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman

I kicked off 2013 with this small but perfectly formed novella, a kind of literary palate cleanser if you like, a bit of escapism to see in the New Year. I am happy to hold my hands up and admit that I readily judge books by their covers, so of course this beautiful little hardback had to be mine when I spotted it a few weeks ago - particularly given my penchant for red and black colour schemes that emerged when picking my 2012 favourites! At a tiny 88 pages it is the perfect book to curl up with on a lazy afternoon and read in a single sitting.

Tiny Wife Andrew Kaufman

The Tiny Wife begins in a dramatic fashion as a thief in a purple hat bursts into a busy Toronto bank brandishing a loaded gun. But it soon becomes apparent that this is no ordinary stick-up. The stranger demands that each of the bank's customers gives him the object in their possession that holds the most sentimental value. Confused, they comply with his demands and part with the trinkets that they hold dear; a cheap watch, a well-used calculator. But along with these knick-knacks each victim loses a part of their own soul, which triggers all manner of bizarre and surreal events across the city.

The consequences of this singular encounter affect the victims in a multitude of different ways, and I am loath to give too much away as after all, the book is only 88 pages long. Suffice it to say, some find their lives are changed for the better, such as the man who finds that his little baby begins to fill its nappy with cash. But others, like Stacey Hinterland, are thrown into a world of uncertainty. Stacey discovers that she is shrinking, imperceptibly at first, but later at an alarming rate. Her relationship with her husband becomes more strained than ever and her toddler son threatens to engulf her. How is she to find her soul again before she disappears for good?

Part modern fairy tale, part magical realism, I enjoyed this little fable and lost myself in the quirky tales of how the different characters were affected by the robbery. It is immensely imaginative and thoroughly charming.  However as I came to the end I had a niggling feeling that something of the moral of the story had passed me by. Who is this flamboyant stranger in the purple hat, and what are his motives? They say good things come in small packages, so feel free to call me a greedy so and so if you like, but I was left wanting just a few pages more. The Tiny Wife definitely comes highly recommended, and I am very tempted to pick up a copy of Kaufman's latest, 'Born Weird', which has been recently published.