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Sunday, 24 February 2013

Signs Of Life by Anna Raverat

Do you ever feel like sometimes the anticipation of reading a new book can eventually ruin the actual experience? I can think of a number of cases when I've stumbled across a press release or blog review of a book that's really excited me, that has gone straight to the top of my wishlist, that I have to read right away. And then after I've turned over the last page I'm left shrugging and wondering what I'd made all the fuss about. Here's an example of one such title that I found really appealing and was sure would be counted among my top reads of the year. And because I was not quite as wowed as I had expected to be, I felt quite disappointed immediately after reading it. Having had a few days to reflect, though, it is a really good book and I think my initial reaction was unfair. It's novels like these that are the reason why I don't give star ratings on this blog. I'd be forever changing my mind!


Signs Of Life Anna Raverat

Ten years ago, Rachel had an intense love affair with a work colleague and it did not end well. Ever since then she has been trying various ways to help her move on with her life - alcohol, medication, distancing herself from friends and situations that might bring the memories flooding back to her. When she finally feels ready to face up to what happened back then it proves difficult because the passing of a decade and the consumption of various mind-altering substances have blurred her memories. Fortunately she has her notebooks to help her piece together a mental jigsaw, hastily scribbled diary entries and song lyrics that capture brief snapshots of her thoughts back then. But can we rely on Rachel to fill in the blanks accurately? As the blurb asks: "is she telling us the truth?".

And I guess this question is key to your enjoyment of the novel - for this story to have maximum impact you need to see the protagonist as a liar or at the very least an intentionally unreliable narrator. I just didn't get that impression of her. Sure, there are blanks in her narrative and details that are mentioned early on and then described in a different light later in the book. But Rachel herself admits that she doesn't remember things clearly and can't be sure that events had transpired exactly as she recalls. In that sense I found her quite honest and actually felt sympathetic towards her. Embarking on the affair in the first place - particularly with an unhinged brute like Carl - was clearly a very foolish and selfish decision, but it's a human mistake that lots of people make. And after the affair was established, I didn't think it was overwhelmingly Rachel's actions that led to a bad outcome. It's interesting, from other reviews I've read of Signs Of Life it seems a lot of readers dislike Rachel very strongly and think she's a self-centred and manipulative person. I guess if you share this viewpoint then you would probably find the eventual conclusion much more powerful.

My impression of the protagonist aside, I thought this was a well-written novel that was constructed very cleverly. The non-linear narrative was disorientating at first and almost feels like a stream of consciousness as thoughts and memories occur to Rachel at random. Nevertheless, it really works well as a way to build suspense throughout and shrouds events in a hazy fog of confusion. I liked how it allowed Raverat to clearly illustrate the contrast between the rosy early days of the relationship with the situation later on when things had turned sour, and similarly the contrast between the characters of the two men in Rachel's life.

One thing I love about books is the scope they offer for individual interpretation and how all readers see things slightly differently. I enjoyed this book but found it didn't have as much impact on me as others have experienced. I'll definitely be looking out for more by Anna Raverat, though.

It has struck me that in recent months I've maybe read too many books involving a reclusive and/or melancholy female protagonist with skeletons in her closet. They always sound so tempting but it's possible that I have become a bit jaded with this particular theme - maybe that's got something to do with my recent reading slump? I feel the need to step right out of my comfort zone and shake things up a bit...

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Raven Black by Ann Cleeves

Everybody who knows me knows I love sinking my teeth into a good mystery. So this is one genre from the Literary Exploration Challenge that posed no challenge at all. I raced through it in a lazy Sunday, sitting on my sofa under a blanket while rain spattered at the window. Easy peasy!

Literary Exploration Challenge

MYSTERY

I've finally got round to starting a series that my Mum bought ages ago and assured me I would love. She then passed the books onto my Dad, my uncle, my aunt - basically my whole family have enjoyed them before I had a chance to! They have now finally made their way into my flat, looking a bit worse for wear but I am excited to crack on with them. I haven't read anything by Ann Cleeves before but I caught a few episodes of the Vera Stanhope series on TV and was impressed by her brilliant 'Regional Voices' initiative to help young people get work experience in publishing in London.

It is a cold January day when Fran Hunter spots a flash of red against the snowy white Shetland landscape and discovers the body of a teenage girl who has been brutally murdered. The locals naturally suspect Magnus Tait, a lonely elderly man with learning difficulties who has been given a wide berth by his neighbours since similar accusations were made against him many years ago - although these were never proven. The Shetland police force reluctantly receive reinforcements from the mainland, and these outsiders are also keen to throw the blame onto the reclusive Tait. But local detective Jimmy Perez suspects there might be more to the case than initially meets the eye.

Raven Black Ann Cleeves
It was interesting to read this soon after reading Linda Gillard's Emotional Geology. Initially I was disappointed that Raven Black didn't share that book's sense of place, that it wasn't as evocative of the isolated rural communities of the Scottish islands. It almost felt like Raven Black could be set anywhere in the UK. I later realised that compared to the tiny islands that surround it, Lerwick is actually a relatively big town with a busy seaport and lively community. It was probably important for Cleeves to establish this bustling atmosphere at the beginning of the series so that Shetland seems like a dynamic enough place that the reader believes all these crimes could conceivably occur there. I'm sure we can all think of examples of tiny fictional locations that are frequented by far more than their fair share of serial killers (I loved reading about the results of this Open University study looking at murder rates per head of fictional population!).

Jimmy Perez is an interesting lead but remains fairly enigmatic throughout this story. I feel like we've only just scratched the surface where he's concerned and am looking forward to finding out how his character is developed throughout the series. The other characters were very believable and I found Magnus Tait's story in particular quite heartbreaking. The mystery itself was gripping and had a satisfying conclusion which was genuinely surprising. 

Raven Black is an enjoyable enough mystery but I get the feeling it is almost setting the scene for the rest of the series rather than being a memorable stand-alone crime novel. Luckily I have the rest of the books at hand so I might be able to finish them before the BBC adaptation is televised later this year.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

It's been a while since I've posted any reviews and there are a couple of reasons for that - firstly I've started a new job and it has proved harder than expected to find my feet and get used to how things work there. Secondly, and more significantly, I haven't picked up any books this month that have really wowed me. I've just been feeling a bit underwhelmed, a bit 'meh' about everything I've read recently and don't really know what to pick up next. Is it just me who sometimes finds it difficult to gauge my reading mood and to decide what I fancy losing myself in next?

Literary Exploration Challenge

For the next step in my Literary Exploration Challenge I decided to pick a genre that falls well and truly within my comfort zone. There's nothing like curling up on the sofa on a gloomy day with rain battering the windows, and getting lost in a creepy Gothic story. I just had to decide whether to go for a tried-and-tested classic or something newer, and in the end it was a more modern take on the Gothic theme that won out.

GOTHIC


Thirteenth Tale Diane Setterfield

Margaret Lea lives a quiet existence selling antique books with her father and writing the occasional biography to bring in a few extra pounds. Her literary tastes tend towards the obscure, dusty tomes that are often left behind on the shelves of their shop, and she has never read anything by the infamous bestselling contemporary novelist Vida Winter. Even though she isn't a fan, she has of course heard lots about the reclusive Miss Winter who is best known for her collection Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation - a source of much speculation in literary circles as it contains only twelve stories. So Margaret is surprised to say the least when Miss Winter contacts her to say that she is ready to tell the world her life story and wants Margaret to be the biographer. It seems that the thirteenth tale might be her own. 

I really enjoyed the first half of the book and got well and truly swept away in the story of Vida Winter's unruly childhood growing up with her disordered family in a crumbling manor house. Fair enough, at times it borders on cliché and borrows heavily (SO heavily!) from Gothic classics such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I started playing a sort of game with myself where every time a ubiquitous Gothic image was mentioned I'd check it off on a list in my head. Decaying manor house? Check. Unhinged but beautiful young woman sent to asylum? Check. Creepy twins? Check. Wandering on the moors in bad weather? Bingo! There's even more that I can't mention for fear of spoilers, but you get the picture. But despite the extent to which Setterfield has tried to emulate her literary heroes, it is done in a gripping and intriguing way and I couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen next. It kept me awake late at night, hanging on to read 'just one more chapter'.

I was so disappointed, then, to find myself completely losing interest towards the end. What happened?! I have pondered over what it was I didn't like but am struggling to put my finger on anything specific. Margaret is kind of an insipid protagonist and there is nothing much about her either to like or dislike. She has a few issues of her own going on in life, a difficult relationship with her mother for example, and in the parts of the book where we find her moping around and mulling over her own troubles I was impatient to get back to the main story. And then as time went on I stopped caring as much what happened in the main plot, too. Overall I think the whole thing probably went on just a bit too long for my liking. 

Another thing - it finishes with one of those unnecessary and cheesy epilogues after the main story is over, that tells us what the protagonist goes on to do next in her life and is basically a modern equivalent of writing "and they all lived happily ever after". That kind of ending is one of my pet hates and if a book finishes that way it always means I go away from it feeling disgruntled!

It's a shame that the feeling I had on starting this book didn't hold out. Maybe it would have been different had it been 100 or so pages shorter, because I felt it had the potential to be a really enjoyable and engrossing Gothic tale but lost its way a little towards the end.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Blog Hop winners!

The blog hop has come to an end, which can only mean it is time to announce the winners!

Literary Giveaway Blog Hop

I typed all the entries into a spreadsheet and entered them into the list randomiser over at random.org - once for Rites and once for Care Of Wooden Floors. Here are the results...




So congratulations to Kristia and I'm so not a blogger! I will send you both a message this evening by your preferred contact method. Please try to respond before the end of the day on Saturday or I will draw the winner again.

Thanks to everyone who has visited the blog and commented over the past few days. I'm sorry that the reviews seem to have tailed off recently - I've ended up having a little blogging hiatus while I start my new job - but don't worry, I've still been reading plenty and will be posting again very soon.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

The Literary Giveaway Blog Hop!

The Literary Giveaway Blog Hop is an event taking place from Saturday February 9th until (and including) Wednesday February 13th. There are around 40 participants & I am really excited to be taking part this time around because there are some books I am keen to share with my readers.

Literary Blog Hop

The blog hop is hosted by Judith over at Leeswammes blog. She made the observation that most giveaway blog hops seem to be directed towards young adult and romance audiences. This is the seventh Literary Giveaway Blog Hop and the only restriction is that if you’re giving away a book, it should have some literary merit. It does not have to be the most difficult classic ever, but no romance, urban fiction or YA. Quality thrillers, poetry and non-fiction are fine, as are contemporary fiction, literary fiction and any other genres not in the categories above. 

I will be giving away not one but two of my favourite debut novels that I have thoroughly enjoyed over the past few months: Care Of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles and Rites by Sophie Coulombeau. Click on the cover images below to have a read of my reviews.

Care Of Wooden FloorsRites Sophie Coulombeau

Here's how to get involved:

1) Leave a comment below telling me whether you'd like to be entered to win Care Of Wooden Floors or Rites or both books. I'd welcome recommendations of other debut novels you've enjoyed recently, although that isn't essential to be entered.

2) For an extra entry you can follow me on Twitter (@marieemonaghan). Make sure you let me know and leave your Twitter handle in your comment on this blog post or I won't know. (If you're entering to win both books, following on Twitter will get you an extra entry into both draws).

EDITED 9/2/13 at 12:40 to add: If you don't leave a Twitter name, please leave an e-mail address or some other way for me to contact you if you win!

3) The giveaway will be open from now until the end of the day on February 13th and the winners will be drawn shortly afterwards using a random number generator.

4) The giveaway is open to readers worldwide, but please bear in mind that I am posting the books out myself rather than using an online service like The Book Depository, so the further away you live from the UK, the longer it may take for your prize to arrive!

Please visit the other participants using the links below for more chances to pick up some great books!

Linky List:
  1. Leeswammes
  2. The Book Garden
  3. Sam Still Reading
  4. Candle Beam Book Blog
  5. Ciska's Book Chest
  6. Too Fond
  7. Alex in Leeds
  8. Under a Gray Sky
  9. Bibliosue
  10. The Book Club Blog
  11. Fingers & Prose
  12. Lori Howell
  13. Rikki's Teleidoscope
  14. Girl vs Bookshelf
  15. Lizzy's Literary Life (Europe)
  16. Booklover Book Reviews
  17. The Blog of Litwits
  18. Reading World (USA/Can)
  19. Seaside Book Nook
  20. Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
  21. The Book Diva's Reads
  22. Breieninpeking (Europe)
  23. 2606 Books and Counting
  24. Giraffe Days
  25. Lucybird's Book Blog
  1. Roof Beam Reader
  2. The Relentless Reader
  3. Read in a Single Sitting
  4. My Diary (Malaysia)
  5. Heavenali
  6. Dolce Belezza (USA)
  7. The Misfortune of Knowing
  8. My Devotional Thoughts
  9. Nishita's Rants and Raves
  10. Book Nympho
  11. Kaggsysbookishramblings
  12. Quixotic Magpie
  13. Lost Generation Reader
  14. BookBelle
  15. Under My Apple Tree (USA)
  16. Mondays with Mac
  17. Page Plucker

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Emotional Geology by Linda Gillard

Since starting Girl Vs Bookshelf I have really appreciated the sense of community that blogging has to offer and the way that it allows you to connect with people all over the world. It's some time ago now that I was browsing The Little Reader Library and got into an exchange of comments with novelist Linda Gillard. I had heard good things about her books from lots of the forum members over at Read It Swap It so put in a few swap requests and purely by chance ended up swapping with Linda herself for a signed copy of Emotional Geology. I thought it was about time I got around to reading this one, particularly as it will allow me to tick off a genre that I am less than enthusiastic about tackling in my Literary Exploration Challenge.

ROMANCE

Whenever anybody mentions romantic fiction I find my knee-jerk reaction is to immediately claim that I don't like it, but on reflection I'm not sure how true that is. Romance surely doesn't have to mean pink covers, feeble heroines and slush? There are plenty of classic novels and books of all genres that contain love stories as part of a wider plot, some which I have enjoyed very much. The reviews I had read of Emotional Geology suggested that it is a mature and realistic take on the love story, so it seemed like a good one to try.

Emotional Geology Linda Gillard

Rose is a woman on the run - not from a physical enemy but from her memories and the skeletons in her closet. She's been through an agonising break-up, her relationship with her only daughter is strained, and any friends she once had have grown distant. The only way she can possibly conceive of getting her life back on track is to pack up the essentials and move as far away from her old world as she can imagine. She arrives at her little cottage on the island of Uist determined to clear her mind of any distractions, throwing herself into a reclusive existence devoted to her work as a textile artist.

Of course, if fiction has taught us anything it's that no matter how remote the location or improbable the situation, the likelihood is that an attractive man will turn up and thoroughly complicate matters. Enter Calum, a born-and-bred Uist man who writes poetry and teaches at the local school. Initially Rose thinks his brooding demeanour and fondness for whisky is just the Hebridean way, but in actual fact he has emotional scars of his own that he is trying to hide.

I have to be honest and say that the romance in this novel didn't especially grab me. The two main characters are both well-developed and likeable, and the plot held my interest sure enough, but I guess romance just isn't my subject matter of choice.

Where it excelled for me is in Gillard's portrayal of the landscape of Uist. Let's put it this way; I had never even heard of the place before reading Emotional Geology. But now after I've finished it, my boyfriend is slightly puzzled by the stream of hints I have been dropping about summer holidaying in the Outer Hebrides. She perfectly conveys the bleak beauty that is to be found there. I got completely lost in her descriptions of the wild beaches and stone circles. The sense of island life you get is also really interesting - a strange middle ground between complete isolation and a claustrophobic sense of everybody knowing everybody else's business. It definitely has a sure spot on my 'places I must visit' list (I mean, look at it!).

I was also impressed by the way in which Rose's bipolar disorder was dealt with. I can't think of many books I've read that have illustrated the manic phase of this illness particularly well - unfortunately I can think of a handful of titles that have done it especially badly, where characters have suddenly turned into some caricature of a psychotic monster and lost all sense of reality! But it was done very sensitively here and I thought the frenetic, disorganised thought patterns were shown perfectly.

While I can't say I'm converted to romantic fiction in general, this book has reminded me that it isn't all fluffy and overly sentimental. I will certainly be looking for more of Linda Gillard's books to try. If you like to read love stories then you should definitely consider giving this a go.