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Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Jellybird by Lezanne Clannachan

Just as I decide it's time to steer away from the psychological thrillers with unreliable female narrators, one comes along that I just can't resist. Luckily this time my impulse-reading was well-placed, as this is a really good read. It was sent for me to review by the kind folks over at Orion Books.

To an outsider, Jessica seems to have everything a young woman could want. She has a kind and attentive husband, a comfortable lifestyle, a good job that allows her the time and creative freedom to pursue her career as a jewellery designer. But Jessica feels her life is missing one key ingredient; a close female friend to confide in. So when confident, enigmatic Libby arrives on the scene she is delighted when they 'click' straight away. Her husband seems significantly less pleased, but why? Could it be that he and Libby are keeping something from her?

As Jessica tries to avoid having to face up to the cracks that are appearing in her relationship, she turns to the past and gets lost in memories of her youth, growing up on a coastal caravan site. She reminisces about her first teenage love, Thomas, who was tragically lost to the sea as a young man. The last time she saw Thomas before he died, he had blood on his hands and was on the run. Something has never seemed quite right about his disappearance. So what better way for Jessica to distract herself from her current troubles than to try and solve the mystery of what really happened back then?

Sounds complicated, right? I thought so when I first read the blurb, but actually the dual narrative is really well done and never feels contrived or confusing. I was impressed by the way Clannachan seamlessly flits between past and present despite the fact that the two plot strands aren't closely linked. The plot is fairly complex, but reading it never felt like hard work and I got really engrossed in Jessica's story.

For me, the story of teenage Jessica provided more interest than her marital difficulties. I think I've grumbled elsewhere on this blog about how rubbish many adult authors seem to be at writing realistic teenage characters. Well this novelist has nailed it, providing keen observations of a strained family dynamic from a child's point of view. Jessica is naive and insecure and longs for comfort from her parents, but at the same time puts on a show of adolescent bravado and indifference to the rest of the world. It's interesting to see her looking back at events through an adult's eyes with a fresh appreciation of key details that she didn't think were significant at the time.

It's a book I would recommend to anybody looking for intrigue and mystery, but particularly to fans of Erin Kelly's novels - it reminded me a little of The Sick Rose.  This is Lezanne Clannachan's debut novel, and it has made me very interested to see what she'll come up with next.

If this review hasn't convinced you, you can watch this video of ladies in the Orion Books reading group sharing their thoughts - all positive!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Rivers Of London by Ben Aaronovitch


Now to tackle one of the categories in my Literary Exploration challenge that I was feeling pretty apprehensive about: Urban Fantasy. On initially reading the list of genres I came to realise quite quickly that I wasn't actually sure what Urban Fantasy IS. Fantasy is just not my thing and I'm not at all familiar with its different sub-divisions. I hot-footed it over to Goodreads to have a look at their definition:

"Urban fantasy is a subset of contemporary fantasy, consisting of novels and stories with supernatural and/or magical elements set in contemporary, real-world, urban settings--as opposed to 'traditional' fantasy set in imaginary locations"

This cleared things up somewhat, but it did make me wonder what other sub-classifications exist without my knowledge. Is there a niche in the market for Rural Fantasy - set in "contemporary, real-world" countryside settings? Suburban Fantasy, where wizards and warlocks navigate the school run and visit their local supermarket? The covers of the books on the Goodreads page didn't do much to entice me as there were no titles that I'd ever heard of and they all looked very much on the YA and/or trashy side (oh hello there, inner book snob!). So I was pleasantly surprised when my Dad, of all people, suggested the perfect Urban Fantasy read that sounded very appealing.

Peter Grant is a police constable who is finally coming to the end of his probationary period after putting in the hours pounding the streets of London doing the thankless work of a junior copper. He had his hopes pinned on a gritty and glamorous detective role, but it looks like his bosses have got nothing more exciting planned for him than reams and reams of admin and paperwork. That is, until he gleans a crucial piece of evidence from an eyewitness who happens to be a ghost. After that, the powers that be recognise that Peter may have a raw talent for working with the supernatural, and they appoint him as an apprentice to Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale - a single-handed subdivision of the Met who specialises in solving crimes with a paranormal basis. He expected to be investigating murders as a police officer, sure. He just didn't expect that to do it he'd have to travel back in time or negotiate with the gods and goddesses of the city's rivers.

I really, really enjoyed this. It felt like a breath of fresh air after having read quite a lot of terribly serious books in recent months. The whole thing is light-hearted and really funny, with a distinct brand of dry wit running throughout it. The humour was the best bit about it with loads of great one-liners I wanted to bookmark. It feels like ages since a book has really made me laugh like this. I have been known to turn my nose up at fantasy as a genre, and struggle with more traditional fantasy settings. The fact that this was placed in a more familiar contemporary environment and that the paranormal characters were given distinctly human personalities and realistic qualities made reading Rivers Of London much more palatable to me.

I did think that the plot and the crime itself felt a bit lacklustre.  Maybe this only stood out to me because I am used to reading lots of straight crime thrillers and mysteries, which isn't what Rivers Of London is all about. But it definitely felt as if the mystery was only there as a vehicle to show off Peter's developing magical skills and not as the focus of the book in its own right. It could have done with more detail as I kept forgetting who was who and needed to flick back to remind myself what exactly was going on (which was difficult as this is the first book I have ever read on a Kindle! More on that at a later date!).

I also wonder if a more thorough knowledge of London itself would have led to a greater appreciation of some scenes. Aaronovitch tends to refer frequently to street names or particular London landmarks rather than giving detailed descriptions of the environments the characters end up in. This is fine, but I found it difficult to conjure up a mental image of the places mentioned as I'm not especially familiar with the layout of our capital. 

So all in all, a success for Urban Fantasy! I already have the second and third books lined up and I can't wait to find out what Peter Grant gets up to next. Whether or not you're a fan of fantasy, this will probably be enjoyed by anyone who's in the mood for escapism or simply wants to read something fun.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The longlist for the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction has been announced this week and I, personally, am quite pleased by it. There are quite a few really intriguing titles on that list. But behind the times as I am, I have just finished reading last year's winner. I'm continuing with my current drive to read outside my comfort zone and this is certainly not my usual fare. You know I tend to have a tentative approach to the world of historical fiction, never mind historical fiction with a fantastical element to it (sea nymphs, centaurs, a world where gods and man interact on a regular basis?). But the reviews from the blogging community have been glowing so I decided it was well worth giving it a go.

As a bonus, this book could have been made to fit a number of categories in my Literary Exploration challenge. It certainly has elements of fantasy and the supernatural. Some readers have really enjoyed the romance, but I have already ticked that genre off my list. And of course it would easily fulfil the historical fiction requirement. But on reflection I decided that this story of a skinny, shy boy who travels all over Greece overcoming all manner of obstacles and peril on the way, just to stand by his best friend, would be a perfect candidate for my adventure read.


Patroclus is a somewhat weedy and reserved child - a prince, yes, but of an often-overlooked Greek province, and forever a disappointment to his father. He brings ultimate shame on his family when he ends up exiled from the kingdom and is forced to go and live under another king who is known for his kindness in taking homeless and refugee boys under his wing. There he befriends the king's son, the infamous Achilles, half god and half man, who is prophesied to grow up to become the best warrior the world has ever known. The two soon become more than friends and Patroclus cannot help but follow him anywhere, over mountains and sea, as he fulfils his destiny as the most eminent fighter in the Trojan wars. He finds himself inextricably drawn into the perilous web that fate has spun for Achilles.

I have to admit that despite having a reasonably recent background in studying Greek to GCSE level, I haven't read any of The Iliad at all (our set texts were The Odyssey and The Murder Of Herodes) so despite having a vague idea of how things would unfold a lot of the story was new to me. If I can claim any familiarity with the legend at all, it's with Statius' version involving Achilles' notoriously vulnerable heel. I haven't even seen the glossy Brad Pitt Hollywood adaptation. I'm not sure how a prior knowledge of the outcome of the story would affect your enjoyment of this book, if at all.

Now from what I do know of this tale it seems Miller has done a great job of putting a new spin on it. She has managed to strike the perfect balance between friendship, romance, action and adventure. The extent of her research and her familiarity with the original text is obvious. She has managed to make the events feel fresh at the same time as remaining faithful to her source material. There is something relaxing and soothing about her writing style. There are echoes of Homer throughout the compelling lyrical prose and sparse, precise dialogue. Personally, I would have loved to see some Homeric epithets kept in ('swift-footed Achilles' etc) as an extra knowing nod to the original Greek.

Unfortunately I found neither of the main characters particularly likeable. Is this down to Miller or the way they are portrayed in the original Iliad? I don't know. Achilles comes across as quite obnoxious and egoistic...dare I say it, a bit of a spoiled brat! I guess that's possibly to be expected given the fact that he is the son of a goddess, but it certainly made me question the unwavering nature of Patroclus' devotion to him.  Patroclus is wonderfully kind and compassionate, but for a large part of the book I wished he would stop mooning around and fawning over his lover and show a bit more gusto. The villains are portrayed wonderfully, though. The sea nymph Thetis, Achilles' mother, and his son Neoptolemus, sent a chill down my spine every time they appeared in a scene. All the kings and warriors sort of merged in to one and I found myself flicking back several times trying to remember how they were all related. But my favourite character of them all was Odysseus and I would love to read more about him. He just seemed like the perfect hero, with all the wit that Achilles lacked, and without so much bravado.

I know so many people who have adored this book and interestingly they are often people who have very varied and contemporary literary tastes; who I wouldn't necessarily expect to enjoy this Classical romance. So if your interest has been piqued at all it's definitely worth a try. I almost wish Miller had taken on The Odyssey instead as that is a story much closer to my heart and I loved her portrayal of Odysseus. Does anybody know of any modern re-tellings of the Odyssey? Please let me know as I'd be very keen to give them a try!

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper

A few months back I remember mulling over the concept of 'lad-lit' after reading a post on Leeswammes blog. Readers who posted comments seemed to be undecided as to whether or not there is a male equivalent to chick-lit. Moreover, those who agree that lad-lit is a real genre didn't necessarily agree on what sort of books find themselves under this umbrella term. Some think of lad-lit as action-packed thrillers full of explosions and men with muscles, whereas for me the phrase recalls more everyday, witty stories about men with relationship troubles. Nick Hornby would be the example that springs immediately to mind.

Now what I am about to say may shock some of my more delicate readers but come on, this is 2013. Despite my female status I have dabbled in lad-lit...and I liked it. So when the kind folks at Orion offered to send me a copy of the new Jonathan Tropper novel to read, I thought it sounded like something in that Nick Hornby-esque vein that I might enjoy.

Silver was one of those men who had it all. A successful career as a musician complete with an enviable rock-and-roll lifestyle, a gorgeous wife and a beautiful little girl. But a few bad decisions down the line and he finds himself alone in middle age sharing a sad apartment block with a group of other divorced men. He pays his alimony with what little he makes from playing his one hit single at weddings and bar mitzvahs. Just when he thinks his life can't get any more deadbeat, Silver is hit with a triple whammy of disasters: first, his ex-wife announces that she is to remarry a successful heart surgeon. Secondly, his teenage daughter drops the bombshell that she's pregnant. And worst of all, he is diagnosed with a medical condition meaning that he could drop dead at any moment unless he makes the decision to undergo a risky operation. So nope, Lady Luck is certainly not being friendly to Silver.

The significant moral of this story is the importance of seizing the day, enjoying life while you can and not taking the good things for granted. Ordinarily this prospect would make me feel mildly nauseous at the very least, but the real strength of Tropper's writing is that he delivers this message without coming across as preachy or overly sentimental. There are some quite weighty issues tackled within these pages - mortality, spirituality, unwanted/teenage pregnancy. While I never found it laugh-out-loud funny, there is a certain wry humour throughout that stops it from becoming too depressing.

While it's true that there is something quite typically blokey/laddish about Silver and his attitude to life, I think this is a book that anybody could enjoy. That's mainly thanks to the lifelike characters and their very human flaws. I loved the relationship between Silver and the other divorcees living in his apartment block, the way in which they bickered and took the mickey out of each other but showed how much they cared in subtle ways. It was such a realistic portrayal of male friendships. The family dynamics were also very convincing with sparky and engaging dialogue. I don't think there was any character in the book that I didn't like.

If you think this might be something you'd enjoy there's no need to simply take my word for it - bloggers have been and will be sharing their thoughts on One Last Thing Before I Go all week as part of a blog tour. You can find an interview with Jonathan Tropper here in which he shares some of the inspiration behind the characters and the challenges he faced when writing the novel. To read an extract you can visit yesterday's stop, which was from Lucy at Literary Relish. And if you're still not convinced, our blog tour continues tomorrow at The Book Boy!

 One Last Thing Before I Go is out now.

Monday, 4 March 2013

White Nights by Ann Cleeves

Recently I read Raven Black, the first in Ann Cleeves' Shetland series. You can read my review here - overall I enjoyed it, but felt the characters and setting hadn't quite lived up to their potential. For me it felt very much like a promising introduction to a series rather than an outstanding mystery in its own right. I don't usually like to dive straight into the second book in a series but made an exception in this case as the BBC adaptation is due to air on 10th March and I quite fancy watching it. There's no way I'll get through all four books before the week is up but I'd like to have given it a good go!

I was delighted to find that my suspicions were correct and that I found White Nights to be a much more satisfying read than its predecessor.

People like me who are unfamiliar with Shetland might tend to think of it as the cold, bleak place that is portrayed in Raven Black. In White Nights we are introduced to the other face of the islands, the interminable summer days when the sun barely even dips its head below the horizon. The locals have a difficult enough time adapting to this constant light every summer, so you can see how it could send a tourist close to crazy. When an English stranger turns up to an art exhibition in Biddista and behaves very bizarrely it is easy to assume the unique weather conditions have sent him a bit nutty. But later he is found hanged in a barn and Jimmy Perez suspects that something more sinister than suicide has occurred. To find all the answers he needs to look back years into the past and extend his search for clues much further than tiny Biddista itself.

I was totally gripped by this book and found it to have all the ingredients I love in a mystery. A relatively small cast of potential suspects, a mysterious stranger, a geniunely surprising conclusion that can only be solved by digging around in long-forgotten events of the past. Let me illustrate how engrossed I was: I was reading this at work on a Saturday in between answering calls on my bleep, and when the time came to go home it was actually an effort to put the book down and get in my car to leave the hospital!

We get a much better insight into Perez's character in this book and I found him to be an endearing protagonist. There is a quiet humility to the way he works that proves quite refreshing compared to the sort of super confident, suffer-no-fools detectives you often find in crime fiction. I was surprised to see the return of Taylor, the chief from the mainland, as he hadn't really captured my attention in the first book, but here the contrast between the two men's personalities worked well and I enjoyed seeing their working relationship develop.

Now I can't wait to read the next installment and find out what Perez's next challenge will be. Will you be watching the Shetland series when it airs on Sunday?

Saturday, 2 March 2013

A little treat

As I am halfway through several books at the moment I thought I would post a little picture of a present I bought myself earlier this month - a new book bag. I just couldn't resist.

Jealous? You can pick them up in many many colours from Pamela Fugate at etsy.com!