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Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Giveaway winner!

I just wanted to thank everybody who took the time to comment on my blogging birthday post last week to send me good wishes. I love reading your comments - the conversations are the best bit about book blogging for me and I know only too well how time-consuming it is to read through all the great blogs out there, so I really do appreciate everybody stopping by.

So the winner of the birthday giveaway is....Judith over at Leeswammes!

The book she chose was the truly excellent Turn Of Mind by Alice LaPlante. Hope you enjoy it!

Monday, 27 May 2013

Rachel's Holiday by Marian Keyes

And now onto the next stage of my Literary Exploration Challenge. Chick-lit isn't a genre I normally read, although I have dabbled here and there in the past. The few chick-lit books I've read previously have been enjoyable enough to keep me turning the pages, but I just haven't found them particularly rewarding. They are books that have proved instantly forgettable as soon as the back cover is closed. So for this section of the challenge I had planned to venture to my local Oxfam bookshop whenever I felt a notion for something fluffy and light-hearted, and just buy whatever they had on the shelf that was festooned with pink cupcakes.

But wait! My plan changed somewhat when I was flicking through old issues of the British Medical Journal and spotted this recommendation for a Marian Keyes novel. The article praised Keyes' depiction of an addict in trouble, and suggested that doctors might benefit from reading works of popular fiction such as this rather than classic literature, in order to better relate to our patients. I have seen interviews with Marian Keyes on chat shows in the past and have always found her to be an endearing and witty woman. I am also aware that she has spoken frankly about her own experiences with addiction and depression. So I was intrigued to see how she would put a fluffy, typically chick-lit spin on the very not-fluffy subject of substance abuse.

Rachel Walsh is a 27-year-old girl who has flown the nest and left her humdrum Irish family life behind her to live a more glamorous existence in New York City. She spends her nights going to stylish parties and networking with the beautiful people, and scrapes through the days trying to hold down a job while nursing a perpetual hangover. But after one near miss with a bottle of sleeping tablets the rug is well and truly pulled from under Rachel's feet and she's shipped back to Ireland minus one boyfriend, one job, most of her dignity and, oh, the contents of her stomach, which had to be pumped in hospital. On her arrival back home her parents have already booked her into a residential rehabilitation centre and won't take no for an answer. And after some mild protesting, Rachel decides it can't be that bad after all. She's read the tabloids - these places are full of rock stars, supermodels in giant sunglasses, jacuzzis and health food. Rehab is just a glorified holiday, right?

But of course, she quickly realises that The Cloisters isn't like the rehab she has read about in her trashy celebrity magazines. Keyes has created a lively and varied cast of characters in The Cloisters that are a pleasure to read about. They are young and old and hail from all walks of life. You can tell that she has tried to smash the myth that addiction only affects celebrities or the socioeconomically deprived, and she has done it well - all of the residents are very convincing. The dialogue is warm, funny and sad in equal parts. I particularly loved that she doesn't really fall into the trap of describing addiction as something seedy or scuzzy. So many other authors have done this and I find it has the effect of removing the reader from the situation and making you feel like a spectator, thinking "gosh, how awful, well it would never happen to someone like me". Whereas in Rachel's Holiday the matter-of-fact writing makes it clear that any ordinary person can become an addict and can normalise their behaviour to make them feel it's a standard part of their daily routine.

Rachel herself is also a very engaging and believable protagonist. It is remarkable how a character who behaves so badly and disrespects her loved ones so much can actually be very likeable at the same time. I couldn't help feeling for her as her life falls apart while she is so blind to her own responsibility for her problems. Unfortunately I did begin to tire of her towards the end of the book, though, and on reflection feel that I would have been happier if the whole thing was maybe 100 pages shorter. The reason for this goes back to that old clich├ęd literary mantra: "Show, don't tell". For the first part of the novel Rachel is in complete denial about her addiction and the first person narrative allows us to 'see' her actions while appreciating the contrast with how she tries to justify them to herself in her head. But then later, after her treatment at The Cloisters is complete, there's a lot of Rachel telling us about how enlightened she now feels, and how regretful she is of her past, and all this self-reflection eventually dragged just a little for me.

All things considered, I was very impressed by Rachel's Holiday and would be up for reading other books by Marian Keyes at some point in the future (although that's not to say that I will be rushing out to buy more from her back catalogue right away). I would be interested to know of other books she has written that address similarly weighty issues in a light-hearted way. I think it was the perfect choice for the Literary Exploration Challenge as it really challenged my preconceptions of what chick-lit is and what subject matter it 'should' tackle.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

A Blogging Birthday -and a book giveaway!

So, it appears that a whole year has passed since I first decided to take the plunge and create this little corner of the internet to share my thoughts on what I've been reading. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to say a big thank you to anybody who has stopped by, and particularly to those who continue to stop by on a regular basis and leave comments. After all, it wouldn't be half as much fun without you guys reading!

As a little celebration I will be giving away a copy of one of the books I've reviewed on Girl vs Bookshelf over the past year. All you need to do is leave a comment below telling me which book you'd choose if lucky enough to win, and why. Click the reviews tab above for some inspiration!

There aren't many rules, but pay attention nevertheless:
1. For one entry, leave a comment below telling me which book you'd like to win and why. It must be a book that I have reviewed on this blog at some point in the past.
2. For an extra entry, follow me on Twitter @marieemonaghan and let me know your Twitter handle in the comment.
3. For another extra entry, follow me on Goodreads using the link above, and let me know your Goodreads ID in the comment.
4. Please ensure you leave some way to contact you in your comment, whether it be an email address or a Twitter handle.
5. The giveaway will close at the end of the day on Sunday 26th May and I'll write a post to announce the winner within two or three days.
6. It's open to anybody living in a country that is serviced by The Book Depository.

Thanks again for reading, long may it continue, and good luck with the giveaway!

Saturday, 18 May 2013

She's Never Coming Back by Hans Koppel

It's no secret that I am drawn to Scandinavian crime titles like a magpie is drawn to shiny things. So when I was at a ReadItSwapIt meet-up a couple of months ago and I spotted this in the pile of 'up for grabs' books being passed around, I snapped it up straight away. I had never heard of the author before, but the taglines on the cover make great claims: "The most terrifying crime novel I have ever read" "This is the story that has obsessed readers across Scandinavia for the past year". To be honest these quotes did feel a little bit bold and raised my suspicions a little bit, but at least there was none of the usual "The next Stieg Larsson!" or "If you liked Jo Nesbo, you'll love this!" that seems to be plastered over every Scandinavian thriller and police procedural these days.

Mike likes to think he and his wife Ylva have a pretty solid relationship. Sure, she has strayed in the past, but he was able to forgive and forget and move on. So when she's late home from work one night he assumes she's stayed on for a few drinks with colleagues. But when there's still no sign of her when he wakes up the next day, he's worried. Days become weeks and weeks become months, and still nobody is any closer to finding out what has become of Ylva. Little do they know she is being held captive in the basement of the house across the road, only able to watch helplessly via a hidden camera as her family begin to forget her and get on with their lives.

Meanwhile, a couple of men halfway across the country stumble across their old high school yearbook and start to reminisce about the old days. They were the class nerds back then, tormented by a group of bullies they remember as the 'Gang of Four'. Nostalgia drives them to look up those children who gave them hell and they are startled to discover that all of the 'Gang of Four' seem to have met an untimely end.

From the beginning I found it difficult to engage with any of the characters in this book. All of them are a bit vague and non-descript, almost like shells of personalities. Ylva herself is difficult to work out. When we read scenes that she is involved in she comes across as an inoffensive enough person. But when Mike's experiences are explored there are frequent hints to her promiscuity and disloyalty. This is reinforced at the very end of the book when the motive of her abductors is revealed and we find out more about Ylva's past. The whole thing feels a little like the reader is being pushed towards doing a bit of victim-blaming, which is something I really dislike.

I also had some niggles with the plot itself. It is unbelievable just how little action the police take to investigate Ylva's disappearance. The two officers are absolute caricatures of the typical bumbling cop, more worried about what flavour of ice-cream to choose than about the task at hand. Their suspicions fall on Mike and Mike alone from the very start, and they do nothing at all to investigate any other leads that arise over the course of the novel. The involvement of her two old classmates also seemed tenuous and I found their motive for getting involved to be quite far-fetched.

Something would be amiss if I didn't highlight the fact that Ylva is subjected to numerous attacks of sexual violence during her capture, and these are described on multiple occasions. I can say that I, personally, didn't find them too traumatic to get through. For comparison, I can say that they certainly didn't repulse me anywhere near as much as the rape scene in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which everyone and their grandma seems to have managed to read by now. But if you are somebody who is particularly averse to tackling this kind of subject matter then this book should definitely be avoided.

I am sorry to say that I found little to excite me in She's Never Coming Back. The woman-trapped-in-basement plot is one that has been done several times, and nothing new is brought to the table in this book. The writing is solid but without a flair to make it stand out among its contemporaries. I believe that the author is already an established writer of childrens' books under his real name but that this will be the first in a crime trilogy. This strikes me as odd as there is literally nobody in this book who I can begin to imagine as the lead protagonist in a mystery series. I can't help but wonder how he will take this further.

For those whose interest has been piqued by this synopsis, I might recommend Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen, as that was a really excellent read that uses a similar female hostage situation but has really grea, unique characters. I guess this will teach me to be more discerning about my Scandinavian crime choices in future!

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Gillespie & I by Jane Harris

Imagine this; there's a particular book that crops up on your reading horizon. It gets fantastic reviews everywhere you look. Friends and bloggers whose opinions you trust, whose tastes usually match yours exactly, are heaping praise upon this novel. But something about it just doesn't appeal to you. The premise, the cover, the genre, whatever. Does this sound familiar? What do you do in cases like this - do you believe the hype and read the book out of curiosity, or do you trust your instinct and go for one of the many other tomes on the TBR mountain that hold more appeal to you personally?

This was exactly what happened to me with Gillespie & I. I can't exactly call it a 'hyped' novel, but it had entirely glowing reviews from all of my most trusted sources. It felt like people were urging me to pick it up. But it didn't feel like my usual reading fare. I tend to approach anything resembling 'historical fiction' very cautiously. It's a bit of a chunkster, which I have to admit can also make me a bit more hesitant to plunge into a novel. And despite the positive reviews, the synopses I had read gave me a very poor sense of the plot. A woman's account of her past friendship with an artist and his family - well it doesn't sound like very much actually happens, does it? Where's the action? But eventually curiosity got the better of me and I am delighted that it did! The whole time I was turning the pages I was thinking: "why, oh why didn't I read this sooner?!".

So, as I have already mentioned, in Gillespie & I the reader is made privy to the memoirs of Ms Harriet Baxter, an elderly spinster who is reflecting on her past and recounting the story of her close friendship with the struggling artist Ned Gillespie and his family. From the beginning it is made clear that Ned came to an untimely end and never knew the fame and success of several of his contemporaries. Harriet's wish is for Ned to finally get the recognition that she feels he deserved, albeit posthumously.

Harriet is one of the most wonderful characters I've encountered in a long, long time. I really missed her after putting the book down. She takes all your expectations of how a lady at that time should act and throws them out of the window. Unashamedly single, chain-smoking and with a wicked tongue that brings all the other characters to life just as vividly as Harriet herself. I particularly loved her descriptions of the indomitable Elspeth Gillespie with all her airs and graces. But it gradually becomes apparent that she might not be telling us the whole story about past events, and then a big revelation made halfway through the novel turns everything on its head. She is a deliciously unreliable narrator and it is so much fun to pick apart her memories and try to decide what is fact and what is fiction.

It's difficult to say more than that without giving away spoilers, but I hope I've conveyed just how much I loved this book. It reminded me of another recent favourite, Alys, Always - but I might even have enjoyed it a bit more than that. If you have been considering reading this but have been put off by its bulk or something else, please give it a go, I don't think you'll regret it. I've passed it straight on to family members as it's one of those books I want to recommend to everybody. The Observations by Jane Harris has now gone straight on my wishlist.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Breakfast At Tiffany's by Truman Capote

I can't believe it's taken me so long to get around to reading this novella. I honestly do always try to read books before watching their movie adaptations but somehow this one slipped through the net. When a film is so iconic it is difficult to avoid - who could resist Audrey Hepburn's portrayal of Holly Golightly, the very definition of chic? But I have finally finished Truman Capote's original story and was interested to find it's quite a different beast to the film, although still every inch a classic.
What I expected from Breakfast At Tiffany's was basically lots of gadding about amongst New York's glamorous high society. I imagined that Holly Golightly would be this ditzy and naive little-girl-lost, enchanting any man who crosses her path. And there was some of all that, but the atmosphere is much darker than I expected.

Holly Golightly is essentially a high-class prostitute, wily and manipulative, acting without concern for the feelings of her friends or the men who fall in love with her. And indeed, acting without concern for the law. Yet she manages to remain somewhat endearing and I can see how some readers fall in love with her, too (I didn't). I suppose part of her charm is that she's so enigmatic and there is always a sense that there's an emotionally scarred little girl bubbling away underneath the hard face and lipstick. She borders on manic in nature, throwing her cat out of the window of a moving car one second, then feeling almost immediately regretful the next, exhibiting an unusual display of tenderness as she desperately searches for him.

It's interesting to look at the way the covers of this book have changed over the years. It was first published as a feature in Esquire magazine, considered to be borderline obscene and very controversial. This is echoed in the early covers - "The wickedly funny experiences of a delightfully uninhibited playgirl" along with that image of Holly casually letting her strap slip off a bare shoulder, bottle of liquor at her side. Contrast this with the later movie tie-in covers showing the immaculately-coiffed Hepburn. And then the modern image on the front of my edition has a girlie, almost chick-lit feel to it that doesn't at all reflect the melancholy tale between the covers.

I don't read many short stories or novellas, generally preferring something a bit lengthier to sink my teeth into, but occasionally a book like this one goes to show that 100 pages can be just enough when the writing is top notch.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood

It was clear from reading the synopsis of The Wicked Girls that this wasn't going to be any old ordinary thriller. Bel and Jade were only children themselves when they were convicted of the murder of a 4-year-old girl. Twenty-five years later they are released, re-homed, given brand new identities - Amber and Kirsty. And they will be left to get on with their new, essentially normal, lives as long as they meet two conditions; firstly, that they check in with an allocated law enforcement officer on a regular basis. And secondly, that they never attempt to contact each other again. But a chance encounter throws them together when one of the women, a journalist, is reporting on a crime that has occurred at the other woman's place of work in Whitmouth, a failing seaside resort. The town is teeming with media types and police officers and it seems it will be only a matter of time before they are found out.

This would be a great book club choice. It gave me loads to think about and provoked a lot of moral reflection on my part. Unfortunately, to really get my teeth into the details I'd have to give away a whole load of spoilers. No doubt you can generally imagine how the subject matter of child criminals could spark so much discussion, though. How much responsibility can a child bear for their actions? Are children born with an inherently evil aspect to their personality, or does the potential for evil depend upon their background? If someone has had a tough upbringing, does that go any way to excuse their wrongdoings?

I found it slightly implausible that one of the women would seek out a career in journalism. I mean, if I was in her shoes I would shy away from the media and the public eye as much as possible. But this detail allowed for some interesting observations of the role and responsibility of the press. The Leveson Inquiry was obviously at the forefront of the author's mind when writing this book, and I was certainly reminded of recent events when reading about Kirsty's encounters with her fellow 'hacks'. On one hand we saw Kirsty as the subject of anger from a local resident who was appalled at the way she had depicted his town as a dilapidated, crime-ridden hole. But elsewhere she was angry about the way in which her childhood self had been portrayed in the newspapers and felt that facts had been exaggerated. Despite her past experiences I felt that she remained pretty unscrupulous when it came to her work.

While The Wicked Girls impressed me with the way it deftly navigates a number of weighty themes, I can't say I had a particularly good time reading it. None of the characters were particularly likeable, and that isn't just me judging them based on their past offences - there just isn't much warmth to anyone in the book. I also flinched at many clumsy stereotypical descriptions of the less well-off characters in the book, like Jade's chaotic family and Amber's colleagues at work on night shifts cleaning the funfair. They are all portrayed as work-shy, promiscuous gossips. Well, the British ones are. There is one immigrant character who has a big work ethic and works multiple jobs, is very pious, and for whom the most important thing in her life is providing a quality education for her son. But rather than giving balance and variety to the group, she is the exception that proves the rule, if you see what I mean. On the whole it's a very dark read, and while some of my favourite books are very, very dark in a deliciously chilling way, this one was a bit unrelenting and depressing.

So I would describe this as a thought-provoking read rather than an enjoyable one. I suspect I would have got more out of it if I had read it with a group of other people. The Wicked Girls was sitting at the top of my wishlist for ages, and isn't it sod's law that just a few days after I decided to treat myself to a copy I spotted it in The Works going for a couple of quid. So if this review has piqued your interest it might be worth popping into your local branch for a bargain.