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Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Halfway Mark - help!

So we're halfway through 2014 already - where did that go? - and I as you may have guessed from the severe lack of activity on here, I've completely lost my reading mojo. Last year was full of amazing stories, but in the past 6 months I feel like I've read one forgettable book after another. Looking through my Goodreads stats I'm only a couple of titles behind my reading goal but almost all of them have been average 3-star ratings. After adoring From The Fatherland, With Love last month I thought I had cracked it, but June has offered another three or four mediocre titles and I can't even muster up the enthusiasm to review them.

I need something to shake me up and give me my passion back! What do you guys do when you find yourselves in a reading funk? Tell me about some books that you have fallen head over heels in love with in 2014 so far!

Hopefully I will be back in action soon...I have all my fingers crossed that the book fairies will look kindly on me and the next one's going to be a cracker...

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Uninvited by Liz Jensen

Hesketh Lock is a unique figure in the world of anthropology; his Asperger's syndrome allows him to objectively analyse patterns in human behaviour that others overlook. He is never short of work as big businesses take advantage of his talents to assess their employees' habits in order to maximise their profits. While investigating an unusual case of whistleblowing and sabotage in a factory in Taiwan, Hesketh becomes aware of bizarre news reports from home. What starts as an isolated incident of parricide becomes a global epidemic as young children all over the world turn inexplicably against their loved ones. As his own stepson Freddy begins to exhibit increasingly sinister behaviour, Hesketh must use all his expertise to try to get to the bottom of this most disturbing phenomenon.
Liz Jensen has impressed me before with The Ninth Life Of Louis Drax and The Rapture, so I was pleased to finally get around to reading this latest offering which was published in 2012. Here, Jensen revisits the dystopian, apocalyptic themes of The Rapture, but handles them in a far more understated manner. If you're looking for a straightforward horror novel with creepy zombie children and gratuitous gore you won't find it here. Instead, we explore how a community might react under pressure to a truly inexplicable and sinister global threat.

Hesketh is a strong lead character and it is easy to empathise with him. I liked that he is a well-developed character in his own right rather than simply a one-dimensional caricature of Asperger's syndrome as I have sometimes found in other novels - neither overbearingly 'quirky' nor an emotionless robot. Instead, we see how his Asperger's affects him in more subtle ways and how his analytical habits lead him to see situations slightly differently from the majority, which really added to my enjoyment of the book. I liked that as panic sets in we see mob mentality prevail globally, with people treating the children like feral animals, but Hesketh is one of the very few people who shows a semblance of humanity, trying to continue caring for Freddy as best he can.

I was pleased to find that Jensen doesn't tie all the plot strings up in one neat and tidy bow. The premise is so far-fetched and outrageous that to have a flawless conclusion would have been far too convenient and implausible, in my opinion. However, it is worth bearing in mind if you're considering picking this one up, as I know many readers aren't satisfied with an ambiguous ending.

This really is a disaster novel with a difference. An unusual and thoughtful little book that I enjoyed very much.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Parasite by Mira Grant

It's not often that I feel moved to abandon a book altogether, but it's even less often that I push myself to get to the end of a novel only to really wish I hadn't wasted my time. I had heard great things about Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy, and when I saw Parasite pop up as a 'Read Now' on Netgalley, I thought I'd give it a go. The dystopian sci-fi premise with a medical twist sounded right up my street. Unfortunately it turned out to be one of the worst reading experiences I've had in a good while.  

Mira Grant transports the reader to a near-future where modern medicine has been completely revolutionised by a genetically engineered parasite that sits happily inside the gut performing all kinds of immune surveillance. The population have taken these tapeworms on board in huge numbers, the company who created them is raking it in, and the implants have even saved their first life.

Sal, previously Sally, sustained a severe head injury in a car crash that was very nearly fatal. But just when everyone thought that hope was lost, she reawakened, and all thanks to her SymboGen tapeworm. She was left with no memory at all of her old life, but unquestionably owes everything to the team at SymboGen and falls into the role of their international poster girl, an advertisement of everything parasites can achieve. But she slowly develops a creeping suspicion that these parasites aren't the panacea they first seem to be...

The premise of this is really great and has the potential to raise all kinds of wider issues and questions that could be so interesting to read about. I got excited about it just reading the blurb. What does it mean for society if parasites stop people from getting ill any more? Are people living longer, are there overpopulation issues, will natural resources begin to get stretched? How about the ethics involved in this two-tier system where those who can pay SymboGen for parasites don't get sick, but those who can't afford it are left to their own devices? Unfortunately, Grant doesn't even begin to explore any of this and the plot is really quite basic. The idea is excellent but I didn't think it was very well-executed.

There is some reasonably sound science behind the book, in particular when Grant discusses the genetics of the tapeworms and how they can go wrong. But unfortunately I never really grasped what they were supposed to do in the first place and how they could possibly work as a cure-all implant. It didn't seem to be properly explained. This made it really difficult for me to suspend my disbelief  later on. And it is certainly necessary to suspend a whole lot of disbelief. Sal's story made no sense to me - we are told about her accident six years earlier, and how she awoke a completely new person, having to even learn to speak and write English from scratch. But then here she is, having sex with her doctor boyfriend and discussing the intricacies of gene splicing. I found it all completely implausible, and to make matters worse she is a fairly bland character who I couldn't engage with at all.

I had my suspicions of what was afoot right from the beginning, but persevered thinking there would be some twist in the tale that I hadn't foreseen. There wasn't. I don't see how even the most half-hearted reader could fail to predict the conclusion. You probably don't even have to start reading the book - just five minutes musing over the premise will get you there. If you've got a tapeworm wriggling around inside you, a tiny little worm, how might it possibly decide to go about causing you serious harm? What's the most sinister thing it could do living there inside your body? If you think you've got the answer, you probably have.

So, this book wasn't for me, but based on the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon lots of other people seem to have enjoyed it! I have really tried to give an honest review and remain grateful to Orbit Books for the opportunity to try Grant's work.

Friday, 30 May 2014

From The Fatherland With Love by Ryu Murakami

Over the past few months I have repeatedly made weak apologies for the fact that things have been quiet on the blog, and today I'm glad to be sharing one of the reasons why that has been the case. For a while now my reading time has been largely consumed by this epic tale of alternative dystopian reality and its huge cast of characters, each with their own intricate back story. It's been completely immersive and has left me with little time or inclination to read much else, and now that it's finished I'm left trying to pick apart its many facets to try and explain coherently everything I loved about it. Where to start?

The plot is in equal parts absurd and chillingly plausible; the fallout from the economic crisis has well and truly shaken up the global political landscape, the dollar has completely collapsed, and it's a case of every country for himself. Japan is suffering a steep decline, effectively abandoned by former allies such as the USA. The country finds homelessness and unemployment on the rise, with vast expanses of land turned into shanty towns of citizens with nowhere else to go. Seeing an opportunity to profit from their neighbour's vulnerability, North Korea launches an invasion - initially a small band of highly trained officers take over Fukuoka baseball stadium, but before long troops have arrived in their thousands. There are small undercurrents of resistance among the local residents, but how can they stand a chance against the full weight of the North Korean army?

This is an incredibly complex book. Murakami has thoroughly explored the minutiae of this alarming situation from every aspect. We see the Japanese government as they bumble and panic to try and decide on a response to the situation that is neither too weak nor too offensive. We learn about the effects that the invasion has on small businesses, on healthcare provision, on the local media. I was amazed to realise how easy it might be for a bunch of crooks to take advantage of social security numbers and information held in goverment records to completely take over a community.

Perhaps the most interesting for me was to read about the attitudes and experiences of the North Korean soldiers on arriving in this alien environment. It was fascinating to consider how things we take for granted in a Westernised society might seem totally bizarre to an outsider. For example, a complementary packet of tissues given away to customers of a taxi company is seen as unbelievably decadent to the occupying troops, as are the mass-produced white t-shirts and jeans that line the shelves of the Fukuoka shops. I found myself reading about the harsh upbringings that these soldiers had endured and feeling quite sympathetic towards them despite the brutality they unleash on the defenceless Japanese community. I'm not sure how realistic a picture Murakami has painted of life in North Korea - how much can we truly be sure lies behind the facade that they present to the rest of the world? - but it definitely made me pause for thought.

I really hope this doesn't make it sound like a dry political analysis because it most definitely isn't! One of the things I loved most about it was this feisty, punkish spirit behind the narrative. It's odd to describe it this way, because the premise is so disturbingly convincing and really just plain scary, but it is a fun book and Murakami's attention to quirky details repeatedly put a smile on my face. It is as fast-paced as a bestselling thriller in places, but precise and thoughtful in others. It has been a long time since I've read such an intelligent novel. I feel it's really shaken me out of a bit of a reading slump and put me in the mood to seek out more fresh, innovative stories.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

The Kiszka & Kershaw series by Anya Lipska

There can never be enough crime fiction sitting on my shelves for my liking - it's what I turn to again and again when I can't decide what I want to read. I'm nearly always in the mood for a mystery. So it's always nice to discover a new series that I can start from the beginning and watch the characters develop over time. Recently I've been enjoying the first two installments of Anya Lipska's London-based series and getting to know Kiszka and Kershaw.

Janusz Kiszka is one of the most well-connected individuals in London's Polish community - he knows everybody's business and there's not much that slips under his radar. He dabbles in building projects and business deals here and there, but also engages in a little private investigative work when it suits him. In Where The Devil Can't Go, Kiszka is approached by his priest to track down a missing young waitress. Over the course of his investigation he crosses paths with Natalie Kershaw, a young detective constable who is looking into the case of a Jane Doe washed up on the banks of the Thames. Each is as stubborn as the other, and the pair find themselves at loggerheads as they try not to admit that a little teamwork might be just what's needed to get to the bottom of both of their problems.

In Death Can't Take A Joke, Kiszka happens across DC Kershaw again, in a more professional capacity this time. She is investigating the case of an unidentified Polish man who has jumped from a central London tower block and needs Kiszka's unique insight into the community. Janusz is reluctant to take on the task as he is otherwise occupied with digging up dirt on a nasty Ukrainian gangster who he suspects has murdered one of his closest friends. But he ultimately relents, and the two end up travelling to Poland together to uncover the answers they both need.

Janusz Kiszka is a really great protagonist and lends these books a great depth. It is refreshing to encounter such a complex character in a police procedural rather than your average world-weary middle-aged constable. He is a man of many contradictions - a burly brute, and an impressive scientific intellect. He is charming and chivalrous, yet holds very old-fashioned views and can be really quite dismissive of women. He has strong ties to the Catholic church, and nevertheless behaves in a manner that is contrary to any moral code you could imagine.

Kershaw, on the other hand, is a little less memorable. It is interesting to consider the difficulty that a young woman must face having to work in such a male-dominated environment as the Metropolitan Police, and the professional dilemmas that arise when one's boss is a misogynistic pig, but I found it difficult to truly care about her relationship difficulties or her wistful childhood memories. I definitely found her character to develop over the two books, though, and have faith that it will continue to do so as the series progresses.

Lipska's novels are fast-paced and tightly plotted, and kept me on my toes at all times. I was totally gripped. What I really loved was the insight she provides into the immigrant experience in the UK. It was particularly interesting to read about the factors that have driven people to leave their homes, the countries they love, and seek a new life elsewhere. For someone like myself who was born in the late 1980s it is easy to forget just how much the political landscape of Eastern Europe has been transformed in very recent history. It isn't something that I was ever taught in history lessons at school and so I only  had a vague awareness of these events on the fringes of my consciousness. It was enlightening to read about Kiszka's experiences in the Solidarity movement and the difficult choices he had to make on behalf of his country.

I'm looking forward to reading more from Anya Lipska, and I can see that this series has the potential to become a real favourite of mine.

Many thanks to the publishers, Harper Collins UK, for providing copies of both of these books for review via Netgalley.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Headmaster's Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene

A few weeks ago that most curious of beasts dropped through my letterbox...an unsolicited book. A package dropped through the door from Real Readers. The name didn't ring any bells and I racked my brains trying to remember who these people might be to be sending me books through the post. A quick search through my e-mail inbox revealed that I had signed up to this programme over a year ago and not heard anything from them since. What a lovely surprise to received something out of the blue!

"Real Readers gives you the chance to read and review books before they are published, comment on cover designs and feedback on specific topics to publishers"

Arthur Winthrop is a headmaster who comes from a long line of headmasters. Running the prestigious Lancaster School in Vermont is in his blood. He is relentlessly proper, so it seems inconceivable that he should ever be found wandering the paths of Central Park naked in the snow - but that is in fact where we first meet him. How did he get there? Delving into his recent past, it becomes apparent that Arthur's sanity began to crumble around the same time that he embarked upon an ill-advised affair with one Betsy Pappas, a teenage student under his charge. But as the story unravels we begin to wonder what other skeletons Arthur's closet might be concealing and whether we can trust his version of events at all.

The synopsis suggests that this might be yet another of these fast-paced, twisty psychological thrillers about a husband and wife with secrets. And while I do enjoy books in that mould, I was delighted to find that Thomas Christopher Greene has written something quite special and different. The first half had me entirely gripped to a degree that is comparable to any bestselling thriller you care to mention, yet it is written in a lovely steady and precise prose that lends it a very literary feel. Then a bombshell drops halfway through that gives the reader a completely different perspective, and it becomes apparent that this is a novel with great depth that sensitively deals with such weighty issues as loss, marital difficulties, mental health problems and parent-child relationships.

I don't want to give anything else away so will leave it at that - it's a thoughtful and surprising read which is well worth your time. I'm keeping it short and sweet, but it's not often that I sit down to write a review and can't think of anything at all that I didn't like!

And how about that cover, eh? Remind you of anything?

Are any of you members of the Real Readers programme, and how do you like it? If this book was anything to go by, I hope it won't be another 18 months until I hear from them again! Only time will tell...

Thursday, 8 May 2014

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

One of the pitfalls of reading on an e-reader I've found it that it's easy to start a book without realising how long it is and what you might be getting yourself into. That's what happened to me recently when I fancied rushing through a no-brainer, easy thriller that wouldn't be too taxing on the grey cells. My eyes scrolled down the long list of titles on the Kindle and settled upon I Am Pilgrim. Perfect, no? A fast-paced tale of espionage should prove the perfect escapism? But after realising it was taking ages for the percentage points to add up as I read, I checked the page count...703...that'll explain it then. It turned out to be much meatier than expected.

He goes by many names, but Pilgrim will do. One of the most highly skilled spies the USA has ever known, he has travelled the world, plotted, double-crossed and killed for his country and now finds himself retired before the age of 40, having used his experiences to quite literally write THE book on criminal investigation. Retired, that is, until he hears from an old friend that a murder has been committed in a seedy New York City hotel. But this is not an everyday case. The murderer seems to have used every trick in Pilgrim's own textbook to cover up their tracks.

What follows is an epic sprint across continents whereby Pilgrim uses every trick in his arsenal not only to get to the bottom of the NYC murder but also, y'know, to save the entire world from a catastrophic biological terrorist threat. The plot is multifaceted and will make you think far more widely around events than your average spy story does. What makes a man give up any semblance of a normal life to dedicate himself to go undercover in defence of his country? What makes a child from a conventional background grow up to plot extreme acts of violence on an international scale? How exactly could one man in the Middle East orchestrate a plan to breach the insurmountable defences of United States security forces? It's fast-paced, dramatic, and chilling as you consider how the events described might well be possible in reality.

While the plot is undeniably gripping and complex, this novel is by no means flawless. The whole thing could have been a little bit tighter and more polished, and yes, slightly shorter. The timeline of events in relation to September 11th, 2001, was very muddled and confusing. And I encountered one too many silly errors and poorly-researched facts for my liking. For example, referring to Turkey as 'the Far East', or telling us that one of Pilgrim's injuries resulted in a bone that was 'fractured, but not broken'. The devil's in the details and this kind of mistake really should get picked up during the editing process.

I also think it's worth mentioning that the book has an incredibly patriotic slant which can be heavy-handed at times. Every single foreigner in the book (and not only the Middle Eastern ones) is portrayed as corrupt, stupid, or both. I ultimately found this to wear a little thin.

I've read a few books recently that have made me think "sure, this is great, it's exciting and dramatic, but I bet it would be amazing as a movie". I had the exact same feeling after finishing I Am Pilgrim, only this time I'm thinking: "Terry Hayes is a screenwriter...why didn't he just write a movie?". I can't help but wonder if that medium would have gone further to really do justice to the plot. I did enjoy the overall experience of reading it, but the writing didn't hold up to too much scrutiny. In any case, this is a solid and fast-paced spy thriller that would be a welcome addition to anybody's beach bag if you're after something that will sweep you away without requiring too much concentration.

I received a copy of I Am Pilgrim for review from the team at Transworld Books via Netgalley.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Top Ten book covers I'd frame as pieces of art

This week's Top Ten Tuesday topic, brought to you by The Broke and The Bookish, is a feast for the eyes - they've asked us all to think long and hard about our favourite book covers, the ones that you'd be happy to enlarge and have hanging in a frame in pride of place on your wall. I love this topic! I've spent far too long clicking away on Google image search results looking for my favourite editions of my favourite books. It's so fascinating to see how the cover artwork changes over the years, or how a novel can be illustrated so differently from one country to the next.

What amazed me most was the number of absolutely stunning original re-designs of covers of some of my favourite classic stories that can be found on the online portfolios and websites of illustrators and graphic designers. I stumbled across some gorgeous interpretations that I would be delighted to display in my home or have sitting proudly on my bookshelves. How about this one, by BumbleExpress via DeviantArt
Or this one here by illustrator Thomas Walker?

You have to wonder why our local bookshops are filled with identikit stock images of pictures of women with their heads cropped out of the frame, or silhouettes walking into the sunset, when there is obviously such a wealth of talent and innovation to be found in the fields of illustration and graphic design. This article from Book Riot about tired book cover trends was originally published in December 2012 but unfortunately still rings true today!

Ultimately, it was too hard for me to choose a top ten - so here are just a selection of ten covers that I loved and would be proud to display in a frame in my home!

Sunday, 27 April 2014

A little April catch-up

It's time for me to blow away the cobwebs and chase the tumbleweed out of this blog after a brief period of inactivity! Work has been busy over the past few weeks and real life has got in the way of blogging somewhat, but fortunately it hasn't got in the way of my reading. I wanted to have a little catch-up this evening and let you all know what has been keeping me busy in April.

Unusually for me, I seem to have three books on the go at the same time! From The Fatherland, With Love by Ryu Murakami is an epic tale of an alternative, almost dystopian near-future in which Japan is invaded by North Korean forces, resisted only by a feisty band of punkish rebels. I am really, really enjoying it so far but it is certainly a book that requires patience and attention. It reminds me in many ways of David Foster Wallace's magnum opus, Infinite Jest - and I mean this in the best possible way, despite the fact that longtime readers of this blog might remember that I never actually managed to finish that one. This seems much more easy-going, though, and I am certain that I will ultimately finish it and enjoy it.

Needing a break from the concentration that From The Fatherland, With Love deserves, I picked up the Kindle looking for something a bit lighter. My usual go-to literary palate cleanser is a fast-paced thriller. With that in mind, I started reading I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes...not realising that it's 703 pages long. I was wondering why it seemed to be taking me forever to rack up the percentage progress points! I think that is one thing I'll never get used to about e-readers.

And finally, Trish's post on her blog a few weeks ago persuaded me to take my first steps into a world I never thought I'd enter...the world of audiobooks! I honestly never expected that audiobooks would be for me, but decided to give them a try and see if I can make more use out of my daily commute and listen in the car. I've started with A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin to see what all the buzz is about, because it's a series that intrigues me but has never interested me enough to have made the time to read such a colossal volume in print. So far I'm really enjoying Roy Dotrice's work in voicing the huge number of characters in Winterfell. An added bonus is the discovery that listening to an audiobook really seems to distract me from my internal road rage during rush hour hell, and leads to my arrival at work in a serene and unflustered frame of mind. Score!

 As if these hefty tomes were not enough to be getting on with, I have a backlog of reviews to catch up on, and quite a few exciting items of bookish post that have dropped through the door in recent weeks.

I hope you've all had a wonderful April - let me know how you're getting on and what literary delights you've been enjoying this month.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Explorer by James Smythe

You might think that Cormac Easton is one hell of a lucky guy. Plucked from his day job as a journalist to accompany the cream of the world's crop on the first ever manned mission into deep space, his role is to document their experiences so that they can be recorded in the history books forever. But when Cormac finds himself completely alone on a malfunctioning spacecraft, the rest of the crew dead, it seems like his luck has run out.

Without wanting to begin a review with lazy comparisons, I'm sure anybody who has watched any classic 'lost in space' type movies such as Alien can imagine the generally unsettling atmosphere that pervades this novel. But for a book with such a limited cast of characters and a restricted, claustrophobic setting, the plot is incredibly intricate and Smythe works lots of jiggery-pokery with different timelines flitting back and forth that means you really have to pay attention. The story also bears striking similarity to the more recent film, Moon, sharing its insight into the psyche of men who find themselves in the most extreme isolation. It gave me lots of food for reflection long after I had put the book down.

There was a lot to be impressed by in this book but overall I found something to be lacking and it has really been niggling at me to try and put my finger on what exactly was wrong. I think I found Cormac himself to be quite difficult to read about. I don't think he is supposed to be a particularly likeable protagonist, and I think at least some of his cold and apathetic nature is intentional on the part of the author. He almost reminded me of the Meursault character in Camus' L'étranger - you know, this guy who doesn't react to life's tragedies in the impassioned way that societal norms would have you expect, and is consequently regarded with suspicion by many. In any case, I found his apparent impassivity to the traumatic events he experiences was difficult to believe - which wouldn't be quite so much of a barrier to my enjoyment if it wasn't that the whole premise of the novel means we are subjected to nothing but Cormac's internal monologue for most of the book.

Having said all that, my overall impression of The Explorer was very good - it's always a pleasure to read something so unique and thought-provoking. The novel's ending was completely unexpected and I quite literally cannot even begin to imagine where this story is going to go next. I'm really excited to read more by James Smythe as he seems to be shaping up to be one of our most interesting (and most prolific!) creative minds at the moment. Every time I read the blurb for one of his novels I am struck by his unique ideas. Do any of you have any recommendations of which of his books I should try next?

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones

Hannah Wilde is running, and running is all she has ever known. For centuries her ancestors have been pursued by a dark force, and things are no different now as every day is a struggle to keep herself and her family alive. There's no option but to keep moving from place to place, leaving all her worldly possessions behind apart from one; a battered, string-bound volume of memoirs that have been passed down from generation to generation and trace this evil entity back to its origins in 19th century Hungary.

The String Diaries is a curious blend of historical fiction, folklore, urban fantasy and straightforward white-knuckle thriller. On paper this sounds a bit much and like it might be a bit of a trashy, throwaway read. Fortunately it's really well-written and feels perhaps more intelligent and complex than your average genre fiction.

For fear of spoilers I have spent time deliberating over how much to give away about the exact nature of the supernatural adversaries in the story (the 'hosszú életek') and I have concluded that will be best for potential readers if I keep most of the detail under wraps. But suffice it to say that these are creatures completely unlike any I have read about before - no run of the mill vampires and werewolves to be found here - and I loved the concept behind them and their particular powers. The author has created an entirely convincing mythology and backstory and I was amazed to find out that it doesn't have any roots in real Hungarian tradition. He has considered exactly the way in which the hosszú életek would affect Hannah's life, and illustrated all the ways her family would have to adapt to dealing with them on a day to day basis, which makes the whole thing very compelling and realistic.

I read this book on Kindle and when I saw a hard copy of the book in person shortly afterwards, I was surprised at how chunky it is because I absolutely raced through it. It is really pacy and addictive. I don't remember the last time a book made me so nervy - I was reading it at home alone one evening and every creak, every unexpected tap outside the window made me jump out of my skin, but still I couldn't stop myself from reading.

The String Diaries is a really enjoyable and unique read and one I'd recommend even to those who don't usually enjoy dabbling with the paranormal. Fans of historical fiction or dual time narratives who are looking for something a bit different would do well to give this a go.

I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley courtesy of the kind team at Mulholland Books. Thank you!

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Jellybird Giveaway Winner

Just a quick note to let you know that I have drawn the winner for the recent giveaway of a copy of Lezanne Clannachan's Jellybird. The lucky reader is....Karen C!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Congratulations to Karen, and thank you to everybody who took part. And furthermore, a big thank you to the team at Orion for providing the prize.

 For those of you who weren't lucky enough to win this time around, Jellybird is out now in paperback and I hope I have tempted some of you to go and pick up a copy for yourselves - it's a great read. 

Friday, 7 March 2014

In The Woods by Tana French

Around the beginning of last year I was hearing lots of glowing praise for Broken Harbour by Tana French, which is the fourth book in the Dublin Murder Squad series. You know I'm always on the lookout for a new crime series to get hooked on, so I added French's name straight onto my must-try list. However, I'm also quite fussy about reading series like this in strict chronological order, and with one distraction and another I've only recently got round to reading this first instalment in the series.

Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are the only detectives in the Dublin Murder Squad office when the case gets called through, so it's theirs for the taking. A twelve-year-old girl has been found dead on an archaeological dig site in a suburban Dublin woodland, and the case bears an unnerving similarity to another child murder in the same small town twenty years previously. Two children disappeared without a trace and a third was found quaking in his blood-filled shoes, unable to recollect anything at all about events. What nobody knows, though, is that that third little boy left town and changed his identity, later returning to Dublin...as one detective Rob Ryan. Can he stop his memories of the past from clouding his judgment in the here and now?

Tana French writes beautifully. I could immediately see why so many people gushed about the style and prose in Broken Harbour. In The Woods opens with a short passage describing a hot summer's afternoon in small-town Ireland, and it just hits you in the face right from the off, wham! It's so evocative you can almost feel the sun beating down on your face. The whole novel definitely has a more literary feel to it than your average crime thriller. The plot is also well-developed with perfectly timed surprising twists and reveals to keep you gripped by developments.

Unfortunately, my enjoyment of this story was almost entirely spoiled by the fact that Rob Ryan is one of the most disagreeable characters I've ever had the experience of reading about! I found him unbelievably irritating and on a number of occasions was close to hurling the book across the room in frustration at his self-absorbed whining and his loathsome behaviour towards his flatmate, colleagues, parents...well, just about everyone. Usually a character with such an interesting and troubled back-story would provoke at least a little sympathy, but in this case I couldn't bring myself to care one jot about his predicaments. I'm not even sure if he was unlikeable by accident or by design - if a protagonist is intentionally objectionable I feel there needs to be some sort of delicious wicked spark to hold my interest, and that was lacking here.

It's testament to French's great writing and tight plotting that I didn't succumb to the temptation of giving up on this one. I just had to get to the end and find out what happened. If this was the beginning of a whole Rob Ryan series there's no way I would be reading more, but I believe that each book in the Dublin Murder Squad series takes on a different lead character so I am going to go ahead and give the others a try. I am still really keen to read Broken Harbour because the premise sounds great, although I have to say I don't know much about the second and third books.

Have you read anything by Tana French? Would you recommend the rest of the series?

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Wellcome Book Prize 2014 Shortlist

Sometimes it feels like there are so many different book prizes around these days that they all blur together in my mind and feel a bit samey-samey. But then again, there are a few of my favourites that I always keep an eye on. For example, I'm really looking forward to seeing who's made the shortlist for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction when that is announced later this week because I read a few of their candidates in 2013 and really enjoyed them all.

Today I want to let you know about of another of my favourite book prizes which doesn't get quite so much online buzz about it - The Wellcome Book Prize. This is a prize looking at books with "a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness". But where you might think the frontrunners for that award would be dusty science texts without mass appeal, you'd be wrong - previous winners have included a New York Times bestseller, a historical memoir, and a great psychological thriller about dementia. The shortlist is usually really diverse.

So the shortlist was announced last week - let's see who has made the grade for the 2014 prize:

Wounded by Emily Mayhew
This tells the story of how health services were arranged at the Western Front, and how horrifically injured soldiers ever managed to make it back to Britain in one piece.

Creation by Adam Rutherford
Here, Rutherford looks back to the origins of life itself and explains how new technological advances will impact massively upon human life as we know it by allowing us to create new life forms from scratch in the lab.

Far From The Tree by Andrew Solomon
"Sometimes your child - the most familiar person of all - is radically different from you. The saying goes that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. But what happens when it does?"
Solomon uses case studies to explore experiences of difference and diversity in communities and perhaps sheds some light on that age-old question of nature vs nurture.

The Signature Of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
This novel looks like an epic. It's the story of one Alma Whittaker, a young woman with a passion for botany who finds herself drawn into the conflict between science and spirituality in the Age of Enlightenment.

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks
Some of you will already have enjoyed Sacks' skill in explaining neuropsychological phenomena in his previous classic 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat'. Here he applies the same treatment to clinical cases of hallucinations in all their various forms.

Inconvenient People by Sarah Wise
Sarah Wise explores the chilling world of psychiatry in Victorian England, telling the story of countless voiceless individuals who were incarcerated in lunatic asylums for the most spurious of reasons.

I have to say, I'm a little disappointed in the lack of balance between fiction and non-fiction in this year's list, but there are some nice choices on there nevertheless. Inconvenient People is already on my wishlist, and I think I'll give the Elizabeth Gilbert novel a try now, too - although I can hardly believe this historical epic is brought to us by the same woman who wrote Eat, Pray, Love! I've had Sacks' 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat' on my TBR for years now and have never got through more than a few chapters, so I think I'll give that one a miss for the time being, although Hallucinations does sound really interesting. The other one that sounds like a good read is Far From The Tree but I'm not sure whether I am intrigued enough to buy a copy at the moment. One to keep on my radar in case I find myself in a non-fiction mood at some point, perhaps.

What do you think of this shortlist? Are any of these books catching your eye? And are there any other books you've read in the past year with medical themes that you think have been passed over? I reckon Belinda Bauer's Rubbernecker would have been a great candidate for this prize, personally.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Giveaway - Jellybird by Lezanne Clannachan

If you've been reading this blog for a while you might remember that almost a year ago I reviewed the gripping psychological thriller Jellybird by Lezanne Clannachan. This novel has recently been published in paperback on 13th February, so for those of you who haven't got around to reading it yet it might be the perfect time to pick up a copy. You can go back and find out how much I enjoyed this one by clicking here to read my review.

You can see a video here of the author herself chatting about the book:

What's more, the lovely team at Orion have offered me one copy to give away to one of you lucky readers! Just complete the details in the Rafflecopter widget below before midnight GMT on Tuesday 4th March. I'll draw and notify the lucky winner before Friday 7th March.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, 24 February 2014

The State We're In by Adele Parks

I recently discovered the Goodreads First Reads giveaway page, where publishers and authors offer advance copies of their books to give away to Goodreads members. I always get excited at the prospect of a competition and when I first found this page I went a bit mad, 'in it to win it', and entered myself for everything in sight. It was only after I had won three books in the first couple of weeks that I realised the First Reads giveaways aren't entirely at random and that they are weighted in favour of active users of the site.

When my winnings landed on the doorstep, I have to admit that I asked myself what exactly I had been thinking when I entered some of these giveaways. Do I really want to read my first Adele Parks novel? Isn't she a bit...chick litty and fluffy? It's all too easy as a book blogger to see 'free' books on offer on sites such as Goodreads and Netgalley and come over all glassy-eyed and grabby. I do try my best not to fall prey to these temptations and only to request novels that I am desperate to read, but on this occasion my resolve failed. I wasn't feeling particularly enthusiastic to get stuck in.

Confession time over - what did I think of the book? Well actually, I was pleasantly surprised and found The State We're In to be far more substantial than I was expecting.

Jo is an incurable romantic who whole-heartedly believes in the idea of The One. Problem is, her biological clock is ticking faster every day and The One remains just an idea, a figment of her imagination. In a fit of passion (or madness) she books a ticket to fly to Chicago to sabotage her ex-fiancé's wedding. When she finds herself sitting next to a handsome stranger on the plane, she can't help confiding in him. But Dean has issues of his own to brood over. Could the pair end up helping each other out?

The book flits between the viewpoints of both Jo and Dean, as well as skipping between timelines across decades to look at their parents' stories and the way their very different upbringings have shaped their personalities. I found this to be really effective at adding substance to what could easily have been two generic and stereotypical characters. The flighty, dreamy woman with her head in the clouds, the brooding, handsome stranger. Luckily, Adele Parks avoids this pitfall and creates two engaging and likeable protagonists. I couldn't avoid becoming invested in their story.

The State We're In is a really easy read that had me hooked in from the first chapter - the pages basically turned themselves. It is very light compared to my usual reading choices, and there were places where I guessed the 'twists' that were coming a mile off, or where I felt events could be fleshed out a little more. But overall, it was enjoyable, and a perfect choice for times when I feel like reading something a little less serious. I would definitely look into Adele Parks' other work next time I'm in that mood.

One thing I will say is that I found this book to be very, very reminiscent of another romance novel that has been a massive bestseller in recent years, in its characters, style, and even aspects of the plot. I don't want to give much more away than that because the folks at Headline have urged us all to #keepthesecret with their online marketing campaign, but I'd be very interested in hearing from anybody else who has read The State We're In and knows what I mean!

All things considered, I'm not sure what this experience has taught me. Part of me feels like I should continue to try to be very particular about which books I read and especially about the titles I request for review. I am so grateful to publishers like Headline for taking part in the First Reads scheme, and it's not fair to them if greedy bloggers request lots of books that they have no interest in reading. On the other hand, I enjoyed The State We're In much more than I was expecting to, so maybe I should try to take more risks and read outside my own comfort zone more, to discover some more unexpected gems? What do you think?

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Literary Blog Hop results are in!

The fun of the Literary Blog Hop is over again for another few months and that means it's time to draw the winners! Thank you so much to everybody who visited the blog last week and thank you to Judith at Leeswammes for organising events again. I hope you all discovered some new blogs and that some of you got lucky and won some goodies too.

So let's get down to business...

The winner of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke is:

Beth from Too Fond blog

The winner of Gillespie & I by Jane Harris is:

My Heart Is Here

Congratulations to both the winners! I'll get in touch to confirm delivery addresses for your prizes. Hope you enjoy both of these amazing novels.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

Despite the fact that crime and mystery fiction is by far my favourite genre to read, I have to admit that I am rarely 'wowed' by a crime novel. I love the experience of getting sucked in to the twists and turns of a mystery, and being kept guessing right until the last minute, but once these stories are over they rarely stay with me for a long time. There are certainly very few crime novels on my list of five star, all time favourite reads.

So last year when I noticed all my favourite bloggers presenting glowing, five star reviews for Belinda Bauer's latest offering, I took a mental note of the title and vowed I'd get to it at some point. But I was a little disbelieving. Surely it can't be that good, can it? Well, having finally taken the plunge after stumbling across a copy via Transworld on Netgalley, I can eat my words and confirm that yes, Rubbernecker is that good, and completely stands out from the crime fiction crowd.

Since Patrick Fort lost his father in a car accident as a child, he has been obsessed with the mystery of death. Patrick has Asperger's syndrome and this drives him to seek a full understanding of the world around him. Embarking on university studies in Anatomy doesn't help Patrick to determine what exactly happened to his Dad, but he soon begins to notice irregularities in the dissection room and ends up trying to get to the bottom of another mystery entirely. But this isn't easy when the only clue he has is an anonymous cadaver with an official death certificate that appears to be entirely above board.

This is unlike anything I've read before. The protagonist and the premise are both completely unique, and Bauer has somehow managed to take some really dark subject matter and make it great fun to read about. The story flits between several different points of view and each one has a really distinct and engaging voice - Patrick himself, a coma patient on a hospital ward, a lazy and selfish nurse. You get absolutely sucked into the twists and turns of the plot and I stayed up far too late at night to reach the end.

I know it's a bit nerdy given my job but I can't help being drawn to novels with hospital or medical school settings. It is clear that Belinda Bauer has spent time in the dissection room herself and that she must have the keenest powers of observation to convey its unique atmosphere so accurately. The days of disrespectful pranks are long gone, but the utterly surreal atmosphere does breed a certain brand of black humour. Stories of Patrick and his team placing bets on the cause of death or trying to identify strange objects found in the digestive tract brought back recollections of my own anatomy lessons...I did consider sharing some anecdotes here but have refrained for fear that they might make some of my readers vomit. The very squeamish amongst you might want to take care when reading Rubbernecker because some of the scenes might be a little too gruesome for those with a delicate disposition - saying that, it is mostly quite clinical and there's no gratuitous gore or violence so I think most people would have no trouble.

Rubbernecker has drawn many comparisons to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and I feel I must address this because I found this a great deal more enjoyable to read. Where I saw Mark Haddon's book as almost a character study of a boy with Asperger's syndrome (don't get me wrong, I think it's a good read), Belinda Bauer has written a great mystery story where the protagonist just happens to have Asperger's syndrome. Patrick's character is engaging and sensitively drawn, but his diagnosis is never used as a plot device in itself.

This is such a unique mystery story and I had so much fun reading it. I really can't recommend it enough. I believe it came out in paperback on 2nd Jan so if this review has piqued your interest you might like to treat yourself!

The Literary Giveaway Blog Hop Feb 8th-12th

February is here and that means it's time for another round of the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop! This is an event organised by Judith over at Leeswammes' Blog and it takes place three times a year. Judith noticed that there seem to be awful lot of blog hops and giveaways around for romance and YA novels, but not so much for more literary choices:

"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 please 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"
This time around I am offering a choice of two of my favourite big books that I read in 2013. Entrants have an opportunity to win Gillespie & I by Jane Harris, or Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. You can enter for a chance to win both if you like! I absolutely adored both of these books and have been recommending them far and wide.

The giveaway is open to any country that The Book Depository ships to. The rules for entry are as follows:

1. Comment on this post telling me which of the books you'd like to win - you can enter for both if you like. Commenting alone gives you one entry.
2. For an extra entry, follow me on Twitter @marieemonaghan and mention your Twitter handle in your comment.
3. For an extra entry, follow me on Goodreads and let me know your Goodreads ID in your comment.
4. Please remember to leave some way for me to contact you if you win - an e-mail address or Twitter ID.
5. The giveaway will remain open until the end of the day on 12th Feb. I will draw and inform the winners at some point on 15th Feb.
Best of luck with the hop - and don't forget to check the links below and see what books everyone else has up for offer, too!
  1. Leeswammes
  2. Seaside Book Nook
  3. Booklover Book Reviews
  4. Biblionomad
  5. Laurie Here
  6. The Well-Read Redhead (US/CA)
  7. River City Reading
  8. GirlVsBookshelf
  9. Ciska's Book Chest
  10. The Book Stop
  11. Ragdoll Books Blog
  12. Nishita's Rants and Raves
  13. Lucybird's Book Blog
  14. Reading World (N-America)
  15. Journey Through Books
  16. Readerbuzz
  17. Always With a Book (US)
  18. 52 Books or Bust (N.Am./UK)
  19. Guiltless Reading (US/CA)
  20. Book-alicious Mama (US)
  21. Wensend
  22. Books Speak Volumes
  23. Words for Worms
  24. The Relentless Reader
  25. A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall (US)
  1. Fourth Street Review
  2. Vailia's Page Turner
  3. The Little Reader Library
  4. Lost Generation Reader
  5. Heavenali
  6. Roof Beam Reader
  7. Mythical Books
  8. Word by Word
  9. The Misfortune of Knowing
  10. Aymaran Shadow > Behind The Scenes
  11. The Things You Can Read (US)
  12. Bay State Reader's Advisory
  13. Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
  14. Lizzy's Literary Life
  15. Books Can Save a Life (N. America)
  16. Words And Peace (US)
  17. The Book Club Blog

Monday, 3 February 2014

Shift by Hugh Howey

This has been sitting on the top of my 'to review' list for far too long. I've been putting it off, because it's always difficult to review subsequent books in a series without spoiling the first one, don't you think? I absolutely adored reading Wool last year - in fact it was definitely in my top five books of 2013, and I still find myself recommending it to others all the time - so the last thing I want to do is ruin the experience for anybody who hasn't finished that one yet! Let me do my best...

Wool introduced us to Howey's subterranean dystopia, where the Earth's atmosphere has become incompatible with life, and humans have been driven underground. In Shift the reader is taken right back to the beginning of the story and given the answers to all the niggling questions we are sure to have asked ourselves. How did these vast silos get there in the first place? What kind of terrible disaster happened to the world outside? And who are the faceless leaders who have been calling all the shots? The book flits around between different timelines and different silos, which can be difficult to follow at first, but works well to maintain pace throughout.

I often find the second installment of any trilogy to be something of a disappointment. They can be essential for adding intricacy to the narrative, or character-building to ensure the reader is fully invested in the series, but I can't think of many examples where the second book shines as an outstanding novel in its own right. I think this is why Shift dragged a little for me. It answers a lot of questions, providing welcome context to the events described in Wool. The plot development is sound and I finished the book quite satisfied with the conclusions that were drawn, but it doesn't have that magical 'page-turning' quality that I was looking for.

One of Wool's major strengths in my eyes was the huge cast of genuinely likeable characters. Even minor players were very vividly realised and easy to care about. By sharp contrast, then, I found the opposite to be true in this sequel. All the personalities in Shift are either dull-as-dishwater (the bland protagonist Donald, Mission) or predictable stereotypes (for example military man Senator Thurman and his seductive flame-haired daughter Anna). I realised at the end of the book that I'd got through the whole thing without ever even having developed my own mental image of what Donald looks like! I know everyone is different in this regard, but that is very unusual for me as I usually always visualise a novel in my mind's eye. He just didn't capture the imagination at all.

Wool was always going to be a tough act to follow, and I'm sorry to say that Shift didn't quite meet my expectations. But there are enough teasing unanswered questions for me to remain hopeful that Howey is merely setting the scene for a fantastic finale to the trilogy, with the return of some of my favourite people from the first book. I have Dust loaded on my e-reader and ready to go but I'm not sure when I will take the plunge and read it. I'm reluctant for my time in Howey's world to come to an end!

Many thanks go to Random House who offered a copy for review via Netgalley.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Goddess And The Thief by Essie Fox

Sometimes it feels like there are so many factors that can contribute to my enjoyment of a book. Many of those are obviously to do with the book itself. Are the characters convincing? Am I gripped by the plot? Does the writing style appeal to me? Looking beyond the writing on the page, though, my reading experience is influenced by so many other variables. The weather, the other books I've been reading recently, what kind of day I've had...all these things can mean I'm just not in the right mood for a particular novel at a particular time. Thinking objectively, the book might be awesome on paper and just the kind of thing I'd usually like. But if the stars are not aligned in its favour, I won't enjoy it. And this can make it very difficult to write a fair review!

Alice can't imagine anything better than her life in India. The glorious weather and lush, open landscapes are all she has ever known while growing up under the charge of her loving ayah. But her father is of the opinion that an English little girl should have a traditional English upbringing, and Alice is uprooted, sent away to live in the oppressive gloom of her aunt Mercy's London home. As she gets older, she becomes a reluctant participant in her aunt's business as a spiritualist medium, forced to co-operate with fraudulent operations and occult activities against her will.

Until one day an intriguing stranger arrives at the house and sparks memories of India, full of mysterious tales of the magnificent Koh-I-Noor diamond. Alice feels an instant connection to Lucian Tilsbury...but he has a sinister motive for visiting the two women.

Anybody who has read The Somnambulist or Elijah's Mermaid will agree that Essie Fox certainly knows her stuff when it comes to Victorian gothic. Her previous books have perfectly recreated the dark mystique of that age, and The Goddess And The Thief is no different. The characters and settings quite simply jump off the page and are vividly realised in the mind's eye.

For me, the biggest strength of this novel was the way Fox used magical tales from Hindu scripture and intertwined them with Alice's own experiences. Deities such as Parvati and Shiva were not previously familiar to me and I found their stories fascinating. It was a really enjoyable way to learn about a culture that I would never otherwise have taken the time to discover for myself. There is a great guest post by Essie Fox over on Fleur In Her World where she talks about the research behind the book, and it is remarkable to gain insight into just how much hard work goes into her writing. I'm sure we have all encountered authors who rely on nothing more than stereotypes to support their depictions of other cultures, so it's refreshing to enjoy the fruits of such meticulous groundwork.

Having said all this, I have to admit that overall I just didn't enjoy this one and found it quite difficult to read. I think the problem is that I found the plot to be incredibly bleak and perhaps I wasn't prepared for that kind of reading experience before picking it up. Alice does have a truly dreadful time of it and the reader can do nothing but despair on her behalf as events unfold. As a single woman in Victorian London she is completely at her aunt's mercy and has no opportunity to fight back or do anything to improve her situation. Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm not someone who needs sunshine, lollipops and happy endings to enjoy a good book, but there is an oppressive mood that pervades The Goddess And The Thief and I found it almost stifling.

I have been left with a funny feeling that at another time, in another mood, I might have enjoyed this one much more than I did. Maybe it was one of those days when I just needed to read some cheerful fluff. Do any of you ever get this feeling?

Many thanks to Sophie at Orion Books, who sent me my copy of this book via a Goodreads First Reads giveaway.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

I am very impressed with all these bloggers who have been posting lists of the books they're most looking forward to in 2014. One thing I fail miserably at when it comes to reading is keeping an eye on publishing news and forthcoming new novels. This stuff just doesn't hit my radar at all. I have enough trouble trying to keep track of the stacks of books that are already littering my house. So I have been reading everyone else's picks with a great deal of interest. It seems 2014 is shaping up to be a great year already!

A few weeks back this was a Top Ten Tuesday theme and I noticed a couple of people mention Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh as one they were looking forward to reading. It sounded right up my street and I was delighted to receive a copy via Netgalley, courtesy of the kind folks at Crown Publishing.

We find ourselves in an alternate future, some time after a devastating terrorist attack on New York. Dirty bombs and radioactive waste have rendered Times Square a no-go zone. Manhattan Island has lost its glamour and people have left in droves, migrating to other states, which are relatively untouched.  But plenty of hardy souls remain. Some ignore the problem, and spend their days 'tapped in' to an idyllic virtual world online. Others just keep living their lives in the ghostly streets and tower blocks, unable to escape the hold that the city has on them.

Like Spademan. He was once a happily married and proud garbageman. But now he's alone, and there isn't so much garbage to collect these days. Instead, he uses his skills to take care of a different kind of disposal - working as a hitman. But when he is hired to get rid of the young runaway daughter of a reknowned and powerful preacher, he finds himself on the run from threats to his own life too.

This book is just so cool! I loved the contrast between the dystopian, almost futuristic setting, and the incredibly hard-boiled writing. The dialogue is razor-sharp and kept taking me back to old classic film noir scenes. The protagonist himself is also reminiscent of a pulp novel hero in that he's a total crook who has his own very dubious code of 'morals', but you can't help rooting for him throughout. I haven't read any other modern novels that have nailed that classic style quite so well. It's a pleasure to read.

The world-building is good too, and the setting is very convincing, though I would have liked even more detail about how exactly society manages to function in the wake such devastation. More about the 'camps' of young waifs and strays around Times Square, more about how people continue to run businesses and maintain any semblance of a normal life in a wrecked city. Unfortunately I think I have been spoiled a bit and am difficult to impress, because there have been so many great dystopian settings introduced in books over the past few years. For example, how can I not compare Sternbergh's 'limnosphere' to the outstanding virtual world detailed in Ernest Cline's Ready Player One? But the standard of writing is what sets this apart from the crowd. You could lift Spademan and transplant him into any other setting, in any era, and the book would still work.

It looks like this novel has caught the eye of some fairly influential types, as Warner Bros. are already set to produce a cinematic adaptation - starring Denzel Washington, if the rumours are to be believed! I'll be very interested to see what they do with this. I can imagine it working really well as a quirky neo-noir movie like Brick, or even something sleek and graphics-based like Sin City. What I fear is that it will turn out to be a run-of-the-mill Hollywood post-apocalyptic thriller. It feels like almost every single dystopian novel I've read over the past year has already been earmarked for the movies, which worries me a little. Sure, they're great stories, and if the producers do them justice it will be fantastic. But haven't we all had the frustrating experience of having a favourite book butchered on the silver screen?

I think what I'm trying to say is; don't delay. Read this now! I found it the perfect choice to kickstart a new year of reading.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

There's always plenty of discussion in the book blogging world about the merits of the book-buying-ban. I'm pretty sure we've all given it a go at some point - some more successfully than others. While never declaring an official prohibition, I am always trying to restrain myself, avoid Netgalley, bypass the charity shops, and work my way through the mountain of books I already own. Consequently, towards the end of 2013 I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. Having not set foot in a bookshop for...oh, at least a week...I felt I deserved to treat myself to something new. I picked up this hefty hardback that was the subject of quite a lot of intriguing buzz.

The story centres around the mysterious and reclusive Stanislas Cordova, an infamous director of horror films with a devoted cult following. His persona is shrouded in rumour and hearsay. He lives on an isolated and highly-guarded estate with his family, is rumoured to meddle in the occult, and hasn't been seen or interviewed in public in decades. So when his beautiful young daughter Ashley is found dead in a squalid New York apartment block, the press fall over themselves trying to find out what happened. None more so than investigative journalist Scott McGrath, who has a score to settle with Cordova after a past dispute with the director almost demolished his career.

Now here I have to tread carefully, as this is a novel with more twists than you can shake a stick at. There are so many intricate plot developments and side characters that it feels almost impossible to do it justice in a brief review without including a whole lot of spoilers. Just like the cover illustration, I felt like I was literally peeling off layer upon layer of mystery to get to the bottom of things. You will get pulled in to Pessl's New York, and the combination of photographs, web pages, e-mails etc. only serves to make events even more vivid in your head.

Isn't the cult of celebrity a strange thing? Sometimes it seems that the more somebody does to remove themselves from the public eye, the more media interest in them grows. Pessl uses this very cleverly to draw the reader into the novel. I was totally convinced by the legend of Cordova and could absolutely imagine myself as a Cordovite, going to great lengths to seek out his hard-to-find movies and obsessing with other fans over the minutiae of his work. I truly believed that Cordova was orchestrating his life and his legend on purpose, to inflate his own reputation and ensure his name remained infamous. But later, as the secrets of the family are revealed, I realised that the author is showing us how easy it is to buy into these myths that are perpetuated by the press. The Cordovas' story actually turns out to be a sad tale- imagine what it must be like to crave privacy and be denied it at every turn.

While the plot was intricate and engrossing, I unfortunately found the characterisation to be somewhat lacklustre. Other than Stanislas Cordova himself, who is barely a real presence in the novel at all, the protagonists are a bit one-dimensional and mundane. There is a half-hearted backstory about McGrath's failed marriage and difficult relationship with his daughter, but I struggled to become invested in this side-plot at all. Luckily the story is meaty enough for this not to affect my overall enjoyment too much.

The book also lost a few points in my eyes due to a silly false ending. About 100 pages from the end the story seems to be drawing to a satisfying and clever conclusion, but then there's one last 'twist' which I found to take things too far and rendered the finale completely implausible. It is a bit of a pet hate of mine when authors can't resist throwing in one too many unnecessary red herrings.

I thoroughly enjoyed Night Film at the time, but as a few weeks have passed I must admit my initial impressions have dulled slightly. I wonder if it's another one of those where my preconceptions have been coloured by the surrounding hype. It's a good read, and I have recommended it and passed my copy on to others.

Have any of you read this book? I would be really interested to hear what you thought!

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Oh what? It's 2014 already?

December seems to have whizzed by in a flash and it wouldn't do to let the New Year roll in without some sort of reflection on how 2013 has made me a better reader. I have enjoyed reading everyone else's end-of-year wrap ups over the past week or so and wanted to come up with my own slightly tardy version. Here are some of the lessons I have learnt about myself over the past twelve months:

1. I like big books and I cannot lie.

In 2013 I made the decision to give up on my usual annual Goodreads reading goal. I hate the way it reproaches you at every single log-in, reminding you exactly how slowly you are progressing towards you goals (because I am ALWAYS behind). And I kind of had the feeling that having this goal was leading me towards choosing shorter, 'easier' reads to help me reach my target.

Removing this self-imposed benchmark turned out to be a great idea. Some of my favourite reads of this year have turned out to be absolute mammoths, several of which have been sitting on my shelf untouched for ages. Here's to more doorstops in 2014!


2. I am actually kind of a fan of fantasy novels.

In the past I have always had very particular views on science fiction/fantasy books.  Dystopian settings - sure, great. Anything else remotely speculative was approached with definite suspicion. I think there's even a statement in the 'about me' section of this blog saying that I just plain don't like Fantasy. How wrong I was! This year I have discovered just how wide-reaching the SFF umbrella actually is. I have discovered so many great reads with a paranormal bent, and all have been very different from one another. I definitely think this is a trend that I will continue to follow over the next year.


3. I am easily distracted.

This year I had a blogging break for several months for a number of reasons. OK, so I started a new job in August, and it has been way more stressful and busy than I had imagined - particularly as I have a very major exam coming up at the end of this month. But while I'd like to pretend that all the time I spent not reading was taken up with worthwhile pursuits and hard study, that would be stretching the truth a little. The blogging break also coincided roughly with my purchase of a Nintendo 3DS, which has proved an unbelievably seductive distraction, particularly following the release of Pokémon X. I just lost a lot of my motivation to read. And like most of us, I find it so difficult to avoid the little diversions that build up over the course of the day like Twitter and Youtube.

Consequently, a big goal of mine for 2014 is to keep focused and waste less of my precious time on forgettable distractions.

4. Turns out I really, really like a red-black-white colour scheme.

Compare this post to last year's favourites...

As for bookish goals and resolutions for the coming year...well, I don't seem to have any! I haven't enrolled in any challenges this time around and I haven't even registered to be a giver for World Book Night. I guess as long as I can keep discovering new reads and finding great books to enjoy, I'll be happy. I did not enjoy that reading slump I went through, so avoiding another one will be an achievement in itself.

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas season and wish you all the best for 2014. Thank you so much to anybody who has read and commented on here over the past twelve months, and an even bigger thank you to all you bloggers who have taken the time to write reviews and recommendations that have led to me discovering some absolute gems!