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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!