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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.