Monday, 21 December 2015

Review of "All the Light we Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr

People always seem to remember where they were when they found out an important event had happened: were you on the toilet when you found out about the birth of a royal Prince? Or at a fancy dinner when 9/11 happened? I'll always remember what I was reading when this year's terror attacks on Paris occurred: this book. As Paris was reeling from the aftermath of a bombing in 2015, I was reading about the terror of Parisians during World War Two, when the threat of a German bombing could very much become a reality. It was then that I realised how terribly little we've learnt in the last 70 years. Violence answers nothing and we often fail to think of the extent of the terror it induces, which is why I think it is so important that Doerr's female protagonist is blind. Anyone would be absolutely terrified if their world was under threat from war, and I mean this in the strongest sense of the word, but just imagine the dear you would be ensconced in if your world was being attacked and you were clueless to the visible effects of it.  

Marie Laure is a young girl when her eyesight deteriorates to the extent that she becomes entirely blind. Determined to allow his daughter to have some independence and quality of life,  her papa creates an accurate wooden model of the part of Paris they live in for her that they study together so that she can begin to navigate the streets. He is the keyholder and locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, a place which is rumoured to hold a cursed diamond, one so unique that few have set eyes on it. When Paris begins to come under threat during the war, Papa realises that it is no longer safe for him and Marie Laure to remain there, and they must flee. But the curator of the museum has realised this too, and sends out three replicas of the priceless diamond, as well as a real one with his most trusted employees. No man knows whether he has the real one, but if he has, trouble may befall him ....

Meanwhile in Germany, orphaned Werner is beginning to see the effects of the changing times. A boy with a keen interest in mechanics, he becomes a whizz with radios, only to have the number of broadcasts available seriously lessened due to censorship. When his sister Jutta starts listening to prohibited frequencies he smashes the radio he created for them, causing an unshakeable rift in their sibling bond. Soon Werner's skill means he must go away to a school for gifted boys, but when he gets there he realises it perhaps is not so much of a godsend as he originally thought. Boys are pitted against one another, and to be the weakest one could mean death. Werner must balance his time between learning greater mechanical skill for radio repair and trying to survive the brutal physical challenges he is faced with. But what is the point of these tests? is it something a whole lot more sinister than he'd ever hoped?

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Review of "A Spool of Blue Thread" by Anne Tyler

Even the very title of this novel screams that it is quintessentially American. Set deep in the heart of the country, the key protagonist Abby is a mother first, a wife second, and a money maker last. This book is almost what I would call a reverse bildungsroman (if such a thing exists): we start off with a retired Abby who still struggles to understand her problem child Denny, and then we move back to how she met her husband Red, and even further back in time to how his parents met. Eventually the reader learns that out of happiness, happiness does not always emerge, and out of unhappiness it is possible to find joy. 

Denny has always been a problem child, yet in spite of that. or perhaps because of it, he's always been Abby's favourite. But what happens when a problem child grows up and becomes a problem adult? Does it get any easier for a mother? And what about the rest of her children? Abby is mother to Jeannie, Amanda, Denny and Stem, as well as grandmother to numerous children, and loves being the centre of their little community, as well as the fact that they all live nearby. 

Unfortunately, Abby is starting to age, and as the family gather closer together, we find otu everyone's real intentions with being part of the family, and their true colours are displayed. But when we delve deeper into Abby's memory we learn that perhaps even seemingly the closest of families can be worlds apart.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Review of "The Deathsniffer's Assistant" by Kate McIntyre

I haven't read a fantasy novel in YEARS, and this was definitely a good'un to return to the genre with. The trick with fantasy novels is to make them believable, and I think if the author doubts themself, or the story they are writing in it's potential veracity, then the story is lost to the world of poor quality fantasy novels (of which there are many). However, MycIntyre makes it possible for readers to utterly immerse themselves in the world of The Deathsniffer's Assistant with her excellent prose and manifold plot streams. If you've ever read any of Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, I would say that this is probably a read for you. Mixing darkness with love, honour and a little bit of social scheming, The Deathsniffer's Assistant is definitely going on my list as a 2015 must-read.

Chris didn't choose to be his younger sister's guardian, but after the incident at the Floating Castle left them orphaned he had no choice. Now, a few years on the family inheritance is starting to run dry and Chris must find a job to support himself and Rosemary. However, when he was categorized, as all young men and women are, he was designated to become a simple wordweaver: something that is hardly highly regarded, or highly paid for that matter. The only job he can get is with a Deathsniffer. Although Truthsniffers in their own right are a decent sort of folk, one that specialises in death, and more so, proclaims that they are a Deathsniffer is bound to be a little ... repellant. But, faced with either working for the Deathsniffer or ending up in abject poverty, Chris must join forces with this individual and seek the murderer of a member of the old blood: Duke Val Darens. 

However, perhaps there are darker forces at work even than the person who so brutally killed the Duke and defaced his dead body. Rosemary's secret wizardly binding skills have been kept hidden for years by Chris, but with the creatures starting to break loose from their binds, causing damage and turmoil everywhere, perhaps it will be harder to keep her safe than he'd ever thought ...

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Review of "The Secret Life of Bees" by Sue Monk Kidd

The last few books I've read have been a bit disappointing, so I was overjoyed when I started this. The quality of writing and content was absolutely astounding. Being a bit of a grammar nerd, usually I come across what I call "clumpy" sentences, or phrases that just sound wrong and make me cringe a little, but I found reading this utterly smooth and joyful. The message was also really important: it was all about a little girl learning how hard it was to grow up in a world so utterly biased, and how confusing it can be for a child to begin to learn the implications of race in a world where nothing is fair.

Lily needs to get away from her father T Ray. After the death of her mother (which Lily berates herself for causing), T Ray and one of the coloured fruit pickers from the farm, Rosaleen, who becomes Lily's replacement mother, are the only people Lily's got in the world. Or so she thinks. When Rosaleen goes to put her name down for a vote and is racially abused by some men she reacts aggressively, landing herself a place in the local prison. Due to the racial nature of her attack, she is beaten so badly she is sent to hospital, where Lily breaks her out of.

On the run, they go to the only other place in the world Lily can imagine: the town her mother inscribed on the back of a black Madonna - one of only three of her mother's items that Lily owns. There her and Rosaleen are kindly taken in by three coloured sisters: May, June and August. Although a little skeptical about housing a white girl at first, the sister's start to deal with the racial issues inside and outside of their home all under the guidance of their black Madonna statue. Will this idyll be a haven for Lily and Rosaleen, or will it end in tragedy?

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Review of "A Year in the Life of a Playground Mother"

I like to think that I can pick up any book and immerse myself in it's world, and this is the last one in a while that I've actually felt oddly excluded from. I'm not a mother, and don't understand the politics of the playground, so all of the jokes about the clique of playground mothers, donned the "playground mafia", etc didn't go over my head - believe me, I've met mothers who insist that their little darling is a perfect beam of sunshine - but rather simply weren't funny to me. Plus, I was bothered by the fact that this book's plot was exactly what it said on the tin, as it were: it simply went through a year in the life of a playground mother. Each chapter was a month, and each month described this mother's activities: which mothers she was friends with, who her children were friends with, and who was having an affair in the village. In short, half of the book was occupied with the narrator complaining about selfish mothers who formed cliques and sought gossip about one another, and the other half was occupied with the narrator doing exactly that.

Rachel Young moves away from the suburbs to the country in the hope of being released from the grip of a playground mafia. These are the women who inspect other children's reading levels to ensure that their own child is best of the best. BUT this village turns out to be filled with even more odd characters than her home town. From Camilla, who often forgets she has a daughter as well as a son and a multitude of coats in her wardrobe, roving-eye Rupert, Mr F.P (Frisky Pensioner), and more, Rachel's life is going to be anything but peaceful for the next year.

Have you read it? What did you think? 

Steph x

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Review of "The Lie" by C. L. Taylor

2015 has been a year of thrillers for me. Not typically a genre I go for, my eyes have been opened to the intensity and mystery they ensconce. This book seemed to have been on a couple of book bloggers' creepy Halloween books to read lists, so I thought it was worth a go. However, i have to say I was largely disappointed. Have you ever read a book where it's felt like the author almost made an amazing book and it's super frustrating because they hadn't quite achieved it?! This was one of those for me: I think it needed about another 100 pages or so to explain some backstory. There were half-explanations of all of the main characters' back stories, but not enough to make them interesting or explain their actions. This is not to say that the book was without merit however, it was dark and downright scary at points. So, if you want something that will make you question every bump in the night or weird coincidence, give this a shot!

Jane, or Emma as she used to be known, just wants a normal life, and to leave her past behind her. Settled down in a new relationship (which bears its own challenges) and working in her dream job at an animal rescue centre, she thinks she's finally nailed it. That is until someone sends something to her addressed to her old name, and a mysterious message stating "Daisy is not dead" appears on the website of the animal rehabilitation centre she works at. 

Five years before, Emma and her three best friends Leanne, Al and Daisy take the trip of a lifetime to Nepal to escape the woes of their mundane post-university lives. However, once they enter a retreat up in the Nepalese mountains things go a bit haywire. Things start getting weird up there: the girls are forced to turn against one another, encouraged to have sex with the men at the retreat no strings attached, and people start to go missing ... What will Emma do when the girl she thought would have her back forever, Daisy starts to change, and leave Emma behind? Is Emma imagining the subtle threat at Ekantra Yata, or is there something a lot more sinister going on than the brochure suggested?

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Review of "Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda" by Becky Albertalli

Recently I've been getting more and more interested in YA fiction, especially as it's been so long since I've read any and have done a degree in English Lit during that period! Simon vs the Homosapiens agenda really opened my eyes to ways in which the genre has transformed. Although it's only been three or four years since I've read any, Albertalli's novel opened my eyes to ways in which difficult issues are now being tackled. I don't remember ever having read a YA novel in which the protagonist, whose point of view the novel is written from was openly gay (at least to the reader!). I was incredibly pleased to see the uncomfortable issue of how and when to come out dealt with head on, without the importance of this to a young person being overlooked. All in all I think it was an incredibly interesting text, especially with the parallel plot lines between the "real" world, and Simon's online relationship with Blue. 

Simon's your typical teenager: desperate to get away from his parents' smothering questions, keen to make new friends, and more importantly, ready to start a relationship. However, Simon's recently realised that it is boys he likes, which in his mind causes a whole host of problems. Especially when you bring Blue into the equation. Blue is Simon's (or Jacques, his online alias') emailing penpal, who goes to the same school, but is keen to keep his identity a secret. The pair fall for each other over email, but like most teenagers are far too shy to bring this relationship to light. Simon begins to see potential Blues everywhere he looks, but soon other aspects of his life catch up to him. The drama play, his friends' arguments and his sister's mysterious disappearances all have him on edge and distracted. In the end, will everything turn out right?

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Review of "The Rosie Project" by Graeme Simsion

Ever wondered what makes a slightly more than obsessive scientist tick? Don Tillman, Simsion's protagonist is a leading scientist in the field of genetics, but finds that there's one thing missing from his life: a wife. In a slightly hilarious manner, Professor Don creates a questionnaire for his potential candidates, attempting to devise a manner in which dates are not social disasters, as well as hopefully finding a woman he could hope to spend his life with. I found Don's character incredibly intriguing, as you do meet people just like him (especially in the Maths department at uni!), who are just so organised and structured in a way in which I could never hope to be. My one main problem with this novel was the title. I spent the early parts of the novel waiting for someone called Rosie to appear, and the remainder of it fully aware that she was going to be central to Don's life. There was no real intrigue or suspense in terms of Don's attempts at finding love because of this, I felt.

Don Tillman is lonely. His best friend Gene has a wife as well as a whole string of girls beckoning him to their beds, whilst Don has nothing, nor has he ever had anything. He understands the importance of companionship as well as sex and for this reason he wants a wife, not just a couple more friends. The only problem is that Don is utterly incapable of understanding social situations. So, he devises his very own questionnaire, which he intends to hand to women on blind dates in order to find someone who is compatible, and ensure that the entire date is not a bust. However, when Rosie, who defies about 90% of his wifely requirements, steps into the frame, Don begins to question exactly how useful his methods of selection were ....

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Monday, 12 October 2015

Review of "The Letter" by Kathryn Hughes

Domestic abuse is something that we're only just finding the right discourse to talk about. For too often "victim blaming" has been present here, by means of people suggesting that the victim somewhat brings it upon themselves because they stay with the perpetrator. However, in The Letter, Hughes shows the other side of this discussion: what do you do if the person you loved isn't who you thought they were, or want them to be? Tina, the protagonist of the story suffers greatly at the hands of her domineering husband, whose alcoholism sends him into fits of paranoid rage. What the reader begins to realise is that Tina isn't simply foolish for leaving him, but terrified too. When Tina and Rick marry he begins to hit her upon occasion, but convinces her that if she didn't provoke him it wouldn't happen. As well as this, he is so apologetic and seemingly filled with love after he does it that she believes in her hopes: that he's changed, and it won't happen again. I think this is an incredibly important text for anyone to read if they've ever considered why the victim of an abuser would stay in a relationship filled with pain.

Tina just wants Rick to love her like he did before they were married. But since their marriage night he's beaten her so badly that she's ended up in hospital. She wants to escape, but how can she? She needs the man she loves, especially is she's right, and there's a little one along the way. Surely he'll become the loving man he once was now, right?

Desperate to think about something else and needing an escape from everything, Tina is intrigued when she finds a letter in the jacket a man donated to the charity shop she works from. It's from a man named Billy, dedicated to his lover Chrissie, apologising for the mistakes he's made and swearing that he will do right for her. The only problem is it has no postmark: the letter was never sent. Tina feels the need to reunite the letter with its rightful owner. This search takes Tina to places she'd never imagined, and might just have the potential to turn her life upside down ....

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Review of "A Man Called Ove"

When I think about bildunsgromans as a genre, I imagine the likes of Jane Eyre or The Catcher in the Rye, a story progressing from childhood to adulthood. But here I think we have something a bit different and yet all too similar. Ove is a man who has lost everything with the loss of his wife, and now his worldview doesn't quite fit the world he lives in. He needs to grow up, but doesn't know how. All he knows is that the choices he wants to keep making aren't the ones Sonja would necessarily be proud of, so he reminds himself of what she would have encouraged him to do. In this way, Sandra's spirit allows Ove to adjust to the world he lives in. Finally, what would a person be without the people around them? Utterly isolated since Sonja's death, Ove has people seemingly thrust upon him. At first this seems hateful, but as we witness them putting off his suicide attempts in heartbreaking fashion, we begin to realise that perhaps they are exactly what he needs.

All Ove wants is to die in peace. He's reached a time in his life where he's alone, and no longer happy. Plus, he'll either be reunited with his late wife Sonja, or be spared from the pain of living every day without her. Very set in his ways is an under-exaggeration of Ove's character, and when his neighbours begin to break the strict rules he's set up in their estate. When they realise that he's a lot more than an angry old man, they begin to call on him more and more frequently for advice and help regarding practical issues. 

With the current day interspersed with memories of his and Sonja's past, we begin to learn why this man is the grumpy old bastard that he appears, and fall in love with him just as Parvaneh and the rest of his community do. The real question is: can they save Ove from himself, just as he saves them from making mistakes?

Have you read it?

Steph x

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Review of "Am I Normal Yet?" by Holly Bourne

All Evie wants is a normal life. But how can she hope to have one when she's trying to adapt to life with a serious mental illness? In this paradigm-changing novel, Bourne imagines what it's like to be a teenage girl who genuinely suffers from OCD to a potentially life-threatening extent. We follow Evie in her journey to college and what she sees as normality: friend , boys and parties. Evie cannot even fathom life in which this is a normality for her, but what if it is possible?! Through this harrowing tale of relapse and recovery, Bourne makes no attempts to glamourise mental illness, instead exposing it in all of its life-ruining glory. 

A fresh start. That's what Evie wants from college: a place where no one knows her as "that girl who went mental and ended up in hospital". Plus, she's still got her best friend Jane who stuck with her through everything to keep her on the straight and narrow. But when Jane gets a new boyfriend and is suddenly inseparable from him (even their personalities are now joined at the hip, eurgh!), Evie feels more isolated than ever. That is until Lottie and Amber come along, making a trio called The Spinster Club with Evie, changing the definition of the word for good. Gone are the days when the girls depend on boys for happiness; now, they celebrate their singledom. However, Evie starts to fall for a boy, and what happens when she feels like she can't stay true to her feminist roots? Finally, when old habits start creeping back in, will she be consumed by her mental illness or triumph?

Have you read it?
Steph x

Friday, 25 September 2015

Review of "How I Lost You"

If you were going to pick up just one thriller in 2015, this is definitely the one I would recommend. I absolutely whizzed through it, and ended up puzzling through my opinions on Susan's guilt whilst I was in the shower, at work, basically any time that I couldn't be scouring the book for new information. I'm not going to lie, I love a good ol' bit of conspiracy theorising. So, when this book combined that with some mystery, speculation and a whole tonne of grief, I was enthralled. Imagine being told that you murdered your 12 week old baby, but not being able to remember anything about that day; never knowing whether you did this or not, never knowing whether you are indeed insane, or not. 

Susan Webster, now Emma Clarke, has been released back into the "normal" world after four years in a mental institution after she killed her only child. Having moving to a new town, and set herself up with a new identity, Emma is horrified to receive post at her new home addressed to her old name. Who knows she's moved here? Is she in danger? Things take a turn for the worse when she opens it up, revealing a photograph of a four year old boy, and on the back is written the name she can't bear to see: Dylan. Is her son alive, or is this all some kind of cruel prank?

Desperate to get to the bottom of things, Emma calls on the aid of her best friend Cassie and journalist Nick Whiteley. But as they search deeper into the past, someone gets more and more determined to terrify them away. Multiple break ins, and evidence of stalking puts Emma entirely on edge, especially when it appears that Dylan wasn't the only person murdered, and her (ex)husband may have the answers ...

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Review of "The Dead Wife's Handbook"

I'm pretty sure we've always indulged ourselves a little, imagining how people would react to our deaths, but what if that fantasy became your reality? Rachel had everything she ever wanted, until it was all stripped away from her in an instant when she suffers a sudden death from an undiagnosed heart condition. What she suffers next however, is worse than a death she had ever imagined. The book is split up into the seven stages of grief, and as such you follow Rachel through her journey into the afterlife. Everybody questions death at some point, considers whether there is a life after death at all, right? I found this to *excuse my French*, be a little bit of a mindfuck: just imagine if those that you loved could watch you grieve for them, suffering just as you do for the lost relationship. Would you do things differently?

Rachel and Max have the kind of marriage everybody dreams about, and it's only strengthened by the birth of their daughter Ellie. However, when Rach suffers a premature death, Max and seven year old Ellie are left to pick up the pieces, and re-organise the chaos that their life and feelings have descended into. 

However, they aren't quite as alone as they think. Rachel is granted visionary access to some elements of their lives, but has no control over when or how often this will be. From seeing her parents for the first time since she died, to witnessing Max and Ellie's emotional celebration of the first anniversary at the cemetery, this access seems both a blessing and a curse. But what if Max and Ellie's wounds start to heal and they commence rebuilding their lives?

Have you read it? What did you think?
Steph x

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Review of "The Moon and More"

Sarah Dessen was pretty much my heroine in the chic lit world during my teenage years, and definitely introduced me to the idea that romance and chic lit for teens isn't all trash. So, when I was looking for a new read last week I figured: why don't I go back and see if her writing's as fab as I remember? And it definitely was. Say goodbye to simple plot lines, and the belief that teen fiction about relationships should either be all or nothing on the physical front, here we have a book that effortlessly blends complex characters with beautiful settings and rigorous plot twists. 

It's Emaline's last summer in her tiny town on the coast before she heads out to college. She imagines everything will change when she leaves, but what if it all comes before she expects? Her and Luke have been dating for what feels like forever, but as things get rocky and NY city boy Theo turns up, a break up may be on the cards far sooner than she ever thought. Plus, living and working with her two step-sisters and mother seems a bit unbearable at times, but when Emaline's invisible father turns up in town with her ten year old half-brother in tow, the notion of 'family' gets complicated too. Will this summer of change make her long to escape the tiny town she lives in? Or cling to it more than ever?

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Monday, 7 September 2015

Review of "The Goldfinch"

I've finished the summer (weep) off with another thriller in this season of reading thrillers that I advanced upon, This was probably, unfortunately, my least favourite of the ones I've read, perhaps because the others were so much of exactly what I was looking for. However, that isn't to say that it wasn't worth reading at all! The Goldfinch was definitely one of those books that made you think: both about your own character and the state of our capitalist world.

What would keeping a life-ruining secret for decades do to you? In an interesting take on the psychological impact of deception, Theodore Decker's life is turned upside down the day his mother dies. Thirteen-year-old Theo and his mother take a trip to the Met but at the wrong time: a bomb goes off, rupturing both the gallery and the young boy's life. Handed a priceless painting by a dying man, Theo escapes the building in the confusion of the explosion only to live in fear of what keeping this painting may do to him. Suddenly left alone, the remainder of Theo's adolescence is spent moving from place to place, ending up in a whirlwind of addiction, crime and deceit. 

But, what happens if everything isn't as Theo thought it was? Who really has the painting and what will the ultimate consequences of taking it be?

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Review of I Am Pilgrim

I'm not going to lie, I'm a bit of a massive fan of cop dramas, and the odd conspiracy theory or two. So, I ended up loving every second of I Am Pilgrim. Set in the world of super spy-dom, and linked to 9/11, this book had masses of action and mind numbing plot twists to hand out. Have you ever wondered what the survivors of the horrific terror attack on the World Trade Centre saw in that day: was it a tragedy? Or an opportunity?

Whatever you wish to call pilgrim, he's one of America's finest intelligence agents. Despite retiring, when the White House realises that country may be under threat, he's the third person in the entire world to be informed of a potential attack which could destroy the planet as we know it. As you travel through the world of an intelligence agent with Pilgrim you come to realise that nothing is a coincidence, and everything you've been told about international security is probably a lie. 

When Pilgrim gets called in to examine a murder in New York which follows an example in his own book (written under an alias of course), he ends up on a whirlwind of a case which sees him travel all over Europe. 

Is keeping on top of this and trying to uncover who exactly is behind the potential outbreak of industrial grade smallpox (and find the perp!) too much for the world's best intelligence agent to handle?

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Monday, 13 July 2015

Review of "The Bitch Goddess Notebook"

It's taken me a long time to decide exactly what to say about this book due to the deep connection I felt to it that almost made me feel utterly reviled (note: I included the above quotation to show you guys how disturbing and saddening the text could be at times, rather than feeling any specific connection to that). If there's anything I'm going to say that is definite about it, it's that it should come with a big fat trigger warning regarding it's content surrounding self-harm. As someone who's seriously suffered with this in the past, I can understand how influential any type of media can be regarding the subject, and the intense description of cutting oneself which the book narrates, as well as praises from the perspectives of the characters narrating the text is a little, well, disturbing. So, although I loved the writing and the plot was very eye-opening, I feel like that needed to be said, as a reader in a more fragile state of recovery may have suffered as a result of this writing.

Meet Rennie, Amy and Cherry: an unlikely trio of best friends at high school. Despite their differences, they couldn't image not being in each others' lives - after all, they have no secrets, right? Girls who stick together, stay together, but words aren't enough to prove a bond, and one night, high on a concoction of goodies, the three form a blood bond, leading to rumours about satanic worship. 

But how long to high-scool friendships last anyway? Interspersed with a narrative from all three girls about their time at school are sections from later on in life, where actions have consequences, and you don't always have your bitch posse to back you up.

Track the tales of troubled teens into their adult lives, and discover what it feels like to be an addict - to drugs, to self-harm, to sex, to drink: how do you recover when it's all you've ever known?

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x