Sunday, 10 November 2013

Showcase Sunday #34

A few books to share this week, starting with some library finds that were a reward for working all day in the library on Friday - nothing better than being surrounded by books you know you can take home!

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea.

Spoiled college students and Ellis' trademark darkness.

Currently reading this - the atmosphere is fantastic, and reminiscent of Donna Tartt's The Little Friend in some ways.

An Argentinian novel that will be a late contender for my 2013 Translation Challenge.

I also picked up a few things for my Kindle:

A Finnish novel that looks at the period during which Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, focusing on the stories of two women.

A very short read - I am a big fan of Krakauer's writing, so I was left wanting more, but a nice slice of investigative journalism.

My third King novel - after a so-so reaction to Duma Key, and a DNF for Black House, I decided to give this a go in the Hallowe'en sale.

Recent reviews

Review: Miss Pym Disposes, Josephine Tey

Miss Pym Disposes

Josephine Tey

Arrow, 2011 (1946)

This will be quite a short review, partly because it's a few weeks since I finished this book, and partly because it just didn't really do much for me one way or the other. I have been recommended Tey's books on the basis of my enjoyment of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers and the like, but this just didn't blow me away.

In superficial ways, it reminded me a little of Gaudy Night by Sayers, mostly because of the setting in a competitive all-girls' school in which students and staff live in close proximity. (My review of Gaudy Night is here.) The end of the year is upon the students, who have final exams and gymnastic demonstrations to work their way through. The murder comes very late in the book, and the majority of the novel is given over to Miss Pym, visitor and outsider, who has some background in psychology and is able to muse on the various dynamics unfolding around her.

Miss Pym's observations are interesting, and Tey is good at deft characterisation, which occupies much of the book as the characters are scrutinised and picked apart by the unexpected visitor. Unravelling the mystery wasn't too difficult, although there are a few slight twists and turns to keep you guessing. I didn't mind the slow build-up, probably because boarding school stories were always a favourite of mine, and this was like a slightly sinister Malory Towers in places, but if you're looking for a crime novel, I would look elsewhere (and if you're looking for boarding school intrigue with some psychology and crime thrown in, I'd go back to Gaudy Night).

Overall rating: 5.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Review: One Step Too Far, Tina Seskis

One Step Too Far

Tina Seskis

Kirk Parolles; Kindle edition, 2013

An apparently happy marriage. A beautiful son. A lovely home. So what makes Emily Coleman get up one morning and walk right out of her life – changing her name, holing up in a grotty house in North London, taking a dead-end job where she won’t be found. Has she had a breakdown? Was it to escape her dysfunctional family, especially her malevolent twin Caroline who always seemed to hate her? And what is the anniversary that looms, threatening to force her to confront her past? No-one has ever guessed her secret. Will you?

The cover of One Step Too Far is a row of familiar orange-striped train tickets, and the opening chapter reveals why: Emily Coleman, on the surface a happy, successful, enviable woman, has left her old life behind in pursuit of self-inflicted disappearance in London. Why Emily has left is the central mystery of the book: all the reader knows is that something has happened that has caused Emily to turn her back on her marriage, her family, and her job, desperate to forget or erase the traumatic events that have led her here.

The book switches between Emily's current life as she attempts to reinvent herself in London, finding a home and a friend and a job, all under her new identity, and events from the past, that focus heavily on Emily's relationship with her troubled twin sister Caroline. If Emily had it all, then Caroline was always second fiddle, a source of tension, aggravation, and anger for her twin.

Seskis doesn't give much away, and that's the key hook of One Step Too Far - it promises a twist in the leagues of Gone Girl, and it delivers a decent blow when the twist finally comes. The writing was taut and fast-paced, and I spent a fair amount of time wondering how long Emily could possibly get away with her disappearance and dual life.

It is a strange, less than realistic event that finally provides the catalyst for the events of the novel to fall into place, but this fades into the background when the story begins to unfold and your attention shifts to how Seskis has pulled off the central piece of deceit. When the novel starts to piece together the truth, and the reader is on the other side of the twist, the novel seemed to lose pace a little bit - there were a couple of subsidiary 'twists' that just dragged the story on unnecessarily. Overall, however, One Step Too Far is a gripping novel, and worth the read.

Overall rating: 7.5/10

Book source: Bought from Amazon.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Review: Transparent, Natalie Whipple


Natalie Whipple

HarperTeen; Kindle edition, 2013

Transparent is a fun, cute page-turner that renewed my faith in YA. Fiona is on the run from her mob boss dad, who has been using Fiona's unique powers for his own less-than-savoury power plays. Fiona is invisible, even to herself, and in escaping a life of crime with her mother, she ends up in a non-descript small town in Arizona, experiencing the day-to-day ups and downs of high school life.

The back story was minimal, but enough to establish the crucial points: to combat radiation, pills were given to the population during the Cold War - pills that caused mutations in the DNA of certain members of the population, resulting in special abilities: whether that be strength, the ability to fly, manipulation, voice-throwing, imitation, or, in Fiona's case, the ability to disappear. Transparent is set in the south-west United States, where the territory is ruled by warring mob bosses, Fiona's father among them.

Fiona's invisibility might be useful to her dad, but it's unheard of in any other human, making Fiona both unique and strange to her fellow classmates, most of whom avoid her. Whipple does a great job of revealing Fiona's insecurities, and although Fiona was quite often angry, this seemed more like a reaction to her less-than-stable life and the constant fear she had of being found by the less merciful members of her family. Her developing friendships with Bea, Brady and Seth were well done, and it was nice to see Fiona gradually start to relax into herself.

The romance element was part of the story, and I liked how it wasn't set out in a straight line - there was some confusion and some transferring of affections which made it a little bit less predictable than it could have been. As YA boys go, Seth will go down as one of my favourites, for being both grumpy and lovely all at the same time. (And special mention to Miles, in the hot brother category.)

Though there were some action sequences, and the tension did build as Fiona tried to keep her family safe, for the most part Transparent is about friendship and trust and finding yourself. It's quite a light read, but with a lot of fun moments and enough spark to keep you hooked until the end.

Overall rating: 7.5/10

Book source: Bought from Amazon.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Showcase Sunday #33

So, it's been a while since I posted any updates here, mostly because life has been pretty crazy. I have a new job, as well as my old job, and although I've managed quite a bit of reading the blogging has taken a bit of a slide. I'm hoping to get some reviews up over the next few days and hopefully review some of the (very good) books I've read lately!

This week, I bought one book - Epivision: Volume 1, by Matthew Thompson, the next book in the Domino Galaxy series. (You can read my review of the first book, Twin Spirit, here.)

One really good book I finally got around to reviewing was The Boys From Brazil, by Ira Levin. I have read Levin's four big novels this year and loved them all.

I also read and reviewed Divergent, by Veronica Roth, along with the other ladies in the Catch Up Club - this was our third book choice since we started up, and definitely my favourite of the bunch so far.

Looking forward to catching up with everyone!

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Review: The Boys from Brazil, Ira Levin

The Boys from Brazil

Ira Levin

Kindle edition, first published 1976

Alive & hiding in South America, the fiendish Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele gathers a group of former colleagues for a horrifying project--the creation of the Fourth Reich. Barry Kohler, a young investigative journalist, gets wind of the project & informs famed Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman, but before he can relay the evidence, Kohler is killed.

Thus Ira Levin opens one of the strangest & most masterful novels of his career. Why has Mengele marked a number of harmless aging men for murder? What is the hidden link that binds them? What interest can they possibly hold for their killers: six former SS men dispatched from South America by the most wanted Nazi still alive, the notorious Angel of Death? One man alone must answer these questions & stop the killings--Lieberman, himself aging & thought by some to be losing his grip on reality.

Ira Levin has a knack for making the implausible seem plausible. More than that, he has a knack for horror. The same creeping horror - insidious rather than jumpy, but no less monstrous and twice as unsettling - that permeates his two most famous novels, Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, is put to good use here, this time with old Nazis as the target.

Ensconced in South America, the ruthless doctor of the Nazi regime, Josef Mengele, has hatched an intricate, elaborate plot. He sends out his best former SS men - his best assassins - to kill a list of men across Europe and America, all men of the same age, all civil servants. The man that stands between Mengele and his audacious plan is Yakov Lieberman, an aging Jewish man with a reputation for hunting down old Nazis and bringing them to justice. Tipped off by a young American investigative journalist, Yakov is in a race to try and stop the murders - and figure out the bigger plan that lies behind them - before Mengele can proceed too far with his evil intentions.

As ever, Levin's writing is taut, and the plot unfolds carefully, never revealing too much, intriguing and fascinating all at the same time. The big picture comes into view slowly, and then all at once, as Yakov realises the intent behind the seemingly bizarre orders that Mengele has sent his men out with. From the opening scene, when Mengele gathers his SS men in a Japanese restaurant to impart his instructions, you can't help but be hooked into the story. The ending is no less gripping - once again, Levin manages to raises more questions than he answers, with Yakov left to make a decision between morality and the prevention of future evil. The tense showdown close to the end of the book is so brilliantly done, so finely executed, that there was no putting the book down until the end.

Overall rating: 8/10

Book source: Bought from Amazon.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Review: Divergent, Veronica Roth (CatchUpClub #3)

Divergent (Divergent #1)

Veronica Roth

Harper Collins Children's, 2012 (2011)

In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue--Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is--she can't have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are--and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves . . . or it might destroy her.

Before picking up Divergent, I didn't know much about it, apart from the fact that I might be one of the only people left around here who hasn't read it yet. Luckily for me, the other members of the CatchUpClub were in the same boat, and for October we chose Divergent as our next book.


I haven't read much great dystopian fiction in a while. (I have, sadly, read some less-great dystopian fiction lately.) So I was a little bit apprehensive about picking up Divergent. I started reading on my commute to work, at which point I realised that I was going to miss my stop if I didn't put it down. Roth has created a pretty bleak world, where humans live in one of five factions (Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless or Erudite) according to their dominant traits and the choice they make when they are 16. In a world that is factioned up to the hilt, if you don't survive initiation, you become factionless, which in layman's terms pretty much sucks balls.

Tris (formerly Beatrice) has always felt a little bit out of place in selfless Abnegation, so when her chance comes she ends up picking Dauntless, where bravery and courage are the name of the game. (The moment when her brother makes his choice was unexpected and a little bit wrenching, I have to say.) The rest of the book focuses on Tris' attempts to survive initiation (which is pretty brutal, by all accounts, and what happened to Edward stood out as particularly gruesome), make friends with her fellow initiates, deal with her guilt over her family, and have a minor brainmelt every time Four walks past.

(I don't know if 'brainmelt' is the technical term, but it's a word my friends and I developed when we were at uni, and it's kind of stuck.)

To be fair, Four might be the hottest boy in YA this year (or whatever year I should have been reading Divergent). Part of the 'holy crap' at the beginning of this review was totally for him. He and Tris dance around each other for most of the book, but Roth did a great job of developing their relationship and, particularly, Tris' confused, brainmelty feelings.

The building action at the end (and Roth is apparently not afraid of killing of characters at the drop of a hat) hints at what is to come in the rest of the series, and Insurgent is definitely on my reading list for the not-too-distant future...

Overall rating: 8/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Review: Diary of a Nobody, George & Weedon Grossmith

Diary of a Nobody

George Grossmith and Weedon Grossmith

Kindle edition; first published 1892

'Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see -- because I do not happen to be "Somebody" -- why my diary should not be interesting.' 

Diary of a Nobody is exactly that - the private musings of Charles Pooter, an ordinary man recording the minutiae of his daily life. Luckily for the reader, Pooter is often unintentionally funny - his self-importance, constant anxiety, and frustration at everyone around him makes this a very funny book. If only I had been more aware of that fact before reading it on the train to work... As it stands, I was the one trying to suppress a laugh every time one of Pooter's visitors tripped over the door frame. (Must get scraper fixed.)

The events in the diary do not build to a big conclusion - instead, the book is taken up with parties and gatherings, social embarrassments, some disastrous moments with a tin of enamel paint, the return of the Pooters' difficult son Lupin (formerly known as Willie), a less-than-thrilling holiday to Broadstairs, and a round of seances that Pooter first dismisses, then later decides might have some credibility after all. This episode neatly sums up Pooter's contrariness, his desire to fit in that rubs up against his disdain for new-fangled ideas.

Pooter is unintentionally hilarious - the book itself is a comic delight, and destined to make you laugh out loud on crowded public transport.

Overall rating: 8/10

Book source: Free on Kindle.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Review: The Hive, Gill Hornby

The Hive

Gill Hornby

Little, Brown, 2013

Welcome to St Ambrose Primary School. A world of friendships, fights and feuding. And that's just the mothers.

It's the start of another school year at St Ambrose. But while the children are in the classroom colouring in, their mothers are learning sharper lessons on the other side of the school gates. Lessons in friendship. Lessons in betrayal. Lessons in the laws of community, the transience of power... and how to get invited to lunch.

The Hive centres on the school gates of a primary school, where a group of women spend a year negotiating old friendships and forging new ones, dealing with domestic grief and domestic bliss, worrying about their children, and fundraising their arses off. Bea, the 'Queen Bee', rules the group, delegating all the work and taking all the credit, and making everyone feel like crap while she's doing it (unless you're one of the chosen ones, of course). Rachel, the main character, exists on the periphery of the group, alongside Heather (desperately eager to please) and Georgie (couldn’t give a shit) and a host of other mums, including posh newbie Bubba and mysterious, unflappable Melissa.

The Hive sounded interesting – the ups and downs of female friendship, and what seemed like great potential for a bit of black humour. There are some sharp, well-observed parts early on that had me hoping for something a bit dark and wicked underneath this middle-class-suburban-yummy-mummies scenario.

Instead, I got an annoying hive metaphor (I GET IT) and a lot of “meh”. The well-observed seemed to descend into stereotype a few too many times for my liking. There were too many instances of women saying “lolz” out loud (and really, one instance would have been too many), and a really weird scene where all the women apparently stood on a table to compare body fat. Er.

The Hive had promise, but for the most part failed to deliver. I felt like I was “about halfway through” for days on end. The book takes the reader through a school year, focusing for the most part on different fundraising occasions, that highlight the in/out cliquey nature of the group and the changing dynamics of the relationships. There were some good bits – Heather’s health scare, and Bea’s engineering of it so it was all about her, stood out and seemed sharp. But somewhere around the midway point, the romance element pops up, and the book started pulling in two different directions. (And the ending was just aggravating – neat and sugary and a little bit deflating.)

The Hive is okay, and not a bad debut – it just lacked the punch that I felt it could have had. An interesting observation of friendship and its complicated dynamics, but in the end it was inconsequential at best.

Overall rating: 5/10

Book source: Received as a gift.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Review: The Stepford Wives, Ira Levin

The Stepford Wives

Ira Levin

Kindle edition; first published 1972

For Joanna, her husband, Walter, and their children, the move to beautiful Stepford seems almost too good to be true. It is. For behind the town's idyllic facade lies a terrible secret--a secret so shattering that no one who encounters it will ever be the same.

At once a masterpiece of psychological suspense and a savage commentary on a media-driven society that values the pursuit of youth and beauty at all costs, 'The Stepford Wives' is a novel so frightening in its final implications that the title itself has earned a place in the American lexicon.

This was a re-read for me, and one that I think was actually better the second time around. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their family have moved to the idyllic town of Stepford, leaving behind a city that Joanna in particular loves: New York. A professional photographer and active member of the women's movement, Joanna is keen to meet like-minded neighbours, only to find that Stepford is not exactly a bastion of progression. While Walter ingratiates himself at the local Men's Association, Joanna is left dealing with women who'd rather buff their floors to within an inch of their lives than venture beyond their own doorsteps.

The Stepford Wives is fantastic and disturbing and, above all, chilling. Levin doesn't need monsters and things that go bump in the night: he just needs to create a situation that is both ludicrous and not ludicrous enough to dismiss. As Joanna starts to piece things together and gets closer to unravelling the mystery of Stepford, he conclusions seem both ridiculous and... possible. It is that hint of the possible that makes The Stepford Wives work, and makes it so effective in the process.

On a second reading, I was able to spot the seeds that Levin plants from the very beginning, all of which come together later in the plot to great effect. The Stepford Wives deals in the limits of a society's views on women and their 'place', in the value we place on beauty and youth and silence, and (as Chuck Palahniuk points out in the introduction) is still as relevant today as when it was written.

And that final chapter is still like being punched in the stomach.

Overall rating: 9/10

Book source: Purchased from

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Review: The Inspector and Silence, Hakan Nesser

The Inspector and Silence (Inspector Van Veeteren #5)

Håkan Nesser

Pan, 2011 (1997)

In the heart of summer, the country swelters in a fug of heat. In the beautiful forested lake-town of Sorbinowo, Sergeant Merwin Kluuge's tranquil existence is shattered when he receives a phone-call from an anonymous woman. She tells him that a girl has gone missing from the summer camp of the mysterious The Pure Life, a religious sect buried deep in the woods. Chief Inspector Van Veeteren is recruited to help solve the mystery. But Van Veeteren's investigations at The Pure Life go nowhere fast. The strange priest-like figure who leads the sect -Oscar Yellineck- refuses even to admit anyone is missing. 

Things soon take a sinister turn, however, when a young girl's body is discovered in the woods, raped and strangled; and Yellineck himself disappears. Yet even in the face of these new horrors, the remaining members of the sect refuse to co-operate with Van Veeteren, remaining largely silent. As the body count rises, a media frenzy descends upon the town and the pressure to find the monster behind the murders weighs heavily on the investigative team. Finally Van Veeteren realises that to solve this disturbing case, faced with silence and with few clues to follow, he has only his intuition to rely on...

Inspector Van Veeteren is thinking about retirement, but before he can tender his resignation and take up work in an antique bookshop, he has an investigation to head up. Van Veeteren is two weeks from a Greek island holiday, and he's desperately hoping the case will be solved by then. Unfortunately, nothing about this case seems particularly straightforward. A religious sect in the forest, a dead teenage girl, a so-called prophet who seems to have an unhealthy interest in the young girls in his case, and a wall of silence that thwarts the police at every turn.

This was my second Van Veeteren book, and my feelings were similar: pretty good, but nothing astounding. Van Veeteren comments on more than one occasion that it would be great if something exciting happened, or a breakthrough occurred out of nowhere, but that would be too much like the movies. Nesser's point is one of realism: a real police investigation is less than glamorous, often plodding, and in this case rests on the mundane details and careful thinking of VV, who is often torn between trusting his instincts and trying to figure out what his instincts are based on. VV is a good cop character, but the book was a little slow in places and chugged along at quite a sedate pace for most of it. I wanted to know what had happened, but the journey wasn't always that thrilling.

The religious sect aspect was quite interesting, although we only really got to see it through the eyes of VV, who tried to balance rumours with the sparse amounts of information he could get out of its remaining members. There were also a LOT of secondary characters, most of them police officers, and all the names started to merge together - I haven't read the whole series, but it didn't seem like there was enough room for any of them to develop a character.

A reasonable mystery, but after two Nesser books I'm left thinking there are better Scandinavian crime novelists out there - time to go back to Mankell, maybe.

Overall rating: 5.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

This counts towards my 2013 Translation Challenge.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Review: Dark Places, Gillian Flynn

Dark Places

Gillian Flynn

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009

I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” As her family lay dying, little Libby fled their tiny farmhouse into the freezing January snow. She lost some fingers and toes, but she survived—and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, Ben sits in prison, and troubled Libby lives off the dregs of a trust created by well-wishers who’ve long forgotten her.

The Kill Club is a macabre secret society obsessed with notorious crimes. When they locate Libby and pump her for details—proof they hope may free Ben—Libby hatches a plan to profit off her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club...and maybe she’ll admit her testimony wasn’t so solid after all.

As Libby’s search takes her from shabby Missouri strip clubs to abandoned Oklahoma tourist towns, the narrative flashes back to January 2, 1985. The events of that day are relayed through the eyes of Libby’s doomed family members—including Ben, a loner whose rage over his shiftless father and their failing farm have driven him into a disturbing friendship with the new girl in town. Piece by piece, the unimaginable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself right back where she started—on the run from a killer.

I was drawn to Dark Places for two reasons. Firstly, it was the only remaining Flynn book I hadn't read, and after the brilliance of Gone Girl and the solid debut that was Sharp Objects, I felt like I had to give this a try too. Secondly, the main characters are a brother/sister duo, and as I've said before, I like seeing how authors construct that relationship.

I think it sits well between Sharp Objects (good, but not great) and Gone Girl (fantastic) in terms of the plot, the characters, and what it sets out to achieve. Half of the story is told from Libby Day's point of view - an adult woman who, as a child, survived the massacre of her family on their Kansas farm, and subsequently sent her older brother Ben to jail on her testimony. Libby's chapters alternate with flashback chapters told from the perspective of Ben and their mother Patty.

Libby is, understandably, a bit of a pain in the arse and not a particularly pleasant person to be around. She's not the sympathetic, brave victim the newspapers would love; instead, she lives in near-squalor, bitter and reclusive, and is only spurred into action by the realisation that the Libby Day Fund is running out fast. Badgered into re-treading the murders by a group who believe Ben is innocent, Libby starts to attempt to unravel the mystery of her family's death, and what role her brother really played in it.

The flashback chapters really add to the pacing of the novel - while Libby is picking apart clues in the present, the reader is reliving the day of the murders, a day that gradually spirals out of control as the book progresses. The Days are at the mercy of some pretty grim circumstances, and the despair radiates off the page. I kind of wanted them all to run somewhere, but there aren't a lot of places to run.

The ending is satisfying - I'm not sure it's a twist, as such, but it was largely unexpected and I was hooked throughout. Not a cheerful book, by any means - there are plenty of dark places that this book goes - but another solid, gripping thriller from Flynn.

Overall rating: 7.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Review: Girl Reading, Katie Ward

Girl Reading

Katie Ward

Virago, 2011

Seven portraits. Seven artists. Seven girls and women reading. A young orphan poses nervously for a Renaissance maestro in medieval Siena, and an artist's servant girl in 17th-century Amsterdam snatches a moment away from her work to lose herself in tales of knights and battles. A young woman reading in a Shoreditch bar catches the eye of a young man who takes her picture, and a Victorian medium holds a book that she barely acknowledges while she waits for the exposure. Each chapter of this richly textured debut takes us into a perfectly imagined tale of how each portrait came to be, and as the connections accumulate, the narrative leads us into the present and beyond - an inspired celebration of women reading and the artists who have caught them in the act.

Rating this book made me conscious of how I'm not entirely sure rating books is always useful. At times, when I was reading it, this book felt like a 5 star read. Other times, I wanted to throw it out the window and move onto one of numerous other books sitting there, imploring me, "Cut your losses. Come join us."

The blurb sums the book up neatly - seven stories, all focusing on a girl (or woman) reading. These stories are interspersed throughout history, crossing time and place to bring different - unlinked - characters into focus. The final story is the connecting point, but for me that didn't really alter my view of the book. It's an interesting way of drawing things together, and it made me conscious of myself as the reader of these stories (and essentially, I suppose, as another 'girl reading'), but it's not a twist, and it doesn't change what has come before. The final story was actually my least favourite - I didn't feel like I needed things to be drawn together, and it was the least compelling part for me.

Most of the stories I really enjoyed. Ward is a great writer - not showy, but evocative and considered, and the stories are well-crafted. My favourite story was Jeannine's (Shoreditch, 2008), perhaps because of it's contemporary setting, and I enjoyed the stories featuring the psychic sisters (Victorian England), and the Dutch servant. The opening story, set in 14th century Siena, didn't grab me so much, so perhaps the book and I didn't get off to the greatest of starts.

The problem was that I felt like I should be enjoying it more than I was. It's worth mentioning that the speech isn't in speechmarks at any point, and although I can see how it might be effective (in an immersive sort of way), it's actually quite irritating, and I kept having to stop to work out who was speaking. It's a very good book, but not one that grabbed me and held on. I felt lukewarm towards it throughout (probably with the exception of Jeannine's story), and knowing that the characters would only be around for a certain amount of pages meant there was never much investment in them. It felt like a book you should be able to immerse yourself in, and yet there wasn't enough appeal for me to give myself up to it - instead, I found myself willing the end to come so I could read something else.

I don't want to end on a totally negative note, because this is a well-written collection of stories, capturing various points in time and exploring the emotion and actions that lie beneath. As a woman who reads (and reads and reads), it was nice to see a kaleidoscope of other women doing exactly the same thing, and what might be going on behind the scenes.

Overall rating: 6.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library (on my mum's recommendation).

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Showcase Sunday #32

Last week, I found out I won a book - Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham - via a competition on Vicky's blog, and it arrived from the publishers at Orion this week!

It has a cool double cover going on...
Looking forward to reading this one, it's been a while since I've read a crime novel that really grabbed me and I'm hoping this one will be good.

I also bought Mendelssohn is on the Roof by the Czech author Jiří Weil - this caught my eye a while ago in the Kindle sale but I resisted at the time. When I looked again, I noticed it has a foreword by my favourite author, Philip Roth, so I decided to treat myself. :)

It's also been a week of adventures - term starts soon and I'll be teaching 3 days a week, and researching the other two days, so I've been trying to cram in as much as possible before then. I spent the week in Brighton with the boy, and we biked to Peacehaven and back (about 12 miles round trip), along the coast path.

This weekend one of my best friends came to stay and we drove to Wales - the border isn't too far from Birmingham, and despite having lived halfway around the world I've never actually set foot in Wales before! The scenery was pretty amazing, and we got to see the Knighton Carnival in action...

Recent reviews:
All The Summer Girls by Meg Donohue (7/10)
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld (9.5/10)

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Review: All The Summer Girls, Meg Donohue

All The Summer Girls

Meg Donohue

William Morrow, 2013

In Philadelphia, good girl Kate is dumped by her fiance the day she learns she is pregnant with his child. In New York City, beautiful stay-at-home mom Vanessa is obsessively searching the Internet for news of an old flame. And in San Francisco, Dani, the aspiring writer who can't seem to put down a book--or a cocktail--long enough to open her laptop, has just been fired... again.

In an effort to regroup, Kate, Vanessa, and Dani retreat to the New Jersey beach town where they once spent their summers. Emboldened by the seductive cadences of the shore, the women being to realize how much their lives, and friendships, have been shaped by the choices they made one fateful night on the beach eight years earlier--and the secrets that only now threaten to surface.

All The Summer Girls reunites three female friends, now in their late-20s, for a summer weekend in Avalon, New Jersey, the site of numerous summers from their teenage and college days. All three women are at a point of near-crisis: Kate is pregnant and has just broken up with her fiance; Vanessa is a stay-at-home mum with a rich husband who has just admitted an infidelity; and Dani is living in San Francisco, broke and failing to finish her first novel.

What I enjoyed most about All The Summer Girls was the focus on the friendships between the three women, particularly the nuances of a three-way friendship and the ways in which certain situations cause different 2/1 'splits'. More generally, Donohue writes well on women-as-friends, balancing the minor, petty squabbles with bigger injustices, while recognising the bond that continues to exist between Kate, Vanessa and Dani. Although each conforms to a certain 'type', they didn't feel like caricatures on the page, and each character got their own perspective, which probably helped.

Underlying their trip to Avalon is a classic submerged tragedy, something that happened a few summers before, the last time they were all on the island together. Each of the women thinks they are responsible; each has let it eat away at her in the intervening years. This part of the plot didn't actually interest me as much as the contemporary problems they were facing, and I felt like the book was stronger when dealing with the individual dilemmas and problems of the three main characters, rather than harking back to this particular event in the past. It became clear quite early on that all of them (and, in a way, none of them) could take the blame for what happened, and the flashbacks, which revealed the truth gradually, were less interesting to me.

All The Summer Girls meanders to a conclusion before I realised I was so far through - the pace is gentle, and I feel like it could have been meatier - again, probably by focusing more on the current issues facing each of the women. Dani is adrift and wondering what to do with her life, Kate is facing single motherhood, and Vanessa is wondering whether she can ever trust her husband again (and whether she wants to). All the solutions to these problems seemed quite benign in the end - I was waiting for Dani to make some kind of radical plan, or for Vanessa to take charge of her own life, or even for Kate to agonise over whether she wanted to keep the baby or not, but none of these things really transpired. There seemed to be a lot of reaction to things, rather than action, which was disappointing when faced with three smart, capable women on the page.

Although there was a little something lacking for me, All The Summer Girls is a good summer read, and an enjoyable look at how friendships change and endure over time. Just don't expect any surprises.

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Received as a gift from my brother.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Review: Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld


Curtis Sittenfeld 

Doubleday, 2013

For identical twins, Kate and Violet are about as unlike as two peas from the same pod can be. Except in one respect - they share a hidden gift they call 'the Senses', a special kind of intuition that can allow them to see things that are yet to come. After Kate inadvertently reveals their secret when they are thirteen years old, they are set on diverging paths into their adult lives.

Twenty years later Kate is a suburban housewife who suppresses her premonitions in the hope of leading a normal family life, while Violet lives alone and works as a psychic medium. Then one day Violet ignites a media storm by predicting a major earthquake in the St Louis area where they live.

As the day Violet has announced for the earthquake draws nearer, the sisters must grapple with the legacy of the past, the confusion of the present, and the unsettling glimpses they both have of the future.

Sittenfeld is one of my favourite authors; an author whose books are immediately placed on my TBR list, whatever the subject, whose books I am constantly recommending to other people, who is guaranteed to restore my faith in reading within an opening page. Sisterland focuses on a pair of twins, Violet and Kate (formerly Daisy), who as children had some sort of psychic awareness - what they refer to as 'senses'.

As adults, Violet has embraced her psychic abilities, and lives a somewhat unconventional life, particularly next to Kate. Kate is married with two young children, a stay at home mother living an ordinary existence in a nice St. Louis suburb. At the same time that Violet is predicting a natural disaster in the city, garnering nationwide attention, Kate is concerned with the more mundane aspects of her everyday life: cooking dinner, getting the kids to bed, organising play dates at the park. While Violet works with her 'senses', Kate has suppressed hers to the point that they are almost completely dormant.

Violet's prediction causes derision and panic, depending on who you ask, and it doesn't help that Kate's husband is a scientist, and therefore privately and publicly sceptical of Violet's suggestions of an impending earthquake. Kate is embarrassed by her sister, and yet can't bring herself to dimiss Violet or her claims. The tension that builds as the prediction date comes nearer envelopes Kate's relationship with Violet, her relationship with her husband and children, and her memories of her own childhood and adolescence, memories that are interspersed throughout the narrative.

Sittenfeld's writing is first class - from the first page I was happy to be swept up in the story and see where it took me. The characters are always nuanced and believable: I was struck by how, even when people did strange things, they weren't unexpected things as far as the character went. Sittenfeld also avoids a good twin / bad twin binary, even though Kate herself seems to believe in this distinction. As the conventional twin, the presumed 'good' twin and the book's protagonist (everything is filtered through Kate), she is not always entirely likable. Her judgmental behaviour towards her sister, regarding her profession, her relationships, her sexuality, and her whole way of living, was never far from the surface, yet this was balanced by her desire for normality and her insecurity in the face of her husband's successful female colleagues - it was easy to be annoyed at Kate in one moment, and then sympathetic in another (and later, frustrated by some of her actions!). An excellent novel, and further proof of Sittenfeld's immense talent as a writer and storyteller.

Overall rating: 9.5/10 

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Showcase Sunday #31

Just a quick round-up this week, as I didn't make it to the library, and I have been good (better!) at resisting those pesky little Kindle deals...

I did pick up One Step Too Far, by Tina Seskis (which is still 99p on Kindle), which I am almost halfway through and enjoying a lot.

An apparently happy marriage. A beautiful son. A lovely home. So what makes identical twin Emily Coleman get up one morning and walk right out of her life? How will she survive? And what is the date that looms, threatening to force her to confront her past? No-one has ever guessed her secret. Will you? (from the blurb)

I'm not sure where it's all going yet, which I am glad about, but I'm trying not to expect too much from the twist ending and just go along for the ride.

Recent reviews
I Feel Bad About My Neck, and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman - Nora Ephron (10/10)
Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn (6.5/10)
The Body in the Library - Agatha Christie (7/10)

Happy reading!

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Review: I Feel Bad About My Neck, Nora Ephron

I Feel Bad About My Neck, and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman 

Nora Ephron

Black Swan, 2008 (2006)


*Never marry a man you wouldn't want to be divorced from

*If the shoe doesn't fit in the shoe store, it's never going to fit

*When your children are teenagers, it's important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you

*Anything you think is wrong with your body at the age of thirty-five you will be nostalgic for by the age of forty-five

*The empty nest is underrated
*If only one third of your clothes are mistakes, you're ahead of the game. 

About a quarter of the way into this, I commented on Goodreads that it made me want to read everything Ephron had ever written, and I stand by that assessment. This book is a collection of essays on a range of topics, from the title essay (musing on women's appearance as they get older) to other essays covering having children, finding the right handbag, being faithful to a cookery book and falling irrationally in love with the place you live.

All of these essays are wry, funny and wonderfully honest. There is also a wonderful short essay on the joys of reading, and the excitement of finding that elusive book that is not only good, or great, but the kind of book you don't want to let go. For me, this was one of those books - the kind of book you want to devour and savour all at the same time.

“Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I've accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it's a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it's a way of making contact with someone else's imagination after a day that's all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.”

It's a short book, and it became my 'commute book' for the week I was reading it. Opening it up on the train to work each morning was like spending fifteen minutes with your smartest, funniest, most truthful friend, and it will forever be one of those books I now give as a gift to any of my real-life smart, funny friends who didn't already get it for Christmas.

Overall rating: 10/10 

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Review: Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects

Gillian Flynn

Phoenix, 2007 (2006)

Words are like a road map to reporter Camille Preaker’s troubled past. Fresh from a brief stay at a psych hospital, Camille’s first assignment from the second-rate daily paper where she works brings her reluctantly back to her hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls.

Since she left town eight years ago, Camille has hardly spoken to her neurotic, hypochondriac mother or to the half-sister she barely knows: a beautiful thirteen-year-old with an eerie grip on the town. Now, installed again in her family’s Victorian mansion, Camille is haunted by the childhood tragedy she has spent her whole life trying to cut from her memory.

As Camille works to uncover the truth about these violent crimes, she finds herself identifying with the young victims—a bit too strongly. Clues keep leading to dead ends, forcing Camille to unravel the psychological puzzle of her own past to get at the story. Dogged by her own demons, Camille will have to confront what happened to her years before if she wants to survive this homecoming.

Camille works for a minor Chicago newspaper, determined to make it as a reporter. Her editor, sensing a story down in forgotten Wind Gap, Missouri, sends Camille to investigate, plunging Camille back into the oppressive small town world she grew up in. Sent to find out more about the murder of two young girls, Camille must also deal with her beguiling teenage sister, her manipulative mother, and the memory of her dead sister Marian.

Sharp Objects oozes that kind of sticky, hot, dusty air that conjured up a very specific image of Wind Gap for me. Flynn really nails the feeling of a small town mourning the loss of two young children - the tragedy tinged with gossip and suspicion - and it was easy to understand how Camille slowly unravelled in the middle of it all.

At the same time as trying to drag a story out of the citizens of her former home and stay on the good side of the local police, Camille must deal with her family, who are (for want of a more eloquent term) slightly mad and definitely unsettling. Camille's mother Adora is a cloying, wheedling woman, powerful and needy all at the same time. Amma, Camille's half sister, seems to be playing all sorts of roles, and Camille (like the reader) is never entirely sure whether she's on Amma's good side, or bad side, or neither. Mix in a selection of Camille's old high school friends, grieving parents, and a perpetually ineffectual stepfather, and Camille is on particularly shaky ground.

Sharp Objects balances 'normal' and 'creepy' well, and Flynn builds the tension gradually, until turning the page was a little bit like peering round the corner in a horror film. This is primarily an exploration of psychological states, rather than a straight crime thriller, and though it wasn't immaculate, it was still very well done.

Overall rating: 6.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Review: The Body in the Library, Agatha Christie

The Body in the Library

Agatha Christie

Harper Collins, 2002 (1942)

When the Bantrys wake to find the body of a beautiful, young stranger in their library, Dolly Bantry knows there's only one person to call: her old friend Miss Marple.

Who was the young girl? What was she doing in the library? And is there a connection with another dead girl, whose charred remains are discovered in an abandoned quarry?

Miss Marple must solve the mystery, before tongues start to wag, and the murderer strikes again.

I think I may have finally jumped on the Miss Marple bandwagon. It's taken a couple of books, but I am starting to appreciate her way of unravelling mysteries based purely on her observations of human nature. For a rather prim elderly lady (or, given the parlance of these books, spinster alert), Miss Marple has no illusions about the depths people will sink to out of desperation, greed, lust, or jealousy. Equally, her more kind-hearted way of pinpointing the personalities of her closest friends is always amusing, much more so for the traits she identifies with a sly twinkle of the eye are so often recognisable now.

The Body in the Library has plenty of twists and a fair few suspects, although not as many red herrings as some of Christie's books. Again, I figured out one element of the crime quite early on, only to find that even with that suspicion floating around my mind, I still didn't put the pieces together. (See every other review I've ever done of a Christie book, ever. I figured out X! But that's okay, says Christie, because you'll never guess Y. Or Z, which is where the real clue to the mystery lies...)

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Showcase Sunday #30

I finally cracked. After eight months of using my Kindle to read free classics and eARCs and articles and a fair amount of (free, again) Sherlock Holmes tales, I ventured into the Kindle sale and came out doing a happy little dance at the surprise bargains I'd managed to track down.

The Stepford Wives - Ira Levin
The Boys From Brazil - Ira Levin
A Kiss Before Dying - Ira Levin
Rosemary's Baby - Ira Levin

I've read The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby before, a few years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed both (particularly The Stepford Wives). Levin writes chilling, unsettling stuff, and these are all 99p at the moment - too good to pass up!

Big Brother - Lionel Shriver

I've read a few of Shriver's books now - starting with We Need To Talk About Kevin, but I haven't picked up the last two or three that she's written. This one is about a woman whose older brother comes to live with her and her husband, and how she's forced to choose between the two of them.

Diary of a Nobody - George Grossmith

This is my mum's favourite book. I've never read it, but it's free to download at the moment - about a man who, despite not being notable, decides to publish his diary.

I also picked up three books from the library:
The Inspector and Silence - Håkan Nesser
Another Inspector Van Veeteren mystery, this time focusing on a religious sect and the murder of a young girl.

Midwinter Sacrifice - Mons Kallentoft
The first book featuring detective Malin Fors - ambitious, unpredictable, and chasing a small town killer.

Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death - Gyles Brandreth
I've been intrigued by these books for a while - a mystery series featuring Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle as the investigators - so thought I'd give this a go.

Recent posts:

Don't forget to check out Jamie's A-Z Book Survey over at The Perpetual Page Turner - I posted my answers on Friday, and it was a lot of fun!

Life After Death: Eighteen Years on Death Row by Damien Echols
The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
Potter Redux: The Goblet of Fire

And, if you missed it, the #CatchUpClub completed its first mission - to read Cinder / Scarlet by Marissa Meyer. You can read my review of Scarlet here (and my earlier review of Cinder here), and see a round-up of all our thoughts over here on Emily's blog. Our current book is Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo - come join us!

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea.

Friday, 9 August 2013

A-Z Book Survey

So, Jamie at The Perpetual Page Turner posted the A-Z Book Survey earlier today, and seeing as it's Friday and I got out of work early, I thought I'd spend ten minutes indulging my teenage self (who was always a sucker for a survey).

Author you’ve read the most books from:

According to Goodreads: Philip Roth and Agatha Christie.
I'd add Ann M. Martin to that list, as well Francine Pascal (or rather, her ghostwriters).

Best Sequel Ever:

Anastasia Again! by Lois Lowry.

Currently Reading:

The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women, by Jessica Valenti, and The Inspector and Silence by Håkan Nesser.

Drink of Choice While Reading:


E-reader or Physical Book?

Physical books, although I do have a Kindle and I do love it, particularly on long journeys. I also use my Kindle to read a lot of articles when I'm researching.

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated In High School:

Probably Hutch from the Ruby Oliver books, or Owen from Just Listen by Sarah Dessen. (It's a solid type. I stand by it.)

Glad You Gave This Book A Chance:

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett - my introduction to the Discworld!

Hidden Gem Book:

Life in Outer Space by Melissa Keil.

Important Moment in your Reading Life:

My first library cards. Joining the library is still the first thing I do whenever I move to a new city.

Just Finished:

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn.

Kinds of Books You Won’t Read:

I don't read a lot of science fiction, or romance (although 'won't' is a strong word!)

Longest Book You’ve Read:

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

Major book hangover because of:

Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer and Naive. Super by Erlend Loe spring to mind.

Number of Bookcases You Own:

One. Most of my books are in my mum's attic - I move around too much to keep more than a shelf's worth with me!

One Book You Have Read Multiple Times:

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. The first book of my favourite series.

Preferred Place To Read:

In the bath - but I do a lot of reading on the train, on the sofa, in bed...

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you’ve read:

I don't know about all the feels, but some of the feels: “The only thing I can be sure of at any given time is what I am thinking myself. I have no idea what the others are thinking. Do they think space is big and dangerous? I do. What do they believe in? I think nobody ought to be alone. That one should be with someone. With friends. With the person one loves. I think it is important to love. I think it's the most important thing.” - Erlend Loe, Naive. Super

I reserve all the feels for anything Jim Henson ever said.

Reading Regret:

I'm not sure I have many - but I wish I'd have learned to DNF sooner.

Series You Started And Need To Finish (all books are out in series):

The Ruby Oliver series, by E. Lockhart. I have read (and loved) the first two books (The Boyfriend List and The Boy Book), but there are two more I am dying to read!

Three of your All-Time Favourite Books:

Into The Wild - Jon Krakauer
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
The Plot Against America - Philip Roth

Unapologetic Fangirl For:

Stephanie Perkins.

Very Excited For This Release More Than All The Others:

The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin, and Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins.

Worst Bookish Habit:

I dog-ear pages, much to the horror of my mum (who works in a library).

X Marks The Spot: Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book:

Pearl Jam Twenty.

Your latest book purchase:

I just bought 4 Ira Levin novels in the Kindle sale: Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, A Kiss Before Dying and The Boys From Brazil. I spent a total of £3.96.

ZZZ-snatcher book (last book that kept you up WAY late):

I Feel Bad About My Neck, and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron.