Monday, 30 December 2013

SBR's Top Ten Best Reads of 2013 - Part II

These are not necessarily books published in 2013, rather books that I have read and reviewed on this blog throughout the year.

In 5th place it's the funniest romance novel of the year for me
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

In 4th place it's the brilliant first instalment of the Country Saga
Fire Country by David Estes


In 3rd place it's a clever, funny and perceptive 
portrayal of life in the 21st century

In 2nd place it's the fabulously gripping dystopian sci-fi novel
WOOL by Hugh Howie

***SBR's Best Read for 2013***
A sci-fi / fantasy novel that has
 an enchanting quality about it
 The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

Sunday, 29 December 2013

SBR's Top Ten Best Reads of 2013 - Part I

These are not necessarily books published in 2013, rather books that I have read and reviewed on this blog throughout 2013.

In 10th place, a sister's tale about 
her overweight sibling
Lionel Shriver's Big Brother


In 9th place, a psychological thriller that I found both 
chilling and fascinating 
Undreamed by Paul Western-Pittard


In 8th place a new fairy tale inspired by French folklore
Nandana's Mark by Heidi Garrett


In 7th place a smart YA fantasy novel,
White Cat by Holly Black


In 6th place a unique spin on a marriage gone horribly wrong
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon (Science Fiction Sunday no 4)

 ***SBR's Best Book reviewed in 2013***

Publication date: 20th August 2013
Published by: Bloomsbury
Genre: Science Fiction / Fantasy (Young adult)
This is a review of the audio version

The Bone Season is one of those novels with an intricate and complex plot - the kind that I find challenging.  At first I thought it was because I lacked knowledge of the fantasy sub-genre that deals with clairvoyants and spirits (although this is true).  However, as the plot unraveled, I realised that some of the terminology was not explained until later on and things became clearer as the story developed.  Some readers have a problem with this, but not me. (I actually get enjoyment from that point of clarity I experience once things start to fall into place in my head). Also, because I listened to the audio version I didn't have access to the organogram, map and glossary available in the text version. So, if my summary is about as clear as mud, that could be why.  

The book is set in 2059 in an alternate reality, a world where there are 7 orders of clairvoyance.  There is a hierarchy within the order, based on the voyants' abilities. The more common the ability, the lower down the food chain and the rarer the ability the higher up. Some have the 'sight', i.e., they are able to see spirits, while others can only sense them.  It is illegal for voyants to practice - which is almost the same as saying it is illegal for them to exist.  They are generally marginalised and forced underground.  Their only means of survival is to commit mime crime, i.e., to practice in exchange for cash .  Life is hard and, inevitably, the strongest ones resort to organised (mime) crime, forming a syndicate.  Many clairvoyants end up working for the syndicate.  The weaker ones that don't struggle to survive alone and are at constant risk of being arrested and sent to 'The Tower' (what eveyone knows to be a prison for voyants).  

Nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney is part of a faction of the syndicate based in central London run by Jaxon Hall; a group known as the Seven Seals.  Each of them have different abilities that are extremely rare and highly sought after.  She is somewhat protected in this group.  Paige does not have the 'sight' but her ability allows her greater access to the aether than most voyants and she is in tune with its workings.  The aether I understand to be the plain where spirits reside (sort of like purgatory). She can pick up anything irregular in someone's dreamscape.  A dreamscape, I understand, is how voyants perceive the spirits they have access to. There are many different types of spirits, e.g. the poltergeist, which is powerful enough to inflict harm on a voyant.  Voyants engage with spirits and seek to influence and, in some cases, have control over them.  In doing so the spirits help them in mime crime and protect them when they are in danger.  The factions within the syndicate are jostling for rogue spirits to bring on side.  Most voyants have limited access to the aether caused by a force that holds them back once they get to a certain point.  It is described as a silver cord attached to their being. Paige's silver cord extends further than most so she can go deeper than others can. She does however need to be put to sleep and administered oxygen to be able to do so for long periods.  She is employed by Jaxon to act as a sort of spy in the aether, a surveillance tool is how she describes it.  Her ability gives the Seven Seals an advantage and some power in the syndicate. 

One night, Paige takes what seemed to me to be a foolish risk, which results in her unintentionally killing someone using her ability (this happens fairly early on so it is not a plot spoiler).  The plot thickens when she is captured and taken to the Sheol I penal colony, located in Oxford but unknown to most people outside.  Sheol I is occupied by the Raphaite a powerful race who came from another dimension and have an invested interest in ruling clairvoyants.  To Paige's horror, she discovers that the voyants are not only prisoners in Sheol I but also slaves to the Raphaite who regard them as inferior.  She is selected by the consort to the Blood Sovereign (who asks to be referred to as Warden) to be his personal slave and, as such, she is expected to obey him.  She struggles to conceal just how unpalatable it is to her and she does not do 'obey' very well.

This is the first of a 7 part series and this one is essentially about two things (1) the dynamic of Paige and Warden's relationship - a relationship that left me uneasy in the beginning - an observation rather than a criticism (on account of the whole master/slave thing), and (2) the Blood Sovereign's desire to capture the rarest clairvoyants and collect them like precious jewels. Paige meets a number of characters in Sheol I and they aren't expendables*. 

I found The Bone Season fascinating and intriguing.  Paige and Warden's story is told with dramatic irony as we, the readers, witness the evolution of their relationship.  This is extremely well done, in my opinion.  It seemed to me that only the surface was scratched in this first installment, and there is plenty of potential for development, so no wonder there are 6 more to come. 

I found myself drawing parallels with the Hunger Games and White Cat of the Curse Workers series
by Holly Black, although I would say the writing of this book is superior to the former and, in contrast, I had to use the grey matter to get to grips with it. (I confess I had to listen to it twice.) I liked the complexity and found it very imaginative.  I would also say it has an enchanting quality about it - similar to the type of novels that go viral.  Many are comparing it to the Harry Potter series, but I've not read those. A book has to be really good for me to take the time to read/listen twice but, not only was I happy to do so, I want to read the text version before the next installment. I think some books are better read than listened to, and this is one of those.

*expendables are what I call characters who have a minor role and aren't important enough for the reader to care about.

Thursday, 2nd January 2014
Update: I am beginning to wonder whether The Bone Season is (among other things) an homage to well-known and loved young adult fantasy fiction novels.  I have just finished Shadow and Bone and have discovered that Shannon's novel bears a striking resemblance to the central plot of that book, also.  It is so similar I do not believe this could be a case of coincidental commonalities.

My appeal to readers

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Christmas Novella: The Christmas Star by Diane Darcy

Publication date:  10th October 2011
Published by: Self-published
Genre: Fantasy/Romance
Length: 97 pages

My Synopsis
Twas the night before Christmas ... well not quite, but close. It is December at night and Marilyn Banks is outside of her farmhouse in Wyoming heading towards the barn on her way to feed her sheep.  She sees no sign of the moon in the night sky but she does see a bright star.  It is shining so brilliantly it reminds her of the star in the Christmas story.  She knows it is pointless but she decides to make a wish.  She wishes for the one thing that will make her and her loved ones happy.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Chicago, Elise Banks is also out at night.  Having returned from work she is unloading her stuff from her car.  She enters her apartment and gets ready to spend another night alone with her cats and romance novel.  While heating her evening meal she sorts through her mail and comes across a postcard-sized announcement that Gabriel Christensen is giving a seminar on "How to get organised, get focused and get the life you really want."  She throws it in the bin. She reaches in her handbag to get something and, to her surprise, the very same card is in there.  She throws that one away too.  She resumes the search in her bag and pulls out, yes, yet another identical card, which she bins. The following day she has to give a presentation at the staff meeting at work.  After a successful talk her boss tells her he is sending her to a seminar.  He wants her to listen to the lecture and take notes. It turns out to be Gabriel Christensen's seminar.

Elise attends and while there she notices that Gabriel is making regular eye contact with her as he speaks.  It is almost as if he is directing the lecture at her. He starts to talk about forgiveness and this makes her uneasy. Elise is persuaded to not only write a letter of forgiveness to her father, to whom she hardly speaks, but also to address it and (symbolically) mail the letter in a mock mailbox provided by Gabriel.  When she tries to retrieve her letter at the end of the seminar it is nowhere to be found.

Soon after, Elise receives a phone call from her father.  He tells her he got her letter.  He invites her home for Christmas so that they may patch up their differences.  Elise accepts ...

My Review
I liked this novella because it had many of the elements one would expect of a Christmas story.   It is about a family that has been torn apart by matters that took place a long time ago.  Elise and her father were unable to forgive each other because of old wounds that have not healed well.  Fortunately, with Marilyn's intervention; a wish, an angel and a miracle or two, Elise and her dad are able to forgive each other.  There was reference to the true meaning of Christmas and  I thought all of this was nicely done.

There is also a love story at the centre. I liked the humour and the dialogue between Elise and Jason.  It showed that they were kindred spirits and (despite the turmoil and angst) they seemed to pick up where they had left off all those years ago.  Yes, they act like a couple of kids, but for me that was about them reverting back to how things were when they were together as kids.  Their exchanges are neither soppy nor overly sentimental, which is how I prefer my romance novels to be.

Is the writing exceptional? No (But then neither is my own.).  Are there vocabulary issues?  Yes. Pernickety readers may take issue with it but it did not matter to me.  The storytelling is what shone through ... as brightly as the Christmas Star.

This is a good read from an independent author.  It was a free Kindle download and I would recommend it.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Plagiarist by Hugh Howey (Science Fiction Sunday no 3)

Publication date: 15th March 2011
Published by: Broad Reach Publishing
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 58 pages

Publisher's synposis
Adam Griffey is living two lives. By day, he teaches literature. At night, he steals it. Adam is a plagiarist, an expert reader with an eye for great works. He prowls simulated worlds perusing virtual texts, looking for the next big thing. And when he finds it, he memorizes it page by page, line by line, word for word. And then he brings it back to his world.

But what happens when these virtual worlds begin to seem more real than his own? What happens when the people within them mean more to him than flesh and blood? What happens when a living thing falls in love with someone who does not actually exist?

My Review
The Plagiarist is a novella by Hugh Howey, author of WOOL.

I enjoyed this immensely. I am a big fan of science fiction (books, films and TV), especially the sort that are about 'ideas'; the philosophical kind like Ray Bradbury's novel The Martian Chronicles or the film 2001: A Space Odyssey  (although I quite like the space invaders kind like Star Wars, also).

What this story reminded me of most was the movie Blade Runner, adapted from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which is the science fiction Holy Grail, as far as I am concerned (and probably one of the best movies ever made). If I told you why it would ruin the plot, so I won't. I did not see the twist coming but in hindsight a lot made sense.

If you are a writer (or like me dabble), I strongly recommend you read this book, because what it is really about is writing - or at least it is for me. Adam demonstrates all the characteristics of a writer and he talks about the stuff writers sometimes experience and feel.
  • The self doubt - that feeling of not being good enough, especially compared to the greats - a feeling so strong that you don't feel worthy (to the extent that you think maybe you should just give up and leave it to those who do it really well).  Insecurities that must be overcome.
  • The tendency to procrastinate because writing is so hard (yes I do appreciate this).  
  • The importance of reading (in moderation).  Adam has a tendency to spend too much time reading and hardly any time writing because it is SO HARD.  Instead he spends his time searching for the next Shakespeare in the virtual world.  (Hmm, now who does that remind me of?).  He does however create haiku and he keeps them stored in his head.  They come naturally to him and the reader gets to read one at the beginning of each chapter.  Every now and then his girlfriend, Amanda, manages to persuade him to share one with her. 
A lot of this spoke volumes for me as I could relate.  It made me feel like I am not alone. 

Adam thinks it is his mission to find the next Shakespeare but, in truth, it's irrelevant if he achieves it or not. In his quest to do so he discovers love in a virtual world known as Hammond. The 'virtual' girl he falls for is Belatrix and Adam soon becomes fixated with spending all of his time with her.  He feels a sense of shame knowing he should focus on his relationship with his real girlfriend, Amanda.  But he cannot help the way he feels about Belatrix, even if she isn't a real person.

I could not help but draw parallels with the 'virtual worlds'  in this story and the actual world of publishing, a world saturated with - well, to be frank - works that aren't good enough. And with self publication being so easy and quality control not so tight with publishers, the volume  of such works is constantly increasing.  Is book publishing out of control?  Is a cull the answer?

For some authors, writing is a way of preserving their mortality - in the sense that they will live on through their work after they die - and for some this is a motivator.

It may only be 58 pages long but you get so much from those 58 pages.  The above are just some of the interesting ideas that I took from the story.

For me The Plagiarist is 5-a-day fiction.  [You know how we are supposed to eat 5 fruit and veg a day?  They are good for us.  They are important sustenance and keep us healthy.]  This novella gave my mind sustenance and fed my soul.

I don't allocate ratings on this blog because I feel it is rather simplistic to compare books in that way.  However, I cannot fault this story and it gets full marks from me.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Christmas Novella: Christmas at the Beach Cafe by Lucy Diamond

Published by:  Pan Books
Publication date: 7th November 2013
Genre: Contemporary fiction for women 
Length: 100 pages

My Synopsis
Evie Flynn is about to have her first Christmas at her beach side cafe, which she inherited earlier in the year following the death of her aunt.  After a busy summer she is ready to enjoy the holiday with her new love, Ed.  Just the two of them.

Ed's long lost younger brother turns up after a long period of travelling and Ed is keen for him to stick around, since he hasn't seen him for a while.

Evie's best friend turns up not long after with a tale of woe about a cheating boyfriend.

These unexpected arrivals and a series of mishaps that follow mean that Evie's plan for the perfect romantic first Christmas with Ed doesn't go to plan...

My Review
This novella is a follow-up of Lucy Diamond's book, The Beach Cafe, which tells the back story of how Evie Flynn came to be living in Cornwall and running a cafe.

The story begins on the 1st of December with Evie looking out of the window and seeing snow falling outside.  She runs out, feet bare and full of excitement.  Despite the cliche, I thought this was a nice start to a Christmas story.  Turns out she was dreaming and is woken up in bed by Ed. (I suppose that is more realistic.)

I appreciated Evie's excitement about the approach to Christmas, and I even went along with her getting overly emotional about a broken glass angel Christmas decoration (since her deceased aunt gave it to her).  I did however, become a bit exasperated with her complaining about Ed for wanting to be a perfectionist when producing the meals for HER cook book, apparently taking too long. Ed is a chef so, naturally, when he makes mince pies he insists on making them from scratch.  Evie thinks they should get store bought mince meat. If only he would, I quote, 'chill out on the perfectionist front.'  Because, apparently, this is all too much and is wearing Evie's patience thin, which had me thinking, Your patience?  And how much help do you suppose she gives Ed with the preparations of these dishes?  I'll tell you.  None!  She tells us she can't possibly help him in the kitchen since she cannot boil an egg. Instead she leaves him to it while she goes down to the beach to have a sulk.  Which had me thinking, here's an idea Evie, how about doing some work? Nah, too obvious. 

Ed is dealing with a messy divorce and has been in contact with his estranged wife.  She sends him a Christmas card, which causes Evie and Ed to have a spat and Evie to go down to the beach for another sulk.  Ed soon goes after her and apologises, although I am not sure what for.
I liked the stuff about the irritating and manipulative brother, Jake.  He really does get under her skin. Well done Jake.

There is an attempt at  humour but it falls short. Could this be why Evie is so annoying? Are we supposed to guffaw, roll our eyes and say, 'Oh Evie, what are you like?'

Christmas At The Beach Cafe is a (very) light and unremarkable read.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

172 Hours on the Moon by Johan Harstad (Science Fiction Sunday no 2)

Translator: Tara F. Chace
Publication date: 5th April 2012
Published by: ATOM
Genre: Science Fiction / Thriller (YA)

My Synopsis
The year is 2018 and NASA has sent out an invitation around the world for teenagers to take part in a trip of a life time.  Those who take part are to be entered into a lottery and 3 of them will be picked to join astronauts on an expedition to the Moon.

In Stavinger, Norway, sixteen year old Mia hears about the lottery but she is not interest in signing up.  She just wants to keep rehearsing with Rogue Squadron, her all girl rock band, work towards getting a record deal and become an international success.  Unfortunately, her parents have other ideas and enter her without her knowledge.

In Tokyo, Japan, sixteen year old Midori is out shopping with her friends.  Midori is a misfit who is bullied at school but has found sanctuary among a spot known as Harajuku, where being a misfit is normal.  Standing outside the shopping center with her Harajuku girlfriends she sees the advert about the lottery on a giant billboard and becomes transfixed.  Midori wants to escape a life that she sees a being condemned to banality.  She sees the lottery as her opportunity to do just that (i.e., escape).

In Paris, France, seventeen year old Antoine is having difficulty getting over his first love. Since Simone dumped him for another boy, he has become sad and somewhat  obsessed with standing on the first level of the Eiffel Tower so he can peep at her through her bedroom window, using one of the pay telescopes.  When he finds out about the lottery, he sees the trip to the moon as an opportunity to impress Simone.  How could she not want him back after he returns an international celebrity?

The lottery is held and Mia, Midori and Antoine are the winners.  With their parents in tow, they travel to the US to start their training before the launch.  Each of them has a strange experience before they leave.  It is almost as if something or someone is trying to tell them something.  But what could that be?

There is a reason why no one has been sent to the moon for over 40 years.  So why now?

There is a media frenzy over all of this and the launch is televised everywhere.  Mr Himmelfarb is an elderly man living in an old people's home and suffering from Alzheimer's.  In his prime he worked for NASA and had the highest security clearance.  On the day of the launch he is placed in front of the TV and while the rocket takes off, he starts to remember things that cause him to feel extreme terror and he starts to scream...

My Review:
172 Hours of the Moon is divided into 3 sections.

The first 'The Earth' covers what happens before the launch.  As outlined above we learn about the characters and their reasons for wanting to go.  None of them are interested in space or space travel and their reasons for going seem trivial - especially when there is so much at stake.  But these are teenagers absorbed in their own little worlds and so they are unable to see the bigger picture.  Their innocenc and naivety is understandable.  They are placing their lives in the hands of the adults they trust to make responsible decisions and believe they will be taken care of.

There are some really nice scenes in the first section.  The chapters showing Mr Himmelfarb were interesting.  He is existing in an environment that is strange to him and does not remember much.  He is basically waiting to die.  His relevance to the story is that he has insider knowledge of what is really going on.  After the launch he experiences a moment of clarity and becomes lucid.  He realises it is up to him to warn NASA of the danger ahead. 

The second section, 'The Sky' is all about what happens on the trip to the moon and what happens when they arrive. They take up residence on Darlah 2, a compound made up of 4 units that was built by robots and designed to allow astronauts to exist inside for short periods of time.

It soon became clear to me that this novel was to be a thriller.  Something scary is on the moon and it is after them.  It doesn't take a genius to guess that the characters are going to be picked off one-by-one, starting with the expendables*.  It then became a case of working out who would survive and make it back to Earth.

The third and final section, 'Afterward', is self-explanatory.  I won't say any more about this for obvious reasons.

Be warned this novel is very dark and perhaps parental guidance/discretion should be applied for under 15s. If I was to pick a single word to say what it is about it would be mortality.  It is about the fact that death is coming to all of us eventually, and for some it will happen sooner than it should. I would say the book has the reader face up to this reality; to stare it in the face and not look away. There is a disturbing scene where Coleman, one of the astronauts, remembers an experience he had when he was 9 years old. The scene later ties in with his story on the moon.  It addresses the uncomfortable emotions associated with death: fear, anxiety, loss, pain, suffering etc.

I thought this was a grown-up novel that does not patronize the teenage readers it is aimed at.   I liked the idea of what it sets out to do (see above) but I had issues with the feasibility of the premise.  If NASA is allowed to send teenagers on the moon it better have a bloody good reason for doing so.   The reason given is not justified, and somebody somewhere would think to do a risk assessment, surely?  Also, unfortunately, it has gaping plot holes, which kind of ruins it.  Too many things just don't add up.  I can't go into detail and avoid spoilers, but the holes are so big it would be hard to miss them.

I wonder if Johan Harstad is a fan of the film Alien (Ridley Scott) and the novel Solaris (Stanislaw Lem, also adapted for film 3 times). It feels as though this novel has been influenced by both; the thriller aspect of the former and the strange unexplained phenomena of the latter.  This is not a criticism since I too have been known to pay homage to some of my favorite films/novels (sometimes unconsciously) in my own work.

 I liked the first section a lot but it falters once they land on the moon for me.

*expendables are what I call characters who have a minor role and aren't important enough for the reader to care about; they tend to be the ones to get killed off.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Christmas Novella: Miracle at the Museum of Broken Hearts by Talli Roland

Publication date: 22 December 2011
Published by:  Nottinghill Press
Genre: Contemporary Fiction for Women/Romance & Humour
Length: 65 pages

My Synopsis

Rose Delaney is a hopeless romantic who isn't exactly living the dream.  Her man has gone off to live his dream in Vietnam, leaving her alone with his cat and all the bills to pay, and she has a boring job dealing with old relics in the basement of the British Museum.  So, when she sees the opportunity to work as the assistant curator at the soon to be opened Museum of Broken Hearts, she jumps at the chance.  Rose considers herself perfect for the job, what with her PhD in sociology and her experience coordinating and organising display materials.  She completes her CV and sends off her application.  

Soon after, she receives a phone call and, in her words, The voice was deep and smooth - and undeniably sexy.  The call was from Heath Rowan, the curator, offering her an interview the same afternoon.  She accepts.  She arrives at the Museum, knocks on the door, it opens and, in her words, There, right in front of me, was a man straight from a nineteenth-century black and white film, all broad shoulders, dark wavy hair and perfect features. Naturally, Rose gets offered the job but, Heath explains, the Museum opens in a matter of weeks so she would have to be willing to work night and day to get everything ready.  Rose jumps at the chance.

Rose learns that Heath isn't really a curator (that's why he's hired her).  He is actually a corporate lawyer who, until recently, worked in the City.  It turns out his Grandma earned the reputation of being someone who liked to collect stuff that people would send her - relics of broken relationships. It was her dream to open a Museum and display all the stuff.  So when she died and left everything to Heath, it was up to him to make her dream a reality.  His long-term plan is to hand over the role to a curator and go back to practicing law in the City asap.  Rose sees this as a career opportunity for herself.  She is determined to impress Heath so he will hand the responsibility over to her.

On her first day, she catches Heath holding a locket with a pained look on his face.  He is unaware that she is standing there watching him.  She wonders what the story is.  Could he have a broken heart that needs fixing?  Rose thinks maybe she is the one to find out and help fix it....

My Review

As my synopsis suggests, this is unashamed 'Chick Lit', so perhaps it would be naive, if not foolish, not to expect a girl-meets-boy, girl and boy get close, girl falls out with boy, girl makes up with boy and they live happily ever after type of scenario.   But hey, it's Christmas and a lighthearted read can be just the thing to curl up on the sofa with.  Done well it can be great escapism.

The problem occurs when it is done badly.  And this book is one of those.  The main problem being Rose who is not exactly flying the flag for 'the sisterhood'.  On getting dressed up for Heath's benefit she tells us Heath's eyes flashed with what looked like appreciation, and I smiled to myself.  Ha! I knew men were interested in more than 'skills'.  That was the reason I tried to look nice around Gareth.  Then she explains how she let herself go after he left for Vietnam!  Why bother to look nice if there is no man to look nice for???

There is something I don't get.  Rose is supposed to be highly educated - so how come she is vacuous? Her job as assistant curator is to remove all of the items for display from the boxes (and there are a lot of boxes), catalogue them and then display them for the museum.  She comes up with this ingenious plan: I'd managed to map out everything in my head.  I was going to lay out each room as if someone still lived there; with the salt shaker [one of the items for display] on the kitchen table...

Her PhD thesis was supposedly about relationships, and so she is supposed to be an expert in this area, yet she displays such ignorance and stupidity in that regard it is beyond belief.  The plan she hatches to help Heath resolve his professional and personal problems - and that she could not recognise the need to differentiate between the two - demonstrates this.  Her behaviour was tactless, intrusive and a complete invasion of his privacy.  But Heath recovers pretty quickly, forgives her and then confesses he has a thing for her!

The conflict (Heath's inability to connect with his mother) has a chance to develop but the resolution is very abrupt and completely unconvincing. 

The book was free on Amazon but I would not recommend it. 

(Yes... I know... I am deviating from my policy rules again, *sighs*.  But you get why, right?)

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (Science Fiction Sunday no 1)

Publication Date: 29th September 2009
Published by: Tor Books
Genre: Science Fiction (Steampunk with zombies)

My Synopsis
Set in an alternate reality of the past, Boneshaker takes place in Seattle, Washington and the American civil war is still occurring.

It begins with a prologue: Briar Wilkes, the female protagonist,  come home from a double shift of engineering work to find a man waiting for her outside her home.  At first she thinks he has come about Zeke, her 15 year old son (the male protagonist), which makes her anxious.  It turns out he is a writer who wants to interview her about her infamous deceased father, Maynard Wilkes, because he wants to write his biography.

Sixteen years previously, Briar was married to a wealthy scientist, Leviticus Blue, and living a life of luxury.  It was a time when both Russian and American investors were jostling to gain the advantage to access the Klondike gold in the region. Levi Blue was a notorious inventor who took part in a competition to design a machine that could drill through the almost impenetrable earth to allow the Russians access to the gold.  Having won the competition and been given a cash advancement to get the work started, Blue worked on his machine and completed it ahead of time. On the very first test run it was clear that the machine was capable of doing what it was meant to do, i.e. penetrate the earth, but things went horribly wrong when Blue lost control of the machine and it burrowed through the underground of the city, weakening foundations and causing mass destruction that ended in thousands of deaths and destroyed buildings.  The disaster caused a toxic gas within the earth's crust to be released, forcing a mass evacuation of the city.  The gas was thick enough to be kept at bay by the wall that was then built around the city.  Briar, by then pregnant with Zeke, was forced to flee.

No one knows for sure what happened to Levi and, since he is not around to pay for his crimes, Briar and Zeke are treated by most people around them as though they are guilty by association. They experience hardship on the outside, but Briar is determined to do the best she can for Zeke.

Briar's father did not approve of her marriage and they were estranged.  During the evacuation, Maynard refused to leave the prisoners in the city inside to die.  He risked his life to help them escape, exposing himself to the toxic gas which killed him soon after.  As a result of his actions, he is considered not only a hero but a saint of sorts among the former prisoners and their families.  It is rumoured that there are areas within the city where the air is breathable and that people live there.  Those who are exposed to the gas don't just die, they become undead.  They crave living flesh (they will eat animals but prefer the flesh of humans) and are referred to as 'rotters'.  The city is known to be swarming with them.

Briar believes that, collectively, Maynard and Levi have ruined her life and she hopes things will be different for Zeke.  She refuses to talk to him about either of them and so he has had to go by information from others, mostly rumours.  He sees his grandfather as a hero and he would like to think his father was not all bad.  The visit from the journalist prompts him to quesiton his mother about his grandfather, they argue and this triggers a chain reaction that has Zeke entering the toxic city (wearing a safety mask that will protect him for a maximum of 10 hours) and Briar to go after him....

My Review
This book was selected for my next book group and is the first steampunk novel I have read.  I probably would not have chosen to read it otherwise  (I ususally avoid books with zombies in them), but I don't regret it.

Ironically, after all the cruelty Briar has experienced over the years on the outside, everyone that she encounters on her mission to find and save her son is helpful and kind to her. Zeke, it would appear, isn't so lucky.  He meets a man named Rudy who offers to take him to his destination (Zeke's parents' old house).  Only, he seems to be leading him deeper underground.  On the way, they encounter a Native American princess who warns Zeke that Rudy is taking him to his death. Zeke managed to enter the city using an underground tunnel (just before an earthquake shuts off access). Briar cannot follow and she has to find a pilot to take her.  Luckily, she finds someone who is willing to do so and it turns out the pilot's life was saved by her father. Briar's constant good fortune is sort of justified by the fact that she is Maynard's daughter and he is so well respected among the people inside the city.  However, I would say that Cherie Priest is optimistic in her writing approach and, as I have alluded to above, some events occur rather conveniently (or inconveniently - such as the earthquake) and so the plot seems somewhat contrived.

The back story is mostly alluded to and I liked that about it.  There is enough to allow the reader to draw conclusions.  For example, I imagine that Maynard was a law-upholding righteous man of principle and that he probably had high expectations of Briar that she could not live up to.  I imagine that she probably married Levi Blue as an act of rebellion, which back-fired.  She was young and foolish and made a mistake that she is paying for.

Despite the zombies, this is not a scary novel.  The zombies are pretty much on the periphery most of the time and rarely pose a serious threat.  On the rare occasion that they did, it's the expendables* that end up getting captured.  I did find myself wondering if the zombies were even necessary (but I would).

Boneshaker is a gentle and passive read - so if you're looking for horror, this isn't it.  I found it to be an enjoyable read - but I am not a fan of the horror genre.

*expendables are what I call characters who have a minor role and aren't important enough for the reader to care about; they tend to be the ones that get killed off.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Indie Author Showcase (various)

Having reached the end of the search, I don't have an independently-published novel to rave about this week.  So, instead here are three that were included as part of my search...

Catalyst (Tethered Book1) by Jennifer Snyder

Publication date: 1st May 2012.

The premise of the novel is a good one but it is mostly about the cat and mouse exchanges between female protagonist, Addison, and one of the local boys, Kace.  Kace is fully aware of the magic inside of them that is causing the strong attraction they feel for each other and he believes it is only natural that they give in to it.  So, he spends most of his time trying to talk her into bed and she weakly plays hard to get for a bit, before giving in.  I don't want to sound prudish; I have no problem with these two characters carrying on a relationship based purely on physical attraction, but these exchanges are repetitive and dominate the story.  Nothing significant happens until the last two chapters.  The climax read like a spoof of the 'Scary Movie' type.  In that sense it was comedic - but I have no idea whether it was intentionally so.  The central plot starts to emerge just as the book ends, suggesting that Book 2 could actually be a better one.  I'm probably going to give it a miss though.


Reaper's Novice (Soul Collector Book 1) by Cecilia Robert

Publication date: 8th January 2013

I would give this novel full marks for the cover and I like that the setting was in Vienna (makes a refreshing change from some small town in America).  I really wanted to like it and finish it but I failed on both counts.  (It's just not for me.). I was expecting fantasy fiction but it was mostly about a teenage girl's daily routine and relationship with friends, boyfriend & family, while the paranormal plot was vague.  The author insisted on holding back in that regard, supposedly to maintain an air of mystery, but I was more frustrated than mystified and gave up in the end.

Both of the above novels are the first of a series and I suspect that this is part of the problem.  I am convinced they had the potential to be great stand-alones.  Instead, in both cases, they are in a series where the central plot is being spread thinly over several books, rendering them flimsy.  As a result they contain a lot of padding. I believe this to be an increasingly common problem with books that make up a series (independently-published or otherwise).

The Ninth Orphan (The Orphan Trilogy Book 1) by James and Lance Morcan.

Publication date: 16th June 2011

The premise is basically a cross between two TV shows of the early 00s: Dark Angel (by James Cameron and Charles Eglee) about a genetically-enhanced bunch of teens who were created to be superior soldiers/assassins and one breaks out and goes on the run, and Alias (by JJ Abrams) about an American secret agent working for SD6, who she believed to be a black ops branch of the CIA but is actually a private organisation very much like 'The Omega Agency' in this novel. Both protagonists (strong female characters) were 100 times smarter than Nine (the protagonist in this book). I have the box sets and I would prefer to watch them again than continue reading this.
My full review on GRs 

 This concludes my November 2013 Indie Author Showcase.  

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Transcend by Christine Fonseca

Publication date: 12th September 2012
Published by: Compass Press
Historical fiction for young adults

The Publisher's Synopsis
All seventeen-year-old composer Ien Montgomery desires is an escape from his family's rigid expectations for his life; someone to inspire his music. When he meets a beautiful violin-prodigy, Kiera McDougal, his life music takes on new life. With her, he imagines a future outside of his parents’ control. That is, until a horrible accident tears them apart.

Sent to die in a sanatorium, Ien’s obsession for Kiera grows unbearable. Tortured by thoughts he can’t escape and the truth of his monstrous disfigurement, he flees, desperate to exact revenge on the people that ruined his life – his parents. But, vengeance is empty. Betrayed by those closest to him, Ien discovers that the price for his happiness may be his sanity.

Set amidst the landscape of New York's Gilded Age, and inspired by Phantom of the Opera, TRANSCEND exposes the fine line between love and madness.

My Review:

Each chapter of Transcend cleverly begins with an apt quote, often taken from characters in well-known literary works or from well-known writers.  They set the scene for what is to come.

Phantom of the Opera is not a story I know well.  I had an idea - I know the main character has a facial disfigurement and lives in the shadows.  I gather there is a tragic love story, as he falls for a beautiful Prima Donna that he can never be with.  I am not sure how close this story is to the original, but as a young-adult novel it makes a refreshing read because it is so atypical.

Set in the late 19th century, Ien is the son a of wealthy couple who are at the centre of New York's elite.  'Mother' (as she is referred to throughout the book) is dominating and over-powering and he feels stifled by her restrictive rules.  Mother is very much in control of Ien's life and he is under increasing pressure to live up to both his parents' expectations.  He wants to pursue his music and they (Mother in particular) have no intention of allowing this. 

Meeting Kiera offers him a means of escape. Mother is completely against the match (naturally) and forbids him from seeing her.  This pushes Ien over the edge and he hatches a plan - if he proposes, she says yes and they elope, they can be together and he can escape his awful parents.  The plan goes horribly wrong when Ien becomes the victim of an accident that destroys his facial features, leaving him disfigured.  

His circumstances were believable; given the period and the setting, I can very much imagine that his parents could have acted the way they did.  (When after many months there is no improvement to his face, they are so embarrassed by him that they fake his death and send him off to a sanatorium.)  Knowing his parents discarded him as if he were nothing and losing the girl he loves leaves Ien tormented.  He also believes that Mother wants the nuns to put him to death (a mercy killing), which terrifies him.  He starts to have nightmares and hears the voice of his dead brother, who constantly goads and torments him. This brings back memories of his brother's death.  The circumstances of that death leaves Ien riddled with guilt.  All of this is quite an endurance and Ien's sanity begins to slip away from him.  

I found Transcend an endurance to read.  On the one hand I thought this was a good way to put the reader in Ien's shoes and the author deserves merit for this.  BUT, on the other hand, reading it was not a pleasant experience.  If I am honest, I did not enjoy this book for that reason.  I also found it overly sentimental; like reading melodrama. (I could practically hear the violins in the background.)

Other than that, Transcend is quite well-written and I realise I am virtually alone in my opinion of it being an unpleasant read, which is why I have decided to showcase it on my blog.  

Friday, 8 November 2013

The Dragon Carnivale by Heidi Garrett

Publication date: 18th June 2013
Published by:  Half-Faerie Publishing
Genre: Fantasy (YA)

I previously reviewed Nandana's Mark (Book 1) and The Flower of Isbelline (Book 2) of the series The Queen of the Realm of Faerie. The Dragon Carnivale is the third instalment.

My synopsis
I am going to attempt a summary of the plot.  I hope I understood it correctly: I admire and enjoy books with a complicated plot but sometimes I lack the ability to comprehend them fully. 

Melia and her companions are dealing with the aftermath of the events that led to the unfortunate death of Elenda, the powerful Grey Faerie.  Fortunately, Plantine failed in her attempt to incarnate Umbra and Lord Goring is dead, but there is still the threat of a war between the Dark and Light*.  The light is represented by the Albiana, the flower faeries who are the rulers of the Realm of Faerie.  They have become corrupt and evil.  The Dark is represented by Sevondi, the Dragonwitch (who appears on the cover).  Sevondi is a Muannaye (of the Muannai who are faeries who look most like humans - they are the same size as humans and don't have wings).  Sevondi is considered the most suitable successor to Elenda, as ruler of the Stronghold of Calashai, and the Muannaye are able to influence the choice of who gets to rule.  They are excited by the prospect of one of their own as the new regent. Melia and her companions agree that this would be a favourable outcome so that she can lead the fight against the Albiana.  Sevondi is not content to be sovereign.  She has ambitions to be the one who incarnates Umbra.  Melia and her companions hatch a plan to prevent this from happening by bargaining with Sevondi, agreeing to help support her as ruler of the new stronghold and convince her that together they can win the war...

My Review:
The central plot of this series is without a doubt intricate and complex.  I really enjoyed Nandana's mark but I must admit I was somewhat confused about the incarnation of Umbra and its significance. As I mentioned above, I had difficulty understanding this one, too.  I am not really sure what The Dragon Carnivale is actually about, or it's significance to the series.  If I have understood correctly, Melia and her companions are dealing with 2 major threats.  The immediate threat being the incarnation of Umbra and the other being the looming threat of war within the Whole. It isn't clear to me how the incarnation ties in with the war - or if the two are linked at all.

I don't understand how the various key characters (and their back stories) connect with these threats.  Not that it isn't clarified, just that I couldn't understand it.  Here is an example: was impossible to study the dark master (Umbra) without grasping the history of the muannai.  They'd come into being simultaneously - an evolutionary response by the Whole to rapid population growth in the Mortal World.  Soul embers could no longer be absorbed and reformed in the Great White Sea; grey faeries were no longer born.  They were simply too many embers to cool and not enough time...
Now the mortal psyche - which had gained some conciousness but did not have the cohesion to survive death and pass into the Unknown beyond - split... I appreciate some context is required to understand this.  But even though I have read the entire book, I can't work out what it means.  Is it a clue to why the most humanoid of faeries  are the only ones unable to enter The Mortal World?  What is the significance?  Why can Sevondi conjure magical dragons and what does she use them for?  Are they merely for entertainment, or can she use them as a weapon?

It seemed to me that the first third of the book was about key characters trying to obtain something crucial from other key characters.  Melia needed to find Uncle Raffles to find out how to locate her half-faerie relatives in The Mortal World (so she can warn them about the threat Umbra poses), Ryder and Flora needed to convince Sevondi to part with the Book of Umbra (so that they can get the magic bowl and sword away from the Ruadain Mountains and to the Grey Council), Sevondi needed to get the bowl and sword from Flora and Ryder (in order to incarnate Umbra).  I understand that obtaining these things are crucial in order for the story to move forward.

My interest sparked when the story moved forward ie., when Melia and Tatou find themselve in the Mortal World.  That section read really well for me.  I liked the use of description - from the surroundings to the first mortal they encounter - hinting to the reader that they are not in the present but somewhere in the past.  Even the way that the mortal boy talks suggests he is from another era. The Ford car is the strongest clue that it's the early 1920s and it is only in the next chapter that this is confirmed.  I enjoyed the mystery and the thought process of working it out.  I also liked the scene with Gabriela, her shock at being able to see Tatou and her reaction.  The trip to The Mortal World was intriguing and a joy to read but, unfortunately, this only took up about 2 chapters of the book.  I think there was the potential to develop it further.  I wanted more.

Another really good section is when Ryder realises there is a way to transport the bowl and sword to the Grey Council.  Despite the risk to his life he gives it a try.  What happens during and after his attempt was cleverly written and I found it intriguing.  It's the only part of the novel that moves into dark territory - the horrible things that happen to Ryder are quite difficult to read - but once again this sub-plot was resolved too quickly and felt rushed, which is a pity and another missed opportunity for further development in my opinion.

It seemed to me that Melia (and her companions) had a mission: the prevention of the incarnation of Umbra.  Their efforts thus far has led to several deaths (including Melia's father).  So I was surprised when she bought so easily into the idea of incarnating Umbra herself, but I went along with it.  I was however, stunned when she became angry with Ryder for being consistent in his opposition of it.  And I could not see why this would lead her to the conclusion that Ryder is deceitful and untrustworthy.  It struck me as unreasonable and unjustified.  When she sees him with Sevondi, she jumps to the conclusion that he is there by choice; that he had been conspiring with her all along.  Melia is supposed to be in love with this boy (but not enough to even attempt to give him the benefit of the doubt), so it does not occur to her that he may be there under duress.  She ignores the visible bruises he has from having been severely beaten. I would have thought it would be the first thing she'd notice, and a major cause for concern. 

Umbra, who made his presence known in the previous books, is dormant for most of this one and I wondered why.  It later transpires that he has his eyes on a new vessel, Jade, Gabriela's granddaughter - which I think sets up the plot for the next book.  Melia will have to return to The Mortal World to find her.  And when she does I don't believe a simple warning will suffice.

I realise this is a rather inadequate review; did I like it or not? I hear you asking. It is not meant to put you off.  I did not enjoy this one as much as the 1st book but I liked it more than the second, despite finding it a challenge in parts.  Challenge is good; a good book gets us thinking and asking questions, in my view.  Also, I find a re-read can help to clarify things - as things missed the first time get picked up the next time - so it's definitely one for me to read again.  My advice is give the book a try and see what you think.

*There is a section where Flora explains to Melia how light isn't always good and dark isn't always bad.  In my opinion it is a beautiful piece of writing.

Writing a novel is hard work and it is clear that a lot of thought, hard work, and dedication has gone into this series. This should not go unrecognised. Nor should Heidi's talent as a writer.

The Flower of Isbelline by Heidi Garrett

Publication date: 1 December 2012
Published by: Half-Faerie Publishing
Fantasy (YA)

The Flower of Isbelline is the second book in the series Queen of the Realm of Faerie.  I very much enjoyed the first book, Nandana’s Mark, so I looked forward to reading this one, which I received from the author in exchange for an honest review, along with the Dragon Carnivale (Book 3) - review to follow.

In my review of the first book I started by commenting on the cover.   This one has had a few cover designs and I would say the one shown here looks very much the part (i.e. the cover of a YA Fantasy novel that conveys key elements of its story). 

The story continues from the first book.  There is very little going back to summarise the events in Nandana’s Mark (which is a good thing in my view), so you would need to read book 1 to follow the story.  The main protagonist is Melia, a half-faerie (half-human), who is determined to save her younger sister, Plantine, from marrying Lord Goring who intends to do so for purely selfish reasons – to use Plantine as a vessel for incarnating Umbra, something Melia and her band of friends are determined not to let happen...

One of the problems I had with Nandana’s Mark was that I found that, in parts, it lacked clarity and was a bit confusing.  I would say that this has been addressed in book 2 since I found it much more straight-forward and therefore easier to follow.  Like the first one, there is a lot of good stuff in this book that mirrors real life.  For me the sisters (Plantine, Melia and Mellusine) are casualties of a dysfunctional family and it is mostly about that.  Here is a family that is about to come together for a wedding and you sense as it approaches that it is going to be fraught with disaster and heartache.  The problem is that, if anything, it focuses too much on the family and the wedding and reads much less like a fairy tale than the previous one.  After the wedding it does go back to being a fairy tale with the attempted incarnation of Umbra and the events that follow.

If I am going to be honest I would have to say that I was disappointed with this novel. Perhaps the problem is that I consider Nandana's Mark to be such a good debut, so  I set the bar high for this one and, for me, it did not have the same impact.Not because of the above mentioned point (the family story is very good) but because I had an issue with the writing style.  It felt rushed to me.

Characters become redundant, especially the males.  There is a big chunk of the book when some of the key characters (Tuck, Ryder and Sinjin) are out of the picture and their absence is problematic.  (It is great that the female characters are strong and heroic, but I would say the key male characters get a raw deal, and that Tuck in particular is more like a prop than a character.)

I had trouble believing the romance between Ryder and Melia.  It felt artificial and unconvincing, which left me indifferent as to whether they got together or not.

The American author, Richard Ford, once said in an interview that experience has taught him to ‘stay in a book’ for as long as is necessary and that this is a mistake that inexperienced authors make (and I say this as an inexperienced author who makes my fair share of mistakes).  I do not know how long it took Heidi to write this novel. I can only say that, to me, it reads like she should have stayed in it longer.

That said, The Flower of Isbelline still stands above most of the self-published works I have read recently. (And believe me I have read a lot of them in the past few months.)

It has an average score of 3.96 out of 5 on Goodreads, higher than Nandana's Mark, which suggests it has a lot of appeal.

I'll be reviewing The Dragon Carnivale next ...

Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Golden Cuckoo by Elizabeth Jasper

Publication date: 14th January 2013
Published by: Self Published
Fantasy fiction for children (9-13 yrs)

My synopsis:
Imagine a old-fashioned Swiss clock shaped like a chalet.  At the front, just below the thatched roof, is an arch-shaped little door, and just below that (above the clock's face) are two more arched doors side-by-side.  Through one door appears an old woman carrying a bunch of flowers, and through the door on the other side of her a man carrying an axe.  Through the door above them a cuckoo appears whenever the clock strikes.

This children's adventure begins when Eddie is repairing a broken clock, like the one I described above, in the presence of his older sister, Ella.  One minute he is gluing the feet of the cuckoo (so he can stick it back on the ledge of the clock) and the next he finds himself in darkness... on a ledge... inside the clock! Ella is stunned by the sudden disappearance of her brother.  Eddie understands that he is in the clock when the old woman and man appear in front of him, demanding to know where the cuckoo is.  They are mean to him and make him undress to prove it is not in his possession - which it isn't.  He realises he must have dropped it when whatever happened, happened.  Eddie is trapped in the clock being held prisoner by the old woman and man.

The story moves to Jake, a boy of about 13, who helps his mum buy and sell stuff at a car boot sale.  He wanders around the sale looking for anything of value that he can buy to sell on for a healthy profit.  Jake notices that his favourite vendour, a man he calls Fancy, is selling what looks like a doll's house in its original box.  On closer inspection he realises it is not a doll's house but a cuckoo clock and he loses interest.  Fancy is keen to sell it to him and, reluctantly after some bartering, he agrees to take it.

Later, back home while in his room with the clock, a girl about his age barges in asking for the clock back.  The girl is Ella and she is trying to get it back so she can find Eddie. Unfortunately, her dad sold it to Fancy and she has been tracking it down ever since.  She explains everything to Jake and they search for the cuckoo, which had fallen inside. Jake suggests that they repeat Eddie's actions before he disappeared - although he is not entirely convinced that Eddie is really inside the clock.  But, just in case, he says, "Don't touch the...".  Too late.  Ella and Jake both plummet into darkness and find themselves on a ledge inside the clock.....

 My review:
The Golden Cuckoo is a novella for children of pre-to-early teenage.  It is a page-turner of a read and I finished it in a matter of hours.  Jake and Ella find themselves in another world searching for Eddie and discover some shocking things going on, all orchestrated by a dark and dodgy character.  Jake and Ella's plan to rescue Eddie becomes a plan to right the wrong that is occurring.  They have the cuckoo and the more time they spend in the world, the more it seems to be changing before them.  Jake is quite the hero, facing danger and leading the way... hopefully to safety.

This novella read like a pilot to a potentially great series of fantasy novels.  It focuses more on character development, back story and the scenario than it does on drama and plot.  As a result, there are a lot of things that remain a mystery - which could potentially be solved later down the line (e.g. what is the cuckoo and why are the old woman and man so desperate to get their hands on it?). I enjoyed it so much it left me wanting more.

Since it is a page-turner and quick read, it is a great one to introduce to a child who is a reluctant reader.  

This one is part of my indie author showcase and one I consider to be a hidden treasure - the second by this author, which tells me Elizabeth Jasper is one to watch out for.

Friday, 25 October 2013

White Cat (Curse Workers #1) by Holly Black

 ***SBRs 7th Best Read for 2013***

Publication date: 4th May 2010
Published by: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Genre: Fantasy (YA)

My synopsis:
Cassel is the youngest of 3 brothers who come from a line of curse workers (people with magical abilities that they can afflict on others by the touch of a hand).  What has always set Cassel apart from the rest of his family is that he is without magic.  This would seem to explain their focus on protecting and keeping him safe.  Curse working is illegal and most curse workers are criminals - many (like his mother) operating as grifters, identifying marks and scamming them.  At the very top is a mob that compares to the mafia and some work for the mob, acting as hired henchmen, like Cassel's older brothers do, and his grandfather did before them. 

Cassel goes to an elite boarding school, which is his refuge and a means of escape from the unsavory lives his brothers lead.  He tries to distance himself from his family as much as possible. The book starts with him on the roof of the dorm in the middle of the night.  Unable to get down, he has no choice but to call for help.  He does not remember climbing on the roof and believes it happened while he was sleepwalking.  In his dream he was led there by a white cat. The Dean of the school suspects that it may have been an attempted suicide or a stunt and temporarily suspends him from school - pending a medical examination to prove that he is not mentally unstable.  This means he has to go back home to his family.

As a child, he looked up to his oldest brother, Philip, but because of the age difference, felt dismissed by him.  He envied Barron, the middle brother, because of his bond with Philip and because, as they got older, Barron received the love of the girl (Lila) that Cassel craved.  Lila was Cassel's closest friend and he is trying to live with the guilt of having killed her at the age of 14*.  Although the events are sketchy, he relives a memory of himself standing over her lifeless body holding a knife with a wicked grin on his face. His family helped cover it up and prefer not to talk about it. Now in his late teens, Cassel no longer looks up to Philip and is suspicious of him.  He suspects that the only reason Philip's wife hasn't left him is because he has cursed her to stay.  He suspects that he is leading Barron down the wrong path and is responsible for his ever increasing inability to retain his memories but, because Cassel does not have magic, he feels powerless to do anything about any of this.  While at boarding school he had recurring dreams about a white cat.  On returning home he finds he is being stalked by a stray one and takes her in. He soon realises it is the same cat, that she has been communicating with him through his dreams and that she may be the key to unlocking the mysteries surrounding his families' secrets....

My review:
Here is yet another intelligent novel for young adults by Holly Black. This time it focuses on a (very) dysfunctional family who are heavily linked with the mob.  Cassel's mother is in jail - her life as a grifter having caught up with her - and his brothers seem to be preoccupied with some scheme that they are secretive about.  As a reader, the murder seemed completely uncharacteristic of Cassel and I instantly had my doubts about his guilt.  Needless to say, things aren't what they seem.

For me this novel is very much about feeling the outsider of one's family.  It is also about the way 'misfits' become marginalised and how (like a self-fulfilling prophecy) this can lead them to become the same social deviants that they were feared for.  "We are the minority the world does not accept", is how Paige Mahoney** puts it. Also, how vulnerable it makes them (easy pickings for unsavory characters).  Often in such situations a minority group of 'normals' (represented here by Danica and her mother) are smart enough to see what is wrong and care enough to want to do something about it. (And so they try to engage Cassel and get him to join the cause.)

White Cat is an atypical fantasy novel (which just goes to show it is a NOVEL in the true sense of the word) and that is what I liked about it.  I have become a huge fan of Holly Black as a writer and look forward to reading the entire Curse Workers series.  If this sounds like your kind of thing I cannot recommend it highly enough.

*This is not a plot spoiler as Cassel reveals this to us at the beginning of the book.

** Paige Mahoney is the protagonist in The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, a recently published sci-fi/fantasy novel that covers a similar theme.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace

Publication date: 10th May 2012
Published by: Ebury Press
Contemporary Romance & Humour

My synopsis:
Charlotte Street is the story of Jason Priestly, a former teacher who now works as a freelance journalist, writing mainly for one of those free magazines that are handed out outside tube stations.  More than likely, anyone over 35 will know he shares his name with an actor who was big in the 90s for being in the American teen drama, Beverly Hills 90210, something he constantly gets jokes and comments about.

Jase, as he is known, lost his girlfriend to a guy who makes him feel inadequate and his job as a teacher to a traumatic experience that happened in the classroom.  The details of this are sketchy but touched upon at the beginning of the novel.  Now Jase is living with his best friend from uni and his dream job has not turned out to be as great as he had hoped.  He is of a melancholy disposition and is starting to wallow in his sorrows over losing his girlfriend.

One day while standing on Charlotte Street he observes a girl trying to get her many shopping bags into the taxi she hailed.  He goes to her aid and during the brief exchange feels a connection with her.  It is only after the taxi has pulled away that he realises he is still holding something that belongs to her - a 35mm disposable camera.  As the taxi disappears, Jason has a brief fantasy about a more favourable outcome of their exchange (one that ends with them going out) and he wonders how he may find her - if only to return her camera.  The following day he is sitting in a restaurant on Charlotte Street across from where he met The Girl and sees her there again.  He realises she is retracing her steps, looking for something.  He runs to the cloakroom to get his jacket, where her camera is, intending to rush out and give it to her.  It feels like fate and an opportunity to make his fantasy a reality.  The problem is, by the time he gets outside, she is speeding off in a taxi, again....

My review:
I enjoyed Charlotte Street very much and I loved the writing, which is both witty and smart.  Jason is a guy in his early 30s* who isn't having much luck with love, friendships or work.  He is still pining for his ex and spends too much time stalking her on Facebook, only to get upset because she is 'having the time of her life' with her new man.  Dev, his best friend can see that he is in a rut and in danger of moving from melancholy to miserable.  He tries to help by encouraging him to seek out The Girl.  This is meant to keep Jason occupied and to give him hope.  What follows is a mini adventure that involves developing The Girl's pictures and using the snapshots as clues.  The pictures together tell a story and by uncovering the story they hope to find her.

The novel is described as an everyday tale, and that is a good description.  If you are looking for high drama you won't find it in this book.  Instead you get a guy's account of what is going on in his life.  This may sound uninteresting but I enjoyed it because his observations are perceptive and witty.  Jason is humble and self-deprecating and as he talks to us he becomes an open book.  Without admitting it explicitly, we get to see how damaged he has become as a result of a chain of events that started with an awful experience that occurred one day in a classroom. I could not help but empathise and wish him well.  Although flawed (he confesses his sins to us), he is a very likeable character and I could not help but forgive his misdemeanours.  (He is hard enough on himself.) 

Charlotte Street has had mixed reviews and I noticed that, for readers that did not like it, the common criticism was that they found it boring.  Most people aren't interested in hearing about other people's problems - especially the kind therapy may help them overcome.  For some people it's just not fun reading about them; it's boring (which is fair enough).  For me it showed that the writing is not just surface.  There is depth to it - and, personally, I like my novels to have some depth.  Also, there is something I find comforting about characters who wear their heart on their sleeve and admit that shit is happening to them.  After all, is there anyone out there whose life is perfect?

The novel has a cinematic feel to it.  By that I mean I could see it as a British Rom-Com similar to those by Richard Curtis (4 Weddings..., Love Actually etc.).  Danny Wallace is a well-known comedian and writer.  He is writing the screenplay to Charlotte Street so I guess the movie is in the pipeline.

I listened to the audio version, which was read by Mackenzie Crook (the actor who featured in The Office and Pirates of the Caribbean).

*I stand corrected, apparently it is not only some women who have a crisis when they get to the wrong side of 30 (which, BTW, is 31+.)