Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Publication date: 2nd September 2014
Published by: Jonathan Cape

My synposis

One Sunday night while at home preparing for the working week ahead, high court judge Fiona Maye's husband Jack of over 30 years tells her he wants to have an affair with his young statistician and would like her consent.  Furious and hurt she tells him if he does this it will be the end of their marriage.  Jack assures her he does not want a divorce, just one last passionate affair, since she is no longer interested in passion.  They argue and their argument is interupted by a phone call.  It is Fiona's clerk informing her that an urgent case has been assigned to her. 

Adam is a 17 year old boy with a rare type of Leukaemia.  He is in hospital undergoing agressive chemotherapy and he needs a blood transfusion to save his life.  Both Adam and his parents are Jehovia Witnesses and are refusing treatment.  The hospital where he is being treated is appealing to the courts to allow them to treat him against his will.  If they are unable to do so in the next two days he will die....

My review
The Children Act is a relatively short novel (224 pages long) but there is so much contained in it. 

Jack has noticed that Fiona has become distant.  He knows that something has happened that she has chosen not to share with him and he feels alienated because of it.  He feels resentful and enjoys the attention and distraction of another woman.  His declaration to have an affair is really an ultimatum - he is trying to force Fiona to open up to him.  Instead she does the opposite and asks him to leave. 

Fiona specialises in family law, dealing with cases related to divorce and child welfare. The nature of her job means she has to make decisions that affect the lives of children - and in some cases their lives depend on her decisions and one hard decision results in the loss of an innocent life.  It is revealed to us the readers that this decision in particular is the root of the problem that is affecting Fiona's well-being and causing the rift in her marriage - as she she is haunted by the consequences of her decision and is unable to talk about it. 

The case of Adam is an opportunity for Fiona to redeem herself.  That she is childless and not completely without regret about this means that she also develops a maternal affinity for him.

The novel demonstrates the contrast between Fiona's behaviour in her professional capacity - impartial, rational etc., and how she is in her personal life - unable to see beyond her heart ache, irrational, etc.

She rules in favour of the hospital and the outcome of her decision results in some unexpected developments in the story.

I thought The Children Act was a wonderful read and one I will revisit.  I highly recommend it.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Half Bad by Sally Green

Publication date: 3rd March 2014
Published by: Penguin
Genre:  Dark Fantasy (YA)

My Synopsis
Half Bad is the first instalment of the Half Bad fantasy series.  It tells the story of Nathan, a boy who has never met his father and whose mother died when he was very young.  All Nathan knows is that she committed suicide after both she and her husband came into contact with a powerful Black Witch who killed her husband and left her pregnant with him.  Nathan lives with his grandmother and half-siblings who are from a line of White Witches. 

The village where Nathan lives is run by a council of White Witches whose primary objective is to lure and kill Nathan's father.  As Nathan grows up he is constantly targeted by the council.  He has to attend regular assessements to determine whether he is truly 'White' or if he is 'Black'.  If it turns out to be the latter, it would have devastating consequences.  His grandmother has taught him how to evade classification. Nathan's grandmother and 2 out of 3 of his siblings keep telling him he is 'White', but as he grows up he increasingly shows signs of something 'other'.
The Council keeps issuing rules to half-bloods, e.g., preventing them from associating with Whites and having them get council permission to go beyond the boundaries of their home.  It is obvious who they are targeting.  Outside of his family only Annalise, one whom is among the purest of White Witches, will give him the time of day, and to his surprise, she is sweet to him.

His grandmother tries the best she can to protect him but she is no match for The Council and at 14, after Nathan is caught breaking council rules, he is taken from her and his siblings and kept in a cage by a 'guardian'.

After 2 years as a prisoner, Nathan is determined to escape and find Mercury, a Black Witch who, for a price, will help him achieve what is necessary for him to become a witch himself. He has to do this before his seventeenth birthday, and time is running out ...

My Review
Half Bad a is very well written and compelling read.  I enjoyed the story very much.  I also liked the prose.  Nathan tells his story alternating betweem the first and second person POV, depending on context and time.

This is a fairly dark tale of a young boy who is marginalised and discriminated against because his paternal bloodline is considered to be evil and as a half-blood he is seen as tainted (hence the clever design on the front cover). White Witches consider themselves to represent good while Black Witches are considered evil.  And yet, the way most of these White Witches behave suggests otherwise.  Who Nathan is and how he came into the world is not his fault.  There are not many Black Witches in the book but what we learn about Nathan's father would suggest things aren't what they seem.

Half Bad is a young-adult fantasy story with a serious message about racial discrimination embedded in the subtext. 

It only came out in March and the next one isn't due out for a while.  I can't wait!

Highly recommended.

I have also reviewed the second instalment Half Wild.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach

Publication date: 9 July 2013
Published by: Bond Street Books

My Synopsis
Leila is a young woman who lives on the fringes of society. As a teenager she did not understand her peers let alone conform to their ideals. She finds popular culture baffling.  As a result, she is considered a freak in their eyes and was bullied.  The one friend she had moved away and the only family member close to her, her mother, died recently of a debilitating illness.  She is a loner who spends most of her time in her flat on her computer.  When she is not doing her computer-based job from home she is playing World of Warcraft or scouring the internet for websites that interest her. She discovers Red Pill; a website with what appears to be like-minded people who share philosophical ideas run by Adrian.  Adrian is a charismatic leader who has a certain amount of control and power over the site users.  Leila's participation on the site starts to gain her respect and admiration by other users and she is invited to become part of an elite group on the site that take part in intellectual discussions.  Adrian soon becomes impressed with Leila's contributions to the group and he starts sending her direct messages.  After some time Adrian asks for a face to face meeting with Leila and she agrees.  They meet in a public place, a park in North London, and he offers her a job.  It is a unique project which involves taking over the online persona of another woman who wants to 'check out'. In this way, when she disappears her friends and family will be none-the-wiser that she is no longer around.  Leila agrees to take on the project and is put in contact with Tess, the woman who she is to impersonate.

Leila begins working with Tess, learning all there is to know about her life in order to impersonate her.  In doing so, the two women get to know each other and develop a (strange) relationship. Tess is very different from Leila.  She is attractive to others, has many friends and is well cared about by the people close to her.  Now in her early 40s, she has had a very eventful life and there is much for Leila to learn.

The 'project' starts when Tess 'checks out' - telling her friends and family that she is moving to a remote island off the coast of Canada.  Leila takes on Tess' virtual life and discovers that the project is far more complicated to manage than she could have imagined.  She also hadn't anticipated the effect that Tessa no longer being around has on her.  In time, she also learns that there are things about Adrian, his relationship with Tess and the Red Pill site that could land her in serious trouble...

My Review
This book came out last year and was nominated for the Guardian first book award - and I can see why.  For me, Lottie Moggach shows the kind of imagination that any writer/aspiring writer would envy - I certainly do.  I wonder if I could ever come up with such a brilliant premise for a novel - sadly I doubt it. 

I love an underdog and am drawn to characters who are misfits [I'll even get behind the 'poor little rich boy/girl' if (s)he is being oppressed].  That said, Leila isn't necessarily easy to love.  This is because she makes a series of unwise choices - the kind that will have many readers rolling their eyes.  It is difficult to see someone as a victim when their misfortune is self-inflicted. However, her unwise choices result from her naivity and this is her saving grace.  As I progressed with the story Leila grew on me more and more and I came to the conclusion that the 3 major events that occur in her story (associated with her mother, Tess and Connor) have something in common.  They are all the result of unconscious acts of kindness on Leila's part (all be they extreme, unethical and not without risk to herself) and THAT is what makes her loveable.  This also suggests to me that, although she is literally disconnected from the real world, she is not emotionally disconnected from people - so there is hope.

I believe most people would consider Leila's choice to take on this project as an indication that something is not quite right with her psychologically, but her back story and her character makes it understandable.  I found the premise highly plausible and the characters realistic.

I liked seeing the world through Leila's eyes.  Her description of her peers demonstrates how perceptive the author is to the shallow and vacuous side of social networking.  As you can imagine, it is somewhat anti 'the beautiful people' and I suspect those who consider themselves 'too cool for school' aren't going to like this book at all.  I admit it has a melancholic undertone running through it but it isn't bleak like JKR's The Casual Vacancy or Lionel Shriver's Big Brother because it is hopeful and, in the end, has an uplifting feel to it.

I probably would not recommend this book to others because it really is a matter of personal taste - and if you hate it you won't thank me. Let me put it this way:  if you like watching the TV show 'The Voice' but cannot tolerate 'The X Factor'  you're more likely to be fine with it than if your TV-viewing preference is the other way around ; )

I will conclude by saying Kiss Me First is one of my favourite reads for 2014 and one I intend to revisit.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Mrs Dalloway by Virgina Woolf

Original Publication Date: 14 May 1925
This Publication: 28 October 2002 by Houghton Miffin Harcourt
Caution:  This review may contain spoilers

Publication synopsis
Mrs. Dalloway is a novel by Virginia Woolf that details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a fictional high-society woman in post-World War I England. It is one of Woolf's best-known novels.

Created from two short stories, "Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street" and the unfinished "The Prime Minister," the novel addresses Clarissa's preparations for a party she will host that evening. With an interior perspective, the story travels forwards and back in time and in and out of the characters' minds to construct an image of Clarissa's life and of the inter-war social structure. In October 2005, Mrs. Dalloway was included on TIME magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923.

My Review
I do not consider Mrs Dalloway to be an easy read.  On the contrary, it was a challenge.  Not in the sense that it was difficult to understand - I think it is open to all kinds of interpretation - but in the sense that it was hard to stick with. Even so, I found it to be one of the most thought provoking books I have read.  I would put it down in frustration and then find myself analysing the story so far, as I went along.  That is what kept me going.  I was compelled to pick it back up and see where it would go.

Here is my interpretation:
For me this book is about a woman who made the sort of choice that many women of her time and in her position made. Clarissa Dalloway is an upper-middle class woman who chose comfort and security in a husband over true love.  Twenty years on from that choice and she is still doing her best to come to terms with it.  She cares for Richard, her husband, and she loves her comforts, but I got the impression that a day has not gone by when Clarissa has not thought about Pater Walsh (whose marriage proposal she turned down in favour of Richard's), even if it is to contemplate what she considers to be his failures (no title, no position, a series of failed relationships and no children) and reassure herself that she made the right choice.  That is why it was not a coincidence that she would have thought of him the morning he arrives at her house (after a long period away in India).  The exchange that occurs between them is very telling.  They both experience intense joy which they do their utmost to conceal from each other and suppress.  When her daughter makes an appearance Clarissa exclaims "And here is my Elizabeth!"- as if to showcase her 'achievement'. Annoyed, Peter leaves quite abruptly and Clarissa is left to return to her thoughts.  She feels a sense of melancholy but cannot pinpoint what is causing it.  She puts it down to a jibe made by both Peter and Richard about her fixation with organising high society parties.  Could that really be what is causing her melancholia? Or is she in denial?

In parallel, the novel is also about a young man, Septimus Warren Smith, who has survived and returned home from World War 1 with his new Italian wife, Rezia.  Like most men in his situation, Septimus never speaks of what he experienced during the war.  Instead he does his utmost to conceal and suppress it. He is haunted by the horrors and starts to see dead bodies and talks to the dead.  Rezia just wants him to be 'normal' and fears he is mentally ill.  He talks of killing himself but his general practitioner is clueless and keeps saying there is nothing wrong with him.  Rezia's persistance enables a referral to a famouns psychiatrist, Sir William Bradshaw, who confirms that Septimus is very unwell. (At which point I was thinking Hooray!)  Sir William's suggestion for treatment is to have him committed for ... wait for it ... bed rest! It soon becomes clear that Sir William has his own unsympathetic ideas about what is wrong with Septimus and he becomes more of a hinderence than anything else.  Virginia Woolf describes someone experiencing post-traumatic stress before it had become a recognised condition and, as the reader knowing what they don't, I found myself getting exasperated with the doctors for failing him.

With Mrs Dalloway, Virgina Woolf demonstrates the absurdity and banality of British upper-class life, emphasised by comparing Clarissa's woes with those of Septimus.  With the exception of Septimus and his wife Rezia, it is hard to like or even care about these people - which I think is the point.  Should we feel sorry for Clarissa?  Peter is of the same social class as her so marrying him would not have left her poverty stricken.  As far as I am concerned, she made her bed and must lie in it.

I really liked the way Woolf seamlessly takes you in and out of the various characters' heads. Also, the subtle yet powerful way the two stories merge.

A challenging read but well worth it, in my view.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Friday, 30 May 2014

Sex Criminals: Suzie down in the quiet by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky

Publication date: 25th September 2013
Published by: Image Comics
Genre: Fantasy (Graphic Novel)

My Synopsis

The first scene is a couple making out in the restroom of a corporate building.  Outside there are police and one is holding a megaphone demanding that said couple come out with their hands up.  Meanwhile... back in the toilets the make-out session between the couple is getting steamy.

Part 1 is told by Suzie, the female protagonist. She starts at the beginning. Suzie's dad was killed when she was about 13.  Her mother couldn't cope, turned to drink and Suzie was left neglected while trying to come to terms with the loss of her dad.  To get away from the sounds of her mother's weeping, she would take baths - keeping the taps on to drown out the noise and sinking under water where everything would be quiet, which is all she wished for. On one of those occasions she starts to 'experiment' with her body and the effect leads to something very strange.  She discovers that what she did set off a reaction triggering a very unique ability - one that keeps Suzie down in the quiet....

My Review

Some may take a look at the title and the cover of this graphic novel and want to move on, assuming it's going to be pornographic and/or sleazy.  Personally, I was curious to find out the relationship between the operative words 'Sex' and 'Criminals' so I decided to give it a go.

My synosis probably makes it sound dreary and depressing but this is not the case.  Suzie's backstory is an unhappy one but it is told in a light-hearted way with humour.  As the title and synopsis suggest, sex does play a significant part.  However, it is not about sex and it is not in any way pornographic.  So if that's what you're looking for (and I'm not judging) then you might want to look elsewhere.

I found it intriguing and amusing; the illustrations are pretty good, too.  As stories go, this has to be one of the most original I have come across and that is the best thing about it for me.  As I am coming to discover about graphic novels, like comics they run as a series of many instalments. I was compelled to get the next one, which I am currently reading and enjoying.  It is worth bearing in mind however, that if you're not prepared to invest in following the many parts, you probably shouldn't bother as the plot is slowly unravelling with each one.  On the plus side, you don't get that problem of padding out or a flimsy plot that is increasingly common with serialised novels.

Sex Criminals is a really good read.  Highly recommended (for adults).

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Gen (#1-3) by Arisa Karino, Shige Nakamura, et al

Publication date: #1, 1st May 2011 / #2, 1st July 2011 /                                   #3, 1st August 2011
Published by: Gen Manga Entertainment, Inc.
Genre: Manga (Japanese Comics)

Gen #1

Gen #2 by

Gen #3 by

Gen is described as a series of previously unpublished stories straight from the Toyko underground.  Manga (Japanese comics) is new to me and this is my first experience.  The first thing I had to get used to was reading from right-to-left, which I got the hang of really quickly.  There are 4 stories each by a different writer/graphic designer.  By the end of each one I was left dangling and didn't get it. It was only on getting a copy of the second instalment that I realised all 4 stories are serialised - so story 1 in Gen 1 continues as story 1 in Gen 2 and so on.  Yeah okay to all you clever clogs manga readers who are thinking Duh! right now ; )

Story 1 - Wolf is about an angry young man who has a raw talent for fighting.  He leaves his mother to move to Tokyo in search of his estranged father, who it turns out abandoned him and his mother when he was a child.

Story 2 - VS Aliens is about 3 teenagers, two girls and a boy, one of whom is (possibly) an alien. I don't think I'll even bother to elaborate further.

Story 3 - Kamen tells the tale of a character who has a permanent talking mask stuck to his face.  It communicates with him and if he removes it he will die. The mask has the power to protect him and it does so in order to preserve itself.

Story 4 - Souls (?) You got me.  I'm not entirely sure what this one is supposed to be about.  It sort of reminds me of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol in that a woman is being visited by and spector and is taken on a journey where she faces the error of her ways: her harsh treatment towards her daughter.  It all stems from her personal demons, which we get a look at.  It's like being a fly on the wall of someone's therapy sessions - not exactly light entertainment.

I liked Kamen best and quite liked Wolf.  I would be interested in following those stories.  I found the story-telling and characters of VS Aliens too wooden for my liking.  Also, the teenage boy is on a huge ego kick - he seems to think he has the pick of both girls *yawn*. Souls is a bit too heavy for my liking - all that female weeping and hysteria.  In truth, at times I found myself irritated by the portrayal of the women in these stories and I found the attitudes towards women in general rather pre-20th century.

Perhaps manga is an acquired taste; I'm not sure it's to my taste.  The jury is out and I'd need to read more to know for sure.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Days of the Bagnold Summer by Joff Winterhart

Publication Date: 21st July 2012
Published by: Random House UK
Genre: Contemporary (Graphic novel)

Publisher's Synopsis
A tale of single parenting and heavy metal.

'When someone looks back and writes a history of this summer, two people they will almost certainly leave out are Sue ad Daniel Bagnold...'

So begins Joff Winterhart's sublimely funny and perceptive graphic novel, Days of the Bagnold Summer. Sue, 52, works in a library. Daniel, 15, is still at school. This was the summer holidays Daniel was due to spend with his father and his father's pregnant new wife in Florida. When they cancel his trip, Sue and Daniel face six long weeks together.

Joff Winterhart perfectly captures the ennui, the tension, the pathos and yes, the affection of this mother-son relationship. Already well-known for his animated films like Violet and Turquoise, he here shows himself to be a comics author of extraordinary talent

My Review
Days of the Bagnold Summer is the graphic novel that turned my attention to the genre. I discovered it while listening to a book-related podcast dedicated to GNs and it was at the time that it had been nominated for the 2012 Costa Prize.

What I discovered from reading this novel was that GN's aren't all about superheros and supernatural creatures.  (No doubt most people aren't as clueless as I am.)  This one is a contemporary poignant tale of a relationship between a single mother and her son.  You get to see both perspectives.

I am starting to really appreciate the power of the menage of written and pictorial story-telling. The illustrations in this one are brilliant.  I could actually see traces of Sue as well as Daniel's father in him.

It is realistic and unglamourous in the way British contemporary drama is usually portrayed (in contrast to the fantasy and slickness of American contemporary drama, i.e., characters are good-looking with perfect white teeth, great bodies often glamoursly dressed, living in nice houses, often in quaint small towns or the good parts of well-known cities). 

The synopsis mentions humour and I could see where this was intended, but I didn't laugh much.  If I am honest, I found it rather dreary and a bit of a slog to get through.  Each to their own but, unashamedly, I prefer my drama dished out the slick American way (although beauty is relative and I suppose I can tolerate the absence of perfect white teeth). 

Friday, 2 May 2014

Saga (Volumes 1-3) by Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples

Publication date: Vol 1, 23rd October 2012
                              Vol 2, 2nd July 2013
                              Vol 3, 25th April 2014
Published by: Image Comics
Genre: Science Fiction / Fantasy (Graphic novels)

Saga is a popular series of graphic novels about a couple trying to protect their newborn baby from a war between their two homes.  The narrator is Hazel, a much older version of the mixed-raced infant.  In volume one, Hazel introduces the reader to her parents, reveals some of their backstory and tells how, while on the run, she comes into the world. 

My Synopsis
Landfall is the largest planet in the galaxy.  The inhabitants are humanoid creatures with wings.  The planet is orbited by a moon known as Wreath.  The inhabitants of Wreath are also humanoid but with goat-like features and magical abilities.  The inhabitants of Landfall and Wreath are sworn enemies and have been at war for generations.  Attacking each others' homes has an adverse effect on their own, so they have taken to fighting 'off world' on other planets, thus drawing other species into their battle and forcing them to choose a side.  Alana (pictured on the left of the cover) is a Landfallian soldier who has been sent to one of these planets, Cleave.  There she is assigned the job of guarding prisoners of war. She meets Marko (pictured to her right), a Wreathian soldier and prisoner.  Against the odds, they unite and go on the run together...

My Review
My initial feeling about volume 1 was that, although it has adult content (nudity, sex, swearing, violence and dark areas to the story that may not be suitable for under 15s), the writing is rather juvenile and would appeal mostly (but not exclusively) to teenage boys.  While reading it I thought it was just okay, nothing extraordinary; although it is peppered with humour, which is always good. But after I completed it I found myself coming back to the plot several times - and the more I thought about it, the more I contemplated the serious issues and came to realise it's hidden depths.  For example, while reading it I didn't get why Izabel the ghost had to appear as half a body with her intestines hanging out.  I put this down to appealing to teenage boys who like gore.  But, on reflection, I considered that Izabel was a teenager who died when she accidentally stepped on a landmine and the gore is a constant reminder of the horrors of war. 

The juvenile writing is absent in volume 2, which is probably why I enjoyed it even more than the first.  Being a huge sci-fi fan, the plot is one that appeals to me.  It reminds me most of The Terminator, as this couple and their baby are constantly on the run for their lives (from both machines and mercenaries alike). Also, Marko reminds me of Kyle Reese, the brave human soldier who travelled back in time to protect Sarah Connor from 'termination' and ends up fathering her child (John Connor who grows up and leads the rebellion against the machines).

Most of the time I find it hard to understand how readers can find fictional characters attractive.  (I never got the appeal of Fitzwilliam Darcy or Christian Grey.) The notion seems rather ridiculous to me - and yet I get it where Marko is concerned. I am not sure what the formula is for creating such a character but Staples and Vaughan clearly do. Staples' animation + Vaughan's personable character creation = Marko dripping with sex appeal. (Don't snigger, I kid you not!)  Of course, it does depend on what 'floats your boat' and rather than being the usual over-protective alpha-male, Marko is a combination of 'knight in shining armour' and sensitive 'new man' (yum yum).

If Alana is anything like Sarah Connor it's the transformed one - the one who first appears in the second film; the tough, ruthless, and brave one. I suspect there is a formula that makes her appealing, too (that is, unless one prefers a 'damsel in distress'.)  I did wince at some of the stuff that came out of her mouth (particularly when she and Marko are 'getting down and dirty'); to say some of what she says is 'unladilike' would be an understatement, 'bloakish' would be a more accurate discription. [sexy? funny? outragious!]

Alana discovers, in the most unlikely of places, the idea that there is a better way to live.  Both she and Marko share a sensibility to D. Oswald Heist's philosophy, i.e. war is stupid. It leads them to start thinking about the possibility of peace between their races; an idea that is unthinkable to everyone else.  But the idea results in their very union and the birth of their child, a symbol of future possibility. 

I have now come to appreciate that the Saga series is a combination of slick written and pictorial story-telling.  Graphic novels are known to be generally aimed at [and appeal to] men.  Not this one: Saga is mindful of gender equality, suggesting it would appeal to men and women alike.  The sex and violence is never gratuitous but instead a relevant part of the story-telling.  I have become quite addicted and will be following it with keen interest.

Very highly recommended (to adults).

Friday, 25 April 2014

The Woman He Loved Before by Dorothy Koomson

Publication date: 3 February 2011
Published by: Hachette
Contemporary fiction for women

The publisher's synopsis:
Libby has a nice life with a gorgeous husband and a big home by the sea. But over time she is becoming more unsure if Jack has ever loved her ? and if he is over the death of Eve, his first wife. When fate intervenes in their relationship, Libby decides to find out all she can about the man she hastily married and the seemingly perfect Eve. Eventually Libby stumbles across some startling truths about Eve, and is soon unearthing more and more devastating family secrets. Frightened by what she finds and the damage it could cause, Libby starts to worry that she too will end up like the first woman Jack loved...Tense and moving, The Woman He Loved Before explores if the love you want is always the love you need ? or deserve.

My Review:
I listened to the audio version of this novel and quite liked it. The mystery behind it made it an intriguing page-turner. In particular, I found Jack's first wife Eve’s story fascinating and worked well - as did her relationship with Jack and the reasons for him wanting to 'hang on'. The events of the first date between Jack and Libby were unexpected - and some may be shocked - but it becomes clear that it is significant to the story. I did sometimes find myself questioning the plausibility of aspects of the story (it seemed like things were thrown in to aid the plot - like Libby telling Hector what she knew - would she really do that?). Also, I found the romantic dialogues between the lovers (Jack and Libby / Jack and Eve) a bit too corny and perhaps could have been toned down a bit. Then again, parts of this book are tough to read so maybe she wanted to balance things out.  I am not a fan of soppy romance but it certainly did not put me off as overall it was a great read. This was the first Dorothy Koomson book I read (and this is an old review - hence the quality).  I have since read Goodnight, Beautiful, which I preferred.

The Woman He Loved Before is another bitter-sweet romance by Koomson and (despite in my view the tendency for parts of her plots to be contrived) she does them well. I look forward to reading more of her books.  I already have two more on my shelf - The Cupid Effect and The Chocolate Run - so there are more reviews to come.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

Publication date:  13th February 2014
Published by: Simon & Schuster 

Publisher's synopsis
Until the moment he received a frantic call from his father, Daniel believed his parents were headed into a peaceful, well-deserved retirement. They had sold their home and business in London, and said "farewell to England" with a cheerful party where all their friends had gathered to wish them well on their great adventure: setting off to begin life anew on a remote, bucolic farm in rural Sweden.

But with that phone call, everything changes. Your mother's not well, his father tells him. She's been imagining things--terrible, terrible things. She's had a psychotic breakdown, and has been committed to a mental hospital.

Daniel prepares to rush to Sweden, on the first available flight the next day. Before he can board the plane, his father contacts him again with even more frightening news: his mother has been released from the hospital, and he doesn't know where she is.

Then, he hears from his mother:

I'm sure your father has spoken to you. Everything that man has told you is a lie. I'm not mad. I don't need a doctor. I need the police. I'm about to board a flight to London. Meet me at Heathrow.

Caught between his parents, and unsure of who to believe or trust, Daniel becomes his mother's unwilling judge and jury as she tells him an urgent tale of secrets, of lies, of a horrible crime and a conspiracy that implicates his own father.

My review 

Daniel is hiding something from his parents.  Something that has led him to avoid visiting them since they retired to a remote farm in Sweden.  He soon discovers that they too are hiding things from him.  

First he receives an alarming call from his father (Chris) about his mother (Tilde) and then he receives a worrying one from his mother implicating his father.

When Tilde arrives in London, she asks Daniel to hear her out.  All will be revealed, she clarifies, but she has to be allowed to tell it her way.  All she asks is that he be impartial.  She then begins to give a detailed account of events that have been occurring since she and Chris, moved to Sweden.  This becomes the narrative of the story which is told as though a lawyer is presenting a case to a jury rather than a mother talking to her son.  Tilde outlines the 'facts' as they occurred.  However, not all the information she offers are facts.  She fills in gaps with speculation and, as the reader, I found myself saying - hang on a second, certain things just don't add up.  Even so, her account is believable and it becomes clear that something ugly and sinister is going on in the small rural community that she and Chris moved to - and it would seem Chris is involved.  From very early on Tilde hints at what may have occurred and who the victims are. 

Tilde predicts every move that Chris makes while she is in London giving her account to Daniel - such as his decision to fly to London, his attempts to stop her having an opportunity to convince Daniel that what she has to say is true.  It is also apparent that he withholds information - all of which leaves Daniel suspicious and forces him to consider the possibility that his father is capable of monstrous acts - either that or his mother needs psychiatric treatment - both hard to reconcile with.

In the end, it is for Daniel (and the reader) to decide who to believe.

I really enjoyed this book. The plot was the best thing about it for me.  For example, during Tilde's account she would go off on a tangent and talk about stuff that didn't seem to make sense or be relevant (such as the troll story), leaving the reader to question her sanity.  However, everything comes together and it all makes perfect sense.  

The book is about family secrets and lies.  It is also about a desperate cry for help and the need for redemption.  I admit I was apprehensive and felt I had to brace myself for the big reveal - the subtle hints from Tilde helped me prepare myself.  I felt so engaged I had to see it through to the end - which was unpredictable.

The story is based on a real experience - of the author - although much of the plot is fiction.  

The Farm is a treasure and  I will definitely be reading more from Tom Rob Smith. 
To find out more you can listen to Tom Rob Smith talk about The Farm and his writing as part of the crime fiction discussion on The Guardian Books Podcast.

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh

Publication date: 25th February 2014
Published by: Random House Canada

Publisher's synopsis
Taking place over the course of one week, The Lemon Grove lands in the heat of Deia, a village on an island off the southeast coast of Spain. Jenn and Greg are on their annual holiday to enjoy languorous, close afternoons by the pool, and relaxed dinners overlooking the rocks. But the equilibrium is upset by the arrival of their teenage daughter, Emma, and her boyfriend, Nathan. Jenn, in her early forties, loves her (older) husband and her (step)daughter and is content with her life, she thinks. But when this beautiful, reckless young man comes into her world, she is caught by a sexual compulsion that she's seldom felt before. As the lines hotly blur between attraction, desire and obsession, Jenn’s world is thrown into tumult--by Nathan's side, she could be young and carefree once again, and at this stage in her life, the promise of youth is every bit as seductive as the promise of passion. Jenn struggles between the conflicting pulls of resistance and release, and the events of the next few days have the potential to put lives in jeopardy as the players carry out their roles in this unstoppably sexy and unputdownable novel from a brilliant observer of the human condition.

My Review
Jen has enjoyed the first week of her holiday alone with husband Greg but is dreading the arrival of her stepdaughter Emma, which is how the book opens.  

Emma has persuaded her parents to let her bring her boyfriend, Nathan on the holiday with her.  It is clear to Jenn that Nathan is Emma's first love; she is completely besotted with him.  Observing them, her perception is that this relationship will most likely unravel and fall apart and that Emma will suffer when that happens.  She went through it herself as a teenager so she knows - and she is powerless to do anything about it.  You get the sense that all is not right with Jenn and 15 year old Emma.  It would seem that tension and resentment has been building on both sides for some time. An unfortunate incident causes a confrontation between the women the moment Emma and Nathan arrive and Emma continues to be nasty to Jenn thereafter. 

Jenn only met Nathan briefly in the UK and she did not get a proper look at him.  Now she has had a chance to meet him properly she can't help but notice how attractive he is.  Unlike Emma, Nathan is polite and friendly towards her.  She is surprised, although pleased, that he is a working class boy from the north.

Walsh writes about the GB class divide as well as the North-South divide. Jenn is a northerner who was raised in a working class family.  Greg is middle class and a southerner.  Jenn is not happy that Greg had insisted that Emma attend a private school and she resents having to pay for it.  Emma, as a consequence moves in circles of the affluent.  She uses her social status to snipe at Jen; she comments on how 'common' she looks, mocks her accent and implies that she is poorly educated. However, she does this not because she believes it, but because she knows how much it hurts Jenn - and she is out to inflict as much pain as possible. Why so hateful?  Mostly because she's 15 (see paragraph, below).  She doesn't really care about class - if she did she wouldn't be dating a 17 year old male version of Jenn, which also suggests to me that her hatred towards her stepmother is superficial.

The tension between the two women is mainly due to the fact that they are both at stages in their lives fraught with angst - Emma is at the peak of adolescence and Jenn has just approached what she considers to be 'middle age' and trying to come to terms with this.  She is overly conscious of her 'aging' body - which I imagine is in a lot better shape than she makes out - and she envies the teens their youth. That Jenn is not Emma's birth mother is also part of the problem, as is the fact that she never got to have a child of her own.  (Had either been the case I envisage an entirely different scenario.)  All this seems to have triggered in Jenn a mid-life crisis.  She demonstrates all the signs, including lusting after and becoming obsessed with Nathan.  Without giving too much away - no doubt you can imagine - the scenario heads in a downward spiral as the plot unravels and makes for very interesting reading. 

As for Jenn's relationship with Greg: they seem to be in a rut and she has lost interest in him (although possibly this is another symptom of the mid-life crisis).  She certainly has no interest in him sexually and she seems to think he is content with his life and their marriage as things stand.  It becomes clear that she doesn't know her husband as well as she thinks.  He certainly deserves more credit than she gives him.  The same applies to Emma.  Despite having raised her from a very young age, she does not really know or understand her.  In that sense, Jenn discovers who her husband and her stepdaughter really are on this holiday.

The Lemon Grove is a relatively short novel (288 pages) that reads very well.  It is smart and perceptive but for me the best thing about it is the prose - it is a beautifully written piece of literary fiction, in my view. As for the ending... very nicely done.

Highly recommended.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Cloak and Dagger by Nenia Campbell

Publication date: 24 October 2012
Published by: Self-published
Genre: Romance / Crime Thriller (NA)

My Synopsis
Michael is a professional assassin working for Integrated Military Affairs (or the IMA), a powerful organisation of mercenaries.  He is young, good looking, and the best at what he does.  Despite being in his early 20s he is a high ranking agent, in charge of other agents, many of whom are jostling to climb the ladder of success and gain power in the organisation.  As such, some of his subordinates would be happy for him to fail and he has to watch his back when around certain colleagues.

Michael is working on a case investigating a breach in the IMAs security.  A computer hacker was able to infiltrate the company's network, access top secret information and plant a virus, causing serious damage to their systems.

The prime suspect is an expert in computer science, a man called Rubens Parker and Michael's only lead to him is via Parker's 18 year old daughter, Christina.

Christina Parker is an 18 year old good christian girl who is a senior at a private catholic school.  She has lived a sheltered and privileged life.  She lives in the shadow of her hateful, vacuous and over-bearing mother who was formerly a model and currently works as a fashion designer. This woman has made Christina feel self-conscious about her weight and deflated her self-confidence. One day Christina returns home from school to find her parents gone and a phone message warning her to get out of the house.  Before she is able to act she is attacked, rendered unconscious and taken.  She wakes to find herself in the back of a moving car, stunned by the realisation that she has been kidnapped.

Michael takes Christina to a 'safe house' owned by the IMA and holds her prisoner. He intends to use her as a bargaining chip to gain access to her father.  However, Michael fails to make progress in that regard and falls out of favour with his superiors.  His interaction with Christina also has an affect on him - could he be developing a conscience?  Things get complicated for him when his overly ambitious subordinate and rival, Adrian Callaghan, intervenes (on the orders of Michael's boss), taking Christina from the premises (while Michael is away) delivering her to IMA headquarters where she is in even more danger than ever; Micheal's approach had been to instil fear using threats he would not carry out whereas his colleagues have no problem inflicting pain and suffering on their captors.  The idea of Christina being tortured does not sit well with Michael so he defies his boss and attempts to get her back...

My Review
I liked this novel. I found it gripping from the very first page and it became more so with each chapter.  The story is told from two perspectives, Michael's and Christina's.  They are polar opposites; Christina is an angelic character while Michael's character is very dark.  (We learn from his back story that he grew up rough, became a vicious criminal and a gang member before he was spotted and recruited by the IMA.)

The novel is quite dark and goes to places some readers may find disturbing.  It may even anger some as Christina suffers repeatedly while captive by Michael and later by Adrian.

Make no mistake, Cloak and Dagger is a new adult fiction novel of the hot and steamy romantic kind (you know the ones that tend to have hand-cuffs or f*ck-me stilettos on the cover). Yes there are elements of the crime thriller but that aspect is rather contrived and serves purely to facilitate what the book is actually about, i.e. Michael and Christina's relationship.  That said, what sets it apart from the NA books mentioned below** is that they all read like romantic porn (and by that I mean they seek to stimulate the romantic desires of the reader) whereas Cloak and Dagger does not try to manipulate its readers and therefore, manages to avoid gratuitous romance - it is completely absent of fluff. 

It is not without problem areas.  I felt it started to falter towards the end, when Michael and Christina arrive in Seattle.  We are told that he is the best and yet what follows are a series of events that demonstrate that he is an incompetent field agent. By the time he realises his mistakes it's too late and his actions lead to Christina's capture by the IMA (for the 4th time!).  Also, he would sometimes say things that were at odds with his character.  For example, "..she slept with him for money and she had a child with him out of wedlock.  Both things make her a whore in my book."  This suggests to me that Michael is both an assassin and a devout christian (??). 

It is a thought-provoking read.  The significance of the female protagonist's name was not lost on me.  Her character is Christ-like (she endures countless suffering as a sacrifice for the sins of those around her, in particular her parents and later Michael).  She does this without hatred or malice and is willing to bear the sacrifices time and time again - and boy does she!

The relationship between Christina and Michael is very complex; the abuser and the abused is how it starts out, but the line blurs as the plot develops.  His treatment of her is undoubtedly abominable, but his back story and character explain (although do not justify) the reasons behind it.  The situation is not black and white - more like (Fifty) Shades of Grey. [Sorry, I couldn't resist.]

Cloak and Dagger is well worth reading in my opinion (although one you might want to avoid if you prefer your romance served sweet).  There is a sequel called Armed and Dangerous in which I hope Christina's situation improves - less Shawshank, more Redemption - and the dynamic of her relationship with Michael changes so the balance of power shifts from him to her.  I would however be disappointed if it turns out to be more of the same.

**If you are interested in reading a dark NA novel - minus the rom-porn - forget Fifty Shades, forget Gabriel's Inferno, forget Beautiful Disaster and read Cloak and Dagger instead.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Black Heart (Curse Workers #3) by Holly Black

Publication date: 3rd April 2012
Published by: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Genre: Crime mystery/Fantasy (YA)

Caution: may contain spoilers from books 1 & 2.

Publisher's Synopsis
Cassel Sharpe has the most deadly ability of all. With one touch, he can transform any object - including a person - into something else entirely. And that makes him a wanted man. The Feds are willing to forgive all his past crimes if he'll only leave his con artist family behind and go straight. But why does going straight feel so crooked?

For one thing, it means being on the opposite side of the law from Lila, the girl he loves. She's the daughter of a mob boss and getting ready to join the family business herself. Though Cassel is pretty sure she can never love him back, he can't stop obsessing over her. Which would be bad enough, even if her father wasn't keeping Cassel's mother prisoner in a posh apartment and threatening not to let her leave until she returns the priceless diamond she scammed off him years ago. Too bad she can't remember where she put it.

The Feds say they need Cassel to get rid of a powerful man who is spinning dangerously out of control. But if they want Cassel to use his unique talent to hurt people, what separates the good guys from the bad ones? Or is everyone just out to con him?

Time is running out, and all Cassel's magic and cleverness might not be enough to save him. With no easy answers and no one he can trust, love might be the most dangerous gamble of all...

My Review
Black Heart is the final book to the Curse Workers series by Holly Black.  It follows on from Red Glove (which was preceded by White Cat).

The plot for Black Heart was introduced in Red Glove and focuses on Cassel's mother who is in trouble with a powerful politician and with the head of the mob.  When she outlines the situation for Cassel, once again, it is up to him to fix it.

Cassel continues to struggle with his decision about what to do with his life after graduation - whether he should work for the Feds or the mob.  This is complicated further by Lila's aspirations to become her father's successor.

There is an interesting development to Sam and Daneca's relationship when a third party comes between them.

The climax centres on a very tricky situation that Cassel has to find a way out of and the resolution is very clever indeed.

[Potential spoiler alert:  While reading I found myself thinking how great it would be if, for a change, the female character would swoop in on her white horse and do the saving....  End of Spoiler alert.]

The Curse Workers has officially become my second* favourite fantasy fiction series.  If, like me, you like your YA fantasy leaning towards the dark side, you'll most likely enjoy it.  All 3 books are consistent in standard of quality: intrigue, page-turnability, plot rigor etc. 

Holly Black has officially become SBRs' YA fantasy fiction author to read for review (author of our time, that is).  I know I keep saying this but her writing is intelligent without being too intellectually challenging (in a world - let's face it - where being smart just ain't where it's at). I also love that, unlike most of her contemporaries, her books not only address serious issues like the social class divide and gender inequality, they also embrace diversity.  Thank you Holly Black.

For more reviews of books by Holly, check out my Author's index.

*My all time favourite being Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor

Publication date: 29th September 2011
Published by: Hodder & Stoughton
Genre: Fantasy/Romance (YA)

Publisher's Synopsis
Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky. 

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil's supply of human teeth grown dangerously low.
And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war. 

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she's prone to disappearing on mysterious "errands"; she speaks many languages--not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she's about to find out. 

When one of the strangers--beautiful, haunted Akiva--fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

My Review
This novel turned out to be a very pleasant surprise indeed!  I don't know why I was expecting another Twilightesque story but it turns out nothing is further from the truth.

This one has an original plot that kept me interested throughout.  It is set in Prague and it captures the beauty of the city perfectly.  [I went there for a weekend break some years ago.  I don't know what I was expecting but the city turned out to be as much of a surprise as this novel was.  For me it can only be rivaled by London and Paris... and perhaps Barcelona.  Anyway, I digress!].  There is so much to love about Daughter of Smoke and Bone.  For one thing the names of the main characters - Karou and Akiva - fabulous.  For another there is so much mystery surrounding it.  Karou does not know who she is, how she came to be raised by a demon or why he keeps sending her on the oddest of missions.  Akiva is bitter and full of anguish about something.  He is strangely drawn to Karou and does not understand why.  Their first encounter is pretty explosive and simply brilliant.

The pace of the novel is excellent.  It starts out as a slow burner and picks up as the reader continues.  YA fantasy/romance lovers trust me, if you haven't read it you should. By the middle I'd be stunned if you aren't truly engrossed, and by the end if you don't hunger for more.

I'm not alone.  It has been rated by over 85K readers on Goodreads and has an average score of 4.08 out of 5.  I hasten to add that with the popular YA fantasy books I don't always agree that their high rating is warranted, but this time I agree wholeheartedly.

Seriously, get a copy.  It's treasure.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Burning Emerald by Jaime Reed

Publication date: 29th May 2012
Published by: Dafina
Genre: Fantasy (Young Adult)

** Spoiler Alert ** 
Skip synopsis and go straight to review to avoid.

My synopsis
Burning Emerald is the second book in The Cambion Chronicles  series by Jaime Reed.  I have just finished reading it for the second time (along with the rest of the series).

Living Violet, the first book, ended with the tragic death of Sam's friend Nadine.  In this book she is struggling to come to terms with her death, and cope with her new supernatural status as a Cambion, which occurred when Nadine's sentient left her body and entered Sam's as a means to survive.  Sam now has an internal 'room mate', Lilith, as well as Nadine's life energy and memories.  Nadine's mother, Angie, has taken Sam under her wing and become like a second mother,  offering her support and protection.  She tries to go back to normalcy - school and her job at Buncha Books - but this proves easier said than done.

Caleb, now a DJ, gets a gig playing at a house party on Halloween night and Samara goes along also.  While on a break, Caleb helps himself to Samara's drink. Unknown to them both, the drink has been tampered with and soon after Caleb is doubled over in pain. He is taken to hospital in critical condition and it transpires that he has been poisoned.

At school Samara is pursued by one of the popular guys, a jock named Malik Davies.  Until now he has always been mean to her but she understands that being a Cambion means she will attract the attention of most men. Malik's pusuit is relentless and it soon transpires that he isn't what he seems...

My review
Of all the books in the series this one provides the most info about Cambions; what they are, how they came into existence etc.  We learn that there is always a temptation for Cambions to feed excessively off humans and in doing so they run the risk of losing their humanity and transforming into demons.  This is what happened to Caleb's father. They are ruled by powerful families who govern territories all over the world.  Samara and Caleb live in the region where the Santiago family are in charge and the family is suspicious of Caleb because of his father. [In Living Violet they sent one of their employees, a private detective called Ruiz, to keep an eye on him and his brothers.]

Caleb is absent for much of this one and his absence was felt.  I missed his interaction with Samara, from their verbal sparing to their (reluctant) romantic exchanges.  That said, the introduction of Tobias to the story and the challenges he presents for Samara make for an intriguing plot development. But, as a demonic character, Tobias is pretty tame; if he has an evil side I did not read about it.  He preferred to take a gentle approach to getting his way and at times showed signs of his humanity (such as his relationship with Malik's little brother, albeit for selfish reasons).  In that sense, unlike Caleb's father in Living Violet, I'm not convinced that Reed demonstrated effectively through Tobias' character the difference between a demon and a Cambion.

The story ends on a cliffhanger and I enjoyed it even more the second time around.

Highly recommended.

I have also reviewed Fading Amber, the third and final instalment.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Red Glove (Curse Workers #2) by Holly Black

Publication date: 5th April 2011
Published by: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Genre: Crime mystery/Fantasy (YA)

Caution: contains spoilers from Book 1 (White Cat)

My Synopsis
Red Glove is the second book to the Curse Workers series by Holly Black.  It follows on from the first novel, White Cat

At the end of the first novel Cassel Sharpe transformed Lila Zacharov back to her human form.  Lila is the love of his life but she always preferred his older brother, Baron.  To Cassel's horror his mother curses Lila to love him, which means all expressions of love on her part aren't real - ruining his chances of a genuine relationship with her.

At the start of Red Glove, Cassel is told that his oldest brother, Philip, has been killed.  Philip had been working for the Zacharov family, the mob leaders, but was forced to betray them and become an informant for the FBI.  It would seem someone found out and murdered him.

Cassel attends Philip's funeral with the moral support of his friends Sam and Daneca.  He confides as much as he can to them and they begin to investigate Philip's murder.  Soon after, Cassel is approached by Lila's father, the head of the mob, and is offered a job.  In return Zacharov offers him and his family protection.  He is also approached by the FBI who try to entice him to join them, offering to recruit him as a trainee agent after graduation.   He does not commit to either but keeps either side appeased by appearing to help them both. He will have to pick a side soon and time is running out.

In the meantime, Cassel's mother is out of prison and has resumed her career as a con artist.  She has identified a new mark - a high profile politician who is anti-curse workers and is rallying to pass a bill that would further limit their human rights and freedom. 

Cassel attempts to solve the mystery of his brother's murder, maintain a relationship with Lila while deflecting her advances, keep his troublesome family members out of trouble and his darkest secrets from his friends...

My Review
This is yet another excellent novel by Holly Black and a fantastic follow-up to White Cat.  As always with her work, it is intelligently written and never boring.  I like the cross-over of genres from fantasy into crime mystery territory.

The subplot that focuses on the relationship between Cassel and Lila is original and very well executed.  Most of us would agree that it can get boring fast if the 'lovers' of a novel come together too early in the story and irritating when the conflict to keep them apart is predictable and cliche.  In this case it is Cassel's mother's intervention that puts a stop to it and he is tormented by his love for a girl who he believes cannot genuinely return those feelings, while at the same time expresses a longing to be with him.  He finds it increasingly hard to resist the temptation to give in but realizes that Lila's absence of free will would make it wrong to do so and she would not forgive him if he took advantage of the situation .  The curse is temporary so he has no choice but to wait it out, not holding out much hope for their future when it does wear off.

I enjoyed the complexity of Cassel's situation.  He aspires to be good and wants to be on the side that will allow him to do so.  He does not want to become a hired killer.  However, it is difficult to identify where the side of good begins and evil ends (since the line separating them is somewhat blurred).  I found his relationship with his brother Baron fascinating.  On the surface it's all sibling rivalry but underneath lies a bond.  Whereas their mother is a nuisance who creates no end to problems left for Cassel to fix. 

The curse worker series is proving to be a must read.  I look forward to reviewing Black Heart, book 3. 

Friday, 28 February 2014

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Publication Date:  5th June 2012
Published by:  Henry Holt & Co.
Genre: Fantasy (Young Adult)

My Synopsis
Shadow and Bone tells the story of two young orphans, a girl called Alina and a boy called Mal, who have been taken in by a wealthy patron and raised by his housekeeper. They are not siblings but they are as close as brother and sister. When they are not in lessons or doing chores, they spend their time playing in the big house or on the grounds.

One day they are presented to three adults (known as Grisha) who have come to test them.  They are not sure what the test is for but neither of them pass.

It moves forward to their teens, a war is on and they have both joined the regiment of Ravka.  They are about to confront the dangers of the Shadow Fold, an unnatural phenomenon that has caused a rift through Ravka.  Within the rift is complete darkness. It is where the Volcra reside: supernatural flying creatures that feed on human flesh, known to attack those who enter the Shadow Fold.  Alina and Mal with their regiment are required to cross the fold.  They are both afraid but understand that this is something they must do.

During the crossing they are attacked by the Volcra who swoop down on them from the sky.  Mal puts himself in front of Alina to protect her.  He is attacked and they are about to be killed when something strange happens.  A bright and blinding light appears that causes the creatures to back away.  Alina is rendered unconscious and wakes to find herself a prisoner under suspicion, but she does not understand why.  She is brought before the Darkling, a powerful and seductive being, where she is accused of being the source of the bright light.  She knows to herself that this cannot be possible but many testify that they witnessed the powerful light coming out of her.  The Darkling uses his power to put this to the test, causing unexplained power inside Alina to respond to his call and dispersing the powerful light to everyone's shock - Alina included...

My Review
What I liked most about this novel was that it was different from any other YA fantasy I have read to date (many of which tend to follow a similar storyline and format - for one thing it is not set in a small town in the USA but a fictional country that resembles Russia).  The beginning provided a good backstory of the main characters and, as the plot developed, a good clarification of the situation they found themselves in.  I was not so keen on the middle part when Alina discovers that she is a Grisha and spends time in their presence.  It got rather tedious and dragged for me.  The story picked up pace once the true motives of the Darkling was made known to Alina (and to the reader). 

A Comparison
Shadow and Bone is certainly a good read with an original plot that is imaginative and well thought out.  Also, I found it to be rigorous (absent of flaws and/or plot holes, which is not easy to achieve). It was brought to my attention because The Bone Season is said to be very similar.  I would agree with that and I would go as far as to say the central plot of The Bone Season owes a debt to Shadow and Bone (among others including The Hunger Games).  That said, it's lack of originality of plot is compensated for by it's originality of mythology, complexity of plot and intrigue.  In contrast, although intelligently written, I would not describe  Shadow and Bone as intellectually challenging*. 

I did enjoy Shadow and Bone and, were I to compile a list of noteworthy YA fantasy novels, it would definitely make the list (unlike some of the more obvious ones).

*An observation but by no means a criticism.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Downtime (update)

Sooz Book Reviews is on downtime

Back at the end of the month
when YA fiction reviews are to be continued

In the meantime, if you were lucky enough to get a Kindle (or other e-reading device) for Christmas, check out my A-Z Genres page
 for some e-book reading ideas.

I'm off to pastures warm and tropical.  Seeya! ;)

Friday, 10 January 2014

Fading Amber by Jaime Reed

Publication date:  24 December 2012
Published by:  K-Teen/Dafia
Genre: Fantasy (Young Adult)

**Caution: contains spoilers**  You might want to skip synopsis and go straight to review.

My Synopsis
Fading Amber is Book 3 of the Cambion Chronicles Trilogy.

In Book 2, Burning Emerald, Samara became a Cambion and Caleb was badly injured and hospitalised.  Samara's new supernatural status attracted an unsavory character, a demon named Tobias (her sentient Lilith's mate, returned to claim her).  Lilith was pleased that her mate returned for her and Samara had to fight to maintain control of her body so that Lilith would not take over her consciousness.  She began to experience black-outs that became more frequent and the novel ended on a cliffhanger.

Fading Amber begins with Samara back home in her room.  She is trapped, suspended from the ceiling by Lilith.  She is aware that she has had another black-out and does not know how she came to be there.  The last thing she remembers is leaving her school building.  Lilith eventually releases her from suspension and Samara tries to communicate with her for an explanation, but she refuses to respond.  Samara finds a note in her own handwriting urging her not to try to find out what happened, signed by Lilith.

Sam returns to normal life - school and her part-time job at Buncha Books.  Caleb is out of hospital and his brothers are still in town.  Tobias seems to have disappeared, as has Malik, the deceased teenage boy he took the form of. Tobias' body has been separated (and hidden) from his soul and he is trying to get it back.  He knows Caleb and his brothers are responsible and know where it is hidden and he sees Samara as his only chance to get it back.  Sam and Caleb, with the help of his brothers, try to stop Tobias' soul before it retrieves and unites with its body.

Caleb and his brothers are in trouble with the Santiago family (the Cambion leaders).  They are considered part-responsible for the damage caused by their corrupt father (which resulted in the death of innocent people and Sam's friend Nadine) and it would seem only a matter of time before they are held accountable and punished.  They are being watched by Ruiz to make sure they don't step out of line and, to some extent, are protected by Nadine's mother (a powerful Cambion of the Petrovsky family).

Caleb and Sam have a dilemma: whether or not to become bonded.  If they do, they will become united - mates for life - and there will be no going back if they do. Sam's "purity" is protection against the power of Cambions and demons, so sleeping with Caleb would leave her vulnerable.  However, if they bond, their unity would make them stronger and give them greater protection from the Santiago family.  It could nullify the threat to their safety (and that of Caleb's brothers).  Because of this, they are under some pressure to "mate" but they don't want to rush into it or do so for the wrong reasons.  Caleb and Sam have a difficult decision to make and the pressure to do so mounts....

My Review
I am a fan of this series and I am pleased to say that this final instalment exceeded my expectations.  It is a fun read.  The best thing about it for me is the humour - something I have not come across in many YA fantasy novels and something that is not easy to achieve.  I would say the thing that makes Jaime Reed stand out as a YA fiction author is her skill at weaving humour into a plot; I marvel at the way she effortlessly combines laugh-out-loud moments with tension, poignancy and even intimacy. 

Both Sam and Caleb are such likeable characters and they are great together.  Caleb does not behave like a fictional boyfriend but a real one (aside from the sentient inside him, naturally).  For example, Caleb is not a morning person and so he is not thrilled about having to get out of bed early to pick Sam up for school - of course he does it but he'd rather be in bed sleeping.  They don't do soppy or sentimental and yet they find ways to express their love for each other so romantically that it is hard to avoid that warm and fuzzy inside feeling when they do.  (I can't believe I just wrote that, but it's true!)  Another great skill by this author.

I found myself drawing parallels with the Twilight series: Sam and Caleb's relationship is shrouded by a dilemma in the same way that Bella and Edward's was.  Caleb's absence for most of the second book, together with the interaction between Sam and Tobias reminded me of the plot of New Moon. In this final book the two of them face a threat from the Santiago family in the same way that Bella and Edward did from the Volturi in Breaking Dawn. However, I also believe The Cambion Chronicles is showing The Twilight Saga what NOT to do (i.e. it is absent of the irritating subtext [religious or otherwise] that angered so many readers).

As I mentioned in my review of Living Violet, I do get irritated by the amount of YA fantasy novels that make chastity a theme running through the plot.  I took issue with it in the first book and said I could not understand the significance.  Well, I understand now, since all is made clear in this final instalment.  I now believe this element of the plot is simply covering a topic that many teenagers experience - whether to have sex or not and all the pressures that go with having to make the decision, and it does so without judgement.

This is a fantastic trilogy (unlike the Twilight* saga I am not embarrassed to admit that I have read them)  and one of the best under this genre that I have read. It is not often I find a full set in a series that consistently satisfies my reading experience - and saves the best to last. 

If you like YA fantasy fiction with a dash of romance, this series is a must read that I am certain will leave you grinning from ear-to-ear.

31 January 2014
Update:  I believe the Cambion Chronicles has an endearing quality that will leave readers returning. I have just re-read the entire series and enjoyed the reading experience all over again.

*I get both why some people love it and others hate it.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Afterparty by Ann Redisch Stampler

Publication date: 31 December 2013
Published by: Simon Pulse

This novel is hot off the press having just been released and available in bookstores from this week.  I received an ARC for review (at my request) and I would like to thank the author and publisher for the opportunity.

My Synopsis
The story begins at the end with the protagonist, Emma, reflecting on the events that occurred at a party that ended with her friend, Siobhan, falling from the roof of a building.  Did she jump or was she pushed?  One thing is certain, Emma is convinced that she is responsible for killing her best friend.

Sixteen-year-old French Canadian born Emma has lived around different parts of the USA most of her life and has just moved to Los Angeles with her father, who received a job opportunity there.  Emma's mother died when she was young and she is an only child.  Her father is over-protective and has high expectations of her.  He wants her to do well academically and even more he wants to make sure she does not become a rebellious teenager that puts herself at risk of the dangers teenagers can be exposed to.  This seems to be a major concern of his and so his approach to parenting is strict and rigid. 

He enrolls her at an elite preparatory school where most of the pupils come from extremely wealthy backgrounds and most of whom are extremely mean.  The girls in particular seem to fit the typical rich-bitch profile, i.e., attractive, slim, self-absorbed and spoiled-rotten. They regard Emma as if she were something the cat dragged in and she would be a social outcast if not for Siobhan (also an outcast), who takes her under her wing.  The two of them become united in what becomes a 'them' and 'us' type of situation. Siobhan is a bit on the wild side and is determined to lead Emma astray.

Emma meets Dylan, a classmate who she is attracted to.  It appears as though he may be drawn to her too, as he takes the time to speak to her at every opportunity.  Dylan is a serial truant and Emma agrees to share her class notes with him.  As such they become acquaintances and Emma's affection for him increases.  For some reason, she is reluctant to tell Siobhan about her feelings for Dylan.

Siobhan's bad influence gets Emma in constant trouble with her dad and his reaction is to restrict her freedom more and more.  Emma is overly conscious of the pressure to live up to his expectations and not disappoint him, while Siobhan's influence causes her to behave in ways that are the complete opposite. She is caught in the middle of the two extremes and adopts a double persona: Emma the Good and Emma the Bad. 

Things start to unravel when Siobhan discovers that Emma  has a thing for Dylan.  It would seem she does not want to share her friend with anyone. She convinces Emma to make a series of pacts that include a rebellious 'to do' list, attendance at Afterparty at the end of the academic year and one last pact for a grand finale...

My Review.
If my synopsis makes this novel seem like a typical contemporary novel for teenagers I can assure you it is not.  There is a lot that I have left out but, suffice to say, this reads like a cross-over of genres into psychological thriller territory - a sort of YA Gone Girl.

The writing is smart and perceptive and I am sure there are many out there who will be able to relate to much of what occurs in this book, be they YAs with the experiences still current or adults looking back on past experiences.

Redisch Stampler does that thing I like; she does not over-explain things.  A lot is left unsaid and it is up to the reader to think about the text (and context) and fill in the blanks.  A simple example being the part about Emma taking notes in class for Dylan (clearly he did not need them).

The author also demonstrates in this novel the way individuals perceive themselves differently from the way others do.  Emma is convinced that she is bad (that her moral compass is warped), but as much as she tried to convince me of this, I have to disagree.  It seemed to me her behaviour was the result of (1) her father who (ironically is a psychiatrist) not dealing with his own 'issues' and projecting them on his daughter, and (2) reacting to her emotionally screwed-up friend, to whom she becomes  devoted.  That said, Emma is responsible for her bad choices and has to deal with the consequences of those choices. Speaking of which, I can guarantee that you will become annoyed and frustrated with the key characters as they are human and at times behave in ways that make you want to shout at them.  In most cases, however, their behaviour is completely understandable, if not justified. I say most cases because I did struggle to understand why a smart guy like Dylan allows himself to be manipulated not once but twice.

For reasons mentioned above, I believe this one will be like Marmite (readers will either love it or will take issue with it since, a lot of the time, characters are either being nasty or they are victims of nasty behaviour.)  It certainly does not portray the environment of the elite private school, or the rich people and their children who attend them, in a positive light.  It got me thinking about the disparity between wealth and happiness.

I found it to be a pager-turner of a novel and I stayed up until the early hours reading it (I simply could not put it down).

(As you probably deduced), I also found it thought-provoking.  I found myself drawing parallels with Catcher in the Rye and also Where'd You Go, Bernadette - both favourites of mine.  All of these novels examine the high end of social class and wealth in a similar way.  Also, they are all told from the point of view of teenagers but with writing sophisticated enough to target teenage and adult readers alike. 

Perhaps it is too early for me to call Afterparty one of my favourites for 2014, but if I am to read many more as good as this what an excellent year for reading it will be.