Friday, 30 December 2016

SBR's 2016 Best Reads

SBR's 2016 Top Ten Books

With the exception of one, I could not rank them in any particular order. So, here is my number 1 read, followed by the other 9 in alphabetical order. 

They all get the Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of approval.

 These books were not all published in 2016 but they were all read and reviewed on the blog in that year.




1. The Sun is also a Star by Nicola Yoon 
is Sooz Book Reviews' Best Read of 2016 

  




2. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld



 3. Half Lost  by Sally Green     







4. Just One Day 
by Gayle Forman


 







5. The Martian by Andy Weir




by Ransom Riggs


 




7. Nutshell 
by Ian McEwan




 






by Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki




  9.  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline





 





10. Six of Crows 
by Leigh Bardugo
 



Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

This book is in SBR's
2016 Top Ten Reads

Publication date: 7th June 2011
Published by: Quirk
Genre: Fantasy (YA)

Publisher's synopsis
A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of curious photographs.

A horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.


Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of Approval

My Review

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is one of those books that holds your attention from the very beginning and keeps you interested to the very end.

It is quite gothic in tone, which - being a big fan of gothic fiction - really appealed to me.

Although it is a fantasy story, beneath the surface it is exploring the impact of the atrocities that took place during the second world war, not only on the Jewish people who suffered at the time, but also on generations in more recent years - subject matter that should be written about so that it is never forgotten. 

It is a young-adult book that can be enjoyed by anyone.

In short, it is simply brilliant.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Christmas Novella: Spirit of Christmas by Kyle Andrews

Christmas Novella: Stories to get you in the Spirit

This one is from the archives, first posted in December 2013.  It's that good!


Publication Date: 21st November 2012
Published by: Independent Author
Genre: Contemporary (Christmas Novella)
Length: 78 pages


Publisher's Synopsis
This is the story of an eight year old boy who begins to question the nature of Santa Claus as he watches the adults around him grow worried and secretive during the happiest season of all. His curiosity leads him to an unsettling discovery that will change his world forever.

My Review
This is the final instalment of my review of Christmas novellas for the festive season.  I am pleased to say that I saved the best to last.

Spirit of Christmas is an excellent read.  For me it's like a 21st century A Christmas Carol in that it contains all the elements one would expect of a traditional Christmas story, while acknowledging and incorporating 21st century challenges.  It is about a family experiencing major changes in their lives (as a result of said challenges), as seen through the eyes of an 8 year old boy, Aiden.  That said, this is not a story aimed at children.

Aiden can tell that something is wrong.  He can sense that his parents are trying to keep something from him and his younger sister, Madison; something major is worrying them.  He is a very perceptive boy who is able to read his parents' moods, so even when his mother tries to put on a brave face he can tell she is unhappy.  His 8 year old mind makes it difficult for him to understand adult problems, as they often speak using words he does not understand. Whatever is going on has something to do with Santa Claus and Aiden is determined to find out what it is.  He does some detective work and attempts to put the clues together.  In doing so, he becomes increasingly suspicious and fearful of Santa.

The best thing about this story for me was the use of dramatic irony: the way we the readers come to learn what is really going on while Aiden comes up with his own interpretation.  As Christmas Day approaches, he is less concerned about what presents he will get and more concerned about who is Santa Clause and what is troubling his parents. He may not understand what is going on with them but he carries the weight of their troubles on his little shoulders and he keeps this burden to himself. The climax is poignant and it had me in tears. (Yes, I was crying while travelling on public transport.) All this is done with a complete lack of sentimentality. 

I was also impressed by the way Kyle Andrews realistically portrayed 8 year old Aiden, especially his thought process as he tries to reason things out. Also, the way he would come up with stuff that probably sounded random to the adults - but made sense to us because we are inside his head (like when he asks his grandmother about Cinderella's fairy godmother and the stagecoach).   After all, children do sometimes come out with statements that seem random and nuts to us adults.

Andrews' portrayal of Madison is also perceptive, as is the way she appears from Aiden's point of view.  She is a bit hyper - one of those children sometimes seen screaming in supermarkets when they don't get what they want, when they want it.  Aiden is very good at pacifying her, which is a great help to the adults who sometimes struggle to control the situation when she is having one of her screaming sessions.

As I read I thought it was going to be about a boy discovering there is no Santa, but that's not quite it.  It is about the loss of innocence, however.  If I am honest, it has somewhat tainted my own positive image of Santa Claus as a Christmas icon. As you probably guessed, this story has a melancholic undertone but ends on an uplifting note that is fitting for the occasion.

Spirit of Christmas is a hidden treasure; a wonderful piece of writing, both powerful and thought-provoking.  It is only 78 pages long and yet there is so much in there. I could not recommend this one highly enough. 

Merry Christmas!


Friday, 23 December 2016

The Sun is also a Star by Nicola Yoon

SBR's 2016 Best Read

Publication date: 1st November 2016
Published by: Delacorte
Genre: Contemporary fiction for young adults

Publisher's synopsis
Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.

Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store—for both of us.

The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?


Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of Approval

 My Review
This book was brought to my attention a few weeks ago as a new publication recommended by a contributor to the New York Times Book Podcast.  Generally they don't disappoint so I got hold of a copy.  More recently, I noticed it was the 3rd highest scored book on the Goodreads Choice Awards 2016 in the category of contemporary YA fiction (although, to be honest, I have found this to be a less reliable source for recommended reads).

It is a short book (348 pages paperback version), and I whizzed through it over 48 hours, mainly because once I got started I could not put it down.  I had to force myself to do so and, each time I did, I spent my time looking forward to picking it back up again!

As alluded to in the publication synopsis, this novel is a bittersweet teenage love story, but it is much more than that.  Mainly it is about cause-and-effect.  It seeks to demonstrate how certain actions set off a chain reaction.  The reader sees how the decisions taken by one character has consequences that affect others, some in positive others in negative ways.  We may know this is true, but to be able to observe how it happens through this story is quite impressive.  Nicola Yoon does this by giving us snippets of backstory, not only of those close to Natasha and Daniel but also some of the strangers they interact with.  The result leads to thoughts of what if? and contemplation of the multitude of options/possibilities out there (which was both explored by the main characters, and formed part of my own thought processes).

It was a joy to read a novel featuring characters that generally don't get enough prominence in fiction+.  Natasha is Jamaican and, although Daniel is American, he is of South Korean descent.  Why does diversity matter?  Well, it does not if you want more of the same, over and over.  If on the other hand, you are open minded, curious and care enough about the lives other people, then I imagine it matters quite a lot.  Personally, I think fiction should be about walking in someone else's shoes once in a while.  In this case, what it is like to be a teenage migrant (or the offspring of migrants), not quite accepted in the country where you have settled and feeling a stranger in the country you were born (or your parents come from).  Yoon has steered clear of politics, so it does not touch on the hot topic of xenophobia and anti-immigration - which, when you think about it, would add to the difficulties these two teenagers would be experiencing in the real world.

I liked that neither Tasha nor Daniel are stereotyped. They are portrayed on an equal platform to Caucasian leading characters. The book also explores the generational divide, the clashing of cultures and racism, and does so objectively - so you get to see both points of view.  The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.... (F. Scott Fitzgerald).

We know that individuals are affected by and respond to experiences in different ways, and we see the contrasting effects that not belonging, being constantly made to feel 'different', and the pressure to conform have on Daniel and his brother Charles, shaping them into very different personalities, and driving them apart.

The Sun is also a Star is an excellent read, both thought-provoking and affecting. This is the first book I have read by Nicola Yoon but I will definitely be reading more - and not only because she has written the kind of book I aspire to write!

Potential Spoiler Alert!
My one criticism of the book is that it is overly contrived in parts - particularly the epilogue. The trouble with Deus ex machina is that it is at odds with the suspension of disbelief.


+ Some may dismiss this sentiment as 'multicultural left wing' nonsense, or put it down to the fact that I am an ethnic minority and therefore more inclined to give a you know what, but, hey, each to their own.











Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Christmas Novella: A Christmas day at the office by Matt Dunn



Christmas Novella:
Stories to get you in the spirit










Publication date: 11 October 2016
Published by: Lake Union Publishing


Publisher's Synopsis:
With her new billionaire boss in town, Sophie’s determined to swap the No-Jobs she meets on Tinder for her very own Steve Jobs. But will looking like a million dollars be enough to kick-start a Fifty Shades adventure?

A ring in his pocket and dressed to kill, Calum’s planning to get down on one knee. Though if Mia doesn’t say ‘yes’, he’s not sure he’ll ever get back up.

Julie’s got a surprise for Mark—though it’s something she’s not even sure she wants. Meanwhile, Mark’s got another choice to make: the love of his life, or the opportunity of a lifetime?

With his job on the line, and the ex who broke his heart back on the scene, Nathan’s day is becoming a nightmare. But he’s about to meet the woman of his dreams.

This year’s office Christmas party should be a night to remember—but for five of Seek Software’s employees, it might be one they’d sooner forget

My Review

A Christmas Day at the Office is like the novel equivalent to one of those romantic comedies that we love to watch every year at about this time.  A good example is Love Actually. Like that film, there is an ensemble of characters with equal prominence, each in the pursuit of romantic love and happiness.

I would say the strength of the book is its characters.  They are all very likable.  They do not come across at all as fictional; they are ordinary folk like us.  For some reason, I kept visualising Mark as Colin Firth.  The character that stood out most for me was Calum, who, despite his hyper-insecurity and lack of self-confidence, is an absolute sweetheart. (What can I say?  I love an underdog).  

Another great thing about the book is the humour.  I had so many laugh out load moments.  Sophie's attempts at 'bagging' herself a millionaire offers quite a lot of them, as does Calum's attempts at proposing.  Being a British novel, there is also a fair amount of cringe-humor (a comical look at people in embarrasing - and at times humiliating - situations.)

Recently published, the book feels very current.

If you like a good rom-com then my advice is get yourself a copy of this book because A Christmas Day at the Office is a very good read indeed! 

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Christmas Novella: The Christmas Train by David Baldacci

Christmas Novella:
Stories to get you in the spirit.
Publication date: 1st November 2004
Published by:  Warner Books

Publisher's synopsis
Disillusioned journalist Tom Langdon must get from Washington D.C. to L.A in time for Christmas. Forced to travel by train, he begins a journey of rude awakenings, thrilling adventures and holiday magic. He has no idea that the locomotives pulling him across America will actually take him into the rugged terrain of his own heart, as he rediscovers people's essential goodness and someone very special he believed he had lost.

The Christmas Train is filled with memorable characters who have packed their bags with as much wisdom as mischief ... and shows how we do get second chances to fulfill our deepest hopes and dreams, especially during this season of miracles.



My Review

The Christmas train is a novella with multiple themes including, a love story, a crime mystery, an action adventure and more.  It wants to offer something for everyone.  The difficulty with this approach is that the book is too short to allow each aspect of the story to develop fully, and the story lines seem a bit rushed.  Published in 2004, it feels rather dated but is does offer up some laughs, suspense and intrigue.  It is a quick and light read that many will enjoy.






Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Christmas Novella: Holiday Classics by O. Henry (Audiobook)


The Christmas Novella:
Stories to get you in the Spirit.








Publication date: 9th December 2010
Published by: Audible Inc.
Duration: 51 mins

Publisher's Synopsis

When it comes to the holidays, no story brings us back to the true spirit of giving like O. Henry’s classic "The Gift of the Magi". So this year we’ve asked some of your favorite Audible narrators—Audie Award winners Katherine Kellgren, Oliver Wyman, and Jonathan Davis—to bring to life this timeless tale, plus two more of O. Henry’s gems, "The Cop and the Anthem" and "The Last Leaf", in this handcrafted holiday collection.

The Cop and the Anthem
It is the beginning of winter and Soapy, a homeless man, does not relish the idea of spending it on the streets.  He hatches a plan to get himself arrested and sent to jail for 3 months so that he may escape the harsh weather.  Soapy discovers that it is not as easy to get arrested as he thought it would be...

The Gift of the Magi
"One dollar and eighty-seven cents."  This is the first sentence of the story, exclaimed by Della on Christmas Eve.  It is all the money she has managed to save and she is desperate to buy her beloved husband Jim a present.  She manages to find a way to earn the money she needs to get Jim's present, but whether her decision to do so turns out to be a wise one remains to be seen...

The Last Leaf
Johnsy lives in an apartment in the artists district with her roommate Sue.  Six months after moving in she contracts pneumonia and is close to death.  Johnsy can see out of her window and she becomes fixated on the falling leaves on the tree outside.  She tells Sue that when the last leave falls she will die...

Set in New York in the early 1900s, these stories do indeed have a Christmas-like feel about them.  They also have a traditional feel about them, generally conveying a message (or a moral to the story).  There is humour in some of them and poignancy in all three.  O. Henry was well-known for writing stories with unexpected endings and I can see why.

It is an audiobook with excellent narration - which adds value.  On the other hand, I could appreciate the beauty of the prose and I felt I missed out a little on the enjoyment I know I would have experenced from reading the words on the page.  The stories are quite short so they can be listened to when time is limited (such as on a short train journey).

Friday, 9 December 2016

The Chemist by Stephanie Meyer

Publication date: 8th November 2016

Published by: Little, Brown & Co

Publisher's synopsis
She used to work for the U.S. government, but very few people ever knew that. An expert in her field, she was one of the darkest secrets of an agency so clandestine it doesn't even have a name. And when they decided she was a liability, they came for her without warning.

Now she rarely stays in the same place or uses the same name for long. They've killed the only other person she trusted, but something she knows still poses a threat. They want her dead, and soon.

When her former handler offers her a way out, she realises it's her only chance to erase the giant target on her back. But it means taking one last job for her ex-employers. To her horror, the information she acquires only makes her situation more dangerous.

Resolving to meet the threat head-on, she prepares for the toughest fight of her life but finds herself falling for a man who can only complicate her likelihood of survival. As she sees her choices being rapidly whittled down, she must apply her unique talents in ways she never dreamed of.


I should warn you this review has potential spoilers

My Review
This is Stephanie Meyer's second adult novel.  Her adult debut, The Host, was published quite a while ago (in 2008) and all her other offerings to date have been part of the YA Twilight series.  She has been reluctant to shed her skin from that series, producing the original tetralogy, a retelling from the male protagonist's POV, a spin-off featuring a side character, and more recently a re-imagining of the original story.

Although in a different setting with new characters, The Host was not a million miles away from Twilight's original story, either and neither is The Chemist. 

That said, of the books I have read, (the Twilight tetralogy and The Host) I consider them all to be worthy publications.  Can I say the same about The Chemist?

Meyer has created a new world with a protagonist (Alex) who is a former US secret agent who worked in counter-terrorism.  Suffice to say, her job required her to do awful things to awful people for the 'greater good'.  She had the code name 'The Chemist' and, due to the nature of her work, refers to herself as (a monster). Her security clearance was so high that in the end she knew too much and had to go into hiding in order stop those in charge of the black ops unit she worked for from killing her. Now her life is like that recurring nightmare where you are constantly on the run.  She is being chased by assassins sent by her former employers all of whom, so far, she has managed to evade.  Three years on and she is tracked and contacted by her former employers and offered a potential way out (if she agrees to do one more job).  She is given a file on a would-be terrorist named Daniel who is her target.  But when she comes into contact with him, he turns out to be an innocent.  Despite how dangerous Alex is, Daniel is not afraid, instead, he trusts her completely.  At this point we are introduced to Kevin, Daniel's twin brother and the real reason the innocent got caught up in this mess.

The book has been dedicated to Jason Bourne and Aaron Cross (which is rather puzzling since they are both fictional characters).  But the dedication does give a clue about what you can expect, or at least what the author wants you to expect.  I would warn fans of Robert Ludlum's original novels featuring Jason Bourne (and Eric Van Lustbader's continuation of the franchise) not to be fooled.  You should steer clear of this book to avoid disappointment.  It does not come close to the rigor and sophistication of those books.  As secret agents go, both Alex and Kevin are unconvincing.  Instead, what you get with this novel is a post-ironic Team America plot and characters.  You have the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys', and the 'good guys' constantly refer to the 'bad guys' as "The Bad Guys". This is a world where guns are sexy and torture is necessary in order to stop "The Bad Guys" doing really bad stuff.  Here is a story where all the non-Caucasian characters are 2 dimensional, inconsequential and, above all, expendable, while the dogs' characters (yes there is a pack of dogs working alongside Alex, Daniel and Kevin) are so developed they have human-like qualities.

If you are familiar with Meyer's YA books you will not be surprised to learn that the romantic sub-plot is Twilightesque  (Yes, that old chestnut!).  Telling the same story over and over is not necessarily a bad thing, except when there is nothing new to say whatsoever.  You may be pleased to learn that no love triangle develops (but I believe the author is just delaying the inevitable in that regard - it is bound to feature in the sequel).

Reluctant or not, rejuvenation is essential now.  Meyer has to shed that (old) skin in order to reveal a youthful healthier one. (She has demonstrated with previous books that she is capable of producing [dare I say] decent, if controversial, work - so there is no reason why she cannot do so again.)

If I were to describe The Chemist in one word it would be indulgent.

I like to end my reviews on a positive note so I would say that it does start out promising.  The first 15-20% reads well before it begins its steady decline.




Friday, 2 December 2016

Emma (The Austen Project no. 3) by Alexander McCall Smith

Publication date: 4th June 2015
Published by: The Borough Press
Genre: Contemporary Romance

My Synopsis
Emma Woodhouse lives in the tight-knit English country village of Highbury. The daughter of a 'gentleman farmer', she is rich, clever and not particularly interested in the pursuit of romantic love - or at least not for herself.  Her older sister has left home and moved to London and her former - wait for it - governess (yes, I did say governess), Anne Taylor, continues to live in the stately home  Emma grew up in with her overly cautious and worrisome father, while she attends university.  After graduating, she returns to Highbury with a plan to start her own business - but not right away since, If you are Emma Woodhouse, employment is not something you need to rush into.

Having nothing particular to do with her time, Emma's return creates mayhem as she interferes in the lives of her friends and neighbours, in what she tells herself are selfless attempts to make their lives better.  The hapless victims include the impressionable Harriet Smith, a teaching assistant at an English language school for foreign teenagers, Anne Fairfax, a young musician who lives with her poverty-stricken aunt and great-aunt, and Frank, the son of Mr George Weston, a neighbour in the village.  Frank has spent most of his life in Australia and has come to Highbury with a plan - one that gets derailed thanks to Miss Woodhouse.  She also works her magic on the not-so-hapless Philip Elton, the local vicar.  The only person who seems immune to Emma's meddling is her next door neighbour, George Knightly.  It becomes apparent that Emma needs a firm hand, or at least bringing down a peg or two,  for her own good.  Perhaps George is the person to do just that....

My Review:
This is the 3rd book released by the Austen Project, which invites carefully selected (well established and respected) authors to write a modern version of each of Jane Austen's novels.  That this particular novel is a modern retelling is debatable, however, since the original story has not been altered that much.  For me, the only thing modern about it is the setting, which is exactly 200 years after the original publication.  The result of this is fundamental flaws and niggling plot holes that, understandably, could not be avoided. (Some of these are alluded to in my synopsis.)  I don't think this is by accident as the approach enhances comedy value - which I think is what McCall Smith was aiming for.  My solution to its unfeasibility was to acknowledge that it is not just a work of fiction but complete fantasy that required me to suspend me disbelief and, in doing so, allowed me to focus more on what is great about it - and there is a lot that is great about this book.

Having this story in a contemporary setting does feel a bit 'chick-lit' like*.  That said, it is the kind of chick-lit that most novels of that kind can only aspire to. The character development is particularly good, because the reader does get more backstory and therefore more of an insight into the characters than the original.  Not only the principal ones like Emma, and Knightly but pretty much all of them.  This added another dimension to the novel (both versions).  As I mentioned before, it is also told with great humour.  There are many laugh-out-loud moments that made it such an enjoyable read for me.  Mr Woodhouse, in particular, is a character of comedic value.  You get the impression that McCall Smith is poking fun at these upper-class folk - but in a nice way.  We also see their humane side, Mr Knightly, in particular, comes across as a kind and thoughtful person who loves his village and genuinely cares about the people who live there, regardless of their situation.

I am a fan of Jane Austen but whenever I read her books, I always think about what it would have been like for my ancestors in those days.  Being a descendent of slaves kept by the British in the West Indies, I cringe at the frivilous lives of these people who benefited so greatly from the extreme suffering of others.  Jane Austen is conveniently blind to this fact, whereas McCall Smith is not.  The lovely Mr Knightly brings this up in a conversation with Mr Woodhouse - a conversation that is played out in a way that I have heard many times myself.  Very nicely done indeed!

Emma is not a likeable character - she wasn't in 1816 and she isn't in 2016.  The problem with Emma is that (a) she has too much time on her hands, (b) she had never experienced hardship and is completely out of touch with the lives of those who do and (c) she is an intelligent person who needs intellectual stimulation - a way to put that overactive mind of hers to (good) use - and is not getting it.  In 1816 her opportunities would have been very limited.  Going to university or running a business would not have been an option, so it is easier to make allowances for the original character, compared to the modern one.  Her predicament is a lethal cocktail that many of the characters in the book fall victim to.  You will more than likely get irritated with her.  You may even become infuriated with her.

I like flawed characters because they make a story interesting.  She is not all bad and she is self-aware; she recognises that her behaviour is questionable - but then she convinces herself it's okay. She does grow up and learn her lesson but, what I really liked was that she remained the same (flawed) person throughout.

Emma is, in my view, Jane Austen's second best novel (after Pride and Prejudice) and this version goes some way of demonstrating what a great story it is.


*Then again, I am convinced that chick-lit has evolved from the Jane Austen novel, since the sub-genre kick-started following the publication of Bridget Jones's Diary, a novel inspired by Pride & Prejudice. 

More Austen Project reviews

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope (no. 1) -

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermit (no. 2)

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (no. 4)




Friday, 25 November 2016

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey


Publication date: 26 April 2011
Publisher: Penguin
Audio version - 2014 Audible Inc.
Duration 12 hrs and 38 mins

Publication synopsis
An unforgettable love story, brimming with passion and politics, set over fifty years in Trinidad – a place at times enchanting, and at times highly dangerous . . .

When George and Sabine Harwood arrive in Trinidad from England as young newlyweds, they have with them just a couple of suitcases and Sabine's prized green bicycle. Their intention is to stay for not more than three years, but George falls in love with the island. Sabine, however, is ill at ease with the racial segregation and unrest in her new home, and takes solace in the freedom of her green bicycle.

George and Sabine become more entangled in their life on the island – in all its passion and betrayals – and Sabine's bicycle takes her places she wouldn't otherwise go. One day George make a discovery that forces him to realise the extent of the secrets between them, and is seized by an urgent, desperate need to prove his love for her – with tragic consequences.


My Review - Caution may contain spoilers

The novel is in two parts.  The first part is set in 2006.  George and Sabine have lived in Trinidad for 50 years and are in their 70s.  They are a wealthy white minority couple living among a predominantly *non-white population. The son of their house keeper has been badly beaten by the police and, both outraged by this, they try to do what they can to help.  

The second part of the book goes back 50 years to the time when George and Sabine first arrived in Trinidad.  They are enthusiastic and excited about their prospects.  However, as reality sets in, Sabine realises that living in a strange country far away from home isn't the paradise she thought it would be.  This is not a problem for George as he has a full time high profile job to keep him busy and, unlike back in England, he is now a 'big fish'.   The longer they stay the more George loves it and the less Sabine does.  Sabine becomes angry and resentful as she fails to convince George to leave., which results in the slow and steady decline of their marriage. 

This is happening at a time when the country is undergoing major change; a time of political unrest when colonial rule on the island is under threat and the birth of the republic is looming.  This is being sparked by the people taking notice of the lectures being given by Dr Eric Williams, the charismatic young Oxford educated Trinidadian, who speaks to them about the possibility of a better way of life.  He becomes a political activist and later on becomes the much-loved leader (Prime Minister) of the republic.  One day while he addresses a crowd in the square in the heart of Port-of-Spain, Sabine is passing by on her bicycle.  She stops and listens and, despite the talk being about ending British rule, she finds she is captivated and moved by him.  This leads to an obsession that causes her to write Eric Williams a series of letters, revealing her inner thoughts and feelings.  She continues to write to him for decades (until his death in 1981).  She only posts the first one and keeps all the others hidden away in boxes.

So, what is this book about?  It is a complex love story that spans the decades.  It is not an obvious love story because the focus is on betrayal and resentment.  Sabine has to compete not so much with other women who may have gained her husbands affection, but rather with a nation that has.  She is convinced that she hates Trinidad because she loves George unconditionally and she believes he loves the island more than he loves her (since he is not prepared to leave for her sake, and back in those days a woman could not just up and leave her husband without serious consequences).  Neither George nor Sabine communicate their feelings, and so truth and understanding is absent for most of their marriage. 

The act of letter writing to Dr Williams was Sabine's form of (self) therapy.  She would vent her anger and frustration by writing her feelings down and it felt more meaningful to her to address them to this charismatic man who inspired the very nation she resents.  The truth only comes out decades later when George accidentally comes across the letters.  When he reads them they have a profound effect on him.  He is full of remorse and wants nothing more than to make up for the pain he has inflicted.  Roffey is perceptive in her depiction of how people mellow and change (even become sentimental) with old age.

Sabine is an interesting and complex character.  She is also an unreliable narrator.  Her portrayal of Trinidad is, let's say, selective  She is too self-absorbed to take notice of what is beyond the little bubble of a world she lives in.  Like many self-absorbed types, she sees herself as a victim.  All the while others around her suffer much worse, while she is oblivious.  I found it difficult to feel much empathy for her.  Her heart is in the right place, however.  Over the years she develops a fondness of 'the help' and is quite devoted to them in later years.  Although forever resentful, she comes to love the island as much as George - it becomes home.  Eric Williams's charisma takes effect and she is completely charmed by him.  In later years, after his death, like many, she becomes disillusioned as the country bears no resemblance to the ideals he talked about.

 My verdict:  This story is well worth reading.  I listened to the audio version but I regret it. I would have been better off with the novel because I was irritated by the narration.  I winced whenever there was dialogue involving Trinidadian characters.  I understand that it is a difficult accent to do, but the narrator didn't even come close.  Instead it was a really bad attempt at a Jamaican accent, which was distracting and rendered the story less convincing.    


*I say 'non-white' because Trinidad is a racially diverse country with an almost equal ratio of Afro-Caribbean and Indian-Caribbean people.  There are also people of Chinese, Spanish and Syrian descent (lets not forget those who are the products of the mixing of all these races).  Sabine, in her unreliable way,  only focuses on an Afro-Caribbean majority vs a white minority.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

This book is in SBR's
2016 Top Ten Reads

Published by: Nan A Talese
Publication date: 13 September 2016

Publisher's synopsis: 
Trudy has betrayed her husband, John. She's still in the marital home a dilapidated, priceless London townhouse but John's not here. Instead, she's with his brother, the profoundly banal Claude, and the two of them have a plan. But there is a witness to their plot: the inquisitive, nine-month old resident of Trudy's womb.

Told from a perspective unlike any other, Nutshell is a classic tale of murder and deceit from one of the world's master storytellers


Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of Approval

A Hamlet ingnoramus' review
I was excited about this novel for 2 reasons:
  1. Ian EcEwan's previous novel, The Children Act, was so brilliant.
  2. The premise of Nutshell suggested promise.
So, when it came out I got hold of a copy tout de suite. 

On reading, I wasn't sure about it at the beginning.  The reason for this was because the narrator is a highly intelligent and sophisticated foetus, which felt unnatural and uncomfortable. To me this nameless character who I will refer to as 'Baby', came across as precocious - which was annoying.  I had to stop reading and have a conversation with myself - one that consisted of me explaining that I am going about this all wrong.  I need to suspend my disbelief and not think on this unborn child as ordinary, but extraordinary and completely self-aware.  With a new frame of mind I went back to the book and my annoyance disappeared.

Throughout her pregnancy, we learn that Trudy has spent a lot of her time listening to BBC radio 4 and informative podcasts about a multitude of topical subjects.  Baby has been able to hear and absorb all the information being broadcast and has learned much about the world in this way.  Baby spends it's time listening, contemplating and philosophising about the world it is yet to enter.  Baby also hears all the conversations going on in close proximity and discovers that its mother is having an affair.  Baby is more intelligent than your average adult (me, for instance, which may have been my initial problem), and notably more so than any of the adults in the book.  It forms its conclusions about them: unconditional love for its mother - despite her treacherous ways, and utter contempt for Claude, the man Trudy is cheating on Baby's father with, who Baby idolises, since father represents security and hope.

As this rather dark story unfolds, more revelations hit this infant, each an increasingly shocking blow.  The effects are quite traumatic and Baby becomes melancholy and (aided by secondary consumption of alcohol via the placenta) mawkish, as a result.  I found myself empathising with this infant, particularly with the desperate sense of helplessness to change what is going on and what is to come.

On the surface Nutshell may be a classic murder story but I saw something more, i.e., a reflection of current world events, as McEwan holds a mirror up to humanity*.  I feel as though Baby represents members of the population who are discovering the meaning (and reality) of political change in the western world and finding themselves, shocked, horrified and in a state of helplessness, melancholia and, yes, mawkishness.

Nutshell did not disappoint.  It is both brilliant and insightful and, therefore, a novel I cannot recommend highly enough.

*A (paraphrased) quote taken from Hamlet, of which this book is loosely based.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Northanger Abbey (The Austen Project no. 2) by Val McDermid

Publication date: 15th April 2014
Published by:  Grove press
Genre: Contemporary Romance (YA)

My Synopsis

Cat Morland is a 17-year-old home-schooled vicar's daughter from the Piddle Valley in Dorset on the South West Coast of England.  Cat has lived a sheltered life and spends much of her time reading vampire romance and other moderately scary books for teenagers.  She receives the chance to leave the confines of the Piddle Valley for the first time by her neighbours, the Allens, a childless couple who are friends of her parents, when they invite her to attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with them.

In Edinburgh, Cat becomes acquainted and makes friends with Bella Thorpe and Ellie Tilney, girls her own age.  She experiences romance for the first time when she develops strong feelings for Ellie's older brother, Henry, while being pursued by Bella's crass and annoying older brother, Johnny.

As the Fringe is about to draw to a close, she receives an unexpected invitation to join Ellie at her home in Northanger Abbey.  As well as seeing this as an opportunity to spend more time with her new friend - and more to the point her new friend's brother, Cat also likes the idea of visiting a real gothic abbey of the type she loves to read about in her novels.  She begins to draw parallels between the characters of her much loved books and the lifestyle of the Tilney family; but do the facts really resemble those in fiction?

My Review

Val McDemid has followed the plot of Jane Austen's original to the letter, even lifting certain passages and conversations from it throughout.  It has been brought into the 21st century, however, in that horses become cars, carriages become buses, hand-written letters become texts and emails, etc. The setting has changed as most of the story takes place in Edinburgh, rather than Bath.  Scenarios have also been adapted, e.g. Henry is a trainee barrister instead of a clergyman.

In my view, this modern version reads better than the original for two reasons.
  1. Making it about a teenager's obsession with YA fantasy novels such as Twilight and having the main character's imagination run away with her as a result works better than the original, which is a parody of early gothic romance - one that did not work well for me.
  2. The original Catherine Morland is very naive.  She comes across as an annoying simpleton and the original Henry Tilney sometimes comes across condescending towards her. (Presumably this was Austen having a pop at gothic romance novelists and how they portrayed their characters in her eyes.).  McDermid has revised the character of Cat to naive but not simple-minded, and when her version of Henry makes the condescending remarks, he does so ironically.
What the modern version has not achieved is a well-developed romance between the 'hero' (Henry) and the 'heroine' (Cat).  It is very clear from the start that the original character of Henry Tilney is attracted to Catherine, and that attraction soon develops into love.  He is cautious and subtle in his execution, but he is definitely wooing her throughout the story.  Despite coming across rather patriarchal, he manages to demonstrate charm, a good sense of humour and an ability to be flirtatious in his pursuit of her.  The modern character lacks all of these qualities and the exchanges between them come across as nothing more than a teenage girl 'crushing' on an older guy who is simply making time for his sister's friend.  This modern Henry, as a character, is also problematic because he is 26 going on 46. (Only an older British upper-class man would wear raspberry corduory trousers!)  Also, his aversion to teenage slang is granddad-like.  I felt there was a missed opportunity to play this out as a parody for comedy value (i.e. if this had been acknowledged and Cat had compared him to Twilight's Edward Cullen, who has the unaging body of a 17-year old with the experience and wisdom of being around for over a century).  If there had been romantic exchanges between them I suspect it would have come across borderline creepy.  There is just nothing alluring about Henry, so it's hard to see why the 17 year-old Cat would find him so.  When he finally does expresses his true feelings, it is not convincing. The conflict of the plot was (and had to be) revised to bring it into the 21st century, but it just did not work for me.

This book is an average read.  In fairness to McDermid, she was restricted by the original source material, which is, lets say, not Austen's best work; the plot is insipid and Catherine is irritating.  McDermid has done a good job of improving it.


More Austen Project reviews

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope (no. 1) 

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith (no. 3) 

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (no. 4)


Friday, 4 November 2016

Crime Fiction: Sophie Hannah's Little Face (Culver Valley series, Book 1)

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication date: 26 August 2006

The Spilling CID, (Criminal Investigation Department of the British Police Force - I had to look it up!), is set in fictional Culver Valley North England.  It centres around 2 main characters, DS - Detective Sergeant - Charlie Zailer and DC - Detective Constable - Simon Waterhouse.

The first book in the series alternates between the first person perspective of the victim of a crime, Alice Fancourt, and the third person perspective, when it focuses on DC Simon Waterhouse.  Alice contacts the police and reports that, while she was away from home, her new born baby was kidnapped and swapped for another.  She was only away for a few hours and on her return, she finds the front door open, her husband asleep and another person's baby lying where her daughter, Florence, should be. This baby has the same blue eyes and milk spots on its nose as Florence.  Alice can't quite say how she knows it is not Florence - except to say this baby has 'a different face'.  Her husband thinks she is losing her mind, since he (says he) believes Florence and the baby known as 'Little Face' are the same person.  Simon is in the area when it is called in and agrees to go to the house to investigate...

The crime in this story reads like a classic detective mystery.  I am the kind of reader who is constantly trying to second guess a plot and unravel what is going on, so this book presented a challenge for me.  There were a few 'red herrings' and I was kept in the dark all the way through.  I found myself getting frustrated, as a result, and so, if I am honest, it was not a particularly enjoyable read.  It felt like the plot did not make sense.  There is a fair amount of complexity in this crime, which is part of the reason it is challenging to work out.  However, a lot did fall into place after the big reveal at the end - just as a crime mystery should.  Unfortunately, the red herrings made no sense at that point and the story felt contrived. 

The book also introduces the plain-clothes police officers and provides some backstory for the main characters, Simon and his boss Charlie (Charlotte Zailer).  We learn that the relationship between them is a complicated one (of the unrequited love kind - something that is revealed too early in the novel to be a spoiler), resulting in tension between the two of them and some awkward moments in the workplace.  Let's say there is blurring between the line of the personal and the professional.  Charlie can't seem to keep her feelings separate on the job and the end result is rather mortifying for her.  In some ways the dynamics between the characters are realistic, demonstrating perceptiveness on the part of the author.  For example, the way Simon's feelings of emasculation and self-doubt get in the way of his relationship with Charlie. He knows how she feels but he thinks she sees him as a 'work in progress.'

I would recommend this series to crime fiction lovers who enjoy classic mysteries in a modern setting.  Bear in mind that there is also a fair amount of focus on the personal relationships of the police officers - which some may find rather soap opera like (which may or may not be your kind of thing).

The Culver Valley series is addictive reading.  I've already picked up a copy and read book 2, Hurting Distance, and I find myself reaching for book 3.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Back Soon!

Sooz Book Reviews will be back next Friday
(4th November).
 
Yay!


Saturday, 3 September 2016

Downtime

Sooz Book Reviews is on a break,
 but there will be more reviews later in the year.


Saturday, 20 August 2016

Just One Day by Gayle Forman

This book is in SBR's
2016 Top Ten Reads  

Publication date: 8th Januaary 2013
Published by: Dutton Books
Genre: YA Contemporary fiction

Publisher's synopsis
When sheltered American good girl Allyson "LuLu" Healey first meets laid-back Dutch actor Willem De Ruiter at an underground performance of Twelfth Night in England, there’s an undeniable spark. After just one day together, that spark bursts into a flame, or so it seems to Allyson, until the following morning, when she wakes up after a whirlwind day in Paris to discover that Willem has left. Over the next year, Allyson embarks on a journey to come to terms with the narrow confines of her life, and through Shakespeare, travel, and a quest for her almost-true-love, to break free of those confines.

Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of Approval


My Review: 
This book was recommended as a good summer read by one of the contributors on the NY Times Book Review Podcast.  It is not a book I would have chosen to read myself, but the recommendation made me curious.

The first line of the book goes like this: 'To be or not to be, that is the questionThat 's from Hamlet's - maybe Shakespeare's, most famous soliloquy.'  The protagonist, Allyson Healey, tells us how she knows this and why it matters to her.  And, having read that first paragraph, I just knew I was going to enjoy the book.  

Just One Day is what I would call a relationship novel.  What I mean by that is that, although not everyone will like it, those who will love it are likely to do so because they can relate to it.  Novels that readers can relate to tend to be profoundly affecting, sometimes triggering old memories, both joyful and melancholic alike.  They are also thought-provoking, possibly leading us to reflect on the human condition and life in general.

Warning - from this point on there are potential spoilers

The first part of the book reminded me of that movie Before Sunrise, in that, following an encounter with a complete stranger - Willem - on a train to London one morning, Allyson finds herself accepting an invitation to spend a day in Paris with him.  Going on that journey with them was a joyful reading experience.  They don't visit any of the obvious places, instead Willem shows Allyson a Paris that only the inhabitants are likely to experience.  Coming back to the relationship point, there is an added bonus for readers who know and love the city of Paris, as you are able to visualize  the various places referenced in you mind's eye (possibly with nostalgia - *smile*).

The second part of the book - when Allyson starts college in Boston -  reminded me of New Moon (the 2nd Twilight book).  Not so much the story but the tone; that sense of loss that, like Bella, Allyson experiences as she struggles to come to terms with her separation from Willem and her inability to overcome her desire to be with him.  She is also haunted by the uncertainty surrounding their separation - which was painful and confusing.  Did he abandon her?  Or did she abandon him?  She is plagued with negative thoughts - reinforced by those close to her that are in the know - and is mostly convinced that she 'got played' by a talented trickster.  And yet, she does not know this for certain and deigns to hope that perhaps she is wrong about that.  There will be readers who have been there and will relate.

So far, this sounds like a straight forward boy-meets-girl kind of story, which to some extent it is, but it is also much more.  Allyson has lived a sheltered life and has been controlled by her parents, particularly her mother, all her life. Despite her age, in their eyes, she is still a child and is treated as such.  She is a passive character who does what she is told and the idea of defying them is unthinkable to her.  This is often at her own expense, as she forfeits her own wishes to satisfy theirs.   That is, until she takes the adventurous decision to throw caution to the wind and spend a day in a foreign city with a complete stranger.  Would she have done so if she hadn't been motivated by an invitation from a handsome man that she was attracted to?  Probably not, but in her search for romance she discovers something else entirely.  On that day in Paris, she took on the persona of an alter ego, 'Lulu', and discovered that 'Allyson' is not her whole self; that there is more to her.  That brave step sets off a chain reaction within her and she is forever changed.  We the readers then get to see her blossom and grow into herself, becoming the person she wants to be.  In doing so, she gains new positive experiences and makes [loyal] friends in unlikely places.  They support and encourage her to face her demons; and to go in search of Willem in the hope of discovering the truth - whatever the truth may be.

In short, this book is less about falling in love with a handsome stranger and more about self-discovery.

I loved the writing style of this book.  It is the kind I aspire to myself - one can hope.

Thanks to the NY Times Book Podcast, I think I have discovered an all-time favourite.

Just One Day is a recommended
2016 Summer Read















Friday, 5 August 2016

Half Lost by Sally Green

This book is in
SBR's 2016 Top Ten Reads

Publication date: 31 March 2016
Published by: Penguin
Genre: YA Fantasy / Dystopia

Publication synopsis
Nathan Byrn is running again. The Alliance of Free Witches has been all but destroyed. Scattered and demoralized, constantly pursued by the Council's Hunters, only a bold new strategy can save the rebels from total defeat. They need the missing half of Gabriel's amulet - an ancient artifact with the power to render its bearer invincible in battle.

But the amulet's guardian - the reclusive and awesomely powerful witch Ledger - has her own agenda. To win her trust, Nathan must travel to America and persuade her to give him the amulet. Combined with his own Gifts, the amulet might just be enough to turn the tide for the Alliance and end the bloody civil war between Black and White witches once and for all...


Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of Approval

My Review
This is the final instalment of the Half Bad series by Sally Green.  The previous two books, Half Bad and Half Wild have also been reviewed on this blog.

In my review of Half Lost, I had observed that the book lacked the hard-hitting dystopian feel of the first one.  Well, not the case with Half Lost, which returns to the original style.  It pulls no punches, so be prepared for a heart-wrenching read that will more than likely reduce you to tears and have you thinking about it for days, if not weeks, after you have finished it.  Or at least, that was my experience.  Every now and then, I still think of Nathan and have to remind myself that he is not real - just a fictional character who exists in Sally Green's imagination.  

I will not delve into the plot for this review because I don't think I can do so without ruining it for would-be readers - and that would be a shame.

All I can say is that I loved this book so much, it is what I consider to be the best that it's genre has to offer.  As such, I cannot recommend it highly enough for lovers of true Dystopia.



 

Half lost has been selected as one of my recommended 

2016 Summer Reads

 

Friday, 29 July 2016

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

Published by: Henry Holt & Co.
Publication date: 30th September 2014

Publication summary
HILARY MANTEL is one of Britain's most accomplished and acclaimed writers. In these ten bracingly transgressive tales, all her gifts of characterisation and observation are fully engaged, ushering concealed horrors into the light. Childhood cruelty is played out behind the bushes in 'Comma'; nurses clash in 'Harley Street' over something more than professional differences; and in the title story, staying in for the plumber turns into an ambiguous and potentially deadly waiting game.

Whether set in a claustrophobic Saudi Arabian flat or on a precarious mountain road on a Greek island, these stories share an insight into the darkest recesses of the spirit. Displaying all of Mantel's unmistakable style and wit, they reveal a great writer at the peak of her powers.


My Review 
I read the 4th Edition paperback copy but I so like the original cover (above) that I decided to use it.  The 4th edition (shown on the left) has an additional story entitled 'The School of English."  

This book is a collection of short stories and, as one would expect, some stand out more than others.  I will start with the ones that stood out for me.  I am going to refrain from providing too much plot description because I believe it is best to read them knowing as little as possible.

Sorry to Disturb.
In this comical story, typical British 'politeness' leads to a situation that spirals out of control.  For me it is about the clashing of cultural norms.  I felt like I was a fly on the wall, observing what was taking place in that Saudi apartment. 

The Long QT
What appears to be a predictable tale of infidelity turns into something entirely unexpected.  The story is short and yet has so much to offer. The narrator is an observer of an extra-marital affair who is indirectly affected by the consequences. 

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
This is the last story in the book and, in my view, the best.  A young woman whose flat is directly opposite the hospital where the prime minister is an in-patient receives a visitor under the pretext that he is an emergency plumber. Although, I would not have wished the title of the story a reality (I did not like the woman but I am a humanitarian), as a work of fiction it is simply brilliant.

This was my first read by Hilary Mantel. and, if it is anything to go by, the author certainly deserves the high praise she receives.  

 This book has been selected as one of my recommended 2016 Summer Reads