Posts Tagged ‘book review’

The Tiny Wife – Andrew Kaufman

Posted in Contemporary Fiction on April 19th, 2012 by admin – 5 Comments

The Tiny Wife

ISBN: 978-0-00-742925-7
Size: 111x178mm
Format: Hardback
Imprint: The Friday Project
Division: HarperPress

My Rating – 4 stars

The Tiny Wife is a thing of beauty, 80 pages of carefully wrought words enhanced by sharp, silhouette illustrations.  Not a single word is wasted in this contemporary fable with echoes of Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm and even a little pinch of Italo Calvino.

Our story opens in contemporary Toronto where a thief carries out a bank robbery with a difference – he asks each customer for the object which is of most sentimental value  to them.  It transpires that they have also handed over part of their soul and each victim experiences rather unpleasant side-effects.  The narrator’s wife, Stacey, starts shrinking with the worry that she will disappear forever, one woman’s husband turns into a snowman, a lion tattoo on a woman’s ankle comes to life, another woman turns into candy.

Somehow, these characters who seem to have stepped straight out of a travelling sideshow or Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, retain a whimsical, magical air which lifts them out of the truly macabre.   Each reader will take something different from this box of delights, even a moral lesson not to take others for granted if you wish to be educated!  A quirky, idiosyncratic read for those who like a little touch of magic in their everyday lives.

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Gold – Chris Cleave

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Literary Prizes, Proofs on April 5th, 2012 by admin – 4 Comments

Published
07/06/2012

Publisher
Sceptre

My Rating – 5 gold stars!

I am not particularly interested in sport, neither as participant nor spectator so if I hadn’t been swept away by Chris Cleave’s previous writing, it is doubtful that I’d have picked up a novel with 3 Olympic cyclists as key characters.  Anyone who passes over Gold for this reason is passing up on the chance of a whirlwind of a reading experience so don’t let those miserable memories of despotic PE teachers put you off and give your brain a gentle work out in the process.

So, let’s set the (Olympic..) record straight, this is not a novel about sporting superhumans, even though they are pretty impressive…we dig deep and discover what makes real people tick when faced with adversary, when illness of a loved one brings you to your knees and you’re powerless to do anything but hope that your child is one of the 9 in 10 who survive.

Gold focuses on the experiences of five main characters – 8 year old Sophie who is fighting leukaemia, her parents Jack and Kate, Olympic cyclists preparing for the London games alongside their friend/rival Zoe and trainer Tom.  All of the adults are nearing the end of their current careers and have one last shot at Olympic Gold whilst Sophie has the hardest fight of all, the battle to stay alive whilst undergoing aggressive treatment which lowers your defences even further.  She uses her imagination and love of Star Wars to harness the Jedi force – anything which encourages a fighting spirit and a positive attitude is going to aid her in the ultimate battle – to stay alive.

From the opening pages, I was fully engaged and committed to this story.  Cleave doesn’t pull on our heartstrings by thrusting sugary-sweet, put upon characters on the reader, they’re all flawed, fully fleshed and make the same mistakes as the rest of us mere mortals.  Sophie’s story is presented in gritty technicolour – there’s no soft focus when she experiences the side effects of chemo or as her last hair falls out.  Kate and Zoe have diametrically opposed public personas when it comes to the media – Kate is the people’s princess,  Zoe, the wicked witch with a touch of glam.  I loved how we are drip-fed snippets of their back stories to explain how they are what they are in the present day.  Tom the trainer has made these cyclists his focus and his family for so many years but now he has to acknowledge the ravages of time and take another path, one which will put less stress on his dodgy knees. Jack seems to be slightly at a loss, a bit piggy in the middle at times.

I was most pleasantly surprised by Gold – my only criticism is to do with the marketing of the novel rather than the novel itself.  The whole device in the blurb about how this is where we normally tell you what the book is about  but we’re not going to tell you because you don’t really need to know.  For goodness sake, tell them what it’s about and stop the superior self-importance. 

Gold is probably the closest I’m going to get to the Olympics but, more importantly, if we all had an ounce of the fighting spirit displayed by young cancer patients like Sophie, we’d all be winners.  Thank you Mr Cleave for a story well told.

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The Killables – Gemma Malley

Posted in Children's Books, Dystopian Fiction, YA Fiction on April 2nd, 2012 by admin – Be the first to comment

The Killables (The Killables, #1)

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (29 Mar 2012)
  • Language English
  • My Rating – 4 stars

    One could be forgiven for thinking that a dystopian setting is compulsory for all YA novels being published at the moment and with the huge success of The Hunger Games both in print and on screen, this is one trend which is staying put.  Gemma Malley has already proven her worth in this genre with her excellent Declaration trilogy and she continues to demonstrate her impressive storytelling skills in this, the first of a new trilogy.

    I must admit that I was quite worried that this new series would seem too samey and fail to stand out amongst the plethora of other dystopian reads on the market but what makes it shine is its quiet, understated nature – thank goodness there are writers who realise it doesn’t have to be all singing, all dancing, all flailing limbs to attract the reader’s attention, sometimes less is more.

    Our “new world” is The City whose citizens are graded from A to D and (shock, horror!) sometimes K depending on their good citizenship and obedience of the rules established by the System.  The head honcho is the omniscient, omnipresent Brother who seems to have your best interests at heart – you really don’t want to end up outside the City gates at the mercy of the Evils, an allegedly subhuman species.

    There is an intriguing love triangle involving our three main protagonists, Evie, Raffy and his “much” older brother, Lucas.  I liked the fact that none of these characters are particularly likeable and you feel like shaking some sense into them most of the time – it’s a trilogy after all, they have time to evolve and change, hopefully for the better!  I also loved the semi-scientific slant on the new Society where all the good citizens have had their amygdala, the ”evil” part of their brain, removed – all done to deliver themselves from evil of course.

    Like all first books in a series, a large portion of the novel has to be devoted to world-building but the author has succeeded in also building characters and a plot which engage the reader and will make you want to read on.  If you’re aged over 13 and you like your dystopian fiction restrained, intelligent and thought-provoking then this is your next stop.

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    Mice – Gordon Reece

    Posted in YA Fiction on March 20th, 2012 by admin – 1 Comment

    Mice

    Published
    03/02/2012

    Publisher
    Macmillan Children’s Books

    My Rating - 4  stars

    Sixteen year old Shelley and her mum have been born with the victim gene – Shelley has been on the receiving end of an intensive, malevolent bullying campaign by former girlfriends and her mum has been through a difficult divorce with Shelley’s dad finding a younger, fresher partner.  They are quite simply “mice”, meek little creatures scuttling around not making much impression on the outside world so they retreat to the safe tranquillity of Honeysuckle Cottage, far from the madding crowd.   In their secluded bolt-hole, they should be safe and sound, Shelley preparing for her exams and her mum trying to keep their heads above water in a low paid job well below her abilities and qualifications.  However, change comes knocking at the door  or rather, sneaking in a window, when an unwanted visitor shows up disturbing the nest – will the mice show their teeth when faced with adversity or will they squeak and beat a hasty retreat?

    I found this a gripping, unputdownable read, one which I devoured in one sitting as I just had  to find out what fate had in store for Shelley and her mother.  The first part of the novel is quite slow paced but nonetheless riveting, as we see the build up of the bullying campaign against Shelley – you really feel for her as she is turned upon by her once close friends.  There is a brief period of calm with the removal to Honeysuckle Cottage but you just know that something is lurking, something which will break the short-lived spell of serenity and the tension is palpable.  What ensues might be disturbing for sensitive readers so I would recommend this for the older, more mature end of the YA market.  Some of the events might seem a bit far-fetched but this is a piece of entertaining, fast paced fiction and not a treatise on How To Be Good.

    An exciting, thought provoking  read – it will raise lots of interesting questions about how far we would go to survive and to what extent the end justifies the means – food for thought indeed.

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    The Prince who Walked with Lions – Elizabeth Laird

    Posted in Children's Books, Historical Fiction on March 19th, 2012 by admin – Be the first to comment

    The Prince Who Walked With Lions

    Published
    01/03/2012

    Publisher
    Macmillan Children’s Books

    My Rating 3.5 stars

    I’m almost ashamed to say that before reading this I had never even heard of Elizabeth Laird but an examination of her back catalogue has revealed a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of children’s literature – much to add to the never-ending wishlist both for my children and I.   She has certainly had a full and varied life, working and travelling in many different parts of the world – a multicultural cornucopia which she has drawn upon to produce a range of intelligently written novels for young people.

    Based on a true story, our narrator is the young Prince Alamayu, son of Emperor  Theodore of Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia).  He tells his story as he lies on his sickbed during his time as a student at Rugby, via a series of flashbacks to his early childhood.  What follows is a detailed, interesting tale of an exotic lifestyle brought to a sudden end by the death of his father at the hands of Queen Victoria’s troops in 1868.   Torn from his native country, he is brought up and educated as a typical English gentleman but he finds it hard to fit in with his peers.

    This is an engaging, poignant tale of a proud young royal striving to adapt to extreme changes in circumstances.  Laird captures the turmoil of a young boy caught between two worlds, slowly forgetting his Ethiopian heritage yet not quite achieving the status of a perfect young gentleman despite his associations with Queen Victoria herself.   Reading this has encouraged me to find out more about this particular part of history – what a bonus if it could incite the same curiosity in younger readers.  Off now to check out Elizabeth’s previous novels – Kiss The Dust  and  A Little Piece of Ground are particularly catching my eye.

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    Dead Men – Richard Pierce

    Posted in Dual Time Frame, Literary Fiction on March 15th, 2012 by admin – 4 Comments

    Dead Men

  • Paperback: 284 pages
  • Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd (15 Mar 2012)
  • Language English
  • My Rating = 4.5 stars
  • As young children, in a tiny rural primary school, we used to listen rapt to the Master as he told us stories of great adventurers both mythical and real.  Forty years on, I still vividly recall the three “heros” who impressed me the most – Abraham Lincoln, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Captain Scott.  The story of Scott’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole, only to be thwarted by Amundsen, has always fascinated me so I was delighted to get the opportunity to read a new novel about Scott especially in this, the centenary  year of his and his colleagues’ death.

    It’s a fairly compact novel, just short of 300 pages but it gives just enough detail to hook the reader from the opening pages where Scott, Wilson and Bowers are discovered in their  tent, having starved to death.   There is a dual time-frame narrative as past events told in the third person involving Scott, Amundsen, his wife amongst others are balanced with a contemporary storyline in the present tense involving a girl obsessed with finding the current location of the explorers’ bodies and some clue as to how they perished only 11 miles away from a base which could have provided them with the food and shelter they needed to survive.  The girl is Birdie Bowers, whose parents named her after one of their heros who was Scott’s companion in both life and death.   She enlists the help of Adam Caird, a would-be suitor, to assist her in her quest to lay some ghosts to rest – her single-mindedness is on a par with that of Scott and his team but there’s a recklessness there too which cranks up the tension and drama.

    My favourite parts of the novel are those set in the Antarctic, both past and present, as the writer really captures the beautiful desolation of the landscape – an environment which could turn on you and kill you without warning.  There’s an eerie, haunting atmosphere, the feeling of being watched by the ghosts of the past, be they malevolent or benign but this never spills over into farce or fantasy. 

    Highly recommended if you are already intrigued by Antarctic adventure and have a respect for nature.   Those who enjoyed Dark Matter by Michelle Paver will equally enjoy the polar parts here.

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    The Lifeboat – Charlotte Rogan

    Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Proofs on March 13th, 2012 by admin – 7 Comments

    The Lifeboat

    Published in the US by

    Little, Brown and Company

    Pub Date: April 03, 2012

    ISBN: 9780316185905

     

    Published in the UK
    29/03/2012

    Publisher
    Virago Press Ltd

    My Rating = 5 Stars!

    The Lifeboat is another choice from Waterstones Eleven, eleven debut novels which they have earmaked for commercial success and critical acclaim in 2012.  This is my fourth read from the selection and yet another one which I thoroughly enjoyed, even on a par with The Snow Child which is high praise indeed.

    Set in 1914, most of the action, or should that read “inaction”, takes place on a lifeboat stranded in the Atlantic Ocean following the sinking of the Empress Alexandra five days after her depature from Liverpool.  Our narrator, newly wed Grace Winter, has written an account of her experiences during three long and exhausting weeks spent aboard the overladen vessel – an account which could once more mean the difference between life and death for her as she now stands trial for murder.  Some of her fellow passengers didn’t survive – some jumped and some may have been pushed but Grace’s involvement is rather unclear and she isn’t the most reliable of narrators.  What is crystal clear though is that the reader will question what he or she would do in a similar situation, how far would we go to survive?

    This is one of those novels you will want all your friends to read so you can discuss it afterwards and share your views.  Underneath the deceptively simple prose lies a multilayered entity which sucks in the reader from the opening pages.  Grace is an interesting character, flawed and human but does her devious streak extend to murder?  Lifeboat No 14 is predominantly female with 30 women, 8 men and 1 child and half of the men end up perishing in the ocean.  The whole power struggle between Hardie (the ship’s crewman) and Mrs Grant mirrors women’s struggle for emancipation and Grace tries her best to steer a middle course between the two.  However when they’re back on terra firma facing a murder accusation, it’s back to normality, to a male dominated society so everything changes.

    Charlotte Rogan wrote the first draft of The Lifeboat 10 years ago and she has been writing whilst raising triplets so she has had little in the way of spare time.  I, for one, am glad that she decided to revisit this novel and set it loose on us readers - grab your lifejackets or at least have plenty of snacks to sustain you as you will be enthralled by this compelling debut.

    My thanks to Net Galley for allowing me to review a digital proof of The Lifeboat.

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    Itch – Simon Mayo

    Posted in Children's Books on March 6th, 2012 by admin – Be the first to comment

    Itch

    Published
    01/03/2012

    Publisher
    Doubleday Children’s Books

    My Rating – 4 stars – pleasantly surprised…

    To be completely truthful, I didn’t expect much of Itch, falling prey to prejudices about celebrities turning their hand to writing but I thoroughly enjoyed this entertaining adventure story.

    Fourteen year old Itchingham Lofte (what a fabulous name!)is science mad and has a tendency to blow up things as a hobby – that explains the missing eyebrows then… He’s determined to collect all the elements of the periodic table and he has used an array of ingenious methods to pursue his scientific quest. Alienated from most of his classmates, he hangs out with his cousin Jack (Jacqueline) and his younger sister, Chloe, both of whom have endless reserves of patience – an essential trait when dealing with the unpredictable and unconventional Itch. When a previously undiscovered element ends up in Itch’s hands, all hell breaks loose as both good and evil factions strive to obtain this extremely powerful substance.

    This is an extremely impressive action-packed debut and ideal for any young person with even a slight interest in science. Itch isn’t a typical young hero – he’s not into being the alpha-male, gung-ho type reinacting Call of Duty – he’s a charming, loveable nerd whose scientific escapades thoroughly engage the reader.

    Itch appealed to the slightly nerdish side of my personality and Chemistry continues to fascinate me even though I took a more literary route post-16. I think a lot of 11+ boys and girls will identify with and be charmed by Itch – looking forward to reading more of this series.

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    Signs of Life – Anna Raverat

    Posted in Contemporary Fiction on February 24th, 2012 by admin – 4 Comments

    Signs of Life

    Published
    12/04/2012

    Publisher
    Picador

    Signs of Life by Anna Raverat is one of Waterstones’ 11 for 2012, their list of highly recommended debut novels.  Last year’s picks included The Tiger’s Wife (Orange Prizewinner) and Pigeon English (Man Booker shortlist) so does this bode well for Ms Raverat’s first novel?

    Well, I loved Signs of Life and I think it must be acknowledged that it is an extremely brave debut novel given that its narrator, Rachel, is extremely unlikeable.  It’s not that she’s been involved in war crimes or cruelty  to animals, quite the opposite as she “appears” to be a bit of a flake, self-obsessed, drifting along and letting others carry the can while she continues sitting at her desk navel-gazing.  Not sounding awfully exciting so far…

    What I did find fascinating though was the way in which Rachel gradually releases her history to us, strand by strand and what a tangled web she weaves.  Ten years ago she had an affair with disastrous consequences and we won’t get to the crux of the whole “affair” until she has sorted through all the other events in a stream of consciousness style, flitting from past to present, from mundane to deathly serious.

    She controls what the reader knows whilst claiming to have been used as a pawn and throughout the novel I found her quite unnerving on a par with Barbara from Notes on a Scandal, another obnoxious yet fascinating character.  She wants to be honest but she frequently alludes to the fact that honesty and truth are impossible to achieve.

    If you are enthralled by unlikeable, unreliable narrators and you don’t mind being manipulated and dangled on a string, then you will be captivated by this tense, edgy novel – an excellent debut.

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    The Midwife of Venice – Roberta Rich

    Posted in Historical Fiction on February 17th, 2012 by admin – 4 Comments

    The Midwife of Venice

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Ebury Press (16 Feb 2012)
  • My Rating – 3 stars

    I have a distinct penchant for historical novels set in Italy,  especially those written by Sarah Dunant.  Therefore I was immediately attracted by the blurb for this, Roberta Rich’s debut, set in Venice in the 16th century.  It was a quick, easy read but Ms Dunant has nothing to fear – her crown remains unchallenged.

    It is 1575 and Venetian Jewess and midwife, Hannah Levi is much in demand for her birthing skills, particularly since she has devised a special instrument for assisting difficult births.  It is forbidden for Jews to attend to the medical needs of Christians but Hannah makes an exception for the Conte di Padovani’s wife – if the latter’s baby dies, Hannah risks the wrath of the Christian authorities falling on all who reside in the Jewish ghetto but if it survives, she will be able to afford the ransom to release her merchant husband, Issac, from captivity in Malta.

    The novel moves between 16th century Venice and Malta, detailing the twists and turns of Hannah and Issac’s efforts to be reunited.  The author’s research is evident in the recreation of Renaissance Venice, warts and all…rotting vegetables, vermin etc…do not expect lives of the rich and famous or modesty in actions and language although occasionally the language veers on the anachronistic, clunky side. 

    Of the two settings, I preferred Venice although you don’t get a feel for wider society beyond Hannah’s limited experience other than vague mutterings about the plague and how it affected Venice.  The Maltese location with hapless Issac taking centre stage has few saving graces apart from Sister Assunta, the zealous local nun, bent on converting all non-Christians.

    Overall I quite liked The Midwife of Venice in that it was like an historical soap opera, easygoing and not too intellectually demanding although I’m not too sure if historical-lite was the author’s intended target?   However I would have really liked more development of the main characters which could easily be accommodated by the excision of Issac – well, he didn’t do much for me… Overall, an okay read but I don’t think I will be rushing out to read more from this author.

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