Monday, 8 December 2014

Worth a Look - The Woman Who Stole My Life by Marian Keyes

[This book was provided to me many moons ago by the publisher, Penguin, via the magnificence that is NetGalley. They charged me nothing and for that I thank them.]

I like Marian Keyes a lot. She's often maligned for being Chick Lit which is both unfair and stupid - while you don't have to like Chick Lit, you do have to not write off an entire genre. As I mentioned in my review of Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married, Keyes pre-dates Sex and The City and Bridget Jones by several years. She didn't single-handedly invent the genre, but she was an important step in its development.

The Woman Who Stole My Life is a pleasing return to form after the rather jarring The Mystery Of Mercy Close (which I'll mention I enjoyed tons more the second time around) and The Brightest Star In The Sky, which left me wanting to throw it (it's decent enough, but a book which turns out to be narrated by the spirit of an unborn baby waiting to find out which lady's womb it's going to settle down into makes me stabby. Full marks for originality and all that, but it's worth mentioning that abortion is illegal in Ireland so I have trouble regarding an unplanned pregnancy with anything other than horror).

Stella Sweeny has returned to Dublin under a cloud following a year in New York as a lauded self-help author. Now broke, she's desperate to get another book out, but that's going to involve laying off the wall of jaffa cakes and actually writing the thing, a task she's finding far more difficult this time around.

Keyes uses the structure which has worked so well in previous novels such as Rachel's Holiday and Anybody Out There?: a first person narrative beginning after the fact, the day-to-day story around which the past unfolds. Stella's story has a terrific concept and Keyes' does great work balancing the distress of the character with the levity of the style. She has so many throwaway moments, so many tiny details of life in there. Her characters are both human and ridiculous - Stella's ex-husband Ryan is the exactly like somebody I know in real life (which made me terribly sad, and a little grateful his kidders are boys).

I like the Irish vernacular - when you read as much as I do, anything which stands out a little is gratefully received. This isn't the full Dub, but there's plenty of 'That's gas,' and 'gameball' floating around, along with the odd nun reference which, as a Protestant Atheist, I find minorly thrilling.

There are problems, the largest of which is the story. Along with the present in which Stella desperately tries to write her new book before she runs out of money, there are two main sections: Stella's time in New York and the events which led to her being there. Both are good, but the ending feels desperately weak. Keyes usually gives us characters who are dealing with something - Helen and her Depression, Rachel and her drug addiction etc - but Stella isn't doing that. She's procrastinating and worrying, sure, but most of what happens in her present is filler - completely appropriate and wildly entertaining, but nevertheless filler. When the full story is finally given, that's pretty much it. I genuinely wondered if my ARC was going to have its final chapter missing because I was down to the last few percent and still dealing with Stella's past.

And while Stella herself is an excellently done character, she's not the best type to have at the heart of a book. She is a passive character - the direction her life takes has little to do with her own decisions or efforts. She is a passenger in her own reality. Keyes knows this and uses it to brilliant effect, but it still leaves for a disappointing reading experience. I understand and sympathise with Stella, but I was never urging her to succeed.

I enjoyed The Woman Who Stole My Life (and I learned something, which is always nice). If you haven't read any Marian Keyes this probably isn't going to turn you onto her, but it's a good book for those who do, if probably not worth the full price of admission. A goodly amount of my like comes from the coverage of Stella's life as an author which - as with The Other Side Of The Story - engaged me. The majority of the book was a solid 3.5 star, but that ending is massively undermining: 3 stars.

The Woman Who Stole My Life on Amazon UK

Monday, 17 November 2014

An excellent accompaniment to Harold Fry - The love Song of Miss Queeny Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

[This book was provided to me for the price of nothing, nyet, nada monies. I was wildly happy about it. All hail the publisher, Random House, and NetGalley, who makes my dreams possible. Well, my dreams of acquiring books I don't have to pay for or leave the house to get my hands on, at least, and of not being tracked down to be shouted at even though I'm a month late with this.]

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is one of the few books which have made it onto my 5 star list. It was the bookish equivalent of a bowl of rice pudding with a dollop of really tangy jam - immensely comforting, not many surprises, but with a definite punch which made the whole thing come alive. Plus it made me cry, and any book which does that deserves a high mark.

In all honesty I was a bit apprehensive to learn of this book, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. Harold Fry was such a massive success - not only commercially: it was also longlisted for the Booker - I feared this would be a cynical tie-in, or an attempt to exploit the great affection readers have for Joyce's debut. It isn't. This book stands as a companion novel to Harold Fry and it does so marvellously.

It begins with a letter - the letter Harold Fry receives which prompts him into his pilgrimage - and its reply, the one Harold scribbles the note onto to tell Queenie to wait for him. Which she does.

Love Song is Queenie's longer letter to Harold, her confession and attempt at atonement. It is the things she needs him to know in case he doesn't get there in time. It is what happened during her time at the factory, during the car rides, and why she acted as she did back then. This story is interspersed with the day-to-day life of the hospice - the nuns, the other patients. Joyce has a rare skill for the ridiculous, and for balancing it against heart-wrenching truths. There is great sadness in this book, but it is genuinely funny too and filled with joyous moments.

Yet, it is lacking. There is a story to be told here but at the same time it's rather too dependent on Harold Fry, relegating it to a top-notch curio rather than a must-read. The premise of Harold Fry was always contrived but Joyce handled it with enough skill and compassion to make it work; Love Song doesn't work in that way. Harold's walk and Queenie's desire to wait for him don't make enough sense when this book is treated in isolation.

There is also the problem of Queenie herself. Harold Fry was never about her, she was simply a name, a memory; she was an icon through which Harold and Maureen found peace. She did nothing beyond exist, which was fine within the confines of that story but here she is a woman in love with a married man. She has spent her life loving him and I do not find that romantic, I find it hateful. I bring my own baggage to this in the form of a psycho hose-beast who declared herself in love with a man she'd never met, who caused cataclysmic damage to two vulnerable people, and who is - above and beyond all else - a pathetic coward who needs to get a grip and live in the world which is in front of her, not the fantasies of her own head. So, yeah, every time Queenie recounted how much she loved Harold and how she'd spent her life alone, I wanted to reach for my trusty slap-haddock. I like to image hitting people I don't like with fish. Judge me if you wish.

Joyce, it should be emphasised, does a sterling job with Queenie. As much as I disliked the abstract concept, and as much as I hated the emphasis on her love for Harold - Harold Fry was never a love story - I did enjoy this book. From an outside perspective I think it's tremendously faulty; while there's certainly a story to be told here I do feel it's a little hamstrung by its own set-up. Compare Queenie to Penelope (Greek lady; liked weaving) to show the missed potential. There's no getting away from the fact this is 368 pages of a woman writing about a bloke she's been secretly in love with for decades. When the great confession comes, it felt absolutely perfect for this self-obsessed character, Queenie again taking ownership of something which isn't hers, but it's disguised as a Romantic gesture and that is disappointing. It's written to be felt, but for me it was Queenie making things about Queenie. Shyness is arrogance in disguise.

It is fair to mention, especially because I have railed on plenty of books in the past for the issue, that I frown upon its narrative concept (if that's the correct term). This presents itself as a character-written text. Queenie is writing her story in shorthand, desperate to get this tale down before it's too late yet it is very writerly. I bang on about how if something is X it has to BE X; Queenie Hennessey does not read like the product of somebody writing in shorthand, worrying about whether she has enough time left. It doesn't inhibit the enjoyment of the book but it would be hypocritical of me not to mention it.

If you loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry as much as I did, I'd definitely recommend picking this one up. If you haven't read either, start with that; Love Song has significantly less to offer the uninitiated and will demand they suspend their disbelief rather too much to get into it. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy a bittersweet, hilarious and heartfelt book full of terrific characters and despite my personal baggage, I enjoyed it hugely.

4 stars.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy on AmazonUK

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Schrodinger's Author and some thoughts going foward

When I decided to join the #bloggerblackout, I did it for a lot of reasons, all of them personal. In the post I made about why I was doing it, I mentioned my concern over the fact I was late with a couple of reviews and in joining the blackout they would be made later. In the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter and it makes very little difference to those books and their success - however, it was still important to me that I try and behave in a professional way, which means getting ARC reviews done in a timely fashion.

I knew when I went into it that some people thought the blackout was designed to, or was about, hurting or punishing authors. It was never about that for me - I don't think it's about that for anybody. I didn't realise some people thought an ARC meant I owed them something beyond an honest review. I didn't realise that accepting books for review made me, in the eyes of some, obligated to the people who'd provided it.

Amateur reviews are a pretty useful thing for the publishing industry. An awful lot of the online activity I see is around the areas of Romance and YA/NA, two genres which don't have much traction in the mainstream press. Without sites like Dear Author, or Smart Bitches, or any one of the hundreds of small blogs contributing to the accumulation of reviews on Goodreads, there are an awful lot of books which wouldn't receive any publicity. I had a quick Google to see where Hale's novel would have been covered without the blogs and the answer from the first few pages of my results is: Kirkus, and Bustle. YMMV.

That's not Blogs only value - it also lies *in* being amateur. To work in publishing, the usual route is via the unpaid internship. In the US I understand some places offer remote work placements, but in the UK it means working for free, in London, which gives something of an insight into why the industry is so very, very white, and why there's an industry perception that POC characters will harm a book's chances in the market. #WeNeedDiverseBooks, not more privileged Oxbridge/Red Brick graduates out of touch with the book buying public. Even I, white, middle-class, find few people like me in the newspaper. There was an article in the Guardian some weeks ago in which a woman struggling with money tried an experiment with Supermarket own brands to see if they were worth the saving (spoiler alert - some were). It mainly illustrated to me that the good people of that newspaper aren't actually in touch with the whole "struggling with money" thing. Anybody who thinks having to stop using Ocado counts as "struggling with money" needs a sharp reality check. Some weeks I genuinely can't tell if The Sunday Times Style magazine has been secretly taken over by The Onion.

Blogs though - bloggers are people like me. They post pictures of their cats sitting in cardboard boxes, and they have terrible days at work, and they celebrate losing weight or having a haircut, and they're excited about a new TV show, or maybe they're annoyed about it, whatever - they're all people who live lives far closer to mine even though I should have far more in common with those broadsheet journalists who are so very keen to show just how ordinary they are.

And because Bloggers are people like me, I trust them. I trust that most of them are doing what I do - reading a book and writing down what they think of it.

If we become obliged to publishers, or authors, or anybody but ourselves, we lose the thing which makes us useful.

So, to you, those people saying (or thinking) that bloggers owe authors/publishers something: is that what you want? Free adverts spread across the internet? Do you want us to be good little boys and girls? Do you want us to write enthusiastically about everything you provide us with? And, do you think, in your infinite wisdoms, that this will do you any good? Or do you suppose that having these "independent" reviewers in your pockets will mean people get their reviews from people who don't accept ARCS? Because hear this: if I never get another ARC, I will still have plenty to read. And it will not be hurting authors to not accept ARCs because I will still be reviewing, just not the books freshly available this week. But then, this is so tangled it would not surprise me if you did think closing to ARCs was hurting authors, and this is so far past the point of appropriateness it's almost worth doing so to laugh at your self-important Twitter attacks. Oh noes! Am I functioning as an autonomous human being? Won't somebody please stop me?! Think of teh authors!

If you are an author, it is in your very best interests to have an independent group of people saying what they think about your book. It is in your interest to have this group of people able to say what they want about things without having to worry about you butting in, which, if there's no f***ing @reply including you, is exactly what it is. If it's not emailed to you, or tweeted at you, or facebooked at you, or whatever the hell the cool kids are doing these days, you are butting in. You are doing the internet equivalent of announcing yourself to the people having a conversation at the next table in a restaurant. Consider street harassment - even just those simple thank yous, those little harmless words which nobody in their right mind could have a problem with unless they drip, drip, all day, every day, until every time you leave the house you're braced for it. Reviewers have these small words all the time, and all the people in their community do too, and they don't know, when you say those little words, whether that's all you'll do because you are Schroedinger's Author.

The only difference between Kathleen Hale and Richard Brittain('s alleged actions) is a bottle. Until that bottle hit the head of a reviewer, their actions were the same. Do not justify Hale to me on the basis of her walking away. Do not tell me you have the right to respond to reviews, or to chat up a woman who wants nothing to do with you, because they are the same thing and neither are okay. Forcing interaction is not cool.

One of the things which has made me saddest about this whole situation are the number of stories I'm hearing about reviewer harassment, a lot of it from trade published authors. Most of it isn't a big deal, but - like street harassment - when it's this constant background noise which occasionally turns into something worse, do you really think your right as the author (or simply as a human being) to comment on a review trumps the right of the reviewer to go on through their day unimpeded?

I've thought about this a lot. I love ARCs. I love seeing a book in the best-seller list and smugly mentioning I had a review copy of it. I've never claimed to be a good person.

I don't want to stop requesting them but my independence as a reviewer is far more important to me than a few free books. I haven't done a proper breakdown, but ARCs have been roughly 10% of my reading material this year. If an ARC means I owe anybody anything, in the nicest possible way, keep it. I am not the enthusiastic promo-bot you are looking for. This one actually is about ethics in journalism.

I already had plans to cut back on ARCs for a bit so this isn't some grand move, it's more something I was kind of doing anyway, and it's not intended to be permanent. It's for as long as I feel like and it's not about anybody who isn't me.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Taglines make me gripe - Visibility by Boris Starling

I am a big fan of Boris Starling's Messiah so although I wasn't particularly struck by the blurb of this book I thought I'd give it a whirl. Either fortunately or unfortunately, my copy contained a hugely misleading blurb which spoke excitedly of a rising body count (there isn't), and the tagline "Now you see it, now you're dead" (you aren't).

This is a very claustrophobic novel and it does a decent job of evoking the thick London fog the characters move through as they go about their investigations. However, there's little feeling of threat. There's a secret the MC, Herbert Smith, is trying to find out but - and particularly because this is set in the 50s - it's not exciting enough. At the grand reveal I was waiting for a second denouement, or some tension, or anything at all to get me past the mild disappointment (particularly as if I had a better memory for names I would have had an idea where this was going within the first third).

This book reminds me very much of Robert Harris' Fatherland - it has the same cold atmosphere and gradual pacing, but where that had an emotional impact (by pulling a neat little trick with what we, the modern reader, know vs what the MC in that knows), here Starling's neat plotting is slightly too dull. The pieces are there and they all line up well enough, but ... I could easily have given up on this one. 2 stars.

Friday, 31 October 2014

I'd have an opinion on this book but I'm afraid it might be too much for my poor female brain - Dracula by Bram Stoker

I've never wanted to read Dracula. Strider - my sister, so named because she had her legs stretched when she joined the circus so she could stride over cars and unicorns - was always big into Vampires; from Point Horror's The Return of the Vampire to Anne Rice (and the film, which I recently rewatched the first half hour of for the first time and suddenly understood why Tom Cruise was so cross about it given the views of his religion on those sort of matters). She ponced around Whitby in a black crushed velvet skirt and an old jet crucifix of our Mammy's no doubt feeling she had found her spiritual home. In the interests of not being unfair to her, I should mention that at this time I was rocking the type of clothing you can only buy in Glastonbury, muttering over lumps of rock crystal, and wishing I could put green streaks in my hair. I even had an orange dot energised by Uri Geller himself.

Left to my own devices, I probably never would have got around to reading Dracula, but I made the mistake of mentioning to my Mammy I'd never read it and compounded my error by allowing her to leave the house unsupervised before enough time had passed for her to forget that fact. She smilingly presented me with a copy, telling me it was really good. Unusually for me, I did not respond with the news I could have got it for free from Project Gutenberg but instead thanked her and settled to read.

A bajillion weeks later I managed to finish.

Normally I give classic books a bit of a free pass on matters such as language, or having an enormously tedious bit in the middle because while I enjoy complaining, I'm also British and don't consider it cricket to give out to somebody who's been dead for the last hundred years or so. However, I am not giving Dracula a free pass for the sexism and I do not buy that this is an accurate portrayal of attitudes at the time any more than I expect the me of 2114 to buy Stephen King's portrayal of Beverly Marsh and her amazingly sentient nipples in IT.

The first part of Dracula, Jonathan Harker's diary of his time spent in Transylvania, is good although the moment with Dracula's harem is just as porny as every TV, film, and game portrayal of it, which is actually quite an achievement. The book continues decently from there, with only minor eye rolling on my part, until the introduction of Van Helsing and his inability to say what the problem is. I've always found that getting people to do stuff is much more effective if you inform them of all the terrible things which will happen if they fail, or maybe I just like issuing threats, but clearly Van Helsing doesn't. I don't care when a book was written, if a character fails to mention crucial information but doesn't - and doesn't have a good reason not to - and bad things happen as a result, it's weak plotting.

From there, things get worse. We go from Everybody Loves Lucy to Everybody Loves Mina. I actually checked with my Mammy that she'd read this before the 70's because I honestly don't see how she could have tolerated all the "Let's not tell Mina about this, she looks so pale and tired and I'm worried her womanly brain may explode from all the knowledge", and the "I'm so glad the men won't tell me anything about anything. I am so glad they are all here to do the thinking so I don't have to" bits.

As with The Turn of The Screw, I enjoy the fruits Dracula's legacy far more than the original work which inspired them. I don't think it's worth reading today, but as the beginning was good I'm going to give it one star.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Better Late Than Never - The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark

[With this post, I declare my personal Blog Blackout over. I thought about extending it to the 1st to keep in line with others, but from tomorrow I'm busy with Other Things, so I decided breaking early was better than breaking late on account of all the damage little old me is doing to teh authors. Why will nobody think of the authors? Anyway, this book was provided to me for no cost by the publisher, Two Roads, aided by Bookbridgr. I thank them, for both hardcopy and not sending Kirsty Wark to my home to find out why I hadn't got this reviewed yet.]

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle is the debut novel of the journalist and broadcaster Kirsty Wark (you'd have heard of her if you were British). She is intelligent, classy, and a generally all round good egg, which is why I requested it in the first place. She also had a cameo in the Doctor Who episode "The Poison Sky' according to Wikipedia, which tells you how highly she is regarded.

When 93-year-old Elizabeth Pringle dies, she leaves her house and everything in it to Anna, the woman who pushed a note through her door 30 years earlier asking if Elizabeth would be interested in selling. TIt is Martha, Anna's daughter, who takes shocked custody of the place; the house is an untold story, one which will forever remain so thanks to Anna's Alzheimers.

The book alternates between Martha - struggling with her mother, her sister, and this new property, the gift of a woman she's never met - and Elizabeth's memoir, the story of a long life in a small place she's desperate to set down before she becomes unable to. There is a lovely parallel in the unfolding of Elizabeth's story and Martha's gradual acquaintance with her through the Arran islanders who knew her, small details cropping up in Martha's chapters to be explained in Elizabeth's.

As you might expect from somebody of Wark's calibre, the writing is pretty good. There's the odd clunky paragraph, usually speech related, but the prose has a lovely subtlety to it which only becomes apparent when you mentally apply a Scottish accent. In the right vocal chords, I imagine this would be an excellent audio book. It's certainly something which should be read for long, uninterrupted periods, sunk into rather than dipped.

And this is because while lovely, and evocative, and interesting, Elizabeth Pringle lacks a strong plot. Any book split between two narratives in this way faces an uphill struggle to engage the reader because it usually takes twice as long for the book to get going. This one gives no impetus to either story. Elizabeth's memoir is exactly that, the story of her life, while Martha merely lives hers. Things happen, certainly - the relationship between Martha and her sister Susie over their mother is especially keenly observed - but there is little drive or tension. At no point was I waiting to find out what happened.

When the great denouement comes, it feels ... random. There is no particular build up, or the sense that this was the reason Elizabeth was writing her memoir. It's a shame, and I wish Elizabeth's actions following the event had been made more of. There is seriously under-utilised mileage in that particular idea.

The same can be said of the romantic elements - it feels like there's a stage missing between the characters' conversations-in-passing and the characters giving each other a metaphorical throat-swabbing on the doorstep. It feels like the parts are there on paper, but they lack the organic connection between the characters. When I read about a relationship I want to feel these two people not getting together would be a travesty. Instead I was a bit ho-hum about it.

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle is one of these books I could might well have given up on if it hadn't been an ARC, but one of the ones I'm glad I didn't. Sometimes a book turns out not to be right for me, the sack of meat and bitterness behind the keyboard, and I think there's certainly an element of that here. While slow, for me it was a solid three-star read. If Women's Fiction set on a remote Scottish Island appeals, I'd certainly recommend you download a sample.

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle on Amazon UK

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Blogger Blackout until October 27th

I don't use Twitter much. I find it too much of a time sink; it can take me 5 minutes minimum to read and respond to a Tweet (I'm dyslexic). Yesterday, though, I was keeping an eye on #HaleNo and I ended up having a conversation with an internationally bestselling author about the proposed blackout. She argued that it would be hurting a lot of authors who had nothing to do with Hale, and she's right - in a way - it will.

When I began the conversation, I wasn't sure what my position was going to be. I agreed with the blackout but I wasn't sure if I was going to join in. I'm horribly behind on my ARCs and I've got 2 reviews which I was intending to get finished and post ASAP - if I join in with the blackout, I am actively punishing these two authors (if you will excuse me the ego trip of pretending anything I do makes a difference, especially to the two people concerned). It's going to effect another two authors who's books I need to crack on with and who I would make the effort to status update about because I am so horribly behind. It's going to effect another author, because I started their book last night and am really excited that it's going to be good and if I join the blackout, I can't say anything about it.

I don't know what any of these people think about #HaleNo. I haven't looked. It doesn't actually matter because this is not about them. As I said to the IBA on Twitter, when nurses strike it's not done to hurt the patients. As a blogger, I hope that authors understand why we're doing this and that they offer to support us. We all have our own reasons for doing this. These are mine.

  • Because accusations were made without proof and a woman has been silenced. No proof of trolling, of harassment, or of bullying by Blythe Harris against Kathleen Hale. No proof has been shown that she has stolen a friends' pictures. Hale's account differs in several important respects from that of the Blog Tour company. When people go digging, they're finding more evidence Hale's presentation of events differs from them.

  • Because even in balanced articles, the headlines refer to us as Trolls. For a long time we've been fighting the notion that a negative review is bullying, or one-starring without a review is trolling. It isn't, plus nobody complains about 5 star ratings without a review. Are there some people on the internet who rate 1 star and needle the author about it? Yes there are, the web is dark and full of idiots. Is Blythe Harris one of these people? No. Not as far as I can see. Most of us aren't.

  • Because this could have been any of us. As I've said, Blythe has not been shown to have done anything wrong. Yes, trolls exist on the internet and some people are rude and some people harass authors, but Blythe has not been shown to have done any of those things. If Hale can write about Blythe in The Guardian, she can write about me. 

  • Because her Publisher has not commented. I don't expect they will but they damn well should. If Hale were a man, you can bet they'd be distancing themselves. I have no idea if they legally could, but I would like to see them drop Hale from her publishing contract. I want them to stand up and be f***ing counted. I want them to stand up and take a public action to demonstrate they do not condone Hale's actions. I want them to show they take the safety of their customers seriously (because that's what we are. We are the people buying books.). There are 20 million Goodreads users. I want them to say yes, the 20 million people whose hobby it is to read and review books, plus the however-many-more who do so elsewhere, are more important than Kathleen Hale. No, it won't happen, but I want it to.

  • Because we have no power. The only thing I have is my voice and I'm damn lucky to have that. I don't have friends in high places. I'm not important enough to be featured on STGRBs list of bloggers. My profile is too small to make me a target. Too many people believe and support Hale because of who she is. I will use the only thing I have to protest Hale's actions, as insignificant as it is.

  • Because this is not going to make a damn bit of difference. Hale is too well connected for this to destroy her career. It's funny, because that's what we're accused of being able to do: destroy careers. We can't. Really, whose career has been destroyed by bloggers? I believe that this is futile. I know there are things happening behind the scenes, but there are too many people too firmly entrenched in the belief that somebody else is responsible for their failure, even when they haven't actually failed. I believe this action will change nothing, but this is still important and I stand with everybody else.

So, here it is. With regret, until the 27th I will not be posting any reviews of new books, or status updates about the ones I'm reading. I apologise to the authors whose reviews are being further delayed by this action.

Questions, discussion etc welcome in the comments.

Monday, 20 October 2014

"It left me apoplectic with rage" - Netherworld by Lisa Morton

[This book was provided to me for no monies via the Early Reviewers program at LibraryThing. This review was first published on my Booklikes blog in Dec 2013/Jan 2014.]

I don't read many terrible books. I read a good few which are just not very good, but it's quite rare for me to read one which is deeply and unfixable awful. Nor do I read many which are so bad they're good - I have too much to read, not enough time, and too little disposable income as it is.

The best I can say about Netherworld is that it is, at times, entertainingly stupid - "Why is this the Cave of Cats?" wonders one character; 10 seconds later he finds a lot of cats. Unfortunately, it's not entertaining enough to get me past the the factual inaccuracies - as I said in my status update, the language of Kolkata is Bengali, not Hindi; yes, it is spoken there today and yes, a Kolkata had a Hindi language newspaper at the time, but the guy carrying the chair, talking to his mates, is going to speak his own language - and general lack of historical world building which, when combined with other aspects of the book, feels more like ignorance.

I appreciate the oddness in giving out about factual accuracy in a book about a woman trying to close supernatural gates to the Netherworld, but this is set in 1880 and I expected it to reflect that. Instead we have American language - references to wait staff etc - and a heroine, Lady Diana Furnaval, who reads nothing like the product of a 19th Century upbringing, let alone one - we must assume because the book doesn't tell us - from the upper classes. For a start, she doesn't appear to have a ladies maid, which I might buy if there was a reason for it, or the text referred to her doing any of the things a ladies maid does. It doesn't. It's just one of the many contextual gaps which undermine this book. Don't get me started on the trip to the Bad Part of London.

The language, too, is a disappointment. It adequately describes what is happening, with rather too many dramatic em dashes for my taste (one particularly grated: there is a diary section whose writer is attempting to get down the information as quickly as possible but still uses a dramatic em dash line break to enthral the reader). It does not, however, give any atmosphere, or sense of place. Details are absent, but for me details are what make a book like this. We don't even know what title Diana's husband possessed, or who has it now, or whether they're bothered that Diana is living in their house.

The plot is not terrible but it does take a while for it to kick in. Before that it's a bit directionless with Diana travelling around closing the gateways to the Netherworld, taking in Romania (in a Dracula homage), China, India, and the US, before discovering the dastardly plot. It's not a very good plot and the attempts to stop Diana thwarting it are remarkably inefficient. Even the Big Bad Guy comes directly from the Bond Villain school of "Well, you're going to die anyway, so sure I'll answer your questions about my nefarious schemes".

Irritable mentions must go to Mina, a cat version of Dean Koontz's Exceptional Dog. As a woman 15 years and 23 cats away from becoming a fully fledged crazy cat lady, I find these depictions incredibly annoying. If you are feeding a cat nothing but the nice bits of protein and carrying it around in a bag all day, you are going to have a deeply unwell cat. Yes, it really does annoy me that much.

Also to the dull and repetitive kissing scenes - have your 80's Mills and Boon bingo cards at the ready - and the angry making (spoiler and trigger warning for this) attempted rape by an Incubus who intends to impregnate Diana and have her die in childbirth. No word on whether the kidder was to be called Adrian.

My special prize for stupidest thing in the entire book is reserved for a sentence near the end. Diana has been shown the future of manufacturing and is a tad upset by it because children have no limbs, or something. She sets up a grant for scientists who create better, cleaner, safer methods of industry. Aside from the fact it's a waste of money because engineers are the people you want for that type of thing, Diana's estate is in Derbyshire. You know what's in Derbyshire? Apart from Pemberly (home of Jane Austen's Mr Darcy). Cotton Mills. Lots and lots and lots of dark satanic mills, noted employers of children. For somebody with such hippy Guardian-reading liberal sensibilities, Lady Diana is remarkably unaware of what's happening on her doorstep, or throughout her country. Has she never read any Mrs Gaskell? Or even a newspaper? 1880 was the year compulsory education was introduced for heaven's sake.

I judge a book in part by how well it manages what I expect from it. A book with "Bram Stoker award winning writer" (for Non-Fiction, incidentally) plastered on the front was expected to be well written and well researched. This was neither. I'll give it 1 star because I did finish it, but I'm struggling to think who, among the people who aren't me, would enjoy it.

Netherworld (Chronicles of Diana Furnaval Book 1) on AmazonUK

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Book Blogger Illuminati Newsletter November 2014

As we have probably have all heard by now, we have been outed in a couple of major publications. They didn't refer to us by name, but a couple of authors managed to persuade The Guardian and New Republic to run articles about how we're deliberately destroying their books and careers. I know we'd all hoped to keep our existence a secret until after the release of Prince Lestat - don't forget, if you're having problems with snarky gifs for your reviews drop a line to Brian and he'll hook you up - so I thought I'd get the newsletter out early to reassure everyone.

First things first: nobody is to blame for this and it is not a big deal. You guys in the Vine program were doing your jobs perfectly. That can't be emphasised enough. I can see you all worked together to put good variety in your phrasing - Margo Howard is going to have a really hard time convincing people her book doesn't have issues with her being an entitled, privileged, poor-little-rich-girl. Seriously guys, I beginning to suspect she's a member of another chapter. Have you seen her comments on the piece?

The Kathleen Hale thing is concerning, especially with its mention of Athena Parker and STGRB. They've been dormant for a while so we haven't been able to take any of their posts and make it sound like they're twisted stalkers, but we've still been able to go through the internet and continue removing all mentions of Parker from before STGRB started so it looks as though she's not a real person. Those fake screen-shots we created of them doxxing book reviewers still show up on the first page of results. Anybody going to the STGRB webpage is still going to come away thinking they're seriously unhealthy individuals.

Hale's next book doesn't appear to have a release date yet but I want everybody to start brainstorming now. I want to start goading her the day after that sucker appears on NetGalley. I don't want her average review score above 2 stars. We've got some good details on the Guardian piece about how to push her buttons. I want those of you with publishing contracts to reach out to her in your author guises. You'll be the first people she turns to when it all kicks off next time, so you can reassure her she isn't being a maniac. You'll also be in a good place to feed her information like phone numbers if we've made it too difficult for her to get the info herself. Worst comes to the worst, you can tackle the reviewers "on her behalf". Friends diving in makes authors look bad too!

Now, holiday season is coming up and as a reminder to everybody, now is the time to start planting doubt. Books are still a popular gift and as well known bookish people, you're going to be asked for your opinions. You've got your lists of who we're targeting this year.

To liven things up, we're going to have a leader board. It's going to work as an honour system, but there'll be a small prize for the winner! As well as persuading people not to buy, you can earn points for distributing copies to charity shops. It will make the books look bad AND it will keep the authors from earning money if they're bought. If you need some more hard copies, get in touch with me and I'll have them sent out - special well done to all the people who got the digital ARCs we were able to copy and redistribute!

One final thing: NaNo is coming up, so make sure you pull back on your reviews a bit during the month. All failed novelists do NaNo, so that includes us. We've got a new page on the website with suggestions of "writerly" things you can tweet for added authenticity.

Unhappy reading everybody!

Friday, 17 October 2014

It's a Japanese book about a cat, I'm going to be biased - The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

[This book was provided to me for zero pennies by the publisher, Picador, their button-pressing approval made possible by NetGalley. Wren and I thank them profusely.]

The Guest Cat is an odd little book. It is a fairly simple novella about a Tokyo couple who gradually become a second family to a neighbour's cat they call Chibi. Rather unfortunately, it feels as though something large has been lost in translation with this one.

I'm loath to point the finger at the translator - not least because the last time I did that person wrote an Amazon review explaining how I'd read the book wrong - but this does read as though it's quite a literal translation.

Another one of Chibi's characteristics was that she changed the direction of her cautious attention frequently.

It's not constant by any means, and it doesn't render the book as unreadable as that isolated sentence suggests, but it's certainly a problem. Translating literary books demands rare skills anyway; translating from Japanese (which has so much particular vocabulary and a culture completely different from the West) ... well, I can't imagine it's easy. It also raises the question of what a translator should do - should they be extensively rewriting or merely reporting what is written? Who should decide if that sentence should be "Chibi found many things to be cautious about" or "Chibi rarely relaxed"?

There is a difference between a poetic statement and one which is overwritten. I didn't feel the translation always got that right. When it's good it's delicate, stepping lightly through the simplicity of the tale, but when it's not it's that quote, or it's contradicting itself, or it's starting threads which are never returned to and generally leaving me slightly confused.

There are some notes/footnotes from the translator which are illuminating enough for me to wish either they, or an expert in Japanese Literature, had written an introduction. I would feel the benefit of having this explained to me a bit.

On a personal level, I found this a very interesting book. There are protracted descriptions of the house which I found fascinating but which others may well find tedious. The narrator's engagement with Chibi is the typical monologue of the cat enthusiast; the reader's mileage will vary according to their meatworld keeness for this.

Although I'm giving this three stars I can't honestly say I'd recommend it. I'm in that weird situation where I'm reading other, more positive reviews, agreeing with them totally, but not actually making that connection myself. I do very much feel that it's me who hasn't got it, rather than there being nothing to get. There are certainly shades of something, but even with the benefit of a few days rumination, I couldn't actually tell you what.

3 stars.

The Guest Cat on Amazon UK

Monday, 13 October 2014

It's ... okay. Just about. - Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

I only have the very vaguest idea who Mindy Kaling is. I do know this was a few books away from Hyperbole and a Half when I went to the library, and that I picked it up because I've seen it before somewhere. It was probably when Sloane Crosley's I Was Told There'd Be Cake was the Kindle Daily Deal. I didn't buy Sloane Crosley's book, mainly because I don't know who she is either.

Kaling, it turns out, is a comedy writer of high repute. She writes and acts in the US version of The Office. She writes and stars in The Mindy Project. Production/Direction/Generally Telling People What To Do is also involved. I use the present tense here but I've seen neither show so may be embarrassed to find she left in season 1 and is now fronting a campaign to give every child in America an oboe. Because she's a comedy writer of high repute she is therefore in need of a book deal, a sentence which tells you everything you need to know about this book.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) is a collection of what other people call essays and, as far as this sort of thing goes, is actually okay. It doesn't start strongly: a chapter about Kaling's weight and how her hobby is dieting has the same lazy idiocy as the hashtag nomakeup selfie thing, particularly to me who is a UK 16 (US12) and only knows what Kaling looks like because there's a picture of her on the cover. After that though it gets better. Kaling has some fun - if privileged - childhood stories.

My overall impression of Kaling is of a person who is quite blinkered - she comes across as somebody who lacks empathy for other people; not in a bad way, just in a surprising way given that she's a comic. She doesn't seem ignorant enough for this to be a deliberate shtick. The adult perspective on childhood stories is missing, especially in one about a weekend friend who became a school time friend. Elements which seem obvious about the situation are missed in the way of somebody unaware of what it is to be somebody who isn't them.

There is the odd extremely problematic lines: "You should know I disagree with a lot of traditional advice. For instance, they say the best revenge is living well. I say it’s acid in the face—who will love them now?" Yeah, well, Katie Piper seems to be managing okay. See what I mean about the blinkered privilege?

Much of the book is enjoyable enough, even for somebody who has only the vaguest idea of the significance of Saturday Night Live, or who Kristen Wiig and Amy Poehler are. However, it does read - especially in the final couple of sections - as though Kaling is casting around for ideas to make her word count. She does it well enough but it smacks of being phoned-in, a product which exists purely to trade on Kaling's name. And while it would be fair enough to go 'Well, duh! What did you expect?', the answer is, 'I expected that somebody who writes for a living would do better than this diverting but not terribly funny and ultimately rather self-indulgent book.' 3 stars.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?: (And other concerns) on AmazonUK

Friday, 3 October 2014

Thoroughly Enjoyable - The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

[This ARC was provided to me for the cost of zero of your monies by the publisher. NetGalley was involved. Aren't they always?]

I wasn't the greatest fan of Grameme Simsion's first novel, The Rosie Project. It took too long to get going and - particularly in the early sections - bore the scars of its original iteration as a script, but not in a good way. However, it did get better and I did enjoy it so I was very pleased to be granted a review copy of its sequel. I was even more pleased once I'd read it.

The Rosie Effect picks up the story some months after end of the previous book - while it's probably better to read that one first so you know the characters, this is perfectly understandable if you don't. Don and Rosie are now married and living in America where Don works at Columbia and Rosie is attempting to balance finishing her PhD with her medical studies. Oh, and becoming a mother. Which was slightly less planned than Don is easily able to cope with.

Although The Rosie Effect is a comedy, and a chucklesome one, I found much of it absolutely heart-wrenching. Initially it trades on the well-worn path of the first book, Don's (probable) Aspergers providing the comedy and the tension and while unfortunately veering extremely close to uncomfortable territory in the early sections. Don is given an unnecessarily Pooterish aspect which sits staggeringly poorly against the rest of the book, especially when both books attitude to Don's (possible) Aspergers is taken into account. He has not been given that diagnosis and this has always read like a deliberate (and positive) choice by the author.

Things settle down though, Don becoming his character rather than an emotional-slapstick caricature. His introspection and lack of empathy suit the first person narration perfectly. Even when you can see the set pieces coming they're massively enjoyable, forwarding the plot in ways which manage to be both ludicrous and worrying realistic.

So, why the "heart-wrenching" then? Because underneath everything else, The Rosie Effect does what David Nicholls' Us was trying to do but better. Don may be very different from your usual character but his is the universal experience. He is going to be a parent and he is scared. His efforts to cope with the situation and to do the best and right things are normal, and it's Simsion's plotting skill which takes them and pushes them further without become stupid. Yes, you can see where Don is going to go wrong as soon as he has certain ideas, but you can't always see where he's going to go right. He doesn't know what he's doing but he's trying; he wants to do well and it tugs on my heart.

The Rosie Effect is a great book. It's an unshowy, solid read with wide commercial appeal but non of the dumbing down that phrase usually indicates. It's left me wanting to go back and re-read the first, and I'm feeling pretty sure it'll be one of those books I enjoy more the second time around. For this one though: 4 stars.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Good, but there's nothing new here - Us by David Nicholls

[This book was provided to me free of charge by the American publisher, Harper, via the always-confusing-to-navigate Edelweiss]

Although I've read (and quite liked) a couple of David Nicholls' other books - Starter For Ten and the ubiquitous One Day - I wasn't terribly interested in this new one until it cropped up on the Man Booker Longlist. Nicholls is a perfectly decent writer who has seen tremendous commercial success while largely avoiding the prose-critical backlash writers like Stephanie Meyer have endured. That said, for him to place on the Booker Longlist, particularly in its first year of international competition - well, I freely express surprise he would be even be entered.

One night, 56-year-old Douglas Petersen is woken by his wife, Connie, to be told she's leaving him. Or rather, she will be, once Albie, their 17-year-old son is safely ensconced at University. Before that, the family have a trip planned - a Grand Tour of Europe - during which Douglas intends to win back the affection of his wife and the respect of his son via the mediums of having a strict timetable and regurgitating the Wikipedia entry of everywhere they go.

Although not a deliberate comedy, Us should find a natural fan base amongst readers of The Rosie Project, itself widely compared to One Day. By the time this review is posted, I will be about to compare The Rosie Effect to Us triggering a comparative title vortex and trapping us all in a literary feedback-loop of inept middle-aged white guys. Superficially, Nicholls' Douglas feels a touch derivative of Graeme Simsion's hero Don - he is a scientist, he has a free-spirited love interest, having things organised is important to him - but unlike Simsion, Nicholls does not attempt to place his protagonist on the autistic spectrum, even though at times it feels as though he was thinking about it.

Where One Day was an interesting idea adequately executed, Us is a uniteresting idea near perfectly executed. It's a good read, but the shelves are heaving with this type of thing, often done in a more interesting and engaging way. This is closer to Tony Parsons than Nick Hornby and its inclusion on on the Booker longlist is perhaps more indicative of what we're traditionally told "literature" is (straight, white and male) than any literary quality Us possesses.

Although I liked it overall, I found the characters problematic. Us is the story of this broken marriage and of Douglas' attempts to unbreak it; of how it began and how it came to crack. I struggled slightly - as I did in One Day - to see why these characters cared about each other in the first place. The elements are there but the follow-through isn't. Douglas almost fetishises Connie's artistic bent (which is a pet hate for me anyway), but there's also a degree of contempt for it in the way he doesn't want Albie to pursue a career in the arts, and in the absent head-patting encouragement for her to paint - he doesn't engage with her feelings on the matter of what it is to paint, only the fact he likes her drawings. The internal conflict of this is absent, as a missed opportunity rather than an active gap.

I did not like Connie. She is cruel, yet she is subject to the female-worship other SWMs like Parsons are so guilty of, her actions merely evidence of her free-spirit. Douglas loves her, but it is not a good thing.

The third element, Albie, is a brat who desperately needs to check his privilege. The kind of teen who tells his father he hates him before demanding the necessary cash to extricate himself from his father's company. The kind of brat who insists on having his guitar on a train journey of Europe, and who has the kind of father who brings it.

I did enjoy this. The second half is better than the first benefiting from a move away from the slightly dull realism of the beginning into the kind of book-acceptable plot Nicholls worked so well in Starter For Ten. Even so, I couldn't engage with it. For any justifiable superlative you want to offer, there are dozens of books already out there doing exactly this. Storytelling in all its forms is already dominated by male narratives and this one, while perfectly good, does nothing new.

I'm going to settle on 3.5 stars, of the kind which gets rounded up rather than down. As I keep saying, it's a good book - although I do wonder if those who loved One Day because they identified with Emma will find this as appealing - despite its wider unoriginality. What it does it does perfectly well and there's no reason not to give it a whirl.

Us on AmazonUK

Monday, 22 September 2014

Well, at least I learned something - The Universe Inside You by Brian Clegg

I bought this book in the hope I'd learn something about about biology and the human body; instead I got a book which uses the human body as a jumping off point to talk about other things: atoms and quantum physics and what happens to a helium balloon in a braking car (it heads towards the rear of the car because deceleration is acceleration in the opposite direction, and acceleration is the same as gravity, and the helium is lighter than air so heads away from gravity (or something), hence anybody in the back seat gets smacked in the face with a balloon, which I consider a tremendously useful tip).

It's not that it's bad, it's just not what I was looking for from this book because I've already read a couple of other books which cover some of the same subjects and more (like Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything). I also found this a bit of a trog in places, but as it's split into short sections it's very easy to read a couple of pages, go away and come back.

When it's interesting, it is very interesting, the tone is light and the explanations clear. I certainly learned something, but at other times I would have liked it to be a bit more comprehensive. There are also numerous mentions of experiments etc you can do on the associated website. Although that's a good thing if you're interested, for me I'd rather have a book which isn't constantly telling you to go to a website. If I'm reading a book, I'm reading a book. As I am already familiar with most of the experiments referred to, I didn't have any problems reading the text about them. Even if you weren't familiar with the experiments, I think you'd be okay.

I read this on Kindle and had no problems doing so - there are a few diagrams but they were all clear to me.

So, not really what I was looking for but decent for what it is. If I hadn't already known a good quarter of what was in this book, it may well have been four stars. I'd certainly consider other books by the author.

The Universe Inside You on Amazon UK

Friday, 19 September 2014

One thing after another - Broken Places by Wendy Perriam

The blurb of this book claims some people will love its central character, Eric, but also warns that some people will want to shake him for his passivity. Having read the thing, I suspect most people will chose option three: put the book down and never return to it because it lacks a compelling story.

So, Eric. An idealogical Librarian. Some things happen - he goes on a date, he sets up a prison book club, he expects his daughter to visit from the US.

Some other things happen - he eats soup, he rides a bike, he recounts his childhood.

Then some other things happen.

Then some other things than that happen.

Although well written if rather old fashioned in Eric's language - jarring because of his age - it never manages to recover from its own lack of direction. The final chapters in particular are poor, the dialogue stilted - it could have worked beautifully as a punchline, but it's played straight and is, for my taste, unbearably naff.

1.5 stars because it's well written and some of the chapters are good.

Broken Places on Amazon UK

Monday, 15 September 2014

Longest. Title. Ever. - The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals by Wendy Jones

There is a lot to like about this book: it's charming and the opening scene is very engaging. My criticisms of it stem largely from what it *doesn't* do, rather than for things it does wrong.

It feels ungrounded in its setting - we're in 1924 but you'd barely know it, and the Wales we're given could be England. It lacks tension in places: Wilfred and Grace don't speak. When a conversation would solve a character's problems (or move the plot forward) there needs to be a good reason why it doesn't happen - or more of an impact of it not happening.

I felt it left one of the story lines dangling. I'm not a reader who demands everything be tied up neatly, quite the opposite, but this felt rather *too* unresolved maybe because the major confrontation happens offstage.

The first half was better than the second and I read the whole thing quickly, so it's three stars, but only just.

The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals on Amazon UK

Friday, 12 September 2014

Dated but Decent - Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married by Marian Keyes

As I believe I've mentioned, I have an ARC of Marian Keyes' new book, The Woman Who Stole My Life, but because it's not out until Novemeber, other ARCs are getting read first. In preparation, I decided to reaquaint myself with whatever the Library had of Keyes' older novels: Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married is Keyes' second book, first published in 1995.

Lucy Sullivan is what would later become the typical Chick Lit heroine - 20 something, office job, boyfriend woes; likes drinking, fashion and shoes; her friends (and frenemies) play a large part in the book. It's worth remembering this was published the year before Bridget Jones' Diary and three years before Sex And The City first broadcast.

When Lucy and her colleagues visit a fortune teller, Mrs Nolan, Lucy is told she'll be married within the year. After the others' fortunes appear to come true - Meredia coming into the princely sum of £7.50, and Meghan suffering a massive split ... to her lip - Lucy is ready to believe it, especially when she meets charming, handsome, unreliable Gus.

Everything which came later in the genre would have you believe this is your typical cheesy romance, that Lucy muddles her way through trying to find Mr Right until she finally finds him in an unexpected place, but this is Marian Keyes, and Marian Keyes - like myself - always has one eye on the realm of mental illness and its associated issues. When Lucy sees Mrs Nolan, Mrs Nolan sees somebody with a great darkness in them, and this is a large part of why Lucy - sufferer of Depression since her teens - is convinced Mrs Nolan is the real deal.

Initially, the book is slow. Lucy spends an inordinate amount of time cringing, feeling embarrassed, apologising, feeling worthless, and generally being fairly annoying. She is, in many respects, a doormat. She's also immature: her relationship with her Mammy (which I initially disliked, I will freely admit, because it reminded me so much of Strider's relationship with our Mammy) left me wanting to tell her to grow up and stop being so petulant.

But, at 2/3rds in things take a change and every annoying, petulant utterance Lucy has made in the preceding pages slots neatly into place. She's no longer somebody you wish would grow a backbone and stop putting up with so much crap from so many different quarters - well, she *is* - but somebody who has behaved the way that particular person would behave. Marian Keyes knows her stuff. There may be jokes, and ridiculous characters, but there are still punches and more fidelity than the fluffy pink cover would have you expect.

Although the bones of the story stand up pretty well for its age, the are some major aspects which don't. Lucy's situation, for instance - her flat on her job is a pipe dream these days, as is the ability to sit doing nothing all day without being fired. It suffers what I shall christen 70's Sitcom Syndrome: there are some lines which make for uncomfortable reading in this modern and enlightened age - a male character calls a woman a dyke because she hasn't succumbed to his charms, for instance. Some of the banter between the characters, male and female, is viscous rather than amusing - Lucy's relationship with her flatmates is a great example. Lucy and Gus's interactions - again, Lucy is a doormat and the reason for it is there, but I think the current generation of 20-somethings will have less in common with this character than her contemporaries did, and perhaps have a more difficult time grasping the (unmentioned) fact that Mental Health was talked about even less in those days.

The most damning matter for me was Gus. He is a knobhead. From the second Lucy meets him, he is a knobhead, and because Lucy is such a doormat I would forgive anybody who flung this across the room in irritation and went and found a book about somebody with an ounce of self-respect.

In the end, I did like it, but for a fairly large portion of the book I didn't. The payoff was worth it to me, but if you're under 30 and you don't have an interest in books which deal with Depression and its associated Jazz, there's not a great deal here. Even if you do fulfil those requirements, it remains something of a curio best left for Keyes' fans. Three star books do what I expected them too which this didn't, but in the end did.

Monday, 8 September 2014

A four star read undermined by my knowledge of facts - The Stolen Girl by Renita D'Silva

[This book was provided to me gratis by the publisher, the lovely Bookouture, facilitated in this act of goodness by NetGalley. Thanks guys!]

Renita D'Silva is a name I know although not one which has been attached to the front of any of the books I've read. Her previous two novels, Monsoon Memories and The Forgotten Daughter, have both appeared on my Amazon recommended lists and if I had slightly less to read I would likely have tried one or the other by now. Instead, I was pleasingly approved for the ARC of her new novel, The Stolen Girl, which you will be able to part with your money for from the 12th September.

Despite the cover, The Stolen Girl of the story is 13-year-old Diya who one day has an argument with her mum, strops out, goes back for her coat and finds her mum being taken away by The Rozzers. According to the police, Diya isn't Diya, she's Rupa; and Vani isn't her mother, Vani is the woman who stole her as a baby. Diya's real mother, Aarti, is at a hotel nearby, waiting to take her daughter back to India.

The book follows these three characters, Diya, struggling to adjust to this new truth, Vani, writing letters to her daughter from prison, and Aarti, desperate to finally meet the child she's been searching for all its life. It also attends to Vani and Aarti's pasts, to their childhoods and to the truth about Vani's actions.

The trouble is, despite an introduction in which the author thanks various people for aiding her with research and which I'm confident she has done, it doesn't read like it. Although I'm a pedant, I don't mind minor changes to fact, especially when they improve the flow of the book - things like (as mentioned in the introduction as being incorrect) the number of visitors a prisoner can receive in a day: absolutely fine. However, The Stolen Girl is dependent on things happening in a way other than they would and that's a problem. A big one.

As this is an ARC I don't want to go anywhere near possible spoilers (although I'm happy to provide both mild spoiler and total spoiler explanations via PM/comments) so ...

You know that song by Natasha Beddingfield, These Words? You know the way you can't quite believe that nobody, at any point between the initial rehearsal right the way through to signing off the finished track said, 'Actually Natasha, it's pronounced Hy-per-bo-lee"?


That is the level of error here - the kind of basic thing you'd imagine somebody, at some point between the author writing it and the file being sent to the printer, would have picked up on. Consider the incident in Ireland last October where the Garda removed two children from their Roma families because - thanks to some racial profiling - they believed they'd been abducted; or the case in Greece also at that time which had a different outcome.

Because of this, even when things are correct, I was painfully aware that there is "technically correct" and there is "realistically likely to happen". The Stolen Girl came down far too heavily on the side of the former without reference to the things I'm thinking of.

I also have some minor complaints about the book's own continuity - tiny details like Diya commenting she's already lost weight and her clothes are looser on her after only a few days, maybe a week.

It's frustrating because I did really like a lot of this book. I'm not the biggest reader of women's fiction but I really engaged with this one - my mark of a four star read is that I'm eager to get back to reading it to find out what happens and this, despite those errors, did that. Vani and Aarti's story in particular, while veering a little close to soap-opera plotting for my taste - I liked. It's difficult to write characters who act as these do while keeping them believable, but D'Silva does a good job with the emotional side of the story.

I can't personally recommend this one, but I will emphasise that if you don't care about things being realistic, and/or you have no idea happens when you commit a crime, you probably shouldn't let this review put you off. Read the Kindle sample and if you don't spot any problems you'll likely be fine. There is a lot to like.

However, for me, the problems matter. I'm struggling to decide if this book is actively terrible or just not very good. I want to mark this higher because I did enjoy reading it, but I have to show fidelity to my other reviews. With regret, 1.5 stars.

The Stolen Girl on Amazon UK

Friday, 5 September 2014

I'm sure I'm missing something here - Opposed Positions by Gwendoline Riley

I'm having one of those moments where, having read the book, I've returned to the blurb to see if I can make sense of it. I'll settle for being able to remember what this one is about, or what happened, but I'm not having much luck there either.

To begin with, it's pretty good. The writing is immersive, the portrait of Aislinn's bullying father truthful and compelling. Then ... well then's where I fall into a loss. My brain reports something about America and a very long phone call, but the blurb claims "a startlingly frank novel about the human predicament, about love and its substitutes, disgraceful or otherwise," so now I'm wondering if it's me (possible), or if it's not, whether the person who wrote that is available for freelance work.

It picks up again in the final third, but not enough, so I'm going to give it 2.5 stars and say I'd be interested to read other books by this author because I really liked the writing.

Opposed Positions on Amazon UK

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

All the disapointment - Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

This has cropped in my review feed a couple of times recently which reminded me that I've been eager to read it for some time now; I *love* Allie Brosh's blog. Luckily, my local library's magical online catalogue revealed they had a copy so off to town I went. I actually ended up wandering around my library for about fifteen minutes feeling confused because I couldn't find the 800's - they turned out to be on the mysterious third floor up to which I'd never been but will again. There were some people having a croissant party. You don't get things like that on the second floor. The second floor was full of children singing "The Wheels On The Bus".

Brosh is rather like David Sedaris if Sedaris chose to illustrate his books with all the tools MS Paint has to offer. Like Sedaris, her likeability for me turns out to be dependent on the medium through which she is filtered. Unfortunately, its not high with this book.

As others have commented, the transfer from blog post to book does not serve Brosh well. The fact that so much of this is recycled material - I'd forgive a third, just about, but this is closer to half - only highlights the problems: when the images are shrunk down they lose their impact significantly and this is especially noticeable in stories such as Depression - I've read it dozens of times and will probably read it dozens more, but in physical form it's nothing.

It's also disappointing that the strongest stories are the old ones - like The God of Cake and Depression parts one and two etc. I did really like a couple of the new ones, especially Lost In The Woods, but I actually ended up skimming the last few stories.

I got this from the library but had I parted with money I would certainly consider it a waste of. It's fun, but I don't really see the advantage of Hyperbole in book form - there's not enough new stuff and old stuff becomes significantly less entertaining. 2 stars.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened on Amazon UK

Monday, 1 September 2014

*insert bad Proclaimers impression* - The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Very often, when I'm enjoying a book, I experience a certain amount of trepidation about where it's going to end up. Many a promising book has fallen apart in the last third, usually because a clever premise lacks the necessary legs, or an equally clever conclusion, or the not-clever conclusion doesn't offer anything else to make it worth the journey (like character, or writing, or setting).

This book did not do that.

This is one of the few books I've read where I had total confidence in the author from the off. I loved it even more by the end than I did at the beginning, and that is a rare, rare thing for me. Sure, I could sit here and make pedantic comments about what would actually happen if you tried walking to Berwick in unsuitable shoes, or complain that there are no great surprises plot-wise, but those things didn't matter because this is wonderfully written and has well-drawn characters who are relentlessly human. It's sad, it's funny, it has buckets of charm which never risks becoming saccharine thanks to the emotionally true (and *raw*) undercurrents. I had to stop reading it in the Post Office queue because I was wearing mascara at the time.

So, yes. I loved it utterly. Normal cynical service will be resumed forthwith.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry on Amazon UK

Friday, 29 August 2014

No, please, I'd love to hear more about your childhood - The Penny Falls by Mark Bastable

(I received a free review copy of this book from the author via LibraryThing)

From the blurb and the opening sections of this book, I expected to read a horror novel - something along the lines of Stephen King's The Dark Half, perhaps. Instead, I got a book which could easily have been split in two and marginally re-skinned to give me a (slight) horror and a contemp/literary. It wasn't much of a problem for me because I read a fair amount of litfic but if you're after a story which sounds like the blurb, keep walking.

The narrative is split between four first person narrations, the brothers mentioned in the blurb plus Stephen, a literary agent who, having seen Pablo's blood soaked arrest on the news, convinces Pablo to write his autobiography. Initially the novel is taken up with Stephen's story and Pablo's manuscript. Luckily, Pablo decides part way through his manuscript writing he's not going to continue unless he gets to find out about Stephen's life, so we are gradually given that account. It's not badly done, it's interesting enough, and it's let down mostly because it's attached to this horror novel it doesn't really have anything to do with. It could stand alone quite easily and would probably be better for it.

The story of Tom, blood-soaked Pablo, and their invisible triplet feels as though it takes a back seat to Stephen for much of the book, largely because their story unfolds through Pablo's manuscript which begins with his childhood. It's an awfully long time before we get back to the present situation. Again, the story of Pablo's life is not an uninteresting one and it's told well (rather *too* well for somebody with Pablo's level of education), but I came here to read a book about twins who have a triplet trying to take over one of their bodies, not Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince's endless "Well, I'd love to tell you what's going on Harry, but first you must sit through a couple of hundred pages of something else".

There is plenty of good about this book: nice ideas (I loved the idea of Tom being born first but being the younger twin); it's well written; Tom's character is well done.

However, there are also issues. First, the narration: I did not find the four first person narrators distinct enough to tell them apart initially and it took me far too long to cop onto the fact they are paired throughout. I will emphasise this may well just be a problem for me.

Second: the suspension of disbelief. Rather too often the the story seemed to rely on things which didn't make enough logical sense - when we first meet Tom he's seeking help for his phobia of flying, but instead of going to a psychologist to help him with that, he's seeing somebody who wants to talk to him about his childhood. Good for the reader because it means we get Tom's story (because there simply aren't enough accounts of people's childhood in this book already), but I'm rather surprised he wasn't, yannow, pursuing a cure for his phobia. There is that part about Stephen convincing Pablo to write his memoir which is as weak in the book as my glib account above. That thing about the twins being born either side of the dateline: cool idea, but problematic (because you're not good to go as soon as you've popped the sprog out). Then there are a hundred other medical questions to do with Pablo as a newborn - these little things really undermined the book for me.

Third: the ending. It really, *really* fizzles out. I was down to the last couple of percent and wondering if it was going to end on a cliffhanger because there was no real drive towards anything, no problems to overcome, no consequences if they failed. The ending is so poor, I'm tempted to make this a 2 star, but as it really is only the last 2 percent which is bad, it can keep the 3 stars it managed for the majority of the book. 2 and 1/2 stars really.

So: medium. It was okay. It's been well published - I've read worse from trade publishers. It's well written. The main complaint is that it's nothing like the blurb. Even judging it for what it is (because blurbs can be changed), it's only okay. It's too much a horror to give to a litfic reader (the attitude to women is right for the character, but it's not what I want to read in my litfic), it's too slow and litfic-y for a horror reader. As a reader of both, I simply felt it did neither thoroughly enough to be compelling.

Buy The Penny Falls on Amazon UK

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Well, thank God that's over - The Rose Cord by J D Oswald

[The Rose Cord is a direct follow-up to Dreamwalker, so please be aware this review contains spoilers for that book. Also, this is a long book and the beginning was a long time ago and has been wiped from my memory: I appreciate a heads-up on any details I've got wrong]

I reached the end of The Rose Cord earlier than I anticipated due to an extract of the next book being included. I was glad. This is the kind of book which makes me want to shake the author; there is a decent novel in here with some brilliant details and fabulous ideas, but it's been buried in one of the most tedious and repetitive things I've read in ages. You know the second series of Game of Thrones where Rob Stark spent 86 hours looking grumpy in a variety of fields? The Rose Cord is basically that, but without Mike from Casualty.

At the end of Dreamwalker, Benfro, a dragon, watched his mother beheaded by Inquisitor Melyn, head of the warrior priests and all round disliker of things scaly. The Rose Cord picks it up in the next scene: Benfro flees through the woods before returning to the village to find everybody he has ever known slaughtered. On the advice of the memory of his mother, Benfro heads north in search of Corwen, a mage dragon who taught Morgwm, but instead he finds something else: the remains of the great and legendary dragon Magog, and his unreckoned jewel...

Meanwhile, Errol Ramsbottom, Warrior Priest-in-training and (unbeknownst to him) heir to the throne, is trying to learn how to keep Inquisitor Melyn out of his head. As in psychic powers, not trepanning. Melyn, though, has a job Errol is just *perfect* for...

To begin with, The Rose Cord is pretty good despite some minor issues, but unfortunately these are the same issues which will come back to haunt it later: repetition. Rather than having a single scene which achieves all it needs to, Oswald has a habit of having his characters plod through a similar situation multiple times advancing their understanding only a small amount with each.

For instance: Beulah, the young Queen occupying Errol's throne, discovers a plot to kill her, so she deals with it in her own inimitable way: kills her would-be assassin and shouts at everybody for a bit. Naturally, he was not acting alone, so there's another would-be assassin to deal with. And then there's another.

Although each scene is different, and each moves the story forward in it's own vital way, it's a good example (within the first 13%) of how the scenes should be working harder and doing more.

Benfro suffers from this problem the most. In Dreamwalker he was entertaining and tremendously likeable, but with the removal of the villagers he's mostly a dragon wandering through a wood. He occupies the bulk of the book but vast swathes of it involve him being on his own not doing a great deal and it's all the more frustrating because there is gold them thar chapters, it's just not worth the trog to get to. Plus, doing so requires reading about Malkin the squirrel, a character I would happily watch taken out at dawn.

The pacing, too, is wrong. From 70% I was reading believing it would get better - the third in the series is already out in ebook with the paperback happening soon; there is going to be a forth. From 88% I was reading with the glazed determination of somebody who's read that much and is jolly well going to finish just so she can write a fair review of the damn thing. The great dramatic end-scene is crippled by the billion pages of Benfro-is-in-a-cave which precedes it. Throughout, so much space was given to things not happening that when something did, it was ... lost.

Errol has more to do in this book and his is a far stronger story than in the first, but for much of the book - as in Dreamwalker - he is at the mercy of things which happen *to* him, and he's too bland for me to care much. His story is more engaging, but not enough to carry the book.

I liked Dreamwalker a lot - I gave it four stars - but The Rose Cord is weeping for structural edit so hard I do wonder if this is the original self-pubbed text and a new version will get introduced close to its November paperback release date. There are some really great ideas in The Rose Cord, but the last 15% (of this 476 page book) is shear tedium; I won't be continuing with the series: 2 stars.

The Rose Cord: The Ballad of Sir Benfro Book Two on Amazon UK