Book Reviews





The Big Secret

"At just 12 years old, Nora is sent to Kent to escape the London bombings of World War II. Adopted by the Rivers family, Nora befriends their daughter Grace, and the two girls are soon inseparable. But the Rivers family and the small village have their secrets, and so does Nora. Will a jealous crime and years of secrecy be their undoing?"

"On the glamorous Middle Eastern social circuit, Saba rubs shoulders with double agents and diplomats, movie stars and smugglers. Some want her voice, some her friendship, and some the secrets she is perfectly placed to discover..."

"Henry and Nicola are burdened with a terrible secret, while cheerful nurse Winnie finds herself on the holiday from hell. John has arrived on an impulse after he missed a flight at Shannon; eccentric Freda claims to be a psychic - and a part-time hairdresser. Then there's Nora, a silent watchful older woman who seems ready to disapprove at any moment..."


Notice anything familiar? Any recurring themes?!

I think it is safe to say that "secrets", and their use in book blurbs especially, has far exceeded a normal, healthy amount.

Secrets are noted as a selling point in so many blurbs these days (and I have to say mostly "book club" books) that they have come to mean nothing. Telling me the pages, characters or settings of the story have secrets no longer tells me anything about the books I'm looking at. If I see "as secrets are revealed, will [character name]'s world fall apart DOT DOT DOT" (or similar), I instantly think "Oh, here we go again... generic 'Book'."

And that's it. I automatically class Generic Book as a secondary priority to the other demands and uses of my time, because they (the author, the publishers, whoever) couldn't be bothered to provide me with anything more tempting than over-used "secrets". Here's an idea - why not tempt me with the secret itself?! Why not lure me with themes? With a paraphrased cliffhanger? Anything but a vapid allusion to a "secret"!!

I've taken quite an opposition to it, as you can tell, and I think there is an explaination:

I have been let down too many times by the promise of earth-shattering "secrets". Usually, they just aren't that big a deal.

So let's stop promising what wont be delivered. Generating mystery is a marketing tactic that is proven to be successful, but can we please get a bit smarter with it? Publishers can write tweets in 140 characters that entice me enough to click their's - SO WHY CANT THEY BE THAT CLEVER ON ACTUAL BOOKS?!

Right. I'm getting a bit too capital-y now, so I'll leave it there ;) But surely I'm not alone? Are there any blurb conventions that turn you right off of books? Leave comments below!

A week at a castle

First, let me apologize for the lack of posting this week. I recently received the tutor feedback for my final course module and, well.... let's just say I have a lot to do in two weeks before the deadline, so I may not be posting as regularly until then! BUT, I won't be disappearing. You'll get a post a week from me at least ;)

The manic studying also means that I have also had to put all my non-educational reading on hold, which is a shame as I was very happily making my way through The Seance by John Harwood, and really looking forward to starting The Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared as a joint read with Orisi B...

I guess the silver lining is that I am managing to keep up to date with World Without End on Channel 4 thanks to catch up, which is a slight relief, but I can't blog about that every day! (Well, I could, but it would get boring quick...)

Another reason my posts have been sparse (and the main reason of this post!) was something I did last week: I attended a conference at Lumley Castle, complete with medieval banquet!

With my recent posts on Tudor novels, and the current World Without End series enjoying a bit of popularity, it seemed more than fitting to share some photos with you. If you're planning on attending a medieval feast soon I have two tips for you: take a fork and avoid the mead! (I have still have a very painful cut on my hand I can't explain...!)

Lumley is a gorgeous castle hotel on the outskirts of Durham, and my snowy trip made it all the more lovely. It's turrets, forts and courtyards really transport you away from modern reality!:

The insides were like a gothic novelist's dream:

And the feast was a laugh, and although I probably wouldn't do it again unless I was drunk (too much group singing for my liking!) it really was fun. Everyone should do it once!

So, there you go! A few pictures of explanation in account of my absence. I'll be back on Friday with a surprise - keep your eyes peeled bookworms, I think you're going to like it! :)


World Without End on Channel 4

Fans of medieval drama pay attention! Channel 4 are currently showing a televised series of World Without End by Ken Follet.

I reviewed this mammoth book a while ago and loved the characters, story and setting. It is a sequel to Follet's book Pillars of the Earth (also previously adapted by channel 4 very well - starring Eddie Redmayne who is currently in cinemas as Les Miserables' Marius) and finds us again in the priory of Kingsbridge, where monks, Earls and peasants lead lives of secrecy, deceit and treachery. It's something of a medieval romp, but it has a delicious air of back-stabbing and characters to root for!

I have watched the first episode on 4 On Demand, as it sneakily slipped under my radar (I have been too busy studying lately to watch TV, so thanks for the text, mum!) and I have to say it has laid foundations to be just as good/melodramatic as Pillars... The cinematography is lush, and let's be honest, it was an excuse for channel 4 to reuse some lavish sets! I cant wait to see the plots start to weave and intertwine, and the acting is great (the actress playing Caris played Cathy in Wuthering Heights not long ago and was brilliant). Once again recognized acting names (Cynthia Nixon, Miranda Richardson) star alongside talented young stars.

So, if you are free this weekend, catch up on the first episode and tune into episode 2 this Saturday at 9 on Channel 4.

I'll see you there!


The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story - review

Another Susan Hill novella has landed itself on my Kindle! The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story was the perfect thing to read between longer novels while I struggle to finish assignments for my course, and left a certain impression on me by the end...!

Set in the seclusion of Cambridge University halls, before the student year begins, an old professor recounts the story of a painting he came to possess to one of his ex-students: "To share the burden". The painting is of a Carnival scene in Venice; everyone is in costume, the faces are lit by torches, the canals are inky black... and one man in the picture stares right out at the surveyor, terrified, pleading. It is this man that keeps the professor, and the student, returning to look at the painting, captivating them, invading their dreams and their thoughts.

As the professor confesses he came to the own the painting at the misfortune of a widowed countess, the strangeness of the painting reveals itself.

The countess had received the painting as a wedding gift after a string of malicious letters from a woman her husband was previously engaged to. Bitter and threatening, the letters wished ill-fate upon the newly wed couple and their happiness. The painting felt sinister and dark, and the countess hid it away. Soon, the couple took a trip to Venice - where they became separated. The countess never found her husband, and did not know what had happened to him. When she returned home she was consumed by a need to look at the painting, and it was then that she noticed a new addition to the 18th century artwork. Her husband was now part of the scene, and was being accosted by two masked men upon a gondola. In the crowd, a little further on, the image of the estranged and malicious fiancee stared on...

As strange disappearances and unexplained disasters continue in the novel, the reader is left wondering what "burden" has been passed to the professors ex-student, and what will it mean for him.

I have to admit that while I enjoyed reading this novella, I did not find it as good as previous books I have read by Susan Hill. Despite the claim to be a "ghost story" in it's title, the story actually felt more supernatural than ghostly. You probably think this is one and the same, but I think there is a difference: in a ghost story, there is a tangible threat of the ghost, even if it is only revealed at the end, there is a known cause of the action. In a supernatural tale, the threat is "unexplained" events, or "unnatural" goings-on, things just happen. This book was more of the latter. There was just no haunting, and this disappointed me a little. Not to mention the fact that "disappearances" do not amount to deaths, and how can there be ghosts without that?! Even the assumed perpetrator of the events is seen alive during the course of the story!

The writing itself was as good as any of Susan Hill's books, though I felt some adjectives were overused ("sinister", the main culprit!), and characters were introduced succinctly. As it often the case in novellas, they didn't experience much in the way of development, but they also didn't need to, they were just objects for things to "happen" to.

Even though The Man in the Picture was not a "ghost" story, it did however, have something of an uncomfortable resonance. It was actually eerie in its purchase, if not its story. As many readers may already know, I am originally from Cambridge myself, and many places mentioned in the book are ones I know well. I have also, just a few days ago, booked myself and my boyfriend a trip to Venice, before reading this book. So readers, if I do not make it back, look for me... Look for me in paintings! ;)

Les Miserables review for Orisi's blah blah

I have written a guest review of the new Les Miserables film for Orisi's Blah Blah. Please go and have a read, and spend time among her posts - her blog is awesome!

Here's a quick snippet:

Onto my next moan then... let's talk about instalove. The dreaded instalove, of the kind favoured by young adult novelists with aspirations of Twilight. We find that young people just need a smile from afar to fall hopelessly, heedlessly in absolute I'll-die-without-them LOVE. And here within lies the roles of Marius and Cossette, two of the drippiest, most inconsequential, infuriating characters ever to grace your eyeballs. (The book portrays them a bit better, but this film had me choking on my popcorn). One day, Marius sees a girl smile at him and announces he is in love. If he doesn't find out who she is he might just stop being, goldarnit! Someone find out where she lives!!! Blah blah blah they falsetto at each other in the longest gazing sequence you will ever encounter. Romeo and Juliet "seeing her through the crowd" genius this is not.

But please read the full post at Orisi's Blah Blah. I speak about the distinct waste of potential in the lead roles, the stunning visuals, Anne Hathaway's ability to move me and, of course, give an ultimate verdict!

I hope you enjoy it :)

The Reapers are the Angels - review

"God is a slick god, and he knows things about infinities" - The Reapers are the Angels

Say hello to a zombie novel with heart, depth, philosophy and, of course, horror. The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell is a gem of a book that deftly bridges a gap between YA and adult literature, writing horror reminiscent of Stephen King's Cell, but with much more emotional connection.

Temple is a fifteen year old orphan surviving as best as she can in a world full of "meatskins". She see's miracles in the small things, and feels the weight of God's judgement in everything she does. She is a teenager much older than her years, wracked by the guilt of a secret she keeps, and accepts the violence necessary to her survival as a manifestation of her own "evil".
When the meatskins find a way to her safe island haven, Temple knows it is time to move on, and as she treks across America she meets a host of eclectic characters, each suffering their own secrets.
In one of the safe communities Temple arrives in, she wanders across a group of "hunters" playing cards for pills. Here she meets Abraham, a man whose eyes "creep under her clothes". It is after the game that Temple is subjected to the man's violent lust for women, and ends up killing him. This act sparks a cat and mouse subplot when the man's brother, Moses, hunts Temple to exact revenge in her death.
Further a long the road, another subplot is introduced when Temple saves a man carrying his dead grandmother away from a swarm of meatskins. Maury is a simple man and a mute, and although Temple fights to leave him to fend for himself, she ultimately cannot leave him defenseless, and finds herself a travel partner as she resolves to find Maury's family to look after him.

The beauty of this novel lies within the relationships between the characters. The gentleness Temple shows towards Maury is so endearing, so sisterly despite the huge age gap and so patient. The philosophical asides Temple shares with her assassin pursuer, Moses, hit a perfect balance of cold indifference and desperation as she stares the acceptance of imminent death in the face each time.
Even characters that grace the pages of the book for short periods of time are fully realised and delicate. I especially enjoyed reading moments with James Grierson - the tormented ex-soldier, drinking to forget, hateful to the core, but capable of such tenderness and love.
There is a different dynamic to every relationship in the book. I couldn't wait to see who Temple would meet next, what they would need from her, and what they would give in return: emotionally or physically.

The structure of this novel is pretty close to perfect, and draws many similarities to The Road by Cormac McCarthy, without being quite as sparse: characters are introduced individually and intermittently, characters are not complex but carry a weight of complexity in their past, there is no use of quotation marks in conversation, one on one conversations never intersected by distractions... It is well paced, and conversations - partly written in Temple's dialect - are short and meaningful.

The horror (let's not forget, there are zombies about!) is incredibly graphic, I have to admit. It does not shy away nor apologise for what it is. Zombies are given detailed descriptions of decay, and although I may have found myself recoiling from a sentence or two, I have to admit it made a change. A lot of writers take for granted that a zombie is a well-known, well-documented stereotype. You know what one is and you'll have your own impressions of what one should look like. I appreciated the author's insistence that you would imagine HIS version of a zombie and not your own. Some way into the book mutant zombies enter the narrative, and at this point the descriptions were welcomed.

When the book reached it's conclusion I was extremely sad to see it end. It seems I have carved a place in my literary heart for Temple. This is a book I will definitely re-read, and will probably find much more within it when I do. I wholly recommend it to my readers, though please be warned there is graphic violence and strong language throughout. Please let me hear your thoughts if you read this book!

(Note: I managed to get this book for 99p on Kindle, but I think it was a daily deal - worth a look around though!)

The Bronze Horseman - review

Have you ever been possessed by a book? I have. For almost 2 solid weeks, I spent absolutely every waking, non-working minute with my eyes firmly planted on the pages of The Bronze Horseman. When I went to sleep, I had the authors "voice" so ingrained in my mind that I was dreaming in sentences of her prose, completing the narrative with what my mind thought - hoped - would happen next. My days became motivated by what the characters would do next, and what would happen to them. The book's allure was so addictive I had to leave my Kindle at home when I went to work, in order to remove temptation completely.

I came across Paullina Simons' The Bronze Horseman by pure chance - I was simply browsing through "recommendation" blog links when the title caught my eye. (I was probably thinking that horsemen are usually associated with the apocolypse. I'm too predicatable!) Anyway, as I clicked to the page and read the summary, I became more intrigued by it's unexpected themes: The Russian Soviet side of WWII.
And then I hit a snag. The Bronze Horseman is a romance novel.

Romance?! Oh god...

Loading up some review sites to research the book, I was overwhelmed by the love people were showing The Bronze Horseman. The reviews, the innumerate five star reviews, the adoration all persuaded me to download the novel and, let me tell you, I understand now, I really do.

The second world war has just been announced in Stalin's Russia. Sixteen year old Tatiana listens to the radio announcement with her mother, father, sister, brother and two grandparents, in one of the two rooms they all share in their shared living apartment. Young, and excited by the prospect of soldiers, evacuation adventures and air raids, Tatiana is yet to understand the gravity of her imminent situation. Her father sends her out to buy food supplies without hesitation, and sends Pasha, Tatiana's twin brother, to a boys camp to save him from being enlisted. Seeing the queues for the food stores Tatiana decides there are better things to do than wait in them for a war that is 200km away from her home of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), and buys an ice cream. While she eats, a soldier sits beside her and chats. He is Alexander, and he is the catalyst for the rest of Tatiana's life: her adulthood, her heart, her strength, her loss of innocence and her loyalties.
War falls on Leningrad hard and unmercifully. Tatiana and her family cannot avoid the pains, heartbreaks and desperation of the life war introduces them to, and the reader is swept along into it with them.

What's good:  

The first half of this novel is completely un-put-down-able, The Bronze Horseman is unrelenting in its emotional turmoil, through all 1000 or so pages of its weight. The characters are so well crafted that despite the amount of them, you know each one individually and you care for them. They are volatile, unpredictable characters, flawed and then redeemed in every passing moment.

The insight to communism in the Soviet Union, Stalin, and the realities of NKVD policing, was really interesting - especially to me, who never learnt about anything more than the Tudor reign and Native American Buffalo Hunts in school history lessons...  and the reality of the "Soviet way of life" is ingrained deep within the first half of the book, really aligning you with the action.

What's not:

Unfortunately for me, 50 or so pages at the 62% mark (thank you Kindle, for such accuracy!) were the absolute definition of ridiculous romance novel sex fodder - it was such a u-turn from the writing that had gone before it, that it felt as if it had been transplanted from another book. Characters I had felt for, cried for, become such an annoyance I barely remembered why I cared in the first place. Descriptions of Tatiana's breasts were driving me to the point of skipping whole pages, and it was just so unrelenting in it's persistence that I should know what was happening to them, I found myself hoping for bombs, snow, the dead rising - anything - in a bid to make it stop. Luckily though, there is an end to it all, as war continues and, oh yeah, the NARRATIVE comes back. **glares at the author with "WTF?!" eyes**

**Reading tip (slight spoiler)**
I would say skip everything in Book 2 from the "first time" in the tent right up until the return to the front (unbelievably it's a whopping 10%) - You'll thank me ;)  

Another slight disappointment was the character Dimitri. Threatening, self obsessed and manipulative to the last, his final act just fell a little... flat. I expected more of a catastrophe. I expected him to get even meaner, more snide and make bigger demands. He just remained pretty constant, really, and his comeuppance never quite had the satisfaction of knowing he got what he deserved. I don't know... perhaps I'm just being harsh here!

All is forgiven at the end, though, as the finale deals the final, heart wrenching blow.

Repetitive sex scenes aside, this is my final thought: Read. This. Book. 
It is one of the best books I have read in a very long time. And it's worth remembering my intolerance to all things remotely "romance"-like as I say that! This book made me hold my boyfriend closer than close every day. It made me grateful, it made me desperately sad, it made me lose my appetite through guilt, it made me cry twice before it had even reached the half way mark, and it made me realise how lucky we all are.

Let me know what you thought if you have read it!


The Declaration - review

Over the Christmas period, I downloaded The Declaration by Gemma Malley to my Kindle for the various train journeys I was going to make. A YA novel set in an intriguing political landscape, I couldn't wait to get stuck in!

In the future, old age has been scientifically "cured" by a Longevity drug. For those that choose to take it, eternal youth is theirs along with no cancer, no rheumatism and no other conditions that often come with aging. However, there is a catch: if you choose to take Longevity drugs, you must sign a Declaration that states you will not have children. Any person found to have had a child while taking the drug will have their child taken away as it is a Non-Legal - a "Surplus" - and the parents will be imprisoned, if not killed.

A Surplus is what Anna, our main protagonist, is. Raised in a Surplus House ever since she was removed from her parents at 2 years old, she has known nothing but the fact that she is unwanted in the world, unneeded, a "burden to Mother Nature", and that she might as well make herself Useful by serving Legal people as a housemaid. She must be as good as invisible, she must not use any resources legal people are entitled to (heat, good food, hot water, medication) and above all, she must never think for a second that there is anything more than this life for her.
Anna is a good Surplus, and en route to becoming a Valuable Asset, according to house matron Miss Pincent... that is until Peter, a Surplus who has remained undetected by the Catchers for 16 years, comes to the House. He knows Anna's real name, he tells her stories of the outside world, he tells her that her parents are alive, and that Anna is loved. He also tells her of The Underground - a group who are fighting against idea of The Declaration.

The premise for The Declaration is great. It seems very apt in our current society - where people are living longer thanks to medical advancements, over population is leading to greater poverty, and the human race threatens to destroy many of the world's natural resources. I was looking forward to exploring the political dilemmas the situations in the book present. Unfortunately, I found this intrigue wasn't satisfied within the narrative. The surface of the issues was only slightly scratched in favour of YA romance... but, fair enough, don't buy an apple and expect lemons, right? The world was sufficiently created to carry the characters' motives, however, and I enjoyed the journey they took nonetheless. I just WISHED for a little more detail. A BIT more controversy ;)

Another slight annoyance I found in the book was the constant repetition of phrase. I swear, if I read "Miss Pincent" one more time in the first chapter, I was going to have an aneurism. Still, I got over it. I could see it was a "character voice" thing, it was just bloody annoying. Luckily it wore off as the book progressed!

I would definitely recommend The Declaration to YA fans. It is the first part of a trilogy, and although I don't think I'll venture on the the next installment, it was pretty much everything a YA novel should be - with a major bonus of there being no insta-love (woohoo!) The characters were endearing, the story was well paced and a little bit different, the ending was quite surprising and the book worked well as a standalone. (I like getting closure from each installment of a series!)

If you have read The Declaration, what did you think?