Monday, September 1, 2014

Book Review - The girl with all the gifts

The girl with all the gifts - M.R. Carey


This book was another impulse buy. The premise sounds good and any zombie movie that gets good reviews is a positive for me.

The blurb:

Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her 'our little genius'.

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite, but they don't laugh.

Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children's cells. She tells her favourite teacher all the things she'll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn't know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.

Very minor and bloody obvious  spoilers below.

It is rare that a zombie novel can offer anything new. M.R. Carey's book does just that. It is told from a combination of viewpoints but probably most uniquely the main character, Melanie, is a zombie herself. Admittedly this is not an original idea but I've never seen it executed with such care.

Melanie does not know she is a "Hungry," she has spent her whole life chained up. Every day she is taken to lessons tied up and placed with others during the same plight. She does not know any different and has never seen the outside world. As such the only tenderness Melanie experiences are the dispositions of her teachers. Some are strict and perfunctory others her kind and motherly.

Despite her younger years ironically it is Melanie that does the most maturity. She quickly grasps the situation and is the most level headed or of the group. It is this affable behaviour that endears her to the more sceptical characters. The great thing about her though is that she recognises their hostility and never overly strives to challenge it.

It is one of the more motherly teachers who is the other main character. Miss Justineau refuses to see Melanie as a “Hungry” and sees beyond her nature. In a novel filled with characters that distrust Melanie and her ilk Miss Justineau is traditionally the easiest one to like. She is compassionate and trusts her instincts rather than what she is told. This also makes her naive, which adds more dimension to her character.

The other characters are strong if not as well fleshed out. The doctor Caroline is perhaps the strongest, serving as a protagonist with very compelling motives. The plot is serviceable for this type of novel. There is nothing wrong with it but you pretty much know what you are getting in this genre. If I'm honest the paced lagged a little in the centre but it soon picked up again.

The ending is very good. It juggles the balance between tension and realism correctly to not over play the final scenes. All in all, this is a strong post apocalyptic novel with a little more intelligence to it than others in the genre. I'd recommend it.

My rating: 7.9


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Book Review - The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde


(Review by Jacqui Slaney)

Having recently watched a programme, where the character of Dorian Gray appeared, I realised that I could not remember the full story of the book. It had been years since I had first read it, and my lack of memory niggled away at me, so I decided to give in and buy it.

This is the description:

The novel tells of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is impressed by Dorian's beauty and becomes infatuated with him, believing his beauty is responsible for a new mode in his art. Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, a friend of Basil's, and becomes enthralled by Lord Henry's worldview. Espousing a new hedonism, Lord Henry suggests the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfilment of the senses. Realizing that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian (whimsically) expresses a desire to sell his soul to ensure the portrait Basil has painted would age rather than him. Dorian's wish is fulfilled, and when he subsequently pursues a life of debauchery, the portrait serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin displayed as a disfigurement of his form, or through a sign of aging.

Within a few pages, I was caught up in the story, and remembered what I had enjoyed about it.

The root of the story is an old one, an attractive person worries about losing their youth and good looks.

The only difference is in this story they make a wish that they will always look as good as they do now, and all the changes instead will affect the portrait in front of them, a portrait by a painter  who has become completely infatuated with his subject and so the power of this goes into the piece of art.

Dorian is at first shocked by the change that comes over the painting when his first love dies, and hides the picture away from public viewing. Then he revels in what happens as it is corrupted and aged whilst he himself looks as untouched as ever.

The writing is flowing and descriptive, overly so in a few places, but the words paint a vivid picture and the characters are so good; they do make up for some flowery passages.

Henry Wotton is a one of these characters, he corrupts Dorian mainly because he can, and enjoys seeing the creature he creates. There are no strong voices against him, no one to speak up for anything good, so Dorian follows the path that Henry sets up for him to its inevitable conclusion.
There are some quite dark places in the book, a certain act of Dorian of instance, but that is what keeps your attention.

The pace is fast and does not allow the story to become bogged down, so you will find yourself reading it quickly.
There are lessons to be learned, but the author does not moralise at the reader so you can take the story on a surface level or look at the deeper message that is there.

I really liked it, and am glad that I revisited this old story. The story does not feel dated at all, and I think most readers will appreciate the quality of the writing.

7 out of 10 


Friday, August 22, 2014

Book Review - A Gathering Light

A Gathering Light - Jennifer Donnelly


After reading a review of the secret life of bees (which I thoroughly enjoyed) that recommended this book I immediately purchased it. The premise sounded as if it contained everything I enjoyed in the secret life of bees with a bit of an edge to boot.

The blurb:

When Mattie Gokey is given a bundle of letters to burn she fully intends to execute the wishes of the giver, Grace Brown. When Grace Brown is found drowned the next day in Big Moose Lake, Mattie finds that it is not as easy to burn those letters as she had thought. And, as she reads, a riveting story emerges - not only Grace Brown's story but also Mattie's hopes and ambitions for the future and her relationships with her friends and family. Published to widespread acclaim this wonderful novel, part murder mystery and part coming-of-age story, is an astounding and accomplished piece of literature.

I will start of the bat by declaring that I did not enjoy the book as much as I thought I would. That is not to say I did not think it was good but I wanted it to be so much more and left me frustrated in places.

The problem was with the structure. The majority of the book takes place in the past with the odd chapter taking place in the present. It is the present storyline that is lacking in my opinion, when it really should be the most gripping. After all a mysterious murder and a missing suspect should have far more tension then we are treated to here.

Instead, what we experience is a rather tedious and lacklustre situation where Mattie holds on to potential evidence in the form of a series of letters belonging to the murder victim. When Mattie does get around to reading them, the victim who wrote them is so irritating and childish it is quite hard to read. I must stress here that the author's note at the end of the book provides a very good reason for this but unfortunately it did spoil my reading. In the present, Mattie herself is a rather mundane protagonist. She is very subservient (as is the nature of her job), but there is not much in the way to counter this. In places she is almost unrecognisable to the character we read about in her past.

In her younger years, Mattie is more rebellious. She has dreams and aspirations. More importantly, she has interesting characters to interact with. Her father is a tragic and imposing figure who is totally reliant on her as the eldest remaining daughter at home, whilst her teacher is an inspiration. It is the juxtaposition of everybody’s influence on Mattie that conjures an interesting tale. It is all told through an excellent narrative as a child uncovers the realities of the world and discovers love, betrayal and disappointment.

Donnelly has a wonderful ability to portray characters and make you care for them. In the space of some small chapters she introduces characters (such as Mattie’s uncle) who stay with you long after you have finished the book.

Overall, A Gathering Light is a very good book which would have benefitted in my opinion without the murder/mystery plot line.

My rating: 8.3



Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Review - The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt


This was the very definition of an impulse buy. I saw it in Waterstones as their book of the week, saw some of the reviews around it and though it looked suitably epic. From the blurb I was not quite sure what I was expecting, other than I knew I was looking forward to it.

The Blurb:

A young boy in New York City, Theo Decker, miraculously survives an accident that takes the life of his mother. Alone and abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by a friend's family and struggles to make sense of his new life. In the years that follow, he becomes entranced by one of the few things that reminds him of his mother: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the art underworld.

Composed with the skills of a master, The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America, and a drama of almost unbearable acuity and power. It is a story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the enormous power of art.

If ever a book was in dire need of an editor, then the Goldfinch is the one. I recognise that I might be in the minority here as this book has a lot of 5* reviews on Amazon but I found it unnecessarily long.
Any regular readers of my blog will know I am not someone that needs my stories filled with action sequences, quite often I am the opposite. I do however require substance.

The Goldfinch is filled with large passages of exposition where Theo contemplates his life and how it hurtles forward beyond his control. This is fine in places but after a while it becomes a little tedious.

Theo himself is not a very engrossing protagonist. There is nothing unlikeable about him but nor is there anything endearing about his personality. Initially he is a victim of a terrible tragedy but after that he seems to be just “there” as the very slow plot revolves around him. 

Despite having friends as a child, this is never really drawn on. There is a boy he hangs out with at school but we virtually see next to nothing of him. Even his childhood friend is more of an awkward acquaintance who Theo used to stick up for every now and again.

Tartt skips forward various stages of his life which is fine, but unfortunately she chooses to exclude perhaps the most interesting section which is where he makes some illegal decisions in an effort to recuperate money in the antique change. This descent could have been very interesting, instead we rejoin Theo several years later when most of the fraud has already taken place and Theo tried to retrospectively fill in the reasons for his choices.

I mention plot loosely. There is not one so to speak. The story focussed on the life of Theo and his link to the famous painting “the Goldfinch,” which he stole on the day of his mother’s death. Just why Theo is so obsessed with the painting is unexplained. Maybe he associates it with his mother, or maybe he just really admires the art (most probably), still for an obsession so great, I could have used a clearer understanding as to why Theo loved the picture so much.

The other issue I had with the story is that there never seems to be any consequences to Theo actions. Although he is not inherently a bad guy, he still commits some pretty heinous acts. These broadly go unpunished and despite fretting about his actions, his concerns are never realised.

So far I have been rather negative in this review and although the above spoilt my enjoyment of the book to be too harsh on the book would be a gross injustice. There is an awful lot to like about Tartt’s novel. Despite its excessive length the novel is very engaging. The supporting characters are great.

Boris is a brilliant character as the wild, unhinged loose cannon that forms an unlikely friendship with Theo. There is a loyalty there that runs deep but you always get a sense that Boris is one step away from hurting Theo.

It is the relationship between Hobie and Theo that is the heart of the novel. Both lose the one person they care most about in the world and find in each other something they thought they had long lost. With Hobie, Theo finds a purpose to his life and an eagerness to impress, whilst with Theo, Hobie finds an injection of energy that he did not realise he needed.

Theo’s eagerness not to disappoint Hobie is something many people will identify with, but at the same time, he struggles to deviate from the person he has naturally become.
The ending, sum up the book perfectly (albeit unintentionally). The plot point is resolved that you were not 
sure was an actually plot point and this was followed by endless pages of preaching, where there valid, poignant point is laboured to excess.

I enjoyed the Goldfinch a lot, I would not say I loved it.

My rating: 7.4




Friday, August 15, 2014

Book Review - Warrior

Warrior – Jennifer Fallon


I freely admit I purchased this series based on two things: The cheap price and the amazing covers. The covers might not be everyone’s cup of tea but I love scenes that show off fantastical worlds. The first book Wolfblade pleasantly surprised me. It was very character orientated which to me is always a bonus. I was looking forward to the second in the series a lot.

The blurb:

It is eight years since Marla Wolfblade buried her second husband. In that time, she has become the power behind Hythria's throne -- as much from a desire to control her own destiny in any way she can, as to protect her son, young Damin.

But while Marla plays the games of politics and diplomacy, the High Arrion of the Sorcerers' Collective is plotting to destroy her -- and the entire Wolfblade line.

And while Marla's power and fortune are great, they may yet not be enough to protect herself and her family from the High Arrion's wrath -- and her only ally and confidant, Elezaar the Fool, is toying with the idea of betrayal.

For he has discovered that the infamous Rules of Gaining and Wielding Power are not so useful when his own family is involved...

The timeline jumps forward a number of years in this book and although a lot of the characters are still present, we are treated to several new POV characters as well. Marla is present of course but she is almost unrecognisable. She is now a ruler, who can’t afford to let her guard down at any point and is constantly scheming. She has adopted an identity where she projects an inexperienced and na├»ve exterior so that others underestimate her. This serves her well and is fun to watch as the reader is treated to her true dealings in her inner monologues. 

Marla also has a terrific trick of leading others to believe she wants something and so when they think they are defying her, they are actually behaving precisely how she wants them to behave. It is a good plot device as not only does it highlight how intelligent Marla is, it also leaves the reader guessing as to what her actual plans are.

Of the new POV characters I enjoyed Marla’s son Damin. Like his mother, Damin has adopted the tactic of letting others perceive him in a certain way. To others, he is the brash, youth who is mischievous and never takes anything seriously. Whilst this view may be true initially, it is good to watch Damin grow and his character change as events in the plot affect him.

Brayan Lightfinger remains my favourite character of the series. Always unwittingly involved in events in the palace and despite his positive outlook, he cuts a fairly tragic character. Once again he is tormented by the love he cannot obtain. It is his strong moral code and grounded outlook that make him pleasant to read.
As strong as the characters are and as engrossing as the political scheming is, the plot is not as cohesive as it might be. This could be due to the large cast of characters. Whilst the POV characters are great, the nephews, nieces and adopted children serve to confuse the narrative and a lot of the time I struggled to keep a handle on them all.

The ending is very satisfying, with one particular element resolved in a very realistic way. Marla had continued to ignore an issue and so I was pleased when the incident blew up and had to be dealt with. There is also a very random event that you can’t help think was used as a plot device. Although this was shocking, I couldn’t help but feel Fallon may regret her decision.

Overall, this was a strong continuation of the series and sets things up extremely nicely for the concluding volume in the series.

My rating: 8.6


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Review - Happy Hour in Hell (JS)

Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Williams


Review by Jacqui Slaney

It had been a while since I had read book one, The Dirty Streets of Heaven but I recently remembered how much I enjoyed it, gave in and bumped this book up my to read pile.

I have always liked this author, with the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn books being very much one of my favourite series of all time and though I had only read the first book, I was optimistic that this series would be as good.

This is the description: 

Bobby Dollar has a problem or four of epic proportions.
Problem one: his best friend Sam has given him an angel's feather that also happens to be evidence of an unholy pact between Bobby's employers and those who dwell in the infernal depths.
Problem two: Eligor, Grand Duke of Hell, wants to get his claws on the feather at all costs, but particularly at all cost to Bobby.
Problem three: Bobby has fallen in love with Casimira, Countess of Cold Hands, who just happens to be Eligor's girlfriend.
Problem four: Eligor, aware of Problem three, has whisked Casimira off to the Bottomless Pit itself, telling Bobby he will never see her again unless he hands over the feather.
But Bobby, long-time veteran of the endless war between above and below, is not the type of guy who finds Hell intimidating. All he has to do is toss on a demon's body, sneak through the infernal gates, solve the mystery of the angel's feather, and rescue the girl. Saving the day should just be a matter of an eon or two of anguish, mutilation and horror. If only it were that easy.

As soon as I started reading, I knew I was in for a good time. The hero as in the first is Bobby Dollar an angel, whose day job is to argue for souls to enter Heaven before a sort of afterlife judge.

Here though he is much more concerned with saving his love Caz from the clutches of her ex boyfriend who just happens to be a grand Duke of Hell.
To do this he has to go through Hell itself disguised as a Demon in this he is helped by his supervisor who has a mission of his own it turns out and so uses Bobby to help in this.

The pace and humour of the story is what you have come to expect from this series. I started it one night saying I will just read a couple of chapters, a couple of hours later I realised I was still reading!  

There are some great characters as well apart from Bobby; you have Riprash Gop, and Marmora- the drowned girl, whose description will make you feel for her to name a few.
There are loads of brilliant baddies not least Eligor who are all out to get Bobby, the description of the hell hounds are excellent, and you would definitely not want them anywhere near you.

There are complaints that the violence and horror that is described in Bobby’s journey through Hell is not handled well with some saying that it is over the top.
But I would say, This is supposed to be ‘Hell ‘people, not a walk in a park, and Bobby’s occasional comments where he says things like, ‘ be grateful that I don’t describe this’ I do not find annoying if anything they add to description and feeling of the place.

Without giving away too much of the plot, Bobby is captured at one point, and yes there are descriptions of torture and suffering, but again these are written well and are what you would expect, he also runs into a woman who has a rather nasty trick if she decides that she doesn’t like you.

People complain about the ending, saying it is a let down, this surprises me, as the ending if I anything I predicted to myself, well before it happened. So do not see why it was a let down, as if anything it just leads you on to the book three which you that is coming.

People seem to have been expecting a different style of book, something that led straight on from Book one, with no silly romance stuff.
But the way Bobby’s feelings for Caz are described and having made him lose her, the writer was always going to make Bobby make this trip, and to be honest this book throws up loads of different clues about events, and starts to point Bobby to the answers he has been looking.

I really liked this book, ok I found the ending a little predictable, but that is no complaint really, I would encourage anyone to read this series and would definitely recommend reading the books in order as that is the best way to enjoy them.

8 out of 10 



Sunday, August 10, 2014

Book Review - The secret life of bees

The secret life of bees – Sue Monk Kidd


It seems every summer I make the unconscious decision to read a wildly popular book away from my usual preferred genres. In the past it has led me to gems such as Water for elephants, the Help or the kite runner. I hope this year’s offering will be every bit as good as those books. 

The blurb:

Lily has grown up believing she accidentally killed her mother when she was four. She not only has her own memory of holding the gun, but her father's account of the event. Now fourteen, she yearns for her mother, and for forgiveness. Living on a peach farm in South Carolina with her father, she has only one friend: Rosaleen, a black servant whose sharp exterior hides a tender heart. South Carolina in the sixties is a place where segregation is still considered a cause worth fighting for. When racial tension explodes one summer afternoon, and Rosaleen is arrested and beaten, Lily is compelled to act. Fugitives from justice and from Lily's harsh and unyielding father, they follow a trail left by the woman who died ten years before. Finding sanctuary in the home of three beekeeping sisters, Lily starts a journey as much about her understanding of the world, as about the mystery surrounding her mother.

From the opening chapter I was captivated by the secret life of bees. The story is told from the perspective of a young girl called Lily, who has lost her sense of identity in the world. One of her earliest memories is one of great tragedy and her life since has been a struggle to endure an overpowering and uncaring father.

Lily’s voice is fantastic. She speaks with sincerity and an innocence that is intoxicating. My heart immediately went out to her as she recalls her childhood and her views on the world.

In troublesome times, her pure thoughts on complex situations are refreshing and put the adults in her life to shame. Despite her youthful age, her outlook is often eminently more sensible and wiser than her peers.

Lily is driven to find out more about her mother. A woman she barely knew, but one whose personality she has created through wishful thinking more than anything else. When her nanny Rosaleen finds herself a victim of racist abuse and gets in trouble with the police, Lily seizes her opportunity to escape her turgid life and go on her own personal request.

This leads her to a house of three black women who are happy to accept her spurious story as she finds her feet. The characters Sue Monk Kidd portrays are brilliantly realised. In August Boatwright, Monk has created a figure who rivals Harper Lee’s Calpulnia. Her interaction with Lily and stand-offish but firm guidance make you want to have her in your life.

However, it is the others that truly bring this story to life, June, May and of course Rosaleen all have their nuances and foibles that help to enrich this tale, whilst Lily’s father T-Ray, serves as the perfect complex antagonist.

It is hard to believe that this was a debut novel. The prose is so polished and Lily’s “voice” so assured that I would have said this is a book from someone who is at the peak.

The racial tension is well handed and Monk does well to limit it to more of a background element to the plot whilst still acknowledging its impact. This is the correct decision as the strength of the novel is undoubtedly Lily. 

The secret life of bees is a heart-warming tale of growing up and understanding the world around you. Lily searches for a life and answers that will always be beyond her but at the same time learns through experience all she needs to ever know.

My rating: 9.2