Monday, 30 May 2011

Cold Lonely Couarge by Soren Paul Petrek

This is the first review book I have had where I have been directly approached by the author, so reviewing it will be a new experience for me.  Cold Lonely Courage tells the story of Madeline, a young French woman who becomes desperate for revenge during WW2 after her brother is killed and she is raped.  Along with a cast of supporting characters, we follow her as she is trained to be a British Special Op spy and then becomes involved in the war effort against Germany.

Petrek is a good writer.  The first few chapters did feel a bit stilted but it soon picked up and was an enjoyable read.  I didn't feel obliged to pick it up and read it; I enjoyed it.  The chapters were short, but this fit with the thriller genre and made reading easy.  The story idea was good too, and I could tell that lots of historical research had gone into writing the novel.

However, the problem I had with this book was the characters.  Apart from the German police officers Willi and Stenger, everyone was either good or evil, with not much in between.  I found it hard to believe that Madeline could ever go back to being a normal person, that she wouldn't have been deeply affected by what she was doing.  The romance part felt a bit like an uncessary add-on, as the thriller sections were much more enjoyable.  Things tied together a bit too neatly, especially compared to the gritty realism I was expecting.

Verdict: An enjoyable read but not the book for me personally
Score: 2.5 out of 5
Source: From the author, in exchange for an honest review

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

This book can only be described in one word: epic.  I picked it up at the library expecting the story of a hermaphrodite, and it was, but it was also so much more.  It was a sweeping family saga detailing the lives of three generations of Greek-Americans, the Stephanides.  Calliope Stephanides, in the third generation, is a genetic/ chromosomal male raised as a girl.  When she reaches puberty and her biological identity becomes apparent, she starts to uncover her family history and the reasons why she might have been born the way she was.

The thing I loved most about this book was the characters.  Eugenides deals with a large cast over a long time period immaculately, making each family member distinct and allowing them to develop over time.  The way the characters related to each other was superbly written too, and the story of Cal's grandparents was probably my favourite part of the book.  The middle section, about Cal's parents, lagged a little by comparison, but the final section about Cal was breathtaking.  The scene where Cal's doctor is pushing her towards a treatment option without revealing the full truth is creepy indeed.

As I cared so much about the characters, this book was hard to put down.  I read it during a busy week at work and was frequently frustrated that I didn't have more time in the evenings to pick it up.  The writing was very good (although different from The Virgin Suicides), descriptive without being overwhelming.  The only criticism I would make of the writing is that I don't think Eugenides ever really conveyed what it must have been like for Calliope to deal with the information that she was actually a boy.  The emotional turmoil was hinted at, but I never really understood what it would be like to be Cal.

One of the reasons I chose to read this book is because I loved The Virgin Suicides.  After reading both I think I still enjoyed The Virgin Suicides more.  It's not as epic or as masterful, but there was something in the writing that made it easier to get into the heads of the characters and the story, and therefore it was more memorable to me.  I accept I'm probably in the minority on this one though.

Verdict: Highly recommended - go and get your hands on a copy!
Source: Library
Score: 5 out of 5

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

On Audio Books

I've never been a big audio book fan.  But since moving house a few months ago, I have a 45 minute commute to work each way (up from 10 minutes) and I've started listening to books to keep my mind off work and the annoying traffic!  Over the course of a few weeks of experimentation, I've come to the following conclusions about audio books:

1. I don't like dramatisations:
My Dad loves dramatisations, but to me it will always sound like people in a studio making dodgy sound effects with cheap materials, like blowing through a paper cone to simulate wind.  And it's harder to follow the story when there's not much explanation.

2. Authors should not read their own books (in general):
I've tried both a John Le Carre and a Dan Brown book in which the authors read their own work.  John Le Carre has a really monotonous voice and tends to slur his syllables together, which doesn't make for easy listening.  Dan Brown seemed bored by his own book.  I'm sure there are exceptions to this, but publishers should not assume that people want to listen to the author just because he/she wrote it.

3. The trashier the better:
As I listen whilst driving, highbrow literature or too many characters or plot developments are too diverting and I can't keep up. Trash with a predictable story outline is the best, I enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl for this very reason.

4. Abridgements feel like cheating:
I don't count audio books as 'real' books or include them in my total of books read this year.  But if I listen to an abridgement, I spend the whole time wondering what has been left out and consequently don't feel as though I've 'read' the book at all.  I'm surely not alone on this?

What's your opinion of audio books?
Are you as fussy as me?

Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls

Bess Gray is a thirty-five year old folklorist who wants to settle down but can't find the right man.  At a singles party she meets Irish expatriate Rory and is swept off her feet.  However, when Rory proposes and Bess finds out that he has had not one, not two, but eight ex-wives, she must decide if she can cope with becoming wife number nine.

I really enjoyed the first half of this book.  The narrative switched between chapters from Bess' point of view about her developing relationship with Rory and chapters where Rory described each of his ex-wives.  Considering she had eight ex-wives to introduce, Stolls did a great job of keeping each story distinct and entertaining, and I loved reading these parts.  Stolls' writing was very good in general; the characters were vivid and the book hard to put down.

I also enjoyed some of the minor characters, especially Bess' grandparents Millie and Irv.  They had been married for sixty-five years and Stolls wrote their relationship honestly, showing the rough side of marriage as well as the smooth.  I was rooting for Millie and Irv to sort things out more than I was rooting for Bess and Rory. I also really liked the character of Gaia, a hippy pregnant woman.
In the second half of the book, Bess goes off on a bit of a quest to find Rory's ex-wives to find out if he has told the truth about them and to see if she can come to terms with his past.  For me personally, this section dragged a little bit in comparison to the first and it could have been shorter.  I enjoyed the part where Rory came face to face with his stalker ex-wife, Lorraine, but felt as though the other wives were all kind of telling Bess the same thing and the road trip seemed endless.

I also couldn't really understand Bess' attachment to Rory.  I'm not a swept off your feet kind of girl (I was in a relationship for seven years before getting engaged!), and all through the first section I was thinking: are you crazy for getting engaged?  You hardly know him at all!  This meant that for me, I was indifferent as to whether they ended up together in the end or not.  I was just along for the journey and the ex-wives.

Verdict: An entertaining read and an interesting story idea, well executed.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Source: ARC via NetGalley
Publisher: Harper Collins
Available: Now!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

All Together Dead by Charlaine Harris

The Sookie Stackhouse novels are becoming my books of choice for when I am poorly.  I don't talk about my health much on here, but I have indeterminate bowel problems that have been causing me constant trouble for over a year.  I'm off work today, which I hate, as I have already had a lot of time off, and I feel guilty, so I've cheered myself up with All Together Dead.

In this, the seventh book of the series, Sookie attends a vampire conference and becomes once again involved in all kinds of sinister plots.  There are also, as always, many men fighting over her.

I was glad this book returned to vampires as the main supernatural creatures, as I don't think that werewolves or shape-shifters or fairies are half as interesting.  Having said that, there was a lot of characters for the casual reader to keep up with and I did find myself thinking 'who?' every now and again.  Harris does a good job of introducing everyone, it's just because I haven't read the series very quickly and have left long gaps between books.  I also missed some of the regular Bon Temps characters.

As always, the book was lively, engagingly written, and really easy to read.  One thing that Harris does deserve a lot of credit for is how Sookie has changed and developed as the books have gone along.  Character development isn't always the easiest thing to convey, and I liked how events had changed her.

My major complaint is actually with the cover.  I have a UK box set that came out as a tie-in to the True Blood series, and it seems like the person who designed the covers hasn't read the books at all.  Jason isn't even in this book!  It's same for all the others too - Tara even gets a cover of her own, despite not being given more than a few lines in the whole series.

Source: Owned
Verdict: Great light read
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Sunday, 15 May 2011

At Home by Bill Bryson

Have you ever wondered why we add salt and pepper to our foods?  Or how many bed bugs and mites share your bed?  Or what food people ate in the Victorian times?  If so, Bill Bryson's At Home is the book for you.

In this mainly history book, Bryson takes a tour through the rooms of his (rather nice sounding) house.  In each, he has much to say about the history of various objects and inventions, the people who made them and how life at home has changed over the years.  I chose it solely because I love Bill Bryson.

It wasn't my favourite of his though.  Usually when I read a Bill Bryson I come away with my head full of interesting facts that I can't wait to tell people.  When I read A Short History of Nearly Everything I bored my friends with science for weeks.  But At Home wasn't like that for me, I was interested as I read it but now I'm struggling to remember some of the facts I learned.  Nothing stuck in my mind.

It wasn't an easy read for me either.  It was a long book and couldn't quite seem to decide whether it wanted to be thematic (as the summary suggested) or chronological, meaning I had a bit of trouble keeping things straight and some of the information didn't seem to relate to the room the chapter was about at all.  It took me over a week to read it, which is far longer than I usually spend on a book.  I just wasn't rushing to pick it up and read it.

Bryson's writing was as good as ever, and I could tell that a great amount of research had gone into the book.  The topic was interesting too - something just didn't click for me.

Verdict: Not one I would read again
Source: Library
Score: 3 out of 5

Monday, 9 May 2011

Between Two Ends by David Ward

Have you ever loved a book so much that you wanted to live in inside of it?

This is the premise of Between Two Ends.  Yeats, the teenage protagonist, must find out how to get into Arabian Nights to rescue Shari, who has been trapped inside the book for decades and now thinks she is Scheherazade, the legendary queen who tells a story every night to stop her head being chopped off. 

There are lots of similarities with the Inkheart trilogy, but Between Two Ends is lighter, doesn't take itself too seriously and is a simply a fun adventure.  I love the Arabian Nights (you can see my review here) and the idea of going into a world of genies, sand, enchantment and grand viziers is a great one if you love escapism.

There were some lovely touches too.  Yeats gets to the world of Arabian Nights in a boat swimming on a sea of words.  He spends time pondering if you can get killed in a story if you aren't a main character.  If you forget who you really are, you can get trapped in a story forever.  Time passes at different rates in story world and the real world.

However, other parts just didn't tie together.  The whole thing between Shari and Yeats' father and how that had an impact on Yeats' parents marriage was never explained to my liking and didn't seem like a plausible explanation for Yeats risking his life.  The book was a bit short and I could definitely have read some more action in Arabian Nights, and would have liked Yeats to explore a bit further, rather than just rush in and out.  The way they break the enchantment on Shari seems a bit too convenient.  Yeats is apparently the luckiest boy ever

Verdict: Great piece of escapism, like reading Indiana Jones.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Received from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Abrams Books
Available: Now!

Which book would you escape in to? 

Saturday, 7 May 2011

The Murder of King Tut by James Patterson and Martin Dugard

This is the first James Patterson book I have ever read.  And it will probably be my last.  I chose it because I love Ancient Egypt, and because I've always found the mystery surrounding the death of Tutankhamun really interesting; all the conspiracy theories and suspicions.

Tutankhamun was an Egyptian pharaoh.  He came to power after the radical Akhenaten, who outlawed worship of the traditional range of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, in favour of the Sun God, Aten.  He turned his back on war and Egypt's traditional cities, overseeing a period of decline.  His son, Tutankhamun, was only around eight years old when he became pharaoh, and died in his late teens.  His was the only intact Egyptian tomb to ever be discovered, by Howard Carter.  He also married his half-sister!

So it's not as though the subject matter wasn't interesting.  The problem I had with it was that it read as though Patterson had got a passing urge for Egyptology, read a few general books, and then attempted to pass himself off as an expert, writing the book very quickly.  I teach Ancient Egypt to my year 3 class (aged 7-8), and I can tell you that they definitely know more about Tut than James Patterson does.

And despite this lack of any in-depth facts, Patterson criticises Egyptologists and their theories.  Although no one will ever really know how Tut died (he had multiple injuries, including a blow to the head, leg injury and swollen tooth that could have been infected), Patterson absolutely claims that he was murdered and that he knew who did it.  This is all based on his 'hunch' and 'feelings'.  He dismisses the renowed Egyptologist Zahi Hawass (who has recently released some new DNA evidence), claiming that his research is all wrong.  I found all this completely arrogant and unscientific.  Patterson's theory about a murderous chief advisor is interesting, but it's just that, a theory. I certainly wouldn't claim to know more about a subject than someone who has studied it for years and years.

Another problem I had was with the way the book was put together.  I had a chunky hardback version from my library but the pages were deceptively thick.  The numerous chapters often had only one or two pages, with each chapter finishing near the top of a page and the next starting on a fresh.  This all felt suspiciously like padding out on the part of the publisher, making the book seem more substantial than it really was.  It was probably only the length of a novella.

I should say something positive - the writing wasn't bad, and Patterson would make a good historical fiction author.  He should just stay well away from non-fiction.

Verdict: Glad this one was a library book.
Score: 1 out of 5

Monday, 2 May 2011

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

That people were actually imprisoned and killed for allegedly being witches, that people actually believed in the charges they were throwing around is something that I have always found hard to get to grips with.  How can you actually believe that the Devil asks women to sign his book or that a woman can fly?  The Heretic's Daugher answers these questions by arguing the case for maliciousness and revenge, as well as paranoia and hysteria.

The book is narrated by ten year old Sarah Carrier (a real historical figure), who is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Billerica during an outbreak of plague.  On her return to Andover (near Salem), she finds that her family is unpopular in their community.  Proud and rebellious, when allegations of witchcraft break out in Salem, Sarah's mother soon finds herself accused.  And it's not long before Sarah and the rest of the family are caught up in the hysteria and accusations in Salem.

This book was another slow-burner; it started with lots of description of family life and routines in 17th century America, which was interesting for me as I knew little about it, and the seeds of the charges that were to come were planted only slowly by Kent.  A cow that Martha Carrier returns to it's owner dies a few days later.  The Carriers turn out a worker for having sex with their son and she swears revenge.  Some of the other girls start to dislike Sarah.

The pace changes dramatically after the first accusations are made, which I think was a clever narrative device and shows how quickly lives were changed and ended and accusations took on a life of their own.  The descriptions of Sarah in prison showed the squalor, filth and destitution of it in ways that were glossed over in other books like Witch Child and The Crucible.  One thing that hit me was the part where one of the prisoners is finally found to be innocent, but can not be released as she can't afford to pay for the months she has spent in prison.

I found The Heretic's Daughter to be well written and hard to put down.  Kent had obviously completed lots of historical research and really did bring the period to life.  The only part I didn't enjoy concerned Sarah's father.  Throughout the book there was lots of hints of him having a mysterious early life and being somehow involved with Cromwell and the English Civil War but when we finally learned his 'secret', it didn't live up to the hype.  It should either have been better developed, or completely left out.

Verdict: Fascinating portyral of mass hysteria during the Salem witch trials, well worth a read.
Score: 4 out of 5