Category: 2.5 stars

Review: ‘As I Descended’ by Robin Talley

Review: ‘As I Descended’ by Robin Talley

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten are their school’s ultimate power couple—even if no one knows it but them. Only one thing stands between them and their perfect future: campus superstar Delilah Dufrey.

Maria and Lily will stop at nothing to ensure their victory—including harnessing the dark power long rumored to be present on the former plantation that houses their school. But when feuds turn to fatalities, and madness begins to blur the distinction between what’s real and what is imagined, the girls must decide where they draw the line.

This was the first book that I finished in 2018 but I didn’t want to review it first because I thought that starting my reviewing off by grumbling would set a bit of a gloomy tone! Because disappointingly, grumble I will.

I was really excited about reading As I Descended. I saw it mentioned in a Book Riot article about YA hallowe’en reads and it sounded like just what I fancied at the time – something pacy and sinister. A little while later (after my library reservation had come in and it was stowed safely on my ‘To Read Soon’ pile at home), I discovered that it was a retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (one of my favourite Shakespeare plays) and I picked it up almost immediately.

To begin with, I enjoyed it. The novel is set in a school built in the grounds of an old plantation and the dark and violent history of the site is the perfect backdrop for a ghost story. It opens strongly, with Maria, Lily and Brandon using a ouija board, releasing malevolent spirits in tense scenes that played on the history of the school and really had me hooked. Maria’s hyspanic heritage, the ghost stories she was told as a child and the use of Spanish really add a different feel to the novel and it has a lot of promise.

As events escalated, I sadly became increasingly disengaged. Almost all of the characters come from rich and privileged backgrounds (and that’s not me making me assumptions, we’re actually told), which makes it feel a bit ridiculous that central events revolve around a competition with the prize of a scholarship to the college of their choice. It’s acknowledged more than once that most of the students could go wherever they wanted without the prize so I couldn’t believe that Maria and Lily would drive each other to the lengths that they do all for something that they could have had anyway. Delilah, their nemesis, is also a bit of a caricature of a prima donna teenager (twirling lipgloss and sharp tongue and all) and it’s frustrating. By the end, I pretty much hated all of the central characters and didn’t care what happened to them anyway. I sometimes think that it’s a little bit churlish to intentionally read YA and then complain about the characters being too childish but that’s precisely what I’m going to do! I don’t mind a degree of immaturity but the characters in this are so bloody whiny. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m older than the natural target market but I can’t be persuaded to think that not having the bestest of the best grades is worth killing for.

The subtlety of Macbeth and the main characters’ genuine struggles with guilt and their pain over the loss of control over the events they have set in motion is missing and everything just gets…well, silly if I’m honest. And there are far too many dream sequences! I lost count of the amount of characters relaying dreams of veiled women and horrors from their past. They became eye-rolling-inducingly frequent and I skim read a lot of them.

Ok, last thing, I promise – I just need to get some of this off my chest, unpopular though it might prove. I also struggled with the balance of characters. I obviously appreciate and want diversity in the books I read. I want to read about characters with backgrounds and cultures that are different to mine. What I don’t want is to feel as though an author is forcing diversity in. Of the 8 or so main characters, 5 are LGBT, 3 are people of colour and one is disabled (some have more than one!). In a novel of about 350 pages, it feels a bit much and almost as though the novel is trying too hard to fulfil some unwritten criteria (particularly when the characters don’t feel too distinct).

Overall: If you whip through this in a session or two and don’t pay too much attention, it’s not unentertaining and there are elements of it that are fun so you’ll stand a fair chance of enjoying it. Perhaps if you’re also a little more patient with teenagers being obviously teenage. All in all, though, let’s just say this wasn’t the novel for me. There’s real potential with some of the ghosts and history but it all ended up falling flat. Well, actually I suppose it falls the opposite of flat and spirals into bonkers melodrama but you know what I mean…

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Pictured Edition published by Mira INK in May 2014

Date finished: 04 January 2018

Source: Library

Review: ‘The Roanoke Girls’ by Amy Engel

Review: ‘The Roanoke Girls’ by Amy Engel

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Beautiful.
Rich.
Mysterious.
Everyone wants to be a Roanoke girl.

But you won’t when you know the truth.

Lane Roanoke is fifteen when she comes to live with her grandparents and fireball cousin at the Roanoke family’s rural estate following the suicide of her mother. Over one long, hot summer, Lane experiences the benefits of being one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls.


But what she doesn’t know is being a Roanoke girl carries a terrible legacy: either the girls run, or they die. For there is darkness at the heart of Roanoke, and when Lane discovers its insidious pull, she must make her choice…

I was in the mood for a thriller after pondering my way through Maus and this sounded right up my street.  I know there are a lot of them around right now but I wanted a real page-turner.  Something that might not feature the most sophisticated plot or the most elegant writing but something that would keep me gripped.  In a sense, I got what I wanted, even if what kept me turning the pages was morbid fascination and not curiosity.

The novel is set in two time periods, one where Lane is fifteen and newly arrived at the Roanoke estate and one where Lane is an adult, drawn back to Roanoke to assist with a police investigation into the disappearance of her cousin.  In doing so, she has to face down some of her own demons and brave what sent her running from her family in the first place.  Tucked in between these two narratives are snippets told from the perspective of the earlier Roanoke girls.

I enjoyed this at first.  There’s a mystique about the Roanoke family, something lurking in the family’s history of women who have either died tragically young or run away.  The writing is decent and it’s very readable.  The atmosphere is oppressive and tense and Lane’s terse exchanges with her now estranged family are such a stark contrast to the warmth in the chapters showing her teenage years that I was dying to know what had happened.  For perhaps a third, I had to keep reading.  Then I learned the secret at the heart of the Roanoke family and I wished that I hadn’t.  It is, frankly, repellent.  I have no problem with writing that pushes boundaries but, if I’m reading something challenging, I at least want to feel as though it’s handled well.  Actually, I don’t think that it was that it was handled badly, just that it wasn’t properly explored.  We’re told about why it’s believable and why nobody just did the right thing but it just doesn’t feel realistic.  It’s too extreme.  Too much. The fact that the family is rich and that they’re all beautiful and charming just makes things a bit too easy. It feels relentless and reading it was emotionally exhausting.  Harrowing.  I kept reading because I hoped that there would be balance or pay-off at the end.  There was in a way but not enough to offset the general queasiness I’d felt while reading.

It’s hard to write more about this without spoilers.  I suppose if nothing else it was powerful.  It’s a hard hitting novel that doesn’t pull its punches and it definitely had an impact on me.  The characters are varying degrees of damaged and unpleasant but the supporting characters at least are interesting to read about.  While Lane is trying to help find her cousin, she has to face up to her past and spend time with some of the people that she hurt the first time she ran away.  It fits in with her story and I quite liked the take on small town America.  If there’d perhaps been a little less emotional trauma and a little more criminal investigation, I think the net result would have stronger.  As it was, I felt like reading this was more of an ordeal than I like in my fiction!

Overall:  Grim.  If you’re actively seeking out something that will give you a pretty full on story breaking all sorts of taboos, you’ll get that with The Roanoke Girls.  If you’re not in the market for some extreme emotional manipulation and sexual abuse, this probably isn’t the book for you.  It wasn’t really the book for me, unfortunately.

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Date finished:  26 February 2017
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley – thank you, Hodder & Stoughton
Genre: Thriller; Mystery
Pictured Edition Published: on 7 March 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton

Review: ‘The Collector of Dying Breaths’ by M. J. Rose

Rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars

**This is the 6th book in the Reincarnationist series so beware – this synopsis may well have slight spoilers for earlier books in the series**

In 1533, an Italian orphan with an uncanny knack for creating fragrance is plucked from poverty to become Catherine de Medici’s perfumer. To repay his debt, over the years Rene le Florentine is occasionally called upon to put his vast knowledge to a darker purpose: the creation of deadly poisons used to dispatch the Queen’s rivals. But it’s Rene’s other passion, a desire to reanimate a human breath, to bring back the lives of the two people whose deaths have devastated him that incites a dangerous treasure hunt five centuries later. That’s when Jac L’Etoile suffering from a heartache of her own becomes obsessed with the possibility of unlocking Rene’s secret to immortality. Soon Jac’s search reconnects her with Griffin North, a man she’s loved her entire life. Together they confront an eccentric heiress whose art collection rivals many museums and who is determined to keep her treasures close at hand, not just in this life but in her next.


Review

I had originally been intending to post this review as part of a Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour but work became unbelievably busy at around about the same time and I just didn’t manage to finish the book in time, never mind actually get round to reviewing it!  Part of that was owing to the increased workload but part of it was also because the book took me what felt like forever to finish.  Actually, at a little over a month, it really did take me a really long time compared to even what I now am resigned to as my usual reading pace.
It would be unfair to say that the amount of time it took to read was entirely the book’s fault, although the fact that I got a bit disgruntled and broke off from reading it so that I could read Running Like a Girl probably doesn’t speak to its credit.  This is a tricky position because, although I do know that I didn’t actively enjoy the experience of reading The Collector of Dying Breaths, what I can’t tell you is whether I would have enjoyed anything at that particular time.  Reading it just felt like harder work than I wanted it to be. 
I find the concept of reincarnation fascinating and the idea of a former monk pursuing the secret to reanimating the souls of people he has loved and lost by capturing and storing their last breath was one that was also quite morbidly interesting.  Unfortunately, I found the execution lacking and what I had hoped would be an excellent historical fiction was instead just mediocre.  As with so, so many books that are split between a period in history and the modern day, I eventually grew tired of the modern thread and wanted more of the detail and atmosphere of the historical one.  Rene Le Florentin, monk turned perfumer to Catherine de Medici, is a bit of a sorry soul with a rather tragic back story and Rose does a good job of developing his olfactory way of viewing the world so he was a character I was happy to follow through 16th Century France.  If the balance of The Collector of Dying Breaths had tilted towards more Rene and perfumery and plots in the French court, I’d have been much happier.
While Rene searches for the secret to restoring his loves, Jac L’Etoile (member of famed L’Etoile perfumer family dynasty) is grieving and navigating her unexpected return to the world of perfumery. The two stories are rather dubiously tied together by Jac’s ability to experience “flashbacks” of the dim and distant past, which would have been more fun to read about had she not moaned about it for the whole book.  She’s acceptable as a main character but I don’t feel as though I got to know her enough to care about her or what she was going through. 
I think the main issue that I really had was that the book is the 6th book in the Reincartionist series.  Characters and relationships that seemed brittle and lacking in depth to me are really (I think…hope?) just ones that have been developed over the course of a number of books that I haven’t read.  This rings true not just for the romantic tangent but also the familial and platonic relationships, meaning that there were very few interactions in the modern story that I actually cared about.  There are some catch-up details for new readers/readers that are coming back to the series but I couldn’t really get behind a couple whose history was explained to me in a couple of paragraphs or appreciate the nuances of Jac’s feelings about her “gift” to experience former lives in a novel that was trying to carry its own plot rather than welcome newbies.  I wasn’t overly fond of the ending of the modern plot, either, while we’re moaning. 
And has reading The Collector of Dying Breaths has made me want to pick up the first, The Reincarnationist?  Not in the least, unfortunately.  I know where enough of the overarching story is going to know that I don’t really want to go there.  I have enough series on the go without adding another to the pile.  That might be unfair because I’m reading some endings before I’ve read the relevant beginning but (to use a ludicrous ‘management speak’ phrase) we are where we are.  Average, average, average.
Overall:  I knew that there were other books by the same author that were notionally linked as part of a “series” but I didn’t realise how much the later books (or at least, this later book) rely on the ground work in the earlier ones.  You’ll be able to follow the story told in The Collector of Dying Breaths perfectly well if you haven’t read the earlier books by M. J. Rose but you almost certainly won’t enjoy the experience quite as much as if you already “know” the characters and are able to buy into their motives and relationships.  As a standalone, I’d struggle to recommend it unless you’re desperate to read the historical part and don’t mind a fair bit of modern frippery in your historical fiction generally.

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Date finished: 21 April 2014
Format: eBook
Source:  Received via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pictured Edition Published:  by Atria Books in April 2014

Review: ‘Allegiant’ by Veronica Roth

**SPOILER ALERT – ALLEGIANT is the last in the Divergent series so there may be spoilers for earlier books in the series (although I have kept things spoiler free so far as this book goes).  If you haven’t read the first, Divergent, you might want to head over to my review of that HERE instead.  Up to the second book, Insurgent?  My review mini is HERE.

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Rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars

 
The faction-based society that Tris Prior once believed in is shattered – fractured by violence and power struggles and scarred by loss and betrayal.  So, when offered a chance to explore the world pat the limits she’s known, Tris is ready.  Perhaps beyond the fence, she and Tobias will find a simple new life together, free from complicated lies, tangled loyalties and painful memories.
 
But Tris’ new reality is even more alarming than the one she left behind.  Old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless.  Explosive new truths change the hears of those she loves.  And once again, Tris must battle to comprehend the complexities of human nature – and of herself – while facing impossible choices about courage, allegiance, sacrifice and love.
 
Review
If you’ve even remotely followed this series as it’s flown around the blogosphere, I can’t imagine that you managed to avoid the furore that surrounded the release of the final instalment at the end of last year.  People’s reactions seemed to range from utter emotional devastation to out and out rage.   I’d gone into Allegiant expecting more of the same high drama, fast action and semi-political wranglings that graced the pages of the first two.  The hurtling pace was still there and there were times when I managed to stop rolling my eyes and sighing in a melodramatic manner long enough to be gripped by what was going on but, when it comes down it, I just wasn’t a big fan.  It was ok but not at all the life-suspending read I was looking forward to, was disappointing.

Perhaps surprisingly to those that have read it, it wasn’t the ending that made this a bit of a retrospective dud but the plot generally.  For me, the first two books were made great by the idea of society being divided into factions. People living according to one defining characteristic and balancing governance and responsibilities for the protection of that society according to those attributes was a great idea that was executed well.  As Tris, Four and her band of loyal friends go Beyond the Fence, they more or less leave behind the factions and instead step into a world with a far less engaging and considered conflict based on some flimsy history and some even more wobbly science.

I won’t go into too much detail about it all because I don’t want to spoil it for those of you that haven’t made it to this book yet but I will say categorically that the factions were better.  There was no need to completely shift the focus and try to set up and resolve a global conflict within one book and it just felt under-developed as a consequence.  Shelving pretty much everything that readers have come to love in the first two books of a trilogy and wandering off onto a tangent that just has no traction is brave in some ways and I suppose worthy of at least a small nod of praise.  But “genetically pure v. genetically damaged” backed up with some shaky explanations and some excellent glossing over of anything that might make it stand up to more thought?  As weak as it sounds.  I never bought into while I was reading and I haven’t bought into it on reflection.

We also have a split narrative this time around, with the story being told both from Tris and Tobias/Four’s perspectives.  Super.  I have no problem with having more than one narrator.  Actually, I’m quite a fan of the device in general.  Here, though, I found that I kept forgetting who was “speaking”.  Both characters are now at the stage where they are internally conflicted and are having family problems and are all but indistinguishable in tone.  Both also seemed to be all too happy to put aside their worries and feelings of grave betrayal/upset/general anger any time an opportunity to snog in a hallway/empty room presented itself.  Maybe I’m not enough of a romantic or maybe it’s been too long since I was a teenager but sporadic kissing in corridors does not a romantic sub-plot sustain.  The relationship that has been lauded generally as being realistic in its troubles just became silly for me.  Sorry.  Oh, and while I’m on the characters, pretty much all of the characters that you’ve come to know and love from the first couple of books will be put to one side so that you can spend some time with those that populate Beyond the Fence world. 

I suppose I couldn’t let the whole review go by without at least mentioning the thing that had people talking, sobbing and/or throwing things.  When I started reading Allegiant, I had no idea where The Incident occurred and I spent the whole time waiting for something to make me incandescent with fury.  It isn’t right until the end so if you’re planning on reading this and might be in the hyper-aware state that I was for the first half, you needn’t worry.  And The Incident?  It was a bit of a shock but not at all the trauma that I had come to expect and hasn’t really impacted on my feelings towards the series in any way.  By that point, I was too exasperated with the whole experience to really care a great deal what happened to any of the characters and I didn’t cry once.  Unusual for me and (you guessed it) disappointing.

In all honesty, I didn’t hate Allegiant as much as it sounds like I did.  Everything is wrapped up reasonably neatly (almost too neatly, really…) and the conclusions to the plots that existed at the end of Insurgent fairly satisfying.  Most of my frustration lies in the fact that I was looking forward to a weekend spent tucked up with a riveting read and was left wanting.  Would I recommend the series as a whole now that I know where it ends up?  Sadly, I’m not at all sure.
 

Overall:  If you’ve read Divergent and Insurgent, this isn’t a completely terrible end to the series and I wouldn’t warn you off completely because it does wrap everything up and give you that “Ah, series complete” feeling.  Just please don’t say that I didn’t warn you that it’s far from perfect and closure might be the best reward you’ll get. 

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Date finished: 26 January 2014
Format: Hardback
Source: Borrowed from my local library
Genre: YA fiction; Dystopian fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2013

Review: ‘Black Swan Rising’ by Lee Carroll

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Jeweller Garet James isn’t the same as everyone else. 

She just doesn’t know it yet.

With her fair share of problems – money (lack of), an elderly father, a struggling business – Garet should be just like any other young, feisty, single New Yorker. If only it was that simple…

It begins with the old silver box that had been soldered shut. All Garet has to do is open it. A favour for the frail owner of the antiques shop. Who wouldn’t help?


Only it’s then that things start to change. Garet doesn’t notice at first, the shifts barely perceptible. But the city in which she grew up is beginning to reveal a long-hidden side – darker, and altogether more dangerous: parallel world of chaos, smoke and blood.  And now it’s out of the box…and it has no intention of going back in.
Review

*sigh* Why do I find it so hard to write about books that I just feel ok about?!  Let’s find something I can be super keen on to get started…the title!  I don’t know why I found it so intriguing but a large part of what prompted me to request this on NetGalley was the title.  So that’s a positive start!

Black Swan Rising saw me venturing back into the distinctly iffy territory of urban fantasy for the first time of 2013.  In 2012, I read a few urban fantasy titles and was generally pretty underwhelmed – Darkfever had a ridiculously annoying protagonist and The Name of the Star had a few too many moments of teenage fool-hardiness.  Black Swan Rising didn’t exactly do a sterling job of convincing me that there was something about recent urban fantasy releases that I’ve been missing. 
The story is a blend of fey, vampires, mythology and magic.  Despite what my reviews of urban fantasy might generally suggest, I don’t hate any of those things.  I would love to read a truly brilliant book about fae, fey or fairies (whatever you want to call them) and I can still tolerate vampires.  I *love* mythology and anything fun and magical.  You would think that added all together, it would be a recipe for something fabulous.  In this case, though, I think everything just ended up diluted.  The twists on mythology were my favourite parts by far, I quite liked the fairy elements but the vampire wasn’t great.

I liked Garet initially.  She’s a jeweller and helps her father with running an art gallery.  It made a nice change to have a creative, independent female character.  Adding in the dash of realism with the money worries was a nice touch but I found myself wanting more.  I was quite prepared to love Garet and her strength and personality seemed to wane as she developed other…talents. 
And then along came the apparently irresistible vampire to make it all that little bit more irritating.  It wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t like the chap in question.  I thought the dynamic and history between Garet and Mr Vampire (I hope you’re appreciating my spoiler avoidance tactics!) early on was the promise of something unique.  Something where the female character could find someone attractive but continue to challenge him and retain her sense of self.  But then for some reason, this seemingly bright and feisty young woman started cavorting about on rooftops in the dark and inviting a predator to help themselves, nearly killing her in the process.  I just…why?

After that development, the book had too much ground to make up, I suppose.  I still loved the abilities that Garet started to learn and the bad guys really are quite bad and satisfyingly creepy but I was luke warm about the whole thing overall.

Overall:  Average.  There are some solid ideas but not quite enough to carry the story over into the ‘good’ category.  Cautiously recommended if you’re a really die-hard fan of urban fantasy.
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Date finished:  15 March 2013
Format:  eBook
Source:  Received from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!
Genre:  Urban fantasy
Pictured Edition Published: by Bantam Press in November 2010

Fantasy Review: ‘The Gunslinger’ by Stephen King

Rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis courtesy of GoodReads

Set in a world of extraordinary circumstances, filled with stunning visual imagery and unforgettable characters, The Dark Tower series is King’s most visionary feat of storytelling, a magical mix of science fiction, fantasy, and horror that may well be his crowning achievement.

In The Gunslinger (originally published in 1982), King introduces his most enigmatic hero, Roland Deschain of Gilead, the Last Gunslinger. He is a haunting, solitary figure at first, on a mysterious quest through a desolate world that eerily mirrors our own. Pursuing the man in black, an evil being who can bring the dead back to life, Roland is a good man who seems to leave nothing but death in his wake.

Review

Even having finished this a little over six weeks ago, I still can’t decide how I feel about The Gunslinger.  Despite really not being sure if I even liked reading it, I still think that I’ll read the next in the series.  Granted, I probably won’t read it right away and I’m not likely to pay any actual money for it but I might borrow a copy of the library if I happen across one.

More often than not, articles about Stephen King or reviews of King’s books lavish praise upon his storytelling abilities.  Oddly, I think that’s part of what lets this book down.  Every now and then (and I do mean only every now and then!), there’s a glimpse of where the story is going so it’s clear that there’s a plan for the overarching story.  This book is just a small part of a huge, winding tale and, while I’m sure that story is brilliant, I just didn’t feel that I saw enough of it.

What I saw more than enough of was Roland.  Roland walking, Roland thinking about walking, Roland eating, Roland thinking about eating, Roland talking to Jake, Roland thinking about…you get the idea.  The book is a mere 238 pages long – in the land of fantasy series, that is small fry.  I’ve read many an epic fantasy series where the author  thinks nothing of introducing a character, leaving them to go their own way for many hundreds of pages before re-introducing them with barely a reminder about where you saw them last.  Readers of The Gunslinger aren’t trusted in the memory stakes, however. In the first few chapters, Roland, is moseying through a town called Tull.  There he meets a complex lady called Allie and spends maybe fifty pages getting to know her.  Just a little less than a quarter of the book is spent with Allie but for some reason every time she is mentioned later, she is referred to as “Allie, the woman in Tull”.  Which I know, Roland, because since you left her, you haven’t done anything but WALK!  

Since the premise of this opening novel is Roland being a “haunting solitary figure” starting out on a quest through a “desolate world”, I wasn’t expecting a cast of thousands or gun-toting on every corner but there’s very little…charm.  If I’m starting out on a journey that’s going to last for seven books, I want to *care*.  I want to find at least one character that I can cheer for, sympathise with or cry over.  Here, I found one character who I wanted to kick or SHAKE to get some life into (I’m looking at YOU, Roland), one I wanted just to stand still for five minutes so that we could all stop chasing him (Man in Black, come on down) and only one who I felt intrigued by (hugs for you, Jake, hugs for you)…

On the plus side, I’m quite intrigued by the way King is playing with time.  Early on, I was frustrated because the setting and tone of the book both screamed old-style western but for some reason Hey Jude by The Beatles was a well-known ditty.  It was almost impossible to work out whether the story is a distorted version of the past or a desolate version of the future or something else entirely.  It’s the peeks into the potential of future instalments that will bring me back to this series, rather than a sense of having enjoyed this one.
Overall:  As an isolated reading experience, The Gunslinger wasn’t the best.  In spite of that, the final few pages did make me feel as though there was hope for the series yet.  Expect a plethora of unanswered questions, a hefty dose of surrealism and a little bit of gore (this is Stephen King, after all) and you shouldn’t find yourself too disappointed.

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Date finished:  03 November 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Borrowed from my local library
Genre:  Fantasy fiction
Published (edition I read): by Hodder & Stoughton Limited in 2012

Crime Review: ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ by Agatha Christie


Rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars


Synopsis

The famous case that launched the career of Hercule Poirot. When a wealthy heiress is murdered, Poirot steps out of retirement to find the killer. As the master detective makes his way through the list of suspects, he finds the solution in an elaborately planned scheme almost impossible to believe.


Review

Yes, that’s right, more Agatha Christie.  I figured that it was about time I got acquainted with at least one of Christie’s long-standing characters.  Since I’ve never been that keen on the idea of a superior and nosy older lady (Miss Marple, that means you…), I went with Hercule Poirot.

What I had failed to appreciate was that Poirot doesn’t narrate his own stories.  Or at least, he doesn’t narrate this particular story.  Instead of spending time in the mind of a quirky Belgian detective, I was instead subjected to the narrow-minded and jealous musings of Captain Arthur Hastings.  Early on in the novel, the strange blend of first/third person narrative works quite well but before too long, I just wanted Hastings to shut up and go away.

I wanted to be charmed and beguiled by a moustached, suave European.  It turns out that I didn’t really want to be “on the side” of an amateur investigator who spends a large time going through the same thought process:  “Poirot has noticed something that I haven’t – how annoying…Ha – he might have found a clue but he’s clearly gone doo-lally and is interpreting it all wrong…Oh gosh!  He was right!  How foolish I am…”  Rinse and repeat.

Narration aside, the plot is a good old classic mystery.  Locked rooms, mysterious poisons, shifty characters and plenty of misdirection. Something is lost because you miss out on Poirot’s thought processes – every now and then, he’ll find a clue and rush off before coming back for a Big Reveal, which was interesting but didn’t have quite the same mystique.  

If you’re already a fan of Christie’s mysteries, there’s plenty here for you to recognise and appreciate.  If you’re just starting out (which, seeing as I’ve only read three, probably includes me!), you might want to start with a stand-alone like the FABULOUS And Then There Were None (reviewed here).  If you’re desperate to be introduced to Hercule Poirot, just bear in mind that this isn’t Christie’s best.

Oh, and also, I starting out reading the eBook version of this and had to abandon it because it kept referring to pictures, plans and notes that just weren’t there in the eBook.  In this case, traditional paper will serve you better. 

Overall:  I’m happy to put my time on this one down as investment in future books.  Poirot is everything that I wanted him to be – a kooky, eccentric genius (of sorts).  The story isn’t particularly unique and I was disappointed that I didn’t get as much Poirot as I wanted to but it’s a passable way to spend a couple of hours.


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Date finished:  23 June 2012
Format:  eBook/Paperback
Source:  Borrowed from my local library (both formats…)
Genre:  Mystery; Crime
Published: by HarperCollins in June 2004; Originally published in October 1920

Review: ‘City of Bones’ by Cassandra Clare

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars


Synopsis

When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder — much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. Then the body disappears into thin air. It’s hard to call the police when the murderers are invisible to everyone else and when there is nothing — not even a smear of blood — to show that a boy has died. Or was he a boy?

This is Clary’s first meeting with the Shadowhunters, warriors dedicated to ridding the earth of demons. It’s also her first encounter with Jace, a Shadowhunter who looks a little like an angel and acts a lot like a jerk. Within twenty-four hours Clary is pulled into Jace’s world with a vengeance, when her mother disappears and Clary herself is attacked by a demon. But why would demons be interested in ordinary mundanes like Clary and her mother? And how did Clary suddenly get the Sight? The Shadowhunters would like to know. . . .

Review  

Before I’d read City of Bones, I don’t remember having read a bad review of either it or the other books in the Mortal Instruments series.  At the time of my writing this, it has over 150,000 ratings and an average rating of 4.15 out of 5.  Also, I would have to be blind and deaf not to have noticed the excitement sounding the release of City of Lost Souls recently.  What I’m saying is, clearly there are a lot of people out there that love this book.  I am, sadly, not one of those people.

Clarissa “Clary” Fray stumbles into the world of the Shadowhunters one night when she’s out at a rather strange sounding night club with her best friend Simon.  (Let’s leave the fact that there are two 15-year-olds spending an evening in a night club to one side, shall we?)  Clary isn’t too bad as far as teenage protagonists go.  That is, aside from being remarkably slow on the uptake, rather selfish (particularly when it comes to her friendship with Simon) and naive.  On the plus side, Jace and her do share some passably witty exchanges and she can be quite brave.  I fell out with her at the end of the book but that’s a rant for later!

After meeting Jace and his Shadowhunter companions, Clary eventually finds her way into the inner sanctum of their world, cryptically referred to as “the Institute”. At first, the Institute is cool; it’s a secret hide-out for all kinds of demon-hunting folk, has an enormous library and has plenty of gothic potential. It kind of seemed to me, however, that the only characters residing there were Jace, Clary, lurking historian/curator Hodge and brother-sister duo, Isabelle and Alec and came across as kind of…sad.

With all the bouncing around between Shadowhunter history (doled out in rather cumbersome and disruptive chunks by a mysterious chap that lurks around the Institute with his pet raven), spurts of vampire/werewolf/zombie-demon fighting by impetuous teenagers and angsty romance, the book felt very muddled indeed. There’s almost too much going on and the plot just seemed to get lost amongst the red herrings and history lessons. I fully appreciate that trying to balance setting up your characters’ backgrounds and world while maintaining a degree of action is a tough job. I can’t help but feel, though, that plonking one of your characters in a library every now and then to effectively listen to a lecture is not the best way to go about it...

Anyway, so far, so average.  But then Clare threw a curve ball into the plot that made me want to throw my eReader at the wall.  Hard.  I realise that to those of you that haven’t read the book, this will seem like a lot of raving nonsense.  But it isn’t just the twist itself; it’s the responses of the characters to the twist.  I expected revulsion but would have tolerated disquiet/anxiety/mild remorse.  To get what was tantamount to acceptance was just…infuriating. From a series where countless readers have praised the characterisation, I was extremely disappointed.  Well, actually, at the time of reading it I was extremely angry.  Retrospectively, I’m disappointed.

Also, as an annoying aside, I bought the first three in the series in a cute boxed set for my younger sister for Christmas.  She pretty much never reads (I know, weird…) but she has read and enjoyed a lot of The Morganville Vampire series so I figured I’d force help her to branch out.  I’m actually now contemplating taking the set away from her in case her opinion of books in general is damaged for good. Or at least splatting a disclaimer sticker on them that means she can’t blame me if she throws City of Bones through her TV…

Overall:  I didn’t hate this as much as it probably sounds as though I did.  It had some good points that were at the very least partially over-shadowed.  Maybe I’ve reached my YA urban fantasy series limit or maybe this series simply isn’t just as good as I’d been led to expect; either way, I would struggle to recommend this to any but the most die-hard fans of YA.  And those with much higher levels of patience than me, obviously.  

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Date finished:  5 May 2012
Format:  eBook
Source:  Borrowed from my library’s eBook site
Genre:  Urban fantasy; YA
Published: by Margaret K. McElderry Books in March 2007

Review: ‘The Ruins of Gorlan’ by John Flanagan

Rating:  2.5 stars out of 5


Synopsis (from GoodReads.com)

They have always scared him in the past—the Rangers, with their dark cloaks and shadowy ways. The villagers believe the Rangers practice magic that makes them invisible to ordinary people. And now 15-year-old Will, always small for his age, has been chosen as a Ranger’s apprentice. What he doesn’t yet realize is that the Rangers are the protectors of the kingdom. Highly trained in the skills of battle and surveillance, they fight the battles before the battles reach the people. And as Will is about to learn, there is a large battle brewing.

Review

I’d seen this series recommended a few times but since I was suffering through one BookMooch search after another when I found a copy of this one, my ordering it was as much a mark of relief at being able to actually use one of my points than at my inclination to read it.  As it happened, I then saw another positive review of it somewhere (I only wish I could remember where…) and it jumped up my list to read.  Am I glad it did?  Sort of…it’s worth mentioning that my personal luke warm feelings towards this book are no doubt a direct result of my age.  It wasn’t for me, as such, but I can objectively appreciate that it would be perfect for younger readers.


The opening introduces Will, Horace, Alyss, Gilan and Jenny as they line up in front of their adoptive father to volunteer themselves as apprentices to their chosen craftmasters.  All of the teens but Will have a clear idea about where their perfect fit lies.  The old little-boy-lost routine worked well enough for Will to endear him to me as a character to get behind.  The rest of the characters are, sadly, rather one-dimensional. By way of example, Jenny volunteers (and is accepted to) the kitchens as an apprentice to the head chef.  She’s described as pretty but chubby, with a cheerful personality.  She appears at various points throughout the story but is generally sporting some kind of food.  Likewise Gilan who apprentices to be a legal clerk and Horace who apprentices to the battle school.  

As a result of Flanagan spending so much time establishing the typecast teens, the plot tends towards focusing more on Will and his companions’ boarding school type dramas than on a war threatening their very world, complete with a very sweet but rather predictable “boy stands up to bullies” scene.  

The prologue hints at the emergence of a force of monsters about to be unleashed on the world but it’s not actually until the story is drawing to a close that the action kicks in. I think roughly 175-200 pages in out of 281. I’ve read somewhere (*cough*Wikipedia*cough*)  that these books started out life as short series that Flanagan wrote to inspire his son to read.  For that, they are, like I mentioned earlier, perfect.  

As the centre of the story, Will is a nice enough character but comes across as significantly younger than 15, so far as my limited knowledge of 15-year-olds goes. I would have found the whole premise a lot more believable if he had been 12 or 13.  I’ll admit that I’ve never had the experience of being an orphaned child (fortunately!) but Will clings to the idea that the father he never knew was a great knight with a fervour that was unrealistic for a boy in his late teens. When it comes down to it, this book is simply just aimed too low age-wise for me.  I know that if it had been published when I was younger, I would have adored it, bought the whole series and devoured each and every one of them.  Sadly, it didn’t jump the gap from children’s literature to children’s literature that adults can appreciate particularly well.

Overall:  This book reads very much as a set-up for the series. A short, snappy read so one I’d recommend either for a sunny afternoon read where you want to rest your brain or for younger readers.  If you know any young boys that either love to read or just haven’t found “that book” yet, you could do much, much worse than give them this.  

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Date finished:  22 March 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  BookMooch
Genre:  YA/Childrens; Fantasy; Adventure
Published: by Puffin in June 2006

Review: ‘Pure’ by Julianna Baggott

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis


We know you are here, our brothers and sisters . . . 


Pressia barely remembers the Detonations or much about life during the Before. In her sleeping cabinet behind the rubble of an old barbershop where she lives with her grandfather, she thinks about what is lost-how the world went from amusement parks, movie theaters, birthday parties, fathers and mothers . . . to ash and dust, scars, permanent burns, and fused, damaged bodies. And now, at an age when everyone is required to turn themselves over to the militia to either be trained as a soldier or, if they are too damaged and weak, to be used as live targets, Pressia can no longer pretend to be small. Pressia is on the run. 

Burn a Pure and Breathe the Ash . . . 

Review

The book blogosphere seems to be lighting up with apocalyptic explosions and revelling in the aftermath at the moment.  After reading the amazing Divergent by Veronica Roth, I started keeping one eye on the many emerging dystopian tales, in case something equally amazing that I could devour and then rave about.

Along came Pure; dystopian fiction the adult way.  I’ve seen whisperings that this book is intended to straddle the YA/Adult divide.  For me, this was well and truly in the grown-up camp.  The world is bleak and the story is tragic and barbaric, not to mention gory.  

Most of the survivors of the Detonations have horrific burn scars or have been ‘fused’ with items or creatures that they were holding or near at the time.  Pressia was holding her doll at the time of the Detonation and now lives with her doll’s head for a hand while Bradwell (who was running through a field) has birds embedded in his back.  Seriously dark stuff but morbidly clever. There are a whole army of novels that focus on the cleaner side of world-changing disasters, whether its years down the line after the dust has settled and society re-established or by looking inside the Dome at how that society should be rebuilt.  The idea that society might still exist, albeit damaged almost beyond recognition, is original and chilling.  Maybe that’s why I resented the chapters where I was forced to follow Lyra (a Pure) in the Dome.  The sterilised world interrupted the atmosphere that had gradually been built and, despite being a remarkable contrast, slowed the pace even further.  

The images that were so unique at the beginning soon became laboured. Every time a new character or set of characters are introduced, they are accompanied by a graphic account of their various mutations.  Objectively, I could see that the survivors are defined by their scars and ‘wear them’ as badges of honour, marks of their will to endure. Subjectively, I started to see it as gratuitous.  The descriptions are increasingly terrible and have a whiff of shock tactics lingering about them.  One particular group of women are fused to the babies that they were trying to protect during the Detonations.  So, yes, it’s clever but it’s also emotionally draining and hard to read.  A job well done for Ms Baggott, I suppose. 

The characters are strange.  Pressia is determined, strong, intelligent and fiercely loyal.  I should have adored her.  Similarly Partridge, running from the Dome and in search of family, is disarmingly innocent and charming and I wanted to like him.  The problem is that the characters are lost in the midst of the horror and dirt of the world they inhabit and it’s hard to bond with them and, ultimately, care about their fates.  The constantly switching narrative is probably also partly to blame for the general feeling of detachment.  Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective, including Pressia, Partridge and Lyra to name but a few.  It’s good to see the world from a number of views but it’s hard to build a relationship with a narrator that you might not hear from for another 100 pages.  

Despite not enjoying reading Pure that much, I can appreciate that it was beautifully written.  Baggott’s ability to design and describe a broken world is immense and her descriptions are stunning.  Devastatingly so.  If you do read this and are feeling resilient, there are some great passages.

After a dramatic start, this book became a serious slog. It’s crazy that a book so arguably action-packed could seem so slow and be such terribly hard work.  And yet, after 100 pages or so, every time I picked it up it was just to get it read, rather than to enjoy reading it.  I kept hoping that I would pass a point where I would be swept into the story and get carried through to the end.  Sadly, I never found that point.  For that reason, and despite all of its virtues, I would only really recommend this to someone with the time to amble their way through a horrifying vision of a world almost without humanity.  If you’re looking for a fast-paced read, this one certainly isn’t for you.

Overall:  This seems to be a book that you either love or hate and I’ve read as many positive reviews as I have negative.  For me, it was a brilliant idea executed in a style that didn’t seem to fit its subject matter.  Elegantly told but somewhat excruciating to read (for more than one reason) and part of a series I can’t see myself reading any more of.

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Date finished:  16 January 2012
Format:  eBook
Source:  NetGalley
Genre:  Dystopian fiction
Published: by Grand Central Publishing in February 2012