Category: 4.5 stars

Review: ‘Dust and Shadow’ by Lyndsay Faye

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

As England’s greatest specialist in criminal detection, Sherlock Holmes is unwavering in his quest to capture the killer responsible for terrifying London’s East End. He hires an “unfortunate” known as Mary Ann Monk, the friend of a fellow streetwalker who was one of the Ripper’s earliest victims; and he relies heavily on the steadfast and devoted Dr. John H. Watson. When Holmes himself is wounded in Whitechapel during an attempt to catch the savage monster, the popular press launches an investigation of its own, questioning the great detective’s role in the very crimes he is so fervently struggling to prevent. Stripped of his credibility, Holmes is left with no choice but to break every rule in the desperate race to find the madman known as “the Knife” before it is too late.

I really loved Jane Steele when I read it over summer and I immediately hopped onto the internet after finishing it to buy something else by Lyndsay Faye.  Not wanting to leap straight into a series, I plumped for this standalone, which also happens to by Faye’s debut.  The idea also seemed right up my street – a take on Sherlock Holmes that sees the detective and Dr Watson take on the case of Jack the Ripper.  There’s something about Jack the Ripper’s crimes that I find morbidly fascinating, which is odd for someone as averse to horror as I usually am!  I don’t know if it’s because the culprit was never really found and there’s a legal conundrum feel to it or if it’s just because the crimes were so distinctly horrific.  I’m also a big Sherlock Holmes fan so, after thinking that maybe Lyndsay Faye’s writing was worth trusting, I really wanted to read this book.
One obvious potential for downfall that I had reservations about the whole way through was how the story was going to wrap up.  Given that it is in part based on historical fact and Jack the Ripper was never officially identified, I was worried that either the story wouldn’t resolve properly (and then wouldn’t fit with the picture of the Sherlock Holmes that we all know and love) or that it would resolve too well (and then wouldn’t fit with history).  If you do pick this up, worry not!  The novel blends the elements of truth seamlessly with the elements of fiction, filling in the gaps in the “story” of Jack the Ripper in a way that makes so much sense, it was tricky to work out what was real and what wasn’t!  The ending is absolutely spot on and I actually went to the trouble of explaining just why it was so perfect to my non-reader (and non-interested!) boyfriend.  I wish there was a TV/film adaptation.
There are plenty of takes on Sherlock Holmes out there and although I’m a complete sucker for them, I know that there may well be potential readers out there wondering why on earth they should bother with yet another one.  I’ve read a few authors’ takes on the classics and this is easily and definitely the best.  If you have been burnt by some less-than-faithful works in the past, please suspend your scepticism and read this one.  The tone of Dr Watson’s narrative, the dialogue and the humour, the Victorian atmosphere and the mystique of the popular detective are all much more faithfully recreated than in any of the other modern versions that I’ve read.  Maybe because the facts of the case are also accurately Victorian and have a very…well, to be honest medieval feel to them but obviously that’s inaccurate so I’ll go with “old-fashioned” or something of that ilk.
It’s bloody good is what I’m saying (pun not intended but appropriate enough that it can stay).  I don’t have any complaints but I personally don’t feel as though a book that relies so heavily on an established set of characters and established writing style can have five stars (even where the rendering of those characters is as good as this is).  If you like Sherlock Holmes, I can’t see how you could fail to like this.
Overall:  This book is a perfect autumn/winter read – it’s oppressive and full of darkness and tension (and yes, fog!).  It’s not cosy or comforting, obviously, but it is a genuinely gripping story that will help you wile away some of the gloomier evenings.  If Faye had written any more takes on Holmes, I’d read them without hesitation.  As it is, I’ll take this one shining example of historical mystery done well and count myself lucky.  Now on to her other books…
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Date finished: 30 October 2016
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: Detective/mystery
Pictured Edition Published: in April 2015 by Simon & Schuster
Buy your own copy (affiliate links):  Amazon  |  Wordery

Amy Poehler’s ‘Yes Please’: Audiobook v. Paperback


It’s called Yes Please because it is the constant struggle and often the right answer. Can we figure out what we want, ask for it, and stop talking? Yes please. Is being vulnerable a power position? Yes please. Am I allowed to take up space? Yes please. Would you like to be left alone? Yes please. I love saying “yes” and I love saying “please.” Saying “yes” doesn’t mean I don’t know how to say no, and saying “please” doesn’t mean I am waiting for permission. “Yes please” sounds powerful and concise. It’s a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman. It’s also a title I can tell my kids. I like when they say “Yes please” because most people are rude and nice manners are the secret keys to the universe.

Full disclosure up front:  I love Amy Poehler.  I love her for Parks and Recreation.  I love her for being best friends with Tina Fey and proving that being a successful lady doesn’t mean treading on or dragging down every other woman you meet.  Obviously, I also love her for just generally making me laugh and for proving that women are funny.

Now that I’ve read/listened to her autobiography, I love her for so many more reasons.  I feel as though it’s important that you know all of that before you carry on with this review because there’ll be very little moaning in this post and a whole lot of gushing.
I don’t read a lot of autobiographies, largely because there are very few ‘celebrities’ whose lives or opinions I care about.  Since I started this blog, I’ve read five including this one.  Of those five, four have been by people known for being funny (Michael McIntyre, Caitlin Moran, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler).  I think because my primary focus isn’t necessarily to find out about someone’s life story but read something entertaining.

If you’re already an Amy Poehler fan, you’ll love this book.  Honestly, though, even if you don’t know much about her work, I’m pretty sure you’ll still really like Yes Please.  I’m not It’s funny (unsurprisingly) but it’s also quirky and creative.  It has random poems and snippets of writing on all kinds of topics that I loved.  The writing is relaxed and chatty.  It fires off on tangents much like you do when you’re chatting with friends.  Actually, no.  It felt like chatting with a familiar older (although admittedly not that much older) relative.  There are snippets on how to be great at just being a woman (there’s a really great section on how women need to learn to be less judgey and live by the phrase “Great for her! Not for me”) and on how to live well and happily that manage to still seem fresh and funny, never patronising or worn.

Treat your career like a bad boyfriend. Here’s the thing. Your career won’t take care of you. It won’t call you back or introduce you to its parents.Your career will openly flirt with other people while you are around. It will forget you birthday and wreck your car. Your career will blow you off if you call it too much. It’s never going to leave its wife. Your career is fucking other people and everyone knows but you. Your career will never marry you. (…) If your career is a bad boyfriend, it is healthy to remember you can always leave and go sleep with somebody else

I whole-heartedly recommend it.  So which version should you be hunting down?

The Paperback

I started out reading the paperback, which I bought pretty much as soon as it was released.  I really wanted to read Poehler’s writing but I hate hardbacks.

The paperback is a lot of fun.  It’s packed full of photographs from Amy Poehler’s life, copies of letters and scribbled notes and generally has a scrapbook feel to it.  It’s bright and the presentation style fits perfectly with the writing style.

My main gripe with the paperback, though, is how it feels.  I know that sounds ridiculous but I really didn’t like the finish on the cover and the feel of the pages.  They’re glossy and look good but they feel terrible.  Especially if you accidentally happen to catch one with your nail and it makes a squeaky noise that made me entire body want to curl in on itself, not dissimilar to the feeling catching your nail on some dried paint or a blackboard.

To sum up: looks great, feels gross.

The Audiobook

Out of the two versions I own, it’s the audiobook that I’d recommend the most.  It’s mostly read by Amy Poehler but has a ton of appearances from people who have written chapters for the book (including Michael Schur, who is a writer on Parks and Recreation and Amy Poehler’s parents) or other actors (Patrick Stewart’s cameos are particularly hilarious).  It sounds gimmicky or gratuitous but because the writing isn’t linear, it works.

The last chapter is a live recording of Amy Poehler reading aloud to an audience at a theatre and it worked so brilliantly.  It’s impossible to listen to this and get bored; there’s always someone or something new to keep your attention.

I listened to it while driving and I adored it.  If you listen to audiobooks, I absolutely recommend it.  If you’ve wanted to try audiobooks but haven’t been sure where to start, this is a TERRIFIC choice.

Overall:  I loved both the auiobook and the paperback but it was the audiobook that I preferred.  I’m glad that I own both because I do think that they both offer something unique but it’s the audiobook that I think I’m likely to revisit.

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Date finished: 07 January 2016
Format: Audiobook; Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: Autobiography; Humour
Pictured Edition Published: by Dey Street Books in October 2015

Review: ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson

Rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, she finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here is Kate Atkinson at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.
Review
When Life After Life was published, it was one of those books that seemed like it was absolutely everywhere. I’ve never read anything by Kate Atkinson but I love novels that play around with time and/or have any kind of non-linear narrative so it was high on my wishlist for the beginning of 2013. As with so many books that are first released in hardback, I eagerly awaited the release of the paperback before proceeding to forget completely how badly I’d wanted to read it. When I saw it on offer on my Kindle while I was playing about at Christmas time, I went straight back to being desperate to read it. It may have taken me a year to get to it but I’m so glad I finally read it.

I’ll give you a clue about where this is going: I really, really liked Life After Life. The writing is just fabulous, the characters feel real and there will almost certainly be at least one that you fall in love with, the idea of multiple lives is well-handled and deftly done and it’s a wonderful work of historical fiction to boot. For a book that has quite a tangled plot (or many tangled plots) and that touches on some genuinely fascinating angles on questions of how much of what we become is what we are and how much of what we become is what we’ve been through.  Nature v. nurture, if you will.
It’s easy to read and never feels stodgy or over-worked but it also manages to be extremely clever and packed full of things to ponder.  Think about it too much and it might actually cripple your decision-making abilities – what if a decision to walk instead of drive is one of those moments that decides whether you will meet the love of your life and live happily ever after or whether you will never meet them and be destined for a life of loneliness? There are a few pivotal moments in Ursula’s life that we see again and again with varying consequences.  Sometimes the choices she makes change the lives of others, sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes she has a sense that a moment is key and that there is something she can cause or avoid, sometimes she doesn’t.  It makes the thread of the book almost impossible to predict (and, at times, follow) but there’s more than enough that’s common to keep you grounded and invested in the story generally.  I adored Pamela and Hugh, Ursula’s sister and father, every time and I never understood (or liked) Maurice, Ursula’s brother.  Her mother and other siblings are more changeable and there are a whole host of friends and lovers that she knows and loves and never  meets depending upon her earlier experiences.  Honestly, I sort of thought that the shifting might be gimicky but I couldn’t get enough of it.  After each of Ursula’s deaths, going back over her earlier years was like a puzzle.  Is it even possible for her to make every decision in just the right way and live perfectly, protecting everybody that she cares about in the process?  Especially tricky when you may not even care about the same people the next time around.  Almost as tricky as explaining how intelligent and fantastic this book is.

One of my favourite things about Life After Life was one that I didn’t even know to expect. It might have occurred to me if I’d taken five minutes to think about it but the story starts in 1910, meaning that you get a range of takes on both World Wars, World War One from the perspective of Ursula as a child and the Second World War from adult Ursula’s perspective.  Going through a range of lives gives readers the chance to see a range of angles of both wars through the eyes of a familiar character.  Whether it’s living behind enemy lines in Berlin or working as an Air Raid Warden, each thread felt as real as the one before it 
I’m not quite sure what stops this being a five star, rave review but I think perhaps it was that there were times that I felt as though I didn’t have a clue what I was reading about. I know I’ve mentioned it before but Atkinson’s writing is genuinely terrific and it easily carried me through the times when I was scrambling to work out what had changed and why but the fact remains that I wanted a little bit more of a lead-in when we were back to World War II, for example.  Ursula contributes to the British war effort in a number of different ways but it was sometimes distracting that I was half-concentrating on reading about the traumas of surviving an air raid in a cellar and half-concentrating on where characters that had been present the first time around had gone.  A small point but one that I did find a bit disorientating, particularly when it took a while for it to become clear what was happening and what had changed.
When I first sat down to write this review, I thought that I wanted to talk about how I wasn’t that sure about the ending. The more I think about it, though, the more I realise that it was sort of perfect. It makes a strange kind of sense, even though my initial reaction was that the story just stopped and left me feeling a bit cheated. Now I’ve had enough time to realise that there was really no other way to finish a story that twisted and turned in on itself about fifty times than with something slightly cryptic. From a quick scout around the internet, the ending means something slightly different to each reader and I wish I’d had the chance to read this book for a book club or something because when I finished, I was dying to talk to somebody about it.  If you could read it so that I can talk to you about it, that would be great. I promise that you won’t regret it.
Overall: One of those books that has plenty to enjoy and that I am sure would give more on a re-read.  The more I think about it, the more I love it.  It’s one of the most unique books that I’ve read in a good few years and one that pulls off being unique without being gimmicky.  If you’re at all a fan of historical fiction or just fancy something a bit different from your literary fiction this year, read Life After Life.  It’s as good as (almost) everybody was saying last year.
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Date finished: 19 January 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Bought
Genre: Literary fiction; Historical fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Doubleday in March 2013

Review: ‘Dark Places’ by Gillian Flynn

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” As her family lay dying, little Libby fled their tiny farmhouse into the freezing January snow. She lost some fingers and toes, but she survived–and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, Ben sits in prison, and troubled Libby lives off the dregs of a trust created by well-wishers who’ve long forgotten her.

The Kill Club is a macabre secret society obsessed with notorious crimes. When they locate Libby and pump her for details–proof they hope may free Ben–Libby hatches a plan to profit off her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club… and maybe she’ll admit her testimony wasn’t so solid after all.

Review

What is it with Gillian Flynn writing books I love about people I hate?!  When I read Gone Girl earlier in the year (review here), I was taken aback by how obsessed with a book I could be when it required me to spend time amongst characters that I would want nowhere near me in real life.  Dark Places gave me exactly the same feeling; a feeling in my gut that everything was wrong but that putting the book down would be even worse.

Libby Day is the survivor of an attack that saw her mother and two sisters murdered, apparently by her brother Ben.  Rightly so, probably, Libby isn’t exactly a well-rounded and balanced lady.  Living off the tail-end of donations made by the public in the wake of the family tragedy that have meant that she’s never had to work a day in her life, Libby is self-centred, morbid, socially awkward and struggling with depression. Descriptions of characters don’t get much more accurate than Libby’s description of herself on the first page:

I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.  Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.  It’s the Day blood.  Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders…I was not a lovable child and I’d grown into a deeply unlovable adult.  Draw a picture of my soul and it would be a scribble with fangs”

The strange thing is, though, even while I was repulsed by some of her actions and found her maddening at times, it seemed to fit. I would rather spend time with a character that really does feel like the product of her circumstances than someone who is pleasant and delicate in spite of having a quite obviously traumatic past.  Libby does develop as a character but in a way that is so painfully realistic that I ached for her to find any kind of resolution.  Because this book isn’t only about who killed the Day family.  It is about that but it’s also about trauma, depression, guilt, trust and recovery.  It’s unbelievably compelling reading as a mystery but it’s also utterly devastating as a story about a family’s final few hours.

Aside from Libby, I also really liked the portrayal of Ben.  Believed by a group of crime groupies to be wrongly convicted, there’s a whiff of martyr about Ben occasionally, which I would usually find a bit irritating.  What’s clever (and kept me guessing for most of the book) though is the marked difference between the incarcerated Ben of the present day and the unruly teen of twenty-five years earlier.  I’d read all day about miscarriages of justice without batting an eye but what really kept me glued to this book was that I had no clue whether Ben was guilty or not.

Dark Places shifts perspectives for each chapter, with the narrative alternating between Libby in the present day and various members of her family twenty-five years earlier.  I’m not always sold on mixing up timelines and narrators but Flynn manages it perfectly.  The narrative set in the past moves along at just the right rate to stop the slightly dawdling narrative in the present day from getting stale or from ploughing on through too many hints at the past without delivering the goods.  Discovering the truth “as it happens” in the past also removes the need for any awkward turn around from Libby and her inclination towards repression and avoidance.

I read about two thirds of this while waiting for and travelling on various modes of transport on our way back to the UK from the US and the last third or so curled up on my sofa a little while after we’d got back.  The revelations come at just the right pace and whenever I thought I had a handle on what was happening, I was shown just how wrong I was not long after.  I don’t know what it is but there’s something about the way Flynn spins out a mystery that I just find incredibly difficult to disentangle myself from.

Overall:  If you’re one of those readers that might say anything of the “I didn’t like x because I just hated the characters” ilk, this probably isn’t a book for you – the people are vile.  If you can get past that and you’ve either heard about Gone Girl and want to try something by Gillian Flynn that isn’t labouring under months of hype or have read Gone Girl and are wondering if Flynn’s other novels will compare, Dark Places is definitely, definitely worth a few hours of feverish page turning one gloomy evening.

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Date finished:  11 October 2013
Format:  eBook
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Thriller; Mystery
Pictured Edition Published: by Phoenix in June 2010

Review: ‘Perfect’ by Rachel Joyce

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
In 1972, two seconds were added to time. It was in order to balance clock time with the movement of the earth. Byron Hemming knew this because James Lowe had told him and James was the cleverest boy at school. But how could time change? The steady movement of hands around a clock was as certain as their golden futures.
Then Byron’s mother, late for the school run, makes a devastating mistake. Byron’s perfect world is shattered. Were those two extra seconds to blame? Can what follows ever be set right?
Review
The end of the year is closing in and I’m still super behind on reviews so I’m now frantically scrabbling back through my recently read books list to pick out my favourites and make sure they get proper attention before I go off merrily into 2014 and forget all about them. It’s been a good few months in reading terms so there are plenty of fantastic books to choose from. Perfect easily made the cut.
The story follows Byron in the lead up to and wake of the addition of two seconds. At first, I was convinced that as well as obviously highlighting the pursuit of perfection, this was also about the tragedy of coincidence. Two seconds earlier (or “two seconds less”, I suppose, depending upon how you look at it) and Byron’s mother might not have made the mistake that brought Beverley, local Council estate resident, crashing into their lives, bringing turmoil with her. And it is about those things but it’s also about class, growing up and mental illness.
Byron and his mother are “upper class”. I was worried at first that tackling class issues would make the book clumsy but using Byron as the narrator actually works. Writing a novel from the perspective of a child is a tricky business. A lot of the time you end up either with a child that occasionally speaks with the voice of an adult or a story that is stunted by being limited to the experiences and perceptions of a young person. I can only think of Room by Emma Donoghue (review here) off the top of my head where the device really added something to the story. With Perfect, Joyce manages to strike just the right balance between childish naivety and observation so that it’s painfully obvious to readers that his mother is struggling to maintain the “perfect” veneer that she has worked so hard to establish and that she is being mercilessly manipulated by her new “friend” Beverley. Byron doesn’t pick up on the nuances of behaviour and language that suggest one class rather than another but his accurate observations make understanding the other characters more than he does easy. There were one or two moments where I was a little annoyed by everybody’s blindness but they were few and far between and I wouldn’t say that it spoilt much for me. I was more or less happy to put their ignorance down to wilful head-turning to avoid noticing the dark spot on their otherwise perfect lives, though, and was enjoying the juxtaposition of Byron’s elegant, repressed mother and the brassy, oh-so working class Beverley as seen through the eyes of a sensitive child too much to really care.

As always with a split narrative, I preferred one strand to the other. That isn’t to say that one was stronger than the other; just that, for me, the stand out chapters were Jim’s. They were strengthened by the overall story but I could have read a book just about Jim. Jim has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and sees everything against the backdrop of his routine. The characters in Perfect feel so alive and have such depth that they’re the kind of characters that you half believe might actually be walking around somewhere. If I could track Jim down and help him, I would. What is really powerful is how Joyce subtly weaves in some devastating indictments on mental health care in the 1970s. Jim is fragile and vulnerable after spending years within various facilities, suffering through treatments that it’s hard to believe were ever thought to be helpful, before being reintegrated into society when his hospital was closed. It does a brilliant job of really highlighting how disorientating that must have been for so many people, particularly those that didn’t have anyone else to turn to for support, and how woefully poor care for those genuinely suffering from debilitating conditions was even in relatively recent times.
But even while I really liked the plot and ideas, it was Joyce’s writing that really has me clamouring to write something (anything!) about this book that might persuade you to pick it up. I’m pretty sure that Rachel Joyce could write a shopping list and it would be wonderful, insightful and would have my heart aching for a happy outcome for…the milk? Ok, let’s stop with the analogy there…There aren’t many authors I’ve come across that can turn looking for something on the pavement into a couple of paragraphs that are so adorably romantic that even after sitting here and having them up on my screen for pretty much the entire time I’ve been writing this review (a while…), I still can’t help but “Awwww” every time I read them (even after omitting the name of the lady in question to avoid spoilers!).

He will not share a lift with [her]. They will not go for a drink. He thinks briefly of how she fell still when she talked about losing things, how she watched and said nothing while Paula shouted. It was like meeting [her] in completely different, light summer clothes.

Jim wonders if she had mislaid something on the pavement after all. And then it occurs to him that if she did, he would like to spend forever finding it” [Page 159, eBook edition]


Overall: A brilliant choice for the run up to Christmas or for buying as a Christmas gift – you might not believe me when you start out (or until the final few chapters, if I’m being honest…) but the ending is just one of those where I’m pretty sure it’s impossible not to close the book and feel all warm inside and teary outside. I own The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and will definitely be reading it if it ever gets unpacked.


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Date finished: 1 September 2013
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley – thank you, Doubleday!
Genre: Literary fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Doubleday in July 2013
Coming up soon in the frantic end of year review scramble: The Humans by Matt Haig; The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence and Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

Historical Fiction Review: ‘The Wild Girl’ by Kate Forsyth

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars


Once there were six sisters. The pretty one, the musical one, the clever one, the helpful one, the young one…and then there was the wild one. 

Dortchen Wild has loved Wilhelm Grimm since she was a young girl. Under the forbidding shadow of her father, the pair meet secretly to piece together a magical fairy tale collection. The story behind the stories of the Brothers Grimm.

Review

I don’t have a clue how I’m going to convey to you how truly wonderful The Wild Girl is so if this degenerates into an incoherent rambling, at least you know that I loved it.  Really loved it.

The first 100 or so pages are a little bit slow and there are a lot of characters to keep track of. Dortchen has five sisters and there are a whole host of Grimms and other characters to keep tabs on.  If you don’t have a reasonable grasp of European History in the early nineteenth century (as I didn’t), getting up to speed on what Napoleon was up to at the time took me a while.  The pace does pick up, though, and somehow, without ever feeling as though I was being lectured or that the story was being interrupted by historical interludes, I came away from reading The Wild Girl feeling as though I was actually no longer completely clueless about Napoleon’s quest for world domination anymore.  A heck of a lot of time must have gone into making this novel so full of detail and atmosphere; a terrific example of how rewarding great historical fiction can be to read.

Now you might think that picking up a book about fairytales would be all whimsy, flowers and friendly woodland creatures.  You’d be wrong.  One of the things that make the Grimm brothers’ fairytales so powerful is their potential to be very dark.  As The Wild Girl follows Wilhelm Grimm while he gathers his collection, there are plenty of nods to traditional story-telling with tales told around flickering fires and across flagons of ale.  Rather than the charming stories of princesses and fairies that many of us will remember from our childhood, these were cautionary tales about the gloomier, more sinister side of humanity.

The Wild Girl echoes the old stories and doesn’t shy away from darkness and really doesn’t pull any punches.  The story is challenging and bleak at times, tackling issues of domestic abuse in a completely unflinching way and exploring the emotional and psychological damage sustained abuse can cause, all while painting a dreary picture of life during war, both for the soldiers that have to do and see such terrible things and for the families that they leave behind. There’s always just a little spark of hope as the characters find solace in sharing stories but this book is by no means an easy ride.  The writing is just perfect and somehow manages to be both unswerving and direct but elegant in its way.  Perhaps its the combination of the harsh reality of living through war and the magic feeling of the fairytales.

What is really clever about The Wild Girl is how its tone always seems to match the mood and experiences of the characters.  There’s a real shift as the hopeful and spirited Dortchen of the earlier chapters is ground down by her miserable home life and her aspirations and dreams fading as she ages.  I didn’t even realise how deftly my emotions were being manipulated until I reached the last hundred pages or so.  I flew through them in a blur, gripping my book ridiculously tightly, stomach clenched and eyes brimming with tears.  I so badly wanted everything…even just something to work out for Dortchen that my heart hurt.  

I could go on and on about how much I loved Dortchen, how even relatively insignificant parts of the story were lavished with care and attention (like Herr Wild’s “medical practice”) and how much I adored Wilhelm Grimm and his family and some of Dortchen’s sisters (the musical one and the clever one being my personal favourites).  Instead, I’ll just say that this book is very powerful and so, so completely fabulous and you must read it.  Really, you must.

Overall:  I can’t recommend The Wild Girl enough.  A gut-wrenching read of the best kind and one that had me hankering to pull out my own collection of the Grimms’ fairytales and get lost in their peculiar brand of macabreness.   Perfect for an Autumn evening tucked up by the fire, you need a copy of this book.

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Date finished:  05 August 2013
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Received from the publisher via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours in exchange for an honest review
Genre:  Historical fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Allison & Busby on 22 July 2013

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Review: ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet

Rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

Everyone has heard of Reinhard Heydrich, “the Butcher of Prague.” And most have heard stories of his spectacular assassination at the hands of two Czechoslovakian partisans. But who exactly were the forgotten heroes who killed one of history’s most notorious men? 

In Laurent Binet’s captivating debut novel, HHhH (Himmlers Hirn heiBt Heydrich, or Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich), we follow the lives of Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubiš, the Slovak and the Czech responsible for Heydrich’s death. From their heroic escape from Nazi-occupied Prague to their recruitment by the British secret services; from their meticulous preparation and training to their harrowing parachute drop into a war zone; from their stealth attack on Heydrich’s car to their own brutal deaths in the basement of a Prague church, Binet narrates the compelling story of these two incredible men, rescuing their heroic acts from obscurity.

Review

“When I watch the news, when I read the paper, when I meet people, when I hang out with friends and acquaintances, when I see how each of us struggles, as best we can, through life’s absurd meanderings, I think that the world is ridiculous, moving and cruel.  The same is true for this book: the story is cruel, the protagonists are moving, and I am ridiculous”  [Chapter 251, Vintage paperback]

Oh my goodness, this book.  This book broke my heart and is what all non-fiction should be like.

I haven’t read much non-fiction at all in recent years because I do a lot of it during my day job.  It turns out that well-written non-fiction is a whole different world to legal journals…who knew?  There’s such passion in Binet’s writing that it shines off the pages and is impossible to resist.

A slightly unusual blend of narrative styles, reading HHhH is a little like wandering around a museum with a knowledgeable guide: there’s a relaxed, almost chatty tone as Binet talks you through the “rise” of Reinhard Heydrich and the training of Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubiš as his to-be assassins but with plenty of tangents as Binet gets side-tracked by another anecdote or gets so caught up in the telling of the story that he dawdles off into the background of people involved.  There’s one anecdote that has really stuck with me about a Ukrainian football team pitted against a German team.  After refusing to start proceedings by saluting with a sturdy ‘Heil Hitler!’, the Ukrainian team went on to commit a grievous insult and actually win the match 5-1.  After strengthening their team with professional football players from Berlin, the Luftwaffe went on to lose the return fixture 5-3.  During the rush on the pitch after the match, much of the Ukrainian team disappeared and were never seen again, with the captain allegedly being executed while shouting, “Communist sport will never die!”.  The closing line to this anecdote reads, “I’m worried that there are some errors in what I’ve written: since this subject has no direct link with Heydrich, I haven’t had time to investigate more deeply.  But I didn’t want to write about Kiev without mentioning this incredible story”.  Like I said, very much like talking with a friend around and about a beloved topic.

I’ve written before about how I find the sheer scale of World War II utterly incomprehensible and this another superb book for bringing to the fore some of the many, many instances of bravery and tragedy.  Only this time, they’re real.  Heart-breaking in fiction, the non-fiction is all the more devastating.  I’m always amazed and inspired by the courage shown by “ordinary” people during war time.  Gabcik and Kubiš were astoundingly brave but they were supported by any number of equally courageous people that risked life and limb (and their family’s lives and limbs, incidentally) to offer shelter, food and local support.  There’s no way to describe how much I admired the people that I read about in this book.  ‘Admiration’ is even too weak a word…

HHhH reads almost like fiction: I felt gripped by the pages and my chest hurt with how desperately I wanted Heydrich’s nemeses to win through.  The problem with non-fiction, of course, is that the author can’t decide how their subjects’ lives pan out.  I was so caught up in Binet’s account of Gabcik and Kubiš (and so remiss in my WWII history) that I actually had to go and research the story so that I could relax and absorb the detail. 

My only slight reservation (that stops this book being a glowing five stars) was that the line between fiction and non-fiction wasn’t always solid.  I’ve already said that I loved the writing style but there were occasions where I would read a few chapters only to turn the page and read, “I made that up…but wouldn’t that have been perfect?”.  I didn’t mind where the upshot was that dialogue had been added in to flesh out an account of a real event but I was a little disconcerted when it turned out that an event I had just been tearing-up or gawping over turned out to be almost made up.  Still, I half think that the point of reading non-fiction is for that moment where you really get caught up in a topic and wander off to do your own digging so it was a feature I could tolerate well enough.

Overall:  If you have even the remotest interest in the history of World War II, you really must pick up HHhH.  If you are looking for a meticulously told and laid out historical account of Heydrich’s life and demise, you might be disappointed. If you’re looking for something a little more relaxed and focussed on the human side of WWII, I honestly haven’t read a book that I would recommend more.  Such a wonderful, wonderful book that I will read again and again.

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Date finished:  24 March 2013
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Non-fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Vintage in January 2013

Review: ‘The Penelopiad’ by Margaret Atwood

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars


“In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope – wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy – is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumors, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and – curiously – twelve of her maids.” 

In a contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids, asking: “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?” In Atwood’s playful retelling, the story becomes as wise and compassionate as it is haunting, and as wildly entertaining as it is disturbing.

Review

I kind of hate it when I come across a synopsis that so perfectly describes a book because I then try in vain for ages trying to come up with something better.  Or even as good.  Wise, compassionate, haunting, wildly entertaining and disturbing.  The Penelopiad really is all of those things at the same time and it’s a heady mix.

I originally ‘picked up’ (i.e. loaded up on my eReader) The Penelopiad because it combined two of my favourite bookish things of 2013 so far:  Margaret Atwood and twists on Greek mythology.  It turned out to be a riot of literary forms, styles and techniques and has firmly cemented Margaret Atwood onto my list of favourite authors.

Telling the story of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, this glorious novel moves from verse to prose, Ancient Greece to the modern day and from comedy to pathos without ever feeling scattered or disjointed.  In some ways, it’s more like a collection of short works of fiction on a common theme, tied together by a single voice.  There were styles and sections that I preferred to others (as with any collection of short stories and the like) – generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of poetry so, although I actually did find the verse/song sections more enjoyable than I expected, I still preferred the prose.

Penelope’s perspective of Odysseus’ questing and Helen of Troy’s beauty is witty, self-deprecating and really very entertaining.  After years spent in her cousin’s shadow and playing second fiddle to her husband’s love of a good war, she’s wryly bitter:

“If you were a magician, messing around in the dark arts and risking your soul, would you want to conjur up a plain but smart wife who’d been good at weaving and had never transgressed, instead of a woman who’d driven hundreds of men mad with lust and had cause a great city to go up in flames?

Neither would I”

[Page 21 of 119 of my eBook edition]

Still suffering from unfavourable comparisons in the underworld, Penelope is sarcastic, biting and funny.  I really loved her and was dying to drag her off the pages, listen to her rant about her wayward husband and the nastiness of men in general and then give her a big hug. I know that it’s supposed to be the ‘lowest form of wit’ and all but I will always love characters who are liberal with the sarcasm.  The sarkier the better, to be honest.

There’s really not much more to say really.  A feminist view on a classic myth with a hefty dose of snark.  I’ve read some reviews that dismiss the book as too much of a mish-mash of styles or as somehow unfaithful to the myth on which it is based.  I couldn’t disagree more; The Penelopiad is almost a companion to the original, breathing life into those that were left behind while their husbands were off battling for a golden fleece or trying to outsmart a cyclops or two.  Cracking stuff.
Overall:  I know it’s a cliché but here it’s true – there really is something for everyone.  It’s a quick read (the eBook is 119 pages) but has plenty to keep you interested with a plethora of clever turns of phrase and creative spins on a familiar story that make it prime for re-reading.  Highly, highly recommended and part of a set of twists on myths (Canongate myths) that I can’t wait to explore more.
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Date finished:  12 February 2013
Format:  eBook
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Literary fiction; Fantasy fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Canongate books in 2006

Review: ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love. With his twin sister, Margo, at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn’t do it, where is that beautiful wife? And what was in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?

Review

Back in April 2011, I read The Trespass by Rose Tremain and remember thinking that for a book full of characters I hated, I’d enjoyed it a surprising amount.  Gone Girl is the new winner of my Favourite Book Featuring Hateful People award.

Nick is apparently a handsome, down on his luck sort of chap who lost his job as a writer because of the evil Internet and is living out some kind of manly fantasy by running a bar with his twin sister, Margo (‘Go’).  I really disliked him but couldn’t quite put my finger on why.  Sure, he’s whiny and too quick to blame almost everybody else for his problems, seems to feel that he is for some reason entitled to more than those around him and ridiculously ignorant of how his actions/comments will be perceived.  But then, his wife has just disappeared under seemingly violent circumstances so I felt as though I should be giving him a bit of a break.

So the first part of the book follows Nick as he blunders his way through being investigated by the local police as the main suspect for the murder of Amy, his apparently beautiful, charming and devoted wife, while also letting us get to know Amy through her diary.  By itself, that part is good as far as your average ‘Did he? Didn’t he?’ type mystery goes.  It’s the second half that makes Gone Girl stand out.  It’s rare that a book completely blind-sides you, I think, but this is unlike much else that I’ve read before and ridiculously hard to describe to anyone.  I leant my copy to a friend at work (who has incidentally destroyed the poor thing) and after mumbling at her for a bit just had to say, “Just trust me and read it and then you’ll know why I’m recommending it”…It’s definitely chilling, just not in a turn-on-all-the-lights kind of way.  More just a pervasive sense that things aren’t…right and a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I got back to reading.  Except in a good way.  Kind of.

I suppose what it comes down to is that everything is just so bloody clever.  The plot weaves around, about and back on itself so perfectly that by the end, I didn’t have any idea what I wanted from the ending.  With most books, you know who and what you’re rooting for.  With Gone Girl, I hadn’t a clue.  I didn’t know who I liked, what I wanted to happen to them, who I wanted embroiled in whatever was going on or who I wanted to stay relatively clear of blame.  I do know now, however, that the ending I got was the one I didn’t know I wanted and was pretty perfect.  I can imagine it not being wildly popular but I loved it.

Impossible though it would have been, I kind of wish I’d gone into reading Gone Girl without knowing anything at all.  Which actually has made this review REALLY HARD to write in case when all the hype dies down, someone happens across this review and I do to them what I’m bemoaning myself.  So let’s just say that I wish I’d been able to go into this with a simple recommendation.  As it was, I found myself second-guessing everything even more than I knew that I was supposed to be doing and generally trying to prove to myself that watching back-to-back episodes of CSI with Boyfriend had given me some sleuthing skills.  It hasn’t…

I guess all I can really say is: Just trust me and read it and then you’ll know why I’m recommending it.

Overall:  Disturbing. Full of people you wouldn’t ever want to know, going through things you wouldn’t ever want to go through but almost impossible to put down.  If you want a thriller that will consume you and keep you wrong-footed until the end, Gone Girl is your book.  Just don’t come crying to me if you wind up concerned about the state of humanity or something…

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Date finished:  23 January 2013
buy the book from The Book Depository, free deliveryFormat:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Crime fiction/thriller
Pictured Edition Published: by Phoenix in November 2012

Review: ‘11.22.63’ by Stephen King

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

WHAT IF you could go back in time and change the course of history?
WHAT IF the watershed moment you could change was the JFK assassination? 

11/22/63, the date that Kennedy was shot – unless . . .

King takes his protagonist Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, on a fascinating journey back to the world of 1958 – from a world in 2011 of mobile phones and iPods to a new world of Elvis and JFK, of Plymouth Fury cars and Lindy Hopping, of a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and a beautiful high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, who becomes the love of Jake’s life – a life that transgresses all the normal rules of time.

Review

I bought this eBook quite some time ago when I got a Waterstones gift card for my birthday – I do love a bit of time-travel so I was convinced that I would eventually get to it.  But then one day when I was at work, I got a text from Hanna telling me that I HAD to read this book!  Inevitably, I started reading not long after.


I’m not sure what I expected.  I don’t have a lot of experience of King’s work, largely because I imagine his to be the kind of books that would leave me shaking in a corner and gibbering to myself.  Whatever I was expecting, I wasn’t prepared for 11.22.63 to be so…sensitive.  Sure, there was action and a fair dose of the sinister but there were also devastatingly believable romance and genuinely heart-warming friendships.  Clearly there is a lot more to Stephen King as a writer than I had been giving him credit for.  

As with much historical fiction, I was wary about straying into a period – you either find yourself learning about a whole new period or you end up bemused.  Thankfully, King has assumed no prior knowledge.  His research has obviously been painstakingly carried out and the detail is astounding.  Woven skilfully into Jake’s story are a plethora of historical and political points and anecdotes that enhance the story, rather than diverting from it.  I genuinely feel as though I know a lot more about the period leading up to President Kennedy’s assassination.  It would have been easy to have Jake feign ignorance on the basis that he isn’t from the 50s or 60s but King doesn’t once take the easy road and I have a great deal more respect for him as an author than I did before.

With all the detail floating around, you might think that you’re in for a bit of a stodgy ride.  Not so.  Jake’s story and the stories of those he meets are very personal, moving and gripping and I came to care very much what happened to each and every one of them.  Even the prologue-type section made my heart hurt and brought tears to my eyes. Jake meets a heck of a lot of people on his sojourn into the past and every single one has a place in the overall story.  The kind of characters that you miss when you’ve finished the book.

I think what I was aware of most when I started reading 11.22.63 was how time-travel stories are difficult ones to get right – there are countless things that can go horribly wrong and/or seem ridiculous.  As much time as went into researching the history must have gone into thinking through the implications of Jake’s time travelling.  It’s hard to gush openly about why I thought it was so clever and how much I loved reading about it without getting spoilery so I’ll just say that it’s smart and well done and I didn’t do any eye rolling or thinking of “Pfft – how silly”.

Incidentally, little experience though I have, I’m fairly sure that there are some “rewards” for King’s more loyal fan base.  Some way through the story, Jake finds himself in Derry, a town that has been plagued by a spate of murders seemingly perpetrated by someone or something lurking in the sewers.  I am not (nor will I ever be) an expert on King’s horror novels but I’m fairly sure that there are quite a few references to events from It.  So if you like King and like books where you get to feel like part of the in-crowd, you’ll like this.  But actually, if you like King that much, you’ll probably already have read this…so really this is just to prove that I was awake enough to spot the neat blending than anything else…*shrugs*

Overall:  There is nothing in this book that is out of place.  Nothing at all.  I can only imagine how much work must have gone into writing it but the effect is something really quite extraordinary.  740 pages without one moment where I wanted to hurry things along or one detail that I wasn’t convinced fit?  Masterful.

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Date finished:  20 December 2012
Format:  eBook (740 pages are HEAVY!)
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Science fiction/fantasy; historical fiction
Published (in the UK): by Hodder & Stoughton Limited in November 2011