Category: 5 stars

Review: ‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ by Stuart Turton

Review: ‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ by Stuart Turton

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Somebody’s going to be murdered at the ball tonight. It won’t appear to be a murder and so the murderer won’t be caught. Rectify that injustice and I’ll show you the way out.

It is meant to be a celebration, but it ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed.

But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot. 

The only way to break this cycle is to identify her killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. And someone is desperate to stop him ever escaping Blackheath…

I don’t even know where to start with talking about this book.  I don’t know how to convey just how much I *LOVED* this book without just writing “I LOVED THIS – READ IT” over and over again.  It’s strange to have read a book in February and to be absolutely certain that I’ve finished one of my favourite books of 2018.

On the face of it, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (which we’ll now call Seven Deaths) is a classic, ‘Golden Age’ style mystery with a twist. It’s been published beautifully, with a stunning art deco cover and end papers that map out Blackheath in the style of a Cluedo board.  Right from the off, it sounded good and looked even better. I know that it’s a cliché but it really is so much more than it seems.  It is the story of Aiden Bishop trying to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle but it’s also the story of a relationship between Aiden and the mysterious Anna and it’s about sacrifice and whether it’s worth treading on others to succeed.  It’s truly, truly astonishingly good.

I can sense my memories just out of reach. They have weight and shape, like shrouded furniture in a darkened room. I’ve simply misplaced the light to see them by

I am an absolute sucker for time travel stories but they can be really hit and miss.  Some authors try to dodge the complexities of characters coming across themselves in the past by having them go to any lengths to avoid their earlier selves while others clumsily smush plotlines together, requiring a fairly hefty suspension of disbelief.  Seven Deaths manages to properly take on time travel and win.  As Aiden moves between “hosts”, he encounters future hosts and past ones and the weaving together is so deftly done, I was basically in awe of Stuart Turton the whole time I was reading. There are small oddities that are later revealed to be pivotal moments, all tucked around the tangents of the central mystery that slowly but surely come together.  It’s complicated but I never found it confusing, a wonder in itself with eight versions of Aiden Bishop walking around and crossing paths with each other.

To add some slight balance, I wasn’t 100% convinced by part of the very ending.  Not so much that it in any way detracted from how much I adored this book (which is, of course, wholly and completely) but in a way that did give me a slight pause.  The main elements of the ending are perfect (obviously), there’s just a small bit that wasn’t a little less so compared to everything else. There isn’t a lot more that I can say without spoiling things for you. There were so many twists, moments that genuinely unnerved me and moments that completely blew my mind.  Pure genius.

How lost do you have to be to let the devil lead you home?

Overall:  What else can I say? The plotting is impeccable, the writing is flawless and it’s a beautiful book to own. It’s an absolute masterpiece that I can’t wait to read again one day.  It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a really long time and I can’t imagine reading anything better than it for quite some time. Apparently Turton is currently writing his second book and I will be preordering that as soon as physically possible.  If it’s even half as good as Seven Deaths, I’ll be a happy reader.

Review: ‘Crooked Kingdom’ by Leigh Bardugo

Review: ‘Crooked Kingdom’ by Leigh Bardugo

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


**This is the second book in the Six of Crows duology – so that I can bleat about this to as many people as possible, there aren’t any spoilers in this review for either this or Six of Crows so unless you’re particularly cautious about that type of thing and don’t even want to know which characters are still around in Crooked Kingdom, you’re safe!  If you decide not to read on, please just know this: this is one of the best books I’ve read this year and a new favourite.  The series is a triumph and one that should be held up to the naysayers about how amazing YA fantasy can be when done really, really well.
I really enjoyed Six of Crows when I read it in September last year and it really stuck in my head after I’d finished it (something I find quite rare with YA fantasy).  I decided to make the most of the momentum, ignore the hefty page count of Crooked Kingdom and just read it.  It turned out to be one of my better decisions of the year and I’ve been banging on about it ever since.  Six of Crows is a great book; Crooked Kingdom is just something else.  Outstanding.  I don’t have the words to express just how much I adored this book (although that won’t stop me trying).
The plot carries on almost straight from where Six of Crows left off and the pace is relentless. In the best, dark and brooding kind of way.  The story continues to be told in multiple perspectives, with narratives shifting to keep readers wrong-footed and to disguise those parts of the plot that the reader isn’t privy to.  Not in a way that you notice at the time but in a way that means that when the twist comes, you’re just as stunned as everybody else.  The writing and plotting is so clever and I would absolutely never have guessed that it was written by the same author that penned the Grisha trilogy book that I was so underwhelmed by if I hadn’t known.  I have a lot of respect for Leigh Bardugo for writing a duology and not trying to drag the series out into a trilogy. Both books are tightly put together and nothing feels like filler.  Sure, I wish I’d been able to have more but only because I’m greedy and I loved the books so much.  I’d much rather be left wanting more than have had to tolerate a mediocre middle instalment that watered down this gut-wrenching finale.
And the characters! They’re some of my absolute favourites. Not “for this year” or “for YA”, my actual, all time, Hall of Favourites. Every single one of the main group is unique and is developed in a way that makes absolute perfect sense.  Their flaws are deeply rooted and they aren’t the kind to be cured by a well-timed kiss or a motivational pep-talk.  Kaz Brekker breaks my heart.  Jesper’s battle with a gambling addiction is so well written and his banter with Wylan makes me grin like an idiot.  Inej’s struggles with what she’s had to do to survive are quietly painful.  I hate when I start reading a book full of characters that have darker sides only to find that their quirks are ironed out over the course of the plot.  Not all of the characters got the ending that I so fervently hoped for while I was reading and yet I find that instead of being disappointed, I’m convinced that the endings that Bardugo chose are utter perfection.  I can’t think of a single thing that I would have done differently.  I read the last 150 pages or so in one evening and I must have looked like a complete barmpot clutching the pages ridiculously hard, gasping, laughing and crying to myself.
I didn’t start a new book properly for a good few days after I’d finished this one because I couldn’t shake it off. I didn’t want to read about new characters or fly straight into a new story.  I wanted to wallow in my feelings and cling to these characters. I still do, actually.  Every time I see the book in my living room (I haven’t had the heart to ditch it back onto my ‘Read’ pile upstairs), I’m reminded of how bloody brilliant the whole thing was and how sad it is that I’ll never get to read it for the first time again.  
Only one word of light warning on this one – if you haven’t read the Grisha trilogy yet and do plan to, this book does have a pretty significant spoiler for the ending of that trilogy so you might want to get that finished before you get to this duology. Weirdly, now that I’ve read the ending to the trilogy, I am now tempted to go back and give it another try! 
Overall: I really don’t think that I need to say anything here but honestly and really and truly, this book is so worth your money and your time.  It’s one of the extremely few books that I can genuinely say that I might re-read at some point in the future.  If Leigh Bardugo writes anything else, I’ll be pre-ordering it without a second thought.
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Date finished:  15 December 2016
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: Fantasy fiction; YA
Pictured Edition Published: in September 2016 by Orion Children’s Books
Buy your own copy (affiliate links):  Amazon  |  Wordery

Review: ‘Jane Steele’ by Lyndsay Faye

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Like the heroine of the novel she adores, Jane Steele suffers cruelly at the hands of her aunt and schoolmaster. And like Jane Eyre, they call her wicked – but in her case, she fears the accusation is true. When she flees, she leaves behind the corpses of her tormentors.

A fugitive navigating London’s underbelly, Jane rights wrongs on behalf of the have-nots whilst avoiding the noose. Until an advertisement catches her eye. Her aunt has died and the new master at Highgate House, Mr Thornfield, seeks a governess. Anxious to know if she is Highgate’s true heir, Jane takes the position and is soon caught up in the household’s strange spell. When she falls in love with the mysterious Charles Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma: can she possess him – body, soul and secrets – and what if he discovers her murderous past?

Review

Of all my murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important.  Already this project proves more difficult than I had ever imagined.  Autobiographies depend upon truth; but I have been lying for such a very long, lonesome time” [Page 1]

I think I first heard about Jane Steele on a Book Riot list of upcoming releases to watch out for (which I now can’t find, although it also appears in this list of the Best Books of 2016 so far).  Call me morbid but something about the idea of a stabby Jane Eyre really appealed to me and I ordered a copy from my library pretty much straight away.
I was right to: I absolutely loved it.  I was surprised by just how much, to be honest.  I can see why it might not be quite the thing for you if you’re a complete purist but for me, it was just how I like my re-tellings/adaptations.  Generally, I don’t like ‘adaptations’ of classics that follow the exact same plot but just modernise the language and give characters new names.  If I wanted to read the exact story of Jane Eyre, I’d read Jane Eyre.  I do, however, like takes on classics that follow some of the plot and have a similar feel to them but that do something new and different with the characters or take the original plot and twist it about a bit.
Jane Steele takes Jane Eyre and injects some violence and a few murders; where the original character might have bowed to convention or absorbed maltreatment, Jane Steele takes action.  The book is written as if it’s Jane Steele’s autobiography and she addresses the reader in the same confiding way as her namesake, the cover of the version I read going so far as to play on the iconic ‘Reader, I married him’ with a gaudy ‘Reader, I murdered him’.  The writing style is perfect and it works even when it sounds like it shouldn’t.
What is clever about this version (and what I think stops it from being gimicky) is that Jane Steele acknowledges that she’s a bit of a parody of her literary heroine.  Jane Steele the character loves Jane Eyre the character and her narrative includes wry little references to the original work that stop the similarities feeling trite and over-worked and give a feeling more as though readers are part of an inside joke.

My boundless affection for the protagonist of Jane Eyre has already been established; and yet, I cannot resist stating that she made the most dismal investigator in the history of literature” [Page 210]

For all of its humour and for all that it is a re-telling, I was totally hooked.  It could easily have been a case of style over substance but it had just the right balance between the outline of Jane Eyre’s story and the detail of Jane Steele’s.  Every time I picked up this book, I lost an hour.  I read it in a few sittings and when I finished, I genuinely felt at a loss.  Jane Steele is bloody brilliant, obviously, but so are her fellow pupils at the creepy boarding school and the other residents of Highgate House.  One of my favourite books of the year so far, easily.
Overall:  If you’re a Jane Eyre fan and don’t mind someone taking a few liberties with the story, this book is an absolute must.  It’s appropriately gothic and packed full of nods to the original without being anything like a pointless re-hash.  So. Much. Fun.  I’ve already ordered another of Lyndsay Faye’s books (Sherlock Holmes/Dr Watson take on Jack the Ripper…) and I can’t wait to read more of her work.

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Date finished: 17 July 2016
Format: Paperback
Source: Borrowed from my local library
Genre: Historical fiction
Pictured Edition Published: in March 2016 by Headline Review

Wheel of Time Re-Read #2 and #3: The Great Hunt and Dragon Reborn

I’ve said before that the Wheel of Time series is one that I find it impossible to judge objectively.  It’s the series that made me realise I was a fantasy geek through and through.  It’s the series that out of all of the books I read as a teenager still stands out in my memory.  The reason I started to re-read the series in the first place was that I found that because of the gaps in publication, I became distanced from the story.  I was reading the books occasionally but without a particularly strong memory of the books that had gone before and I was starting to just go through the motions.  This series deserves more than that. 
I’ve kept this review spoiler free but it’s probably the last of these posts that I’ll do that with to avoid them all being variations on the “I read another Wheel of Time book and it was great” theme!
I read The Great Hunt during November last year.  I’ve seen reviews on GoodReads from people who bemoan this book as being weaker than the first.  I’m not just being a gushing fan when I say that I honestly don’t see that.  The world is expanded to include new cities and the cast of main characters is widened.  If there’s some travelling, there isn’t nearly as much as there is in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and there definitely aren’t any rambling songs so I don’t buy that as a major criticism.  There’s political intrigue, plenty of fighting (of the sword and magical variety) and there’s kidnapping and slavery and romance.  Even though I knew what was coming, I was completely sucked in.

The story of this instalment revolves around the Horn of Valere, a mythical object hunted by hundreds of men and women looking for glory that is said to call back dead warriors to fight for whoever blows it.  There are Darkfriends (the bad guys, obviously) hunting for the horn to call heroes of old to fight for the Dark One and our band of village folk turned potential heroes hunting it down to stop that happening.  What’s not to like?!  It’s a good focus for a single book, as well as providing some of the grounding for later books.  If re-reading has shown me one thing, it’s that these books are jammed full of hints and portents about later events and playing spot-the-foreshadow has become a favourite hobby of mine!

The Dragon Reborn was one that I’d remembered as being one of my favourite instalments out of the books that I’ve read so far.  At a mere 674 pages, it’s the shortest book in the series and even by ‘normal book’ standards (as opposed to epic fantasy book standards) is action-packed.  The characters visit new places and there are some (excellent) new additions to the cast but most of the book builds on the solid world building of the first two books and focuses on moving along the plot with some pretty significant twists and turns.  The pacing on this one is spot on so even if you read The Great Hunt and you weren’t 100% sure, I’d really, really urge you to pick this next one up and give it a go.  It introduces the Aiel (a warrior population from the ‘Waste’ (read: big desert)), who I love.  Their ‘Maidens of the Spear’ kick some pretty serious ass and they balance out the otherwise largely silk-dress wearing ladies nicely.

As far as stacking up against my fond memories, goes, The Dragon Reborn surpassed them.  I don’t know if it’s because I’ve read more fantasy in the intervening years or if it’s because I feel such a sense of familiarity when I’m reading them but whatever it is, I absolutely flew through this one while I was reading it.

One thing that I’ll give to the critics is that the writing can be a little dawdling and there are some phrases that you’ll read a few too many times.  I don’t find it to be any more than in any other fantasy series, though, so if you’re used to reading long series, you’ll be fine.

If you haven’t read any of the series yet, I just don’t know what else to tell you other than that, even after all these years, it has a firm place in my heart and I really do believe that it has stood the test of time.  Read it.  If you’ve read The Great Hunt and found it a bit slow-paced, absolutely pick up The Dragon Reborn and give it a try.
I’ll admit that I’m a little wary about The Shadow Rising, which is the next book.  It tops 1,000 pages and I remember it taking me ages to read when I was a teenager so we’ll see if the same is true this time around!
Now, go and read Wheel of Time already, ok?!

Graphic Novel Review: ‘Through the Woods’ by Emily Carroll

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

IT CAME FROM THE WOODS.

Most strange things do. 

Five mysterious, spine-tingling stories follow journeys into (and out of?) the eerie abyss. 

Come, take a walk in the woods, and see what awaits YOU there.


I’d heard an awful lot about this graphic novel even before I started getting into them.  After my success with the first volume of the Fables comic series, Through the Woods was one of the first into my virtual basket when I went on a graphic novel buying binge.  I finally picked it up off the pile one gloomy afternoon and curled up on the sofa under a blanket.  I didn’t move until I’d finished it, slightly wide-eyed.  It was unsettling without being terrifying and had me quietly closing all of the curtains in the house so that I could move about without having to be too menaced by the darkness outside.  I gave it 5 stars without hesitation.  Anything that can be that impactive with so few words deserves all the credit I can give it.
The book’s most obvious virtue is that it’s absolutely stunning.  The cover is eerie and has a raised design that means that it even feels like something that’s crawled out of the woods to haunt you.  The artwork is shadowy and dark and the colours are mostly primary colours that are stark against the black pages.  It’s absolutely perfect.

Image from publisher’s website

The stories themselves are quite short and vary in theme.  Some are more mysterious, others have supernatural threads.  Well, I suppose all of them hint at the supernatural but some are more explicit than others.  My favourites (by a not particularly significant margin – I loved them all) were Our Neighbour’s House, a quiet and disturbing story about three sisters whose father goes missing and leaves them trying to decide whether to brave the woods to get to their neighbour’s house, and A Lady’s Hands Are Cold, a gorgeously illustrated story about a woman dealing with ghostly noises in the creepy mansion of her new husband.

They only very, very narrowly “beat” His Face All Red (which you can read on Emily Carroll’s website for free HERE), a story of a man dealing with the guilt of betrayal that reminded me a lot of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tell Tale Heart.  Next up My Friend Janna, which feels desperately…sad and was the epitome of ‘haunting’.  The last story was my least favourite (which is to say, I only really liked it), The Nesting Place.  It’s the story of a young orphan who goes to visit his brother and his brother’s fiancée and becomes concerned that all is not as it seems with her future sister-in-law.  The story had some wonderful elements and it was one of the longer stories in the collection with a lot more character development but for me, it was a little too obvious.  Most of the stories are subtle and open to interpretation but this one just felt different to me, somehow.

Any criticism that I have is faint and I really recommend that you hunt down a copy of Through the Woods.  Pick it up even you aren’t a graphic novel aficionado and just want to read something different.  Heck, pick it up even if you don’t care about the stories and just want to look at the pictures.   Just make sure that you do pick it up.

Overall:  Stunning, both to look at and to read.  I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more graphic novels by Emily Carroll.  I can’t find any other collections out at the moment so I’ll settle for Baba Yaga’s Assistantwhich is written by Marika McCoola but is illustrated by Emily Carroll.  
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Date finished: 30 January 2016
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: Graphic Novel; Horror
Pictured Edition Published: by Margaret K. McElderry Books in July 2014

Review: ‘The Ballroom’ by Anna Hope


Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Where love is your only escape…

1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, where men and women are kept apart by high walls and barred windows, there is a ballroom vast and beautiful. For one bright evening every week they come together and dance. When John and Ella meet it is a dance that will change two lives forever. Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, the end of the Edwardian era, The Ballroom is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.

Wake by Anna Hope was one of my favourite books of 2014 (review here).  I remember being amazed at how a story that was quiet in so many ways could be so impactive; how Hope could tell a story of the lives of three women over the course of five days and manage to say so much about post-war Britain.  The Ballroom manages to do just the same thing.  Through Ella and John’s story, Hope manages to weave a commentary on the treatment (or lack of treatment) of mental health in the early 20th century without that commentary weighing too heavily on the plot or leaving it feeling laboured.

The novel follows Ella, a young woman incarcerated in Sharston Asylum after breaking a window at the factory where she worked out of frustration and a simple wish to see daylight for a change, and John, locked up after losing his family, his job and becoming homeless and destitute.  There are other ‘residents’ who have what would still be regarded as mental health problems by today’s standards (Ella’s friend, Clem, for example, whose experiences are particularly harrowing) but Ella and John are just two young people who have fallen on hard times and are regarded by society as unstable or inferior.  Every week, the better behaved inmates are treated to a dance.  A bright spot in their routines where they get to socialise with members of the opposite sex and dance.  Ella and John’s meeting is adorable and the progress of their relationship from that moment on made my heart hurt.  Their story isn’t melodramatic.  It’s gentle and achingly realistic and I was entirely taken in by it.

I just love the way that Anna Hope writes characters.  The way that they grow and change subtly until they’re someone different entirely.  Alongside Ella and John’s narrative is one of a young doctor, Charles Farrer.  Dr Farrer starts as a young idealistic doctor, determined to prove to the medical community that sterilisation isn’t the way to prevent the “spread” of mental health problems, that those who fall under the rather flaky 1911 idea of what constitutes mental ‘deficiency’ are quite capable of productivity.  Events then tease out his vulnerabilities and frustrations and twist them (and him), really shining a light on the hypocrisy and imbalance perpetuating asylums of that era.  Gradual and utterly believable.

The combination of the oppression of Sharston Asylum itself and of the soaring temperature creates a frazzled atmosphere.  There’s an ever-increasing sense of urgency and the characters become progressively more fraught and almost desperate.  Towards the end of the novel, I was gripping my book so hard I was actually hurting my hands and just willing both the characters I loved and those I hated to get the endings they deserved.  I closed the novel in tears.  Admittedly, that’s not necessarily something new for me but the ending of The Ballroom was a real sucker punch.  


Overall:  Anna Hope’s writing and characters are beautiful and I just don’t feel as though I can convey in a review quite why they’re so terrific.  If you want to read historical fiction that will sneakily worm its way into your heart and stay there, I can think of few authors to recommend more highly than Anna Hope.

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Date finished: 18 December 2015
Format: Paperback (Advanced Reader’s Copy)
Source: Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review – thanks, Doubleday!
Genre: Literary fiction; Historical fiction
Pictured Edition Published: on 11 February 2016 by Doubleday

The Ballroom is out on 11 February 2016 and you can pre-order now at The Book DepositoryAmazon or Waterstones.  You can also currently get Wake for your Kindle for a bargainous £1.99!  

Review: ‘The Collector’ by John Fowles


Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Withdrawn, uneducated and unloved, Frederick collects butterflies and takes photographs. He is obsessed with a beautiful stranger, the art student Miranda. When he wins the pools he buys a remote Sussex house and calmly abducts Miranda, believing she will grow to love him in time. Alone and desperate, Miranda must struggle to overcome her own prejudices and contempt if she is understand her captor, and so gain her freedom.

Review
Just those three words, said and meant. I love you.

They were quite hopeless. He said it as he might have said, I have cancer.

His fairy story

The Collector is really something.  I’ve been watching a few YouTube channels recently that tend to feature mostly literary fiction and this book is one that came up more than a few times and it flew onto my wishlist.  When Laura bought it for me for Christmas, I waited only as long as it took me to finish a book I’d already started before cracking it open.

The story is pretty simple.  Frederick is a lonely man with little in his life but his aunt and cousin and his collection of butterflies.  When he wins a fortune, it occurs to him that he longer needs to limit himself to butterflies.  The beautiful woman that he has admired from afar can be his.  He can take her beauty and have it all to himself.  So he does.

The stream of consciousness style of the first part took a bit of getting used to but once I was used to it, the effect was completely unnerving.  Fowles’ writing is manipulative and disorientating.  I knew that I was reading the narration of a deeply disturbed man who had kidnapped a young woman just so that he could have her as part of his collection and yet I found myself completely taken in by him.  His motives are perverted and his love is deeply flawed (if it can even be called love at all) but he truly believes that if he can only keep Miranda long enough and force her to get to know him, she’ll grow to love him. As Miranda wheedles and pleads and lashes out, I felt sorry for Frederick.  His illusion is shattered and his despair is gut-wrenching.  I felt sorry for a deluded sociopath, knowing that he was a deluded sociopath.
I’ve read a lot of reviews that criticise the second half, which shows Miranda’s perspective on the events of the first.  I’ll admit that it doesn’t have quite the same disconcerting quality (there’s something much less unique about feeling sorry for someone who is being held captive) but it does add a lot to the novel in a different way.  It recounts some of the same events told by Frederick earlier but in doing so it throws into sharp relief just how disturbed he is.  It can be repetitive and it can blur off into tangents about art and Miranda’s life before she was incarcerated in Frederick’s cellar but it’s the writings of a woman trapped underground and it fits.  Where Frederick’s narrative is told in the past tense and with the benefit of hindsight, Miranda’s is told in the present tense and shifts with her moods and the events that she is writing about.

And the ending!  Oh, the ending.  I can’t think of any way that I would change it.  Absolute perfection.

When I first finished The Collector, I gave it 4.5 stars for some nagging feeling that the section of Miranda’s writings was just a little too long.  Three weeks later, though, and the book is still haunting me.  I still find myself thinking about just how clever it was and how disturbing the closing paragraphs were.  Any book that has that kind of effect has got to have 5 stars, really.

Overall: A dark and sinister novel that is very powerful in its own quiet way.  If you aren’t put off by different styles of narrative or by pitiable sociopaths, I really can’t recommend The Collector enough.  It had me thoroughly creeped out and pensive while I was reading it and it’s still lingering around in the back of my mind.  Just excellent.

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Date finished: 10 January 2016

Buy here

Format:  Paperback
Source:  Gifted for Christmas – thanks, Laura!
Genre: Literary Fiction; Classic
Pictured Edition Published:  in October 1998 by Vintage
Originally Published:  1963


On finishing this, I remembered that I also owned The Magus by John Fowles.  Has anyone read it?  Recommendations for other similarly disorientating books are welcome too!

Review: ‘Into the Wild’ by Jon Krakauer

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself.  He would give himself a new name, Alexander Supertramp, and, unencumbered by money and belongings, he would be free to wallow in the raw, unfiltered experiences that nature presented. Craving a blank spot on the map, McCandless simply threw the maps away

Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story of Into the Wild.

Review

When I first gave Into the Wild five stars, it was with a wavering finger and a little doubt. The book really touched me and I loved every minute that I was listening to it but, thought I, was that because Christoper McCandless’ story was so moving or was it the book? Could I give a book 5 stars because I found its non-fiction subject matter affected me?  It took me a little while to realise that the question is stupid.  It wasn’t only McCandless’ story that had been so moving but Krakauer’s telling of it.  
I understand that the story wasn’t particularly positively reported in the American press, not least because McCandless’ fatal journey into the Alaskan wilderness was seen as reckless and juvenile and that, when it came down to it, he was a victim of his own stupidity and nothing else.  When Krakauer originally published an article about McCandless in 1993, his empathy was derided.  A few, however, reached out to Krakauer and provided letters and postcards and memories of McCandless/’Alexander Supertramp’.  
Those letters and the stories of the people who knew McCandless are meted out perfectly.  Alongside the pieced together narrative of McCandless’ life are stories of other young people who for their own reasons took off into the wilderness, never to be heard from again, and Krakauer’s own recollections of mountaineering.  The effect is really quite something.  I listened to most of it while training for a half marathon and all the talk of nature and freedom and outdoor living fit perfectly at a time when I needed all the inspiration I could get to keep pounding the pavements at less than sociable times of the day.

Into the Wild actually made me want to do more than that – Krakauer’s sympathetic chronicle of McCandless’ ambitions and dreams made me want to live more cleanly and more freely and with less of a focus on Things…

The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty” [Taken from a letter Christopher McCandless wrote to a friend]

Ok, so I might not exactly be camping in the wilderness, spurning all of my worldly possessions and retreating from my family but this book made me think that there’s some beauty in the simplicity of the aspiration to just be a little braver and a little less shackled by routine.

Five stars it is.

Overall:  I don’t read a lot of non-fiction so the fact that I’ve given this 5 stars hopefully says more than any snappy sentence I could come up with here.  In case it doesn’t:  Into the Wild is a moving account of a young man who wanted to live differently, and very nearly managed to prove that it was possible to branch out and live on your own terms with nothing but a backpack full of Tolstoy and rice.  If you’re looking for something that might give you a new perspective and a fresh way of approaching things (or even just something that you can have a good cry over), Into the Wild is for you.  
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Date finished: August 2015
Format:  Audiobook
Source:  Borrowed from my local library
Genre: Non-fiction; Biography
Pictured Edition Published:  in January 1997 by Anchor

Review: ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It’s the year 2044, and the real world has become an ugly place. We’re out of oil. We’ve wrecked the climate. Famine, poverty, and disease are widespread. Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes this depressing reality by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia where you can be anything you want to be, where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets. And like most of humanity, Wade is obsessed by the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this alternate reality: OASIS founder James Halliday, who dies with no heir, has promised that control of the OASIS – and his massive fortune – will go to the person who can solve the riddles he has left scattered throughout his creation. 

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that the riddles are based in the culture of the late twentieth century. And then Wade stumbles onto the key to the first puzzle. Suddenly, he finds himself pitted against thousands of competitors in a desperate race to claim the ultimate prize, a chase that soon takes on terrifying real-world dimensions – and that will leave both Wade and his world profoundly changed 


A world at stake. 
A quest for the ultimate prize. 

Are you ready?

Review

I don’t even know where to start with this.  Maybe with the reason I even picked up Ready Player One?  I’d heard of it maybe a couple of years ago when everybody started reading it, mentally noted it as something to pick up one day if I happened across it and then forgot all about it.  I was reminded every now and then when I saw it on the occasional list of favourites but it was never something I felt like I had to go out and buy.  Until Hanna texted me in January at nearly midnight on a Sunday with much upper case enthusiasm and said that I HAD TO READ READY PLAYER ONE.  So I did.  Because I am nothing if not easily led by Hanna into reading pretty much anything.

I was promised that it would be amazing.  And it is.  Absolutely, unrelentingly, unputdownably amazing.  Reading it was the most fun I’ve had reading a book in years and I didn’t ever want it to stop.  It manages to be both completely niche in its unashamed geekiness but also completely accessible.  I was born in the late 80s (ok, fine, 1986 is probably “mid-80s” but whatever) so I’m really more au fait with 90s popular culture and missed a few of the computer game references but I knew enough about the music and films of the time that I could still feel connected.  Even if I hadn’t got those references, I honestly believe that I would still have loved it because Cline just writes with such an obvious love for all things “nerdy” that it’s infectious.

The text is quite small and there’s a lot on a page so when I opened it on the 10th of January, I thought it would maybe take a couple of weeks.  I finished it on the 12th.  I was travelling quite a lot in that couple of days, sure, but I was obsessed with it.  And not in a general “oh, this is a good book” way.  The kind of all-encompassing obsession with a book that means that you eat reading it, read it when you’re stood waiting for anything that will take any longer than 2 minutes and just generally ignore everybody else in your life until you’ve finished and can look to them for consolation over the gaping hole the book has left.

Ready Player One may well be an homage to 80s pop culture but it’s also a gripping science fiction adventure story that’s grounded just well enough in reality that it doesn’t take long to lose yourself in.  I don’t read a lot of science fiction because I don’t like reading long descriptions of technological advance or political background or, heaven forbid, actual science.  Cline has managed to write something that is both undeniably science fiction but without the tedium.  Somehow, you completely understand both the real and virtual world that Wade lives in without having to suffer through any dry explanations.  It’s impeccable and not really all that much of a stretch of imagination.  I remember when Second Life was launched about 10 years ago and the media was filled with tales of women leaving their husbands for men they’d met while building their perfect life.  You don’t have to read the news for too long to see endless stories about bankruptcy, environmental disaster and how badly we’re damaging the world.  Is it really that much of a stretch to imagine a world where everybody is crowded into small spaces without any money or natural resources, seeking refuge online?  Add in an adventure story and you’ve got something golden.

The online contest and the bedlam that ensues when Wade happens across the first clue is so, so much fun.  Like everything else about this book.  The pace is pretty hectic but not so much that it seem rushed or overwhelming.  When I could feel that the story was starting to wrap up, I was genuinely sad.  I could still be reading about Wade and about his friends two months later and I’m pretty sure I’d still be happy.

The story is amazing.  The characters are amazing.  The writing is amazing.  The whole damn thing from start to finish is AMAZING.  Consider this your midnight text.

Overall:  My biggest problem with Ready Player One is that finishing it and knowing that I’d read one of the best books I was going to read all year.  Nothing since has even been close to being as good.  Just read it, already.

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Date finished: 12 January 2015
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre: Science fiction
Pictured Edition Published:  in June 2012 by Broadway Books

Ernest Cline’s next book, Armada is out on the 16th of July this year and I’ll be reading it as soon as I physically can (you can pre-order too HERE).  I never pre-order books but there’s no way I can do anything but pre-order this.  If it’s as good as Ready Plater One, I’ve got myself a new favourite author.

Review: ‘NOS4R2’ by Joe Hill

Rating: A big, fat 5 stars out of 5

Victoria McQueen has a secret gift for finding things: a misplaced bracelet, a missing photograph, answers to unanswerable questions. On her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike, she makes her way to a rickety covered bridge that, within moments, takes her wherever she needs to go, whether it’s across Massachusetts or across the country.


Charles Talent Manx has a way with children. He likes to take them for rides in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the NOS4A2 vanity plate. With his old car, he can slip right out of the everyday world, and onto the hidden roads that transport them to an astonishing – and terrifying – playground of amusements he calls “Christmasland.”
Then, one day, Vic goes looking for trouble—and finds Manx. That was a lifetime ago. Now Vic, the only kid to ever escape Manx’s unmitigated evil, is all grown up and desperate to forget. But Charlie Manx never stopped thinking about Victoria McQueen. He’s on the road again and he’s picked up a new passenger: Vic’s own son.

Review

“…there was something awful about Christmas music when it was nearly summer.  It was like a clown in the rain, with his makeup running”


As the next few weeks are likely to be taken up with posts about my (slow) journey through The Pickwick Papers, I’m going to go ahead and do something that I barely ever do.  I’m going to review a book that I finished not only within the last month but within the last week.  Not just because I’m worried that I’ll not get round to it when I’m trying to keep up with a read-along and the related posts but because the book was just so bloody good and I really want to impress upon you just how good.
I’ll admit that it feels strange that one of my favourite reads of the year is likely to end up being a ‘horror’ novel featuring psychopaths that rape, kidnap children and murder and some pretty devastating deaths.  Pre-blog me would have been shocked and appalled.  Pre-blog me wouldn’t have wanted to share a house with a book about an old man that is truly monstrous and his horrifying quest to “save” children from the evils of the world, never mind read it.  I suppose what my love of it goes to show is that books can be surprising.  You might think you’re in for the fright of your life and that you’ll end up clinging to your boyfriend and weeping uncontrollably but you just might end up finding a creepy story that isn’t horrid for the sake of being horrid but manages to strike just the right balance between clutching-the-sides-of-the-book-so-hard-it-hurts action and touching moments of redemption.

What I think is so clever about Joe Hill’s writing is how emotionally manipulative it is.  Not in an obvious ‘I’m writing about cancer and I know I’m trying to destroy you’ way but in a way that sneaks up on you.  There’s one character, for example, who doesn’t take a whole load of convincing to turn to a particularly vile life of crime, sacrificing whoever and whatever they’re told to on the back of a rather vague promise of a restful and rewarding “retirement”.  Honestly, we’re talking crimes that made me feel sick.  So imagine my surprise when, later on in the novel, I find myself feeling desperately sorry for said low life.  And not just a passing pang of sadness either, a gut-wrenching type of pity.  I had to check myself a few times and remind myself that this was still the very same person that had made me feel so disgusted and that I really needed to pull myself together.  There were other examples but that’s the one that I know will really stick with me.  The writing just seems to draw out whatever confusing emotion Hill wants you to feel at any given moment and it’s exhausting and deeply worrying but so, so worth it.

So the writing is brilliant and…different, somehow.  The chapters sometimes run together, for example, so that the last sentence of one chapter ends with the title of the next.  I felt like it should have been annoying but all it did was make the damn book even harder to put down.  The story is pretty surreal in a lot of ways but also manages to feel completely real.  I very much doubt that there are bikes that transport their owners across not-real-but-sort-of-real bridges and I am eternally grateful that magic Rolls Royce’s aren’t rolling around enabling all sorts of despicable crimes but I didn’t feel like I was reading something that was completely fantastical.  Because there are people like Charlie Manx (albeit without the supernatural transportation) and there are people whose lives are destroyed by them.  There are people that see the world differently and struggle every day.  Hill’s characters are full of contradictions and flaws and are completely believable and are what really tipped this book over from great to all out amazing for me.

It felt like everybody was reading this in the run up to Christmas last year and in some ways I can see why.  It’s the perfect antithesis to all of the good cheer, if that’s what you’re looking for.  It takes the Christmas songs, the decorations and the chocolate treats and distorts them.  But mostly, I think that Hanna was absolutely right – I can imagine that there’s something…wrong about reading about the torment Christmas songs cause Vic while singing along to Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.  Sure, it’ll make the experience of reading NOS4R2 that bit more disturbing but it might also take the shine off the tinsel for you.  What I’m saying is, there’s no wrong time to read this book.  If you’ve been hanging on to a copy so that you can read in horror while children lose their souls to a sick version of your favourite holiday season, go nuts.  If you don’t manage or want to squeeze it in before the end of the year, read it whenever you can.  Just make sure that you do read it.

Overall:  If you’re not sure about NOS4R2 because you’re concerned about all the horror buzz around it, don’t worry.  I may have read a few chapters from another book on occasion just to make sure that I wouldn’t end up with nightmares and the story is far from pleasant but it wasn’t terrifying and I have survived without any emotional scars making themselves apparent so far.  NOS4R2 is one of the most creative, well plotted and well executed stories that I’ve read in a while.  Get a copy, find a bright, sunny spot (easy in November, I know), forget about the page count and the fact that you’re waiting to have your socks scared off and just read it.
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Date finished: 18 November 2014
Format: Paperback
Source:  Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review – thanks, Gollancz!
Genre: Horror; Thriller
Pictured Edition Published:  This more handily sized paperback was released on 09 October 2014 by Gollancz!  Three cheers for handbag friendly chills!
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Embarrassing side note:  It took me a ludicrous amount of time even after the British renaming of NOS4R2 to get the title.  I shudder to think how many times I must have said out loud N-O-S-4-R-2.  When this book arrived, I tucked it away so that Boyfriend wouldn’t see it and chastise me for bringing another book into the house, only for it to emerge when we were catching the train to London for a long weekend away for his birthday.  His first comment was “Please don’t read a book about vampires when you’re sat on the train next to me”.  So apparently it’s obvious to some.  Shame on me.  (And don’t worry – I absolutely did read the book on the train while sat next to him and I haven’t just spoiled the novel for you!)