Monday, 30 December 2013

My favourite books of 2013

With the end of 2013 rapidly approaching and with best book lists appearing everywhere I thought it was high time I jumped on the bandwagon and listed my favourites. I've actually read over 60 books in 2013 so to help me narrow the choice down I've only included new books. Perhaps I'll make another list of books I loved this year that were published before 2013 soon? As it is my list contains a nice round number of eleven books!

Anyway in no particular order here are they are;

The Humans by Matt Haig
Those of you who know me won't be at all surprised to see The Humans listed here. A book about an alien turned out to be one of the most moving, thoughtful and life-affirming books I've ever read. If you're still putting off reading it because you think it's sci-fi and you don't like sci-fi then put that preconception aside and pick up this wonderful book.

Road to Rouen by Ben Hatch
One of Amazon's best books of 2013 and easily one of mine too. If you've ever travelled in a car with children, or indeed been a child travelling in a car you will love this. Funny, poignant and honest, it made me laugh and cry (and gave me some useful tips for smuggling food into theme parks!)

*relentlessly me - a memoir of an extraordinary friendship* by David H with Tim M
This was a deeply intense and personal book for me to read dealing as it does with the suicide of David Hurst's best friend Tim. Having lost my brother to suicide there was so much I could identify with. Heart-breaking, honest and raw but also funny and heart-warming. It's a book about the worst of life but also the best too. I felt better for reading it.

Life Knocks by Craig Stone
The story of Colossus Sosloss who ends up living with a reclusive and racist Muslim landlord. With a narrative that switches from past to present, I loved this hilarious, tear jerking yet uplifting rollercoaster read, it's quirky gem of a book by an indie author with a particularly unique line in unusual metaphors.

More Than This by Patrick Ness
Let nobody tell you books for young adults are less complex or involving than books for adults. More Than This is quite simply a stunning work of literature that deserves every plaudit that will surely come its way. Dark, disturbing, thought-provoking, uplifting...there are so many adjectives I could choose to describe More Than This but ultimately what I want to say is a straightforward "read it".

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness
Another book by Patrick Ness, I loved The Crane Wife. Based on a Japanese folk story with a lyrical and timeless quality it drew me in and made me want to slow my reading down so I could really savour every beautifully written word. A gorgeous treat of a book.

The Many Lives of Samuel Beauchamp (a demon's story) by Michael Siemsen
This is actually the sequel to A Warm Place Called Home which I haven't read but is now definitely on my to read list. However, I don't feel it's necessary to have read the first to enjoy this scary yet thoughtful book. It's more of a psychological thriller than a shock horror with complex characters and a well written and involving plot. To tempt you further you can watch a Cinematic Book Trailer here.

Dead Set by Will Carver
This is the third book in a series but as yet the first I have read. Whilst I would recommend you read the books in the correct order, I still thoroughly enjoyed this enthralling read. An intelligent, unpredictable and chilling thriller, the first two books are on my list of must reads for 2014.

Terra by Mitch Benn
A story about aliens that is also a classic fish out of water story, the familiarity in Terra though never feels stale. Tense and dark but also charming and moving, this tale about aliens is actually very human.

Free Country: A Penniless Adventure the Length of Britain by George Mahood
The perfect antidote to those cynical "Broken Britain" newspaper articles. This is a journey through Britain that is much more than a travelogue. A laugh out loud book that is also a timely reminder of the decency of people.

Kicking The Sky by Anthony De Sa 
This isn't actually published in the UK until March 2014 but I read an advance copy and have included it here because I hope I can persuade some of you to add it to your tbr lists. Set against the abduction, rape and murder of the Shoeshine Boy in Toronto in 1977, this raw and shocking book isn't an easy read but it is powerful and honest.

How many of my choices have you read? What were your favourite new books of 2013?

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Book Review: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

Fairy Tales are for children aren't they? We're all used to the sanitised versions in numerous books and films but as we're reminded in this wonderful collection by Philip Pullman, the original stories were often macabre and brutal. Pullman has rewritten the stories and added improvements where he saw fit - as surely the many storytellers who handed on these tales by word of mouth must have done -  but they remain faithful to the spirit of original stories. There are characters blinded, beheaded, drowned, thrown into barrels with spikes pointed inwards, even being the talking animal isn't enough to avoid meeting a grisly end! Not then perhaps the best choice for very young children although I suspect there are many youngsters who will revel in the goriness. I would advise a read through first though before choosing a bedtime story.
Some of the tales work better than others of course, something Pullman himself often acknowledges. My personal favourite was The Juniper Tree and I also very much enjoyed Hans My Hedgehog and The Mouse, The Bird and The Sausage.
I often skip the introduction in books but am glad I didn't here, Pullman writes a little about Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm but then goes into more detail about what the stock elements of these classic tales are and examines how they work as stories. It's not something I'd thought about before and both this introduction and Pullman's notes after each story certainly added to my appreciation of the collection.
I actually remember reading many of these fairy tales to myself under the bedcovers when I was around ten or eleven and loving the magic, absurdity and yes the more grisly bits too. This collection of fifty of the stories was a wonderful reminder of these traditional tales and would make a lovely addition to any bookcase.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publishers through Netgalley in return for my honest opinion.

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman is published in the UK by Penguin Books.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Book Review: The Artemis Effect by Kasia James

Set in the present, this novel imagines a bizarre phenomenon affecting the moon causes 21st Century life to break down. The changes don't  happen at once but before too long people are forced to live without the global communication network, electricity and eventually fuel. Food is in short supply and hospitals are closed down. It's a speculative look then of how quickly the fabric of society would break down if we lost the trappings of modern life.
The author has chosen to set the action in three main locations; an outback town in Australia, rural Britain and Midwest America. In each we are introduced to a small group of characters whose experiences we follow throughout the book. I would have preferred at least one main character to have been more challenging to like, these were all decent humans behaving mostly decently, a little more tension and some questionable ethics would have added an interesting further slant. However, I did appreciate that unusually and refreshingly little of the plot is set in a city and so urban looting and violence isn't a central feature but rather a creeping menace. It's still though a book that often covered familiar ground, whether the cause is something strange happening to the moon, a devastating global disease or the zombie apocalypse, there always seems to be small groups of individuals forced together to survive, gangs that have quickly descended into lawlessness roaming the streets, shops and houses broken into and left derelict.
My main criticism of The Artemis Effect though is the pacing. I wish the author had written this as a part one, rather than the complete story. The main part of the book takes its time describing the events that are occurring to our protagonists across the globe and we are given a sense of the fear of what if this change is permanent? The end though felt far too rushed, the reason for the change to the moon is never fully explained which I don't have a problem with but I did think it was a shame that a story that could have sensibly been extended into a second novel was instead wrapped up in a few pages that ultimately felt rather unsatisfactory. Despite these flaws I did enjoy The Artemis Effect, but I hope in future the author considers continuing her interesting and well thought out ideas into a sequel or even series of books rather than feeling the conclusion must be reached in just the one novel.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of The Artemis Effect from the publishers through Netgalley in return for my honest review.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Book Review: At Break of Day (The First of July) by Elizabeth Speller

"This is a novel about bicycles and coffin-making, the heyday of the great London department stores, and a hospital run entirely by women. It explores French river navigation, church organs, pigeons, international politics and early film, and finds philandering, friendship, deception, duty, and the terrifyingly random operation of fate." 

At Break of Day (published as The First of July in the USA) follows four men, Jean-Baptiste, a French teenager from the Somme who dreams of adventure; Frank, an ambitious shop assistant working in London; Benedict, an organ scholar at Gloucester Cathedral and Harry, a wealthy English industrialist living in New York. Beginning on July 1st 1913 as Europe teetered on the brink of war, we learn what leads each of these men to their involvement in the first day of the Battle of the Somme exactly three years later.
I was critical of the last book I read set in a similar time as I felt it had too many characters meaning I didn't find myself as emotionally invested in their lives. This was not the case with At Break of Day; the geographical scope of the novel, from the West Country in England, to London, New York, Paris and through France, told of the devastating impact of the war both in Europe and eventually beyond but having the story concentrate mostly on the lives of these four men made for a more intimate and intense story.
All four men have compelling stories and I looked forward to their individual chapters - although I must admit that the sensitive and conflicted synaesthesic Benedict was my favourite.
It's not a particularly ground breaking novel, the senseless slaughter of young men, hope, loss, duty and fate are all familiar in a Great War novel but this is such a well written book that the familiarity didn't breed contempt and it's a welcome addition to the books set in World War One.
Disclosure; I received a free copy of this book from the publishers through Netgalley in return for my honest review.

At Break of Day is published in the UK by Virago and published in the USA as The First of July by Pegasus.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Book Review: The P45 Diaries by Ben Hatch

Having loved Ben Hatch's accounts of his marathon journeys with his family around Britain and France in Are We Nearly There Yet? and Road to Rouen respectively I was really looking forward to this book but unlike the previous two books this is fictional so would I enjoy it as much?
Happily the answer is a resounding yes. The diary writer, a young man called Jay Golden reminded me of Holden Caulfield. He is on the brink of adulthood but the idea of  what he perceives to be a mundane 9 to 5 existence horrifies him. He loses one job after another and is constantly at odds with his father. At first Jay isn't always the easiest person to like, however, as the book progresses I warmed to this young man trying to find his place in the world whilst experiencing the highs and lows of first love and as we gradually learn, struggling to cope with the death of his mum. Having lost my own mum to cancer when I wasn't much older than Jay meant it was at times a painful read but crying because you've been moved by what you're reading is a sign of a good book in my eyes. Knowing from Ben's works of non-fiction that The P45 Diaries is semi-autobiographical made it all the more poignant.
This is a book that will have you sighing with exasperation, snorting with laughter and wiping away the tears. It's honest, funny and very very moving. I'm sure Ben Hatch fans and those new to his books will thoroughly enjoy The P45 Diaries, I certainly did.

The P45 is available for download on the Kindle

Friday, 29 November 2013

Book Review: Second Chance by David Perry

Another Netgalley November Review, today I'm reviewing Second Chance by David Perry.

Alex Benedict is a hospital pharmacist whose wife has terminal cancer. He has a challenging job, a harsh boss and is battling exhaustion as he tends for his wife. If that isn't enough he then discovers patients are mysteriously dying and after the suicide of a colleague is thrust into an investigation that will threaten his life and test his beliefs.
This thriller reminded me a bit of Dan Brown's books, a man uncovers a conspiracy and is forced to follow clues that will lead him to an incredible and previously unbelievable discovery whilst his life is in danger as others also race to discover the mysterious formula. It's not really my sort of book, whilst I could suspend my belief for the premise of the story I still think the book often felt too unbelievable. Benedict's friends, who agree to help him with very little persuasion despite the threat to their lives, all turn out to be able to help him decipher what appear to be obsure and puzzling clues amazingly quickly. Benedict himself is badly injured yet within a few pages and it seems only a few days later has recovered enough to become embroiled in a dangerous fight.
That said it's an easy to read book with plenty of chapter ending cliffhangers and so although it's not a book I would choose to read again I think plenty of people will enjoy it.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publishers through Netgalley in return for my honest review.

Second Chance is published by Pettigrew Enterprises LLC.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Book Review: 1920: America's Great War by Robert Conroy

A second Netgalley November review for you today, this time I'm reviewing 1920: America's Great War by Robert Conroy.

Some of the best books I've read have been set during the First and Second World Wars, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy and The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat immediately come to mind. Therefore I was looking forward to this alternative history which imagines Germany won a swift and decisive war in Europe in 1914 then shipped a huge army to Mexico to support a puppet government before staging a bold invasion of America in 1920, with the intention of making Texas and California the permanent property of Imperial Germany.
An interesting premise then, but unfortunately it wasn't a book that really engaged me.
I think the main issues for me were the scale and by necessity the number of people in the book. I like to be drawn in by a character, to empathise with them, care for them and in the case of books set in war time to fear for them and I didn't have that with this book. I felt the action swapped from one scene to another too quickly meaning as a reader I never really felt involved. I would have preferred the book to have concentrated on the characters of Luke, Josh, Kirsten and Elise as I found them the more interesting and engaging protagonists. The book also featured several real life people and whilst I think some made sense I did feel it was rather overdone. Ultimately I expect a book set in wartime to set my pulse racing, to really make me feel for the characters, to mourn those lost and to experience a sense of relief for the survivors. Sadly I didn't get that with this book, I never really doubted the outcome and it personally left me cold.
After finishing it I realised I was reminded of a big budget Hollywood action movie with lots of special effects and drama but less in the way of characterisation. I know there are plenty of people who love films like that and likewise I believe there are many readers who will thoroughly enjoy this book, it just wasn't for me.
Disclosure: I received this book free from the publishers through Netgalley in return for my honest review.

1920: America's Great War is published by Baen Books.

Book Review: The Ice Cream Army by Jessica Gregson

Another review for Netgalley November, after a slow start I've read a few so expect more reviews soon!

Set in Australia in 1915, The Ice Cream Army tells the story of Halim, a young Turkish immigrant who arrives in Sydney looking for work and ends up moving to Cottier's Creek, an outback mining town. Here he befriends another Turkish immigrant, Süleyman, the town's ice cream seller and sets up as a Halal butcher for the Muslim enclave known as Ghan Town. However, war in Gallipoli starts to affect Cottier's Creek and the townspeople's attitudes towards the residents of Ghan Town and particularly Halim and Süleyman start to become strained. As the war progresses residents watch anti-Turkish propaganda and men from the town are injured in the conflict, meaning instead of the previous acceptance they received from the Australians the Turks face racial prejudice and violence. Eventually they feel they have no other option and are moved to take devastating action.
The Ice Cream  Army is a fictionalised account of "the battle of Broken Hill", when in 1915 two two Turkish men declared war on Australia and attacked a train, killing two of the passengers. It's a raw, touching and frightening account of racism and prejudice and how people can be driven to commit terrible atrocities. Whilst bleak, this is a beautifully written book, empathic towards the Turks and yet still understanding of why the Australians behaved as they did. It reminds us again of the horrors war can drive people to. It's not a book to read if you want a happy ending but it's a story that had me thinking for days after I read it, a superb book.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley and the publishers in return for my honest review.

The Ice Cream Army is published by Legend Press.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Book Review: Dead Set by Will Carver

My second Netgalley November title completed, poorly children have scuppered my reading schedule somewhat!

I was perhaps a bit daft when I chose this book because I didn't realise until I'd started reading it that it is the third in a series about Detective January David. Therefore I knew nothing of the story thus far or anything about any of the characters who appear in all three books. Perhaps once I realised I should have stopped and read the other books first, in  chronological order. The thing is though, I couldn't stop. Within a few pages I was hooked. It's been a while since I read a psychological thriller and longer still since I read one as different and as enthralling as Dead Set.
The author uses multiple characters to tell the story, often but not always in the first person. These characters include the voices of the victims, describing their own deaths. As I read the book these voices became like a jigsaw as I attempted to piece everything together. It may not be a style that every reader will like but I was completely engrossed by not only the story itself, which is chilling, absorbing and superbly paced, but by the unique way the book is written. It's not a book for the faint hearted, whilst not excessively gory it doesn't pull any punches and the paranormal slant adds an extra layer of thrills without taking over the story.
In conclusion, whilst I think it does make more sense to read these books in order, if like me you find yourself reading Dead Set first and if you enjoy well written thrillers that are intelligent and unpredictable then also like me you will love this book.
Of course I am going to have to read the first books, Girl 4 and The Two very soon!
Disclosure: I received a free copy of Dead Set from Netgalley in return for my honest review.

Dead Set will be published by Arrow on November 21st.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Book Review: Kicking The Sky by Anthony De Sa

So here is my first review for Netgalley November, as described in this post.

Canadian author Anthony De Sa's previous book, Barnacle Love is a collection of linked short stories about a Portuguese immigrant family. One of the stories, 'Shoeshine Boy' has been expanded in Kicking The Sky, his first full length novel.
Set in Toronto in 1977 the real life disappearance of shoeshine boy, Emanuel Jacques is the catalyst for the events in this book. Four days after his disappearance his body was discovered, he'd been viciously raped before being murdered. This then is the brutal backdrop for a gritty coming of age story about twelve year old Canadian-Portuguese boy Antonio Rebelo.  We see the city through the eyes of the adolescent, the narrow alleys are their hiding places, full of danger and excitement. Antonio and his friends jump across rooftops searching for adventure -  their initial reaction following the shoeshine boy's disappearance is to make a plan to find him, believing they will have more luck than the police. Then Emanuel's body is discovered and Antonio, already on the brink of manhood is thrust him into a world where innocence is shattered, parents are terrified, people, particularly the Portuguese immigrants from the Azores want revenge and the homosexual community is a target. The violence and darker side of life in this book is uncompromising, wives are beaten by husbands, there are predatory mothers and boys give blow jobs through a fence for money.
Antonio himself is a likeable yet complex character, he is often terrified or sickened by events yet is unable to resist the draw of the adult world of secrets, lies and fear. He is confused too about his own sexuality, at first drawn to a girl in the neighbourhood but later becomes aware of his attraction to the mysterious James, at a time when homophobia had become rife this only adds to the boy's turmoil. Amongst this though there is humour and love; the bond between friends, the parents that desperately want to protect their children, not ready to accept they are growing up and see and hear what adults think they have concealed.
In many ways this isn't an easy book to read, it is raw and shocking. Yet by evoking so accurately the fear, confusion and anger both of a young boy and of the wider community De Sa has written a book that is powerful and honest. I thoroughly recommend it.
Disclosure: I received my copy of Kicking The Sky free from Netgalley in return for my honest review.

Kicking The Sky will be published in the UK on 25th March 2014 by Algonquin.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Netgalley November: My Goals

Firstly thank you to the lovely Daphne at Winged Reviews for drawing my attention to this brilliant event. Netgalley November is being hosted by Faye from A Daydreamer’s Thoughts, Kayleigh from K-Books and Laura from Bookish Treasures. I'm fairly new to Netgalley but already have a few books lined up to read so what better incentive to get cracking with them?! Also as a newish book blogger it would be lovely to get to know some more of my fellow book lovers. Please come and say hi!

I intend to read mostly Netgalley books this month although I do have a copy of Marbles, Mania, Depression, Michelangelo & Me by Ellen Forney tempting me, plus a couple of others I may find impossible to resist..

Anyway on my list are;

Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa
Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman
1920: America's Great War by Robert Conroy
Second Chance by David Perry
The n-Body Problem by Tony Burgess

I'm also awaiting a few approvals so may add them if selected depending on how well I do.

If you haven't already signed up, you can do so here.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Book Review: A Body Displaced (Lansin Island #2) by Andrew Butcher

A Body Displaced is the sequel to A Death Displaced, a paranormal suspense/contemporary fantasy novel I read a little while ago featuring Nick, a man whose dreams of an accident turned out to be prophetic and Juliet, the woman he saves who as a result discovers a remarkable ability of her own. I enjoyed this debut novel, there was much to like about it with its likeable main characters and fascinating premise. I did however, feel the story took a little while to really bite and the ending felt a bit loose, I was waiting for something big to happen and it didn't. That said it was a good read and so I was keen to read this next book in the series.
 I was pleased to see the plot develop more quickly this time although I did feel the events of the first book were covered in more detail than I like, personally I prefer it when sequels assume the reader knows what has gone on before. However, I did enjoy this book being much darker with a deeper and more intriguing insight into the Otherworld we first learned a little of in the first book. Nick and Juliet again take centre stage although for much of the book their stories unfold separately, and we learn more about their abilities, both what they're capable of and the emotional and psychological impact on their lives. New characters who are introduced or developed further from the first book are well written and complex but I must admit I wasn't keen on the in depth physical description of almost every person in the book, particularly when it often mattered little to the plot, I'd rather use my imaginatiion. This is a fairly small gripe though and overall I was impressed with A Body Displaced, the ending too is more satisfying and did a good job of whetting my appetite for the next book in the series, A Spirit Displaced.
Disclosure; I received a free copy of A Body Displaced from Netgalley in return for my honest review.

Andrew Butcher's website with links to buy his books can be found here.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Book Review: Life Knocks by Craig Stone

 According to the blurb Life Knocks is about "when love goes wrong and forces a recluse to live with an old man who has boundary issues." Not a lot to go on then but it was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and I like to support indie authors so I thought I'd give it a go.
There are some books that have me hooked from the first page, others take a while longer and I dip in and out for a bit until one day I realise the ten minute read before I start the dinner has turned into an hour and I've forgotten to feed the children. Life Knocks was that sort of book for me.
Craig Stone has a quirky style of writing with a particularly unique eye for an unusual metaphor; "Love is a bath of beans with a pig dressed as a clown and a naked farm girl; pretty much amazing when you get over the shock." This is a book that is far more than its metaphors though. With any character driven book it's vital that I engage with the main protagonist and I soon warmed to Colossus Sosloss (really!). There were times I wanted to shake him, to tell him to shut up or to speak up but throughout the book I cared about what happened to him. The other characters too were sympathetically written, even the racist, sexist, homophobic landlord, Mohammed has moments where I felt real warmth towards him.
The book swaps between the past and present (I seem to have read a few books like this recently) and sometimes with a switching narrative I find I'm more interested in one period than the other. Not so with Life Knocks, I was as captivated by Colossus' past as his present and following his journey to discover how one led to the other was a fascinating, hilarious, tear jerking yet uplifting rollercoaster of a read.
If you like contemporary fiction that doesn't pull any punches then I think you'll find Life Knocks a refreshing read. I know I did and am looking forward to reading the sequel, The Squirrel that Dreamt of Madness (actually published before Life Knocks) very soon.

Life Knocks is available on, and

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Book Review: Ace, King, Knave by Maria McCann

Image courtesy of Faber and Faber

I am not often drawn to historical novels but for some reason the plot of Ace, King, Knave appealed to me. Set in 18th century London, it follows the lives of Sophia, a demure newlywed married to the charismatic Mr Zedland and Betsy-Ann, a former prostitute, now a second hand dealer who lives with a grave robber.
The story is told through the words of Sophia, Betsy-Ann and Fortune the slave who belongs to the Zedlands, and switches between their past and present lives. Whilst it was important to learn what had occurred earlier in their lives I did feel having three narrative voices and this switching between times did occasionally make the book a little confusing, especially as I was also having to try to figure out the numerous historical slang words. I actually discovered a glossary once I'd finished the book but wish I'd found it earlier as it would have meant I could have concentrated on the story more without having the flow interrupted as I stopped to work out what a word or phrase meant. I didn't really start to properly enjoy the book until about halfway through when I became used to the wandering narrative and liberal use of archaic words. That said I did sometimes enjoy the extra reading inspired by this book; discovering more about the fascinating George Psalmanazar a particular highlight.
This is not a prim look at a genteel past, indeed you can almost smell the filth and grime. We are taken into the underbelly of London, a dark and dangerous gin-sodden world of gamblers, thieves, prostitutes and grave robbers. It's not a period of history I know well but it felt wretchedly real.
If you enjoy historical novels that don't shy away from the sordid and bawdy and like a tale that meanders through the lives of its characters and explores the themes of convention, hypocrisy, freedom and choice (or the lack of)  then I'd recommend Ace, King, Knave. For me it's not quite the novel to fully convert me to this type of book but nevertheless I'm glad I was tempted this once.
Disclosure: I received my free copy of Ace, King, Knave from the publishers through Netgalley in return for my honest review.

Ace, King, Knave will be published in the UK on 7 November 2013 by Faber and Faber.

Friday, 25 October 2013

What I'm reading at the moment

I will be posting a new review early next week but in the meantime I thought I'd share my current reading list. I like to have a few books on the go at the same time although it's my youngest daughter's 6th birthday on Monday and her excitement levels are rapidly rising so I'm not sure how much reading I'll be able to fit in the next few days...

Firstly then I'm about halfway through Life Knocks by Craig Stone and I'm really enjoying this one. It took me a little while to become used to the author's style but it's one of those searingly honest books that are coffee splutteringly funny one minute then deeply touching the next. I've taken a break to write this post but am really looking forward to reading more.

The next book I'm reading is A Body Displaced by Andrew Butcher. This is the sequel to A Death Displaced, a book I enjoyed but felt the story took a while to bite and the ending felt a bit loose. Nevertheless I knew this was a sequel I wanted to read. So far I'm not regretting that.

I've only read a few pages of Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa but I'm sure it's going to be a really powerful book. Set in Toronto in 1977 in the aftermath of the brutal rape and murder of shoeshine boy, Emanuel Jacques, I don't think it's going to be an easy read but I believe it will be compelling.

1920: America's Great War by Robert Conroy imagines an alternate history in which Germany won WW1 and went on to invade America. I have no idea what to expect, will it be a serious examination of what could have been? It's been a while since I read any Great War inspired fiction so I hope I'll enjoy this one.

Finally here's a sneak peek at the book I'll be reviewing next week, Ace, King, Knave by Maria McCann. I don't read a lot of historical fiction, certainly not set in this era (the 18th century) so did I enjoy this? You'll have to read my review to find out!

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Image courtesy of Alonquin books

Gabrielle Zevin's new novel, The Storied Life of A.J Zevin,  is described as "a love letter to the world of books - and booksellers - that change our lives by giving us the stories that open our hearts and enlighten our minds."
Obviously I was immediately intrigued! What followed was not the sort of book I'm generally drawn to and yet it kept me engaged and intrigued until the final page. It's the story of the titular A.J Fikry, owner of  Island Books, which has a sign reading, "No man is an island, every book is a world" above the door. At the beginning A.J is widowed, his business is struggling and he has withdrawn from his fellow inhabitants of Alice Island. A robbery swiftly followed by the unexpected arrival of a mysterious package in his bookstore changes his life entirely and he learns to open his heart again, to books and to love. This is a well written and well crafted tale with some surprising twists along the way. It's not a groundbreaking story, despite the twists it often trod a somewhat predictable path, which isn't a criticism, I think books sometimes have to give the reader what they're expecting. What sets this novel apart though is that this is a love letter to books, to booksellers and to book lovers. I guarantee that your to be read pile will be even bigger once you reach the end of this heartwarming tale.
Disclosure: I was given a free copy of this book through Netgalley for my honest review.

The Storied Life of A.J Fikry will be published by Alonquin Books and released in the UK in April 2014.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Book Review: The Many Lives of Samuel Beauchamp (a demon's story) by Michael Siemsen

Image courtesy of Fantome Publishing

"Samuel Beauchamp has been dead for twenty-seven years, but that hasn't stopped him from living..."

That one line was enough to convince me that this was a book I wanted to read despite not (yet) having read the prequel, A Warm Place to Call Home (a demon's story).
 Whilst I will definitely be adding that book to my to read list now I don't feel it's at all necessary to have knowledge of it to thoroughly enjoy The Many Lives of Samuel Beauchamp. 
The book begins with Samuel using the body of Geoffrey Cuion, formerly a vicious thug but in recent years (since Samuel moved in) a law abiding citizen who works in a library. Through flashbacks we learn how Samuel reached this point, his death and the realisation that although his body is deceased his soul lives on and can stay alive by occupying the bodies of others. Samuel was - is - a good man and although the idea of him using others sounds shocking I quickly grew to like him and understood his motives. He's a teenager then a man desperate to be part of a family and to be loved. Over the years he's forced to move on for various reasons until he finally thinks he's settled with Geoffrey's body. He has a girlfriend, Elaine and a best friend, Stan.
It's at this point his life unravels as the story takes on a grittier tone. It's a dark and shocking story that surprised me several times and one character (not wanting to give too much away here!) is the stuff nightmares are made of, a brilliantly complex character. 
This is a scary, yet still thoughful read, it's no shock horror, more of a psychological thriller that takes a look at immortality and what it could drive a person...or a demon to do. I would thoroughly recommend it.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publishers, Fantome Publishing in return for my honest review. 

The Many Lives of Samuel Beauchamp will be published in November and is an 18+ read.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Changes at Hair Past a Freckle

When I started this blog it was going to be a mish mash of everything but as time has progressed it's become obvious to me that I prefer writing book reviews to anything else. So I have made the decision to keep this blog for just book related posts. It's still called Hair Past a Freckle because what does time matter when you're reading!
I've moved my other posts to my new blog, Thief of Time. Hopefully people will enjoy both blogs. Stay tuned for a new review here soon!

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Children's Book Week - Books I loved as a child

It's Children's Book Week and to celebrate Booktrust have compiled a list of 100 books every child should read before they're 14. As always with these sorts of lists it's always better to ignore the prescriptive sounding "must" or "should" and rather view them as suggestions of quality stories that are worth considering if you're choosing a children's book.
I haven't read all the books on the list despite being much older than 14 but have fond memories of enjoying several. And I'm discovering how good some YA fiction is, so it's never too late to read books on the list!
I've been thinking since reading it about other books I remember reading and loving as a child. In honour of it being Children's Book Week I thought I'd list some of them here. So in no particular order they are;

Penguin's Progress by Jill Tomlinson
The story of Otto, the penguin chick. One of the first books I bought from the school book club and read myself! Anthropomorphic yes but actually also a surprisingly accurate description of penguin life. From the author of The Owl Who Was Afraid of The Dark, Jill Tomlinson is always a good choice for animal loving young readers.

Shadow the Sheepdog by Enid Blyton
Not one of her best known books but this was my favourite tale of hers when I was growing up. Animal mad, I loved the story of Shadow, the sheepdog pup, his boy owner Johnny and the other dogs on the farm, Bob, Tinker, Rafe and Dandy. I read it several times and never tired of Shadow's adventures. It's obviously dated now and could be considered a little preachy but that's what you get with Blyton and despite that she knew how to write stories to enthrall young children.

Professor Branestawm stories by Norman Hunter
I remember discovering this series of books in the school library when I was at middle school and reading them one after another. Books that were silly fun, and as a slighly intense child given to carrying round a book to write poetry in, I think I needed the reminder that sometimes it's ok to just read a book because it makes you laugh.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Most lists of children's books will include at least one Dahl won't they?! This was my favourite, with Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator and its Vermicious Knids a close second. I was a bit of a weird child and loved insects and bugs, I would collect spiders to put in my bedroom, stroked bees, spent ages looking for crickets and together with my brothers once filled a laundry basket with caterpillars we collected from our next door neighbour's garden. So it was perhaps inevitable that the story of James and his bug friends would be my pick of Dahl's books.

101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
Rather shamefully I've not read her classic I Capture the Castle but again as an animal obsessed child I loved 101 Dalmatians. Known of course by the Disney films which are wonderful in their own right but I remember being totally captivated by the idea of the Twilight Bark described in the book. And I still secretly think Suffolk sounds much better pronounced "Wuffolk"

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
This was read to us as a class when I was in the second year of middle school and I recall being desperate to hear the next chapter. With characters like Tock and the Mathemigician, and the lands of the Doldrums and Digitopolis I loved the plot and many of the puns - although I'm sure I didn't understand all the wordplay. Did I realise it was an allegory about the quest for knowledge and wisdom? Perhaps on some level but what I mostly remember is enjoying a cleverly written adventure.

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
I almost picked My Friend Flicka here but the emotion this wrought in me as a sensitive animal lover meant I had to choose Black Beauty. I wasn't a fully fledged member of the horse and pony mad club but I remember sobbing when reading about Ginger in particular. Anthropomorphism at its finest, this is no twee tale about cute horsies. It's poignant and tragic and for a child terribly moved by injustice I recall loving and hating this book.

The Magician's Nephew by C.S Lewis
I know that for most people The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is *the* book of the Narnia series and I've always loved it too but I also adored The Magician's Nephew, the story of Digory and Polly and how Narnia came to be. I remember wishing we lived in an old house with attics that extended across our neighbours' roofs! The book is obviously a Christian allegory, the beginning of Narnia being the Creation and Digory's dilemma over whether to take an apple clearly relates to Adam or Eve but  like The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe the reason so many of us regard Narnia so fondly is the thought that just out there, beyond our world is a world of fantasy and magic. Religious or atheist I think there is something in many of us that secretly yearns for somewhere like that.

The Winter of Enchantment by Victoria Walker
A magic mirror leads a Victorian boy, Sebastian to a girl called Melissa who has been trapped by an evil Enchanter. This wonderfully evocative fantasy tells of his quest to collect the Power Objects that will allow him to destroy the Enchanter's power. Along the way he is aided by Mantari the magical  cat and Ver, Aestas, Autumnus and Hiems, the four seasons. I remember being enraptured by the magic in this book and was delighted when Fidra Books republished it after many years of it being out of print.

The Outsiders by S.E Hinton
We read That Was Then, This Is Now in English lessons when I was 11 or 12 and I remember being amazed. Here was a book that didn't feature magic, fantasy or English children with nannies or at boarding school. This was real - gritty, dark stuff and I loved it. I immediately went on to read S.E Hinton's other books, The Outsiders with lines like, "I lie to myself all the time, but I never believe me." soon became one of my favourite books. Even living in a world miles away both literally and figuratively from that of Ponyboy, Sodapop and Dallas I was still able to appreciate that this was a story that was really about teenagers and their hopes and fears rather than a book about older children. Connie, my middle daughter read it for the first time last year when she was 10 and has since re-read it, she loved it too (I'll have to watch the film with her sometime!)

Night Kites by M.E Kerr
This was for its time quite shocking to read, knowing it was written for teens rather than adults. Written in the 80s it was inevitable perhaps that this book having a gay character would also deal with AIDS but this was probably the first book I'd read with a gay person in it and perhaps it was one of the reasons why I learned that the world of institutionalised homophobia I grew up in needed to be challenged.

What were your favourite books when you were young?

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Book Review; More Than This by Patrick Ness

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Shamefully I only discovered Patrick Ness' books earlier this year when I read - and loved The Crane Wife, which I reviewed here. Since then I've read his superlative YA "Chaos Walking" trilogy and consider him to be one of the most exciting writers working today. It's no understatement then to say I was desperately looking forward to reading More Than This, particularly after the early reviews started to be published. The moment the book arrived - and what a beauty it is, with a cover that demanded to be stroked - I dived straight in.
In More Than This, Ness has returned to writing YA fiction but to believe that this book is just for young adults would be a huge mistake. Ness says he wrote the book because most teenagers will at some point think "there must be more than this" but we were all that teen once and this is a book that I believe has the intelligence, wit and humanity to speak to us all.
The story starts with the main protagonist, Seth, dying ("Here is the boy, drowning" is such a great first line.) and make no mistake Seth definitely dies here. Then he wakes up, but finds himself completely alone, in a desolate world he soon realises is the English town he lived in as a young boy. To try to describe what happens from then would be to do the book, and you, as I hope a soon to be reader of More Than This, a serious disservice, it's a book you need to read, not read about. It will pull you in, keep you reading until the wee small hours then keep you awake as you consider what you've read. It's a story of exquisite beauty and explores family, friends and love, trust, existence and what life is. It's heartbreakingly dark and disturbing yet still an uplifting, life affirming read. As a parent I am glad this book is on the bookshelf for my children to discover, I don't agree with prescribing books for children but it is a book I think all teenagers should know about. We've almost certainly all felt alone despite being in a family, misunderstood and not appreciated, for anybody who has ever felt like they don't fit in, More Than This is a book that understands. I wish I had Patrick Ness writing for me when I was a teen but even at the age of forty I couldn't fail to be touched by this wonderful book.

More Than This is published in the UK by Walker Books.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Book Review: *relentlessly me* - A memoir of an extraordinary friendship by David H with Tim M

Image courtesy of David Hurst

As some of you already know last August my brother killed himself. After such a life shattering event I think it's natural to reach out to those who have been through similar experiences and so once I learned of this book I knew I had to read it.
David's great friend Tim took his life in February 2012, just 6 months before my brother Simon ended his. *relentlessly me* tells the story of their friendship, one that was separated by the miles as David lives in England and Tim was American but nevertheless was as special as friendships can be. David also courageously writes of his grieving process, the shock, guilt and anger. I could identify with so much of what was written, the sense of being lost, the sledgehammer reminders, the whys and if onlys, the desire not to let the person you love fade away.
*relentlessly me* though is not a depressing book, it's heart-breaking and raw but also life-affirming, heart-warming and funny. David also writes about his family life and in particular his two young sons, there were several passages I laughed out loud at, and lots of parenting moments I recognised. The warmth radiates from this book, the love David has for his family and friends and the very special relationship he had with Tim. I have found it very hard to accurately describe all of who my brother was since his death but David manages to capture who Tim was by including many of his social media postings and links to photos.
*relentlessly me* is a book that sums up the mind-blowing confusion of suicide, looks at depression, addiction and ageing, contains passages that made me cry for my pain, for David's pain and the pain Tim and Simon must have felt before they reached that ultimate decision. It also has passages of hope, words that inspired me and were deeply thought-provoking. It's a book about life, about the worst moments a person can face but about the best too. Ultimately it's about how although we have lost someone very dear to us in the most tragic of circumstances, we are still here, surviving, loving, laughing and living. Or as David would put it "being relentlessly me".

*relentlessly me* - A memoir of an extraordinary friendship is available on Kindle.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Book Review: Terra by Mitch Benn

Image courtesy of Orion Books
I was hopeful that I'd enjoy Terra by Mitch Benn. I'm not a true sci-fi nerd but I'd rather read HG Wells than Charles Dickens and prefer Verne to Hardy plus I know Mitch is a fellow Doctor Who fan and that alone suggested Terra would be a book I'd like! I was therefore delighted to be lucky enough to win my copy of the book through a giveaway on Winged Reviews, thanks to the generosity of the publishers, Gollancz.
The book tells the story of the eponymous Terra, an Earth girl brought up on the planet Fnrr by Lbbp, a scientist who believes he'd rescued the baby after she'd been abandoned by her parents. The inhabitants of Fnrr don't use many vowels in their language. Lbbp lives in the country of Mlml, Earth is Rrth and humans are Ymns. Whilst I'm not sure I'd want to read the story aloud to an audience, it wasn't actually as distracting as I thought I'd find it not really knowing how many of the words are pronounced.
In many ways Terra covers familiar ground. Terra herself is the girl who doesn't quite fit in at High School, her friends include a swot and a shy nerd. Lppb is the kind but over-protective father figure. The aliens are technologically advanced, they have studied Rrth and see Ymns as rather primitive, ridiculing and fearing them. There is an alien invasion, bloodshed, unexpected bravery and redemption.
Thankfully despite the familiarity Terra never feels stale.It's tense and dark but also witty, charming and very moving. Yes it's a story about aliens but it's also a very human story about families and love. I was left wanting more of this captivating world and had the feeling a sequel may be in the offing. Thankfully Mitch confirmed this is the case, the next book is planned for release next summer.
I am very much looking forward to catching up with Terra, Lbbp and friends then.

Terra is published in the UK by Gollancz.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Book Review: The Oathbreaker's Shadow by Amy McCulloch

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I was lucky enough to receive a free copy of The Oathbreaker's Shadow by Amy McCulloch through a First Reads giveaway on Goodreads. As such I was under no obligation to produce a review, I write this by choice not due to any agreement with myself and either the author or publisher.
The book is actually a YA title, hard as it may be to believe I am a few years past that stage ;-) but I'm a strong believer that if a story is well told then it's worth reading. Indeed it could be argued that the YA description refers to the age of the protagonists rather than a recommended reading age.
So I had no concerns over the YA tag but The Oathbreaker's Shadow is also a fantasy novel, a genre I haven't actively avoided but also not been particularly drawn to, I've not read the LOTR books or Game of Thrones for instance.
I was however, intrigued by the plot of The Oathbreaker's Shadow; the main character is 15 year old Raim, who lives a nomadic lifestyle in the land of Darhan. The people living here tie promise knots whenever they make a vow, these knots are bound by powerful magic. Should a promise be broken the knot leaves a physical scar, the oathbreaker becomes haunted by a shadow and is thrown into the desert as an outcast. Raim is training to be an elite Yun warrior and agrees to give his life protecting his best friend Khareh who is the future Khan. However, on the night he makes this solemn vow he accidentally breaks a promise. He has worn a bracelet since the day he was born but the children of Darhan are raised by the older generation and so he has remained unaware of the significance of this promise. Nevertheless despite innocently breaking this vow he is still made an exile  and with a shameful scar marking him as a traitor he is forced to flee into the desert in a bid to uncover the truth.
The Oathbreaker's Shadow is a hugely enjoyable adventure story. It doesn't shy away from violence or death but also looks as the big themes of forgiveness, trust and love. Raim is a likeable hero with enough flaws to be interesting and Wadi is a strong and believable female character. Amy McCulloch has created lands and characters full of magic and mystery, The Oathbreaker's Shadow is a duology but I believe there is enough scope for a series of books. The book ended as, all good first books of a series do, on a cliffhanger. I'm very much looking forward to reading what comes next for Raim.

The Oathbreaker's Shadow is published in the UK by Doubleday Childrens.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

My 2013 reading list so far

With over half the year gone I thought it would be a good time to look back at the books I've read so far this year along with a few words about each of them. So in chronological order I've read the following:

Mike by PG Wodehouse - having read most of the Jeeves and Wooster stories plus various other works by Wodehouse I knew I'd enjoy this. Introduces Psmith who has become one of my favourite literary creations.

Bah Humbug by Heather Horrocks - not the sort of book I'd usually choose but I'd just bought a Kindle and wanted a free book to try out. Entirely predictable, fine if you like that sort of thing but not really for me.

The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson - I loved this. Like a quirky Forrest Gump without the sentimentality.

Psmith in the City by PG Wodehouse - Second of the Psmith books, naturally I loved it. In this book Psmith takes the central role, with Mike still present as his loyal friend. Psmith's baiting of his boss, Bickersdyke provide many of the laugh out loud moments in this book.

Safe House by Chris Ewan - A thriller with several twists and turns, it took me a little while to get into it but once I did I liked it a lot.

The Twelfth Child by Bette Lee Crosby - I enjoyed this one too, it follows the life of an unwanted child and has an unexpected twist at the end. Nothing ground-breaking but a good light read.

Blood Sisters by Melody Carlson - Not a bad read but as an atheist I found parts overtly religious. I don't object to characters being religious but this felt rather preachy at times.

What We Saw by Ryan Casey - A little predictable but managed to retain enough of a mystery to keep me reading.

Psmith, Journalist by PG Wodehouse - Psmith and Mike go to America. A darker plot than many of Wodehouse's works with a strong social conscience. One of my favourites.

In the Blood (A Genealogical Crime Mystery #1) by Steve Robinson - A slow start but actually this was a really good thriller. Making the main character a genealogist just avoided him being too cliched and the fast pace and plot twists made for a well constructed debut novel.

Death by a Honeybee/Death by Drowning/Death by Bridle (Josiah Reynolds Mysteries 1-3) by Abigail Keam - With the main character being an older woman who seems to fall into these mysteries you could say the spirits of Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher are alive and well! Nothing truly original but mostly kept me guessing and I quite enjoy reading the gentler mysteries sometimes.

Renegade by Donna Boyd - I found out after reading that this was an addition to the Devoncroix series of books about a werewolf (or loup garou) dynasty but I don't feel I missed out not having read them. I will definitely read the other books in the series at some point.

The Sun, The Moon and Maybe The Trains by Rodney Jones - a YA time travelling book. A good quick read with likeable main characters.

Open Minds (Mindjack Trilogy #1) by Susan Kaye Quinn - another YA book and a really good concept for a story. Ultimately though I only found it ok, I'm not entirely sure why other than the main characters weren't especially engaging. I may read the rest of the trilogy but am in no hurry to.

A Season of Secrets by Anneke Campbell - an easy read I enjoyed but not really a memorable story, I had to remind myself of the plot as I'd completely forgotten what it was about.

Round the Red Lamp by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - I love the Sherlock Holmes and Challenger books so enjoyed these short stories. Not classics but some thought provoking tales amongst them.

Doctor Who: Summer Falls by Amelia Williams - as a Whovian I had to read this! Supposedly written by Amy Pond, without the Who link and taken just on its own merits this would appeal especially to pre-teens. It reminded me a bit of The Winter of Enchantment which was one of my favourite books growing up.

While You Are Sleeping by Paul Craig - a fantasy novel, very humorous, I wasn't sure if it was written for children or adults but either way it was a fun read.

The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister - Nonna's often heartbreaking story of living through the holocaust as a young girl from a wealthy Russian family. Not an easy read due to the content but it's a book that will stay with me for a long time and another important reminder of the horrors people endured at the hands of the Nazis.

Are We Nearly There Yet?: A Family's 8000-Mile Car Journey Around Britain by Ben Hatch - Much more than a travelogue, this book made me snort with laughter and cry like a baby. So good I've read it twice and will read it again. Definitely on my list of favourites.

Molly Brown by BA Morton - An enjoyable enough thriller, not especially original but a decent page turner.

Daughter of Time/Footsteps in Time/Winds of Time (After Cilmeri 0.5-1.5) by Sarah Woodbury - I've not read much in the way of historical romance but the time travel in this was enough to tempt me. The author clearly knows this period well and I liked these books very much. The first is actually a prequel and was my favourite of the three. There are more books in the series and when I'm in the mood for something undemanding but with a well plotted storyline and a good cast of characters I'll read them too.

The Humans by Matt Haig - one of the best books I've ever read. I loved it the first time I read it then read it again and possibly loved it even more. Everything I could want in a book, if you're looking for a book to take on holiday then take this.

Leave it to Psmith by PG Wodehouse - Psmith at Blandings! Sadly the last of the Psmith books but arguably the best. Very similar in places to the sublime Something Fresh. Classic Wodehouse.

Free Country: A Penniless Adventure the Length of Britain by George Mahood - a funny, feel-good true story and the perfect antidote to those "Broken Britain" headlines.

Road to Rouen by Ben Hatch - another hugely enjoyable book by Ben, honest, funny and poignant. Reading this is a workout for your emotions but so worth it.

The Radleys by Matt Haig - families, love, growing up, growing old, living in suburbia...oh and vampires! What's not to love? Don't let Twilight put you off reading this book.

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness - a beautiful lyrical story inspired by a Japanese folk tale. This was a book I tried to read more slowly so I could really savour it.

One Big Damn Puzzler by John Harding - a laugh out loud bittersweet story filled with memorable characters, humour and compassion. I loved reading this one.

As They Slept by Andy Leeks - easy to read diary extracts, not particularly moving other than a couple of entries but an interesting idea (the author set himself a challenge to write a diary entry on his train commute into work each day) that made for a decent light read.

The Lawnmower Celebrity by Ben Hatch - Ben's first book, this one is fiction but semi-autobiographical. Again he put my emotions through the wringer. At times I found it a painful read but the humour meant it wasn't a depressing book, I'd definitely recommend it (unless you hated Catcher in the Rye in which case you probably won't like this!)

So there we have it, 35 different books read, two I read twice (Are We Nearly There Yet? And The Humans). I'm currently reading The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat and have a long list of books to read including The Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Florence and Giles by John Harding, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, The International Gooseberry by Ben Hatch, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Terra by Mitch Benn.


Thursday, 11 July 2013

Book Review: One Big Damn Puzzler by John Harding

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One Big Damn Puzzler was published a few years ago but the reviews on this blog will be for books I've read and enjoyed and so will include older as well as more recently published titles.
It was actually a recommendation on Twitter (from Ben Hatch, author of Road to Rouen reviewed here) that led me to this book; once I read that the plot involved a tribesman on a remote South Pacific island who is attempting to translate Hamlet into the local pidgin English I couldn't fail to be hooked.
Managua is the name of the ageing tribesman and he is the only islander able to read. As the book begins he is struggling to translate Hamlet's famous soliloquy, they have no concept of nobles on the island, nor do they use slings and arrows. Eventually "To be, or not to be, that is the question:" becomes "Is be, or is be not, is be one big damn puzzler:" and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are "Clubs and bamboo pits of real damn bad luck." Meanwhile his wife Lamua jealously hunts for Cordelia, the pig she believes Managua loves more than her.
Their lives, and that of all the islanders are interrupted by the arrival of William Hardt, an American lawyer who has, he says, come to help them. Flashback chapters show us William's battle to control his OCD, a battle made much harder on an island with a communal shitting beach.
The only other white resident on the island, Miss Lucy is an ethnographer, we discover more about the islanders through excerpts of her book 'The Other Side of Paradise: The Sexual Life And Customs Of An Unspoiled People." These excerpts and the chapters about William and Lucy's earlier lives may have been a distraction from the main narrative but actually I rather liked the slightly more meandering route to explain the behaviour of the characters.
We learn of the islanders' taboos, their attitude to sex before and after marriage, their rituals following a death and their belief in magic. The men visit the kassa house, where stoned on the local drug they converse with dead relatives, we are left to decide whether they experience a mass hallucination or magic really is at work. We find out too that in this matrilineal society where girls are more highly prized, mothers who have only had sons will dress their youngest boys as girls, the scenes involving the she boys often being the most affectionate and touching in the book.
William wants to help the islanders, many of whom lost limbs after stepping on mines left by American soldiers and believes that he can make their lives better but as the book progresses he is forced to reassess those beliefs.
I remember reading an article in The Guardian recently about books that make you laugh out loud. I would add One Big Damn Puzzler to that list, I'm a big fan of PG Wodehouse and with all the secret keeping in this book I was reminded of the more farcical scenes in Plum's books - and of course there's a pig! There is a deeper, more bittersweet side to the story too though, if you have a dry eye after reading the islanders' version of the Yorick scene in Hamlet then you're made of sterner stuff then I am.
It's a book that owes as much to The Tempest as to Hamlet and references other Shakespeare plays too but if you're not a fan of the Bard don't let that put you off. The memorable characters, humour and compassion combine into a delight of a book I highly recommend.

One Big Damn Puzzler is published by Black Swan.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Book Review: The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

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A Japanese folk tale told to Patrick Ness when he was in kindergarten in Hawaii was the inspiration for this magical meandering story. It is not a straight retelling but it has a lyrical timeless quality that makes the book feel almost mythic.
The Crane Wife begins when the principal character in the book,  a middle aged divorcee called George finds a crane in his garden with an arrow through its wing. He removes the arrow and the crane flies away but the next day the beautiful and enigmatic Kumiko comes into his print shop and George is instantly captivated.
Unlike many stories George isn't a character looking for redemption, instead we are told often of how nice he is, he is even on good terms with his ex-wife. For once this isn't a tale of love conquering all, instead George becomes greedy in his need to know everything of Kumiko's story. The Crane Wife looks at the often destructive power of love, how that desire for knowledge can become all consuming. A constant theme throughout the book is the idea that stories are never ending and change depending on who is doing the telling. Much of the book features a familiar reality with George struggling to communicate with his daughter Amanda whilst battling his desire to possess Kumiko totally and jealously keep her to himself. Amanda is a wonderful character, her anger and tactlessness belying her vulnerable loneliness. Kumiko feels less rounded but I believe this was a deliberate ploy by Ness to ensure we share a little of George's need to learn more about her. We do know she is an artist and makes sculptural pictures using feathers but she believes her work is missing something until she sees George's paper cutting and the two art forms are combined to create something breath-taking that touches people deeply and in ways they can't quite comprehend. Alongside this story is an ethereal and magical tale, gradually revealed to us through the tiles produced by Kumiko and George. Eventually the two strands, reality and myth, converge seamlessly creating a story which is poignantly real yet infused with a magical dream-like quality. The Crane Wife is a story about stories, about art and beauty, love and loss, I had to force myself to slow down when reading it as I didn't want to reach the end. It is a book that drew me in and made me forget the time, a genuine treat to read.

The Crane Wife is published by Canongate Books.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Book Review: Road to Rouen by Ben Hatch

Another day, another book review - I'm spoiling you this week! This time the book is non-fiction (or in Connie's words when she was little "an infection book") I first became aware of Ben Hatch through Twitter. As always when I come across an author I haven't read before I had a look at his work and to my delight discovered his book Are We Nearly There Yet, the story of his family's trip around Britain in their Vauxhall Astra. As a huge fan of Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods is one of my all time favourite books) I thought it would be right up my street. Even better he was a fellow cheese lover meaning I couldn't fail to be tempted! I wasn't wrong and devoured the book in a couple of days. I cried genuine tears of laughter and sorrow reading it. Whilst I'm not actually properly reviewing it here I will just say that I highly recommend you read it.
 I felt bereft after finishing it; imagine my joy then when I discovered the Hatches had been travelling again - this time to France, on a road trip in their cheese scented Passat. I briefly considered ordering a paper copy but needed instant gratification so downloaded it to my Kindle. My  intention was to just have a quick peek to satisfy my curiosity then to read it on our own holiday in France later in the year. My advice to anybody considering the same would be to forget it! Within a few pages I was hooked again and had finished the whole book in less than two days.

Image courtesy of Headline

So why is it so good? Firstly it is side-splittingly funny. The Hatches do seem to have an unwavering knack of finding themselves in situations that are comedy gold to the reader. Their experience with a donkey called Taquin had me in stitches and Ben's plan to sneak food into Disneyland Paris was inspired. His children are a delight to read about, their reactions to trips to the innumerable vegetable theme parks I'd previously been lamentably unaware of, are hilarious and as a parent ring very true. I'm loathe to give too much of the plot away as I don't want to spoil it for anybody but there are several moments that I could quote (and indeed did keep reading aloud to my family). The book though is far more than a series of comic escapades and wonderful though they are it's the more serious, poignant moments that elevate the book onto the list of my must-reads. Ben writes with such honesty I  couldn't fail to be deeply moved, sometimes to tears. He juxtaposes the family's (mis)adventures with a candid and moving examination of his relationship with his wife. Reading Road to Rouen is like having a conversation with a good friend, sometimes you'll laugh, occasionally you'll cringe and other times you'll share a tear but life feels so much better for the time spent together. I said at the start of this review that I'm a huge fan of Bill Bryson, that still holds true but I have to say that having loved the humour and heart in both his travel books I've become an even bigger fan of Ben Hatch's writing.

Road to Rouen is published by Headline.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Book Review: The Humans by Matt Haig

Today I'm reviewing The Humans by Matt Haig. Be warned this review is likely to be a bit convoluted and possibly a bit too personal.

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Last August my brother committed suicide. In the dark days and weeks immediately after his death I read almost incessantly. I couldn't sleep because when I closed my eyes all I could see was his body (I had to go to the mortuary with my father to formally identify his body.) When I was awake I read so I could bear the raw grief ripping at my heart. I believe that it's thanks to books I survived those days, I'm not sure how I'd have coped without books giving me a respite from my at times overwhelming reality.

The Humans wasn't published then but I wish it had been. It tells the story of an alien sent from the planet Vonnadoria to remove all evidence of the solving of the Riemann hypothesis (the key to prime numbers which guarantee a huge technological leap for mankind) by eminent Cambridge professor Andrew Martin. The Vonnadorians are horrified by this breakthrough as they see humans as a primitive, violent race not ready for the advancements the solving of the hypothesis will bring. An unnamed alien is therefore sent to Earth on a mission to ensure humankind remains unaware that this secret has been solved. He kills Martin then inhabits his body in order to infiltrate his life and erase all traces of his discovery, by removing all technological evidence and by killing anybody he may have told.
The first part of the book has several comic moments, the alien arrives knowing nothing of human life and finds himself naked and without language on a motorway. Matt Haig has held a magnifying glass to humans here and through the eyes of the alien Andrew we see our often irrational absurdity.
As the book progresses it becomes more poignant, Martin learns more about what it means to be human, thanks partly to a dog, peanut butter and Emily Dickinson.  The 97 point list that features in the book is perhaps the book's shining moment, Matt's skillful blending of the emotional with the humorous means he avoids this list becoming saccharine and it is genuinely moving, my favourite point being "It's not the length of life that matters. It's the depth. But while burrowing, keep the sun above you."
The Humans is a beautifully written insight into what it means to be a human and how pain, sorrow and fear are a necessary part of that. With my grief not being a linear process there are days when I am hit again with an almost unbearable sadness. I know that on those days I will turn once more to The Humans. I don't ever feel suicidal but there are times when I question what it means to live. When I read The Humans I am given an answer.

The Humans is published by Canongate Books.