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?