Sunday, 23 February 2014

Book Review: The Memory Book by Rowan Coleman

As a mum to three girls I was immediately drawn to The Memory Book when I saw it was a book about the relationships between mothers and daughters.  It focuses on three generations of women, Claire who has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease, her daughter, Caitlin who has to make her own life-changing decisions whilst watching her mum deteriorate rapidly, and her mother, Ruth who lost her husband to Alzheimer's and now faces the loss of her only daughter. So emotional stuff then and it would be foolish of me to deny that it made me cry several times. However, this is not in any way a depressing read, despite the sombre subject matter it is a warm, often funny and always touching look at a family learning to deal with the massive changes they are facing. Claire is the main narrator of the story and we see her fear and frustration as she slowly loses who she is. This is sensitively and believably handled, particularly in the scenes where her memory loss is apparent. The Memory Book of the title refers to a book Claire is filling in with memories of her past, her teenage pregnancy, years as a single mum, her love affair and subsequent marriage to Greg, the birth of her second daughter, Esther (who is a thoroughly real small girl with all the charm, humour and tyranny they possess) and always her relationship with Caitlin and Ruth. Caitlin, Ruth and Greg also add their memories to the book and so we see what they're going through watching the gradual loss of such a significant person in all their lives as some chapters are narrated in their voices, something that works very well and creates a fully rounded family  whose plight is easy to identify with. I sympathised with them, of course but the writing is such that I didn't ever pity them.
I lost my own mum to breast cancer when I was 22 and so have always been a motherless mother to my own three girls although have been fortunate to have a wonderful mother-in-law. I miss my mum every day but still feel blessed that I learned how to be a mum from her. The Memory Book really touched me, it's a truly lovely reminder of the relationship between mothers and daughters. I thoroughly recommend it. Many thanks to the author and publishers for my copy from Netgalley in return for my honest review.

The Memory Book is published in the UK by Ebury.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

Stoner was first published in 1965 but has only recently found success, 19 years after the death of John Williams. I finished it a few days ago but have been struggling to know how to write this review. It's not that I didn't enjoy it, quite the opposite actually, I'm just not sure if I can do it justice. The Stoner of the title refers to William Stoner, son of a farmer who originally goes to the University of Missouri to study agriculture but falls in love with literature and eventually drops his science courses in favour of philosophy, ancient history and English literature and ends up teaching at the university for almost forty years. And that in an essence is it, there are no great dramas and no shocking plot twists. It's a quiet character study of a quiet man who goes to college, finds work, marries (the wrong woman), has a child and eventually dies. He does nothing extraordinary and yet this is a book that moved me to tears and will stay with me for a long time. Stoner himself is unremarkable and we are told remembered rarely after his death but this gentle man who lives for much of his life unloved is still able to feel deep love for others and for literature and is a character who reminds us that we all have our stories, our successes and failures even if we will be forgotten by history. Achingly sad at times but wise and truthful, it was chosen as Waterstones Book of the Year for 2013. It took me a while to read because I wanted to savour this deceptively simple novel that covers a man's entire adult life in under three hundred pages but never feels rushed. If you love literature and the power of a perfectly structured narrative then I highly recommend you read this deservedly lauded book.

Stoner is published by Vintage Classics.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Book Review: The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

The Last Werewolf is the first in a trilogy and follows Jacob (or Jake) Marlowe who at the start of the book discovers he is the very last werewolf in the world and that a vengeful member of WOCOP (World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena) intends to kill him (werewolves can be killed by silver bullets, of course but also by beheading) at the next full moon. Jake however, doesn't much care, over 160 years of transforming and killing and avoiding bounty hunters have taken their toll and he is tired of the lupine life. In human form he is an erudite, chain smoking, rich loner, his main companion an elderly man called Harley who is clearly in love with him. The call of the wolf is never far away though and the animalistic drive surges through him for much of his time, not just when he has changed. So he is tired of it all and much to Harley's horror decides he will make it easy for his  would be killer the next full moon...except some people don't want him dead. Without giving too much of the plot away, Jake Marlowe staying alive is as important to some as Jake Marlowe being dead is to others. He finds himself at the centre of a fight for his life without caring much for the outcome. Will either side triumph and will Jake find a reason to want to live?
The familiar werewolf tropes are here, the transformation at full moon, the silver bullets, the heightened wolf senses and the violent killing and eating of humans but The Last Werewolf is more literary than genre fiction. Told in the form of a journal and littered with cultural and literary references this is always an intelligent and sharply observant read,
"Perhaps Jacqueline was right: humanity's getting its metamorphic kicks elsewhere these days. When you can watch the alchemy that turns morons into millionaires and gimps into global icons, where's the thrill in men who turned into wolves?"
It's also frequently very graphic with no holds barred descriptions of sex and violence. Whilst shocking it never felt gratuitous, Jake is part wolf and so driven by the needs of the animal within.
For a while however, I struggled a little with the book partly because I didn't know what to feel about Jake. I don't need to like a character to enjoy a book so whilst his amorality didn't concern me, I think his disinterest in his life did affect how I engaged with him for a time. I wasn't sure if I would care much if he lived or died if he didn't care himself. The middle of the book whilst having some unexpected twists was perhaps a little too plot driven for me. After a beginning that left me enthralled with its rich use of language I didn't exactly lose interest but I did begin to question if Jake was just going to have things happen to him without really doing anything proactive. I felt we were both passengers, along for a ride that had its surprises so we kept going but ultimately we never really felt involved. Thankfully another twist changed all that and the final third of the book became a gripping, fun, exhilarating and sometimes poignant tale. By the end I did care about what happened to Jake, both the human and wolf and I'm now very much looking forward to reading the other two books in the trilogy.
Many thanks to Canongate Books and Netgalley for sending me a copy of The Last Werewolf in return for my honest review.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Book Review; The Martian by Andy Weir

I have Liz from Liz Loves Books to thank for drawing my attention to  this book. Her enthusiastic tweets convinced me it was a book I needed to check out.
The Martian is set some time in the near future when Mars landings have become a reality. The first two missions were a success but the third ends in disaster when a storm means the crew of Ares 3 are forced to evacuate just six sols (Mars days) into the mission, leaving behind Mark Watney who they believe has been killed in a freak accident...except Mark has survived and is now alone on Mars. He has no way to communicate with Earth and only enough supplies to last six people for the length of their planned 31 day stay on the Red Planet. Can he find a way to let NASA know he is still alive and stay alive until a rescue is possible, if indeed a rescue is possible. Luckily he is a botanist and engineer so has the much needed skills to make survival at least a possibility but nevertheless the odds are stacked against him.
As the central character who dominates the book it is vital that the reader roots for Mark and I really did. Throughout the book I was with him every step of the way, desperately hoping he'd survive but having no idea whether he would. He is brave, resourceful, optimistic and more than a bit cheeky. This is a book that really puts the science in science fiction, there is lots and lots of science and the book could have become too technical and dry but the sheer force of Mark's personality keeps the story one of remarkable human endeavour. A rollercoaster of a read with plenty of laughs, heart in mouth white knuckle tension (particularly the conclusion), moments that had me wiping away tears and The Dukes of Hazzard -  The Martian has it all! If you enjoy a gripping and intelligent story with humour and heart then I strongly recommend you check it out.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for providing me a copy of the book and thank you Liz for your tweets!

The Martian will be published in the UK by Del Rey on 13th February 2014.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Book Review: One Night at the Jacaranda by Carol Cooper

I don't tend to read many romance novels but when Carol Cooper asked if I would like to review her debut novel the interesting premise immediately tempted me.
It follows several characters who meet at a speed dating night - the eponymous One Night at the Jacaranda - and each chapter switches between them, offering their own individual take on proceedings. Among the characters are Sanjay, a young man facing the end of his life following a terminal testicular cancer diagnosis, Karen, a single mum to four children, Dan, newly released from prison, Geoff, a divorced GP who desperately misses his young son, Laure, a lawyer pretending to be a hairdresser and Harriet, a journalist who is there for the byline, not the romance. They briefly meet, chat, flirt, ask questions, tell lies, tick boxes and make decisions about who they want to see again.
Most of the book though is about what happens after that night. There's love, sex, children, illness, death, deceit, loneliness, fear, anger, grief and laughter. It's not really a romance, rather a look at each of the characters' lives during the few months featured in the book and all the more interesting for it. The main characters are a varied bunch but on the whole likeable despite their flaws. The secondary characters are perhaps a little less well fleshed out but as they are mostly on the periphery of the story this is only a small gripe. Carol Cooper is a doctor and uses that experience both in the believable and sensitive medical scenes and in her empathetic observations of how people behave.
This is a well plotted story, there are lighthearted moments but it has a darker edge than many romantic novels. If you're looking for something that is more than the predictable boy meets girl this Valentine's Day you may well want to check out One Night at the Jacaranda yourself.