Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

David has always been an avid reader, but after the loss of his mother he gradually retreats more and more into them. Then the unthinkable happens, his Dad meets Rose and soon he gets a new brother, Georgie. Meanwhile Hitler marches through Europe and the bombs begin to drop on London. Taken to live in Rose's house outside the City, David finds the world around him becoming more and more unrecognizable. It is then that The Crooked Man begins to appear and David's life will never be the same again.

If you ever read and enjoyed Grimm's fairy tales and all those myths and legends you read as a child, The Book of Lost Things is the book for you. You will delight in the re-fashioning of Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty and many others. As David makes his way through the magical world he finds himself in you will keep finding references to other childhood stories you know. Connolly gives all of these stories a darker (and in some cases almost black) edge though and there is a bit of gore to be had. It is definitely more of a book for adults to appreciate the stories of their childhood than one to read to young children.

The book is beautifully written. I got so engrossed in every detail, from the smell of the Woodsman's Cottage to the visceral deaths of the wolves at the hands of the Crooked Man. The story flows seamlessly through each tale, to make a rounded and full tale all in its own right. It deals with the issues of grief and jealously from the point of view of a small child, but not written in a childish way. I honestly couldn't put this book down and at over 300 pages it is not a light read. I can't put into words just how much I enjoyed this book. The characters had depth, they weren't perfect and they incorporated some very adult themes you don't often find in fairy tales (there is a suggestion that one of the characters is homosexual). Yet it wasn't written in such a way as to make any of the characters sound scandalous. I didn't feel Connolly was being unfaithful to the fairy tales, just adding the bits that children would never know. A bit like not knowing or understanding that a family friend is gay when you're a child but finding out about it when you grow up.

I would recommend this to anyone, I can't stress enough how much of a good read it is.

*5 stars*

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time by Mark Haddon

One night, 15 year old Christopher finds a dog dead in his next door neighbour's garden. Thus begins the unraveling of Christopher's world. Yet Christopher is no ordinary boy. He's highly intelligent, a skilled mathematician, but he's autistic. Join Christopher on his journey through the world as he sees it. How he tries to understand people and events and just what makes him tick.

I have heard so many people praising Mark Haddon and raving about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time' that when I saw it on the shelf in the library I thought I'd try it. Yet on finishing the book I wondered what all the fuss was about.

Yes, it is a different and clever take on writing a novel. It is completely written from Christopher's point of view, misunderstandings and tangents included. However it did mean that the book was rather child like in some ways. When I finished the book I realised the story that had taken up the entire book might only have filled half or ever quarter of a book written in a more normal style. Whilst there was progression for some of the characters I didn't feel this applied to Christopher. Maybe because of his condition it can't.

I guess I was coming at this book from a very personal angle. I've had a bad experience with someone with this sort of difficulty and have ended up frightened and questioning how I interact with others (how do you explain to someone who can't understand social interaction and personality like other people can that when you're chatty and smiley with them thats because thats who you are and you're chatty and smiley with everyone, that you didn't highlight your hair because of them, but because you wanted to and therefore their belief that you have feelings for them and their declarations of love and their insistence on having their possessions when they die are incorrect and overstepping the invisible line of what is acceptable which they can't see ).

Despite all of this Haddon is a good writer, ingenious in fact. I won't let this book put me off trying other books he writes, although I'll steer clear of any on this subject matter.

*3 stars*

Death and the Cornish Fiddler by Deryn Lake

In this eleventh outing for John Rawlings we find our beloved apothecary in Devon with his daughter Rose. They are taking a welcome break from London with his old friend Elizabeth di Lorenzi after the death of Emilia Rawlings (see 'Death in the Setting Sun' for more background on this). Elizabeth is keen to attend The Floral Dance, a local pagan festival in a tiny village known as Helstone. Both John and Rose are eager to attend and it is not long before the party are enjoying the sights and sounds of Helstone during the festivities. It is in Helstone that they meet a disagreeable young girl who terrorises Rose. Yet when the child goes missing John knows he must do everything in his power to find her. It is not long before one of the guests at the inn dies in mysterious circumstances and once again John is on the trail of murder and mayhem. Not everything is as it seems and perhaps the magic and witchcraft surrounding the festivities is much more than local superstition.

The last volume in this series was exceedingly heart wrenching. For John to loose the love of his life and have to go on the run when accused of her murder, it would be hard for any author to follow that. Sadly, this is the case. Although an enjoyable romp through 18th century Devon this book lacks the raw emotion and gripping storyline of the previous book. Much of the storyline was predictable, particularly that concerning Elizabeth di Lorenzi. It felt like a book cobbled together in the aftermath of Emilia's death and John's exoneration. I suspect that Lake has very clear ideas about the next book and that this installment is merely a filler between that and 'Death in the Setting Sun'.

As well as the predictability I found many of the characters lacked depth and interest. I appreciate that many are invented to set our teeth on edge but I kept wanting more. The lack of John Fielding, Sir Gabriel, Samuel, Nicholas and other regular characters I found saddening. Over the last few books the old faces are beginning to dwindle and unfortunately I do not feel they are being replaced by worthy candidates.

I will definitely be reading the next installment of this series, not least because I want to be reassured that this is a momentary lapse in Lake's excellent writing career. I would definitely recommend this series to anyone who enjoys well constructed, beautifully set murder mysteries. One cannot fault Deryn's ability to paint 18th century alive with words. I would recommend you go out and start at the beginning of the series with 'Death in the Dark Walk'. If you read I first you really not be sampling her finest work or come to love John and his family and friends as much as I do.

*3 stars*

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Way of the World by Elizabeth Aston

It is about 20 years after the events in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The Darcy's are off to Constantinople, leaving their five daughters with Fitzwilliam and his wife Fanny for a season in London. The girls must carefully pick their way through high society in the hope of finding eligible matches, enduring being jilted, hoodwinked, falling in love with the wrong men and scandalous gossip about their conduct. Will the shades of Pemberly be polluted or will the girl's manage to keep their reputations?

I must admit I picked this book up because I adore Pride and Prejudice. I have read Carrie A Bebris' Mr and Mrs Darcy series and enjoyed them as light reading. Although I found 'The Way of the World' readable I have to admit I probably won't be recommending it unlike the Mr and Mrs Darcy series. The book started slowly and when it finally got going it wasn't too long before it felt a bit too unlike Austen in terms of plot. Aston does manage to incorporate the various characters from Pride and Prejudice but topics like sodomy and pregnancy out of wedlock aren't really discussed openly in Austen's work. The five daughters of Darcy have very few redeeming qualities between them. The most likeable character is Althea, but perhaps this is because she is a fairly minor character with only a few major scenes so you haven't got the chance to dislike her. Letty is so prim and proper and highly strung that you feel she is a cross between Mrs Bennett and the early impression we get of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Camilla is meant to be the Elizabeth like character but I just didn't feel she was. Belle and Georgina are clearly the Kitty and Lydia of this book but it's almost as if Aston is trying to out-do Austen in the scandal stakes. Theres one point where one of the twins is found in a state of undress with an admirer.

The book did make me want to keep reading, just out of fascination to see what would happen to everyone. The middle bit of the book was the most gripping, whilst the last section of the book seemed very out of character with Austen's world. It felt like Aston was trying to update Austen and make it a bit more exciting for modern tastes. It's not what I like. I like Austen because I find her humorous and I don't find the plots threatening. I find Austen gentle, but not Aston. I also found the constant references to the beauty of unmarried women in the book (or their lack of it) irritating. I only needed to be told how pretty cousin Sophie was once, and not have her constantly compared to the other young ladies.

I would recommend this to people who although enjoyed Austen's works felt it needed a bit of spice and updating.

*2 stars*

Saturday, June 23, 2007

More reviews & a new website

I've been doing a few reviews on a new website I've found called 'The Book Club Forum'. It's a great website where you can discuss books, pick up great reviews and keep a list of all the books you're planning to read. I'll still do reviews here (don't see the point in repeating reviews for books that have already been done on the site), but any I do there I will post links to. The good thing about this new website is that you only need to join if you want to post something. Non-members can still browse and read most of the topics (the review ones definitely!).

Anyway, I've been doing lots and lots of reading lately so here are the links for the other reviews I've done.

The Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez - the true story of an American hairdresser who helps the women of Kabul find freedom through training as beauticians after the fall of the Taleban.

The Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin - a murder mystery set in 12th century Cambridge.

And if any of you want to see whats I'm reading and what reviews are likely to be coming up check out my 'to read pile'.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Tuscany for Beginners - by Imogen Edwards-Jones

It has been 5 years since Belinda discovered her husband in bed with the next door neighbour. After the divorce she moved to Tuscany and opened an exclusive Bed and Breakfast establishment. Over those five years she has built up a small group of ex-pat friends and gotten involved in several local events. She has even started to write a book about her experiences, peppered with her rustic Italian recipes. Yet this summer her world will be turned on its head. This summer a new resident moves into her valley, and she too has decided to open an exclusive Bed and Breakfast. How will Belinda cope with her new competition, who not only wants her business but her social life as well?

This book is the latest read in the book club I have joined. Again, like the previous book I read for this club (see my review of 'Telling Tales' by Ann Cleeves) it was not a book I would normally pick up. To be honest it will continue to be the sort of book I never pick up! From start to finish I found I hated this book. The storyline did not interest me, I did not like any of the characters at all and I felt reading this book had been a waste of my time.

The main character Belinda sounds an absolute nightmare. Lazy, self-obsessed and devoid of basic customer service skills (a necessity one would think when running a B&B). She is a downright snob, who looks down on just about everyone in one way or another. Quite frankly I would not wish to stay at her establishment if it were the last on earth. I can also understand why her husband had an affair with the neighbour. Her fellow ex-pats are also utterly unlovable. They sound like the typical caricatures of Brits abroad, not willing to eat like or rub shoulders with the locals, who spend most of their time working on their tan or paying for new palm trees or swimming pools. The American (Lauren) who competes against Belinda is hard to like too. Although she manages everything much better than Belinda she still comes across as vindictive and selfish. Even the characters we probably should feel sympathetic towards (Belinda's daughter and Lauren's soon) some across as spineless, weak and uninteresting.

The story is meant to be comic but I felt it was all too forced. It was too much of a caricature of the worst of human behaviour. The humour was obvious and unfunny. A lot of the plot seemed fanciful, especially the ending, and it all came across as some bad dream.

It comes as no surprised therefore that the author helped write the scripts for the BBC drama 'Hotel Babylon'. It too suffers from caricatures rather than characters and lots of unfunny humour.

It's a shame that this book does no justice to Tuscany. Although I have not been to Tuscany I have been to Italy on numerous occasions and would recommend to everyone to visit. This book rather puts you off visiting the country which is a real shame.

I would not recommend this book to anyone. I am certain there are better 'ex-pat' novels than this out there and I'd love the chance to read them and restore my faith in this genre. Suggestions gratefully received!

*1 star*

Blood on the Strand - Susanna Gregory

This is Gregory's second book concerning the 16th century spy Thomas Chaloner. Originally a spy for Oliver Cromwell in Holland, Chaloner has returned to England in the wake of the Restoration to continue his career in England. With links to the old government and a relative who signed Charles I's death warrant, few trust Chaloner and he has picked up several enemies. By the end of the previous book he had managed to secure employment but as this second installment goes to show, this does not offer Chaloner guaranteed protection.

In this book Chaloner is faced with investigating an apparent attempt on the King's life, the murder of an influential merchant and the various schemes afoot to discredit his employer, the Earl of Clarendon. Seemingly involved in these various plots are the Company of Barber Surgeons, the Earl of Bristol, the Guinea Company and several of his spy colleagues. Can Chaloner protect his employer, save those falsely accused of the merchant's murder and discover why one of the Royal physicians appears to have made an attempt on the monarch's life? In a world of courtly intrigues, when it is fashionable to attend dissections of human bodies and where England is quietly simmering with religious tension anything could happen.

I read the first book in this series (A Conspiracy of Violence) last year and couldn't put it down. I'd discovered Gregory through her 'Matthew Bartholomew' series set in Medieval Cambridge (the 13th in this series has recently been published). I was expecting more of the same with this installment but have to admit to being disappointed. The story seems incredibly slow and laborious and doesn't seem to go anywhere much of the time. I feel that perhaps Gregory was trying to include too many different plot lines and too many twists and turns. I did find my head ached at times trying to work out what was going on and which particular investigation Chaloner was working on at any one time. I appreciate that in the spying game you can't really trust anyone but perhaps this was somewhat overdone.

It's a shame because Gregory was using some fascinating historical bit and pieces as her backdrop. The fashion for watching dissections and the morality of this, the Catholic plot in Ireland, the work of a 17th century physician, the intrigues of the court at this date, the slave trade. They were all in there, for better or for worse. When you reach the end of the book there are several pages about the historical background of the book. I really felt that Gregory had picked up on a lot of good original sources when planning out this story but was too desperate to fit them all in.

The slow pace for much of the book coupled with the sheer volume of information that needed to be taken in are perhaps my biggest criticisms. The characters on the whole were believable and Gregory uses a good range. From the jealous May whose out to destroy Chaloner, to the larger than life Silence Webb, they are all there. I didn't feel the book patronised me and generally there were definitely some great sections. This book needed re-working to really let those sections breathe and to make the pace a bit less like wading through treacle.

I would only recommend this book if you have enjoyed the first installment of the 'Chaloner' series as you will need to read it to continue with the series at all (it seems clear to me that several plot points in this book will be picked up in the next book).

*3 stars*

Other books by Susanna Gregory include:
*A Conspiracy of Violence: First book in the Thomas Chaloner series
*The Butcher of Smithfield: Third book in the Thomas Chaloner series
*The Westminster Poisoner: Fourth book in the Thomas Chaloner series