Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Return of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle

One of my new reading discoveries for the year was the short story, and how it can be much less frustrating to read a collection of them rather than having to constantly stop reading at a crucial point in the book.  And so with life being busy (and me still not wanting to decide which book to read) I embarked on the next Sherlock Holmes collection.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes begins, as you would expect, with the return of Sherlock Holmes.  His apparent death is handily explained and then forgotten about so that we can return to normal.  Let that be a lesson to all authors - never kill your most popular character just because you want to write about something else for a while.  In fact, the return to the 'golden days' was clearly required to such an extent that all changes in Watson's life are wiped out so that he can return to live with Holmes.

With much of the first story being dedicated to setting the 'new' scene there are really only 12 'proper' short stories in the collection.  As would be expected, these vary greatly in subject matter and crime type.  There are brutal cases, kidnappings, burglaries, and the odd instance of no crime being committed at all.  More of the stories in this series feature Holmes working against the police rather than for them, which adds an interesting extra level to each plot.

As I read the stories over a fair length of time it is difficult to say if any stood out as better than the rest.  I do remember that in The Adventure of the Six Napoleans I worked out where the plot was going.  This means it must have been fairly see-through, given my lack of concentration lately!  Still, the series as a whole was an enjoyable read.

My target for 2013 was to read 30 books.  I think it's fairly safe to say that 13 is well short of the mark.  Some major changes happened this year and reading is one of several parts of my life that got ignored.  Still, I got some new books for Christmas and remain hopeful that this will set me off on the right path for 2014.  Happy new year!

Monday, 11 November 2013

Archangel - Robert Harris

So, the reading kick didn't really happen as I had hoped.  It took me almost a month to read the next book I selected - yet another case of slowly reading a few chapters and then finishing most of the book off in the space of a day or so.  And then it's taken me over a month to start writing about it.  But I do have an excuse for that part.  I finished reading this while I was in the early stages of labour, and strangely free time has been in short supply since then!

Not wanting to make a decision I asked my husband what book I should read next, and he picked something by Robert Harris.  Archangel was the next book for me to read (in the order they were written) and so that is what I read.  Archangel follows an academic called Kelso in a historical-mystery-scavenger hunt, searching for a notebook that belonged to Stalin.

In the same way that The Shadow of the Wind made me realise my ignorance about the Spanish Civil War, reading this made me realise how little I know about the rise, existence and fall of the USSR.  Possibly knowing more would have enabled me to get more out of the book in terms of background context, but just enough background was provided that the plot still worked perfectly well.

The characters involved aren't the sort of people I'de want to spend the day with, however they fit the grittiness of the setting and plot.  While it's not the sort of book that I'm desperate to have back on my 'to read' list I enjoyed the time I spent reading it (well, except for the pain I was in....).

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Hound of the Baskervilles - Arthur Conan Doyle

There are many different reasons that people decide to try a new author or a new series of books.  For me, with Sherlock Holmes it was this book that was the reason.  Scanning down the list of 100 must-read novels on the Telegraph website I decided that this seemed a good pick.  But, not one to do things by halves, I started from the beginning.  And now that I've read the target novel I plan to continue to read the others.

The Hound of the Baskervilles tells the story of the Baskerville family, and the mystery and misfortune that has surrounded them.  Although Holmes and Watson are introduced to the affair in London much of the story takes place in the Dartmoor area, where the Baskerville residence is situated.  After one prominent member of the family has met their death in strange circumstances, should the surviving heir be worried of meeting a similar fate?

I confess, it took me quite a few chapters to get into this book.  However, I should also confess that this is likely to be my fault.  Starting a new story when over-tired or sat in a noisy office will never do it justice.  Once safely curled up under a blanket on the sofa, though, I couldn't put it down.  And for this reason I am now over-tired again.

The story is engaging, so much so that even in the last few chapters once the culprit is revealed there is still the urgent need to read on and find out more.  After the short stories it was nice to return to a Sherlock Holmes book with sub-plots and twists.  So many different threads of clues to unravel and then neatly stitch back together.

This isn't a book where characters develop or the world changes drastically.  Instead it is a book that is very true to itself.  It is a detective story, and a very good one.  I would recommend reading earlier Sherlock Holmes stories first, so as to get used to the style of delivery, but if you've ever thought that this is a book you should read then you were right.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Sorting things into categories is a habit that is picked up at a young age.  It makes things neat and provides a sense of order.  When it comes to books, those categories could be target age or size but normally would be genre.  So when someone puts a book on your bedside table and describes it as "a good book that doesn't really fit a category" it's a little disconcerting, and kind of hard to know what to expect.

The Shadow of the Wind is set in Barcelona in the 1940s and 50s and follows the life of Daniel, a young boy whose life is changed forever by a book.  As he grows up, the desire to know more about the life of the book's author starts to take over, and it turns out he's not the only one that wants to know more.

I can see why my husband couldn't categorise this book, even putting aside the fact he remembered little other than that it was good.  It's a story of someone's life as they try to find the story of someone else's life.  And like any life it has a variety of tones and events.  There is romance, there is lust, there is longing.  The theme of loss, of losing someone close to you, runs strongly throughout.  At the same time, the harsh brutalities of war are showcased.  And the whole thing is held together with a detective-style thread of discovery.  So much for neat little boxes.

But actually, you don't need to be able to put something in a box to enjoy it.  I was swept away into Daniel's world and found myself wanting to know the same things he longed to discover.  That's not to say that it didn't annoy me at times.  In a first-person situation it's only natural to get frustrated with the narrator, and occasionally to want to bash some sense into them.  It's the things like that which make a good book a good book.  If you don't care enough to feel then something has gone wrong.

I like the idea of a book making such an impact in your life.  Sure, I would hope for a little less pain than was inflicted on Daniel.  A good book should make you think.  If you feel the same after reading as you did before then it seems questionable how highly you really rated it.  It's fair to say that this one made me think, and I'm placing it in the category of books that I would recommend.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Utopia - Lincoln Child

For various reasons this is review has been delayed a fair bit, and for the same reasons this won't be the best writing I've ever done!

Utopia is a science fiction book about a theme park of the same name.  Not just any run-of-the-mill theme park, it is the biggest and most high-tech in the world.  Special effects and automation come as standard, and the whole operation runs like clockwork.  Until the technology goes wrong, that is.

Other than the prologue and epilogue, the story is set over a single day in the park's life, which makes for an interesting perspective.  Different chapters focus on the paths of different characters, and the format worked really well in terms of intensity.

Due to the nature of a one-day plot there clearly wasn't a lot of scope for character development, but I didn't mind that so much as the story itself was enough.  I loved Terri as a character, because geek girls who are both good at their job and a rounded human can be hard to find in books.  However, some of the characters were a little shallow.

Overall it was definitely a page-turner.  I found myself trying to sneak in 'just one more' chapter during lunch breaks.  My first dip into the world of science fiction for adults was a success.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The Magician's Apprentice - Trudi Canavan

Whatever anyone tries to tell you, size does matter.  And in the case of The Magician's Apprentice, I was very nearly put off by the bulky size, particularly relative to my ultra-light Kindle.  What I failed to remember, though, is that other things matter more than size.  If a book absorbs you into its world and has you hooked then you quickly forget how big it is, until you try to put it in a small bag of course!

The Magician's Apprentice is a prequel to Trudi Canavan's Black Magician trilogy, which I read a few years ago and absolutely loved.  For some reason I've been putting off reading this prequel for a while.  This was a mistake in several ways.  The first is practical.  As with all prequels, many references are made to concepts that are accepted as norms by the 'later' stories.  While I remembered the basics of how the Guild worked, for example, I felt like I was missing out a little by having to work to understand certain ideas.

However, the main reason it was a mistake is that this is a really good book, and really good books should not sit on your shelves for that long waiting to be read.  I may have mentioned previously that I get on well with Trudi Canavan's writing style, and that definitely helps when trying to lose yourself in a world.

The setup of the world itself and the characters within it are beautifully described and easy to warm to.  So much so that I commented to my husband early on that I didn't want there to be a plot.  I have read books before that introduced wonderful characters that were then completely changed by unenjoyable (to me) plotlines that completely ruined things.  In this case though, the plots worked.  There was a balance that ensured character development and a realistic number of war casualties, without taking away what made you fall in love with the characters in the first place.

And yes, I definitely did fall in love with the characters which, as I have definitely mentioned before, will usually win me over.  Wonderful characters, an eventful plot, and lots of good magic thrown in.  Who could ask for anything more?

Monday, 22 April 2013

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle

My aim for 2013 is to read 30 books, and given it's almost the end of April and my tally has just reached 7 it might be time to get my skates on.  Still, things have been busy lately and so a book I can dip in and out of has been exactly what was required.  Cue the second collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories...

As my second dip into the world of short stories I was a little more aware of what to expect.  For one thing, I had far more idea of how long each tale would be.  And reading in more of a stop-start nature gave me more appreciation of the individual plotlines.  It always helps, of course, to make a strong start, and in this case I did enjoy Silver Blaze.  The balance of deductive reasoning and solid clue gathering worked well, and the storyline was enjoyable as well.

Two of the cases featured as stories are from very early in Holmes' career, indeed one is his very first case.  As such Watson's words are almost exclusively a relay of Holmes' description of events.  This makes for a nice change from the usual style and provides a different frame of reference.  While I wouldn't want to read a whole novel in that format it works well as part of a collection with other styles.

All's well that ends well, and unfortunately that is where this collection falls short.  I found The Final Problem to be disappointing.  Watson's tone throughout is sombre, for obvious reasons, but this made reading a little dry.  But that wasn't what disappointed me.  Nor was the ending a disappointment, as it could hardly have been a surprise from the build up (and a visit to the Reichenbach Falls several years ago).  What disappointed me was the lack of mystery.

The whole story is a chase.  There is nothing to solve, not even a mention as to how the gang in London are to be captured.  In a way, it just felt like it wasn't a Sherlock Holmes story.  Maybe I just didn't connect with it, or was too focused on how it would end.  Or maybe it really is disappointing to a mystery fan.  Either way, it tarnished the end of what had been a very enjoyable collection.

My next dip into the world of Sherlock Holmes will be the novel that inspired me to start reading about him in the first place, but I think that will have to wait for a while.  For now I'll just read whatever takes my fancy on the day.  So many books, so little time!

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - JK Rowling

Clearly the Harry Potter bug bit me harder than I thought, and just a few days after finishing the Chamber of Secrets I found myself curled up on the sofa deep in the world of the Prisoner of Azkaban.  And I wasn't disappointed.

The third installment of the series is full of little gems, so many of which it's easy to forget amongst the main storyline that sweeps you away.  And reading with hindsight is even better.  The little remarks, such as it being the second real prophecy that Professor Trelawney has made, are so blatant when you know what they mean.

This book contains my favourite Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher in Professor Lupin.  Clearly he's a favourite amongst the pupils too, but his watchfulness over his friend's son is touching.  I also like his carefully placed quips about the makers of the Marauder's Map and similar incidents.

Sometimes I think the proof that you've enjoyed a book is after you finished reading.  Sure, I was completely immersed in the story at the time and didn't want to be distracted at all.  However, the fact that since finishing I've been running through parts of Harry Potter books in my head must surely mean more.  I've been smiling as I remembered the elation of the house Quidditch Cup, and feeling pensive about some of the less happy moments.  And most of all I've been feeling annoyed at myself that I remember barely more than a few details of the later books.  Time to put that right soon I feel!

I'll finish with the end of the book, and a conversation snippet that I had completely forgotten but made me smile broadly (and has done so now just thinking about it).
'It's a letter from my godfather.'
'Godfather?'  spluttered Uncle Vernon.  'You haven't got a godfather!'
'Yes, I have,' said Harry brightly. 'He was my mum and dad's best friend.  He's a convicted murderer, but he's broken out of prison and he's on the run.  He likes to keep in touch with me, though... keep up with my news... check I'm happy...'
And it that didn't make you smile, you need to re-read the book.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - JK Rowling

Once again I've been through a non-reading patch, and am behind on where I should be for the year.  Still, there's plenty of time left to rectify that and yesterday I managed to read almost all of the Chamber of Secrets in one sitting.

Continuing my Harry Potter re-read journey, I started reading the second book a few weeks ago but for some reason never settled in.  Slightly unusual as I have always regarded this as my favourite in the series.  I guess that the opening scenes aren't what draw me in though.

I find Tom Marvolo Riddle to be an absolutely fascinating character, particularly with the parallels drawn between his and Harry's upbringing.  The complete self-assurance of being popular and brilliant is hard to ignore.  But I think what I find most interesting is that he is a half-blood, which always puts the reactions of 'faithful' families like the Malfoys into a different context.

Part of me has now got the Harry Potter bug back, and I can't wait to read more.  But part of me thinks it might be time to return to Poirot or Holmes for some good old-fashioned detective work.  Not sure which will win, I just hope I read something!

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - JK Rowling

This is the 29th book I have written about in this blog, but the very first one that is a re-read.  It's not that I've run out of new books to read (not by a long way), the time just felt right to read something more familiar.  And after a book that was pretty heavy-going in places it was nice to read something a bit lighter.

Like a lot of other people, I've read all 7 Harry Potter books.  Books 4, 5, 6 and 7 were read as close to the day of release as could be managed.  But actually, the Goblet of Fire is the only one of those that I've ever read since.  Despite reading the earlier books several times I've never found the motivation for the others.  Until now.

My husband has said I need to watch the films, which I've managed to avoid very successfully.  The condition for me giving in is that prior to each viewing I will read the relevant book, and so will be fully equipped to complain about portions of the plot which are incorrect or missing.  And so yesterday I sat down to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.  It was somewhat of a novelty to be finished just a few hours later.

The main thing thing to strike me about the book was the content balance.  In my head, Harry arrives at Hogwarts really early on, and a large section is devoted to trying to get the Stone at the end.  I'm not sure if I should be blaming this on my devotion to Lego Xbox games, but it was a fair distance from reality.  Around three quarters of the way through the book it's only got as far as Christmas.  And conquering the challenges to reach the stone takes merely a chapter.

This may actually be a good thing, as it helps the book to retain its innocence.  The focus is on making friends and adjusting to life in a new school, with inter-house rivalry being of the utmost importance.  Sure, the basics of the evil that has occurred are told.  Yes, Harry has to face the guy who tried to kill him.  But really those parts serve as what they are supposed to be, a warm up for next time.

And for me that next time may be very soon indeed, as easy-reads are about all I can manage this week!

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Assassin's Quest - Robin Hobb

Books are powerful things.  They can transport you to another time, to another world.  They can temporarily change your perception of reality, and permanently change your perception of yourself.  They can make you wish for more in your life, and completely take over your life.

Now that reading is becoming more of a habit for me, I'm managing to become more absorbed in stories.  And as is now tradition, reading the third book of a trilogy meant that many other things moved down the priority order.  The final component in the Farseer trilogy had me reading through my lunch break, and going to bed earlier just to get more chapters in.  One day I even got some reading in before work.

As might be expected from the title, Assassin's Quest follows the storyteller assassin on a quest.  The quest takes different forms as he and the world around him change.  A quest for revenge, a quest for knowledge, a quest to serve, a quest to save.  Much of the story is a journey with changing purpose.  Do you fight to harm your enemy or to help your friends?  How do you know who your friends are at all?

One theme that runs throughout is that of family, friendship and love.  When most of the world thinks you're dead, trusting people with the knowledge of your true identity isn't so simple.  The journey into the mountains that features in the later section of the book brings together a misfit group who are forced to lean on each other to survive.  The struggles they have each faced bring them closer together as a 'pack'.

Ok, so I haven't been the most specific here.  And there's a good reason for that.  I'm not actually sure how I felt about the book.  All I know is that it made me think about what is important.  I guess that has to be a good thing, but along the way there were aspects of the plot I struggled with.  Some of the Skilling got a bit much for me, and while I know it was supposed to be unclear when things were Skill-influenced I still got confused and slightly annoyed.  There were also a few times when I quickly read through pages as they seemed to be background detail on a subject about which I no longer cared.

The characters, as ever, were wonderful in their quirks and secrets.  The ever-evolving relationships between those characters was beautifully written.  And for all I got confused with the Skill aspects of the plot, I couldn't help but feel for its users and those used by it.  For the White Prophet and the Catalyst, the constant struggle to interpret the prophecies and not be disheartened by them also tugged at my emotions.

I think the impact from the trilogy is going to take some processing, and maybe in a few days I will feel a bit clearer about the whole thing.  But I can't dwell for too long, there's another story out there just waiting to pull me in.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle

For my next literary adventure I took a dip into the world of short stories.  This made quite a nice change from longer novels that demand you keep reading, particularly with my habit of reading short chunks in my lunch break.  That's not to say I now have a preference for the shorter format, just that variety is a good thing.

Continuing my journey through the world of Sherlock Holmes, the first two novels are followed by a collection of short stories.  While each story has its own plot, references are frequently made to past cases that have been 'documented' by Dr Watson.  Although the references are small, it is enough to feel some small reward for loyally reading everything in order.

One thing I did struggle with was the timeline.  The first story, A Scandal in Bohemia, is set shortly after The Sign of the Four, however the pattern does not continue.  While some stories play out in order others are from an earlier time, even from between when the two novels are set.  The year is usually given at the start of the story but, particularly with references to earlier documented cases that were actually later, I still found it a little hard to keep track of.

As would probably be expected of a collection of short stories, my reaction to the individual plots was mixed.  In some cases, particularly The Adventure of Copper Beeches, I managed to work out the major plot point very early on, which isn't something I particularly enjoy in a mystery book.  However with others I found the story interesting and the mystery intriguing.  The only problem is that as I read each story in a row it's hard to remember the individual plots!

And now I think I will return to novels for a while.  Not for too long though, as my obsession with Sherlock Holmes is getting stronger, and I'm sure the next collection of short stories will start to call my name.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Royal Assassin - Robin Hobb

Ok, so reading another book before the end of the year didn't happen.  Actually, it almost did.  I managed to get started reading, but the inevitable array of Christmas activities sidetracked me from getting any further.  And so with the majority of the book read this week, Royal Assassin becomes the first book of the 30 that I aim to read in 2013.

Having been eyeing up the book for a few months, I returned to the world of the Six Duchies with the second book in the Farseer trilogy.  The story resumes a few months after the last one finished, and the first chapter contains lots of handy reflections to remind you of what happened before.  Fitz continues as narrator, again providing a philosophical view of the events in his life.

It felt easier to connect with the characters this time round, all though part of that may be leftover connection from reading Assassin's Apprentice.  One of the joys of reading books written in first person is to share the narrators wish of knocking some sense into someone, while at the same time wishing yourself that someone would knock some sense into the narrator.  This certainly happened to me more than once over the course of the story.  But, as his world grew more complicated and started to fall around him, it was difficult not to feel bad for the situations FItz found himself in.  Even if he was an idiot at times.

For the first time in a while, I inadvertently received a spoiler before reading this.  Generally I try to go into books (or films) untainted from knowledge of what will happen.  On mentioning to my husband that I was going to continue with the trilogy, he enquired "Is that the one with [x] in?"  I confusedly said no.  Several chapters into the book [x] appeared and then turned out to be rather important for the rest of the book.  Cue one rather sheepish looking husband.

As with the first book, the immediate plot lines are sewn up enough that you don't feel the need to immediately stay up all night to continue, although as I finished reading this after midnight on a workday the damage had already been done.  Plenty of threads are left open, though, and a care for the characters is enough to make me think that the final book of the trilogy won't be sat on our shelves for too much longer.