Thursday, 18 September 2014

I've Got Your Number - Sophie Kinsella

I wanted a change of pace after reading A Clash of Kings, and thinking about the unread books on my shelves I knew where to get it.  My sister had lent me a Sophie Kinsella book quite some time ago, but I'd never quite found the right mood to read it in.  Sometimes you just have to take the plunge and hope the mood finds you.

I've Got Your Number is a standalone Sophie Kinsella book about a woman called Poppy.  As we meet her, she isn't having the best of days.  She's lost her very expensive engagement ring and then has her phone stolen.  In a moment of desperation she picks up a phone that's been left in a bin.  And so, in true chick lit style, her whole life changes.

This book did me the power of good.  True escapism, and I genuinely found myself laughing out loud.  I've struggled to get into some Sophie Kinsella books in the past (although I tend to be hooked before the end) as they can be quite cringeworthy.  Thankfully the truly cringeworthy moments don't happen until several chapters in, by which point you're already invested and so it's easier to cope with.

The nice thing with reading this sort of book is that you essentially know how it's going to end, you just don't know how it's going to get there.  So, for example, you don't start every chapter dreading that your favourite character is about to be killed off (unlike other books I could mention).  The first-person writing makes it particularly easy to be absorbed into Poppy's world and follow the ups and downs1.

The concept of completely sharing part of your life with someone you don't know is such a simple but effective idea.  And it's used really well in this book.  Somehow it's easier to text a stranger about your worries than to tell your friends - something that a quick read of Twitter will confirm only too well!

Overall I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who's been taking things a bit too seriously lately and just needs to take a break.  Or anyone who just wants to have a good laugh.  Classifying this as chick lit might conjure up the image of trash, but, just like rom coms, not all books are created equal.  Although, if you only like books about war and killing then perhaps this isn't for you.  Maybe my next book will be?

1 And the footnotes help too.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin

When you are dragged into the world of a book, you want to keep reading it no matter what.  And sometimes you'll only stop when you actually fall asleep, which means doing a lot of reading when you're tired.  Some books shouldn't be read when you're too tired, particularly those that are difficult enough to keep track of when wide awake.  Re-enter A Song of Ice and Fire...

A Clash of Kings is the second installment in the now-very-famous fantasy series by George RR Martin.  As you'd therefore expect, it continues storylines set out in A Game of Thrones, as well as introducing more characters and threads into the mix.  Because clearly there weren't enough already.  This is a kingdom at war (or should that be kingdoms?) with more sides and 'rightful' rulers than you can shake a stick at.  Or keep track of.

It has to be said that my reading of this book was quite on and off.  The timing coincided with the end of my maternity leave, and lots of visitors as I returned to work.  And when you try to dip in and out of a book that needs commitment you stop enjoying it.  But once I gave it another chance, after a short break, I re-found my enthusiasm and hit the magic point of no return that makes being immersed in a book so much fun.

Seriously though, do not read this book while over-tired.  I was pretty much falling asleep for a couple of chapters and woke up the next day unable to remember what had happened, other than a vague recollection of some ships.  Thankfully I flicked back through before continuing, as I'd half-read a hugely important battle.  Even now I may need to re-read parts before continuing with the next book.

The characters are the sort that you appreciate rather than love.  The realities that they live in would make being too friendly rather impractical.  But you do start to overlook aggressive habits, to become rather fond of people that will happily kill others.  Not too fond though.  You never know who will be next on the chopping block.

As any book in a series should do, the acceleration at the end leaves you wanting to read on.  And read on I shall.  I just hope that I can get the balance right so that it's not another 3 months before I finish my next book.

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Valley of Fear - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Looking for something a little lighter to read next I returned to the world of Sherlock Holmes.  This represented a complete change of pace from my last book, which was exactly what I needed.  My progress with the collection so far had led me to the final novel.

The Valley of Fear is a murder mystery that, once again, sees Sherlock Holmes finding clues that no one else does and making a mockery of police work.  Sounds kind of repetitive but actually it's not.  After all, the details are always what make the difference in these cases.  The murder takes place in an old manor house that is surrounded by a moat, somewhat changing the balance of options available.

As with the first novel, the story is split into two parts.  The first covers the 'present day' mystery solving and the second tells the past story of how the key players ended up in that position.  The format worked a little better for me this time round for two reasons.  Firstly, the change in scene is announced a little better.  But secondly, I'd glanced at the Notes page my Kindle showed before the story and it said the book was split.  Always helps.

Both parts worked quite well for me.  The mystery itself was interesting enough.  The solution was fairly straightforward but isn't it always once you know the answer.  As for the back story, I found it difficult to relate to, however it was an enjoyable read.

Overall the book fulfilled the exact purpose I wanted it too.  My brain had it a bit easier after trying to keep track of the last book I'd read, and my wrists got a nice light break with my Kindle.  Only 2 short story collections left and I'll have finished a mini-reading project.  It'll have to wait a bit though, there are other books begging more urgently to be read.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

I've never been that great at keeping up with crazes - I either seem to arrive at the party once everyone else has left or stubbornly refuse to turn up at all.  With the cult following that Game of Thrones has generated it was destined to be the latter.  My husband owns and has read the books that have been written so far, and is catching up on the TV series, but it wasn't for me.  Until I got really resentful of all the non-fantasy readers accessing this world I hadn't experienced.  So I thought I'd give the first book a go.  Just to say I'd tried.

A Game of Thrones is the first book in the series A Song of Ice and Fire.  Based in the lands of the Seven Kingdoms (and beyond) it follows the inter-woven lives of some very influential families grappling for justice, riches or power.  With friends not quite so friendly as they may first seem, stability is a fragile thing, with betrayal and fights almost inevitable.

As fantasy books go there's not a huge amount of fantastical activity going on, which is probably something that has helped it to secure a more mainstream TV following.  For the most part it could easily be set in a foreign land several hundred years ago.  This means that, unlike some fantasy books, it can't rely on wowing the reader with detailed explanations of magical sources, it needs to do that another way.  Like with the sheer volume of characters.

Not unusually, I've been quite tired while reading this book.  So much so that I commented to my husband I might have to restrict reading it to during the day, so that I didn't lose track of all the characters.  He assured me that I will never be able to keep track of all the characters, you just have to go with it.  He was right, of course.  The scale of the different houses involved is immense, and it is very easy to see how the detail will only get more complicated as more characters come to the forefront and allegiances change.

The storytelling style works well with the inter-woven experiences.  While the writing throughout is in third person, each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the characters.  For that length of time you experience only what they do, but are also privy to their thoughts on all those events.  This style has the effect of drawing you in closer to the characters' lives, and makes it very easy for the author to pick which side you are drawn to.

My intention was always to judge this book on its merits.  If I liked it, great, if not, that was fine too.  Unfortunately, at times it has been difficult to judge it truly.  I've been in the room for odd bits of selected episodes of Game of Thrones, and while at the time the scenes meant nothing the meaning of certain potions became very clear very quickly when characters were introduced.  Given I had previously decided not to read the books no one is to blame for this, but it would be nice not to spend the whole reading experience trying to match up references.

Still, there's a way to ensure my reading isn't tainted further.  I'll just have to catch up on the books before I walk in on any more episode watching.  And given how much I was absorbed into the first one, it's only a matter of how much free time I have in my day.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Déjà Dead - Kathy Reichs

At the moment I seem to be somewhat of a dreamer when it comes to reading.  I spend a lot of time thinking about books or series of books that I would like to read, and often browse them in my local library.  But actually reading the books is still difficult as ever.  When juggling various tasks all day even making time to read in bed has been going out the window.  So it's nice to know that sometimes I do manage to read the books I hunt down.

Déjà Dead is the first book in Kathy Reichs' series about Dr Temperence Brennan, an anthropologist specialising in bones.  This may sound familiar to you for the same reason I was aware of the series, in that they are the books upon which the TV series Bones is based.  I say 'based' in a very loose sense though.  The books are based in Montreal, a city that has fascinated me for quite some time and adds a different cultural element for an ignorant Brit.  Dr Brennan works with the regional law enforcement and helps to identify remains of dead bodies from their bones.  When subsequent major cases seem a bit similar Tempe tries to get a bit more involved with the different aspects of solving a crime, with escalating consequences.

Clearly reading a crime book wasn't a huge departure for me, but reading 'modern' crime was a little different.  The story is set in the 90s and so seems a lot more relevant than those from 50 or 100 years before that.  In some ways it does show its age.  Data is moved around on CD-ROMs and there is a very cute explanation of how Tempe is able to write a message on her computer and send it to her daughter's.  Still, it was recent enough to give the same realism factor that you get from watching crime TV shows.  Which helped with the scary factor.  That and I've never been good at dealing with stalker plotlines.  This also contributed to me not being able to read before bed.  I did try it at one point and hardly slept all night.

I think my reading experience suffered from me having watched so many episodes of Bones.  I kept making comparisons.  It's kind of difficult to treat them separately in your head, even when after just a few pages you're aware of how many differences there are.  It's a shame as, reflecting on what I read, I think I actually prefer the characters and the setup in this book to what I've watched.  The strengths and weaknesses of those involved were interesting to discover, as were the interpersonal relations.  I just wish I'd started with a blank canvas.  Or at least could have done a find-and-replace on Tempe's name.

Setting out to read this book I wasn't necessarily planning to read more of the series.  It was just one of those things I thought I should have read.  But it seems to have got me enough to want to read a little more.  That's not saying I'll keep reading til I run out though.  And whether my nerves will hold out through another of these books is a different matter entirely.  For now I will just continue to do what I have been doing, chipping through my to-read list at an annoyingly slow rate.  Hopefully one day I might manage to make that list shorter rather than longer...

Thursday, 1 May 2014

The Color Purple - Alice Walker

You know those books that are sat on your bookshelf because you feel you should read them?  Maybe they even include books that you tried to read some time ago but gave up on.  I have plenty of books like that.  Books that friends read at school, books that seem to appear as 'must reads' and so on.  And, very occasionally, I do actually read them.

The Color Purple first appeared on my radar in GCSE English lessons, with a few of my classmates selecting it for their wider reading coursework.  All I really remember of their discussions was the assurance that the first page was the worst.  Not that it really meant a great deal at the time.  When I started trying to read it a few years back I was glad of that comment, but even still I did not manage to persevere for long.  This year, however, it appeared on the World Book Day Writes of Passage list and I had one of those 'now or never' moments that made me determined.

The book is set in the American South between the wars and tells the story of a girl (later woman) named Celie.  Her story is told in letter form, as diary extracts that she writes to God.  This instantly brings a personal connection and is a very powerful way to approach some of the topics covered.  But it also brings the reason that I initially struggled reading.  The letters are written as Celie would write them and so contain a lot of dialect and also the phrases of someone who is simply not used to writing.  Once you get used to the style it's fine, but you do need to give it some time (preferably when you're not completely exhausted if possible).

So that first page that was so controversial in my English class?  It describes the first time that she is raped.  Other occurences cover the emotional impact, arguably making the descriptions fair worse, but the first is certainly as graphic as it gets.  The theme of abuse in relationships is widely explored in its different forms.  It's easy to see why it fell into the World Book Day's category of 'books that will make you cry'.  Other themes are covered as well, notably racism - particularly in its more 'casual' forms.  Sexuality also makes an appearance (definitely not the first book I've read this year with lesbian references). In fact, if I tried to list all the social, emotional and moral topics that feature I would struggle to finish this post today.

It's somewhat of an unusual read for me in that it doesn't have an obvious genre.  It's not fantasy, crime, or any of my typical choices.  It's 'just' a book.  But some books are well regarded for a reason.  Give this one a go, and stick with it if you struggle to get into the writing syle.  It might make you cry, but it might just also give you hope.

Monday, 31 March 2014

The Big Four - Agatha Christie

After the excitement of a decent length trilogy I wanted to read something a bit shorter and more sedate.  Returning to the world's favourite Belgian detective for the first time in almost two years seemed to fit the bill.  And, luckily for me, my local library happened to have one of the series in that I hadn't read before.

The Big Four differs in style to other Poirot books that I've read.  Rather than revolving round one key mystery it revolves around a key group of villains (no prizes for guessing how many bad guys are in the group).  This means there are many distinct events spread over several months - definitely fitting my criteria of being more sedate.  The resulting feel is of a series of short stories glued together, and since finishing the book I've found that it pretty much was that.

One major change since I last read a Poirot book is that I've fallen into the world of Sherlock Holmes.  As Agatha Christie based her detective on Conan Doyle's it is easy to see how I kept falling into confused comparisons.  Unfortunately the comparisons didn't reflect that well on the little Belgian.  I suspect that it is this particular book that this is the case for though, as the style didn't really suit me.

The 'serial short stories' format meant that each mystery was on a smaller scale.  The clues and observations in each distinct case were less meaningful than they would be in a larger case.  This wasn't really helped by the fact that it's obvious each time that the Big Four will be behind it, which somewhat takes away the mystery element.

I feel somewhat as I did when I'd read The Final Problem - slightly cheated out of a puzzle and like I'd read about a detective's trip instead.  But that particular Holmes short story did not stop me reading more, and I'm sure that this won't be the last Poirot book I try.  Perhaps it's just the case that I didn't want a sedate read after all.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The Traitor Queen - Trudi Canavan

Addiction can be a controversial topic, but its nature is both interesting and debatable.  There are certain substances which are known to cause a physical reliance, with well documented withdrawal symptoms.  Some things are a bit more wishy-washy though.  Is it really possible to be addicted to reading, for example?  I'm not sure scientists would say so, but at times it really does feel like it.

Failing miserably to consume a varied diet of books I plunged straight into the third book of the Traitor Spy trilogy.  As you would expect, this continued the plotlines laid out previously and brought them together into wider conclusions.  Broadly speaking this boiled down into one outcome in each country, but naturally each of the sub-threads had its own result.  Some aspects are those you know will appear in a book of this kind, but I wasn't actually certain how the main elements would play out.

It was less than 48 hours from the time I started this book to the time I finished it.  I'm not sure it would actually have been possible to read it any quicker without completely neglecting my baby.  Part of it will have been the back-to-back reading, but I was drawn in straight away and wanted to stay drawn in.  I cared about so many of the characters and sat hoping to see the best for them, as well as worrying which main character would be the inevitable end-of-trilogy sacrifice.

The Traitor Queen covers a range of themes, reaching far beyond the fantasy genre (as is so often the case).  Social issues are raised in different ways, from dealing with drug addiction to equality in society.  Issues such as whether it is right, or even possible, to judge another society by your own rules are at the forefront.  It's always nice to read something that manages to make you think without being too preachy.

And of course there are the relationships between characters, which I really can't leave out.  While fairly transparent, the attachments formed were one of the elements that kept me wanting to read on.  You're left waiting until the last chapter before the Epilogue to confirm something that has been building up since the first book.  But waiting is no bad thing.  It just meant that it was in the section I had to re-read - speed reading the last few chapters of a book is a really bad habit of mine.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed these books and really didn't want to leave the world behind.  I know that there are many other good books out there (hopefully many of them are on my to-read pile), it's just that sometimes the right book crosses your path at the right time and really makes its mark.  Oh, and I confirmed a suspicion that I've had for some time now.  I'm definitely the sort of person that benefits from waiting for all three books of a trilogy to be out before starting to read.  I dread to think how bad the withdrawal symptoms would have been.

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Rogue - Trudi Canavan

I have come to the conclusion that the second book in a trilogy is the most difficult one to review.  For the first book you're starting from scratch, and so can mention characters without ruining any precarious moments.  For the last book you know everything that has happened and so have less risk of making a fool of yourself with ideas and judgements.  The second book just seems the worst of both worlds.  Of course, that's just for reviewing and not for reading.

The Rogue is the second book in the Traitor Spy trilogy and continues all the storylines a few months from where they left off, as well as adding in a new strand.  I must admit, to start with I wasn't that keen on the new plotline, as it took away from those I was already invested in.  But, as with all enjoyable books, this one sucked me in as well.  It must be a good sign that each time I experienced the 'argh they swapped locations' I was quickly excited to read more about the replacement thread.

Much of the book is character-based, with the writing perspective allowing you to develop a strong attachment to the main 'cast'.  As someone who loves character development, I find this a good thing.  Occasionally it seems that the touchy-feely stuff gets more importance than the 'main' plot, but the carefully separate, and yet still linked, strands move at a comfortable pace, with the usual acceleration to the finish.

Speaking of touchy-feely, it doesn't seem unfair to say that the storylines all have a strong lusting element, and that at times this does rather take over.  Although if there were bonus points available for covering different scenarios then this should definitely score highly.  There are straight, gay and lesbian tendencies.  There is old love, first love, forbidden love, unrequited love and lust.  Not the first book I've read this year that could fit the 'sex-obsessed' description, but the book doesn't suffer for it.

As a general rule, when reading a trilogy I try to read other books in between.  This helps to ensure I read a variety of books, and often helps me to fully process what I've read before continuing.  As another general rule, I'm much better at sticking to this after the first book in a trilogy than after the second.  Because there's only so much investment I can put into a world before I get impatient.  So I'd better stop writing, as there's a book upstairs calling my name.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Alloy of Law - Brandon Sanderson

When you lose yourself in the world of a book it's nice to have the change to re-visit.  However there's always the danger that the things you loved will have changed, and that reading more may even ruin your memories of what went before.  Of course, there are other possibilities as well.

The Alloy of Law is based around 300 years after the events of The Hero of Ages (the last book in Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy).  Unlike many fantasy books, the world has moved on and made technological advances.  In our terms they are somewhere around the Victorian era, with trains and new-fangled electric lights.  But advancement doesn't mean that all is well in the world, nor does it mean that magical ability is unimportant.

There are 3 types of magic in this world, although at the time of this book only two are in common use and knowledge.  Allomancy involves 'burning' metals internally to provide different powers, for example burning tin increases the user's senses.  Feruchemy involves 'storing' traits in metals for use at a later time, for example gold allows for storage of health.  Handily there is a table in the back of the book detailing the effect of each metal for the two types of magic.  I would have appreciated the addition of nicknames next to each metal as I have a tendency to get some of them muddle.

Of all the fantasy books I've read this is one of my favourite 'types' of magic, and so it was fascinating to read about its use in a whole new setting.  Technological advancements are made based on the priorities of a culture and so there are subtle but visible differences to the way things developed in our world.

Clearly this book features a whole new set of characters, although the heroes from the original trilogy are frequently referred to as 'deities' of various religions.  The new cast are dynamic, believable and somewhat crazy - so basically everything you could want in a book.  The relationship between Wax and Wayne is beautifully written, with all the casual digs and inside remarks that you would expect from a long-standing friendship.

The plot has the feel of a Western, with the 'heroes' returning from the wild Roughs to the Big Smoke and retaining the same ideas of law and order that they had before.  The era setting and prominence of guns certainly help with that feel - although of course these guns have to be specially crafted to be of any use.  I thought the storyline was really well designed, and it definitely feels like a story that happens to be set in a world with magic, rather than a series of events for the sake of magic.

So, back to those memories of what went before... Well I can definitely say that this has changed my perception of the original trilogy.  Because while I very much enjoyed what I'd read before, this was so much better.  Many of the concepts and references make more sense if you've read the Mistborn trilogy, but I think there are enough explanations that you could read this as a standalone book if you wanted to.  And you really should want to, because it's brilliant.

Monday, 3 February 2014

A Vicky Hill Exclusive - Hannah Dennison

Looking round the crime books in my local library I saw a book in the 'recommended' section by Hannah Dennison.  On further inspection it was the fourth book in a series, and the first book was nowhere to be seen.  Back at home I had a look on my Kindle and decided that 84p was an alright price to give something different a try.

A Vicky Hill Exclusive is set in a small town in Devon and follows newspaper reporter Vicky Hill.  Vicky is desperate for her big break so that she can move forward from writing obituaries but life in her little town is just to boring to get any big scoops.  That is, unless the last man she attended the funeral of had actually been murdered.

As I mentioned, I picked this book up as one of its successors was marked as a crime book, and I suppose it's fair to classify it like that given it follows a murder investigation.  However, a few chapters in my husband asked me how the book was so far and the description I gave definitely made it sound like chick lit dressed up as a detective story.  And it wasn't the best costume.  First-person storytelling very much hinges on the storyteller, and if that person is shallow and ever-so-slightly clueless then that is the impression you get of the whole story.

Don't get me wrong, I did actually enjoy reading the book once I got into it.  It definitely fulfilled my criteria of being something modern, different and not too taxing.  And the overall plot was fine.  It was mostly just the characters that were lacking, which is always a bit of a problem for me.  I'm not exactly rushing to buy the next book in the series, but given I was looking for a break from other series that's hardly a problem.  That doesn't mean I would rule out the second book in future, if I need to escape into a harmless world.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Ambassador's Mission - Trudi Canavan

For Christmas I was given the Traitor Spy trilogy books, which 'follow on' from the Black Magician trilogy (albeit about twenty years later).  My original plan was to look online for plot summaries of the original three books so that I would be fully up-to-date ready for the newer trilogy.  Only then I realised that I wouldn't get round to doing this and so dived straight in.

The Ambassador's Mission starts in the city of Imardin in Kyralia, where the Magician's Guild is based.  Care is taken to catch up the gist of what has happened since the previous books, which in some ways helps to reference key events but at the same time made me realise quite how long my reading gap had been.  This was compounded by me getting confused with other books.  Partly the Age of the Five, which kind of made sense given they have the same author, but also the Mistborn series.  I think it was the reference to houses that did it.  Or perhaps the flashbacks to a young girl from a poor background hiding magic powers and being held by criminals... (are all fantasy books just the same plot?)

Anyway, the plot itself is built up around two main strands, the happenings in Imardin and those in Sachaka - a foreign land seen as both exotic and dangerous.  Sonea is contacted by an old friend to try to flush out a murderer, at the same time as the Guild are deciding whether to clamp down on contact with the criminal world.  Meanwhile her son, Lorkin, has found that life is a little too safe and predictable and that he would rather go to work in a country where people may want to kill him.  As you do.

This was a very enjoyable reading experience.  I find Trudi Canavan's style of writing very accessible, without seeming patronising or like something is missing.  My initial confusion with other books made it difficult to get to grips with the characters at first, however once settled in I found them to be generally believable and understandable.  Little sub-themes were appreciated as much as the main plot.  One of my favourite concepts was the Kyralians amusing other races with their over-politeness, a fate understood by any Brit that's been abroad.

In terms of the plots, there was only one element that I 'guessed' ahead of time, and this was because the clues had been laid there.  Presumably if I could work it out with my current scatterbrain then you're supposed to do so.  The balance as the first book of a trilogy was worked perfectly.  It feels like the plotlines have been sufficiently wound up for this to constitute a story in its own right, and yet they are sufficiently open that you feel more needs to be known.

And more will be known soon, I'm sure.  Although I'll make sure to read something else in between I doubt I'll be able to wait too long to continue on to find out more about the Traitors.. and the Rogue.

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown

For my first book of 2014 I used a tried and tested method of selection - I stared at the bookshelves until something looked ok.  I wanted something fairly modern that wouldn't prove too much of a challenge, and so a book that I seemed to be in the minority for not having read it fitted the bill.

The Da Vinci Code is, for the most part, set in Paris and is effectively one big cryptic treasure hunt.  Only the stakes are a bit higher than in most treasure hunts, what with it starting with a murder and the 'hunters' being wanted by the police.

As I'd expected with such a popular book, the writing style was very easy reading (if a bit boring in places during extended 'technical' explanations).  What I hadn't expected was to be so amused by the chapters.  It was almost like the concept of sections within chapters didn't exist, with many chapters just 3 or 4 pages long.  And when I found the chapter that was less than a page long I actually audibly laughed.

The best theme for me was the cryptology as I find codes and wordplay absolutely fascinating.  Although it was a worry on occasions how slow the characters were to pick up on certain clues given their professions, most notably the very obvious mirror writing.  In general the characters were alright - not strong enough that I grew particularly attached to them but they were deep enough to carry the storyline (the main ones at least).

Overall I'd say that the story was a good escape from everyday life, which is always a good point in a book.  While I enjoyed reading it the chances of me re-reading are slim, but I might add another of Dan Brown's books to my huge 'To Read' list.  At some point.  In the future.