Sunday, 19 March 2017

Review: 'The Roanoke Girls' by Amy Engel

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Beautiful.
Rich.
Mysterious.
Everyone wants to be a Roanoke girl.

But you won't when you know the truth.

Lane Roanoke is fifteen when she comes to live with her grandparents and fireball cousin at the Roanoke family's rural estate following the suicide of her mother. Over one long, hot summer, Lane experiences the benefits of being one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls.


But what she doesn't know is being a Roanoke girl carries a terrible legacy: either the girls run, or they die. For there is darkness at the heart of Roanoke, and when Lane discovers its insidious pull, she must make her choice...


I was in the mood for a thriller after pondering my way through Maus and this sounded right up my street.  I know there are a lot of them around right now but I wanted a real page-turner.  Something that might not feature the most sophisticated plot or the most elegant writing but something that would keep me gripped.  In a sense, I got what I wanted, even if what kept me turning the pages was morbid fascination and not curiosity.

The novel is set in two time periods, one where Lane is fifteen and newly arrived at the Roanoke estate and one where Lane is an adult, drawn back to Roanoke to assist with a police investigation into the disappearance of her cousin.  In doing so, she has to face down some of her own demons and brave what sent her running from her family in the first place.  Tucked in between these two narratives are snippets told from the perspective of the earlier Roanoke girls.

I enjoyed this at first.  There's a mystique about the Roanoke family, something lurking in the family's history of women who have either died tragically young or run away.  The writing is decent and it's very readable.  The atmosphere is oppressive and tense and Lane's terse exchanges with her now estranged family are such a stark contrast to the warmth in the chapters showing her teenage years that I was dying to know what had happened.  For perhaps a third, I had to keep reading.  Then I learned the secret at the heart of the Roanoke family and I wished that I hadn't.  It is, frankly, repellent.  I have no problem with writing that pushes boundaries but, if I'm reading something challenging, I at least want to feel as though it's handled well.  Actually, I don't think that it was that it was handled badly, just that it wasn't properly explored.  We're told about why it's believable and why nobody just did the right thing but it just doesn't feel realistic.  It's too extreme.  Too much. The fact that the family is rich and that they're all beautiful and charming just makes things a bit too easy. It feels relentless and reading it was emotionally exhausting.  Harrowing.  I kept reading because I hoped that there would be balance or pay-off at the end.  There was in a way but not enough to offset the general queasiness I'd felt while reading.

It's hard to write more about this without spoilers.  I suppose if nothing else it was powerful.  It's a hard hitting novel that doesn't pull its punches and it definitely had an impact on me.  The characters are varying degrees of damaged and unpleasant but the supporting characters at least are interesting to read about.  While Lane is trying to help find her cousin, she has to face up to her past and spend time with some of the people that she hurt the first time she ran away.  It fits in with her story and I quite liked the take on small town America.  If there'd perhaps been a little less emotional trauma and a little more criminal investigation, I think the net result would have stronger.  As it was, I felt like reading this was more of an ordeal than I like in my fiction!

Overall:  Grim.  If you're actively seeking out something that will give you a pretty full on story breaking all sorts of taboos, you'll get that with The Roanoke Girls.  If you're not in the market for some extreme emotional manipulation and sexual abuse, this probably isn't the book for you.  It wasn't really the book for me, unfortunately.

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Date finished:  26 February 2017
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley - thank you, Hodder & Stoughton
Genre: Thriller; Mystery
Pictured Edition Published: on 7 March 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

February Wrap-up and Favourites

I knew it had been a while since I'd written anything vaguely book-related but I didn't realise it had been nearly six weeks!  February and what's already gone of March has been so busy.  It turns out that working pretty solid 50-60 hour weeks, planning a wedding, trying to maintain a semblance of a social life and finding time to actually read some books doesn't leave a great deal of time for writing about books.  We're away in Italy soon for some wedding planning so a break is in sight but I'll only be vaguely hanging on here for a while, I think!

What I've Been Reading

For a month that was so full of other stuff, I actually managed to get a fair amount read.  First on my list was Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan.  I wrote a bit about this in my last wrap-up but the first time I read this as a teenager, I remember being bored by this instalment in the Wheel of Time series.  This second read through had me wondering why!  I didn't give it the five stars I gave the three preceding books but it was still a solid 4 stars.  After that, I received my first Moth Box in January (which I'll talk about properly another time, hopefully) and picked out one of the books to read straight away.  I went for Sufficient Grace by Amy Espeseth, which is the story of a young girl in a small religious community in rural Wisconsin and how she copes when she learns a secret about her best friend.  The writing was stunning and I loved the book, perhaps all the more for knowing that it wasn't one that I ever would have picked out on my own.  I've ordered another box for March and I'm really looking forward to seeing what's in it.  

THEN I finally read the devastating Maus by Art Speigelman.  It's a graphic novel account of the author's father's life and experiences as a Jewish man during the Second World War and it's every bit as hard-hitting as it sounds.  I can't believe it's taken me this long to finally get to it! An easy 5 stars.

Last up were two books that I don't think could have been more different if I'd intentionally gone out to pick up polar opposites.  Cinder by Marissa Meyer, a relatively frivolous cyborg retelling of Cinderella, and then The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel, a new thriller.  I liked the fairytale retelling a surprising amount and was supremely grossed out by the thriller, to the point that I just can't recommend it.  A bit of a rough end to the month's otherwise great reading!

Book of the Month:  Maus by Art Spiegelman

Other Favourites!

TV Programme of the Month:  Medici: Masters of Florence is this month's winner.  It's about the rise of the Medici family in Florence and the history of the city.  I'll admit that we started watching it because it's set in Florence and that's where we're getting married this year but we continued watching because it's actually rather good.  It stars Richard Madden of GoT fame and Dustin Hoffman so it's not quite as small fry as it sounds. 

Film of the Month:  I haven't been to the cinema in a while and I actually can't think of a single film I watched during February!  What a bust.  Actually, I did watch a naff Kate Hudson romcom one night while Boyfriend was out but it was not good and I'm not naming that even if it is by default my favourite of the month.

Recipe of the Month:  We've been watching Gino d'Acampo's Italian Escape series recently (seeing a theme?) and I've made this dish of pasta shells with guanciale, potatoes and tomatoes a few times in recent weeks (except with serrano instead of guanciale).  It's easy, properly comforting because it has both pasta and potato and it's delicious.

Beauty Product of the Month:  I have quite greasy skin naturally and most moisturisers just destroy my skin and have me breaking out all over.  Lush's Vanishing Cream is now an absolute staple in my routine.  It smells like lavender, which I love, and it's super light so it'll soak in quickly and leaves no grease.  Perfection.

Album of the Month:  I was eagerly awaiting the release of Rag 'n' Bone Man's album, Human, and I was not disappointed.  As I learned last month, I have no clue how to write about music but I do know that I love his voice and how the album is a mix of styles, some hip hop, some soul and some more...rocky tracks?  I don't know but I do know that if you liked the single Human, you'll probably really like the album so I'd recommend giving it a try.  It's the kind of album that you put on and happily listen to all the way through without realising where the time's gone!

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Activity of the Month:  A new item that I've largely created just to say how much I loved the London Bookshop Crawl.  Bex has been running it for a while but February was the first time I could make it. Hanna and I got the train down to London in the morning, shopped all day and rested our feet on the way back up and compared purchase notes.  I bought about 10 books and I've so far read one so that's something! My stand out shop of the day was easily Persephone Books, which was adorable and crammed full of unique-sounding books from lady writers of old.  If you ever get chance to go, do!  I also loved getting the chance to meet bloggers who I've been chatting to for years (like Katie and Ellie BookWorm), even if I didn't get to chat to all of them as much as I'd have liked!

And that (finally) was February!  March has continued on with a similar theme of being terribly busy but it's starting to clear a little bit.  Sort of...tell me about books to distract me!  :)

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Review: 'Bird Box' by Josh Malerman

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Most people dismissed the reports on the news. But they became too frequent; they became too real. And soon it was happening to people we knew. 

Then the Internet died. The televisions and radios went silent. The phones stopped ringing. 

And we couldn't look outside anymore.


I saw a lot about Bird Box around its release, bought it in a Kindle sale at some point and then forgot that I even owned it. Then one morning, I woke up early and couldn't read my current physical book because it was dark and I'm kind enough that I didn't want to bash on a lamp while Boyfriend was sleeping.  So I picked up my Kindle, flicked through the many books on there and went for this, drawn back in by the cover tagline "If you've seen them, it's already too late".

I wanted a thriller but I was very ill-prepared for just how dark this book was going to be.  Well, I suppose less how dark it was going to be than how gruesome.  The premise is fairly simple: the world is under threat from some being that, when seen by humans, makes those humans kill those around them before ultimately killing themselves.  The narrative is split between two main threads: one in the present where Malorie is alone in a house struggling to survive with two children, unable to go outside but desperate to brave it in the hope that she'll be able to find some kind of life for her little family and one in the past that starts with news reports of the phenomenon and Malorie finding out that she's pregnant and shows the world gradually unravelling from there.

I think what makes this book different from other dystopian fiction is that readers never find out exactly what is causing the implosion of the human race.  There are theories about what it is (including a fascinating one that there is in fact nothing at all causing the deaths other than mass hysteria and delusion) but, given that everybody who has seen it has died, nothing concrete.  It's one of those stories that relies on readers' imaginations to fill the gaps about what terrifying vision might be stalking the streets.  And my goodness does it work.  There are moments where characters are blindfolded and fetching water or something from outside and they're plagued by images of what might be lurking just beyond their blindfold and the terror as they start to imagine something touching them and gradually descend into panic feels so real.  It perfectly conveys that feeling when you walk into a pitch black room and have that fleeting "But what if…?" thought and suddenly have to get a light on.

The novel also manages to touch on the social impact of strangers being forced to rely on each other to survive, the plight of being torn between the desire to help save others and saving yourself and it all feels very (worryingly) realistic.  The ending isn't exactly definitive but it worked for me and even while it introduced a whole host of new moral quandaries, it did wrap up the story enough and didn't feel as though Malerman had just got bored and stopped writing.

I really, really liked this book.  It was terrifying and it was brutal but it was completely gripping. I like stories that are told through flashbacks and this one uses the technique particularly well.  You know what's coming (in a way) but I was still completely astonished when it came to the point of actually getting there.  Bird Box won't be for everyone because it doesn't shy away from some very raw and gory details of people's demises (particular warning to those who especially don't want to read about violence/death of animals).  There was a scene in particular towards the end that really freaked me out and that made me feel physically ill so even if it's by no means a pleasant read, it is a hell of a gut-punching one.

Overall: With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that I'd definitely recommend Josh Malerman's debut. While I was reading it, I alternated between fervent hope for characters, disgust and all sorts of other over-wrought emotional states.  It was a trying time but one I'd say is worth inflicting on yourself.  It actually looks as though HarperCollins will be publishing Malerman's second novel, Black Mad Wheel, later this year and I'll definitely be picking up a copy when it's out.


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Date finished:  14 January 2017
Format: eBook
Source: Bought
Genre: Dystopian fiction; thriller
Pictured Edition Published: in January 2015 by HarperCollins Publishers

Buy your own copy (affiliate links):  Amazon  |  Wordery

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

January Wrap-up and Favourites

I think last year was the first year that I've posted a wrap-up for every month. They may not have been "on time" (they were definitely not on time) but they were there and that's something.  This year, I've decided to do something a little bit different.  Alongside a bit of a reading wrap-up and recapping blog stuff, I'm going to mix in a Favourites section with books, films, TV, music, food and that kind of thing depending on what I've been up to in the month!  

As with last year, I don't have any "goals" in reading other than getting back on track with my Classics Club list.  I'd like to say that I'll read more books than I acquire but I'm very much in a book buying mood at the moment so who knows?

What I've Been Reading

I finished 4 books in January and, with one notable exception, they were pretty good!  The Smoke Hunter by Jacquelyn Benson was one I saw on Ellie's blog and bought straight away.  It may not have been super literary but it was so much fun!  A Suffragette archaeologist comes across what she is sure is a map and decides to boldly go where no females have gone before and see if she can find a lost ancient city.  It's pretty much non-stop action and a really good distraction of a book. I read and reviewed Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake and was disappointed.  I picked up a short story collection by Sophie Hanna next, The Visitor's Book and Other Ghost Stories.  It was a super short little volume that I read in a couple of hours so I didn't feel as though I could give it more than three stars but the stories are weird and definitely haunting (especially The Visitor's Book!) and it's worth a read, even if I wouldn't quite recommend buying it.  Then I finished Bird Box by Josh Malerman and freaked myself out thoroughly.  A dystopian tale of a world where humans are being menaced by something so terrible that just seeing it once drives you out of your mind and spells your doom.  Very dark but I was totally gripped and horrified so it was definitely...an experience!

The rest of the month, I've been happily making my way through the 1,000 pages of The Shadow Rising, the fourth book in the Wheel of Time series.  I remembered not really loving it as a teenager but this second reading has been a completely different experience.  I love the characters and I'm really appreciating the back story and gradual plot development this time around!  I have about 400 pages to go so I'm planning on finishing it up this coming weekend.

Book of the Month:  Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Other Favourites!

TV Programme of the Month:  The Crown.  We finally decided to give this a try one evening and I love it.  I'm in no way a royalist so I wasn't sure what I'd make of it but it focuses on the historical and political context and developments of the reign of Elizabeth II and it's so well done that I can't help but love it.

Film of the Month: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.  This is actually a bit of a cheat since I saw it technically at the VERY END of December but I don't think I've watched any other films in January so I'm counting it.  I think I cried about five times in the cinema (thank goodness for 3D glasses) and I adored this story.

Recipe of the Month: Flamenco eggs with serrano ham and tomatoes from Rick Stein's Long Weekends.  The series that accompanied this book was a hot contender for favourite since it focuses on different European cities and their food cultures, which is something I'm always going to be bowled over by. I'll settle for giving it a nod here with this recipe that you can find recreated here.  It's basically serrano ham in a Spanish style sauce, topped with eggs and chorizo and it sounds a bit lacklustre but really it's the perfect Sunday brunch dish.

Beauty Product of the Month: Avon Matte Lipstick in 'Red Supreme'.  I can be a bit of a make-up snob but I decided to give this lipstick a try because it looked like the kind of deep red colour I fancied giving a try and came with a relatively modest £5 price tag (at the time) that made "giving it a try" not too much of a gamble.  I love it.  The colour's gorgeous and it stayed on all day with only a couple of minor top-ups.  I'll definitely be mixing in a couple of other colours from this line among my usual MAC favourites.

Album of the Month:  First Aid Kit's Stay Gold.  I'd never heard anything by these Swedish siblings until Apple Music mixed the song My Silver Lining into a playlist I was listening to while working.  I don't really know how to go about describing music but it sounds like a blend of pop and folk music to me and I love their voices, their lyrics and how their music makes me feel like Spring is just around the corner.

And they were the highlights of my January!  Tell me all about the highlights of yours.  Anything I missed and need to get caught up on?

Monday, 30 January 2017

Review: 'Three Dark Crowns' by Kendare Blake

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born: three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.

But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins. The last queen standing gets the crown.

I was interested in picking up Three Dark Crowns from the moment that I first saw the plot description.  It sounded like the darker kind of fantasy that Crooked Kingdom had left me wanting more of.  I mean, really, a queen giving birth to three daughters with different but equally impressive sounding powers and a fight to the death between those sisters to see who gets to become queen?  Brutal sounding, maybe, but interesting.  Then the book cropped up on a whole host of favourites lists towards the end of 2016 and I was completely sold.  

I was disappointed.

Frankly, Three Dark Crowns is mostly boring.  I don't use that word lightly but there's just no other way to describe the overwhelming feeling that I had while reading; it was boredom.  The book opens with the bit of back story that you get from the blurb and introduces the three sisters: Katharine, a poisoner who is meant to be able to handle and consume the deadliest poisons without harm; Arsinoe, a naturist born to control living things; and, Mirabella, an elementalist who, you guessed it, can control the elements.  Chapters then shift between the sisters as they approach their sixteenth birthday and their respective communities gear up to help them win power by destroying their siblings. 

I think that maybe I expected something like The Hunger Games.  A bit of world building and some character development and then on with the action that people (or at least, I) came for.  The balance in Three Dark Crowns feels way off.  A solid three quarters of the book is build up, which I suppose makes it all the more insulting that the world still feels pretty flimsy.  

It turns out that not all of the sisters are as gifted as they're expected to be and they moan about it constantly.  I get it, you're supposed to be a badass princess with a power that will have your sisters quaking in their boots and instead, you're powerless, styling it out and facing what you're pretty sure is impending death.  That's bound to be challenging.  What's annoying (and dull) is that this applies to two out of the three sisters, making things pretty repetitive, and seemingly they and their friends have decided not to do a great deal about it.  Or at least, not to do anything constructive or sensible about it.  They could be training physically, for example, or developing a realistic alternative plan to "win", rather than just sitting around waiting to see if they'll develop their powers in time.  Don't even get me started on the one who seems to adopt a strategy of "if I get it on with this strange man, maybe I can develop an allure that will make all of the men fall in love with me and protect me".

Even the emotional side of being raised to kill your siblings that could have been interesting is dulled by the fact that only one out of the three even has memories of the others.  The other two have conveniently forgotten their early life with their sisters and so believe the spiels they've been given about how evil they are.  An easy dodge that just felt lazy.  And there's insta-love.  Twice.

And THEN, infuriatingly, the last quarter or so of the book was actually good.  The princesses and their retinues all arrive at…somewhere I've forgotten and make the first moves in the festival that commences the year within which they're supposed to be trying to kill each other.  The spark that's been missing for most of the book finally turns up and the plot starts moving at a decent clip with some scheming, some posturing and some peril.  It's interesting, appropriately gory and sinister and reveals the potential that was hiding behind the whining all along (although one "twist" was a bit obvious and underwhelming).  Despite having been utterly disinterested for most of the novel and been convinced that I'd put aside the first book and immediately scrub the series off my list as one to watch, I found myself intrigued and sure that with some fiercer editing and perhaps a wider shot at the overarching story, this story could have been something great.

Overall:  I guess what I'm saying is that if you're particularly interested in the concept, you have a spare few hours (which is probably all this will take if you can get stuck in without being distracted…) and don't already have a burgeoning list of series that you’re in the middle of, the last quarter makes it feel as though the series will be worth a read.  Otherwise, I'd probably wait until the next book comes out and see how the story pans out before committing…

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Date finished:  07 January 2017
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: Fantasy fiction; YA
Pictured Edition Published: in September 2016 by Pan Macmillan
Buy your own copy (affiliate links):  Amazon  |  Wordery