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.

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 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…

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

Monday, 23 January 2017

The Classics Club: Three Years In

When it occurred to me over the weekend that it would be nice to re-focus on my Classics Club list this year, I was convinced that today would see me writing a post entitled "The Classics Club: Two Years In".  And yet here I am already three years into the five year goal post.  Time flies...blah blah...

I started back in January 2014 (apparently) so if I was "on track", I'd have read 30 books by now.  I have actually read 13...I've read other classics but clearly not so many from this list that 2014 me was oh so excited about.

To have read through my list by my target date of January 2019, that means I need to read 18.5 books this year and 18.5 books in 2018.  Not a horrifyingly ambitious target but not insignificant when you bear in mind the fact that I read one book from my list during 2016.  I mean sure, it was The Day of the Triffids and I really enjoyed it but still.

This is my list as it currently stands.  The ones that I've struck through are the ones that I've read.  The ones in bold are the ones that I own.  You can find reviews to some of the ones that I've read on my Classics Club page here.

1. Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assassin
2. Jane Austen – Northanger Abbey
3. Jane Austen – Persuasion
4. J.M. Barrie – Peter Pan
5. Ray Bradbury – Something Wicked This Way Comes
6. Anne Bronte – Agnes Grey
7. Anne Bronte – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
8. Charlotte Bronte – Villette
9. Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights
10. Truman Capote – In Cold Blood
11. Orson Scott Card – Ender’s Game
12. Wilkie Collins – The Woman in White
13. Daniel Defoe – Robinson Crusoe
14. Charles Dickens – Bleak House
15. Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment
16. Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo
17. Alexandre Dumas – The Three Musketeers
18. Daphne du Maurier – My Cousin Rachel
19. George Eliot – Middlemarch
20. F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
21. Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary
22. E. M. Forster – Howard’s End
23. Elizabeth Gaskell – North and South
24. Stella Gibbons – Cold Comfort Farm
25. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm – The Complete Brothers’ Grimm Fairy Tales
26. Thomas Hardy – Tess of the D’Urbervilles
27. Joseph Heller – Catch 22
28. Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Scarlet Letter
29. Victor Hugo – The Hunchback of Notre Dame
30. Shirley Jackson – The House on Haunted Hill
31. Henry James –The Turn of the Screw
32. Franz Kafka – The Trial
33. Daniel Keyes – Flowers for Algernon
34. C. S. Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia
35. Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Love in the Time of Cholera
36. Thomas Mallory - Le Morte D’Arthur: Volume 1
37. Margaret Mitchell – Gone with the Wind
38. George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four
39. Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children
40. J. D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye
41. Robert Louis Stevenson – Treasure Island
42. William Makepeace Thackeray – Vanity Fair
43. Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina
42. Leo Tolstoy - War and Peace
45. Jules Vergne – Around the World in Eighty Days
46. Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse Five
47. H. G. Wells – The Time Machine
48. Edith Wharton – The House of Mirth
49. Virginia Woolf – To The Lighthouse
50. John Wyndham – The Day of the Triffids

From a look over my list, my gut feeling for this year is that I definitely want to get to Northanger Abbey because I have the adorable Penguin English Library edition and it's only teeny weeny.  I also really want to get to some Anne Bronte finally.  And also to finally pick up The Woman in White properly.  I *loved* The Moonstone when we read it as a group a few years ago and I fancy getting to a twisty mystery and Wilkie's wit before the Winter is out.  Other than that, any other tips on what I need to be picking off my list sooner rather than later?  

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Review: 'Behind Her Eyes' by Sarah Pinborough

Rating: 3.5 stars

Don’t trust this book. Don’t trust this story. Don’t trust yourself.

David and Adele seem like the ideal pair. He's a successful psychiatrist, she is his picture-perfect wife who adores him. But why is he so controlling? And why is she keeping things hidden?

As Louise, David's new secretary, is drawn into their world, she uncovers more puzzling questions than answers. The only thing that is crystal clear is that something in this marriage is very, very wrong. But Louise can't guess how wrong – and how far someone might go to protect their marriage's secrets.

If Behind Her Eyes is anything, it's absorbing.  I read the vast majority of it in a day (all but about the first 10 pages, I think, that I'd read a day earlier) and I was completely obsessed with finding out what the devil was going on.  The story centres around David, a psychiatrist who has recently moved to a new practice, Adele (his wife) and Louise (his secretary at said new practice), with chapters switching between the perspectives of Adele and Louise. 

As is so often the case with a psychological thriller, this isn't necessarily one for readers who have to identify with or like characters they're reading about.  With the exception of Adam (Louise's 6 year old son), the characters of Behind Her Eyes are varying degrees of awful.  Or at least, if they aren't awful, they're doing their share of pretty awful things.  It's their particular brand of awfulness that makes the story, though, and the feints, hints and misdirection just wouldn't work if the characters were all honest, sharing types so if you can look past it and just get wrapped up in the unpleasantness, it's really worth it.

There isn't a great deal more that I can say about this.  The hashtag being bandied about on Twitter for Behind Her Eyes is 'WTFthatending'.  Even though it was what drew me to pick up the book (I'm such a marketing sucker), there were times at the beginning of the novel that I thought it was a bit of a bummer.  You know when someone tells you that something unexpected is coming and it just makes you question everything you're reading, trying to expect the unexpected?  I felt a bit like that.  As I was reading the first few chapters, I was distracted imagining all sorts of twists and turns.  Then I realised that it was bloody obvious right from the start that there is something very wrong with the narrative and that there are plenty of secrets hidden just below the surface waiting to smack readers in the face.  It isn't a spoiler to know that everything isn't as it seems; readers will work that out for themselves soon enough. 

I really enjoyed the experience of reading this book.  It was a perfect read for what was a really rather gloomy, rain-filled Sunday and I am so glad that I finally tried out some of Sarah Pinborough's novel writing.  All of this does come with a 'but', though.  There are elements of this book that I was dissatisfied with and I couldn't give it more than a 3.5 stars as a result. I do recommend reading it because it is without a doubt a read for sheer escapism and because it's nigh on impossible to put down and leave down.  It might all be down to expectations, of course, and I'm hoping that by telling you to suspend preconceptions and disbelief and expect to be a bit blindsided by the left field revelations, I'm giving you the reading experience that I didn't quite get.

I own a couple of Pinborough's other novels (The Death House and Mayhem) and reading Behind Her Eyes has definitely bumped them up my TBR pile. Any author that can write a book that just demands to be read in a single day is an author I want to read more of.

Overall:  Definitely one to pick up if you have a day free and fancy reading something that you can get all tangled up in and that won't let you leave it alone. I might not have been totally convinced by all of it but I did absolutely have the appropriate #WTFthatending reaction on finishing so that's something!

Date finished:  20 November 2016
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review - thank you, HarperCollins!
Genre: Psychological thriller
Pictured Edition Published: on 26 January 2017 by HarperCollins
Buy your own copy (affiliate links):  Amazon  |  Wordery