Sunday, 6 April 2014

Review: 'The String Diaries' by Stephen Lloyd Jones

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

A jumble of entries, written in different hands, different languages, and different times. They tell of a rumour. A shadow. A killer.

The only interest that Oxford Professor Charles Meredith has in the diaries is as a record of Hungarian folklore ... until he comes face to face with a myth.

For Hannah Wilde, the diaries are a survival guide that taught her the three rules she lives by: verify everyone, trust no one, and if in any doubt, run.

But Hannah knows that if her daughter is ever going to be safe, she will have to stop running and face the terror that has hunted her family for five generations.  And nothing in the diaries can prepare her for that.


When this came out and the glowing reviews started appearing everywhere, I almost bought a hardback copy.  That's how much I wanted to read it.  I didn't quite get round to doing that and now?  I'm a little bit glad.  I enjoyed the vast majority of The String Diaries but there was something...missing that stopped me from loving it.

The book starts by dropping right in on the action, with Hannah and her husband and daughter on the run from whatever is trying to kill them all.  It's a strong pace that never really lets up so this is a good one to get stuck into if you want to get well and truly caught up in some drama.  In short, Hannah is on the run from Jakab, a shapechanging bundle of malevolence whose only purpose in life is wreaking violent havoc on Hannah's family.  A member of the ancient Hungarian Hosszu Eletek, Jakab can shift his shape to look and sound like anybody he wants and has centuries of experience of blending in amongst friends and family to home in on his victims.  It and he is genuinely creepy and weaves tension through even the more mundane conversations.  The idea of 'validating' friends and family and exchanging secrets to trade when under pressure works well, even if it is a little overdone by the end.

The Hungarian mythological feel is distinctive and there's something quite nice about reading a standalone fantasy novel.  For a book that barely tops 400 pages, there's a surprising amount of depth too.  It was refreshing to read about a culture and history that was based on Eastern European tradition but I think more could have been made out of it - I wanted more of the medieval-esque social rituals and history and more about what the shapechangers's history and what they could do.  The age-old dispute that the story is based on draws on some clever ideas and manages to throw up plenty of action (some of it quite horrific) but the modern thread is less unique.  Not that it isn't engaging (because it is) but it doesn't have the charm that the historic plot does and I would have liked more of the back story and less of the scrambling present day.  That's more my personal preference (and maybe a hangover from generally loving historical fiction and fantasy with books' worth of background) than a criticism, though.

But then came the ending.  If the book had stopped after what I thought was the ending, I'd have given this a solid four stars but I was really disappointed that a wonderful ending was diluted to something that was, quite frankly, tepid.  The bulk of the story doesn't shy away from some more traumatic turns and I like it when an author is brave enough to kill people off.  This story was relying heavily on a pervasive sense of danger that just wouldn't have worked without a few darker moments.  I don't want to spoil anything so I'll stop grumbling but things fell flat for me.  And those of you that aren't epilogue fans will not be converted by The String Diaries'.  Naff.

Overall:  If you're looking for a relatively quick, action-packed fantasy hit, The String Diaries could be right up your street.  It's a bit of a mixed bag but it's a good, definitely adult novel.  If you're used to ingesting your fantasy in series form, you might find it a little bit lacking in character development but you could do worse if you fancy a break from frustrating cliff-hanger endings.

Date finished: 15 February 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley - thanks, Headline!
Genre: Fantasy fiction
Pictured edition published:  by Headline in July 2013

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

March 2014, You passed me by

Phewf!  What a month.  I know that all of us seem to feel the months flying by but I honestly couldn't tell you what happened to March.  I've barely read a thing and I've barely had time to spare a thought for the blogging that I've not been doing.  I left my previous job because I wanted more challenging work and wow have I got it.  I'm unbelievably busy and I love how much I'm learning and the experiences I'm getting.   But that doesn't mean that I'm not missing reading and talking about reading, because I am.  During one particularly cranky evening, I even contemplated just throwing it all in and resigning myself to the loss of my little space on the internet.  And then I got an email about the upcoming, wonderful releases from Gollancz and realised that I was being ridiculous.  So here we are!  Still quiet for the foreseeable future I expect but still here.

The Reading

I can sum up my reading from this month in one sentiment: why am I still reading Tess of the D'Urbevilles?!  I don't hate it but it's not exactly a relaxing read and my efforts to read something alongside it just resulted in me reading something else for a while.  To be fair, it was Running Like A Girl and I loved it so it was tricky to put that aside for Hardy.  I had planned on powering through the end of Tess over the weekend but I was out on Friday night and Saturday night and creating a vegetable patch in our back garden with Boyfriend on Sunday so that didn't quite happen.

I almost don't want to type the numbers...

Books read:  1 and a half...

Pages read:  I'm not sure, to be honest - 240 pages of Running Like A Girl and maybe 200 of Tess?

Audiobooks listened to:  1 and 2 halves (of different books, hence not "2")

Reviewed in March
(Images link to reviews)


And that's about it for March.  Hello, spring! May you contain many more books!

Monday, 17 March 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? #14

Join in here
I don't want to sound like a broken record over here but I honestly can't keep track of how fast this year is going.  It's been a month since I started my new job and I am absolutely shattered a lot of the time but it's been fantastic and I am utterly convinced that moving firms was the right thing so it's a good news story.  I'm finding new ways to fit things in around work all the time so it won't be long before I'm back up to reading and chatting about reading again!

In the meantime, let's talk about my meagre March offerings...

What have I been reading?

For what seems like forever, I've been reading Tess of the D'Urbevilles.  Two weeks and I've read a quarter.  I was supposed to be reading it with Hanna but I fell appallingly behind within about three days and now I'm languishing with the fields and the cattle all alone with only promises of misery to cling on to.  Some days I think I'm enjoying it and others I don't have the energy to pick it up.  It's a tough one to settle into after being busy at work so Tess has taken a little bit of a back seat while I read something a little easier to get into when I've had a long day and just want to unwind with a book instead of battling one.

What am I reading right now?

Aside from the seemingly endless reading of Tess of the D'Urbevilles, I'm loving Running Like A Girl by Alexandra Heminsley.  I picked it up on Sunday evening and I've read more or less half, which compared to my recent reading speed is lightning.  It's funny and makes me want to pick up my trainers every time I read it.   There's something about the tone that I find completely inspiring and I am so looking forward to a solid post-injury run and starting to get properly into training for the Great North Run later in the year!

I've been doing a lot of audiobook listening on my commute too and this past week or so it's been the turn of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.  It actually lends itself perfectly to being listened to because it's told in the first person.  I'm also learning that this is one of the classics that I thought I knew and actually had no clue about.  Well, I knew the basics obviously but I had no idea about the events leading up to Crusoe being ship-wrecked or how long he was on the island and what he got up to while he was there.  It's really interesting from a historical perspective even if I sometimes find the lengthy explanations of tool-making on a desert island less than stellar at 7.00am. On balance, I'm glad that it got picked in the Classics Club spin last month.

What will I be reading next?  

Let's assume for a second that I will at some point over the next week or so be battling along with Tess and move on.  Part of me thinks that I will make Tess my weekend read and that during the week, I'm going to get stuck into some slightly more...gripping stories.  And for some reason over the past few weeks, I've been dying to read Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas.  It helps that I also have Crown of Midnight to get to right after and I have super high hopes.

And that's my reading life for the past couple of weeks!  I hope you're all having a wonderful March and reading more than me! :)

Friday, 14 March 2014

Review: 'The Night Rainbow' by Claire King

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Under the sweltering heat of the summer sun, five-year-old Pea - and her vivid imagination - run wild in the meadows behind her home on the edge of a small village in Southern France.

Pea’s father died in an accident, and now she only has her little sister, Margot, for company. Their mother is too sad to take care of them; she left her happiness in the hospital last year, along with the first baby.

Overwhelmed by grief, isolated from the other villagers, and pregnant again, Maman has withdrawn to a place where Pea cannot reach her, no matter how hard she tries.

When Pea meets Claude, a neighbour who seems to love the meadow as she does, she wonders if he could be their new papa. But the villagers view their friendship with suspicion. What secret is Claude keeping in his strange, empty house?


When I closed The Night Rainbow with a tear in my eye, I instantly gave it four stars.  It was an emotional read and a very sweet story and I was really taken with it.  Now that I sit down to write a review of it, though, I'm finding it very difficult to articulate why.  I don't have any real criticisms of the book but I also only have a few things that I can tell you that I loved about it.  One of those books.

Let's start at the beginning.  The story is relatively simple and the book relatively short.  Pea and Margot live in France with their heavily pregnant Maman and they are all living in the shadow of a dead father and a lost child.  In some ways, it's as relentlessly sad as you might expect but in others, it's quietly hopeful.  Pea is too young to fully appreciate death and so even while she understands loss and the fact that her beloved Pa is gone, she is as concerned with making sure that her nature collection of feathers and dead insects and such like are safe.  It's obvious to adult readers that both Pea and Margot don't have enough structure or support in their lives and my heart hurt as they dedicated their days to making Maman happy.  Small tasks like doing some washing and hanging it out, just to try to get attention and to make their mother's life a little brighter.  It's the balance between their natural optimism and their sadness that she can't be there for them that hurt my heart...
The word seems to come out of me all on its own. I think it's strange my mouth would do that. The rest of my head knows she's never there.”
As always with well written books featuring child narrators, what is almost more tragic than Pea and Margot running wild is watching their Maman fighting to keep her family together.  I always think that the sign of a child narrator being really done well is that you get a sense of what the adults are going through without it being clumsy or too obvious.  With The Night Rainbow, it isn't just Pea and Margot's Maman that readers get to know but Claude and Claude is really where King has done something that is brilliant on so many different levels.  Claude is clearly in pain (both physical and emotional) and hints at the cause of that pain in the stories that he tells the young narrators.  He is kind-hearted and paternal and Pea adores him and it is still obvious somehow that local residents are sceptical (to put it politely) about his relationship with his young neighbours.

When I participated in a Top Ten Tuesday earlier in the year, I wrote about how I wanted to read more books set in France and this was a perfect way to follow through on that.  The sun, the markets and delicious food and the endless, beautiful fields.  Oppressive for the characters, true, but wonderful to read about.  King's writing is spot on and the scene where Margot is telling Pea about night rainbows is particularly beautiful.  

There's more to this book than meets the eye but I don't really want to even mention vaguely how.  I toyed with the idea of not mentioning the fact at all but in the end I couldn't resist giving you one more reason to pick this up.  It isn't an action-packed book but it's a very evocative one that if nothing else will conjure up the torrid heat of a French summer and leave you feeling a little bit more with every chapter.

Overall:  The Night Rainbow is lovely.  It somehow manages to be about the resilience of children and their vulnerability all at the same time because while Pea and Margot are surviving, they're fragile and craving affection.  And you'll get all of that and a craving for some sunshine from a mere 272 pages.  A winner, definitely.

Date finished: 8 February 2014
Format: Paperback
Source: Borrowed from my library
Genre: Literary fiction
Pictured edition published:  by Bloomsbury in August 2013

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Thoughts on 'Villette' by Charlotte Bronte

"Villette!  Villette!  It is a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre. There is something almost preternatural in its power"  George Eliot

It's been years since I read and cried over Jane Eyre so, when I signed up for The Classics Club, I knew that I wanted to tuck some more Charlotte Bronte under my belt.  The choice of Villette was more or less random but it's one that I'm abundantly pleased about.  Villette and I had a rocky start and it wasn't all plain sailing but I really enjoyed it over all.  Would I say that I preferred it to Jane Eyre and that it was now my favourite of the Bronte works that I've read so far?  Not exactly but it is a truly great book.

Villette was Charlotte Bronte's last book, written after the death of her brother Branwell and both Anne and Emily.  It's impossible not to notice that this later work has a thread of sadness running through it.  The story itself isn't full of trauma or excessively bleak but there is something about Lucy Snowe's tone as narrator that is almost bitter and hints at something darker.  Something behind the writing that permeates the story and suffuses everything Lucy goes through with an edge.  I'm not always sure that I've ever really read anything and felt as though I could "see" as much of the author through the pages and it made Villette into something quite special.

The mastery of it is really in the narration.  Lucy Snowe is a young woman that has suffered a great, undisclosed tragedy and is making her way through life in the mid-1800s as a single, not particularly wealthy woman.  She is determined and independent and committed and all of the things that you might have come to expect from a Charlotte Bronte heroine but she's also jaded, slow to trust anybody (readers included) and struggling with mental illness.  What's remarkable is how everything that Lucy is is reflected perfectly in her narration.  Readers only know as much as Lucy feels able to disclose at any one time and everything that she is trying to suppress in her personality (her passion and her need to belong) are suppressed as she narrates, showing through only when her trials in the novel push her almost to breaking.  The plot is a relatively simple one - Lucy Snowe grows up among friends but without family, moves to the small French town of Villette, unable to speak French and without any connections, and strives to establish her independence, dreaming not of being swept off her feet by a local nobleman but of economic security and stability.  That doesn't read as particularly ambitious now, obviously, but I can imagine how almost revolutionary it must have seemed to mid-nineteenth century readers.  It's a quiet story in many ways but the telling of it is where the magic happens.

The other characters are hard to get to know because they're masked by Lucy's refusal to ever really open up to her readers.  Her temperament and perceptions shift and with them, the way that characters are portrayed.  She's the ultimate unreliable narrator and, rather than finding it frustrating, I loved it.  Not only do you get to know Lucy through the decisions that she makes and the way she chooses to live her life but you get a sense that she's a real person; she talks to readers sometimes, which in many books I hate but here was used well enough that it didn't feel awkward, just perfectly in keeping with the character that you feel as though you know.  There are twists where Lucy reveals that she hasn't been entirely honest with readers and moments where something just about the tale and it lends intrigue where otherwise there wouldn't be much.  I liked the other residents of Villette and their relationships with each other (particularly Dr Bretton and his mother who lend some often welcome light relief) and with Lucy are interesting enough but there were times when the story felt slow to me and that stopped it being a sweeping glorious success.  Not to mention how annoying Lucy's friend the vapid Ginevra Fanshawe can be...I do understand that she is meant to be frustrating but still.

So it's all impressively clever and the writing is outstanding.  And yet I'm not falling over myself to get you all to go out and buy a copy as fast as your feet can carry you.  Mainly because, even though I fully appreciated Villette's brilliance as a work of literature and one that I would definitely recommend, Lucy Snowe's story just didn't move me as much as good old Jane Eyre's.  I did close the book feeling pensive and the ending is...disorientating but I didn't close it feeling as much as I did with Bronte's earlier work.  I know that comparison isn't really necessary and compared to other books, both are far better than average so it's a hollow comparison in many ways but one that I'm ending on nonetheless!

Overall time: Villette is sheer manipulative literary brilliance. It's not flashy and it isn't a breath-taking tale of adventure but it is a heartfelt story on one woman's struggles, the people she meets and her hopes for a better future.  It's a favourite for a lot of people and a book that I imagine would stand up to re-reading better than most.  It didn't break my heart or rip my world asunder but I'm definitely glad I read it.

A word about editions:  I read the free Kindle version and it didn't include French narration.  My French was enough that I usually got the gist of what was happening but quite a lot of the dialogue hops between French and English so you might want to make sure that you have an edition with translation if you want to understand every word and aren't a fluent French speaker.

Date finished: 5 February 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Downloaded free for Kindle
Genre: Classic; Literary fiction
First published:  1853