Friday, 25 February 2011

Review: 'The Winter Ghosts' by Kate Mosse

Date finished: 17 February 2011

Rating: 3.5 stars

Format: Paperback

Source: Bought (December 2010, I think)

Genre: Ghost story/historical fiction
Published: 1 October 2009

The Synopsis

The Great War took much more than lives. It robbed a generation of friends, lovers and futures. In Freddie Watson's case, it took his beloved brother and, at times, his peace of mind. Unable to cope with his grief, Freddie has spent much of the time since in a sanatorium. In the winter of 1928, still seeking resolution, Freddie is travelling through the French Pyrenees - another region that has seen too much bloodshed over the years. During a snowstorm, his car spins off the mountain road. Shaken, he stumbles into the woods, emerging by a tiny village. There he meets Fabrissa, a beautiful local woman, also mourning a lost generation. Over the course of one night, Fabrissa and Freddie share their stories of remembrance and loss. By the time dawn breaks, he will have stumbled across a tragic mystery that goes back through the centuries. By turns thrilling, poignant and haunting, this is a story of two lives touched by war and transformed by courage.

The Review

On the face of it, this is a great ghost story - were it not sent in rural France, I would have said it had a rather gothic feel to it. A lone man roaming through the wilderness after a car crash in a blizzard, stumbles upon an eerily quiet village before finding a guest house and realising that everything is not as it seems...Had it been nothing more, it would be great. As it happens, it was even better!

At less than 250 pages, I expected either a quick-fire story or a character study. I was pleasantly surprised by this novel actually managing, for the most part, to provide both! The story, as I said, has a very quaint feel about it - rural France has the most idyllic villages and Mosse's descriptions are perfect! Every smudge of dust, every dagger of ice and every whiff of liquer is captured with just the right amount of detail. There isn't anything complicated about the way that Mosse writes - she just seems to know how every moment should be described without grandeur or pretence.

And yet every reader knows that even the best descriptions won't carry a story by themselves. The characters and themes, fortunately, live up to the setting. The story is set in both 1928 and 1933 and is told from the perspective of Freddie. Freddie is a touchingly vulnerable Englishman struggling to cope with life after World War I and the death of his older brother, an Englishman like many others of the time trying to bear the unbearable. He is, perhaps, a victim of his own 'English-ness'. One thing I think we're still stereotyped for (although I can't be sure) is our repressed emotions. Freddie is never allowed to show his grief but is supposed to just bury it and live on. Like the novel says:

"He walked like a man recently returned to the world. Every step was careful, deliberate. Every step to be relished....

But nothing is as it seems.

For every step was a little too careful, a little too deliberate, as if he were unwilling to take even the ground beneath his feet for granted"

So even as a ghost story, this book isn't all that it seems. Because underneath the mystery, the snow and the voices on the wind is a man who so desperately needs someone to prove to him that he's worthy of love, worthy of anything, that he doggedly pursues shadows 700 years old...and therein lies the story!

And there isn't really much more to say - just that you should read it before the Spring comes and the snow passes on and takes away the perfect atmosphere for reading this book.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Guest Post: Laura Kreitzer on 'Phantom Universe' and Human Trafficking

One thing I love about books, reading and the whole literary community is our opportunities to explore huge issues through the comfort of accessible characters and plots. Whatever it is you read, at some point you find yourself reading a great book which challenges your opinions or exposes your tired mind to an issue you never knew much about.

I have nothing but respect for the authors who continue to dare to write about social, political or psychological issues that would otherwise run the risk of languishing in a harrowing, inaccessible BBC documentary and continue to use their talents to make a difference.

On that note, I introduce Laura Kreitzer with, as I said, nothing but humble respect:

Hello Literary-Folk!

My name is
Laura Kreitzer, and I’m the author of the Timeless Series and the Summer Chronicles. This week I would like to alert everyone on a colossal crisis that’s gone unnoticed in the world: human trafficking. That’s why I’ve asked hundreds of blogs to be involved with spreading the word on this issue that’s become close to my heart.

As an author, and someone whose life is put in the spotlight, I keep most people at a distance. Only a handful of my friends know the whole me and the events from my past. But this week I’d like to share with you a part of myself that the outside world doesn’t see (and a part of me I don’t like to share). I was emotionally abused for five years by someone I thought loved me, my mind beaten into submission. Though the turmoil I went through doesn’t penetrate as deep as someone forced into slavery on the worldwide market for human trafficking, I can sadly relate in some ways: imprisoned, my life dictated down to what I wore, ate, where I went, whom I spoke to, where I worked, when I slept, bending to his every whim. He did not sway, even when I cried through some of the more traumatic things he had me do. I was a slave in my own home. In my desperation for freedom, I held out a gun and asked him to just end my suffering. I was desperate.

I can’t even imagine how many women (and men) in the world are in a similar situation. What’s even worse, I had it mild compared to the children that are sold for labor or sex. Surprisingly, the good ol’ U.S.A. is reported to be the host to two million slaves. Did you know this? Because I certainly did not; not until I was preparing to write my newest novel: Phantom Universe. The main character, Summer Waverly, was stolen as a child and sold as a slave to the captain of a modern-day pirate ship. From a loved child who only knew “time-out” as punishment, to being whipped into silence was something I knew nothing about. So I researched deeply into human trafficking and the psychological effects of torture of various types that one would endure in these circumstances. I felt shaken at my findings and knew I had to tell Summer’s story. (Read a sneak peek here.)

A storm began to brew in my mind; transforming, morphing, twisting, and expanding into this massive, black cloud. I had to bring this tragic atrocity to the forefront. My own emotional experiences, mixed with the research I did on human trafficking, made me feel an intense connection with Summer, and to all women who’ve been through this kind of brutality. The cloud ruptured and rained all over my computer one day. It took one month to write Phantom Universe, the first in the Summer Chronicles. I was so consumed by the story that I wrote nearly nonstop, only breaking for necessary tasks like eating, showering, and occasionally—very occasionally—sleeping.

Though the book I’ve written would be classified as Science Fiction, or as I’d like to call it, Dystopian, the emotions and psychological aspects are not Science Fiction—they're real. Reviewers have said many amazing things about Summer, this character who is so real in my mind and who I cried along with as the words poured from my soul onto my screen.

“I admired Summer's strength and ability to adapt,” says CiCi’s Theories. “I felt tied to her emotions,” Jennifer Murgia, author or Angel Star admits. And Tahlia Newland, author of Lethal Inheritance, remarks, “Summer is strong and smart in mind [. . .]”

Through her overwhelmingly horrendous past, Summer goes on more than just a physical journey in Phantom Universe, she goes on a psychological one as well; growing beyond her mute state to persevere and survive in a new world beyond the whip she’s so frightened of.

Now that the release date is here, I’m excited and terrified to share this story with everyone. I’m emotionally tied in every way to the words I’ve written, because they’re more than words. More than just a story on a page. Beyond the fictional aspects, there’s a real issue that needs to be addressed: human trafficking must be stopped. We shouldn’t sit idly by while this continues to plague us. Our world’s children—our nation’s children—are being affected. It’s time we take action!

Earlier this month Phantom Universe hit
Barnes and Noble’s top 100 Best Selling list. I’ve decided to donate 10% of my sales from Phantom Universe, until the end of February, to the DNA Foundation.

“DNA hopes to help abolish modern day slavery, deter perpetrators, and free the many innocent and exploited victims. We are committed to forcing sex slavery out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

Freedom is a basic human right and slavery is one of the greatest threats to that freedom. No one has the right to enslave another person.”

—From DNA Foundation’s

I ask that you spread the word to everyone you know. Look around on the DNA Foundation website and find a way to get involved in ending human trafficking. Take action today. Everyone has a voice—you have a voice. Will you have the courage to use it?

Laura's book is out now and available on Barnes and Noble as an eBook here - thank you so much to Laura for that moving guest post.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Review: 'The Lost Symbol' by Dan Brown (Don't judge me...)

Date finished: 13 February 2011

Rating: 2.5 stars

Format: eBook

Source: Bought on in August 2010

Genre: Thriller/Mystery

Published: 15 September 2009 (in eBook version)

The Synopsis

As the story opens, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is summoned unexpectedly to deliver an evening lecture in the U.S. Capitol Building. Within minutes of his arrival, however, the night takes a bizarre turn. A disturbing object--artfully encoded with five symbols--is discovered in the Capitol Building. Langdon recognizes the object as an ancient invitation... one meant to usher its recipient into a long-lost world of esoteric wisdom.

When Langdon's beloved mentor, Peter Solomon--a prominent Mason and philanthropist--is brutally kidnapped, Langdon realizes his only hope of saving Peter is to accept this mystical invitation and follow wherever it leads him. Langdon is instantly plunged into a clandestine world of Masonic secrets, hidden history, and never-before-seen locations--all of which seem to be dragging him toward a single, inconceivable truth.

The Review

Here comes the shameful truth: I both read and enjoyed The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons.

I know this may well undermine my opinions in the eyes of many forever more but I thought an explanation as to why I picked up this book would be sought - I know that it has been widely condemned as a mass-produced, over-hyped book. And yet still I went ahead and read it because, as I said, I liked the first two novels featuring Robert Langdon. Plus, reading an eBook version meant I could hide behind a glossy black piece of technology instead of having to cover a book with brown paper to avoid the glares of the literary community at large....

This started out much the same as the earlier two - Robert Langdon dashes to the rescue of one of his distinguished friends and finds himself embroiled in a mystery (usually involving at least a death or two and a good dismemberment..) that only he has the knowledge to solve. I know it's a bit cheesy but I have no problem with a bit of cheese every now and then. So, we have Robert Langdon chasing down a deranged lunatic and facing down centuries old clues in the process - so far, so good.

At first I was a little annoyed by the constantly changing POV: there are sections from about 5 characters', often mixed up in one chapter, and it can be a bit disorientating while you're getting used to the characters themselves. After a while, it settled down though and I made my peace with this aspect.

What I failed miserably to reconcile myself with was the story itself - it's weak, at best. The wide range of 'clues' that have been prevalent in Brown's earlier novels (or those I've read...) had been trimmed down for this book. The focus is on one particular artefact and a couple of buildings. The unravelling is a bit too slow and I found the dialogue used to tease it out forced. And while I'm at it, there was a couple too many of those 'Eureka!' moments with the solution to puzzles just dawning on characters at convenient moments rather than being worked through.

As you can gather, I wasn't keen on the story as it stood, largely due to the pace being all off. The final 'nail in the coffin', however, was that the main part of the story was over at approximately 480 ePages...the book ran to 567. So what filled the remaining pages? Hypothesising about the nature of the Masons' secrets, excessive discussion between characters on the nature of God, whether mankind had lost its ability to appreciate the divine and 'hidden' aspects of Washington's architecture. It really didn't link to the story particularly well and I have no idea why it was tagged onto the end. I read it but I skimmed significant chunks - if I had wanted theology, it's extraordinarily unlikely that I would have chosen Dan Brown to provide it...

To end on a positive note, the chapters are extremely short and punchy and good for reading on public transport, say, where longer periods of concentration aren't possible. There are some interesting points about the Masons' history and the story does have some exciting moments before the 'secrets' are revealed and we descend into philosophy. I was mildly entertained for the first couple of hundred pages and that's why it got the stars it did. Also, just so you know, nobody has to say "I told you so..." - I've been punished enough...

Overall: I'd struggle to recommend this book, even to a Dan Brown fan. It's haphazard and too long for it's own good - there is a degree of 'mystery' but no real twists or secrets that made the first two so compelling. If you're a die-hard mystery/thriller fan and into conspiracy theories, give it a try! But don't say you weren't warned...

And if you've forgiven me for reading that, thanks :) In my defence, the TBR Dare I signed up to did say I had to read older books - I've had this a good six months so aim achieved!

While I remember, I should apologise to Dan Brown for not offering an objective review. I am in no way a professional reviewer and subjective is all I have :) I did say I liked your earlier books, though, so please don't pour any wrath on my blog. Thanks...

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Review: 'Enchanted No More' by Robin D. Owens

Date finished: 29 January 2011

Rating: 3 stars

Format: eBook

Source: NetGalley

Genre: Fantasy

Published: December 2010

The Synopsis

“I’ll do the mission,” Jenni told Tage. “you win.”

As one of the last surviving Mistweavers, half-blood Jenni knows what it’s like to be caught between two worlds: the faery and the human. But the time has come to choose. The Lightfolk require her unique talent for balancing the elements to fend off a dangerous enemy—and rescue her missing brother.

Only for Rothly will Jenni deal with those who destroyed her life. Only for him will she agree to work with her ex-lover, Tage, and revisit the darkest corners of her soul. For a reckoning is at hand, and she alone has the power to hold back the forces of dark....

The Review

As is somewhat obvious, I finished this book a couple of weeks ago but haven't had the chance to write a review I've liked yet. I wrote one that waffled...deleted it in a strop...regretted it when things went crazy at work and I had no time to re-draft...and here we are! I came away from this book feeling rather positive and remember it as being a fair read but in response to the acid test of "Who would I recommend it to?" that often helps me gauge my reaction, I drew a blank. So a mixed one really...

One thing I really liked about this book was the use of elements; the idea that everything is made up of a certain balance of fire, water, earth and air and certain beings are more in tune with certain elements. There was a touch of New Age philosophy about it but it was integrated into the story well and was a nice slant on magic. The imagery is bold and fills the story with colour that matches the nature theme perfectly.

The idea for the plot is quite good but, for me, it ended up feeling a bit repetitive. I'm inclined to think that's largely as a result of the characters - I never thought I'd be annoyed by somebody whose entire family has been killed but Jenni and Rothly both manage to be somewhat...irritating. Jenni has mourning guilt while Rothly has vengeful anger. I sympathised, sure, but was also wishing they'd at least try to move forward. It does get better but in a 'chick flick' fashion rather than in a gritty, emotional way.

And a couple of last thoughts: the tone of this book is hard to pinpoint - at times, I felt like I was reading a YA/children's book (brownie housekeepers and travelling through trees etc...) but then at others, there were some characters getting their raunch on. Makes it a difficult one to recommend to any specific point on the age spectrum, all in all.

Finally, there are, you will be pleased to know, some 'bad guys' to provide mild peril and thwarting opportunities (although for some reason they smell like "old bubble gum" - whoever would have guessed?). Again linking to the above-mentioned tone, these bad guys do have a taste for some pretty grim violence involving some spillage of blood - if you're of a very queasy disposition or are thinking of passing this to young kids, probably something that you'll want to bear in mind!

Overall: This was a sweet story with some cutesy magic going for it - I wouldn't necessarily be rushing out to grab other books by this author but I enjoyed this one and didn't have a problem finishing it. It's bright and colourful and made me wish for summer (possibly the beach scenes...) so it's a nice one to cheer up a dim day.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Weekly Geeks #2: The Fight against BBD (Blurry Book Disorder)

I am determined to manage to do this weekly! Ok, so I didn't manage last week, which incidentally would only have been my second, but I'm back on it!

This week's Weekly Geeks theme is Blurry Book Disorder, neatly described there as:

When one can no longer keep the characters and storylines straight. Often brought on by reading multiple books from the same genre in a short period of time.

The task is to plot a plan of attack so as to avoid this terrible affliction!

As it happens, this isn't something that really happens to me, predominantly because I don't tend to read that fast. When I'm only getting through one or two books a week, the scope for blurring them together is more limited...however, I can sympathise in that when I've read a series of books (even if it's just a trilogy), I'll remember it as one long story and the lines where one book becomes the next gets a bit muddled. Fine when it's just me, less fine when I'm trying to talk to somebody about, say, the first book and I'm desperately trying to avoid second book spoilers....

There seems to be but one solution: stop reading series of books all in one go!!

At the moment, I'm a terrible chain-reader and very rarely read anything in between each book in a series. Maybe I should stop that and try, at least once (!), to break them up a bit. That would no doubt be helped if I stopped buying the series all at once. I don't even know why I do it sometimes...

So anyway, the next time I start a series, I'll read a book in between each part! Hopefully.....

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

So that was January...

What has so far passed of this year has seen me trying to be more organised with how I read - that doesn't necessarily extend to what I choose to read (because that usually involves me gauging my mood and grabbing...) but to the records I keep of what I read. Also, I joined a couple of challenges for this year so thought it would be a handy idea to keep a log of whether I'm doing ok or not...

First up, some numbers!

Complete books read: 4

Pages read: 1443

All of these four books were written by female authors and only one was a book that could be considered a 'classic' - poor show! The specimens were:

Soulless by Gail Carriger;
Changeless by Gail Carriger;
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier; and
Enchanted No More by Robin D. Owens.

Men v. Women: I again realised recently that I manage to read way more fiction penned by women than I do by men. I'm kind of trying to rectify that in the interests of diversity but I hadn't noticed before and I'm enjoying what I do read so it isn't a huge concern to me. Plus, I'm currently reading a book by a man so it's a start...

eBook v. Paper: I've read three paperbacks so far this year and only one eBook - probably an inaccurate representation of my general habits but possibly rooted in my partaking in the TBR Dare. Most of the books I have been hoarding to date have been paperbacks so to read from my current stash involves "regressing" to the paperback. I'm intrigued to see how this will pan out this year...

The TBR Dare: To only read books bought pre-January 2011 until Spring - so far I've stuck to it and haven't bought any books or downloaded any library eBooks so far this year. This is TOUGH!! But I feel very virtuous and sensible for reading things I own so it's ok :)

The TBR Pile challenge: Kind of similar in aim to the TBR Dare, this is another challenge that forces me to look at my shelves and call of those who have been sitting there too long. This month I read one of my twelve nominated books, Rebecca, and really enjoyed - showing just how much I'm probably missing by overlooking the books that have been in my collection the longest!

I hope you all had a fabulous start to the year!!