Friday, 31 August 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Bridge of Birds' by Barry Hughart

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis

When the children of his village were struck with a mysterious illness, Number Ten Ox sought a wiseman to save them. He found master Li Kao, a scholar with a slight flaw in his character. Together, they set out to find the Great Root of Power, the only possible cure.

The quest led them to a host of truly memorable characters, multiple wonders, incredible adventures—and strange coincidences, which were really not coincidences at all. And it involved them in an ancient crime that still perturbed the serenity of Heaven. Simply and charmingly told, this is a wry tale, a sly tale, and a story of wisdom delightfully askew. Once read, its marvels and beauty will not easily fade from the mind.

The author claims that this is a novel of an ancient China that never was. But, oh…it should have been!

Review

The full title of this book is Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China that Never Was but because that is very long and I don't want to keep typing it, we're going to go with Bridge of Birds.  

When Goodreads first launched its 'Recommendations' feature, I wasn't convinced; it was kind of predictable.  One time, however, it threw up Bridge of Birds.  Written in the 1980s, it was my favourite kind of curve ball: one generated from books that I've read and loved but written some 20 years before any of them.  When I won a prize during Roof Beam Reader's Magical March event, I fumbled around a bit but then remembered this and went straight for it.

Bridge of Birds more than lived up to its recommendation.  It is beautiful.  Absolutely, unequivocally and exotically beautiful.  The prose reads like poetry and even when I didn't know what was going on or where the plot was going, I was happy just to be spending time reading such wonderful words.

The story has a clear ring of a fable: a village in the Chinese countryside steeped in legends is struck by a plague that puts all of its children into a coma.  The unlikely hero, Number Ten Ox, is sent to found out a champion and ends up pursuing an ultra powerful ginseng root across China.  Along the way, he encounters Li Kao (the man with a flaw in his character), barbaric rulers, myths made real, fantastical monsters, labyrinths, treasure, the ghosts of star-crossed lovers, sword dancing, fireworks and the wisest of the wisemen.  It has an ethereal, magical feel to it that is utterly captivating and it almost sparkles.

There are so many side stories (from the amusing to the tragic) and odd characters featured that it's just impossible to comment on them and do them justice.  What you will get is the richest tapestry of randomness that it is possible to find.  Hughart makes most other fantasy authors look predictable, although that could be a downside if you like your stories linear.

Even though I could barely have loved it more, I can see why some people wouldn't like it at all.  If Goodreads is anything to go by, it's absolutely a love or hate book.  Its random quality was what made it for me but it could be the flip side for another reader.  If you're looking for a concrete plot and a clear narrative, you'll probably finish Bridge of Birds wanting to kill Barry Hughart.  If you have the time and inclination to amble through some Chinese mythology and indulge in some whimsy, chances are you'll end up loving this as much as I did.


"Take a large bowl", [Li Kao] said.  "Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilisation, bellow kan pei...and drink to the dregs."  Procupio stared at [Li Kao]. "And I will be wise?", he asked.  "Better", [Li Kao] said, "You will be Chinese".

Overall: This is one of my absolute favourite books so far this year.  It was when I read it and it still is a couple of months later.  It is one of the most abstract stories that I have ever read and I could gush about it all day.  My personal library will one day contain everything that Hughart has ever written and I can't wait.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Date finished:  15 June 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Won from Roof Beam Reader
Genre:  Fantasy
Published: by Del Rey in April 1985

Monday, 27 August 2012

Historical Fiction Review: 'Silent in the Sanctuary' by Deanna Raybourn


Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Synopsis

This is the second in the Lady Julia Grey series - you can find my review of the first in the series, Silent in the Grave, here.  

If you're sensitive about synopsis-based spoilers, some will be popping up any second now.  Look away...now!



"There is a dead man stinking in the game larder. I hardly think a few missing pearls will be the ruin of this house party." Lady Julia Grey's eccentric family and friends have gathered to keep Christmas in Bellmont Abbey. But when Lady Julia notices the enigmatic detective Nicholas Brisbane in the party, she is less than delighted - trouble is sure to follow. Her prediction is proved correct when festivities are brought to an abrupt halt by a murder in the chapel. Blood dripping from her hands, Lady Julia's cousin claims the ancient right of sanctuary. Forced to resume her deliciously intriguing partnership with Brisbane, Lady Julia is intent on proving her cousin's innocence.

Still, the truth is rarely pure and never simple...

Review

When I read the first in this series, I liked it but didn't love it.  Since everyone else does seem to love it, though, when I found the second instalment tucked away in the Mystery section of my local library, I decided to give it another go.  I imagine that it being sat in the Mystery section causes a lot of disappointment.  This is not a great mystery.  More specifically, the first half of the book isn't any kind of mystery.  That's in no way a criticism because what it is is fantastic historical fiction.

One of Raybourn's major talents is clearly creating characters that are easy to love and fun to spend time with.  As this is the second in the series, there's that feeling of familiarity right from the first few pages and it quickly becomes apparent that none of the characters' strengths have diminished.  Lady Julia is still wonderfully eccentric - I didn't really appreciate her in the first book because she was a bit too reckless for my liking.  This time around, she seemed to be a lot...calmer.  The more I think about it, the more I like to think that this is intentional.  Silent in the Grave has her looking to avenge her late husband's murder; Silent in the Sanctuary sees her a little more settled in her own skin and using her fledgling detective skills to investigate something not so close to home. It stands to reason that she'd be more considered and less erratic in her choices.  She's also a lot stronger around Nicholas Brisbane and I loved her for keeping the delicious man on his toes.

The rest of the Lady Julia's family are as rich and colourful.  It makes absolute sense that the first half of the book is spent focussing on them and developing them.  Even through the bitterest exchanges and most acerbic banter, there's a warmth that's almost impossible not to smile at and it sets a solid base for the rest of the series.  The resolution of the mystery (when it finally comes along...) even manages to be kind of endearing.  There are some gruesome(ish) moments, some darkness and some twists but mostly there's a Christmas jauntiness to proceedings that helps take the edge off.  For a book that's nearly 600 pages, the plot does bumble along at a fairly slow pace but the people and story are so much fun that I just didn't care.

The only downside is the occasional excess of Lady Julia-Brisbane tension.  Their barbed exchanges and witty frankness, I like.  Their refusal to be honest or considerate with each other, I don't like as much (even though I would reluctantly admit that it's sort in character for both!).  Still, I suppose that this is but one novel out of five so far and it would actually be disappointing if all the characters did end up right where I wanted them so early on.

Overall:  If you're in the mood for some feisty and entertaining historical fiction, this story is an accomplished follow-up to Silent in the Grave.  If you haven't yet read the first instalment, get hold of a copy so that you'll be all caught up and ready to love Silent in the Sanctuary with all of its snow, mischief and tinsel at the perfect time.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Date finished:  09 June 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Borrowed from my local library
Genre:  Mystery; Historical fiction
Published: by Mira Books in December 2008

Sunday, 26 August 2012

In My Mailbox #8: Birthday Treats

I flipping well love all kinds of birthdays!  I love birthdays that involve books even more :)

A few days before my birthday I got a very excited package from Ellie (of Musings of a Bookshop Girl fame) and saved it to open on my actual birthday because I am a Grown Up!  Lovely Ellie parcelled up two of her favourite books for me, which was super kind and I can't WAIT to read them:


From my work people, I got a gorgeous hand-made necklace that I totally love and a £20 Watertones voucher, which I obviously also totally loved.  Like most book lovers, I always have a hefty wishlist and spent it on a couple of eBooks that I've wanted for a while and a couple of random choices brought on in a flurry of fantasy-themed eBook buying excitement:



The wild card from the bunch is Magic to the Bone but at 98 pence, if it completely stinks then I can live with the loss.  I'm really excited about 11.22.63 and The Gathering Dark after reading rave reviews everywhere for months.  The other three just sort of...jumped into my eBasket...*shrugs*

I also got a very lovely parcel containing The Gilded Lily from Pan Macmillan as part of HF Virtual Book Tours' upcoming review tour.  It's really pretty so I'm sure it'll be great.  Because that is just how it works, right?

Hope you all had fabulously full mailboxes too! SHARE!!


Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Bout of Books 5.0: The Wrap-Up

Bout of Books Read-a-Thon

Phewf!  It seems like barely any time at all since I signed up for this and now it's all over?! What is up with this year flying by?  

I wasn't quite as involved in Bout of Books 5.0 as I was in Bout of Books 4.0.  Really, though, I knew that when I started so it was all ok.  The mini-challenges looked fab this time around so I was a bit sad that I didn't actually get round to taking part in any but I had a lovely week in general so I don't feel too blue!

So how did I do? My goal post is here and my updates (for Monday to Friday...) are here.

Saturday and Sunday weren't great reading days and I only got through about 28 pages of Geist by Philippa Ballantine.  It's still not going too well so I think that my slow progress towards the end of the read-a-thon is a combination of being out quite a bit and choosing a book with a slow start.  

Reading Goals

My final totals were:
Total pages read:  456 pages
Books read from:


Miss Buncle's Book was pretty great; This Is Not A Test was a bit flawed but really gripping so perfect read-a-thon fodder; Geist is a bit...*sigh* - so far, it feels a bit like hard work.

That is slightly more than I would normally read but since I was out and about a lot of the time, I'm more than happy overall, I think :)

Blogging Goals

I got a review posted for A Plea of Insanity by Priscilla Masters and reviews handwritten for The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, Silent in the Sanctuary by Deanna Raybourn and Bridge of Birds: A Story of Ancient China that Never Was by Barry Hughart. It turns out, I'm much better at writing initial drafts of reviews by hand than writing them straight onto my computer!  That's definitely something good to come out of the read-a-thon!

I hope Bout of Books 5.0 went well for you all - how did you do against your goals?  Any new favourites?  Books to dodge?  Tips for the next Bout of Books?

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Crime/Thriller Review: 'A Plea of Insanity' by Priscilla Masters


Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis

On a late summer Monday, Doctor Claire Roget takes up her new post of clinical psychiatrist at Greatbach Secure Psychiatrist Unit in the Midlands city of Stoke on Trent. Six months ago, her predecessor Heidi Faro was brutally murdered in her office by one of the inmates, Stefan Giulio, who suffers from brain damage. As Claire is adjusting to her new job, she becomes increasingly suspicious that someone else might have been involved in the murder...

Review

I'd had this book on my shelves for years.  It has moved house with me approximately four times.  I couldn't tell you what finally made me decide to pick it up and read it but I can tell you that I'm glad that I've read it...so that I can give it away and clear some room.  Disappointing. 

For me, there's something darkly fascinating about criminal insanity.  Maybe we all start out the same; maybe we don't.  Maybe it comes down to our experiences or our development.  Or maybe criminality is innate and just lies dormant in people until some...spark.  Call me morbid, but I could debate myself round in these circles for hours.  Perhaps its a throwback to a Modern Legal Theory module I took back in university.  Whatever it is, it lead me to expect too much from A Plea of Insanity.  That's not to say that I expect every psychological thriller to be a thesis on criminality but if you choose a psychiatrist for your protagonist and a mental hospital for your setting, I do expect a little more.

So Dr Claire Roget takes up a position at a secure psychiatric unit shortly after her predecessor (and idol) was brutally murdered in the very same office.  The earlier parts of the novel are clearly and sympathetically written.  Dr Roget struggles with living in the shadow of Dr Faro while trying to get to know her patients.  The glimpse into the world of an over-stretched publicly-funded institution and the inevitable pitfalls is initially well-handed.  After the first few atmospheric chapters, though, the strengths deteriorate and the book just made me feel...sad. 

There's a lot of criticism of the state of our mental welfare system, some of which may be well founded but a lot of which seems sensationalist.  Dr Roget herself is unprofessional and complains regularly about the patients that she is supposed to be caring for.  The first time she meets Jeremy Barclay, the apparent malcontent of the book, she is so hyper-sensitive that she indulges her imagination.  I appreciate that he's creepy, I really do.  Which is but one of the many reasons that I am not a doctor trained to deal with the criminally insane.   The lack of respect and understanding that Dr Roget displays for her patients made me lose all sympathy for her. After that, the book didn't hold much appeal.

Oh, and don't even get me started on the romantic side-plot.

Plus sides?  There's a fair "Whodunnit" element for most of the book and some appropriately creepy moments.

Overall: A solid idea, poorly and prejudicially executed.  The denouement by no means makes up for the damage done along the way and I'm sure that there are far better psychological thrillers that you could spend your time on. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Date finished:  20 June 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Crime; Thriller; Mystery
Published: by Allison & Busby  in December 2005

Monday, 13 August 2012

Bout of Books: The Updates

Bout of Books Read-a-Thon

My goals for Bout of Books Read-A-Thon 5.0 can be found here.

This is where I'll be posting all of the update-y bits and pieces and throwing out random thoughts about books, birthdays and...balloons?  (Note: there probably will not be balloons.  It was the first 'b' word I thought of after 'birthdays'. If you're looking for balloons, you will be disappointed...)

If you're participating too, I hope that your week is going wonderfully! If you're not, I also hope that your week is going wonderfully, just for different reasons, obviously.

Ahem...

Monday 13 August 
Pages read today: (as at 9.21pm) 53 pages
Total pages read so far: 53 pages
Total books read so far: Just approaching the end of Miss Buncle's Book by D.E.Stevenson

Thoughts from Day 1 of the Read-A-Thon: EXCITED!  I love how sociable the Bout of Books Read-A-Thon is over on Twitter (#boutofbooks) and I'm excited about spending lots of time reading but also spending some time catching up on reviews and the blog in general.  53 pages so far isn't bad and I'm pretty sure that I'll finish the remaining 50 or so before going to sleep (because I kind of have to know how the story's going to end!). I'm definitely happy with 100+ for the first day!

Update: Total made it up to 102 pages on Monday night when I stayed up past my bedtime to read the end of Miss Buncle's Book.  A good day.

Tuesday 14 August
Pages read today:  167 pages
Total pages read so far:  269 pages
Total books read so far:  The end of Miss Buncle's Book by D.E.Stevenson; the first half of This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers

Thoughts from Day 2 of the Read-A-Thon:  I am BRAVE and can read about zombies.  Unless they're being zombie-ish, in which case I am not brave.  In addition to being very creepy, however, zombies make very compelling reading and I was glued to the book for the day.  Excellent for a read-a-thon.

Wednesday 15 August
Pages read today:  62 pages
Total pages read so far:  331 pages
Total books read so far:  The end of Miss Buncle's Book by D.E.Stevenson; most of This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers

Thoughts from Day 3 of the Read-A-Thon:  This Is Not A Test is still as addictive a book as ever, even if it's not exactly a perfect one.  The start of the birthday festivities heralded the start of a lowering of page counts, I think...

Thursday 16 August
Pages read today:  21 pages
Total pages read so far:  352 pages
Total books read so far:  The end of Miss Buncle's Book by D.E.Stevenson; most of This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers

Thoughts from Day 4 of the Read-A-Thon:  BIRTHDAY TIME!  Balloon O'Clock! :)

Friday 17 August 
Pages read today:  76 pages (as at 4.54pm)
Total pages read so far:  428 pages 
Total books read so far:  The end of Miss Buncle's Book by D.E.Stevenson; This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers; the start of Geist by Philippa Ballantine

Thoughts from Day 5 of the Read-A-Thon:  *sigh* 364 days until my birthday. On the plus side, I finished a book, which makes one whole book during the read-a-thon with a couple of days to go.  The ending of This Is Not A Test was a bit disappointing but the getting there was fun.  And now I know that I'm brave enough to read about zombies.  Win.

Bout of Books 5.0: The Goals

Bout of Books Read-a-Thon

I had a brilliant time with the Bout of Books read-a-thon last time I took part and was kind of sad when I realised that this one coincided with my birthday, which meant that I'd be pretty busy.  I didn't want to sign-up and end up feeling disappointed with my progress so I very nearly passed up. This morning, though, I decided that I was in dire need of a bit of a break and  booked Thursday and Friday of this week off.  So even with all of the festivities, I'll still have plenty of spare time to get some reading done :)  What can I say?  I'm a sucker for a Bout of Books Read-A-Thon

If you're not already tempted to join the fun, perhaps this little note from the organisers will persuade you...

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda @ On a Book Bender and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal.  It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, August 13th and runs through Sunday, August 19th in whatever time zone you are in.  Bout of Books is low-pressure, and the only reading competition is between you and your usual number of books read in a week.  There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional.  For all Bout of Books 5.0 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. - From the Bout of Books 5.0 team

Reading Goals

I started out this morning with just under 100 pages left of Miss Buncle's Book by D.E.Stevenson so first up will be to finish that.  Then I would love to get through two more books.  I usually average 1-1.5 books a week so that would be a good week of reading for me!

My shortlist at the moment (which is of course subject to my ever-changing reading whims) looks like this:



Blogging Goals

You might notice that it's been a little quiet around here recently.  I'm planning on dedicating Friday to getting over the post-birthday blues by finally catching up on some reviews. I'd like to get at least three scheduled.

So that's my week!  If you're taking part, are you reading from a shortlist or just going with whatever you fancy?  Whatever you're reading, HAVE FUN! :)

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Review Minis: The YA Edition


If you missed my first collection of review minis, you can catch up on what the heck I'm playing at and see what I thought of some of my recent forays into crime fiction with the Mystery Edition here.

I seem to have a funny relationship with YA fiction at the moment. I keep craving it and keep finding myself disappointed.  In Spring, however, I was having a lovely time.  Perhaps that'll teach me that sweeping statements about a whole type of fiction isn't what's required but better choosing.  The highlights?  Well, since you asked...

Forgotten by Cat Patrick (Find it on Goodreads here)

Stories based around memory loss must be terribly hard to write.  I have to confess that when I start one, I'm almost waiting for a clanger of a plot hole.  I think what made this one easier to go along with was that the central character, London Lane, can't remember the past but can "remember" the future.  Since you have to suspend some belief anyway, it's not too much of a stretch when the odd day seems a little bit too easy or where London seems a little bit too comfortable for someone who shouldn't have the faintest idea of who she's talking to and what on Earth she's doing.  It does manage to touch on the moral implications of being able to peek into your friends' futures and ideas about whether you would want to know your future if given the opportunity, even if it does so in a fairly light fashion.

I read this in a single day - it's definitely entertaining and the pace, in particular, with the London's occasional glimpses into the future is very well-judged.  There's a good balance between plot development and the musings of a teenage girl that is trying to navigate her adolescence with post-its.  And it was also extremely nice to read a self-contained story. No cliff-hangers, no labouring of points and no meting out facts so that the story arc can be spanned over multiple instalments?  Bliss!  If you're looking for a way to spend a day that won't result in you having to sprint to your local bookshop or desperately willing away the next few months of your life in anticipation of a resolution, grab Forgotten.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5 for being a light and not-horribly-confusing book about memory loss 

Insurgent  by Veronica Roth (Find it on Goodreads here)

***This is the second in a series - beware of SPOILERS for Divergent!***

Divergent was one of my favourite books of last year (review here) so I downloaded the eBook of the sequel eagerly.  Thankfully, Hanna had given me a heads up about a re-cap of the first in the series on Roth's blog because Insurgent jumps straight back into the action.  It's a strange one because when I'm reading a series quickly, it can be annoying to have to wade through a couple of chapters of filler before the author lets you get back into the story but, if it's been a while since you read the first book (a la Divergent for me), those snippets can be handy or you spend the first few chapters thinking, "Who's that again? Where are we?  What's going on?!".  It's a brave decision, I think, but one that, on the whole, I liked.  It suits the pace and style of the series.

In this instalment, Tris isn't quite the feisty lady that she was in the first.  A little bit of the fight that I loved so much had gone but I don't think that many people would be super well-balanced if both of their parents had died and they'd killed one of their friends and was sort of in hiding.  So I'm prepared to forgive Tris the odd eratic moment.  Sure, I was frustrated that she wouldn't flipping well listen to the people around her but her (realistic!) flaws are part of what make her one of my favourite YA characters of recent years.  And I still love Four.

The story still hares along at break-neck pace and is almost impossible to put down.  I was quite disappointed in the ending.  It wasn't badly written or anything but I'd had an inkling earlier on that this was the way the story was going but I was hoping that I was wrong.  The book also seems to just...stop.  I can see the commercial merit in whopping cliff-hangers, and it's a good set up for the final book, but I did feel lead on, almost; lured to a dramatic finish and then cut off.  I suppose, though, that particular criticism could be read as a way of saying that I was enjoying the story and didn't want to finish reading but it was just the way that it wasn't written like an ending.  It just stopped.

Rating:  4 stars out of 5 for being a generally superb second instalment in a series that I can't wait to get back to in Autumn 2013.

Ill Wind by Rachel Caine (Find it on Goodreads here)

This is another book that shoves you straight into the middle of the action.  It opens with Joanne Baldwin running for her life and pretty much never gives you chance to catch your breath.  I spent the whole time I was reading this feeling as though I was just a few steps behind and that I was trying to chase the plot down and get a handle on what was going on.  It’s quite exciting and has an unpredictability about it that is fun but that’s about it.

The inevitable downside to having your story start in high drama is that you have almost no time to develop characters that a reader can care about or to create the world that they're causing all the mayhem in.  Joanne was so busy dashing about and re-enforcing the sense of impending doom that her motivations get lost and even though she mentions plenty of times that there are reasons why she won't accept the help regularly offered to her from a range of sources but doesn’t feel the need to really share what they are, which is extremely FRUSTRATING to read.  There’s also a strange relationship with a chap called David who appears as a hitchhiker and pops up at random moments being all mysterious.  As another side effect of racing everywhere, the plot becomes quite repetitive: run, rest, fend off a pursuer that’s caught up; repeat three times (at least…).  A case of action over substance.

Most of my disappointment came from the fact that the ideas behind the story were fantastic and I was looking forward to reading about them, I just didn’t get to see enough of them in the end. Weather Wardens that can control the elements sound awesome and the Djinn sound pretty cool but I couldn’t really tell you much about either.  Enough that I’m prepared to read the next book to see which direction the series goes in but not enough that finished this one feeling satisfied.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5 for promising some brilliance for later in the series but delivering something luke warm as a starter.