Saturday, 31 August 2013

Review: 'Shadow on the Crown' by Patricia Bracewell

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


A rich tale of power and forbidden love revolving around a young medieval queen.

In 1002, fifteen­-year-old Emma of Normandy crosses the Narrow Sea to wed the much older King Æthelred of England, whom she meets for the first time at the church door. Thrust into an unfamiliar and treacherous court, with a husband who mistrusts her, stepsons who resent her and a bewitching rival who covets her crown, Emma must defend herself against her enemies and secure her status as queen by bearing a son.

Determined to outmaneuver her adversaries, Emma forges alliances with influential men at court and wins the affection of the English people. But her growing love for a man who is not her husband and the imminent threat of a Viking invasion jeopardize both her crown and her life.

Review

When it comes to historical fiction, I tend to gravitate to a few time periods: the Tudors and the First and Second World Wars.  It isn't all that I read but probably 8 or 9 out of every 10 historical fiction books that I read are set during one of those times.  Branching out a little and going back to the very early eleventh century gave me those moments where I had to bumble off to the internet to check what actually happened or get some background on a battle or relationship, the moments that I read historical fiction for in the first place.  I think the reason that I'm drawn so much to Tudor history or modern history is because I know a little more about the periods (I did a Tudor History A-level and Boyfriend and I seem to holiday near war memorials pretty frequently) and I always forget how much I feel as though I'm learning by 'experiencing' other periods.

Bracewell does a good job of making Emma of Normandy's story one that is interesting to read about.  There's a great balance between the factual background to the political situation at the time and the diplomacy and wrangling leading up to Emma's marriage to Æthelred and beyond and the fictional elaboration on Emma's story.  A strong woman in a time where women were revered for delicacy and humility, she quickly finds herself struggling to find happiness in a country that she doesn't know among people that either hate her or pretend to hate her to advance careers or pursue ambitions.  If I was being super picky, I'd say that I would have liked a little more of the political bits where Emma came across as stronger and a little less of the romantic angst and self-pitying but that's really just my preference generally.

Much though I loved branching out and getting to hang out with some Vikings, however, there were a couple of things about Shadow on the Crown that made reading it a bit of a flawed experience.  The book is written by an American author but is set in England.  I know that isn't an infrequent occurrence and is probably the case more often than I realise but I do think that if you're going to publish a novel in British English, you have to be very familiar with the differences between it and American English.  There were a couple of times where there was a turn of phrase, word or style of speaking that didn't quite fit.  We don't, for example, use the term 'Fall' for a season; we have 'Autumn'.  Probably not noticeable if you're an American reader but it seemed a bit...sloppy to me.

The story is also a little repetitive.  I know that with historical fiction that is grounded in actual history you don't always have a choice about the decisions that your 'characters' make or the situations they find themselves in.  You do have a choice about what you focus on, though, and there were times when I was reading yet another illustration of King Æthelred s brutality or another and couldn't help but get a bit restless.  Emma seemed to think round in circles and I wanted to shake her a bit even while I sympathised with her.  There is only so many times that you need to beat me over the head with the "rape within marriage was common and terrible" message, particularly if the scenes are going to be so similar. Perhaps the repetition was part of the point but, if so, the technique felt over-used.

For all of my whining, I really did like Emma as a character and I was totally behind her and really did want her to find some happiness in England.  Anywhere, actually.  Alas, medieval England was pretty brutal and it's tough to find peace and tranquillity when Vikings come a-marauding.  I obviously enjoyed it despite having some gripes because I genuinely did feel as though I cared (to my detriment mostly).  History can be tough.

Overall:  If you're looking for something a little different in the adult historical fiction market, Shadow of the Crown has plenty to recommend it.  The story is solid and the time and setting were an interesting break from my usual sixteenth century/twentieth century fodder.  Not perfect but fair.

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Date finished:  22 April 2013
Format:  eBook
Source:  Received from the publisher via NetGalley - thank you, Viking Adult!
Genre:  Historical fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Viking Adult in February 2013

Thursday, 29 August 2013

I went on holiday and I READ!

Aachen cathedral
Oh holidays, why do you have to come to an end so quickly? If you are a smart arse and have just thought, "Because they are holidays...duh", to you I say, "shhh...let me wallow in peace".

I just *know* that you would love to know what we (by which I mean Boyfriend and me...I don't use the "royal we") have been doing.  And if you don't, I'm assuming that you've already clicked 'Mark as Read' and toddled off.  If you're still here, I love you.  SO last Thursday, we arrived in Aachen to GLORIOUS sunshine.  It's a gorgeous little town that has a lovely, relaxed atmosphere so we spent the day just ambling around, scoping out what we fancied doing on Friday when we weren't exhausted from getting up at 2.15 in the morning to travel, eating and soaking up some sun in the park while I read and Andy tried to plan our next few days (because he is one of life's Planners where I am a little more relaxed...). 

Friday was Tourist Day. We did a guided tour of Aachen cathedral (which is gorgeous), noseyed around the treasury and the Town Hall.  The town is smaller than where we've been before and less obviously geared up for British tourists so Andy and me brushed off our rusty German and did our best. I am under no illusions that we weren't spotted as clumsy English folk a mile off but at least we tried and managed to avoid pointing and/or shouting English into people's faces.  I used to love learning languages at school and college so I did actually kind of enjoy the trying after our first few efforts didn't result in us looking too foolish and managed to get us what we'd been trying to get, miracle of miracles.  Sehr gut, indeed.

Saturday and Sunday were for the Formula One!  I bought Boyfriend tickets for Christmas so it's been a long time coming. It was frantic, tiring, loud, overwhelming and BRILLIANT FUN!  We were in general admission so didn't have seats and basically had to plonk our newly acquired camping stools (newly acquired because I do not camp. Ever.) wherever there was space on some grass.  It had a kind of festival atmosphere (I imagine...not being one for hanging out in the mud, I've never actually been to a festival...) and was lively and there were people there from all over the world and it was just...well, fun!  Plus, the grand prix was in a French-speaking part of Belgium and my French is much better than my German so that made life easier for a little while.  And I ate waffles.  Delicieux!

So it was a jam-packed, really exciting but also relaxing (weirdly) few days. And with all the bumbling and travelling, I read PLENTY.  Eventually reviews will follow but here are the headlines.  I finished The Humans by Matt Haig and my GOODNESS is that one heck of a book.  I absolutely, totally and completely loved it.  There are some very beautiful chapters that are just so uplifting.  A new favourite!

In a fit of bravery, I took inspiration from Ellie's recent Herbert read and thought I'd go with something a little outside what I'd normally read.  I always think being on holiday is like a freebie for books so that you can use the time that you wouldn't normally have to read something different.  I went with The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert.  It wasn't as creepy as I was expecting (which to me is a GOOD thing!) and I actually enjoyed it.  It was a little over 500 pages and if I'm honest, it was a bit too long.  A bit too much foreshadowing and hinting and I'd guessed a lot of the "twists" a good number of chapters before Herbert did a Big Reveal.  A little more credit for readers' IQs would be good, I think. 

And then at the airport on the way home, I started Perfect by Rachel Joyce.  I've had The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry for quite some time now but haven't actually read it.  I got Perfect on NetGalley, though, so it got bumped up my list a bit.  I do also want to mention that I flipping love that cover.  So far, I think I really like it.  Half of the chapters are so sensitively written about just how debilitating mental illness can be and how detrimental some treatments were in the early 1970s.  The other half I'm not 100% sure about yet but I think when everything starts to dovetail, it will all fall into place. 

In short: I went on holiday, it was great and I read some books.  What more can you ask for from a week, really?!


What have I missed?! I know I missed Bout of Books and that was disappointing but I read TONS so really I only missed the updating and tweeting and stuff...see how I try to include myself retrospectively?  Sad.  TELL ME if you've read something great while I've been away that I need to line up for my next trip!

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Gone on HOLIDAY!

Image found here
Just a quick break from the checking (and re-checking) of the packing for our holiday to post something undoubtedly incoherent about my being away on holiday!  It's been a long time since Boyfriend and I have had a whole week straight off from work and I am looking forward to it SO MUCH it's ridiculous.  For Christmas, I bought Boyfriend tickets to the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Belgium.  We're actually going to be staying in Germany (Aachen, specifically) and travelling to and from the grand prix on Saturday and Sunday. Sun, reading, relaxing, sight-seeing and my first live grand prix.  Happy days :)

Since we've decided to only take hand luggage, space is at a premium and only Colin the eReader will be accompanying us on this trip.  I'm currently reading The Humans by Matt Haig and, if it carries on being as good as it is at the moment (just less than 200 pages in), it is a FIVE STAR bundle of greatness.  I adore it.  Next up?  Who knows?  I have somewhere between 50 and 75 eBooks unread on my eReader at the moment and any one of them could be next.  Whatever I feel like when I get to that point, I guess.  Because this holiday is for us to unwind and have some fun!

So this time tomorrow, I'll be in Aachen, hopefully having enjoyed a sunny day of being a tourist, eating something delicious and sipping German beer.  Can. Not. Wait.

See you when I get back! HAPPY READING, FRIENDS!!

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Showcase Sunday #3: The Birthday Edition

If you are of a grouchier disposition, you may want to look away now; this post will include much lavishing of praise and thanks on two of my very favourite bloggers, Hanna (Booking in Heels) and Ellie (Musings of a Bookshop Girl).  Friday was my birthday and both of these lovely ladies sent the most wonderful, generous parcels and I am very, very grateful to them both - THANK YOU!  It's actually been a week packed full of dinners out, birthday cake and family, which has been lovely.  I know, I know...less talk, more books, right?  Right.

HANNA did a superb job of picking out some TERRIFIC looking fantasy that I am so looking forward to reading. There is no note of surprise in that sentence because Hanna always picks out perfect gifts and it is just one of the many reasons that I adore her. Look how pretty:


The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines - this has been on my wishlist for ages. Probably since I read Hanna's review, actually.  It sounds super fun and it'll be my first Jim C. Hines book, which I understand to be a Good Thing.

Temeraire by Naomi Novik - Alternative historical fiction with dragons. Colour me interested.

The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde - I've read the first two in Fforde's Thursday Next series.  I loved them both a great deal and am so excited about getting back into the world of literary crime.

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson - I really have to get to reading some of the Brandon Sanderson that I have collected.  This one has pictures and everything and I just picked it up for a moment to flick through it and love it and was very nearly lost. Plus, Hanna loved it so it's pretty much a dead cert that I will love it too.
  
ELLIE did an equally perfect job of present-buying. What I love about Ellie is that her parcels are always easy to identify as from her - there's always a strong literary feel and at least one "Ellie Book" (you know, one that I associate with her because I remember her recommendation).  Another pile I can't wait to get stuck into:


Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell - I read Animal Farm back in high school but have never read this one.  A shameful omission but one I'm happy that I'll soon be able to remedy.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I *love* the sound of this book and have heard brilliant things about it.  Bel Canto may well end up being the first book that I pick up when we get back from our holiday.

The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinks - another that has been on my wishlist since Ellie reviewed it in February 2011.  It looks and sounds like a witty take on the slightly dried up vampire territory and I think I might save it for just a couple of months to tuck into as a Hallowe'en treat.

My Grandma also played a blinder and got me Rick Stein's new book: Rick Stein's India.  One of my other main loves in life is food and cooking and Rick Stein's books are always beautiful.  This one is no different and the pages are packed full of anecdotes about where Stein came across the recipe, stunning photographs of food and India and, obviously, has some delicious sounding meals that I am super excited to try out.  

All in all, an absolutely wonderful birthday that I think may not be over!  The equally lovely and superbly witty Laura (Devouring Texts) also leads me to believe that a cheeky birthday present is making its way to me. The longer a birthday is dragged out the better, if you ask me so I can only say that I am very much looking forward to seeing what the postman might bring soon :)

If you're around and about this week and you will have a few hours spare to mosey around the blogosphere and read some books in good company, you really should take part in Bout of Books 8.0 - you can find all of the details HERE!  I sadly won't be joining in this year because I'm going on holiday first thing on Thursday morning and won't be back until the following Tuesday so, although I will no doubt be reading plenty, I won't be able to join in the chit-chatting and challenge-partaking that really make this read-a-thon.  To all the bloggers joining in, HAVE FUN AND READ SOME PAGES FOR ME!

Did any pretties sneak their way into your house this week?  Please do share because obviously if there is one thing that I need, it is more books to pine after.  Happy reading, peeps!

Friday, 16 August 2013

Historical Fiction Review: 'The Wild Girl' by Kate Forsyth


Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Once there were six sisters. The pretty one, the musical one, the clever one, the helpful one, the young one...and then there was the wild one. 

Dortchen Wild has loved Wilhelm Grimm since she was a young girl. Under the forbidding shadow of her father, the pair meet secretly to piece together a magical fairy tale collection. The story behind the stories of the Brothers Grimm.

Review

I don't have a clue how I'm going to convey to you how truly wonderful The Wild Girl is so if this degenerates into an incoherent rambling, at least you know that I loved it.  Really loved it.

The first 100 or so pages are a little bit slow and there are a lot of characters to keep track of. Dortchen has five sisters and there are a whole host of Grimms and other characters to keep tabs on.  If you don't have a reasonable grasp of European History in the early nineteenth century (as I didn't), getting up to speed on what Napoleon was up to at the time took me a while.  The pace does pick up, though, and somehow, without ever feeling as though I was being lectured or that the story was being interrupted by historical interludes, I came away from reading The Wild Girl feeling as though I was actually no longer completely clueless about Napoleon's quest for world domination anymore.  A heck of a lot of time must have gone into making this novel so full of detail and atmosphere; a terrific example of how rewarding great historical fiction can be to read.

Now you might think that picking up a book about fairytales would be all whimsy, flowers and friendly woodland creatures.  You'd be wrong.  One of the things that make the Grimm brothers' fairytales so powerful is their potential to be very dark.  As The Wild Girl follows Wilhelm Grimm while he gathers his collection, there are plenty of nods to traditional story-telling with tales told around flickering fires and across flagons of ale.  Rather than the charming stories of princesses and fairies that many of us will remember from our childhood, these were cautionary tales about the gloomier, more sinister side of humanity.

The Wild Girl echoes the old stories and doesn't shy away from darkness and really doesn't pull any punches.  The story is challenging and bleak at times, tackling issues of domestic abuse in a completely unflinching way and exploring the emotional and psychological damage sustained abuse can cause, all while painting a dreary picture of life during war, both for the soldiers that have to do and see such terrible things and for the families that they leave behind. There's always just a little spark of hope as the characters find solace in sharing stories but this book is by no means an easy ride.  The writing is just perfect and somehow manages to be both unswerving and direct but elegant in its way.  Perhaps its the combination of the harsh reality of living through war and the magic feeling of the fairytales.

What is really clever about The Wild Girl is how its tone always seems to match the mood and experiences of the characters.  There's a real shift as the hopeful and spirited Dortchen of the earlier chapters is ground down by her miserable home life and her aspirations and dreams fading as she ages.  I didn't even realise how deftly my emotions were being manipulated until I reached the last hundred pages or so.  I flew through them in a blur, gripping my book ridiculously tightly, stomach clenched and eyes brimming with tears.  I so badly wanted everything...even just something to work out for Dortchen that my heart hurt.  

I could go on and on about how much I loved Dortchen, how even relatively insignificant parts of the story were lavished with care and attention (like Herr Wild's "medical practice") and how much I adored Wilhelm Grimm and his family and some of Dortchen's sisters (the musical one and the clever one being my personal favourites).  Instead, I'll just say that this book is very powerful and so, so completely fabulous and you must read it.  Really, you must.

Overall:  I can't recommend The Wild Girl enough.  A gut-wrenching read of the best kind and one that had me hankering to pull out my own collection of the Grimms' fairytales and get lost in their peculiar brand of macabreness.   Perfect for an Autumn evening tucked up by the fire, you need a copy of this book.

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Date finished:  05 August 2013
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Received from the publisher via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours in exchange for an honest review
Genre:  Historical fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Allison & Busby on 22 July 2013


Fancy having a look at what other bloggers had to say about The Wild Girl?  You can catch up with the rest of the tour HERE or visit Kate Forsyth's WEBSITE and BLOG for more information. You can also find her on FACEBOOK and follow her on TWITTER

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Review: 'How To Be A Woman' by Caitlin Moran

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Though they have the vote and the Pill and haven't been burned as witches since 1727, life isn't exactly a stroll down the catwalk for modern women. They are beset by uncertainties and questions: Why are they supposed to get Brazilians? Why do bras hurt? Why the incessant talk about babies? And do men secretly hate them?

Caitlin Moran interweaves provocative observations on women's lives with laugh-out-loud funny scenes from her own, from the riot of adolescence to her development as a writer, wife, and mother. With rapier wit, Moran slices right to the truth—whether it's about the workplace, strip clubs, love, fat, abortion, popular entertainment, or children—to jump-start a new conversation about feminism. With humor, insight, and verve, How To Be a Woman lays bare the reasons female rights and empowerment are essential issues not only for women today but also for society itself.

Review
"We need the word 'feminism' back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29 per cent of American women would describe themselves as feminist - and only 42 per cent of British women - I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of 'liberation for women' is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? 'Vogue', by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?" [Page 80]
Between the ages of 11 and 15, I went to an all girls' comprehensive school. Just before I started, the headteacher gave a wonderful speech (that I under-appreciated at the time) about how the point our whole secondary education was to help us to achieve whatever we wanted to achieve. Not to enable us all to be scientists or world leaders or doctors but to be whatever we wanted. I've never once been told that I couldn't (or shouldn't) be a lawyer. I've never been given a reason to believe that my gender would in any way hold me back. Maybe I take that for granted. I suppose that what I mean is that I've never really been given a reason to jump and shout about BEING A FEMINIST. How To Be A Woman reminded me that I am, without a shadow of a doubt a feminist.

Now you might have read that paragraph and thought, "Ugh - what do I want with a feminist manifesto?". Hang on for just a couple more paragraphs. Because what really does need emphasising is that How To Be A Woman is bloody funny. Genuinely, giggle-inducingly funny as opposed to wry-grin-inducingly funny. Caitlin Moran takes everything that is unglamorous and undignified about being a teenage girl and a woman and makes it hilarious. It isn't always pretty (because what is?) but Moran just has this unflinching way of looking at and talking about...well, life, that I could read all day. Would read all day, if she didn't write for The Times, that is.

I don't read a lot of autobiographies because there are very few people that I want to read an entire book about (and also because, as it turns out, they are HARD to write about). In a few ways, How To Be A Woman is a bit like the autobiographies I tend to stay away from. There were some chapters that were consistently brilliant but there were some where I was less engaged. Mostly, though, they were of the brilliant variety. Want proof that you aren't the only person that doesn't think smaller underwear is better? You got it. Want to show your beloved that you will always need just ONE MORE designer handbag? Wave a copy of this book under his nose. Most importantly, though, if you want to remind yourself about why having two of those super lovely and attractive X chromosomes is terrific, get yourself to a bookshop right away.

For all that the anecdotes about the traumas of living with a large family and the excitement of getting hold of the elusive teenage library card were so much fun, it was the look at feminism that I took more from. Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to head out there and start demonstrating or anything but it's nice to know that just because I may *sometimes* say slightly mean things about other ladies, I don't have to hand in my feminist card at the door:
"When people suggest that what, all along, has been holding women back is other women, bitching about each other, I think they're severely overestimating the power of a catty zinger during a fag break. We have to remember that snidely saying "Her hair's a bit limp on top" isn't what's keeping womankind from closing the 30 per cent pay gap and a place on the board of directors. I think that's more likely to be down to tens of thousands of years on ingrained social, political and economic misogyny and the patriarchy, tbh. That's just got slightly more leverage than a gag about someone's bad trousers" [Page 86]
So that's it: you'll get a Message and you'll get some laughs. Win-win, I say!

Overall: About half way through reading How To Be A Woman, I very high proportion of my girlfriends to tell them to stop what they were doing and go out and buy it for themselves. You might not be a better woman for it but you will be a much more amused one. Do I recommend it for men? I'm not sure. Probably only the less...squeamish ones. 

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Date finished: 13 April 2013
Format: Paperback
Source: Sent to me by the EVER TERRIFIC Hanna - THANK YOU!!
Genre: Non-fiction; autobiography
Pictured Edition Published: by Ebury Press in June 2011

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Review: 'City of Dark Magic' by Magnus Flyte

Rating:  2 out of 5 stars


Once a city of enormous wealth and culture, Prague was home to emperors, alchemists, astronomers, and, as it’s whispered, hell portals. When music student Sarah Weston lands a summer job at Prague Castle cataloguing Beethoven’s manuscripts, she has no idea how dangerous her life is about to become. Prague is a threshold, Sarah is warned, and it is steeped in blood.

Soon after Sarah arrives, strange things begin to happen. She learns that her mentor, who was working at the castle, may not have committed suicide after all. Could his cryptic notes be warnings? As Sarah parses his clues about Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved,” she manages to get arrested, to have tantric sex in a public fountain, and to discover a time-warping drug. She also catches the attention of a four-hundred-year-old dwarf, the handsome Prince Max, and a powerful U.S. senator with secrets she will do anything to hide.

City of Dark Magic could be called a rom-com paranormal suspense novel—or it could simply be called one of the most entertaining novels of the year.

Review [Warning: this is quite a rant - if you are of an excessively polite disposition, please look away now]

The problem with marketing a book as "one of the most entertaining novels of the year" is that you have to work very hard very quickly to convince people that you are either quite droll or an extremely gifted author.  "Magnus Flyte" (a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch) is neither.  I'm sorry but City of Dark Magic is ridiculous.  I'll end on a positive-ish note but before that there will be much derision.  If you would like to skip ahead to the smile-y bit or skip the rant, please do - I'll meet you there in a few moments.

Sarah Weston is perhaps one of the most irritating and...weird main characters that I have ever read about.  I know that having a "good nose" for things is an actual saying but it should not be extended to including smelling emotions. It is not possible to smell envy, no matter what drugs you're taking.  Maybe it was intended to be quirky or maybe it was just to make sure the reader understands just how good Ms Weston's intuition really was but I was one comment about her flipping nose away from throwing my eReader a long way away from me.  You might think I'm getting a little over-excited about one bad analogy but really this is just one example of the bizarre writing style.  Quirky I like, daft and erratic I do not.

Not only does Sarah have an unnaturally sensitive nose, she also seems to have a dangerous libido.  On arriving in Prague, Sarah manages to inadvertently have sex with someone whose identity remains a mystery for quite a number of pages.  I would hate to disrespect women generally by using any offensive or derogatory terms and I am all for liberty but...no.  And then Sarah falls in love with the "handsome Prince Max".  He is rude, uncommunicative, seemingly a bit loopy, aggressive and anti-social.  Every girl's dream, I'm sure.  Not a fan of InstaLove?  Sarah and Max's relationship is about as "Insta" as it gets.  One minute he's slamming doors in her face and ignoring her, the next he's swearing to protect her and getting arrested because of their irrepressible...connection.  Why?  I still don't know.

Not all of the characters are annoying - Pollina, a young musical prodigy, is intriguing and Nico, a four-hundred year old dwarf, is cynical and managed to illicit a couple of smiles.  I would also have been happy to read more about some of Sarah's fellow academics.  There is very little character development, though, and my enthusiasm about the cast is pretty lacklustre.

So that's the main character and her love interest, what else can I criticise?  Ah, yes.  The plot.  It was actually the plot that drew me to the novel in the first place.  I *loved* the idea of a scholar of the works of Beethoven travelling to Prague to sort through sheet music in search of revelations and prepare a museum exhibit.  Despite a strong start in this regard, it was disappointing when Sarah got so caught up with her "romance" that she all but abandoned her research in favour of gallivanting about with Max.  The plot was scatty, at best.  There were times when I was sure that I was now settled into the substantive plot and that the story would gain some traction, only to find in a few chapters that I was settling into a tangent that would abruptly be abandoned.  APPARENTLY there is some link between a historic Czech family and the Golden Fleece (yes, THAT Golden Fleece) but we were too busy being dragged about town seeing the past but not being in it to really get into that particular thread.  There are some attempts at rationalising and explaining the more fantastic aspects of the story but they didn't really make any sense and involved the eating of Beethoven's toenails so I remain unconvinced.  It read a bit like a plan made under the influence of alcohol: pretty ludicrous when viewed in the light of day but seems amazing at the time of inception.  I would also mention the political "intrigue" but there is only so much vitriol that I feel as though I can direct toward any one work of fiction.

I suspect that the array of loose ends are to lure me back to the series for the second "adventure".  You might have gathered that that is one release that I am by no means clamouring for.

Let's end on a high: Prague is one of the most beautiful and mysterious cities that I have been to and is a fabulous setting for a paranormal novel with some historical twists.  Even a few pages describing the historical capital will pull me in and go a good way to helping me forgive a book's faults.  If I wasn't in my positive paragraph, I might have pointed out that there were far too few such pages and that most of the book could have been set in any large European historical building for all of the advantage the authors took of Prague's magic.  Thank goodness I'm in my positive paragraph, right?  Right.

Overall:  I can't in all good conscience recommend this to anyone. It's been a long time since I've read something that I felt compelled to say that about.  You have to go some way to make a story that includes time travel, Beethoven, Prague, guns and castles so annoying that I will unhesitatingly warn you away.  Remember that before you decide whether or not you want to pick up City of Dark Magic.

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Date finished:  07 April 2013
Format:  eBook
Source:  Received from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review - thank you, Penguin Books!
Genre:  Urban fantasy/paranormal fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Penguin Books in November 2012

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Review: 'Warm Bodies' by Isaac Marion

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


'R' is a zombie. He has no name, no memories and no pulse, but he has dreams. He is a little different from his fellow Dead.

Amongst the ruins of an abandoned city, R meets a girl. Her name is Julie and she is the opposite of everything he knows - warm and bright and very much alive, she is a blast of colour in a dreary grey landscape. For reasons he can't understand, R chooses to save Julie instead of eating her, and a tense yet strangely tender relationship begins.

This has never happened before. It breaks the rules and defies logic, but R is no longer content with life in the grave. He wants to breathe again, he wants to live, and Julie wants to help him. But their grim, rotting world won't be changed without a fight...

Review

I'm beginning to think that my status as a bona fide wimp may be in jeopardy. This is the second zombie book I've read within a 12 month period and I've really enjoyed them both.  Both were good for completely different reasons but great all the same.  Where This Is Not A Test was (mostly) edge-of-your-seat and run-away-from-the-zombies in style, Warm Bodies is much more thoughtful and looks at life from the perspective of the zombies.

Rather than plonking zombies in amongst fraught citizens and just hoping that readers go with it, Marion takes the time to build a world where readers can identify with the humans that are clinging to vestiges of the world that they knew while zombies populate the world they live in.  It's a dark world with apparently little hope for the remaining humans but it wasn't really their story that I found drawn towards.  R is one of the more...sensitive of his kind and can faintly remember that he had a life before the endless pursuit of human-food, if not the actual details.  Enough to know that his first inital was 'R', that there is more to life than preying on people and that music can make almost everything better.

Despite Marion's zombies being the full-on brain-eating kind, R is unbelievably charming.  When a zombie consumes a person's brain, they get to "live" that persons life for a few moments, experiencing flashes of their memories and seeing glimpses of the world through their eyes.  When R encounters Julie and her friends while out hunting for fresh brains, he goes against everything he can remember and protects her.  While she is stowed away in the aeroplane chassis he calls home, R gets to know Julie through less...conventional means.

The development of R and Julie's relationship is adorable. For a being that can't talk, R is surprisingly communicative.  Using the snippets of language that are coming back to him, gestures and his collection of albums, R manages to convey to Julie that he isn't planning on devouring her and helps her start to get to know him.  There are enough reviews of this book out there now that I'm sure I don't need to go into the connections between Shakespeare's play and R and Julie.  They aren't always the most subtle but it never bothered me at all. To be honest, there are plenty of quirks on the story that we all know so well and so much that makes this book unique that Marion could have followed whatever famous story he wanted and I wouldn't have batted an eye.

Although the novel is apparently a young adult one, the writing is intelligent and wonderful and the vision of a zombie-filled world extremely well thought out and astutely developed.  There are a lot of dystopian books around but few that really give you that heart-stopping moment of realisation about how fragile everything is.  Ellie articulated it much better than I'm sure I will (and pointed the way to the *superb* quote popping up in a little while...) but I loved how pensive such an ostensibly simple story could make me feel.  I'm a lawyer and my job is to explain the 'rules' that most of us in England live by to people and to whip those that don't subscribe to or comply with those rules into shape.  It isn't very often that I'm compelled to think about how flimsy and brittle that all is...
"It didn't take much to bring down the card house of civilisation.  Just a few gusts and it was done, the balance tipped, the spell broken.  Good citizens realised the lines that had shaped their lives were imaginary and easily crossed.  They had wants and needs and the power to satisfy them, so they did.  The moment the lights went out, everyone stopped pretending"
The latter half of the book has more action and a little less musing on the nature of society and is heart-stopping for a different reason.  It's a relatively short book to begin with but it's brilliance makes it fly by.  I could have spent twice as long with R and will have to console myself with the film during the long wait for the next instalment.

Overall:  There is a lot of dystopian fiction around at the moment but this one really does stand out as one of the more considered and intelligent offerings. If occasionally a little heavy-handed in following the path of the original star-crossed lovers, the story of R and Julie has something to offer even the more weary readers of post-apocalyptic tales 

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Date finished:  26 March 2013
Format:  eBook
Source:  Received from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review - thank you, Vintage!
Genre:  YA fiction; Dystopian fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Vintage in October 2010