Saturday, 31 December 2011

2011 Retrospective

Well here it is, the end of another year, and for me it has most definitely been a year of books. Though I started the blog in December 2010, it wasn't until March this year that I started tentatively getting involved with a few events, memes, read-a-thons and challenges. Book blogging has been a real eye-opener; a wonderful hobby, a means of virtually meeting loads of other lovely bookish people and just the impetus I needed to push me towards a better choice of reading and encourage me to really think about the books I read. 

I've read a total of 115 books in 2011, which is definitely more than I've ever managed before! Purely for my own amusement, here are a few nerdy stats:

Total books read: 115

Ebooks: 84
Paperbacks: 28
Audiobooks: 3

Most read authors: Stephen King (3) and Georgette Heyer (3)
Best Series: Aldous Jones trilogy by Gerard Woodward

So what of 2012? I already have a number of challenges sorted out for the year ahead, and I've got my ear to the ground for some new readalongs and read-a-thons to get involved with too. I thought it would be nice to start doing some pre-owned giveaways, just in the UK for now, and pass on some of my many books to good homes. I've also thought about setting up a Facebook page and possibly a Google+ one too (once I figure out how!), so expect to see some developments in that direction fairly soon. 

But most of all I will be doing more reading, and am setting myself a goal of 120 books for 2012. Can I do it? Let's find out!

Challenge Complete! The "Books I Should Have Read by Now" Challenge

For this challenge I picked out some books which had been weighing heavily on my mind. Mainly classics, these were the books I'd always meant to read but somehow never got round to. The challenge started in June, and I read one book per month:

June: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
July: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
August: A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
September: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
October: Chocky by John Wyndham
November: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
December: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Choosing a favourite isn't hard, and has to be the lovely I Capture the Castle, which made me want to jump in my time machine and press it into the hands of my fifteen-year-old self. I also loved Thomas Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge and have already bought a copy of Jude the Obscure to continue my education in this wonderful author. My least favourite was probably Chocky, which I found a little clinical, but even this was still a good read. 

So all-in-all this was a really successful challenge. Thanks go to Gabriel at Gabriel Reads for hosting!

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

I was determined to squeeze in one last novel for 2011, so have spent most of today curled up with this suspenseful book, thus completing the "Books I Should Have Read by Now" challenge and ending the year on a very high note. This is only the second of du Maurier's books I've read, but it surely won't be the last.

My Cousin Rachel is written in the first person by Philip Ashley, a young man whose parents died when he was a baby, and who was brought up by his beloved cousin, Ambrose. When poor health forces Ambrose to spend the winter in Italy, he meets and marries Rachel, a distant cousin of the family. Philip is astounded and troubled by the sudden news, but becomes even more upset when he receives a strange letter from Ambrose, accusing Rachel of betrayal and begging Philip to come to his aid. When Philip arrives to find Ambrose dead, he vows revenge on Rachel, but when she comes to visit her late husband's home some months later, Philip finds that his new cousin isn't at all as he'd imagined.

So begins a wonderful tale filled with suspicion and the sort of "all is not as it seems" intrigue that is characteristic of du Maurier's most famous novel, Rebecca. In fact, there are so many similarities between the two novels you could almost call this a kind of self plagarism. Almost, but not quite - Philip Ashley is a very different character from the unnamed heroine of Rebecca. I loved this book, really I did, but that didn't stop me wanting to reach through the pages and give Philip a good slap. He's so very naive that you just want to scream at him to stop being such a fool, open his eyes and man up. He has good friends who give sound advice, but does he listen to them? No, he does not! Infuriating!

The character of Rachel is brilliantly done. Could she be capable of dastardly deeds? We're never quite sure; just when we think we've got it sussed we start to re-evaluate again. Maybe Ambrose was mad, maybe Philip is mad, maybe nobody's mad and Rachel really is a scheming two-faced psychopath. Trying to work it all out is a lot of fun and you'll still be wondering right up to the very last page.

When it comes to twisty-turny psycholgical thrillers, du Maurier is undoubtably right up there with the very best. I'd like to read some more of her work though, to see if she can turn her hand to something else. Maybe Frenchman's Creek or Jamaica Inn will show off her talents in another area? I look forward to finding out.

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

Don't let the title fool you - this is NOT a fluffy love story (I'm not sure Ian McEwan is capable of fluffy). Enduring Love is a story about obsession, of the most unhealthy kind.

Joe is a scientist-turned-journalist, in a happy relationship with his long-term partner, Clarissa. One day the couple take a picnic to the Chiltern hills where, along with a handful of other passers by, they become involved in a terrible ballooning accident. In the accident's aftermath, an innocent glance of sympathy from Joe towards one of the other men involved in the accident is misconstrued, so beginning a nightmare which threatens his happiness, his relationship and even his sanity.

This is only the second McEwan book I've read, but already I feel I'm starting to get the measure of this extraordinary author. He deals in the darker side of human emotion, and explores what happens when things get out of control and go too far. In Enduring Love, he takes a recognised medical condition and imagines where it might lead somebody who is caught in its grip. But the real focus of the drama isn't on the lunatic who's stalking Joe, it's on Joe himself and what happens to his own mind, his powers of reasoning and his emotional stability when he finds himself the object of an obsession.

The story is written in the first person from Joe's point of view, but there are a couple of sections which are angled from Clarissa's perspective. They really make the reader stop and think, lifting us out of Joe's mind to see how his irrational behaviour must seem to those around him. The writing is brilliant and clever, and I found a session of reading this actually affected my mood after I'd put the book down, which doesn't often happen. Just as when reading The Cement Garden, McEwan's writing makes me feel ever so slightly grey and grubby, as though there's an atmospheric cloud of gloom hovering above. Not the best feeling in the world, but you can't help admiring any author who provokes such a reaction.

There is also a film of Enduring Love, which I wished I hadn't seen as it spoiled the story a little. However, it is excellent and stays very close to the story, so I would definitely recommend it to anyone who's already read the book. As for Ian McEwan, I think I can now declare myself a fan and start drawing up a list of all the other books of his I need to read.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Challenge Complete! The Gothic Reading Challenge

Of all the many challenges I attempted in 2011, this was definitely my favourite. The Gothic Reading Challenge encompassed all sorts of books written within the last 250 years, and got me reading some brilliant classics as well as some more modern takes on the genre. 

Though I originally signed up for just 5 books, I was enjoying myself so much I decided to up the ante and ended up reading 10 novels for the challenge. These were:

Trying to pick out a favourite from all these great books is really difficult, but if I had a gun to my head I'd probably go for Rosemary's Baby....or maybe Dracula...or even The Historian...aah, I don't know! Picking out my least favourite is much easier, as there was only one I didn't like, and that was the interminably dreary Turn of the Screw. 

I've looked around and haven't been able to find another Gothic Reading Challenge for 2012, which is a shame as there are lots more books in this genre I'd like to read. If anyone knows of a 2012 challenge that's similar then please let me know, as I'm ready for more! 

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

To round off the Gothic Reading Challenge I chose The Castle of Otranto, believed by many to be the first true Gothic novel. Written in 1764, but set some 200 years before that, it relates the dastardly goings in the titular Italian castle, ruled by the bull-headed prince Manfred and his family.  

It opens with the wedding of the Manfred’s son, Conrad, to the beautiful Isabella – a union encouraged by Manfred as he wishes to bind his own family to that of a rival claimant to his throne. But before the not-so-happy couple gets a chance to say “I do”, a giant helmet falls from the sky and clobbers poor Conrad stone dead (yes, a helmet – you’ll have to just go with it). Much wailing, fainting and gnashing of teeth ensues.

What follows is a convoluted story of moustache-twirlingly despicable deeds, supernatural messages from God, stabbings, secret passages, attempted maiden-deflowering and an awful lot of swooning. Throw in a talking skeleton and, of course, the giant helmet that appears as if by magic from the heavens, and you’re left with a tale that’s utterly mad and laughable but strangely compelling. Old Horace certainly knew how to keep his audience breathless with excitement and, provided you can get past the ridiculously flowery language and the more bizarre plot points, you’re sure to be enthralled.

I love old books like this, and love to imagine the thrill and shock people at the time might have felt when reading something which, to us, is wildly OTT and unbelievable. The Castle of Otranto reminded me a lot of that other Gothic staple – The Mysteries of Udolpho – only this cut out all the boring bits. I now find myself eyeing up other classics of the genre, like The Monk by Matthew Lewis or some of the “horrid novels” mentioned in Northanger Abbey. Something to look forward to for 2012 perhaps?

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Eskimo Kissing by Kate Mosse

Eskimo Kissing is a coming-of-age tale about the bonds between families, whether forged by blood or shared experience. It begins when twin sisters, Sam and Anna, turn thirteen and learn the few snippets of information their adoptive parents have about the circumstances of their birth. Five years later, after tragedy strikes the family, one of the twins decides to try and trace her birth mother, beginning a journey that will bring both heartbreak and joy.

This is a short novel but beautifully written and very moving in places, so make sure you’ve got some tissues handy! The character of Sam is really well drawn and the emotions she experiences as she uncovers more and more facts about her past are authentic. Having have been in a similar situation myself, I recognised many of my own feelings in Sam’s experience and wasn’t surprised to read the author’s note at the back in which she says she had spoken to a lot of adoptees before writing the book. Sam’s adoptive family is really sweet, and her father especially is a lovely character whose support and love for his daughters helps them grow into well-adjusted young women and keeps Sam grounded when the revelations about her birth parents begin to overwhelm her.

In less skilful hands this story could easily have descended into soap opera, particularly as some of the details that emerge about the twins’ parents are quite lurid. Instead, the author keeps the novel totally believable, giving us a book that’s poignant rather than melodramatic. Though Eskimo Kissing’s narrative isn’t quite rich enough to make it a 5 star read, I thoroughly enjoyed it and would definitely like to try more of Kate Mosse’s novels. Four stars.

2012 Sci-Fi Challenge

I've been humming and haa-ing over Ellie's Sci-Fi challenge, over at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm, but finally decided to take the plunge. All I need to do is read one sci-fi book every month during 2012, and as Ellie's definition of sci-fi is quite broad, that shouldn't be too hard (I even get to include two of my favourite genres - apocalyptics and dystopias). 

There are a few sci-fi tales already on my TBR pile, so I should definitely be able to get to them for this challenge. They include Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith, When She Woke by Hilary Jordan, How to Live Safely in a Science-Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, Swan Song by Robert R McCammon, and the classic Frankenstein, which I can't believe I still haven't read yet. As well as these, there will be some readalongs, which I might join in with if I like the look of them. Sounds fun!

APRIL - The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
               Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
               Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
JUNE - Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
JULY - The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
             Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
             The Testimony by James Smythe
             Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
AUGUST - The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas
                   Erewhon by Samuel Butler
SEPTEMBER - Earth Girl by Janet Edwards
OCTOBER - By Light Alone by Adam Roberts
NOVEMBER - Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith
DECEMBER - The Explorer by James Smythe
                         The Loom of Thessaly by David Brin

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

December by Phil Rickman

There’s nothing like a good ghost story at Christmas, and my constant companion over the festive period was this very spooky tale by Phil Rickman. It centres on a group of musicians with psychic abilities, who were brought together by an unscrupulous record company to make a very special album. Their recording studio was at a haunted abbey in Wales, and the band had a terrifying experience there one night in 1980, which resulted in a death and the break-up of the group. Fourteen years later the old tapes of that recording are unearthed and the members of the group find themselves forced to revisit the experience that has haunted them ever since that fateful night.

This book began with a slightly confused telling of the events of the 1980 recording session, before fast-forwarding fourteen years to see where the characters had ended up and to begin the story proper. I wasn’t sure I would enjoy the book at first, but it was definitely worth sticking with it because everything became apparent as the book progressed and things began to get exciting. This was a tale full of secrets, and I loved the way revelations about plot and characters were regularly inserted to keep tension and interest high. The plot was great – twisting and turning brilliantly and pulling me along so I couldn’t wait to see how it would all turn out.

The ensemble cast of characters had real depth and their many flaws made them interesting and believable, and I really wanted them all to survive intact until the end of the book. But perhaps the best character in the novel is the abbey itself – a dark, malevolent ruin where ancient spirits seek to lure innocent people to their death. The atmosphere created is genuinely creepy and the action switches between different characters in their various sticky situations, ending each small section on a nail-biting cliffhanger that almost guarantees you won’t be putting the book down until you reach the end.

My only gripe with December is that it’s a little too long. There were several extraneous characters who added little to the overall plot, but increased the book’s length considerably, and there was an awful lot going on at times. If the book had focussed more on the core characters I think it would have been a sleeker, sharper novel altogether. Nevertheless, even as it stands I found it an engrossing read and would definitely recommend it for horror fans.

I’d never heard of Phil Rickman before, and only picked this up because it fitted well for a challenge, but I’m definitely going to try and find more of his books after reading this. Horror is a difficult genre to do well but this is great – four stars.

War Through the Generations Reading Challenge

The First World War is a huge subject, and this reading challenge from War Through the Generations caught my eye, as it has WW1 as its theme. Novels and non-fiction all count, and I'm hoping to increase my knowledge of the subject through reading some excellent books.

I'm going to sign on for 4 books over the year, which gets me in (just) at the "Wade" level of 4-10 books. I'd like to read Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong, but beyond that I have no firm idea which books to choose. I'll have to do a bit of research on the subject and find some titles that pique my interest.

1. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
2. Strange Meeting by Susan Hill
3. Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon
4. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon

UPDATE: - I'm finding this challenge so fascinating, I've decided to take it to the next level! I'm now pledging to read at least 11 books for the "swim" level.

5. Sherston's Progress by Siegfried Sassoon
6. The First World War by Michael Howard
7. Journey's End by R.C. Sherriff
8. Letters from a Lost Generation by Vera Brittain et al

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Top Ten Favourite Books I Read in 2011

I've read some amazing books in 2011, and this was always going to be a difficult list to compile, but I've done my best. These are the very best books I've come across over the year, collected in a lovely list for Top Ten Tuesday over at The Broke and the Bookish. I've even put it in reverse order!

This is a beautiful story about a man who hits rock bottom and manages to find a way back. I can't believe it isn't on the best seller lists yet!

9. Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin
A truly creepy tale about a young woman who falls victim to a group of Satanists.

8. The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey
This book paints a perfect picture of Trinidad during the 1950s and one woman's struggle to make her home there.

7. Mudbound by Hilary Jordan
I could almost feel the heat and the dirt on my skin while reading this, and the ending is genuinely shocking. I can't wait to read Hilary Jordan's second novel, When She Woke.

6. August by Gerard Woodward
The first volume of a fantastic trilogy spanning thirty years and following the slow disintegration of a family into alcoholism.

5. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
I loved this classic coming-of-age tale of a young girl's first love against the backdrop of a dilapidated castle and a crazy family.

4. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
This is an epic end-of-the-world story that really made me think.

3. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
If all Eugenides' books turn out to be as good as this one I shall have a new favourite author. A brilliant journey through the 20th century from the point of view of an intersex teen and his/her colourful Greek family.

2. How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
If I were judging this list purely on the quality of prose then this would definitely be at number one - in fact it would probably be my all-time number one. This story of a young boy growing up in the Welsh valleys at the turn of the century is just beautiful.

1. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
This is destined to be a 21st century classic and I can't believe I waited so long to read it. Sometimes you really should believe the hype.

Monday, 26 December 2011

What's in a Name Reading Challenge

I looked at this challenge last year and it seemed like fun, but I was just a little too late to join in then. This year I'm going to be there at the starting line, and look forward to ferreting out books that fulfil the criteria. What's in a Name, hosted by Beth Fish Reads, is a challenge to read six books whose title suits the following descriptions:

  1. A book with a topographical feature (land formation) in the title: Black Hills, Purgatory Ridge, Emily of Deep Valley
  2. A book with something you'd see in the sky in the title: Moon Called, Seeing Stars, Cloud Atlas
  3. A book with a creepy crawly in the title: Little Bee, Spider Bones, The Witches of Worm
  4. A book with a type of house in the title: The Glass Castle, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Ape House
  5. A book with something you'd carry in your pocket, purse, or backpack in the title: Sarah's Key, The Scarlet Letter, Devlin Diary
  6. A book with a something you'd find on a calendar in the title: Day of the Jackal, Elegy for April, Freaky Friday, Year of Magical Thinking

I reckon the topographical feature category will finally get me to read Hanging Hill by Mo Hayder, which has been on my TBR pile since it came out earlier this year and which I'm dying to get to. For the creepy crawly I've got my eye on The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. As for the rest, I'll give it some thought and see what transpires. I like random challenges like this, so it should be fun.

1.  Archipelago by Monique Roffey
2.  Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
3.  The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
4. The Tent, the Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy
5.  The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
6.  February Flowers by Fan Wu

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Rage by Stephen King

This is one of Stephen King's earliest works, written in 1966 under his Richard Bachman pen name (though it was published much later). It's quite hard to find these days, as it was withdrawn from sale after being found in the locker of the teenage perpetrator of a school shooting. 

Rage is told from the point of view of a very disturbed teen as he looks back on the events that led to his incarceration when he takes a gun into school and starts shooting. After a history of violence, Charlie is finally expelled from school when he beats a young girl so badly that she is hospitalised. Instead of going straight home after his interview with the headmaster, Charlie walks into his classroom with a gun and shoots the teacher dead. Before he properly realises what he has done, he finds himself in charge of a hostage situation with the power of life and death over his classmates as the police gather outside. 

This is a short novel that strangely reminded me of the movie The Breakfast Club, when a group of high school teens find themselves unsupervised together in a classroom and begin to open up to each other about their private lives. Charlie talks about his own difficult home life and we gain an insight into how his mind became so disturbed, but the others in the class also reveal a lot about themselves and form a bond, both with each other and with their captor. We begin to forget all about the murdered teacher and find ourselves rooting for Charlie and wishing that he could somehow escape the terrible situation he's got himself into. 

Rage is a book about the darkness within us all, and how easy it is for that darkness to erupt into violence. The ending is quite shocking, brilliantly written and really makes you think. While Rage may not be his best work, it is an intense novel that already bears Stephen King's unique style and shows the beginnings of his huge talent. Four stars.

2012 TBR Pile Reading Challenge

The trouble with reading challenges is that they very often send you off at a tangent and away from the pile of books in the corner that you really want to read. What's needed is a something like this, from Bookish,  where the challenge itself is to read the TBR pile.

There are currently 97 books on my TBR pile - though about 6 or 7 of those are already earmarked for December. Wow, that's a lot - and I really want to read all of them! The most recent addition is The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, so we'll say that anything added before that counts towards this challenge. Given that there are so many books on my pile, I reckon I should be able to aim pretty high for this challenge, so I'm going to pledge to read  40 books from the pile. I may even manage a few more!

2.   The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo
5.   Affliction by Fay Weldon
6.   The Rest of Her Life by Laura Moriarty
7.   You're Next by Gregg Hurwitz
8.   Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
9.   Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe
10. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
11. The Tent, the Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy
12. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
13. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
14. The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge
15. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
16. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
17. The Dark by James Herbert
18. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffnegger
19. From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury
20. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
21. The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore
22. The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan
23.  The Pigeon by Patrick Suskind
24. A Curious Earth by Gerard Woodward
25. Six Feet Over by Mary Roach
26. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
27. Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

Elsewhere begins with a death, as fifteen-year-old Liz Hall wakes up on board a ship after she is killed in a road accident. The ship is bound for a place called Elsewhere, and Liz’s grandmother is there to welcome her to the afterlife and help her get settled in to her new home. In Elsewhere people’s lives run backwards, so they become younger with each passing year until they are tiny babies again, when they are sent back to Earth to be reborn.

Liz is understandably upset at being parted from her home and family, and feels angry at having been killed so young and knowing that she will never graduate, learn to drive, fall in love or do any of the things she was looking forward to in life. We follow her as she tries to come to terms with her new existence, begins to make new friends and carve out a place for herself in Elsewhere.

This started really well, and I loved the idea of Elsewhere and the way it worked. The afterlife is a great subject for fiction, as it’s always interesting to read different interpretations of what it might be like. Liz is a little bratty, but she has good reason to be so it’s easy to make allowances for her behaviour, and she’s basically a likeable character. But after such a promising beginning, I was really disappointed when the story seemed to lose its way about halfway through. It suddenly became very rushed, as though the author got bored and just wanted to finish the story as quickly as possible, and all the character development went out the window in a mad dash for the finish line.  As a result, the book ends up much too short, and skims over situations and relationships which I would have loved to have read about in more detail.

For someone who says they don’t really like YA I’ve read quite a lot of it lately, but this book unfortunately reminded me of the reasons I dislike a lot of this genre. I missed the character and plot development that comes in a more adult book, and by the end I felt kind of unsatisfied. I think I’ll be giving the YA a rest for a while and try something with a bit more meat for my next read. Three stars.

Monday, 19 December 2011

The Back to the Classics Challenge 2012

I feel like I've done quite well in 2011 and read a number of classics I've been meaning to get to for years. There are still a lot more out there I haven't tried though, so I'm hoping this challenge from Sarah Reads Too Much will help fill in some more of the gaps in my reading.

There are no different levels for this challenge; you simply need to read one book from each of the categories below. I've already chosen my books, as they're ones I've been wanting to read for ages! The categories, together with my intended books for each one, are:

Any 19th Century Classic
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Any 20th Century Classic

Reread of any Classic

Classic Play
Journey's End by R.C. Sherriff

Classic Mystery, Horror or Crime
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Classic Romance
Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Translated Classic
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Award-winning Classic
A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

Classic set in a country you are unlikely to ever visit
Erewhon by Samuel Butler

There's plenty there for me to get stuck into. I can't wait!

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Book of Tomorrow by Cecelia Ahern

I’ve got so many books to get through before the end of the year if I’m going to complete all my challenges that I need to find some quick reads to get those totals up. I really enjoyed Ahern’s P.S. I Love You, so thought it might be nice to try another of her books.

The Book of Tomorrow  is written from the point of view of Tamara, a sixteen-year-old whose life has been turned upside-down since her father’s suicide. With the family finances decimated by her father’s business dealings, Tamara and her mother are forced to leave their home in Dublin and move in with relations who live in an old gatehouse in a sleepy hamlet. Tamara’s life in the country is very different from what she was previously used to , and further complicated by her mother’s almost catatonic grief and her creepy aunt, who gives Tamara no privacy while behaving in a very secretive manner herself.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s well written, and managed to keep my interest – in fact, I stayed up well past my bedtime to get it finished. The mystery behind all the strange goings-on is great, and I know I would have loved the dramatics and intrigue if I had read this as a teenager. However, there are so many secrets that it gets a little confusing at times, although it’s all sorted out and properly explained in the end. The fantasy element (I won’t reveal the specifics here to avoid spoilers) is not actually central to the plot and almost feels superfluous, as the story would have run along quite happily without it. I do wonder why the author bothered with this at all and didn’t just write a straight, realistic YA book without the hocus pocus.

Tamara isn’t a very sympathetic character - she freely admits in the narrative that she’s a spoiled brat and frequently lives up to this label. But she does learn a few things over the course of the book and she emerges as a better person at the end. Another character who stood out for me started out really promisingly, but unfortunately it seemed like Ahern just got bored with him halfway through. His exit from the story was abrupt and a I felt it was a real waste of the reader’s emotional investment.

The Book of Tomorrow isn’t a patch on P.S. I Love You, which I wouldn’t dare read in public for fear of embarrassing myself by bursting into tears every five minutes. But it’s a reasonably good read, particularly for a younger reader, and passes a few hours quite pleasantly. Three stars.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Mixing it Up Challenge 2012

I've started casting my eye about for some good challenges to enter for 2012, and here's the first one, which I found over at Musings of a Bookshop Girl. The Mixing it Up challenge involves choosing a book from a variety of different genres, and should encourage me to branch out a little more than usual. I'm going to aim for the top level - all the trimmings and a cherry on top - and will read one book from all 16 categories. 
The categories are:

3. Cookery, food and wine - Eating for England by Nigel Slater
6.Graphic Novels and Manga - Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs
7. Crime and Mystery - The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo
12. Poetry and Drama - Journey's End by R.C. Sherriff
14. Science and Natural History - Six Feet Over by Mary Roach
15. Children's and Young Adult - Jennings Goes to School by Anthony Buckeridge
16. Social Sciences and Philosophy - Breakfast with Socrates by Robert Rowland Smith

Some of the categories, like Modern Fiction, are going to be really easy to complete, but others will require a bit more thought. I've never read a graphic novel, for instance (not since Asterix books as a child!), so that should be an interesting one to find a title for. I have a few ideas for some of the categories, but we'll see what takes my fancy as I work my way through over the year. 

I'm eyeing up a lot more challenges and 2012 promises to be packed with loads of interesting things to read. 

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Short Story: Juvenal Nyx by Walter Mosley

The next tale in my very slow reading of the Stories anthology, edited by Al Sarrontonio and Neil Gaiman, is this disturbing offering from Walter Mosley.

Our protagonist is something of a young revolutionary, spending his evenings at political and underground meetings, when one night he meets a mysterious pale-faced woman. Within a few hours he has been lured back to her place for some wild sex, and very soon finds himself tied to the bed in an underground chamber while the woman, who is of course a vampire, feeds on his flesh.

What ensues is a rather messy tale relating our hero's life as a bloodsucking denizen of the night. He bites people, he gets an unconventional new career, some mysterious things happen, a monster makes a pointless cameo appearance, nothing is resolved by the end of the story and the whole thing feels like a bit of an aimless ramble.

Maybe I'm being overly critical? Yes, I'm sure I must be. It's hard for me to remain objective as the whole sexy vampire genre is one I have never quite "got". It feels like Anne Rice started a bandwagon that grew to epic proportions after Twilight was published, and now legions of writers are clamouring to jump aboard with all sorts of drivel. Or am I just getting old and grumpy? Probably.

That being said, I like to think I would never dismiss a story out of hand because I don't like the genre. Indeed, the first story in this anthology - Blood by Roddy Doyle - is also a vampire tale, but done in such an original way that even a card-carrying vampire sceptic like me couldn't help loving it. But even as I try to set aside my own personal hang-ups concerning the genre, I have other gripes with Juvenal Nyx. It doesn't really go anywhere, and the action scenes seem tacked on merely to provide some thrills (they could easily be removed without affecting the main plot one iota). The writing itself is technically okay, but the use of a lot of short choppy sentences meant it never flowed very well for me.

It's not all bad, and there are even a few flashes of excellence in some of the more descriptive passages, but Juvenal Nyx does suffer in comparison to the other stories in this anthology, which are generally of a much higher standard. I'm afraid it's thumbs down on this one.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'm giving for Christmas

I don't have that many people to buy for, but so far the only presents I've bought are books! I really must get myself sorted and finish my Christmas shopping with some different gifts. Anyway, this week's subject at The Broke and the Bookish is Christmas gifts, and these are the books my nearest and dearest can expect to see under the tree this year.

River Cottage Veg Every Day! by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
My mum always gets a cook book for Christmas - it's tradition - and if there's a new River Cottage book out then that's the one she gets. She loves them all, and I get the added bonus of being invited round for some delicious meals.

The Complete Short Novels by Anton Chekhov
My stepfather is a man who re-reads War and Peace every couple of years, and when he told me that he'd enjoyed a collection of Chekhov's short stories he got from the library, I filed the information away as a Christmas gift idea. This is a beautiful hardback edition from the Everyman's Classics series, which should keep him quiet over the festive period.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
One of my younger colleagues is a real bookworm and loves Harry Potter and similar adventuresome tales. She's also a photographer, and as I was reading this story myself earlier this year, I kept thinking how much she would enjoy it (read my review here). So I decided to buy her a nice hardback version for Christmas!

200 Cakes and Bakes (Hamlyn Series)
This is just a small pressie for another colleague who has recently discovered baking. She brought some brownies into work the other day for the first time ever, and was really nervous about what we would think of them! They were delicious, and now she's got the baking bug I thought I'd try and encourage her a little with some new recipes.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol
When my best friend had her first child, I bought him a library of children's books as a Christening gift. This year, she gave birth to a beautiful daughter, so I get to buy lots of girl books too! This one seems like a good place to start.

One Child by Torey Hayden
This is a hard one to explain. My friend and I always buy each other books from the "tragic life stories" section of the bookshop. I can't even remember how this strange tradition started (we were probably drunk at the time), but for every Christmas and birthday we exchange these terrible tales of woe - Torey Hayden has written scores of the things!

Eva Luna by Isabel Allende
The last four books on my list are all for the same person, and it's someone I've never met! We're doing a secret santa on a Goodreads group I'm in, for which we send used books to the value of £10 to a mystery recipient. My swappee apparently likes world literature, so I thought this slightly lesser-known Allende novel might be one she'd enjoy and not have read already.

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey
This was the world literature book I enjoyed the most this year myself, so it was the first idea to spring to mind for my mystery swappee. You can read my review here.

Wicked Women by Fay Weldon
My swappee apparently also likes feminist literature, so I thought Fay Weldon might be a good choice. This is a collection of her short stories so there's bound to be at least a couple that will appeal.

The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan
My swappee's favourite setting for world literature is apparently China and Amy Tan was one of the first names I thought of. I haven't read this one myself, but it has some amazing reviews.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Thomas Hardy by Jane Drake

It's rare that I get to review a truly local book, so when someone from Wessex Books, who are based just down the road in Salisbury, got in touch asking if I would review one of their titles, I was very happy to oblige.

This little book about Hardy and the area he grew up in and wrote about is really well put-together. It's A5 in size, so makes a nice coffee table read, and only 33 pages long, so handy to flick through when you've got a few spare minutes. The front page provides a lovely colour map which folds out and shows all the principle towns and villages of Hardy's Wessex, and the following pages list the real-life place names so you can easily see that Hardy's name for Dorchester was Casterbridge or that Melchester is really Salisbury. It's full of period photographs and drawings from Hardy's time and the overall look is really nice.

The writing isn't quite as good, and if you're looking for a decent biography then this wouldn't be a good choice (though as it's so slim, I can't imagine any serious Hardy buffs would buy it by mistake). I did notice a few errors, and the sentence structure was confusing in places, but in a book of this type it wasn't a big deal. There are a lot of quotations throughout the book, which are all clearly visible in italics and include some of Hardy's poems as well as extracts from his novels, and this together with the many photos meant that the amount of original writing in the book was minimal.

This book seems aimed at a particular market; that of tourists travelling to this part of Britain and wanting a little book that is both a souvenir and an aid to help them explore some of the real-life places mentioned in Hardy's writing. For that purpose, it succeeds really well.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

I haven't left the house all weekend, but instead have been holed up indoors (fortunately the weather's horrendous and the rain's been lashing down so I don't feel too guilty) with this fantastic book. I wasn't at all sure I was going to like it, but I'd never read any of Eugenides' books before and this one had some good reviews, so I allowed myself to be persuaded.

Middlesex is narrated by Cal Stephanides, a forty year old who was raised as a girl but chose to live his adult life as a man. Genetically he's male, but physically and mentally he has aspects of both male and female. He tells his story and the story of his family, beginning with his grandparents in a small Greek village in what is now Turkey. He follows the trail of a partcular genetic mutation which eventually will lead to his own conception and birth as a hermaphrodite.

The novel is huge in its scope, and Cal's own struggles as a confused teenage girl are just a part of the whole story. I loved the section about Cal's grandparents, the description of their life in the village, the nightmare of the Turkish invasion and their eventual escape to America. As a Greek myself, I recognised the authenticity in Eugenides' writing and felt completely at home with this immigrant family, loving the little Greek touches that still remained even down to the third generation.

Middlesex is a real romp through the history books, and through the Stephanides family we have a window on the 20th century, taking in prohibition, the depression, World War 2, race riots, Vietnam, the partition of Cyprus and more. Their American home is in Detroit, and I felt like I really knew the city myself by the time I'd finished reading. The family have their ups and downs, but they have a strong bond which sees them through all manner of disasters.

Callie's birth doesn't happen until nearly halfway through the book, but I was enjoying the family saga so much I really didn't mind. She's an endearing child, and the tension mounts as the reader wonders when and how she is going to find out the truth about herself and how the knowledge will affect her and her family. We feel protective of the teenage Callie, who can't understand why she's not developing like the other girls, and the narration from Cal, who slips between the first and third person when talking about his younger self, helps to underline the confusion.

The book does have its faults - Cal's omniscience being one. The explanation that he/she had a bird's eye view of events before being born, like being in God's waiting room, is lovely but not very plausible. I also thought the eventual decision to switch from girl to boy was done a little too quickly. However, these are minor quibbles in a book that has held me totally enthralled all weekend. I love big sweeping sagas and this really is a doozy. Five stars.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

I’d seen some great reviews of this from some of my Goodreads friends, so decided to give it a read. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close follows a nine year old boy, Oskar, in the months following his father’s death in the twin towers. Oskar finds a key amongst his father’s possessions and becomes obsessed with the idea of finding the lock which the key fits. His search takes him across the whole of New York, introduces him to all sorts of people, and makes him feel somehow closer to his father.

The book is told mainly from Oskar’s point of view, but there are other strands to the tale and other voices introduce their own stories too. Chief amongst these is that of Oskar’s grandfather, Thomas, who left his wife when she was pregnant with Oskar’s father. Thomas writes a series of letters to his unborn child, beginning on the day he left, and through these we learn more of his past and reasons for abandoning his family.

This is an unconventional book, and Oskar is a troubled child with many fears, but also a wonderful imagination and talent for invention. At first the book reminded me a lot of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but this had a much wider scope and the stories of Oskar’s grandparents gave it a complexity that was missing from Haddon’s work. The book also includes photographs and extracts from letters which help to underline some of the points made in the novel (the photographs at the very end in particular will stagger any reader and keep them thinking about the novel for a long time afterwards).

The book gives us a very real and moving portrait of a child who is left devastated and profoundly damaged by the death of his beloved father. Somehow the author manages to do this without overloading the story with sentimentality or schmaltz, which is quite an achievement given the book’s subject matter. Some of Oskar’s insights and comments on the world around him are amazing, and cut to the heart of things in a way that children sometimes can. But no matter how clever his thoughts are, Oskar’s voice still comes across as authentic. It’s a really difficult thing to pull off, but Foer manages it very skilfully and I was really impressed. 

This is the kind of book I love the most – one that really makes you think. After I’d finished reading it I felt like picking up the phone and calling my family, just to touch base and let them know I was thinking about them. Any book that can have that kind of effect is definitely something special.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Short Story: The Stars are Falling by Joe R. Lansdale

I was completely unfamiliar with this author before coming across his contribution to the Stories collection, edited by Al Sarrontonio and Neil Gaiman, but his is actually one of the stronger stories of the collection so far. Unlike most of the tales in the book up to this point, there is no supernatural slant to this one, which actually gives the reader a welcome break and change of pace.

The story follows Deel as he returns to his remote home in America after being away for four years fighting in the First World War. He has seen many horrors in his time away, and home seems very small and strange as he tries to pick up where he left off with his wife and his young son, who has grown out of babyhood and remembers nothing of his father. We soon understand that more has changed in Deel's world than he at first realises, and neither he nor his wife and child are going to find his reassimilation easy.

My criticism of this is that it's a little predictable, and the climactic scene lost much of its oomph by being telegraphed well in advance. Nevertheless, it's a well-written tale, and had me hooked from the first paragraph. It explores the ways in which a man's mind can be twisted and broken by the horrors of war, making even the most mild-mannered and gentle characters capable of previously unthinkable acts, given the right circumstances. It was interesting to see how the reader's sympathies were engaged, and I found myself cheering Deel on even as he did some pretty awful things (not that he didn't have plenty of justification).

I'll definitely keep an eye out for this author in the future.

I've written this review for the Short Stories on Wednesdays meme over at Bread Crumb Reads