What I’ve Read: August/September

Book Reviews
*For some reason, Flickr has decided the transparent side of my picture above needs a black background, so we’ll just have to deal with that I’m afraid!
Yeh, I’ve been a bit off kilter with these round up reviews recently – technically they’re supposed to be monthly at the start of the month, but you know things don’t always work out that way, so today you’ve got a round up of my end of August/most of September reads! I’m still pretty busy at the moment, and it’s set to get even busier now as I’m taking on some extra social things (for Ben and my dad) in whatever spare time I manage to get, so things like reading and sewing (as well as running, woops) go out the window sometimes. Last week I had my first proper day back at choir, including getting caught taking “Choir Selfies” (it was really difficult to keep the phone steady while pulling faces at the back of the room without being seen, oops!), another day at Brownies which including me getting blindfolded and attached to catch a group of 7 to 9 year olds (turns out I’m pretty useless at that), a meal out with Ben at a local pub (yum), and also the fact that we’re constantly scouring the housing market in the area as we’re looking to get out of renting and buying a house soon, so we’ll quite frequently go for a drive to check out a particular street where a house is for sale to see what it’s like from the outside (thus resulting in us looking spectacularly creepy as we slowly cruise past a house, turn around cruise right back again).
I also started this post about a week ago (it takes a while to get through each book review!), and during the time between starting and finishing I managed to come down with a pretty spectacular cold/flu that left me pretty much delirious with fever yesterday, meaning not a lot, aka nothing, has been done for a couple of days except lie under a duvet reading (particularly since our internet went down all of yesterday meaning I couldn’t even watch Netflix, boo!). I’m starting to feel a bit better today (finally!), but am still at the stage where walking upstairs to get the tissues I left up there earlier feels like one of the hardest walks I’ve ever had to do…so I’m making do with the roll of toilet paper that I left here a few days ago (ouch, nose). So, due to being ill – this post was supposed to be up at the start of the week with only 4 reviews, but illness happened and it’s now going up towards the end of the week with 7 instead – at least I’m catching up on my yearly target!
But onto the reviews! This month(/2 months) included a trip to the Peak District and a book club read again, so here goes:The Tenth Chamber by Glenn Cooper – 8/10 (Kindle version)
This was a NetGalley read, and one of the better ones I’ve had recently. It combines a lot of things that I like in a book: a good mystery, switching between different times, lots of historic stuff (even some ancient stuff, yay!) and a solid storyline. It opens in Ruac Abbey where a 14th century manuscript is discovered hidden in a wall behind a bookcase – it is badly damaged and sent to Hugo Pineau to be repaired and to give up its secrets. It tells the story of an ancient cave in the cliffs near the Abbey, so he enlists his archaeologist friend Luc Simard to help him find it. They find the prehistoric cave, brimming with ancient cave art and more secrets than they can at first know, and a team begins work on preserving and studying it all, but of course, here come the deaths, as expected.
The story flits between the modern day, where it becomes ever more dangerous to continue work on the cave, the Medieval period and the monks who had found this cave and understood its wonders, and the prehistoric people who had filled the cave with the paintings and their lives. The storyline entwines itself well between each time period; although I found the Medieval one less interesting and more difficult to keep up with, the prehistoric one was really fascinating. The book even takes a turn towards the supernatural at points, which you know I like in a story. The ending was good, fast paced and rounded off well – it definitely felt very Dan Brown inspired. I’d never read anything by Glenn Cooper before, but I wouldn’t hesitate to read him again.

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith – 7/10 (Kindle version/Film cover version)
This was our Book Club read for the month (or few months, because we didn’t manage to get together for a while!). Most people will at least know part of the story from watching or hearing about the recent film based on this book’s events, but as a quick summary, it follows the life of Michael Hess, originally Anthony Lee, son of Philmena Lee, a young Irish woman who fell pregnant in the early 50s, gave birth to her son and looked after him until he was a toddler in a convent, before being forced into giving him up for adoption to a family in America. While the title seems to focus on Philomena, despite the very beginning and end of the book, she has very little part in the majority of the story.
This book is different to a lot I read as it is a true story, although it has to be mentioned that the events and conversations in the book are fictionalised to an extent, as you can imagine, there was a lot of secrecy surrounding the convents dealing in this kind of adoption. As such, it’s difficult to review, being half way between fiction and non fiction.
I most enjoyed reading the beginning to middle of this book, which leads us through Michael’s childhood and into a struggling young adult. It’s not that the rest wasn’t good, it’s just that there was a lot of focus on American politics at the time, of which I know very little, so there were parts I felt I could have understand a lot better had I known what was going on. Michael grows up in a family in America with his ‘sister’, another little girl from the convent who was adopted with him, and his life is an almost constant struggle from then onwards. It deals with concepts such as the government’s homophobia and Michael trying to understand and finally accept what’s going on in his head, why he isn’t ‘normal’ compared to everyone else’s standards, as well as not having the identity he craves from not knowing or clearly remembering his birth mother.
It was a good read, and very eye opening to what was going on at the time. I’d heard about this sort of thing before, but never thought too much about it – for example, the mothers at the convents are coerced into giving up their children, the children are taken away ‘legally’ since the mother has signed a form, but their details are very sparsely recorded, and it’s almost impossible for them to trace one another. I still haven’t seen the film, but I would recommend reading the book first (as I would with most film adaptations) – it’s a fascinating topic and time period, both in Ireland and America.

Of Scars and Stardust by Andrea Hannah – 6.5/10 (Kindle version) (available 8th October)
This was another NetGalley read and quite a nice easy one to get through – it’s not one of those books I’d say I would pick up again to reread, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. It was slightly different to what I had expected based on the description on Goodreads, which makes it sound as if there’s a murder mystery type of story with one sister trying to find the other. In reality, the sister being missing is only for a short time period and is not central to the whole book, it’s really just what brings the other back to her hometown to face her demons.
Claire is the older sister, Ella the younger; they live in a small town where Claire’s best friend, Rae, teases her about the wolves that live in the cornfields and prey on little girls that smell like cherry and wear periwinkle. It is the night of Claire’s birthday and Rae arranges a party, supposedly for this occasion, in the cornfield, but in reality it’s her own leaving party as she plans to run away. Young Ella follows Claire, who sends her back, only to find her gone from her bed still the next morning, to later discover her attacked in the cornfield. We zip forward then to Claire living in the city with her aunt, while damaged Ella still lives back home with their parents, their relationship seemingly broken forever. Claire is still haunted by that night, finding herself followed by wolves even in the city. When Ella disappears again, Claire must return to finally face her demons and discover what really happened.
The book is well written, has some lovely descriptions and paints brilliant scenes. The reader is kept guessing, mostly because it’s from Claire’s perspective and she too has no idea what is going on, and I like to be kept guessing, but I did feel there were still a couple of questions left unanswered at the end that I would have liked to be tied up. The ending was pretty satisfactory overall, and I would recommend this as a quick read for YAs.

The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan – 8/10 (Kindle version)
Another book I liked from NetGalley, yay! This is described as being in the vein of The Physicke Book of Deliverance Dane (which I reviewed here) and A Discovery of Witches, the first of which I have read and enjoyed, the latter I have sat upstairs waiting for me to read (better get onto that!). Revelation “Reve” Dyer and her husband are magicians, working on stage and living in Vegas with their 3 daughters, but during their show one evening, the pistol she usually uses to appear to shoot her husband is tampered with, and she shoots him, killing him immediately. She and her daughters disappear (quite literally) and flee to Hawley Five Corners, a deserted town in the midst of the forest, the place where her ancestors lived and that she explored as a child with her best friend, now head of the Police in the nearby town. Mystery surrounds the place, such as the “magic” book she finds in the wall and the ever present question, why was the place so suddenly deserted? Immediately it becomes clear that all is not well and their stalker is on their tail again, then her twin daughters disappear into the forest. It becomes a race to save them, find out what happened, and protect her family.
The story is filled with magic, both literally and in the writing. It flits back in time occasionally to the town disappearing in the past and what happened then, as well as Reve’s college years in which one of her friends disappears, all of which explains what is going on now but in a roundabout way. It was a good read with a pretty good storyline, but what I loved best was the setting and the elements of magic all around.

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge – 7.5/10 (Kindle version)
This book felt to me like an extended fairytale, and I guess that’s what it’s supposed to be. I read a lot of good reviews of both the book and the author, so was excited to find out what all the fuss was about, and I wasn’t really let down. So the story goes: Triss wakes up one morning not feeling herself. Her family explain she’s been in some sort of accident, but she doesn’t remember it. Trying to find out what has happened, she discovers the pages in her diary have been ripped out. Her memories of her life before are still all there in her head, but don’t feel quite right, and she can’t seem to find her way through the house properly. It is put down to illness based on her accident, although we all know there’s something more to it than that, especially when her dolls start to scream at her and both in retaliation and through insatiable hunger, she eats one of them. It becomes clear there’s more to this than just Triss, including the mysterious things her little sister Pen is doing, the strange thing she sees in her older brother Sebastian’s room, who died at war years before, and the way her parents talk about her and the situation when they think she can’t hear. Without giving it all away, it transpires that she is, quite literally, not herself, and that she has to team up with her sister, who appears to hate her for an unknown reason, and travel to the “Underbelly” of the city to find the truth and unravel the situation.
There are plenty of fairytale elements going on in the book entwined into the city of the day (which is at an unspecified point in the past), making it seem almost as if the story could have really happened, despite the surreal and magic elements to it. I would say it’s another YA read, but erring on the creepier side. I loved the relationship between the sisters, the way it develops and changes, and Pen is just a fantastic character in general – so spiky, fiery and brave, despite being only young. It was a fairly quick read for, quite easy to get through, and I would definitely recommend it.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – 8/10 (Kindle version)
So I mentioned I read a lot while being delirious and ill, and this one got devoured in a single day, along with the one below too! Although the subject matter was not the greatest choice when I had flu, considering it begins with an estimated 99% of the earth’s population dying from the Georgia Flu…oops! Onto the story though: we actually start at a production of King Lear, where the main actor, a famous Hollywood actor, Arthur Leander, falls to the floor dead almost immediately from a heart attack. While a little girl sits and watches on stage, a paramedic in training, Jeevan, from the audience leaps up to try to save him to no avail and the curtain falls. This seems almost irrelevant when the next thing to come is a warning to Jeevan that the Georgia flu has reached America, then that is spreading, then to lock himself away immediately before he too catches it. Within a matter of hours, the hospitals are filled with patients, and within days most of the population of America has died. 20 years later, we join the Travelling Symphony, including the little girl, Kirsten, now woman, who saw Arthur die on stage all those years ago; it is a group of survivors, travelling from one “town” to the next, each made of mostly only 5 or 6 families now and sparsely spread, performing music and Shakespeare to keep spirits high. We flit between the new present world of survivors, the world as it was before, including the story of Arthur’s life with his 3 ex-wives, focusing in on the first one and Jeevan’s life as a paparazzo, then entertainment journalist, then paramedic, bouncing off Arthur’s life occasionally. We also see a bit of the intervening years between now and the “end of the world”, and find out why the little things, such as the comic books entitled “Station Eleven” that Kirsten carries around, mean so much to her, and how they fit in to the story.
The current storyline sees the Travelling Symphony reaching a town, leaving quickly when they realise the state it has come to as a “cult” under the “Prophet” and that the friends they left there 2 years ago have moved on to the “Museum of Civilisation” at an airport a fair journey away. The group is inexplicably split though, and it becomes apparent how dangerous the new world is, even 20 years after the apocalypse when guns are really now only used for hunting, gasoline is stale and there are so few people left.
By now you should now that I like post-apocalyptic and dystopian world books, so this was always going to be along the right lines for me. I really liked the way that there was a good balance between the current story, the past story, the mixed up characters and their relationships to one another, and the descriptions of the world itself. Sometimes with these type of books, there will be too much focus on the characters getting through the new world, or too much on the new world itself, but this struck a good balance between them. I really liked the way the story came together; small parts throughout the book had relevance later and everything tied up neatly. It’s a fascinating study of society and how it might continue after the world as we know it has ended, how relationships go on, and what’s meaningful to you in your life before might change or might stay the same. I’d definitely recommend this one, a very good read, and one of my favourites recently.

BloodLight: The Apocalypse of Robert Goldner – 3.5/10 (Kindle version)
So, I’ve had some good books this month, some not so good, and some ones that I really haven’t enjoyed, and unfortunately this one was the latter. To be honest, it’s my fault for not reading further into the blurb: I should warn you now, this is not the YA book it seems to be at first glance, it is a surreal, metaphysical fantasy book that’s dark and strange. It does seem like it might be for me, but in the end it turned out not to be.
At the beginning, it seems to be about a teenage black boy (the colour of his skin is emphasised very much, both through his own thoughts and through taunts throughout the book) struggling through his school career in high school wrestling and with “friends” that seem much more like bullies to me. Some strange descriptions are going on though, such as the very beginning where he is seemingly being attacked by snowmen, and despite his protests that he doesn’t drink or take drugs, I thought it was to sway the reader or least show the beginnings of a mental breakdown. There are plenty of struggles with racism and homophobia, as well as the mentions that shortly before his mother was murdered, she called him a mistake, and that stuck with him. To me, I was imagining a boy struggling to come to terms with his identity has a breakdown. So it seemed, until it took a few turns I didn’t fully get, and which I know understand more that I’ve read the description more thoroughly.
The book is in three parts – part one, he begins having strange hallucinations, then goes crazy and passes out a wrestling match after performing some illegal moves. Part two, he is partially recovered, but then begins having more hallucinations which become worse and worse. Part three, what seems to be a complete breakdown on his birthday sends him into an alternate reality of his body and mind where supposedly “truths” are revealed to him – this was the metaphysical part of the book.
There are lots of Biblical elements going on throughout the story too, and the question the book is supposedly answering is “What would happen if God went mad?”. While it is an interesting concept, I don’t think it’s done well enough for me to enjoy it. I started the book thinking it was a bit of a rubbish YA book, it didn’t seem to be dealing well with the concepts it was presenting, but then dived headfirst into this metaphysical prose, which to be honest I had enough of with my ancient philosophy modules at uni! The two sides of the book clashed horribly for me, but since I never put a book down, I persevered, and ended up disappointed unfortunately. It’s not for me, but may be for someone else. As you can see, there’s a lot to it, not a lot of which appeals to me, but may for you.

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