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Mini Book Reviews: January & February 2016

Book Reviews January & February 2016

Looking back at my last post which was a full week ago, it looks like I took a break from the blog, however I feel like I’ve barely stopped working on it this week actually! This is the thing about blogging, what you see on the blog every day might not be the only the thing that bloggers are working on – for example, there are the countless emails a week and blog design. This week, I’ve been working on major blog maintenance behind the scenes that probably no one will ever notice! The main bulk of it has been clearing up broken links which (oops!) I have never bothered with – there were thousands!! Fortunately, I now seem to be through them all, although rescans of them cause a couple more to keep popping up. In reality, the vast majority are comment links, and these are mostly from a couple of people who took down their blogs but left links in comments on every single post for about 2 years…that’s a lot of work to clear up! I’ve also been sorting out the tags on posts which didn’t copy across from Blogger to WordPress when I moved about a year ago, as well as featured images in posts – there are around 650 to sort through and I have no idea where I’ve got to, but it’s very interesting seeing all my old posts again!
I actually started writing this post over a week ago, but didn’t get a chance to finish it, so here’s that bit of blurb anyways – all the weekend just gone is now 2 weeks ago!
I would love so much to be able to do separate book reviews for all the books I read as I love so many of them so much. This month is one of those ones where I feel like I could write full posts on several, but with my long reviews often turning into essays (like Beautiful Broken Things), I just wouldn’t have the time! I want to say “especially at the moment”, but it seems that “the moment” is just my whole life basically – I’m always signing myself up for things, but I like being busy, even if that’s just with sewing and reading, so it’s a good thing.
This weekend was a busy but kind of awesome – many plans went awry, such as the tapas meal we were supposed to be having for Ben’s sister’s birthday, but their parents were ill so we’re rescheduling. Instead Beth came round to ours instead and we made our own “tapas” (that also included Italian, and our Aioli took 3 attempts!). Then Sunday was spent mostly travelling! The plan was to visit the lingerie exhibitions at Moda, so I left the house before 8am was at York station at 8.30 on Sunday morning, only for them to pull the train out and discover it was “broken”. They brought out another eventually, but it meant I missed my connection at Manchester and had to wait an extra hour there. By the time I reached Birmingham International where I was meeting Charley who had traveled up from London after spending a few days there, she was dying from a migraine in a cafe. She only lasted about an hour before having to head away 🙁 I was super proud of myself for powering on, meeting lots of brands and looking at ALL the beautiful lingerie before catching the train back again. And I got a lot of reading done that day with the 7 hours of travelling I did!

The Storycatcher by Ann Hite – 6.5/10 (Kindle version)*

I’d had this book hanging around in my Kindle for months years. It was one of the early ones I got off Netgalley, but it got pushed back off my front screen and I forgot about it. I’m glad I found it though, because I did very much enjoy it once I got into it.
The story is set in the Depression era in the Deep South of America – an area I visited last year with the family, so it was somewhere I could really picture strongly in my head. Revolving around the lives of various men, women, children and families who live on North Carolina’s Black Mountain and focusing in on a young black girl, Shelley Parker, and her mother who work for Pastor Dobbins and his family. The story is told from various viewpoints which I found a little confusing to begin with, but once I got into the story and figured out how everyone fit together (and who everyone was), it turned out to be a fantastic way to tell the story so you saw it from all sides at the same time.
Combining real life with southern folklore, including people who can see “haints” (spirits who haven’t had their stories told), this was a fascinating look at the deep South. The characters were well defined and enchanting, and the writing was very good. I’d like to read more from this author in future.

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller – 7.5/10 (Kindle version)*

Now this was a strange one! We fall into the story from Peggy’s point of view, and while I had an idea from the blurb what was going on, I wasn’t quite sure at which point we were at. It turns out to be Peggy after she has returned from the wilderness where she was taken by her father, an avid survivalist, almost 10 years before when she was only eight years old, in the summer of 1976.
Told from Peggy’s perspective, it’s slightly unnerving as the, presumably, adult reader will recognise the madness in the father in that he seems to truly believe they need to escape to the forest, to die Hutte, apparently the only place left in the world which has been destroyed (taking her mother and everyone else they knew along with it), despite the fact that they almost starve to death and have very little with them aside from a couple of necessary items (which will inevitably run/wear out) and a sheet of piano music. The creeping realisation as Peggy grows older that something isn’t quite right is terrifying, but as far as she knows, this is her only way of life. The chapters in the forest drag, as there isn’t a huge amount actually happening, but it just adds to the feeling that Peggy must also be experiencing in the forest with little to do and trying to survive. What’s interesting is that Peggy, both naively and understandably, as it’s all she’s ever known, never sees her father as the problem right up until the end, and once she’s returned to the real world, she’s still confused by what she’s experienced. Her voice is brilliant and is a perfect example of how Stockholm syndrome can work.
And of course, there’s a good twist at the end, which to be honest I, like many people, expected, but it was still good. I definitely enjoyed this one, despite it being a dark read, and would read more by Claire Fuller.

Beside Myself by Ann Morgan – 7.5/10 (Kindle version)*

This is a simple story that works so well: two twins swap places to confuse their parents. Helen is usually the sensible one, perceiving herself as smarter, whereas Ellie is the silly but more simple one, seeming to be, through Helen’s eyes (as we see her at the beginning) to be slower in every sense. But when they arrive home to find an unfamiliar scene, a new man moving in with their mother after the fairly recent suicide of the father, they don’t get the chance to explain and swap back. Helen thinks it will all be fine in the morning, but suddenly Ellie refuses to swap back.
At first, it seems obvious to the reader that it’s just as we’re being shown – that Ellie is playing at being Helen, and Helen is desperately trying to reinstate her place but failing. But it slowly you become more and more uncertain as Ellie denies all knowledge of what Helen is talking about, making Helen appear to be the slower and more silly one.
The chapters alternate between the present, grown up “Helen” who has been forced to live her life as Ellie and is clearly struggling, and the other chapters starting at the beginning with the swap and moving slowly throughout the book to meet the present. “Helen” at the beginning becomes known as “Smudge” as she doesn’t want to live as “Ellie” and is clearly struggling with mental health issues – it becomes a question of whether the issues result from the swap and her life afterwards, or whether she’s made up the swap in her mind.
One interesting theme running through it is about the choices you make. Does it really matter which girl has which name for them to live their lives? Are people making decisions on the girls based on how they think they should act? Helen-who-is-now-Ellie (how else do you describe this?!) rebels through her teenage years to the point where she is cast out from her family. The twins never see each other again.
We enter the present when Smudge receives a letter addressed to Helen – has someone finally realised? Then she finds out Helen, who has become idolised and famous, is in a coma and her husband comes to find Smudge, taking her home with him (and his daughter) and looking after her as we continue to read through the story of how she got to this point.
This is an excellent psychological thriller with twists and turns everywhere. The ending was good, although I’m not sure if I would have chosen to have it end that way. Nevertheless, I’d definitely recommend it.

The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood – 7/10 (Kindle version)*

Another twin based psychological thriller, strangely enough! This one however from a very different angle.
Coco, a 3 year old twin, goes missing in the night on her father’s 50th birthday celebrations. The family are celebrating with their closest friends at one of Sean Jackson’s (the father’s) houses on the sea front which he does up and flips on for a profit. The book begins with an email from Coco’s godmother spreading the word of her disappearance to get people involved to help, then the story flits between the present, where Sean Jackson has been found dead in a hotel room and the family and friends are gathering for his funeral, and the past, the weekend where Coco disappeared.
It’s cleverly told in that the two weekends are clearly supposed to be mirrors of each other, with the same group of people involved in each. The story in the present comes from Mila’s point of view – Sean’s daughter from another marriage who was supposed to be there for the birthday celebrations but leaves early due to her father. Mila meets Ruby, the “left behind” twin and the two travel together to the funeral. Despite seeming not to care for each other, the bond between them slowly becomes apparent.
The group of characters in this book are really quite despicable – it’s difficult to take to any of them at all. The friends and family are all strangely entwined, including Sean’s wife when he died being present at the birthday celebrations as the teenage daughter of one of his friends, the same age as Mila – quite weird. It’s twisted and strange, even before you get the revelation of what happened to Coco. And not a single one seems to feel remorse for the way any of them act.
This was a good read – I did find myself getting a little confused between the “friends and family” characters as they’re all so similar in their dark ways, but once I was into it, I enjoyed it.

River Road by Carol Goodman – 8/10 (Kindle version)

Carol Goodman is one of my favourite authors of all time. I’ve read (I think!) all of her published books, and have reviewed a few of them too, including my first ever book review (it’s terrible – I’m sorry!), the first in her Fairwick Chronicles series and have written an author spotlight on her. When I spotted she had a new standalone book that appeared to be in the same tradition as her older books including Lake of Dead Languages (my all time favourite book – I spent a 2 hour car journey talking at Ben all about it once…), I knew I had to get it straight away. And as usual, it didn’t disappoint, although it still hasn’t surpassed my favourite!
Set at a state university in upstate New York, an area that I got to know more a couple of years ago when we visited New England again, Nan Lewis is a professor who hits a deer on the way home from a faculty party, having just found out she hasn’t got tenure. The next morning, she finds a policeman at her door asking about one of her students who had been found hit and run over by a car at the very place she hit the deer the night before. In fact, this policeman turns out to be the one who she dealt with a number of years before when her daughter was killed by a drink driver in, yes of course, the very same place. It doesn’t look good for her, but she’s convinced she didn’t do it, despite passing out for a little while in the snowy woods after getting out to investigate. Throughout the novel, the suspicion shifts so that almost every character is questioned at some point and you’re left wondering who you can trust and how much deeper the story is than it seems on the surface.
This was a fast paced thriller, one which I really enjoyed as usual with Carol Goodman books. I just wish I had another of hers to read now!

Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom – 6/10 (Kindle version)*

As I’m sure you’ve figured out by the title and the cover – Parker Grant, our main character, is blind. But that’s not all there is about her: she’s also a runner, she’s a tough character and she has Rules, to stop her from being hurt again. She’s a teenage girl struggling through her school years, but despite her blindness, she’s seemingly doing better than most, holding playground counselling sessions for people suffering with, mostly, boy troubles, and imparting her wisdom. Despite her seeming self assurances, her home life is broken – her mother died in the car crash that caused her blindess and her father passed away recently. Her aunt’s family moved in to care for her, along with a cousin her age and Little P (a brilliant character), her younger cousin.
The book covers the beginning of a new school year in which her school has merged with another local high school, bringing together unfamiliar faces along with some familiar as they went to primary school together, although of course, this throws Parker off as she recognises a familiar voice but can’t place it. It turns out to belong to a boy, Scott, who had broken her Rules and betrayed her trust in the worst way when they were younger, and he continues to dip in and out of her life.
The main bulk of the story surrounds her meeting another boy and her learning to face her past, both with Scott and her dad, as she buries it inside her. The characters weren’t particularly likeable but were all very real. It was a good read, not my favourite but definitely educational and interesting.

The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert – 6/10 (Kindle version)*

Okay, so this was another weird and very surreal one, to the full extent of the definition! Morgan Fletcher lives alone, aside from a recently acquired housekeeper, in a sprawling estate which belonged to his grandfather and where he previously lived with his mother. The man is described as horribly disfigured through an accident we come to discover throughout the story, but the focus of the story is in fact the children who turn up out nowhere, literally, out of the fog that surrounds the estate. They are given run of the house and just seem to settle in as more and more appear. Over time, Morgan and his housekeeper, along with a doctor who somewhere along the line slowly moved in with them after visiting to check out one of the children, become used to having the children there and grow to think of them as “their children”.
So when men in suits turn up to search for the mysterious children, who are able to disappear again at the drop of the hat as if they were never in the house, they begin to worry. Morgan hasn’t left the property since returning after the accident and is reluctant to do so, worrying about what’s outside the walls. His past slowly unravels, but the mysteries around the children grow deeper as they teach themselves to read and uncover hidden things in the house.
It finally culminates in an odd scene where the first child who appeared, Moira, is taken away to a mysterious place, and the doctor, Morgan and some of the children venture out to find her. The children, in particular David, the oldest, seem to have a strange sense of knowledge as to where they’re going and how will all turn out. It’s really quite creepy but addictive. The place Moira has been taken turns out to be the mysterious (I seem to be using this word a lot!) source of Morgan’s wealth: his family’s factory, and what’s inside is even more strange than I’d imagined, and actually quite confusing.
This was only a short book, but packed with weird and enthralling detail – I sort of loved it, but also ended up kind of confused by it, and I think that’s the point.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel – 6/10 (Kindle version)

(This is not yet published – it will launch on the 9th April but is available to pre-order through Amazon).
Sleeping Giants is the first in a new series called Themis, and I already want to read the next one – argh, the problem with reading advance copies! It’s written in a similar style to the Martian (which I loved) in that all the readers get are records in the form of diary style entries, interviews etc. We start with a girl falling into a hole and finding herself in the palm of a giant hand, then 17 years later, she is heading up a team discovering the rest of the pieces that fit with the hand dotted around the earth to discover how they come together and what this all means. It quickly becomes apparent that the hand belongs to a giant robot type device (not as cheesy as it sounds, I swear!) and panels found of the same material explain in code how to use it. The material is nothing like they have ever seen before and they’re not sure who put the robot there, whether it was an ancient civilisation on earth or something from further away. As it comes together, they crack the code and discover it to be a mathematical system entirely different to ours – I found this really interesting: ours is based on a 10 factor system as we have 10 fingers (so our numbers go 0 to 9 before we get double digits, and so on), whereas theirs worked on 8 single digits, meaning the characters have a whole new maths system to figure out to work this thing! Also interesting, the robot needs to be operated by people from inside the sphere inside it – problem being, the helmets only activate for certain individuals and the legs are…backwards. On top of this, some parts are buried in territories that aren’t exactly happy about the US destroying their land (and killing people) to drag the pieces up to the surface suddenly.
So the novel covers all these difficulties along with a few other interpersonal ones as well as political ones. And finally, when you think it’s got somewhere, argh, they have to drop the robot in the ocean! It’s hard to explain, but you’ll have to read it to get it. It was a good read, not brilliant, but I definitely want to read the next book.

*Titles marked with a star were provided for review by publishers.

 

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