Review: The Door That Led To Where by Sally Gardner

Sixteen-year-old AJ Flynn holds a key is his hand. It has his name and date of birth on it. But it’s a key to a door that leads to where? Or when?
On the other side of the door is a tumbledown house, a city booming with trade, and a murder mystery that echoes through the centuries.
AJ steps through the door and finds himself at the centre of it all. It is London and it is 1830.
Life is tough in 1830 – sickness murder and crime abound – but is it so different from the London of now that AJ and his friends know?
AJ needs to find the answers to the mystery and decide where he belongs.
Continue reading “Review: The Door That Led To Where by Sally Gardner”

Podcast: Our Books of 2014

Here’s our final podcast of 2014, looking back over the books we’ve read and enjoyed this year. Some of the books are older, some were published in 2014, some we’ve mentioned earlier in the year, but all have been books that we can recommend! Kate has cheated unrepentently but only because there were so many books she couldn’t omit – we’ve both had a great year of reading. Continue reading “Podcast: Our Books of 2014”

Review: Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

The year is 1348 and the first plague victim has reached English shores. Panic erupts around the country and a small band of travellers comes together to outrun the deadly disease, unaware that something far more deadly is – in fact – travelling with them.
The ill-assorted company – a scarred trader in holy relics, a conjurer, two musicians, a healer and a deformed storyteller – are all concealing secrets and lies. And at their heart is the strange, cold child – Narigorm – who reads the runes.
But as law and order breaks down across the country and the battle for survival becomes ever more fierce, Narigorm mercilessly compels each of her fellow travellers to reveal the truth … and each in turn is driven to a cruel and unnatural death.

This is the second book I’ve read by Karen Maitland – The Owl Killers kept me occupied for about a week over a summer holiday a few years ago – and I was looking forward to another installment of historical intrigue.  Company of Liars was every bit as compelling, and, if possible, even more spooky and unsettling.

Our narrator is called Camelot, a seller of relics, trinkets, lotions and potions; I really enjoyed the first person narrative voice, and the way in which we view events.  The narration is mostly objective but occasionally you feel there is more to Camelot than meets the eye, some past which is deliberately being avoided.  This fits in with the theme of the book, that each member of the company has something to hide.  The travellers join together through necessity; I found this very natural where it could have seemed a contrived device.  I think this was helped by Camelot’s misgivings at each stage.  Also, though, there was a sense of fate at work, that there was an inevitability about the way that things unfolded as if the characters were playthings at the mercy of a higher force.  This really was quite creepy at times.

Throughout the novel, Camelot’s unease with the child Narigorm becomes more and more apparent as events become more and more strange.  We’re invited to share the mix of superstition and cynicism; can Narigorm’s prophecies really be true? Could it just be coincedence or is some other more primal force at work in the tragedies befalling the characters on their journey?  Maitland keeps us guessing right until the final page.

I was really impressed by the historical setting of the book, as I was with The Owl Killers.  The names, places, religious and cultural references all seemed spot-on and completely believable.  Maitland must have done an extraordinary amount of research to create such flawless backgrounds, not to mention the attitudes of the characters.  I loved the idea that, despite the first beginnings of the Renaissance in Europe, England was still a place of magic as much as religious belief where folk law could be as powerful as any physical evidence.

I don’t often read historical fiction but I’ve said before it’s something I’d like to read more; this was definitely a great way in to the genre. I’m very much looking to reading more of Maitland’s novels and immersing myself in the Middle Ages again.

Kate Neilan
@magic_kitten

Review: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, by Gideon Defoe

It is 1837, and for the luxuriantly bearded Pirate Captain and his rag-tag pirate crew, life on the high seas has become a little dull.  With nothing to do but twiddle their hooks and lounge aimlessly on tropical beaches, the Captain decides it’s time they had an adventure.

A surprisingly successful boat raid leads them to the young Charles Darwin, in desperate need of their help.  And so the pirates set forth for London in a bid to save the scientist from the evil machinations of a diabolical Bishop.  There they encounter grisly murder, vanishing ladies, the Elephant Man – and have an exciting trip to the zoo.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is the first in a series of four books by Gideon Defoe, which I read having seen the Aardman adaptation released earlier this year.  I was very glad that I did go on to read the book which inspired the film, because otherwise I would have had no idea about how different the storyline of the film was, compare to the original text.  I did enjoy the film but had a few problems with the plot – evil Queen Victoria? – whereas in Defoe’s book, the arch enemy of Darwin and the Pirate Captain is an evil Bishop, which fits much better with the early Victorian Gothic genre.

Defoe’s prose style is so dry as to be positively absorbent, heavy with irony and deliberate anachronism.  I also loved the frequent footnotes.  These techniques made me feel I was privy to a host a secret in-jokes, which won me over very quickly.

The characterisation is sparse; the pirates are not given ‘real’ names, but are instead referred to according to their most striking characteristics, which is on one hand distancing but on the other means you immediately know something about them.  Also, the book as a whole is deliberately not realistic, so this isn’t a problem.  I wondered if the lack of names was also aligning us with the Pirate Captain, who almost certainly wouldn’t trouble himself to learn the pirates actual names!

I don’t want to say too much more about Pirates, as it’s such a short little morsel that I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I highly recommend it for a quick read full of snorts and sniggers, and maybe even a piratical roar of laughter!

Kate Neilan
@magic_kitten

Review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Serena Frome, the beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop, has a brief affair with an older man during her final year at Cambridge, and finds herself being groomed for the intelligence services.  The year is 1972, Britain, confronting economic disaster, is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism and faces its fifth state of emergency.  The Cold War has entered a moribund phase, but the fight goes on, especially in the cultural sphere.

Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is sent on a ‘secret mission’ which brings her into the literary world of Tom Haley, a promising young writer.  First she loves his stories, then she begins to love the man.  Can she maintain the fiction of her undercover life?  And who is inventing whom?  To answer these questions, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage – trust no one.

I was very excited to begin Sweet Tooth as I have great respect for Ian McEwan as a writer, having greatly enjoyed Atonement (*sob*), Solar and Enduring Love.  I was especially intrigued as I knew it had been discussed as a mixture of literary fiction with the spy thriller genre, which I love.

I can confirm that Sweet Tooth doesn’t disappoint.  Serena’s journey from slightly awkward teen to member of the British secret service, via a not-completely-satisfactory degree and affair at Cambridge, was fascinating.  I love reading stories set in places I’ve visited myself, so I found the passages set in and around Cambridge, and in London, particularly enjoyable – McEwan really captures the setting expertly without spending more than a few sentences on it.  He saves his words for his intricately woven plot.

Despite being described to me as a spy thriller, Sweet Tooth moves at a leisurely pace.  McEwan doesn’t hurry us, and spends plenty of time on Serena’s time at university and her affair with a lecturer, as, without that, we wouldn’t fully appreciate the later sections where he moves into the echelons of the secret service.  I really enjoyed this more literary take on the genre – it’s a refreshing change from the conventions of tiny chapters and cliffhangers.

I really enjoyed the way that the era was evoked; the petering out of the Cold War, the strikes,the gradual modernisation of London, and of espionage. And of course, it’s a book about books.  I love a book about books.

The only thing that didn’t win me over completely Serena herself.  At times, I found her rather cold.  I was totally convinced by the character and at times found myself getting quite cross with the way she talks about her ‘fat friend’, in a way that I hope most women wouldn’t.  I know that she’s supposed to be a bit spiky and awkward but I found it a bit tasteless to include those comments.  As a reader, I find it hard to enjoy a book if I don’t fully sympathise with the main character.  As a result, while I’d definitely recommend Sweet Tooth to others, I’m not sure I’d reread it myself.

Kate Neilan
@magic_kitten

YA Review: The Panopticon, by Jenni Fagan

Anais Hendricks, 15, is in the back of a police car, headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders.  She can’t remember the events that led her here, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and there is blood on Anais’s school uniform.

Smart, funny and fierce, Anais is also a child who has been let down, or worse, by just about every adult she has ever met.

The residents of the Panopticon form intense bonds, heightened by their place on the periphery, and Anais finds herself part of an ad-hoc family there.  Much more suspicious are the social workers, especially Helen, who is about to leaver her job but is determined to for Anais to confront the circumstances of her mother’s death before she goes.

Looking up at the watchtower that looms over the residents, Anais knows her fate: she is part of an experiment, she always was, it’s a given, a fact.  And the experiment is closing in

In dazzling energetic language, The Panopticon introduces us to a heartbreaking young heroine and an incredible assured and outstanding new voice in fiction.

So says the blurb, but I’m not sure I was quite as bowled over as I could have been by this undoubtedly astonishing novel, published earlier this year with great fanfare.  I was interested to see that the book is recommended as “Perfect for readers of Pigeon English”; having just read that for my book club, I can understand the link but, if I were Heinemann, I’d be trying to distance this from Kelman’s Booker-nominated offering.  It may have been up for a prize but, in my view, it failed to do anything of merit in terms of lifting the lid on the social issues faced by young people in deprived areas of the UK.  In contrast, I thought Fagan did a much better job here; the picture she paints of the youth offenders system, and the experiences these young people face, is genuinely chilling.

I started reading The Panopticonwith the idea that it was a young adult novel.  I definitely revised this view over the course of the book.  As someone who works with young people, I’d hesitate to recommend this to anyone under the age of 15 due to the extremely strong language, and very frank discussion of drugs and sexual abuse, which run throughout the story.  That being said, I thought the way in which Fagan approached these contentious issues was unequivocally responsible; at no point were we allowed to think that Anais’ use of illegal substances was without potentially dangerous consequences.  Equally, promiscuous sex or sex for money is almost always linked to danger, unhappiness or even death in the most extreme example.

I can’t say I enjoyed the experience of reading The Panopticon; the whole thing was far too uncomfortable from start to finish.  The tone was occasionally lightened by a little humour as the ‘inmates’ of the home engage in some high jinx but these moments were brief at best, before the threat and menace descended once more.  Perhaps it’s just me but I could have done without constant swearing – I’ve never read a book with so many ‘see-you-next-Tuesday’s, and that includes Trainspotting.  However, I defer to Fagan’s firsthand experience of the Scottish justice system.  She may well just be adding authenticity to her novel.

Over all, I would recommend The Panopticon with caveats on the language and content, and a warning not to expect a ‘fun’ read.  It does expose the seedy nature of the life that may lead young people to end up in institutions like this, and it makes a point about how it’s especially easy for young people with mental health issues to become sucked into criminality.  Get ready to be unsettled.

The Panopticon is published by Heinemann.

Kate Neilan @magic_kitten

Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

November, 1920.

Jack and Mabel have staked everything on making a fresh start for themselves in a homestead ‘at the world’s edge’ in the raw Alaskan wilderness.  But as the days grow shorter, Jack is losing his battle to clear the land, and Mabel can no longer contain her grief for the baby she lost many years before.

The evening the first snow falls, their mood unaccountably changes.  In a moment of tenderness, the two are surprised to find themselves building a snowman – or rather a snow girl – together.  The next morning, all trace of her has disappeared, and Jack can’t quite shake the notion that he glimpsed a small figure – a child? – running through the spruce trees in the dawn light.  And how to explain the little but very human tracks Mabel finds at the edge of their property?

Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairytale from which it takes its inspiration, The Snow Child is an instant classic – the story of a couple who take a child into their hearts, all the while knowing they can never truly call her their own.

I have always enjoyed magic realism and fairytale stories, but I wasn’t expecting to be as immersed in this story as I became.  The journey into Frontier America was magical in itself, with beautiful descriptions of landscape, wildlife and the hardships faced by those brave souls who chose to live there.  To combine this with the tradition Russian story of a snow girl who can only remain until the Spring thaw was inspired.

I found the characters Jack and Mabel really engaging – Ivey has done a brilliant job creating these intricate, loving personalities, with their bittersweet past.  I also loved their neighbours – loud, brash but incredibly kind and generous, embodying everything about the pioneer spirit.  I especially enjoyed the fragile love story that develops in the last third of the book between the snow girl Faina and the boy Garrett; once I understood the fairytale, I thought I’d worked out the only possible way the story could end for Jack and Mabel, but this twist kept me hooked right up to the bitter end.

I’d highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys Americana, magic realism or just a family drama and a good adventure.  Get the hardback if you can – the cover is delightful.

The Snow Child is published by Headline

Kate Neilan @magic_kitten

Celebrating the backlist with Hodder

Here at Adventures With Words Towers, we know that sometimes, while it’s great reading a brand new book from a first-time author, the old ones can be the best. It’s worth taking some time to rediscover a few modern classics once in a while. Luckily, it turns out Hodder agree; they’re promoting some of their established authors – the backlist – to remind us about some of the good stuff already out there. Here are some suggestions to get you started…

Carter Beats the Devil – Glen David Gold
In 1923, the magician Charles Carter found himself implicated in the mysterious death of US President Harding. Glen David Gold takes the bare bones of a biography of a famous 1920s illusionist and escapologist, and fleshes it out into a marvellous and magical life story, as well as a tightly plotted thriller. The way in which Gold ramps up the tension has been compared to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. He brings to life the sparkle and temptation of the Jazz Age, as well as the public’s desperate need for escapism in a time of economic turmoil.

Penguins Stopped Play: Eleven Village Cricketers Take on the World – Harry Thompson
From a former writer of Have I Got News For You comes a comic tale of one of the most unusual sporting challenges ever conceived – to assemble a team of eleven men to play cricket in each of the seven continents of the globe. Except that what seems like a simple idea turns out to be a lot more complicated, what with incompetent airlines, a host of colourful international characters and a whole army of pitch-invading penguins! A top ten bestseller, this picaresque memoir is a great light read, even if you know next to nothing about cricket. Or indeed penguins, for that matter.

Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones
This wonderful book weaves its way through a tropical paradise full of dark secrets, revealing to us the dramatic effects of colonialism. Matilda is a young girl, growing up in Bourgainville, named for its lush flowers. The only white man on the island, Mr Watts, has appointed himself teacher of the tiny school, in which the only textbook is a copy of Great Expectations, so Matilda’s view of the world is influenced on the one hand by her family and traditions, and on the other hand by one of Dickens’ greatest works. Mister Pip was the winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007.

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies…” In this astonishing narrative, Mitchell guides the reader through history and lives, from the 19th century via mid- and late 20th to a far-off post-apocalyptic future to explore the development and consequences of the human desire of power and technology. Reading this book made me think of the layers of an onion, being peeled back to discover something even more exquisite, intricate but also sharp and biting. Also, because of the way the narrative is structured, the first half piques the reader’s curiosity, posing a myriad questions, which are then slowly answered and put into context as we read the second half. In 2003, Mitchell was selected as one of Granta Magazine’s Best of Young British Novelists, and Cloud Atlas was shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize.

What I Loved – Siri Hustvedt
This first person narrative traces the lives and loves of bohemian couples in New York’s art scene in the second half of the 20th century. The protagonists are middle class and intellectual but they are also passionate and only human, prey to lack of confidence, depression, exuberance and enthusiasm. The depiction of Bill’s art is also vivid and engaging. On top of the parental and marital dramas is an intriguing urban thriller.

Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour – Kate Fox
Kate Fox, a social anthropologist, is Co-Director of the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, and a Fellow of the Institute for Cultural Research. She brings this expertise to bear in her exploration of English culture and behaviour. You’ll cringe, you’ll laugh, you’ll be amused and horrified in equal measure as you recognise yourself in these pages. A really interesting sociological study that also entertains.

All these books are out now!
Kate Neilan @Magic_kitten