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Showing: 1 - 8 of 8 RESULTS

Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

gonegirlJust how well can you ever know the person you love? This is the question that Nick Dunne must ask himself on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, when his wife Amy suddenly disappears. The police immediately suspect Nick. Amy’s friends reveal the she was afraid of him, that she kept secrets from him. He swears it isn’t true. A police examination of his computer shows strange searches. He says they aren’t his. And then there are the persistent calls on his mobile phone. So what really did happen to Nick’s beautiful wife? And what was in that half-wrapped box left so casually on their marital bed?

In this novel, marriage truly is the art of war… (more…)

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

Review: The Nosferatu Scroll by James Becker

Bohemia, 1741
On the northern banks of the Vltava River an extraordinary event is taking place.  Inside a private chapel a high-born Hungarian lady is being laid to rest.  But not before her heart is removed from her body and she is buried beneath a layer of heavy stones – lest she rise again to prey upon her victims…

Venice, 2010
Holidaying in the world’s most beautiful city, Chris Bronson and Angela Lewis discover a desecrated tomb.  Inside it is a female skeleton and a diary dating back hundreds of years.  Written in Latin, it refers to a lost scroll that will provide an ‘answer’ to an ancient secret.

Soon corpses of young women, all killed in the same ritualistic manner, start appearing throughout the city.  And when Angela disappears, Bronson knows that he must find her before she too is slaughtered.

But his hunt for Angela leads him to the Island of the Dead, and into a conspiracy more deadly than he could ever have imagined…

I picked up The Nosferatu Scroll with hopes for a fast-paced romp, maybe even a bit of so-bad-it’s-good cringey enjoyment, and, in general, I wasn’t disappointed.  Yet again, I’ve managed to join a series at the fourth installment; Bronson and Lewis have already starred in three popular thrillers, involving policework but also historical/archeological investigation, courtesy of Angela Lewis.  We’re reminded a number of times of her day-job at the British Museum in London.

The story was perhaps a little slow of kick off, at times reminding me more of a guide book of Venice, but that in itself was enjoyable – having visited the city myself, it was fun recalling the various locations, although perhaps they could have been introduced more subtly.  However, once the momentum began to build, the story zipped along, aided by the teeny chapters and normally well-used cliffhangers.  Occasionally, as with the location shots, these were a little clunky – there’s a question towards the end of the book which Bronson realises an Italian policeman didn’t ask that is made much too much of – but for the most part felt well dealt with, and in keeping with the thriller ‘formula’.

I will say that I won’t be recommending The Nosferatu Scroll to anyone for the beauty of its prose, but I don’t think anyone reads a book like this for delicate metaphors and lyrical description. This is a solid murderous thriller with a paranormal edge, providing a very different view of vampires to those twinkly Forks-dwellers from the Twilight franchise.  If you enjoyed the oeuvre of Dan Brown but wished he would stop splurging out information at start of each chapter like some kind of verbal Wikipedia, this may well be for you. And, for a next step up in terms of enjoyable writing style, why not try Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth or  Sepulchre, which merge historical fact with a hint of the supernatural and the beautiful landscape of the south of France.

The Nosferatu Scroll is published by Bantam Books.
The copy I’ve read is a BookCrossing book, and will be released back into the wilds of Colchester soon, if you fancy giving it a try.

Kate Neilan
@Magic_kitten

YA Review: Crusher, by Niall Leonard

The day Finn Maguire discovers his father bludgeoned to death in a pool of blood, his dreary life is turned upside down.  Prime suspect in the murder, Finn must race against time to clear his name and find out who hated his dad enough to kill him.

Trawling the sordid, brutal London underworld for answers, Finn exposes dark family secrets and faces danger at every turn.  But he’s about to learn that it’s the people who trust who can hit you the hardest…

I’m not sure where to start with this colander of a young adult ‘crime’ novel.  The back of the review copy yells “The most talked-about debut thriller of 2012” but that might not be for the reason you think.  Niall Leonard is in fact the husband of E L James, of Fifty Shades fame/infamy; he wrote Crusher in response to a challenge from his wife to write a book, during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, an American initiative to encourage people to write creatively).  The clue’s in the name there, I think – if you write a whole novel in a month, there has to be a reason it takes such a short time.  Crusher illustrates this in abundance.

Let’s start with the narrator, 17-year-old Finn.  We learn, later in the book, that Crusher is his nickname, due to his boxing abilities.  Well, I’m pleased he’s good at boxing, because he seems to have a talent for precious little else.  Leonard paints a picture of a hopeless drop-out to the point where it’s a little hard to sympathise with this young man.  A lot of Finn’s problems seem to have come from the fact that he’s dyslexic – he is portrayed, at times, as almost illiterate and it’s implied this is why he’s stuck working in a burger bar, with zero in the way of qualifications.  What lazy stereotyping here.  It’s really anachronistic to write about dyslexia as such a crippling problem in 2012; a quick chat with any teacher would have told Leonard that young people can now use computers, have readers and scribes to enable them to get the grades they deserve at school.  Finn seems like an intelligent boy so why he wouldn’t have taken advantage of these things is inexplicable.

As well as this problematic backstory, Finn’s a very cold fish.  Early in the book, he discovers his (step)father, murdered, in the living room of the house they share.  His response is basically to shrug.  As the story progresses, he decides to find out who murdered his dad but his motivation isn’t fury or revenge but apparently a sort of lazy curiosity.  Surely this would be a highly traumatic event but Finn just carries on, emotionally unaffected.  He stays living in the house where his dad died, gets romantically involved with a girl without any qualms, bluffs it out with gangsters… It just doesn’t ring true.

This isn’t helped by the impression that most of the other characters are cardboard cut-out stereotypes: the Lahndan East End hard-man gangster, the bent copper, a smarmy jobsworth boss, a slutty school girl.  At one point, his ‘real mum’ pops up from nowhere with a cartoon Latino-American criminal in tow, and hovering in the background is a psychotic ex-social worker; we know she’s crazy because she’s a redhead.  I don’t think Mr Leonard likes women very much.  Plus there’s even a celebrity chef thrown into the mix.  Did Leonard have a Character-Pick app when he started writing this book?

My final big problem was the language Leonard uses; the prose is leaden, to say the least.  Occasionally, there are flights of metaphorical fancy so bizarre as to be laughable.  Finn’s boss at the burger bar coming out of his office is likened to a hermit crab emerging from its shell, and later he is described as waving his “little crab antennae”.  Hmm.  Some of the slang Finn uses is really incongruous for a 17-year-old – he calls someone a “wag” for giving him the nickname Crusher, and describes being hit as getting “clobbered”.  I can’t think of any teenagers who use words like that.  Finally, he swears.  All the time.  For no apparent reason.  A lot of teenagers, contrary to popular belief, are capable of speaking without swearing all the time.  Finn’s constant profanities mark this book out from a lot of other YA fiction, and not, I think, in a good way.  It’s another example of lazy stereotyping, and a lot of teen readers, and their parents, may not appreciate it.

“At no point did I feel any particular sense of thrill, of peril, of suspense or excitement”

Having read quite a bit of young adult male-protagonist thriller fiction, this falls well short of my expectations. At no point did I feel any particular sense of thrill, of peril, of suspense or excitement.  There was a big action ‘set-piece’ involving a car-crusher, but I’ve read a vastly superior version of that scene in an Alex Rider novel.  Equally, in YA, I tend to look for a subtle moral steer by the writer; here, the lesson seems to be, if you are the hardest hitter, and the faster runner, that’s all there is.  The character who seems to be the big villain at the outset never gets his comeuppance, and the twists at the end are frankly ridiculous.  If Leonard wants Finn Maguire to make another appearance, he really needs to think about how he’s going to engage his readers more effectively.

Crusher is published in hardback and ebook by Doubleday, from 13th September 2012

Kate Neilan @magic_kitten

Review: Cold Grave by Craig Robertson

A murder investigation frozen in time is beginning to melt…
November 1933.  Scotland is in the grip of the coldest winter in living memory and the Lake of Menteith is frozen over.  A young man and woman walk across the ice to the historic island of Inchmahome which lies in the middle of the lake.  Only the man comes back.
In the spring, as staff prepare the abbey ruins for summer visitors, they discover the unidentifiable remains of the body of a girl, her skull violently crushed.

Present day.  Retired detective Alan Narey is still haunted by the unsolved crime.  Desperate to relieve her father’s conscience, DS Rachel Narey returns to the Lake on Menteith and unofficially reopens the cold case.
With the help of police photographer Tony Winter, Rachel discovers that the one man her father had always suspected was the killer has recently died.  Risking her job and reputation, Narey prepares a dangerous gambit to uncover the killer’s identity – little knowing who that truly is.  Despite the freezing temperatures, the ice-cold case begins to thaw, and with it a tide of secrets long frozen in time is suddenly and shockingly unleashed.

Despite my penchant for Scandicrime, I rarely read British crime fiction, classic or modern, so I was interested to see what Craig Robertson had to offer in Cold Grave.  The cover is very striking, in black, white and blues, plus it’s set in Glasgow, somewhere I’ve visited, so my first impressions were good.  I was also intrigued by the story synopsis, as the crime in question was a ‘cold case’ – I was hoping for lots of mystery and intrigue.

By the end of the book, I wasn’t disappointed, as I found the story had good pace, plenty of action set in and around the seedier sides of ‘Glesga’ as well as up in the Highlands, and some quirky, interesting characters, particularly Tony Winter.  Whereas Rachel, nominally the protagonist, is sketched a little thinly, I got a really strong impression of Tony, with his ghoulish delight in gory crime scenes and his photographs of the best deaths he’d snapped displayed in his spare room.  

Initially, however, I wasn’t grabbed.  The book starts a little slowly for my liking; there is a prologue which sets up the disappearance of the girl, but I felt perhaps it could have been a little more sinister, and when we then meet Rachel and Tony in the next chapter, I found them, at first, a bit bland.  They appear to be off on a weekend away, there’s a lot of focus on issues in their relationship which then seem to be forgotten about, and there was something about the dialogue between them that didn’t always ring true.  This was something I noticed occasionally throughout the book, in fact.  I didn’t always feel the characters had distinctive ‘voices’, and every so often there was a little bit of Dan-Brown-esque telling of information that just didn’t strike me as the way in which people really speak.  I could be wrong, of course – before he became a novelist, Robertson was a journalist for 20 years with a Scottish Sunday newspaper, so he’s probably had more experience with Scottish detective sergeants than I have.

Am I glad that I kept reading, though?  Overall yes; once the wheels of the plot were turning at full speed, Cold Grave was a fun read for the summer holidays – I can imagine reading this on a lounger by the pool, basking in the sunshine while getting my teeth into the grimy, icy action.  This is a book on enjoy on its own merits; it’s not poetic literary prose, although it’s full of fascinating descriptions of blood, but it’s a pacey, well-plotted cop-drama, and sometimes that’s good enough.

Cold Grave is published by Simon & Schuster

Kate Neilan @magic_kitten

Review: Some Kind of Peace, by Camilla Grebe and Asa Traff

Siri Bergman is terrified of the dark.
She lives alone, an hour outside Stockholm where she practices as a psychotherapist, her nearest neighbour far away. Siri tells her friends that she has moved on since her husband died in a diving accident. But when she goes to bed at night, she leaves all the lights on, unable to shake the feeling that someone is watching her.
With the light gone, the darkness creeps inside.
One night she wakes to find that the house is pitch black, and the torch by her bedside has vanished. Later, the body of one of her young patients is found floating in the water nearby. Thrown headlong into a tense murder investigation, Siri finds herself unable to trust anyone, not even her closest friends. Who can she turn to for answers?
The truth is hidden in the darkness.

Some Kind of Peace is the debut offering from Swedish pair Camilla Grebe, an audiobook entrepreneur, and Asa Traff, a psychologist specialising in CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), and is translated by Paul Norlen. From the first sentence, I found myself immersed in the world of the Swedish countryside – the description of the landscape, and the summer, around Siri’s cottage was beautiful and very intricate, and I was immediately drawn in, wondering what could go wrong in this idyllic setting.

Of course, I know exactly the sort of things that could go wrong. I’m a big fan of Scandinavian crime writing. My first experience was the Martin Beck series, by Sjowall and Wahloo, then I worked my way through the works of Mankell, Nesbo, Holt and Lackberg. As a result, I know only too well that the pastoral scenes of Sweden and Norway can hide the most appalling, bloody and baffling crimes. Luckily, these countries seem replete with dogged, imperfect but determined policemen and women, who can’t rest easy until they have caught the perpetrator.

However, Some Kind of Peace presents the reader with something a little different in Siri Bergman. Siri is a psychotherapist, not an investigator. She is a victim, not only of intimidation, stalking, threats, but also of her own damaged psyche. She cannot understand why anyone might want to hurt her in this way, does not want to be a burden to her friends and family by talking about what has happened, doubts her own perception, wondering if she has imagined the whole thing… She is by no means a reliable narrator, making the novel tens and mysterious.

Siri is accompanied by an array of friends trying to help discover who is out to get her: her friend and colleague, Aina, Marcus, the very friendly policeman, Vijay their university contact who specialises in criminal profiling. She’s also surrounded by her patients, who display more or less disturbing thoughts and behaviours, and her lecherous practice-mate Sven. As the plot thickens, Siri starts to wonder who she can trust – who really does have her best interests at heart? And her own insecurities multiply too, as she dwells on her husband’s death. Was it an accident? Siri is forced to reevaluate, and gradually loses control over her life.

I found Some Kind of Peace a really fascinating read, with great insights into the psychology of the criminal mind, as opposed to the traditional police procedural a la Beck or Wallander or rogue-cop of the Harry Hole books. I also found the characters extremely well-drawn, particularly Siri herself. Finally, I found the prose style highly engaging; this is not always the case with books in translation, but I think Paul Norlen has done a very good job expressing the finesse and intricacy of the original. This book has already been a great success in Sweden and I hope it makes a big splash here very soon.

Some Kind of Peace is published by Simon & Schuster

Kate Neilan @Magic_kitten

YA Review: Hollow Pike by James Dawson

She thought she’d be safe in the country, but you can’t escape your own nightmares, and Lis London dreams repeatedly that someone is trying to kill her.

Lis thinks she’s being paranoid – after all who would want to murder her?  She doesn’t believe the local legends of witchcraft.  She doesn’t believe that anything bad will really happen to her.

You never do, do you?

Not until you’re alone, in the woods, after dark – and a twig snaps…

Hollow pike – where witchcraft never sleeps

Hollow Pike tells the story of Lis London – victimised and bullied at her old school in Wales, she’s moved hundreds of miles to live with her grown-up sister in Yorkshire, Hollow Pike to be precise.  But when she arrives, to her horror, she recognises the place she’s seen in her dreams, or rather her nightmares.
And things only go from bad to worse once she arrives at her new school, to find the cliques and outcasts even more pronounced, and a girl called Laura Rigg ruling the school.
On top of all this, Lis is sure there’s something strange going on.  Could some of the local tales of witchcraft be true?

I really enjoyed this debut novel from former teacher (and ‘Queen of Teen’ nominee) James Dawson.  It was immediately obviously that Dawson has worked with young people, and that he’s got a really good understanding of teenage relationships – much more so than some YA authors – as the dialogue and school situations were realistic, within the context of the supernatural/paranormal genre that Hollow Pike inhabits.  

I would say that I think this book is aimed at mid-to-older teens, given the age of the main characters (Year 11, 16 years old) and some of the topics covered (relationships, drinking, a bit of light swearing), but I really think the level of that content has been well-judged and shouldn’t put off any parents thinking of buying this for their daughter.  I say daughter because it’s very rare for boys to read books with a female protagonist.  I think that’s a bit of a shame, but I also think Dawson was aware of that when he chose his main character.  Many teenage boys would drop the book in horror at the mention of a tampon on page 316!

Dawson has also made good use of his own background in Yorkshire to create a really believable setting in Hollow Pike and Fulton.  Many people may know of the Pendle witch trials, which also, in part, inspired Raven’s Gate, the first in Anthony Horowitz’s The Power of Five series.  These real historical events, along with references to the Salem witch trials via The Crucible, add to the ‘is it real, is it teenage hysteria’ mystery of the book, helping the reader to empathise with Lis and her feeling of confusion and disorientation.

I was pleased to see that Hollow Pike won’t have a sequel.  It feels like a really well-rounded narrative, and I felt happy to say goodbye to the characters at the end of the book.  However, Dawson has written a second, which, according to his website is with his editor now; it is a thriller for young adults, but won’t have a supernatural element this time.  I’m interested to see what it might be able and will definitely be keeping an eye out for a publication date.  In the mean time, I’m certainly adding Hollow Pike to my list of recommended YA fiction.

Hollow Pike is published by Indigo/Orion Children’s Books
James Dawson is on Twitter – @_jamesdawson

Kate Neilan @Magic_kitten