Friday, 5 December 2014

Review: The Magician's Lie by Greer Macallister

Huge thanks to Netgalley for providing me with a copy in return for an honest review.

Release Date: 13th January 2015

Water for Elephants meets The Night Circus in The Magician’s Lie, a debut novel in which the country’s most notorious female illusionist stands accused of her husband's murder --and she has only one night to convince a small-town policeman of her innocence.
The Amazing Arden is the most famous female illusionist of her day, renowned for her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage. One night in Waterloo, Iowa, with young policeman Virgil Holt watching from the audience, she swaps her trademark saw for a fire ax. Is it a new version of the illusion, or an all-too-real murder? When Arden’s husband is found lifeless beneath the stage later that night, the answer seems clear.
But when Virgil happens upon the fleeing magician and takes her into custody, she has a very different story to tell. Even handcuffed and alone, Arden is far from powerless—and what she reveals is as unbelievable as it is spellbinding. Over the course of one eerie night, Virgil must decide whether to turn Arden in or set her free… and it will take all he has to see through the smoke and mirrors.

When anything tries to compare itself to ‘The Night Circus’ I am hesitant. ‘The Night Circus’ is such a hauntingly beautiful novel that holds such a special place in my heart that nothing ever seems to come close to touching it. ‘The Magician’s Lie’ comes incredibly close though.

The novel is split, between the night when Arden’s husband is found dead and she goes on the run, only to be caught by Virgil, a police officer, and her retelling of her life story whilst in custody. One night and one incredible story later, Virgil must try and untangle what has really happened.

It’s an intriguing premise – a female magician in a period when Arden is the only one, a touring magic show, a desperate and breathless backstory with true love tangled up in it all. The novel is beautifully written and brilliantly executed. The only places where it stumbles are when we are brought back to reality and Arden trying to persuade Virgil of her innocence. The pace slows and I found myself desperate for them to stop talking and for Arden to get back to re-telling her own story.

The novel has been thoroughly researched and it shows, the characters and setting peel off the page and immerse the reader in the tale. It is brilliantly constructed and stitched together and I found myself coming to care about Arden and her story very quickly. She is a wonderful heroine with a fascinating life and I loved her from the start.

The secondary characters are all wonderfully written and the novel is held together by their relationships and interactions. It is startling evocative and beautifully descriptive and I found myself falling in love the further into Arden’s story we delved.

Whilst lovers of ‘The Night Circus’ will be drawn by the comparison, be aware that the emphasis is much heavier on the circus and the illusions and is based in reality with less magic, but that makes it no less magical to read. It is an utterly spellbinding book that explores magic, illusions and the desperate struggle for Arden as a woman to carve out her own place and identity in a male dominated society. I loved this book and it stayed with me long after I read the last page.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Review: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

It was on her nineteenth birthday that the soldiers came for Kelsea Glynn. They’d come to escort her back to the place of her birth – and to ensure she survives long enough to be able to take possession of what is rightfully hers.
But like many nineteen-year-olds, Kelsea is unruly, has high principles and believes she knows better than her elders. Unlike many nineteen-year-olds, she is about to inherit a kingdom that is on its knees – corrupt, debauched and dangerous.

Kelsea will either become the most fearsome ruler the kingdom has ever known . . . or be dead within the week.

This book appears to be quite the marmite book with people swearing up and down either that this is an awesome new fantasy, or it’s a big pile of garbage. Luckily I’d managed to steer clear of any reviews prior to reading, so I went in knowing only that there was a lot of buzz surrounding it, and that Emma Watson is attached to a film version currently in the works.

Let’s start by talking about the cover. I love it. It’s one of the best covers I’ve seen this year. Incredibly simple, powerful and effective. And whilst the plot contained within isn’t exactly simple, it certainly gives you a good indication of what you’re going to find.

This is a novel on quite a fantastic scope. It’s a mixture of so many different things – dystopian, fantasy, both young adult and adult, with a fantastic set of characters led by Kelsea.

It took me a little while to warm up to Kelsea, she comes across as a little arrogant, a little bit spiky to start with, but the longer I read the more I loved her. She’s bright and intelligent and determined and so overwhelmed by everything. She’s human, but she’s desperate to try and protect her people, to fix the wrongs that have been going on in her kingdom and be a good leader. However despite all her good intentions she is hampered because no one will talk to her, she has no real knowledge of the kingdom as it is now or during her mother’s reign, which leaves her blind and hobbled and trying to plug all the gaps in a sinking ship. I loved her fierce and wonderful she was, and I loved how insecure and unsure of everything she was as well. She is fiercely human, and you can ask no more from a character than that.

She is surrounded by a cast of brilliant characters. Fetch, the Mace, Pen, all of them help to guide her (and hinder her) and they are so brilliantly constructed. They treat her as their Queen, but also don’t truly respect her, and see her as nothing more than a little girl. It’s brilliantly realistic and wonderfully rendered and I loved watching Kelsea try to win them over, to gain that trust and respect that she desperately needs to try and rule her kingdom.

The world building was, on the whole, very good. I think what will be problematic for some readers is that because Kelsea knows so little, we the readers end up very much in the dark as well. There are lots of little hints at small parcels of knowledge that I’m hoping will be expanded upon over the series. It’s an intriguing world and I loved finding out more about it. It has beautifully woven together elements of a dystopian society as well as a more medieval feudal system. There could be issues further down the line if instead of more explanation the entire history of the Tear is just glossed over and we never learn any more about it as that would prove to be incredibly frustrating. However so far so good, and it provides enough detail to give you a grounding and idea of the world whilst leaving plenty of patches to fill in.

The plot itself is the third piece in the trio that make this brilliant novel work. It is fast paced and exciting, a tense work of art that had me racing through the book. It is also incredibly refreshing to have a plot unhampered by a tag along romance, and I think the book would be weighed down with that tagged on as well. There is so much going on, so much for everyone – fantasy, magic, assassin guilds, politics and scandals and a strong heroine at its heart. I absolutely adored this book. It’s the sort of novel I enjoy getting lost in and I cannot wait for the next book.

Read this if you enjoyed: “The Song of the Lioness Quartet” by Tamora Pierce. “The Girl of Fire and Thorns” by Rae Carson, and “The Seven Kingdoms Trilogy” by Kristin Cashore.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Review: The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

When Varvara, a young Polish orphan, arrives at the glittering, dangerous court of the Empress Elizabeth in St Petersburg, she is schooled in skills ranging from lock-picking to love-making, learning above all else to stay silent - and listen. 
Then Sophie, a vulnerable young princess, arrives from Prussia as a prospective bride for the Empress' heir. Set to spy on her, Vavara soon becomes her friend and confidante, and helps her navigate the illicit liaisons and the treacherous shifting allegiances of the court. But Sophie's destiny is to become the notorious Catherine the Great. Are her ambitions more lofty and far-reaching than anyone suspected, and will she stop at nothing to achieve absolute power?

After reading a truly terrible young adult account of Sophie, (the future Catherine the Great) a few months ago, I remembered that I had on my shelves another telling of that story, this one recommended by an author I adore, so I decided to give the tale another go.

‘The Winter Palace’ is an intense and gripping story told by Varvara, a Polish orphan who is taken in by the Empress and set to work in the royal wardrobe. She is hungry, exhausted, constantly belittled, and feels she should be destined for greater things if only the Empress knew that she was there living in the palace. By sheer luck and her curiosity she comes to the attention of Count Bestuzhev who trains her and presents her to the Empress as a new spy.

Varvara is a fascinating protagonist. She has a disappointing tendency to become as flat and invisible to the reader as Bestuzhev demands her to be to the occupants of the palace, but on the whole she is an intriguing view point to watch history unfold from. She sees so much, is privy to so much and it is engrossing to watch her become embroiled in the very heart of everything, privy to the Empress herself. Anyone who has a basic knowledge of Russian history will know how the events of the book will play out, but Stachniak manages on the whole to still make it fresh and new and engrossing for the reader as you are enmeshed further along with Varvara.

Stachniak has re-created the Winter Palace with an eye for detail and an ability to convey the sheer grandeur and over indulgence of the period. It is stunning in its complexity and the vibrancy that fairly oozes from the pages as you are drawn into this world with its intrigues and politics and scandals. It is a lush and opulent depiction of life in Russia that Varvara hovers on the edges of, flitting in and out of the main tale and drawing the reader ever deeper into the web of secrets and lies that make up life in the Palace.

There is a distinct lack of urgency in places that really should be steeped in it. Varvara becomes caught up in redecorations of the palace, orders of new gowns and the mundane and the urgency is lost where it should be rampant. Whilst this is a story that details the rise of power and lead up to Catherine’s coup, it does feel that the story ends just as it gets interesting. There should be more of a thrill, an urgency as the pieces are put in place and Catherine takes control of the country. Instead it is a slow and sedate promenade that never fully forms and takes flight, which is disappointing when it could be so much more.

Stachniak has since written a sequel of sorts – a second novel this time from the perspective of Catherine (Sophie) herself, reflecting on her life. Following on from this breath taking foray into Russia and the world of the Winter Palace, I am looking forward to taking myself back there. Lovers of historical fiction will love this look at a crucial turning point in Russian history, and whilst it can drag in a few places, the writing on the whole is brilliant in its execution and will provide a fascinating fresh insight.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Review: As You Wish - Inconceivable Tales from the making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes

From actor Cary Elwes, who played the iconic role of Westley in The Princess Bride, comes a first-person account and behind-the-scenes look at the making of the cult classic film filled with never-before-told stories, exclusive photographs, and interviews with costars Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Mandy Patinkin, as well as author and screenwriter William Goldman, producer Norman Lear, and director Rob Reiner.
The Princess Bride has been a family favorite for close to three decades. Ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the top 100 Greatest Love Stories and by the Writers Guild of America as one of the top 100 screenplays of all time, The Princess Bride will continue to resonate with audiences for years to come.
Cary Elwes was inspired to share his memories and give fans an unprecedented look into the creation of the film while participating in the twenty-fifth anniversary cast reunion. In 
As You Wish he has created an enchanting experience; in addition to never-before seen photos and interviews with his fellow cast mates, there are plenty of set secrets, backstage stories, and answers to lingering questions about off-screen romances that have plagued fans for years!
With a foreword by Rob Reiner and a limited edition original poster by acclaimed artist Shepard Fairey, 
As You Wish is a must-have for all fans of this beloved film.

I am a rather huge fan of The Princess Bride. I’ve been watching it ever since I was seven and my sister brought home a copy of it on video and I watched it on repeat. It has everything, it is a classic, it is utter genius and pure brilliance and if you haven’t seen this film or read the book, you need to remedy this immediately. As brilliant as the book is, I highly recommend watching the film first.

So when it was announced about a year ago that Cary Elwes would be releasing a behind the scenes making of book extravaganza, I was one of the people whose shrieks of joy could be heard the world over.

The book is beautiful, lovingly created with some gorgeous photographs and a wonderful piece of art hidden inside the dust-jacket. The whole thing reflects the film itself, it’s a labour of love with everyone involved coming together to provide stories, musings and recollections about the process and filming of The Princess Bride. It’s like putting on a favourite sweater and slippers and drinking a hot mug of tea – warm and comforting, familiar and wonderful. I laughed, I got a little teary eyed, and the whole thing was a magical experience, a beautiful way to go back and revisit the film and to hear from the team that brought it to us so many little tales from behind the scenes that helped make it even more brilliant.

The audiobook is also fantastic, read by Elwes himself with the other cast lending a supporting role for their own tales. It’s a labour of love for the people who love the film, by the people who loved bringing it to life.

My only complaint is that the writing does have a tendency to go round in circles and make the same point twice – it could have done with some tightening up and a bit of editing in places. On the whole though, this is a beautiful book, lovingly written and created, and one that adds another piece of magic to an already magical tale.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Review: Bonfire Night (A Lady Julia Grey Novella) by Deanna Raybourn

It's the autumn of 1890, and almost a year has passed since—much to their surprise—Lady Julia and Nicholas became parents. Just as the couple begins to adapt, a solicitor arrives with a strange bequest. Nicholas, it seems, has inherited a country house—but only if he and his family are in residence from All Hallows' Eve through Bonfire Night.
Neither Lady Julia nor Nicholas is likely to be put off by local legends of ghosts and witches, and the eerie noises and strange lights that flit from room to room simply intrigue them. Until a new lady's maid disappears, igniting a caper that will have explosive results…

I adore the Lady Julia mysteries in a way that defies attempting to explain it like a rational human being. Let’s just leave it at this: they are wonderful books and if you haven’t read them yet then you need to, because Raybourn is one of the best writers I have had the pleasure of reading. This series of books found me quite by chance when I had finished reading Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate Series and wanted something similar. Amazon, in its infinite wisdom suggested I read these, and I have never looked back.

They are brilliantly constructed mysteries with a wonderful heroine at their heart, a broodingly acerbic hero and a cast of excellent characters that make these such a pleasure to come back to. With all that in mind, when the news came out that Deanna Raybourn was parting from her publishers and the chances of another Lady Julia novel had just dropped to virtually non-existant, I was devastated. I love these books and I had hoped to get just one more book to tie up some more ends that had been left. Instead we got the novellas, and whilst I was initially hesitant, Raybourn has done a truly spectacular job of not only telling more of Julia’s story through the four novellas, but also weaving in elements of it into her three novels set in the twenties. Between them we’ve been given a very good idea of where Julia was heading and what happened to her after the events of ‘The Dark Enquiry’.

So with everything built up to a head with the Vespiary in the last novella as well as ‘Night of a Thousand Stars’ I was expecting more of a conclusion where we see the start of that, of how Julia and Brisbane become involved and set it up and the beginning of their parenthood with baby Jack. We definitely got baby Jack and parenthood but there wasn’t a whisper of the Vespiary anywhere, which was quite disappointing.

The novella was a beautifully written little side story, one that I could have quite happily read much more of, but as a final instalment for such a wonderful series? It really didn’t even come close. There was no real closure to speak of, it just felt like another one of Julia and Brisbane’s mysteries – something I am always happy to read – but it didn’t feel like the end of the series.

Part of me now lives in hope that one day we will get another book or novella, something to give us the closure needed on all of these threads (or some mention or cameo in another series just to tie everything up) but I have a horrible feeling that that may not happen. So my rating is not on the novella as a series end, but on the novella as a story (which is wonderful) instead.

Now let's just hope that the publishers decide to honour this series by creating a paperback with all four novellas in, so that all readers can enjoy them, not just those with e-readers.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Review: Once Upon a Tower by Eloisa James

Once upon a time…
A duke fell in love

Gowan Stoughton of Craigievar, Duke of Kinross, values order and self-control above all else. So when he meets a lady as serene as she is beautiful, he promptly asks for her hand in marriage.

With a lady 
Edie—whose passionate temperament is the opposite of serene—had such a high fever at her own debut ball that she didn’t notice anyone, not even the notoriously elusive Duke of Kinross. When her father accepts his offer… she panics.
And when their marriage night isn’t all it could be, she pretends.
In a tower. 
But Edie’s inability to hide her feelings makes pretending impossible, and when their marriage implodes, she retreats to a tower—locking Gowan out.
Now Gowan faces his greatest challenge. Neither commands nor reason work with his spirited young bride. How can he convince her to give him the keys to the tower…
When she already has the keys to his heart?

First complaint is a side note unrelated to the novel per-se. Why can’t publishers double check things like the names of their hero on the blurb of a book before okaying it? It was incredibly confusing and frustrating to go into the novel expecting the hero to be called Rhys and then wonder why he hasn’t shown up and this guy Gowan is there instead. Petty, but frustrating.

Right, the book.

I love Eloisa James’ novels. They are witty, clever, and full of fantastic heroes and heroines just waiting to pull you into a slightly more romantic world. Whilst nothing will beat the ‘Desperate Duchesses’ series for me personally, James’ retelling of fairytales as regency romances has been inspired. I adored Cinderella (A Kiss at Midnight) and Beauty & the Beast (When Beauty Tamed the Beast) but there was something about this version of Rapunzel that just didn’t quite do it for me.

I read romance novels for escape when life becomes particularly problematic. I like to know that there is a safe formula that will ensure a happy ending (with a few bumps along the way) and a wonderful hero waiting to sweep the feisty and intelligent heroine off her feet before the last page.

So when I’m faced with a truly unlikeable hero it kinda puts a crimp in my plans. Gowan really frustrated me. I understand that he was meant to grow as a person and develop and change, but given the awful things that he says to Edie, he never did enough grovelling to really creep back into my good graces. He decides to follow a regimented plan for their marriage bed and as a result doesn’t communicate or even really acknowledge Edie. Edie meanwhile is in so much pain from his ministrations that she lies woodenly in bed and tries desperately not to whimper and let him get on with it. Not exactly romantic.

Now I love that James decided to go with a new version of the story, I love that she tackled problems that you don’t normally see in romantic fiction – that the hero is too well endowed and that the heroine finds copulation not only not pleasant, but downright painful. This is excellent that it’s being explored in fiction. I learnt an awful lot about relationships and sex through romance novels, and this is something that I haven’t seen tackled before, so I want to stand up and cheer for the fact that James is tackling it head on. My issue lies with Gowan being so awful to Edie (to everyone actually) and yes he has an epiphany, and yes he apologises, but for me the reader who has just been through all this awful terrible nightmare along with Edie it is not enough. He wrecks her emotionally. And sorry is not enough to repair that damage. When he returns to her she is a shell of her former self and yes she puts up a small amount of resistance and yes he is repentant, but thirty odd pages is not enough to convince me that this abusive relationship has been repaired. It was not intentionally abusive, but the effect is still the same. There needed to be more redemption, a longer road to recovery, not a quick fix, and that let down the entire novel for me.

I imagine most people will read this book and enjoy it as they would any other of James’ novels, but for those people who have either experienced or witnessed abusive relationships, Gowan is not going to be a hero you end up rooting for.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Review: The Jewel by Amy Ewing

The Jewel means wealth. The Jewel means beauty. The Jewel means royalty. But for girls like Violet, the Jewel means servitude. Not just any kind of servitude. Violet, born and raised in the Marsh, has been trained as a surrogate for the royalty—because in the Jewel the only thing more important than opulence is offspring.
Purchased at the surrogacy auction by the Duchess of the Lake and greeted with a slap to the face, Violet (now known only as #197) quickly learns of the brutal truths that lie beneath the Jewel’s glittering facade: the cruelty, backstabbing, and hidden violence that have become the royal way of life.

Violet must accept the ugly realities of her existence... and try to stay alive. But then a forbidden romance erupts between Violet and a handsome gentleman hired as a companion to the Duchess’s petulant niece. Though his presence makes life in the Jewel a bit brighter, the consequences of their illicit relationship will cost them both more than they bargained for.

This book was intriguing, with a brilliant premise, but unfortunately the execution was lacking and turned the concept into something more problematic.
With such a brilliant and horrifying idea at the heart, it was incredibly frustrating that half way through a love interest was brought in for Violet which then became the focus. The love interest itself was problematic – there was no build up of the relationship, no real relationship to speak of that the reader can see develop. Just a few stolen moments and then suddenly, ‘we’re in love!’ which has been done to death in fiction, particularly at the moment. It then provides a truly ridiculous springboard for a climactic end to the book, another cliff hanger for the sake of trying to keep readers hooked rather than a natural end to the book with a lead into the next one. The romance really slows down the story and takes away from the focus of the story which could be brilliant with a bit of work.

The premise is horrifying, twisted and dark, but also has the opportunity to handle a lot of issues that most books shy away from. It gives an opening to look at agency, consent and a lot of the issues that come with that. Instead it cotton coats those things with a light fluffy romance that ultimately takes away from the main story and everything that it could become.

As with so many books, there is so much potential, and it just isn’t fully realised. Instead making it more marketable with a romance. I really hope that with the following books the romance is pushed to one side and the social system and problematic issues with the Surrogates is addressed. Before the romance comes in the book is fantastic. It’s engrossing and horrifying, but also incredibly compelling with some wonderful characters. The class system and the way the Jewel is made up is fascinating and I loved the expansion of the world as Violet was trotted out and put on show – I wanted more of that!

It’s a light and quick read and shares a lot of similarities with so many other books in the Young Adult market at the moment – The Selction by Keira Cass and Wither by Lauren DeStefano with shades of The Hunger Games creeping in with other elements. You can see the Capitol creeping in once Violet reaches the Jewel and is repackaged and sold.

Definitely an intriguing read, but not without its problems. Fans of the three series mentioned above would probably enjoy most of the elements, but be warned about ridiculous romance subplots and frustrating cliffhangers.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Review: Vowed by Liz de Jager

The Blackhart Code:
Don't let the monsters grind you down
A Blackhart can see the supernatural behind everyday crimes. But some crimes hide even greater evils…

Kit Blackhart must investigate why children are disappearing from a London estate. However, their parents, police and fae allies claim to know nothing. And as yet more children disappear, the pressure mounts. Luckily, or unluckily, government trainee Dante Alexander is helping Kit with the case. Yet just as her feelings towards him begin to thaw, his life falls apart. As Kit struggles to unravel his problems and dangerous secrets, she meets fae Prince Thorn in her dreams – but their relationship is utterly forbidden.
Then Kit digs too deep, and uncovers a mystery that’s been hidden for one thousand years. It’s a secret that could just tear down our world.

I read the first book in this series, ‘Banished’ in March this year when I was stuck in hospital. I happened to have it on my kindle and devoured it in a matter of hours. I loved it. It was fast paced and funny and had such a fantastic plot that twisted and turned and kept me on my toes the entire time. The characters were brilliant and it was bursting with imagination and brilliance. So I was pretty excited to get my hands on the second book and get right back to where we’d left off with Kit and her friends. Only it didn’t quite turn out like that.
Yes there were still the characters I loved, plus a few new ones, and there was still the magic underside to the world we already know, but it didn’t quite have the same sparkle as the first book. The biggest problem was pacing. Whereas the first book keeps you on your toes with an array of pitstops on the ultimate quest as you race to figure out what’s wrong, this installment felt slow and sluggish. At five hundred pages it’s vying against a couple of the Harry Potter’s for sheer volume of story, but there is a distinct lack of meat to keep you interested for those pages.

I know the point is for the reader to experience the frustration along with Kit as she tries to solve the case with little to nothing to go on, but instead it merely prompted me to put the book down every few pages and go and have a break. An interesting story, no matter the length, will have me glued to the book and finished in a few hours, this book took weeks to plough through. The problem was it felt like a filler book. Not enough of a plot to sustain the length of novel before we get to the next book, with presumably a lot more action as it all kicks off. Quiet before the storm books are great when they’re done well, but this one just didn’t quite manage it. I wanted the action to be driven forward, not to watch as Kit ate breakfast, went clubbing and managed to get very little sleep.

Which was just disappointing given how much I loved the first book.

This is still a fantastic series from a brilliant new author, but unfortunately this isn’t as strong as her debut, I’m sure though that with everything being amped up for confrontations in the next book, the next installment will be back on top form and a breathlessly brilliant ride.

Fans of Cassandra Clare, Harry Potter and Laini Taylor should definitely check out the first book ‘Banished’, but maybe hold on for the second one until you can go straight from the quiet slow pace of the second book and race into the third.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Review: The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA gives a rich and hilarious new meaning to complaints about “The Boss from Hell.” Narrated in Andrea’s smart, refreshingly disarming voice, it traces a deep, dark, devilish view of life at the top only hinted at in gossip columns and over Cosmopolitans at the trendiest cocktail parties. From sending the latest, not-yet-in-stores Harry Potter to Miranda’s children in Paris by private jet, to locating an unnamed antique store where Miranda had at some point admired a vintage dresser, to serving lattes to Miranda at precisely the piping hot temperature she prefers, Andrea is sorely tested each and every day—and often late into the night with orders barked over the phone. She puts up with it all by keeping her eyes on the prize: a recommendation from Miranda that will get Andrea a top job at any magazine of her choosing. As things escalate from the merely unacceptable to the downright outrageous, however, Andrea begins to realize that the job a million girls would die for may just kill her. And even if she survives, she has to decide whether or not the job is worth the price of her soul.

I saw the movie before I read the book, and this is one of the few cases where the movie is better than the book. So if you’re thinking about reading this after seeing Anne Hathaway turn from slouchy to glamorous, I’d really save your time.

The movie worked to make the characters likeable, both Andy and Miranda, and for there to be progress, character development, and you know, an actual plot. The book really didn’t bother. Andy remained aloof, sarcastic and whiny throughout the book and it never really felt like she grew as a person, or developed at all over the course of the year. She maybe had slightly better dress sense by the end, but there was no development, she just whinged at everyone, pushed her friends and family away and didn’t really try to integrate or work particularly hard at Runway. Yes her job was demeaning at points and yes Miranda had unrealistic expectations, but Andy never even really tried. She went out of her way to try and be obnoxious and get one over on Miranda the entire time, only for it to backfire and cause her more work as a result. It was painful to read.

Similarly Miranda had a softer redeeming side that we saw in the movie, as opposed to being stone hearted, completely un-relatable and unreasonable throughout the book. The characters were downright unpleasant at points and there was nothing redeemable about them.

It was also incredibly repetitive. The same things, over and over again, with Andy making the same mistakes, the same obnoxious better than this attitude, which meant that nothing ever went right. This was supposed to convey the craziness of the working environment, but actually just backfired and made the book seem incredibly dragging and repetitive.

I was stressed the entire way through. I had to speed read this book, not because I was enjoying it but because it was so stressful to read that it was just easier to get it over with rather than sleep. It’s long, it’s not a particularly great book, and a constant adrenaline hit of stress does not make for great reading. You can’t sustain that level of tension for that length of time successfully with a reader, it just doesn’t work.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Review: A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke

Paul West arrives in Paris to start a new job - and finds out what the French are really like.
They do eat a lot of cheese, some of which smells like pigs' droppings. They don't wash their armpits with garlic soap. Going on strike really is the second national participation sport after petanque. And, yes, they do use suppositories.

In his first novel, Stephen Clarke gives a laugh-out-loud account of the pleasures and perils of being a Brit in France. A Year in the Merde tells you how to get served by the grumpiest Parisian waiter; how to make amour - not war; and how not to buy a house in the French countryside.

I’ve read a few other books by Stephen Clarke and really loved them; his writing is eloquent and frequently laugh out loud funny, and he tackles his subjects with both wit and an obvious deep love of the country and culture that he is writing about. It’s just a shame that he didn’t bring any of that to ‘A Year in the Merde.’
When I picked it up I didn’t realise it was a novel, so was expecting more of a travel memoir recounting a lot of the pitfalls of moving to France that people experience. What I got instead was a truly awful main character who is not only feeling displaced by his move to Paris, but is downright rude and obnoxious and makes no effort whatsoever to be anything other than disparaging and condescending throughout his stay.

Truly, other than a few more readable moments this was a disaster from start to finish. The humour was thin on the ground, and the book was instead populated with awful comments about the French culture and the people. Paul is a thoroughly unlikeable character who spends his time sulking, whinging, and taking women out for drinks and not understanding why some alcohol and half a hour of conversation don’t result in immediate sex.

It was demeaning and quite frankly disgusting in places and I’m not quite sure why I kept reading.
The drama was propelled by his caricature pantomime baddy of a boss who is doing all sorts of shady dealings and Paul just sits back and lets it all happen. There is no driving force, it is simply the ramblings of a man who couldn’t be arsed to do anything with his job in a new country.

It only vaguely tackled a few of the difficulties that people find when moving to France for the first time, and that wasn’t really enough to redeem it. It certainly doesn’t tackle the perils of being a Brit living in France. If you’re looking for an interesting insight into living in Paris, I recommend ‘Paris in Love’ by Eloisa James. I would also recommend some of Stephen Clarke’s other books, but steer as far away as possible from this pile of merde.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Review: Heir of Fire by Sarah J Maas

Huge thanks to Netgalley for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review

This review is spoiler free!

Published: 11th September 2014

Lost and broken, Celaena Sardothien’s only thought is to avenge the savage death of her dearest friend: as the King of Adarlan’s Assassin, she is bound to serve this tyrant, but he will pay for what he did. Any hope Celaena has of destroying the king lies in answers to be found in Wendlyn. Sacrificing his future, Chaol, the Captain of the King’s Guard, has sent Celaena there to protect her, but her darkest demons lay in that same place. If she can overcome them, she will be Adarlan’s biggest threat – and his own toughest enemy. 
While Celaena learns of her true destiny, and the eyes of Erilea are on Wendlyn, a brutal and beastly force is preparing to take to the skies. Will Celaena find the strength not only to win her own battles, but to fight a war that could pit her loyalties to her own people against those she has grown to love?

When I got my hands on an early copy of ‘Heir of Fire’ I couldn’t wait to get started. It was just a shame that around five pages in I realized that most of the events of the previous book was nothing but a hazy memory and if I wanted any clue what was happening I needed to go back and start at the beginning.

So I’ve spent and otherwise stressful few weeks happily ensconced in Celaena’s world, reliving her battle to become the King’s Champion, her slow uncovering of the rebels plots, the devastation and loss and the shock of revelations at the end of ‘Crown of Midnight’. It was quite the emotional rollercoaster, and I was expecting that pace to be maintained, thinking that this was the last book in the series. Thankfully I was wrong, and there are plenty of stories waiting for another book to tell them, but it meant that I spent a good portion of the book waiting for the pace to kick up a notch as it would in the final book in a series, and being disappointed.

Once I got around the fact that I was being an idiot and doing myself out of more books (Sarah has stated on her website that she’s always seen the series as a 6 book one.) I settled in and enjoyed the book.

This book was much slower than the first two, Celaena has taken quite the emotional beating by this point and it takes a long, long time for her to try and piece herself back together. There were a few points where her constant misery and self blame became a little bit much, but on the whole it was handled really well and it was so good to watch her try and reconcile all the parts of herself into one flawed whole.

Whilst Celaena is off learning and growing away from Rifthold, we still get peaks back to how everyone left behind is faring. Short answer? Terribly. The events of the last book have shaken everyone and their various relationships beyond repair, so it was a much darker book, no one trusting anyone and everyone feeling lost and isolated. The good part is that the treachery of the King is finally being recognised and more people are figuring out what he’s done, so there is a better chance of managing to right all the wrong’s. But watching everyone stumble around trying to deal with things on their own was truly heart breaking.

We are also introduced to a host of new characters which fleshed out the book and really gave more meat to what was once solely Celaena’s story. Rowan, a fae prince was one of my particular favourites, as was Manon another Ironteeth witch, and oh boy the witches. They were a fantastic addition to the story. I really loved all of Manon’s sections, which tie in beautifully with showing us what the King is planning next and pick up the thread that was introduced in the last book with Baba Yellowlegs. They are incredible, and I am so excited to see where that story takes us in the next book.

A lot of holes and questions that were raised are now being filled in, we’re given a lot of back story, particularly Celaena’s which was great to have. Maas has left it just long enough to really whet our appetites without drawing it so long that we’re frustrated, and she really should be commended for the brilliant pacing of each book, but also the series as a whole.

All in all this latest installment is a fantastic addition to the series. It expands the world, raises the stakes, and sets the bar even higher with a brilliant climax of an ending for the next book. Fans of the series will be thrilled with this book, and those who haven’t yet found the series, go out and get yourself a copy of ‘Throne of Glass’ and get on board.

A Book Blogger Ties the Knot (Or: How I managed to get as many books into my wedding as possible...)

When my other half proposed in February I knew that somehow we were going to get our two favourite passions into our wedding day – bicycles and books.
Which started, in amongst all the other stressing and panicking, a slow, careful deliberation about which of my many many favourite books I wanted to include in the day. Because when you read as much as I do, you inevitably amass a fairly huge pile of favourites.

I wanted to include favourite books from my childhood, recent favourites, classics I return to again and again, and books we both loved. And unfortunately there was a limit to how many books we could get in their various guises into the marquee. But we were creative…

So when we got married at the end of last month there were an absolute plethora of books in amongst the celebrations.

The tables had books wrapped around the vases on the tables, both to serve as names for each table, but also reading material if anyone got bored and to take away at the end of the night. There were book pages suspended from the bike wheels (of course there were bike wheels, he’s a cycling fanatic!) and the crowning glory? Miniature books decorating the cake. A labour of love done between me, my mother, and my long suffering Boy.

There were favourite cycling books, Terry Pratchett’s and Redwall as his
contribution, but other than that I was granted free reign. And I loved it.

Tamora Pierce, Gerald Durell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals’ and ‘The Princess Bride’ by William Goldman stood for my childhood loves. Harry Potter made an obvious appearance, in amongst more recent favourites like ‘The Fault in our Stars’ by John Green, ‘Seraphina’ by Rachel Hartman and ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern. We had classics like ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’, ‘American Gods’ and ‘Neverwhere’ and of course the books I cannot live without like the Lady Julia Grey series by Deanna Raybourn, ‘The Scorpio Races’ by Maggie Stiefvater and ‘Unspoken’ by Sarah Rees Brennan. And right at the top, a novel yet to grace the shelves until early next year, the debut by a very great friend, ‘The Last Leaves Falling’ by Sarah Benwell.

They were a talking point, a communal love that had people come racing over to me to tell me how thrilled they were that I loved this particular book and they loved it too. They sparked conversations about books people loved and if you like that you should try this. They forged beginnings of new friendships and I have loved hearing about books that people took away with them and what they thought of them. It was exactly what I wished for as part of my wedding day. A way to celebrate my love of books and sharing them with others, and also to celebrate the books that have brought me and the Boy together over the years.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Review: The Travelling Tea Shop by Belinda Jones

Laurie loves a challenge. Especially if it involves anything beautiful, baked and frosted. The brief is simple: With three other women, Laurie will board a London bus - kitted out as an English tea shop - on a deliciously different road trip of the USA. 
Their mission: To bring home-grown classics like Battenberg, Victoria sponge and scones to the land of cupcakes, whoopie pies and gold-leafed chocolate sundaes. 

And to show them how a real cup of tea is made. All of the women have their own secrets and heartaches to heal. As well as a grand appreciation of cupcakes, there's also the chance for romance...
But will making whoopee lead to love?

I am a big fan of Belinda Jones’ books. They’re fun, they’re romantic, they take you to new and exciting places, and they don’t always have the happily ever after that you expect. They’re a brilliant mix of the traditional romance that makes you feel all warm and fluffy inside, and real life that grounds them and shows you that not all happy endings are the stereotypical. However, much as I have loved her previous books, ‘The Travelling Tea Shop’ didn’t really hit the mark for me.

One of the biggest issues for me was actually something that I have loved about previous books, the info dumping of history and facts to liven up the tour and places visited. I think when you’re reading your first couple of Belinda’s novels you (tend to) really enjoy the extra information that’s imparted, but the more you read the more repetitive it gets. Yes some of the information was fascinating, but on the whole it felt like I was reading a travel brochure combined with a text book. It got incredibly old incredibly quickly.

I found Laurie quite hard to actually relate to or form a real opinion as she remained very one dimensional throughout. She just felt like a checklist of character traits- love life problems, check, neuroses, check, family history drama that she doesn’t want to get into, check. It felt like a well worn formula with very little new to freshen it up. I also found her romance later in the novel to be handled incredibly poorly. I realise that some of that was deliberate, but you want your reader to swoon at the romance, not cringe with second hand embarrassment.

The secondary characters were a bit mixed. I would have loved to see more of Gracie as she really breathed life into the mix, which was very much needed given how much Pamela sucked the life out of everything. I found her character to be the most hard to believe as she’s supposed to have been this big tv personality, yet she didn’t appear to have any personality to speak of. And then we come to one of the most horrible characters I’ve found in a book recently, Ravenna. I understood the basis of the character but it felt as though she’d been made into a Disney villain rather than a believable girl who was struggling with an abusive relationship.
There was the basis for brilliance with all of the characters it was simply that they remained flat and unrealistic which dragged the already slightly fanciful plot into complete fantasy.

There were still moments of brilliance where I laughed out loud or fell in love with the places described, but it wasn’t the perfect escapism I’ve become used to in Belinda’s novels and I felt let down as a result. For those looking for a cake filled fluffy read who aren’t too fussed on character development then this is a quick read that allows the reader to escape for a few hours. For anyone looking for more than that I recommend sticking with Belinda’s previous novels.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Review: Let's Get Lost by Adi Alsaid

Thank you to Netgalley for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review

Five strangers. Countless adventures. One epic way to get lost. 
Four teens across the country have only one thing in common: a girl named LEILA. She crashes into their lives in her absurdly red car at the moment they need someone the most. 

There's HUDSON, a small-town mechanic who is willing to throw away his dreams for true love. And BREE, a runaway who seizes every Tuesday—and a few stolen goods along the way. ELLIOT believes in happy endings…until his own life goes off-script. And SONIA worries that when she lost her boyfriend, she also lost the ability to love. 
Hudson, Bree, Elliot and Sonia find a friend in Leila. And when Leila leaves them, their lives are forever changed. But it is during Leila's own 4,268-mile journey that she discovers the most important truth— sometimes, what you need most is right where you started. And maybe the only way to find what you're looking for is to get lost along the way.

I am a sucker for road trip stories so I was really excited about ‘Let’s Get Lost’ – it’s just a shame that it didn’t live up to the hype. The entire novel is centered around Leila, who breezes through four strangers lives at just the right time to magically fix all their troubles and woes. This could have been brilliant, but unfortunately Leila was nothing more than an attractive plot device. She had no substance, no depth, and whilst we do find out a little more about her in the final section and some of this lack of character is explained, it is not enough to redeem her.

The other characters are, on the whole, a continuing mess of clichés. There is Hudson whose main feature is how completely and instantly he falls in love with Leila. Again there is no depth, he is a cut out caricature and I felt that the entirety of his section, but particularly the ending, were trite and ridiculous. I love a good love story, just look at the number of romances I read! But I like to have some reality mixed in, and characters that actually have something that connects them, not a bunch of clichés and stereotypes.
Bree followed in a similar vein, with yet more stereotyping. Actually I found Bree’s section the hardest to read, I felt like I was watching a slow motion car crash and just desperately wanted to look away.

I was slightly more taken by Sonia and Elliot’s stories, because they actually felt a little more real, a little more human and a lot more interesting. However whilst Sonia held my attention right the way through, Elliot’s section and the message it was giving was ruined by the ending. That said, by the time I reached Sonia’s story, the formula of ‘Everything is terrible, Leila breezes in and fixes everything’ was getting decidedly old by this point.

I wanted to love this book, I kept reading and hoping desperately that it would get better, but unfortunately it never really took off for me. The characters were weak and experienced no real development, just a straight pattern formula that became decidedly tired by the end of the book.

It’s a shame because there are some moments that are brilliant, where the writing really shines and the humour is laugh out loud. However it is too sporadic to really stand a chance of redeeming the book.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Review: City of Jasmine by Deanna Raybourn

Thanks to Netgalley for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Set against the lush, exotic European colonial outposts of the 1920s, New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn delivers the captivating tale of one woman who embarks upon a journey to see the world—and ends up finding intrigue, danger and a love beyond all reason. 
Famed aviatrix Evangeline Starke never expected to see her husband, adventurer Gabriel Starke, ever again. They had been a golden couple, enjoying a whirlwind courtship amid the backdrop of a glittering social set in prewar London until his sudden death with the sinking of the Lusitania. Five years later, beginning to embrace life again, Evie embarks upon a flight around the world, collecting fame and admirers along the way. In the midst of her triumphant tour, she is shocked to receive a mysterious—and recent—photograph of Gabriel, which brings her ambitious stunt to a screeching halt. 

With her eccentric aunt Dove in tow, Evie tracks the source of the photo to the ancient City of Jasmine, Damascus. There she discovers that nothing is as it seems. Danger lurks at every turn, and at stake is a priceless relic, an artifact once lost to time and so valuable that criminals will stop at nothing to acquire it—even murder. Leaving the jewelled city behind, Evie sets off across the punishing sands of the desert to unearth the truth of Gabriel's disappearance and retrieve a relic straight from the pages of history. 
Along the way, Evie must come to terms with the deception that parted her from Gabriel and the passion that will change her destiny forever...

It is no secret that I adore Deanna Raybourn’s books. They are well written, brilliantly researched and beautifully constructed, funny, smart, clever and entertaining and always, always have a fantastic heroine at their heart. What’s not to like?

I have to admit that ‘A Spear of Summer Grass’ was not quite as much my cup of tea as the Lady Julia mysteries, but with the release of her latest offering ‘City of Jasmine’ I am more on board with these latest 1920s standalones than ever. The brilliance of them is that each one is set to stand on its own two feet, and does so marvellously, but at the same time with each new release (just wait for Raybourn’s next novel set for release in September this year ‘Night of a Thousand Stars’) they become more and more entwined. You see familiar characters, minor cameos and it gives these fresh novels a sense of wonderful familiarity.

I will admit that I think that my enjoyment of ‘City of Jasmine’ was heightened by not reading the prequel novella ‘Whisper of Jasmine’ until afterwards. Because I hadn’t read it first it meant that there was a wonderful twist at the end of City that I wouldn’t have experienced with the same awestruck delight had I read Whisper first, so if you are trying to decide whether to read this novel, I highly recommend doing it that way around to start with – particularly if you are a fan of Raybourn’s other novels.

I don’t really want to say more because it is such a delicious book to go into when you don’t really know anything beyond the blurb. I shall simply say that it is just a brilliant as Raybourn’s previous novels. I adored Aunt Dove and Evie and had my heart in my mouth throughout most of the book. It is a fantastic romp with some darker moments as well. The scene setting was sublime and I absolutely loved the tie ins that start to weave all the stories together. If you weren’t such a fan of ‘A Spear of Summer Grass’ I highly recommend trying ‘City of Jasmine’ because Raybourn really seems to hit her 1920s stride with this novel. And also if you were a fan of the film ‘The Mummy’ I have a feeling you’ll love this one. A perfect piece of fast paced escapism with another feisty heroine.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Review: Queen of Someday by Sherry D Ficklin

Publication date: 7th October 2014

Thanks to Netgalley for sending me a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Before she can become the greatest empress in history, fifteen-year-old Sophie will have to survive her social-climbing mother’s quest to put her on the throne of Russia—at any cost.
Imperial Court holds dangers like nothing Sophie has ever faced before. In the heart of St. Petersburg, surviving means navigating the political, romantic, and religious demands of the bitter Empress Elizabeth and her handsome, but sadistic nephew, Peter. Determined to save her impoverished family—and herself—Sophie vows to do whatever is necessary to thrive in her new surroundings. But an attempt on her life and an unexpected attraction threatens to derail her plans.

Alone in a new and dangerous world, learning who to trust and who to charm may mean the difference between becoming queen and being sent home in shame to marry her lecherous uncle. With traitors and murderers lurking around every corner, her very life hangs in the balance. Betrothed to one man but falling in love with another, Sophie will need to decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice in order to become the empress she is destined to be.
In a battle for the soul of a nation, will love or destiny reign supreme?

“For all you hardworking history teachers who want to hit me with a book after reading this. The line forms here. No pushing. Everyone will get a turn.” Any historical fiction book that begins with an author’s note like this should immediately ring alarm bells. I appreciate messing around with historical timelines to make a more thrilling story for the reader, so long as it is clearly stated that historical tampering has happened. However, ‘Queen of Someday’ not only doesn’t follow any sort of historical timeline for Catherine/Sophie, any sort of research of the period and dialogue appears to have been cursory at best.

When I pick up an historical novel, I expect realistic dialogue for the time period and realistic characters. I do not expect modern throwaway conversations or characters that are attempting to fill the ‘feisty heroine’ cut out and therefore act in ways that would never have been lauded and celebrated in this particular time period. It immediately throws me from the story and stops me from enjoying the book.

Trying to jam several different parts of Catherine’s life into this one short book causes even more problems. All historical accuracy is thrown over for unbelievable romances and one dimensional characters. Which is tragic because this could have been something brilliant. With a clearer cut plot and with fewer romances that have no spark to speak of, there could have been more time spent on character development which could have saved this novel.

I wanted to love this book. I love historical novels and when they are done well they can be some of the best form of escapism. But sadly there were just too many pitfalls for me to take any sort of enjoyment from it. Badly researched with too many aspects of Catherine’s life smushed into one small chunk of her life to try and provide more of an action packed storyline, and with one dimensional characters that never grabbed me or really came alive.