Tag Archives: Book reviews

Review of Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

Cuckoos Calling Cover

I’ll start with a confession.

My name’s Charly and I’ve never read a Harry Potter book.

I know, I know, the 90s were awesome and I work in publishing but the fact is I’m nearly 30 and have no experience of J K Rowling’s writing. Until recently.

As a fan of crime stories, thrillers and suspense I was delighted to learn that Rowling, as Robert Galbraith, had created the private detective Cormoran Strike, introducing him to the world in The Cuckoo’s Calling.

To be honest, Strike’s name alone was enough to win me over. But actually the story was interesting, entertaining and had enough threads to keep me reading keenly on.

I really enjoyed the characters, many of whom mirrored one or more celebs, and the plot itself was great, with ‘whodunnit?’ remaining a total surprise.

This is totally my kind of book. If (like me) your TV viewing choices include Lewis and Silent Witness, curl up with this book. You’ll love it.

More Than This – Review

More Than This by Patrick Ness

Warning: here be spoilers! Huge gargantuan spoilers.

More Than This is a young adult novel by Patrick Ness. It may also be a sci-fi novel and a dystopian novel. Or it might be neither of these. And that’s where the problem lies for me. The blurb of this book is:

A boy drowns, desperate and alone in his final moments. He dies.
Then he wakes, naked, bruised and thirsty, but alive.
How can this be? And what is this strange, deserted place?
As he struggles to understand what is happening, the boy dares to hope. Might this not be the end? Might there be more to this life, or perhaps this afterlife?

That’s a lot of questions right there. And having read the 480 pages of this novel I am still not much clearer on the answers. Our protagonist Seth dies before we even get to chapter one of the story. Or does he? He ‘wakes’ in a seemingly abandoned world which he explores alone for 172 pages until he encounters some other characters and the book takes a new turn. Throughout part one of this book it seems likely that Seth has died and is experiencing some kind of afterlife. Or else, as Seth puts it, it’s all a dream ‘the last dream before death’. After Regine and Tomasz are introduced in part two, the story becomes more to do with what happened to the people of this abandoned world, and why. Seth’s former life abruptly goes from being his real life to potentially being a virtual reality.

I liked the characters in this book. I couldn’t help but have sympathy for Seth; a boy whose whole life was tainted by a decision he made when he was eight years old. I liked the fierceness of Regine and her ‘never give up’ attitude. I especially liked Tomasz who was incredibly sweet as well as being brave and resourceful. I wasn’t as keen on Seth’s friends in his ‘virtual life’; H and Monica were fairly one dimensional and I liked Gudmund and his relationship with Seth until the twist towards the end.

The biggest problem I had with this novel was the ending. I felt that there was a big build up, where so many different ideas were set up, and then instead of culminating in a stunning finale the novel just ended. It was hugely anticlimactic and I found myself very disappointed that I would not get to find out the truth.

Throughout the novel we are teased with the idea that the world Seth wakes up in may all be in his head, or perhaps it is hell. Or maybe the world he was in before wasn’t real. Things in this world seem too coincidental. Seth will think about something, for instance, that it’s weird that there are no animals in this world and a second later:

Foxes, he thinks. Actual foxes.
At the very moment he thought about them.
Almost as if he’d called them into being himself.

The virtual reality plot was eminently plausible to me so I found myself very frustrated when it seemed as if this was going to be the confirmed reality only for doubt to be thrown on it when, right at the end of the novel, Seth says:

If this was my brain trying to make sense of stuff…the Driver would be there, half-burnt, insane with revenge, waiting for one last attack before we do whatever it is we’re going to do.

And then that’s exactly what happened. The Driver appears, against all probability and that’s the moment that really pulled me out of the book. When it ended without telling us either way which version of reality was the ‘true’ one I was left with a feeling of huge disappointment.

Have people discovered a way to live their lives online (so fully immersed that they don’t even realise they aren’t in the ‘real world’)? Or was it, as Seth puts it just a dying brain making up one last story? Did the manner of Seth’s death (the fact that he hit his head in a particular place) mean that he got a second chance to live? Will he make things right with Gudmund? Will he confront his parents about the way they have treated him? Did his brother Owen survive the attack by the escaped prisoner or was he murdered, as the grave in the ‘real world’ would suggest? What happened to Regine and Tomasz once Seth went back to the ‘virtual’ world? Even if he came back, were they doomed to wander around in the ruined ‘real world’ until they all eventually died? Or would the people inhabiting the ‘virtual world’ wake up and reinhabit the ‘real world’?  If not, would they survive now that Seth, Tomasz and Regine had destroyed their caretaker? Was the Driver just a caretaker and why was he so intent on harming the trio if, once he had incapacitated them, he was just going to heal them anyway?

Ultimately, I was left with too many unanswered questions for me to be satisfied. I came away from it feeling frustrated and, to a certain extent, cheated. I invested in the characters in this book and I was very disappointed to end the novel not even knowing if they were ‘real’.

For this reason More Than This only gets 2 Stars (2 / 5) from me.

Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances – Review

cover of Let It Snow

Imagine it’s a snowy evening and you’ve settled down in front of the fire with a big mug of hot chocolate and a fluffy blanket. The hot chocolate is piled high with whipped cream and topped with marshmallows. It’s sweet and frothy and likely to make you feel like you’ve had your weekly allowance of sugar all in one go but it’s perfect for an evening when you’ve nowhere to be and nothing to do. This, for me, is what reading Let It Snow was like.

Let It Snow is a collection of three connected short stories, all of which are set over the Christmas period and during a blizzard. The first story is called ‘The Jubilee Express’ and was written by Maureen Johnson. The story begins on Christmas Eve as the eponymous Jubilee excitedly looks forward to going to her boyfriend’s house for his family’s annual Christmas Eve Smorgasbord (for those not in the know, a smorgasbord is a kind of Scandinavian buffet-type meal). Unfortunately her plans are ruined when her parents are arrested as part of the ‘Flobie Five’; a group involved in an altercation at the showroom of a collectibles company. Jubilee is put on a train to her grandparents but her Christmas Eve is further disrupted by the arrival of the ‘biggest storm in fifty years’, which causes her train to break down just outside of a small town called Gracetown. Jubilee’s decision to abandon the train for the sanctuary of a nearby Waffle House sets off a chain of events that affects not just her own life but the lives of several other characters that will later appear in the book.

The second story in the collection is titled ‘Cheertastic Christmas Miracle’ and is written by internet-favourite John Green. This story takes place late Christmas Eve/early Christmas morning and focuses on a trio of friends: Tobin, the Duke and JP. The story is told from the point-of-view of Tobin as he and his friends set out on an ill-advised journey through the snow to the Waffle House, where they have heard that a group of cheerleaders (who were travelling on the same train as Jubilee and followed her example after she escaped the train) are taking refuge from the storm and are desperately in need of Twister (the game that is, not a further weather phenomenon). Tobin and JP are very enthusiastic about their quest, the Duke less so, as the only girl in the group she is less enamoured at the thought of a roomful of cheerleaders, although the prospect of Waffle House hash browns ultimately sways her. Over the course of the night Tobin has somewhat of a revelation as he realises that perhaps his prospects for love lie closer to home than he realised and that actually the journey really is as important, if not more so, than the destination.

The third, and last, story in this collection is called ‘The Patron Saint of Pigs’ by Lauren Myracle. It is now Christmas Day in Gracetown and our latest protagonist Addie is heartbroken after splitting up from her boyfriend Jeb (who was also on the train with Jubilee and the cheerleaders, and later at the Waffle House with Tobin, the Duke and JP). Addie’s story develops over Boxing Day as she tries to discover why she sabotaged her relationship with Jeb and also tries to come to terms with the fact that several people in her life think she’s self-centred. As the title suggests, there is a pig involved and it ends up being part of Addie’s redemption quest.

Overall, I liked this book. It was sweet, light-hearted and entertaining. However, I probably wouldn’t recommend it to others unless they were specifically looking for an easy read as I felt it lacked depth, which is perhaps unsurprising in a book about teenage romance. I liked some of the characters (The Duke might have been my favourite) and found some of the others slightly annoying (mainly Addie) but the plot was fairly basic and there were some loose ends that I felt were just abandoned (such as the fate of the Flobie Five). I think the authors did a good job of interweaving the stories and characters and I think the book had a good sense of atmosphere. Let It Snow is worth a read if you’re looking to escape a stormy night, or feeling nostalgic for your years of teenage angst.

3 Stars (3 / 5)

The Psychopath Test – review

psychopath-test-fc-LST085048Psychopathy itself is a difficult thing to pin down – perhaps as a result, the ladies of The Edge of Reading found John Ronson’s The Psychopath Test is a difficult book to get to grips with.

Billed as ‘a journey through the madness industry’, the book has several narratives. Ronson starts off looking into a mystery which leads him deeper and deeper into the world of psychopaths. He meets them, learns to diagnose them (by using the Hare checklist, a chapter which had us all looking at friends and family with intense scrutiny) and tries to understand them. It’s compelling stuff – finding out about efforts to treat them, and learning how their brains differ from others, has filled several books already. The second half of the book is a series of stories, as Ronson travels all over the world to investigate the way we view, treat and publicise mental illness today.

We all enjoyed it while we were reading it, but still…there was something we couldn’t quite work out.

Maybe it’s the tone. The book is amusing (though never as funny as the reviews made it out to be) and Ronson’s engaging, anecdotal style is easy and enjoyable to read – it’s like having a really interesting conversation in a pub. But in trying to be entertaining he glosses over things, raising more questions than he answers. He’ll write a fascinating chapter and then drop it, never analysing what it really means.

For instance: a group of Americans in the ‘70s faked symptoms of mental illness and were admitted to hospitals when they were completely sane. It’s an interesting story, but what’s the real significance? Doctors can only go on what they are told, and if a patient says she’s hearing voices, the doctor will assume she is. Ronson tells the tale well, but never informs us of what happened afterwards. What did they prove, or accomplish? Did the test affect the psychiatric community in any way? Did they change their diagnostic methods? We never find out.

It was that lack of detail which bothered us – as a journalist Ronson is never going to speak with medical detachment, but there were moments when diving deeper into a story would have been more rewarding than starting a new one.

With members of The Edge of Reading largely being publishing bods, the editing of the book also came under scrutiny – it’s very patchy, with various stories and theories needlessly repeated. It felt as if the ‘blood-drinking lizards rule the world’ theory was mentioned every other chapter, and explanations were often given for things which had previously been explained.

Each story is riveting, and Ronson’s examination of the often Kafka-esque world of mental health is a good read – but as soon as we started really thinking about the book, we found that we stumbled. Read it, enjoy it – but make sure you have someone to talk to about it afterwards.

On a personal note, I’m not convinced. Jon Ronson wants to entertain, and he succeeds, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. Mental illness isn’t a subject I can find funny, and I felt that the book often confused psychopathy and other mental disorders. Ronson does a great job of finding the surreal side of a serious issue, but in the end I was left strangely cold. I feel like I missed the point.

…Or maybe I’m just a psychopath.

P.S: Jon Ronson did a TED talk about the book, which is worth a watch. Take a look.

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

thbask

A month before Halloween, the members of The Edge of Reading got together to discuss what book we should read for our late October meeting. Something scary, we all agreed…but not too scary, we quickly amended. None of us were especially interested in reading a horror story – we wanted to be mildly spooked, not hiding under the duvet, shrieking at shadows, quaking in our boots petrified.

What were we looking for in a spooky read? We tossed around a few ideas: ‘Dracula’? (Most of us had read it at uni.) ‘Frankenstein’? (Ditto.) Something by Stephen King? (Too scary!) Then someone suggested ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ by Arthur Conan Doyle. As a Sherlock Holmes fan I was instantly on board. ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ is one of the Sherlock Holmes stories that I had always meant to read but hadn’t quite got around to yet. The majority of the group felt similarly, and so with our book chosen, we agreed to meet on the 29th of October.

Choosing the novel for our Halloween read meant that there were a lot of expectations for it to meet. There needed to be:
A spooky environment – the Baskerville estate and surrounding moorland definitely ticked that box.
A suspicious death – Sir Charles Baskerville’s death is at the centre of the novel’s plot. Was he just an old man with an overactive imagination and a dodgy heart, or were there other forces at work?
A manifestation of evil – this comes in the form of the hellhound rumoured to haunt the Baskerville men, punishing them for the terrible deeds that their ancestor Hugo Baskerville committed.
A mystery – who or what killed Sir Charles Baskerville? Who sent the mysterious note made up of cut-out letters from a newspaper, issuing a cryptic warning to ‘keep away from the moor’? Who stole Henry Baskerville’s new boot? And why did they then replace it, only to steal another, older, boot?
A protagonist determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, regardless of the risk of personal danger – ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ offers us several of these, in the form of Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson and even Henry Baskerville himself, determined to uncover the truth about the legend that has tormented his family for years, before it can claim his life too.

Dartmoor seems to be the perfect setting for this book. The moors are painted in such a stark and gloomy way that they almost become a character in their own right. It’s easy to imagine the terror that the locals must feel when the howl of an unknown animal reaches their ears from the depths of the moor. For Watson, this nocturnal trepidation is further compounded by the mysterious sobbing of a woman somewhere on the Baskerville estate. The darkness of the moor at night is so consuming that it is easy to believe that it is host to all manner of horrors (and the addition of an escaped murderer lurking within its depths only adds to this impression).

The plot of the book is intriguing, but for me the main draw is the character of Sherlock Holmes and his interactions with those around him, especially with his friend and colleague Dr Watson. Holmes is the perfect mix of wit and condescension (without the hint of cruelty that is occasionally present in the more recent BBC incarnation of Holmes). He has the capacity to downplay his abilities, and often seems to be of the opinion that others could do what he does if they were just willing to pay closer attention to the details available to them. For instance, Watson accuses Holmes of having eyes in the back of his head when he seems to know what Watson is doing, despite not facing him, and Holmes replies, rather drolly: “I have, at least, a well-polished, silver-plated coffee-pot in front of me.” Holmes does have a lot of faith in his abilities but he is fairly subtle in his lauding of them. After he offers a hypothesis to Watson, Watson concludes ‘You may be right’, and Holmes simply replies: ‘The probability lies in that direction.’

Dr Watson is a brave, clever and resourceful man, but it is obvious how much he craves approval from Holmes. We see this when he writes to Holmes about his concern for having let Henry Baskerville leave the house alone:

“I imagined what my feelings would be if I had to return to you and to confess that some misfortune had occurred through my disregard for your instructions. I assure you my cheeks flushed at the very thought.”

Later when he thinks he has solved part of the puzzle he writes: “Congratulate me, my dear Holmes, and tell me that I have not disappointed you as an agent – that you do not regret the confidence which you showed in me.” Watson obviously feels a great deal of pressure to get things right on this case and his relief is clear and deeply-felt once Holmes arrives to relieve him of his responsibilities.

I had already guessed that the unknown man on the moor was Holmes (I have a feeling I’d heard this somewhere else previously) but the part of the book where Watson discovers the hut on the moor and lies in wait to ambush the mystery man was probably my favourite part of the book. I liked that, for once, Watson managed to surprise Holmes.

Another of my favourite parts of the book was Watson’s interaction with Mr Frankland, who was essentially the Victorian equivalent of an Internet troll, inflicting inexplicable frustration on all those around him. He spends his days suing his neighbours purely for his own amusement whilst contradicting himself comically. He explains the events of his day to Watson – he has established a right of way on his neighbour’s land “within a hundred yards of his own front door” so that he can “teach these magnates that they cannot ride roughshod over the rights of the commoners”. And on the same day, and in the same breath, he explains that he has “closed the wood where the Fernworthy folk used to picnic. These infernal people seem to think that there are no rights of property, and that they can swarm where they like.”

But it isn’t just Mr Frankland, all of the background characters in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ are quite well fleshed out, although the female characters have quite limited roles. This book would fail the Bechdel test , although that is unsurprising given the era in which it was written. Beryl Stapleton is a fairly brave character, in that she attempts to impede Mr Stapleton’s nefarious plans even when he becomes violent towards her, which definitely shows courage. It’s just a shame her attempts to warn the other characters of his plans are quite weak and ineffectual.

Overall, I found ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ very entertaining. Although I wasn’t truly scared, I certainly found the idea of a hellhound very creepy and I can imagine that the supernatural elements of the book would seem even more plausible if I were surrounded by the landscape the characters inhabit. I enjoyed the mysteries being unravelled by Holmes, and I appreciated Watson playing a more prominent role in the story than he often does. I was also left with the abounding impression that, if I should ever visit Dartmoor, I would certainly heed the advice passed down through the Baskerville family and “forbear from crossing the moor in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted”.
I’m going to give this 3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)