Category Archives: Book Reviews

Malibu Motel

Cautionary tale about a lottery-winner’s fall from grace

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

“Malibu Motel” by Chaunceton Bird is a novel styled as being based on the true story of a lottery-winner. The story follows Caish Calloway, living the high life in California happily spending their winnings on partying, property and cars and investing in ventures that go nowhere. When Caish hears about a particular opportunity, they are quick to invest and when the returns are good, Caish invests more. If it sounds too good to be true, it is, and Caish soon finds themselves with only a few million of their winnings left. Enough for most people to live on for the rest of their lives, Caish is in denial and refuses to abandon their life as a high-flier. Convinced that another win is just around the corner, Caish soon begins a slow slide into chaos, bringing many people down along with them.

This is a really interesting story about a unique but not impossible premise: how do you live your life after you win the lottery? Bird creates a character full of hubris who sees the win not as luck but as destiny and something that was earned through hard work and perseverance. However, Caish’s overconfidence and entitlement is ultimately their downfall and Bird explores how capitalism, materialism and even religion play a part in Caish’s undoing. One thing that Bird really excelled at was dramatic irony, and the audience can see Caish’s mistakes coming a mile a way. Bird also explores the mental gymnastics Caish performs to absolve themselves of any personal responsibility for their failings whatsoever. Anyone reading this will immediately be reminded of a Caish that they know. I really enjoyed that Bird added to the mystery and the universality of the story by withholding many of the personal attributes of his characters, in particular gender.

Without giving too much away, at the end of the book there are copies of official documents with identifiable information redacted. Initially I was a bit uncomfortable with them included, because I felt that it may have crossed the line into invading someone’s privacy by sharing such intimate information. However, I since read that Bird’s inspiration was actually another person which I think explains the strength of Caish’s characterisation. I think unfortunately in this case the thing that let the book down the most was the proof-reading.

Like a train wreck you can’t look away from, this is an immersive book about human folly that should absolutely be read while listening to this song.

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The Ice Palace

Norwegian literary novel about a missing schoolgirl

Content warning: missing child

While on my trip to Northern Europe, I wanted to read a book from every country I visited. This book is hailed as a Norwegian classic, and I was keen to try something a bit different to Scandi Noir.

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“The Ice Palace” by Tarjei Vesaas and translated by Elizabeth Rokkan is a literary novel about a young girl called Siss who meets a new girl in school just as winter is setting in at her small Norwegian town – freezing the river solid. Although Unn is much more reserved than popular Siss, Siss is nevertheless drawn to her and the two girls spend an intimate evening playing together. The next day, after Unn skips school to explore a frozen waterfall, the town bands together to try and find her. One of the last to see her, Siss is grilled for answers as to where she may be. While Unn remains missing, Siss is also at risk of being lost.

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Icicles on traditional houses just outside Oslo, Norway

This is a beautiful, eerie novel that explores the intense yet fragile nature of the friendship of young girls. I don’t like to compare books too much, but it reminded me of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “Cat’s Eye” by Margaret Atwood. It had a similar dreamy quality juxtaposed against the sharp clarity of friendship, made all the more dramatic by the captivating yet deadly winter landscape. The opening scenes of the book with the cracking sounds of the ice in the darkness and the frozen beauty of the waterfall was mesmerising. This is quite a short book, almost a novella, and I am still haunted by it. Vesaas knows exactly how much information to give to the reader, and exactly how much to withhold. I also thought that he provides the reader with an incredible insight into the life-shattering and unresolved grief that comes with knowing someone who has gone missing.

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A waterfall on our way to Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord

This was an excellent, haunting book that is an ideal novel for travelling through the spectacular scenery of Norway.

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The Ice Princess

Scandi noir novel set on wintry coastal Sweden

Content warning: crime, abuse, social issues

Knowing that I was shortly going to be visiting some Scandinavian countries, I knew I needed to stock up on appropriate reading material. What better to start with than some Nordic noir? Luckily for me, the Lifeline Book Fair was on recently, and I managed to score a copy of a book by a very well-known Swedish author. We were staying on a very cool hostel on an actual ship, it was freezing cold, and on one afternoon it started hailing. The atmosphere couldn’t have been better.

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I actually forgot to take a photo while actually in Sweden, but I managed to take this one just after we took off so I’m saying that it’s in the air space, and it counts. 

“The Ice Princess” by Camilla Läckberg and translated by Steven T. Murray is a Swedish crime fiction novel about writer Erica who returns to her quiet coastal hometown to sort through her parents’ house after their funeral. However, overshadowing her loss is the mysterious death of her estranged childhood friend Alex. Found frozen in her bathtub after an apparent suicide, things don’t add up and police start looking for suspects. Feeling that their friendship ended unresolved, Erica’s writing is rekindled by a new project: a biography about Alex. Her own investigations lead her to team up with police officer and schoolmate Patrik, and together they begin to unpack the dark truth.

This is a classic example of readable crime fiction with all the elements: grisly murder, awkward but lovable woman protagonist, small community drama and terrible family secrets. Läckberg is a clear, no-nonsense writer who focuses on place and character rather than the forensic minutiae of other writers in the genre. The book is in some ways a little more of a cozy mystery rather than a thriller, though it is not without its grit. Läckberg addresses issues of alcoholism, poverty, homelessness, class, domestic violence and child sexual abuse. Murray’s translation feels very faithful, and he manages to capture elements of Swedish culture while maintaining the universality of the characters.

I think one downside to reading crime fiction that was written some time ago (this was originally published in 2003) is that what was clearly relatively groundbreaking back then feels extremely familiar today. Crime fiction is incredibly popular, and Läckberg’s style is obviously of some influence to more recent authors. Some of the twists I guessed, some I didn’t, but I think probably what frustrated me the most was how one-dimensional some of the characters were. There is quite a bit of Bridget Jones in Erica who is loves to shop and worries about her weight, though it is tempered by her warmth and care for her sister. All the men seem to be into sports. Läckberg uses a technique where she switches perspectives between her characters and contrasts their self-perception against the observations of others. While this brings some nuance to the book, it does bog it down a little.

An easy read that while simple in some ways is complex in others. An impressive debut, and I would be interested to see how her style grows in her later novels.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Mystery/Thriller

The Priory of the Orange Tree

Epic fantasy novel about intrigue, warriors and dragons

This was the next set book for my feminist fantasy book club, and I decided to tackle it straightaway during my long flight to Europe. I bought an eBook, but the cover of the hardcopy is exquisite. So if you don’t mind deadlifting every time you turn a page (it is an enormous book), but want to buy a copy, consider the a hardcopy.

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One of our members’ beautiful table setting

“The Priory of the Orange Tree” by Samantha Shannon is an epic fantasy novel about a world split between the East and the West. In the East, where dragons are revered and wise creatures of the sea, a young girl called Tané is training to be a dragonrider. On the eve before her studies and abilities are put to the test, she discovers something forbidden and is forced to choose between herself and the law. In the West, where dragons are firebreathing wyrms who bring disease and destruction, another young woman called Ead is rising through the ranks at court in the land of Inys. Charged with protecting the devout and imperious Queen Sabran, Ead keeps her identity and her skills a secret. However, as Ead grows closer to Sabran, and attacks by assassins increase in number and ferocity, the secrets become harder to keep. Meanwhile, there is one secret that cannot be ignored: the impending return of the Nameless One.

There were lots of things that were great about this book. Ead was an incredibly enjoyable character and I loved her storyline, her character growth, her history and her abilities. I think it was pretty obvious that Shannon did too, because Ead’s story does dominate the book. I really liked the diversity of relationships, and I absolutely adored Tané’s journey towards being a dragonrider. Shannon’s writing was strong, and her worldbuilding was a creative spin on traditional dragon myths around the world. I thought the religion in Inys built around virtues and a creation story that are interpreted elsewhere in other countries was an insightful look at how Christianity has evolved and changed.

I hate to say it, because it’s a familiar gripe of mine with fantasy novels, but this book was too long. I reached the end of my patience with this book at about page 600 of its 800-odd pages. As much as I like Ead, she really did overshadow the rest of the story, and her adventures with Sabran and Inys felt much more filled-out than Tané’s journey. This may have reflected Shannon’s confidence with the subject-matter, as Tané’s part of the world was clearly modelled on countries in East Asia, whereas Ead’s story was inspired by Western European culture. In comparison, Tané’s plot felt like a very rushed deus ex machina, and across the board I felt like Shannon leaned heavily on determinism and the repeating of historical events rather than interesting moral dilemmas, ingenuity or an extremely well-thought-out plan.

I have nothing to say about young Lord Loth’s point of view chapters, they were the most dull and left almost no impression on me at all. Niclays on the other hand actively annoyed me, and his role in the books was baffling all the way up to the climax (which, after an inordinate amount of foreshadowing, was over in two chapters). He was one of the few morally ambiguous characters, but with not nearly the subtlety of Kalyba who was far more interesting. I legitimately could not understand why Laya stuck by him throughout the end. His motivations (greed and a lost lover) just did not justify his choices whatsoever, and he wasn’t much of a counterweight for either Ead or Tané, even tempered by Loth’s banal chapters. Considering he only seemed to exist to bridge the gap between East and West, I honestly would have axed Niclays altogether and invested that time into Tané’s origin story which was itself very flimsy. I also wish that Shannon had explored her fascinating giant trees a little more. Instead of developing lore, legend and how these ancient lifeforms influenced the events unfolding today, they end up being little more than plot points and I felt that the opportunity was wasted.

A book with plenty of highlights that could have used some firm culling (of Niclays).

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Red Sister

Fantasy novel about assassin nuns

This was a set book for the feminist fantasy book club I am in, and broke the trend a little by being written by a man. I have to say, it wasn’t a particularly enticing cover, and it was subject to significant ridicule before we even had the meeting. I mean, it really is so bad, I’m tempted to start a new category on my blog for ugly book covers. Needless to say, my expectations were not high when I bought it for my Kobo.

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Contender for the worst book cover ever? 

“Red Sister” by Mark Lawrence is a fantasy (and kind of science fiction) novel about a girl called Nona who is taken from her home, placed on a cart with other children and taken to a city to be sold. The children are inspected for physical signs for their potential to have the traits of each of the original tribes: hunska, marjal, quantal and gerant. Her dark eyes, dark hair and incredible reflexes suggest hunska blood, and Nona is sold to a fight hall. However, after a violent incident, Nona is sentenced to death and is rescued at the last minute by Abbess Glass of the convent Sweet Mercy. Nona is enrolled to become a novice and train to become an assassin. Far behind her peers in her literacy and social skills, and with her past threatening to catch up with her, Nona must learn to walk the path before it is too late.

 

This is a fast-paced, immersive read that mixes elements of fantasy, science fiction and your classic, young adult magic school. I really enjoyed the world-building in this book, and the concept of a world completely frozen except for a thin strip along the equator kept warm by a mysterious red moon. The idea of a planet long ago settled by humans who have made it their own and who have special abilities is one that I have read in Anne McCaffrey, C J Cherryh and even Patrick Ness‘ books – and it is a premise that I simply never get tired of. Lawrence is a strong writer who is able to explain some of his complicated magical concepts, and allude to technology that, while the characters don’t understand, the reader recognises, in a clear way. I also liked how much uncomplicated queer content there was in this book, and Lawrence’s handling of relationships.

I think the thing I struggled with was the plot itself. The timeline was a little all over the place, sometimes doubling back, sometimes skipping ahead years at a time. While the theme of “Nona is under threat” was constant, the nature and source of that threat was in constant flux. I felt like the trial at Sweet Mercy was confusing and a little pointless, with Abbess Glass as opaque, unpredictable and infuriating as Dumbledore. The book also seemed divided in two with the demons from Nona’s past forgotten, and a new threat to the mysterious shipheart introduced very late in the story. I think all the elements were there, but they just felt like they needed a little reshuffling or something. Honestly, I just wanted to know more about the original tribes and the red moon, and less about who was trying to attack Nona at any given second for no discernible reason.

This was a very easy book to read, and there were plenty of things I liked about it, but I’m still on the fence about whether or not I’ll read the second book in the series.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Science Fiction

Bluethroat Morning

Mystery novel about a troubled author

Content warning: suicide

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

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“Bluethroat Morning” by Jacqui Lofthouse is a mystery novel about a retiring schoolteacher called Harry Bliss who, six years on, is still mourning the death of his wife Alison. Haunted by her lingering fame as a model, as well as her suicide in a small Norfolk village while working on her new book, Harry is unable to face learning what happened to his wife. When he meets Helen, he is encouraged to visit the village and retrace Alison’s steps to try to understand her, and ultimately himself.

This is a quietly compelling book that explores a multitude of issues ranging from grief, fame, success, marriage, family, depression and what it means to be a woman. Lofthouse has a classic, almost gothic style of writing and juxtaposes the warmth of beauty and life against the cold, bleak backdrop of the Norfolk coastal village. I thought that the first half of the book was particularly strong, and I particularly enjoyed Lofthouse’s exploration of ethical boundaries and forbidden love. I also liked how Alison was portrayed as both otherworldly and human. I also liked that Harry’s indifference was examined as both a strength in his relationship with Alison as well as a weakness. By the end of the book, there was still an intriguing air of mystery around Alison, her life and her motives.

While I understand that the structure of the novel is sort of a quintessential tragedy, the action falling from the climax to the dénouement, I did find the second half of the book to be a little less gripping that the first half. While I understand that there is never a satisfactory resolution when someone has taken their own life, I did feel that some of the elements of the plot were at times a little difficult to connect with. I thought Harry was an interesting choice for a point of view character, and I think I would have liked to have seen a little more of some other perspectives.

A thoughtful and timeless book that explores familiar themes in a fresh way.

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The Underground Railroad

Audiobook alternative history about the Underground Railroad

Content warning: slavery, violence, sexual violence

As I said in a previous review, I’m currently trying to motivate myself to go to the gym by listening to audiobooks only when I am at the gym. I was scrolling through the available books, and this one jumped out at me. I had heard that it had won lots of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and they were more than enough credentials for me to try it out.

The Underground Railroad cover art

“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead and narrated by Bahni Turpin is an alternative history novel about slavery in the USA. The story is mostly about Cora, a young slave who lives on a plantation in the state of Georgia. When she was very young, Cora’s mother Mabel escaped without her. Left to fend for herself against attempts to steal her tiny plot of land, gang rape and beatings, when Cora is asked by another slave called Caesar to escape with him, she eventually agrees. The Underground Railroad, which Whitehead imagines as a literal railroad underground, takes Cora and Caesar to South Carolina. Given a job and a new life in a new city, Cora must decide which is greater: the cost to stay, or the risk to keep running.

This is a heavy, intense book that reimagines this period of American history and distills it to its essence. Whitehead’s depiction of the underground railroad as an actual railroad was so convincing, that I was most of the way through the book before I asked myself, hang on… This is an incredibly challenging book, and the seemingly never-ending variety of horrors enslaved people were subjected to is very difficult to hear. Cora’s characterisation as a resilient young woman living in her mother’s shadow, and with her mother’s abandonment, was engaging, and I thought that the last few chapters of the book were the best.

The ending really elevated this book for me, and I have to admit that there were parts of the book that did stretch on – especially when Cora was hiding in an in North Carolina, completely dependent with her health slowly ebbing away.  I think that while she was a clear narrator, Turpin had a sardonic, languid style that I felt was sometimes at odds with Cora’s inherent gumption and opportunism. However, it certainly aligned with the parts of the book where Cora was required to stay very still like on the railway, working in the museum and later in the attic.

A well-written, fraught and necessary book with a superb ending.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction