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Book Review: The Break Down by B. A. Paris

This is a great exciting read, hard to put down once you get into it.

The main character is Cass, she is a teacher living with her new husband in rural England.  One night she is driving home from work in a heavy storm after an end of term celebration with colleagues.  Against her husband’s strict advice she takes a short cut down a quiet lonely stretch of road close to her home.  She sees a car parked with a woman in it, she hesitates but doesn’t stop as the woman doesn’t indicate she is in trouble.  Has the woman broken down?  Is she unwell?  Or is she up to no good?!  Cass doesn’t know but is too nervous to stop in case it’s a trick, also it’s late and throwing it down with rain.  She just wants to get home and also feels a little guilty about fibbing to her husband about her route – if she stops and gets involved there’s more chance he might find out she lied to him.  So she goes home to bed.

The next day she is horrified to hear on the news that a young woman has been brutally murdered in the spot where she saw the woman parked.  Now is the moment to come forward and go to the police as a witness and own up to her husband.  But she doesn’t, she is overcome with guilt and shame, wondering if she could have save the woman, so she continues with the lie that she did not take that route home and quickly it feels too late to confess the truth.

After this incident Cass’ life begins to unravel.  The guilt and lies seem to drag her down, she becomes stressed and forgetful and starts to wonder if she is developing the Early Onset Dementia that killed her mother.  Around this time strange things begin to happen – she starts getting silent phone calls and sensing someone is watching her and believes someone has been in her house and moved things around while she has been out.  Is it the killer taunting her because he knows she is a potential witness or is it all part of her mental problems and possibly a serious illness?  We don’t know and nor does Cass!

I can’t say much more without getting into spoiler territory – so I will stop there with describing the plot.  I hope I have said enough to get you interested as this is certainly worth reading if you want something exciting and mysterious without being too challenging or gory.  This is my kind of thriller.

As to down sides, I did find Cass and her lifestyle a bit dull at times.  She is only in her early 30s but for ‘fun’ all she does is potter in the garden wearing her special gardening shoes, for a treat she might nip into the nearest market town for a coffee or to wander round the shops.  She and her husband are young and well off with a large inheritance from her mother as well as two professional salaries but their lifestyle reminds me of my late grandparents!  (Probably me just being judgemental because I am such a trendy urbanite myself).  With reflection though I think her slightly dull character and lifestyle work for the plot, and they make sense as she was a carer for her sick mother from her teens to around 30 so probably never had chance to develop her own interests or find an circle of exciting, varied friends.  A wild, flamboyant character would probably have felt a bit much with the dramatic plot and Cass is actually a nice source of calm at the centre of things.

Another slight issue I had was that the climax seems to arrive in a bit of a rushed manner…but that is possibly just because I was turning the pages so fast when I was so eager to find out what was going to happen!  Occasionally I also felt the characters behaviour didn’t quite ring true, though this may have been deliberate from the author as we were seeing the plot from Cass’ point of view and a lot of the time she wasn’t thinking clearly and perhaps not reporting things accurately to us the reader.

Highly recommended.  I’m looking forward to reading more from B. A. Paris.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

This novel has a really fantastic concept.  It is set none specifically sometime around the present and then takes us forward a few years into the future so we can see the effect of the changes the world has faced.  It begins as teenage girls all over the world begin developing a power, they can generate electricity from their hands which they can use as a weapon to give people electric shocks.  First it is just teenage girls and then they find they are able to awaken the power in older women and baby girls begin to be born with the power.  The novel follows a handful of characters from different parts of the world, mostly women but also one man, as they adjust to the new reality.

The PowerThe novel is obviously all about gender relations.  How would the world look if women not men were the physically stronger sex?  The idea suggested is that the root of male dominance is superior physical strength and that if this were taken away in all cases, not just in some cases as it is now (we all know some physically strong and tough women and some physically weak men but these tend to break the overall pattern), gender relations would be transformed and women would be the dominant gender in all parts of the planet.  It also suggests that it would alter gender behaviour and roles in ways not even directly related to physical strength or power.  The whole idea really makes you think!

In terms of weaknesses I felt once the concept had been introduced the novel really went off the boil.  I didn’t find any of the characters tremendously interesting and the middle section of the book became rather dull.  It picked up a bit at the end when there were quite a few exciting and harrowing action sequences as men in parts of the world decided to try and fight back against the new reality.

3.5/5

Zoe

 

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Book Review: Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Insurgent

This is the second novel in the trilogy and picks up right where Divergent left off.  So Tris, Four and their uneasy alliance are sort of on the run after the vicious attack by mind controlled Dauntless on Abnegation.

Their society is more divided and ill at ease with itself than ever as our heroes have to seek allies and shelter with other factions as well as turning to the factionless for help.

This is a great book.  It’s action packed and exciting as well as taking time to explore more of the themes of Tris’ strange world and to follow her struggles to recover from the guilt at having killed a friend to defend her family in the last book.

I would say a downside is that Tris’ behaviour is a little infuriating at times.  She is needlessly (in my opinion) secretive with Four, who has made his love for her clear.  But I can see why the author has her act this way and she is trying to show just how messed up Tris is by the trauma and losses of the last book – she’s very human, acting illogically and making mistakes.

It’s good to get to know other factions a little better too.  Both the readers and Tris get to see that there are many members of factions who don’t neatly fit into the personalities they have been assigned.

The novel ends with a wonderful big reveal and a tantalising cliff hanger that has me impatient to read the next book!

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

This is an excellent book!  A novel aimed at young adults which is the first of an exciting trilogy.

divergent

The story is about Beatrice.  She lives in a very strange society which I believe is Chicago in the future (although I don’t think this is spelled out for certain).  In their society people live in ‘factions’, each faction has different attributes.  Candor are honest, Abnegation are selfless, Dauntless are brave, Amity are peaceful and Erudite are clever.  These factions perform different functions in society and mixing between the factions is minimal.  There is also a sixth group ‘the factionless’ these are people who live outside of society in extreme poverty because, for whatever reason, they were cast out of their factions – being factionless is seen as a terrible fate in Beatrice’s world.

At the age of 16 people have to choose which faction they wish to belong to.  Most people remain in the faction they were born into but this is not compulsory if you feel you do not fit it – leaving a faction requires a big sacrifice though as it will mean leaving your family behind for good.  To aid people in their decision they go through a complicated aptitude test which is supposed to reveal beyond doubt where they belong.

Beatrice is born in Abnegation and is torn in the run up to her decision because, although she loves her family, she doesn’t feel it is where she truly belongs.  But she is not sure she truly belongs in any of the other factions either!  She feels her personality is a mixture of different attributes (like a normal person to us!) in her world this is virtually unheard of as in is seen as vital that everyone fits in neatly to a fixed role.

Anyway, Beatrice makes her choice (I won’t spoil it for you) and begins the tough initiation process all teenagers have to go through before being accepted as full members of a faction.  The process is all the more tough for Beatrice as the whole time she has to hide the truth – that she does not fully fit in to any one faction.  Her uniqueness comes in handy however, as being slightly apart from the pack makes her more questioning which helps her spot something very dark brewing in the rigid and regimented culture she lives in.

This is a great story.  I found it very exciting and action packed.  I also loved it because of the parallels drawn with real teenage life.  OK we don’t have to choose a faction for life exactly but we are expected to know who we are and what we want to do with our lives at a very young age.  There is a lot of pressure to fit in and being a person who does not fit easily into an established mould can feel rather isolating – just like life is for Beatrice.

I am looking forward to seeing where the next two books take the characters and the rather sinister world they live in.

4.5/5

 

Zoe

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Book Review: East West Street by Philippe Sands

I stopped reading this about 20% in as it wasn’t really what I was looking for.   I read a review elsewhere that seemed to suggest it was a history book.  It isn’t quite that, it is more about the author’s efforts to find out about his family history during the holocaust (or at least the bit I read was).

I always feel weirdly guilty not admiring a book on such a serious subject but I found it dull.  I don’t find the suffering of the holocaust dull!  But the style of the book about how he traced the details of his relative’s movements and what the details of their living arrangements before and during World War II were just weren’t the style of history I respond to.  I prefer more conventional history writing that focuses on the people and events rather than on the process of uncovering that history.

Might suit someone as interested in the process of uncovering history as in the history itself.

Not for me.

2/5

East West Street

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Book Review: Conspiracy by S.J. Parris

conspiracy

This is the fourth book in S.J. Parris’ Giordano Bruno series.

Giordano Bruno was a real person who lived in late 16th century Europe.  He was a disgraced monk who abandoned holy orders because of his ‘heretical’ ideas on philosophy and science.  He is probably most famous for his theories on an infinite universe.  Excommunicated by Rome he travelled Europe making his living (with varying levels of success) as a teacher and academic, finding favour at times with rich and powerful figures because of his great intelligence.

S.J. Parris takes these facts and then uses her imagination to turn Bruno into a sort of travelling sleuth who solves crimes on his travels and become embroiled in plots and conspiracies wherever he goes!  It is a great idea.

So far we have seen him in Oxford, London and Coventry dealing with the spies, religious radicals, murderers and plotters who were indeed abound in Elizabethan England.  This novel is in my opinion the most exciting yet and sees him over the channel in the Paris that oversaw the end of the Valois Dynasty.

Henry III

Henry III of France, one of many interesting characters in the novel based on real historical figures. 

It’s a great setting.  Set about 15 years after the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s day, when tens of thousands of Protestants were slaughters across France, we find a city taut with religious and political tension.  The last Valois King Henry III, although still relatively young, is childless and not in the best of health and his cousin and likely heir is a Protestant.  Will the King, whom most believe to be a homosexual, produce an heir with his long suffering wife?  Will a Protestant on the throne reopen the barely healed religious wounds?  Or will the Catholics find a way to force a Catholic succession with or without a legitimate Valois heir?

Bruno is drawn into  this conflict when an old friend of his is mysteriously murdered and the clues indicate that the man had been part of a conspiracy at the heart of the French court possibly involving a plot to assassinate the King!

The best thing about this novel is that it is really exciting, full of danger and peril.  It is also fun to learn more about the rather debauched French court which is run by the formidable Queen Mother Catherine De Medici.   As for criticisms I found moments a little too gory, some of the poor characters really suffer under torture, but this is probably just because I am a wuss and the scenes did reflect the bloody times and helped raise the peril levels for Bruno.  I also, in common with the other Bruno novels, felt the mystery itself to be a little weak.  Parris is excellent at creating compelling characters and settings but she is no Agatha Christie when it comes to creating an intriguing mystery.  At the ‘big reveal’ moment in each of the Bruno stories I have read so far I have felt a sense of disappointment at the solution of the mystery, a sort of “Oh, was that all”.  But overall a great read and they do say the journey can be more exciting than the destination!

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian

I thought this was awful.  So awful that I only got to page 69 and felt I was wasting my time so abandoned it.

This book was a best seller so what was I missing?

The book is about a man (whose name I can’t remember) who gets stranded on Mars during a space mission.  The Book pretty much seems to be set in the present day.  A crew of about six people have landed on Mars and there is a storm and they have to leave in a hurry.  During the evacuation whats-his-name gets hit by debris and apparently killed so the crew sadly abandon his body rather than risk more lives.

But he’s not dead!

He comes round with an injury and makes his way to the buildings that have been placed on Mars over several missions.  There are only basic supplies as it wasn’t intended that anyone would stay there for any length of time, and there is no way to contact Earth.  He knows there will be another mission in four years that can save him but doesn’t have enough supplies to last anywhere near that long so if he wants to survive has to find ways to create food and water.

The next part of the book is a lot of detail about him working out his survival techniques.  It is all written in the first person in the form of mission log entries.  According to other reviews the science described about how you could survive in these conditions is excellent, all the calculations and facts have been well worked out by Andy Weir…but I don’t care!  It’s boring reading about how much water you need to grow potatoes and about soil nutrients and oxygen supplies.  Dull, dull, dull – at least in this context.

What I wanted to know is how Whats-His-Name is feeling.  What is he thinking?  Why is he so driven to ensure his survival?  What is there on Earth for him to go back to?  We don’t find out – at least not in the first 69 pages.  He records his very detailed logs in an unbelievably irritating tone, it sounds forced and as if he is trying too hard be glib and funny at all times – and failing miserably.  At no time does it come across as a realistic inner voice.  I think he is lucky he was stranded alone, if I had been stranded with him I would have throttled him to death on day one even if that meant being left alone with no clue as to how to grow potatoes.

After an interminable 50 or so pages of potato growing (some of which I admit I skipped) the action jumps to Earth where we find out how his former colleagues are responding to his supposed death.  This is boring too.  All the ‘characters’ speak with the same voice, they are completely interchangeable and all talk in short glib sentences that don’t sound like real dialogue.

So I quit.

It isn’t that I hate science or realistic details but I think they are pointless in a novel if there is no heart to the story and no characters whose fate you are engaged with.  Perhaps that comes later in but I needed at least a taste in the first 69 pages to keep me interested.

1/5

Zoe

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The Book of You by Claire Kendal

The book of you

This is a really frightening book, I’d say more horror than mystery.  So beware if you are easily frightening and a wimp (like me).  But if you are made of sterner stuff it is a pretty good read.

The main character is Clarissa, a woman definitely down on her luck.  Her husband has left her after years of unsuccessful fertility treatment, her career has stalled and she hasn’t really got any friends…and now she has found herself pursued by a scary stalker!  Her life is so rotten that she greets a jury service letter as a source of salvation, being on jury service will get her temporarily away from her stalker and her crappy job and she might even make some new friends.  But I am afraid her high hopes lead only to disappointment.

The villain of the piece is Rafe.  He works with Clarissa at the University of Bath and probably drugged and raped her after a party.  I say ‘probably’ as we only have it from Clarissa’s point of view and she doesn’t remember exactly what happened, he gave her a strange tasting glass of wine and she awoke the next morning naked in bed with him feeling sore and bruised.  She is confused and disoriented and doesn’t report it.  From this point on he acts like they have begun a relationship after a night of consensual sex.  He pesters her and sends her creepy presents and when she yells at him to leave her alone behaves as if they are having a harmless lover’s tiff.

At times you feel quite frustrated with Clarissa.  Why didn’t she report the rape to the police?  Why isn’t she taking this more seriously?  But at other times you feel sympathy.  She is a very vulnerable woman, possibly quite depressed, and she has confused and complicated emotions about what happened to her that night as many rape victims do.  Also Rafe is very convincing to the outside world, he is charming and successful at work and even convinces Clarissa’s oldest friend that he and Clarissa have been having a relationship and that he is nothing more than a caring and concerned boyfriend to the mentally disturbed Clarissa.  So Clarissa comes up with a plan, she will systematically collect and record evidence until she has enough to present the police with a strong case against Rafe.

The trial Clarissa is a juror for, far from being an escape, is a rape case that brings up painful memories of her own experiences and fears.  At the same time, outside the relative safety of the court, Rafe’s behaviour becomes increasingly menacing.  Will she gathered enough evidence to see him convicted and out of her life or has she underestimated the danger she is in?  Read this book to find out…if you dare!

A bit too violent and scary for my tastes.

3/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

heart-of-darkness

This is one of those books I feel I am supposed to like.  It is on a very serious and worthy  subject and is a well thought of classic – but I just found reading it a chore.  It’s one of those books where I could read a page of text and just not feel like I was taking any of it in.  I found it dull and hard to follow, I didn’t really understand the characters or what was going on most of the time (perhaps I am very stupid!)

The book is basically about the brutal nature of imperialism in 1890s Africa.  The main character is Marlow who is travelling through Africa while employed in the ivory trade up the Congo river hoping to meet a famous/infamous Ivory trader called Mr Kurtz.  Along the way he witnesses how corruptly the imperialists are behaving.  At one point the boat he is on gets attacked by some native Africans…but that’s about all I can tell you as to the plot as my mind kept wandering and I struggled to take anything in.  It kind of ended and left me thinking “well what was all that about?”

Basically I just didn’t get it.

1/5

Zoe

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Book Review: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

This book has an interesting style.  It is fiction but is written as if it is true crime with the text made up primarily of witness accounts and trial documents and reports.  The crime in question is the murder of a Scottish crofter and his young son and daughter, the criminal is one of his neighbours, a 17-year-old boy, Roderick Macrae.  It is set in 1869 in the Highlands of Scotland.

Most of the book is an account written by Roderick (who freely admits his guilt) of the circumstances leading up to his crime.  It makes fascinating reading, not just because of the crime, but because of the picture it paints of life as a 19th century crofter.  People living as peasants long after the industrial revolution had swept the rest of the country.

The story also offers an element of mystery.  Not as to who did the crime, as that is pretty clear, but why.  Because he is so open about his guilt Roderick seems a reliable witness but aspects of his account don’t tally with evidence found in court documents.  Did he really kill the family driven by family pride after a prolonged disagreement as he claims or did he actually have baser motives?

It is a very interesting and well written book.  Mysterious and offers a glimpse into a world very different from modern Britain.

4/5

Zoe

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