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Book Review: City of Masks by S D Sykes

Poor Oswald De Lacy is in a bad way.  He is running from grief in his past and internal mental torment when he finds himself stuck in Venice.  “That doesn’t sound so bad” do I here you say?  But this isn’t Venice of today filled with light, beauty, energy and tourists this is the Venice of deep winter 1358.  The city is under siege due to a conflict with Hungary.  Provisions are running low.  The city has barely begun recovering from the black death.  Suspicion and paranoia rule in the form of the mysterious and autocratic ‘Council of Ten’.  The secret police can seize anyone suspected of spying or immoral behaviour and drag them away for torture and even execution.

He finds himself here after being diverted from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his mother.  They take accommodation in the home of an old family friend, John Bearpark, a rather bad tempered old man who chargers them for their stay and is far from a gracious host.  Along with a couple of odd fellow pilgrims the household is also consists of the Bearpark’s young pregnant wife Filomena (who Oswald finds himself disturbingly drawn to), his hard drinking party loving grandson Enrico and a handful of rude servants.

I suppose the best our Oswald can do is keep his head down and stay quiet until the siege is lifted and he can move on…some hope!  First he is persuaded to join Enrico in his partying and gets mixed up with some rather rough people, gets in trouble with too much gabbling and attracts the unwelcome attention of the Council of Ten.  The last thing he needs is to stumble across a mutilated corpse…but that is what happens.

Compelled to investigate the crime by pressure from his host who wants to avoid potential scandal he embarks on a quest that puts him in danger from every side.  He must seek out a murderer in a city where asking questions can see you accused of spying.  He must explore the underworld of Venice at a time when any moral transgression, or mere suspicion of it, can see you burned at the stake.  A tricky task indeed!

The best thing about this book is the setting.  The dark, spooky canals of medieval Venice help increase the sense of peril.  I also liked an historical book set in an era that has not been overdone, as I sometime feel the Tudor period has.  The characters were also good, I was left wanting to know what happened next to the characters (…those who survived that is!).

It’s a fairly exciting story but I felt the mystery itself was the weakest aspect.  I think the characters and setting would have been even more enjoyable if this hadn’t been a ‘who-done-it’, this aspect felt a bit shoehorned in, I could almost picture the meeting in the publishing house when they decided this had to fit into the crime genre because historical detectives are so popular.  The novel would have worked just as well if it had been the same characters in the same setting experiencing a number of things including murder but without following the formula of a detective character investigating the crime.

4/5

Zoe

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city of masks

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Book Review: Z by Therese Anne Fowler

Z

This is a fictional account for the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, focused, as you’d expect, on her marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It takes us though the gay years of their time as the darlings of the Jazz Age, through their financial problems and Scott’s literary triumphs and failures on to alcoholism and mental illness.

I think the strongest parts of the novel came at the beginning and the end.  The establishment of their relationship and its eventual decline, there are parts of the mid-section that become a little dull, a little ‘…and then we went here, and then we went there and then we did this…’ in style but that is my only real criticism of the novel as overall it is a very good read.

“For days, while at my morning and afternoon dance classes, while I ate, while I bathed, while I tried but failed to sleep, I considered how I might become more like the woman I respected and admired.  Surrounded as I was by such ambitious, accomplished women, I couldn’t ignore the little voice in my head that said maybe I was supposed to shed halfway and do something significant.  Contribute something.  Accomplish something.  Choose.  Be. “

A running theme throughout the novel is Zelda’s conflict with her role in life as a wife, a sidekick if you like, Mrs F. Scott Fitzgerald, merely an extension of her famous successful husband.  There are times when she enjoys the luxury Scott’s earnings bring and enjoys spending without having to earn and basking in his reflected glory, she enjoys helping with his novels and short stories without the credit.  But there are other times when she feels a niggling dissatisfaction with the life she has and wants to achieve more herself and explore her own creative talents.

It is well written because the author is not implying she is any kind of feminist heroine, Zelda doesn’t particularly have any interest in feminism or campaigning for women’s rights.  Zelda is an imperfect confused character who could perhaps be accused of wanting it all – but then who doesn’t?  It is a very human portrait and so is Fowler’s writing of Scott.  He can be quite controlling of Zelda and jealous of any attention she gets independent of him but we also see that he is sensitive and insecure and can be a loving and generous husband when at his best.

An interesting tale of two flawed people in a flawed marriage.

3.5/5

(This novel was made into a TV series, Z: The Beginning of Everything with Christina Ricci on Amazon.  I recommend this very highly and in some ways found the adaptation more insightful and entertaining than the novel itself).

Zoe

Z poster

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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: 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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Book Review:  All That Man Is by David Szalay

This is a great book.  It consists nine short stories about men.  It seems pretty random at first as the men are from all different countries, different classes and the stories are different; some funny, some sad some kind of just incidental.  After the first few though you realise that the age of the man goes up by a few years in each story, so I guess if you are looking for a theme this deals with the stages of life; the first main character is boy who has just finished his A-Levels and the last an old man facing declining health and the end of his life, in between you find young men exploring their sexuality, facing unwanted fatherhood, struggling to find career success, relationship breakdowns and disappointments  – life basically.  Some men are rich, some poor, some reasonably happy, others totally depressed – there was heaps of variety.

all that man is

I guess the downside of such a mix is that you are bound to relate to some stories and characters more than others.  My favourite was the second tale about a young French man who goes on an 18-30 style beach holiday to Cyprus on his own after his intended companion drops out last minute.  A bit of a saddo, he struggles to make friends when he gets there and ends up being taken under the wing of an obese mother and daughter from England.  Not cool!  I have never been a male French youngster but could really relate to the concerns, possibilities and awkwardness of youth that Szalay portrays.  This section was funny enough to have me laughing out loud and gasping with joyful shock during my commute.  It was also strangely touching about finding something rather nice in unexpected places – places that really are not cool!

After this classic the rest could only really go downhill unfortunately although I did still get a lot out of some of the other stories, my second favourite was probably the one about the young academic meeting up with his Polish girlfriend during a road trip and having to deal with her unplanned pregnancy.  In this tale I felt so sorry for both characters, one wants the child and one doesn’t and, in my opinion, neither one of them is ‘wrong’ but there is no compromise position and one of them is about to have their whole lives effected against their will.  They clearly care about each other but you can feel antagonism grow as he realises he may be forced into fatherhood he doesn’t want (an absent father is still a father) and she realises he is trying to persuade/bully her out of the motherhood she now craves.  It is very well written.

I also enjoyed the one about the poverty stricken British loser living with a few other oddballs in an unglamorous Croatian town remembering his glory days in the 1980s when he was briefly quite successful and owned a nice car.  He drops into every conversation the old car he used to own 30 years ago – and I can’t even remember the make as I have zero interest in car brands.

Overall though I would say I felt the stories were best when concerning young men.  They were more entertaining and rang truer than the later stories. I wondered if that is perhaps because I am still relatively young and can relate to the concerns of youth better than those of late-middle age and old age.  Or perhaps the same could be said of the author who is only a few years older than myself.

A very good read and easy to get into as the stories work stand alone so there is no effort involved remembering complicated plots or huge casts of characters – which (sorry to sound lazy) can be a relief if your reading time is made up of a few pages here and there on lunch breaks and commutes.

4/5

Zoe

Zoe

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Book Review: This Charming Man by Marian Keyes

WARNING: CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS

I really struggled with this book.  It’s not my usually thing, I picked it up on holiday as a This_Charming_Manprevious guest had left it in the apartment where we were staying.  I’d stupidly brought some philosophical tome to read which I just couldn’t get my head around so thought this book would be less challenging for holiday reading.  It certainly looked it from the colourful cover and from getting to know the main character Lola – a stylist from Dublin with a passionate love of designer labels who’d just been dumped by her more heavyweight politician boyfriend (Patrick D’Courcy, the charming man from the title).  She goes to the county to recover where she meets amusing and quirky characters and tries to lick her wounds.

After establishing this set up the narration then switches to other women who have also been close to the ‘charming man’.  Steadily it unfolds that he is actually a sadist who beats, rapes and mutilates the woman in his life.  It’s quite shocking and the tone pretty much remains in chicklit territory while dealing with these horrifying issues.  I think it is a brave move from the author but for me she just doesn’t quite pull it off, the switches between silly moments and serious I found a bit jarring.  But that does reflect life doesn’t it?  Just because you’ve been a victim of rape, assault or domestic violence doesn’t mean you’ll never laugh again, fall in love again or that you’ll cease to care about the content of Vogue magazine.  No, that isn’t my main criticism, I actually think the idea of tackling more serious issue in an accessible style is a very good idea (even if it didn’t entirely work for me).

The main reason I didn’t like it was the plot.  I felt let down by it on behalf of abused woman.  I’m not sure if I have misunderstood the author but it sent out a very strange message.  After we learn about the four different women who have been abused by Patrick their plots start to move together.  One of them, a journalist, finds out that Patrick is planning to leak a story to the press to destroy the career of a honourable female politician who she admires.  She gets the girls together and they threaten to go to the press with their stories unless he agrees to abandon his scheme, and he does agree and also apologies to them…and they celebrate!  He’s raped and tortured them and they are happy to have caused an inconvenience to his career? ! All the woman have been left with permanent physical and psychological scars from his treatment and yet are we to think this is the only justice they can expect?  I found this so disappointing.

The novel ends with Patrick’s career badly damaged and him going off to continue to abuse his latest victim…and yet the main characters seem pretty happy with the outcome.  I don’t think this holds up in a post Operation Yew Tree, Weinstein and #MeToo world – perhaps the world has moved on since the book was written about 10 years ago or maybe I am just naive.  I understand that abuse can damage people mentally as well as physically and maybe the women are so damaged that they don’t have the confidence to aim to bring him to real justice.  But then if that is the case the author deals with it very strangely with the girls whooping, laughing and celebrating their ‘victory’ with a night out in the pub.

Odd

1/5

Zoe

 

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Book Review: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

I decided to read a book from my childhood as it is a favourite for me and my best friend, and we always pretend we are the Mad Hatter and March Hare as it is a reflection on our lives.

Anyway, the story is about Alice who is sitting quietly on the riverbanks of the Thames and then sees a white rabbit who is talking to himself. Alice decides to follow him but then accidentally falls down the rabbit-hole!

She lands in a room with keys in it and sees a very tiny door that leads into a very pretty garden, but it is so small, she is unable to go through the door.small door

She then notices a small bottle that says “Drink me”, so she decides to drink it and then she becomes very small.

Unfortunately. she forgot to take the keys from the table before drinking the bottle and then realises she needs to grow big again. She then comes across a cake saying “eat me” and then when she does she becomes big. She then starts crying from all the confusion but as she is crying she shrinks again and is forced to swim in her own tears.

Eventually, she decides to go into the garden and comes across a cottage where she meets all the animals, such as Fish- Footman and delivers an invitation from the Queen to play croquet too a Frog -Footman. She comes across a cook who makes pepper soup and then sees the baby changing into a piglet.. She leaves them and meets the Cheshire cat who has a big wide grin.

She then meets Mad Hatter and March Hare who are having a tea party with sleeping Dormouse. She asks them questions but all she gets is riddles and to which nothing makes sense. Hence the phrase the Mad Hatters Tea Party.

This book is full of eccentricity and a dream world of nonsensical wonderland with the game of chesstea party and a chaotic game of chess that makes Alice into a Queen.

 

“Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!

How I wonder what you’re at!”

“Up above the world you fly,

Like a tea-tray in the sky.

Twinkle, twinkle____” ‘

 

March Hare.

 

By Jagruti

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Book Review: Heresy by S.J. Parris

Cityread starts next month and you may already know that Prophesy by S.J. Parris has been chosen as this year’s title.  Hope you are planning to read it next month!  It is part of a series so I thought I would take a look at the first book in the series in preparation (Prophesy is number two in the series).

Heresy

The sequence starts with Heresy, the first of five novels (so far) set in the late sixteenth century and following the story of Giordano Bruno, former monk turned travelling academic and part time sleuth!  Giordano Bruno was a real person and although all the novels are works of fiction they are littered with real characters and events.

The novel begins in Bruno’s youth as a monk in Italy and gives us a nice background into his character and situation.  Expelled from his monastery for reading banned books he has to go on the run and is then later excommunicated for his own controversial writings – making his existence even more perilous.

giordano-bruno

Portrait of the real Giordano Bruno

Despite his fugitive status he does find favour with some powerful people due to the brilliance of his philosophy and scientific ideas.  While this is a time of religious extremism and control it is also a time when learning and new ideas were embraced – these contradictions feature throughout the novels reflecting the confusing times he was living in.  After an exciting life on the run, including time spent working for the King of France, Bruno travels to England to a debate at Oxford University he is also hoping to locate a rare book he is eager to read – this is where the meat of this particular story begins.

Before travelling to Oxford Bruno is asked by Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Walsingham, to keep an eye out for Catholic Heretics while in Oxford.  Bruno admires Walsingham and also needs the money offered for the task!  He accepts with some reservations.

So you can see he’s in a bit of a pickle before he even begins!  He’s hated by some in Protestant England because of his Catholic background.  Hated by others because he has been excommunicated.  People tend not to trust him because he’s a foreigner.  He is eager to impress in a prestigious academic debate even though he doesn’t know the English debating style.  He wants to find a book, but can’t ask openly about it as it concerns elements of sorcery and could see him accused of witchcraft.  He has been told to look out for Catholics and report them to the authorities but his own instinct is for religious tolerance.  As soon as he arrives in Oxford he finds himself attracted to the beautiful and clever daughter of the University Rector – and she is very much out of bounds to a foreign former Catholic!

There is enough here for an exciting novel already…but then there is a grisly murder!

I won’t go into too much detail about the crime as this is basically a plot driven whodunit and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

I do definitely think it is worth a read.  The novel really immerses you in this fascinating era and the plot is pacey and exciting.  I suppose my only criticism is that, now I have also read Prophesy, the second novel is considerably better!  But this is a good sign as it hopefully means the series will develop and improve as it goes on.  In Hersey, while the ideas and feelings of the era seem well described, I often found it difficult to imagine the physical surroundings as S.J. Parris describes them (whereas in Prophesy the setting of Elizabethan London is extremely vivid).

3.5/5

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