Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Summer We All Ran Away

Looking back I can't quite remember what caught my eye about Cassandra Parkin's debut novel. I guess the title captured a certain end of season whimsy that echoed my own memories of the fast fading summer as the leaves turn golden on the trees. Whatever it was, I'm glad I did, as this proved a great read with accomplished story telling - I was truly gripped from the off.

Parkin's tale begins with Davey, a teenage runaway drunkenly making his way somewhere, anywhere, away from his past. Somehow, he finds himself in a secluded house in the West Country, living with three others also sheltering from their past. He is welcome to stay as long as he likes, where the only rule seems to be to not ask any questions about how the others got to where they are.

His story is juxaposed with that of Jack, a rock star trying to recover from his demons, hiding away in the same house in the seventies. He meets Mathilda, a young actress. From these beginnings, Parkin dips in and out of their stories, taking lots of different strands and eventually pulling them all together to make sense in the final few pages.

As the book progresses, we start to learn what the four housemates - Davey, Priss, Tom and Kate - together, and what they have all run from. The present day tale centres around the two teenagers, Priss and Davey, as they seek answers. For me, the most compelling part was Davey's story as he attempts to conquer his demons. As his tale unfurls it's clear he's a resilient young man with a distance still to travel, adding a great coming of age element.

This was a very atmospheric read, full of wist and promise. It was indeed very different, but the familiar themes of abandonment and the quest of belonging was told in a masterful style. I found myself whizzing through this book and was definitely sad to reach the end of my hidden haven at the end of a commute. An unusual read, but definitely worth a dabble.

(Available in Kindle format or paperback from Amazon)

The Engagements

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm not the biggest fan of the "chick lit" genre. My hand hovers warily over any book about weddings, engagements, slightly dreading all the predictable twists and turns that follow.

I'm glad I cast my initial doubts aside as The Engagements proved to be a real treat; complex, layered, yet simple. Best described as a series of short stories linked by the theme of diamond engagement rings, J. Courtney Sullivan creates a wonderfully rich cast of characters in which love is not an easy game.

We follow the lives of 5 characters across different eras, all struggling with their own dilemmas. For those who have happy marriages, their path is not an easy one. Wealthy grandmother Evelyn, for example, finds her marital contentment cannot erase the pain of her son's abandonment of his wife, nor the tragedy of her past. James, an ambulance driver in 1987, is struggling with debt and desperation to keep his beloved wife happy and fulfill his son's musical potential. Frenchwoman Delphine's escape from her safe marriage with her young lover proves to be a risky move...all the stories had me gripped and despite their variances; Sullivan weaves between them masterfully as the multiple narratives never jar.

Against this backdrop is the fascinating tale of the real-life Mary Frances Gerety. An advertising creative, Sullivan tells the tale of her dreaming up the "diamond is forever" slogan for De Beers. In her tale Sullivan provides an inspiring alternative path; the happily single woman who shaped a career in an era where it was not the norm. Her battles were a compelling read, all the more so for knowing this tale was true. It also created a healthy pinch of cynicism about the diamond tradition, highlighting how this is more a product of advertisers such as Gerety rather than one passed through the generations.

Overall this was a sparkling (forgive the pun!) read. Diverse tales that do not lose their flow, stories with a message of hope and love alongside a firm dollop of real life make this a book of real substance. My only slight dampner was the tale of Kate, a liberal who has to put her strong views on marriage and blood diamonds aside for the marriage of her cousin. I didn't feel as much of a connection with this character, although her views did provide an important emphasis on the human price paid for that month's wages on your ring finger.

I found this a gripping read, and it successfully navigates between its different strands with ease in a way that lent itself well to 45 minutes of rush hour. I'd definitely recommend this as a great antidote to the happy ever afters and a real, satisfying read.

(Available in Kindle, hardback, paperback and audio formats from Amazon)

Monday, 12 August 2013

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

Following last month's review of Gone Girl, I decided I really ought to tackle more of the "everyone's read it" books lurking on my Kindle. So, after a few months on the to do list, it was time to delve into the Hundred-Year-Old Man.

This was my first foray into the world of Swedish literature and my, what a strange tale! The basic plot is the adventures of the elderly Allan Karlsson who escapes his old people's home on the day of his hundredth birthday and embarks on a series of accidental adventures involving, among many other things, vast sums of money, gangsters, a rogue elephant and a bumbling investigator and prosecutor. Interwoven with this is the story of Allan's (again accidental) adventures through 20th century history.

I really enjoyed the simple narrative and felt it gave a distinct whimsy to proceedings. It's a unique combination of many different styles and genres; it's what Forrest Gump would have been if following a mild mannered, quick witted Swede around pivotal moments of European and world history. In parts too it reminded me of Inspector Clouseau and Fawlty Towers...so as you can tell, a novel that is tricky to define!

It did take me a little time to get used to the style but I do think it's well worth persevering with. I would describe the pace as easy going but if you're looking for thrills and spills it probably isn't for you. This is very much due to the nature of the main character; Allan is calm and unflappable, even in the face of great danger. As a result, everything is dealt with in a rather understated way. For me, this was a large part of its charm. If only I had Allan's cool reserve under pressure - who knows what global events I could have stumbled upon and inadvertently influenced, all while drinking vodkas with world leaders?

It is a great bit of escapism and does require the suspension of disbelief; this, combined with a good understanding of 20th century history, made this a book that amused and entertained throughout my commute. Definitely one to try on the journey to work if you're looking for something a little different.

(Available from Amazon in ebook, hardback, paperback and audio)

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Early Summer Round-Up

Phew, what a busy few weeks it has been! In the ever elusive juggle to get the work / life balance right, I've fallen a little behind in my reviews. However, in such busy times the rush hour read is ever important! So here's a sneak peak at my recent reads.

First up is Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, to tie in loosely with June's film theme. It was a nice, easy read and entertaining; I quite enjoyed the fairly unsympathetic lead, as there's nothing like a flawed hero for me. The supporting cast of music shop misfits was also amusing, but I couldn't quite shake the feeling of familiarity throughout. Part of this was from other Hornby works I've read (notably, Juliet, Naked - perhaps a little unfair as High Fidelity came first...) and also the wickedly brilliant The Average American Male from Chad Kultgen (firmly classed in the "I loved it but I shouldn't" category). I guess this highlights what a pioneer Nick Hornby has been of the genre; either way, it's a fun and nostalgic read - one day we shall study this and marvel at a time when people actually made a living from running record shops!

(available in hardcopy, paperback, Kindle and audio formats)

Next up, A.M. Holmes' May We Be Forgiven. I've always loved a family saga since the first time I read Catherine Cookson's Mallen Trilogy (should that be filed under a guilty pleasure? I'd like to think not - give them a read if you haven't already). The first few pages are black comedy of a grand scale; terrible thing after terrible thing happens as the reader watches a family fall apart, and I found myself wondering just how this exciting pace could be sustained through it's length...which was the problem for me. After a great start, I don't think Holmes really maintains a compelling pace as another less conventional family forms from the ruins. The rest of the novel is a series of random episodes as main character Harry seeks redemption, and I felt it become a little too unbelieveable as Harry's unconventional family accrues more members. I did find the last few chapters dragged a little and at times descended into schmaltz, which didn't really fit with its early promise. Overall, OK, but not much more.

(available in hardcopy, paperback, Kindle and audio)

Finally, I got round to reading Gone Girl after much hype. I think I'm probably the last person among friends to have read it so thought I should get round to tackling it. Thrillers are not normally my thing, but this one really had me gripped. A psychological thriller which focuses on the toxic marriage of beautiful Amy and Nick, the story of Amy's disappearance is not all what it seems. This is a novel which twists and turns so subtly that the reader is never sure exactly what's going to happen next and, until the halfway point, you find yourself starting to doubt everything.

Every detail plays its part and I found myself admiring Gillian Flynn's cunning in her craft. Just when you think you've solved it, boom! In comes another curveball. I did find the end slightly disappointing; this for me was another where the first half wasn't quite up to the initial promise and towards the end I guessed where it was going. Still, overall this was a book that's hard to put down and I regret leaving this as long as I did. This was a book that never quite made it into my bag when my train pulled into the station as I desperately tried to eek out the last bit of a chapter on my walk to the office. Fellow pavement strollers, I apologise - but if you gave this book a read, I'm sure you'll understand why!

(available in hardcopy, paperback, Kindle and audio)

So, these are the reads that have gotten me through the hot summer so far; hopefully not quite so many reviews at once next time!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Rosemary's Baby

This month I was toying with a theme; following the release of The Great Gatsby, perhaps I could base my month's reading on books that were made into films?

My subsequent Google search brought me to Rosemary's Baby. Adapted by Roman Polanski in 1968, Ira Levin's second novel was far from what I normally read, but embracing the spirit of Movie Month, I decided to give it a go.

Creepy and unnerving, this is the tale of a young couple who ignore warnings of serial killers, Satanists and suicides in their block and move into a new apartment, seduced by its old world charm and generous space. After the initial shock of their neighbour's suicide, things start to go well for the couple; but how much of that is to do with the influence of overbearing neighbours Roman and Minnie Castavet, with their strange midnight chanting and unknown good luck charms...?

When Rosemary falls pregnant, it had been everything she had wished for. But as the pregnancy progresses, her suspicions increase. Who are the Castavets? Why are they so interested in her and her husband? And just what is that crippling pain that never ceases?

This was a deeply unnerving read for many reasons. Minnie and Roman's suburban Satanists are brilliantly banal; they are unsettling in how well they fulfil the role of the harmless, elderly neighbours. Even as suspicions build about their links with the dark side, there is a slight sliver of doubt that perhaps they are just harmless old folk with boundary issues. Meanwhile, you feel Rosemary's world narrowing around her. Just who can she trust? How complicit is her husband, Guy? Would he really sell out her womb for his career?

Some parts of this were very unsettling. The conception of the baby is a scene that is still playing on my mind somewhat, and the ending was definitely not what I expected. I'm still not sure if I felt this was the right way to end the tale, but it definitely provided a brilliant twist!

This is a very easy to read book with its power deriving from its simplicity, so it's a good one for the commute in that sense. It is full of suspense, surprise and stays with you for a long while after. In my view, definitely worth a try, but be prepared to feel ever so slightly on edge throughout.

As for the film theme - if anyone has a favourite book that's been adapted, feel free to share your thoughts in the comment box below. I'm open to suggestion!

(Available in paperback and Kindle format from Amazon)

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?

I've mentioned before my penchant for a sad tale. So, in seeking inspiration for a tale of heartbreak, I Googled this very theme and the title that caught my eye was this one by Lorrie Moore. Although I'm not sure it met my initial brief (my heartstrings were left largely untugged), I did find this an intriguing tale of growing up and growing apart.

Berie Carr is grown up now, visiting Paris with her husband and some very large alarm bells sounding to the reader as regards the health of her marriage. While there, she reflects on a friendship lost and takes us back to a summer back in 1972 where, on the cusp of womanhood, events see the beginning of the end of her close bond with childhood friend, Silsby.

I felt Moore captured beautifully those heady days of adolescent summers and the intensity of teenage female friendships. It's difficult to read this book and not reflect back on your own schooldays, feeling the pinch of regret at losing touch with those you never questioned as being part of your everyday life. There is little dialogue in this book, more just the narrative of Berie's reflections as she recounts the moments, small at the time, which unleash a chain of events that separate and part; at first the break is dramatic, but then the drift sets in and the subtle changes occur to make their worlds very different.

The bittersweet tone was this novel's strength; however, I wasn't totally convinced by the overall flow. I don't think the reflections from modern day Paris were particularly coherent with the rest of the narrative or really added much; in places, I felt the modern day parts got in the way of the story's progression. I also felt the characters shifted a little too much towards the end, particularly Silsby; the girl the adult Berie described wasn't a convincing reflection of the grown up version she reveals later on.

I've read some reviews of this since which have suggested it would have been better as a short story rather than a short novel and I can't help but agree. As a wistful reflection on innocence lost and how people change over time, this was a great read. I'm not convinced, however, it was at its strongest as a short novel as I felt there was some padding out with the Parisian sections especially. Still, if you feel like stirring some memories of those lost summers of youth and reflecting on those friends from yesteryear, this isn't a bad book to trigger that. Plus I guess it's not a bad thing it wasn't too heartbreaking; there's nothing worse than trying to stifle a tear-y moment when packed in on public transport...

(Available from Amazon)

Saturday, 4 May 2013


Sometimes there's nothing better than indulging in a bit of guilty pleasure. For me, there is no pleasure more guilty than a bit of Jilly C.

In my view, Jilly Cooper is where chicklit begins and ends. Her characters are silly and frivolous and their world utterly incomprehensible to the everyday 21st century woman, but it's brilliantly escapist. Her heroines are glamorous, beautiful and sophisticated and they know it. They all date knee-weakeningly handsome men called Pendle or Lazlo. I know it's trashy and I know it's silly, but I just can't resist!

Part of her girls' names series, Prudence follows the same delicious formula as the rest of Jilly's novels. Prudence is a glamorous girl about town, spending her time in 1970s Chelsea attending oodles of fabulous parties. At one more dull affair she meets the dashing and aloof (textbook Jilly) Pendle Mulholland. After showing a little too much enthusiasm on their first encounter, Pendle blows cold. Prudence is confused, but delighted when he invites her to meet his family. Is she finally getting through to him?

His family, of course, are riotous and seem to be more interested in each other's partners than their own. The house is a chaotic world of parties and glamorous guests and Prudence finds herself in the middle of some curious family skeletons tumbling out the closet. The Mullhollands are all handsome and dashing and Prudence becomes increasingly intrigued by Pendle's woman-chasing brother Jack and elusive Ace (yes, really...).

The plot is full of twists and turns, all brilliantly over the top, and fast-paced. One needs to completely suspend disbelief, but for me Prudence was one of my favourites in the series. It is pure, unadulterated escapism which I found myself racing through. Even at its most ludicrous (who on earth is called Pendle or Ace in real life??), it is always entertaining.

Don't get me wrong, the book is terribly dated in places (I did find my eyes widening at some of the less PC remarks which would definitely not make it through an edit in contemporary chicklit!). However, it's so refreshing from much of the post-Bridget Jones women's fiction of today. Jilly's heroines are confident, strong and have great self belief. There is no calorie counting and fretting about appearance; in the land of Jilly, there is nothing that can't be fixed with a bit of lipstick, a stiff drink and a quick wash of the hair.

Sure, it's hardly the definition of feminism but it's fun. When immersed in this book I was no longer packed into a Tube carriage, I was at a fabulous party with handsome, improbably-named men. So, if you're looking for a bit of fun, definitely give this a try!

(Available in paperback and ebook from the Random House website)

Monday, 29 April 2013

Amity & Sorrow

When an author describes her novel as a tale of "God, sex and farming", it's hard to know what to expect. Having weighed this up against all the buzz that's been surrounding it, I delved in.

I wasn't disappointed.
Amity & Sorrow is an exciting read and instantly you're plunged into the action as mother Amaranth and daughters Amity and Sorrow speed away from all the girls have known. The urgency of their escape is slowly revealed through cleverly interwoven flashbacks to their time as first wife and eldest daughters in a polygamous cult. We follow them as they settle on a farm (some better than others) run by a lonely abandoned husband, living with his adopted son and elderly father, with a mixture of fear and hope that they would be found.

Peggy Riley's characters are brilliantly crafted and immediately credible. Amaranth tries to right the mistakes that has seen her children grow up without knowledge of the world. This ignorance, designed to protect them, has corrupted them in ways that Amaranth could never have foreseen. I loved the characters of both sisters too; Amity, apparently blessed with healing powers and open-minded to a new life, and reluctant Sorrow, stubborn and longing for her old existance with an increasingly terrifying ferocity.

The creation and collapse of Amaranth's idyll is recounted and the consequences seen in the damage done to her daughters. There are parallels with the life of farmer Bradley as he seeks to keep his farm afloat and is alone, and offers the family kindness even in the face of Sorrow's destruction.

Riley's creation is a masterful one. She crafts great villains whilst also offering hope; darkness is never far from light. The novel's themes are powerful and gritty and elements of it are disturbing. Amity & Sorrow isn't a light read, but is all the more rewarding for it. With strong links to the Branch Davidians and frequent references to Waco, this is a cautionary (rather than sensationalist) tale of how power and greed corrupts, as well as a fascinating view of one family's escape from the sinister grip of a polygamous cult.

This was a really enjoyable, thought-provoking book. For me it definitely lived up to the hype and was one that made me groan at the end of my commute when I had to stop reading for a while. I would warn that it's not necessarily for the faint-hearted, but is rewarding nonetheless.

(Available from Amazon)

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Life After Life

Life After Life comes with an intriguing premise. A baby is born in a snowy February in 1910. She dies at birth. In the next chapter, she is given another chance and survives; the reader then follows the child, Ursula, as she grows up before, between and during the World Wars, with a unique gift. She can go back and correct her mistakes, dying then starting again.

I've read several reviews of this now, mulling over how my thoughts compare. I was encouraged to pick this up after seeing adverts and reviews for it everywhere. Now having read it, I think my conclusion is that I liked it, but only loved it in parts.

The story is complex and Kate Atkinson's writing is clever and flowing. Metaphors of darkness and light pervade and a real sense of foreboding exists. Some sections are brilliant, such as when Ursula is battling to prevent the death of her, her brother and her maid from Spanish Flu. The repeating and thwarting of her efforts add an almost comic twist. However, some sections I found slightly laboured, such as Ursula's time with Eva Braun and Hitler as the continent inches towards war.

Overall, I think this was a great mind-twisting journey. Throughout the story you question what is real, and even when the worst happens you have hope that Ursula can reset and have a happier life. Characters die and are then brought to life. I also loved the sense of familial love at the heart of the novel, and it helped add grounding and a sense of reality. The character of Ursula changed and adapted as she subconsciously learnt from her errors in her parallel lives. The result is a character you wish the best for, but also she is not the same person from one segment to another. The constant characters of her siblings and parents help anchor the story and attach Ursula to each of her lives.

I do think this is a book worth reading; I suspect it's not worth reading in the way that I did. As the title of this blog suggests, I do most of my reading on my commute. I don't think this is a book designed for this purpose. I often found myself a bit confused when opening at the beginning of my journey and having to flick back a few pages to remind myself. The sense of deja vu which facilitates the central premise just makes the tale a bit confusing when you are reading at the extremities of your day. Perhaps if I'd read it over a weekend it would've been different. Instead, I often found myself a bit disorientated, and at the end I felt I'd been reading Ursula's saga for a very long time.

This is definitely a clever, interesting read; just perhaps not one for the rush hour.

(Available in hardback or Kindle format from Amazon)

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Shock of the Fall

Sometimes it's hard to truly capture how you feel a book. For me this applies to The Shock of the Fall, and I hope I do it justice. So here goes...

I'd heard great things about this title, so was excited to download it from NetGalley ahead of the UK publication date. I wouldn't quite call this a story; more a portrait of a very vulnerable young man. Following the childhood death of his brother, The Shock of the Fall is in parts the coming of age tale of Matthew, a teenage schizophrenic, but mainly a chronicle of his descent into mental illness.

Nathan Filer's style is no holds barred but also full of charm. Matt is charismatic and Filer's style is a masterful combination of coherent and chaotic. The latter captures Matt's desperate state of mind as he recounts his thoughts via the computer in his day centre, or at his typewriter in his lonely flat. The former is cleverly achieved to weave the tale of Matt's background into the narrative of someone battling mental illness.

This is very much a character-led piece. The reader inhabits Matt's world, seeing what he sees, including the schizophrenic visions of his deceased brother. Filer's approach is subtle and his experience in mental health nursing shines through to create a heart-renderingly beautiful portrait of an unwell mind. The scenes in which Simon, his brother, keeps appearing were particularly well done and moving. During Matt's 18th birthday, he describes how "everyone broke out in a loud chorus of Happy Birthday. Simon joined in too. He was in the flames. Of course he was in the flames. A nurse quickly grabbed hold of my wrist, leading me quickly to the cold tap. I had no idea what I had done, only that I had been trying to hold him".

In a society where mental illness remains something of a taboo and too often hysterical in its portrayal, Filer has provided a strong and sympathetic voice in Matthew. He creates sympathy and pathos for what he sees and feels, as his treatment makes him lose his brother all over again. You want nothing more than for him to get better, but this is a realistic portrayal of an illness that won't be simply cured.

So would The Shock of the Fall make a good rush hour read? I found it a very compelling book and a very honest account of grief, loss and mental illness. Its themes are more heavy ones, but despite this it's highly readable and impressive. In my view this is a brilliantly different and important piece of writing and a real privilege to read. It shows strong promise as a debut and I can't wait for more from this author!

(Released on the 23rd May 2013. Available for pre-order via Harper Collins or Amazon)

Monday, 18 March 2013

The Dinner

I shall have to tread carefully with this one, as one false word and I'll spoil everything...

Two brothers and their wives meet for dinner in a fancy restaurant in Amsterdam. The air is thick with history and old resentments as they greet and exchange pleasantries, putting off the real reason why they are there; they need to discuss their troubled children.

I love an unreliable narrator, and Paul is as unreliable as they come. What seems to be simple fraternal irritation at his brother Serge's mannerisms and the persona he's adopted to enhance his political career soon become something deeper, darker. At first you chuckle along as he grows irritated with the niggly details of fine dining and the related pretensions. However, as the story progresses, there is clearly more to Paul's pedantry than meets the eye.

Paul's descriptions of his oafish brother and his faux sophistication, his weariness with pretentious waiters and  his sharp observations as his thoughts meander made this book almost comedic in its first half. Indeed, for me it had Dutch echoes of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's tour of Northern eateries in The Trip. Then, slowly and subtly, the observations and Paul's recounted reactions adopt a darker turn, less everyday, and you start to question just how much you do relate to Paul after all...

I found this a brilliantly dark read and a real journey; from one page to the next I had no idea where I would end up. Herman Koch creates a false sense of security throughout, then throws in twist after twist, each one still catching you out every time. This book had me truly gripped and the ending left me genuinely surprised. The one thing you couldn't criticise The Dinner for is being predictable.

There are quite a few loose ends in this story; a lot of the tales told are quite fragmented, as Paul dictates exactly what you as a reader need to know. I'm not sure how I felt about this as a narrative style and it's something I know I'll dwell on later. I would love to have known better the character of Claire, Paul's wife, but she was something of an enigma and my main criticism would be that I never really knew what made her tick. In some ways this is a tale of strong males where females blend into the background. I'm not sure if this is particularly a criticism, however, as this was perhaps more a reflection of the strong narrator and his equally strong resentment for his brother.

So, all in all, I would highly recommend The Dinner as a rush hour read for its subtle twists and subplots, somehow managing to be a slowburner and a rollercoaster all in one. Definitely a fine foray into the world of Dutch literature!

(Available in hardback, paperback, Kindle and audio through Amazon. For more information on this and other great reads, please visit the Atlantic Books website)

Sunday, 10 March 2013

The Death of Bees

"Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved."

And so begins The Death of Bees. This beginning (along with the opening chapters' gruesome detail on the disposal of said parents' bodies) suggested this novel should have been somewhat shocking. Set in a Glasgow council estate, sisters Marnie and Nelly have grown up with addicts; drugs, abuse and alcoholism are part of their norm. Yet, despite these heavy themes, The Death of Bees had me gripped from the beginning.

Told through a series of short chapters, we shift perspectives between Marnie, Nelly and their elderly neighbour Lennie. They are a diverse set of characters; Marnie is tough, streetwise and academically gifted. Her narration is often cold, her hard exterior masking how desperately underloved and abandoned she has been. Nelly is different; a gifted violinist, she talks like something out of a Bette Davis film, and her innocence masks the horror of her life so far.

After trying to cope on their own, the sisters begin to forge a close bond with neighbour Lennie; mourning the loss of his lover, he relishes the opportunity to look after the girls and have company again. He is cultured and shows them a kindness they have never known. However, their arrangement is threatened by the appearance of the sisters' sinister grandfather, desperate to know the whereabouts of his daughter, as well as a local drug dealer owed money by their father, and Lennie's dog's habit of digging up bones from under the lavender bush...

As mentioned earlier, there are so many issues crammed into this novel; addiction, abuse, abandonment, sexuality and underage sex amongst others. Lisa O'Donnell, however, shows real skill in not trivialising the issues, but not allowing the story to become bogged down in them. This is a tale about survival and the importance of love and kindness. As a result, the issues they face are obstacles they overcome, and the outcome is a powerfully uplifting read which serves a slice of (not always comfortable, but always true) real life.

This is a gritty, truly unique read and one I flew through. I was so disappointed whenever my commute ended and I had to put this one away; thank goodness for the weekend when I could finish it in one sitting! This is a fantastic debut and one I cannot rave about enough. Lisa O'Donnell has masterfully created a world of cruelty where kindness wins through. Every character is perfect and form a cast you can't forget. It's a definite must read, and a great addition to any commute.

(Available in paperback and Kindle edition at Amazon)

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Infinite Sky

I've mentioned before I like a bit of a morbid read. The prologue to Infinite Sky promises this with gusto; Iris, our heroine, is at the funeral of a 15-year-old boy. Her devastation is piqued by the question, "is it possible to keep loving somebody when they kill someone you love?". So begins the tale of woe, with echoes of a 21st century Juliet and her Romeo.

This opening is a delicious teaser for the reader, casting a shadow throughout the story as you try and guess who will end up the boy whose "coffin's the same size as a man's would be". Iris will soon be in mourning, but is it for her wayward brother Sam, or her first love, Trick? Readers expectations are set and, in this exciting debut, C.J. Flood quickly guides us into the summer that changed Iris' life forever.

Iris is a country girl, her mother having recently left to find herself in Tunisia. Since she left their house is chaotic (wonderfully symbolised by the choice of Fiasco for the name of their dog); their family is struggling to adjust. It is at this time a group of gypsies move into their paddock. Her father is enraged, predicting trouble and planning to evict them from his land. However, Iris is intrigued by their lifestyle, which parallels with the one her mother has left them for. In particular, she is intrigued by their son Trick, and the two form a close friendship. Iris falls for him, the only person who seems to listen to her apart from her distant mother on the end of a phone line.

Against the backdrop of a beautiful summer, Iris struggles to maintain order as her father fails to retain control of his family. As a result of his guard dropping, Sam goes off with the wrong crowd and becomes increasingly troubled while Iris spends time with Trick. The siblings' separate rebellions come to a crashing and gripping conclusion; although I knew this was coming, I was absorbed and shocked in equal measure.

I really enjoyed Iris' voice as narrator. On the cusp of adulthood, she is struggling to find who she really is (as seen in her realistically tumultuous relationship with shallow best friend Matty). She still views the world with a childlike innocence that allows her to step away from the prejudices of her father and brother. Her naivety prevents the story from becoming a debate about the rights and wrongs of the Traveller lifestyle, nor a caricature. It is a simple, moral tale of the destruction wrought when hatred pervades. Iris and Trick have much in common, but as the worlds into which they are born and the suspicion their families have for each other align, their fate can only lead in one direction.

This is a story where nobody is blameless. Funeral scene aside, it's not overly sentimental; the strength of C.J. Flood's writing is in it's subtlety and simplicity. No comment is needed, no thread is left loose. You sympathise with every character, despite their wrongs. The themes in the tale are as old as time, but Flood's echoes of Montague and Capulet and the end of innocence provide a fantastic read. A powerful, punchy and thought-provoking book, I'd definitely recommend popping this in your handbag to see you through the rush hour.

(Available in hardback, paperback, audio and Kindle edition from Amazon)

Monday, 4 March 2013

Thursdays in the Park

The "women's fiction" genre is not one that tends to be my cup of tea. I usually find the stories too predictable, the happy endings too obvious and the writing style too similar to every other book of its kind that's been produced. However, Thursdays in the Park seemed a little different. For one, it's characters are not twenty/thirtysomethings who live Sex & The City-lite lives. So, when it appeared for 20p on Amazon, I downloaded and thought I'd give it a go.

Jeanie is approaching sixty and in a safe but unsatisfactory marriage, which changed inexplicably one night when George, her husband, physically rejects her and spends the next ten years sleeping in a separate bedroom, not listening to Jeanie's thoughts or desires. Her escape is through visits to the park with her granddaughter, and it is on these visits she meets fellow grandparent, Ray. The two fall for each other, and this emphasises to Jeanie that the best days of her marriage are behind her.

Jeanie is bound by duty; as George is solid and not a bad person, she doesn't see the need to rock the boat. However, as her birthday approaches and George makes a decision, backed by her self-absorbed daughter Chanty, to up sticks and retire to the country, Jeanie feels increasingly trapped. Meanwhile, her relationship with kindly, sympathetic Ray develops she starts to pick up the courage to take control of her life; that is, until George tells her the real reason for his rejection in a shocking twist which obliges Jeanie even more to continue the path which leads her away from a future with Ray.

This was an interesting tale of family duty and obligation and a lesson that love and passion are universal across all decades of our lives. How to combat the rules we tie ourselves to which force us to remain in safe but unhappy situations is a theme applicable to all age groups and did force me as a reader to question just what action is best; the one that works for those I love, or the one that will make me happy? I also found George's character brilliantly frustrating; patronising, controlling and yet sympathetic all at the same time.

Sadly, as I progressed through the story, it wasn't these positive elements that stayed with me whenever I stopped reading to make way for my tube stop. There were a few stylistic things that distracted me. They were strange little things too. For example, it became something of a joke for myself trying to predict the length of the gap in pages between references to alcohol. Every scene seemed to contain at least one reference to a "chilled white", a "nightcap", a "delicious Rioja" etc etc...I wouldn't be surprised if a sequel to this was based in a rehab clinic. Joking aside, this formed one part of a checklist of slightly painful middle class cliches in this book. Jeanie owning a health food shop...tick! Daughter with a silly name...tick! That's before I even get onto the Polish shop assistant's inability to include the word "is" in sentences...

Anyway, enough of that. This was an easy read which was very enjoyable - if you like chicklit I think this is a great alternative perspective. Alas, I think it'll be a rare read where I'll rave about a book of this genre unless it is a complete departure from current rules of the form. But before you hold me to my word, you may wish to check out this great review from The Book Jotter.

(Available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle format)

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The End of the Affair

After my last read was a little disappointing, I decided to go back and revisit some Graham Greene. One of my favourite authors, The End of the Affair is the work I'd always ranked highest. I've always been a little morbid where books and films are concerned; I'm a sucker for tales of woe. What greater tale of woe can you get than Maurice Bendrix's bitter narration and searing jealousy at the sudden end of his affair with civil servant's wife, Sarah?

Bendrix's love, and hatred, for Sarah is deep and twisted. His hatred stems from his possessive passion for her. He looks back on their wartime affair, which he poisoned with his insecurity, after a chance encounter with her husband. When he meets Henry, whom he had cuckolded, he is unsettled and suspecting Sarah's infidelity. It has been some time since Bendrix saw her and old feelings are awoken. Henry is considering hiring a private eye to get his answers; it's an idea he disregards, but Bendrix cannot. So we follow his present quest to see if Sarah has moved on, while he reflects on what went wrong.

I've always loved this story as a compelling take on the power of jealousy to destroy those things we treasure. Bendrix is a man who believed he had exactly what he wanted in Sarah, but he is forever in limbo while she remains married to Henry. He's aware of previous lovers and cannot disregard these niggling memories to enjoy the present. As he muses, "because I couldn't bear the thought of her so much as touching another man, I feared it all the time, and I saw intimacy in the most casual movement of the hand".

Bendrix's love for Sarah is unhealthy, and eats away at him; "I measured love by the extent of my jealousy, and by that standard of course she could not love me at all". He takes it as far as wishing "I'd rather be dead or see you dead...than see you with another man", as "anyone who loves is jealous".

One day, after Bendrix's building is bombed while Sarah spends the night with him, he nearly dies; Sarah, apparently disappointed by his survival, leaves, and he does not hear from her again. Bendrix falls apart, and his bile builds. The "end of love" he so dreaded has arrived; he is a broken man and the scars do not heal well.

The second half is where Greene builds on the religious themes of his previous novels. The End of the Affair is considered to be the most Catholic of Greene's works, and as the reasons for Sarah's abandonment become clear, the story focuses more on the exploration of faith and non-belief. Bendrix is as angrily opposed to Sarah's adopted beliefs as he was about whether she loved him enough. He becomes enraged and vindictive towards the priest he encounters and Catholic views of God. Even after Sarah is out of his life for eternity, he continues his vitriol towards the deity while miracles surround those who encountered her.

The strengths of this book for me were its exploration of jealousy, and how love can be a destructive force. The religious elements were of interest, but I'd forgotten since I last read this how major a part they played.

I've read some critiques of the character of Sarah, and how underdeveloped she appears; however, I felt this to be crucial to forming some kind of understanding of Bendrix's perceptions. Arguably, he never truly knew Sarah, not deeply; he was so blinded by his passion and desire for her, he lost sight of who she was and how she felt for him. It's this tunnel vision which forms his angry, bitter voice which gives this novel its power.

I enjoyed re-reading this, and I'd always recommend Graham Greene to anyone. Immensely readable, this story is a great tap into those deep, dark emotions which rarely appear in works about love and heartbreak. It's also allegedly based on a real-life affair Greene himself had, so there's interest too in imagining the parallels with Bendrix's author character. In general, it's a reliable rush hour read which I never fail to enjoy.

(Available in hardback, paperback, Kindle and audio from Amazon)

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Quick Reads: Empowering Readers

Books inspire passionate debate, deep concentration and plenty of blogging. For many of us, reading a good book isn't a luxurious means of passing time, it's an important part of our lives.

However, for the one in six working adults in the UK who struggle with reading the picture is very different. A book presents a real challenge and one those with difficulties avoid.

This is something the Quick Reads project aims to change. The team commission big name writers to write great, compelling reads of shorter length. By creating more bite-sized pieces of fiction, a barrier is chipped away for those less confident with reading. The fantastic authors involved with the project produce strong, action-packed stories to open up a world of reading to those whose previous experience with fiction caused them to shy away.

Quick Reads is a fantastic outreach programme, helping make a real difference for those with reading difficulties. Improved reading skills have a notable effect on not only job prospects but also self esteem. Parents with higher reading confidence are also more likely to share the benefits of reading with their children, inspiring and improving aspirations for the next generation.

Today marks the launch of six new titles by some really exciting authors. For a bargainous £1, these could be yours via booksellers and online retailers. So get involved, and help support this brilliant programme!

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Universe versus Alex Woods

Sometimes, you want to like a book so much. Everything about it sounds like something you'd enjoy. It has recognition too, a bit of buzz which tempts you to try it.

This was why I decided to read The Universe versus Alex Woods. One of the Waterstones 11, I was between books and suggestible. I began the first chapter and was optimistic; Gavin Extence's beginning convinced me that this was one I wanted to see through, with tension and intrigue from page one. I couldn't wait to find out what happened.

Unfortunately, I just didn't get on very well with Alex Woods after this.

There were definite signs of promise. The story was event-led at the beginning, from Alex's arrest as a 17-year-old to the incident when he was hit by a meteor fragment in his younger years. This episode changed the course of his life, putting him a year behind his peers at school and causing his epilepsy. Alex is an outsider, and his struggle was proving an interesting tale.

Then Alex meets Mr Peterson, and starts to grow up. The elderly Vietnam veteran becomes his closest friend. So close that, when the pair receive some bad news, Alex realises how far he'll go to help his friend fulfil his wishes.

For me, the book was quite inconsistent. It felt there were distinct segments of the novel; Alex's youth and distance from his peers felt very different from the section where he forms a close bond with Mr Peterson. How they fused together was a struggle for me. At one point I actually forgot the bit about meteors had any relation to the bits where Alex and Mr Peterson are on their final journey, and too many bits had happened between the first chapter and the loop it fills at the end.

I also didn't particularly believe the characters, nor warm to them. Alex's naivety at the beginning did not wash for me later in the story. It's proven to readers that Alex is clearly very well read, but has what felt like silly gaps in his knowledge of culture. For example, when he is in a hotel described as having art deco interiors, there is an apparent need for him to narrate, "art deco turned out to be the name of the strange modern-antique style of furniture in the rooms". It felt unnecessary and just irritated me. Similarly, Alex feels the need to tell us "I hadn't read War and Peace, but I understood what Mr Peterson meant: War and Peace was extraordinarily long". Again, this just felt needless.

Other characters in the story just felt like a collection of stereotypes. No nonsense, pacifist war vet Mr Peterson. "Out there" witch mum. Feisty swearing teen Ellie. You get the picture. There was a bit more depth in the last section; but at this stage I was just focused on finishing and getting to my next book.

It's a real shame as I wanted to like this title. It has great reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, so perhaps it's just me and I didn't get it. On the basis of this I'd say give it a try; it just really wasn't for me. Not my favourite rush hour read I'm afraid.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Adventures of a London Paperback

Sometimes you come across an idea which leaves you wondering, why didn't I think of that?

Books on the Underground is one of those.

You read a book, you love it. What to do with it now? Perhaps storage space is a premium in your flat and your bookshelves are groaning under the weight of too many novels. Maybe you have your next book ready to go in your bag, and would really appreciate not having to lug about two any longer.

This is where Books on the Underground and their clever packs of stickers can help. Simply add one of these to the front of your book:

Then you can happily leave it behind as you go for a fellow commuter, as you may with your morning Metro, and voila! Your book lives on, there to unexpectedly brighten someone's otherwise grim morning travels. Whoever finds the book can then tweet their find (@BooksUndergrnd), read, then leave it on the Tube when done. Meanwhile, you can follow the progress as it travels the London Underground through Twitter or the Books on the Underground blog.

I've not come across one of these books yet, but I'm looking forward to the day I do. I'm really hoping I might benefit from the team's Valentine's Day "Love on the Underground" tie-up with Mills & Boon...

London may be a city with a dog eat dog reputation, but I genuinely believe it has a good heart - you can witness this is the little everyday acts of kindness that happen out the corner of your eye. The Underground represents a microcosm of the best and worst of London, from the shoving and elbowing to people offering their seats to those in need. This idea represents London at its best, the desire we all have deep down to be part of a community and to share kindnesses, even towards those annoying folk who don't take their massive backpacks off in a busy carriage (a particular bugbear of mine - grr!).

I just love the idea of these humble paperbacks travelling to the furthest reaches of the Tube and back, passing through different homes and handbags. It's like a fightback against the destiny of most books to gather dust on shelves, and instead they're out in the world, exploring and adventuring. If only books could talk....

As Kindles, iPads and Kobos become increasingly part of a commuter's armour, it's great to see physical books playing such a fun role in the rush hour. So, how to get involved? Visit the blog, have a read and request stickers to add to your books. Here's hoping I'll be lucky to stumble across one soon!

Friday, 8 February 2013

Gone Again

Yesterday morning an exciting package arrived for me in the post:

So excited by this delivery was I that I thought I'd open and read the first few pages, just to get a feel for the story.

I was gripped. It's now 24 hours later and, apart from participating in the necessities of eating and sleeping, I've not been able to put this addictive read down.

As mentioned in my previous post, this was a break from the typical books I've read this year. I tend not to read too many thrillers; my reads tend to be gentler fare, probably for no other reason than habit. I'm glad I made the break for this one. Gone Again is the story of a family torn apart when wife and mother Lauren fails to pick up son Nathan from school. Told from the perspective of husband and father Mark, we follow the duo as minutes turn into hours and worry builds as Lauren's whereabouts remain a mystery. A shocking discovery is then made which changes their lives forever.

Doug Johnstone's style is brilliantly raw. We observe Mark's thoughts as his worry grows, his doubts peak and he is tortured by memories of what now must be a previous life. Alongside his own torment Mark desperately tries to protect his son. Their relationship forms the heart of this story and as a reader you can empathise with Mark's determination to shield the young boy from the pain of loss as well as the trauma that spills in the latter half.

I loved the simplicity of Johnstone's storytelling. We've all been in those situations where we've watched the clock, wondering where a late loved one is. In this tale we see what happens when our darkest imaginings come true, causing our baggage to come tumbling out the closet as every element of our lives is scrutinised. The reveals about their family history, Lauren's previous disappearance and the mysterious goings on at her place of work are drip fed to the reader so that the novel's pace never flags. As for the last few chapters of this book - these are best tackled when you have plenty of time to read without interruption. I was glad I had the luxury of a day off when reading, as I would have hated to put this down at any point during the thrilling climax.

My only slight criticism would be that I felt there were a few unresolved components at the end of this story. Without wanting to give too much away, we leave the characters at something of a beginning of the end; there are still issues to be resolved, questions unanswered. This isn't necessarily a weakness, as it does leave the reader thinking and wondering what happens next (personally I've been hoping desperately that poor Nathan won't be too traumatised by his early experiences with Edinburgh's criminal underbelly). Ultimately, whether you find this slightly frustrating or highly intriguing is down to personal preference.

Regardless of this, I found Gone Again to be a dark, pacy thriller; you'll find yourself flying through the pages, wanting justice for Mark and his family. I'd definitely recommend it as an entertaining, easy to read commute book which provides both escapism and excitement en route to the office.

(Published 7 March 2013. Available for preorder on Kindle or paperback. Thanks to Doug Johnstone and Faber and Faber for sending me a copy for review.

To learn more about Doug Johnstone and his work, visit his blog.

For another review of this title, or to find out about other crime novels, visit Raven Crime Reads)

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Rush Hour Bookshelf: February 2013

Time has whizzed by and 2013 is already in its second month. I've read some brilliant books so far this year but, according to Goodreads, I need to up my game by 4% to reach my reading target for the year of 100 books. So, as an act of self-motivation, here are the next few reads I aim to tackle:

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence (Hodder & Stoughton, available in Hardback or ebook): Currently in progress. One of the Waterstones 11 for 2013, I was intrigued by the blurb and keen to give this debut a try. So far, some parts are inspired, others I'm not so sure about. I'm interested to see how this develops and how the pace settles in the latter half.

Gone Again by Doug Johnstone (Faber and Faber, published 7th March 2013, currently available for preorder). Kindly sent to me by Doug Johnstone and Faber, I'm excited to read what promises to be a gripping psychological thriller. It's the first book of this genre I'll have tackled in 2013 and I'm looking forward to trying something new.

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple (Persephone Books, available through the Persephone website) Persephone books are truly beautiful objects, and a publisher I've become familiar with through my short time blogging. Their focus is on female authors who have dropped out of print over the decades and are a brilliant champion of women's writing. After much research and recommendations, I've ordered this title. I can't wait to try this new author and can't thank my fellow bloggers enough for drawing my attention towards this great publisher!

Reviews to follow shortly...in the meantime, happy reading! Please do let me know your thoughts if you've read any of the above, or hope to in the near future.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

A Glass of Blessings

One thing needs to be said before I can even start to review this book; everybody must read Barbara Pym. Named by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil in the Times Literary Supplement as "the most underrated novelist of the century" back in 1977, her work was unknown to me until I stumbled upon Excellent Women last year. I was stunned that it had taken so long for her books to come to my attention. Something of a Jane Austen of the 1950s, her works are witty social comedies capturing a time sandwiched between the great changes of the Second World War and the Swinging Sixties.

2013 marks the centenary of Pym's birth, so along with many Pym fans I'm marking the occasion by reading my way through one of her works a month. Rather than being logical and going by publication date, I decided to start slightly at random and chose A Glass of Blessings, first published in 1958.

Our heroine is Wilmet Forsythe, who has a comfortable, if dull, life with her civil servant husband Rodney and mother-in-law Sybil. Her world circles around the community in the high Anglican church she attends, where she often finds her thoughts wandering. During one service where Wilmet's mind is typically elsewhere she spies Piers Longridge, the handsome brother of Rowena, her old friend in the suburbs. Wilmet is intrigued by Piers and his mysterious life and soon starts to find him a welcome romantic distraction from her safe existence at home.

Wilmet finds her heart a-flutter as she fantasises about how her influence could change him from his moody, brooding, drinking ways. However, what Wilmet hasn't considered is just why Piers is unmarried, and she soon realises her assumption that he lives with a "colleague" isn't quite on the mark.

This book represents so many of the things I love about Pym's writing. Her stories are complex webs of many well conceived characters who all fit together into a deliciously funny portrait of 1950s London. Every detail of her characters is irresistible. For example, her choice of names add a richness and help to create a clear portrait of how she's imagined them. Wilmet and Marius Ransome are obviously fabulous examples, but Rodney summarises his safe, civil service ways; spinster Mary's name highlights her good, devoted nature and, my favourite of all, Keith. 

Piers' lover (as is implied but never explicitly stated) was a great construct. In a world of money and dressing for tea, Keith is from the lower social echelons. He dresses down, works in a coffee shop and models knitwear patterns. This contrast served both as great comic material but also a subtle way to illustrate the changing nature of society at the time. In the periphery there are great little sketches involving the goings on at the clergy house, a kleptomaniac male housekeeper and the students at Piers' Portugese classes.

It would be easy to take a simple view on both this story and Pym in general. Her tales may be a narrow view of a specific time in English history. What I love, however, is that we get sneaking glimpses of a society in flux through Wilmet's inquisitive and innocent eyes. Women can vote and work, but females with a career are a novelty; women clearly have their place. As Wilmet mused about working women, "I suppose some of them try to combine marriage with a career - I mean the ones who carry baskets as well as briefcases and look both formidable and worried, as if they hoped to slip into the butcher's before going to their desks". Father Ransome is from a more impoverished parish Wilmet suspects benefits from "these days of the welfare state". Similarly, we are witness in Wilmet's wanderings to the postwar redevelopment of urban areas; "I supposed it was a good thing that children should now be running about and playing...their shouts and laughter drowned out by the noise of the machinery that was building hideous new homes for them". That's before we even touch upon Piers and Keith's relationship in a time when homosexuality was illegal.

A Glass of Blessings is a perfect rush hour read. I chuckled away as Wilmet's focus flitted from important events to the silly, little details our bored minds often occupy themselves with. Every character fitted so well and all rang true. I even found myself feeling somewhat lucky to be on my way to another day in the office as Wilmet longed for excitement and a purpose in an age where being a professional wife was the norm. So, for some escapism with depth, I couldn't recommend this novel more highly.

I'm already looking forward to next month's dose of Barbara Pym!

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Lighthouse

This is a brilliantly strange little book. What starts off as a seemingly ordinary story of a recently-separated, middle aged man going on a walking holiday gradually becomes an unsettling, ominous tale which slowly and subtly grips you.

The pace is initially ambling, as one could expect of a walking holiday. However, you soon begin to realise that all is not as it seems. Our main character Futh's first encounter on his holiday is Carl, a fellow traveller; Futh offers him a lift to his mother's house. "Do you ever get a bad feeling about something? A bad feeling about something that's going to happen?", Carl asks, sowing the seeds of discomfort in the reader's mind. This sense of unease pervades in both Futh and Ester's (a hotel landlady and fellow main character) segments, and increases to a gripping level in the final, dark chapters. Ester's dangerous dalliances with her husband in close quarters feel even more dicey as you learn their history and the kind of man Bernard is. As her story unfurls, Ester emerges as a troubled risk-seeker, craving love and attention. Similarly, as we get to know Futh, an individual deeply damaged by his mother leaving him emerges.

Although not much actually happens, I loved how this book played out. The main characters are lonely, lost souls and I empathised as they looked back on their lives. Futh's reoccurring reflection on the moment of his parents' marital collapse brilliantly captured how this has haunted him throughout his life. His relationship with his wife, meanwhile, was both sinister (she shares a name with Futh's mother, and frequently needs to remind him, "I'm not your mother") and sad. Alison Moore fleshed out his character through using details which made sense while we are in Futh's head, but make him look odd to anyone on the outside (spilling food and blood on himself, retiring to bed early on in his wedding reception, hitchhiking rather than learning to drive...). This was subtle, and I loved it.

Overall, I warmed more to Futh's character than Ester; Futh is portrayed as pathetic, ill-adjusted and forgettable among those who meet him (including Ester, as their paths only briefly cross). However, he's fundamentally well-meaning, simply weighed down by the baggage of his childhood. I wanted things to work out for him. Ester's story circles around revenge, which sets the reader's mind racing at the unresolved ending to this tale.

Alison Moore's novel is one of the most perfectly planned I've had the pleasure of reading. Every motif has its place and serves to link the disparate elements of the book together. I've seen The Lighthouse described as a story of smells. Futh works as a creator of synthetic scents, whilst Ester dreamt of being a perfumier; the eponymous lighthouse (or, at least, one of them) is an empty perfume bottle. Odours of violets, oranges, coffee and camphor reoccur regularly, linking Futh and Ester's memories together and into the present. As our senses play a powerful part in memory, I thought the frequent fragrance references fitted nicely.

As you can tell from the length of this review, there's a lot packed into The Lighthouse's limited pages. I was captivated, but I'm definitely going to have to reread as I'm certain I missed parts. Although you do need to concentrate to not miss subtle moments, Moore's words drew me into the mind of her characters; I was alongside the Rhine with Futh, right down to feeling the blistered feet and burning skin. So, for the reason that it lifted me away from the humdrum and into a different place, I'd definitely recommend this as a rush hour read.

(Image taken from http://www.saltpublishing.com/shop/proddetail.php?prod=9781907773174. Available in paperback. Kindle edition - http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Lighthouse-ebook/dp/B008PD6K8K/ref=sr_1_1_bnp_1_kin?ie=UTF8&qid=1359068001&sr=8-1)

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Fault in Our Stars

You know this is a story which won't have a happy ending. No tale where the main characters meet at a cancer support group is likely to be. Yet this did not stop The Fault in Our Stars being a brilliant, if emotionally battering, read.

Hazel, our chief character, is one of those teenagers you only really see in books and films (the sort my shy, bookish adolescent self longed to be). Smart, well-read and worldly, she has been living with terminal cancer since she was 13. A drug trial has proven somewhat miraculous and has extended her years; however, she will never get better and she lives with the realities of oxygen tanks, isolation from her schoolfriends and regular emergency dashes to hospital. Part of her world is attendance at a cancer support group and it is here she meets the handsome, equally smart and worldly cancer survivor Augustus Waters.

Augustus is also one of those books-and-films teenagers, a dashing, youthful, sporty prince. As a character, he is irresistible and you cannot help fall for him alongside Hazel. Although you know fate is against them, I was rooting for Hazel and Gus, hoping that she had not seen her last miracle. This was not only for the sake of our chief protagonists but also for their parents, who are strong supporting characters. In their support and suffering, the parents add a vital emotional element beyond the central plot of Hazel and Gus. Metaphors of violent destruction and war are used to bring home the impact of the loss of a child, with Otto Frank also serving as a timely reminder at a crucial turning point.

John Green's characters were perfect; although not self-pitying, they still felt and acknowledged their pain. There are no martyrs, but strong characters who have human limits. Humour carries this story and for the first half I was amused and moved as Hazel and Gus' relationship blossomed. John Green's attention to the little details rather than the big gestures made their romance true and at times made it easy for me to forget the big dark cloud that hangs over them. Alas, eventually said big dark cloud catches up with our young lovers, and despite knowing it was their particular destiny, it still hit me hard. I would advise any reader to ensure they don't make the same mistake I did - do not read the latter half of this novel without a tissue nearby!

Although the conclusion brought countless tears to my eyes, I loved this book for its lack of melodrama despite the subject matter. Again, Green's focus on the little details of death and dying moved me rather than big, sentimental moments. A truly expert touch from a great writer.

So is this a good rush hour read? It is a very well written novel and I truly lost myself in the world of Hazel and Augustus. Since starting the first few pages I've been raving to anyone who'll listen about how much I've enjoyed it. However, it did cause me a few awkward public transport moments. These included needing to immediately stop reading, look to the sky and repeat the mantra "it's just a story, it's not real" over and over in my head to prevent full on sobbing on the Tube. So, if you don't mind the occasional strange look from your fellow commuters, I would arm yourself with some Kleenex and absorb yourself in this brilliant book.

(Image taken from http://www.penguin.co.uk/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780141345659,00.html# - available in paperback, hardback or Kindle edition from http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0141345659)

Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Radleys

The Radleys is set in a sleepy Yorkshire village where, on the surface, nothing much really happens. However, behind the cosy world of dinner parties, book clubs and Radio 4 the Radleys are masking a secret from not only their neighbours, but their children too; they are abstaining vampires. The family do their best to maintain the facade of middle class normality, denying their instincts for blood in the meantime, until daughter Clara is attacked and their web of secrets begins to unravel.

This should be a fun read, I thought, and an interesting concept. I have generally shied away from vampire books, but Matt Haig's spin on a saturated genre intrigued me. What I soon realised was that to categorise this book early on would be a mistake. This is not a simple satire on middle class suburban life with a bit of vampirism thrown in for a twist. Yes, the story may focus around themes of repression and conformity, but it was also a whole lot more. Clara's attack was a brilliantly shocking scene, instantly shifting this story from satire to horror. The latter half of this novel also had shades of a great thriller, and a real departure from the attempts at everyday family life the early part focused on.

The world Matt Haig created was plausible and the episodic style of narration really helped add the details which made the tale so believable. Children Clara and Rowan's teenage angst and the marital woes of their parents make this story a great generational crossover, as the family struggle to fit into a lifestyle where even the hours they need to be awake present a fundamental challenge. Haig is also brilliant at adding moral shades of grey, portraying vampires as victims of blood addiction, questioning how they can reconcile who they truly are with what they want to be.

Finally, the villain. Uncle Will Radley was a compelling character, his amorality providing a brilliantly alternative perspective to his brother's struggle to deny his instincts and fit in with social norms. I loved his evolution throughout the tale, as family secrets unfurl and the Radleys are forced to choose how to live with what they are and what they have done.

One warning I'd give is admittedly rather silly, given it's about vampires; it is a little gory in parts. As someone who can't watch blood on TV without having to dive behind a cushion until I'm sure it's safe to emerge, I did find myself feeling slightly queasy in some of the more blood-heavy scenes. So if you are squeamish and take this on your journey to work, you may not make friends among your fellow commuters by being that person who takes ill in the carriage and holds up the service. For those with slightly less pathetic tendencies than I, I would definitely recommend this as an interesting, well-flowing read which is more than it seems. Its short, punchy chapters filled with fun, fear and family feuds will see your commute whizz by (and maybe tie your scarf extra tight around your unblood neck - just in case...)

(Image taken from canongate.tv http://www.canongate.tv/the-radleys-1.html)

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Genie and Paul

If I had to liken this novel to anything it would be a snowball in motion. The story starts rolling on a seemingly gentle slope with two episodes; in the aftermath of a cyclone a young boy's new friend washes up on a distant shore. Six weeks prior, Genie awakes in a London hospital, abandoned by her brother. Natasha Soobramanien then slowly increases the incline as the tale of the titular siblings unfurls to its dramatic conclusion.

This is a unique book, and one I quickly came to love. In a loose reworking of Bernardin de Saint Pierre's Paul et Virginie, Genie and Paul are siblings struggling to reconcile love, identity and family against their shared, but different, backgrounds.

Soobramanien is a fantastic talent and I loved the simplicity of both her prose and the messages at the heart of this book. Genie's unconditional love for her brother sees her travelling across continents, forgiving him beyond expectations. Meanwhile, Paul seeks out the land of his childhood memories, a land that has changed to the point of no longer existing outside Paul's recollection, and sets off on a doom-riddled road to fulfil his quest. Along the way we meet a range of characters who provide their perspectives in short chapters that almost felt like police evidence statements. This worked brilliantly in moving on the story, particularly in Genie's sections, as I felt like I was gathering the clues with her and finding out the story as she did.

Although this book straddles locations (Mauritius, Rodrigues and London), familiarity with any of these places is not necessary to enjoy this book. Themes of family and identity, of love and loss, are unquestionably universal and Soobramanien is masterful in creating a raw tale which not only made me think but saw me scrabbling back through my Kindle to re-read and re-capture the best bits. The prologue is definitely worth a read after the final page as your impression will completely change.

Initially I was unsure how this would be as a Tube read. Being greeted with dense text on opening a book usually means difficulty in the necessary dipping in and out commuting demands. I'm glad I was proven wrong. Easy to read with beautiful turns of phrase, I know this book will stay with me for some time.

(Image taken from http://www.goodreads.com/book/photo/15755794-genie-and-paul)

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Tigers in Red Weather

Wow. I didn't expect that when I started reading this book!

Told through five diverse voices, Klaussmann peels away layers to reveal the aftermath of a terrible incident which slowly destroys a family. Although the first few pages suggest this is a classic tale of moneyed cousins from the East Coast, oozing gin, glamour and post war optimism, Klaussmann shifts the focus in the latter part to produce a pacy read which surprises and entertains in its closing pages.

The opening chapters set the scene gloriously. Cousins Nick and Helena's relationship is close, although hints are made at their eventual drift. I felt myself longing for more with Nick's section; her charisma is evident throughout and I felt she needed more than a Revolutionary Road-style American Dream critique. Still, this story laid the path for intrigue that followed; hints at Helena's marital issues, evidence of Hughes' less than perfect past - I was definitely lusting for more. It's a shame Helena's rogue husband Avery did not play a greater role, although on balance his strength is in both his absence and his presence through the damage seen in his wife and son.

The final two character studies were particular stand outs for me. The stories of handsome husband Hughes and sinister son Ed really force the pace of the novel; the latter in particular drew gasps from me. Although elements are slightly predictable, the conclusion had me gripped; I'd recommend saving the final few pages for when you're curled up on the sofa rather than risk being interrupted by your stop on the way home from work.

Although this novel was slightly disjointed, Klaussmann created an irresistible world of sticky East Coast summers, endless martinis, lust and glamour, with Ella Fitzgerald's voice calling through the breeze. The book is very dialogue-led which makes for quick progress; in wintry, gloomy January, this tale was a great tonic which surprised. A definite recommendation for the "to read" list.

(Image taken from goodreads.com http://www.goodreads.com/book/photo/13583222-tigers-in-red-weather)