Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

I have an admission to make. I’m very geeky, I really am, and now I’m reading sci fi and watching a tv show about vampires (yes, The Vampire Diaries, I’m not even sorry) and dorking out over Tom Hiddleston aka Loki’s face (it is a lovely face) and generally speaking I am nerdy in my tastes and distractions, but I’ve just read Rules Of Civility and do you know what, I recommend it ever so much.

I first picked it up because of the cover, I freely admit

It’s got a gorgeous cover which suits the novel so entirely – it reads like a glass of prosecco tastes, if you know what I mean. It’s crisp and fizzy and handles heavy things with such lightness and dexterity that it’s a joy to read, tremendously diverting without having the solid weight of a Fitzgerald – still sparkling and intoxicating, just without that slight edge of oh-crap-there’s-a-bad-hangover-coming.

Some of my favourite main characters are the ladies (of any age) who are spirited and will stand up for themselves and have something of a sense of humour about them. Katey, this protagonist, is a fabulous creation of just this type, both observant and witty and proactive and interesting, damnit, without being insufferable. The dialogue is absolutely cracking and definitely one of the book’s strongest aspects to the point that I was sitting in my room trying some of the phrases out loud, because I am a nerd, I have totally mentioned this. It’s so strange a feeling to have such strong visuals and characters and sounds and sensations in what’s quite a svelte book. It’s suitably economic with the language while still retaining a lyrical quality, with Katey ruminating on scenes and people using quick, clever little phrases that sum up so much in so few words so skillfully that it makes me green with envy.

So, yes. It’s a great book, especially if you have an interest or fondness for 1930s New York, the 1930s in general, or those addictive tales about high society and social climbers. It’s a witty, pretty book, and has strong echoes of everything from Fitzgerald to Hemingway to Christie and wears all those influences openly without getting too deep or dark. The main way I’ve described it in the bookshop has been the glass of prosecco line because that’s the first synaesthetic reaction I got within the first chapter, but it’s also been touted as the women’s version of The Great Gatsby – it certainly isn’t that, but it’s a lovely little perspective of a fascinating point and part of American society.

Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel (4****/5)

CAN YOU TELL HE'S DEAD NO I DON'T THINK SO HE'S LOOKING GREAT FOR A CORPSE

This is a pacy, bloodthirsty, hugely entertaining teen zombie novel with an unconventional but tender love story at its heart. From the ruins of a cataclysmic ice-age a new society has emerged, based on Victorian customs. Nora Dearly, a feisty teenage girl and apparent orphan, leaves her exclusive boarding school for the holidays to return home – only to be dragged into the night by the living dead. Luckily for her, this particular crack unit of zombies are good guys – sent to protect her from the real nasties roaming the countryside and zeroing in on major cities to swell their ranks. Nora must find a way to defeat the evil undead with help from Bram, a noble, sweet and surprisingly hot zombie boy for whom she starts to fall…

For all it’s riddled with issues, Dearly, Departed is a really fun read that’s so over the top it’s actually mesmerising – given half a chance it carries you with it all the way through a crazy mess of plot, rotting corpses, zombie street battles and undead romance. It’s like this book was written with a checklist in mind – what’s hot right now in SFF/YA lit? Let’s see!

  • Zombies – CHECK! with a whole new spin on this which was REALLY appreciated
  • Forbidden romance – CHECK! with bits falling off (I loved Bram, I couldn’t even hate him for the blatant name thing, he’s such a sweetheart)
  • Dystopia – CHECK! only it was literally overkill to have so much apocalypse infodumped on us. Utterly crazy.
  • Steampunk – CHECK! except not the steampunk of the Soulless books or anything, it’s more faux-Victoriana, which was really awkward in most places because it’s been shoe-horned in and doesn’t feel right at all. Except I didn’t mind it past the first few chapters. It stops grating once you just assume it’s a technologically advanced Victorian age. There’s a wonderful idea about the Punks and their tech however, which I’d love to read more of in any future books.
So, yes, it’s an attention-grabbing conglomeration of ideas, you know?

Fans of dystopias and zombies will get more of a kick out of this than romance fans – and people who enjoy well-rendered characters who are willing to get stuck in and be pro-active will enjoy this too. It’s all lampshaded of course, with every time a girl-character acts in a way which does not suit her upbringing everyone notices it and points it out. The romance feels a bit unconvincing but I loved Bram and Nora was far from annoying so, again, I didn’t mind. Once things had clicked it felt much more believable.

It’s not structured very well, however; the viewpoints are a mess and only partially feel like they’re distinct voices, but I had so much fun reading this that I didn’t really care – I can totally understand why people didn’t get into or didn’t like this book, because you need to suspend disbelief from a very high place to even get into the setting of Dearly, Departed, let alone the basic premise. It was such tremendous fun and completely different in tone and style and painted in such vivid colours that I couldn’t help but enjoy it. Seriously. Against my better judgement and everything.

It’s the most emphatically emphatic dystopian teen zombie romance you’ll ever see, and worth reading if you feel like going for an enjoyably deranged but hugely entertaining book. And yes, the horror elements were fun too. Strongly recommended if you like your YA to have a bit of backbone, decaying romance and a strong edge of dark humour to it. Anyone who liked it and wants MOAR! zombie love – Warm Bodies is your next port of call. Doesn’t have anywhere near the structural problems or the odd dialogue that DD does, and as a horror it’s a much stronger piece of work.

It isn’t, however, as much of a weird-ass dystopian teen zombie romance. With airships. Dearly, Departed has that down.

All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

Not too hot on the cover, but great eye make-up!

All These Things I’ve Done starts off so strong I’m almost surprised, having finished it, that it’s the same book as the one I’ve put down. Somewhere along the line it veers off course of being a grim, guilty-until-proven-innocent tale of Anya and her family in a chocolate-less and coffee-banning dystopian future New York and becomes something soft-focused and audience-pleasing without being actually satisfying, given the opening.

Here’s the write-up:

Sixteen year-old Anya’s parents have been murdered because her father was the head of a notorious underworld gang. Now she is determined to keep herself and her siblings away from that world. But her father’s relatives aren’t so keen to let them go. When Anya’s violent ex-boyfriend is poisoned with contaminated chocolate – chocolate that is produced illegally by Anya’s criminal family – she is arrested for attempted murder. Disconcertingly, it is the new D.A. in town who releases her from jail, but her freedom comes with conditions. The D.A. is the father of Win, a boy at school to whom Anya feels irresistibly drawn. Win’s father won’t risk having his political ambitions jeopardised by his son seeing a member of a crime family. She is to stay away with him. Anya knows she risks her freedom and the safety of her brother and sister by seeing Win again. Neither the D.A. nor the underworld will allow it. But the feeling between them is so strong that she may be unable to resist him…

For all I want to complain about the course Zevin takes with the narrative, having it wander off into a teeny No Man’s Land where major plot points feel like they’ve been put on hiatus for no clear reason, I want to be clear – I loved the premise for this book, and still do. Anya is a pretty solid, somewhat noble character who demonstrates strength and intelligence and great affection and love for those close to her while still being clear-eyed and a great viewpoint to read from. The concept of a world where chocolate and coffee are banned, water’s pretty much as valuable as oil and paper’s rare is such a great concept it had me reeling with mental images of a dystopian Prohibition. If anything, it’s worth reading just for that.

It’s not without problems. There really could be more colouring in of the outlines Zevin sketches of the society Anya and her family are living in as the bare bones of what we’re given are tantalizing and she’s clearly a skilled enough writer to make something really bright and original with it. There’s no explanation for most of it other than the understanding the reader brings to the book about energy and water crises, and it’s really crazy trying to make sense of alcohol being around but coffee being a no-no. And why is chocolate okay in Europe but not in the US? I have so many questions, which on one hand is really frustrating as there could have been more background to this to make the setting stronger, but also it’s probably a good sign that I was engaged enough with it to want to know more.

But there’s a point where everything important about the plot just seems to go on holiday and then it flounders. It’s frustrating, so frustrating, because the plot begins to pull itself back together before the end but the momentum is such it just doesn’t correct itself in time. In fact, I thought it was a bit transparent what’s been going on, but even that didn’t annoy me because I was just so relieved we were back to what the beginning of the book had been about. The romance angle felt thin, bookended as it was between the real movements of plot as it were. It felt rushed and crammed in a bit, and Win is just not convincing at all. Anya falters here a bit too – a bit of omg boy! overcomes those familial instincts of hers, which goes against what we’ve come to expect of her.

All told, All These Things I’ve Done is a book I would definitely recommend, though it does feel like a good concept washed out. It’s more about the characters than the dystopia. I’ll definitely read the next in the series in the hope that it’ll answer some of those pesky questions, and now Zevin’s certainly on my list of authors to investigate further! I just wish it hadn’t meandered so totally from the plot and felt so detached from the setting – otherwise it’d be a great read.

The Iron Daughter by Julie Kagawa

Aren't these titles a bit spoilery, anyway?

I feel like my ill-person grump has affected my reading of this one, somehow. I remember the first book, The Iron King, being rather good fun and a well-done fairy/faerie drama in the same vein as Twilight, only with character development and plot texture that Twilight somewhat lacked. I enjoyed reading it. I didn’t enjoy The Iron Daughter nearly so much. I shall now try to tell you why. Yeah, this is slightly spoilery, because I was so annoyed I couldn’t help myself.

Meghan Chase cries all the time. I don’t mean “she gets a bit teary-eyed too often for my liking”, which would be dishonest from someone who can cry over nothing at the drop of a hat, or even at the drop of a hat (it happened, it was a long day, don’t judge). I mean she was always crying. Every emotional reaction involved tears. I was doing eye-rolls like I was ten pin bowling or something by halfway through the book – it was so tiresome. In fact, I’d describe her as a bit wet all round in this book – when Ash tells her that he’s seen lots of human girls but she’s the only girl who’s really stood out for him I genuinely got jolted out of it with a vocalized “?!” because no. No, there are far more dynamic, interesting girls out there than Meghan Chase, who was pretty good in the first book, but definitely not this second one.

She does, however, have a few saving graces – she’s able to stand up to Ash and Puck and anyone who goes up against her when she needs to, showing a strength that just isn’t there in certain scenes. It’s almost like she’s strong when it suits Kagawa to write her that way, and then the next minute she’s crying about something. It really undermines the drama of a crying scene to have her do it over everything, all the time. It’s fine to cry. I am okay with crying. Crying is healthy. But seriously, any more crying and she’d be a water feature in Queen Mab’s ice garden statuary.

Ash treats her like crap at the Winter Court. He totally loves her, it’s never in doubt, but oh god Meghan cries and weeps and wails and sobs all night and that set up has the least amount of tension in the whole book. I felt a bit like she gets a bit of authorial revenge when he’s in her house dying from all sorts of nasties and what does Meghan do? HAVE A LOOK AROUND HER OLD ROOM. Oh my god what. What. She has to get hurried up by Puck to get her ass moving. That’s how she behaves when her One True Obsession is bleeding out in her living room? Wow.

Oh! And Puck! Obviously there’s a love triangle here. Obviously! Why ignore the noble love rhombus, YA writers? Triangles are so passé. Again, why Meghan? There’s demonstrably little about her that stands out as an amazing, dazzling personality that would attract both a prince of the Winter Court and the great Puck of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I had far more interest in the stress between Puck and Ash when it flared up – best friends once, now enemies working together, after the same girl. Isn’t that an amazing amount of tension? No, apparently not, because it’s barely even skirted in the narrative. Such a juicy situation and Meghan just blunders through it all. Does she love Puck? Ehh. If she does, she certainly doesn’t show it.

Also, she’s inconsistent. One minute Ash is the “thing” she loves most in all the world; the next she’s thinking how she’s going to kill him if her family’s hurt. Right.

So much of this book just seemed odd and out-of-place. On one hand, I really enjoyed how fast-paced it is and how vivid Kagawa’s writing can be, and those are definitely a couple of the book’s strengths. You’re never bored. But Grimalkin’s always on hand to smoothe over rough patches and save them when they’re in a bind (in fact I propose that Grimalkin is the real hero of the piece) and there’s always A Something to get them out of a bind that just happens to be passing or that they just happen to run through the right door to. Exciting things happen and then there are these strange situations shoe-horned into the narrative that make no sense and didn’t need to be there.

There’s shopping and a spa and a scene where they go to her school’s Winter Formal ball. They go to a BALL. The idea’s to go where the glamour is to recharge Ash’s batteries – where the emotions are high, in other words – and this is what they decide to do, they go to a school dance. SERIOUSLY. I immediately assumed they’d go to a hospital or something (can you get more fraught emotions than in a hospital? I think not!) but apparently all Ash needed was some flirting and a bit of dancing and some punch that Puck didn’t get to spike yet and YES his life is SAVED. Oh, god, I almost put the book down, because that’s too ridiculous.

And the shopping! They went shopping! There’s a whole scene. They go to a spa and she gets a make over. In fact she gets a make over TWICE. Reader, I almost put the book down.

So what kept me reading? It was very diverting in a soap opera kind of way, very imaginative and featured great writing that was let down by the characters and plotting. What’s really great about Kagawa’s series is the Iron fey – a tremendous idea well put together, with Ironhorse in particular a great idea. The villain of the piece is so over the top I can’t bear to even type about it but there’s a level of invention in this series so far that is really frustratingly satisfying to read about, completely at odds with the rest of it.

Overall, I’m just disappointed by this. I had it pegged as a good, guilty pleasure read based on the first, but it just fell so short of it that I don’t think I’ll keep reading the series.

On the other hand, I still recommend the first book The Iron King to anyone who has an interest, although I’d say it’s really a young teen series as opposed to a YA read.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

I freely admit that I derive a lot of enjoyment from pretty things and as much as a lot of people would say it’s a sign that I am shallow like unto a puddle, I think otherwise. As a result I feel like saying “The Snow Child is a pretty book inside and out” makes it sound a bit insipid – like saying it’s nice – but, really, it’s a lovely thing, and I wish it had been published over Christmas as I can’t think of a more ideal gift for someone.

I am going to overuse the word “pretty” now. Just a warning.

Firstly: check out this cover, it is a very pretty bit of work. I love that it doesn’t have a dust jacket as those things just get ripped and annoy the ever-loving heckfire out of me.

Such a pretty hardback book!

Rather brilliantly there’s a book mentioned inside the book that’s described as being a similar blue with snowflake patterns, so I love that this book refers to itself, it’s a bit of a Russian doll effect. A book within a book within a book. It’s subtle but I loved it and it added to the pretty, dreamlike feeling that Eowyn Ivey crafts through the book.

And that’s the main, overall, lingering feel of it – pretty, dreamlike, ever so slightly unreal and old worldy (possibly due to the 1920s setting). I really enjoyed the reading of it and felt sad in the sad parts and overjoyed in the joyous parts and it worked, so well. It went from feeling frigid and remote and cold like the Alaskan wilderness it tells us about to heart-warming and cosy like a hot chocolate in a cold snap. That’s the most accurate two-word term to use to describe it, too: heart-warming. Because all the cold, frozen wilderness that Ivey so brilliantly describes and colours in with the most insane, lively, often harsh details is riddled with rich seams of love and friendship and the deep, curious mystery of it all. The writing is great, it really is, but I also love that it’s Ivey writing about her homeland and there’s this closeness and familiarity about her descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness that felt so strong and clear it was so weird to look up partway through and realize that I was sitting in the staff room at work in London where it doesn’t snow.

It’s basically a fairytale short worked into a novel form, and it is an entirely successful re-imagining of a wonderful little story which my edition includes at the end – linking back to the book I mentioned before, again the book nesting within the book. It’s as much a fairytale as the story it’s based on, and it was so sweetly and prettily put together. I’ll leave it up to you what you make of the eponymous Snow Child, but I loved that it was as if she was of two worlds, straddling reality and fantasy, and the ending was absolutely perfect and I did have a damp eye moment, I cannot tell a lie.

I really can’t say more than omfg it was so pretty I want to read it again for the first time. Highly recommended, ESPECIALLY for people who like fairytales and folk tales and Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen or just pretty stories that leave you feeling like you’ve just had a mega cup of tea by a roaring fire on a cold night. You know what I mean, that cozy burn of contentment deep within. It’s the book equivalent of that. Perfect antidote for the bleak chills of winter.*

The book’s out on the 2nd February and I cannae wait to talk to everyone in our shop about it. It’s supposed to be “fiction” a.k.a., literary, but I encourage genre fans to take a look because it’s that good a read.

 

*I giggled while typing this because it’s like zero degrees celsius outside and omg it’s so BLEAK and CHILLY and ALASKAN! Aww hell that wasn’t even my most dramatic response to the weather today.

Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

I gave up on trying to write this review properly very early on. See if you can tell.

I wish the Skulduggery covers were as good.

There are three things that I seriously love always and forever and they are mythology, Indiana Jones and Skulduggery Pleasant. I mean, there’s a lot more than that, but those three things are entirely relevant to this thing here now that I am writing. Because Oh My God if you like any of those three things then Ash Mistry is a most satisfactory reading experience. And here I mean “satisfactory” to mean what cats feel when they rub up against a scratching post or when someone gives you a head massage or when you find a book that is so exactly what you’d have liked to read aged nine, damn it all. It’s not your ordinary garden variety sort-of-okay-but-nothing-special “satisfactory”. I mean oh does it satisfy.

So here’s the run down on Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress:

Ash Mistry hates India. Which is a problem since his uncle has brought him and his annoying younger sister Lucky there to take up a dream job with the mysterious Lord Savage. But Ash immediately suspects something is very wrong with the eccentric millionaire. Soon, Ash finds himself in a desperate battle to stop Savage’s masterplan – the opening of the Iron Gates that have kept Ravana, the demon king, at bay for four millennia…

There is also this note on the back of the proof:

One slightly geeky boy from our time…

IS GOING TO KICK SOME DEMON ASS.

From which you can get a pretty strong sense of the book’s style, and if this fails to move you then we really have some problems. Or, you. You really have some problems.

For some reason I’ve seen this being recommended as a “book for boys”. What poppycock is that. I can categorically state that I as a nine-year-old girl who liked dolls and flowery things would have eaten this up and then some, so I assume there will be a swarm of girls out there who will also happily devour this like a demon crocodile (hello book reference shoe-horned in there, how you doin’?). It’s got bloodshed and violence with a liberal amount of gore and gets really dramatic and traumatic, and all of it is brilliantly done. Some children enjoy reading about massive murderous demons who maim and kill just to entertain themselves, and the heroes who have to buck up and save the world despite all sorts of nastiness trying to ruin their day. Some adults enjoy that too, and here I point to myself, and feel no shame at all because I am well beyond that point these days.

I’m finding it hard to distill exactly what I liked most about it down to a few sentences (this is probably clear). It was so very exciting and different – none of the usual Greek, Roman, Egyptian or Norse gods here, but demons and monsters from Indian mythology, in a rich, colourfully described version of India which was absolutely wonderful to read and I could have happily read double as much of the descriptions.* I really loved the writing. I loved how vivid it all was – everything from the descriptions of Varanasi itself, the people, the physical landscape to the gory bits, the adrenaline-pumping bits, the honestly really sad and distressing bits – hell, I was along for the ride, and the plot was twisty like a nice twisty water slide. It never got bogged down in detail but kept ripping along at a good old pace and that kind of writing is always a favourite.

And to top it all off it’s funny. Sister Spooky describes it as “Buffy with a dash of Big Bang Theory” which really isn’t far off the mark, but I’d throw in Indiana Jones and a bit of Skulduggery Pleasant in there too. I giggled quite a lot while reading this. On the bus too, which was highly embarrassing, but could not be helped.

I liked Ash and his sister Lucky a great deal and their interactions were wonderful. My sister is an actual annoyance, whereas Ash gets off lightly with Lucky, who doesn’t seem like a bad sort of sibling. Thinking about their page-time together, I really like that we see Ash is a proper hero from practically the first page.

So, basically, although there were a couple of little niggly bits which always happen in the first books of new series, I really liked it. Really really. I want more, and soon, because Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress was a really good, bloody, horrible, hilarious, warm-hearted read and I reckon the youth need more of that kind of thing.

Also you should totally read Sarwat Chadda’s blog post “Introducing Ash Mistry” because I have said so and I’m very persuasive.

 

*I was reading it on a London bus and at one point I got all pissy because the bus stopped and I had to get off and when the book was open I was in a tremendously exciting exotic place with snake demons and ancient lost languages and decadent parties with grotesque villains, but when I looked up I was at the wrong end of Oxford Street in the rain next to a drunk couple arguing about umbrellas. Did Not Want.

Switched by Amanda Hocking

The YA cover has purple butterflies, but I like this one more.

With her first book Switched described by Lauren Oliver in the NY Times as “The Princess Diaries” meets “Twilight”, and having sold over a million copies as a self-published author before switching to the more traditional publishing process, Amanda Hocking is a totally a hot topic now. Everyone’s talking about how the internet will change publishing as we know it – and Hocking’s name is wound up in that discussion to the extent that it’s easy to overlook the creative output that made her name. Selling a million ebooks of a work you’ve written, edited and designed the cover of yourself is no mean feat, after all. So, as I said in my earlier post, I was very interested to try her work.

I enjoyed Switched. It’s a very uncomplicated state of affairs: I read it really fast, had some issues with a few aspects, but it was enjoyable and diverting enough for me to have a positive overall view of it. It’s a book that settles into the Kelley Armstrong and Richelle Mead pantheon of authorship while being fresh enough for general teen audiences, and I recommend it heartily to anyone who liked those authors, but it does bother me a little that there’s a rather wonderful concept that isn’t developed more and better. It felt like an idea that was churned out too fast and needed more crafting before it was unleashed on the readership. It’s slightly inconsistent (more than one person’s pointed out how one moment she doesn’t like chocolate but the next loves it, which is so minor but jolts you out of the story) and a little uneven, with writing that doesn’t tell you much about the world because it’s painted in very broad strokes that leaves you to fill in the details yourself. Fancy clothes are left to your imagination, as are conversations where everything is completely glossed over. It’s not exactly wonderful writing, but I was okay with it; much as I’m the sort of person who loves gorgeous, rich, decadent writing, sometimes it’s nice to have things left vague, though it would have been better to have more detail about the larger Trylle community and Wendy’s dealings with Rhiannon, Rhys and the rest, as it would have added a lot to the world and Wendy herself.

One thing that’s divided opinion – Wendy. A few people have expressed dislike, which is entirely understandable, but it is so refreshing to have the first person perspective of a bit of a bitch in a YA book and to have her aware of it. She isn’t exactly nice, but nice is boring, and funnily enough she’s a convincing teenager-type compared to the usual. I was a bit taken by her attitude and her awareness of what her family goes through to make her happy and yet and yet she’s so ungiving and selfish, aware of being so, and feels guilt for it. She’s a perfect base level for some good, juicy character development – the sort of satisfying development full of tears and tantrums and embarrassments and little delights. It doesn’t quite happen in the book, but it’s hinted at in a slightly tangled way. I can’t say I liked her, but she was interesting, different and promising. The Anti-Bella, if you will.

On that note, one aspect that struck a hollow note was the romance. It was too swift, shallow, no real connection happened – in fact, I was more sold on the (unintended) romantic tension with another guy towards the end who had so much more texture to his character than the love interest and was in his own right an absolutely excellent creation. For readers specifically interested in it, it might be a satisfactory sort of love plot, but only satisfactory – I wasn’t reading the book for the romance though, so I wasn’t so very unhappy about it.

Despite all the issues, it’s worth reading If You Like That Kind Of Book. This book won’t bring more fans to urban fantasy/paranormal romance/teen fantasy/whatever we’re calling it this month, but it will satisfy some of the readers who are already there. Probably the most telling point is this: while it wasn’t an amazing read, and though there were niggling, bothersome problems, the world Hocking created was interesting enough for me to definitely intend to pick up the next book in the trilogy.