Review: The Word is Murder

4-stars
The Word is Murder feels like a classic British murder mystery from one of Britain’s best loved writers.

However it has one unique aspect – it’s central character and narrator is the author himself. In either an odd or highly inventive approach the story is narrated by Anthony Horowitz himself – presumably a fictionally constructed version of him. This could serve to make the events seem more realistic and add an air of the classic murder mystery to the book – think of the way Dr Watson narrates the Sherlock Holmes books.

However, even Conan Doyle created a fictional narrator and the slow start to to the book in which the narrator describes his work in TV and books could feel self indulgent, if not disconcerting. The concept does help us think more critically about the genre, and how we frame what we read. As a murder mystery goes it was clever and engaging – and a challenge, since no-one likes a crime they can solve straight away!

An old woman plans her funeral and is murdered the same day – the initial concept is intriguing and when we find out that ten years ago, she killed a young boy in a hit and run – everything gets much more interesting.

The book is well written – with interesting characters, and all the right elements of the genre. You will be intrigued and hooked by the plot. While there are darker aspects themes to the book it is largely as lighthearted as a murder mystery can be. I recommend curling up with this on a rainy late summer Sunday afternoon with a good old cuppa – its a perfect, easy rainy day read.


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Review: Home Fire

5 stars

Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel is a modern retelling of the story of the classical story of Antigone, however her contemporary style and current setting make this a truly relevant and accessible story.

The Pasha family are modern British Muslims, struggling to find their place in British and Western society under the legacy of a terrorist father who died on his way to Guantanamo, not to mention the disappearance of a brother. When Isma, the eldest who has cared for younger siblings, befriends British Home Secretary Karamat Lone’s son, the two families become embroiled in a saga which reflects the complexities and turmoil of being Muslim in modern day western society.

For such a sort book, it is incredible how well it covers the nuance of these complexities – from the seemingly contradictory approaches to sexuality and appearance in the headscarf-wearing Pasha sisters, to the hardline immigration stance of a Muslim Home Secretary.

Shamsie’s writing is exquisite – at times slightly surreal and abstract – placing you very much in the shoes of her characters, in their dreams, their chaos. But it is also wonderfully readable and the integration of modern technology, from texts to tweets is woven into the narrative seamlessly, making the book timely and relevant, but in a way that will not necessarily become dated as technology moves forwards.

The story is highly engaging and very readable even if you aren’t aware of its classical influences – it very easily stands in its own right as a novel, independent of its source material. The story is touching, hard-hitting and heart-breaking. Shamsie should be applauded for her ability to create depth of character and such a poignant story in so few pages. One of the best books of the year!

 


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Rereading His Dark Materials: Northern Lights

In the run up to the release of La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman’s first book in The Book of Dust series, I am rereading His Dark Materials with the local Waterstones book group.

Check out what we talked about and thought about the books.

Obviously the first question was who had read this before? Our group had a mix of first-timers, rereaders and those who had dipped in or entirely forgotten the story (yes, that was me).

So is rereading valuable? Other than refreshing my memory we all agreed that it brought something new to the book to read it again at a different point in your life – your understanding and interpretations change.

The things we loved about the book were no surprise at all; Lyra as a heroine, the fantasy world, the daemons. We loved how Lyra is strong and capable but a well-rounded character – she is still a child, and makes mistakes and often doesn’t understand what is going on around her. However, even over the course of the first book she develops so much moving from innocence to experience – clearly Pullman is inspired by Romantic poet William Blake, and this is seen again in his depiction of the church as an all controlling, totalitarian entity that allows children to be stolen for experimentation. We realised that since the release of this book real world events have made the story very relevant and contentious.

The concept of the daemon – this time drawing on biblical and religious connotations – as a physical manifestation for sin is incredibly interesting as before Lyra learns this we see it as natural and witness her close bond to Pantalaimon. In her comparisons of Pan to Iorek’s armour we begin to see Pan as her soul and soon learn that children can’t survive without their daemons.

I particularly love that the book is not black and white in terms of good and evil, or right and wrong. Lyra learns her mother is committing these horrendous experiments under the guise of religion and spends much of the book pursuing her father to rescue him and take him the alethiometer in the belief he will help her fight against this. On the contrary, he is so obsessed with his pursuit of scientific discovery that he commits similar atrocities. Lyra is left confused about the politics and ambitions of her parents and other adults around her, not to mention the fantastical clans of witches and armoured bears.

This world-building is so subtle – mentioned incidentally, as Lyra herself moves around the world and discovers things, rather than pages of dense narrative. this makes it easier to read and all the more realistic and enjoyable as we discover things through Lyra’s eyes. It also has the effect of normalising some aspects such as the daemons which would otherwise seem incredible.

I loved rereading this book and we could have talked about it for hours. I can’t wait to revisit the rest of the series before the release of the new book!

Are you rereading His Dark Materials? Let me know what you think!

You can also check to see if there’s a Pullman book group near you on the Waterstones website.

Judging Books by their Covers

Some bookworms are library borrowers, some minimalistically shed the weight of their books in favour of e-readers. However, many of us still like to do have a good hardback, and just the physical aspect isn’t always enough. Book-lovers often have a certain aesthetic they desire in what they read, from vintage and second hand to elaborate new editions. Here are some of the editions that are definitely on my list:

Vintage Penguins

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Not in print anymore, these iconic old editions are really for book aficionados. They come in a rainbow of colours representing different genres from the classic orange fiction, to red plays and cerise travel writing. I’m currently working on acquiring at least one of every colour for my shelves.
 
Pocket Penguins

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A modern update on the vintage penguin classics, this collection is a colourful compilation of western literature, with different shades signaling the different languages of the original text. This has a bit more of a modern take than other collections, including many 20th Century novels and the block colours and pocket size emulate penguin’s signature style.
 
Penguin in Bloom

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A decorative collection of books targeted at kids, or adults who are just big kids, these beautiful hardbacks are adorned with flowers and simple illustrations, each reflecting the novel. Fans of children’s books will be all over these and rightly so, my only wish is that there were more books in the series!
 
Penguin Drop Caps
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Only penguin would release a collection with such an eclectic mix of novels as this series. The collection consists of 26 novels, each assigned to a letter according to the surname of the author. I won’t be buying the whole collection but I’m pretty sure the book for my initial ‘E’ was made for me, as a gorgeous orange edition of George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
 
Vintage Classics – Austen and Woolf
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These beautiful paperback editions have trumped most hardbacks for me – the intricate design of Emma being my favourite. However, the modernist take on Woolf’s novels is stunning and so fitting. Even the bleaker Bronte collection is beautiful and well-pitched, however, I’ll take my leave when it comes to the Dickens collection, which is just a bit plain and too far removed from the others for my liking.
 
Penguin English Library
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These stunning yet simple paperbacks are a lovely way to fill your shelves without spending a fortune on heavy and expensive hardbacks. They feature a range of vibrant colours with patterns relevant to the novel. As well as being pretty they are easy to carry around and won’t break the bank.
 
Yellow-backs
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W H Smiths have released a series of ‘yellow-backs’ for the 225th Anniversary of company, which started out as a railway stall seller. These editions emulate the yellow-backs they would have sold on the company’s inception and include striking retro images on the bright yellow front along with black-edged pages. As well as being a must for anyone interested in physical books and the history of publishing, they just look incredible!

Collector’s Library
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These stunning little striped hardbacks with gilt edges are perfect for the classic stories that they hold. However, a year ago Pan Macmillan took-over the independent publisher and now these gorgeous books have been rebranded and in my opinion the new versions have lost something of their classic quirk. However, I’ve seen a few second hand bookshops in which these editions are still plentiful, so nab a few while you can!

It’s clear that Penguin is leader of the pack when it comes to nice editions but they aren’t the only ones out there and depending your aesthetic there are a range of wonderful editions. What are your favourite editions?

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Austen novels are typically seen as being full of parties, parlours and proposals. Yet her novels have an enduring appeal and for good reason. Far from being simple romances, Austen depicts nuanced analysis and explorations of English society, relationships and even life as a young woman.

There’s more to Austen than meets the eye so here are some of the things you can find in her novels:

Politics
Whether it is the largely unspoken of sugar plantations which support Mansfield Park, or a sympathy towards social mobility seen through the Navy and trade, Austen’s novels are astutely political and are engaging with the social issues of her day. Austen is often seen as a conservative, though many have pointed out that she is far from it – critiquing inherited wealth, slavery and the superfluity of ‘polite’ society.

Feminism
Lizzie Bennett may not be burning bras but like Austen’s other heroines she is a strong female lead, who knows her own mind. All of Austen’s books are about women and women’s lives, something that was radical for the Regency era. Women are not perfect heroines either, Emma Woodhouse and Catherine Moreland have important lessons to learn throughout the course of their novels, meaning that they aren’t just two-dimensional characters. And as a bonus, Austen is pretty good at passing the Bechdel Test, more than some books and films today achieve.

Life Lessons
We have already noted that some of our favourite heroines have some learning curves to go on, but Austen is full of wonderful snippets of wisdom that are especially important for growing up. From being open-minded and holding strong convictions, to knowing when to question your thoughts and feelings, Austen is here to teach us that life, and people, are complicated and no-one is perfect.

Satire
Life, particularly the stiff, polite life of the Regency period, is no fun if you can’t have a laugh. At the expense of some of her characters she mocks extravagance and polite society. Even her heroines are not safe with poor Catherine Moreland’s wild imagination the means of parody for the gothic novel. Far from the politeness of the parlour, Austen’s narration is witty, from Pride and Prejudice‘s acerbic first line, to the one-liners of Mansfield Park.


So what are you waiting for? Pick up a novel, or watch one of the many wonderful adaptations to commemorate 200 years since Austen’s death. Let me know what you’ll be reading or watching in the comments or on twitter @ellenorange94

Review: Final Girls

3 stars

A Final Girl is the last woman standing at the end of a slasher movie.

Quincy is a real-life Final Girl, along with two others who have each survived massacres. She has been living a normal life for over 20 years but when something happens in the present, her past catches up with her.

There’s not much more that can be revealed without spoilers but this book has been billed the thriller of the year and it is certainly a pacy, page turning read. Hats off to Sager for not being predictable – the book is so full of twists and turns and constantly has you guessing but it was clever enough to fool me right ’til the end.

However, while it was set to be potentially brilliant, another ‘next Gone Girl’, it did fall short for me. Quincy can’t name the man who attacked and murdered her friends so she refers to him constantly as ‘Him’ – with the use of the capital feeling overworked and bringing to mind a sense of ‘he who must not be named’ which jars. While the plot does twist and keep you guessing, the main reason I didn’t guess was because the clues weren’t there. The actions and motives didn’t really fit with the characters.

The most frustrating part though was that I hoped the book might follow in its’ predecessors’ footsteps and revise the archetypal roles that women are pigeon-holed into. However, the book continues to perpetuate tired stereotypes with the dichotomy of women as ‘victims’ or ‘perpetrators’ and ‘virgins’ or ‘sluts’. The only complication is the idea that the women are ‘survivors’ but it adds little to the established roles.

Equally the perpetuation of the myth that sex is both pain and pleasure was frustrating for a book that seemed to be focused on women’s experiences. The framing of grown women as ‘girls’ only compounds these issues further.

Final Girls was nothing on Gone Girl but it was a fun thriller with a shocking twist and it was certainly entertaining if not gripping.

 


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Review: How to Stop Time

4-stars

Matt Haig’s latest novel is about a man who has lived for over 400 years but only looks 40, because he has a condition in which he only ages one human year every 15.

Naturally, Tom Hazard, is concerned about how social intolerance means his condition could be a danger to him and those around him. He eventually joins a secret society designed to protect those like him and the rules are that he must change his life every 8 years and he can never fall in love.

However, after 400 years Tom has his own agenda – looking for his daughter who has the same condition. Like anyone else Tom must overcome his fear of the future, of wearing his heart on his sleeve and of all the things that make him human. While he may have met Shakespeare and F Scott Fitzgerald, making this book a Literature lover’s dream, he still has to learn the very human lesson of what it means to live. The story is well told, flashing back to moments from Hazard’s life as the memories affect him.

Haig could have told a linear story but the book is all about memory, Tom’s memories and how they intersect with history. As a modern day history teacher, he brings history to life – pointing out that history was lived experience not just facts from text books. While some moments pulled from the past have potential to be cringe-worthy, for example, the depictions of Shakespeare, they are executed well – clearly well researched and written with the perfect balance of sincerity and frivolity to make the book light-hearted but also incredibly meaningful.

How to Stop Time is sci-fi for people who love romance, and historical fiction for those who love the present. It doesn’t fall neatly into any of these genres but pulls bits from each. The book is funny, framing the present of smartphones and selfies from the view of a man who lived in Tudor London. It is also heartwarming – exploring themes of love and life which affect all of us, even when we don’t live for hundreds of years.

It is also profoundly sad as books of this nature often are but it carries so much meaning and joy that in some way this is ok. We know that Tom will outlive anyone he falls in love with, we know he may be persecuted, or else have to live in secrecy and we know that the future is still as scary as ever. However, How to Stop Time shows us that just living in the present and filling our lives with love and happiness, despite what the future may hold, could make even 400 years worth living.


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Books to read about Ireland

Recent news in the UK has brought Irish and Northern Irish politics to the forefront of British politics and front pages of our newspapers. For many people, the recent history of Irish politics will still be lived experience, but for those of us too young to recall, it may be something that school history hadn’t yet caught up with.

If, like me, you know little about the Troubles, IRA terrorism and how this has influenced the current political situations in Ireland and Northern Ireland then now is the perfect time to be reading up on this, in light of the Conservatives striking a deal with the DUP to establish their majority.

Here are a few fiction books that I will be looking at to get a better understanding of the history which is influencing the present:

Cal by Bernard Maclaverty

Cal is a young Irish Catholic, involved with the IRA, living in a Protestant area. He must come to terms with the acts he has committed in the political violence of the Troubles and his guilt, but he must also make decisions about how to, or whether to, move forwards with his life.

A Star Called Henry (The Last Round up Series) by Roddy Doyle

Set between the 1916 Easter Rising and the Truce of 1921, this story features Henry, as a member of the Irish Citizen Army, who meets several historical characters, and engages in the fight against the British. The full series spans most of the 20th Century, covering the reach of Irish politics in the Western world.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

A view into modern day Ireland and its underworld, this book dramatises the legacies of Ireland’s attitudes to sex and family and the effects they have. A Bailey’s Prize winner this book has been described both as darkly moving and funny.

Troubles by J G Farrell

Beginning at the end of the First World War this book is set against the context in which the violence of the Troubles begins, and the political upheaval of the Irish War of Independence. The book is focalised through a confused observer – a position many modern readers are likely to relate to as we see events unfold.

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

This novel from the ‘modernist’ period treats the changing situation as a signalling of ‘the end’ as British rule in southern Ireland and the end of an aristocratic era comes to a demise. In the midst of this Lois Farquar is attempting to break free from this very way of life, which her relatives are fiercely defending.


These books span the 20th Century, right up to the present day. They cover a range of perspectives, Catholic and Protestant, Unionist and Nationalist, and those on the outside and in between. They capture the complexity of Ireland’s politics and are a great starting point for those who love to explore history through fiction.

Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

baileys-logo
 4-stars
Madeline Thien’s epic about the story of a Chinese refugee, Ai-Ming in the 1980s and their history in revolutionary China is expansive and wide-ranging, covering decades of Chinese social issues and politics up to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989, and the consequences this has on Ai-Ming, and 10 year old Canadian Marie who she stays with on her escape to the US.

The book is not only a revolutionary saga but a beautiful exploration of Chinese culture, language and identity, with Marie constantly exploring the roots of words, their visual symbols and their meanings, which beautify connects non-Chinese speaking readers to the language and the ways of naming and speaking that the novel immerses us in.

At the centre of the novel is a musicality – not only in the importance of music to the characters, but in the way it is literally depicted on the pages, like the Chinese symbols, and in the patterns of speech and text. It is a long book reaching nearly 500 pages, and covers complex Chinese history, unfamiliar to many in the West, but it is incredibly accessible and easy to read, engaging us with characters from another time, place and culture the way that books should make us experience the things we don’t know or understand.

However, as the novel progresses we truly do start to learn about the horrors of China’s revolutions, we become involved in an epic story, spanning 60 years, focused around three important periods – life after the first revolution of 1949, the student protests of 1989, and finally the present day where Marie goes looking for Ai-Ming.

Thien’s context building is incredible, and her scenes depicting the real events of revolution are heart-wrenching. She frames the story through Marie, uncovering a mystery in her search for Ai-Ming. People disappearing and searches are a recurring theme, and so hidden communications, in an effort to find these people, also become a theme, through the copies made of the Book of Records, with the different meanings behind Chinese characters becoming code. Music serves the same purpose for Marie in the present day, and ultimately the book of records becomes an important metaphor for history – a lived, experienced history.

The book was insightful in terms of its Chinese roots but it also carries an important message for the world right now – that extremism in any form, even populist revolution is dangerous, harmful and spreads hate.

Thien’s book is beautifully written, highly literary but well grounded enough for the reader to connect with at the same time. It is a truly stunning work of art and an appreciation of art itself.

New York Public Library Summer Reading Challenge

Many libraries run children’s challenges to get kids reading over their summer holidays, but New York Public Library have gone one step further and made a summer reading challenge for us adults too!

Adults can need the push to read just as much, or sometimes even more so, than kids. And more importantly adults can learn something from these challenges too, which is exactly what the NYPL’s is about, with their theme ‘Build a better world’.

The last year or so has been scary, we’ve seen the rise of far right-wing groups become mainstream and normalised and politics has taken a swing towards conservatism and nationalism. There have been riots and protests, there have been a series of terrorist attacks and there has been a rise of intolerance in the wake of Trump’s election and Brexit.

So ‘building a better world’ is an important idea and the NYPL captures this with the three strands of the challenge. Check these out below with what I’ll be reading for the challenge this summer.


New York Public Library Reading Challenge: Build a Better World

Read a book …

About immigrants or refugees: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien - Do Not Say We Have NothingAi-Ming is a refugee, fleeing China after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The book explains not only her story but the epic history of China’s revolutions. While the book deals with the horrors of a communist uprising, revolution and rule – it illustrates the dangers of any kind of extremist movement, something we need to keep in mind especially in 2017.

About an unlikely friendship: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
Theboyinthestripedpyjamas

A Jewish boy in a conentration camp is befriended by the son of a Nazi Commandant. The boys are too young and innocent to understand the divide between them. Obviously the Holocaust itself is a testament to the horrors that hate can cause, however this book is poignant reminder of just how terrible the effects can be, but also a heartwarming glimmer of light that humanity can still be good, and we can learn a lesson from these children.

That’s nonfiction, about an issue that’s important to you: Nasty Women33022718._UY2339_SS2339_

When Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a ‘nasty woman’ he had no idea what he was starting. The words have become a hashtag, a global movement and a call to arms for feminists everywhere. This book collects essays on the issues that affect women today, with different perspectives covering a huge range of intersectional issues.

What are you going to be reading for the Summer Reading Challenge? Let me know in the comments!