Book of Bones – John Connolly

I am frequently failing to read complete series of books with my general opinion being that I just don’t have the time to commit to the whole thing. Generally I read the first book in a series and then flit off to something else and sometimes I read a book and only later realise there are previous volumes – this usually happens with book two but I think jumping in at book 17 is my current record. It is a great comment on the quality of John Connolly’s storytelling that I was perfectly able to keep up with this book without having read the last sixteen…(that said, I’m fairly certain I’ll be indulging myself with at least some of the series in the near future).

41131135Charlie Parker fits the mould of a ‘maverick detective’: scarred both physically and mentally, embittered by personal loss but driven to save those who remain. What is really different is what he is trying to save his friends, and the world at large, from – a mysterious lawyer trying to piece together an ancient book (with the power to call forth an evil which will change the world forever – you know, same old, same old) with the help of a cold-hearted killer with the stench of a rotting corpse. To achieve their aim they engineer the brutal murders of a number of young women whose bodies are found at sites sacred to gods from before the dawn of time. This kind of thing never happened to Morse or Jack Reacher. I know I was late to the Charlie Parker party but I really enjoyed this book. The previous plot lines are all referred to (without getting too ‘explainy’) but the storyline rattled along pretty rapidly. Plenty of murder, occult mysteries and mayhem to be getting on with and lots of wisecracking characters to engage with.

Jane

 

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Things in Jars – Jess Kidd

Ah, the power of a recommendation! It can lead you to the best book you’ve read in ages or, worst case scenario, it can lead to you doubting the taste and/or moral compass of the person who suggested the book to you. Obviously, we don’t all share the same preferences when it comes to reading material (which would lead to a very dull world full of Psychological Thriller and Feel Good Romance titles) but I, personally, prefer to take my recommendations from people whose tastes I trust – even if I don’t always share them fully. I also enjoy finding new sources and the time I spent in our Leeds shop over Christmas introduced me to the reading habits of a whole new set of booksellers – I’m sure it was one of them who tipped me off to read Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars, I just can’t remember who. Possibly Laura on her shiny new blog? Which I am, obviously, following with interest…

This book has so many of the things that I love – a Victorian setting, a strong but flawed heroine, great supporting characters, a dash of humour and plenty to think about. It is set in L9781786893765ondon in 1863, just after the Great Stink and during the period where Bazalgette is transforming the sewage system below the streets of the capital. But the effluent of a growing city is not the only source of corruption and decay – we also see into a world of anatomists and collectors: men of science who consider themselves above normal morality and who are often greater charlatans than the circuses and freakshows which also abound. It is as part of this dark and fetid city that Bridie Devine works as a very unconventional detective, alongside her maidservant Cora, a six-foot bearded woman, and the ghost of a heavily tattooed prize-fighter, Ruby Doyle. Her latest case, to investigate the kidnap of a young girl, will lead her back into the murky world of collectors and cadavers she thought she’d left behind. Eventually she comes face to face with some of the horrors of the childhood we are shown glimpses of throughout the narrative.

I don’t give a lot of five-star reviews (although I’m fond of giving four stars…) because I often feel that I’m not quite getting the balance of plot, character and (usually a distant third, for me) language that I could wish for but this book certainly deserves the top rating. Not only was I gripped by the story – a fabulous blend of history and folk-lore which felt like magical realism to me – and enamoured of the characters (especially Cora and Ruby) but I was absolutely floored by the way Kidd uses words. The opening passages made me feel as if were reading Under Milk Wood for the first time again – which is the highest of high praise from me – and the language continued to delight and disgust, to amuse and enthral me to the very end. Bliss.

Jane

The Rosie Result – Graeme Simsion

The phrase ‘difficult second album’ seems to be one which has parallels in the book world (although, in many cases, the first book we become aware of by any given author is often their fourth, fifth, etc….). This is never more obvious, for me, than when I read a series. First book – fabulous: second in the series – somewhere between ‘are you sure this is the same author, they seem to have forgotten how to write/who the characters are/what happened in the last book’ and ‘okay, but a bit underwhelming’. If this happens (and it does, surprisingly often) do you bother to go on and read the third book? I think, for me, it depends on how much I invested in the characters – who are usually pretty much all in place in the first book. I was totally blown away by the people I met in The Passage and Wool so I persisted, even though I found the subsequent books a bit less gripping. I’m glad I did, because I needed to see how the story arc ended in each case – the same situation as with The Lord of the Rings although I actually really enjoy both The Two Towers and anything to do with Tom Bobmadil #unpopularbookopinions – but some other series haven’t been so lucky. I won’t name them – because they were good books, just not quite enough for me to persist with, the fault lies with me – but if you have time you could scan through this blog or my Goodreads feed and find them. The question is was Don Tillman, the hero of The Rosie Project, someone I cared enough about to complete his story arc?

9780241388358Let’s just say Don is a really special man. I was totally gripped by his life while he was in the process of meeting and wooing the Rosie of the title and, although I quite liked the second volume, it wasn’t quite as enthralling. It may have been the whole Jane Austen thing – the best book is the one that leads up to the wedding, not one that tells you what happens after – but the personalities of Don, Rosie and their various friends and colleagues were enough to keep me reading. This third book, however, introduces us to a brand-new personality Hudson, Don and Rosie’s son and he is just as special as his parents. Hudson is eleven and in his final year at primary school – always a tricky time of a child’s life when decisions about what secondary school to choose raises its head for parents and the youngsters themselves are starting to work out who they actually want to be. For Hudson there is the additional problem of having to move from New York to Australia – like most boys his age he resists change and this is a big one: the resulting issues at school lead Don and Rosie to have to consider whether their son may be autistic. Don decides to take a sabbatical from his job (and, after a controversy in one of his genetics lectures, his employers are only too happy to offer one) and focus on ‘the Hudson Project’. In the process of this work the family learns much about the education system and how it deals with autism, how those with autism see themselves versus how they are seen by others and how to deal with loss, friendship and change.

This book may not have as many of the laugh-out-loud moments that the first book had but I was fascinated by the story and very involved in finding out how parents deal with this kind of issue. Don and Rosie are a very special couple so their approach may not be the one many would choose: because their son is both as wonderful as they are and also far more in tune with the modern world we eventually find that his own solutions make the most sense. This is a book with a huge amount of warmth and a clear-eyed view of the situations faced by families all over the world.

Jane

 

 

Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen – Zen Cho

I currently feel like I have a pretty perfect work/life balance – three days a week of paid work (with access to all the books, authors and great customers) and four days for myself. Of course, some of that four-day ‘me time’ is taken up with general domesticity – cooking, cleaning and food shopping – but I have plenty left for the things I enjoy. Since dropping my hours at work I’ve been able to run a bit more regularly (I even get to run more in the winter since I can do it in daylight), go back to a regular art class, start to get on top of the gardening and, of course, I have lots of time to read (and review, blog etc). As I say, pretty perfect. Of course, I am starting to fill the available time up with a mixture of runs, classes and attempts at a social life but if necessary I can always just do less housework. I’m assured (thanks Aunty Carol) that, after a certain amount, the dust never looks any deeper – but there are always more books. One thing I’m keen to keep going with is my fortnightly session of volunteering at my local community-run library. This is a great local resource and, for me, it has provided access to some great inspiration – such as happened the other week when I spotted a title by an author I’d just been reading (and then realised it was the first book in a series which I’d just started, in typical Jane fashion, at number two). Obviously I borrowed book one and can now review both for you!

9781447299462Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen are both set in a splendidly well-realised world – where Regency romance blends effortlessly with witchcraft and fantasy. For the historical aspects I’m going to say that the tone is pretty much as good as Georgette Heyer (and if you’ve ever met me you’ll know that is high praise indeed) and the non-magical side of the plots are something she would be generally happy with: in the first book, for instance, a young orphan girl runs away from her genteel school to beg a lift to London from a handsome but troubled gentleman. The fantasy angle means that the gentleman is Zacharias Wythe, the Sorcerer Royal – although his position isn’t as ‘establishment’ as it sounds since he is an outsider himself – and the young lady, Prunella Gentleman, turns out to be as powerful a magician as he is himself. Add in a cast of villainously traditional wizarding types who will stop at nothing to oust Wythe from his role, some gloriously amoral denizens of Faerie and a Malay witch who makes Granny Weatherwax look well-behaved and the book is as funny as it is exciting. The best bit for me? well, when an aunt is referred to as a dragon in a Heyer novel it is usually more of a metaphor…

9781509801077In The True Queen we start off in Janda Baik, the home of the troublesome witch Mak Genggang, and two sisters who have come under her wing after being washed up on a local beach. One sister, Muna, is completely non-magical but her sister, Sakti, is both very powerful and very headstrong: when it becomes apparent that Sakti is cursed (she is fading away, starting from her belly-button) it is decided that the sisters will travel to England to consult with Prunella, who is now the Sorceress Royal herself. Their journey takes them through the land of Faerie and, almost as you would expect, Sakti wanders off and is lost. Muna continues her journey and, while pretending to have magical powers she doesn’t possess, sets about finding how to rescue her sister. In this she is aided by Miss Henrietta Stapleton, a friend of Prunella’s who now helps her run a school for magically inclined young ladies, among others. Henrietta, by the way, is the most ‘Heyer’ person in this book – an old but impoverished family means she must agree to marry a rich man she can never love – but, once again, there are so many great characters involved. The general themes of sisterhood, both actual siblings and female solidarity, and the empowerment of outsiders are well covered but not at the expense of the story.

I’ve always loved Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels and thought they were almost perfect. I now realise the only thing they were missing is a strong dose of magic and dragon or two…

Jane

 

To lighten the mood I’m reading like a 9 year old…

Politics, disastrous fires, climate change and my gradually expanding waistline are all things I’m trying hard not to think about. I can do something about the latter (although whether I will is another matter) but the rest leave me feeling a little powerless – rather like the average child these days. My answer is, obviously, to read as if I were a child and, more specifically, as if I were one of the youngsters I’ve been seeing over the recent Easter holidays. So, having done my Easter egg colouring sheets, my word search and the Find the Duck treasure hunt, I’ve settled down with these two…

Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties – Henry White & Humza Arshad

42811557Humza Khan is a fairly typical boy. He lives with his parents – cricket-mad Dad who is always telling very tall stories and super strict Mum – but is mostly interested in becoming a celebrity. In Humza’s case he is going to be a famous rapper: after all, he’s already the greatest eleven-year-old rapper his home town has ever known. Helped by his best friend Umer and his favourite teacher, Mr Turnbull, he’s going to create a track which will be far too cool for the school end of year talent show. Things start to go wrong, however, when the punishments for his latest misdemeanours include joining the school cricket team (now run by his Dad, the world’s most embarrassing parent) and having to baby-sit his elderly Uncle (confusingly known as Grandpa): they get worse when teachers at his school start falling sick and being replaced, not by supply teachers, but by proper Asian Aunties. At first this seems like the best thing ever – no homework and plenty of rewards in the form of sweets, cakes and yummy samosas – but when Mr Turnbull is replaced things seem to be getting serious. When Grandpa – who is nowhere near as decrepit as he first seems – becomes sure that Hamza’s own Auntie Uzma isn’t really herself anymore it seems that Humza, Umer and class brain Wendy (who is, frankly, disgusted to be replacing homework and essays with cake appreciation) need to investigate what is going on.

This book is really funny but with a great plot. All the characters seem both realistic and larger than life – Grandpa was my favourite – and, although most of them are very specifically from a South Asian background, they are very relatable for everyone. After all, every child of eleven feels that they could be world famous if only their family would stop being so cringe-makingly embarrassing….

Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet – Zanib Mian (illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik)

9781444951226Omar is, once again, a very normal little boy living with his parents, older sister and little brother. Although he usually enjoys lessons (he wants to be a scientist and follow in his Mum and Dad’s footprints) he’s not looking forward to school – they have recently moved house and now he will be ‘the new boy’. Omar is a resourceful lad, however, and, aided by his imaginary dragon H²O he soon settles in to his new school. He makes a new best friend, Charlie, but also catches the eye of the class bully. Both Daniel, the bully, and Mrs Rogers, a rather stand-offish next door neighbour mistrust Omar and his family because they don’t understand their Muslim faith but he, and his family, manage to win them over with a combination of resourcefulness, food and good neighbourliness.

The story in this book is a bit less zany than Little Badman – no aliens or sinister aunties – but is one that any young child could relate to: being the odd one out.  Omar knows he will be odd because he is the new kid in class but discovers that he stands out because of his faith background – what is lovely is that the way he explains what makes him a Muslim is very low-key, very matter of fact and, frequently, connected with food, family and (rather less often) Ferraris. So as well as a pleasant story (with what could be called the Year 4 equivalent of ‘mild peril’) this would be a really useful book to introduce non-Muslim children to the everyday realities of the faith without being ‘preachy’. And for the Muslim children it is one of the rare chances for them to see themselves in the fiction they read.

Jane

 

 

The Strawberry Thief – Joanne Harris

I like Joanne Harris – I’ve read one or two of her novels and her twitter feed takes no prisoners – but I’ve, somehow, never managed to get around to reading Chocolat, her best known work. I had a copy pressed into my hand by a friend about fifteen years ago but it managed to get put to one side and then forgotten (sorry P….). Now I have read The Strawberry Thief, the fourth book in the series, I feel I’ll need to go back and fill in the gaps.

38310121Vianne and her younger daughter are happily settled in the small town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. Vianne spreading happiness and comfort through the medium of chocolate (it usually works for me….) and young Rosette wandering amongst all her friends, watching, listening, drawing and learning. There are problems – Vianne’s older daughter Anouk is far away, living in Paris, and Rosette is all but mute and will not settle in mainstream education – but life is good. But then Narcisse, a rather grumpy old man who owns the florist shop, dies and leaves part of his property – an area of woodland with an old well and an overgrown strawberry field – to Rosette and a long letter, explaining the tale of his early years, to the local priest, Reynaud. This causes all kinds of problems with Reynaud, who fears the letter will also reveal secrets from his own past, Roux (Rosette’s father and a free spirit who refuses to be tied down by any authority), whose instinct is to run away rather than have to keep Rosette’s property in trust for her and with Narcisse’s family, who seemed only to ever value him for an imagined inheritance. Things come to a head when the old florist’s shop is let to a mystery woman who seems to share Vianne’s magical powers. Having never read Chocolat I wasn’t really aware of the more mysterious elements to these stories. Vianne, and Morgane the tattooist who moves to the village, have powers which are obviously some form of witchcraft. Like my very favourite sort of witches they tend to work on the principle of ‘headology’ – the products and services they provide are truly bespoke, based on their reading of a person’s personality and needs (even if they are unaware of them themselves) – and Vianne, in particular, seems very connected to the world of nature. After experiences with another witch (alluded to and, I gather, connected to the second book in this series) Vianne fears Morgane and begins a campaign to try to move her on.

This book is a lovely mix of contemporary women’s fiction with a strong strand of magical realism. With Narcisse’s story there is also a historical angle as he tells of his childhood in the immediate post-WWII period. We are also led to think on all kinds of interesting themes – how parents can end up trying to raise the children they want rather than the ones they have, how fear for our children can blind us to our own faults and the power of forgiveness. The strongest one seems to be that letting go – of the past, of fear and of those we love – can be the hardest thing to do, but the most important.

Jane

The Confessions of Frannie Langton – Sara Collins

I have sometimes heard people say that they dislike studying literature (as opposed to just reading it) because they hate the idea of having to dissect books they have enjoyed: having to explain meanings, themes and characters. Now, maybe I was very lucky, but all the time I have spent – during school English lessons and through my degree course – I have never felt as if I have had to do this. Perhaps because of when I was studying (O levels in 1981 through to a BA in 1986) or the teachers I had, I felt that I never had to do anything more than read books and then explain what I liked (or disliked) about them. With examples, obviously. Almost as if my whole education was leading to a career in writing reviews and recommending books to people! This is definitely one of the things I count among my privileges – the fact that I got to spend three years reading some of the world’s greatest literature and that I can still think back fondly on almost all the books I read. I still think fondly of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Faulkner and Fielding: I will re-read Beowulf, One Hundred Years of Solitude or The Duchess of Malfi for fun even though I studied them – and, from what I hear, this isn’t always the case. Which could be one of the many reasons why I particularly enjoyed The Confessions of Frannie Langton – Frannie and I both find ourselves comparing her life to that of Moll Flanders.

9780241349199The book begins with Frannie on trial for the murder of the wealthy couple she worked for. She is the talk of the day not only for her crime but for the further sins of being black and being rumoured to be the lover of the mistress, rather than the master, of the house. We then look back to Frannie’s childhood in Paradise, a plantation in Jamaica, her relationship with Langton, her owner, a gentleman interested as much in the ‘science’ of race as in growing sugar-cane, and to her eventual move to London. The format of the story is that Frannie is writing down the story of her life to help her lawyer attempt to defend her: which means we hear everything from her point of view. She doesn’t reveal everything as it happens though and, although some issues (such as her true parentage) become clear before she tells us herself, this means that we don’t know whether she has committed the murders she is accused of until the end of the book. In addition to her own story Frannie leads us through an exploration of many aspects of life in the early part of the 19th Century – slavery, its abolition and the prurient interest of the abolitionists in how slaves were treated; the rise of science and the way it is often manipulated to fit into religious, political or other ideological beliefs; the position of women whether they are rich, poor, black or even French. Frannie herself is fierce and outspoken – she knows that all the cards are stacked against her and she has nothing to lose by speaking her mind.

All in all this is a really impressive debut – great for fans of intelligent historical fiction which also explores social issues, like race, gender and sexuality, which are still of such importance today.

Jane