Sunday, 10 April 2016

Back to the Future - Kindles and the Spanish Armada

The Cross of Santiago by Evie Gaughan

Two couples separated by four centuries are bound by one golden cross….

The Cross of Santiago is a historical fiction / romance novel set mainly in Galway, Ireland. It follows the stories of several characters from 2010 as well as slipping back further in time to the 16th century.
In 2010 we follow the stories of Amanda, a young women who was orphaned as a child and longs to know more about her biological family and Xavier, a Spanish man who has by chance become involved in an around the world yacht race which will finish in Galway.
After having no contact with her biological family following her parents deaths at a young age Amanda out of the blue receives contact from a law firm informing her that her aunt has died and left her a medal in her will. After experiencing flashbacks during a hypnotherapy session it becomes clear that this medal may be even more important than simply being the only remaining connection to her biological family.  
Why does she keep having dreams of drowning? What exactly is the medal and how did her aunt come to have it in her possession? Are her visions representative of her inner emotions or are they memories of a previous life? And more importantly, what does the mysterious Spaniard Xavier have to do with it all?

This was the first book that I read after buying a kindle so it was a whole new experience for me. After being wary of making the switch from real books to an e-reader I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. I will keep my thoughts on the actual kindle for another day however.

I really enjoyed The Cross of Santiago. I don't normally read romance novels but this had enough going on with the historical parts and the setting of Galway to entice me in. I found that this was an easy read which kept me turning the pages. I was very glad to get into a story after a run of bad novels (See, there is a reason I have been quiet for a couple of weeks! I've had nothing good to review!). The historical parts based around the Spanish Armada seem particularly well researched and it was interesting to hear the story of the Armada crashing around the coast of Ireland. The characters all feel fleshed out and interesting enough to want to read about and the story doesn't get bogged down by too much history, there is a nice balance. If I was to have one gripe it would be that there are quite a few coincidences which help the stars to align but as somebody who mainly reads thrillers I am more than used to suspending my disbelief so I did get past that and enjoyed the story.

I would rate this as a 4 out of 5 and will get round to reading Evie's other novel soon. I would definitely recommend giving this one a go. It is currently included as part of a kindle unlimited subscription or just 99p to buy for kindle. Don't worry if you only read physical books still, The Cross of Santiago is also available as a paperback for just £7.99.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

My Top 5 Books of 2016 (So Far!)

So here we are, almost April already! It's terrifying how quickly time seems to be flying by this year! My Nan always used to tell me that it only gets quicker the older you get….I'm not going to be able to keep up if it gets much quicker!

Seeing as we are now about a quarter of the way through 2016 I thought that I would take a moment to look back at my favourite books that I have read this quarter. So far this year I have read and reviewed 14 books. 13 fiction novels and one lonely non fiction effort. There have been more 5 out of 5 rated books than I imagined I would have read by this point. Not that I am complaining! I would much rather find myself reading books that make it look like I only ever give full marks than to struggle through reading a lot of books that I am not enjoying.

If I don't feel like I can at least offer a 3 out of 5 rating then I don't review the book hence no low rated books. Trust me there have been books which have not made it to the blog this year. In fact this year I have had books I have enjoyed so little that even getting to the end of the first chapter has seemed like a monumental effort. I am currently persevering with one which has taken me over a week just to read the first 4 or 5 chapters. Other reviews seem so positive that I feel I owe it to the book to stick with it. Whether or not it makes it to the blog is yet to be determined but it's not looking likely at this point. Luckily I am reading it alongside Stephen King's 'On Writing' which I am really enjoying. If it was the only book I was reading then I am sure I would have given up by this point. I won't name any of the books that I have really disliked this year though. I can't say anything nice so it's best to not review them at all. Just because I disliked them so much doesn't mean that somebody else won't pick them up and really enjoy them. One man's trash is another man's treasure after all!

Anyway, back on track. Picking my number one favourite so far this year is easy. Patrick Gale's 'A Place Called Winter' is simply wonderful and an example of everything that I look for in a good book. The characters and the settings are so vividly imagined and the story is totally enthralling despite it's heartbreaking nature. Less than a week after reading it I ended up listening to the audio book with my other half and enjoyed it all over again. It has instantly become one of my favourites! 
You can find my full review here.
For anybody wondering, the audio book is read by the author Patrick Gale and is every bit as enjoyable as the book. Patrick Gale's delivery is enjoyable to listen to and easy to understand.

The rest of the pack is harder to sort through but I think I have managed to sort out a top 5. I have struggled to order these and I am sure depending which day you asked me on, the remaining four would be changed in their order. They would all definitely make it into the top 5 though.

In second place (Today anyway!) we have Colm Toibin's 'Nora Webster'. Whilst 'Brooklyn' is the book which now has a film adaptation and is more conventionally exciting to read I preferred Nora Webster. It's a slow exploration of depression, grief and recovering from great personal tragedy. Sounds like a real feel good romp I hear you say. Well yes and no. This one was heavy going and I'm sure it isn't for everybody but I was left with a wondrous feeling of hope at the end. 
My full review can be read here.
Renee Knight's 'Disclaimer' has staked claim to the number 3 spot and as such is the highest rated thriller on the list. This is the debut thriller which is better than a lot of authors later efforts! I can only begin to imagine how brilliant future books by Renee Knight will be, I cannot wait to read them. This is an intelligent thriller with some great twists and turns. 
My full review can be read here.
Fourth spot could so easily have been third spot, I chopped and changed quite a bit before settling on this order. 'Little Black Lies' by Sharon Bolton is another great thriller which I have given a 5 out of 5 rating. A tale of revenge set in the Falklands that I highly recommend reading if you are a fan of thrillers which keep you guessing right until the last moment. 
My full review can be read here.
Finally in fifth place we have Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki & His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. Originally a Japanese novel I read the English translation and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was my first experience of reading a Murakami novel and I am looking forward to reading more of his books soon. 
My full review can be read here.
As honourable mentions I would like to quickly draw attention to Who's Afraid of the Easter Rising? (The one non fiction book I have reviewed this quarter) and to The Axeman's Jazz. Both of these were excellent books which only narrowly missed out on making the top 5. Click on the titles to be taken to my reviews of both books.

So there it is, my top 5 books that I have enjoyed reading so far in 2016. Hopefully you may have found a new book to add to your TBR pile and hopefully I will be lucky enough to read some more brilliant books as the year goes on.

How about you? What have been your favourite books that you have read so far this year?

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

A Hen Weekend Survival Guide

In A Dark Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
Who can I trust if I can't even trust myself.

In a dark dark wood tells the story of a hen do gone wrong. Told from the perspective of Nora we follow her story as she travels to a house deep in the woods in Northumberland for Clare, her childhood best friend's hen party weekend. Nora is surprised when she gets an invitation to Clare's hen do as they have not spoken to each other in 10 years. However Clare's maid of honour, Flo, is adamant that Clare really wants her to attend and it would mean a lot if she was to be there. Along with another childhood friend Nina, Nora agrees to attend despite her reservations as to the motive behind her invite.
The hen party is a small weekend away with only 6 people attending. Staying in Flo's aunt's glass house in the middle of the woods, the plan is for everybody to reconnect and enjoy one last fun care free weekend before the wedding. However things soon begin to go wrong. We already know from the opening pages that Nora has ended up in hospital but how? And Why? What has happened in the woods? Who is responsible? These are the questions we are about to answer.

This reminded me of an old dinner party murder mystery. The hen party is isolated out in the woods, everyone is a suspect and everyone is also a potential victim. There are motives for so many different outcomes as we read through the hen party weekend. The twist on the old dinner party murder mystery is that in this one we don't begin with a murder victim. We don't even know what has happened or who it has happened to. All of this unravels as we read through the events that unfold throughout the weekend. There are reasons for people wanting to kill each and every one of the people on the hen. There are people throughout who you could imagine becoming unhinged and hurting people. There is talk of locals who are angry with the glass house being built in the woods. There are footprints in the snow which don't seem to belong to anyone on the hen weekend. Is Nora the only person to get hurt? Does everyone survive the weekend? Who is responsible for Nora being hospitalised? Why exactly was she invited to the hen do after not speaking to the bride to be for a decade? There is a lot of mystery surrounding the events of the weekend and this one will keep you turning the pages to find out exactly what has happened. It turns out to be one of the first thoughts I had yet there is enough misdirection and good red herrings thrown in that I wasn't at all confident in my guess and had to keep reading as quickly as possible to find out. Once I got into the story I couldn't wait to find out all the answers!

This one is a fairly quick read. I read it in one sitting, racing to the end to find out what was going on. If you enjoy the old style murder mysteries and are prepared to suspend your disbelief for a few hours then I would definitely recommend this modern take on the old 'Whodunit'. A terrific debut thriller and i will definitely be reading Ruth Ware's next effort as well. I would rate this as a 4 out of 5, a thrilling mystery and a great quick read.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Wolves, Bears & The Asylum - Dangers of Canadian Farm Life

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

He had absolutely no idea how Canadian mittens might differ from the English variety and was faintly alarmed at the prospect of a cholera belt, whatever that might be, but reading the list evoked the adventure pleasantly even before it was under way.

In the opening to Patrick Gale's 'A Place Called Winter' we are introduced to Harry Cane. We first meet him as he is being 'treated' in an asylum. This very first glimpse at the brutality of how mental illness was treated in years gone by quickly introduces us to the different attitudes of the Edwardian time period. However there are those who believe these 'treatments' are useless and that there is a more compassionate way to care for people who might be suffering. One such person comes to Harry's rescue as he removes him from the asylum and moves him to his therapeutic community in rural Canada.

We are soon taken back to Edwardian England and begin to explore Harry's early life. We follow his life from his days as a shy, stuttering bachelor living in London through to marriage and starting a family in the seaside town of Herne Bay. Life seems to be going well for Harry but soon an illicit affair forces him to leave the country and start all over again. After discovering that he can claim farm land in Canada in return for simply working the land a new adventure is beginning for Harry. But what has happened in between deciding to move to Canada and his ending up in an asylum? That is what we are to find out.

Be prepared, this one is an emotional roller-coaster! I was really taken in by the opening. I was particularly intrigued by the community which Harry had been moved to. I was actually disappointed when the story switched to Harry's earlier life in England. I will be honest, it took me a while to get into the story in England. I'm not quite sure why but it didn't seem to grab me in the way the opening had. However, the opening was so promising that I pushed through and I am so glad that I did. Eventually the story of Harry's life in England becomes enthralling and I couldn't put this one down. The story of Harry's move to Canada is wonderful. The setting is so vividly described, the characters are so real that you feel like you really know and care for them and the plot is intriguing especially as we already know where Harry will end up. There are some truly wonderful characters in this book who I could have read about for far longer, they really end up feeling like friends that you just want the best for. In stark contrast, this book also contains one of the most vile villains I have ever read about. I don't think I have ever been so bothered by a character before.

I can very easily give this a 5 out of 5 rating! I could quite happily just gush about this one so I am trying to restrain myself. From the idleness of Harry's existence in London through the hardships of farming in Canada and onto the asylum and therapeutic community, every part of the book feels authentic. It has obviously been well researched and all the different settings feel very real at all times. I really do feel like this book has something to offer everyone. It is one of the most beautiful love stories, a tale of great adventure and so much more. I would recommend this to everyone, it really is a fantastic book that I am sure the vast majority of people will find something in it that they will enjoy.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Small Town, Close Knit Community, Serious Crime Problem

Kisscut by Karin Slaughter

A sadist is preying on the vulnerable -
One by one….

This week I will be reviewing the second book of Karin Slaughter's Grant County series 'Kisscut'. Whilst I will be making sure to keep this review free of Kisscut spoilers, it will contain some spoilers about the first book in the series 'Blindsighted'. If you are yet to read 'Blindsighted' then I recommend you read that first before this review. My review of 'Blindsighted' can be found here.

So you're sure that you are fine to read this review and not have it ruin your enjoyment of this series? Let's get going then!

'Kisscut' begins a few months after the events of 'Blindsighted'. All of the main characters from 'Blindsighted' return in 'Kisscut' and we continue to follow their stories. Sara Linton and ex husband Jeffrey Tolliver are beginning to date again as they continue in their attempts to reconcile their marriage. Lena Adams' uncle Hank has moved in with her as she recovers from the ordeal she suffered at the end of 'Blindsighted'. Everybody is still reeling from the events that rocked the small Georgia town just a few months before but there is no more time to dwell in the past as tragedy is about to strike again.

The opening chapter of this book involves a dead baby which has been cut into various pieces in an attempt to flush it down the toilet of a local skating rink and the death of a teenage girl who is shot dead in the skating rink's car park. This is all just chapter one. This should give you some indication of what to expect from this book. The content is even darker and more disturbing than the first book so if you are particularly squeamish then it may be a good idea to skip this book.

There is quite a bit of repetition to begin with in this one as the author attempts to bring everyone up to speed with the events of book one. To begin with I thought this was going to be quite tedious and it began to annoy me. However almost as soon as I got annoyed by it, the recaps of book ones events ended and the events of book two started to unfold uninterrupted. My annoyance is probably just because I read these books fairly close together so I didn't need the recap. I'm sure a lot of people will find it useful and it may mean that you could read these books independently of each other. I'm not sure I would recommend this though as you will get a lot more from them by reading them as they were intended.

I really enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it. As I have already stated, the content is a lot darker and more disturbing than book one. However the story is compelling and the characters are as perfectly fleshed out as they were in book one. Karin Slaughter seems to perfectly balance the development of fascinating characters which you want to read about with a well placed plot which keeps you hooked till the very end. The story of the investigation is fast paced and action packed but we also take time to enjoy following the lives of the main characters who return in each book. Lena is particularly interesting to read about as she struggles with her feelings towards the man who raped her and how these feelings affect her during the course of the investigation. Again the minor characters are just as fleshed out as the main cast and we enjoy a vivid portrayal of small town life. This whole book feels agonisingly real and the ending really adds to this feeling. I would again rate this as 5 out of 5 and I look forward to reading the next instalment of the Grant County series. I can only imagine that house prices are going to fall dramatically with each instalment! Nobody is going to want to live in a small town with such a serious crime problem!

Thursday, 3 March 2016

The Burning Shame Of A Giant Mouse

Today is World Book Day (Well it was when I posted this!). Happy World Book day to all of you!

I thought that I would take the opportunity today to share an embarrassing tale from my childhood with you. It takes place on World Book Day many years ago, I'm not just telling you random embarrassing tales here!

This would have been one of the first World Book Days back in the mid to late nineties. I can't remember exactly what year it was but I was still at junior school. For those of you not from the UK that equates to being aged around 6-10 years old. We were told several weeks in advance that World Book Day was coming up and as part of the day we would not have to wear normal school uniform. I don't know about you but personally I was never a fan of my school uniform (I still can't bring myself to wear navy blue to this day!) and any excuse to wear something different was fine by me. We were going to spend the day doing all kinds of activities related to books. We were going to receive a book voucher. We were going to spend the day dressed as our favourite book characters.

Hang on! We are going to be in fancy dress?!

Suddenly school uniform didn't seem so bad. I'm not a fan of fancy dress (Yes I'm fully aware I'm a miserable bastard!) and I will always look for the option which allows me to dress fairly normally. I have had this attitude towards fancy dress from a very young age. It was this very attitude which lead to me hatching my master plan to end up wearing fairly normal clothes on World Book Day.

Growing up I was a fan of Brian Jacques' Redwall series. My plan involved spending the day dressed as my favourite character from the books, Martin the warrior mouse. Now I know most of you are probably wondering how I was planning to pull off a day dressed as Martin the Mouse whilst not having to endure fancy dress. I had a plan. It was a cunning plan. A plan which my young mind could not see going wrong in any way whatsoever.

The plan as I envisaged it involved me wearing an all black tracksuit. Fairly normal clothing for a young boy. Over the top of this I would wear the cheap plastic armour that accompanied the sale of plastic swords and shields. I would paint my face like a mouse and wear a plastic helmet to match the armour. Now I realise most of you are keen to point out at this stage that I would in fact be dressed in fancy dress and with my face painted as well I would have gone to some lengths to finish the look. I totally agree. For this plan to work it needed to seem like I was eager to dress up as my favourite character. The plastic armour that was sold very cheaply was totally impractical to sit down in so there was no chance of me wearing it all day. My teacher would have no choice other than to ask me to take it off. There was also no chance of teachers wanting to leave a young boy with a sword and shield all day long. This was at a point where schools were starting to introduce health and safety guidelines. Swords and Shields, even plastic ones didn't fit in with these plans. But you still have your face painted like a mouse I hear you cry. Not to worry my friends, my cunning plan had taken this into account. One irritating itch later I would be sent to the bathroom to wash the face paints off. I was obviously having some kind of reaction to the paints and to avoid further discomfort it was best to wash them off. It was a foolproof plan. A masterpiece to have been concocted at such a young age.

And guess what...despite where you think this is going, my plan worked. I was asked to remove all of my costume, leaving me free to enjoy World Book Day dressed just as I had planned, comfortable in my black tracksuit.

The only thing my young mind had not taken into account was that every other young boy at the time was looking for a way out of being dressed embarrassingly all day. Their plans would end up leaving my plan looking like the kind of cunning we have come to expect from Blackadder's Baldrick.

I traveled to school that day with my Mother cooing in my ear about how cute I looked and how impressed she was by how into the day I was getting. My plan was going perfectly, she suspected nothing. As I got out of the car I could barely contain the grin that spread across my face. Walking the short distance to the schools gates I had an unmistakeable bounce in my step. I felt like a criminal mastermind as my plans began to unfold. That was until I reached the gates. Looking past all of the girls dressed as their favourite fairy tale characters I saw my group of friends all playing football on the playground. Not an unusual occurrence. It was how we spent all our spare time. What had made me stop dead, open mouthed, was the fact that they were all dressed in football kits. I couldn't believe it. It was so simple. There were so many footballer autobiographies out at the time. There were so many kids books about football. Why hadn't I thought of it?!

I had no other choice. I had to walk across the playground dressed as a warrior mouse. There was no hiding my painted face. The sword and shield were almost as big as me so they too were impossible to hide. Luckily for me my costume had taken so long to prepare in the morning that the bell rang almost immediately. Nobody had long enough to laugh at my predicament. All I had to do now was quickly let my teacher see my costume and get it off as quickly as possible.
Only it turned out that there was to be a special assembly that morning. An assembly where we would show the rest of the school our costumes as we walked to the front of the hall to collect our book vouchers. So there I was, surrounded by all of my friends dressed in the kits of their favourite teams. I didn't blend in. Not even slightly. The minute long presentation felt far longer. I could feel the eyes of the rest of the school on me even without turning around to see. The sweat was pouring off of me as my costume turned out to be a lot hotter than I had ever imagined it would be. The face paints weren't holding up to the tidal wave of sweat. I can only imagine how I must have looked clutching a plastic shield and sword with my cheap face paints running all over the place. At least the face paints may have gone some way to hiding my burning cheeks; Or so I hope!

So how about you? Any embarrassing book related tales to share? Or am I the only one to have spent a morning dressed as a giant mouse in the company of princesses and an eclectic mix of former premier league legends?

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Depression, Train Stations & The Occasional Wet Dream

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

I really should have died then, Tsukuru often told himself.
Then this world, the one in the here and now, wouldn't exist.
It was a captivating, bewitching thought.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a Japanese novel written by Haruki Murakami. Being unable to read Japanese I read the English translation by Philip Gabriel, it is this translation that my review will be based on.

The novel tells the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a single man in his mid thirties who lives and works in Tokyo. During his time at high school, Tsukuru was part of a close knit group of five friends consisting of 3 boys and 2 girls. The members of this friendship group all had names which included colours, all except colourless Tsukuru Tazaki. The five friends became inseparable and always made sure to spend as much time together as a group as possible. Even when Tsukuru left to further his education at an engineering school in Tokyo the group still remained in contact via letters and made sure to get back together whenever Tsukuru returned home. That is until one day when the other four friends told Tsukuru that they no longer wanted to be friends and he was to not contact them again. No further explanation was given and understandably Tsukuru fell into an extreme depression verging on suicidal feelings.
Tsukuru drifts through life without being able to form intimate relationships with others from this point onwards. Always feeling like anyone who gets close to him will end up abandoning him like his childhood friends. However, a promising new relationship forces him to address the events he has tried so hard to forget. His new girlfriend suggests that his old emotional baggage is preventing them from having a truly intimate relationship and tells him that if their relationship is to continue he needs to get back in contact with his former friends and find out why exactly they pushed him out of the group. 16 years later, Tsukuru is about to find out why his former friends no longer wanted him around.

This was my first time reading anything by Murakami and I have to say I was thoroughly impressed. To begin with I found the writing style slightly clunky in places but I am guessing this has more to do with the fact I was reading a translation rather than being a fault of the original author. This feeling didn't last long however and I was soon absorbed in the story. This is a particularly melancholy tale, with a lot of time spent with a depressed main character. I found the portrayal of Tsukuru's depression and anxiety particularly poetic and yet frightfully realistic at the same time. I often found myself agreeing with certain descriptions of how Tsukuru was feeling, having dealt with those thoughts and emotions myself.

Whilst the reason for the group of friends ending their relationship with Tsukuru is shocking you shouldn't expect anything else too exciting from this book. This is an exploration of depression, anxiety and the effect we have on other peoples lives no matter how colorless we believe ourselves to be. Murakami keeps you turning the pages as you read on trying to discover why such a seemingly close group of friends ended in such a sudden fashion. You want to find out what has become of the other members of the group. You want to see if Tsukuru can come to terms with what has happened to him and move on. Along the way there are some strange dream sequences and tales of weird occurrences that will keep you entertained as you move towards finding out the answers to all of your questions. Whether you will get those answers is open to debate. The ending is rather abrupt and leaves things open to interpretation but I really liked the way things were left. Without spoiling the ending for anyone I don't think it would have worked any other way than how Murakami has left things.

I would rate this as a 4.5 out of 5. I was really impressed and will definitely be trying more books that Murakami has written in future. There is a quote from a Guardian review printed on the back cover which labels this book as being “Hauntingly mournful” and I'm not sure I could really express it any better than that.