Category Archives: Reviews

Just Finished…The All Souls Trilogy…

A Discovery of WitchesIt’s taken a while to get to reviewing this series, as once I’d started the trilogy with A Discovery of Witches back in September 2015, I then bought the other two books and thought I would do a review for the trilogy as a whole.

In fact, this first book had been on my kindle since March 2012 waiting for me to get around to reading it! There’s nothing like trawling your old purchases to find something new to read, when you’re looking for inspiration – I think this may be the theme for most of my reading this year, as I started off in January reading the first in Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones series and am currently partway through the first Beautiful Creatures book by Garcia and Stohl. I’m only about six years behind the reading curve on those then! 🙂 I added a lot of books in 2012 and as quite a few of them are still there, bouncing around in digi-book purgatory in my kindle, I began to feel bad getting anything new before I released them.

Anyway, back to the book…

A Discovery of Witches lands you right in the middle of academic and book lover nirvana: it’s set in the beautiful libraries and colleges of Oxford, as American Professor Diana Bishop attempts to ignore the fact that she’s a witch to get on with her research without magic. When a strange book lands on her desk during her work, one filled with magic and questions, she deliberately dismisses it – sending it back to the archives, so that she can continue to ignore her magical abilities.

What I loved about this first book, which I would rate 4*, was the world-building and background premise to the magical world of ‘creatures’ that Harkness describes. The first few hundred pages flew by as I learned about daemons, vampires and witches in this world – what made them different, their characteristics and behaviours, and how all this came together in a meeting between genetic science and mythology. It was great. The characters introduced were also intriguing and drew me in to the story and mystery that was obviously being laid out.

There was a lull in the middle of the book for me – something that I found in each of the books in the series if I’m honest – where I was reading and reading and it didn’t really feel like there was much happening, significant character development or action. There was quite a lot of tea making, wandering around buildings described in lots of detail, and day-to-day happenings I wasn’t too fussed to be reading about. I love a good cup of tea, but when your protagonist is making them every few pages in considerable detail, you’re really not that bothered. All three of the books are long-ish (579 pages for this one) and I would have said a good 100 pages or so of exposition could have been lost without detriment to the overall story. After the lull in the middle, it finished with a bang – which had me heading to Amazon to grab the next two books, so that I could find out more about the characters and world I’d invested in.

Shadow of Night So, book two lands: Shadow of Night. Funnily enough, the lull for me in this one came at the very beginning – perhaps because I’d closed one book and opened the other immediately. Here the main characters have used Diana’s powers to ‘time-walk’ into the past to Elizabethan England, to the home – and former life – of her vampire partner Matthew. After a slightly slow start, the world-building picks up, as does the action and Diana – a historian – throws herself into this interesting world. Sixteenth century London is described in fantastic detail, with historical features mingling with the world of creatures set up in book one. We learn more about magic and the issues of the present, as we journey with Diana in the past. Spellbound as a child, to protect herself from her powers, she has always thought she was a poor excuse for a witch and thus focused on academia as her strength and not witchcraft. Now that she has found what was done to her as a child, she has to learn about herself and witches from the beginning, in an unfamiliar world. This was my favourite book in the series – the mixture of worlds and travels through history, living and breathing the places Diana and Matthew pass through, as they continue to unravel the mystery started in A Discovery of Witches. After the initial lull, the rest of the book flew by and I read it in a few days.

The Book of LifeThe Book of Life, brings us back to the present and the huge cast of characters assembled during the first two books now converge in the present day as Diana and Matthew continue their search for answers.

The book started well, but maybe 200 pages in it began to drag. I know loose ends had to be tied up, but just as in book one, there were long chapters of exposition that weren’t adding to the story for me. Also, after the majority of the first two books being written from Diana’s POV (first person) this book moved around a lot more – jumping into other characters heads, re-telling scenes in the third person. I didn’t find the jumps confusing, but just felt that if first person was good enough for the majority of the book, surely there were ways of conveying what was done here, without a quick and easy 3-4 paragraph jump out, to jump back. It felt lazy somehow, and with the detail and story-telling of this series, Harkness is not a lazy writer.

Anyway, there was a long lull and so I found it hard to keep reading in the sporadic moments I’d get. It felt like something I had to get through in order to finish the story and get my answers. In the end, you do get the answers – some are quite satisfying and delivered well; others, particularly action elements, could have been much more exciting. I started the book in September and have just finished it this morning.

So, overall – I’d probably be around 3.5* for this series. There are some great elements to the story and the complexity of the ‘creature’ world-building is excellent. There are characters that you buy into and want to know how their stories develop. But, the pace in several areas is just too slow – you shouldn’t be feeling that you need to ‘power through’ to the good bits. I’ve read several reviews for the books that compare them to Twilight – an adults version, if you like – and I can appreciate that. If Bella had gone off to uni and met her vampire around the age of 34, instead of 17, it probably would have been a very similar tale. My feelings about the drag in the books are very similar to the drag I experienced reading Breaking Dawn, with random characters appearing in an endless stream, leading up to the most anti-climatic battle ever. Action scenes and pace are not Harkness’s strong points either, but she can write depth and history and weave a huge tapestry of a new world that you can absolutely believe is realistic. Maybe just a bit less tea making, wandering in gardens and being coddled by other creatures in rooms described in minute detail; and when you get the violent climax of a three book series, don’t skip over it in a page or two. It was all a bit Finnick: *reading, reading, reading – turn page* “Wait a second!” *turns back a page* “Did Finnick just die?”

Tony’s Review: Every Day, David Levithan

A review by fellow author Tony Talbot, of Every Day by David Levithan. It sounds like an interesting read and certainly the ideas Tony picks up on the lack of gender and how you bring something to the reading of the book just in being yourself is intriguing. Definitely one for the 2016 TBR pile…

asidefromwriting

 

51i318LHixL4/5

“A” wakes up each morning in a new body. “A” has done this every day for the whole of their existence, and doesn’t question it any more than we question waking up in the same body every day. Then “A” meets Rhiannon and wants to have a ‘normal’ life.

This is a difficult book to review. Not because of the content or writing. It’s a lot simpler than that, and a lot harder: “A” is without a pronoun. They are completely non-corporeal – without a permanent body. “A” is neither he nor she, and I’m going to be forced to call them It, to give them the overtones of a non-person. It feels like the wrong approach, because “A” is such a strong character, labelling them as It feels…rude. Derogatory.

“A” has a unique narrative voice, one I have never come across, or even contemplated…

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Just Finished…City of Bones

image  So, this is my first book of 2016… I realise that I am about eight years late in giving this series a try, but it has been sat on my bookshelf for ages now and I just randomly plucked it off and started it over Christmas.

Overall, my rating for this would be 4* – up until about two-thirds of the way through, it was probably more of a 3*, but the writing style and ideas behind the world created in The Mortal Instruments held things together for me, when perhaps I wasn’t as invested in the characters or their actual adventure. That might sound like an odd thing to say, but I’ve found that happening with a few books I’ve read lately (including a very long trilogy that I’m just coming to the end of and will review soon).

In terms of the world created, it has a lot of typical YA supernatural elements: wolves, vampires, angels, demons… But, in here they are all in the same ‘world’ for once, rather than split into an angels book, or a vampire-wolf combo, which is interesting. I liked the idea of the city setting as well; seeing the action unravel around various parts of New York was a nice twist for me, with demon clubs and vampire hotels around every corner.

The action/pacing wasn’t amazing for me though – I never felt ‘gripped’ by the story and could easily put it down and walk away. I enjoyed the characters and the witty banter was great, but I never really bonded with them. As it stands, I’d read more in the series if the opportunity came up, but as a completed series, ready and waiting for me, I don’t feel the urge or that invested to pick up book two. In honesty, I like the sound of Clare’s second series more and so may give the Infernal Devices a go before I venture further along the paths of shadowhunters and demons…

Just Finished…Stealing Phoenix by Joss Stirling

imageThis was a good follow up to book one and it was nice to come back to the series after a long break. Initially, I didn’t warm to Phoenix’s character as much as I had Sky and Crystal (I’d actually skipped this book when I read the others in 2013, thinking that the story in the third book sounded better than this one, so I read them out of order. Strangely, that isn’t an issue really with this series as each book is in a different location and comes as first person narrative from a different female lead each time).

Anyway, in the first few chapters it was the action and pace that kept me going. Phoenix’s world is not a pleasant one and her life is hard, so I think that’s why I struggled to enjoy her story. However, once she meets Yves and the whole ‘soul finder’ thing kicks in, you see the best parts of her character and strengths that she doesn’t see in herself normally. When you read a first person narration from someone who isn’t confident, I can see why they are hard to like…they don’t like themselves. It’s only when you begin to see the true character of Phoenix, reflected back into the story through her interactions with Yves that you get to see the best in her.

I will admit, I’m not sure what I think of the ‘soul finder’ thing in this book. It feels more forced than the other two I’ve read, where the characters have at least some interaction with one another, before the soul finder part happens. It’s quite like the ‘imprinting’ thing in Twilight (which I really didn’t like in that series because of the weirdness with age differences, etc.) Anyway, with soul finders, they have to be a Savant (magical person, of course) and be born around the same time, the idea being that they are two parts of a single whole, thus the drive to get together in the first place and soul mate importance of holding onto that person when you found them… It seems that not many Savants find their special person under normal circumstances. Anyway, if you hate ‘instalove’ this might put you off, although it’s interesting seeing how Phoenix questions the bond and impact it has on her for much of the book, so it’s not too cheesy on that side of things.

As with the other books in this series, the writing is good and action/twists abound as you go through the story. The savant/supernatural parts are good, but not over relied on for the action, and the relationship between Phoenix and Yves is interesting, very differnt from the pairings in the other books.

I really liked Yves…how his mind seems to work, his approach to life, and firey spirit, which contrasts strongly with the logical, academic, side of his personality. I’d really like to see a snapshot book from his point of view, like you saw in ‘Challenging Zed’, to see what he’s like when it’s not through the filter of Phoenix’s eyes.

Overall, a quick and enjoyable read, comparable to the others in the series. If you liked them, I’m sure you’ll like this 🙂

Just Finished…Uglies by Scott Westerfield

Uglies

Everybody gets to be supermodel gorgeous. What could be wrong with that?

Tally is about to turn sixteen, and she can’t wait. Not for her license – for turning pretty. In Tally’s world, your sixteenth birthday brings an operation that turns you from a repellent ugly into a stunningly attractive pretty and catapults you into a high-tech paradise where your only job is to have a really great time. In just a few weeks Tally will be there.

But Tally’s new friend Shay isn’t sure she wants to be pretty. She’d rather risk life on the outside. When Shay runs away, Tally learns about a whole new side of the pretty world and it isn’t very pretty. The authorities offer Tally the worst choice she can imagine: find her friend and turn her in, or never turn pretty at all.

The choice Tally makes changes her world forever…

Uglies, Cover

This was a well-written book, but I have to say I just really didn’t buy into the concept, story and characters as much as I thought I would. It felt like some things happened, just because they HAD to… I found it difficult to get beyond a superficial reading, just as I found the first half of the book (the ‘pretty’ focused part) superficial. Tally wasn’t my favourite choice as a heroine: she was fickle, easily persuaded, but then chose to be stubborn at the most ridiculous moments… I know ‘uglies’ were meant to have been coddled in their city life, but it felt very unrealistic to me. In general, I felt Shay was more committed and questioning than Tally. In a couple of scenes, I did really believe in Tally, particularly the one where she sits in front of the mirror examining the detail and imperfections of her face – that felt very ‘real’ and is something I imagine all teenage girls do at some point, criticising the reflection that stares back at them. But, for me it was one of the only scenes we saw any depth to Tally’s character. Beyond this, she was just a name to me, faceless rather than ugly.

The dystopian world around Uglyville and New Pretty Town (yes, those are names of places…) the former world of the Rusties, was more realistic for me and there were interesting elements: the parasite in oil that destroyed the old world; the desertification of huge areas, through GM crop mistakes; the Smoke was also reasonable for a survivalist camp. I enjoyed the second part of the book much more than the first and some of the characters introduced (such as David and his parents) we’re good.

Some things jarred in the narration for me: a description of Tally feeling like she was graduating from riding a tricycle to a motorbike… In a world that didn’t have motorbikes – how could that feeling being attributed to her character? The language of their world became hard going at times, everything pretty or ugly… And every name of a group: Smokies, Pretties, Uglies, Rusties… I would have appreciated some more variety.

Overall, it is a quick read and written well-enough to keep the story going. It just wasn’t realistic enough a world for me for a dystopian. If they wanted pliable citizens, why do they give the Uglies so much freedom? Why do Pretty Rangers help Smokies? Why do they allow law breakers back into their system, but are ruthless with the Smokies? It’s possible that all these questions might be answered in book 2, but as I already know that is set firmly in Pretty Town, I’m not sure I can face it… It’s what the future looks like if we all turn into the cast of TOWIE – so maybe it IS a dystopian nightmare 🙂

Just Finished…A Stolen Life (Memoir)

A stolen life In general, I don’t read memoirs or biographies. On the odd occasion that I do, I find that I really enjoy them, mainly for the depth of insight that you get into someone’s life. For someone who makes up fictional characters, to delve into someone’s life in such detail, especially when they are a famous person who you might have built up a picture of who they are in your mind, it is particularly fascinating.

The Blurb:

On 10 June 1991, eleven-year-old Jaycee Dugard was abducted from a school bus stop within sight of her home in Tahoe, California. It was the last her family and friends saw of her for over eighteen years. On 26 August 2009, Dugard, her daughters, and Phillip Craig Garrido appeared in the office of her kidnapper’s parole officer in California. Their unusual behaviour sparked an investigation that led to the positive identification of Jaycee Lee Dugard, living in a tent behind Garrido’s home. During her time in captivity, at the age of fourteen and seventeen, she gave birth to two daughters, both fathered by Garrido. Dugard’s memoir covers the period from the time of her abduction in 1991 up until the present. In her stark, compelling narrative, Jaycee opens up about what she experienced, including how she feels now and the struggle to re-build her life after eighteen years in captivity. Garrido and his wife Nancy have since pleaded guilty to their crimes.
My Thoughts:
   I came across this book at a friend’s house – as I’ve said before, it is not something I would have looked at in my normal book searches. I picked it up, just to scan the blurb and when I did, I remembered the young girl on the front from when she was found after eighteen years of captivity and appeared on the news all over the world. After flicking through the first couple of chapters when I was there, I had to take it home with me to finish – partly for the story of the author’s life, and partly because the writing was in itself, intriguing.
   As you might expect, in some ways there is an almost child-like feel to the events recounted in the book: Jaycee was kept out of school from age eleven, educating herself where she could with internet access and the odd few books she was given. There is an immaturity to her understanding of feelings in the chapters that cover her early time in captivity and I don’t mean that in a negative way; just that her ‘normal’ emotional development was stopped where it was at age eleven – the absence of her mother and sister are the strongest emotional bonds she holds to, even as she gets to an age when most people are moving into close relationships with partners. Her range of experience of the world – for someone living through the time period she did – also shows just how limiting life became for her.
   Most of the chapters close with a short piece entitled ‘Reflection’ where you get the author’s thoughts on what she experienced at the time and how she dealt with it at the time. There is a more developed, reflective adult voice in these pieces, perhaps a result of the counselling and support she and her family received when she came home. One of the biggest questions I think you ask with a story such as Jaycee Dugard’s is ‘how does someone actually survive something like this happening to them?’ The final part of the book cover this really well and talk about the media, the psychological support and how she put her family back together to move on and reclaim her life.
   One thing that struck me repeatedly as I read A Stolen Life was that we were a similar age. At every stage of life that she describes in her memoir, I would have been doing very different things to her – things that a twelve year old, a fifteen year old and a twenty-six year old should be doing – not the life that these disturbing people forced upon her. Imagine everything in your childhood from age eleven being taken away – coming out the other end at nearly thirty…it’s impossible to really get your head around. Teenage years, your first job, finishing school – maybe university… All that time was taken, in exchange for a strange, warped half-life.
   This is a book that makes you marvel at human nature: the highs it can take in hope, real love and family; and the lows of evil and selfish monsters. The most amazing thing in reading this, was that I found the author’s pragmatism and hope to be the main enduring elements of the book. She did not shy away from telling the most difficult truths, but the real Jaycee exists in every page – after eighteen years of captivity, where she literally had her life taken away from her, she held it all inside her, ready to reclaim it when she got the opportunity. I don’t think I’ve come across a stronger person in a book before – fact or fiction.

Tony’s Review: Unwholly by Neal Shusterman

I added ‘Unwind’ to my Kindle TBR list, based on Tony’s review of it. So far, I’ve not gotten around to reading it, but his review of the second book in the series, published on Aside from Writing blog today, tells me that I should move it to the top of my list.

asidefromwriting

15992465

4/5

In a world where unwinding – the dissolution of teenagers for organ replacement – is legal, a group of very different teenagers struggle to survive in any way they can.

This is a sequel to the outstanding Unwind – one of the few books I’ve given 5/5 to, I believe. Neal Shusterman is one of the best writers I’ve ever come across – YA or otherwise. His world is totally believable, his characters are full and complex. There’s nothing flat here in dialogue or pacing; not a sentence is wasted. His writing is flawless.

His heroes and villains are both beautifully realised. Nothing is black and white; the heroes make hard choices, they make realistic choices as to what actions they can take. So do the villains. Everyone thinks their actions are right and the moral choices they make feel right to them. As readers, we empathise with them…

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