Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

UK hardback book cover of See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
I freely admit that I picked up See What I Have Done simply because it's beautiful. I was browsing in Waterstones and just doesn't resist the embossed grey cover and the neon orange pages. I even put it down a few times and tried to walk away, but I just couldn't follow through. Luckily, I ended up enjoying the story almost as much as the aesthetics (even though I spent an unreasonable amount of my reading time stroking the cover).

Plot summary: When her father and step-mother are found brutally murdered on a summer morning in 1892, Lizzie Borden - thirty two years old and still living at home - immediately becomes a suspect. But after a notorious trial, she is found innocent, and no one is ever convicted of the crime.

Meanwhile, others in the claustrophobic Borden household have their own motives and their own stories to tell: Lizzie's unmarried older sister, a put-upon Irish housemaid, and a boy hired by Lizzie's uncle to take care of a problem.

This unforgettable debut makes you question the truth behind one of the great unsolved mysteries, as well as exploring power, violence and the harsh realities of being a woman in late nineteenth century America.

I knew parts of the Lizzie Borden story - I knew that her parents had been murdered and that it was publically accepted that 'she done it,' but somehow it couldn't be proved in Court and she was subsequently acquitted. Turns out I was wrong about some of the most fundamental parts, however - it occurred in Boston, not London as I had thought, and she was a full-grown adult. Maybe it was just because she features in a skipping rhyme, but I thought I knew she was a child when it happened. This was king of jarring, to be honest, but my lack of knowledge is hardly the author's fault.

see what i have done book cover orange pages sarah schmidtSee What I Have Done is primarily a story about the people surrounding the death of Mr and Mrs Borden, not the facts of the case. The narrative of the chapters alternate between Lizzie, her sister, their maid and their uncle's colleague (weirdly) as they discuss the events of the fateful day and shortly afterwards. There wasn't a great deal of distinction between the four as their voices sound eerily similar, with the exception of the heavy implication that Lizzie has some sort of mental illness. Still, they were all very readable and the function of all four characters was evident.

I'm slightly confused about the inclusion of their Uncle's friend, Benjamin, however. I've done a bit of googling and I can't work out if he was a real person, or if he was just included to provide an alternative theory as to the murders. I know it's a very character-driven piece of fiction, but I can't quite see the benefit of completely fabricating a person who became heavily involved in the plot of the novel. It may be that I've just missed him in my 'research' (although it's a bit of a stretch to call it that) but even if so, some parts of the story could never be verified.

With that in mind, I'd imagine it's only very loosely based on actual events. The author states in her Afterword that 'the case didn't interest me in the slightest,' but she became interested in the people after Lizzie had come to her in a dream. As you may have guessed, it's a very... floaty Afterward.

I enjoyed reading this book, although even now I'd be hard pressed to tell you even now what the evidence was, who the suspects were and why Lizzie wasn't convicted. The story ends immediately after the funeral and before the Police investigation really starts, and then there's a quick epilogue ten years or so later. There's no discussion of it at all and it's odd that even the characters barely wonder in their narratives who murdered Mr and Mrs Borden.

see what i have done book cover orange pages sarah schmidtAs I said, the characters were interesting and it's well-written enough. Lizzie herself was crafted remarkably well, particularly with regard to her twinges of instablity. There's only a hint of it, but it's there. It's just bizarre that a book about Lizzie Borden doesn't discuss who murdered her parents. There's a heavy implication throughout that she was responsible, but this is mostly based on her mental state and not factual evidence, and the novel doesn't actually reach a conclusion. The different factors aren't tied together very well at all and it's very vague about what could have happened. It's even difficult to piece together a chronology as the narratives of the characters doesn't always match up with regard to timings - they jump around a little and it's quite jarring.  

See What I Have Done is an interesting idea and it definitely captivated my attention. It also corrected the erroenous information I had about Lizzie Borden's age and the geographical location. However, I finished the book a little unfulfilled. I just don't understand the point of writing a book that feels unfinished. Why discuss Lizzie Borden and not theorise who the murderer was!?

You can stay in Lizzie Borden's house! Is this not the best thing ever!?  

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Review: The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

Vintage edition book cover - The French Lieutenant's Wife by John Fowles
At least I know how to spell 'lieutenant' now...?

I think I'd heard of this book before, in the vague way that a book's title is occasionally ingrained into the public consciousness, without any understanding of the content or theme of the novel. Such was The French Lieutenant's Wife. I'd heard of it, but what did I know about it? Nada.

(EDIT: And apparently I've still learned absolutely nothing as I keep calling it by the wrong title... )

Plot summary: Of all John Fowles' novels The French Lieutenant's Woman has received the most universal acclaim and today holds a very special place in the canon of post-war English literature. From the god-like stance of the nineteenth-century novelist that he both assumes and gently mocks, to the last detail of dress, idiom and manners, his book is an immaculate recreation of Victorian England. Not only is it the epic love story of two people of insight and imagination seeking escape from the cant and tyranny of their age, The French Lieutenant's Woman is also a brilliantly sustained allegory of the decline of the twentieth-century passion for freedom.

I bought this after spotting it (and eleven other books - oops) in a charity shop, despite being completely unenlightened by the vagueness of the synopsis above. Even though I knew absolutely nothing about the plot, I simply had to read it based on how much I'd loved The Collector the year before. I'd adored John Fowles' formal yet chatty narrative, and the way his characters (although dislikeable) were brought to life. I knew at the time that I had to read more of his work. All of it, if possible.

And here we are. The French Lieutenant's Woman is a simpler plot than The Collector, at least prima facie. The book is set in Lyme Regis in the 1860s, and revolves around a young, recently engaged couple, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman. In the same town, there's a young woman by the name of Sarah Woodruff who has been scorned for a scandal involving, you guessed it, a French lieutenant. 

That's it, really. That's the story. The beauty with this novel, however, isn't the plot, it's the beauty and ingenuity of the prose. It's sort of meta, or it would be if that didn't seem an inappropriate word to use regarding a setting of 1867. Instead of the dark, stream of consciousness narration present in The Collector, the narrator spends a lot of time talking directly to the reader, with phrases such as 'you'll have to excuse Charles, he was merely a product of his time.'

It has a similar tone to The Crimson Petal and the White, come to think of it. It's very much as if the narrator is guiding you along, nudging you to keep up and follow the characters. The author actually pops up as a minor character at one point, just to sit there and muse about the nature of novel-writing. It's odd, but not jarring.

It's balanced very well though, and stops short of becoming abstract. There's a definite story here and it's not difficult to follow, despite the frequent musings of the pecularities of the Victorian Age. If anything, that was my favourite thing, and it seems to be what has earned The French Lieutenant's Woman its glory.

She was a ploughman's daughter, fourth of eleven children who lived with their parents in a poverty too bitter to describe, her home a damp, cramped, two-room cottage in one of those valleys that radiates west from bleak Eggardon. A fashionable young London architect now has the place and comes there for weekends, and loves it, so wild, so out-of-the-way, so picturesquely rural; and perhaps this exorcizes the Victorian horrors that took place there.

I hope so; those visions of the contented country labourer and his brood... were as stupid and pernicious a sentimentalization, therefore a suppression of reality, as that un our own Hollywood films of 'real' life... Each age, each guilty age, builds high walls round its Versailles; and personally I hate those walls the most when they are made by literature and art.
I can't find the quote that I actually wanted to share, but the frequent and direct comparisons between the Victorian era and the current time (well, the 1960s) are so naturally inserted into the text, and are so imminently readable, that I just devoured them.

Honestly, without them the book wouldn't be half as interesting. The plot is simple and the main character is profoundly irritating. Charles Smithson is just awful. One minute he loves Ernestina for her little quirks, the next he can't stand the exact same little quirks... ugh. And his attitude towards Sarah Woodruff also doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

The ending is... odd. You're provided with an ending in the natural course of the novel, obviously, but then the author pops up and says 'but because I'm a writer, I can explore what also could have happened,' and then we're provided with two other endings. It doesn't state which is the 'real' one, but then that's sort of the point - Fowles states that because the whole thing is a work of fiction, each ending is as real or unreal as the next.

He's right, I suppose, but I do really prefer a fixed ending. 

It's fine though, my enjoyment of The French Lieutenant's Woman wasn't spoilt by Charles Woodruff nor John Fowles. Read this just for the prose, which reminds me quite a lot of The Crimson Petal and the White, with a smidge of The Collector. It's so, so well-written in such a unique manner, that I really do recommend that everybody pick it up.

Read my review of The Collector.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Review: The Mistborn Series by Brandon Sanderson

I'd never actually read any of Brandon Sanderson's 'proper' fantasy, despite owning signed and dedicated copies, and considering how much I loved The Rithmatist. I knew I'd love them but for some reason it took me an inordinate amount of time to get round to picking them up. Still, several years later, here we finally are.

Book one: The Final Empire (no spoilers)

I loved this book. I wanted to be reading it every second of every single day. When I wasn't reading it, I wanted to be.

It's what I'd call 'proper' fantasy. There's a completely developed world with its own class system and politics, and the characters spend a lot of time sitting around discussing the latest plot development to really give you an in-depth understanding of what's going on. There's lots and lots of dialogue and scheming, with no sex and no pointless, graphic violence for shock value.

It is, on the whole, a political book. That's a good thing when the political system involves classes based on which metal you can burn to achieve special abilities e.g. pewter gives the user super strength and resilience, as an example. There's a rebellion in the offing and concerns are growing about the Lord Ruler, the mysterious tyrant who controls strange creatures to keep the population in check. 

There's not a whole lot of action, as the story mainly revolves around planning the afore-mentioned rebellion. I can't say resent the absence when the end result is an exceedingly well planned and well-thought out plot with enough twists and turns to keep anybody happy. The action that does occur is great, as parties use their different metals to strategise and off-set the abilities of their opponent.

The characters could perhaps use a little work. Kelsier wasn't quite rogueish enough, Clubs wasn't quite grumpy enough, etc. I could see what 'types' they were meant to fulfil, but none of them really went quite far enough to be interesting. They all seemed very similar with perhaps the occasional statement to remind you who they were meant to be. It wasn't enough to affect my enjoyment of the book... aside from Vin. She's the main character so you'd expect her to be the most rounded, but this is emphatically not the case.

Quite a big deal is made of the fact that she was raised to not trust anybody, to assume that everybody will betray her, etc. She thinks about it constantly, which gets a bit annoying. But then her actions and her behaviour don't gel with that, aside from her persistent sulking. Her character doesn't really make sense and her actions aren't consistent with her thoughts.

But whatever, this book is great and I loved it.

Book Two: The Well of Ascension

This book is much slower than the first book. I did still enjoy dialogue and world-building, but this book revolves around the establishing of a new government and it is mostly political. There's barely any action at all until somewhat near the end. It's good... but, you know, the world is built now. You can stop.

Speaking of the political attributes, there's all kinds of upheaval going on. Without being too spoilery, it's emphatically clear which side you're meant to be rooting for, but it wasn't completely sold to me that that side was in the right. I mean, I could absolutely see the point of view of the opposing faction and that made it difficult to really care about the end result. Ha. How's that for non-spoilery? :)

Ah, Elend. I really liked him in the first book - he was dry and sarcastic, and didn't really give a crap. Now he's all mopey and annoying... but not as bad as Vin. Bloody Vin. She makes stupid, stupid choices because she is also mopey and annoying. She doesn't really have a set personality - it just settles on whatever her character needs to be at that moment, she never seems real. Their romance is unnecessary and there's no 'spark,' or indication that they even remotely like each other.

Oh oh, you know what really annoys me? Yes, I know there's a lot of things. But in this case I'm talking about that stupid 'oh, I know I just got my powers but now I'm a genius with them'  thing. It pops up all the time and I just don't see it as necessary.

Two things saved this book, however. The first is the kandra storyline, of which I would happily have read an entire series on its own. The kandra are essentially a race of shapeshifters, but their Contract and their backstory is riveting and nothing short of genius. I found it absolutely fascinating and I loved it.

The second is  a huge twist about three quarters of the way through, and it was so huge and so revelatory that it saved my somewhat lagging interest in the whole thing. I texted Charlotte to read this book based entirely on that one twist.

I wasn't a huge fan of the ending. It was a twist, I suppose, but a very convenient one for everybody involved. It was immediately evident what the last book in the series would involve, and just how many problems this little quirk would solve.

Book Three: Hero of Ages

This book... this book I actually struggled to finish. I was frustrated with all the faults I've already highlighted, but 've since realised that the over-arching problem is a lack of subtlety. Nobody can just be a Mistborn, they have to be THE BEST MISTBORN EVER. We were meant to hate the Lord Ruler, and now suddenly we understand him. Elend and Vin are super madly in love... apparently, but there's never ever reason given. There's just no build-up to anything and that is the problem with this series.

I loved the kandra more than ever. Their homeland, their legends, their tasks... it's fascinating. When I think back to the positive aspects of these novels, but mind instantly fixates on the kandra. Their existence is so well-planned and so perfect, which makes the rest of it all the more frustrating. I wish they had more airtime in this book, but we were too busy chasing after Super Elend.

The main problem with this book is that, instead of it being all battles and magic and creatures, it's all abstracty and religion-y. It stopped being the 'proper fantasy' I was raving about above and suddenly started lecturing me on theological principles. It just couldn't hold my interest, which I hated. Why change the tone of the book from what had previously made them so interesting!? 

I really, really hated the ending. I had to force myself to read the final chapters because I really didn't enjoy them, although I admit that it had been a long day at work. Still, I skimmed them at best. It felt like it tried so hard to be an epic, grand ending, but never stopped to think about whether it was good or not. It was unique, I'll give it that, but sometimes you have to wonder if the standard fantasy-esque endings are used time and time again for a reason.  

Some parts and very clever and develop in a way that I didn't see coming, but on the whole I wasn't overly impressed with this book. Evidently.


Whilst I have an overall positive view of this series, my enjoyment distinctly declined with time. The first book was excellent, one of the best fantasy books I've ever read, but that makes it all the more annoying when the second and third books couldn't follow through.

I do have good memories of this series as there were some really interesting ideas and some great twists. But for me to want to progress to the other series, the characters would have to be better developed and I'd need a much less trite ending.

Read my review of The Rithmatist, or visit Brandon Sanderson's website here.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Review: Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

UK Book cover of Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
I finished the second book in this duology, Crooked Kingdom, literally about five minutes ago and I have to talk about this series immediately. I feel sad, nauseous and a little bit giddy, all at the same time. This series, especially the second book, is the best I've read in a long, long time.

Plot summary: Criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker has been offered wealth beyond his wildest dreams. But to claim it, he'll have to pull off a seemingly impossible heist:Break into the notorious Ice Court
(a military stronghold that has never been breached)

Retrieve a hostage
(who could unleash magical havoc on the world)

Survive long enough to collect his reward
(and spend it)

Kaz needs a crew desperate enough to take on this suicide mission and dangerous enough to get the job done - and he knows exactly who: six of the deadliest outcasts the city has to offer. Together, they just might be unstoppable - if they don't kill each other first.

I was dubious about starting this series as I did not like the Grisha books. The Shadow and Bone series wasn't bad exactly, but there was nothing particularly unique about it and it wasn't written overly well. I'm not sure if I finished the first book, but I definitely didn't carry on to the second. This series, written by the same author and featuring the same world, did therefore not exactly recommend itself to me.

Then Charlotte, whose opinion tends to echo mine in a lot of bookish things, read Six of Crows (review here), and she ended up buying it for me as a Christmas gift. Turns out that I'm really, really glad I didn't avoid these books just because I didn't like Leigh Bardugo's original serie, or I'd have missed one of my favourite books of the year so far. Admittedly it's only April, but I'm confident it'll stay a firm favourite.

I'm a sucker for books about close knit groups of wildly different people, all working towards a shared objective, bonding and bickering along the way. It's why I loved A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet so much, and other books like Theft of Swords. Six Crows and Crooked Kingdom do that perfectly. The way the relationships develop and change is so perfect and so subtle - I'm not sure I've ever seen characterisation performed so beautifully. The characters are so different, but the way their personalities interweave is wonderfully crafted.

My favourites were Kaz, the criminal mastermind with his own special brand of neuroses, Inej, the gentle but talented wraith and Wylan, the quiet demolitions expert scorned by his Father. However, and unusually for a book with changing perspectives, I was interested in every single one of the six characters. All of them. They were so wonderful and their perspectives so unique, that for once I didn't mind from whose viewpoint I was reading. It alternates every other chapter and, considering that means six perspectives, it's a difficult feat to stop the reader from getting frustrated.

Normally I hate romance in books like these - it's usually unnecessary and shoehorned in for the sake of it. Here though, it's more of a subplot of a subplot. It's so subtle and non-attention-grabbing that I actually felt the story was better for it, which is something I never actually thought I'd say. The end result of the relationships was never straightforward and yet it was always suited the couple involved to the nth degree. So, so perfect.

The story itself is wonderful too. Six of Crows is a simple heist (well, not so simple at all, but the premise is straightforward at least - 'steal some stuff') and Kingdom of Crows is a more complex plot where the characters have to deal with the less than ideal consequences of the aforementioned heist. Each book has so many twists and so many turns that I lost count of the time I wanted to gasp at how Kaz Brekker tricked me (and everybody else) again.  

The writing style is completely different to the original Grisha trilogy, to the point where I wouldn't have believed it was written by the same author. It's adult, it's complex and parts of it are simply beautiful. I don't know what happened between that series and this one, but it worked. 

Charlotte told me that Crooked Kingdom was even better than Six of Crows, but I didn't really get on board with that until close to the end. Because I read them so close together, they sort of merged into one book for me. Well, until the end of Crooked Kingdom. I CRIED. I actually sat there and properly cried. It's an actually perfect ending that suited all the characters. I loved that it wasn't perfect, that not everybody got a happy ending and that it wasn't what I had hoped would happen - it was better than that. It was brave and awful and amazing and... ARGH. It's perfect, for all the characters.

A third book hasn't been announced and, strictly speaking, the story has been concluded. However, there is scope for another book (or another hundred, fingers crossed) and I cannot wait for that day. I swear, the second that book is announced, I'm on it.

For a series I didn't even want to read, it's amazing. Hell, for a series I did want to read, it's still amazing. The prose is beautiful, the characterisation is masterful and I absolutely didn't want to put this series down for a second.

And look - I found a shop on Etsy that sells Six of Crows themed candles! You can buy a Matthias candle or a Wraith candle, and Novelly Yours have kindly offered to give all you lucky readers 10% off! Just use the code TAKEOFF10.

What has your favourite book of 2017 been?

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Top Ten Books I Liked More Than I Thought I Would

1) Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

I decided to write this post almost entirely because of this book.

I do not go for romance stuff and I do not go for YA stuff, and I most especially do not go for romantic YA stuff. I wanted this book on a whim way back in 2011 and a friend bought it for me, because she's nice.

It languished on a shelf for, oh, six years, until Saturday, when I shoved it in my bag as a quick read and to finally get it off my shelf. I started it last night... and finished it last night.

I know, I know. But it's surprisingly good. The main character stood up for herself and the romantic lead wasn't a colossal arse. It's already surpassed my expectations for YA. I wouldn't really want to read any of her other books, but I liked this, alright?

2) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Time to claw back some credibility.

I ran a read-a-long for this the year before last (good Lord) and I think we all found it to be surprisingly accessible. I mean, it definitely doesn't need to be as long as it is and some of the Russian politics went over my head, but I did end up enjoying it.

Will I reread it? Probably not. But did I want to claw my eyes out constantly? Nope.

Chalking that down as a win for Tolstoy.  

3) Cinder by Marissa Meyer

I've just realised that the majority of this post is going to be YA.

I feel sort of vindicated with Cinder though, because Charlotte bought it on my recommendation during the Bookshop Crawl and she's already read it and bought the rest of the series.

I think I liked the rest of the series, Scarlet, Cress and Winter, more than Cinder, but the series as a whole completely defied my expectations. It doesn't really need the fairytale link (which I ranted about in every. single. review.) but I really enjoyed the time spent with the characters of the Lunar Chronicles books.

4) All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

This book completely blew me away.

I'd grabbed a book to read at work in a hurry one morning, without really paying too much attention to what it was. I think I actually thought this book was a western, despite the giant-ass poppy on the cover. I know, I knew.

But I started it reading it at lunchtime and then had to stop because I couldn't handle it. It completely and utterly spaced me out and I spent weeks thinking about this book. It talks about the innocence of war in a relatable way that brings homes the true, genuine horrors without ever preaching or reaching for shock value. It's truly amazing.

5) The Godfather by Mario Puzo

I only read this in the first place because somebody at work had asked me if I wanted to borrow it and I panicked and said yes. The only fuzzy memory I had of it was falling asleep whilst watching it with my boyfriend, and he being less than impressed with my appreciation of alleged cinematic masterpiece.

I really liked this book, aside from the three pages that detail vaginal surgery in absurdly graphic detail. It's weird. Obviously. But aside from that, the characters are brilliant, the story is good and it was surprisingly easy to follow.

I'm still not likely to sit down with the film any time soon, but I do recommend the book.

6) Lord of the Flies by William Golding
I'd lost count of the people who told me how much they disliked this book before I actually got round to reading it. Apparently it's on the school syllabus in some places (which is a strange idea), but even the people I spoke to who hadn't studied it still hated it.

I therefore expected it to be dry, monotonous, boring and yet also full of mindless violence, but it ended up being none of those things. I've read it twice now, in 2012 and 2016. 

It's atmospheric and exciting, and is probably symbolic of the potential ruin of society by mankind when chaos takes over, but I choose to take it as demonstrative of the fact that children can't be trusted.

7) We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Whilst I expected to like this book, I wasn't prepared for the impact it would have on me.

It's powerful and amazing and awful, all at the same time. It took months, literally, for me to get over it. It's not scary and it's not a horror book, but it's certainly haunting.

I read this in 2014 and I still can't bear the thought of rereading it. I loved it, but I'm honestly, honestly just not ready to put myself through that again.

If you haven't read it, do. It's the most powerful piece of fiction written this century.

8) The Selection by Keira Cass

And now, on a completely different note...

I think I can count on one hand the amount of girl-in-pretty-dress books I've read. In my defence, that is a very pretty dress.

This is essentially a YA, dystopian version of The Bachelor. It has its faults and it's not exactly high literature, but I really did enjoy reading this series. I haven't bothered picking up any of the newer books because I was happy with the ending supplied by The One.

I'd be very surprised if this didn't ended up as a Netflix TV show before too long.

9) Any Sarah J. Maas book
Objectively, I know that I love this series, I do. But every time a new installment comes out, this happens:

*buys immediately*
"Oh, but I don't like fairies. Or Aelin. Or the romantic sub-plots. Ugh."
*puts off reading*
*gets nagged into reading by Charlotte*
*reads a month later*
"Oh my God, this book is AMAZING!" 

This has honestly happened every time for at least the last three books. You'd think I'd learn. 

10) HHhH by Laurent Binet

It confuses me when I see this book in the fiction section of Waterstones. It's blatantly non-fiction - it's about the Czech parachutists who executed Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.

It's written in a very chatty, informal tone that meant I ended up absolutely loving this book, but it's still definitely non-fiction.   

I was expecting a run-of-the-mill but still interesting, informative book, and instead I got a chatty discussion on Czech history, but also about how the author came about writing this book as well.

What books did you like more than you thought you would? 

Monday, 20 February 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers series #2) by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit book cover Becky Chambers
This book is the sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. I'd borrowed that book from the library on a whim and ended up absolutely loving it. It's a great, space-themed novel about a group of misfits of different space races on a long haul journey through space. It's great. Go read my review. A Closed and Common Orbit, whilst good, just didn't have the same punch to it for me.

Plot summary: 'Lovelace was once merely a ship's artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who's determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.'

The reason I loved the first book, for those readers who have neglected to read my review, is because of the characters. There's a full ship of people, all of whom are different species, races and genders, and all these people have their own POV chapters. They're distinctly separate entitities with personalities and flaws, and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is about how they interlink and their developing relationships. It's not really about space at all, it's about people and it's amazing.

This book, however, has more of a Point. An AI system designed to run a ship suddenly finds that she has a  body to manage and she's struggling with the limits of her new human-shaped form. These chapters, which I'd say is the primary focus of the book, are alternated with the point of view of Jane, a genetically engineered human who was produced for an austerely run factory but is now struggling to survive in a wasteland with only an AI for company.

The thing is, there's no story really. There are circumstances - Jane needs to survive and Sidra/Lovelace doesn't like her body - but not much actually happens.

There's no people. There are no relationships. All those things that made the first book great just aren't present. Instead of six vastly different points of view, we essentially just get a human woman and an AI pretending to be one. Neither of these women interact with other people, to a large extent anyway, so it's mostly both of them musing inside their head about not a whole lot.

It's fine. It's written well, the prose is good and the dialogue flows well. The problem is that the over-arching plot doesn't really become clear until the final few chapters. When it appears, it's great. I loved it and I was really moved, but I think I'd have been more interested in the book as a whole if I'd have known what the end goal was - i.e. what Pepper trying to achieve.  

It just wasn't very interesting, to be honest, not right until the end. I did like it, but I loved the first one so much that perhaps it was inevitable that A Closed and Common Orbit would be a bit disappointing.

Read my review of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.     

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Top Ten Books of 2016

Better late than never, right? Also, check out my favourite books from previous years:

Wow, I've been doing this longer than I thought...

As always, I'm going to start with the Gold Books, the books that I always knew would make it onto this list - the ones that stand out without me needing to check my LibraryThing list.

In no particular order:

1) All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

I didn't even particularly want to read this but it completely blew me away. I remember being sat at my desk when I read the few pages, and I was just stunned into silence. I needed time to process everything I had just read. It's quite simply awful. But brilliant.

'Every second that I was not reading All Quiet on the Western Front, I wanted to be. It's simultaneously really easy to read and really difficult. It's quite obviously not a happy story. There are no chirpy evacuees, no whirlwind romances and no duck-shaped gas marks. This is solely one soldier's experiences of life at the Front and it is brutal.'

2) The Collector by John Fowles

It seems I only read depressing books his year and only in the red Vintage editions...

The Collector deserves to be on this list purely due to the masterful characterisation and shifting perspectives. Somehow you end up loathing both abductor and abductee equally in a way that's quite disturbing. 

'I wasn't sure about the ending, but it's been going round and round in my head since I finished reading and I don't think it could have ended any other way. It just fit the theme perfectly. Speaking of, the theme of 'collection' is hinted at throughout the book, but in an oh-so-subtle way and it's very clever. The final paragraphs are appropriate and haunting, and I LOVE THIS BOOK.'

Something a little lighter at least. This is a futuristic, sci-fi novel that takes place almost entirely on board a spaceship, but it's more than that. It's about the small crew on board and their fractious yet affectionate relationships. 

The world building is simply astounding with a variety of different races, worlds and politics, and I can't wait to immerse myself into the second book.

'The book is more about those little sub-plots than the overarching storyline about building the hyperspace tunnel.They embark upon a long journey across space to get to where construction can begin, and that is more the subject of the book. We stop off at secret hacker planet for semi-legal ship modifications, visit the home planets of the some of the crew and deal with moral issues relating to medical treatment and consent. It's way more interesting than a travel tunnel!'

4) The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey 

I don't really read a lot of contemporary fiction, although I don't have anything against it. It's just that I tend to go for fantasy or classics and don't really have time for anything else. 

The Cranes Dance might just have prompted me to branch out though. I loved this book and couldn't get it out of my head for days afterwards. On the surface it's about ballet, but it's really about family relationships and the voice inside your head. 

'What made this book for me is Kate Crane. She is possibly the most relatable, the most believable and the most real character I have ever read. It was honestly like she was inside my head. She has flaws, but not those exaggerated traits that fictional characters are often given to pad them out a bit. She was so, so real. She was likeable, for the most part, but those parts where she wasn't so perfect just made her relatable.'

5) The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Charlotte hosted a read-a-long for this book, partly due to the sheer length of it. I thought I'd reviewed it, but apparently not.

It's a wonderful book. Twists and turns galore, and it's written beautifully. Whilst I couldn't say I liked any of the characters, they were all written perfectly. Shame about the awful, lazy ending. I still wonder if the TV show ended in the same way.

'My favourite thing is the odd second person thing. Normally I'd hate that but it's so subtle. I didn't mark down any quotes because I essentially wanted to quote the entire book, but it says thing like 'our story follows Sugar, so don't bother following Caroline. It'll be warmer where Sugar's going anyway, so let's walk with her into the brightly-lit doorway.'

I mean, it's better written than my feeble attempt, but you get the idea. It's not like that 100% of the time or it would drive us bad, but it's just enough.'  

6) The Chronicles of St Mary's by Jodi Taylor

This is a light-hearted series about a group of historians who travel back in time for research purposes. I've reviewed the first one, but I've actually just finished the fourth. 

They definitely have their faults (although the writing is getting better as the books continue), but they're so much fun that I really don't mind.

'There is actually a detailed over-arching plot, which impressed me. I expected Just One Damned Thing After Another to be a sort of set-up book for the series, just sorting out the Institute and how Max got her job, etc. I suspect this storyline is convoluted enough to last throughout the entire series (seven books at time of writing) and it surprised me that such an idea was implemented halfway through Book One.'  
The books below are the books that do still deserve to be on the list, but aren't quite as good as the books above. They're still in my Top Ten, but I had to go looking for them.

7) Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good by James Davies
This is a non-fiction book about the development of psychiatry, medication and diagnostic criteria. It's really accessible and well-written, by an author who really seems to care about his subject.

It deals with the over-diagnosis of emotions (like classing bereavement as a mental disorder), unnecessarily medicating children and the politics involved in something as simple as diagnosing illness.

It's worth a read if you have even a passing interest in mental health.

8) Empire of Storms (Throne of Glass #5) by Sarah J. Maas

It's funny, I never actually want to pick these books up when I've bought them. I always think that I won't enjoy it so I put it off and put it off... even though I've done this so many times that I know it's not true. It's just that I loved the first few books, when they were simpler and before the fairies and elves and things were introduced, and now they're just... different. 

Anyway, I loved this book, as I always do. There were some brilliant twists and an absolute shocker of an ending, even if it did go on a tad too long and the unecessary pairing-everybody-up isn't necessary.

I know I'm not being convinving that I liked this book, but I really did!  

9) Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine by Dr Paul Offit

Another non-fiction. This one is absolutely fascinating. It discusses.variety of topics from a close examination of Christian Science, televangelists, child abuse, abortion, etc. It's a well-balanced book with case studies, excerpts from the Bible and also scientific studies, which results in a discussion, not a rant.

'Bad Faith is heart-breaking and shocking. I finished this book whilst getting a train to York to see a show, and I couldn't get it out of my head during the train ride or the show itself. Some aspects hurt me, some angered me and others just caused bewilderment at how anybody could think that was acceptable.' 

10) Scarlet, Cress and Winter (Lunar Chronicles series #2, 3 and 4) by Marissa Meyer

I read these way back in January 2016 and they nearly slipped my mind!

The first book, Cinder, was okay-ish, but then the series really improves from there. I'm still not sure it needed the fairytale links, but it's well worth a read regardless.

'I thought it was actually a pretty fitting conclusion. Not as simple as it could have been, which I give Marissa Meyer full credit for. I've said it in my previous of reviews of this series - it's a good plot. There's a convulted political history and intricate delicacies that stop juuuuuuust short of being too much.' 

What were your favourite books from 2016? 

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