The Catcher in the Rye
The Shadow of the Wind
The Raven Boys
The Night Circus
Living Violet
Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Casual Vacancy
Carnival of Souls
When She Woke

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

Publication date:  13th February 2014
Published by: Simon & Schuster 

Publisher's synopsis
Until the moment he received a frantic call from his father, Daniel believed his parents were headed into a peaceful, well-deserved retirement. They had sold their home and business in London, and said "farewell to England" with a cheerful party where all their friends had gathered to wish them well on their great adventure: setting off to begin life anew on a remote, bucolic farm in rural Sweden.

But with that phone call, everything changes. Your mother's not well, his father tells him. She's been imagining things--terrible, terrible things. She's had a psychotic breakdown, and has been committed to a mental hospital.

Daniel prepares to rush to Sweden, on the first available flight the next day. Before he can board the plane, his father contacts him again with even more frightening news: his mother has been released from the hospital, and he doesn't know where she is.

Then, he hears from his mother:

I'm sure your father has spoken to you. Everything that man has told you is a lie. I'm not mad. I don't need a doctor. I need the police. I'm about to board a flight to London. Meet me at Heathrow.

Caught between his parents, and unsure of who to believe or trust, Daniel becomes his mother's unwilling judge and jury as she tells him an urgent tale of secrets, of lies, of a horrible crime and a conspiracy that implicates his own father.

My review 

Daniel is hiding something from his parents.  Something that has lead him to avoid visiting them since they retired to a remote farm in Sweden.  He soon discovers that they too are hiding things from him.  

First he receives an alarming call from his father (Chris) about his mother (Tilde) and then he receives a worrying one from his mother implicating his father.

When Tilde arrives in London, she asks Daniel to hear her out.  All will be revealed, she clarifies, but she has to be allowed to tell it her way.  All she asks is that he be impartial.  She then begins to give a detailed account of events that have been occurring since she and Chris, moved to Sweden.  This becomes the narrative of the story which is told as though a lawyer is presenting a case to a jury rather than a mother talking to her son.  Tilde outlines the 'facts' as they occurred.  However, not all the information she offers are facts.  She fills in gaps with speculation and, as the reader, I found myself saying - hang on a second, certain things just don't add up.  Even so, her account is believable and it becomes clear that something ugly and sinister is going on in the small rural community that she and Chris moved to - and it would seem Chris is involved.  From very early on Tilde hints at what may have occurred and who the victims are. 

Tilde predicts every move that Chris makes while she is in London giving her account to Daniel - such as his decision to fly to London, his attempts to stop her having an opportunity to convince Daniel that what she has to say is true.  It is also apparent that he withholds information - all of which leaves Daniel suspicious and forces him to consider the possibility that his father is capable of monstrous acts - either that or his mother needs psychiatric treatment - both hard to reconcile with.

In the end, it is for Daniel (and the reader) to decide who to believe.

I really enjoyed this book. The plot was the best thing about it for me.  For example, during Tilde's account she would go off on a tangent and talk about stuff that didn't seem to make sense or be relevant (such as the troll story), leaving the reader to question her sanity.  However, everything comes together and it all makes perfect sense.  

The book is about family secrets and lies.  It is also about a desperate cry for help and the need for redemption.  I admit I was apprehensive and felt I had to brace myself for the big reveal - the subtle hints from Tilde helped me prepare myself.  I felt so engaged I had to see it through to the end - which was unpredictable.

The story is based on a real experience - of the author - although much of the plot is fiction.  

The Farm is a treasure and  I will definitely be reading more from Tom Rob Smith. 
To find out more you can listen to Tom Rob Smith talk about The Farm and his writing as part of the crime fiction discussion on The Guardian Books Podcast.

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh

Publication date: 25th February 2014
Published by: Random House Canada

Publisher's synopsis
Taking place over the course of one week, The Lemon Grove lands in the heat of Deia, a village on an island off the southeast coast of Spain. Jenn and Greg are on their annual holiday to enjoy languorous, close afternoons by the pool, and relaxed dinners overlooking the rocks. But the equilibrium is upset by the arrival of their teenage daughter, Emma, and her boyfriend, Nathan. Jenn, in her early forties, loves her (older) husband and her (step)daughter and is content with her life, she thinks. But when this beautiful, reckless young man comes into her world, she is caught by a sexual compulsion that she's seldom felt before. As the lines hotly blur between attraction, desire and obsession, Jenn’s world is thrown into tumult--by Nathan's side, she could be young and carefree once again, and at this stage in her life, the promise of youth is every bit as seductive as the promise of passion. Jenn struggles between the conflicting pulls of resistance and release, and the events of the next few days have the potential to put lives in jeopardy as the players carry out their roles in this unstoppably sexy and unputdownable novel from a brilliant observer of the human condition.

My Review
Jen has enjoyed the first week of her holiday alone with husband Greg but is dreading the arrival of her stepdaughter Emma, which is how the book opens.  

Emma has persuaded her parents to let her bring her boyfriend, Nathan on the holiday with her.  It is clear to Jenn that Nathan is Emma's first love; she is completely besotted with him.  Observing them, her perception is that this relationship will most likely unravel and fall apart and that Emma will suffer when that happens.  She went through it herself as a teenager so she knows - and she is powerless to do anything about it.  You get the sense that all is not right with Jenn and 15 year old Emma.  It would seem that tension and resentment has been building on both sides for some time. An unfortunate incident causes a confrontation between the women the moment Emma and Nathan arrive and Emma continues to be nasty to Jenn thereafter. 

Jenn only met Nathan briefly in the UK and she did not get a proper look at him.  Now she has had a chance to meet him properly she can't help but notice how attractive he is.  Unlike Emma, Nathan is polite and friendly towards her.  She is surprised, although pleased, that he is a working class boy from the north.

Walsh writes about the GB class divide as well as the North-South divide. Jenn is a northerner who was raised in a working class family.  Greg is middle class and a southerner.  Jenn is not happy that Greg had insisted that Emma attend a private school and she resents having to pay for it.  Emma, as a consequence moves in circles of the affluent.  She uses her social status to snipe at Jen; she comments on how 'common' she looks, mocks her accent and implies that she is poorly educated. However, she does this not because she believes it, but because she knows how much it hurts Jenn - and she is out to inflict as much pain as possible. Why so hateful?  Mostly because she's 15 (see paragraph, below).  She doesn't really care about class - if she did she wouldn't be dating a 17 year old male version of Jenn, which also suggests to me that her hatred towards her stepmother is superficial.

The tension between the two women is mainly due to the fact that they are both at stages in their lives fraught with angst - Emma is at the peak of adolescence and Jenn has just approached what she considers to be 'middle age' and trying to come to terms with this.  She is overly conscious of her 'aging' body - which I imagine is in a lot better shape than she makes out - and she envies the teens their youth. That Jenn is not Emma's birth mother is also part of the problem, as is the fact that she never got to have a child of her own.  (Had either been the case I envisage an entirely different scenario.)  All this seems to have triggered in Jenn a mid-life crisis.  She demonstrates all the signs, including lusting after and becoming obsessed with Nathan.  Without giving too much away - no doubt you can imagine - the scenario heads in a downward spiral as the plot unravels and makes for very interesting reading. 

As for Jenn's relationship with Greg: they seem to be in a rut and she has lost interest in him (although possibly this is another symptom of the mid-life crisis).  She certainly has no interest in him sexually and she seems to think he is content with his life and their marriage as things stand.  It becomes clear that she doesn't know her husband as well as she thinks.  He certainly deserves more credit than she gives him.  The same applies to Emma.  Despite having raised her from a very young age, she does not really know or understand her.  In that sense, Jenn discovers who her husband and her stepdaughter really are on this holiday.

The Lemon Grove is a relatively short novel (288 pages) that reads very well.  It is smart and perceptive but for me the best thing about it is the prose - it is a beautifully written piece of literary fiction, in my view. As for the ending... very nicely done.

Highly recommended.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Cloak and Dagger by Nenia Campbell

Publication date: 24 October 2012
Published by: Self-published
Genre: Romance / Crime Thriller (NA)

My Synopsis
Michael is a professional assassin working for Integrated Military Affairs (or the IMA), a powerful organisation of mercenaries.  He is young, good looking, and the best at what he does.  Despite being in his early 20s he is a high ranking agent, in charge of other agents, many of whom are jostling to climb the ladder of success and gain power in the organisation.  As such, some of his subordinates would be happy for him to fail and he has to watch his back when around certain colleagues.

Michael is working on a case investigating a breach in the IMAs security.  A computer hacker was able to infiltrate the company's network, access top secret information and plant a virus, causing serious damage to their systems.

The prime suspect is an expert in computer science, a man called Rubens Parker and Michael's only lead to him is via Parker's 18 year old daughter, Christina.

Christina Parker is an 18 year old good christian girl who is a senior at a private catholic school.  She has lived a sheltered and privileged life.  She lives in the shadow of her hateful, vacuous and over-bearing mother who was formerly a model and currently works as a fashion designer. This woman has made Christina feel self-conscious about her weight and deflated her self-confidence. One day Christina returns home from school to find her parents gone and a phone message warning her to get out of the house.  Before she is able to act she is attacked, rendered unconscious and taken.  She wakes to find herself in the back of a moving car, stunned by the realisation that she has been kidnapped.

Michael takes Christina to a 'safe house' owned by the IMA and holds her prisoner. He intends to use her as a bargaining chip to gain access to her father.  However, Michael fails to make progress in that regard and falls out of favour with his superiors.  His interaction with Christina also has an affect on him - could he be developing a conscience?  Things get complicated for him when his overly ambitious subordinate and rival, Adrian Callaghan, intervenes (on the orders of Michael's boss), taking Christina from the premises (while Michael is away) delivering her to IMA headquarters where she is in even more danger than ever; Micheal's approach had been to instil fear using threats he would not carry out whereas his colleagues have no problem inflicting pain and suffering on their captors.  The idea of Christina being tortured does not sit well with Michael so he defies his boss and attempts to get her back...

My Review
I liked this novel. I found it gripping from the very first page and it became more so with each chapter.  The story is told from two perspectives, Michael's and Christina's.  They are polar opposites; Christina is an angelic character while Michael's character is very dark.  (We learn from his back story that he grew up rough, became a vicious criminal and a gang member before he was spotted and recruited by the IMA.)

The novel is quite dark and goes to places some readers may find disturbing.  It may even anger some as Christina suffers repeatedly while captive by Michael and later by Adrian.

Make no mistake, Cloak and Dagger is a new adult fiction novel of the hot and steamy romantic kind (you know the ones that tend to have hand-cuffs or f*ck-me stilettos on the cover). Yes there are elements of the crime thriller but that aspect is rather contrived and serves purely to facilitate what the book is actually about, i.e. Michael and Christina's relationship.  That said, what sets it apart from the NA books mentioned below** is that they all read like romantic porn (and by that I mean they seek to stimulate the romantic desires of the reader) whereas Cloak and Dagger does not try to manipulate its readers and therefore, manages to avoid gratuitous romance - it is completely absent of fluff. 

It is not without problem areas.  I felt it started to falter towards the end, when Michael and Christina arrive in Seattle.  We are told that he is the best and yet what follows are a series of events that demonstrate that he is an incompetent field agent. By the time he realises his mistakes it's too late and his actions lead to Christina's capture by the IMA (for the 4th time!).  Also, he would sometimes say things that were at odds with his character.  For example, "..she slept with him for money and she had a child with him out of wedlock.  Both things make her a whore in my book."  This suggests to me that Michael is both an assassin and a devout christian (??). 

It is a thought-provoking read.  The significance of the female protagonist's name was not lost on me.  Her character is Christ-like (she endures countless suffering as a sacrifice for the sins of those around her, in particular her parents and later Michael).  She does this without hatred or malice and is willing to bear the sacrifices time and time again - and boy does she!

The relationship between Christina and Michael is very complex; the abuser and the abused is how it starts out, but the line blurs as the plot develops.  His treatment of her is undoubtedly abominable, but his back story and character explain (although do not justify) the reasons behind it.  The situation is not black and white - more like (Fifty) Shades of Grey. [Sorry, I couldn't resist.]

Cloak and Dagger is well worth reading in my opinion (although one you might want to avoid if you prefer your romance served sweet).  There is a sequel called Armed and Dangerous in which I hope Christina's situation improves - less Shawshank, more Redemption - and the dynamic of her relationship with Michael changes so the balance of power shifts from him to her.  I would however be disappointed if it turns out to be more of the same.

**If you are interested in reading a dark NA novel - minus the romantic porn - forget Fifty Shades, forget Gabriel's Inferno, forget Beautiful Disaster and read Cloak and Dagger instead.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Black Heart (Curse Workers #3) by Holly Black

Publication date: 3rd April 2012
Published by: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Genre: Crime mystery/Fantasy (YA)

Caution: may contain spoilers from books 1 & 2.

Publisher's Synopsis
Cassel Sharpe has the most deadly ability of all. With one touch, he can transform any object - including a person - into something else entirely. And that makes him a wanted man. The Feds are willing to forgive all his past crimes if he'll only leave his con artist family behind and go straight. But why does going straight feel so crooked?

For one thing, it means being on the opposite side of the law from Lila, the girl he loves. She's the daughter of a mob boss and getting ready to join the family business herself. Though Cassel is pretty sure she can never love him back, he can't stop obsessing over her. Which would be bad enough, even if her father wasn't keeping Cassel's mother prisoner in a posh apartment and threatening not to let her leave until she returns the priceless diamond she scammed off him years ago. Too bad she can't remember where she put it.

The Feds say they need Cassel to get rid of a powerful man who is spinning dangerously out of control. But if they want Cassel to use his unique talent to hurt people, what separates the good guys from the bad ones? Or is everyone just out to con him?

Time is running out, and all Cassel's magic and cleverness might not be enough to save him. With no easy answers and no one he can trust, love might be the most dangerous gamble of all...

My Review
Black Heart is the final book to the Curse Workers series by Holly Black.  It follows on from Red Glove (which was preceded by White Cat).

The plot for Black Heart was introduced in Red Glove and focuses on Cassel's mother who is in trouble with a powerful politician and with the head of the mob.  When she outlines the situation for Cassel, once again, it is up to him to fix it.

Cassel continues to struggle with his decision about what to do with his life after graduation - whether he should work for the Feds or the mob.  This is complicated further by Lila's aspirations to become her father's successor.

There is an interesting development to Sam and Daneca's relationship when a third party comes between them.

The climax centres on a very tricky situation that Cassel has to find a way out of and the resolution is very clever indeed.

[Potential spoiler alert:  While reading I found myself thinking how great it would be if, for a change, the female character would swoop in on her white horse and do the saving....  End of Spoiler alert.]

The Curse Workers has officially become my second* favourite fantasy fiction series.  If, like me, you like your YA fantasy leaning towards the dark side, you'll most likely enjoy it.  All 3 books are consistent in standard of quality: intrigue, page-turnability, plot rigor etc. 

Holly Black has officially become SBRs' YA fantasy fiction author to read for review (author of our time, that is).  I know I keep saying this but her writing is intelligent without being too intellectually challenging (in a world - let's face it - where being smart just ain't where it's at). I also love that, unlike most of her contemporaries, her books not only address serious issues like the social class divide and gender inequality, they also embrace diversity.  Thank you Holly Black.

For more reviews of books by Holly, check out my Author's index.

*My all time favourite being Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor

Publication date: 29th September 2011
Published by: Hodder & Stoughton
Genre: Fantasy/Romance (YA)

Publisher's Synopsis
Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky. 

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil's supply of human teeth grown dangerously low.
And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war. 

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she's prone to disappearing on mysterious "errands"; she speaks many languages--not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she's about to find out. 

When one of the strangers--beautiful, haunted Akiva--fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

My Review
This novel turned out to be a very pleasant surprise indeed!  I don't know why I was expecting another Twilightesque story but it turns out nothing is further from the truth.

This one has an original plot that kept me interested throughout.  It is set in Prague and it captures the beauty of the city perfectly.  [I went there for a weekend break some years ago.  I don't know what I was expecting but the city turned out to be as much of a surprise as this novel was.  For me it can only be rivaled by London and Paris... and perhaps Barcelona.  Anyway, I digress!].  There is so much to love about Daughter of Smoke and Bone.  For one thing the names of the main characters - Karou and Akiva - fabulous.  For another there is so much mystery surrounding it.  Karou does not know who she is, how she came to be raised by a demon or why he keeps sending her on the oddest of missions.  Akiva is bitter and full of anguish about something.  He is strangely drawn to Karou and does not understand why.  Their first encounter is pretty explosive and simply brilliant.

The pace of the novel is excellent.  It starts out as a slow burner and picks up as the reader continues.  YA fantasy/romance lovers trust me, if you haven't read it you should. By the middle I'd be stunned if you aren't truly engrossed, and by the end if you don't hunger for more.

I'm not alone.  It has been rated by over 85K readers on Goodreads and has an average score of 4.08 out of 5.  I hasten to add that with the popular YA fantasy books I don't always agree that their high rating is warranted, but this time I agree wholeheartedly.

Seriously, get a copy.  It's treasure.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Burning Emerald by Jaime Reed

Publication date: 29th May 2012
Published by: Dafina
Genre: Fantasy (Young Adult)

** Spoiler Alert ** 
Skip synopsis and go straight to review to avoid.

My synopsis
Burning Emerald is the second book in The Cambion Chronicles  series by Jaime Reed.  I have just finished reading it for the second time (along with the rest of the series).

Living Violet, the first book, ended with the tragic death of Sam's friend Nadine.  In this book she is struggling to come to terms with her death, and cope with her new supernatural status as a Cambion, which occurred when Nadine's sentient left her body and entered Sam's as a means to survive.  Sam now has an internal 'room mate', Lilith, as well as Nadine's life energy and memories.  Nadine's mother, Angie, has taken Sam under her wing and become like a second mother,  offering her support and protection.  She tries to go back to normalcy - school and her job at Buncha Books - but this proves easier said than done.

Caleb, now a DJ, gets a gig playing at a house party on Halloween night and Samara goes along also.  While on a break, Caleb helps himself to Samara's drink. Unknown to them both, the drink has been tampered with and soon after Caleb is doubled over in pain. He is taken to hospital in critical condition and it transpires that he has been poisoned.

At school Samara is pursued by one of the popular guys, a jock named Malik Davies.  Until now he has always been mean to her but she understands that being a Cambion means she will attract the attention of most men. Malik's pusuit is relentless and it soon transpires that he isn't what he seems...

My review
Of all the books in the series this one provides the most info about Cambions; what they are, how they came into existence etc.  We learn that there is always a temptation for Cambions to feed excessively off humans and in doing so they run the risk of losing their humanity and transforming into demons.  This is what happened to Caleb's father. They are ruled by powerful families who govern territories all over the world.  Samara and Caleb live in the region where the Santiago family are in charge and the family is suspicious of Caleb because of his father. [In Living Violet they sent one of their employees, a private detective called Ruiz, to keep an eye on him and his brothers.]

Caleb is absent for much of this one and his absence was felt.  I missed his interaction with Samara, from their verbal sparing to their (reluctant) romantic exchanges.  That said, the introduction of Tobias to the story and the challenges he presents for Samara make for an intriguing plot development. But, as a demonic character, Tobias is pretty tame; if he has an evil side I did not read about it.  He preferred to take a gentle approach to getting his way and at times showed signs of his humanity (such as his relationship with Malik's little brother, albeit for selfish reasons).  In that sense, unlike Caleb's father in Living Violet, I'm not convinced that Reed demonstrated effectively through Tobias' character the difference between a demon and a Cambion.

The story ends on a cliffhanger and I enjoyed it even more the second time around.

Highly recommended.

I have also reviewed Fading Amber, the third and final instalment.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Red Glove (Curse Workers #2) by Holly Black

Publication date: 5th April 2011
Published by: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Genre: Crime mystery/Fantasy (YA)

Caution: contains spoilers from Book 1 (White Cat)

My Synopsis
Red Glove is the second book to the Curse Workers series by Holly Black.  It follows on from the first novel, White Cat

At the end of the first novel Cassel Sharpe transformed Lila Zacharov back to her human form.  Lila is the love of his life but she always preferred his older brother, Baron.  To Cassel's horror his mother curses Lila to love him, which means all expressions of love on her part aren't real - ruining his chances of a genuine relationship with her.

At the start of Red Glove, Cassel is told that his oldest brother, Philip, has been killed.  Philip had been working for the Zacharov family, the mob leaders, but was forced to betray them and become an informant for the FBI.  It would seem someone found out and murdered him.

Cassel attends Philip's funeral with the moral support of his friends Sam and Daneca.  He confides as much as he can to them and they begin to investigate Philip's murder.  Soon after, Cassel is approached by Lila's father, the head of the mob, and is offered a job.  In return Zacharov offers him and his family protection.  He is also approached by the FBI who try to entice him to join them, offering to recruit him as a trainee agent after graduation.   He does not commit to either but keeps either side appeased by appearing to help them both. He will have to pick a side soon and time is running out.

In the meantime, Cassel's mother is out of prison and has resumed her career as a con artist.  She has identified a new mark - a high profile politician who is anti-curse workers and is rallying to pass a bill that would further limit their human rights and freedom. 

Cassel attempts to solve the mystery of his brother's murder, maintain a relationship with Lila while deflecting her advances, keep his troublesome family members out of trouble and his darkest secrets from his friends...

My Review
This is yet another excellent novel by Holly Black and a fantastic follow-up to White Cat.  As always with her work, it is intelligently written and never boring.  I like the cross-over of genres from fantasy into crime mystery territory.

The subplot that focuses on the relationship between Cassel and Lila is original and very well executed.  Most of us would agree that it can get boring fast if the 'lovers' of a novel come together too early in the story and irritating when the conflict to keep them apart is predictable and cliche.  In this case it is Cassel's mother's intervention that puts a stop to it and he is tormented by his love for a girl who he believes cannot genuinely return those feelings, while at the same time expresses a longing to be with him.  He finds it increasingly hard to resist the temptation to give in but realizes that Lila's absence of free will would make it wrong to do so and she would not forgive him if he took advantage of the situation .  The curse is temporary so he has no choice but to wait it out, not holding out much hope for their future when it does wear off.

I enjoyed the complexity of Cassel's situation.  He aspires to be good and wants to be on the side that will allow him to do so.  He does not want to become a hired killer.  However, it is difficult to identify where the side of good begins and evil ends (since the line separating them is somewhat blurred).  I found his relationship with his brother Baron fascinating.  On the surface it's all sibling rivalry but underneath lies a bond.  Whereas their mother is a nuisance who creates no end to problems left for Cassel to fix. 

The curse worker series is proving to be a must read.  I look forward to reviewing Black Heart, book 3.