Friday, 30 December 2016

SBR's 2016 Best Reads

SBR's 2016 Top Ten Books

With the exception of one, I could not rank them in any particular order. So, here is my number 1 read, followed by the other 9 in alphabetical order. 

They all get the Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of approval.

 These books were not all published in 2016 but they were all read and reviewed on the blog in that year.

1. The Sun is also a Star by Nicola Yoon 
is Sooz Book Reviews' Best Read of 2016 


2. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

 3. Half Lost  by Sally Green     

4. Just One Day 
by Gayle Forman


5. The Martian by Andy Weir

by Ransom Riggs


7. Nutshell 
by Ian McEwan


by Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki

  9.  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline


10. Six of Crows 
by Leigh Bardugo

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

This book is in SBR's
2016 Top Ten Reads

Publication date: 7th June 2011
Published by: Quirk
Genre: Fantasy (YA)

Publisher's synopsis
A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of curious photographs.

A horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.

Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of Approval

My Review

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is one of those books that holds your attention from the very beginning and keeps you interested to the very end.

It is quite gothic in tone, which - being a big fan of gothic fiction - really appealed to me.

Although it is a fantasy story, beneath the surface it is exploring the impact of the atrocities that took place during the second world war, not only on the Jewish people who suffered at the time, but also on generations in more recent years - subject matter that should be written about so that it is never forgotten. 

It is a young-adult book that can be enjoyed by anyone.

In short, it is simply brilliant.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Christmas Novella: Spirit of Christmas by Kyle Andrews

Christmas Novella: Stories to get you in the Spirit

This one is from the archives, first posted in December 2013.  It's that good!

Publication Date: 21st November 2012
Published by: Independent Author
Genre: Contemporary (Christmas Novella)
Length: 78 pages

Publisher's Synopsis
This is the story of an eight year old boy who begins to question the nature of Santa Claus as he watches the adults around him grow worried and secretive during the happiest season of all. His curiosity leads him to an unsettling discovery that will change his world forever.

My Review
This is the final instalment of my review of Christmas novellas for the festive season.  I am pleased to say that I saved the best to last.

Spirit of Christmas is an excellent read.  For me it's like a 21st century A Christmas Carol in that it contains all the elements one would expect of a traditional Christmas story, while acknowledging and incorporating 21st century challenges.  It is about a family experiencing major changes in their lives (as a result of said challenges), as seen through the eyes of an 8 year old boy, Aiden.  That said, this is not a story aimed at children.

Aiden can tell that something is wrong.  He can sense that his parents are trying to keep something from him and his younger sister, Madison; something major is worrying them.  He is a very perceptive boy who is able to read his parents' moods, so even when his mother tries to put on a brave face he can tell she is unhappy.  His 8 year old mind makes it difficult for him to understand adult problems, as they often speak using words he does not understand. Whatever is going on has something to do with Santa Claus and Aiden is determined to find out what it is.  He does some detective work and attempts to put the clues together.  In doing so, he becomes increasingly suspicious and fearful of Santa.

The best thing about this story for me was the use of dramatic irony: the way we the readers come to learn what is really going on while Aiden comes up with his own interpretation.  As Christmas Day approaches, he is less concerned about what presents he will get and more concerned about who is Santa Clause and what is troubling his parents. He may not understand what is going on with them but he carries the weight of their troubles on his little shoulders and he keeps this burden to himself. The climax is poignant and it had me in tears. (Yes, I was crying while travelling on public transport.) All this is done with a complete lack of sentimentality. 

I was also impressed by the way Kyle Andrews realistically portrayed 8 year old Aiden, especially his thought process as he tries to reason things out. Also, the way he would come up with stuff that probably sounded random to the adults - but made sense to us because we are inside his head (like when he asks his grandmother about Cinderella's fairy godmother and the stagecoach).   After all, children do sometimes come out with statements that seem random and nuts to us adults.

Andrews' portrayal of Madison is also perceptive, as is the way she appears from Aiden's point of view.  She is a bit hyper - one of those children sometimes seen screaming in supermarkets when they don't get what they want, when they want it.  Aiden is very good at pacifying her, which is a great help to the adults who sometimes struggle to control the situation when she is having one of her screaming sessions.

As I read I thought it was going to be about a boy discovering there is no Santa, but that's not quite it.  It is about the loss of innocence, however.  If I am honest, it has somewhat tainted my own positive image of Santa Claus as a Christmas icon. As you probably guessed, this story has a melancholic undertone but ends on an uplifting note that is fitting for the occasion.

Spirit of Christmas is a hidden treasure; a wonderful piece of writing, both powerful and thought-provoking.  It is only 78 pages long and yet there is so much in there. I could not recommend this one highly enough. 

Merry Christmas!

Friday, 23 December 2016

The Sun is also a Star by Nicola Yoon

SBR's 2016 Best Read

Publication date: 1st November 2016
Published by: Delacorte
Genre: Contemporary fiction for young adults

Publisher's synopsis
Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.

Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store—for both of us.

The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?

Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of Approval

 My Review
This book was brought to my attention a few weeks ago as a new publication recommended by a contributor to the New York Times Book Podcast.  Generally they don't disappoint so I got hold of a copy.  More recently, I noticed it was the 3rd highest scored book on the Goodreads Choice Awards 2016 in the category of contemporary YA fiction (although, to be honest, I have found this to be a less reliable source for recommended reads).

It is a short book (348 pages paperback version), and I whizzed through it over 48 hours, mainly because once I got started I could not put it down.  I had to force myself to do so and, each time I did, I spent my time looking forward to picking it back up again!

As alluded to in the publication synopsis, this novel is a bittersweet teenage love story, but it is much more than that.  Mainly it is about cause-and-effect.  It seeks to demonstrate how certain actions set off a chain reaction.  The reader sees how the decisions taken by one character has consequences that affect others, some in positive others in negative ways.  We may know this is true, but to be able to observe how it happens through this story is quite impressive.  Nicola Yoon does this by giving us snippets of backstory, not only of those close to Natasha and Daniel but also some of the strangers they interact with.  The result leads to thoughts of what if? and contemplation of the multitude of options/possibilities out there (which was both explored by the main characters, and formed part of my own thought processes).

It was a joy to read a novel featuring characters that generally don't get enough prominence in fiction+.  Natasha is Jamaican and, although Daniel is American, he is of South Korean descent.  Why does diversity matter?  Well, it does not if you want more of the same, over and over.  If on the other hand, you are open minded, curious and care enough about the lives other people, then I imagine it matters quite a lot.  Personally, I think fiction should be about walking in someone else's shoes once in a while.  In this case, what it is like to be a teenage migrant (or the offspring of migrants), not quite accepted in the country where you have settled and feeling a stranger in the country you were born (or your parents come from).  Yoon has steered clear of politics, so it does not touch on the hot topic of xenophobia and anti-immigration - which, when you think about it, would add to the difficulties these two teenagers would be experiencing in the real world.

I liked that neither Tasha nor Daniel are stereotyped. They are portrayed on an equal platform to Caucasian leading characters. The book also explores the generational divide, the clashing of cultures and racism, and does so objectively - so you get to see both points of view.  The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.... (F. Scott Fitzgerald).

We know that individuals are affected by and respond to experiences in different ways, and we see the contrasting effects that not belonging, being constantly made to feel 'different', and the pressure to conform have on Daniel and his brother Charles, shaping them into very different personalities, and driving them apart.

The Sun is also a Star is an excellent read, both thought-provoking and affecting. This is the first book I have read by Nicola Yoon but I will definitely be reading more - and not only because she has written the kind of book I aspire to write!

Potential Spoiler Alert!
My one criticism of the book is that it is overly contrived in parts - particularly the epilogue. The trouble with Deus ex machina is that it is at odds with the suspension of disbelief.

+ Some may dismiss this sentiment as 'multicultural left wing' nonsense, or put it down to the fact that I am an ethnic minority and therefore more inclined to give a you know what, but, hey, each to their own.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Christmas Novella: A Christmas day at the office by Matt Dunn

Christmas Novella:
Stories to get you in the spirit

Publication date: 11 October 2016
Published by: Lake Union Publishing

Publisher's Synopsis:
With her new billionaire boss in town, Sophie’s determined to swap the No-Jobs she meets on Tinder for her very own Steve Jobs. But will looking like a million dollars be enough to kick-start a Fifty Shades adventure?

A ring in his pocket and dressed to kill, Calum’s planning to get down on one knee. Though if Mia doesn’t say ‘yes’, he’s not sure he’ll ever get back up.

Julie’s got a surprise for Mark—though it’s something she’s not even sure she wants. Meanwhile, Mark’s got another choice to make: the love of his life, or the opportunity of a lifetime?

With his job on the line, and the ex who broke his heart back on the scene, Nathan’s day is becoming a nightmare. But he’s about to meet the woman of his dreams.

This year’s office Christmas party should be a night to remember—but for five of Seek Software’s employees, it might be one they’d sooner forget

My Review

A Christmas Day at the Office is like the novel equivalent to one of those romantic comedies that we love to watch every year at about this time.  A good example is Love Actually. Like that film, there is an ensemble of characters with equal prominence, each in the pursuit of romantic love and happiness.

I would say the strength of the book is its characters.  They are all very likable.  They do not come across at all as fictional; they are ordinary folk like us.  For some reason, I kept visualising Mark as Colin Firth.  The character that stood out most for me was Calum, who, despite his hyper-insecurity and lack of self-confidence, is an absolute sweetheart. (What can I say?  I love an underdog).  

Another great thing about the book is the humour.  I had so many laugh out load moments.  Sophie's attempts at 'bagging' herself a millionaire offers quite a lot of them, as does Calum's attempts at proposing.  Being a British novel, there is also a fair amount of cringe-humor (a comical look at people in embarrasing - and at times humiliating - situations.)

Recently published, the book feels very current.

If you like a good rom-com then my advice is get yourself a copy of this book because A Christmas Day at the Office is a very good read indeed! 

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Christmas Novella: The Christmas Train by David Baldacci

Christmas Novella:
Stories to get you in the spirit.
Publication date: 1st November 2004
Published by:  Warner Books

Publisher's synopsis
Disillusioned journalist Tom Langdon must get from Washington D.C. to L.A in time for Christmas. Forced to travel by train, he begins a journey of rude awakenings, thrilling adventures and holiday magic. He has no idea that the locomotives pulling him across America will actually take him into the rugged terrain of his own heart, as he rediscovers people's essential goodness and someone very special he believed he had lost.

The Christmas Train is filled with memorable characters who have packed their bags with as much wisdom as mischief ... and shows how we do get second chances to fulfill our deepest hopes and dreams, especially during this season of miracles.

My Review

The Christmas train is a novella with multiple themes including, a love story, a crime mystery, an action adventure and more.  It wants to offer something for everyone.  The difficulty with this approach is that the book is too short to allow each aspect of the story to develop fully, and the story lines seem a bit rushed.  Published in 2004, it feels rather dated but is does offer up some laughs, suspense and intrigue.  It is a quick and light read that many will enjoy.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Christmas Novella: Holiday Classics by O. Henry (Audiobook)

The Christmas Novella:
Stories to get you in the Spirit.

Publication date: 9th December 2010
Published by: Audible Inc.
Duration: 51 mins

Publisher's Synopsis

When it comes to the holidays, no story brings us back to the true spirit of giving like O. Henry’s classic "The Gift of the Magi". So this year we’ve asked some of your favorite Audible narrators—Audie Award winners Katherine Kellgren, Oliver Wyman, and Jonathan Davis—to bring to life this timeless tale, plus two more of O. Henry’s gems, "The Cop and the Anthem" and "The Last Leaf", in this handcrafted holiday collection.

The Cop and the Anthem
It is the beginning of winter and Soapy, a homeless man, does not relish the idea of spending it on the streets.  He hatches a plan to get himself arrested and sent to jail for 3 months so that he may escape the harsh weather.  Soapy discovers that it is not as easy to get arrested as he thought it would be...

The Gift of the Magi
"One dollar and eighty-seven cents."  This is the first sentence of the story, exclaimed by Della on Christmas Eve.  It is all the money she has managed to save and she is desperate to buy her beloved husband Jim a present.  She manages to find a way to earn the money she needs to get Jim's present, but whether her decision to do so turns out to be a wise one remains to be seen...

The Last Leaf
Johnsy lives in an apartment in the artists district with her roommate Sue.  Six months after moving in she contracts pneumonia and is close to death.  Johnsy can see out of her window and she becomes fixated on the falling leaves on the tree outside.  She tells Sue that when the last leave falls she will die...

Set in New York in the early 1900s, these stories do indeed have a Christmas-like feel about them.  They also have a traditional feel about them, generally conveying a message (or a moral to the story).  There is humour in some of them and poignancy in all three.  O. Henry was well-known for writing stories with unexpected endings and I can see why.

It is an audiobook with excellent narration - which adds value.  On the other hand, I could appreciate the beauty of the prose and I felt I missed out a little on the enjoyment I know I would have experenced from reading the words on the page.  The stories are quite short so they can be listened to when time is limited (such as on a short train journey).

Friday, 9 December 2016

The Chemist by Stephanie Meyer

Publication date: 8th November 2016

Published by: Little, Brown & Co

Publisher's synopsis
She used to work for the U.S. government, but very few people ever knew that. An expert in her field, she was one of the darkest secrets of an agency so clandestine it doesn't even have a name. And when they decided she was a liability, they came for her without warning.

Now she rarely stays in the same place or uses the same name for long. They've killed the only other person she trusted, but something she knows still poses a threat. They want her dead, and soon.

When her former handler offers her a way out, she realises it's her only chance to erase the giant target on her back. But it means taking one last job for her ex-employers. To her horror, the information she acquires only makes her situation more dangerous.

Resolving to meet the threat head-on, she prepares for the toughest fight of her life but finds herself falling for a man who can only complicate her likelihood of survival. As she sees her choices being rapidly whittled down, she must apply her unique talents in ways she never dreamed of.

I should warn you this review has potential spoilers

My Review
This is Stephanie Meyer's second adult novel.  Her adult debut, The Host, was published quite a while ago (in 2008) and all her other offerings to date have been part of the YA Twilight series.  She has been reluctant to shed her skin from that series, producing the original tetralogy, a retelling from the male protagonist's POV, a spin-off featuring a side character, and more recently a re-imagining of the original story.

Although in a different setting with new characters, The Host was not a million miles away from Twilight's original story, either and neither is The Chemist. 

That said, of the books I have read, (the Twilight tetralogy and The Host) I consider them all to be worthy publications.  Can I say the same about The Chemist?

Meyer has created a new world with a protagonist (Alex) who is a former US secret agent who worked in counter-terrorism.  Suffice to say, her job required her to do awful things to awful people for the 'greater good'.  She had the code name 'The Chemist' and, due to the nature of her work, refers to herself as (a monster). Her security clearance was so high that in the end she knew too much and had to go into hiding in order stop those in charge of the black ops unit she worked for from killing her. Now her life is like that recurring nightmare where you are constantly on the run.  She is being chased by assassins sent by her former employers all of whom, so far, she has managed to evade.  Three years on and she is tracked and contacted by her former employers and offered a potential way out (if she agrees to do one more job).  She is given a file on a would-be terrorist named Daniel who is her target.  But when she comes into contact with him, he turns out to be an innocent.  Despite how dangerous Alex is, Daniel is not afraid, instead, he trusts her completely.  At this point we are introduced to Kevin, Daniel's twin brother and the real reason the innocent got caught up in this mess.

The book has been dedicated to Jason Bourne and Aaron Cross (which is rather puzzling since they are both fictional characters).  But the dedication does give a clue about what you can expect, or at least what the author wants you to expect.  I would warn fans of Robert Ludlum's original novels featuring Jason Bourne (and Eric Van Lustbader's continuation of the franchise) not to be fooled.  You should steer clear of this book to avoid disappointment.  It does not come close to the rigor and sophistication of those books.  As secret agents go, both Alex and Kevin are unconvincing.  Instead, what you get with this novel is a post-ironic Team America plot and characters.  You have the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys', and the 'good guys' constantly refer to the 'bad guys' as "The Bad Guys". This is a world where guns are sexy and torture is necessary in order to stop "The Bad Guys" doing really bad stuff.  Here is a story where all the non-Caucasian characters are 2 dimensional, inconsequential and, above all, expendable, while the dogs' characters (yes there is a pack of dogs working alongside Alex, Daniel and Kevin) are so developed they have human-like qualities.

If you are familiar with Meyer's YA books you will not be surprised to learn that the romantic sub-plot is Twilightesque  (Yes, that old chestnut!).  Telling the same story over and over is not necessarily a bad thing, except when there is nothing new to say whatsoever.  You may be pleased to learn that no love triangle develops (but I believe the author is just delaying the inevitable in that regard - it is bound to feature in the sequel).

Reluctant or not, rejuvenation is essential now.  Meyer has to shed that (old) skin in order to reveal a youthful healthier one. (She has demonstrated with previous books that she is capable of producing [dare I say] decent, if controversial, work - so there is no reason why she cannot do so again.)

If I were to describe The Chemist in one word it would be indulgent.

I like to end my reviews on a positive note so I would say that it does start out promising.  The first 15-20% reads well before it begins its steady decline.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Emma (The Austen Project no. 3) by Alexander McCall Smith

Publication date: 4th June 2015
Published by: The Borough Press
Genre: Contemporary Romance

My Synopsis
Emma Woodhouse lives in the tight-knit English country village of Highbury. The daughter of a 'gentleman farmer', she is rich, clever and not particularly interested in the pursuit of romantic love - or at least not for herself.  Her older sister has left home and moved to London and her former - wait for it - governess (yes, I did say governess), Anne Taylor, continues to live in the stately home  Emma grew up in with her overly cautious and worrisome father, while she attends university.  After graduating, she returns to Highbury with a plan to start her own business - but not right away since, If you are Emma Woodhouse, employment is not something you need to rush into.

Having nothing particular to do with her time, Emma's return creates mayhem as she interferes in the lives of her friends and neighbours, in what she tells herself are selfless attempts to make their lives better.  The hapless victims include the impressionable Harriet Smith, a teaching assistant at an English language school for foreign teenagers, Anne Fairfax, a young musician who lives with her poverty-stricken aunt and great-aunt, and Frank, the son of Mr George Weston, a neighbour in the village.  Frank has spent most of his life in Australia and has come to Highbury with a plan - one that gets derailed thanks to Miss Woodhouse.  She also works her magic on the not-so-hapless Philip Elton, the local vicar.  The only person who seems immune to Emma's meddling is her next door neighbour, George Knightly.  It becomes apparent that Emma needs a firm hand, or at least bringing down a peg or two,  for her own good.  Perhaps George is the person to do just that....

My Review:
This is the 3rd book released by the Austen Project, which invites carefully selected (well established and respected) authors to write a modern version of each of Jane Austen's novels.  That this particular novel is a modern retelling is debatable, however, since the original story has not been altered that much.  For me, the only thing modern about it is the setting, which is exactly 200 years after the original publication.  The result of this is fundamental flaws and niggling plot holes that, understandably, could not be avoided. (Some of these are alluded to in my synopsis.)  I don't think this is by accident as the approach enhances comedy value - which I think is what McCall Smith was aiming for.  My solution to its unfeasibility was to acknowledge that it is not just a work of fiction but complete fantasy that required me to suspend me disbelief and, in doing so, allowed me to focus more on what is great about it - and there is a lot that is great about this book.

Having this story in a contemporary setting does feel a bit 'chick-lit' like*.  That said, it is the kind of chick-lit that most novels of that kind can only aspire to. The character development is particularly good, because the reader does get more backstory and therefore more of an insight into the characters than the original.  Not only the principal ones like Emma, and Knightly but pretty much all of them.  This added another dimension to the novel (both versions).  As I mentioned before, it is also told with great humour.  There are many laugh-out-loud moments that made it such an enjoyable read for me.  Mr Woodhouse, in particular, is a character of comedic value.  You get the impression that McCall Smith is poking fun at these upper-class folk - but in a nice way.  We also see their humane side, Mr Knightly, in particular, comes across as a kind and thoughtful person who loves his village and genuinely cares about the people who live there, regardless of their situation.

I am a fan of Jane Austen but whenever I read her books, I always think about what it would have been like for my ancestors in those days.  Being a descendent of slaves kept by the British in the West Indies, I cringe at the frivilous lives of these people who benefited so greatly from the extreme suffering of others.  Jane Austen is conveniently blind to this fact, whereas McCall Smith is not.  The lovely Mr Knightly brings this up in a conversation with Mr Woodhouse - a conversation that is played out in a way that I have heard many times myself.  Very nicely done indeed!

Emma is not a likeable character - she wasn't in 1816 and she isn't in 2016.  The problem with Emma is that (a) she has too much time on her hands, (b) she had never experienced hardship and is completely out of touch with the lives of those who do and (c) she is an intelligent person who needs intellectual stimulation - a way to put that overactive mind of hers to (good) use - and is not getting it.  In 1816 her opportunities would have been very limited.  Going to university or running a business would not have been an option, so it is easier to make allowances for the original character, compared to the modern one.  Her predicament is a lethal cocktail that many of the characters in the book fall victim to.  You will more than likely get irritated with her.  You may even become infuriated with her.

I like flawed characters because they make a story interesting.  She is not all bad and she is self-aware; she recognises that her behaviour is questionable - but then she convinces herself it's okay. She does grow up and learn her lesson but, what I really liked was that she remained the same (flawed) person throughout.

Emma is, in my view, Jane Austen's second best novel (after Pride and Prejudice) and this version goes some way of demonstrating what a great story it is.

*Then again, I am convinced that chick-lit has evolved from the Jane Austen novel, since the sub-genre kick-started following the publication of Bridget Jones's Diary, a novel inspired by Pride & Prejudice. 

More Austen Project reviews

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope (no. 1) -

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermit (no. 2)

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (no. 4)