The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

Somehow I managed to miss this book when it was first published. It was only when Amazon recommended the next book in the series (due for publication in January 2015) to me that I realised there had been one in between, and despite the fact that I’m only supposed to be spending money on Christmas gifts this month, I had to purchase a copy immediately. And of course I was unable to resist reading it the minute it arrived, which is how it ended up being my free book for the Semi-Charmed Winter Reading Challenge (worth 5 points).

The plot:
On a spring morning in 1951, almost twelve-year-old chemist and aspiring detective Flavia de Luce gathers with her family at the railway station, awaiting the return of her long-lost mother, Harriet. Yet upon the train’s arrival in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey, Flavia is approached by a tall stranger who whispers a cryptic message into her ear. Moments later he is dead, apparently pushed in front of the departing train by someone on the platform. Who was this man? What did his words mean? And were they meant for Flavia? Back at Buckshaw, Flavia once again puts her sleuthing skills to the test, and in the process finds out more about the history – and secrets – of the de Luce clan, and in particular her mother…

My review:

In some ways this book felt like a filler. Not much really happens in the way of ameteru detecting compared to the earlier books in the series – yes, there is another murder, but Flavia manages to refrain from doing much investigating. Instead, she confines her sleuthing to the secrets within Buckley Hall, which means we out more about the how and why of Harriet’s disappearance… and Flavia gets to ride in a plane! At the end of the book, we learn that Flavia will be going away, and I’m quite interested to see where the series takes us once she’s out in the big, wide world. There are only so many times someone can happen to stumble across a dead body in one small village before it starts seeming ridiculous, so I’m glad Bradley has decided to take things in a new direction. In a way, this is the least interesting book in the series so far – it feels like it was only there to make the transition between ameteur detecting at home and being away slightly less sudden, but Flavia is just as incorrigible as ever and I love her so it still gets all 5 stars from me (mostly because you can’t give 4.5 stars on Good Reads). It seemed like Flavia was maturing a lot in this book and I’m excited to read the seventh book in the series and see where life takes her next. This is a must-read for fans of the series. Everyone else should start at the beginning (with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie) and decide for yourselves.

Lunch Money by Andrew Clements

This was actually the sixth book I read for the 2014 Winter Reading Challenge, but it’s the fourth one I’m reviewing. This is my second book for the category “Read two books with a different meal in each title”, following The Long, Dark Tea-time of the Soul by Douglas Adams, which means I now get to collect my 30 points!

The plot:
Greg Kenton is not like other 12 year old boys. He always has money on his mind, and he’s not afraid to work to make it. Whether it’s doing his older brothers’ chores for them or shovelling snow, if there’s money in it, Greg is happy to do it! When he discovers that almost every kid at school has an extra quarter to spend every day, he comes up with the idea to make and sell comic books… but then his annoying neighbour and rival Maura Shaw starts making her own mini books to sell! Can the two of them learn to work together to get what they both want?

My review:
To be honest, I found this book a little boring, but then I’m not 12 years old! It did have some funny moments and the characters were relatable, but you could see the obvious moral coming right from the start! I’m sure I would have liked it well enought as a child, although it wouldn’t have been among my favourites and I probably wouldn’t have read it more than once. Three stars.

The Long, Dark, Tea-time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

This was the second book I read for the Semi-Charmed Winter 2014 Reading Challenge and I’m so glad I put it on my list! This book was for the category “Read two books with a different meal in each title”, which means as of right now it doesn’t get me any points because I need to read a second book to get them.

The plot:
It’s kind of difficult to describe this book without spoilers, so instead of writing my own text, here’s the blurb from the back of the book: “When a passenger check-in desk at London’s Heathrow Airport disappears in a ball of orange flame, the explosion is deemed an act of God. But which god, wonders holistic detective Dirk Gently? What god would be hanging around Heathrow trying to catch the 3:37 to Oslo? And what has this to do with Dirk’s latest–and late– client, found only this morning with his head revolving atop the hit record “Hot Potato”? Amid the hostile attentions of a stray eagle and the trauma of a very dirty refrigerator, super-sleuth Dirk Gently will once again solve the mysteries of the universe…

My review:
In case you couldn’t tell from my introductory sentence, I LOVED this book! I’m sure you’ve all heard of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series if nothing else. Well, this book has nothing to do with that series, but it’s just as good. It was written in 1987, but it’s perfectly possible to read it now. The only thing that seems dated (other than the lack of mobile phones) is that it’s impossible to get a pizza delivered. People who are older than me… is that really true? Could you not get pizza deliveries in the UK in 1987? I honestly don’t remember a time when you couldn’t order a pizza and have it brought to your house! But anyway, on with the review… Adams’ writing is as insightful and funny as ever. The main premise of the book seems to be “what happened to the immortal gods (Norse ones in this case) once people decided they didn’t need/believe in them any more?”, and the plot admittedly does get a bit thin at times,  but the writing itself was so good that for the most part I didn’t even notice. The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul is a sequel to Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, but you can just as easily read it as a stand-alone book. I’ve forgotten the majority of the first book and that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this one at all. I’m not being very articulate here, so I will sum by saying if you have any interest at all in Norse gods, Douglas Adams or indeed the fantasy genre you should definitely read this book. 5 stars!

Peony in Love by Lisa See

I read this book ages ago as part of the 2014 Summer Reading Challenge. This one was for the category “Read a historical fiction book that does not take place in Europe”, which earned me 15 points. I chose to read this book having previously read Snowflower and the Secret Fan by the same author, which I found absolutely fascinating!

The plot:
Peony, the sheltered daughter of a wealthy Chinese family, is betrothed to a man she’s never met and is obsessed with a play called “The Peony Pavillion”. For her 16th birthday, her father plans to host a performance of said play. To maintain proper standards, women have to watch from behind a screen, but through the cracks, Peony manages to catch sight of an elegant, handsome man who she immediately falls in love with. Thus begins Peony’s story of love, desire and destiny.

My review:
First of all, I need to say something that some may consider to be a spoiler. However, it is important for me to mention it for the rest of my review to make sense: The majority of the story is told by Peony after she’s already dead. I don’t know about anyone eles, but I would have liked to know that before starting to read. I was expecting a book that would allow me to learn more about Chinese customs, history and belief, instead what I got was basically a ghost story. If I’d wanted to read a ghost story, I would have chosen a ghost story to read!! I also didn’t really like the character of Peony. I know she was supposed to be young (and therefore naive), but her love-sick ramblings just annoyed me. Even after she’d been dead for years and we were given the impression that she’d matured in some way (at least she’d managed to start thinking for herself) she reminded me of a love-struck teenager. And yes, I know she was supposed to be 16, but if the story hadn’t made that clear I would have guessed more like 13! Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was beautifully written… this one felt amateurish and clichéd. I did learn a little about Chinese death rituals and their beliefs about the after life, which was interesting, but honestly that couldn’t make up for the incredibly boring, sickly love story. Very disappointing! I might still give this author another chance, but if I’d read Peony first she would have gone straight to my “do not read” list!

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

I read this book as part of the 2014 summer reading challenge with Megan at Semi-Charmed Kind of Life. This book was for the category “Read a book written by a blogger” which is worth 25 points.

book5The plot
If you’ve read the Hyperbole and a Half blog, then I don’t need to tell you what the book is about. And if you haven’t read the blog then why not? Have you been living under a rock? 😉 Basically, both the blog and the book feature anecdotes from the author’s life complete with hilarious cartoon-style pictures. The book has some stories that have featured on the blog plus some new ones.

My review
I knew before this book even arrived that it was going to be a good one. I love the blog, so I was fairly confident that I was going to love the book. And I did. Simple blog is my favourite character, and Allie’s post on depression should be a must read for everyone (here’s a link, go read). This book gets ALL THE STARS! (If you don’t get that, go read the blog!) Allie is very, very funny – even when talking about serious topics – and I love her drawings. The only disappointing thing in my opinion was the lack of Alot in the book. The Alot is my absolute favourite blog post by any blogger, ever! Also, some of the later stories weren’t quite as good. But overall, the book is amazingly excellent and definitely gets 5 out of 5 stars from me.

The Mysterious Woods of Whistleroot by Christopher Pennell

Another book review for the Summer 2014 Reading Challenge with Megan from Semi-Charmed Kinda Life. I read this one for the category “Read a book from the children’s section of a library or bookstore”, which is worth 10 points. Depending on the source, the age range is given as 8-10 or 9-12. Either way, it fits into the category.

book4The plot:
Eleven-year-old Carly Bitter Bean is an orphan. Since birth, she has only ever been able to sleep during the day. No matter how hard she tries, once the sun sets she just cannot sleep. Understandably, this has led to having a rather lonely life – it’s difficult to make friends when you’re only awake when everyone else is sleeping. All that changes when she meets Lewis, a talking rat who appears at her window one night asking her to join his band, and is then befriended by a mysterious boy at school, Green. Together, they set out to find out why the owls – who had previously enjoyed listening to the rats’ music – have suddenly started killing them instead…

My review:
I wish this book had been around when I was a child! I would have devoured it right around the time I was in my Faraway Tree/Wishing Chair/Narnia phase. But that’s not to say I couldn’t enjoy it as an adult. I really liked how the characters were drawn, and that the aspects that weren’t obviously fantasy (like talking rats) were realistic. In so many children’s fantasy books, the protagonists don’t seem to have any connection to real-life activities, or they manage to miss school for days on end and nobody even asks why. I liked that Carly still had to go to school (where she was constantly in trouble for falling asleep and also teased by her classmates for being “weird”. Not that I’m advocating bullying, but a girl who was constantly falling asleep in school and never came out to play (because after school she had to use the remaining daylight hours to sleep) would be teased). Also, when Green missed a few days of school, he returned with a note for the teacher explaining his absence… just like in real life! I also like the fact that, although Carly’s aunt (who she lives with) wasn’t a particularly likeable character, she wasn’t portrayed as some charicature of wicked with no redeeming qualities. Yes, she neglected Carly and made no effort to stay awake with her, but she did leave food out and make sure she went to school. The plotline was interesting, fun and adventurous. It wasn’t exactly a challenging story, but that’s hardly surprising considering the age range it’s actually meant for! Many adults would probably find it a bit childish, but personally I would see that as a good thing in a children’s book! I would recommend this one for fans of The Faraway Tree series, Narnia and any other stories that involve talking animals or fairytale folk come to life.

Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien

Another book review for the Summer 2014 Reading Challenge. I’m trying to get caught up with my reviewing before the first check in on 1st June!

I read this book for the category “Read two books with antonyms in the title”, which is worth 30 points. The other book I read for this category was The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell (Antonyms: Birth and Death… I just hope it’s okay that birth is only part of a word…)

book3The plot:
Birthmarked is the first in yet another Young Adult fiction series set in a dystopian future. There seem to be a lot of them about (The Hunger Games being the most obvious, but there’s also the Dilerium series, the Divergent books – the first of which has now been made into a film – The Forest of Hands and Teeth trilogy, the Matched trilogy… I could go on, but I won’t. I’m sure you get the point!).

The story takes place about 300 years in the future, in a post-climate-change world where the lakes have dried up to become “unlakes” and water is a valuable commodity. In this world, there are those who live inside the “Enclave” – a walled city filled with rich privileged people and modern conveniences, like running water and electricity, and those like sixteen-year-old Gaia – the main character – who live in the small town outside the Enclave. Following in her mother’s footsteps Gaia has become a midwife, delivering babies in the world outside the wall and handing over the first few born each month to be “advanced” into the privileged society of the Enclave. Gaia herself has a scarred face as a result of a childhood accident, meaning she was never advanced herself as the Enclave only wants perfect, healthy babies. Gaia had always believed serving the Enclave was her duty and the right thing to do, but all that changes the night her parents are arrested by the very people they’ve served loyally for so long. Now Gaia begins to question everything she’s ever known. But in the end, her choice is simple: find a way to get into the Enclave and rescue her parents… or die trying.

My review:
First of all, I must confess that the only reason I bought this book is because it was the first one I found with the word “birth” in the title that sounded even vaguely interesting. And now, on with the review…
I loved the start of the book! It leaps straight into the action with Gaia attending her very first birth as an actual midwife, rather than her mother’s assistant. Immediately after the child is born, Gaia takes it from the mother in a heartwrenching scene and hurries to the gates of the Enclave to advance the child within the allotted timeframe. Gaia then returns home to find her parents gone and a soldior waiting to question her. The only clue is a piece of ribbon containing a code, given to her by her mother’s assistant. As the days go by and Gaia’s parents don’t return as promised, she decides she needs to get into the Enclave and rescue them so they can all escape together. At this point, things get slightly unbelievable… in the space of a few pages, Gaia goes from being the Enclave’s most loyal servant EVER to somebody who is willing to break every single rule in the book without a second thought. Obviously, she needs help to do this, and it seems as if almost everyone she comes across is willing to help her for no other reason than she asked nicely – saving Gaia’s parents certainly wasn’t going to benefit them! She also seems incredibly naive and ignorant. Her parents have clearly been withholding information, presumably to protect her, which makes sense, but the fact that she seemed never to have questioned anything in her world ever until her parents were arrested annoyed me slightly. Yes, openly questioning things might have been a bad idea, but by the age of 16 you would expect her to have had at least some doubts. At the beginning of the book, she does seem to have a tiny moment of hesitation about taking away the woman’s baby, but I felt like it stemmed more from it being the first time she had attended a birth alone than any real doubts about whether taking a baby away from its mother is actually justified, no matter what the circumstances. Having said that, I did quite enjoy the book. Enough happened to keep my interest throughout a two hour wait for a flight and I did genuinely want Gaia to save her parents. I desperately wanted the parents to live so I could learn more about them and how their subtle attempts to undermine the system (like keeping records of birth even though it was forbidden). I feel like the parents were more interesting characters than Gaia herself, even though they’re already gone by the time the story starts! I also enjoyed the various flashback scenes to Gaia’s childhood, and especially the parts about the relationship between Gaia and her father. The book ends on a cliff hanger (so obviously setting up for the sequel!) and I think I might actually read the next book, if only to find out whether Gaia becomes slightly more interesting… Not my favourite book, but I liked it well enough and I can see how it would appeal to its actual target audience. (Also, there are no sparkly vampires, which is always a plus ;-)). I’d give it 4 out of 5 stars.

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

Another book review post, so soon after the last one… sorry about that. There will be quite a few of them over the next few months while I complete the 2014 Summer Reading Challenge. I’ve already read 5 books for it, but I’m only just getting round to writing my second review…

I read this book for the category “Read two books with antonyms in the title”, which is worth 30 points (review of a book with “birth” in the title to follow).

book2The plot:
Today is Christmas Eve. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved“.

When their drug-addict parents both die within a few days of each other, instead of notifying the authorities, 15-year-old Marnie and 12-year-old Nelly decide to bury them in the back garden. If anyone asks, they’ll say they’ve gone to Turkey… after all, it’s not the first time Izzy and Gene have gone on holiday leaving their daughters to fend for themselves. And if they tell the truth, they’ll be taken into care and probably separated. If they can only keep up the pretence for a year, until Marnie turns 16 and can become her sister’s legal guardian, everything will be alright! Lonely old neighbour, Lennie, who is still mourning the loss of his lover, comes to suspect that the girls are not telling the truth. Assuming that their parents have abandoned them, he takes them in, providing the only love that the two have ever known. Over time, the three become something like a family. But soon enough, the sisters’ friends, teachers and the authorities starting asking tougher and tougher questions, and maintaining the lie becomes more and more difficult…

The story, which is set on a housing estate in Glasgow, is told alternately from the viewpoint’s of Marnie, Nelly and Lennie.

My review:
I loved this book! Yes, the author does tend to rely quite a bit on coincidences to keep the plot going, especially towards the end (would that person really have just happened to turn up there at just that moment?), but I enjoyed the book enough to suspend belief on those few points. And I can definitely imagine many of the events in the book happening on a rough council estate anywhere in the UK (I can’t comment on Glasgow specifically, having never actually been thre!).  Sometimes, books written from different perspectives can be confusing and annoying, but in this case I thought O’Donnell did a good job of getting each character’s voice right, and I was able to relate to all of them. Being a book about teenagers (Nelly turns 30 during the story), there is, of course, an element of coming of age, and both girls change during the course of the novel. Polar opposites at the start, world weary and cynical Marnie starts to soften and realise that there are people who are about her and can be trusted, while Nelly, who starts off as a vulnerable and slightly odd child, grows up and learns to look out for herself a bit more. The book is brutally honest, disturbing, sad and fairly morbid at times, but parts of it actually managed to make me smile. Marnie is such a character and her way of describing things is occasionally brilliant (or “pure dead brilliant, as the Glaswegians would say). If you have a problem with bad language, drug taking (and selling), underage sex and (married!) adults sleeping with minors this is not the book for you. Otherwise, I highly recommend it. For a first novel, this is excellent and I can’t wait to see what Lisa O’Donnell comes up with next. Oh, I should probably also add… the part where they bury the dad’s body is pretty graphic (think fluids!) so if you’ve got  a weak stomach, this book may not be for you…

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

This is the first book I’ve read for the Summer 2014 Reading Challenge with Megan at Semi-Charmed Kind of Life. I read it for the category “Read a book that will be/was adapted into a film in 2014”, which is worth 20 points.

The plot:book
On New Year’s Eve, four depressed people – namely Martin, a disgraced TV presenter, Maureen, a middle-aged single mother who has devoted her entire life to her disabled son, Jess, a foul-mouthed teen  and JJ, an American wannabe rock star whose girlfriend recently dumped him – make their way to the top of a tower block with the intention of jumping off. None of them expected the others to be there, and nobody wants to be the first to jump (teenager Jess comes closest, although her main reason for wanting to jump seems to be boredom). Instead of killing themselves, the four of them agree to come down and help Jess find her “ex-boyfriend” (actually a one-night stand) who she believes owes her an explanation, deciding killing themselves is something that can be done any time. Later, they make a pact to carry on living until Valentine’s Day, when they will meet up again and see if any of the group still wants to die. And thus begins the story of an unlikely support group…

My review
I thought the idea of this book was good, but to be honest I found the story itself a little odd. Of the characters, Maureen was the one I felt most sorry for. Martin seemed to bring most of his troubles on himself, Jess was obviously troubled and I wanted to feel sympathy but she just irritated me too much, and as for JJ… I wanted to give him a shake and tell him to grow up! So your little band has split up and you’re probably never going to be famous? And that’s a reason to want to kill yourself? Get. A. Life! On the other hand, the book was well written and humerous (if sometimes a bit far fetched), with the injection of  a few thought-provoking parts. I also thought Hornby did a good job of getting the individual characters’ voices right. It wasn’t the kind of book that I would stay up all night to read and I doubt much of it will stick in my memory, but it was an enjoyable read at the time, and perfect for my commute. Overall, I would give it three out of five stars…. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either.

Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

Very little has been going on in my life recently – certainly nothing that would be worth blogging about – and I think posting about German towns two days in a row may be overkill (plus looking for and uploading the photos takes so long. I can’t be bothered with that again already! ;-))
However, when I am in the mood for blogging I won’t let a little thing like my lack of a life stop me. Here’s a review of a book that I read at the end of 2012.

English: Open book icon
Open book icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

From the back cover: There is a fire and they are in there. They are in there…

Black smoke stains a summer blue sky. A school is on fire. And one mother, Grace, sees the smoke and rush. She knows her teenage daughter Jenny is inside. She runs into the burning building to rescue her.

Afterwards Grace must find the identity of the arsonist and protect her children from the person who’s still intent on destroying them. Afterwards, she must fight the limits of her physical strength and discover the limitlessness of love.

I bought this book after having read and enjoyed Sister by the same author last year. Amazon recommended it to me, the description sounded interesting, and so I thought “why not?”.

First of all, I feel I should warn you that the majority of the book is written from the perspective of someone who is in a coma and having some kind of out-of-body experience. You find this out on the very first page of the book, so it’s not too much of a spoiler (I hope). I think it’s something you should know, though, before reading the book. If you’re not the kind of person who can suspend your belief and accept that someone who  isn’t even awake can still experience what is going on then this is not the book for you. Personally, I quite liked this aspect. It makes the book more than just another thriller (not that I have anything against conventional thrillers – I like them! But a bit of originality never goes amiss).

The style of writing takes a while to get used to. The story is told in the present tense and the second person with the narrator (Grace) talking to her husband, Mike, who cannot actually hear her, which seems a bit odd. It didn’t take me long to become accustomed to it (and work out who “you” and “I” were) though and after that I really enjoyed the book. I can imagine people might get irritated at Grace – surely no mother is as perfect as she makes her self out to be? And she doesn’t actually seem to know any of the people in her life that well. To me, though, her flaws just made her seem real, and throughout the books she does realise that she has been judgemental in the past and accknowledges that maybe what she sees isn’t always what’s actually happening.

The book is, for the most part, a mystery/thriller and the main question – as stated on the back of the book – is who started the fire at the school? Quite early on it becomes clear that the fire was deliberate, and the police are called in to find out who it was that wanted to harm Grace’s family. This aspect is handled very well, in my opinion. There are many twists and turns and while I had many theories as to who done it, in the end none of them were correct! I was quite surprised when the culprit was revealed.

The start of the book is quite slow – it takes quite a while before the police discover anything really significant – but it managed to keep me interested enough to keep reading anyway. And once the action does start it just keeps on coming! I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite book of all time, but it kept me engrossed all the way to the end and I was quite disappointed when it finished. I would recommend it.

And in case you don’t think this one’s for you, here are some other book reviews I’ve written in the past. Maybe you’ll find something to read there:

Mary Poppins
Mary Poppins (Photo credit: Jeni Rodger)

Three book recommendations

A review of Delusions of Grandma by Carrie Fisher

A review of The Door in the Lack by Nancy Butts

Some of my favourite children’s books