How to Kill Your Husband (and Other Handy Household Hints) by Kathy Lette Monday, Feb 20 2012 

Title: How To Kill Your Husband (and Other Handy Household Hints)
Author: Kathy Lette
ISBN: 0743248066
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
First Published: 2006
No. of pages: 326

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis:
All women want to kill their husbands some of the time: “Where there’s a will, I intend to be in it,” wives half-joke to each other. Marriage, it would appear, is a fun-packed frivolous hobby, only occasionally resulting in death. But when Jazz Jardine is arrested for her husband’s murder, the joke falls flat. Life should begin at 40 – not with life imprisonment for killing your spouse. Jazz, stay-at-home mum and domestic goddess; Hannah, childless career woman; and Cassie, demented working mother of two are three ordinary women. Their record collections are classical, not criminal. Cassie and Hannah set out immediately to prove their best friend’s innocence, uncovering betrayal, adultery, plot twists, thinner thighs and toy boys aplenty en route but will their friendship survive these ever darker revelations? Sexy, funny and wise, Kathy Lette’s irresistible new novel is about women not Having It All But Doing It All. It’s about how today’s mother is often a married lone parent. It’s about the fact that no woman has ever shot her husband while he was vacuuming.

Review:
While reading this book I was subject to odd looks from my colleagues as they watched me laughing to myself in the corner of the cafeteria. I had to explain to several very worried-looking colleagues that no, it’s not a DIY manual and I am not planning the gruesome murder of my beloved spouse; it is merely an incredibly funny novel which really appealed to my wicked sense of humour and I just happen to have a laugh so evil it’s developed a sinister personality of its own.

The chapter titles alone are enough to set me off on a giggle-fest:

Ch 5 If He Wants Breakfast in Bed, Tell Him to Sleep in the Kitchen
Ch 10 The Reason I Don’t Tell You When I’m Having an Orgasm Is Because You’re Never There
Ch 19 I’m Having My Period So Can Therefore Legally Kill You
Ch 25 Where There’s a Will, I Wanna Be In It

Sincerely though, I highly recommend for all you lovely ladies to pick up a copy of this hysterical look at marriage gone awry… and then delight in terrorising the man in your life by grinning like a maniac while reading it in his presence.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver Monday, Feb 20 2012 

Title: We Need To Talk About Kevin
Author: Lionel Shriver
ISBN: 1852428899
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
First Published: 2003
No. of pages: 400

Rating: 1/5

Synopsis:
Two years ago, Eva Khatchadourian’s son, Kevin, murdered seven of his fellow high-school students, a cafeteria worker, and a popular algebra teacher. Because he was only fifteen at the time of the killings, he received a lenient sentence and is now in a prison for young offenders in upstate New York. Telling the story of Kevin’s upbringing, Eva addresses herself to her estranged husband through a series of letters. Fearing that her own shortcomings may have shaped what her son has become, she confesses to a deep, long-standing ambivalence about both motherhood in general and Kevin in particular. How much is her fault? Lionel Shriver tells a compelling, absorbing, and resonant story while framing these horrifying tableaux of teenage carnage as metaphors for the larger tragedy – the tragedy of a country where everything works, nobody starves, and anything can be bought but a sense of purpose.

Review:
If you’re planning on reading this book at all, please don’t read any further, as it really will spoil it for you – I’ll be talking about major plot revelations.

(more…)

Emma by Jane Austen Monday, Feb 20 2012 

Title: Emma
Author: Jane Austen
ISBN: 0755331486
Publisher: Headline
First Published: 1815
No. of pages: 484

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis:
Often said to be Jane Austen’s most perfect novel: Beautiful, clever and rich, Emma Woodhouse thinks she knows best. She only wants to help others arrange things as she thinks they should be done, and convinced she’s just not destined to find true love herself, she believes that she must instead devote herself to playing Cupid for others. But absolutely nothing goes to plan – and in the process, Emma has a lot of learning to do: about others, but most of all about herself…

Review:
Only 3 chapters in, I wondered if I was being coerced into seeing Emma as she is seen by Mr. Knightley, as he appears to feel she is a thoroughly spoiled creature who is completely enamoured of her own cleverness – exactly as I did. One could almost believe that the story is actually being narrated by Mr. Knightley and that he is including himself as a character in the third person.

As much as I could appreciate it, I can’t say I’m actively enjoyed this novel. I found too many of the characters thoroughly annoying in a million little ways and just couldn’t see the attraction towards any of them as people. I know for a fact that if I were stuck with Highbury Society as shown here, I’d shun the lot of them. Except, perhaps, Mr. Knightly, as I found I agreed with him and felt he was not in it nearly enough for my liking.

I did, however, persevere to the end, as I was determined to finish it. I’m eventually got to grips a little more with the excessively formal style, but found it felt stilted in the reading and, as a result, it felt like it took forever to plough through.

I think that the main part of the problem was that I found the lives of those in this particular area of Regency Society very trivial, and the heroine vacuous and pointless. I’m more used to something a bit meatier in my historical choices, such as the Elizabethan or Tudor courts, or Roman legions in Britain, whereas all those polite exchanges and constant gossiping wore on my nerves more than a little.*

Unfortunately, Emma has not tempted me to read any more of Austen’s novels, which is a shame, because I had intended to, but I don’t think I could stand to wade through them now.**

* I’m aware that this doesn’t actually qualify as historical fiction, as it was written as a contemporary novel, but it feels like historical fiction to me, if rather more bland than my usual tastes.

** Since writing this review in 2006, I have gone on to read and enjoy other Austen novels and now appreciate them far more. However, I still feel the same about Emma. It remains my least favourite of her novels.

Broken (Women of the Otherworld 6) by Kelley Armstrong Monday, Feb 20 2012 

Title: Broken (Women of the Otherworld 6)
Author: Kelley Armstrong
ISBN: 1841493422
Publisher: Orbit
First Published: 2006
No. of pages: 444 pages

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis:
Book 6 in Kelley Armstrong’s supernatural series marks the return of werewolf Elena Michaels from Bitten and Stolen. When half-demon Xavier calls in the favour Elena owes him, it seems easy enough – steal Jack the Ripper’s ‘From Hell’ letter away from a Toronto collector who had himself stolen it from the Ripper evidence boxes in the Metropolitan Police files. But nothing in the supernatural world is ever as simple as it seems. Elena accidentally triggers a spell placed on the letter, and manages to tear an opening that leads into the nether regions of Victorian London. Toronto may be looking for a tourism boost, but ‘Gateway to Hell’ isn’t quite the new slogan the city had in mind…

Review:
This was a very welcome return to the lycanthropic inhabitants of Stonehaven (they have been relegated more to the background over the last three installments in the series) and although I didn’t feel this quite lived up to Bitten and Stolen, it came pretty close! There were times that I felt Elena was perhaps being a little reckless for someone who is pregnant and very vocal on the subject of being careful whilst carrying her child and this detracted a little from the reality that Armstrong has carefully constructed as a home to her characters.

The supernatural aspect of the Ripper legend was a nice twist on an old and well-loved theme, and there was the element of sleuthing as well as the usual thrills, chills and spills you’d expect from the Women of the Otherworld series.

All in all, Broken is an excellent addition to the WotOW catalogue and I very much look forward to seeing how Armstrong further develops her characters in future novels.

Undead and Unwed (Undead / Queen Betsy 1) by Maryjanice Davidson Monday, Feb 20 2012 

Title: Undead and Unwed
Author: Maryjanice Davidson
ISBN: 0749936452
Publisher: Piatkus
First Published: 2004
No. of pages: 280

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis:
‘The day I died started out bad and got worse in a hurry…’ It’s been a hell of a week for Betsy Taylor. First she loses her job. Then she’s killed in a freak accident only to wake up as a vampire. On the plus side, being undead sure beats the alternative. She now has superhuman strength and an unnatural effect on the opposite sex. But what Betsy can’t handle is her new liquid diet…And whilst Betsy’s mother and best-friend are just relieved to find out that being dead doesn’t mean Betsy’s can’t visit, her new ‘night-time’ friends have the ridiculous idea that Betsy is the prophesied vampire queen. The scrumptious Sinclair and his cohorts want her help in overthrowing the most obnoxious power-hungry vampire in five centuries. (A Bella Lugosi wannabe who seen one to many B-movies.) Frankly Betsy couldn’t care less about vamp politics. But Sinclair and his followers have a powerful weapon in their arsenal – unlimited access to Manolo Blahnik’s spring collection. Well, just because a girl’s dead – er…undead – doesn’t mean she can’t have great shoes…

Review:
Betsy is exactly what you want in a Vampire Queen – smart, sassy, sexy and a whole lot of other words beginning with “S”. Davidson’s sense of humour is dark, wicked and verging on the ridiculous, but it never seems forced and the tone is always kept light. The plot is fast-paced and the characters are engagingly quirky and all too human – even the ones who aren’t human any more.

If you’re looking for a light-hearted giggle on your holiday, you could do a lot worse than to pick this one up at the airport. And look out for the rest of the series, as it looks set to be well worth a giggle!

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov Monday, Feb 20 2012 

Title: Lolita
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
ISBN: 0140 264078
Publisher: Penguin
First Published: 1955
No. of pages: 315

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis:
Humbert Humbert is a middle-aged, fastidious college professor. He also likes little girls. And none more so than Lolita, who he’ll do anything to possess. Is he in love or insane? A silver-tongued poet or a pervert? A tortured soul or a monster? Or is he all of these?

Review:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth, Lo. Lee.Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly in school. She was Dolores on the dottedline. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

So begins one of the most controversial novels of modern times, charting the unconventional relationship between the older man, Humbert Humbert, and a girl of twelve. It’s a tale told from the point of view of Humbert (a character so good they named him twice!) and is surprisingly persuasive in garnering sympathy for a man who is, essentially, a pedophile. The torment he suffers through his obsession with Lolita and the length to which he will go to possess her are beautifully told – at times poignantly poetic – in a style that illustrates the author’s love of a language which isn’t his mother tongue (I could almost cry at how beautifully he writes!).

This is truly a modern classic and the subject, though fraught with danger, is tactfully engaged so that the reader is forced to re-evaluate conventional thinking in terms of relationships between adults and children who are often less innocent than one might believe. It’s a tale of epic proportions, a telling commentary on life, love and obsession, and an amoral love letter to every nymphette who ever lived.

Bad Kitty (Bad Kitty 1) by Michele Jaffe Monday, Feb 20 2012 

Title: Bad Kitty
Author: Michele Jaffe
ISBN: 0141319763
Publisher: Puffin
First Published: 2006
No. of pages: 302

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis:
Jas thinks that everyone has a super power: Everyone, that is, except herself – unless you count her extraordinary ability to get herself in trouble. But the last thing Jas expected to do on her family holiday in glitzy Las Vegas was to survive a cat attack and solve a celebrity murder mystery. As she finds herself tracking an unknown killer through a bevy of Vegas parties, Jas develops a huge crush on the possibly evil – but gorgeous – Jack, and manages to collect some valuable life lessons for her “Summer Meaningful Reflection Journal” along the way. Little Life Lesson Number 5: when you go to prison, try not to be wearing a bikini. But despite a few ‘mishaps’, Jas finally solves the case. And to top it all off, Jack isn’t evil, and has a bit of a crush on Jas too. Perhaps she does have some super powers after all…

Review:
If you’re looking for fun, fashion and super-sleuthing, then look no further than Michele Jaffe’s heroine, Jas Calihan! Jas attracts trouble like moths to a flame, so when she tries to enjoy a family holiday in Las Vegas, it’s no surprise to her friends that she ends up embroiled in a mysterious plot involving kidnapping, murder and incredibly good-looking guy who’s totally Visa (read the book – you’ll know what I mean!).

This is the first in what promises to be a witty and hilarious series – it have me giggling from the get-go and guessing till the last minute. It’s jam-packed with action, adventure and the occasional haiku, yet still manages to keep things real. Not to be missed!

Incidentally, my own superpowers are speed-reading and an ability to run down flights of stairs whilst carrying full mugs of hot coffee – without spilling a drop!

The Rainbow Bridge (The Louise Trilogy 1) by Aubrey Flegg Monday, Feb 20 2012 

Title: The Rainbow Bridge
Author:
Aubrey Flegg
ISBN: 0862789176
Publisher: O’Brien Press
First Published: 2004
No. of pages: 269

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis:
Over a century has elapsed since Louise sat for her portrait. The painting has passed from person to person, unsigned and unvalued. Then, in 1792, as Revolution sweeps through France, Gaston Morteau, a lieutenant in the Hussars, rescues the canvas from a canal in Holland. Louise becomes a very real presence in Gaston’s life, sharing his experiences — the trauma of war, his meeting with Napoleon. When events force Gaston to give up the painting to the sinister Count du Bois, Louise becomes embroiled in a tale of political intrigue and Gothic horror. In the ashes of the Delft explosion, Louise made a choice for life. Now she has to face the realities of love, loss and pain that this life brings.

Review:
Set during the French Revolution, the second in The Louise Trilogy is packed with the excitement, danger and trauma of war as well as taking a look at the people left at home, away from the battlefield. Despite being the second in a trilogy, The Rainbow Bridge can easily be read and enjoyed without having previously read its prequel, with no loss of enjoyment or understanding of the plot.

Even when dealing with the universal themes of love, loss, pain and hardship, this is surprisingly upbeat and hopeful, never becoming maudlin or trite, and instead is an engaging tale of changing relationships and survival during a time of great upheaval that would change France forever.

There Once Was a Boy Called Tashi by Anna and Barbara Fienberg Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: There Once Was A boy Called Tashi
Author: Anna and Barbara Fienberg
ISBN: 1741141982
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
First Published: 2006

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis:
When Gloomin the ogre tramples the village, Tashi must find what he’s looking for, or else the village will have years of the Gloomin winter. There once was a boy called Tashi, who had a way with witches and warlords. He wasn’t afraid of giants, or ghosts, or the wicked baron by the river, but never, ever, had he dreamed of an ogre such as Gloomin. When the ogre tramples into the village, the Magic Warning Bell screams out, and the people all hurry into their houses. Only Tashi is brave enough to face the Gloomin…Step into the magical world of Tashi.

Review:
Tashi is an inquisitive fellow who will delight both toddlers and young readers. The bold print is clear and easily read and the accompanying pictures are delightful. This fable of a courageous young boy imparts a lovely lesson – that with a little bravery and understanding, we can find the best in others. Highly recommended.

Happy Birthday, Jamela! by Niki Daly Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: Happy Birthday, Jamela!
Author: Niki Daly
ISBN: 1845074025
Publisher: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
First published: 2006

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis:
It’s Jamela’s birthday, and she and Mama are off to buy some new shoes. As soon as Jamela sees the Princess Shoes with their sparkly buckles and little satin bows, she falls in love with them, but Mama points out that she’ll have to wear the shoes for school too, so a sad Jamela ends up with sensible black shoes. Alone in her room, Jamela tries her best to make the shoes look princessy with beads, glitter and glue – and only succeeds in making Mama very angry indeed. But a lady called Lilly thinks Jamela’s decorated shoes are fabulous.

Review:
This beautifully illustrated story is bursting with life and excitement. Very young children will love having it read to them whilst looking at the brightly coloured pictures and young readers will enjoy the fun tale of Jamelia, who takes matters into her own hands when she is disappointed by her boring school shoes. Here, a child with a bright idea discovers self-worth with the help of a friendly and artistic adult and finds that a little hard work can have the nicest results!

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: The Five People You meet In Heaven
Author: Mitch Albom
ISBN: 0751536822
Publisher: Time Warner
First Published: 2003
No. of pages: 231

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis:
Eddie is a grizzled war veteran who feels trapped in a meaningless life of fixing rides at a seaside amusement park. As the park has changed over the years – from the Loop-the-Loop to the Pipeline Plunge – so, too, has Eddie changed, from optimistic youth to embittered old age. His days are a dull routine of work, loneliness, and regret. Then, on his 83rd birthday, Eddie dies in a tragic accident, trying to save a little girl from a falling cart. With his final breath, he feels two small hands in his – and then nothing. He awakens in the afterlife, where he learns that heaven is not a lush Garden of Eden, but a place where your earthly life is explained to you by five people who were in it. These people may have been loved ones or distant strangers. Yet each of them changed your path forever. One by one, Eddie’s five people illuminate the unseen connections of his earthly life. As the story builds to its stunning conclusion, Eddie desperately seeks redemption in the still-unknown last act of his life: Was it a heroic success or a devastating failure? The answer, which comes from the most unlikely of sources, is as inspirational as a glimpse of heaven itself.

Review:
At first glance, I thought this would either be deeply depressing or incredibly deep; it turned out I was wrong on both counts. This is actually a very light, easy read, with a gentle style and a positive outlook on both life and death, which ultimately shows that every life, no matter how trivial it may seem at the time, impacts on every life touched. Presented in dual form as a “diary” of Eddie’s various birthdays and lessons learned in the afterlife, this is a novel that is easily read in small bites and each section flows organically into the next. The birthday chapters give more in-depth background to the main character’s life and the frustration he felt at “never getting anywhere”, whereas the lesson chapters explain the twists and turns of his life and add a little more reason and a feeling of completeness to each section.

It’s not a terribly deep book (everything seems to be on the surface level – all laid out for the reader who doesn’t have to figure anything out for themselves), but it’s a very gentle book that seems to speed by (it’s not terribly long, either). It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is and that’s rather refreshing.

All in all, it’s a very pleasant way to pass a summer’s afternoon in the garden.

(The Five People You Meet in Heaven was made into a Hallmark film, starring Jon Voigt and Emy Aneke, in 2003).

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: The Historian
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
ISBN:
0751537284
Publisher:
Time Warner
First Published:
2005
No. of pages:
704

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis:
Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history. In those few quiet moments, she unwittingly assumes a quest she will discover is her birthright – a hunt for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the Dracula myth. Deciphering obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions, and evading terrifying adversaries, one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil. Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel is an adventure of monumental proportions – a captivating tale that blends fact and fantasy, history and the present with an assurance that is almost unbearably suspenseful – and utterly unforgettable.

Deciphering obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions, and evading terrifying adversaries, one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil. This novel blends fact and fantasy, history and the present.

Review:
From the outset, a large amount of historical information is laid out for the reader, so that, at times, this novel reads as rather text-bookish, but none of the information is extraneous and every fact presented winds itself into the storyline and makes it all the more interesting. Having read Dracula years ago at school, it was interesting to see how much I remembered and how much of the history was new to me, as well as delving into another culture in a time just slightly before our own.

I found that I occasionally lost track of which character was narrating the tale if I only had short periods of time for reading, but on the whole it was easy to decipher who was narrating after a short while and the threads picked up again. The story was slow-moving at times, with quite a lengthy lull in the middle, after which the pace quickened once more until it felt slightly rushed at the end, but, nevertheless, the closing chapters felt quite satisfying and the ending seemed quite natural.

Even if this novel is sometimes a little dry, it’s worth sticking with it, as none of the historical information is actually superfluous and, in fact, it actually adds to the story at later stages. The format of letters works rather well and is reminiscent of the diary-entry style of Bram Stoker’s classic, Dracula, which is a nice touch. It might be a hefty tome, but don’t let that put you off – it’s definitely worth a look and is a very enjoyable read.

Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: Geisha of Gion
Author: Mineko Iwasaki
ISBN:
074343059X
Publisher:
Pocket Books
First Published:
2002
No. of pages:
334

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis:
‘I want you to know what it is really like to live the life of a geisha, a life filled with extraordinary professional demands and richly glorious rewards. It is a life in which I was a pre-eminent success; many say the best of my generation. And yet, it was a life that I found too constricting to continue. And one that I ultimately had to leave. It is a story that I have long wanted to tell. My name is Mineko.’

Mineko begins with her initiation into the profession she would perfect. Following her blossoming over the years, we learn all about the intricate training and rigid education system by which Japanese girls become geishas, and the extraordinary foundation of wealth upon which their culture rests.

Review:
This is quite possibly one of the most intriguing autobiographies I have ever read. Having loved the novel by Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha, I delved into the true story of one of the most successful Gion Geiko of recent history, translated from her own words by Rande Brown without losing any of her own voice. Mineko’s story is told in such a gentle and picturesque way that one is instantly transported to a time and place where women have devoted their lives to art and the pleasure of their patrons; the “flower and willow world” where traditional entertainment and intricate ceremonies have been preserved and revered for centuries: The women are shown as being strong and independent as well as sometimes ruthless in their ambition to be the very best, with grueling schedules and a proud tradition of ancient ceremony – they are artists of the highest caliber and treated as such within their widely misunderstood culture.

Far more engaging than Memoirs of a Geisha, this is the real deal with the bones of the industry laid bare for all to see; a story that will stay in the memory long after the covers have been closed.

Orphan of the Sun by Gill Harvey Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: Orphan of the Sun
Author:
Gill Harvey
ISBN: 0747579008
Publisher: Bloomsbury
First Published: 2006
No. of pages: 310

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis:
Thirteen-year-old orphan, Meryt-Re, lives with her uncle’s family in the ancient Egyptian village of Set Maat, the home of the pharaohs’ tomb-builders. Under pressure to marry Ramose, a dull, plodding stonecutter, she resists, and begs for guidance from the gods, but she’s unable to decipher the message behind her vivid dreams. When her cousin falls gravely ill, her uncle accuses her of turning the gods against him and banishes her from the house. Meanwhile, Meryt discovers other strange and suspicious activities going on in the village: Why is Userkaf, a boisterous draughtsman, trying to cause trouble by making accusations against one of the foremen? And why is his servant girl stealing precious and holy gold amulets from the embalmers? Meryt’s worried too, that her aunt Tia seems to think that her father has not gone peacefully to the Next World, and when she discovers Tia is not the only other person to have been making offerings to him in his tomb, she is even more puzzled. It is not until she meets Teti, the village wise woman, that Meryt can begin to unravel the meaning of her dreams and in so doing, solve the mysteries surrounding her.

Review:
Meryt-Re is a very likeable character and it’s very easy to identify with the troubling times she faces. Being solely dependent on the good will of her uncle, she struggles to stay in his good graces in a time when superstition is rife, especially as she has a rather troubling gift is one she would prefer not to have and this has made him wary of his niece. This makes for an interesting study in family dynamics; an excellent backdrop against which the mystery unfolds as Meryt-Re uses her unusual abilities to determine the truth in some disturbing events in her life.

The historical aspect of this novel is intriguing in itself and the rich world of ancient Egypt has new life breathed into it through Gill Harvey’s writing and the sights and sounds of ancient Egyptian are vividly drawn, so that the reader really feels a part of that era.

This book is a treasure not to be missed!

Set In Stone by Linda Newbury Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: Set In Stone
Author: Linda Newbury
ISBN: 0385607482
Rating:4/5

Synopsis:
“To handle stone is to handle the stuff of life and death, of time and change, the mysteries of the Earth itself…”

Fourwinds, a country house close to the South Downs, is the pride of its owner, wealthy widower Ernest Farrow. Samuel Godwin, a gullible young artist employed by Farrow as painter and tutor, is irrevocably drawn into the lives of the three young women at Fourwinds: demure Juliana; Charlotte Agnew, governess and companion, who reveals little of her thoughts and aspirations; and Marianne, the younger daughter, passionate, wilful and unpredictable. Intrigued by Marianne to the point of obsession, Samuel little suspects how thoroughly he is being manipulated.

It’s not only the people who fascinate. Samuel is equally entranced by the house itself: Fourwinds; beautifully designed and furnished in Arts and Crafts style, a house to delight and surprise with the attention paid to every detail. What, though, can account for the absence of the West Wind carving, and the disappearance of its creator, the gifted sculptor Gideon Waring, whose name must never be mentioned in Mr. Farrow’s hearing? Awed by Waring’s skill, Samuel longs to meet him and see more of his work. But in doing so, he uncovers secrets that are both horrifying and dangerous to all.

Review:
Set in Stone is incredibly intense and deals with some very adult themes (which are dealt with tactfully and sympathetically) therefore it’s aimed more at the young adult market rather than younger teens. Very well-written and told from the viewpoint of two characters looking in at the family on the brink of madness that employs them. It’s incredibly heady stuff! Love and possession; art and immortality; convention and defiance; ambition and desire: There’s mystery and drama in equal measures which makes for a winning combination, with strong characters, clever plot twists and shocking revelations.

 

I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: I, Lucifer
Author: Glen Duncan
ISBN: 0743220137
Rating: 4/5

Synopsis:
The end is nigh, and the Prince of Darkness has been given one last shot at redemption, if he can manage to live out a reasonably blameless life on earth. The Old Dealmaker negotiates a trial run – a month with all the delights of the flesh. (The flesh: slightly worn, one previous owner; a writer). But the experience of walking amongst us has more pratfalls and detours than Luce foresaw; instead of teaching us what it’s like to be him, Lucifer finds himself beginning to understand what it’s like to be human…

Review:
I, Lucifer is devilishly clever, fiendishly funny and angelically beautiful all at once. It’s so jam-packed with description I felt I was literally being bombarded by all that Lucifer experiences all at once, but its so wittily done that it just washed into me and became an integral part of the story. Deeply satirical, Duncan has created a version of the Great Adversary that I could really get on board with – I could sympathise with his predicament and understand the motives for his every move.

The style is light, witty and highly enjoyable – I whizzed through it at lightning pace and loved every roller-coater moment of it.

Sickened by Julie Gregory Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: Sickened
Author: Julie Gregory
ISBN: 0099466295
Rating:3/5

Synopsis:
Sickened is the memoir of Julie Gregory, who grew up in a backwoods country trailer in southern Ohio. Her mother’s life — lived in desperate isolation — sought a means to escape by dressing in pastels and running Julie to different doctors. At first it was little things — headaches, sore throats and the medications they came with — but eventually Julie’s mother was in hot pursuit of a mysterious heart condition and the open heart surgery she was convinced would give it a name. Racing against the clock for the cure, Julie was continually x-rayed, medicated and eventually operated on, all in the vain pursuit of an illness that was created in her mother’s mind — and literally left her own child sickened.

Punctuated with Julie’s actual medical records, this memoir re-creates the bizarre cocoon of her family’s isolated double-wide, their wild Value City shopping sprees, gun-waving confrontations, and the astonishing naïveté of medical professionals and social workers. It also exposes the twisted bonds of terror and love that roped Julie’s family together — including the love that made a child willing to sacrifice herself to win her mother’s happiness.

Review:
I think I perhaps read this too soon after reading the Dave Pelzer trilogy as I didn’t find it as shocking or disturbing as I thought I would (although there is no denying that it is indeed shocking and disturbing). I found the narrative dull and plodding and eventually ended up scanning over passages to get to the next “important” moment. The atrocities that Julie suffered due to her mother’s obsession are undeniably gruesome, but the style of writing did nothing to draw me into her story and questions were, for me, largely left unanswered. It’s an interesting look at a case study of Munchausen’s by Proxy – a little understood condition – but I didn’t feel at all uplifted or inspired by this story, as any action seemed to just happen without any explanation.

 

Vampire Blood Trilogy (Books 1-3 of The Saga of Darren Shan) by Darren Shan Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: Vampire Blood Trilogy (Books 1-3 of The Saga of Darren Shan)
Author: Darren Shan
ISBN: 0007143745
Rating: 4/5

Cirque du Freak
Darren Shan’s an ordinary schoolboy, until he and his best friend Steve get tickets to the Cirque Du Freak, a bizarre freak show featuring such arcane performers as Hans Hands, Gertha Teeth, the Wolf Man and Rhamus Twobellies. In the midst of the ghoulish excitement, true terror raises its head when Steve recognises that one of the performers — Mr. Crepsley — is in fact a vampire!

Steve remains after the show finishes, to confront the vampire — but his motives are anything but ordinary! In the shadows of a crumbling theatre, a horrified Darren eavesdrops on his friend and the vampire, and is witness to a monstrous, disturbing plea.

Later, in a moment of insane daring, Darren sets out to steal the vampire’s magnificent performing tarantula, an act which will have severe, tragic consequences for both Darren and Steve. Their lives will never be the same again…

The Vampire’s Assistant
Having abandoned his old way of life to unwillingly serve as Mr. Crepsley’s assistant, Darren must accustom himself to the habits of vampires. But the change is difficult and the loneliness is crushing.

In an attempt to give Darren a sense of stability, Mr. Crepsley takes him to live at the Cirque Du Freak, where he is to share a tent with Evra Von — the Snake Boy introduced in Book 1. Darren soon fits into his new position — even if he doesn’t exactly enjoy hunting food for the ominous Little People! — and he and Evra befriend a curious young boy called Sam Grest, whose one great wish is to join the travelling freak show.

But all is not well with Darren. He refuses to drink human blood, even though he’ll die without it. While Mr. Crepsley argues with him, and tries forcing him to drink, Darren grows weaker and weaker. Will he resist the temptation of blood and sacrifice himself for the benefit of his humanity — or will some awful turn of events lead to his becoming a true, blood-sucking creature of the night???

Tunnels of Blood
Shortly after an old friend’s visit, Mr. Crepsley leaves the Cirque Du Freak and heads for a city, taking Darren and Evra with him. The boys enjoy their stay in the city. Evra soaks up a lot of TV shows, while Darren catches the eye of pretty young Debbie Hemlock! But Mr. Crepsley’s behaving strangely, patrolling the streets every night, saying nothing of his purpose to Darren or Evra.

Then, in the run-up to Christmas, police discover several human bodies hidden in an old building — each of which has been drained of blood! Darren and Evra are horrified, and immediately set about shadowing Mr. Crepsley, on the understanding that if he’s the killer, they’re going to stop him — by any means necessary!

In a blood-soaked abattoir, Darren confronts his mentor, and aims for his throat with a rusty butcher’s knife. But this attack is just the start of the true nightmare, and soon Darren finds himself fighting not just for his own life, but for the lives of his friends, Debbie and Evra, both of whom are threatened by a force of sinister, murderous evil …

It’s well known that kids tend to like a good gross-out and Darren Shan delivers on every level. There’s plenty of the nasty blood and guts on offer, but there’s also a rip-roaring adventure and voyage of self discovery within the bounds of an ongoing tale of terror. It has thrills and spills at every twist and turn – the characters are fun and the action is fast-paced without letting the development suffer. This is well-written and animated and should delight readers, especially boys, from about 10 and upwards, but it’s equally fun for older readers who like a good, old-fashioned chiller every now and then.

And anyone who doesn’t like spiders (like me!) will get shivers down their spines!

 

The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: The Constant Princess
Author: Philippa Gregory
ISBN: 000719031X
Rating: 4/5

Synopsis:
Katherine of Aragon. We think of her as the barren wife of a notorious king; but behind this legacy lies a fascinating story. Katherine of Aragon is born Catalina, the Spanish Infanta, to parents who are both rulers and warriors. Aged four, she is betrothed to Arthur, Prince of Wales, and is raised to be Queen of England. She is never in doubt that it is her destiny to rule that far-off, wet, cold land. Her faith is tested when her prospective father-in-law greets her arrival in her new country with a great insult; Arthur seems little better than a boy; the food is strange and the customs coarse. Slowly she adapts to the first Tudor court, and life as Arthur’s wife grows ever more bearable. But when the studious young man dies, she is left to make her own future: how can she now be queen, and found a dynasty? Only by marrying Arthur’s young brother, the sunny but spoilt Henry. His father and grandmother are against it; her powerful parents prove little use. Yet Katherine is her mother’s daughter and her fighting spirit is strong. She will do anything to achieve her aim; even if it means telling the greatest lie, and holding to it.

Review:
Returning to a study of Tudor royalty, Gregory is certainly on top form. The story is intricate, yet it seems to whiz by at lightening pace. Catalina, the Spanish Infanta, is often seen as the dull 1st wife, set aside by Henry VIII, but this fictional retelling of fact shows her as a determined and strong woman who knew her mind and did her level best to succeed in what she saw as her destiny – the be a good Queen of England. This is engaging stuff and one into which any fan of historical fiction will find a pleasure to sink.

Confessions of a Bad Mother by Stephanie Calman Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: Confessions of a Bad Mother
Author: Stephanie Calman
ISBN: 0330438751
Rating: 3/5

Synopsis:
More comforting than chocolate! More liberating than the pill! Do you feel that other mothers are “doing it properly” while you’re getting it All Wrong? Do you give your children chicken nuggets for supper, herd them into bed and slump down exhausted with a drink? Do you wish there could just, please, be a little less pressure? If you try your best but frequently feel a failure, if you – or your children – are in any way imperfect, then join the club: the Bad Mothers Club. In the aisle by the chill cabinets no one can hear you scream.

Review:
As someone who never planned on having children, I could identify with the lead character, and as a fellow sufferer of “when are you going to have children?” from friends and family, I could sympathise too. This autobiographical tale of the most unlikely parents getting it all wrong, yet somehow managing to get it all right at the same time, is absolutely hilarious, proving that you don’t have to be the perfect mother to be a good mother. I was in fits of giggles throughout reading this book, which could have been written for me personally, watching the “joys of motherhood” sending another woman round the twist as she desperately strives to be the best and then, after many a sleepless night and cut corners, a passable parent.

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: A Long Way Down
Author: Nick Hornby
ISBN: 0140287027
Rating: 3/5

Synopsis:
‘Can I explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower block?’ For disgraced TV presenter Martin Sharp the answer’s pretty simple: he has, in his own words, pissed his life away’. And on New Year’s Eve, he’s going to end it all. But not, as it happens, alone. Because first single-mum Maureen, then eighteen-year-old Jess and lastly American rock-god JJ turn up and crash Martin’s private party. They’ve stolen his idea, but brought their own reasons. Yet it’s hard to jump when you’ve got an audience queuing impatiently behind you. A few heated words and some slices of cold pizza later, and these four strangers are suddenly allies. But is their unlikely friendship a good enough reason to carry on living?

Review:
The whole idea of this novel intrigued me – what happens when several suicide-attempters manage to bungle each other’s plans? Rather than being depressing in any way, A Long Way Down turned out to be a very witty and humorous story of how people can often find the help and friendship they need in the most unlikely of places. The hideously mismatched characters somehow form themselves into the perfect support group, covering everyone’s needs and using everyone’s strengths and weaknesses to great effect. The result is something well worth picking up!

Her Rightful Inheritance by Benita Brown Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: Her Rightful Inheritance
Author: Benita Brown
ISBN: 0747267758
Rating: 3/5

Synopsis:
Orphaned as a child and the product of a mixed marriage, eighteen-year-old Lorna Cunningham has been brought up by her wealthy grandmother, who neither loves nor likes her. When she meets the sensitive and intelligent Edwin Randall she is delighted to have finally found companionship and shares his passion to do something to improve the terrible conditions in the Newcastle slums. However, their deepening friendship is overshadowed by her infatuation with the handsome but unscrupulous Maurice Haldane, who is engaged to her cousin Rose. When her grandmother dies, a family secret is revealed that will change Lorna’s life forever, but will she be able to break free of the past and see where her true happiness lies?

Review:
I’ve never been one for genre romances, but I picked up this novel, usually stuck in the romance section of book shops, because it was written by a member of On the Shelf, Benita Brown. Not only was I pleasantly surprised, I was mightily impressed. It possibly helped that the story was set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century Newcastle, so that I recognized many of the places and the style of language, but even without that, Brown is an accomplished writer who deserves much praise. The story was never once slushy; the characters never melodramatic. In short, this was a historical drama with both a crime thriller and a romantic element which was both engaging and refreshing. I shall certainly be on the lookout for more by this author who now has the honour of being the person who got me to read romance!

My Story (Trilogy) by David Pelzer Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: My Story
Author: David Pelzer
ISBN: 0752864017
Rating: 3/5

Synopsis:
All three of the books that chronicle the horrific abuse suffered by David Pelzer as a child, and his survival against the odds.

Review:
A Child Called “It”:
As a child, Dave was brutally beaten and starved by his emotionally unstable, alcoholic mother: a mother who played tortuous games – games that almost killed him. With only his willpower to survive, Dave learned how to play his Mother’s sinister games in order to survive because she no longer considered Dave a son but a slave, and no longer a boy but an “It.”

The harrowing true story of David Pelzer was the third-worst case of child abuse on record in the entire state of California. If that’s so, you have to wonder about just how horrendous the other two cases were because it’s amazing he ever survived to adulthood.

The Lost Boy:
As a child, Dave Pelzer was brutally beaten and starved by his mother. The world knew nothing of his living nightmare and he had nothing and no one to turn to. But his dreams kept him alive – dreams of someone taking care of him, loving him and calling him their son. Finally, his horrific plight could no longer be hidden from the outside world and Dave’s life radically changed. The Lost Boy is the harrowing – but ultimately uplifting – true story of a boy’s journey through the foster-care system in search of a family to love. The continuation of Dave Pelzer’s story is a moving sequel and inspirational read for all. Essentially, The Lost Boy is a story of regeneration and resilience.

A Man Named Dave:
The third tale in David Pelzer’s autobiographical trilogy, A Man Named Dave is an inspiring story of terror, recovery and hope experienced by the author throughout his life. Known for his work as an advocate against child abuse, Pelzer has been commended by several US presidents and international agencies, and his previous memoirs of growing up as an abused child (A Child Called It and The Lost Boy) have touched thousands of lives. He provides living proof that we can “stop the cycle” and lead fulfilling, rewarding lives full of healthy relationships.

It has been a little while since I read the first part of this trilogy, but as it was so harrowing, it has stayed fresh in my mind, so I was able to pick up where I left off. Pelzer’s story remains one of the most horrific child abuse cases in living memory and his never-ending search for answers is heartrending. Being able to follow his life story through to a conclusion of any kind (he’s still alive and well, so his story is not done just yet!) makes this a satisfying read and the sheer amount of work he has done towards helping others in similar situations is an inspiration. This really is a must-read trilogy, if only so we never forget what can and does happen in families all over the world, and work towards ensuring that it stops.


44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: 44 Scotland Street
Author: Aexander McCall Smith
ISBN: 0349118973
Rating: 3/5

Synopsis:
Welcome to 44 Scotland Street, home to some of Edinburgh’s most colorful characters. There’s Pat, a twenty-year-old who has recently moved into a flat with Bruce, an athletic young man with a keen awareness of his own appearance. Their neighbor, Domenica, is an eccentric and insightful widow. In the flat below are Irene and her appealing son Bertie, who is the victim of his mother’s desire for him to learn the saxophone and Italian–all at the tender age of five. Love triangles, a lost painting, intriguing new friends, and an encounter with a famous Scottish crime writer are just a few of the ingredients that add to this delightful and witty portrait of Edinburgh society.

Review:
This was first published as a serial in The Scotsman newspaper and, as a result, the chapters are quite short and self-contained within the big picture, making this an excellent choice for readers who can only snatch a few moments in their day for relaxing with a book. It has highs and lows and sometimes the overall plot appears to get a little lost as different characters, each with their own stories, wander across the pages, drawing us into their lives as we visit them all in turn, occasionally interacting with each other without realizing the drama they add to each other’s tales. It’s humorous, witty and fun – an interesting experiment in serialized writing that has paid off.

The Doomspell by Cliff McNish Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: The Doomspell
Author: Cliff McNish
ISBN: 1858817625
Rating: 3/5

Synopsis:
In a blaze of light, rush of wind and scrabble of claws, Rachel and Eric are ripped through the wall and hurtled on to another world. Like thousands of other children before them, they have been snatched away by the Witch.

But this time the Witch has met her match. Rachel discovers that she has extraordinary gifts: she can transform herself into a feather, or fly on an owl’s back, just as the Witch can. The Witch is excited – she has found someone to use for her own evil purposes. But for the Witch’s victims, Rachel is their only hope.

Review:
McNish has created a world akin to Narnia – a world perpetually covered with snow, where the inhabitants are under the spell of a powerful Witch from another world. There’s just the right mix of action, adventure, magic and fear mixed in to get the adrenaline running. The ending felt like it was purposely left open for a sequel and, right enough, when I checked I found it’s the first in a trilogy, so I may well find myself with a couple more books being added to my ever-extending list.

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