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

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…

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.


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

‘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…

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!

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

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

Rating: 3/5

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.

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.

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

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.

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
Time Warner
First Published:
No. of pages:

Rating: 3/5

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.

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.

Sickened by Julie Gregory Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: Sickened
Author: Julie Gregory
ISBN: 0099466295

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.

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.


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

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.

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

‘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?

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

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?

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

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

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

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.

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

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.

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.

Endymion Spring by Matthew Skelton Monday, Feb 13 2012 

Title: Endymion Spring
Author: Matthew Skelton
ISBN: 0141382392
Rating: 3/5

Who or what is Endymion Spring? A power for good, or for evil…A legendary book that holds the secret to a world of knowledge…A young boy without a voice – whose five-hundred-year-old story is about to explode in the twenty-first century…Blake is visiting Oxford with his academic mother and his kid sister. While their mum immerses herself in olde worlde volumes, Blake feels trapped in the dusty air of the college library. Until one day, Blake is running his finger along the shelf and feels something pierce his finger, drawing blood – like a bite. The book responsible is a battered old volume, with a strange clasp like a serpent’s head – with real fangs. Printed on its front are two words: Endymion Spring. Its paper is almost luminous – blank, wordless, but with a texture that seems to shine, and fine veins running through it. The paper quivers, as if it’s alive. And as Blake looks, words begin to appear on the page – words meant only for him; words no one else can see. The book has been waiting five-hundred years for the right boy; now it must fulfil its destiny…

This is The Da Vinci Code for kids! There’s mystery, intrigue and excitement on every page as Blake tries to discover the secret of Endymion Spring. Part historical, part contemporary fiction, the narrative blends seamlessly between two eras and the two boys living in them, linked by a strange, dusty book and the secret it protects. Not only is this a joy to read, but the book itself is beautiful, with its scaly dragonhide cover – this is truly a book-lover’s book!

The Wise Woman by Philippa Gregory Sunday, Feb 12 2012 

Title: The Wise Woman
Author: Philippa Gregory
ISBN: 0006514642
Rating: 3/5

Alys joins the nunnery to escape hardship and poverty but finds herself thrown back into the outside world when Henry VIII’s wreckers destroy her sanctuary. With nothing but her tools, her magic and her own instinctive cunning, Alys has to tread a perilous path between the faith of her childhood and her own female power. When she falls in love with Hugo, the feudal lord and another woman’s husband, she dips into witchcraft to defeat her rival and win her lover, only to find that magic makes a poor servant but a dominant master. Since heresy against the new church means the stake, and witchcraft the rope, Alys’s danger is mortal. A woman’s powers are no longer safe to use…

This is one book to which I looked forward immensely, having enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl, The Queen’s Fool and The Virgin’s Lover very much, but I’m afraid that this novel was a bit of a disappointment by comparison. The premise was wonderful and I relished the thought of immersing myself in the world of the Cunning Woman in the time of Henry VIII, but what I got was something only partially rooted in reality, venturing more into the realms of pure fantasy rather than the historical fiction I’d expected. The life of a Wise Woman would have been interesting enough without all the fantastical additions tagged on here and there. I also felt that although the story progressed, there seemed to be no specific destination, and then, when I came to the last few pages, the end came crashing upon me all at once and left me unsatisfied as I wasn’t sure what point was being made.

It didn’t help that Alys wasn’t such an engaging character as the historical figures described in Gregory’s other novels, nor was she particularly likeable with all her manipulation and fickleness. Unfortunately, she wasn’t unpleasant enough to make her more interesting to me – if she’d particularly delighted in being twisted and cruel, rather than agonising over her actions, it would have made for a sizzling read.

All this is not to say that it wasn’t enjoyable – it was well-written, the persecution and paranoia of the age was atmospheric and evocative, and the more zealously passionate passages were a delight to read, if uncomfortable at times. I wouldn’t say it’s quite up to the standard of Gregory’s other work, but it’s still worth a look.

The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella Friday, Feb 13 2009 

Title: The Undomestic Goddess
Author: Sophie Kinsella
ISBN: 0552772747
Rating: 3/5

Workaholic attorney Samantha Sweeting has just done the unthinkable: She’s made a mistake so huge it’ll wreck any chance of a partnership. Going into utter meltdown, she walks out of her London office, gets on a train, and ends up in the middle of nowhere. Asking for directions at a big, beautiful house, she’s mistaken for an interviewee and finds herself being offered a job as housekeeper. Her employers have no idea they’ve hired a lawyer—and Samantha has no idea how to work the oven. She can’t sew on a button, bake a potato, or get the #@%*ing ironing board to open. How she takes a deep breath and begins to cope—and finds love—is a story as delicious as the bread she learns to bake. But will her old life ever catch up with her? And if it does…will she want it back?

This is a sweet, escapist bundle of joy to read; smooth-flowing and comfortable like an old friend with plenty of fun to boot. It’s the ideal pick-me-up when you’re feeling down and out-of-sorts with life and fancy a change.

Perfect for those moments when you want to relax for a while with a nice cup of tea, Kinsella has a light touch and an amusing style. A fantastic gift for the Undomestic Goddess in your life – even if it’s a gift to yourself! It will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever done battle with their washing machine and fretted over where half the socks have gone after the tumble drier.

Who Was Boudicca – Warrior Queen by Sian Busby Friday, Feb 13 2009 

Title: Who Was Boudicca – Warrior Queen
Author: Sian Busby
ISBN: 190497760X
Rating: 3/5

Boudicca lives a contented life as Queen of Icenia – though the Romans are never far away. When the new Emperor Nero decides to seize Icenia and finally bring it under Roman rule, Boudicca is forced to stand up and defend her people. Fearless and resolute, Boudicca gathers forces and prepares to fight. For her, slavery to Rome is not an option, even if this means bloodshed and almost inevitable death…

This lyrical book describes the life of Boudicca in true bardic style, spinning her story so well that you can almost hear the battle cries of the Iceni as they fight against Roman rule. Despite being one of the strongest ruling women in British history, she is still a mysterious figure, but Sian Busby manages to bring her sharply to life.

Aimed at more confident young readers, this book is sure to inspire further forays into history with its vivid and exciting tale with a twist.

The Virgin’s Lover by Philippa Gregory Friday, Feb 13 2009 

Title: The Virgin’s Lover
Author: Philippa Gregory
ISBN: 0007147317
Rating: 3/5

Elizabeth I has acceded to the throne of England, a position she has waited and schemed for all her life. She is surrounded by advisers, all convinced that a young woman cannot form political judgements. Elizabeth feels that she can rely on just one man: her oldest friend, Robert Dudley. It is soon plain that he is more than merely a friend. In a house in the countryside waits a very different woman, Amy Robsart – Robert’s wife. She has no taste for life at court and longs for the day when her husband will return home. She has loved him since she was a girl, but now they are adults she hardly sees him. Meanwhile, the pressure grows for Elizabeth to marry, for it is unthinkable that a queen should rule on her own. Elizabeth‘s preference is clear, but he is unavailable. But what if the unthinkable were to happen!

Unlike the previous historical novels by Gregory that I’ve read, The Virgin’s Lover isn’t written in the first person, making this story feel slightly less personal than either The Other Boleyn Girl or The Queen’s Fool, however, it enables the reader to look into the minds of more than one character at any given time and know exactly what plots are being hatched.

It paints a more vulnerable picture of Elizabeth I and she is shown as a woman with loves, hopes and fears like any other, but a woman in a position that will not allow her to be like any other – she can’t just be a Queen, she must rule like a King, with a decisive manner and firm hand. However, the portrayal is not always sympathetic; her selfish, demanding side is given free reign and she often manipulative and impulsive, as well as malleable; in shirt, she’s a flawed human being.

The ambition often associated with Elizabeth, one of the most powerful women in history, is matched by that of her lover, Robert Dudley, and his ruthlessness in working to raise his position so that he can make a play for the throne.

The Virgin’s Lover shows the cutthroat world of Tudor politics alongside one of the most famous royal romances England has ever known and throws the reader into a dizzying whirlwind of love and treachery in Gregory’s own imitable style.

Plague Sorcerer by Christopher Russell Friday, Feb 13 2009 

Title: Plague Sorcerer
Author: Christopher Russell
ISBN: 0141318554
Rating: 3/5

The year is 1348 and the Black Death is sweeping across England. At Dowe Manor, Lady Beatrice is a victim and a witch-hunter priest, Brother Rohan, persuades a distraught Sir Edmund that Brind, the dog boy, and Aurelie, the French girl, are to blame. The children escape, together with the dogs Glaive and Gabion, and go on the run through a plague-stricken countryside, at one point facing death by drowning from a crazed mob whipped up by Brother Rohan. Even when they think they have found sanctuary in a monastery, it has been taken over by a lawless band of armed robbers, led by the beautiful but evil Chanterell. She has plans to use the dog boy to terrorise the local manors. By now Brind is convinced that he is a plague bringer. Aurelie knows this isn’t true, but then she succumbs to the plague herself…

The fear and superstition of 14th century England makes for a scary and exciting adventure as Brind and Aurelie make their way across a country filled with terrified people who believe that witches are responsible for the deadly plague. It’s a dangerous journey with many twists and turns along the way as the friends face fear head on, learning to depend on each other along the way.

A very well-written story with unusual plot twists that will delight and challenge a confident reader interested in historical fiction.

A Ghost Among Us by Debora Hill Friday, Feb 13 2009 

Title: A Ghost Among Us
Author: Debora Hill
ISBN: 1929374143
Rating: 3/5

When three young women rent a house in Hampstead, they discover they already have an uninvited border: Television talk-show host, Dierdre Hall, Photographer, Charlotte Lewis and Fantasy Painter, Natalie Ladd are thrilled to discover the large townhouse with the reasonable rent. What they don’t know is that Sir Jerome Kennington, former Earl of Arden is a long-time inhabitant of the house, even though he has been dead for nearly two-hundred years. The three young women embark on a quest to help Jerome solve his own murder …and release his soul. In the process they find adventure and romance in modern-day London, while researching the story of Jerome and his beloved Alicia, during the Regency period.

A Ghost Among Us is a light mystery/romance with a great deal of charm. There’s an eclectic feel here, with a coming together of different nationalities – everyone seems to be from somewhere other than London, which is fairly telling in itself, as Britain is shown as a melting-pot of cultures pulling together to reach their goals. During the course of the story, the women learn much about themselves and each other as they work to uncover the mystery surrounding Jerome’s death, meanwhile, he might just be able to teach these modern women and the men in their lives something about good old-fashioned romance!

The Regency chapters are particularly vivid and all the gaiety of high society is colourfully brought to life.

Not Quite a Mermaid: Mermaid Friends by Linda Chapman Friday, Feb 13 2009 

Title: Not Quite a Mermaid: Mermaid Friends
Author: Linda Chapman
ISBN: 1041320532
Rating: 3/5

Electra is a mermaid with a difference – she has legs instead of a tail! Of course, this means she stands out from her friends a little so when they all go on a trip to Craggy Island it’s the cause of teasing from some of the older mermaids. But when two of them are stranded high on a rock in the sun with no way to get back into the water, it’s up to Electra to save the day!

This tale (or should that be ‘tail’?) of a human girl brought up as a mermaid is perfect as a bedtime story for little ones or to read along with slightly older children. It is fun and full of adventure with an important message; accept others for who and what they are as well as being happy with the person you are yourself – it’s alright to be different! The pictures are colourful and appealing, and compliment the story well.

An excellent treat for little girls who dream of combing their hair with seashells and swimming with dolphins.

Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter Friday, Feb 13 2009 

Title: Blindsighted
Author: Karin Slaughter
ISBN: 0099421771
Rating: 3/5

The sleepy town of Heartsdale, Georgia, is jolted into panic when Sara Linton, paediatrician and medical examiner, finds Sibyl Adams dead in the local diner. As well as being viciously raped, Sibyl has been cut: two deep knife wounds form a lethal cross over her stomach. But it’s only once Sara starts to perform the post-mortem that the full extent of the killer’s brutality becomes clear. Police chief Jeffrey Tolliver – Sara’s ex-husband – is in charge of the investigation, and when a second victim is found, crucified, only a few days later, both Jeffrey and Sara have to face the fact that Sibyl’s murder wasn’t a one-off attack. What they’re dealing with is a seasoned sexual predator. A violent serial killer…

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t overly impressed – my expectations were high and Blindsighted failed to hit the mark. Surprisingly enough, on paper, this should have thrilled me on every level as it has all the basics covered; solid storyline; engaging characters; good pace, but it was completely lacking in red herrings, meaning that when the murderer was introduced, it was fairly obvious just whodunit. After that, it was pretty easy to predict other plot points, such as future victims, and even to hazard a guess at the motives behind it all.

It’s an easy and enjoyable read, but if you like something that will tax your brain a little and keep you guessing, this isn’t it. On the other hand, if you like being able to work it all out ahead of the other characters, this’ll be right up your street.

Seeing as this is a debut novel, and not having read any further into the series as yet, there’s a fair chance that Slaughter (excellent name for a crime thriller novelist!) improves as it becomes more familiar. I hope that’s the case, because there was actually enough here to pique my interest and I may well pick up the next one, Kisscut, at some point in the future, even if it’s not my top reading priority.

The Queen’s Fool by Philippa Gregory Friday, Feb 13 2009 

Title: The Queen’s Fool
Author: Philippa Gregory
ISBN: 0007147295
Rating: 3/5

The bitter enmity between Elizabeth the First and Mary Tudor, the daughters of Henry VIII (not to mention the conflict between their mothers Anne Boleyn and Katherine of Aragon) makes the squabbles between modern-day royals seem small beer indeed.

Mary and Elizabeth, the two young princesses, have a common goal: to be Queen of England. To achieve this, they need both to win the love of the people and learn how to negotiate dangerous political pitfalls. Gregory recreates this era with tremendous colour, and she makes the court an enticing but danger-fraught place. Into this setting comes the eponymous fool, the youthful Hannah, who (despite her air of guileless religiousness) is not naive. She soon finds herself having to deal with the beguiling but treacherous Robert Dudley. Dispatched to report on Princess Mary, Hannah discovers in her a passionate religious conviction (to return England to the rule of Rome and its pope) that will have fatal consequences.

As with The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory takes the bones of the story from historical fact, using actual historical figures and events throughout the tale as well as creating a few from her own imagination, and manages to breathe life into them; bringing the Tudor period to the reader in an immensely enjoyable and accessible way. The fear and paranoia felt by all in England at that time is brought to the fore and narrated by Hannah, who would be taken as a heretic for her religion, which she must hide from those around her, and through her gift as a seer she is elevated to a position where she may feel safer, but is, in fact, in danger of being arrested for treason.

The complexity of relationships is a focal point here (Hannah loving Queen Mary but admiring Princess Elizabeth; being enchanted by Robert Dudley but fighting her growing feelings for Daniel Carpenter) and the subtleties are intricately woven into the plot to make this a richly rewarding story with more to offer than just historical detail. It is a tale about following your heart and being true to yourself, even when faced with danger from all sides, learning to live with your decisions and grow as a person because of them. Although there is much detail, Gregory doesn’t allow it to bog down the narrative and she manages to draw the reader into it in such a way that you could believe you were actually there.

It is very well-written and, although not quite as intriguing as The Other Boleyn Girl (in my opinion), The Queen’s Fool has convinced me to get hold of as many of Philippa Gregory’s other works as I can as soon as possible.

The Land of the Wand by Debora Hill and Sandra Brandenburg Thursday, Jan 29 2009 

Title: The Land of the Wand
Authors: Debora Hill and Sandra Brandenburg
ISBN: 1929374437
Rating: 3/5

One weekend in June, four people in Chicago all go, separately, to the same gift shop in the Galleria and examine an ornamental crystal wand. Rock star Marshall Storme, fantasy author Evan Stone, architect Valaura Bennet and fast-food worker Lillian Curtis all look at the wand, though only Marshall and Valaura are seriously interested in purchasing it. They are all transported to a parallel dimension, a place where the myths of earth originated, and live as real, if unusual, beings.

Befriended by the Daemona, the four dimension travellers find themselves embroiled in a holy war with the savage Anjeles. Led by the mad King Yahoo, the Anjeles are trying to wipe out the Daemona and their four brother-kings, Nicholas, Mephistopheles, Beelzebub and Lucifer. It is Lucifer, King of The Land of the Chalice and the Lightbearers, who is the nemesis of King Yahoo. But they have gone to war against the eldest brother, Nicholas, and the four travellers are caught right in the middle.

The Land of the Wand is a bold, bright, colourful start to The Lost Myths Saga (comprising of four books), which strives to do for Paganism what C. S. Lewis did for Christianity with The Chronicles of Narnia.

There is a reversal of Judeo-Christian religious teachings – here the Daemona are portrayed as simple, peace-loving, warm and welcoming, whereas the Anjeles are depicted as barbaric and threatening zealots.

The characters are all wonderfully flawed and painfully human (even the other-dimensional beings) and it is their journey of self-discovery, given a light and humorous touch that makes this such an easy read. The writing style flows almost effortlessly and having four separate prologue chapters does nothing to hinder the narrative, which has a comfortably friendly and familiar tone throughout.

Ultimately, though, the prevailing message is that acceptance and understanding of others will eventually, it is hoped, lead to harmony and peace, which is as simple a rendering of Pagan thought as you’re ever likely to see, but relevant in any era.

Dying Voices by Laura Wilson Friday, Jan 23 2009 

Title: Dying Voices
Author: Laura Wilson
ISBN: 0752843281
Rating: 3/5

When Dodie Blackstock, only child of multi-millionaire Wolf Blackstock, is told that her mother’s body has been found in a housing estate in Hackney, she is shocked. When she is told that her mother, Susan, has been dead for less than 48 hours, she is devastated, for Susan was kidnapped, apparently by a politically motivated group, when Dodie was eight. Susan was never found, and she was presumed dead.

Traumatised by her lonely childhood, Dodie has been estranged from her dysfunctional and complicated family for years. She returns to Camoys Hall, the Blackstocks’ stately home, to talk to her stepmother Joan, who lives there by herself. But Dodie finds more than she bargained for – and then she starts to receive anonymous and threatening letters. Who is waiting in the darkness outside Camoys Hall, watching her every move . . . ?

Dying Voices is less of a Whodunit, more of a Whydunit. From the start, we know that Susan Blackstock was kidnapped; one of her kidnappers was killed and his two accomplices did time for their part in the crime; her body isn’t found till 20 years later and she’s only been dead for 48 hours. What we are left with is a mystery to slowly unravel as Dodie pieces together information from various sources to find out exactly what happened all those years ago, the circumstances that led to the kidnap and what impact it will have on her life now.

It’s a clever piece of work and I was kept guessing right up to the very last moment. If I hadn’t been reading two other books at the same time, this one would have had the pages flying as I swept through it – I hated to put it down. That said, there were aspects of Dodie’s character I never got to grips with – her self-denigrating / self-destructive streak that seemed very prominent was never fully explained other than a brief nod towards the notion that she had blamed herself, as a child, for her mother’s disappearance, but that didn’t quite sit right with me. Her complete lack of self-confidence seemed a little out of place, but made for good tension between her and other characters, as she is continually sure that people only want to know her for what she can give them.

Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh Wednesday, Jan 21 2009 

Title: Tamburlaine Must Die
Author: Lousie Welsh
ISBN: 1841955329
Rating: 3/5

It’s 1593 and London is a city on edge. Under threat from plague and war it’s a desperate place where strangers are unwelcome and severed heads grin from spikes on Tower Bridge.

Poet, playwright and spy, Christopher Marlowe has three days to live. Three days in which he confronts dangerous government factions, double agents, necromancy, betrayal and revenge in his search for the murderous Tamburlaine, a killer who has escaped from between the pages of Marlowe’s most violent play . . .

Tamburlaine Must Die
is a swashbuckling adventure story of a man who dares to defy both God and state and discovers that there are worse fates than damnation.

Welsh’s style is elegantly lyrical and instantly embroils the reader in the hedonistic and frantic final days of Christopher Marlow, whose death in a Deptford house is shrouded in some mystery to this very day. There’s just enough intrigue to hold the plot for this short novella, so Welsh was wise not to try and expand it tofull novel length – it would have felt stretched and forced.

A nice way to pass an idle afternoon.

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