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Review: ‘Perfect’ by Cecilia Ahern

Perfect by Cecilia AhernPerfect is the second (and it seems final) book in Cecelia Ahern’s Young Adult Series Flawed.  Everything that made Flawed such a surprise was still there, but somehow Perfect just doesn’t pack the same punch.

Celestine North was the perfect teenager until she runs afoul of the law by standing up for an elderly gentleman on a bus who just happened to be branded Flawed by an all-powerful government entity called The Guild.  Branded Flawed herself for the infraction Celestine finds herself the unwitting figurehead for the movement to destroy the guild.  On the run, with no one to trust, Celestine must find the evidence to clear her name, and stand in defence of all the other Flawed.

There is nothing new or original here.  It’s every YA dystopian novel ever written, all amalgamated in to one.  There wasn’t anything original in Flawed either, but because of the strength of the writing and the narrative style it was easy to forgive.  Perfect has as many moments of tragic, visceral violence as its predecessor, and has just as many truly emotional moments that kept me reading in to the wee hours of the morning.  So why then could I not enjoy this one as much as the first?

Cecelia Ahern made one mistake with Perfect.  She broke the fourth wall.  She made the mistake of using current pop culture references in her narrative which broke me out of my suspension of disbelief and brought the whole plot and concept come crashing down around my ears.

When something is set in a similar society with its own rules and logic I can believe how entities like the guild come to be.  But when an author suggests that this fantasy world is somehow akin to my present, then there had better be some really deep and well thought out world building to make me believe it.  But there wasn’t.  So I didn’t.

As soon as the one flaw comes out in a book the house of cards that was narrative believability came crashing down.  All of a sudden, I was thinking about what was happening in the rest of the world.  Why is the UN not stepping in for human rights violations?  Why on earth would people allow this dictatorship to start in the first place, especially since they still have a democratic voting system and the Flawed are still allowed to vote?  As soon as I was reading a book about my world, and not some alternate fantasy world, the questions just kept coming and coming and the book failed to be in any way believable.

Celestine was still a decent character, but I still needed more development of the satellite characters.  There was a feeble attempt at a love triangle that went nowhere, and Celestine’s relationship with Carrick was just not developed enough to convince me that they’d do everything that they did for each other.

Perfect wasn’t bad, and it did bring the two-book series to an end in a satisfying way.  Despite its flaws, Flawed is still a much better series than Divergent and was really fun to read.  I read the book in a day, because I just needed to keep reading to see how it ends.  No matter what else I say about the book, that’s probably the most important.  It was enjoyable. (If not entirely believable).

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Review: ‘Under a Watchful Eye’ by Adam Nevill

Under a Watchful Eye Book CoverI’ve long been a fan of Adam Nevill, so when Under a Watchful Eye was released my expectations were naturally high.  When I started reading, I must admit I wasn’t entirely sold.  The book has a slow moving, brooding narrative, and I found myself at one point thinking I’d need to come back to it when I was in more of a leisurely reading mood.  But I kept reading, and the experience was better for it.  The dread was palpable, and the way Nevill writes is darkly beautiful with a lyricism that you rarely see in horror novels.

Seb Logan is a well-known horror writer, working on his new book from his comfortable seaside home.  His idyllic life is crashed into disarray when a friend from his past appears and threatens everything Seb has worked so hard to achieve.  What follows is a descent into the darkest recesses of the self, where Seb must confront sinister forces from within and without.

Adam Nevill taps into the everyday fears we all have and writes them in a way that makes them terrifying.  We, as readers, see ourselves reflected in his characters and that is what makes his works so frightening.  His prose is florid and expressive with an originality that makes him a unique writer in the genre.  He is descriptive in a way that builds his world naturally, without forcing too much information on the reader.  The fact that we can build our fears into his descriptions is what gives the weight of real horror.  With an antagonist like Thin Len (who will no doubt visit me in my dreams for many nights to come) he is so terrifying because he will appear differently to every reader.

The characters in Under a Watchful Eye are not the most deeply developed.  Some appear only for a few pages before disappearing into obscurity, and the motivations of some others I found to be a little ambiguous in places.  At first, this is what made me enjoy the book a little less, but the more I read, the more I realised that it was essential to making this novel so chilling.  Seb is a character who is trapped, and by minimising his interactions with other characters, it only serves to heighten the feeling of isolation that surrounds him at almost every turn and makes us question his sanity, just as the characters around him do.  We experience Seb’s subjective reality, one that Nevill manages to make real in all its terrifying and grotesque glory.

Under a Watchful Eye felt a lot more subtle than Nevill’s previous works which initially threw me.  But once I was engrossed it proved itself to be a creeping tale of horror that was both visceral and stimulating. It was a story that blurred the line between life and death and fiction and reality with allusions to one of his previous novels, Last Rites, that help tie everything masterfully into his fictional universe.

Adam Nevill is a master of horror and a writer that every reader who considers themselves a fan of the genre should become acquainted.  Under a Watchful Eye has proven his versatility and talent as a writer and is a must read.

 

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My Top 10 Fantasy Series

Top 10 Fantasy Book Series

Picking my Top 10 Fantasy series is such a subjective task.  The books I love carry with them the weight of not just my own tastes, but also my nostalgia.  Some of the books I’d put in my top 10 aren’t even objectively the best books, but they are books that I have loved at some point in my life and want to share with people.

Some you may have heard of, others, perhaps not. I’ve not bothered putting Tolkien or Pratchett on the list because if you don’t’ love Tolkien or Pratchett you don’t love Fantasy. But these are my personal Top 10 fantasy series of all time (in no particular order).

The Name of the Wind

The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss


First Book: The Name of the Wind

When The Name of the Wind was first released, my mother came home with a hardback copy.  She’d picked it up on the way home because it sounded like something I might like, and did I ever!  I would go so far to say that this series is the best of modern fantasy.

It is a story of youth, told by a man who is to become the world’s most renowned magician.  It’s full of action, adventure, romance, friendship and above all, magic!

BattleAxe

The Axis Trilogy by Sara Douglass


First Book: BattleAxe

When I was twelve a friend of the family gave me a book for my birthday.  That book was Sara Douglass’ Threshold.  Looking back I was way too young to have been given that book, let alone be reading it, but it started my life-long love affair with everything Sara Douglass.  I loved her so much I even applied to be her shadow for my year 10 work experience.  Even though it didn’t happen, I still have the reply that she sent me to this day.

The Axis Trilogy is an epic series full of family feuds, the magic of the stars and doomed romances.  It has strong female characters, tackles issues of abuse and religious zealotry, environmentalism, xenophobia and is the series that I come back to again and again.

The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Gentleman Bastards Sequence by Scott Lynch


First Book: The Lies of Locke Lamora

This whole series is irreverent and darkly humorous. Locke and his compatriots carry out schemes and heists and are the perfect anti-heroes that you can’t help but fall in love with.  The characterisation in this series is superb and the setting is so rich you almost feel you could step in to its pages.  It’s a long series that is barely half way through, but it’s one that is so worth committing to.

The characterisation in this series is superb and the setting is so rich you almost feel you could step in to its pages.  It’s a long series that is barely half way through, but it’s one that is so worth committing to.

The Dark is Rising

The Dark Is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper


First Book: Over Sea, Under Stone

This is the series that made me want to become an historian and started my lifelong love affair with everything Arthurian.  I read the series in the fifth grade, and turned to my parents and told them that I wanted to find The Holy Grail.  When they asked me how, I said research!

This is such a fantastic series for adults and children alike, and is so woefully overlooked.  They are darker than a lot of children’s fantasy novels which is very welcome.  The first book is more of a seaside adventure story and the books get darker as they progress until they end with an epic battle of Arthurian proportions.  The Dark is Rising Sequence will make you fall in love with reading all over again.

The Earthsea Quartet

The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula Le Guin


First Book:  A Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula Le Guin is probably as influential as Tolkien.  Many of the series in this list have clearly been influenced by The Earthsea Cycle.  So many modern fantasy series rely on appendices, family trees, and other extra information to help build their worlds.  With Earthsea though Le Guin offers us a master class in world building.  The evil itself is largely abstract; a force rather than an evil with a face. The series tackles the huge task of covering themes like life and death.

The first three books act as a Trilogy and can easily be read on their own.  The fourth book Tehanu is usually packaged with the first three (while the last two books are largely ignored) but is a largely different book in substance and style to the three that came before.  This series is a must read for anyone who loves fantasy.

Taliesin

The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen Lawhead


First Book:  Taliesin

I picked up the first two books in this series from my school library when I was in my early teens.  Since then I’ve tried to get a copy of the whole series, but they’re surprisingly difficult to get hold of (especially if you want the whole series with the same covers – seriously publishers, WHY?).

Arthurian legend is a subject covered in literature time and time again, but in my opinion, this is one of the best.  It mixes Arthurian legend with Celtic history and even myths of Atlantis with elements if historical Minoan culture!  It’s a fantastic mix of fantasy and historical fiction that is so well researched you could almost believe it to be true.

Hood

King Raven Trilogy by Stephen Lawhead


First Book:  Hood

The Legend of Robin Hood is known by pretty much everyone.  It’s been made in to countless films and plays and stories, but never has it been done in such an original and well-researched way. Lawhead sets his trilogy in the time of the Norman Conquest on the Welsh borders and gives every element of the story its own place in history.

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Obernewtyn

The Obernewtyn Chronicles by Isobelle Carmody


First Book:  Obernewtyn

I must admit, my obsession with The Obernewtyn Chronicles has waned somewhat over the years.  I was absolutely obsessed with the books in my childhood, but as more time passed between her releasing books and  I got older, I simply lost interest.  There was nearly a decade between book 4 and 5 and there is only so long I can keep my expectation for a series going, especially since she started other series during that time.

Still, despite my brief disenchantment, The Obernewtyn Chronicles remain a seminal work of YA literature.  Like most post-apocalyptic novels this series covers everything that a coming-of-age story needs and goes further covering deeper elements of prejudice, tolerance, responsibility and even human and animal rights.

After 28 years the series was finally finished with the 7th novel released in 2015, so you’re safe to pick it up now.

 

The Mists of Avalon

Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley


First Book:  The Mists of Avalon

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon series takes Arthurian legend and re-tells it from the perspective of its female protagonists, which is a stroke of genius.  The experience of reading these books is therefore completely different to what you get from many other books in this genre.  The big battles and power struggles that are usually so prevalent in Arthurian legend instead serve as backdrops to the lives of its women.

While it’s fantasy, it does serve as an important work of feminist literature, giving voice to the women who are largely silent in the old legends.

 

The Screaming Staircase

Lockwood & Co. by Jonathan Stroud


First Book: The Screaming Staircase

It’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited for the release of new books.  I describe the Lockwood & Co. series as if J. K. Rowling had written The Woman in Black.  While it’s technically middle-grade fiction there is a lot here to be excited about.   The prose is witty with beautifully fleshed out characters with completely unique personalities.

There are chills galore and an overarching story that makes me desperate to read on. I can’t recommend this series enough!

So there they are, my top 10 fantasy series.  And the best thing?  There’s still plenty more out there to discover!

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Review: ‘Fir’ by Sharon Gosling

Fir - Book CoverSharon Gosling’s Fir was an interesting addition to the already extensive collection of YA horror, but like many books in the genre didn’t quite live up to expectations.

Fir tells the story of the Stromberg family, who leave their comfortable inner city Stockholm life to move to a remote tree farm where the Stromberg patriarch hopes to rebuild the lumber business.  But there is something out in the old growth forest that begins terrorising the family, while they try and survive the harshness of Sweden’s remote winters.

There were some fascinating elements in Fir.  The forest had character, and the descriptions of the woods, the cold, the dark and the isolation were incredibly well rendered.  There were some promising moments with the introduction of old world mythology which had the potential to make this a much deeper story and Gosling took the opportunity to make some important and tactful observations about environmental ethics without coming across as forceful or on the nose.

Unfortunately, despite these elements, Fir utterly failed to be believable.  Within the first few pages, it had already fallen into the YA trap of choosing just to have unreasonably rubbish parents to mask the fact that it’s difficult to write a believable relationship between a teenager and a parent once you’re past the age where you no longer rely on them.  I say difficult, which is why so many YA authors just either omit the adults of the story entirely (I’m looking at you Leo Hunt) or make them such caricatures of bad parenting that the focus naturally sways toward its teenage protagonists. Their reactions to situations and lack of communication with their daughter were simply not believable, and so made the plot feel entirely contrived.

One of the most effective elements was that the plot developed to allow for some ambiguity as to the truth of the ‘supernatural’ occurrences in the book.  I liked this, as it left it entirely open to interpretation, and made the premise of isolation even more frightening.  Letting the characters’ experiences speak for themselves made the local mythology even more interesting, as it highlighted how remote isolation could give rise to fears like these.  Had the book ended before the appendix I might have rated it far higher, but instead, Gosling chose to spoon feed the readers a supernatural ending that detracted from the whole narrative.  A book is only as good as its ending, so had it ended a few pages earlier, it would have been a much better book.

Overall, Fir was a quick and easy read.  It wasn’t particularly cerebral, certainly didn’t bring much to the YA horror genre, but was most definitely full of unrealised potential.  The plot had the potential to be unique with a critical message about environmental responsibility,  but instead just read as a generic supernatural YA story about bad parenting.

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Review: ‘The One Memory of Flora Banks’ by Emily Barr

The One Memory of Flora BanksThe One Memory of Flora Banks was an interesting if problematic book.  It tackled a very interesting subject matter, but I’m not entirely sure it did it wholly effectively.  I enjoyed the book since the narrative was sweet and interesting, but I’m not entirely sure it was the healthiest portrayal of chronic illness.

Flora Banks is a teenager who has anterograde amnesia.  A tumour when she was ten made it impossible for her to create new memories and so she lives her life in a state of confusion, with the memories of a ten-year-old, but the body and emotions of a teenager.  One night, she kisses a boy on the beach and for the first time she has a memory that stays.  What follows is the story of her trying to hang on to that memory, a story that will twist and turn and take her on an adventure to the other side of the world.

Flora is an incredibly memorable character.  As the narrator, her quirks and mannerisms show themselves in interesting ways.  A lot of the narrative is repetitive for that reason, because we are experiencing the way that Flora’s mind works, but the repetition had just enough difference as to keep it interesting.  I found the way it was written fascinating rather than boring.  Flora writes things down (think Memento) to remind herself of them, and builds a physical trail of memories for her future self to follow.

The other characters in the book have no real characterisations of their own.  Instead we experience them through Flora’s eyes, and for obvious reasons she proves herself a rather unreliable narrator.  What is true of the people that she knows in one chapter can be completely turned on its head the next.  We see Flora’s parents how she sees them at certain times in the narrative, and the same goes for the boy she kissed and her best friend.  It made for very interesting reading and stylistically I simply can’t fault this book.

The big problem with this book, and indeed with so many books dealing with any kind of chronic illness, is that it doesn’t always deal with said illness in the best possible way.  Despite the characters of the novel responding to her positively and appreciating her for everything that she is, Flora herself latches on to the one thing she feels she needs to be; normal.  It is this idea of normalcy that makes this novel so problematic, especially when we factor in the layers of self-deception practiced by her family, and by herself on more than on occasion. It is this self-deception that needed to be tackled to give this book the depth that it needed.  For me, one of the most tragic and underdeveloped characters of the whole novel is Flora’s mother.  At times she is painted as a villain, but reading between the lines you can see a deeply troubled woman with her own mental illness to deal with who is given virtually no page time.  The One Memory of Flora Banks had the potential to delve so deeply in to the subject of chronic illness, but instead it seemed to romanticise it and ultimately raised more problems than it solved.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading The One Memory of Flora Banks, even if I didn’t really love where it went.  It was beautifully written, with a unique style and a memorable protagonist.  With a bit more depth I think it could have been a great, and indeed important work of YA fiction, but it is not quite there yet.

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Review: ‘The Doll Funeral’ by Kate Hamer

Kate Hamer - The Doll FuneralThe Doll Funeral was a novel that attempted to be a great many things, and proceeded to be none of them with great aplomb.  It had the potential to be a touchingly deep story about domestic abuse and the difficulties of coping with adoption, both as the adopters and the adoptees, but instead it got bogged down in a swamp of mystical weirdness that did nothing to help the story along.

Kate Hamer’s The Doll Funeral tells the story from the point of view of a teenage girl who lives with her adopted parents in the Forest of Dean.  Her adopted father Mick is abusive but she finds solace among the trees and with a shadowy friend who has always been in her life.  The narrative follows her search for her real parents, while simultaneously weaving the story of her parents and how she came to live with Mick and Barbara.

The way Kate Hamer writes is beautiful.  She weaves her words with talent and imagination.  She paints a great picture and really brings the Forest of Dean to life as a character in its own right.  The forest plays such an important part in the lives of all its characters that her characterisation of it really made the narrative.  The plot is bleak, dark and otherworldly with a cast of quirky characters who were interesting enough to keep me reading.  The Doll Funeral wasn’t fast paced, or action packed.  It plodded along slowly and steadily and had a decent pace for a relatively serious novel that dealt with some pretty deep issues.

The big problem with The Doll Funeral is the way it chooses to deal with those issues.  The paranormal elements of the narrative fell flat and didn’t serve to heighten Ruby’s story in any way.  The weird Sixth Sense-esque skills that Ruby possesses simply made so much of the plot feel convenient and off kilter all at the same time.  The novel deals with abuse, poverty and mental illness.  By adding the supernatural in to the mix it somehow detracted from the gravity of what I feel the novel was trying to achieve.

Ruby herself wasn’t even particularly believable as a character.  She is 13 years old at the beginning of The Doll Funeral but her voice doesn’t match her age.  Her characterisation is much younger, as are the other ‘child’ characters in the novel.  The adults of the novel are largely absent during the narrative which ultimately felt a little too convenient in places, and her supernatural abilities are never really explained in any way.  This is a criticism I often level at works of supernatural fiction; your paranormal elements need to have their own internal logic to them.  I need to be able to believe that these things exist and the way that they manifest themselves as a reader.  In The Doll Funeral they simply felt like convenient ways to move the plot along rather than as essential elements in the characterisation of Ruby.

That Kate Hamer can write with talent is not in any doubt.  There was a lot to commend The Doll Funeral for, but ultimately I just felt like it was lacking in some sense.  I needed it to be more or less of everything that it was.  I either needed no paranormal elements or they needed to be rendered with more depth, or I needed more focus on the very serious subject matter of the novel with characters that were interesting for who they were, and not for some weird powers they either did or didn’t possess.  It was a novel with great promise that simply didn’t deliver.

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