Review of ‘The Universe Versus Alex Woods’ by Gavin Extence

ImageThis was another book that I have been meaning to read for ages after hearing it featured on Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 book club.

It is the story of Alex Woods an awkward but very clever epileptic teenager who is bullied at school and struggles to make friends. He meets Mr Peterson, a cantankerous American widower and they bond over a mutual love of Kurt Vonnegut and form an unlikely friendship.

I enjoyed this book, Alex’s voice is sweet, intelligent, believable and funny. Extence manages to balance the narration to demonstrate both the naïveté of the teenager and his intelligence and interest in physics and ‘big ideas’. The characters are very likeable and it is easy to empathise with the situations in which Alex finds himself.

My favourite part of the book was the section set in the Natural History Museum in London, which is probably my favourite place to visit in the world. It was lovely to read it described in such detail.

The conclusion to the book is very moving and I now have another book to add to my list of books which made me cry! I particularly liked Mr Peterson’s sentiment at the end of the book “As lives go, I think mine was mostly a good one. I enjoyed the uneventful parts especially”.

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Review of ‘The Rosie Project’ by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie ProjectI loved this book! It’s so much harder to write a book review when you have really enjoyed a book because there is nothing to be critical of.

I had wanted to read ‘The Rosie Project’ for ages, since hearing it featured on Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 book club early last year. I was waiting for the paperback to come out and, as luck would have it, to coincide with the paperback release a couple of months ago, Graeme Simsion visited my local book shop (the wonderful Booka in Oswestry) on his UK tour.  He was a brilliant speaker and really funny and I knew I was going to enjoy this book, so I waited until I was on holiday to read it so I could give it the attention it deserves.

It’s great; warm, funny, sweet, empathetic. It’s a romance between a unique individual and a woman who he feels is totally unsuitable for him but with whom he loves spending time and it is a joy to read. It gives you warm fuzzy feelings and I was smiling throughout. It’s well plotted, well paced, with fully rounded characters and a satisfying conclusion.

Simsion said that he wanted to write a book which followed the basic rules of a romcom film and he has succeeded beautifully. I cannot recommend this book highly enough!

Review of ‘One Night in Italy’ by Lucy Diamond

One night in ItalyThanks to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan for the ARC of this book.

This is a very average fluffy romantic chick lit book. There is nothing particularly original or intriguing about it and I feel it has very little to add to this over-crowded genre.

It starts with a pointless red herring prologue which does not pay off well enough to warrant it’s existence.  We then follow three stereotypical female characters as they overcome difficult turning points in their lives to achieve the idealised happy ending.

There is Anna, who is incredibly naive despite supposedly being a great journalist and who is instantly brilliant at everything she turns her hand to but does not realise that her boyfriend is a scumbag and maybe she should not take her demented grandma’s word as read. She is on a hunt to find her father but it takes the whole book for her to follow everyone’s advice and simply ask her mother who he was.

Next is Sophie, a perpetual traveller running away from a really not that difficult relationship with her parents.

Finally poor Catherine dealing with empty nest syndrome with children who don’t appreciate her and a husband leaving her for another woman and all the loss of confidence and sense of self that that entails.

None of these story lines are particularly interesting or well-drawn, they are very recognisable from other similar books in this genre. The problems are far too easily solved.  The characters all meet at an Italian class where everyone is unfeasibly nice and become fast friends within a couple of weeks. There are too many characters and as a result there is no depth to the characters of the men the women end up with, they are all just nice and good looking. It would have been better to focus on one main character/storyline in order to properly develop the characters and their love interests.

From the title, you could be forgiven for expecting more of the novel to be set in Italy. In fact most of it is in wintery Sheffield with only a couple of chapters in Italy.

This book is an easy to read piece of fluff, if that’s what you are looking for, but wouldn’t make me pick up another Lucy Diamond book and I will have forgotten most of the characters/storylines in a few days.

Review of ‘Echo Boy’ by Matt Haig

Echo Boy coverThanks to NetGalley and Random House for the ARC of this book.

At first glance there is not much original about Matt Haig’s ‘Echo Boy’. It covers well trodden ground with it’s central question of at what point AI becomes human. In addition, it borrows conspicuously from other YA fiction, with recognisable tropes such as the orphan searching for the truth about her parents’ death; the evil uncle offering sanctuary; the unpleasant cousin; the post environmental disaster setting; and the scary mechanical dogs. However, I did not mind the lack of originality at all for this is a perfectly executed YA sci fi romance book, it uses these tropes remarkably well and is a fantastically enjoyable read.

Matt Haig’s writing style is great. It is not over-simplified or condescending to the younger audience. He drops plot hints early on and then reinforces them more clearly later in the book in case you did not pick up on them the first time around. The plot is fast-paced and exciting and the characters are well-drawn, in particular Audrey the lead female character is well-rounded and her motivation is always clear.

The book is set about 100 years in the future and follows Audrey whose parents are killed by an android and who escapes to live with her uncle who is the owner of the company which makes the androids. There she meets Daniel, an android who makes her re-evaluate her feelings towards androids.

This is an example of YA fiction writing at it’s best. It covers big ideas, relates them to our current times and is also a thrilling and thought-provoking read. I really enjoyed it. I would have preferred a slightly more ‘everything tied up in a neat bow’ ending, but I wonder if it is left slightly open-ended to allow for the possibility of a series. I would happily read more books set in this universe with these characters.

Review of ‘Girl Reading’ by Katie Ward

ImageThis is really a series of short stories disguised as a novel. The theme of art featuring women reading is repeated in each of the seven stories and more clearly defined in the final story; however, it is not prominent enough in some of the chapters to really warrant packaging this as a novel rather than a short story collection.

I think it is a cynical attempt to sell more copies of this book by pretending that it is a novel not a short story collection.

The writing is flawed in other ways – there are no punctuation marks for speech which means that the writing doesn’t flow and you are jarred out of the story. The first story is almost impenetrable because of this style. However, the writing style does become easier as you read further into the stories.

A couple of the stories are genuinely interesting with compelling characters and I couldn’t help wishing that Ward has just written a whole novel based on one of the stories rather than introducing a new independent story every 50 pages.

The cover, however, is beautiful and easily the best thing about this book.

List 4: Pleasant Surprises

Sometimes there are books which, no matter how much people rave about them or how well received they are, I just don’t fancy reading. It might be the cover, or the title, or the subject matter, or there’s simply too much hype; whatever it is I’m just not looking forward to it. And sometimes you have to read one of those books because someone buys it for you, or lends it to you or because you just cannot resist the hype any longer, and on those occasions sometimes those books really exceed your expectations and you like them all the more for it! So in honour of those occasions, here is my list of pleasant surprises!

List Number Four: Ten books which exceeded my expectations

  1. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
  2. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  3. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Housseini
  4. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  5. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
  6. The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
  7. Q&A by Vikas Swarup
  8. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
  9. A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
  10. Before I Go to Sleep by S J Watson

I’d love to hear which books changed your opinion once you read them!

Review of ‘Meatless All Day’ by Dina Cheney

meatless all dayThanks to NetGalley and The Taunton Press for the ARC of this book.

This is a beautiful vegetarian cookbook, with tempting veggie recipes and beautiful full page photos for most recipes. The book has a warm autumnal colour palette which emphasises the cozy, filling nature of the food.

The emphasis of the book is making vegetarian food ‘meaty’ and substantial. The introduction includes lots of good tips and advice for cooking common veggie ingredients to get the best from them. I particularly like the tips for adding ‘meatiness’ such as using caramelised onions, miso or toasted coconut in recipes.

There are a wide range of recipe ideas from cuisines from around the world; however the book has a definite ‘American’ feel to it with lots of burgers and pancake recipes. There are some very interesting ideas for meals I haven’t tried before e.g. pumpkin pear pancakes and beet wellington. There are also variations on well-known veggie staples e.g. edamame hummus. Unlike many veggie recipe books there is not too heavy a reliance on pasta and carb-heavy food. There is no dessert section, which is unusual but not necessarily a bad thing.

Most of the recipes have LOTS of ingredients so I think you would have to do a special shop to make most things rather than relying on your store cupboard or fridge. Many of the dishes serve lots of people too, for example there is a breakfast pancake recipe which makes 27 pancakes, I can’t imagine ever needing that many!

I like the tips which come with each recipe on what other dishes to serve to make a good meal. Recipes do not have nutritional info such as calories or details of whether dishes can be frozen, which would be helpful.

This recipe book contains lots of tempting recipes which I shall enjoy trying.

Review of ‘Look Who’s Back’ by Timur Vermes

Look who's backThanks to NetGalley and Quercus Books for the ARC of this book.

Wow, this book has an amazing cover! It jumps out off the shelf an demands to be read. The designer must be given huge credit for the success of the book. They have designed something which is simple, bold and brave and perfectly reflects the book’s contents.

The book itself is a fish out of water story of a person transplanted to another time, with the astonishing twist that this person is Adolf Hitler! It is always interesting to see the modern world through the eyes of someone from the past, but it is even more fascinating to see it from the point of view of one of the worst people ever to have lived.

This is a really clever satire. Vermes manages to balance the characterization of Hitler as at once both completely delusional and on occasions surprisingly insightful and perceptive about the things which ail modern society such as the proliferation of Starbucks, the woefulness of daytime TV and the ‘industralisation’ of  Christmas.

The plot follows Hitler who, after his suicide, wakes up in 2011 and becomes a huge comic TV star. He thinks he is still a political figure who is forwarding his own agenda, but in fact people are laughing at his values and he is seen by the public to stand for the opposite values.

Using Hitler in this way is an incredibly brave and original choice by the author, I’m not sure it’s entirely appropriate but I really did enjoy this book.

Right up until the end, this novel was surprising me. The most audacious decision comes at the end of the book when Vermes chooses to give Hitler a relatively happy ending. Throughout the novel I was waiting for his downfall or comeuppance and it simply never comes.

Translating this novel into English must have been incredibly challenging, quite a lot of the humour comes from wordplay or a knowledge of German politics. I think the translation is done well, although there are a few sections which I thought felt a bit muddled or cloudy. This may be due to the fact that large sections of the book are narrated in Hitler’s monologue and he has a rather strange old-fashioned voice.

Review of ‘True Believer’ by Nicholas Sparks

ImageBefore I go on holiday I like to read books set in the location that I am travelling to. In October we are going on holiday to North Carolina, so recently I have been reading some Nicholas Sparks books; ‘True Believer’ is not one of his better offerings.

Jeremy Marsh, a journalist who debunks supernatural phenomena, travels to Boone Creek, North Carolina to investigate strange lights in a graveyard purported to be the ghosts of slaves. It’s a mystery he solves incredibly easily and mostly “off-screen” (off-page?).

While he is there he falls in love with a librarian called Lexie Darnell and mercilessly pursues her, even though she really does not appear all that interested in him. Eventually, inevitably they get together even though they have no discernible chemistry and very little in common.

This is the flattest, least emotionally engaging of the Sparks books which I have read. Usually, at the very least, even if the book is sentimental or silly, he manages to engage you with the central romantic relationship. However, I neither liked Jeremy and Lexie nor cared whether they ended up together.

Sparks could have made the book more exciting by creating a fascinating supernatural mystery for Jeremy to solve, and he manages to set one up but then this plot point fizzles out at the end of the book with a simple and not in the slightest bit interesting solution.

Very disappointing. However, there is a nice section set in the Outer Banks which I am now very much looking forward to visiting on my holiday!

Any suggestions for better books set in North Carolina would be gratefully received!

List 3: Ten years of great reads

As I’m a book nerd, I keep lists of everything I read! So, for my next list I thought I’d look back over my history and pick the book I most enjoyed reading that year.

List Number Three – The best book I read each year for the last decade.

  • 2013 – Wonder by R J Palacio
  • 2012 – Into the Darkest Corner – Elizabeth Haynes
  • 2011 – The Breaking of Eggs – Jim Powell
  • 2010 – The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness
  • 2009 – The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
  • 2008 – Atonement – Ian McEwan
  • 2007 – The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  • 2006 – We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver
  • 2005 – July – Karen Roberts
  • 2004 – Bel Canto – Ann Patchett

The best book I’ve read so far this year is The Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare (that’s a bit of a worry, I should probably try to start reading something a bit more highbrow!).

I’d love to hear if you’re as nerdy as me…