Tag Archives: reviews

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!

Review of ‘The Vegan Cookbook’ by Adele McConnell

The Vegan CookbookThanks to NetGalley and Watkins Publishing Ltd for the ARC of this book.

I’ve been vegetarian for 22 years, but recently I’ve been trying to eat a more vegan/raw food diet in order to lose weight, so I was excited to have the opportunity to review this book.

As this was an electronic advanced review copy, it was slightly difficult to view the book. Ingredients lists were split over pages and recipes seemed to run into each other. Also, there was no consistency in the placement of the photos of recipes, sometimes they were before the recipe and sometimes they were after, so when you reached a photo that looked interesting you did not know when to scroll backwards or forwards in the book to find the recipe. I assume that the hard copy will be a lot better formatted and much more user-friendly. Generally, I think recipe books work much better as hard copies.

This seems like a good vegan recipe book. It has recipes from a wide range of cuisines from around the world. The author has a very friendly voice and I like the personal notes she gave with most recipes. The pictures are bright and colourful and appetizing. There’s a good section on vegan ingredients at the beginning of the book, although this could have included a bit more information on where to buy the ingredients.

There were a few interesting recipe ideas for things I hadn’t thought of before, such as quinoa porridge. The information provided with recipes includes cooking and prep time and highlights where recipes a free of soy, sugar, nuts, seeds, gluten or where they are raw. However, there is no nutritional info such as calories, which I find useful, also there is no indication if recipes can be frozen. The recipe order is a bit odd; snacks and treats come before main courses, so there is a random sweet section in the middle of the book before we return to savoury main dishes.

The one concern I have with this recipe book is the information about soy in the introductory section. I think this is a controversial subject. The author says she avoids eating soy because it contains phytoestrogens which mimic oestrogen in the body. However, I have read elsewhere that this assertion is inaccurate and the words sound alike but soy does not affect hormone levels in the body. I think where food and nutrition are concerned it is important to offer a balanced opinion based on scientific facts.

So far I’ve tried cook two recipes from this book – Warm Tempeh Salad and Spicy Lentil and Quinoa Risotto. Both recipes were easy to follow, but neither turned out particularly well, both were quite spicy but didn’t have interesting layers of flavour, instead they were pretty one-note. I don’t think I’d bother making either again, but I will try some more recipes from this book, particularly I thought the breakfast recipes looked quite interesting.

Review of ‘Another Night, Another Day’ by Sarah Rayner

Another Night, Another Day coverThanks to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan for the ARC of this book.

Wow is this book depressing! Admittedly, it ends with ‘a glimmer of hope’, as the final section is titled; but, as they say on the Kermode and Mayo film review, “there’s a whole lot of Shawshank to get through before the redemption”.

I knew nothing about Sarah Rayner’s books before starting this one; I had assumed from the covers that they would be somewhat fluffy chick-lit featuring mature women. I could not have been more off the mark. This book is in fact a sympathetic and insightful examination of depression and mental illness, the different ways in which ordinary people experience these and the ways in which they can be treated.

The book follows the stories of three people:

  • Abby, the mother of a severely autistic boy, who is going through a divorce while still living with her husband, is about to lose her house and receives very little support caring for her very demanding son.
  • Karen, a widow whose husband died a couple of years before the novel is set and whose father is in the late stages of dementia.
  • Michael, a florist whose business is going under.

The three main protagonists are dealing with long-term, seemingly insurmountable real-life problems which throughout the first section of the book get worse and worse until they finally all crack and end up in a private psychiatric clinic together.

I liked that in the early part of the book, before the characters meet, the sections following each character were kept short so that we did not need to spend too long dwelling in the misery of each character and also because I wasn’t as interested in the sections featuring Michael. I thought the women’s problems revolving around their personal lives were more interesting than Michael’s business and financial woes.

I didn’t really like Michael; he was aggressive whereas the women were more worn down by life. I felt like the bad things which happened to him were more of his own making due to his lack of financial responsibility, whereas Abby and Karen’s problems were out of their control. Maybe, this is a reflection of the fact that as a society we hold men to higher standards regarding mental health, or maybe he just was not as sympathetic and relatable a character.

I felt that it took a bit long to get to the point in the book where the three characters’ stories inter-linked and I found the story much more compelling once I got into the middle section set in the psychiatric clinic. It was interesting to read about the different techniques the therapists use to treat depression.

If I had not chosen to review this book via NetGalley, I probably would have stopped reading on the first page when I realised it was written in the present tense. I detest this recent fashion, more and more books are being written in the present tense. Sometimes it works, such as in The Hunger Games – where there is severe peril and a driving plot, but most of the time the present tense is just really jarring and unnecessary. I assume this book is written in the present tense because in the prologue there is a flash forward indicating that someone from the group therapy sessions dies and Rayner wanted to avoid any foreshadowing or hints through hindsight which might have occurred by writing in the past tense, but I don’t think it is necessary. I guessed very early on which character would die and I was correct; I was not at all fooled by the fake-out suggesting Michael has died, so I don’t think this added any tension to the story.

This book covers an interesting topic; depression is probably a bit overlooked in fiction. Rayner uses the books as a platform to make important observations about the effects of budget cuts on public healthcare facilities and patients, and how mental illness can affect all sorts of normal people at any time of their life. She does a very good job of making mental illness an approachable subject. However, I personally found the subject matter and the unrelentingly realism just too depressing and, although there was a light at the end of the tunnel, it just wasn’t the most enjoyable type of book to read in one’s spare time. Having said that, I think it might help someone suffering with depression to read this book as it contains very relatable characters going through a similar experience.

Review of ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ by Jay Asher

ImageI wanted to read this book after hearing it reviewed on the Enthusiasticast podcast. They raved about it and I thought it sounded like an interesting concept.

The premise of the book is that a teenager, Hannah, commits suicide and leaves behind a box of cassette tapes for thirteen people to listen to. The thirteen people appear to be people who have wronged her in some way and it is the culmination of these wrongs which have led to her suicide. She instructs them to listen to the tapes and then pass them on to the next person on the list.

Initially I thought this was an interesting insight into how our actions, no matter how small, can affect other people. It is a lesson to teenagers to think more about what they say and do and how it might impact on people around them. However, towards the end of the book I began to really dislike the Hannah’s character. The more her story revealed itself, the more selfish and self-centred she appeared to be. Her tapes are explaining to people how their actions have affected her, but what about her actions? What about the poor people who have to listen to how they have contributed no matter how slightly to their classmate’s death? What about her parents and the other innocent people who have had to deal with her suicide? In the end her actions are much worse than anything that is done to her.

***Spoilers from this point***

To top it all, we find out that, Clay, the character from whose point of view we are experiencing the tapes, has done nothing bad to Hannah. In fact he loves her and, had she given him more of a chance, could probably have helped her out of the depression which led to her suicide. She was not alone and she is inflicting the horrible content of these tapes, which include her part in not stopping both a rape and a drunk-driving incident which results in a classmate’s death, on this sweet boy who wants nothing but good things for her. She just seems like a monumentally selfish person and once you realise that, it’s actually hard to feel any sympathy for her.

This book should have been an insightful morality tale to teach teenagers the importance of considering others in their actions but it falls flat because it tries to include too many shocking horrible events which overshadow and undermine this basic message.

Also the basic concept is fundamentally flawed. No one uses cassette tapes any more, Asher even needs to include a silly section where Clay has to steal a Walkman in order to listen to them. Why not just set it in the 80’s when tapes would have made sense, or make it an mp3 player the recipients have to pass on? I was willing to overlook this at the beginning of the book when the story was intriguing and there was a mystery over what Clay had done to Hannah to make him be included on the tapes, but once the plot started to flail I felt less forgiving.

An interesting idea which could have been better executed.

Review of ‘The Family Fang’ by Kevin Wilson

ImageKevin Wilson has a fresh, quirky and original voice. This is an enjoyable and easy read with a bittersweet storyline and interesting, flawed characters. The novel explores the question of what is more important art or family? The conclusion drawn is both sad and uplifting and makes this a very original read.

Buster and Annie are a brother and sister in their 20’s both struggling to overcome their peculiar upbringing and escape the shadow of their eccentric parents. Their journey is funny, sad, moving and inspiring.

I would highly recommend this novel, it manages to balance a thought-provoking and clever idea with a light, satirical writing style. I’ll definitely look out for any novels Wilson writes in the future.

N.B. Despite the slightly deceptive title, this book doesn’t have anything to do with vampires!

Review of ‘Solo’ by William Boyd

Solo coverThanks to NetGalley and Vintage Books for the ARC of this book.

Warning – this review contains spoilers.

William Boyd is one of my absolute favourite authors but I have not read any of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books before. So I was looking forward to reading this book with a bit of trepidation. I wanted to like it because it is William Boyd and it marks his return to Africa, where some of his best books are set; but I was worried it may take an out-dated position on gender politics which would annoy me.

Initially Boyd makes a very small attempt to invert Bond’s sexist world outlook by unexpectedly making his African liaison, Blessing, a highly educated woman; however, this is very quickly undermined a few pages later when this beautiful, clever woman half Bond’s age is luring him into her bedroom pretending she is scared of lizards in order to get him into bed.

At that point I decided I would just have to go with it. What did I expect from a Bond novel? Strong, brilliant, chaste female characters who were able to resist Bond’s manly charms and be an important player in their own right? No. So I decided I would overlook the book’s gender politics and judge it on other criteria; plot, pacing, writing-style etc.

On to that…

I found the book a bit slow to start with. For example, I really did not need to read about what type of car Bond was test-driving (although I presume this kind of detail is inherited from Fleming’s original stories); I just wanted the plot to get going. However, once Bond arrives in Africa, the pace definitely picks up. Bond has to try to stop a civil war single-handedly and encounters starving villages, battles, creepy soldiers and a fatally ill General along the way.

After Bond has completed his mission in Africa, he returns to Britain and determines to get revenge on the baddies who tried to kill him in Africa. (It turns out Blessing wasn’t a pathetic woman who couldn’t resist Bond’s charms, but was actually playing him all along. Good.) He decides that he is going to have to get his revenge as a ‘solo’ off the record mission. I did not understand his reason for this decision. The three people he is after are clearly enemies of the state, MI6 would want them dead too, they have targeted one of its agents; why does it need to be a solo mission? I guess it just makes a more tense and exciting storyline and gives the book its catchy title.

Bond’s revenge mission takes him to America where he wanders around a lot, eats food, buys stuff, stakes people out and has a run in with the CIA before we finally reach the climatic shoot out. This is followed by a return to Africa and a guest appearance from Felix Leiter for some long-winded exposition about what has gone before. At the end there is some more pointless flirtation with a token beautiful woman who really did not need to be in the story at all before the book finishes with a highly unsatisfying and illogical ending where it seems one of the baddies isn’t dead after all but for some reason we don’t get to see Bond find him and kill him.

I’m not sure what to make of this book. It’s an easy read and it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it but I think the plot could have been tighter. Boyd could have cut the character of Bryce altogether and started the narrative at the point at which Bond is sent on the mission to Africa. This would have saved the slightly mundane sections at the beginning where all Bond does is flirt and test-drive cars and would have made the story more fast-paced and exciting. Also, there is no need for the inference that Kobus is still alive at the end of the book unless we are going to see Bond give him his comeuppance. This slight cliff-hanger suggests that Boyd is angling to write a sequel where we see this happen.

While the plot and pacing could be stronger, the prose is up to Boyd’s usual beautiful standard. I found myself learning new words while reading (‘bibulous’ is one that sticks in my mind), which is always exciting! He writes with meticulous detail and always seems to find the perfect way to describe things. I think I would recommend this book to fans of Boyd and, although I have not read any of Fleming’s original work, I feel this would probably satisfy his fans also.

The section of the book set in Africa stands out above the rest of the book, because Boyd is so familiar and passionate about this continent, his writing is always superb when describing scenes set there. I would also recommend ‘Brazzaville Beach’ to anyone who has not read Boyd’s earlier novels set in Africa. It is an intriguing and very enjoyable read and, unlike ‘Solo’, has a fantastic three-dimensional lead heroine.

Review of ‘You Deserve Nothing’ by Alexander Maksik

You deserve nothing cover
You deserve nothing cover
This is a novel about how students idolise good teachers and how influential teachers can be; when in reality they are as flawed and as fearful as their students.

I thought the plot was fairly predictable; once a teacher starts to have an affair with a pupil, there’s really only ever one direction that the novel is heading.

I enjoyed the classroom scenes where Mr Silver’s charismatic and original teaching style is demonstrated and I thought that Maksik did a good job writing in the different voices of the three narrators. However, I never really understood the teacher’s motivation for starting an affair with a student and, while the novel is an easy read, there is nothing that makes it stand out from the dozens of other books about inspiring teachers or inappropriate school relationships.

Review of ‘The Boy that Never Was’ by Karen Perry

Image‘The Boy that Never Was’ is a novel exploring the madness which can befall a parent due to grief following the death of a child and the huge consequences that decisions and actions can have no matter how small they seem at the time.

It is well-plotted and paced intelligently so that important facts are revealed slowly over the course of the book. It is both a thriller and a claustrophobic study of a personal family drama and one character’s descent into madness.

I admired the writing style and the clever story-telling and I liked the device of narrating chapters from alternating point of views. I was intrigued by the fact that the book was written by two authors and wondered whether Karen wrote Robin’s chapters and Paul wrote Harry’s.

However, while I appreciated the writing I would say that, due to the unlikeable characters and the unsettling themes of grief, guilt and loss, this is a difficult book to enjoy. I was particularly frustrated by the character of Harry who throughout the book, even before the earthquake, makes such terrible decisions and deals with situations so badly. I found it hard to feel sympathy for such a flawed character. In spite of Robin’s thoughts at the conclusion of the book, I could not help but feel that everybody would have been a lot better off if Harry had not made his discovery.

I guessed Robin’s secret early on as I doubted anyone would be so willing to forgive a husband whose neglect had led to the death of her child unless she was also harbouring some terrible guilt. However, I think there was enough misdirection that the reader was led away from the final revelation of the whole truth, particularly after Robin fails to see any significance in meeting Garrick’s family while Christmas shopping. I think it would have been a braver choice on behalf of the authors and a more believable storyline if the book had stopped before the final twist at Garrick’s house.

‘The Boy that Never Was’ is an interesting thought-provoking novel which is very readable, it is well-written and carefully structured to create a tense thriller. The characters’ motivations are clear and it is easy to understand how they are moved to make such shocking decisions and take actions with such disturbing consequences. However, I found Harry’s actions exasperating and the ultimate conclusion of the book unsatisfying. I think the selfishness of the adults in convincing themselves that their horrifying actions were in some way in the best interest of their children meant that at the conclusion of the novel everyone is so damaged that it is hard to feel hopeful for their futures and I do prefer books to end with a sense of hope and possibility.

Review of ‘Missing You’ by Harlan Coben

ImageI read EVERYTHING Harlan Coben writes! I love his style but it must be said that his books often tread the same ground and in recent years themes, characters and storylines in his books are becoming a little repetitive. Nevertheless, they are always easy to read and entertaining.

I think this is one of his better recent novels. The story feels rounded and self-contained and the lead character, Cat, is a female detective, which is a bit different.

The unbelievable co-incidences which usually drive Coben’s plots are kept to a minimum as are the other repetitive tropes (dumb goons, fight scenes and wisecracking detectives). Cat’s story feels personal and more believable than his many of his other recent narratives.

The ultimate showdown and conclusion to the book feel a little rushed, but it is an enjoyable read, which I think fans of Coben will love.