Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Book Review: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green


Title: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
Author: Hank Green
Publication date: 25th September 2018
Publisher: Trapeze
Source: Complimentary copy from publisher
Rating: 9/10

Description: The Carls just appeared. 
Roaming through New York City at three am, twenty-three-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture. Delighted by its appearance and craftsmanship - like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armour - April and her best friend Andy make a video with it, which Andy uploads to YouTube. The next day April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. News quickly spreads that there are Carls in dozens of cities around the world - from Beijing to Buenos Aries - and April, as their first documentarian, finds herself at the centre of an intense international media spotlight. 

Seizing the opportunity to make her mark on the world, April now has to deal with the consequences her new particular brand of fame has on her relationships, her safety and her own identity. And all eyes are on April to figure out not just what the Carls are, but what they want from us. 

My thoughts: This is one of those tricky books to review because there are so many twists, and I really don't want to give anything away and spoil the suspense of other readers uncovering things for themselves. So, I'll start by saying I really loved this book.

It's about a lot of things: fame and its consequences; the fickleness of people; the power of the internet; working together; puzzles; friendship; growing up; personal values; consequences. Hank Green's personal experience as someone who not only became well-known through YouTube but also managed to maintain his online presence over time comes through. There were a lot of points where I felt like you could see his interests and history reflected on the page.

I think it's really well written, and I enjoyed the pacing. Something else I enjoyed about it was that April May as a character has the personal background that the decisions she makes and the way she works to stay in the public eye is believable. This isn't just someone getting really lucky. That accounts for the first incident with her making the viral video. But her experience with marketing and branding gives her a starting point early in the book where you see her and one of her friends sit down and properly work out a strategy of what they are going to do, which I think doesn't happen very often in fiction (at least not the things I've read) and added a really good level of grounding to it, balancing out some of the other things. It was one of those small details in a story that helps sell the less-believable aspects.

I did go into the book thinking it was a standalone, which it is not, so beware of that, but I'm relieved that the sequel will be out soon! Overall I'm giving An Absolutely Remarkable Thing 9 out of 10. I was able to attend the blogger launch party for this book in London, and picked up a free copy there, so although it wasn't specifically a copy for review, it was gifted - thank you Trapeze!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Book Review: The Caged Queen by Kristen Ciccarelli


Title: The Caged Queen
Author: Kristen Ciccarelli
Publication date: September 2018
Publisher: Gollancz
Series: Iskari #2
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy from publisher

Description: Once there were two sisters born with a bond so strong that it forged them together forever. Roa and Essie called it the hum. It was a magic they cherished--until the day a terrible accident took Essie's life and trapped her soul in this world.

Dax--the heir to Firgaard's throne--was responsible for the accident. Roa swore to hate him forever. But eight years later he returned, begging for her help. He was determined to dethrone his cruel father, under whose oppressive reign Roa's people had suffered.

Roa made him a deal: she'd give him the army he needed if he made her queen. Only as queen could she save her people from Firgaard's rule.

Then a chance arises to right every wrong--an opportunity for Roa to rid herself of this enemy king and rescue her beloved sister. During the Relinquishing, when the spirits of the dead are said to return, Roa discovers she can reclaim her sister for good.

All she has to do is kill the king.

My thoughts: I loved so much about the first book in this series when it came out - it was one of my absolute favourite reads of 2017. So, I had high hopes coming into The Caged Queen, but I was also nervous: that was a lot for it to live up to! Dax and Roa were both introduced as secondary characters in The Last Namsara, with Dax in particular playing a crucial role. His actions in the last few chapters of that book are now bringing out consequences. It was really interesting to see how he handled the new challenges that came to him, and how he tried desperately to balance the needs of Firgaard, and helping and appeasing his wife.

There were parts of the book where I didn't like Roa much. I could understand some of the motivations for how she was feeling, but I thought she was being a bit hard on Dax a lot of the time. Maybe that's just because we'd seen more of Dax's story and background in book one, and I was biased to see him as a 'good guy', but I found it frustrating that Roa had made firm decisions in her mind about some things and wasn't going to re-examine those.

Another thing I enjoyed (and still found frustrating to read at times) was that Dax and Roa might have a political marriage, but they're still very much relearning each other, after being close as children and then spending years apart with a lot of history and politics falling into that time apart. They also both care a lot for each other, something that's very clear to the reader, but doesn't seem quite as straightforward to the pair of them! There is the usual mixture of misunderstandings, half-confessions, and attempts at denying feelings that you often get in romance plot lines, but even anticipating how some of those issues could lead to disasters I really enjoyed reading their journey.

I'm giving The Caged Queen 8/10. Thank you Gollancz for the review copy!

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Book Review: From Distant Stars by Sam Peters


Title: From Distant Stars
Author: Sam Peters
Publication date: 19 April 2018
Publisher: Gollancz
Genre: Sci-fi
Rating: 8/10
Series: From Darkest Skies #2
Source: Review copy from publisher

Description: Inspector Keon has finally got over the death of his wife Alysha in a terrorist attack five years ago. The illegal AI copy of her - Liss - that he created to help him mourn has vanished, presumed destroyed. His life is back on track. But a deadly shooting in a police-guarded room in a high-security hospital threatens to ruin everything. Who got past the defences? Why did they kill the seemingly unimportant military officer who had been in a coma for weeks? And why did the scanners pick up the deceased man the next day on the other side of the planet, seemingly alive and well?

As Keon digs into the mysteries he begins to realise that the death was connected to a mysterious object, potentially alien, discovered buried in ice under the north pole. Someone has worked out what is hidden there, and what its discovery will mean for mankind. Someone who is willing to kill.

And another player has entered the game. Someone who seems to know more about Keon than is possible.

Someone who might be using Liss's information against him.

Or who might be Alysha, back from the dead.

My thoughts: I really enjoyed the first book in this series, so I was keen to see what happened in the sequel. Author Sam Peters didn't disappoint. Keon is the sort of officer who is determined to get to the truth of an incident. In this book, he gradually realises how big the powers he's trying to disagree with and look into are, and then what the significance of the things he's learning might be. It also seems like there's still more to the story of his wife's death than he uncovered in book one. He's wrestling more with the big question of 'where did we come from' and 'what happened to life on earth to push us out to these planets'. It seems like there might be more to things than what everyone has always been told.

In its simplest view, this book is a police procedural in space, with a tight-knit group at the centre. But From Distant Stars has intricate twists and turns, and needs you to be paying attention. I know that when I read the next book in the series, I'll need to come back to this one first to properly refresh my memory!

It's a really exciting book, and I couldn't put it down. If you love science fiction or crime novels, I think you'll really enjoy this book. Overall, I'm giving it 8/10. Thank you Gollancz for the review copy!

Monday, December 30, 2019

Book Review: Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik


Title: Throne of Jade
Author: Naomi Novik
Publication date: 1998 (more recent editions available)
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Bought
Series: Temeraire #2

Description: When Britain intercepted a French ship and its precious cargo – an unhatched dragon’s egg – Capt. Will Laurence of HMS Reliant unexpectedly became master and commander of the noble dragon he named Temeraire. As new recruits in Britain’s Aerial Corps, man and dragon soon proved their mettle in daring combat against Bonaparte’s invading forces.

Now China has discovered that its rare gift, intended for Napoleon, has fallen into British hands – and an angry Chinese delegation vows to reclaim the remarkable beast. But Laurence refuses to cooperate. Facing the gallows for his defiance, Laurence has no choice but to accompany Temeraire back to the Far East – a long voyage fraught with peril, intrigue, and the untold terrors of the deep. Yet once the pair reaches the court of the Chinese emperor, even more shocking discoveries and darker dangers await.

My thoughts: This is the second book in the Temeraire serious, although it had been about ten years, probably, since I read the first so maybe I should have done a reread! There were a few characters who I didn’t remember from the first book, and some nuances of the internal politics in the fictional Britain of the book that I know I wasn't catching. Even so, I really enjoyed the book. It’s a lovely historical setting and I like the measured pace.

Temeraire is still very young, and over the course of the book, both he and Laurence are forced to look at slavery, servitude and duty in different guises, and consider their opinions on different issues. It’s a very interesting look at culture, I think.

I love the feel of this world, and although Throne of Jade felt like a bit of a set up book for things to come, I still really enjoyed it. I’m really excited to get to the rest of this series. I’m giving this book 7/10.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Book Review: Paris By The Book by Liam Callanan


Title: Paris By The Book
Author: Liam Callanan
Publication date: June 2018
Publisher: HQ
Genre: Contemporary/Literary Fiction
Source: Review copy from the publisher

Description: In a city of millions, it’s easy to lose someone…

Twelve weeks before Leah Eady arrived in France, her husband disappeared. Early one morning, he walked out the door and never came back. All he left behind was a scrumpled note in a cereal box, leading her to the bustling streets of Paris.

Once she arrives, she discovers a mysterious unfinished manuscript written by her husband, and set in the very same city. Hoping to uncover more clues, Leah takes over a crumbling bookshop with her two young daughters, only to realise that he might just be closer than any of them ever imagined…

…but what if he doesn’t want to be found?

My thoughts: From the description and cover, I was expecting a light, charming story about a woman running a bookshop in a foreign country, trying to trace clues of her missing husband and struggling with life alone in a new place trying to look after her daughters. Well, the first big difference to that is that it is not light and charming. I found it incredibly boring and slow in a lot of places. It's trying hard to be 'literary', I think, which does not come across in the cover at all.

A good portion of the book is set before the family arrive in Paris. It covers Leah meeting her husband, their hopes and dreams, and how they don't actually communicate very well with each other. It's a look at a not-particularly-strong relationship. Then we get to him disappearing. I found all these flashbacks a bit frustrating, when I was promised a story about a bookshop in Paris. There isn't even much focus on the bookshop when the story does get there. Leah isn't really looking for clues - she's jumping at shadows, looking for her husband around every corner and on every stranger's face, unwilling to move on and accept that he walked out on her and their daughters.

Overall, I found this a very boring book, and I think it must have been one of the last ones that I pushed through until the end before I started embracing more of an acceptance for DNF'ing (did not finish-ing) books. Life is short, there are lots on my shelf I do want to read, so I'm not going to force myself to carry on with books I'm not enjoying. Paris by the Book by Liam Callanan gets 4 stars from me.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Book Review: Sunshine at the Comfort Food Cafe by Debbie Johnson


Title: Sunshine at the Comfort Food Cafe
Author: Debbie Johnson
Publication date: 8th March 2018
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Comfort Food Cafe #4
Source: Review copy via NetGalley

Description: For Willow, the ramshackle café overlooking the beach, together with its warm-hearted community, offers friendship as a daily special and always has a hearty welcome on the menu. But when a handsome stranger blows in on a warm spring breeze, Willow soon realises that her quiet country life will be changed forever.

My thoughts: I love Debbie Johnson's Comfort Food Cafe series - while they've always got some really sad bits (and are quite formulaic with that aspect) they're real celebrations of found-family and how communities can come together. Willow has been in the series from the beginning, a young woman who spends most of the time caring for her mother who has Alzheimers. I was pleased to hear that she was a main character in this book, because we've seen her as a continual side character, and I was eager to find out more about her. Also, she's younger than some of the main characters have been, and at a more similar stage of life to me, so I thought I might relate to her situations more than I have with the characters who already have kids, for example.

When she's not looking after her mum, Willow works as a cleaner, with a business she set up and runs by herself. She's been employed to clean up a big local house, which used to be a children's home, and soon meets her employer, who turns out to be surprisingly handsome and surprisingly young. I loved that Tom was a bit of a geek, interested in sci fi & fantasy and how to survive a zombie apocalypse - a man after my own heart!

They have the usual mix of ups and downs, and deal with problems like Willow's strained relationship with her siblings, the trials of looking after her mum, and the interference of well-meaning neighbours who have seen her work so hard & just want her to be able to have some nice things for herself sometimes. It's an emotional ride in places, but as with the rest of the series, very uplifting and - as you might guess from the name - comforting. I love this series as a quick read to perk up a weekend. Overall, I'm giving it 8/10.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Book Review: The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes


Title: The City Stained Red
Author: Sam Sykes
Publication date: 10th September 2015
Publisher: Gollancz
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 7/10
Series: Bring Down Heaven, #1
Source: Review copy from publisher

Description: Cier'Djaal, the City of Silk. This is the great charnel house where poor men eat dead rich men and become wealthy themselves.

Thieves and cultists clash for supremacy of the city's underworld. A religious war is brewing within its walls. The fury of the savage races in its slums is about to explode. Demons begin to pour from the shadows, the language of dead gods upon their lips. 

And it is here that the adventurer Lenk and his unfortunate companions find themselves in the middle once more. 

And the city bleeds...

My thoughts: I believe this is the second trilogy Sam Sykes has written, although this book is my first foray into his work. The story starts with a group of misfits who clearly already know each other well arriving at the port city of Cier'Djaal, armed with a large bag of money with which they will all start their new lives. Very shortly after arrival, the money is stolen.

The City Stained Red feels like a typical 'band of misfits thrown together to save the world' kind of story, with strain between some members of the group, and a budding romance between others. At the same time, it has the added interest of also feeling like "what happens to that band of misfits after they've saved the world?". There are problems in the growing relationship, ties that kept people together seem to be fraying fast, and there's the question of what mercenaries do in peacetime to keep a roof over their heads. I enjoyed this set up, and I think you can read the book happily without having read the previous trilogy, but I think some people might find the gang a trope that they've read before. I found it really fun to look at this aspect, what happens to them next, quite interesting though, as I think it gets to go a bit deeper into how strong the ties formed between people during an intense, stressful experience can really be - or not be.

Another thing I felt like while reading this was like I was playing a fantasy RPG. There was a main aim to begin with - getting into the city, and getting the money back - then side quests came along, and quests that turned out to be much bigger and more important than the initial aim, and romance subplots, and marauding locals getting you caught up in skirmishes, and a host of other fun things! I actually really enjoyed that, but again, I'm not sure it would be everyone's cup of tea.

I did enjoy this book, and Gollancz kindly sent me the whole trilogy, so book two is on my upcoming reads pile. Overall, I'm giving this one 7/10 stars.
 

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