Thursday, 31 December 2015

Books of the Year 2015

It's hard to believe that this blog has been going for a whole year. When I started this blog back in January, my aim was to focus more on my reading time and thereby reduce my ever expanding TBR pile. I've certainly achieved one of those goals and have read some excellent books during the course of 2015,the best of which I want to highlight here and encourage you yet again to go and out and read them if you have not already done so!

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

I read this one right back at the start of the year (read my full review here) and knew right then that it was going to be a favourite. A post-apocalypse story with a difference, this engrossing novel follows a group of travelling actors and musicians as they roam America performing Shakespeare to a world ravaged by a deadly flu virus. Alternating between the days leading up to the flu outbreak and the years following, the multiple narratives combine effortlessly to make up a compelling and unusual take on a well worn genre. Even if post-apocalyptic or 'genre' fiction isn't usually your thing, check this one out because it's amazing.

Ready Player One by Ernest Kline

Ready Player OneA love letter to all things geek, I adored this book when I read and reviewed it in February. Whilst it's not super original or amazingly clever or even the best written of novels, it is a Grade A geek-fest, filled to bursting with retro 1980s video game and TV references. Ready Player One has everything I could ask for in a book - an epic battle of good versus evil, an intriguing quest narrative, a sense of fun, a bit of romance and a underlying message about the little things that really matter in life. When my book club read this one in October, everyone enjoyed it - even those who weren't into computer games and didn't usually like genre fiction - so I'd urge anyone to check Ready Player One out. 

Reasons to Stay AliveReasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Almost certainly my non-fiction book of this year, this account of author Matt Haig's battle with depression and crippling anxiety is brave, honest and inspirational (full review here). As someone whose own life has been affected by anxiety, this was a really important book for me this year. It teaches you that it's okay to have bad days and that normal is subjective and that life has so many beautiful ways of surprising you, even when you least expect it. This is a beautifully written book with an intensity of feeling that just blows you away as you read. Which would be amazing in and of itself. Given that an estimated one in four UK adults suffer from a mental health problem each year however, this book is also vitally important in promoting better discussion of mental health issues and in challenging many of the negative assumptions society makes about sufferers of mental disorders. Go and read it now, this blog post will still be waiting for you when you get back. 

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

An epic story, beautifully told. I listened to this on audiobook (reviewed here) but I'm hoping to get chance to settle down and indulge in the paperback this year in order to really appreciate the slow, gentle pacing of this beautiful, lyrical novel. Set during and in the run up to the Second World War, the novel follows two children - a blind French girl called Marie-Laure and a German boy, Werner, skilled at fixing radios - as they are gradually drawn together by events in the world around them. The attention to detail in this novel is just fabulous, especially when you get to 'see' the world from Marie-Laure's perspective with her heightened senses of smell, taste and sound. Each distinctive voice in this book tells a powerful story and, despite the meditative pacing, it has a page-turning quality from beginning to end. 

The Versions of UsVersions of Us by Laura Barnett

A relationship novel with a twist, this fabulous debut follows one couple - Eva & Jim - across three different versions of their lives which alter depending on the choices they make during one fateful afternoon in Cambridge. The premise, which could easily have fallen into the 'one-trick pony' trap, is handled with great skill so that you never lose track of each narrative, or get confused as to which timeline you are following. I loved that each timeline has it's highs and lows - there is no 'good' or 'bad' version of Eva & Jim's relationship and Barnett cleverly plays with the notions of 'happily ever after' as we follow their lives together. Definitely more than your standard relationship novel, this is an intricate and cleverly woven tale of love, life and personal aspirations. A great choice for a reading group, with it's multiple versions of one story making for excellent discussion, this also gets my vote for cover design of the year and, if that's not enough to convince you of it's merits, I reviewed this book in full here earlier in the year.

A Little LifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara

I waxed lyrical about this amazing novel in a rather lengthy blog post in August. Basically, this book knocked me over the head, dragged me back to it's cave and took over the entirety of the month until I'd finished it. Beautiful and terrible in equal measure, it's impossible to summarise this massive novel in just a paragraph. Suffice to say that the plain prose style belies an incredibly complex tale of life in all it's messy glory as it takes us into the lives of four friends, JB, Malcolm, William and Jude. It's been one of the most talked about books of 2015 and is quite deserving of every single piece of praise. By no means a perfect book, and most certainly not an easy read, A Little Life remains compelling fiction at its finest and most definitely one of the strongest contenders for my personal book of 2015. 

The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the MediaThe Vagenda by Holly Baxter & Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

More than just another feminist manifesto to emerge in the wake of Caitlin Moran's 'How To Be A Woman', this is a timely look at women in the media and a scathing examination of the women's magazine industry, journalistic standards and lad culture. Based on the successful blog of the same name, 'The Vagenda' is a witty and insightful call to arms for the modern woman. When I wasn't laughing out loud at the ludicrous depths that companies will stoop to in order to sell women products, I was raging at the worrying ignorance that pervades some elements of the media. Amusing and educational, this is a must read for any men and women alike and completely altered my perception of media culture. A full review can be found here.

Levels of LifeLevels of Life by Julian Barnes

A slim, emotional memoir by the prize-winning author that takes two seemingly disconnected subjects (in this case ballooning and grief) and weaves them together in unflinchingly honest prose. It's hard to explain exactly how this book works - on the surface it sounds completely surreal - but all I can say is that Levels of Life packs an emotional punch that belies it's 128 pages. This is a book that lingers long after the final page has been turned and one that my thoughts turn back to even now. 

So that was it, my books of the year 2015. To be honest, there were so many great books that I read this year that this list could be double the length it is if I just listed the ones I'd enjoyed the most. These 8 books however are the ones that I both enjoyed reading at the time and which have stayed with me in the months that followed. I therefore see them as books that have a great deal to give to a reader, both during the course of initially reading them and in terms of provoking thoughts and topics for discussion afterwards. 

And as for 2016? Well, there's always the goal of reducing my TBR but, given all the great books scheduled for release this year, I doubt that's going to happen! So let's just say that my aim is to keep reading and to keep blogging and leave it at that. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for continuing to read my blog. As always, if you have any suggestions for improving the blog or for posts you'd like to see, or if you just want to have a bit of a book chat with me, let me know by leaving a comment down below or tweeting me @amyinstaffs. In the meantime, have a wonderful New Year, I will see you in 2016 and, as always...

Happy Reading! x

Monday, 28 December 2015

REVIEW: In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to FreedomI have to admit to not being the greatest fan of biography, autobiography and memoir. Too many of the people who get published or written about seem to have done little more in their lives than been famous for five minutes or starred in a popular TV show. And too often ‘memoirs’ seem to have been written to eradicate all trace of a personality or a life, resulting in a stilted and clinical narrative in which any occurrence which might reflect badly upon the writer is erased or glossed over. Obviously a memoir is a recollection, subject to the vagaries of the writer’s memory and their own interpretation of their life, but I have read many where I feel that the real story has been carefully hidden behind the words that ended up on the page.

Not so in Yeonmi Park’s memoir ‘In Order to Live’, subtitled ‘A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom’, which is a brave and insightful examination of the realities of life in the secretive state and the fate that awaits many who try to flee the regime. Yeonmi was only 21 when she wrote the book, younger than I am now, but has lived so many unimaginable lives already that it’s extraordinary that she still has the presence and grace to write such a book. I expected the segments about life in North Korea to be tough but was totally taken aback by the helplessness and brutality involved in Yeonmi’s ‘escape’ through China and her subsequent re-settlement in Seoul.

Told in a very simple style, Yeonmi’s prose has real force. She doesn’t beat around the bush when relating her experiences, which include near-starvation, rape, sexual slavery, kidnap and a constant fear of being caught and returned into the hands of a regime she has given everything to escape. What really surprised me was the way in which North Korean defectors are treated like pawns in a political game and how often their desperate circumstances are used as an excuse to treat them as lesser human beings. The brutal reality of Yeonmi’s story is that so many of the defectors we hear about in The West are likely to have suffered at the hands of human traffickers, been forced into prostitution or slave labor or have sold everything that have in order to survive long enough to make the journey south.

This does make for bleak reading at times. The segment in China is especially hard to comprehend, particularly when you realise that many of the events Yeonmi relates take place in the run up to and course of the 2008 Beijing Olympics when the world was apparently watching the country. In spite of the difficult subject matter and the frank narrative however, this remains a memoir filled with hope and affection. Yeonmi’s deep and abiding love for her family shines through and, despite everything, she retains an abiding affection for her homeland and for the North Korean people. Now based in Seoul as a human rights advocate, Yeonmi’s desire for her people and her homeland to be united is the abiding message of this book.

Whilst researching this review, I came across a number of people who doubted the veracity of Yeonmi’s account of her escape and her subsequent life in China and Seoul. All I can say to that is that, as with any memoir or biography, the narrative is probably subject to the memories and to the wishes of the person telling the story. Personally, I don’t feel that Yeonmi shies away from difficult sections of her memoir and she doesn’t always recount her own actions in the best light either. Everyone in Yeonmi’s account felt real to me, from her father whose love for his family is sometimes in sharp contrast to the danger his actions place them all in; to her Chinese ‘husband’ Hongwei, a human trafficker with a surprising sense of honor. Yeonmi doesn’t deal in heroes and villains – the people in her account are just that, people, with all their good and bad traits on display. To me, that gave an honesty to the narrative which is the best I think you can hope for in a memoir.

Personally, I felt this book was brave and inspirational. It clearly took great courage and strength of character for Yeonmi to have come this far with her life and I hope that she carries on with her advocacy and with raising awareness about the plight of North Korean refugees. This isn’t the most amazingly written book I’ve read this year, nor is it the most groundbreaking or original, but I do think it’s probably one of the most important. As Yeonmi herself says “I have seen the horrors that humans can inflict on one another, but I’ve also witnessed acts of tenderness and kindness and sacrifice in the worse imaginable circumstances. I know that it is possible to lose part of humanity in order to survive. But I also know that the spark of human dignity is never completely extinguished, and given the oxygen of freedom and the power of love, it can grow again.” Inspirational words from a book that is well worth giving some time and attention to.

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey toFreedom’ by Yeonmi Park is out now in hardback, priced £18.99, from Fig Tree (Penguin Group UK) and is available from all good book retailers. My thanks go to Anna Ridley at Penguin UK for providing a review copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Monday, 21 December 2015

INTERVIEW with Sarah Ward: Author of 'In Bitter Chill'

Last month I had the pleasure of attending a reading and Q&A at my local bookshop with Sarah Ward, blogger and reviewer at and now crime author, whose debut 'In Bitter Chill' is now available in paperback from Faber & Faber (in the UK) and Minotaur Books (in the US). 

Set in the Derbyshire Peak District, 'In Bitter Chill' is a tightly plotted police procedural that examines the repercussions of one January day in 1978 when schoolgirls Rachel Jones and Sophie Jenkins, are abducted on their way to school. Only Rachel returns home, confused and semi-conscious and with no memory of what happened to her friend. Over thirty years later, Sophie's mother commits suicide and Sophie's case is re-opened. For the local police team, headed up by the enigmatic DI Francis Sadler, the cold case starts out as a frustrating distraction. For Rachel Jones, now a genealogist, it opens old wounds. But both the police and Rachel soon begin to realise that the past holds many secrets and  that the only way for Rachel to have a future, is to discover what really happened all those years ago. 

As a lover of a good crime novel, I really enjoyed 'In Bitter Chill' which has that page-turning quality that grips a reader from the first page to the last. Skillfully plotted, the central mystery had me guessing until the end and the family history element was both interesting and unusual. The cover quote allies the novel with Scandinavian crime fiction but, whilst the strong characterisation and plotting do certainly have a resemblance to the Nordic Noir of authors such as Camilla Lackburg and Jussi Adler Olsen (as does the decidedly chilly January setting!), there is definitely less of the violence that sometimes puts readers (myself included) off Scandi crime. Whilst 'In Bitter Chill' is by no means 'cosy' crime, I'd put it more on par with the tense and meticulous police procedurals of Elizabeth George and P D James, with a focus on the often complex inner psychology of the characters. 

imageFollowing her reading, Sarah kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the writing of the book, the inspiration for her work and what the future holds for her work:

The Shelf of Unread Books: Firstly, I'd be really grateful if you could provide a little background on your writing. You run an established crime blog, Crimepieces, and are a judge for the Petrona Award  for Scandinavian translated crime fiction, so was it this that inspired you to start writing or had you always had the urge to write?And was 'In Bitter Chill' your first attempt at a novel?

Sarah Ward: I've been a reader of crime fiction from a teenager and had been reviewing for about ten years. I always wanted to write  a crime novel but it wasn't until I was living in Athens, Greece that I felt I had the time to dedicate to a book. In Bitter Chill was my second attempt. I have a manuscript in my 'drawer' that contained the police characters of DI Sadler and DC Connie Childs but I felt that the story needed more work. So I started again.

TSoUB: 'In Bitter Chill' is set in a fictional Derbyshire town called Bampton and, I feel, is very routed in the place and has a real sense of the surroundings. I'm aware that you currently live in Derbyshire yourself so what was it about the county that made you want to set a crime novel there?

SW: I live in the Peak District which is very beautiful but at the mercy of the elements. I like novels where the landscape plays a pivotal role in the narrative and therefore Derbyshire seemed perfect. I like the fact it's not a rural idyll but also has elements of its industrial revolution heritage and also changes with the seasons. Summer is packed with tourists whereas in winter it is much quieter.

TSoUB: I enjoyed the alternating narrative, switching between Rachel in one chapter and the police investigation in the next. What made you choose this method of telling the story, as opposed to a straight police procedural or just sticking to Rachel's viewpoint?

SW: I like reading police procedurals (Peter Robinson and so on) but I also like standalone novels where the protagonist's story comes to a conclusion at the end of the book. I tried to combine the two in In Bitter Chill.

TSoUB: Rachel and Sophie's abduction takes place in 1978 but the main story is set in the present day. Did you deliberately choose to have the original crime set in the past? And what made you choose the late 1970s as the initial setting for the story?

SW: I made Rachel exactly the same age as me as I wanted to use my own memories of the 1970s through a child's eyes rather than rely on research. I also wanted the crime to have taken place in the past because I think old cases can still have a resonance on a small community especially where it involves a child. 

TSoUB: Your novel has been compared to Scandinavian crime fiction and I can definitely see the resemblance in style and tone to the work of say, Camilla Lackberg. Were you specifically influenced by Scandi crime fiction and are there any other influences behind your work?

SW: I suspect that I have been influenced by lots of crime novels that I've read over the years. My favourite writers are PD James and Ruth Rendell and I have read so many of their books over the years they must have influenced my writing.

TSoUB: You mentioned that Saddler, Palmer and Connie will all feature in your next novel, which will also be set in Bampton. Can you tell us a little more about the next book and your plans for the characters in the future? And will there be any more returning characters - Rachel and Richard for example? 

SW: My next book is about a woman who goes to prison for the murder of her husband who then subsequently turns up dead twelve years later. It's again about secrets but this time ones we don't share at all. You'll see all the police characters but there will be new protagonists and a new mystery to solve. I feel Rachel's story has been told in In Bitter Chill! 

TSoUB: Finally, do you have any recommendations for readers who have enjoyed 'In Bitter Chill'? I always like asking people what they've recently read and enjoyed! 

SW: I've recently read Hans Olav Lahlum's 'The Catalyst Killing' a Norwegian crime novel with a classic feel set in 1970. He's one of my favourite writers at the moment.

I'd highly recommend taking some time out to curl up with 'In Bitter Chill' over the Christmas break - given the wintery setting and title, it's the perfect novel for this time of the year and and ideal last minute Christmas present for the crime fiction fan in your life. I was also delighted to learn that Sarah hopes to write three further novels set in Bampton and, whilst Rachel's story is completed at the end of 'In Bitter Chill', DI Sadler, DS Damian Palmer and DC Connie Childs will return in 'A Fragile Spring', which is currently scheduled for publication in 2016. 

Many thanks again to Sarah for answering my questions. You can find out more about Sarah on her website, and by following her on Twitter @sarahrward1. 'In Bitter Chill' is published as a paperback by Faber & Faber, priced £7.99, and is available now from all good book retailers (links below): 

Monday, 7 December 2015

November Wrap Up

November was a month of flitting. After the reading slump that befell me in October, I picked up the pace again in November but did find it hard to settle into any one book. As a consequence, I've often had a few books on the go at any given time this month and some of them, inevitably, have carried over into December so will be wrapped up next month when I have finished them.

Slade HouseSlade House by David Mitchell

Confession time. Before being given a proof of Slade House by a bookseller friend, I had never finished a David Mitchell novel. Which is not to say I've never read one. I got three chapters into 'Cloud Atlas', got confused, gave us and picked up something with a linear sense of narrative. Since then Mitchell, with his meandering plots and 'high' writing style, has been consigned to my 'literary authors to avoid' category (a category also occupied, until 'The Children Act', by Ian McEwan. Sebastian Faulks and Jonathon Franzen remain in residence) so I never attempted 'The Bone Clocks', to which 'Slade House' is a companion piece. Having finished 'Slade House' I might now give it a go however because I thoroughly enjoyed this one. A creepy literary ghost story, 'Slade House' follows sinister twins Jonah and Norah Grayer as they lure 'guests' into their trans-dimensional home - the titular Slade House - in order to steal their souls and thereby extend their own lifespans. Told over the course of 40 years and 5 narrators, this does feel more like a set of interconnected short stories as opposed to a novel but I felt that this made it more digestible and offset the complexity of the overarching plot. The characterisation is particularly good, with each narrative voice sounding unique - particularly important as the plot becomes repetitive at times. The ending would probably make more sense if I had read 'The Bone Clocks' but it stood on its own well enough and was sufficiently intriguing to get me to add 'The Bone Clocks' to my TBR. Overall, this changed my mind about Mitchell - there was more to this novel than beautiful writing and the complexity was intriguing rather than frustrating, making it an ideal starting point for anyone similarly put off by 'Cloud Atlas' but wishing to give the author another go. 

The GrownupThe Grownup by Gillian Flynn

A second confession. I didn't enjoy Gillian Flynn's phenomenal bestseller 'Gone Girl'. Whilst I appreciated the skill it took to create them, I found the two lead characters completely hateful and struggled to stay with either of them to the end of the book. That said, I had no issue with Flynn's style - her writing is sharp, direct, witty and with a deliciously dark twist, so I had no hesitation in picking up her novella 'The Grownup', just published as a slender, stylish paperback. This delightfully sinister little thriller, first published in the George R R Martin anthology 'Rogues', follows a young woman faking it as a cut-price psychic following an early career in soft-core sex work. When Susan Burke walks into her shop, our narrator is all to ready to follow her usual script and tell Susan what she wants to hear. But then Susan relates her story. A story that involves a malevolent spirit, a haunted house and a sinister 15 year old stepson. What unfolds is a chilling, snarky short that is perfectly poised between supernatural chills and psychological thrills. Perfect for curling up with by the fire for an afternoon, this is thriller writing at its best with a convincing sting in the tale waiting at the end.  

Ink in the BloodInk in the Blood by Stephanie Hochet

Another creepy little book, this time from a selection of European novellas selected by small press publishers Dedalus Books. The anonymous narrator of 'Ink in the Blood' has long been fascinated by tattoos and begins to draw designs for expert tattoo artist Dimitri. Eventually he goes under the needle himself, choosing a Latin phrase in the form of a cross, 'vulnerant omnes, ultima necat': 'They (the hours) all wound, the last one kills'. At first delighted with his new tattoo, the narrator soon begins to notice that his 'vulnerant' is disappearing, leaving only 'ultima necat' on his skin. As the words fade, he begins to find himself changing in attitude, disposition and outlook as his tattoo gradually becomes a threat to his life. I loved the premise of this one but, alas, the story did fail to live up to the promise in my opinion. Some of the ideas raised in the early chapters don't get fleshed out as much as I felt they could have been and I thought the ending was rather vague, without any resolution - very frustrating given how much tension had been built into earlier chapters. That said, the narrator was deliciously creepy, with gradual shifts in character that tip him from slightly odd to full blown weird as the novella progresses. And I liked the unreliability of his narrative, the fact that the reader has to find other interpretations of what the narrator is experiencing and decide for themselves what the truth is. This is an ambitious little book and one that does many things well but unfortunately, for me at least, it overreaches itself in places and the resolution failed to match up to the promise of what came before.

Black Cairn PointBlack Cairn Point by Claire McFall 

Hot Key Books are rapidly becoming one of my favourite YA publishers - their list is varied, lively and definitely worth checking out if you enjoy YA fiction. Black Cairn Point is one of their books for older teens, a spooky slice of psychological horror set in Scotland. Heather agrees to go on a camping holiday with Dougie and his friends because she's desperate to get closer to him. But when the two of them disturb a pagan burial site above the beach, she becomes convinced they have awoken a malevolent spirit intent on doing the group harm. Alternating between the events on the beach and one year later, when Heather is in a mental institution waiting for Dougie to wake from a coma, this is a haunting thriller with a killer twist at the end. To say too much more would be to ruin the story but I loved McFall's sense of atmosphere and foreboding and I thought she captured the joys and pitfalls of teen group dynamics very well. Some of the characters are a little stereotypical - there's the nerdy girl, the quiet guy, the jock, the loner and the popular girl all present and correct - but they blend together nicely and the plot generally avoids falling into well-worn horror movie territory. And the ending...well, let's just say the ending is cleverly done and leave it at that. Definitely one to check out if you like your YA with a slice of the supernatural. 

I did read one other book in November but I'll be doing a separate post and author interview for that one so watch this space! For December, I am taking part in Jen Campbell and Holly Dunn's 'His Dark Materials' read along to FINALLY finish Phillip Pullman's epic trilogy before the year is out. I'm halfway through 'Northern Lights' at the moment and loving every minute. In contrast to the magic of Lyra's Oxford, I'm also reading Yeonmi Park's memoir 'In Order to Live' about her escape from North Korea and her extraordinary struggle to survive. It's a harrowing read but absolutely fascinating and told with such honesty - I'll do a full review as soon as I've finished but I can already say it's well worth checking out. I'm going to try and fit a few other books in over the Christmas hols as well - I saved some of my annual leave for the week before Christmas so I'm planning to set a day or two aside amidst the festive madness for some quality reading time. As always, do let me know what you are reading either by leaving a comment below or by tweeting me @amyinstaffs. And, until next time...

Happy Reading! x