Sunday, 24 July 2016

Summer Reading Plans

The Trouble with Goats and SheepSummer seems to have finally decided to arrive here in the UK - and just in time for vacation season too. Following weeks of rain and 'highs' of 16 degrees, we've had an absolute heatwave with a full week (a week!) of sunshine and the mercury stretching into the upper twenties. You'd think the weather was making up for something - as if it's really sorry it's late and has decided to go that extra mile now it's here.

Being stereotypically British, all this sunshine has turned my thoughts in earnest towards summer reading plans. Whilst I am no longer fortunate (or young) enough to get the traditional six weeks summer holiday enjoyed by schoolchildren, students and their long-suffering teachers here in the UK, the summer is still a time when I like to set myself some reading goals and plan my vacation reading and there are certain books that I definitely feel have that 'summer reads' feel to them that I save for this time of year.

As mentioned in an earlier post, I am trying to complete a Books on the Nightstand Book Bingo card this summer. So far, I've marked off about five squares although alas, not five squares that line up and would give me a bingo! A lot of my 'required' reading (reviews, book club reads etc) haven't fitted my categories so far however some of the books on my summer TBR will probably fit into some squares and allow me to at least get a line bingo before the end of summer. 

The SympathizerI also want to join in with The Readers summer group read of 'The Sympathizer' by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which is about a Vietnamese army captain with divided loyalties who ends up being a sleeper agent in America after the end of the Vietnam war. The books won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and it sounds like a rich and many-layered novel about a period of history I know little about. Not something I'd usually pick up for myself but I'm looking forward to hearing the podcast discussion and I think expanding your reading horizons and discovering new books is one of the major benefits of book clubs and group reads. 

I'm having a late vacation this year, with a staycation to the Lake District booked for September. However, before then the hubby and I are having a long weekend away for his birthday in August when we'll be staying in a caravan on the Welsh coast. During both 'holidays' we plan to combine getting out and about with a good deal of chilling out, drinking wine and reading books so I've started setting a few titles aside that promise to be good holiday reads. 

The Woman in Cabin 10The first of these is Ruth Ware's latest thriller The Woman in Cabin 10 about a boutique cruise that goes horribly wrong when a body is pushed overboard in the dead of night. Or was it? The passenger manifest shows no one to be missing but journalist Lo Blacklock knows what she saw and is determined to investigate. Billed as Agatha Christie with a modern twist, I'm looking forward to this one. Along similar lines, Sophie Hannah's latest Hercule Poirot novel 'Closed Casket' will be released just in time for my September holibobs and is already on pre-order for my Kindle. I thoroughly enjoyed her first attempt at reviving Christie's classic sleuth in 'The Monogram Murders' so I'm hoping this second book will be just as enjoyable. 

ArcadiaI do like to take a big chunky book on hols with me - something I'd struggle to dedicate time to during the average working week's juggle of family and work life. There's a few contenders this year including Marlon James' 2015 Booker winner 'A Brief History of Seven Killings', Ryan Gattis' novel of the LA riots 'All Involved' and Iain Pears' genre-bending speculative fiction novel 'Arcadia'. I've also yet to find the time to pick up Jessie Burton's 'The Muse' or Sarah Perry's 'The Essex Serpent' so I imagine they might find their way into my packing at some point. And I do like to leave room for some non-fiction, with Virginia Nicolson's 'Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story of Women in the 1950s' at the top of my list.

All in all, I'm certainly not short of books to choose from but, in my mind, a summer read is one that I've been waiting to find the time to savour as much as it's something pacy or specifically set in the season. That said, the current sunny spell has seen me pull Joanna Cannon's 'The Trouble with Goats and Sheep' off my shelf as it's is set in the record-breaking heatwave of 1976. 

I'd love to hear about your summer reading plans and goals.Do you organise your holiday reading in advance or are you an airport book buyer who takes a chance on whatever paperbacks catch your eye? Do you even have 'summer reads'? As always, let me know in the comments below or say hi over on Twitter @amyinstaffs or on Litsy @ShelfofUnreadBooks. And, whether you're partaking in any summer reading or not, until the next time...

Happy Reading! x

Monday, 18 July 2016

REVIEW: Smoke by Dan Vyleta

SmokeMaybe I set the bar too high for this one but, having heard it described as a cross between ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘His Dark Materials’, it was hard not to be excited when I was approved to read ‘Smoke’. And, having read it, I can definitely see how the comparisons have been drawn with these classics. Sadly, however, I don’t feel the finished product meets the standard of either series.

Opening in a private boarding school on the outskirts of Oxford, ‘Smoke’ is set in an alternative England in which sin appears as smoke that emits from the body and stains clothes with its soot. School friends Thomas and Charlie are amongst the privileged few – born into the ruling elite, they are being taught to control and suppress their smoke, a sign that will eventually distinguish them from the uneducated masses. It’s a fascinating premise and the opening chapters are full of a dark, foreboding atmosphere with the dense, descriptive writing creating a real sense of the Victorian gothic on every page.

Thomas and Charlie are likeable enough narrators – although Charlie is so pure of heart for a teenage boy that it’s almost unreal – but I felt that there wasn’t enough distinction between their voices. That was, in fact, one of the major problems with the novel for me. As the story opens up, the POV hops between multiple narrators as well as between the third and first person but, despite this, I never got a real sense of each voice as an individual. I feel that the author was, in some ways, trying to emulate the style of Charles Dickens - there is certainly something very similar in the tone – and maybe Dickens fans will find this method of characterisation enjoyable but, alas, I am not a fan of Dickens and I just found it rather leaden.

As the story continues, Thomas and Charlie are drawn into a conspiracy that undermines the very nature of the smoke and its role in society. Forced to run for their lives; their every step hunted by dark forces, the boys – along with a teenage girl, Livia, who is also of noble birth – begin to question the nature of the smoke, their relationship with their own sins and transgressions and the very concepts of purity and sin themselves. All of which sounds – and should be – absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately, all of this happens so slowly that I found the latter part of the book to be terminally dull and terribly convoluted.

Following on from the tense opening at the school and the growing tension that takes the boys to a mysterious country manor, there is a well-executed dramatic incident about midway through the book that forces the trio on the run. Following this however the book slows down instead of speeding towards the finale, with an awful lot of hand-wringing and self-reflection and long paragraphs about the nature of sin and personal identity. Couple this with the dense, descriptive writing style and I just felt that the story was getting bogged down, the characters struggling to wade through the mass of world-building and the intricacies of the theology that the author wanted us to understand. Add in the fact that a lot of incidental characters are introduced who seem to drop into and out of the story on a whim, and the final third of the book becomes a real tangle of plot, sub-plots and motivations. By the time the finale did arrive, I just wasn’t invested enough in any the characters to really care what happened to them and I was struggling to retain a grasp on what the most important aspect of the plot was meant to be.

I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with me about ‘Smoke’ - it’s a high-concept, densely descriptive and imaginative dystopian with a heavy dose of the Victorian Gothic on the side. As such, I’m sure it will appeal to a lot of readers. And the first half, in the school and the gothic country mansion, was exciting and inventive, with plenty to recommend it. Unfortunately, the second half of the book just gets bogged down in plot and the characters fail to develop in any way that felt meaningful to me. Overall therefore, whether it was a case of too high a set of expectations on my part, or whether it was all just too Dickensian for my tastes, this wasn’t a book that I particularly enjoyed and I probably wouldn’t have pushed through to the finale if it wasn’t for the fact that I was reading for review. 

'Smoke' by Dan Vyleta, is published by W&N and is available as a hardback, e-book and audio download from all good bookshops and online retailers. My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley for the chance to read an advanced copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

June In Review

So the first thing that might be noticeable is that this is not a wrap up post. I’ve decided to make a few changes to the blog and one of them is to ditch the wrap ups – I just don’t feel they work as well on a blog as they do on BookTube and I wasn’t enjoying writing them. So instead of reviewing every book I read in a given month in a wrap up, I’m going to do a few more reviews and themed mini-reviews (i.e. Summer Reads, Books for Halloween etc.) and then do a month-in-review post like this one in which I might make mention of some books I’ve read, what I’ve picked up that excites me and what I’m currently reading but which is more of a chat than a specific review. Don’t worry however – there will still be lots of book based goodness throughout!

The Diary of  a Provincial LadyI think I bought more books in June than I read in all honesty. This is, in part, the fault of Independent Bookshop Week (see last month’s post) which meant I just had to visit the lovely Booka Bookshop and buy all of the things, including a lovely little essay called ‘The Gifts of Reading’ by Robert McFarlane. I also bought a book for my Dad for Father’s Day and a gorgeous Virago edition of ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’ for my Nan as a birthday present. So there was some book-gifting going on in my life too.

The Essex SerpentJune has however been a really good month for book releases. Sarah Perry’s second novel ‘The Essex Serpent’, with it’s beautiful deep green cover, called to me across the bookshop so that’s now sitting on my bedside table. And Clare North, author of the fantastic ‘The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August’ has her latest, ‘The Sudden Appearance of Hope’ out this month too. I also decided that I needed a little YA fantasy in my life and picked up my first ever Sarah J Maas books ‘A Court of Thorn and Roses’ and ‘A Court of Mist and Fury’ (because, of course, you can’t just buy one in a series!). I’ve heard very good things about her ‘Throne of Glass’ novels but there are a lot of books in that now so this newest series seemed a little more accessible for a newbie.

Rat Queens, Vol. 3: DemonsOn the reading front, after finishing both ‘The Girls’ and ‘Shrill’ for review, I took a break with another foray into Kurtis J Wiebe’s excellent ‘Rat Queens’ series with ‘Volume 3: Demons’. There was a (somewhat controversial) change of artist for this third volume but, once you get past the change of art style, the story remains strong and the characters as awesome as ever. And it’s not like the new artist does a bad job – the art style is still amazing, it just is a little bolder and more colourful than the previous volumes. I’ve read that the series might be going on hiatus for a little while which is a shame – this third volume ended on one heck of a cliff-hanger so I really want to know what happens next! I might however pick up ‘Lumberjanes’ to fill the comic-shaped whole in my life in the meantime as I’ve heard only good things.

The Year of the RunawaysMy real-life book club pick for the month was very different to ‘Rat Queens’ – Sunjeev Sahota’s ‘The Year of the Runaways’, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. The tale of 3 Indian migrants (one illegal, one on a student visa, one on a marriage visa) trying to make it in modern Britain, this was a fascinating but unremittingly bleak read. When I picked it up, I thought it would focus on the hardships involved with being a migrant in the UK which, in parts, it does. However, I was really surprised by how long the book spends in India, examining the complexities of the caste system and the turmoil of religious and political unrest that lead each person to leave their country. It was a very nuanced tale that really exposed the complex nature of immigration – such a prevalent topic these days – and stripped away the headlines to show the humanity lying at the heart of the issue. By no means an easy read in terms of subject matter but I certainly feel more educated for having read it.

Homegoing‘Runaways’ did leave me in a bit of a slump – it’s one of those novels that takes a few days to digest – but I’ve recently started ‘Homegoing’ by Yaa Gyesi and am completely involved in her writing and in the story of two Ghanaian half-sisters, one who marries a British slave-trader and one who is sold into slavery herself. The book follows their descendants in both Ghana and America through to the present day and has been super-hyped in Gyesi’s native US. It’s not due out until January 2017 here in the UK but (whisper it), Book Depository do have US copies listed for worldwide delivery. Patience not being one of my virtues, I succumbed to temptation and bought it. So far it’s amazing so well worth the few extra pennies.

I’m also reading Lisa McInerney’s Bailey’s Prize winning ‘The Glorious Heresies’ which I picked up at the library. If I’m honest, I am struggling a little with it – the black humour is excellent and it’s certainly got punch but I’m finding the characters a little hard to relate to. Possibly too much bleakness – I’m not over the Sahota yet! Early days however so I’m going to persevere as there is no doubt that McInerney’s writing is very accomplished.

As for what’s next on my TBR, well I don’t want to keep ‘The Essex Serpent’ waiting too long but I also need to read a proof of Dan Vyleta’s ‘Smoke’ (billed as perfect for lovers of ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘His Dark Materials’, neither easy shoes to fill) which hits shelves next month and I’ve got a hankering to get started on the Sarah J Maas. As always, too many books and too little time!

As always, I’d love to hear from you – if you’ve read any of the books mentioned or have any recommendations, or if you just want to come and talk books for a bit, then drop me a comment down below, tweet me @amyinstaffs or find me on Litsy @ShelfofUnreadBooks. And, until next time….

Happy Reading! x