Thursday 31 October 2013

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games #2)

I am terrible at reading and completing series of books.  I read The Hunger Games back in March 2011 and only now have I got around to reading the next book in the series.  Hopefully I won't wait another two and a half years to pick up Mockingjay!

Warning: this review contains spoilers for The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.  If you haven't read them yet, proceed with caution!

Catching Fire picks up a few months after the end of The Hunger Games.  Katniss and Peeta are living with their families in Victor's Village and trying to get life somewhat back to normal.  But life in most of the districts is far from normal; Katniss' trick at the end of the Hunger Games has been viewed as an act of rebellion against the Capitol and violent uprisings are spreading.  With their victory tour coming up, President Snow himself pays Katniss a visit and threatens her - she must find a way to calm the districts, or there will be severe consequences.  But things have already gone too far for that; Katniss is a symbol of a growing revolution and she's considered too dangerous to live a normal life.

I kept putting off reading Catching Fire because I thought that Hunger Games had a strong ending and actually worked well as a stand-alone book.  But my husband has read and enjoyed the whole series, and I want to see the new film when it comes out, so I decided to finally take the plunge.  And I'm genuinely glad I did.  It was great to go back to District 12 and find out a bit more about what life is actually like in Panem for ordinary people.  I enjoyed the Victory Tour as we got to visit several other districts with Katniss and Peeta and the hints of rebellion were well done.  When there's a crackdown in District 12, it doesn't come as a surprise.

What I was most worried about in this book was the fact that I already knew that Katniss would have to go into the arena and play the Hunger Games again.  I thought this would come across as overly repetitive from the first novel and that it was a bit of a lazy plot device.  But actually, it worked.  The Capitol need to eliminate Katniss but she is far too popular for them to murder her, as that would incite a genuine revolution.  So it makes sense to hold a special Victor's edition of the Games and hope that it solves the problem for them.  I liked meeting the previous victors and the Games themselves had a very different feel to them, there was far more co-operation are more desire for survival.

The only thing that annoyed me in this novel was Katniss herself.  I think she's a great character but she's not too good on picking up on clues.  I felt like it was obvious that there was some kind of underground conspiracy going on with regard to the Games themselves and District 13, but she was truly oblivious despite numerous clues.  Whilst the ending didn't come as a total surprise to me, as I had figured out something was going on, there was enough of a cliffhanger to make me keen to pick up Mockingjay over the next couple of months.

All in all, a fast-paced and enjoyable read that stands up well next to it's predecessor.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2009
My Edition: Scholastic, 2011
Score: 4 out of 5

Monday 28 October 2013

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

A group of friends are visiting together at an old house and telling ghost stories when one of them states that he has a story so terrifying it will make all other stories pale in comparison.  It's about a young governess who has been left in charge of Miles and Flora, after the previous governess died.  The children are beautiful, friendly and intelligent and at first, everything seems wonderful.  But then she discovers that Miles has been expelled from his school for unknown reasons and worse still, she starts seeing visions of people who should be dead.   These visions continue and the governess becomes convinced that they have sinister designs on the children, and that only she can protect them.  But is everything as it seems?

I was so looking forward to reading The Turn of the Screw.  It's on my classics club list and I've been saving it for Halloween as that seemed to be the most appropriate time of the year to try it.  I adore gothic fiction, particularly when it has horror elements (Dracula is one of my all-time favourite books) and I also know from reading Daisy Miller that I like James' writing style, so I felt sure I would like it.

Maybe my expectations were simply too high, but I didn't love this book in the way I wanted to.  I liked it well enough, it was a decent read, but it was just missing that spark that would have made it special.  I think a lot of the problem was the deliberate ambiguity.  The governess is the main narrator of the story, and boy is she unreliable.  You never get to find out whether any of her visions are real or indeed what the motivations of any of the characters are.  I do like unreliability and uncertainty in books, but I felt there was just too much of it.  Were the children evil or was the governess simply mad?  Although I have my own favoured interpretation, based on my modern beliefs, it bugged me that James gives us nothing.  And I mean nothing.  I wanted to know what really happened!

The other problem I think the book had is that there was this long build up in which Douglas is basically like "this is the scariest story ever told" and then we have to wait for the manuscript written by the governess to arrive and there's just so much suspense and build up.  Rundown houses, fog, crumbling towers, it's all there and the scariness of the story doesn't measure up to all that build up.  I know scary in classics is very different to modern scary standards, but even so, the book felt like a lot of build up for not much in the way of scary events.

All this isn't to say that I disliked The Turn of the Screw; I still found it engaging, well written and it definitely made me think about what happened.  The more I think about it, the more I come up with new theories and I know that makes James a clever author.  It just wasn't the book I was hoping it would be.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1898
Edition Read: Vintage, 2007
Score: 3 out of 5


The Classics Club: Book 18/72

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Snowman is possibly the only human left in a post-apocalyptic world.  He lives alongside the Children of Crake, who have multi-coloured skin, live entirely off vegetation no human could digest, and give off a citrus scent.  But it wasn't always like this.  Snowman used to be Jimmy, the son of a scientist who worked at a corporation specialising in splicing different parts of animals together to create entirely new beings. For example pigoons, who contain multiple organs that can be harvested simultaneously for human transplantation. Bought up in a privileged class, in a Compound away from the chaos of the rest of the world, Jimmy meets Glenn (Crake), a genius with his own ideas for the future.  Whilst Jimmy seems destined for mediocrity, Crake is head-hunted by different corporations and drags Jimmy along on his journey to the highest reaches of the biotechnology world.  Both fall in love with Oryx, a mysterious girl from the pleeblands who they first come across on a child pornography website.  Through fragments of the past, we slowly build up an account of the apocolapyse and the creation of the Children of Crake.

Wow, what a book!  Oryx and Crake had me captivated from the opening chapter and honestly, I was simply stunned by just how good and clever it was.  I could not read it fast enough and I couldn't stop thinking about the dystopian society Atwood had created, even when I wasn't actually reading it.  Take my word for it, this is an amazing, amazing book.

What makes it so good is that Atwood combines the cleverness of her dystopian society and apocalypse with a fast moving plot (that's only revealed in fragments) and interesting characters.  Little clues are sprinkled throughout the chapters and it's only when you get near the end and everything comes together that you realise just how clever the whole thing is.  There's a lot of dystopia around at the moment, but you'll be hard pressed to beat the dystopian society that Atwood creates.  I can believe that bio-technology will lead to us altering the genetic make-up of different creatures and even creating new ones altogether.  The role of the internet in society has been carried to the extreme, to the point where live executions, assisted suicide and child pornography are all readily available.  As sad as it is, this isn't too much of a stretch to believe either.  I can also believe that the privileged classes would increasingly segregate themselves in a more violent world, leaving the poorer elements of society to suffer in isolated areas.  Atwood's dystopia is mighty depressing, but it's just believable enough to make it genuinely scary.

Crake is a fabulous character too.  We see him through Jimmy's rather gullible, easily led eyes, so the clues to his real personality and motivations are few and minor.  Jimmy is a good main character in the sense that he is easy to relate to, as he isn't a distant genius like Crake.  Although Oryx doesn't necessarily add too much to the plot, the information about her past is fascinating and helps to build up our vision of the society.

What I am basically saying is that if you haven't read this book, you need to!  It took me two days and I would have done it in one, given the opportunity.  I have already informed my husband that I will be most disappointed if The Year of the Flood and Madaddam are not in my stocking come Christmas Day!  Go and read this book!

Source: Personal Copy
First Published: 2003
Score: 5 out of 5

Sunday 20 October 2013

Sam Sunday #31

I haven't been doing personal updates lately, but to be honest there isn't that much in my life to report!  I'm basically working all week and then vegging all weekend, rinse and repeat.  Seriously, I am so glad that it's only one more week at work and then it's half term, which means I get a whole, glorious week off.  After the half term holiday, I need to get a much better grip on my work-life balance as it's been a bit ridiculous since September.

One thing I have been doing is a new Coursera course called Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction and I'm absolutely loving it so far.  For the past couple of years I've been a massive historical fiction reader (my review index makes that perfectly clear) and although my tastes have moved on to fantasy a bit more recently, it remains a favourite genre.  I never studied literature past the age of eighteen (my degree is in science), so it's interesting to watch the lectures and get a different perspective on reading.

What makes the course so exciting is that there's some visiting historical fiction authors, including Geraldine Brooks, who is one of my favourite authors, ever.  I can't wait to see her insights on the genre.  Plus, several of the books on the reading list are on my TBR pile anyway, so the whole course is pretty much a win-win.  I hope I can keep it up for the whole eight weeks.

I've been feeling a bit run down recently so I'm hoping to take things easy this week and squeeze in some relaxation time in the evenings.  I have my Dad's birthday and my nephew's first birthday coming up soon, so there's lots to look forward to.

Reading wise, most of my reading time this week was sucked up by the beast that is East of Eden. It was time well spent as I think I'm well on the way to discovering a new favourite author.  This weekend I've started Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.  I'm half way through and it is a solid five star read at the moment, it's just so clever and addictive.  I can't wait to finish it :)

This week, I've been reading:

Review posted:

Friday 18 October 2013

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck is my husband's favourite author, but he's not really an author I've ever had a burning desire to read.  I picked up Of Mice and Men as a teenager and liked it well enough, but I never fancied his longer works, Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden.  But the Classics Club is fabulous for making me actually read books that I think will be worthwhile, so I added three Steinbecks to my list.  East of Eden is the first of these I have tried.

A saga of the Hamilton and Trask families living in the Salinas valley in the early twentieth century, East of Eden follows the same two families over several generations as they seem destined to re-enact the tales from Genesis.  Generations of brothers bicker over who their father loves more, there's much sibling rivalry and the sin of Eve features heavily.  The story features many characters but focuses on three main protagonists; Samuel Hamilton, a patriach of the community, Adam Trask, an idealist and his son, Cal Trask, who seems destined to take Cain's role but struggles against it.

East of Eden is a really hard book to write a plot summary for.  Although a lot happens in the course of the novel, it is basically a 600+ page study of the good and evil in human nature.  And I loved it.  I found it to be quite slow starting and the sparse, straight-forward style that Steinbeck uses took a bit of getting used to, but as soon as Cathy appeared I was hooked.   Had I not been working, I would have flown right through this book in a matter of days as there was something about it that was utterly gripping.  I think it might have been the realism and the unadorned way that Steinbeck writes about life.

What I got out of East of Eden is that life is hard, and that everyone has a bit of good and evil in them.  Steinbeck plays around with creating purely good (Aron) and bad (Cathy) characters and retelling the biblical story straightforwardly but Cal is by far the most complex and interesting character.  He's desperate for his father's love but senses (correctly) that his father prefers the idealistic and sensitive Aron over him.  This twists him up inside and makes him bitter and it seems that Cal is set on the path of evil.  But Steinbeck makes him more complex than that; we see Cal fighting against his more negative impulses and the choices that he makes every day about what kind of person he wants to be.  And I could really relate to that as this is what life is like; we all have the potential to do good or bad things and when it comes down to it, we all get to choose the kind of person that we want to be.

Although the writing style did take a bit of getting used to (particularly for someone who loves Victorian classics), I did end up enjoying it.  Steinbeck writes very simply and the only emotions you get are the ones that you can infer from the way the characters respond to events.  The characterisation is the best part of the novel; the only character that didn't feel completely realistic was Cathy, and she was just so much fun to read about and added so much to the plot that it didn't matter at all that she was all bad.

East of Eden was a book that grew on me as I read it.  It's completely different from the classics I usually choose and I wasn't sure that I liked it at first.  But the more I read it, the more I got caught up in it and I closed the final page very much impressed and absolutely determined to seek out more Steinbeck in the near future.

Source: Borrowed my husband's copy
First Published: 1952
Edition Read: Penguin Classics, 2000
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Classics Club: Book 17/72
My full list is here.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Book Shopping & Library Visiting

Today we spent the morning in one of my favourite towns, which has an excellent second hand bookshop and the main branch of my library system.  This always results in book acquisitions!

From the Second Hand Bookshop:


  • Among Others by Jo Walton - I've been interested in this book for ages, so was thrilled to see it.  It's a fictional diary of a young girl as she encounters science fiction and fantasy classics and battles an ancient enchantment.
  • The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale - I don't read much historical fiction at the moment but I love the sound of this one as it contains details of how fireworks are made!
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov - Both my husband and I have been wanting to own this classic for the longest time.  The devil visits Russia.

From the Library:


  • The Child that Books Built by Francis Spufford - A memoir of an adult rereading all of his childhood favourites.  I do love a good book about books.
  • Kraken by China Mieville - Another one I've been meaning to try for a while.  A kraken in London's Natural History Museum comes to life and is worshipped by a sinister cult.
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin - I really enjoyed one of Jemisin's other books, The Killing Moon, so I've been meaning to start this series.
  • A Rough Guide to Classic Novels - As if I don't have enough to read already!  I'm sure I will be keen to read lots of classics after flicking through this little volume.

Won in a giveaway:

  • The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander - It has magic and contains the Countess Elizabeth Bathory, so I'm officially excited.
Have you read any of these titles?
If so, I'd love to know what you thought of them.

Monday 7 October 2013

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

Paige is a clairvoyant, with the ability to leave her body and break into the minds of others.  This skill makes her hunted by Scion, who rule a dystopian version of London in 2059.  Clairvoyance is seen as unnatural and is punishable by death, forcing Paige and others like her to hide their abilities or join the mob-ruled criminal underworld.  Paige is working for underground leader Jaxon Hall when she is captured and detained.  She is sure she will be punished by the Scion authorities, but instead she is transferred to Oxford, a city that has been kept secret for over two hundred years.   There she learns that Scion has kept it's own secrets from it's citizens and that a whole other race exists.  Kept in the control of Warden, Paige yearns to escape but the only person who can help her may be the person who is imprisoning her in the first place.

The Bone Season certainly has had a lot of hype surrounding it.  Shannon has famously signed a seven book deal with Bloomsbury and this title has been everywhere, with the inevitable comparisons to J.K. Rowling.  I was keen to try it for myself and see if it lived up to expectations.

One thing that certainly impressed me was the world building.  Reading The Bone Season is an immersive experience, as Shannon throws you straight in there with the characters, leaving you to work out how the society works for yourself.   This is how I like my fantasy/sci-fi and I was impressed at the amount of detail and thought that had gone into the set up of Scion London and Oxford, as well as the creation of an entirely new race/type of creature, the Rephaim.   The world hung together well and it's clear that the author knows it inside out.  For example, there are over fifty different types of clairvoyant listed in beginning of the book.

Although Paige was an interesting main character, The Bone Season is all about the plot.  It's an action packed novel and one that will have you turning the pages quickly.  This is the kind of book I would happily have stayed up all night to read, as it's utterly engrossing.  I was pleased that the romance in the novel was of the slow-burning kind and it never overwhelmed the main plots at all.  As Shannon allowed the romance to develop slowly, it felt plausible for Paige's character.

On the whole, reading The Bone Season was certainly a lot of fun and I'm glad I picked it up.  I simply rushed through it but having finished it, I've realised that it hasn't had much of an impact on me.  The ideas are clever and the story well written, but it's not a book I will remember or want to reread.  For this reason, it's not going to be a favourite.

Source: From the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
First Published: 2013
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Read Alongside:
Poison Study by Maria Snyder - This story is also about a young woman who is kept prisoner, but who eventually forms an unlikely alliance with her captor.  The fantasy elements in this novel centre around magic rather than clairvoyance.

Thursday 3 October 2013

Four Mini Reviews

Although I've been reading just as much as ever, my review writing and posting has kind of gone out of the window since the start of the new academic year!   Rather than go back and write individual reviews, I've decided to just write brief thoughts on some of the books I have read recently.

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger
Amina met her new husband, George, on an online dating site in which Western men can meet non-Western women.  After leaving behind her life in Bangladesh for a new one in America, Amina has the complexity of a marriage to deal with, as well as getting used to a brand new culture.

I found The Newlyweds to be a simply stunning book.  It was well written and showed life in full technicolour glory, with all it's trials, complexities and disappointments.  Despite the unconventional way that George and Amina came together, the ups and downs of their marriage and the development of their relationship is one that most people would be able to relate to.  The issue of infertility was dealt with sensitively and realistically, and all of the characters have to face some hard truths.  There was a wonderfully bitter-sweet ending, in which all of the characters got what they thought they had wanted, only to question whether they wanted it at all.  Don't expect a fairy-tale.  5 out of 5 stars.

Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin
I am a big fan of the Song of Ice and Fire Series, so was keen to pick up Fevre Dream for the RIP VIII challenge.  Abner Marsh is a destitute steamboat captain on the Mississippi river when he is offered a lucrative proposal by Joshua Yorke, a man has odd eating habits and keeps strange hours.  As you might have guessed, Joshua is a vampire and Abner is soon pulled into the murky and blood-thirsty world of vampire politics, when Yorke comes into contact with a vampire that leaves a trail of horror behind him.

If you like Anne Rice, you'll love Fevre Dream.  It's got the same atmosphere and I loved the idea of vampires on steamboats on the historical Mississippi.  It had some genuinely creepy moments, the story moved on at a decent pace and Martin may have come up with the idea of True Blood before the TV show.  All in all, it was good fun and an ideal autumn read.  3.5 out of 5 stars.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Another RIP read.  There is a parallel London alongside real London, populated by the people that have fallen through the cracks of modern society.  When Richard Mayhew takes pity on an injured girl, Door, he becomes sucked into London Below, full of monsters, angels and knights.  There really is an angel at Islington and friars at Black Friars tube station.  As he helps Door find out what happened to her family, he comes up against danger at every step.

As always with Neil Gaiman, I was in awe of his creativity and the genius of his ideas.  However, something about Gaiman's writing just doesn't click for me and this prevents his books from being truly enjoyable.  I admire them, but I don't love them.  I did enjoy Richard's character growth and the choice he eventually makes about who he wants to be, but I just couldn't connect with the writing and that made the whole experience sadly underwhelming.  3 out of 5 stars.

The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan
In the last volume of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, Percy, Annabeth and the rest of the half-bloods must battle to save Mount Olympus from the invading Titans, and the Prophecy about Percy's 16th birthday is finally played out.

I don't want to say too much about this one as I don't want to spoil the ending of the series, but I found it to be a most satisfying finale to the whole thing.  As always, the events were fast paced, the plot was action packed and there was a good amount of character development mixed in for good measure.  In fact, the whole thing wrapped up so nicely that I'm not sure why Riordan went on to write the Sons of Olympus series, featuring some of the same characters.  Although I didn't enjoy this one quite as much as The Battle of the Labyrinth, it still gets top marks for being such a great final volume.  The whole series was such fun and I loved racing through them.  5 out of 5 stars.

Have you read any of these books?  If so, I'd love to know what you think of them.