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Joanne Sheppard (England)
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Cuckoo Song
Cuckoo Song
by Frances Hardinge
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A magical book in every sense - just perfect, 10 Nov. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Cuckoo Song (Paperback)
I bought Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song over a year ago, where it’s been on my Kindle in my long list of unread books ever since. A couple of weeks ago, it was named Best Fantasy Novel at the British Fantasy awards (a first for a young adult novel) and this reminded me that I really should get round to reading it.

I’m so glad I did, as it really is a magical novel in every sense. It’s full of atmosphere and intrigue, the characters are a complete delight and the storyline is not only crammed with adventure but also a touching tale of family relationships. It reminds me a little of the best work of Diana Wynne-Jones – particularly books like Hexwood, Fire & Hemlock and The Ogre Downstairs in which magic creeps slowly into real-life, suburban settings – and that is not a comparison I could ever make lightly.

Set in the 1920s, it begins with Triss, the 11-year-old daughter of well-off, upper-middle-class family, awaking in bed after an accident in which she apparently fell into the Grimmer, a mysterious pond, and emerged concussed and feverish. Triss can’t remember anything about the accident, and although she seems to be recovering physically, she’s troubled by a number of things. Her feisty little sister Pen refuses to speak to her. She’s unnaturally, insatiably hungry. And most chillingly of all, her favourite doll has started to talk – and it’s terrified of her.

What happened to Triss during her accident? Is she going mad? Or is there something even more strange going on?

Cuckoo Song soon develops into a gripping, often eerie fantasy adventure that draws heavily on British folklore – the notion that someone can literally be ‘away with the fairies’, for instance – but manages to weave magic seamlessly into the burgeoning modernity of the Jazz Age. Early cinema, trams and Art Deco architecture all become enchantingly involved in the fantasy elements of the story, and the Great War still casts a ghostly shadow.

The book is full of vivid and memorable characters. Some are immensely loveable, some considerably less so and some are outright terrifying, but each and every one of them is wholly convincing when it comes to their motives and flaws, right down to the most villainous among them.

This is a beautifully atmospheric novel – I can’t remember the last time I read a book that conjured up such a vivid picture of its characters and setting – but the plot is never compromised by the evocative prose and there’s no shortage of pace and adventure. Cuckoo Song reminds me of the very best books of my childhood without ever feeling derivative. This one is an absolute winner with me.

by Emerald Fennell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Sinister, darkly comic mystery, 9 Nov. 2015
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This review is from: Monsters (Paperback)
The narrator of Monsters by Emerald Fennell is an unnamed 12-year-old girl, orphaned a few years previously but not remotely saddened by this. She now lives with her grandmother, who appears to be a wholly inadequate guardian, and spends her summers at a slightly down-at-heel hotel in Fowey, Cornwall owned by her aunt and uncle, who openly find her a burden. It's fascinatingly unclear whether people dislike her because of her undeniably unpleasant behaviour, or whether her behaviour has been shaped since birth by the constant emotional neglect and dysfunction of the adults around her.

Either way, she is now on the cusp of adolescence, utterly disdainful of everyone she meets and prone to small but significant acts of malice. Unsurprisingly, she is also friendless - until one day a boy her own age arrives in Fowey for a holiday with his creepily overbearing mother. United by a shared obsession with serial killers and a distinct lack of moral compass, the narrator and Miles are naturally delighted when the body of a young woman is dragged from the sea, and the murder becomes the focus of their increasingly sinister games.

The plot of Monsters could certainly have become the stuff of a dark psychological thriller, and yet Emerald Fennell has chosen to imbue the story with a coal-black thread of comedy and a strange sense of heightened reality that turns it into something quite different - Fowey is like a seaside town reimagined by The League of Gentlemen and none of the cast would be out of place in a Roald Dahl novel; moreover the plot becomes increasingly bizarre towards the end as the mystery is resolved. Yet underneath the witty observations and the often grotesque cast of larger-than-life characters there is a strong undercurrent of genuine horror and flashes of sadness that often come from what the narrator doesn't tell us, rather than what she does.

There were many things in Monsters that I found very funny, but equally there were many moments that I found uncomfortably disturbing. Such is Fennell's skill that there are also moments where it's impossible not to feel sympathy for the narrator, despite her many nastier traits - this is an author who knows when to crank up the horror and when to plant intriguing seeds of ambiguity.

This is an extremely cleverly-written novel, chilling, grimly funny at times and frankly not quite like any other book I've ever read. I think it's fair to say that it absolutely will not be for everyone (the appalled reaction of some Goodreads reviewers should be noted) and I'm not entirely sure who its intended audience is, but I found it an original and entertaining read. One of my favourite books of the year.

Through the Woods
Through the Woods
by Emily Carroll
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.69

5.0 out of 5 stars Dark gothic fairytales - perfect for a winter's night, 6 Nov. 2015
This review is from: Through the Woods (Paperback)
Through The Woods by Emily Carroll has been billed as a graphic novel but in fact it's a series of short stories. Seemingly based on folklore and dark fairytales, they all feature strange occurrences, mysterious disappearances and people who are not what they seem. The woods play an important role in each story, as they do in all the best fairytales, and this helps the whole collection feel cohesive.

Some of the storylines were familiar to me already, others not, but they are all extremely readable and perfect for a dark winter's night by the fire.

The stories are sparsely told with a minimum of text, but every word is perfectly chosen. Some of the stories are more memorable than others - my favourite is the one in which a young girl discovers that her brother's vivacious young fiancee is hiding a dark secret following a childhood accident - but they are all effective. As always with this type of fiction, the strength of most of them lies in what isn't said, rather than what is.

The artwork throughout is stunning, with strong gothic elements and echoes of Edward Gorey among others. The colour palettes vary a little from story to story, although some have a stronger visual identity than others. This really is a beautiful and striking book to look at, and I found that after I'd read the stories I wanted to go back again and again to take in the artwork.

A couple of reviews on Goodreads and Amazon complain that this is 'not suitable for children', which is fine, because it's not meant to be, but but in actual fact I think older children who enjoy horror would probably love this as much as an adult; these are dark, campfire-type tales that a ghoulish child of around eleven and upwards would probably enjoy, particularly if they're a reluctant reader.

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for iPad 2, iPad 3 and iPad (4th Generation) - Red
Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for iPad 2, iPad 3 and iPad (4th Generation) - Red
Offered by 3B-IT Ltd
Price: £21.55

5.0 out of 5 stars Really excellent piece of kit - my iPad now doubles as a laptop!, 5 Nov. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I do a lot of writing, and although I use a laptop at home it's just that little bit too heavy and bulky to carry around when I'm out and about - but typing for any length of time on an iPad touchscreen is impossible. I bought this keyboard cover hoping this would solve my problem and I wasn't disappointed - it's exactly what I needed.

When it arrived it was completely out of charge, but it comes with a small USB-to-micro cable and when I plugged it in it was fully charged in about an hour to ninety minutes. I had no problems at all getting the keyboard and my iPad to 'find' each other via the Bluetooth connection, so once the keyboard was charged I was ready to start work in a matter of seconds.

The keyboard itself is nice to use. It's nowhere near as cramped as I expected it to be and it has various functions designed specifically to work with the iPad. The iPad slots neatly into a groove on the keyboard, but you do need to make sure you have your iPad the right way up with the home button on the right hand side - only one side of your iPad has magnetic connectors in it. Once the iPad is in place the whole set-up feels surprisingly stable and can be comfortably used on your lap as well as on a solid surface like a desk or table.

When you're finished, you just use the keyboard as a magnetic screen cover in the same way as an ordinary iPad cover. It has the same feature of automatically switching your screen off when you close it that other magnetic screen covers have. Somehow, despite feeling well-made when you're typing, the keyboard is very slim and light, so although it naturally adds a little weight to the iPad, you hardly notice the difference when you're carrying it.

Essentially, if you download the free MS Word app from the Apple app store and save your documents in OneDrive or similar, this keyboard turns your iPad into an efficient, lightweight laptop - a really excellent little gadget and highly recommended.

AmazonBasics USB Charging and Synchronising Cable for Apple iPod 4, iPod nano 6, iPad 3, iPhone 4S and Previous Apple Models 1 m / 3.3 Feet Black
AmazonBasics USB Charging and Synchronising Cable for Apple iPod 4, iPod nano 6, iPad 3, iPhone 4S and Previous Apple Models 1 m / 3.3 Feet Black
Price: £4.99

3.0 out of 5 stars OK, but inconsistent in quality, 31 Oct. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I've bought two of these cables, one purchased a while back for my old iPod Classic and one a couple of weeks ago for my boyfriend's iPad. While the one I use for my iPod seems absolutely fine, the one my boyfriend uses doesn't seem to fit particularly well. It's loose in the socket, so you can plug it in overnight and then get up in the morning only to discover the connection was lost at some point and the iPad isn't fully charged. The previous cable fit perfectly well, so we know it's the cable and not the socket. I guess you get what you pay for.

Offered by vitageclothing
Price: £17.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Way too big!, 31 Oct. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I currently wear a size 16 so that's the size I ordered, but unfortunately it was way too big for me - not just in terms of being too roomy but the cut of the garment is just completely wrong for me. The sleeves come right down to my fingertips and the collar is almost up around my ears! Although I'm a little on the short side at 5'3", I don't usually have any problem with high street clothes sizes at all, so I'm not sure why this jacket makes me look like a child wearing an adult's coat! I've had to pass it on to someone else to wear.

It is, however, great quality for the price. It's nicely lined and very warm, and the 'stone' colour is lovely. Would be great for someone tall though.

Macbeth [DVD]
Macbeth [DVD]
Dvd ~ Michael Fassbender
Price: £9.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, intense and atmospheric, 31 Oct. 2015
This review is from: Macbeth [DVD] (DVD)
Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play, so I had high hopes for this adaptation and despite the cutting of some quite famous scenes, I wasn't disappointed. Yes, there are some changes in this version, but the things that are missing are in my opinion the things that can be jarring for a modern audience - no 'eye of newt', for instance, no drunk porter, and no soldiers disguising themselves with branches (Birnam Forest comes to Dunsinane in a much more credible fashion in this version).

The performances are universally excellent. Michael Fassbender is perfectly cast as a Macbeth descending gradually into madness, and Marianne Cotillard is excellent as Lady Macbeth, particularly when she begins to realise that she is effectively trapped in a neverending cycle of paranoia. There are also hints at a back story for them both, which helps to make more sense of their psychological states and undercuts the brutality of the story with sadness.

Visually, this is a stunning film, and more than any other version I've seen manages to capture the eeriness of the play. I gather it was filmed mostly on the Isle of Skye, and if you've ever been there on a misty day you'll know exactly how other-worldly and unsettling its beauty can be.

This is a gripping, intense and incredibly atmospheric adaptation that, for me at least, absolutely captures on screen the 'feel' of the play.

Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike)
Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike)
by Robert Galbraith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.00

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly dark, tense instalment in an excellent series, 27 Oct. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Like the first two books in the Cormoran Strike series, Career Of Evil features a central crime plot, into which is woven the story of the increasingly complicated personal lives of Strike and his assistant – or possibly junior partner – Robin Ellacott. During the previous novel, Robin’s wedding was postponed due to the death of her fiancé’s mother, but we begin Career Of Evil with Robin and Matthew on track for a June ceremony despite the ongoing bone of contention that is Robin’s work with Strike. At the start of Career Of Evil, she’s expecting a package of wedding favours to be delivered to the office and opens without a thought the large, oblong parcel a courier has just dropped off for her – only to discover that it contains a woman’s severed leg.

The crime plot in this instalment in the series is a deeply personal one: the killer, from whose point of view several chapters unfold, is obsessively stalking Robin and appears to have a longstanding grudge against Strike, who famously lost a leg during his military career – plus, the leg comes with a note quoting lyrics by Blue Öyster Cult, the favourite band of Strike’s dead, super-groupie mother. But of course, this is Strike we’re talking about. When asked to think who might hate him enough to send parts of a corpse to his office, he immediately thinks of not just one suspect, but four. Which of them could be the culprit? Who did the leg belong to? And how will the killer up his game?

Career Of Evil is certainly the darkest in the Cormoran Strike series so far. The body count is high and all three suspects are sadistic misogynists – as you’d expect, the chapters from the anonymous killer are particularly grisly and disturbing. As a horror reader, I have no issue with gore, but the killer’s-eye sections did become a little repetitive in their gruesomeness. Also a little repetitive are some of the procedural elements of the action: the investigation is surveillance-heavy, so there’s an awful lot of Strike and Robin following people who are actually not doing a great deal. Other than that, however, the plot is a satisfying one with a clever and wholly unexpected twist, and the characters are, as always in Robert Galbraith’s/JK Rowling’s writing, exceptionally vivid and astutely observed.

The Robert Galbraith books are as much about Strike and Robin, and their complex friendship, as they are about crime, and it's fair to say that the road for them is a bumpy one in this instalment. Interestingly, Robin's fiancé Matthew, who was dull but largely well-meaning in The Cuckoo's Calling and then somewhat petulant in The Silkworm, is increasingly needy and controlling in Career Of Evil.

Like all JK Rowling's writing, whatever the pen name, Career Of Evil is crammed with detail, which some readers may find tiresome, but which appeals a great deal to me in a crime novel, where every observation could be clue and specifics count. Despite the heavily descriptive style, at no point did I feel the book was proceeding too slowly, and the last few chapters are a nailbiting race against time, which despite the satisfying resolution of the whodunnit plot, will almost certainly leave you feeling impatient for book four.

Long Lankin
Long Lankin
by Lindsey Barraclough
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Deeply eerie tale of rural folklore, 26 Oct. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Long Lankin (Paperback)
If you remember the nursery rhymes and songs of your childhood, you'll probably recall that some of them are frankly quite sinister. Not your Baa Baa Black Sheeps or your Twinkle Twinkle Little Stars, so much, but consider Three Blind Mice, in which blind mice have their tails cut off by a farmer's wife. Or Ding Dong Bell, in which someone attempts to drown a cat in a well. My personal favourite is Oranges And Lemons, which after a vaguely threatening dialogue about debt played out by London church bells, culminates with 'here comes a candle to light you to bed, and here comes the chopper to chop off your head.'

These, however, have nothing on Long Lankin, a genuinely terrifying folk ballad beseeching us to 'Beware of Long Lankin who lives in the moss', lest he 'creep in' to the house and conspire with a baby's 'false nurse' to kill it by pricking it all over with a pin. I read this poem in a library book of traditional rhymes when I was a child and never forgot the horridness of it. For this reason, I was immediately drawn to Lindsey Barraclough's novel of the same name, the story of two girls in the 1950s who are sent from the East End to live with an estranged aunt in the country and discover that their family is haunted by a terrible curse.

I wasn't disappointed. I gather Long Lankin is being marketed as a young adult novel but it absolutely stands up as an adult read. It somehow manages to be at times sweet and endearing - Cora and Roger, the children from whose points of view the story unfolds, are funny, honest and deeply loveable; I never tired of their company - and yet at times incredibly dark and utterly terrifying. There's a strong sense of eeriness that builds to full-on horror and a climax full of pace and tension.

The sense of place is perfectly evoked, with all the fun of a childhood spent playing in country lanes and going to village cricket matches contrasted perfectly with the more unsettling elements of the rural England - dark woods, tidal marshlands, abandoned churches and mysterious folklore.

The alternating viewpoints of Cora and Roger give us contrasting perspectives not just on the setting but of life in general. Cora is born and bred among the bombsites of post-war Limehouse to a feckless father and an unstable mother, and feels deeply protective of her little sister Mimi - I constantly wanted to hug her and relieve her of the terrible burden of responsibility that seems far too heavy for her young shoulders. Cheerful country boy Roger, on the other hand, has known nothing but security and stability: his younger siblings may wreak havoc but his parents are kind and his main worries are the need to do occasionally dished-out household chores as his mother's attention is focused on his more demanding brothers and baby sister.

Every character in Long Lankin feels vivid and real, and even the supernatural elements of the story are all too credible. Although the pace builds very rapidly at the end, this isn't a novel that moves particularly fast, but this didn't matter to me; I enjoyed the slow build of the horror and also the growing friendship between Cora and Roger, built over many long summer days of wandering the countryside and, of course, going to all the very places they've been told to avoid. When the true horror of the Long Lankin legend really begins to unfold in earnest, it's all the more frightening.

If I had to find fault with this book, it's that the switches in narration happen very rapidly at times - sometimes we only get a few paragraphs from one view point before we switch to another and back again - which sometimes felt jarring and a little disjointed. Apart from that, I'd really find it hard to pick holes in this one: it's an absolutely cracking read full of creepy atmosphere and out-and-out horror, yet also has an appealing warmth at its heart.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly
The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly
Price: £6.79

4.0 out of 5 stars Dark, intense YA, 14 Oct. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is a young adult novel by American writer Stephanie Oakes. The eponymous protagonist is seventeen and has recently experienced her first love affair, but this is a dark novel with some extremely harrowing scenes, so don't assume the target audience makes it a lighter read.

At the start of the book, Minnow is arrested in mysterious circumstances for a shockingly brutal crime. One of the first things we learn about her is that she has recently lost both her hands, and shortly afterwards we discover that she has spent the last 12 years living in a polygamous cult in a strange, enclosed community hidden in the Montana wilderness. The Kevinians live their lives away from the 'Gentiles' in accordance with a set of oppressive rules laid down by their increasingly tyrannical leader. Women are subordinate; non-white people are considered evil; there is no medical care, no electricity, no running water - and most importantly, no escape. But when Minnow stumbles across Jude, a mixed-race boy living with his father in a forest cabin, she begins to question life in the Community more than ever before.

Much of the story is told in flashback, interspersed with present-day sections detailing Minnow's life in 'juvie', essentially an American young offenders' institute (which, frankly, is quite an eye-opener in terms of the way children are treated by the American justice system). Investigating the horrors of the Community and trying to get to the bottom of its Prophet's death is an FBI officer who regularly interviews Minnow and to whom she tells her story in uneasy, selective stages.

The relationship between Minnow and this officer felt somewhat uncomfortable for me as a reader, not least because he is described as a counsellor but behaves like nothing of the sort. He is clearly a detective first and foremost and his questioning of Minnow is often manipulative and even edging towards cruel. However, there are also times when he seems more sympathetic as a character, and the uneasy deal that Minnow strikes with him is, ultimately, one that works in her favour. This is a novel in which adults and teenagers are, in general, wary of one another, with the children in the novel repeatedly failed by the adults around them.

There were several elements of The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly that stretched credibility for me, and its weakest point was in fact the resolution of the mystery of the Prophet's murder, which felt anticlimactic. Minnow's adaptation to life a) with no hands and b) away from the Kevinians seemed to be surprisingly simple, too.

I note that classifies this as Young Adult => Literature & Fiction => Religious. I have no idea if the author intends the book to have a religious message: one of the threads of the story involves Minnow rejecting the beliefs of the Kevinian cult and she is, overall, relatively positive about her experience at a meeting of the prison Christian group, in contrast to her resentful cellmate, who has rejected religion after being abused by her devout uncle and prides herself on her knowledge of science. However, if there is intended to be a Christian message here about the dangers of false prophets, it doesn't stand up to much scrutiny, not least because the language and manner in which the Kevinians' bizarre beliefs are expressed makes them feel almost like a biblical parody.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is an intense, well-written novel which, if you share my fascination with isolated cults and fundamentalist communities, couldn't fail to engage you. Some of the darker elements are perhaps a little melodramatic, but overall it's a gripping read with a note of hope at the end.

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