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Curiosity Killed The Bookworm (Dorset, UK)

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The Name of the Star (Shades of London, Book 1)
The Name of the Star (Shades of London, Book 1)
by Maureen Johnson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.24

5.0 out of 5 stars Smart supernatural YA thriller, 16 Jan 2013
When Rory's parents get work at the University of Bristol, she convinces them to let her go to boarding school in London. Used to living in a Louisiana town (or swamp) where everyone knows everyone, she can't wait to get to the big city. But her arrival coincides with the start of brutal murders in the East End, mimicking those of Jack the Ripper. As Rippermania spreads across London once more, the police are at a dead end. They have CCTV footage of the crime scenes but they show no suspects.

It's one of the few books that actually manages to nail an American teen in the UK. Rory is aware of the things that she should and shouldn't say and there is even a whole paragraph on explaining the difference between England, Britain and UK. There's lot of little funny titbits poking fun at habits from both sides of the Atlantic and it's always raining. I love Maureen Johnson a little bit for this.

For the most part, the teenagers just happen to be located in the centre of all the crimes rather than them running off and getting involved in an unrealistic manner. The school, Wexford, is a sort of boarding sixth form college, which explains away some of the leniencies. It's only when Rory sees a strange man on the night of one of the murders that she becomes a witness and things start to seem a little weird. For what might sound like a straight young adult thriller, has a supernatural twist. I will leave it at that (or you can read my review of the sequel, The Madness Underneath, tomorrow).

Gripping, funny and just the right amount of clever, with characters you'll adore. Maureen Johnson has just elevated herself to a must read author. This is exactly the kind of young adult writing I want to be reading.

Price: £2.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Charming and odd, 6 Jan 2013
This review is from: Doppler (Kindle Edition)
After a lifetime of being nice, Doppler realises he doesn't like people that much and sets off to live in the forest by himself, leaving his life, and wife and children, behind. When he becomes desperate for food, he kills an elk. But the elk was a mother and leaves behind a calf. A calf that won't go away. Doppler reluctantly takes the calf into his tent and soon names him Bongo. After his father, who wasn't called Bongo but is dead.

I want to share with you what's written on the back of the proof because it's one of the best blurbs I've read this year (and I bet it won't see the light of day otherwise).

"Hello there.

My name is Bongo.

I live in the woods with a man called Doppler, who stabbed my mother with a hunting knife when I was very young. I am an elk btw. A Norwegian elk.

A writer called Erland has written a whole book about Doppler and me. It's already sold a squillion copies in Norway, and lots of readers said it was a deeply subversive fable about the consumer society, middle-class angst and that sort of thing.

But I know better.

We are legion, our movement will triumph.


And I guess that sets the tone for the book. Not that it's written from Bongo's point of view; that would be silly. He's an elk and he can't talk (despite Doppler's efforts to teach him). The narrative is first person from Doppler's perspective and it's not really about Bongo. But I love Bongo! And their odd little relationship out there in the wild before their peace is shattered. I think I'd quite like an elk as a friend but then I'd have to live in the woods without my creature comforts.

There are moments when Doppler's not a very likeable character; he is making a concerted effort to be selfish but there's something charming about him. He doesn't get to shake off his niceness that easily. Doppler goes to extreme lengths to escape the consumerism of his life but there's a lot that rings true. He is plagued by the incessant and pointless noise of children's TV shows, his son is practically addicted to them but somewhere along the way, modern life ceases to matter. Life can be good and fun without the mod-cons and sometimes the race to beat the Joneses gets in the way of living.

A charming, lovely, odd and thought-provoking book. It's the perfect antidote to the madness of Christmas. Not that Doppler is a particularly festive read but it does span over the winter months and there is a Christmas scene of sorts.

Review copy provided by publisher.

The Twyning
The Twyning
by Terence Blacker
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.53

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The war on rats is here, 4 Jan 2013
This review is from: The Twyning (Hardcover)
Dogboy lives in the dump with his best friend Caz. He earns pennies to feed them both by assisting the rat-catcher Bill Grubstaff. When he is offered work by a local scientist, he is soon drawn into a plot to declare war on rats. Below ground the rats are mourning the loss of their king and preparing to crown his successor. Young taster Efren, goes against the rules of the kingdom and follows his old king above ground, only to witness his capture and resulting torture. By the very man now employing Dogboy. As their two worlds cross paths, both sides are preparing to do battle.

Never has the death of rats been so upsetting. The dual narrative of The Twyning means the story is told from both human and rodent perspectives and boy, are those perspectives different. I loved the contrast in perception between the two. Above ground rats are a problem and killing them a normal every day act. Even our human protagonist is an assistant to a rat-catcher but he is never portrayed as evil. Down below, the rats see humans as the enemy (rightly so) but they also have their own social structure and governance. Their society is shown not to be better than humanity but in parallel to it. One regime may be fair and just but the next is corrupt and oppressive.

I found the rats remained rattish throughout. To get round communication problems, Blacker has made them communicate through a form of telepathy (hey, we can't prove otherwise and real rats do use a supersonic form of communication). So no, there are not really talking rats, something their anatomy wouldn't allow. Even their "pulse" is a real thing, a distress signal that rats send out when they need help. OK I'm starting to become fascinated by rats now!

It was interesting to see that the idea stemmed from scientific study into whether rats possess empathy. The actual study involved a rat freeing another from a Perspex box. Where there was also chocolate available in another box, the rescuer would still free the rat first and then share the chocolate, even going so far as to carry the treats over to the distressed rat! Scientists may argue over the motive for this but I think it shows that rats are capable of acting better than some humans. And that is something that's important to the novel.

At times the tone becomes a little like a children's book. It is certainly not aimed at children; there's plenty of violence and at least one scene that can only be described as gruesome. Maybe it's the effects of having a rat as a narrator, who is intelligent in his own way but maybe not to the standard of a human adult.

The Twyning of the title is what is called a rat king in the real world. I don't think I quite understood what it was at first, imagining a sort of conjoined twin. A rat king is a litter of rats who join together at their tails, whether tangled up or through layers of dirt (and worse). These groups can have up to 30 rats bound together! Later on, it does become clearer (and actually re-reading the first chapter, I'm not sure why I didn't pick up on it). I'm not sure if googling it is beneficial; there is a scary mummified rat king in a German museum which doesn't quite fit the tone of the book. The Twyning is seen and some sort of sacred animal treated with respect and consulted on matters of importance to the kingdom. However you perceive the creature, its significance is felt and I did find myself worrying about it at several points.

Whilst there were aspects that weren't perfect, I really rather enjoyed this unique and entertaining tale. I found myself tearing up in places and cheering on the rat army in others. If you have ever looked in a rat's eye and seen a spark of intelligence, you will love this book.

Review copy provided by publisher.

The Black Path: A Rebecka Martinsson Investigation
The Black Path: A Rebecka Martinsson Investigation
Price: £2.98

4.0 out of 5 stars Slow paced but enjoyable, 2 Jan 2013
It is spring in northern Sweden, when a body is found hidden in a fishing ark, on the frozen lake of Torneträsk. She's dressed for running, not for fishing in icy conditions, yet she's wearing make-up. Whilst inspectors Mella and Stålnacke think it's probably another case of a husband killing his wife, the soon realise she has been tortured. When Mella discovers a link between the dead woman and Kallis Mining, she asks newly appointed special prosecutor, Rebecka Martinsson, to help find out more about one of Sweden's seemingly most successful mining companies. Will they find corruption beneath the respectable façade?

It starts with Rebecka's release from St. Göran's psychiatric unit and her decision to leave her life in Stockholm for her rural home town of Kurravaara near Kiruna. This is the third book in the series of which I have only read the fourth, Until Thy Wrath Be Past, but as she is starting again after a traumatic experience, it's a reasonable place to pick up the plot. I just had to remember that some things hadn't happened yet!

There's a large cast of characters and at times there doesn't seem much point to all of them. Whilst they slow the pace down a bit, by the end, they all have their place in the plot. The family background of Kallis explains not only his rise from nowhere but his mother's mental illness goes some of the way to explaining Ester's behaviour at the end. The head of security is there to add some context to the situation in Uganda and Diddi's wife has her worries about financial security. It does create a wide range of suspects but there's not a lot of time for developing the on-going series characters.

Each character has their moment though and I really like the little moments that Åsa Larsson writes into their stories. Stålnacke and his lost cat, Ester's painting and Rebecka's worrying over the man she left behind. And the climax is one of the most gripping scenes I've read in a long time.

Born Weird
Born Weird
by Andrew Kaufman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.09

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Just the right amount of Weird, 2 Jan 2013
This review is from: Born Weird (Hardcover)
The Weird family have always been a little, well, weird but when their grandmother announces she will die at 7:39 pm on April 20th, Angie discovers her and her siblings were cursed at birth. Grandmother Weird had meant them as blessings but each has ruined their lives. Kent will never lose a fight, Lucy will never get lost, Richard will always be safe, Abba will never lose hope and Angie will always forgive. If they are all present at her time of death, the curses will be lifted. Yet the Weirds aren't a close-knit family and Angie must track them down and convince them.

One word to describe Born Weird is weird but Andrew Kaufman's writing is surreally charming. He manages to be both light-hearted and serious at the same time; there's lots of amusing lines and passages but at the heart of it is the message that getting things wrong is part of life. They might be weird but their dynamics are that of many a large family, the interactions between siblings completely believable.

I loved Rainytown, the imaginary town they made out of card and scraps as children and kept cropping up throughout the story. There's a race against time across Canada and a lot of bad haircuts in this short but perfectly entertaining novel.

Review copy provided by publisher.

The Explorer
The Explorer
Price: £3.85

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping and claustrophobic - loved it!, 20 Dec 2012
This review is from: The Explorer (Kindle Edition)
Cormac Easton is a journalist. A journalist left on a space-ship where his crew has died; all alone, contemplating the end. What happened isn't really the question, they died in mundane ways, things that happen in space. In a vacuum.

First off, I absolutely loved this book, gripping and clever; it kept me up reading late into the night. Set in the not too distant future, the technology is on the edge of possibility. The spaceship setting has an eerie, claustrophobic feel. For as much as space is fascinating and beautiful, it's pretty scary place even without the threat of aliens or anything the mind can fabricate. It doesn't take much for something to go wrong and be life threatening.

James Smythe manages to combine a first person narrative with third at the same time. That might not make sense now, but I don't want to reveal a spoiler for the second act. This removes some of the limitations of first person whereby things not in Cormac's knowledge are revealed to the reader and to Cormac. Going forward, the novel is full of things that don't quite make sense at the start. It's the stuff of nightmares that a few days without brushing your teeth will make them loose! I read on (whilst trying not to poke my teeth) and patience was rewarded. And isn't just a nice feeling when you have that ahhh moment?

Back on earth, flashbacks start to patch together the events that brought Cormac to the mission and his relationship with his wife. Elena came across as a bit needy and over-reactive at the start, but as the information is drip fed, you begin to realise why she was the way she was. Hindsight is all very good when he's floating around in a doomed spaceship but most of us would be overjoyed that a loved one had a chance to do something so amazing. However is all leads up to another moment of realisation.

The politics of space travel are also touched on. Gone are the days of the space race where millions of dollars were thrown at space exploration. It is expensive and dangerous and there are justifications for the Ishiguro's mission, even in an age where it's not considered that important. Also raised are questions about private sector funding and implications.

The minutiae of space living is either going to be fascinating or tiresome, depending on if you're interested in space travel. There's not a lot to do in space after all. I enjoyed the descriptions of the day-to-day on-board the Ishiguro. Even if it's not your thing, still give the book a chance, the writing and plot will carry you through.

Finally, there are some lovely writerly little touches; comments about tense and a wonderful passage approaching the end, contemplating the act of finishing reading an ebook.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Big Ray
Big Ray
by Michael Kimball
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.64

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Powerful little book, 24 Nov 2012
This review is from: Big Ray (Paperback)
Daniel didn't know his father was dead until a few days after it happened. His death brings mixed feelings; both relief and sadness. Weighing in at over 500 pounds, Big Ray was not an easy man to know. His temper defined Daniel's childhood and distanced them as adults. As Daniel comes to terms with his loss, he recalls memories and anecdotes of his father, from birth to death.

Big Ray is made up of 500 entries, one for each pound both Daniel's and Michael Kimball's fathers weighed. Whilst the structure of short memories and snippets of information works, I found the number a bit tenuous as some of them are really one entry split up. The narrative jumps around very much like a train of thought, mirroring the patterns of memory. When we think of a lost one we don't do so in a linear fashion. It also deals with the conflicts of grieving someone you may have loved but not liked. Daniel's relationship with his father was a difficult one but he was still his father.

There is a semi-autobiographical slant to the novel as the author's father was also obese, adding authenticity to the descriptions of Ray's weight and the things that became difficult as he grew. There isn't a sense of why he ate so much, just that he was overbearing both in physical size and personality.

The words "my father" are used a lot throughout the prose, partly creating a sense of detachment but it started to grate on me after a while. Each entry has it at least once and it's not like there would be any ambiguity to who is being referred to. It's obviously being used for effect but one that started to get in the way of my enjoyment a little. Otherwise, it's a powerful, little book.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Interview with the Vampire: Claudia's Story
Interview with the Vampire: Claudia's Story
by Anne Rice
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.79

4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful and effective artwork, 23 Nov 2012
Claudia is just a child when the vampire Lestat turns her, condemning her to an eternity trapped in a child's body. As her love for Louis strengthens, so does her hatred of Lestat. This is her story.

Interview with the Vampire: Claudia's Story is a graphic novel adapted from Anne Rice's novel by Ashley Marie Witter. I would imagine that the target audience for this book are going to be existing fans so I won't go into the story too much. Claudia's very nature is contradictory; her childhood is stolen from her yet she will never grow into a woman. Inside she is a predator, but the world still treats her as a child. It really is a heartbreaking tale.

The beautiful sepia artwork has a sketchy feeling but Ashley captures expressions perfectly. The splashes of blood red are vivid and really do make the pages look bloody. I absolutely love this use of colour, it's so effective. One thing that is a little weak is her representation of hands. Sometimes they look like deformed claws and whilst not the focus of the images, once I noticed them my eyes kept going there.

If you were inclined to pick up this book with no knowledge of Interview with the Vampire, you might find Louis a bit of a wishy washy character. I imprinted what I already knew onto him as I read but I don't think he is developed at all except for Claudia's feelings. The emotion in the drawings of Lestat convey a lot more; enough to fill in the gaps.

Review copy provided by publisher.

The Horologicon: A Day's Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language
The Horologicon: A Day's Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language
by Mark Forsyth
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £8.00

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An absolute delight, 19 Nov 2012
For every hour of the day, The Horologicon brings us a lost word or four to perfectly suit any situation. Mark Forsyth takes us through an average working day from the first moments of consciousness to avoiding working at work, ending on a night out and a much deserved descent into sleep.

The Horologicon is an absolute delight to read if you just love words. I laughed out loud on several occasions and have squirrelled away so many new old words for future use. Don't let these words die out! There are nod-crafty snollygosters, whifflers and causey-webs in the coughery. And that's before you've even done any work. Need an excuse to skive off? Mark can help you out, at least in baffling your boss without even lying.

Mark does warn us that reading the book all in one go will drive you insane and it's intended as a book to dip into. But it does follow you (yes it's written in second person without being annoying) throughout a day and runs in chronological order. Breaks are recommended if you want to remember all the words as it could be a bit of information overload, but in an enjoyable way. Not only is it full of wonderful and weird words, there are plenty of amusing and interesting historical anecdotes to back them up. Learn about the professional business of writing begging letters and the history of tea and the great tea masters. You'll even learn the real meaning of murder! There's no literary log-rolling required here, it's genuinely a book to be read by all.

Review copy provided by publisher.

The Painted Bridge
The Painted Bridge
by Wendy Wallace
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Sinister and fascinating Victorian tale, 14 Nov 2012
This review is from: The Painted Bridge (Hardcover)
Anna Palmer believes she is merely visiting friends of her husband when she arrives at Lake House. Instead, she is left behind, shepherded into a room and locked away. Her husband, Vincent, has had her committed although the patrons cushion the words by calling it a retreat for ladies. A retreat where the guests can't leave. Whilst Mr Abse had no doubt that Anna is suffering from hysteria, Dr Lucas St. Clair is using the new technology of photography to find the truth in his patients' faces. Can Anna trust him to help her or is she destined to be unjustly imprisoned forever?

Anna's fate may seem scary but it was a common one in Victorian England. The forced normalcy of life at Lake House is quite sinister when you think the ladies can't leave and the majority of them are quite sane. Abse might come across as a well-meaning bureaucrat, who has taken on too much, but the character of Makepeace, the omnipresent matron, is the one who really sets the atmosphere on edge.

My interest in photography meant I loved St. Clair's role in the story. I had never heard of its use to diagnose mental illnesses before, though of course, nowadays we know it's not that simple. But St. Clair very much wants to prove his theory but he is a much more compassionate character with an open mind. I loved the little period details of the actual processes involved and how easy it was to ruin things!

I would question why Wendy made Anna suffer from visions. Without them there would have been a wonderful contrast between the sane woman locked away in the asylum just because her husband wanted rid of her and the young woman who would actually receive psychiatric help in modern times but does not have her condition acknowledged. Even though the visions are explained eventually, it makes Vincent's actions seem justified by Victorian standards; I would worry about anyone having hallucinations. However her mental state and actions do come across as someone in their right mind who does not deserve to be where she is.

I would recommend The Painted Bridge to anyone who loves stories set in the Victorian era and it's a worthwhile read for those with an interest in the history of photography.

Review copy provided by publisher.

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