Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Review: The Crow Garden - Alison Littlewood

The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood, published by Jo Fletcher on 5th October 2017

Goodreads synopsis:
Haunted by his father's suicide, Nathaniel Kerner walks away from the highly prestigious life of a consultant to become a mad-doctor. He takes up a position at Crakethorne Asylum, but the proprietor is more interested in phrenology and his growing collection of skulls than the patients' minds. Nathaniel's only interesting case is Mrs Victoria Harleston: her husband accuses her of hysteria and delusions - but she accuses him of hiding secrets far more terrible. Nathaniel is increasingly obsessed with Victoria, but when he has her mesmerised, there are unexpected results: Victoria starts hearing voices, the way she used to - her grandmother always claimed they came from beyond the grave - but it also unleashes her own powers of mesmerism ...and a desperate need to escape. Increasingly besotted, Nathaniel finds himself caught up in a world of seances and stage mesmerism in his bid to find Victoria and save her. But constantly hanging over him is this warning: that doctors are apt to catch the diseases with which they are surrounded - whether of the body or the mind.

'The Crow Garden' was a really intriguing and enigmatic read.  Described as 'Susan Hill meets Wilkie Collins', I knew from that single line that I had to read this book.  I loved the Victorian meets Gothic meets psychological chiller atmosphere of the story and I found it a real page-turner and exactly my kind of story. 

The setting immediately drew me in.  Crakethorn Asylum is creepy and atmospheric and almost makes you want to shiver.  It becomes the new place of employment of Doctor Nathaniel Kerr who has walked away from his prestigious consultant position, to work in a 'mad house'.  At Crakethorn, he meets Mrs Victoria Harleston, one of his new patients and becomes obsessed with understanding her and finding out her secrets.  This leads to a dangerous experiment in mesmerism which causes things to begin to unravel for the Doctor.

The book is divided into three parts, switching between Crakethorn, London and then back to the Asylum again.  I liked the three distinct sections and the way in which the story was perfectly balanced and kept me glued to the pages throughout.  It really did remind me of some of my favourite nineteenth century Gothic novels in terms of the plot and the storytelling. 

I thought it was very clever how the author drew a veil of intrigue over many of the events in the novel.  I was never quite sure whether I could believe everything I read because it's unclear who still possesses control over their minds and who is being controlled.  Really puzzling to the reader but in a good way. 

I haven't read anything by Alison Littlewood before but I was very impressed by 'The Crow Garden' and will be checking out some of her other novels now, as well as future offerings. 

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Review: The Crystal Maze Challenge - Neale Simpson

The Crystal Maze Challenge by Neale Simpson, published by Headline on 17th October 2017

Goodreads synopsis:
Packed full of over 100 new games, mind benders and riddles, with this book you can now play the ultimate game show in the playground of your own home. Join ranks with family and friends as you travel through the four iconic zones - Aztec, Industrial, Future and Medieval - guided by Maze Master Richard Ayoade. Some games are quick, so you can have a spontaneous game if you fancy, whilst others require a bit more preparation but they can all be played with household items!

Test your skill, mental and physical abilities as you try to leap around your living room without touching the floor, solve puzzles and brainteasers, and complete treasure hunts around the house, all the while trying to win the crystals before heading to The Crystal Dome ... and remembering not to leave anyone locked in any cupboards!

I love watching the Crystal Maze on TV so I thought that this book was going to be a brilliant and fun read.  My favourite parts of the book were some of the interviews that featured with the creators, the original Maze masterminds and the best quizmaster of all, Richard O'Brien.  I would have loved to have seen more of this.  It could have included features on the other quizmasters: Ed Tudor-Pole, Stephen Merchant and Richard Ayoade, as well as interviews with some of the contestants on the show. 

The majority of the book contained features on how to recreate some of the many games which appear on the show, as well as how to set up your own Crystal Maze at home.  While a few of these would definitely be possible, others just seemed like they would take you forever to recreate, by which time I'm not sure you would have much excitement left to actually play the game. 
Some Crystal Maze mad-fans might still enjoy this but I finished it feeling disappointed and ready to instead re-watch one of the classic episodes of the show which never fail to provide me with an hour of pure entertainment.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Review: Undercover Princess - Connie Glynn

Undercover Princess by Connie Glynn, published by Penguin on 2nd November 2017

Goodreads synopsis:
When fairy tale obsessed Lottie Pumpkin starts at the infamous Rosewood Hall, she is not expecting to share a room with the Crown Princess of Maradova, Ellie Wolf. Due to a series of lies and coincidences, 14-year-old Lottie finds herself pretending to be the princess so that Ellie can live a more normal teenage life.

Lottie is thrust into the real world of royalty - a world filled with secrets, intrigue and betrayal. She must do everything she can to help Ellie keep her secret, but with school, the looming Maradovian ball and the mysterious new boy Jamie, she'll soon discover that reality doesn't always have the happily ever after you'd expect...

Before I started reading this book I had some trepidation about the fact that it was written by a Youtuber.  I'm not terribly familiar with Connie Glynn's videos but I curious to see if she could turn her talents to writing.  I loved the initial idea for the story and it ticked lots of my 'happy' boxes.  It was set at a boarding school, it featured a Princess and it had an utterly gorgeous cover.  I was excited before I'd even read the first page. 

The story centres around teenager Lottie Pumpkin, who is starting her first year at Rosewood Hall, a boarding school that she has always dreamt of attending.  As a bursary student, Lottie worries that she might not be able to fit in with the other girls but she never could have imagined that the reason why they might treat her differently is because they think she is a the Crown Princess of Maradova.  Lottie's roommate Ellie, is the real Princess, a secret she agrees to keep hidden.  Lottie soon finds herself thrust into another world filled with danger, excitement and betrayal.

I thought that the two main characters were very well written and I loved the friendship which develops between Lottie and Ellie.  Although it gets off to a slightly shaky start, they become extremely close and I liked the way that they had each others backs and were willing to stand up for each other.  Their close friendship leads to a surprising twist which I won't reveal, except to say that it certainly added an interesting slant to the story.  Another character that I loved, was Jamie, who has quite a mysterious background but who we gradually get to know more about.  He added a nice touch of romance to the story, which I hope Connie builds on as the series progresses.    

I mistakenly thought that this was a stand-alone but 'Undercover Princess' is actually the first in a series.  It's aimed at a YA audience but I tend to think that it's better suited to middle-grade because the characters are only fourteen which is a lot younger than most of the YA books I read.  There are a lot of big events which happen very quickly in the story and that also surprised me when I discovered that it was a series.  However, I think it was a great start, very enjoyable and with plenty of potential for book two.  I'm looking forward to seeing what happens to Lottie next.         

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Review: Chasing Christmas Eve - Jill Shalvis

Chasing Christmas Eve by Jill Shalvis, published by Headline Eternal on 27th September 2017

Goodreads synopsis:
Run for the hills temporarily. That's Colbie Albright's plan when she flees New York for San Francisco. Wrangling her crazy family by day and writing a bestselling YA fantasy series by night has taken its toll. In short, Colbie's so over it that she's under it. She's also under the waters of a historic San Francisco fountain within an hour of arrival. Fortunately, the guy who fishes Colbie out has her looking forward to Christmas among strangers. But she's pretty sure Spencer Baldwin won't be a stranger for long.

Spence's commitment to hiding from the Ghosts of Relationships Past means he doesn't have to worry about the powerful - OK, crazy hot - chemistry he's got with Colbie. Just because she can laugh at anything, especially herself...just because she's gorgeous and a great listener...just because she gets Spence immediately doesn't mean he won't be able to let Colbie go. Does it?

Now the clock's ticking for Colbie and Spence: Two weeks to cut loose. Two weeks to fall hard. Two weeks to figure out how to make this Christmas last a lifetime.

I know I've said this many times in the past but I truly think that 'Chasing Christmas Eve' may be my favourite Jill Shalvis book yet.  It ticked every box for me and was an absorbing and happy read from start to finish - a real treat to be devoured in one sitting.  I loved it!

The romance between the main characters Colbie and Spencer made me so happy.  I'm sure I was smiling the whole way through the book.  They are both very similar in personality and temperament, as well as backgrounds.  They have both found incredible success in their respective fields but are struggling to deal with everything that goes along with that.  Although it's usually opposites attract, in this case, their similarities are what bring them together and help them to better understand each other.  They have such a short period of time together, that the Christmas Eve deadline is a barrier they must overcome.  Although there are obstacles in both their home and work lives, I enjoyed seeing them trying to work things out and had no doubt that they would get the perfect ending.   

I loved the fact that Colbie's occupation is a YA author.  She is forever scribbling down ideas for her stories on bits of paper and loves nothing more than surreptitiously eavesdropping on other peoples' conversations - perfect fodder for her books.  I thought that the opening chapter was great and so funny when she is at the airport and has an unfortunate encounter with airport security. 

Set in San Francisco, I enjoyed the setting immensely as it's somewhere that I would like to visit one day in the future.  It also features the rest of the gang from the series and I loved getting to see all of my favourite couples again.   

Jill Shalvis writes the BEST romances and this one was hot and sizzling!  I am so thankful that I discovered this author because she has quickly become one of my favourites, particularly when I am in the mood for a romance with real emotion and a heart of gold. 

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Review: Tarnished City - Vic James

Tarnished City by Vic James, published by Pan Macmillan on 7th September 2017

Goodreads synopsis:
Luke is a prisoner, condemned for a murder he didn’t commit. Abi is a fugitive, desperate to free him before magic breaks his mind. But as the Jardines tighten their grip on a turbulent Britain, brother and sister face a fight greater than their own.

New alliances and old feuds will remake the nation, leaving Abi and Luke questioning everything – and everyone – they know. And as Silyen Jardine hungers for the forgotten Skill of the legendary Wonder King, the country’s darkest hour approaches. Freedom and knowledge both come at a cost. So who will pay the price?"

'Tarnished City' is the second book in the Dark Gifts trilogy.  You definitely need to have read the first instalment of the series because the story follows immediately on and just wouldn't make sense without already knowing about what has happened previously.  I loved the first book and had my fingers crossed that this one would be just as good.  While ultimately I don't think it turned out to be quite as absorbing as 'Gilded Cage', it was still hugely enjoyable. 

The story begins with Abi determined to rescue her brother Luke, who has been condemned of a crime he did not commit.  Meanwhile, the Jardines are desperate for power over the country and a terrible fate for the people of Britain hangs in the balance.  There are some truly dark themes in this series and some parts of the story are pretty shocking.  I found that this just drew me even deeper into the lives of the characters and I was on the edge of my seat for a good part of the book. 

I like the way that people in the series seem to be constantly changing.  Good and evil are interchangeable and this led to my feelings about various people in the story fluctuating throughout.  This was particularly true of the Jardine brothers who are incredibly difficult to read and often seemed to have an agenda of their own.  It's also true of the character of Dog who I initially felt sorry for but who I came to dislike immensely. 

Whereas I loved the first half of the book which was really fast paced and gripping, I found the second half quite a bit slower and the action seemed to drag at times.  I think it suffered slightly from being the middle book in the series but I'm confident that Vic James will wrap everything up with a shocking finale when  'Bright Ruin' is published next year. 

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Review: The Alice Network - Kate Quinn

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn, published by HarperCollins on 6th June 2017

Goodreads synopsis:
1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She's also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie's parents banish her to Europe to have her "little problem" taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she's recruited to work as a spy. Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn't heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth ...no matter where it leads.

I've read a few of Kate Quinn's previous books and really enjoyed them, so I was thrilled to get my hands on a copy of 'The Alice Network'.  I used to read a lot more historical fiction than I do now but I still enjoy delving into the past and revisiting key historical periods.  This is also a Reese Witherspoon book club pick, so I was intrigued to see what it was going to be like.

Set in 1947, the opening part of the story is told from the perspective of Charlie St Clair, an American girl travelling with her mother to have her unplanned pregnancy taken care of.  Headstrong Charlie however has other ideas.  She wants to use the opportunity for the trip to track down her cousin Rose, who disappeared during World War II. 

Charlie's quest brings her into contact with Eve Gardiner.  The story jumps between the two women, as well as different time frames, to show Eve's life as a spy against the Germans in France in 1915, when she was part of the infamous 'Alice network'.  To start with, I didn't particularly take to Eve but as I learnt more about her and her past, I came to admire her enormously.  We see her taking huge personal risks to help the war effort and her bravery and strength are traits which shine through again and again.  I loved the stories of both women and the way that they intertwined.  Kate Quinn did a brilliant job of blending everything together so seamlessly which made the whole book a real joy to read. 

'The Alice Network' is a tremendous story and an example of historical fiction at its very best.  Tense, gripping and exciting but also with moments of true horror, it had me utterly engrossed.  Love, loss, life and sacrifice all feature heavily within the pages, making it an emotional read from start to finish.  I implore you to pick up this book because it deserves all the plaudits it has already got and more.      
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