Book Review: Beloved Poison

Beloved Poison

Beloved Poison – E.S. Thomson
Published by Hachette NZ

We’re all aware of that old saying to “never judge a book by its cover”, but sometimes, I think you can predict what sort of novel you’re delving into just by staring at its cover. Beloved Poison had me hooked before I’d even opened to the first page; the cover is alluringly dark and deathly, and the pages within meet, and exceed, the expectations set by that first glance. Plus – there’s embossing, which is always a good start!

Beloved Poison is set in a grimy, festering, crumbling London hospital in the 1850s. Syphilis is rife within the city, jealousy seethes underneath the doctors’ skins, and a murderous secret lurks in the shadows of the wards.

The story is narrated by the apothecary, Jem Flockhart, an interesting observer of everything that happens within the walls of St Saviour’s Infirmary. Raised as a boy after her mother and twin brother died in childbirth, Jem is a conflicted young woman who doesn’t seem to “fit” anywhere in society. She has hidden her femininity all her life, and as a result of keeping her own precious secret, is painfully observant and aware of everything and everyone around her. When a young man arrives to oversee the excavation of St Saviour’s cemetary prior to the hospital’s demolition, they uncover a secret that’s been hidden for a number of years, and set out to solve the meaning behind their macabre discovery. However, someone doesn’t want them delving too deeply, and the results are deadly.

Beloved Poison is richly descriptive and elegantly composed. The images conjured of a dirty, disease-riddled city are powerful and evocative; with each page, you can almost smell the decay and the rotting earth.

The characters are beautifully created and explored, without Thomson falling into the habit of excessive descriptions of looks, clothing and demeanour. Words are not wasted; every sentence is well-thought out and vital to the unfolding story. This is a very clever, very dark story, one which I couldn’t put down until I’d turned to the last page. There were a few moments of predictability, but for most of the novel, I was left scratching my head, wondering who was behind the sinister happenings at St Saviour’s.

This is a very enjoyable read, that will keep you guessing right up until the final moments.

 

 

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Book Review: The Butcher’s Hook

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The Butcher’s Hook – Janet Ellis
Published by Hachette NZ

Georgian London, in the summer of 1763.
At 19, Anne Jaccob, the elder daughter of well-to-do parents, meets Fub the butcher’s apprentice and is awakened to the possibilities of joy and passion.
Anne lives a sheltered life; her home is a miserable place and her parents have already chosen a more suitable husband for her than Fub.
But Anne is an unusual young woman and is determined to pursue her own happiness in her own way…even if that means getting a little blood on her hands.

The Butcher’s Hook is the darkly witty debut novel from British actress and presenter, Janet Ellis. It tells the story of 19-year-old Anne, who lives in a home void of happiness and full of tragic memories. Her cold and seemingly-unfeeling father has found Anne a husband; Mr Onions is as repulsive to Anne as his name suggests. To complicate matters, Anne has fallen in love with Fub, the butcher’s apprentice and delivery boy, and her world is suddenly thrown into a passion-filled turmoil.

This is the kind of novel that hooks you in from the very beginning, and even though the “action” doesn’t happen until at least three-quarters of the way through, it is a compelling read. Ellis has a very natural and very witty style, yet manages to keep an 18th-Century voice throughout the story. She captures a dirty, crowded London beautifully, without excessive narration; as I read, I was transported back to the city I called home for a while, but as it would have been in the past.

As a heroine, Anne Jaccob is a bit of an enigma. Outwardly, she seems to have it all; she is pretty, partly educated, and comes from a family of some means. Inwardly, however, she is much more complex, astute and devious than you’d expect. Her observations of the world around her, especially the people, are very sharp, often caustic and droll:

There was a pattern to our habits, too, but it was a dull one, devoid of colour. My father farted at nine o’clock in the morning as he performed his ablutions; the church clock chimed in his malodorous wake.

As Anne becomes more determined to control her own fate, her actions become stranger but more persistent. She begins to understand that there is an unexplored world outside her home’s four walls, and that sometimes, Fate needs a little helping hand. However, as her desire for this control grows, so too do the tragedies, yet she can’t find any reason to doubt that her actions are anything but right. She sweeps the reader along in her heady quest for love, but it eventually becomes obvious that lust and love are quite different. Towards the end of the novel, Anne experiences a moment of growth, and there is the possibility of redemption, but her determination and belief in her own actions is still very strong…

This is a novel full of dark surprises and sardonic wit; Ellis has created a devious yet likeable cast of characters, and the result is a novel that will leave you wanting more.

(As an aside, I love the cover of this book! The random selection of drawings won’t seem so random once you’ve started to read, I promise!)

Book Review: Hare and Tortoise

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Hare and Tortoise – Alison Murray
Published by Hachette NZ

Our copy of Hare and Tortoise was taken to kindy on the day I started this review, so Pickle could share it with his “class”. One of his teachers thought it was a great story to bring in, as they are currently talking to the kids about perseverance, resilience and independence. Their feedback was glowing – they thought it was an excellent re-telling, with mass appeal for the range of ages at kindergarten.

Everyone knows the story of the hare and the tortoise right? It’s probably one of Aesop’s most famous fables. This re-telling by Alison Murray is gorgeous, funny and contemporary, without losing the moral of the story.

My boys love it. The story is so appealing and the illustrations are just gorgeous. They love the comparison between Tortoise, who is very good at standing still, and a rock; they love the energy of Hare, who is not very good at standing still, but can run really, really fast.

It’s a witty re-telling, with such appealing illustrations (also by Murray); every page is a treat to read and explore, while still being snappy and lyrical. You can’t help but be swept along with Hare’s speed, and a few pages later, find yourself ambling along leisurely with Tortoise.

Another gem – already well-loved – from Hachette NZ – thanks team!

 

Book Review: Have You Seen Elephant?

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Have You Seen Elephant? – David Barrow
Published by Gecko Press

There are two Gecko Press books on rotation in our house at the moment: Ko Wai e Huna Ana? and Have You Seen Elephant?

Since it arrived last week, David Barrow’s beautifully-illustrated Have You Seen Elephant? has been thrust under my nose at every opportunity, accompanied by Pickle’s huge brown eyes and a cheeky grin.

He loves it.

Scratch that.

We love it.

It is, quite honestly, one of the funniest children’s books I’ve read in a while. Elephant wants to play hide-and-seek. The boy is keen, but Elephant just has to warn him…he is very good at hide-and-seek.

Such a simple concept, yet Barrows has executed it with some of the loveliest illustrations I’ve seen in a long time. They are so witty, so appealing, and just…well…beautiful.

We laugh our way through it every single read-through. Elephant’s great hiding skills elicit the same giggles from Pickle each time, especially when I pretend I can’t see that Elephant is hiding under a lamp or behind an incredibly skinny tree.

The ending is a little subtle for my three-and-a-half year old, but my nearly-six-year-old got it straight away and I thought he was going to choke on his own laughter: Turtle asks if they want to play tag, but he has to warn the boy…

Yet another Gecko Press gem that is yet to make it on to a shelf; thanks team!

Book Review: Who’s Afraid?

Who's Afraid?

Who’s Afraid? – Maria Lewis
Published by Hachette New Zealand, Jan 2016

Tommi Grayson’s never exactly been a normal girl. Bright blue hair, a mysterious past and barely controlled rage issues have a way of making a woman stand out. Yet she’s never come close to guessing who she really is…

Who’s Afraid? is the debut novel of New Zealand-born, Australia-based Maria Lewis. Described as a “fresh, witty, compelling tale with a pop culture edge”, this is a book that will see you turning your light off way past your bedtime, then leaping onto your bed for fear that something is lurking underneath. Fantasy isn’t my usual genre, but this is a different type of fantasy. It’s got an urban, supernatural vibe, mixed with elements of Maori culture, pop culture and contemporary life.

After the tragic death of her mother, Tommi Grayson leaves Scotland on a mission to track down her father in New Zealand, where she discovers that her heritage is much more complicated than her mother led her to believe. Her father was the head of a powerful Maori werewolf pack, and his family want to recruit her as one of their own.

Tommi escapes the pack, and returns to Scotland, accompanied by a Counsellor provided to her by an ancient governing body; Lorcan’s job is to help Tommi control and adjust to her werewolf self, making sure she transitions safely each full moon.

  • I couldn’t help comparing blue-haired Tommi to another blue-haired heroine I love, but as the story and characters developed, I lost the comparison. Tommi initially comes across as tough, unemotional and staunch, but we see a more mature and emotional side of her as the tale unfolds. The rest of the characters were strongly written; it’s a small cast, but a mostly likable one, and the relationships between them were also very believable.
  • Lewis’ writing style developed and matured along with Tommi’s character; I initially felt it was a bit stilted, but there was a chattiness to her writing that made it very easy to read and it moved along at a delectable pace.
  • The supernatural world that Tommi suddenly found herself part of was cleverly and casually unfolded rather than explained via a long-winded monologue by Lorcan or any other character (one aspect of fantasy fiction that usually puts me off)
  • There were gory fight scenes, a handful of bedroom encounters, and an attempted assault, all of which were much more explicit than I expected, but not difficult to read. There were a few expletives, so if swearing and hanky-panky in a novel isn’t your thing, this book might not be for you.
  • There were surprises along the way (when an author kills off some of the most loveable characters, that’s when you sit up and take notice), including the way the book ended – but that only indicates that there are more Tommi Grayson tales to come.

Book Review: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams

Bazaar of Bad Dreams

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams – Stephen King
Published by Hachette New Zealand, November 2015

I’ve always been a Stephen King fan, but in recent years I haven’t read many of his books because motherhood seems to have turned me into a bit of a scaredy cat.

However, I figured I’d be able to handle the horror in short doses, so started The Bazaar of Bad Dreams with a mixture of excitement and apprehension.

Stephen King writes a fascinating introduction to the entire collection of short stories (warning the reader to “…feel free to examine them, but please be careful. The best of them have teeth.”), but each story also has its own special introduction. King gives an insight into the inspiration for each story, giving the reader an intriguing look into his history, his literary journey, and the methods he uses to tell his stories.

There are twenty stories featured in the collection, some new, some published previously. There is likely to be a story that appeals to everyone, regardless of your feelings about horror stories. I have two very clear, very different favourites: Mile 81, and Mister Yummy.

The first story in the collection, Mile 81, was, for me, the most terrifying and chilling. It tells the story of a monster masquerading as a car in an abandoned rest area off the highway; while a young boy sleeps in an alcohol-induced stupor inside an old burger joint, car after car is abandoned as their owners are swallowed up by the vicious vehicle. I found the story compelling and frightening; I couldn’t stop reading, yet I didn’t want to read that another person had disappeared after stopping to help.

Mister Yummy appealed to me on a very different level, and I’m finding it hard to explain why. It tells the tale of old friends in a rest home, one of whom says he has started to see the past image of someone he used to know and as the spectre moves closer and closer, he knows he is going to die. It’s a beautiful and poignant story of friendship and the certainty of death; I find the imagery of Death as someone you once knew and fancied to be quite peaceful and almost reassuring.

The rest of the stories in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams are very good, but none scared me the same way as Mile 81, or resonated with me like Mister Yummy. If you are a hardened Stephen King horror fan, you might find the stories featured here a little tame. However, if you appreciate King for his way with words and his ability to write, really write, you will not be disappointed. And if you aren’t a Stephen King fan at all, I still think you’ll find yourself lost in this book. It’s a good ‘un.

Put this on your Christmas list for the book lover in your life – available to purchase online via Hachette.

Thank you, Hachette NZ, for this review copy.

 

 

Book Review: The Girl in the Spider’s Web

The Girl in the Spider's WebThe Girl in the Spider’s Web – David Lagercrantz
Published by Hachette NZ

To say I was excited to receive a copy of The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a major understatement. There was squealing and much dancing about in the kitchen; I wanted to begin it straight away, but I was trying to finish a library book before its due date, as well as review Everybody Rise and Devoted in Death.

When we packed for our epic school holiday adventure, The Girl in the Spider’s Web was one of the first things I put into my suitcase. The day I started it, I sat for a moment, stroking the cover and savouring the moment before diving in to what I hoped would be another extraordinary Millennium novel.

David Lagercrantz has bravely undertaken to continue Stieg Larsson’s highly successful series, a decision that could have been disastrous, but in reality has been pretty damn good.

I was hooked from the first page, and couldn’t put the book down (as my husband will attest to). I read and read and read, and suddenly I was – reluctantly – turning the last few pages. This was surprising, given that while I enjoyed the first three books in the series, I found them quite hard to get lost in.

I enjoyed Lagercrantz’s style. It is similar to Larsson’s, and this book is definitely a fitting tribute, but there was something more accessible about it. The pace was fast and exciting, but there was less focus on the technical stuff which appealed much more to me. There was the same explosive action, but it was slightly less graphic; Lagercrantz managed to convey the same sense of urgency and violence without the same gory detail.

The characters were interesting and varied; I felt Lisbeth Salander was slightly less edgy than before, but she’s also older and more mature, which would explain a few changes in her behaviour and thinking. I thought Lagercrantz did a great job of maintaining the integrity of the characters we’ve read before; he has captured both Mikael Blomkvist and Salander’s desire for justice very well.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web has an exciting plot, and I was taken aback at the “disposal” of a seemingly major player very early on. I had to re-read a page or two in order to be sure I had read it correctly, and once I realised I had, I was even more hooked than before.

The ending of the book made it very clear that there are more to come, and if Lagercrantz is going to be writing them, I will definitely be adding them to my bookshelf.

Thank you, Hachette NZ, for my review copy.

Book Review: Devoted in Death

Devoted in DeathDevoted in Death – J.D. Robb
Published by Hachette NZ

Having not read one of the 40-odd previous In Death stories, I had no idea what to expect from Devoted in Death. It’s the kind of book my husband buys to read when we go on holiday; the kind of book that I usually end up finishing before he does. Indeed, I finished this one while on holiday, and if he hadn’t been reading something else, I would have suggested he read it too.

In the beginning, I thought Devoted in Death was going to follow the same route as most crime thrillers, with a formulaic rehashing of the character histories and past traumas. However. I was pleasantly surprised that Robb merely hinted at previous books, teasing me into thinking I’d better seek them out to discover who the characters were and what had shaped them.

I enjoyed Robb’s style of writing, and her ability to tell a gruesome story in a succinct and gripping way. Devoted in Death was clever and fast-paced, and as the number of remaining pages dwindled, I began to turn them faster than ever before.

The characters were interesting; I enjoyed the relationships between them, and the minor players. I’m not sure whether I liked Lieutenant Eve Dallas or not, but I felt a sort of respect for her ability to think outside the box and her determination to solve the crime.

Devoted in Death was a good read, and I’ll definitely be looking to read some of the previous storied soon.

Thank you to Hachette NZ for my review copy.

Book Review: Everybody Rise

Everybody RiseEverybody Rise – Stephanie Clifford
Published by Hachette NZ

I started to read Everybody Rise immediately after finishing Shogun (James Clavell). Shogun was an epic story and I loved it, and I wasn’t sure how Everybody Rise would fare following such an amazing classic.

I needn’t have worried for this debut novel, because it was an addictive and brilliant story, and I very quickly forgot all about Shogun.

Everybody Rise tells the story of Evelyn Beegan, a young woman who has spent her life fighting against her mother’s desire to be one of society’s finest, but ends up chasing that very same dream. She tells lie after lie in her bid to become socially accepted by New York’s elite, and as she grows more ruthless and selfish in her pursuits, she becomes more entangled in her stories and everything around her begins to crumble.

This novel is a page-turner. I wanted to read at all times of the day, and finished it within three. I planned my days around when I could read for just five more minutes, yet I was reluctant to finish it.

The characters were cleverly portrayed and well-written; the dialogue and interactions between them were so very real. I liked Evelyn and then I loathed her; I loathed Camilla (Evelyn’s glamourous new BFF) and then I liked her. I felt everything Evelyn was feeling – when her long-time friend Charlotte discovered how badly in debt she was, my stomach started to churn and I felt nervous and anxious for her. When she betrayed her lovely boyfriend, Scot, and then lied to him about it, I was angry and sad all at once. It’s a powerful book that makes the reader feel so much, and Everybody Rise took me by surprise in that respect.

I expected Everybody Rise to be an easy, light-hearted read, and it is, but it is also so much more. Funny, insightful, clever, witty and dramatic, it encapsulates the world of those with money – and that of those without – perfectly.

And there is embossing on the cover. I love embossed covers.

Huge thanks to Hachette New Zealand for my review copy.

 

Book Review: The Big Book of Animals of the World

The Big Book of Animals of the WorldThe Big Book of Animals of the World – Ole Könnecke
Published by Gecko Press, September 2015

A large-format boardbook looking at the common – and uncommon – animals that live side-by-side all over the world.

The Big Book of Animals of the World is a gorgeous pictorial “encyclopaedia” featuring animals and landscapes from across the globe. Each double-page spread covers one continent or ocean, and features a variety of animals and scenes. The animals range from the well-known (lions, bears, hippos, whales…) to the less-well-known (tapir, marmot, sanctuary bird…), and each illustration is simple and appealing in Ole Könnecke’s signature style.

We had a great time exploring each page, looking at the variety of animals that inhabit the earth, and seeing what the little mice “people” were doing in each scene.

This is a lovely addition to our non-fiction collection of books, and it has been popular with the children in Tiny’s class, too.

Thank you, Gecko Press, for another stellar publication for us to review!