Book Review: Runemarks

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Runemarks – Joanne M. Harris
Published by Hachette New Zealand, 2016

In a world where magic and mystery are outlawed, Maddy has always been an outsider. With the strange marking on her hand and her unusual abilities, she’s mistrusted and feared by ‘normal’ folk.

But Maddy’s life is about to change. From learning about the ways of the old gods, to travelling into World Below and meeting the infamous trickster, Loki, Maddy must embark on a journey the likes of which she has never imagined.

As the powers of Chaos and Order prepare for a war to end all wars, it is Maddy who unknowingly holds the key to the Worlds’ survival.

I have a few Joanne Harris novels on my bookshelf: Chocolat, Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the Orange, Coastliners and Holy Fools. All are quite different and quirky, but there’s a similarity in tone or plot that links them, in my mind, to each other. However, none of them are like Runemarks at all; if you’d covered the author’s name and asked me to guess at who wrote it, I certainly wouldn’t have guessed at Joanne Harris.

But here’s the thing: I loved romantic, whimsical Chocolat, and found Blackberry Wine tantalising in its point of view (first person, as a bottle of wine)…and was so gripped by Runemarks that I read until close to midnight on more than one occasion. Very different genres, very different styles, and very different stories, but with one thing in common: very, very good.

With Runemarks, Harris has created a world – nine, to be exact – full of magic and mystery, where a host of characters from Norse mythology mingle with common folk who are terrified of magic. I have a basic knowledge of Norse mythology, so felt familiar with the main players (specifically Odin, Loki and Thor), and found it interesting to learn more about them. I especially liked Harris’ Loki, the Trickster; he was one of those characters that I was instantly drawn too, despite his history of treachery and deceit. I found Maddy, our common heroine, to be far more mature than her 14 years should suggest, but her character was likeable if a little predictable at times.

The story started out slowly, but picked up pace about five chapters in and then raced along at heart-stopping, breath-quickening pace. It was exciting and compelling, and nerve-wracking in parts; a page-turner that I struggled to put down because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. There were a few predictable plot-twists, but some that I didn’t see coming until they were about to happen. It was a cleverly crafted story, and has left me wanting more (which I will find, in the form of Runelight, and The Gospel of Loki). Fantasy isn’t usually a genre I go for, and I’ve certainly not read many mythical fantasy novels (if any!), but Runemarks was a pleasant introduction and a happy surprise.

Thank you to Hachette for my review copy, and for the opportunity to experience so many amazing books over the past couple of years!

Book Review: All I Ever Wanted

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All I Ever Wanted – Lucy Dillon
Published by Hachette New Zealand

Catlin’s life is a mess. Her marriage to a man everyone else thinks is perfect has collapsed, along with her self-esteem, and breaking free seems the only option.

Nancy, her four-year-old daughter, used to talk all the time; in the car, at nursery, to her brother Joel. Then her parents split up. Her daddy moves out. And Nancy stops speaking.

Nancy’s Auntie Eva, recently widowed and feeling alone, apart from the companionship of two bewildered pugs, is facing a future without her husband or the dreams she gave up for him.

But when Eva agrees to host her niece and nephew once a fortnight, Caitlin and Eva are made to face the different truths about their marriages – and about what they both really want…

If you need a last-minute gift idea for someone this Christmas, I suggest you race out now (or click here) to buy a copy of All I Ever Wanted. Or if you’re looking for a good book to take to the crib/bach/beach this summer…buy a copy of All I Ever Wanted. I thought it might be a bit “fluffy”, a bit of romcom chick lit, but it is so much better than that. It made me cry, and it made me smile, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable, compelling read that I didn’t want to put down.

The characters are written so well, and through the course of the novel, we get to know each of them quite well through their interactions and relationships with one another. The only characters we merely skim the surface of are Patrick, Catlin’s husband, and Alex, Eva’s friend, yet we still get a sense of who they are. Caitlin is complicated; she appears outwardly confident but constantly battles with self-doubt and regret over what she hasn’t done with her life. Nancy is full of spark and is rather perceptive for a pre-schooler; her brother Joel exudes energy and drama, but is sensitive to everything going on around him, and is fiercely protective of his little sister. Auntie Eva thought she was happy with where life and circumstance had taken her, but spending time with her niece and nephew allows her to see what her heart has always desired: children of her own. Patrick comes across as a busy professional, focused on his career, desperate to live up to an impossible standard he incorrectly recalls from his own father; he is the character who reveals little of himself, until it’s almost too late, and then he became one of my favourites.

And Bumble and Bee, the pugs…well, never have I thought so highly of a pair of fictional pets! They are an integral part of the story, and Dillon has a magical way of bringing them to life. Upon finishing the book, I decided I need pugs.

All I Ever Wanted is very clever – in a subtle, “Oh, I see, and like, what you’re doing here” kinda way instead of a “Wow, I didn’t see THAT coming” kinda way. It’s an extremely satisfying story – the ending was so good! – and thought-provoking, realistic and moving at the same time. It’s not your typical romance novel, especially where the crumbling relationship between Caitlin and Patrick is concerned, which is very refreshing.

I will be sharing this book around my Village mums, for sure.

Thank you to Hachette NZ for my review copy.

Book Review: Songs of a War Boy

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Songs of a War Boy – Deng Adut with Ben Mckelvey
Published by Hachette New Zealand

The true story of Deng Adut – Sudanese child soldier, refugee, man of hope.

This is the true story of a childhood stolen by war, of a young boy’s life ravaged by politics and tribal greed, and of a brother’s fierce love which endured all of the atrocities of war.

The word “inspiring” doesn’t seem adequate enough to capture how amazing this book, and this man, are. To overcome such adversity, to face such horror, to travel halfway across the world for a new chance at life, and to grab that chance with both hands and run with it…I can’t think of a better word, so inspiring will have to do.

The prologue of Songs of a War Boy begins with a poignancy that is echoed throughout the rest of the book:

Songs are of great importance to my people, the Dinka. They’re our avatars, and our biographies. They precede us, introduce us and live on after we die. They are also how our deeds escape our villages, and they pass on our code of morality, culture and law.

When I was a boy I dreamed of having my own songs, but now I am a man, and I have no songs. It’s likely I never will, in the traditional sense. For the Dinka, these songs are only for me. In the eyes of my culture, I am still a boy.

When I should have been going through the rituals of manhood, I was caught in a vicious war. By the time I was returned to my people, I was very much a westerner. My feet straddle the continents, and also the threshold of manhood.

Deng Adut’s story is not easy to read, in that it is difficult to imagine the horrors he had to endure when he should have been playing in his village with his family. It is powerful and heart-wrenching to read his first-hand account of the South Sudanese conflict; there is no glorification of war, and in his own words, Deng Adut is “…proud of some things I have done, and ashamed of others, but I own all of it, and I’ve reconciled with all of it. That’s why I am whole.”

This is an incredibly poignant, remarkable, inspirational story, and one that will tug at you for days after you’ve read the final page. It’s amazing how a child could endure what Deng Adut endured, yet as an adult, is able to see that life is a gift, and is able – and willing – to go on to do such brilliant things for himself, and for others.

Songs of a War Boy is more than one man’s story about the war that tore his country apart; it is the story of many, and as such, is full of hope not only for Deng Adut’s future, but the potential futures of refugees around the world. At a time when refugees are constantly seeking safety and opportunity far from their natural shores, this is a book that might make some people stop and change their attitudes towards others; reading a first-hand account of the difficulties in transitioning into a new culture will evoke sympathy where before there was perhaps none.

This book is incredibly thought-provoking, hopeful and (I know I’m  repeating myself!) inspiring, and with Christmas fast approaching, would make an excellent gift for the reader(s) in your life.

Thank you to Hachette NZ for my review copy.

Book Review: Archangel’s Heart

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Archangel’s Heart – Nalini Singh
Published by Hachette New Zealand

Archangel’s Heart is the ninth novel in Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series, and the first that I have read. To say I’m keen to go back and read the first eight is an understatement; as soon as I’ve cleared a bit of a bedside-table-backlog, I’ll be hitting the local library to get my hands on the rest of this series.

That’s not to say I feel I need to read them in order to understand the concept – I want to read them. That’s the skill in Singh’s writing: she has written a novel that stands alone and can be enjoyed as such, but that makes you crave more.

It took me a few chapters to come to grips with the characters and the relationships between them (something that will no doubt become clearer once I’ve read the predecessors), but then I was hooked. I thought the characters were well-written and believable (for immortal beings!), and their relationships echoed that. The romantic in me adores the relationship between Archangel, Raphael, and Consort, Elena, even though the realist is scoffing a bit in the background. However, that realist can just be quiet, because the one of the strongest messages in this book is that love is the strongest power in the world (this one, or Singh’s imagined one). There is something immediately appealing about Elena. She’s tough and determined, smart and more than a little stubborn, all which make for a likeable female protagonist. If I had daughters, I’d think she was a suitable role model.

I like Singh’s dark and intense style. She weaves an intricate and magical story, set in an intricate and magical world, and I didn’t want to put this novel down. The ending was very satisfying, while leaving things wide open for the next installment…usually that annoys me, but I enjoyed this book so much, I wasn’t fazed.

I can’t think of anything I didn’t like about this book. It was a great read, and I really liked it. Simple as that.

Thank you Hachette NZ for my review copy.

 

Book Review: Enid Blyton’s Summer Stories

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Enid Blyton’s Summer Stories – Enid Blyton
Published by Hachette New Zealand

School’s out! So go on a picnic, visit the seaside or throw coconuts at the fair in this enchanting collection of stories perfect for summer holidays.

We didn’t save this until the summer holidays, which seem very far away when winter is still peeking its head out of the clouds every once in a while. However, that didn’t stop the six-year-old and I from snuggling up on the couch to read together…until he told me, politely and using different words, to bugger off so he could read to himself!

Here’s what he had to say about this collection of whimsical Enid Blyton stories:

“I don’t have a favourite story in this book – I liked them all. I liked that at the end of some, the author asked me what I thought or what I would have done. Sometimes I thought some of the characters were a bit mean and a bit naughty, but a lot of them were very kind and helpful.

There was a lot of magic in the book. I liked that some of the characters were real and some were pretend. There was a mermaid in the last story [The Galloping Seahorse].

The pictures were really cool. I liked the hedgehog. I think I’ll start from the beginning again…do you want to read them with me, mum?”

Yes, my darling boy, I most certainly do!

Another stellar collection of classic Enid Blyton, with timeless appeal and that magic that every childhood needs.

Thanks to Hachette NZ for our review copy.

Book Review: Cherry Tree Farm Collection

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The Cherry Tree Farm Collection – Enid Blyton
Published by Hachette New Zealand

This collection brings together some of Enid Blyton’s earliest and most imaginative stories – The Children of Cherry Tree Farm (1940) and two further stories about the same children, The Children at Willow Farm (1942) and More Adventures at Willow Farm (1943).

I grew up reading the stories of Enid Blyton, and as an adult, I’m still a big fan. Her stories are appealing on so many levels, and her ability to make adventure and magic from nothing is second to none.

I don’t know who was more excited when The Cherry Tree Farm Collection arrived for review – me or my six-year-old. That night, we sat down together and read a few chapters; the late hour was the only thing that stopped us from finishing the whole book!

There’s something about this bunch of siblings and their adventures in the countryside that speaks of another time, but of adventures that are timeless and exciting. As a parent who is conscious of getting kids outside to play and roam, it was great to read a book that lacks technology and gadgets, but is full of fun. The children are still a little mischievous, and even though Tiny thought they “speak a little funny”, they are still easy for kids to identify with.

The Cherry Tree Farm Collection is a lot of fun to read. It possesses that quintessential Blyton-ness that brings wonder and magic to every page, making it a joy to read aloud or quietly to yourself.

Thanks to Hachette NZ for our review copy.

Book Review: End of Watch

End of Watch

End of Watch – Stephen King
Published by Hachette New Zealand

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a Stephen King novel that has consumed and terrified me as much as End of Watch did. This is the third and final installment in a trilogy that began with Mr Mercedes, but it isn’t just your run-of-the-mill tie-all-the-ends-together finale, oh no. I haven’t read the first two books in the trilogy (Mr Mercedes or Finders Keepers), but it doesn’t matter; End of Watch is a thrilling stand-alone novel, and the background the first two books will provide really isn’t missed. That in itself is a sign of a great book, in my opinion; it doesn’t rely on its predecessors to be a bloody good read. Plus the cover is lightly embossed with rain drops, which is just awesome.

End of Watch is clever and disturbing, and frightening in a very plausible, realistic way. Technology and medical trials are a fact of modern life, and this novel takes these ideas and transforms them into something sinister and terrifying.

I’ve already placed this book on my husband’s bedside table, and suggested he might like to read it. He’s not a big reader, but I think he will find the whole concept as intriguing as I did.

Stephen King isn’t just a master of horror, he’s also a great writer, and I think that’s why this novel works so well. The characters are believable and likeable (mostly!), and this makes the whole story seem possible. I did find the end of the bad guy a little bit of a let down (maybe I wanted greater punishment and suffering for him??!), but the way the novel itself ended was perfect. I like it when authors aren’t afraid to break the mold or kill off main characters.

At the end of the novel, in his Author’s Note, King touches briefly on the subject of suicide, one of the strongest threads in this story. He encourages readers to seek help when they are feeling low, and I have to say that my respect for the man skyrocketed at that point. To use his novel as a platform for talking about this is huge.

End of Watch is a book that you won’t want to put down; thank you to Hachette New Zealand for my review copy.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Revelations of Carey Ravine

The Revelations of Carey Ravine

The Revelations of Carey Ravine – Debra Daley
Published by Hachette New Zealand

I felt bereft when I realised I’d read the last page of The Revelations of Carey Ravine. For a few moments, I refused to believe that it was over; I flipped frantically through the remaining blank pages, desperate, desiring, wishing for more.

This is a novel that will pull you into the exciting and dangerously-heady world of 1770s London, and take you on a fascinating and opportunistic journey through the seedy opulence of new money, old money, and no money. Daley has a sumptuous talent for drawing you in to a time when money is the only language worth talking; entry into the social elite is solely dependent on wealth and connections, and it doesn’t matter whether that wealth is real or perceived.

Carey Ravine and her husband, Oliver Nash, are desperate to be a part of the highest echelons of London society, and will do nothing, it seems, to be left out. Nash believes that their participation in regular late, drunken and debauched nights are necessary for making their way in the city.

However, Carey begins to realise that their quest for “being someone” is taking its toll on her emotionally, morally and physically, and when confronted by some difficult but believable truths about her husband and his dealings, she begins to question the life they are living.

Daley has created an ebullient cast of characters, each vivid and enthralling in their own ways. Nash is a loveable and charming rogue (until he isn’t); his wife attractive and lively, yet more intelligent and perceptive than others believe. The characters that circle around them are cleverly written and easy to like or not; the villains are easy to spot, yet there are moments where you question the motives of each and every one.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Revelations of Carey Ravine, and while I was sad when I realise I’d finished, it ended beautifully, and that softened the blow.

Thank you to the team at Hachette New Zealand for my review copy; you can buy your own here!

Book Review: Katherine of Aragon

Katherine of Aragon

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen – Alison Weir
Published by Hachette New Zealand

History tells us how she died. This captivating novel shows us how she lived.

I’m a sucker for historical fiction, and have been fascinated by British royal history since my last year of high school. I can still hear my history teacher’s voice reciting, “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” to help us remember the fates of each of Henry VIII’s wives. I loved the historically inaccurate but wonderfully compelling The Tudors (starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII), and devoured books such as The Other Boleyn Girl. My husband laughed at me when I returned from a visit to Windsor Castle with a fridge magnet timeline of the Kings and Queens of England, but I love it, and it’s a bit of a talking point in my kitchen.

This meant I began reading Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen with a very good idea of what would happen…but even then I wasn’t prepared for how much I enjoyed this novel. Alison Weir has published numerous history books, and she knows more than most about British royal history. She describes various palaces and characters in such astonishing and evocative detail, and it’s obvious that this detail is all derived from fact. To be able to subtly write about a certain item of furniture or decoration or item of jewellery without it sounding like a recitation of facts is a talent of Weir’s.

She portrays Katherine as devout, but also devoted to her husband and to her daughter, Mary. She allows us to experience each and every miscarriage, stillbirth and death of her babies that Katherine experienced, as well as each illness and heartbreak. Where fans of Henry VIII would have us believe that Katherine was barren, grim and hard-hearted in her faith, Weir has created a much softer character; she reminds us that Katherine was shipped to a foreign country with no knowledge of the language or customs, and that she was a daughter, a mother, and a betrayed wife.

There are five more novels to come in the Six Tudor Queens series, and I’m simply bursting to read the next installment. The names of Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr all pop up at various points during the novel, which gives the reader an idea of how all the queens are involved in the king’s court somehow. I thought it was very clever how Anne Boleyn is brought into the story, but the novel remains Katherine’s – it could easily have switched to become more about Henry’s second wife, but Weir keeps to her account of Katherine’s life.

Well-written, captivating and compelling, Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen is a fascinating new look at a very old and well-documented subject, and I highly recommend it to fans of historical novels, or those who think they might like a wee taste of this genre.

Book Review: Everyone Brave is Forgiven

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Everyone Brave is Forgiven – Chris Cleave
Published by Hachette NZ

When war is declared, Mary north leaves finishing school unfinished, goes straight to the War Office, and signs up.

Tom Shaw decides to give it a miss – until his flatmate Alistair unexpectedly enlists, and the conflict can no longer be avoided.

Young, bright and brave, Mary is certain she’ll be a marvellous spy. When she is – bewilderingly – made a teacher, she instead finds herself defying prejudice to protect the children her country would rather forget.

Let me preface this review of Everyone Brave is Forgiven by telling you that if you haven’t read a Chris Cleave novel yet, you are missing out on something very, very special. I recently read and adored The Other Hand, and this new novel lives up to all my expectations of this masterful storyteller.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven begins in London as the Second World War is declared, and takes us between London and Malta, where English troops are stationed. The difference between the locations is, initially, stark and sobering, but as war reaches London, comparisons begin to be drawn. There is terror, death and injury where buildings and joy once stood; Everyone Brave is Forgiven is a commentary on the horrors of war, the human cost and the reach of its terror.

At the same time, it is a story of love and small triumphs, of devotion and sorrow, of the capacity of the human mind, and body. It’s a story that will make you laugh out loud, and then cry into your tea. Cleave is a weaver of words, producing dazzling dialogue and setting sumptuous scenes. You’ll find yourself lost among the pages of Everyone Brave is Forgiven, such is the richness of the storytelling.

From the opening paragraph, I was hooked like a fish on a line:

War was declared at 11.15 and Mary North signed up at noon. She did it at lunch, before telegrams came in, in case her mother said no. She left finishing school unfinished. Skiing down from Mont-Choisi, she ditched her equipment at the foot of the slope and telegraphed the War Office from Lausanne.

The scene couldn’t have been more perfectly set, or our heroine more beautifully presented; from the outset, we are shown a Mary North who is much more complex than outward appearances might suggest.

Mary is from a wealthy family; a beautiful socialite who should marry someone from a similar background, and quietly support them in their endeavours. However, Mary is determined that her father’s political career will not define her, and throughout this book, she pushes all the boundaries of the stereotype she should be living up to.

She falls in love with Tom, a natural worrier and pessimist who is eager to please…as long as he doesn’t have to face the realities of war. He will do anything for Mary, but worries that she will find his pacifism a weakness. He doubts his ability to make her happy, yet does everything in his power to make her so. And he succeeds, for the most part, until the inhabitants of London can no longer deny that the war is coming to their shores.

With the arrival of Tom’s flatmate, Alistair, and his subsequent departure to the island of Malta, everything changes. War becomes not only a test of strength and power, but of love and friendship too; proving that the effects of war are not purely those that can be seen. There are prejudices and stereotypes to be disproved, friendships to be explored and tested, and hearts and minds that will be tested beyond any capacity you might expect.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven is poignant and beautiful, sorrowful and thought-provoking, and so powerfully written that I feel nothing I write can do it justice. Put this novel at the top of your “Must Read” list, and find a copy now (I’ll make it easy for you – buy it here from Hachette NZ)!