Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Coincidence Authority by J.W. Ironmonger

I still can’t work out what initially drew me to this book. A unique title? A colourful cover? Fate itself? Whatever it was, I’m so glad I found it. The lead character is Azalea Lewis whose life is a string of seemingly unexplainable coincidences. 

Abandoned as a child at a fairground in Devon, she was then adopted by a lovely couple whose missionary work saw them all whisked off to Africa, where their lives were changed forever. 

Now an adult and searching for answers, she turns to academic Dr Thomas Post to explain the startling coincidences in her life. As her story is unravelled, from pre-conception to the present, Azalea makes a terrifying prediction of the date of her own death, can Thomas see past reason and predictability in order to save her.  

This story is unlike anything I have read before and there were two big factors as to why I became so enamoured with it. One: Azalea’s story. I really enjoyed the flashbacks into the past that explored how she came into being, and the unusual events that shaped her life, up to and including her relationship with Thomas. From the British Isles to Africa and back again, I found myself wanting to know everything there was to know about Azalea Lewis. 

Two: the fascinating exploration of coincidence, fate and destiny. It’s something I think about from time to time, as I’m sure a lot of us do. For example, what are the chances of bumping into someone we haven’t seen for years, in a country neither of us live in? Or meeting somebody new and finding out they used to live in the same road as you? 

When I went travelling, I met people from overseas that somehow had mutual friends back in the UK with, or they were from an area near to me in London. I found myself saying, “It’s such a small world!” but is it really? Statistically, is it really that strange an occurrence? Is our destiny already mapped out for us, and out of our control, or are there just big coincidences that randomly affect our lives. 

In the course of Azalea examining her own history; it made me think about fate and coincidence in terms of her fictional life, as well as my own. It is such an open theme with so much scope for interpretation and I loved how it was wrapped up in such an original tale. The Coincidence Authority is a fabulous and truly enthralling read from start to finish. 

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle

There is something wonderfully addictive about Elizabeth Fremantle’s historical novels. Maybe it’s just me because I love history (especially the time period she writes about) but when I start one of her novels, I cannot put it down until I’m finished! 

I was first hooked on her writing by Queen’s Gambit and then was equally charmed by Sisters of Treason. Her latest novel set during the turbulent times of the Tudors, stars Penelope Devereux as the lead character. 

Not only a beauty, Penelope is also a cunning and clever woman who will use all her wiles to secure the legacy of her family, even if it means betraying the Queen herself. Political manipulation and scandals at court are all part of the game as the future throne of England is played for. 

Penelope is a character of two halves. There is the one half that plots tirelessly to elevate her family as well as holding them together as she is the internal strength of the Essex household. The other half is one full of love and passion. She was denied her first love and so she makes sure she follows her heart fully in the objects of her desire, no matter what the cost to her reputation. 

I really admired Penelope. She was clever and passionate; the sort of female lead you want to support and read about. I kind of liked the fact that because she was a) beautiful and b) a woman meaning she was automatically underestimated, but was actually the ones pulling the strings of the future of England. I suppose her underestimation worked to her advantage in most things, although the slimy Robert Cecil is almost obsessed with her, and trying to second guess her actions at every turn. 

Another aspect that makes these novels so additive is the setting of court. I’ve read several novels set in one royal court or another and it is literally a breeding ground for secrets, scandal and manipulation of all kinds. I really don’t think I could ever operate in such an environment, which adds to my esteem of Penelope all the more. 

I really enjoy Ms Fremantle’s writing style which is elegantly written yet easy to read, atmospheric and exciting in all the right places and steeped in rich historical detail. I don’t think I can say much more about this book without sounding too fangirlish but needless to say, it was a really good read. If you are interested in the Tudors or historical fiction in general, then Elizabeth Fremantle is an author you need in your life.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

5 Job Aspirations Inspired By Fiction

Books have always inspired me in one way or another. One way is of potential job careers realistic or otherwise. I suppose the same could be said of TV and film. After seeing Indiana Jones I briefly entertained the idea of being an archaeologist. After Jurassic Park, a career working with dinosaurs seemed quite appealing. Even now as an adult, I might watch Strictly Come Dancing and think maybe it’s not too late to become a championship ballroom dancer. Anyway, random daydreaming aside, here are 5 cases where books had me pondering some rather interesting and unconventional job choices I wouldn’t say no to.

1. Child Detective inspired by the Nancy Drew mysteries created by Edward Stratemeyer
Starting off with a really nostalgic one here. When I was a kid I remember being really impressed with the spirited Nancy Drew and that led to a brief want to be a detective. She was clever, brave and confident; probably everything I wanted to be at that age. Her mysteries always seemed so exciting and she always got the bad guy in the end. At that point, I hadn’t got into the gritty police dramas or psychological thrillers I devour now, at that time I just wanted to be the wily heroine that daringly solved the mystery at the end.  

2. Witch or Wizard from the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling
Correct me if I’m wrong, but who has ever read a Harry Potter book and hasn’t fantasized about getting their Hogwarts acceptance letter? I for one would jump at the chance to don the cloak and (hopefully) Gryffindor colours and take that legendary train ride to the beautiful Hogwarts castle. Potions, spells, Quidditch and those amazing school feasts... who wouldn’t want to be part of all those things? Muggles probably. Part of the attraction of these books is the fantastic world that the reader wants to be involved in. I don’t think I would ever be on a level with Hermione but I reckon I could wingardium leviosa with the best of them.

3. Librarian from The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
I’ve always liked the idea of being a normal librarian (I mean, what kind of bookworm would I be if I didn’t want to spend all day surrounded by books). However an Invisible Library librarian is part scholar, part spy, seeking out and collecting important books from different realities. The role also includes other perks such as infinite knowledge and longevity that you just don’t get in real world occupations. An Invisible Library librarian is literally the ultimate bookworm profession; books, travel and treasure hunting all rolled into one!

4. Dragon Naturalist inspired by A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
In this extraordinary series by Marie Brennan, Lady Isabella Trent has always had a passion for dragons and she defies the conventions of her time by carving a niche for herself as a front runner in the study of the creatures. The fact that she does it with dignity, heart and bravery in the face of sexism and danger is all the more impressive. I’ve always had a fascination with the legends of dragons myself, so a job where I could travel the world and study them in their natural habitat, help to conserve them and contribute academically to science would be amazing.

5. Pirate inspired by every pirate themed novel I’ve ever read
It could be my affinity with water or a long standing history with pirate fiction but pirates have always seemed so appealing to me, that is unthinkable not to include them in this article They often embark on exciting voyages, find hordes of treasures and there is something quite charming with the whole carefree, rebellious attitude that many pirates are portrayed as having in fiction. Not forgetting the exotic island adventures and seemingly endless supplies of alcohol, I think I could happily adapt to life on the high seas.

So there is my list of alternative fictional job aspirations. If you had any, whether as a child, teenager or adult then please feel free to comment and share as I would love to hear from you!

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime by Val McDermid

Crime fiction is one of the most popular genres around and authors are always finding new ways to shock and thrill us in their criminal portrayals. Celebrated writer Val McDermid is one such author whose crime novels have captivated her readers for years. Now, in this non-fiction book she explores the real life science behind crime scene investigation. 

Each chapter consists of a short study of that field and true crime cases that are significant to the history of that science or best demonstrate how the forensic procedure is actually used in a criminal investigation. 

She cleverly combines scientific knowledge, casework, forensic experts and her own brilliant writing style to paint a picture of the use of forensic science both historically, in modern day crime and future possibilities. 

This book covers the crime scene, fire scene investigation, entomology, pathology, toxicology, fingerprinting, blood spatter and DNA, anthropology facial reconstruction, digital forensics, forensic psychology and the court room. 

The science in this book is fascinating; in depth and yet still in plain English. The accounts of some fields from a historical viewpoint and its subsequent developments were also incredibly interesting. With continual advancements in science and technology, who knows what innovations the future holds for crime scene investigation!  

The case studies of some of the crimes within are sometimes grisly, but that is the nature of crime, and how science has developed to aid in the course of solving these terrible offences is something that will always hold a grim fascination for the public.  

One significant point that Val McDermid touches on often throughout the book is that the presence and/or collection of evidence of a crime is only half of the battle, as in many cases it is the forensic expert as well as the evidence that are put under scrutiny. 

When I studied Forensic Psychology at University, I remember some of my lecturers recall stories from their times giving evidence in court as an expert in their field. They would often have to argue their worth as an academic/expert as well as their findings regarding that particular court case. Although I’ve not gone down the forensic career route, I’ve often wondered if I would be comfortable to withstand that kind of personal interrogation and lean towards the negative. 

Now I do have a bit of a confession to make with this review: this was my first Val McDermid read (non-fiction or otherwise) which is shocking as I like crime fiction and also have many of her books in my house that I just haven’t got round to reading yet. With this book, I liked her writing style straight away and she is obviously talented and knowledgeable in this field, so I am actually really looking forward to trying one of her crime novels for the first time.

If you have any interest in crime and forensic procedure, then this is a great introduction to the different areas of forensics and a thoroughly interesting exploration of the use of science in crime and its development over recent years.  

Monday, 15 June 2015

Skies of Ash by Rachel Howzell Hall

Both my Mum and I enjoyed Rachel Howzell Hall's debut novel last year, and so I thought I'd hand over the review reins to my lovely Mum who sometimes guest reviews on my blog as Mother Butterfly. Here is her review of Skies of Ash below. 

This is the second book by Rachel Howzell Hall about homicide detective, Elouise Norton. In her latest case she is faced with secrets and scandal surrounding a fatal incident of arson. It is very fast paced with plenty of action – in fact the whole book is set over only 6 days.

Elouise is already dealing with a problematic marriage when this new case drops in her lap.  Her still fairly new partner really doesn’t help things along at times with his big mouth and she is constantly having to kick his ankle to shut him up.  Although as he can be quite charming with the ladies when he sets his mind to a bit of flirting, he sometimes manages to get things done that Elouise can’t.

You can’t help liking Elouise’s character as she tries to clear up this dreadful crime.  She’s faced with so many lies from so many people and as the case unfolds things get worse with lots of scandal; adultery, fraud and jealousy - that all added up to the terrible deaths that are visited in the first chapter. 
Rachael is very good at making her characters very real, with all their foibles on show or revealed through the book. 

As the story opens us up to all the suspects I found myself deciding that a certain person was guilty only to change my mind by the next chapter.  In the end it didn’t turn out to be who I had thought - so for someone like me who reads a lot and more often than not, gets it right, it made a change to be surprised like this.

If you haven’t read her first book Land of Shadows yet, give it a go as although each book can be read on its own (and Land of Shadows is a really good read too), this first book introduces Elouise to us and helps you to understand who she is and how her mind works. 

Book number three, Trail of Echoes, is due out next year and I’m already looking forward to it.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Hearts of Stone by Simon Scarrow

It’s always fun to try critically acclaimed authors that I have never read before and so being given the chance to review a Sunday Times bestselling novelist of one of my favourite genres was exciting indeed. I believe Mr Scarrow is most famed for his novels featuring Roman centurions but his most recent offering is set on a beautiful Greek island during the Second World War. 

In the early 1930s, young German Peter Muller spent an idyllic part of his teenage years on the Greek island of Lefkas with his archaeologist father. Spending his days excavating relics of the past, Peter formed a close bond with island locals Andreas and the pretty Eleni. 

On the cusp of war, the Mullers and their team are called back to Germany and Peter must say goodbye to his friends. Years later, during the conflict Peter returns to the island under much different circumstances and is considered enemy in the face of his former friends. 

We see the past through the trio’s eyes and also through the discovery of Eleni’s descendant Anna, a history teacher who is looking a little more closely at the life of her Grandmother she previously new nothing about. I’ve read a lot of books set in during World War Two and the occupation of Greece by the Nazis is a little known aspect of the conflict to me, so it was a refreshing change of scenery for the story to be set in such a picturesque location in the midst of such turbulence. 

I cared about the three main characters very much by the end; especially Peter who was so kind all the way through, even when faced with such heartbreaking choices of loyalty and duty. The story is very action packed and the horrors committed in the fight are brutally illustrated. 

As well as a dramatic storyline set in the war, what I also took away from this book was the importance of history. I think that history is important so that you can learn from past mistakes and to remember people and events that have been before. The significance and use of history is something that is debated throughout the book and I found that to be an interesting inclusion into the storyline. 

I had high expectations for this book and I was definitely not disappointed. Filled with drama, action and plenty to think about, Hearts of Stone is an engaging read for serious history buffs and historical fiction readers. 

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Depth by Lev A.C. Rosen

I had heard great things about this book before reading it so I was stoked to be able to read and review it. The reader is immersed into a future where melted polar ice caps have put America’s East Coast underwater. 

With twenty-one storeys below the surface, you would think Manhattan would not be habitable, but a resilient million remain, living in the top floors of skyscrapers that have survived, connected by bridges and boats. 

One such inhabitant is private investigator Simone Pierce whose latest job – potential cheating husband– seems to be an easy case, until the husband ends up dead and the police want Simone for the murder. 

Trying to clear her name, she continues to investigate the case and stumbles upon a shady network involved in recovering lost artwork from the submerged city for very high fees. With many players in such a secretive yet lucrative business, Simone must decide who to trust in a city she thought was so familiar, and yet is harbouring many more secrets than she knew possible. 

I really loved the setting of a submerged Manhattan. I had such a cool visual image in my head while I was reading and really suited the dark crime story and added to the character of the book. Lead character Simone is a likeable heroine, with her flame hair and her sharp wit. She keeps herself quite distant from the people around her, but in her line of work it is completely understandable as to why she is so cautious. 

The novel is set in a dystopia type future, complete with fancy gadgets and technology, and yet there were also decency laws which hark back to a more old-fashioned society, so I liked the mix of ideas in the time frame too. 

Novels set in the (hopefully) far away future always fascinate me and I enjoy seeing the authors interpretations of what could happen. There is some seriously cool tech in the book, including my personal favourite: forensic contact lenses- for all your crime scene / criminal viewing needs! Such an awesome idea; someone needs to get on and invent these now! 

Everything about this book is just effortlessly cool. It has the imaginative, semi-submerged setting, interesting and complex characters, and a gritty dark crime vibe that makes the whole novel and page turner from start to finish. Depth is one of the most original crime novels I’ve read in a long time and I can only live in hope that there is more in store for Simone and her underwater city of secrets. 

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Techbitch by Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza

Techbitch aka The Knockoff is the sparkling new novel set in a fashion HQ fraught with social and professional perils. Think The Devil Wears Prada for the digital age. 

Imogen Tate returns to her position as editor-in-chief of Glossy magazine after a sabbatical, only to discover that her former assistant Eve Morton has installed herself in her office and has bought a digital revolution with her. 

Obsessed with digital fashion marketing, the use of apps and viral content, Eve is on a mission to rebrand Glossy with herself in charge and Imogen finds herself overwhelmed by technology she never knew existed. Imogen has the old school fashion contacts and years of experience in the fashion industry but to compete in the digital age, she needs to learn her tweets from her instagrams, and fast! 

From the very beginning I liked Imogen’s character. She’s a genuinely nice person who is passionate about fashion and the Glossy publication.  So it is on the other hand that Eve is so deliciously detestable. What a bitch! Eve is shocking; from her terrible manners, her personal overshares and her outrageous demands. I think everyone has had a crazy boss at some point or had to deal with ridiculous demands, so Eve’s antics, though outlandish, really makes for electric reading. 

Another reason I liked Imogen was because she kind of reminds me of my Mum. My Mum knows enough techie stuff to function at work and is oblivious to most other developments. It seems like Apple gadgets and androids haven’t been around that long, and yet there are new apps and social media sites being developed all the time and so many industries (not just fashion) need to have a strong online presence to stay current. 

From a technology point of view, the content was really interesting. By chance, I started a new job this week where part of my role is to manage the company’s social media pages. Even though I know the basics (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) there are some sites and applications I’m yet to utilise and some I’ve never heard of all together. I’ve already been given a social media guide to read for my new job, and reading this novel at the same time seemed a happy coincidence to be able to pick up a few hints and tips. I always like it when an aspect of a novel can be applied to real life so well. 

Full of sass, fashion and digital brilliance, this is one of the most current books I’ve read in a long time that I’m sure many people will be able to identify with. 

Monday, 1 June 2015

Secrets of the Singer Girls by Kate Thompson

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.” 

Many of the fictional books I’ve read regarding the Second World War centre around the role of women during the war. It was such a pivotal time in British history, and everybody had to band together to survive. 

Whilst most men were drafted to fight, women took up jobs they would not have had before, including factory work. It must have been quite a balancing act to manage families and work at once in those days. 

My own Great-Grandmother got a job in an ammunitions factory and my Nan, a baby then, was later evacuated during the height of the war. So I was quite excited to read this book and get another fictional taste of London life during this turbulent period in history. 

Young Poppy Percival arrives at a clothing factory in East London, after being sent away from her former countryside employment in disgrace for undisclosed reasons. She is soon welcomed into East End life by the larger than life characters of her fellow factory workers. 

There is flame haired Sal, who misses her evacuated sons but dreads the return of an abusive husband. Stunning Daisy whose romance with a coloured GI may get her into trouble, and her hardworking sister Vera who tries to hold her family and the factory together despite her own problems. 

There are many issues and struggles for the women to overcome on top of the war and it makes for engrossing reading as you slowly unravel all their secrets.  All the women are so well conceived and you end up feeling for all of them in their individual situations. Also, having so many different lives portrayed in the story, you get to see the war from all kinds of perspectives. 

I learnt a few things about the war that I didn’t know previously. For example the tragedy that occurred at Bethnal Green Tube Station in 1943 was an event that I’d never even heard of before and the way it was included into the story reiterated what a dangerous time it was in London. 

As well as the dramatic storylines, the sense of camaraderie in the factory shines through and adds the cheer and heart to the novel. Included in the book are some extras from the author detailing some of the fact behind the fiction which makes the story even more realistic. With great characters and emotive writing, this is a lovely and poignant piece of historical fiction set during World War Two. 

For a taste of nostalgia, below is a playlist of most (if not all) songs featured in the book. I hope you enjoy it.