Category Archives: Book reviews

Madness is Better than Defeat by Ned Beauman

madness is better...

Madness is Better than Defeat is one of the most difficult novels to write a review for that I’ve come across since starting Jo’s Book Blog.  Not because it’s bad book – I thoroughly enjoyed it – but because I haven’t a clue where to start.

In 1938, two rival expeditions set off for a lost Mayan temple in the jungles of Honduras, one intending to shoot a screwball comedy on location there, the other to disassemble the temple and ship it back to New York. A seemingly endless stalemate ensues, and twenty years later a rogue CIA agent sets out to exploit it as a geopolitical pawn – unaware that the temple is the locus of grander conspiracies than anyone could have imagined.

Showcasing the anarchic humour, boundless imagination and unparalleled prose of one of the finest writers of his generation, this is a masterful novel that teases, entertains and dazzles in equal measure.

To say that there’s a lot going on in Madness is Better than Defeat is something of an understatement.  CIA, conspiracies, Mayan temples and Gods, a Nazi, jungle survival, hallucinogenics, Hollywood, and an octopus1 to name but a few elements – this novel has plenty of seemingly unrelated threads, yet Beauman manages to bring them together to create one highly inventive novel that, whilst not entirely straightforward, manages not to be too confusing either.

Told from multiple perspectives and jumping around in time, the overarching story is that of Zonulet, a former CIA agent who is seeking evidence within the large information stores of the agency in Virginia to support his testimony.  The content of his testimony isn’t entirely clear at the beginning of the novel, although the reader is aware that it does in some way relate to the events at the temple, but there is more to it than that, some of which doesn’t become clear until much later in the novel.  I say that’s the overarching story, but there’s another layer to this.  There’s an idea posited early on as the Whelt rule (Whelt being the director of the film to be produced at the temple) which comes to take on greater significance as the novel progresses, and I suspect that, if one were to study it closely enough, Beauman’s novel also conforms to this rule.  It’s all a bit meta, but I’d love for this to be true, although I’d need to read it again to prove the point.

Anyone who has read Beauman’s previous novels will know that he likes to sneak Nazis into the plot is an extremely intelligent, talented, and often experimental author, and this latest novel is no exception.  And I love the humour that he injects into his writing – it’s not laugh out loud funny, but you’ll find clever witticisms in his work that give it a little something extra.

Madness is Better than Defeat will be published by Sceptre on 24 August.  Many thanks to Ruby Mitchell, Sceptre and BookBridgr for the review copy.

Rating: ★★★★☆

1 Ok – the octopus is only in one scene, and it’s quite early in the novel, but I’ll never look at one the same way again having read this.

The Scandal by Fredrik Backman

the scandal

As one of the relatively rare specimens of British Ice Hockey fan, I was immediately taken with the premise of The Scandal – published in the US as Beartown – and hit the request button on Netgalley without hesitating, and I was absolutely delighted to be approved to read this.  As much as I expected to enjoy it – it’s getting some rave reviews – I was blown away by this novel, and it’s likely to feature in my top books of 2017.

Late one evening towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barrelled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead and pulled the trigger.

This is the story of how we got there.

For most of the year it is under a thick blanket of snow, experiencing the kind of cold and dark that brings people closer together – or pulls them apart.

Its isolation means that Beartown has been slowly shrinking with each passing year. But now the town is on the verge of an astonishing revival. Everyone can feel the excitement. A bright new future is just around the corner.

Until the day it is all put in jeopardy by a single, brutal act. It divides the town into those who think it should be hushed up and forgotten, and those who’ll risk the future to see justice done. At last, it falls to one young man to find the courage to speak the truth that it seems no one else wants to hear.

With the town’s future at stake, no one can stand by or stay silent. Everyone is on one side or the other.

Which side would you be on?

I mentioned in the opening of my review that I am an Ice Hockey fan.  It’s considered to be a minority sport in the UK, but I’m a season ticket holder for my local club, and have been watching it for several years now, so (I like to think that) I have a reasonable understanding of the sport.  That said, if you’re not a fan of Ice Hockey, don’t let that put you off this novel, as prior knowledge of the game is not essential, and there aren’t many actual games included in the novel.  Rather, Backman uses the sport as the glue that binds the community of Beartown together, and the thing that they hope might help revitalise their town, which has seen the number of jobs gradually decreasing, forcing people to relocate or commute to nearby cities for work.

The novel opens with the quote in the above synopsis – that is the entirety of chapter one.  I love this opening.  It immediately piqued my attention, and I wanted to know who was involved, and why they were taking such drastic action.  And, I spent a large part of the novel trying to work out who was involved, and why.  It becomes clearer as the novel progresses, although isn’t fully revealed until very near the end, and I had a few contenders in mind at various stages of the novel as to who was likely to be holding a gun to someone’s head.

I loved the setting of Beartown.  Backman gives great insight into the community and the families that live there, which, like most places, covers a broad spectrum of people and personalities, and everyone has faced good and bad moments in their life.  Backman manages the difficult balancing act of sharing the minutiae of the characters backgrounds without this feeling like an overload of information, and I came out of the novel feeling as though I knew all the residents personally.  The Scandal is told from multiple points of view, but they are all portrayed so brilliantly that there is no danger of becoming confused as to who’s who.  Some are more likeable than others, but they all have their part to play.  There are some real standouts in the novel, however, and I loved Benji and Ana in particular.

I was instantly captivated by The Scandal and the mystery which is introduced so early on, and combined with the setting, the characters and the writing, this is one of my standout novels of the year.  And yes, the Ice Hockey helped, but I think it would have worked whatever the town’s obsession was.

The Scandal was published on 10 August by Michael Joseph.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the review copy.

Rating: ★★★★★

Did You See Melody? by Sophie Hannah

did you see melody

When I saw Did You See Melody? on Netgalley, my interest was immediately piqued.  I thought that the plot sounded original, and I think that there’s a great deal of potential in the idea of seeing someone who was supposedly murdered several years ago.

Pushed to breaking point, Cara Burrows abandons her home and family and escapes to a five-star spa resort she can’t afford. Late at night, exhausted and desperate, she lets herself into her hotel room and is shocked to find it already occupied – by a man and a teenage girl.

A simple mistake on the part of the hotel receptionist – but Cara’s fear intensifies when she works out that the girl she saw alive and well in the hotel room is someone she can’t possibly have seen: the most famous murder victim in the country, Melody Chapa, whose parents are serving life sentences for her murder.

Cara doesn’t know what to trust: everything she’s read and heard about the case, or the evidence of her own eyes. Did she really see Melody? And is she prepared to ask herself that question and answer it honestly if it means risking her own life?

I thought that Did You See Melody? started a little slowly, but the pace soon picked up once Cara started to do a little digging into the Melody Chapa case.  I really liked the use of news articles, interviews etc. that Cara finds online to familiarise herself with the case, and I love novels that contain these kinds of documents, as I think that they help to bring a story to life.

However, there were certain elements of the plot that I didn’t find at all plausible.  I don’t want to spoil the novel for other readers, so I won’t go into any of the details, but there were parts where I had to suspend my disbelief.  Of course, this is a work of fiction, and so there is always a certain amount of convenience involved for the plot to hang together, but there were aspects of the story that just didn’t work for me personally.

Additionally, I found that some of the characterisation was quite extreme, to the point of caricature, and I did find that some of the American stereotypes were a little jarring at times.  There was also no one that I really engaged with, and whilst this isn’t always a bad thing, I do think that I might have enjoyed it a little more if I’d felt at least a little bit of sympathy for Cara’s situation, but she just didn’t inspire that kind of emotion in me – at least partly because I felt that she was in a situation of her own making.

That said, at no point did I consider not finishing Did You See Melody? – I think that Hannah writes well, and, certain issues aside, it is quite an entertaining read.  And I did want to find out what happened – as I’ve said, I think that the idea behind it is an original one, and there were some interesting twists in the story which I didn’t see coming.

Did You See Melody? will be published on 24 August by Hodder & Stoughton.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for allowing me to read and review this ahead of its publication.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker

all the wicked girls

‘Raine sometimes complains that nothing exciting is ever gonna happen in Grace again. Daddy told her careful what you wish for.’

Everyone loves Summer Ryan. A model student and musical prodigy, she’s a ray of light in the struggling small town of Grace, Alabama – especially compared to her troubled sister, Raine. Then Summer goes missing.

Grace is already simmering, and with this new tragedy the police have their hands full keeping the peace. Only Raine throws herself into the search, supported by a most unlikely ally.

But perhaps there was always more to Summer than met the eye…

I read Whitaker’s debut novel, Tall Oaks, earlier this year, and I absolutely loved it.  The plot, the characters, the writing, the ending – it was all perfect, and I was thrilled to receive a proof of his follow up, All the Wicked Girls, even though it came with the usual doubts as to whether he could follow up on such an astounding novel.

I found All the Wicked Girls to be quite a different story to Tall Oaks.  It’s much darker in tone, and the atmosphere in this novel is almost palpable.  This is partly due to missing Summer and the concerns that she may have been taken rather than runaway, but was enhanced by a storm that rolls over the town – one that threatens to be huge when it finally breaks.  I loved the lingering threat implicit in the storm, and I’m full of admiration for the way in Whitaker was able to capture the oppressive nature of an imminent storm, and how this added to tension.  It was almost a character in itself, one whose brooding nature casts a far-reaching shadow over this troubled town.

Anyone who has read Tall Oaks will know that Whitaker does character brilliantly, and All the Wicked Girls doesn’t disappoint on this score.  Reading it, I felt as though I could walk into Grace already knowing the people who live there, they are all so well fleshed-out.  For me, Raine was the standout character of the novel.  She’s rather different to the golden girl that is her missing sister, Summer, and I loved her feisty, argumentative nature.  Whilst many see her as trouble (and expect her to end up in serious trouble of one kind or another before long), I got the feeling that she had decided that she couldn’t compete with Summer, and so didn’t even bother trying.  When her sister goes missing, however, she soon gets down to the business of trying to find out what happened to her, helped by Noah and his friend, Purv.  Now, Noah is no Manny Romero, but there was something in the friendship of Noah and Purv that reminded me of Manny and his friend, Abe, and these guys are really sweet.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot – I went into the novel with relatively little detail, and I enjoyed it all the more because of this.  I think it’s enough to say that it’s a riveting, fast-paced story and I rushed through it in order to find out what happened, finishing it in a single day.  And whilst I had several theories as to how it would end, none of them were correct, something which pleased me greatly.  This is another fantastic novel from Whitaker, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

All the Wicked Girls will be published on 24 August by Bonnier Zaffre.  Many thanks to Emily Burns for the review copy.

Rating: ★★★★★

Yesterday by Felicia Yap

yesterday

There are two types of people in the world: those who can only remember yesterday, and those who can also recall the day before.

You have just one lifeline to the past: your diary. Each night, you write down the things that matter. Each morning, your diary tells you where you were, who you loved and what you did.

Today, the police are at your door. They say that the body of your husband’s mistress has been found in the River Cam. They think your husband killed her two days ago.

Can you trust the police?

Can you trust your husband?

Can you trust yourself?

Upon hearing the premise for Yesterday, my initial thought was that the mono (those who remember yesterday) and duo (those who also remember the day before) memory system would make an excellent pseudo class system, and I was delighted when this proved to be the case, especially as it’s so well handled.  Whilst all people keep a diary, there are obvious advantages to being able to remember two days ago when others around you can’t.  And that additional day of memories makes the duos feel inherently superior to the monos, resulting in monos often being treated as second-class citizens.  Whilst being a mono doesn’t mean that you are stupid – you just have to be more meticulous with your diary – you are looked down upon, and certain jobs are biased towards duos, leaving more menial roles to the monos.

This may make the novel sound as though as it has a vaguely sci fi edge to it.  It doesn’t, although I think that there is something vaguely dystopian about the set-up, which I loved.  But, the world in which it’s set is much like ours, other than the way in which memory works.  This set up allows Yap to hold a mirror up to our world however, turning things, if not on their head, then around by 90 degrees.  For example, Steve Jobs’ big innovation is not the iPod or iPhone, but the iDiary to help both monos and duos record the goings on in their lives, allowing them to easily refer back to previous events when required.  I loved these little details, and thought that they helped to bring the world to life.

As with many thrillers, Yesterday has a plot that is difficult to discuss without giving too much away, so I’ll keep this brief.  One morning, a young woman is pulled out of the River Cam.  There are few signs of a struggle, and the police believe it to be a suicide, with the exception of DCI Hans Richardson, who believes that something more sinister has occurred.  And if solving a murder is difficult, then solving a murder within the timeframe of your limited memory is even more so, even with your diary to help you.  Told from multiple perspectives, the plot moves quickly and there are some wonderful twists to keep the reader guessing.   

I absolutely adored Yesterday, and I thought it was a highly accomplished debut – it’s a novel that I resented having to put down when real life rudely interrupted.  If you can accept the premise upon which the novel is pinned – that of limited memories – I think that you will really enjoy this highly inventive thriller.

Yesterday will be published on 10 August by Wildfire.  Many thanks to Millie Seaward for the proof.

Rating: ★★★★★

My Mother’s Shadow by Nikola Scott

my mothers shadow

I met Nikola Scott at the Headline Blogger Night in February, and I was delighted when Becky Hunter offered to send me a copy of her debut novel, My Mother’s Shadow, to review.

Addie thinks she knows everything about her mother. But when a stranger appears claiming to be her sister, she realises that her life so far has been a lie. But why?

Hartland House has always been a faithful keeper of secrets…

1958. Sent to beautiful Hartland to be sheltered from her mother’s illness, Liz spends the summer with the wealthy Shaw family. They treat Liz as one of their own, but their influence could be dangerous…

Now. Addie believes she knows everything about her mother Elizabeth and their difficult relationship until her recent death. When a stranger appears claiming to be Addie’s sister, she is stunned. Is everything she’s been told about her early life a lie?

How can you find the truth about the past if the one person who could tell you is gone? Addie must go back to that golden summer her mother never spoke of…and the one night that changed a young girl’s life for ever.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot for My Mother’s Shadow, as I think that the above synopsis gives sufficient detail without giving too much away.  Whilst the idea of a stranger turning up unannounced and claiming some form of kinship isn’t entirely new, I found that Scott’s spin on this was refreshing and a little different in the how and why to other similar books.  The story unfolds slowly, and is told from the dual perspectives of Addie in the present day with flashbacks from Elizabeth’s diary from the late 50s when she was in her late teens.  In this way, the reader always knows a little more than Addie, although there are a few little twists towards the end of the novel which prevent it from being predictable, and I thought that the plotting and eventual outcome was incredibly well done, with all of those little questions neatly answered by the end.

I have to admit that it did take me a little while to warm to the characters.  I constantly wanted to tell Addie to stand up for herself, and while she’s nice, her being bullied into something or other by those around her got a little tiresome.  However, once I had progressed a little further into the novel, I did find myself warming to Addie as I came to understand her more, and I loved it when she (finally!) stood up to her sister, Venetia, who is a demanding and pretentious human being.  Then there’s Elizabeth, who we see as a young woman through the diary extracts, but only through the eyes of others in the present day.  My opinion of Elizabeth was also one that I had to adjust as the story and her circumstances became clearer, and I think that the only person I had judged correctly was Venetia.

This is a beautifully written novel!  I adored the opening paragraph (and I’m hoping that Headline will forgive me for quoting from a proof copy here!), but I had to share this with you:

There are many things this house has seen and secrets it has heard, whispered things in the night that drift on the breeze and curl around chimneys and slate-covered gables, mullioned windows and white pebbled paths, wind their way through roses and rhododendrons and the trees of old Hartland Orchard.  Loves found and lost, the pain of unexpected death and the deliciousness of forbidden trysts.  Midnight tears and laughter in summer nights, all the dreams to be dreamed and all the worlds to be found.  The house has kept them, without question, without judgement, preserving them in the shadows of its walls.

I found this passage, and many others, to be absolutely captivating.

My Mother’s Shadow is an intriguing tale, and if I found it a little slow to start, the pace soon picked up once the scene had been set.  The tale is a compelling one, and I wanted to know the how and the why.  I had multiple questions around the story and I did wonder at times how it would all come together.  I won’t share that with you, of course, but it does all come together brilliantly by the end.

My Mother’s Shadow is available to buy now on Kindle, and will be published in paperback on 21 September.  Many thanks to Becky Hunter at Headline for the proof.

Rating: ★★★★★

Close to Me by Amanda Reynolds

close to me

Earlier this year, I was thrilled to win a giveaway from Amanda Reynolds on Twitter for a proof copy of her novel, Close to Me, plus a themed Book Buddle.  It’s been sat on my TBR for far too long, but I’ve read it, and, of course, I now wish that I had done so earlier, as I really enjoyed it.

When Jo Harding falls down the stairs at home, she wakes up in hospital with partial amnesia – she’s lost a whole year of memories.

A lot can happen in a year. Was Jo having an affair? Lying to her family? Starting a new life?

She can’t remember what she did – or what happened the night she fell.

But she’s beginning to realise she might not be as good a wife and mother as she thought.

Close to Me alternates between the present day with chapters x days after the fall, and snapshots from the past year as she starts to remember little snippets that she had forgotten as a result of the fall.  I find books that play with memory intriguing, and Close to Me is no exception.  Jo’s gut feel is that there is something that’s not quite right – she just doesn’t know what, and I couldn’t help but wonder where this feeling came from and what was behind it.  Was Jo in danger, or was it all in her mind, making up demons where there were none?

Unreliable narrators are common, but I liked that Jo is unreliable through no fault of her own.  Her memory loss, and the fact that those around her deliberately withhold information from her, mean that she has to try and piece things together based upon the little snippets of memory that do come back to her as well as the drip feed of information from her husband, Rob, and her family.  And it’s very easy to put two and two together to get five in such a situation.

Jo is understandably frustrated throughout, and I thought that this came across well.  Her frustration stems from both not being able to remember people or events, but also at the coddling approach Rob takes following the accident.  And his argument is a good one – he doesn’t want her stressed by the minutiae of life while she’s recovering.  That said, I did think that there were things that were kept from her for no good reason whatsoever, and this did make the story a little frustrating at times, although this was only a minor niggle, and, of course, purely my opinion.

I read Close to Me over the course of a single, albeit extremely lazy, Sunday.  There are some interesting twists in the story, and the slow process of Jo regaining her memory was cleverly done, making me question the things that I thought I’d pieced together as new information came to light.

Close to Me is published in paperback today (27 July) by Wildfire Books, and is also available as an eBook.  Many thanks to Amanda for this lovely prize.

Rating: ★★★★☆