Tag Archives: book reviews

My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin (not Robert Browning…)

In Daisy Goodwin’s My Last Duchess, the hopelessly naïve, not especially bright but incredibly rich  and aptly named Cora Cash comes across the pond to England to hunt down a titled husband at her mother’s bidding, even though she half thinks she might be in love with Teddy van der Leyden, the New World’s most eligible bachelor. She meets and falls for her Duke with alarming rapidity, and much of the rest of the novel is spent trying to wedge in references to the Browning poem (numerous chapter titles are direct quotations) while still come out with a happy ending.

As a historical romance, My Last Duchess does its job. The Duke is a suitably Romantic hero, brooding and unpredictable, but for me, there wasn’t enough to convince me that he was in love with Cora or she in love with him. I might have been convinced by a spoilt American heiress’ struggle to fit in with the English aristocracy, but I didn’t buy in to the whole Malteavers/Beauchamp love affair and felt that the novel, especially the storyline surrounding the most interesting character, Bertha, were insufficiently resolved. Having said that, it was an enjoyable enough read for a Sunday afternoon, even if I did hope that Cora might eventually show a little of the spark that the other characters credited her with.

An enjoyable, if not blisteringly good, piece of genre fiction. Just a pity it had to force a comparison with Browning’s ingenious poem.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

forgive me leonard peacock by Matthew QuickThe P-38 WWII Nazi handgun looks comical lying on the breakfast table next to a bowl of oatmeal. It’s like some weird steampunk utensil anachronism. But if you look very closely just about the handle you can see the tiny stamped swastika and the eagle perched on top, which is as real as hell.

I take a photo of my place setting with my iPhone, thinking it could be both evidence and modern art.

Then I laugh my ass off looking at it on the miniscreen, because modern art is such bullshit.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock– Matthew Quick

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is the kind of young adult fiction that every young adult should want to read, by which I mean it doesn’t feel “aimed” at young adults at all. It doesn’t deal in “themes of teenage angst” and the “friend who changed everything” trope but addresses raw, intense pain without shying away or compromising. It is, in short, a book for anyone who liked Thirteen Reason Why but felt that The Perks of Being A Wallflower was just a little patronising, and more than a little overrated.

Quick’s narrative is brilliant and convincing, and we inhabit Leonard, recognising that, despite his intelligence and self-knowledge which make him seem older than his years, that he is a vulnerable and flawed teenager who has been badly damaged, and emotionally neglected by his parents. The novel opens on Leonard’s eighteenth birthday as he sits alone (his vacuous mother away in New York and has forgotten his birthday) and lays out his plan to kill his former best friend with his grandfather’s WWII trophy before turning the gun on himself. Before he does though, he wants to give you a thank you present to his four friends: his elderly neighbour, a brilliant violinist at his school, an evangelical Christian who looks like Lauren Bacall, and his holocaust studies teacher. Each interaction makes Leonard’s dark secret and tragic plan clearer to the reader, and prompts a gut sinking feeling as Leonard avoids each life line thrown his way, or burns his bridges to avoid deterring himself from the mission he has laid out.

There are moments of the book which you could argue aren’t especially original or subtle. Leonard’s fixation on Hamlet, for example, might be something we would expect from a teenage boy contemplating suicide but I would argue that this too is a strength of the novel. Leonard is in so many ways exceptional and different, that this common touch makes him seem that little more human, even while his theatrical flair makes him seem otherworldly.

I recommend this book to everyone, but a word of warning- it deals with some very difficult themes and issues that some may feel are not the remit of “young adult” fiction and you shouldn’t expect a happy ending.

Quick holds his nerve and doesn’t sell out.  I look forward to reading more of his work.

Books and Reading in 2013

Happy new year, readers! Instead of telling you my New Years Resolutions, I’m interested to hear what you would like to see from me.

I am hoping to bring you some exciting book related posts in 2013, but am really interested to know what you would like to see on The Book and Biscuit in 2013. If you have any ideas for blog posts in 2013, please submit them via the form below.

Thanks!

When God Was A Rabbit

I have to admit that it was the title that drew me to this book. The idea that God, for a time at least, might have been a rabbit intrigued me much more than the blurb which didn’t really seem to summarise the plot, but having read the book, I now understand that this was something of an impossible task.

Narrated by Elly, When God was a Rabbit  follows her family and their friends from 70s suburbia to the early years of the 21st century. Though deeply concerned with the relationship between Elly and her older brother Joe, who she idolizes, it also observes the family’s wider relationships with a colourful array of characters with a curious mixture of dark humour and crushing pathos as they live through nativity plays, pool winnings and the aftermath of 9/11.

Though the plot of the novel is loose, perhaps best described as a group bildungsroman which has wandered into the terrain of magic realism, the novel is glued together though vivid characterisation and the plot’s momentum is driven by their responses to the situations in which they find themselves. Just a smattering of characters you should look out for include Jenny Penny, a gritty urban Pippy Longstocking; Nancy, the lesbian actress aunt who is deeply in love with her brother’s wife; Arthur Henry, a retired academic/diplomat who knows the precise moment he will die and has budgeted accordingly; and of course, God, the eponymous rabbit.

Without wanting to sound too much like a stock blurb, this is an epic story of family, but above all friendship, which runs the gamut between happiness and heartbreak, innocence lost and absolution found, and all the while you will be laughing and crying along with the characters. Even if you are on an aeroplane and attempting to maintain some composure, you won’t be able to. You’ll get lost in the story. Read it, read it or you will never truly appreciate how good it is.

The Poison Diaries- Maryrose Wood


Oleander is named for its resemblance to the leaves of an olive; deadly nightshade is called belladonna, the beautiful lady, for its luscious looking black berries; poison hemlock is easily mistaken for a parsnip.

It’s not always easy to spot a poison, especially when you have limited experience recognising the things that mean you harm. Jessamine has lived a sheltered life in the ruins of an abbey with her apothecary father, and knows enough to stay out of the poison garden which is hidden behind tall walls and a strong chain. But when Weed, a mysterious but attractive young man with a strange knowledge of plants, arrives, Jessamine quickly learns that love and obsession can be more poisonous than the most deadly plant.

I picked The Poison Diaries out as a Christmas present for my brother having fallen for the best blurb I have ever read:

Foxglove

IN THE

Oleander

RIGHT DOSE,

Moonseed

EVERYTHING

Belladonna

IS A POISON

Love

Someone promote whoever wrote that copy! The book comes very close to living up to the blurb, which is no mean feat.

Narrated from the perspective of Jessamine, the reader is drawn through an exciting mixture of thriller, romance and fantasy which twists and turns with every chapter. I find myself frustrated by obvious foreshadowing in novels, even subtle foreshadowing when you feel you have predicted the outcome and I loved the fact that this was peppered with red herrings to mislead and trick you.

It was clear that the author was in control of her plot, but at no point did you feel that the author was present, the characters were the ones telling the story. I don’t want to give the ending away, but I will say that I was impressed by the way in which the author wrote with conviction and refused to shy away from the strongest ending to the book. My brother said that he went to sleep feeling cheated, but woke up feeling quite impressed by the brilliance of it. It’s nice to see an author with the courage of their convictions.

This book is equally well suited to young adults and old adults alike (I use the word young adult to describe teenagers, because that seems to be common practise though I’m not sure I should be an old adult at twenty-five. It was called teen fiction in my day and was good enough for us!) as the themes and content are relevant to both age groups, which is quite an achievement. It’s rare to find a book that fits both age categories perfectly but this is one.

I’d never heard of Maryrose Wood (given her name you can understand the fixation with plants…) before, but I was so impressed that I will keep an eye out for any books by her in future.

 

Fallen and Torment- Lauren Kate


My older sister bought me Fallen and Torment by Lauren Kate for my birthday back in December, and though I’d like to think that I’m generally not very snooty about which books I will or won’t read I have to admit that I was wary- like much of the world I have been suffering Twilight Sickness, and these books are in a similar vein.

In Fallen, Lucinda Price is sentenced to time at a school for young offenders having been implicated in a terrible accident. Her strange testimony about shadows gathering has everyone thinking that she’s crazy, or worse, has something to hide. Once there she finds herself torn between two handsome men (as all good heroines in teen romance books seem to do…) the dark and edgy but considerate Cam, and the aloof and somewhat unfriendly Daniel. Now, to most women that would seem like an obvious choice, but Luce has a feeling that she has known Daniel for a very, very long time. Torment is the sequel to this story, in what will be a four part deal.


So, the comparisons to the Twilight books are inevitable. Intelligent young heroine is placed in an unfamiliar environment and relies upon the charms of two supernatural (oh come on, you saw it coming) young men to help get her through. We also have the Twilight love triangle going on, and the character of Daniel is a lot like the character of Edward (an annoying, controlling know-it-all). They’ve even pre-empted the Edward Cullen effect by having some blonde weightlifter pose for promotional material, which I found quite funny. The young man was more a pretty teen than eternally beautiful angel, but I suppose you have to work with what’s available.

Despite this, I think that the Fallen books are infinitely superior. Luce is a lot less annoying than Bella, challenging Daniel’s decision to establish himself in the role of authority figure instead of playing the insipid little wife. I also like the way that the author has made the lines between good and evil a lot more blurred than they are in Twilight making elements of the books less predictable than they might otherwise have been.

Having said that, I suspect that parts of the books might just be a little predictable. And I can’t wait to read the next book to find out how the author will unfurl the story to prove me right!

Oh, and in case you wondered? I’m team Cam. I’m starting that bandwagon rolling.

Season of The Witch- Natasha Mostert


Season of The Witch tells the story of Gabriel Blackstone, a professional computer hacker who is secretly able to connect to other people’s minds. When he is agrees to investigate the disappearance of his ex-lover’s step son, he soon realises the boy has been murdered, and traces this to the mysterious and beautiful Monk sisters. As he delves further into the sisters’ world, he finds himself falling in love with both women, at the same time knowing that one of them must be the murderer.

This book has been loitering on my shelf for months now, and I only got around to reading it because I saw a film of the same name advertised on TV and I didn’t want the story being given away. I needn’t have worried because this is a different book, but I am glad that I got around to reading it.

Natasha Mostert has created an intelligent though untaxing thriller, which explores the capacity and potential of the human mind, in thrilling and terrifying ways. The concept of remote viewing is subtle and serves as a compliment to the story, rather than being the crux of it. The action is well paced and consistently engaging, though if you are a native of the UK you may find the dialogue a little unnatural. This was a bit of a nagging issue, but became less noticeable as the action of the book gained momentum.

Sexy, dark and dangerous; I would recommend this to anyone looking for a grown up and credible supernatural novel.

What-the-Dickens by Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire is probably best known for his Wizard of Oz spin off, which despite its flair, owes some of its fame to the cult status of The Wizard of Oz and the runaway success of the musical version of the book, Wicked. However, in his modern fairytale What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy, Maguire shows that he has the ability to craft his own fantasy world securely within the familiar confines of our own.

Ten year old Dinah waits with her big brother, little sister and adult cousin for her parents who have left the house during a deadly storm to find insulin. Their neighbours homes have been evacuated, but the family’s strong religious conviction has made them attempt to weather it out. With little food and no power, their older cousin Gabe tells a story to pass the time.

The story, he says, is a true one which happened to him during his child hood, and explains how What-the-Dickens, an orphaned skibbereen, or tooth fairy to you and me, comes to find his place in life, facing deadly challenges and making friends along the way.

Even as an adult I found the story charming and funny. If I was still teaching, I would include it in a scheme of work for 11-13 year olds. It’s an excellent starting point for exploring fairytales and mythology, as the modern setting takes us away from the traditional men-in-tights-and-women-in-need-of-a-bloody-good-haircut scenarios children expect from a fairytale. It’s also a lovely little tale about culture, identity and self belief.

If you have a small person between the ages of 9 and… well I refuse to stick an upper age limit on it, then you should get this book for them. Read it yourself first though!

The Children’s Book- A. S. Byatt

Open at your Own Risk

Most readers will probably have heard of The Children’s Book, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but lost out to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I picked this book up a few times in bookshops before I bought it, I’m not going to lie, it was the cover which attracted me (not that I judge a book just by its cover but it was one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in recent years) but was put off by my experiences of reading Byatt at university.

I read Elementals as a part of a contemporary fiction module, and I hated the fussy prose she used in her short stories. The Children’s Book is better initially, as Byatt’s writing style is better suited to the novel form. I say initially, because like the rule that says a task will expand to fit the time you allocated to it, Byatt’s writing seems to expand to fill the page allocation rather than in order to tell the story. It would have been vastly improved by an editor getting busy with a red pen and cutting vast swathes of text out.

The story is an ambitious work, following a group of people associated with the Fabian Society and the Arts and Crafts movement from the “golden days” of the later 18th century to the aftermath of the First World War. There is no strong plot line, more an attempt to explore the social mores of the time, in the style of a non-satirical Vanity Fair. However, it lacks the dynamic and punch of Vanity Fair as Byatt strangles the exploration of action and character with her elongated prose and history text book summaries.

The novel began and ended very well, they were interesting and emotionally engaging. There are a large number of characters, but the bonds between them are intelligible and sustained. Towards the middle however, Byatt (and consequently the reader) loses the plot, bringing in an army of unnecessary minor characters who add nothing to the plot, name checking historical figures who have nothing to do with the action- to contextualize or appear learned I can’t decide- and sticking in chunks of half written fairytales which take the reader along a path to nowhere. This is to say nothing of a strange fascination with the sexual desires of teenage boys. Many of the characters are vain, selfish and irritating, which would be fine, but this left me with no interest in the story. I couldn’t empathise with them. I didn’t care. It’s a miracle I finished the book, but I’m glad I did. Some of the description of the war was quite moving.

I wonder what the author was hoping to achieve when she wrote this book. I would be vaguely interested to know. Did she want to tell a story about parents who fancied themselves Bohemian and damaged their children through their self indulgence? Did she want to write a history of a period in history? It’s not clear and I think that this is the problem with the book. I have a keen interest in history and still found the constant references to figures and events annoying- a well written story doesn’t need this historical name dropping. If I want to read a factual account I will pick up a history book, if I pick up a novel I want to be entertained. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn from a novel, but I most certainly don’t want to feel like I’m in a history lecture or watching one of those dramatisations we watched in school history lessons showing us how the plague was passed from ships to the common man and the lord as well. I felt that Byatt was simpering to herself about how she was bettering me. Irritating.

The book probably isn’t as bad as I’ve made it out to be. There are some very good moments. The trouble is, you feel like you’re experiencing the book as things happened. Living through the wheat and chaff of twenty years of history, wondering whether the time you’re investing is possible worth it. If you’re looking for an engaging and entertaining story, don’t pick this book. If you manage to finish it, you’ll feel quite worthy, but next time I think I’ll just try War and Peace.

The Winter Ghosts- Kate Mosse

The Winter Ghosts is Kate Mosse’s seventh book, her previous forays into novel writing having included Labyrinth and Sepulchre. Once again Mosse revisits the landscape of the Pyrenees, constructing a novel which weaves the regions tragic past into a ghost story, tinged with sad romance.

Set in 1928, The Winter Ghosts follows Fredrick Watson as he wanders alone in France, still struggling to reconcile himself with the loss of his beloved brother George. While there, he meets the beautiful and mysterious Fabrissa, who eases his grief before plunging him into further turmoil with her sudden disappearance.

The novel is fundamentally simpler than Labyrinth and Sepulchre, extending a Quick Reads Novella aimed at emerging adult readers into a full length novel. The plot is very linear, and is in effect a simple ghost story embellished with careful prose and details of the landscape, encased in a frame which aims to add interest. It’s by no means ground breaking, but I did find it very enjoyable, and infinitely superior to Sepulchre which actually put me off Mosse for so long that I’ve only recently purchased The Winter Ghosts.

If you enjoy a neat little ghost story, or enjoyed Labyrinth then I would recommend this book. I think it would be especially good for teen readers who are sick of Young Adult themes.