Sunday, 25 January 2015

Soulless by Gail Carriger

I wasn’t planning on reviewing this book, I wasn’t actually sure that I was going to like this book. It was recommended to me by a friend of mine and is the first in a paranormal/urban fantasy series. When I first took a look at this, like I mentioned before, I wasn’t sure. It’s about vampires and werewolves in Victorian England, the cover is VERY pink, and I had heard that there was a good amount of ‘adult fun’ in it – so I was pretty worried that this was just going to be another Twilight or, rather, 50 Shades of Grey… which I was not the least bit interested in. BUT, I must say, I was wrong. Very very wrong. This book is a lot of fun and I am really glad that I picked it up!

Alexia Tarabotti is a soulless preternatural spinster living with her mother, stepfather and half-sisters in Victorian London. This is not the Victorian London we remember, but rather one where vampires and werewolves and ghosts all live out in public and, for the most part, tend to be pretty elevated in society. Miss Tarabotti is not your typical Victorian spinster either. Being a preternatural means that whenever she physically touches anyone of the supernatural persuasion, they become mortal for as long as there is physical contact. Added to her soullessness, Miss Tarabotti is an independent, intelligent, well read, cake loving, loud mouthed girl, who although is not totally ok with being a spinster at age 26, would rather that then being a simpering maiden married off at the earliest convenience.

Soulless starts rather dramatically, with Alexia inadvertently killing a rogue vampire and ruining some much anticipated treacle tart. Coming to her rescue is the devilishly handsome Lord Maccon, the alpha werewolf of the Westminster pack and ranking member of the BUR, which is basically Queen Victoria’s internal supernatural police force. Right from the beginning there is an attraction between Alexia and Lord Maccon, the only problem is that neither of them see it for what it is; until a little bit later in the story, that is… and then they see it quite well (if ya know what I mean!) The story so far is going quite predictably; Alexia is a woman ahead of her time and aches to be allowed the freedoms of men, so gets herself involved in the mystery of the rogue vampire, gets herself in trouble and gets saved by the estimable alpha. It seems that strange vampires and werewolves keep appearing and known vampires and werewolves keep disappearing and no one has any idea why…. Except for maybe the mysterious stranger who has tried to abduct Alexia on at least one, possibly two occasions.

In another review I saw someone say that if Jane Austen and PG Woodehouse collaborated on a novel, this would be it and I can’t help but agree with him. The novel is highly satirical; it’s no holds barred making fun of proper Victorian society. I think that I can honestly say that I was not expecting this book to be as well written as it is (that is not a comment on Ms Carriger AT ALL. I am pretty weary of anything this popular, which is really a comment on society at large) It may be gitch and fun, but I have really been able to feel what the characters are feeling; Alexia’s yearning to be freer, and maybe a little bit prettier, but recognizing her own value in a society full of vacant women; Maccon’s confusion and embarrassment at his ineptitude with Victorian social norms, while at the same time his confidence that it doesn’t really matter. The primary characters are all well rounded and ‘human’ and the secondary characters aren’t just cut outs either. Some notable examples are the hilarious, incredibly flamboyant vampire, Lord Akeldama, and Ivy Hisselpenny with her Victorian sensibilities and outrageous hats, Alexia’s friends and sounding boards.

Carriger has done a brilliant job of combining a bunch of different genres and producing a witty and fun coherent novel. There are elements of urban and paranormal fantasy, steampunk, romance, and thriller; just enough of each of not too much of any. I am looking forward to reading the rest of this and seeing where Alexia and Maccon’s relationship goes (sometimes I really am a sucker for a good love scene) and also figuring out just what is happening to the supernaturals in London town.

I had a hard time coming up with a tea for this book... I wanted to think of something fun like the book. I have ended up choosing a new tea that I just got from Teavana - Strawberry Cream White Tea. Its absolutely delicious and better yet, its pink! 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Night Guest by Fiona Mcfarlane

It is possible that this review may end up being the quickest one I ever write. I don’t want to dally because I need to know what is going to happen. It’s to the point where I almost didn’t want to review this book because I didn’t want to stop reading! Shockingly (not so much), this book was recommended to me via The Readers; they've been talking about it for months and finally did a review episode a couple of weeks ago; hence my desire to read this now.

The Night Guest introduces us to Ruth, a 70 something widow, who lives alone with her two cats in Australia. One night she hears a tiger wandering around her lounge. The next day the mysterious Frida shows up on her doorstep claiming to be a caretaker sent by the government. At first Frida comes just for an hour a day, but soon Ruth starts to become dependent on Frida and Frida starts insinuating herself further and further into Ruth’s life. Everyone seems pleased with the relationship, especially Ruth’s sons. Everyone that is, except for Ruth. Most of the time things are great. Frida does all the things that Ruth is finding too hard or just doesn’t want to do – but something is a little off. Frida may be taking too many liberties... and isn’t it kind of strange that this woman just showed up on the doorstep? The problem is, Ruth is not the most reliable narrator. She is getting older and, well… she thinks there’s a tiger that comes into her house at night.

This book is really good. It’s really really good. Ruth is adorable, and even though she is an old lady I totally identify with her. She’s unsure and a little insecure. Mcfarlane captures her voice perfectly… although I guess I can’t really say that since she also created that voice, but trust me, the sentiment fits. Ruth makes decisions based on random events happening and she gets indignant at the best times “I carried you under my ribs for nine months, she thought. I fed you with my body. I’m God. The phrase that occurred to her was son of a bitch. But then she would be the bitch’.

Even though I am loving it, The Night Guest has been a slightly hard for me to read. My grandmother had dementia, caused by strokes, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find out that she believed there was a tiger crawling around her living room. I think though, this is where Mcfarlane is doing something really brilliant. Although I am not convinced that there is anything wrong with Ruth, other than the regular complaints of old age; she gives insight into someone dealing with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Ruth has been reminiscing about her childhood in Fiji, in particular her relationship with her father’s young colleague. She was in love with him, and now 50 years later decides to reconnect with him. I want Ruth to be ok, I want the tiger to be real, I want her to get a second chance at a long lost love and live the rest of her life in complete happiness. This book is such a blend, it has elements of fantasy; the strange tiger and accompanying jungle noises, thriller; did the government really send Frida, is she really there to help, literary fiction; this book is incredibly well written, its smart, it’s funny, it’s heart wrenching and it is definitely not a light cozy read.                                                                                                                                                                                            

When I started this blog, I wasn’t really sure how this midpoint review thing would go. Was the middle of the book a good place to stop? Would people just be annoyed that I haven’t actually finished the book… but I must say I have loved it! Of all the books that I have read for this, nothing has been ruined before the midpoint, and I always seem to finish just when the action is getting crazy. This book is no exception!  I am at page 122 and things could not be more tense. Why is Frida there; did the government really send her? Is there a tiger really strolling around in the lounge at night? I cannot wait to get back to this book!

In honour of my grandmother, I am going to choose plain old Red Rose as the tea for this book. That's what my grandma drank, and I think its appropriate for this book. And remember; call your mother, call your grandmother. Make sure there aren't any errant tigers in anyone's living room tonight.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

I am Half-Sick of Shadows

Over Christmas this year... uh last year now, I guess... my plan was to read only Christmas related books; specifically Christmas murder mysteries. I had about 6 books lined up – but the holidays got in the way, and I actually only finished one before the New Year. However, since we had a pretty bad storm here last night and I still have my Christmas decorations up, I figure I can still get away with reading a couple. One of the ones that I was most excited about was I am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley. This is the 4th book in a series about Flavia de Luce, a poison obsessed 11 year old girl who solves murders in her spare time.

I had been hearing about the first book in this series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, for a while before picking up an omnibus of the first three books. I enjoyed the first one, but I wasn’t in love with it. It seemed strange to me that an 11 year old would have so much knowledge – I was ready to be annoyed – but by the second one, I was hooked! Flavia lives in Bishop’s Lacey, a small British village in the early 1950s. She lives in Buckshaw, a huge rambling estate, with her father, her 2 terrible sisters, the cook and her father’s man Dogger. The estate was her mothers, who disappeared years earlier and is presumed dead – unfortunately there was no will and so now her father is struggling to make ends meet and keep the house. And that is where our installment of Flavia’s life begins. Her father has rented out the estate to a film company and some of the most famous actors are making their way into town. The famous Phyllis Whyvern and the local vicar have set up a charity show that happens to coincide with a terrible snowstorm and all of the villagers end up snowed in at Buckshaw. While everyone is asleep strewn about the house, Flavia wanders around and of course… finds a body! True to form of the way this blog is going, the mid-point occurs right after Flavia has found the body, so that’s where I am now!

It’s funny how the reason that I wasn’t sure I was going to like these books has ended up being one of the reasons that I love them the most. Is it believable that an 11 year old would know more about Chemistry than most people who have studied it their whole adult lives? Nope. Not at all. Not one tiny little bit. Luckily it doesn’t matter, cause Flavia’s pretty awesome. She has taught herself chemistry from books that she found belonging to her great uncle Tarquin and spends most of her time making mischief. Currently she is concocting a method to trap Santa Claus, while taking some breaks to think of ways to deviously destroy her sisters. I think that this is one of the reasons that Flavia works so well as a character; she flits between being a lonely 11 year old girl, and a brilliant, world dominating genius. It’s brilliant!

Flavia’s precociousness is not the only reason to love these books; every character has distinct personalities and characteristics, and even if they only have small parts they are all fully realized. Flavia’s father Haviland is a detached man who seems to only have time for his stamps – but is really in deep mourning for his wife and can be often found sitting in her car in the garage. Dogger, who fought with Haviland in the war, but came back not altogether there. He has a fount of knowledge that helps Flavia quite a bit with her murder investigations, but we’re a little concerned about how he gained it. Opehlia and Daphne, Flavia’s sisters, while horrible, are not quite as horrible as Flavia thinks they are… although they are still pretty horrible.  And then we have all the supporting characters, Mrs. Mullet the cook who can’t cook anything edible, Dieter the German prisoner of war who decided to stay in Bishop’s Lacey after the war, who is also in love with Ophelia, and Ned, the potboy at the local hostelry (who is also in love with Ophelia) and Mary, the landlord’s daughter (who happens to be in love with Ned). Bishop’s Lacey is the perfect small English town, with all of the appropriate characters. This is not a small part of my enjoyment of this series!   The mysteries themselves are pretty good too. Each story focuses on a group of villagers and introduces us to their back stories and their secrets, and I haven’t been able to guess any of the culprits so far!

I think a perfect tea for reading this is David's Eggnog caffeine free rooibos. Its a winter limited edition so try to get some soon! I think its the perfect way to curl up with a good Christmas murder mystery and a little eggnog in your eggnog tea.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

This book is probably the one that I have been most excited about in a while. I have always loved fairy tales and when I discovered that there is an entire sub-genre of adult fiction out there dedicated to the modern retelling of fairy tales… well, it’s not an exaggeration to say that I may have swooned. Because there are so many of these books out there, I have decided to start a little series of these reviews so that I can share this magical world with you, and hope that it catches your imagination and enchants you like they have enchanted me.

The particular fairy tale that this story is based on is actually not one that I am familiar with, which made it more interesting to me. It’s about an older couple who want desperately, but are unable to have children. One day they make a child out of snow and then that snow child comes to life and for a little while fills their lives with love and happiness. One of the things that I am really appreciating about Eowyn Ivey’s re-telling is that she talks about the original story; the main character references it when a similar thing happens to her and her husband. Jack and Mabel are the older childless couple in this story, recent immigrants to the Alaskan wilderness from Pennsylvania in the 1920s. After the stillborn birth of their child and years of internal torment they have decided to try to start their lives over. But as the old adage goes, you can run away but you still have to take yourself with you, and life in Alaska is hard and doesn’t help to ease the couples suffering.

Silence and depression seem to be Jack and Mabel’s constant companions out in the woods and so when an impromptu snowball fight erupts between the two of them one night, the joy it brings is a wonderful change. They start to build a snowman and without any sort of external communication that snowman starts to resemble a small girl with Mabel adding some mittens and a scarf as a final touch. It seems that night that the broken pieces of Jacks and Mabel’s lives may finally start to be mended, but the tale takes an interesting turn when the next day their snow child has been ruined, the mittens and scarf are missing and they both swear they have seen a small child running through the woods.

I don’t want to give too much away so I’ll hold off on the synopsis there. I’ve been finding with these midpoint reviews that there are mostly two types of books – ones that the story progresses linearly and mostly straight forward and I can kind of see what going to happen and where the story is going; and the other ones where I have no idea what’s going to happen and the second half of the book throws everything on its head. Sometimes this doesn’t happen dramatically, but the impact is the same. I think this story is going to be one of the latter ones. When the mysterious child appears Mabel remembers a story she was told as a child about The Snow Child. As I mentioned before, this is something that I really appreciate and also find completely fascinating. I wouldn’t begin to presume Ivey’s reason for doing this, but to me it grounds the story, Ivey is acknowledging that something fantastical is happening which allows one to believe that it could happen to you; that if you want something desperately enough it can happen. It might not be the way you want or expect it to be, but still, it could happen. Ivey has also done a brilliant job of keeping all her cards to her chest. At this point in the story you don’t really know what’s going on. There is a somewhat plausible explanation for the mysterious child’s existence and also a fantastical one; when Jack and Mabel talk with the child there is no quotation marks, yet when they talk amongst themselves or others, there are. Any sort of proof that the child exists seems to disappear before it can be seen by others, but at the same time there are tangible reasons to believe that the child is real; so I really have no idea what’s going on!

Ivey also does a wonderful job of making you feel the loneliness and isolation of the Alaskan wilderness; which is probably in part because she lives there, but mostly she is a wonderful writer. She completely captures the cold and the fear of not making it through the winters as well as how important it is for the community to come together so that they can all survive.

I’m glad that I chose this story as my first fairy tale. It’s brutal and beautiful; and even though I am only halfway through I recommend this book to anyone who has ever wanted to believe in magic!

I think a good tea to drink with this book would be Teavana's Gingerbread Tea. It tastes just like gingerbread which is a perfect companion for reading a fairy tale on a cold winter's day.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

From the moment I heard about Last Rituals I was really excited about it. It’s another find from my favourite podcast, The Readers – who actually introduced me to this entire sub-genre of crime fiction; cold climate crime, or as it is more conventionally known, Scandinavian Crime Fiction. Now, everyone has heard of some Scandanavian crime fiction – Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has captured pretty much everyone’s attention, and I would guess that a fair amount of readers have heard of Henning Mankell’s Wallander series – but start digging a little deeper and you’ll find that those really are just the tip of the iceberg. It seems that crime fiction has always been pretty popular in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland, just as it has been elsewhere in the world, but the Scandinavian literature was rarely translated into English and there is something about the isolation of these countries that gives cold climate crime something that other crime fiction just doesn’t have. Over the last few years however, more and more authors have started to be translated and the ‘Nordic Noir’ has started to take over the world. That being said, this is really my first foray into that world (not including Stieg Larsson which for some reason I am not counting), so I do not have a lot of knowledge on the genre. I’ve heard of a few of the authors though; Jo Nesbo, Camilla Lackberg and Lars Kepler, and even own some of their novels. Just doing a google search for Scandinavian Crime Fiction brings up lists of books, but also tons of articles about how popular it is becoming. The best evidence of this, I think, is how many of these books are being turned into television shows. Netflix is full of Nordic Noir shows and movies, most of them adapted from the many series that are out there.

I decided to start with Last Rituals because of the premise – a German student has been killed most gruesomely; his eyes have been gouged out and his body is covered in weird symbols, tattoos and carvings. The police believe that the case is cut and dry, but Harald Guntlieb’s parents don’t believe that the small time drug dealer the police have in custody is responsible for the murder of their son and so they hire an Icelandic lawyer to work alongside of their own lawyer to dig into things further. When Thora Gudmundsdottir (No, I cannot pronounce that for you!) and Matthew Riech start looking into the case though, there are way more questions than answers. Harald was heavily into witchcraft, studying it and potentially attempting to practise it, along with some other students at the university. It’s not clear at this point whether any of these friends have anything to do with Harald’s murder, but there is definitely something that they are hiding. Harald’s upbringing was certainly not conventional and his parents, although hiring the lawyers, are reluctant to provide any insight. A centuries old manuscript is missing from the university and it seems that Harald has stolen it, but no one knows why or where it is. And last, but not least, a mysterious email has thrown everything we thought we knew into suspicion.

Being that this is Nordic Noir, it is also a translation. Although I have read a ton of books in translation, up until recently, I had not really ever paid attention to it. Now that I am more aware, I find that I question my dislikes about a book a lot more. For instance, I find that this story can feel almost, stunted, at times, and I am not sure if it is because of the translation or the author. The story is told from Thora’s perspective and I must admit, at first I found her kind of annoying. There was too much jibber jabber about her personal life, but I am starting to enjoy that. It makes me feel more involved in the story somehow. The only thing that has really been bothering me is the relationship between Thora and Matthew. Clearly there is some sexual tension there, but it pops up at the oddest times, and Matthews’s character is just a little strange. He’s very stoic and kind of a dick, and then randomly he is flirtatious and funny but his flirtations seem off, kind of weird and a little creepy. Maybe this is the translation, maybe it’s because he is German, but I find it disconcerting. Luckily it doesn’t happen very often and is not impacting my enjoyment of the story.

There is a lot of history here as well, most of it about witchcraft but also some general Icelandic history; did you know that Irish monks lived in Iceland before the Vikings? One of the main lines of the history of witchcraft involves the inquisitions and the publishing of a book called the Malleus Maleficarum (or, The Witch’s Hammer) which was a guide, written in 1486, to identifying and killing witches. This struck home with me especially, as I own a copy of this book. I find witchcraft fascinating (not as in I want to practice or believe its real, but from a historical point of view), especially the witch trials and the ridiculousness of what people were able to get away with in order to kill these mostly innocent men and women. I have never actually read the book though, and now definitely have a renewed interest.The thing that I am noticing most about this book is that I really want to visit Iceland now. Yrsa Sigurdardottir (No, I cannot pronounce that either!) has made the landscape sound incredibly barren and beautiful at the same time. Iceland just seems so cut off from the rest of the world, and pretty happy about it.

I am really looking forward to reading the rest of this book. The witchcraft angle is totally right up my alley and I am enjoying the history and the scary-ness of it! And most importantly I have absolutely no idea who murdered Harald, or why…. And clearly I need to figure that out!

I wasn't really sure what tea to post for this book. I looked up teas that are popular in Scandinavia, but apparently tea isn't huge there - however, they are one of the largest consumers of coffee in the world. So my choice of tea for this book is David's Coffee Pu'erh - the best of both worlds!