Books In Brief: Chapter One

So many books, so little time. To be honest, I'm a pretty rubbish book blogger. When I read something that really grips me - for better or worse - my intention is always to write about it on my literary blog, Lignin and Petrichor. In the last few months, though, I've been doing work experience at several different publishing houses, and my mind and room have been so saturated with great books that I've found it difficult to pin one down to do a full review on. I'm remedying this by starting a series where I can quickly comment on my latest reads! I mentioned that I read lots of books in my post on my August faves: here's what I thought of some of them.

Life After Life / Kate Atkinson (Black Swan, 2013)

By far the best ebook I've downloaded for my Kindle thus far. Ursula Todd cannot stop being reborn. Darkness falls repeatedly, only for her to be reincarnated into the same life, born on an unusually snowy day. In each life Ursula attempts to avoid the traumas that have led to death in the last, from accidents to disease to bombs during the Blitz. What I loved here is that we must infer that tiny decisions taken in childhood impact one's life greatly; hundreds of different fates play out for Ursula in this book. Seriously gripping, and by very dint of its nature, a book where the reader is allowed to decide which ending they prefer. 

The Garden of Evening Mists / Tan Twan Eng (Canongate, 2012)

This book revolves around the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of South-East Asia during WWII. Its protagonist, a bright Cambridge graduate, filled with hatred and vengeance after her internment in a Japanese camp in the depths of the Malaysian jungle, unexpectedly finds herself apprenticed to the gardener of the Japanese emperor. Here she attempts to pursue atonement and happiness after the death of her sister, but in the climate of the Emergency, a guerrilla war fought between Communist insurgents and the Commonwealth army, peace will not be found so easily. Marked by Tan's beautifully poetic prose, this was an especially intriguing read for me since most of my family hail from Malaysia, with three of my grandparents having personally experienced the occupation during WWII. 

I Am Pilgrim / Terry Hayes (Corgi, 2013)

This one's a definite holiday read (hence its well-loved, dog-eared appearance!) It was a happy coincidence that it was set partly in Bodrum, where I was on holiday last month. It revolves around the titular figure of Pilgrim, a frighteningly capable ex-secret agent, sent back into the field to halt the progress of a jihadist with a horrifying plan. Especially exciting in this 600-page novel was the fact that we are allowed to see the life events that shaped the jihadist's fate, making him a three-dimensional, human character rather than the stereotypical baddie driven purely by evil. Hayes also weaves a whodunnit sub-plot through the novel, resolving the case but leaving the criminal unapprehended, and therefore the door wide open for a sequel. A bit of a brick to take in your suitcase (perhaps better suited in Kindle form) but a fantastic read.

Smiler's Fair / Rebecca Levene (Hodder, 2014)

Published this summer, this is one for the high fantasy lovers. Levene lays the foundations for her trilogy in this first novel, building a magical yet recognisably human universe; a forbidding land of mountain ranges, icy wasteland and desert, with insidious 'worm men' inhabiting its caves and underground passages. A sprawling travelling fair winds its way through this landscape, home to an unsavoury crowd of moneygrabbers, prostitutes and murderers. The moon, killed off by the goddess of the sun, has been reborn in the form of the king's son, and in a typically Oedipal fashion, has been sentenced to death by his father. The sacrifice of his mother leads to the son being spirited away to one of the mountain tribes, but he cannot escape, nor understand, his fate. There are elements here that I recognise from other well-established fantasy universes such as A Song of Ice and Fire, yet Levene's world is also highly original, with deities and rune-based sorcery at work. I'm already excited for the next book, which Levene has promised me (via Twitter!) is on its way.

The Secret Place / Tana French (Hodder, 2014)

Here's a murder mystery with an edge: the suspects are all sixteen year old girls, from a private school. But girls can be very cruel. Especially at a private school like St. Kilda's - I would know! And so the premise immediately had me hooked. A boy from the neighbouring school has been brutally murdered, his skull smashed in on St. Kilda's property, the case never closed. One year later, an enigmatic message is pinned up on Kilda's honesty board - a picture of the dead boy, and the words I know who killed him. Detective Stephen Moran immediately seizes on this as his chance to finally win a place on the vaunted Murder Squad, and alongside reluctant partner Detective Antoinette Conway, the case is re-opened. We are presented with two temporal threads here: one, the two detectives solving the case in the present day, and two, the events leading up to the murder and after, meaning that we unravel the case at roughly the same time as the police. I have to admit that I worked out the murderer before their name is revealed, but nevertheless, I was enthralled by this novel. French has the tangled pysche of the public schoolgirl down pat, and I would love to read more of her novels. I've only just found out that this is the fifth book in French's Dublin Murder Squad series, from which you can surmise that The Secret Place functions perfectly well as a standalone. 

Red Rising / Pierce Brown (Hodder, 2014)

Like Smiler's Fair and The Secret Place, this book was kindly given to me as a gift after I did work experience for Hodder in July. I felt it ticked all the boxes in terms of dystopian fantasy: this book is honestly like The Hunger Games meets Wool meets Ender's Game. Darrow, a 'Red' at the bottom of the social pecking order, learns that his world is a lie. Resolving to bring down the 'Golds' - the god-like rulers of the terraformed Mars - he must first himself become a Gold, and infilitrate their military school, while trying to avoid getting killed along the way. This was a vey enjoyable read, and while I'll definitely read the next installment in the series, I feel that I'm beginning to get a bit bored of the teen dystopian genre in a market saturated with Katniss Everdeen, Divergent, Matched, The Maze Runner and so on. And yet I continue to buy and read them...

The Girl With All The Gifts / M.R. Carey (Orbit, 2014)

I got a bit obsessed with zombies last year, reading the entirety of the Walking Dead graphic novels and compulsively flipping through Max Brooks' World War Z as well as Isaac Marion's Warm Bodies. Suffice to say that I had some horrific nightmares around that time. The Girl With All The Gifts was naturally on my radar, though I decided to wait until after finals to allow myself to read it to avoid potential zombie dreams during revision. Carey takes a typical post-apocalyptic zombie narrative and swivels it around so we're seeing things from the point of view of a high-functioning undead child with a love for Classical mythology. Not your average horror novel. The zombie infection is also fascinatingly brought on by a fungus similar to Cordyceps, which, as you might know from watching nature programmes, is a parasite which takes over insect bodies and minds, forcing them to climb as high as possible, where they eventually die. After some time the fungus explodes out of the creature's head, spores fluttering to the forest floor to infect more unsuspecting insects. The concept here is the same, but with humans: utterly engrossing. You can read my full review of the book here.

Have you read any of these, and if so, what did you think? Any recommendations for what I should read this autumn? I'm thinking of joining a book club, but worry that my attention span might be too short to concentrate on one book at a time!

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