Historical Fiction

Fire – C. C. Humphreys – 4/10 (DNF)

“Fire. Vulnerable as any newborn. Like a child, you give it life, pray that it will thrive and repay your care. Yet how will it survive its first moments in a harsh world?”


From the back cover: “1666. The Great Plague has passed. Londoners celebrate survival in different ways. They drink. They gamble. They indulge in carnal delights. But 666 is the number of the Beast, the year foretold when Christ will return. A gang of fanatics – the Saints – choose to hasten that prophesied day. They will kidnap, rape, murder. Above all, they will kill a king. Two men – the highwayman William Coke and the thief-taker Pitman – are recruited to stop them. Then in the early hours of 2 September 1666, something starts that will overtake them all… London’s a tinder box. Politically, sexually, religiously. Literally. It is about to burn.”

(there are some nice graphics on the back which make that blurb a bit cooler)

This had great promise in the Prologue, with a little two-page excursion into “a spark of fire as a newborn” metaphor which I really liked (and from which I’ve quoted above) and I thought would be indicative of great writing to follow.

Sadly, I was disappointed. I can’t figure out what I didn’t like about this book. It’s readable enough – I got to page 170 in a couple of fairly short reading bursts, and some of its passages set up rich pictures and scenes.

The writing was often bawdy, but not enough to act as a deterrent for me. I couldn’t decide whether it was an intentional effort to write in a non-gendered way (I thought it was a woman trying hard to write like a man – I discover with Google that the author is male…) or to be historically authentic. I have no idea whether any of it was historically authentic at all, but I’m don’t really care.

I think what bothered me was that the line between good and bad was too clear. After a few months of reading Cormoran Strike novels where the perpetrator is always a trusted character or at least a known character in the investigators’ lives, the very obviously split world narrative bugged me, and the sad and difficult things happening to the lead characters were too painful to read when we seemed to be moving further from resolution rather than towards it.

In short, I can’t put my finger on what I didn’t like about this, I just didn’t. Someone else, or even me on a different day, might find it perfectly readable.

Additional information

Copy turned up unsolicited in the post, I presume from the publisher! Amusingly I have an email from the publisher offering me a copy, to which I did not respond, and yet it appeared anyway.
Publisher: Century, 329 pages (paperback)
Order Fire from Amazon*Waterstones or Foyles
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards the running costs of this site
Current Affairs


Some mini reviews because I want to get caught up before the new year.


Hector and the Search for Happiness – Francois Lelord – 4/10

Read this on the plane to and from Germany on a rare weekend away from the Bedfordshire portacabin. I kept waiting for it to be transcendent… and it never was. I get that we are suppose to learn the simple lessons of happiness that Hector encounters, but it felt childishly written – and not in a good way like The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden. Next.

kitchen god's wife

The Kitchen God’s Wife – Amy Tan – 6/10

This was the very first book I read in 2014, and it has taken me until December 2014 to review it. In the meantime I have read a different book by Amy Tan, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and now cannot tell them apart in my mind. I do remember that The Kitchen God’s Wife felt smoother, a better constructed story (though, like TBD, the framing was a little awkward), and that I did read it all the way to the end fairly quickly. Reading some other plot summaries, more of it is coming back to me, but the fact that so little of it, except for the fractious daughter-mother-aunt relationship, seems familiar to me is not a positive sign.


Current Affairs

Island of Wings – Karin Altenberg – 4/10 (DNF)

“At last the firm ground of Hirta, our lost Eden!”

Neil McKenzie is a minister, called to serve the people of St Kilda, the most remote part of the British Isles, in 1830. His new and pregnant wife Lizzie follows him, despite speaking no Gaelic and having no company when her husband is away. Can they ever be happy in such an abandoned place?

The writing about nature is undeniably beautiful and skilful; I cannot imagine writing like this in my first language, never mind a second (Altenberg is Swedish). However, the book is so, so bleak and dreary. No end of childhood births, no particular plot progression within 120 pages (at which point I stopped); everything is as grey as the sky and sea which surrounds the island.

The political environs of the time were somewhat alien to me and not explained at all, so I think you need a decent background in Scottish and church history around 1830, as well as an understanding of missions.

Other reviews: Iris on Books, Vulpes Libris, Cornflower Books, Lizzy Siddal, Farm Lane Books, Cardigangirlverity (mostly all positive)

Additional information:
Current Affairs

A Casual Vacancy – JK Rowling – 4/10 (DNF)

“Krystal’s slow passage up the school had resembled the passage of a goat through the body of a boa constrictor, being highly visible and uncomfortable for both parties concerned.”


Nothing I write is going to change your mind on this book. People are going to read it because they want to read the new JK Rowling, not because reviews have said that it’s particularly good or bad. However, I would say don’t read it.

There are very few likeable characters in this novel; as a number of reviews have pointed out, the best developed characters are the teenagers that Rowling has had so much practice writing. A significant number of the adults are actually repellent. While every book needs the odd repellent character (Filch, anyone?), these ones are caricatures.

What stopped me from carrying on with this book was the way that the writing is not only adult, gritty, dark etc… it was as if Rowling was deliberately inserting adult content simply for the sake of it, to make the book not suitable for under-18s. “Hmm, this sentence is missing any mention of an R-rated body part. Where can I squeeze one in?” Yeurgh.

There is some funny writing (see quote above) and Rowling has a knack for the petty-minded empire-builder. But with a huge cast and vocab from the gutter, it’s easy to turn away.

Additional information:


The Girl on the Stairs – Louise Welsh – 4/10 (DNF)

Jane finds herself heavily pregnant in a new city, unable to communicate effectively, and with a partner who works too hard and isn’t home enough. When a girl in a red coat crosses her path and she hears raised voices next door, she becomes concerned for her young neighbour’s safety; a little too concerned for her own good.

I found the characters in this too extreme, and I suspect the author has a political agenda. The protagonist was both lesbian and pregnant, and consistently putting herself in danger with her obsession with the safety of the girl next door. She was in a foreign city; annoyed because her partner’s career had not been curtailed by pregnancy and her partner was travelling off to Vienna; her German is not very good, so she is quite isolated in her new city. Somehow, her vulnerability and difficulties were over-emphasised, and I struggled to believe her willingness to go walking about a creaky, potentially haunted apartment block in a foreign city while very pregnant.

Maybe my reaction is a sheltered one, one of a person who likes characters to fit into certain boxes, and Welsh is trying to provoke a reaction and shock the reader out of their prejudices. Well, that may be, but I don’t think I am a reader who is all that easily shocked, and this felt political. In which case – fine, but advertise it; I felt ambushed, as I did by “Christian fiction” a few times in the past where a book with a strong agenda was dressed up as a middle-of-the-road thriller.

I found all of the characters slightly overdone, like I was watching a film from the perspective of a character on drugs which amplify all the sensory inputs (that took longer to write than I intended; either you will know the cinematographic trick that I mean, or you will not!). Petra is very businessy, very German (I have a strong link to Germany. “Very German” is not a negative comment!), very unemotional. The old neighbour downstairs has hallucinatory Alzheimers. The priest is very judgemental. The girl next door is aggressive. No one is just a person who serves a plot purpose.

Berlin, as a location, is done well. The buildings with facades hiding derelict courtyards and shameful histories, the underground train stations with a slight sense of menace, the openness of residents once you get past the initial aloofness; all are captured well. What is not conveyed is the energy and positivity of the city, but you don’t want that in a horror novel, do you?!

Quite spooky. If you don’t mind the LGBT agenda smacking you over the head every few pages, and you like Gothic horror stories, this might work for you. It was too much for me.

Additional information:
Copy kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: John Murray, 288 pages (paperback)
Order The Girl on the Stairs from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
YA fiction

City of Bones – Cassandra Clare – 4/10 (DNF)

““Can I help you with something?”
Clary turned instant traitor against her gender. “Those girls on the other side of the car are staring at you.”
Jace assumed an air of mellow gratification. “Of course they are,” he said, “I am stunningly attractive.””

In this first of the Mortal Instruments series, Clary Fray is happily going about her suburban New York life with her mother (squabbling) and her best friend Simon (not realising he loves her) when some demons turn up at her local nightclub. She receives a panicked call from her mother and goes into hiding with the local Shadowhunters, a group charged with killing evil daemons; but why did Clary have no idea about all of these magical groups if she is clearly a part of their world? But how can she see them if she’s not part of their world? Confusement.

Actually, as I write that synopsis I realised that Simon goes from not being able to see Shadowhunters and daemons at the start of the book, to being able to flirt/argue with them within thirty pages. So not sure what’s happened there.

I didn’t reject this quite as quickly as I gave up on Clockwork Angel, but I abandoned it for the same reasons: overdone romance and too foreign a fantastical world.

Within the first 169 pages (for thus far I did read), Clary has been totally oblivious to Simon’s enormous crush on her, found Jace both repellant and attractive, got jealous of Simon’s attentions to Isabella and defended him in a secret-crush-rather-than-old-friend way to Jace. We see the love square. OVER AND OVER AGAIN. WE GET IT. STOP HITTING ME WITH YOUR LOVE SQUARE OUCH OUCH OUCH!!!

Similarly, we’re in New York, in a club. But these kids are 16, please explain how they’re in a dodgy nightclub? Then there’s frantic running back to the apartment… But Clary stops at the red light? Really?

Oh and Clary thinks that Switzerland is between Germany and France. And no one, not even Shadowhunters FROM EUROPE, corrects her. Excuse me while I sob quietly in a corner.

I did keep reading it in little spurts after I’d given up on it but I thought I was just resuscitating a dead beast, so I gave up.

No thanks.

Additional information:
Copy borrowed from Mini-me.
Publisher: Walker, 485 pages (paperback)
Don’t order from Amazon, but if you must, I would appreciate it if you used the City of Bones (Mortal Instruments) link*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting costs.
Fluff, Review copies

The Golden Pig – The Penny Brothers – 4/10 (DNF)

“Hymie Goldman was a detective of no fixed abode, hairstyle or opinions; they all came and went like the north wind.”

Hymie Goldman, the “defective detective” of the cover, has been hired by a traffic-stopping blonde to retrieve a supposed family heirloom from her thieving sister: a golden pig. Hymie only just manages to avoid the bailiffs and death on the same day as he undertakes his mission, aided – or perhaps hindered? – by office apprentice Janis and pizza baron Benny.

I wanted to love this. I love detective stories, humour, and people behaving not as they should in north London (why is it always north London? Someone find me a book set south of the river). The humour in the first few pages made me chuckle. However, after a while the unusual writing style wore thin; the Penny brothers took turns to write this novel in parts, trying to out-do one another with ridiculous plot and ever more disasters for poor Hymie. The result, while yielding an unexpectedly consistent writing style and humour, feels like a boisterous puppy, wanting laughter for every sentence and sprinting off with the plot in uneven bounds. I have to confess, this book has confirmed to me that I shouldn’t be trying to read self-published books; others might have the patience to read through the difficult writing, but I have realised I like my reading more polished.

Rhian at It’s a Crime suggested that the humour may particularly appeal to men over 40, with which I agree – I also think the intensity was simply not directed at someone who wants to read the book in one or two sittings. Readers with only fifteen minutes to read at a time might have far more success with this lively and amusing debut.

Additional info:
This  copy was sent for review by the Self-Publishing Magazine, where a slightly different and shorter version of this review will appear.
Publisher: Matador, 187 pages
Order The Golden Pig from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.