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I picked up this book because I had heard lots of good things about it, and because despite the fact that fantasy is not, and never has been a favourite genre of mine, the premise intrigued me.

The story is set in London and is narrated by Peter Jones, a young PC in the Metropolitan Police Service. This strange tale starts when he is trying to glean information about a vicious and unprovoked murder, only to find himself interviewing a witness who died more than a hundred years ago…

More murders follow and Jones and his partner Lesley and mentor Thomas Nightingale quickly work out that they are all linked, and something strange and unusual is causing them.

As if that weren’t enough, Peter and Nightingale also find themselves caught up in a feud between Mother Thames and Father Thames, who are arguing over who has jurisdiction of their River Thames; as a result, Peter meets the exotic and alluring Beverley Brook.

I enjoyed this book a lot – but not quite as much as I had hoped to, or indeed quite as much as the first fifty pages or so led me to think I might. I really liked the characters of Peter and Nightingale, and as narrators go, Peter is witty, likeable and extremely engaging. However, I think the plot got a bit too convoluted, mainly because the feud over the River Thames seemed pointless and really added nothing whatsoever to the main mystery, which was that of the murders. The  murders themselves were quite interesting and I liked that Peter had a foot in both the mortal world and the underworld of London where he could learn magic and make deals with ghosts.

So despite feeling that it was something of an anti-climax, the main two characters are enough for me to want to try the next book in the series. I also find that generally with series such as this one, the first book is never the strongest. This book has had very strong reviews elsewhere, so if you are thinking of reading it – and especially if fantasy is a genre you enjoy (bearing in mind that it is not one I usually choose to read) I would recommend giving this a try.

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Nazneen is born in Bangladesh, the eldest of two sisters, and from the very first page we learn that she is taught to leave things to fate. So when at the age of sixteen her father arranges for her to marry a man over twice her age and move to London to be with her husband, Nazneen accepts it and does what is required. The book covers her life in London from when she moves there in the 1980s, up until the early 2000s. Initially Nazneen cannot speak more than a couple of words of English and so relies on her husband for everything – but it becomes clear that while her husband Chanu is not cruel, he is a pathetic and ineffectual man with big dream and small achievements. He is always just on the verge of something – a new business, a great promotion – but it never actually materialises.

Nazneen forges some friendships, most notably with a lady named Razia, and as she learns to cope in this new country, she also finds strength within herself and ends up falling in love with a young radical, who is at least as unsuitable for her as her husband, if not more so.

I really enjoyed this book, even though it took me a while to read it – but I think it is a book that deserves time and attention. Ali is so observant and so wonderfully descriptive that you really feel immersed in Nazneen’s world, although I could never begin to imagine what her life must feel like. But any reader will certainly recognise the relationships and social politics at work, and the interplay between characters. The book opened my eyes to an immigrant’s experience, and certainly the description of life after September 11th was eye opening, with many people viewing all Muslims with suspicion and hatred. Another surprise was the humour which Ali employs in her descriptions. She has a remarkably funny turn of phrase which made me smile often throughout the story, even when the events described were not funny at all.

A fair part of the book was taken up with letters from Nazneen’s younger sister Hasina, still in Bangladesh, who disgraced her family at a young age by running away to get married to man she chose rather than one who was chosen for her. The marriage didn’t work, but the letters make it clear that Hasina, unlike Nazneen, refused to leave her life to fate and wanted to make her own choices instead, for better or for worse.

I loved the ending of this book – I won’t spoil it for anyone, but I do feel it gave hope for Nazneen’s future. Overall, I would say that while this was the first book I have read by this author, it certainly will not be the last.

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Synopsis

This novel is set in present-day London during a global pandemic. People are suffering from what is being called ‘The Sweats’ and there is no cure. In the  midst of this, TV saleswoman Stevie Flint discovers her boyfriend Simon Sharkey dead in bed. Soon after, she herself starts suffering from the sweats but unlike most others, she recovers.

Stevie works out that Simon’s death was not due to the illness, but that he was in fact murdered, and she starts investigating who killed Simon and why, but when people are dying all around, it’s hard to get anyone else to care about one single death.

As social order collapses, and crime rates soar, Stevie finds herself alone and afraid, but determined to uncover the truth about her boyfriend.

My thoughts

I am really in two minds about this one. On the one hand I love dystopian fiction and I did enjoy the parts of this book that dealt with the aftermath of the pandemic – people’s terror on the one hand, and their abandonment of all societal norms on the other. However, the murder mystery aspect became the greater story with the pandemic more of a backdrop, and the mystery itself did not really grab my attention. For all that, it was still a quick read and the sort of story I could imagine being adapted for a tv mini series. I’m not entirely sure that I liked Stevie – she seemed devoid of emotion for a large part of the story – but I did kind of grudgingly admire her determination and courage.

I didn’t think it was particularly well written (in contrast to the last book of Louise Welsh’s I read, The Bullet Trick, which I thought was very well written) – Simon was supposed to be in his early 40s and reference is made to a schoolfriend in the same year who now has a son of 29. Not beyond the realms of possibility, but there is nothing to suggest that the man was particularly young when he had his son, although he would have had to have been. A lot of the story seemed to be ‘Stevie did this and then she did that’, and unfortunately the final part was something of an anti-climax.

For all that though, I did race through it quickly and while it wasn’t exactly a can’t-put-down book, it also wasn’t a can’t-bear-to-pick-up book. So a bit of a middling read for me. It has garnered very mixed reviews, with some people loving it and others absolutely hating it. I’m not sure I would recommend it to others, but I would still probably give this author another look if she brought out another book with an interesting subject.

 

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Set in Snow Hill, London, in 1936, this books tells the story of newspaper reporter Johnny Steadman, who gets an anonymous tip-off that a policeman at Snow Hill Station has been killed. However, when he asks other police officers about it – including his best friend PC Matt Turner – nobody will corroborate the story, and Johnny is told to leave well alone.

Wanting to get to the truth of the matter, he keeps digging and the discovery of a gruesome murder scene makes him only more determined. But soon it becomes apparent that there is a web of corruption being spun to cover up a number of horrific violations, and Johnny ends up fighting not only for his own life, but also to save the lives of those closest to him…

My thoughts

This book was certainly not what I was expecting. What I had thought it would be was a psychological thriller with a scrappy but good-hearted protagonist. I was half-right…Johnny did make for a fairly likeable main character. He is certainly the most well drawn character of the plot – the rest are drawn with fairly broad strokes and more than a little stereotyping.

The story itself was considerably more gruesome than I had expected. The murder scene which Johnny stumbles upon as described above, was particularly unpleasant, and the plot revolves heavily around male sexual assault and violation (no spoilers here; this part is made apparent fairly early on) and subsequent cover-up.

However, for all that the story flowed pretty well and I found myself reading large chunks at a time.

Overall, I would have liked a bit more characterisation – I never felt that we got to know Matt’s wife Lizzie, or Johnny’s colleague Bill as well as we could have done and it might have drawn me in a bit more if I had been able to invest more in the characters. Nonetheless, based on this book I would probably try more by this author.

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This book had been sitting on my shelf for a few years, and I finally decided it was time to read it for several reasons: I enjoy reading Shakespeare and learning about his life, I enjoy watching his plays, historical fiction (particularly when interwoven with fact) is a favourite genre of mine, and recently there have been the celebrations of 400 years since he died. Which I suppose is a slightly strange thing to celebrate, but still.

Not a lot is actually known about Shakespeare’s life, or to put it more precisely, there are large gaps in his biography. This book takes the facts that we do know and weaves a fictional story around them. It never claims to be anything but fictional, but clearly the author has done a lot of research to get as much accuracy in as possible.

I am in two minds about it. On the one hand, there was much to enjoy – the writing was elegant and at times rather beautiful, but also slightly too flowery for my personal tastes. It felt as though 20 words were often used when one would have sufficed. Nonetheless I felt it gave a descriptive portrayal of Shakespeare although there is no way of knowing truly how accurate the portrayal was. Morgan draws him as a serious minded, elusive man who wins everyone’s (almost) admiration, yet never really allows anyone to get too close, except for one person who he regrets letting into his life.

One thing to point out about this book is that it is as much about Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway as it is about him, and a fair amount of the story is also given over to Shakespeare’s friend and contemporary, Ben Jonson. Shakespeare is seen through both of their eyes, and out of all three characters, Anne probably comes across as the most sympathetic.

Overall I would say that this was a middling book for me – objectively I’d say it was wonderfully written, but subjectively I’d say that it wasn’t the best fit for me; however, I enjoyed it enough to want to pick it up each day, but it was so wordy that I couldn’t read great swathes of it in one sitting. Interesting though, and I would recommend it to fans of historical fiction and especially to anyone with an interest in William Shakespeare.

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This non-fiction work has been made famous by the BBC series of the same name which was based on Jennifer Worth’s memoirs. Being a big fan of the series, I was eager to read the book, and I was not disappointed.

If you have seen the series, many of the stories and characters contained within this book will be familiar to you; if you haven’t seen it (first of all, why not?!) and second of all, it doesn’t matter a jot. The book preceded the show and therefore you don’t need any prior knowledge to enjoy this book.

Rather than a chronological account, the author tells many different stories from her time at Nonnatus House in the East End of London as a midwife. Many of the stories are heartwarming and amusing, but there are also some tragic tales – the story of Mary, a young girl who ran away from Ireland to escape abuse only to find a worse fate waiting for her in London, is heartbreaking.

I felt that the characters of the Nuns of Nonnatus House were well described, although I didn’t feel that I learned much about Jennifer (Jenny) herself. It is clear from her writing that she was well-educated and intelligent, but other than that, she is largely reticent about her private life. However, the real heart of this book lies in the East End characters and indeed the East End itself – I feel that she brought the time period to life very well, and overall I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Highly recommended.

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This collection of letters from Nina Stibbe to her sister Victoria spans five years (1982 – 1987), and begins when 20 year old Nina moves from Leicestershire to London to become the live-in nanny to Sam and Will, the two young sons of editor/journalist Mary-Kay Wilmers.

Reading like a cross between Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones (as the letters do form a diary of sorts), this book is extremely funny (frequently) and frank. I particularly loved how almost every letter contained snippets of information between Nina, Mary-Kay, Sam, Will and other people (including, frequently, Alan Bennett who was not only a neighbour, but also a very regular visitor to the house).

I did start to make notes of some of the funniest parts, to quote in this review, but when I realised that there were parts I wanted to quote on every couple of pages, I had to stop otherwise I would have been making notes as much as I was reading the book.

As well as liking Nina very much, I also loved Mary-Kay, Sam and Will, who were all clearly intelligent and quick thinking. Nina was – by her own admission – not brilliant at cooking or cleaning, but clearly the family felt that she fitted in with them perfectly, so much so that even after she stopped being nanny to the boys and left to pursue a Literature degree, she subsequently moved back in to live with them.

It’s true that the letters contain a lot of the minutiae of family life, and often not much at all happens, and some reviews have been critical of this, but for me part of the attraction of the book was precisely that, and the fact that Nina could make such humdrum events so amusing.

I would highly recommend this book, and already know that I will be buying some copies of it for Christmas presents.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

 

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