Thursday, March 30, 2006

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

Author: Joanne Harris
ISBN # 0552998486
Publisher: Black Swan
1st Published: 1999
320 pages

When an exotic stranger, Vianne Rocher, arrives in the French village of Lansquenet and opens a chocolate boutique directly opposite the church, Father Reynaud identifies her as a serious danger to his flock - especially as it is the beginning of Lent, the traditional season of self-denial. War is declared as the priest denounces the newcomer’s wares as the ultimate sin.

Suddenly Vianne’s shop-cum-café means that there is somewhere for secrets to be whispered, grievances to be aired, dreams to be tested. But Vianne’s plans for an Easter Chocolate Festival divide the whole community in a conflict that escalates into a ‘Church not Chocolate’ battle. As mouths water in anticipation, can the solemnity of the Church compare with the Pagan passion of a chocolate éclair?

Chocolat is every bit as sumptuous as its title suggests – a deliciously wicked concoction of indulgence, fun, flirtation and temptation between the covers! The characters are completely believable, even in the extremes of their beliefs and actions, and the conflict between those on the side of the Church and those in favour of a more flavoursome life is electric; drawing the reader into the close-knit community to become a part of the action.

The arrival of the Travellers adds an extra element of tension as those who are more tolerant of more unusual lifestyles welcome them with open arms, whereas the more staid inhabitants try everything within their power to not only make them feel unwelcome, but to run them out of town. It’s through characters such as Vianne and Armande that the easy-going friendliness of strangers is portrayed and also through them, a joy of revelling in life’s little pleasures while they have the chance. The over-riding message throughout is that a little bit of what you fancy does you good and denying yourself love and pleasure completely can only lead to obsession.

A tantalising story that tempts you: Try me… Test me… Taste me… You’ll want to come back for more!

Rating: 9

(Chocolat was adapted for screen in a movie very faithful to the spirit of the book, starring Johnny Depp, Juliette Binoche and Judi Dench.)

Not Quite a Mermaid: Mermaid Friends by Linda Chapman

Author: Linda Chapman
ISBN # 1041320532
Publisher: Puffin
1st Published: 2006
87 pages

Electra is a mermaid with a difference – she has legs instead of a tail! Of course, this means she stands out from her friends a little so when they all go on a trip to Craggy Island it’s the cause of teasing from some of the older mermaids. But when two of them are stranded high on a rock in the sun with no way to get back into the water, it’s up to Electra to save the day!

This tale (or should that be ‘tail’?) of a human girl brought up as a mermaid is perfect as a bedtime story for little ones or to read along with slightly older children. It is fun and full of adventure with an important message; accept others for who and what they are as well as being happy with the person you are yourself – it’s alright to be different! The pictures are colourful and appealing, and compliment the story well.

An excellent treat for little girls who dream of combing their hair with seashells and swimming with dolphins.

Rating: 7

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter

Author: Karin Slaughter
ISBN # 0099421771
Publisher: Arrow Books
1st Published: 2001
392 pages

The sleepy town of Heartsdale, Georgia, is jolted into panic when Sara Linton, paediatrician and medical examiner, finds Sibyl Adams dead in the local diner. As well as being viciously raped, Sibyl has been cut: two deep knife wounds form a lethal cross over her stomach. But it's only once Sara starts to perform the post-mortem that the full extent of the killer's brutality becomes clear. Police chief Jeffrey Tolliver - Sara's ex-husband - is in charge of the investigation, and when a second victim is found, crucified, only a few days later, both Jeffrey and Sara have to face the fact that Sibyl's murder wasn't a one-off attack. What they're dealing with is a seasoned sexual predator. A violent serial killer…

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t overly impressed – my expectations were high and Blindsighted failed to hit the mark. Surprisingly enough, on paper, this should have thrilled me on every level as it has all the basics covered; solid storyline; engaging characters; good pace, but it was completely lacking in red herrings, meaning that when the murderer was introduced, it was fairly obvious just whodunit. After that, it was pretty easy to predict other plot points, such as future victims, and even to hazard a guess at the motives behind it all.

It’s an easy and enjoyable read, but if you like something that will tax your brain a little and keep you guessing, this isn’t it. On the other hand, if you like being able to work it all out ahead of the other characters, this’ll be right up your street.

Seeing as this is a debut novel, and not having read any further into the series as yet, there’s a fair chance that Slaughter (excellent name for a crime thriller novelist!) improves as it becomes more familiar. I hope that’s the case, because there was actually enough here to pique my interest and I may well pick up the next one, Kisscut, at some point in the future, even if it’s not my top reading priority.

Rating: 6

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory

Author: Philippa Gregory
ISBN # 0007147295
Publisher: Harper Collins
1st Published: 2003
488 pages

The bitter enmity between Elizabeth the First and Mary Tudor, the daughters of Henry VIII (not to mention the conflict between their mothers Anne Boleyn and Katherine of Aragon) makes the squabbles between modern-day royals seem small beer indeed.

Mary and Elizabeth, the two young princesses, have a common goal: to be Queen of England. To achieve this, they need both to win the love of the people and learn how to negotiate dangerous political pitfalls. Gregory recreates this era with tremendous colour, and she makes the court an enticing but danger-fraught place. Into this setting comes the eponymous fool, the youthful Hannah, who (despite her air of guileless religiousness) is not naive. She soon finds herself having to deal with the beguiling but treacherous Robert Dudley. Dispatched to report on Princess Mary, Hannah discovers in her a passionate religious conviction (to return England to the rule of Rome and its pope) that will have fatal consequences.

As with The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory takes the bones of the story from historical fact, using actual historical figures and events throughout the tale as well as creating a few from her own imagination, and manages to breathe life into them; bringing the Tudor period to the reader in an immensely enjoyable and accessible way. The fear and paranoia felt by all in England at that time is brought to the fore and narrated by Hannah, who would be taken as a heretic for her religion, which she must hide from those around her, and through her gift as a seer she is elevated to a position where she may feel safer, but is, in fact, in danger of being arrested for treason.

The complexity of relationships is a focal point here (Hannah loving Queen Mary but admiring Princess Elizabeth; being enchanted by Robert Dudley but fighting her growing feelings for Daniel Carpenter) and the subtleties are intricately woven into the plot to make this a richly rewarding story with more to offer than just historical detail. It is a tale about following your heart and being true to yourself, even when faced with danger from all sides, learning to live with your decisions and grow as a person because of them. Although there is much detail, Gregory doesn’t allow it to bog down the narrative and she manages to draw the reader into it in such a way that you could believe you were actually there.

It is very well-written and, although not quite as intriguing as The Other Boleyn Girl (in my opinion), The Queen’s Fool has convinced me to get hold of as many of Philippa Gregory’s other works as I can as soon as possible.

Rating: 7

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

24 Hours by Greg Iles

Author: Greg Iles
ISBN # 0340770066

Publisher: Coronet Books (Hodder and
1st Published: 2000

433 pages

The perfect family. The perfect night. The perfect crime.

Will and Karen Jennings are a successful young couple with every reason to celebrate. From modest beginnings they have built the life of their dreams. Will has a thriving medical practice, and stands at the threshold of a great fortune. Karen has designed a magnificent house to shelter them and the five-year-old daughter they love beyond measure. But now they have been targeted by an evil madman and they are about to be tested in a way they could never imagine.

The tight writing style of Iles is perfect for this tense thriller. The plot is sophisticated and riveting, and the pace never lets up for a second, keeping you gripped; sharing the same terror and determination as the Jennings as they get through the longest 24 hours in their lives. There is a sense of urgency throughout made all the more poignant by the fragility of the characters as the story unfolds.

It’s a rip-roaring, non-stop roller-coaster ride that constantly batters you from all directions, leaving you uncomfortably disorientated, which only helps intensify the emotional turmoil, and you find yourself feeling hatred and pity in turn for the “bad guys”, humanising them in a way not often attained in a thriller. You also find yourself plunged into the dilemma of “what would I do?” and this also keeps you turning those pages.

If you’ve never read Iles, pick this one up and I guarantee, you’ll be promising yourself another of his books very soon.

Rating: 9

24 Hours was made into the motion picture Trapped, starring Charlize Theron, Stuart Townsend, Kevin Bacon and Dakota Fanning.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Land of the Wand by Debra Hill and Sandra Brandenburg

Authors: Debra Hill and Sandra brandenburg
ISBN # 1929374437
Publisher: Fire Mountain Press
1st Published: 2006

249 pages

One weekend in June, four people in Chicago all go, separately, to the same gift shop in the Galleria and examine an ornamental crystal wand. Rock star Marshall Storme, fantasy author Evan Stone, architect Valaura Bennet and fast-food worker Lillian Curtis all look at the wand, though only Marshall and Valaura are seriously interested in purchasing it. They are all transported to a parallel dimension, a place where the myths of earth originated, and live as real, if unusual, beings.

Befriended by the Daemona, the four dimension travellers find themselves embroiled in a holy war with the savage Anjeles. Led by the mad King Yahoo, the Anjeles are trying to wipe out eh Daemona and their four brother-kings, Nicholas, Mephistopheles, Beelzebub and Lucifer. It is Lucifer, King of The Land of the Chalice and the Lightbearers, who is the nemesis of King Yahoo. But they have gone to war against the eldest brother, Nicholas, and the four travellers are caught right in the middle.

The Land of the Wand is a bold, bright, colourful start to The Lost Myths Saga (comprising of 4 books), which strives to do for Paganism what C. S. Lewis did for Christianity with The Chronicles of Narnia.

There is a reversal of Judeo-Christian religious teachings – here the Daemona are portrayed as simple, peace-loving, warm and welcoming, whereas the Angeles are depicted as barbaric and threatening zealots.

The characters are all wonderfully flawed and painfully human (even the other-dimensional beings) and it is their journey of self-discovery, given a light and humorous touch that makes this such an easy read. The writing style flows almost effortlessly and having four separate prologue chapters does nothing to hinder the narrative, which has a comfortably friendly and familiar tone throughout.

Ultimately, though, the prevailing message is that acceptance and understanding of others will eventually, it is hoped, lead to harmony and peace, which is as simple a rendering of Pagan thought as you’re ever likely to see, but relevant in any era.

(The Land of the Wand, Volume 1 of The Lost Myths Saga, will be published by Fire Mountain Press and will be available in the US and UK from April 2006.)

Rating: 7

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Dying Voices by Laura Wilson

Author: Laura Wilson
ISBN # 0752843281
Publisher: Orion
1st Published: 2000
293 pages

When Dodie Blackstock, only child of multi-millionaire Wolf Blackstock, is told that her mother's body has been found in a housing estate in Hackney, she is shocked. When she is told that her mother, Susan, has been dead for less than 48 hours, she is devastated, for Susan was kidnapped, apparently by a politically motivated group, when Dodie was eight. Susan was never found, and she was presumed dead.

by her lonely childhood, Dodie has been estranged from her dysfunctional and complicated family for years. She returns to Camoys Hall, the Blackstocks' stately home, to talk to her stepmother Joan, who lives there by herself. But Dodie finds more than she bargained for - and then she starts to receive anonymous and threatening letters. Who is waiting in the darkness outside Camoys Hall, watching her every move . . . ?

Dying Voices is less of a Whodunit, more of a Whydunit. From the start, we know that Susan Blackstock was kidnapped; one of her kidnappers was killed and his two accomplices did time for their part in the crime; her body isn’t found till 20 years later and she’s only been dead for 48 hours. What we are left with is a mystery to slowly unravel as Dodie pieces together information from various sources to find out exactly what happened all those years ago, the circumstances that led to the kidnap and what impact it will have on her life now.

It’s a clever piece of work and I was kept guessing right up to the very last moment. If I hadn’t been reading two other books at the same time, this one would have had the pages flying as I swept through it – I hated to put it down. That said, there were aspects of Dodie’s character I never got to grips with – her self-denigrating / self-destructive streak that seemed very prominent was never fully explained other than a brief nod towards the notion that she had blamed herself, as a child, for her mother’s disappearance, but that didn’t quite sit right with me. Her complete lack of self-confidence seemed a little out of place, but made for good tension between her and other characters, as she is continually sure that people only want to know her for what she can give them.

Rating: 7