Monday, May 29, 2006

Sickened by Julie Gregory

Author: Susan Gregory
ISBN # 0099466295
Publisher: Arrow Books
1st Published: 2003
305 pages

Sickened is the memoir of Julie Gregory, who grew up in a backwoods country trailer in southern Ohio. Her mother's life -- lived in desperate isolation -- sought a means to escape by dressing in pastels and running Julie to different doctors. At first it was little things -- headaches, sore throats and the medications they came with -- but eventually Julie's mother was in hot pursuit of a mysterious heart condition and the open heart surgery she was convinced would give it a name. Racing against the clock for the cure, Julie was continually x-rayed, medicated and eventually operated on, all in the vain pursuit of an illness that was created in her mother's mind -- and literally left her own child sickened.

Punctuated with Julie's actual medical records, this memoir re-creates the bizarre cocoon of her family's isolated double-wide, their wild Value City shopping sprees, gun-waving confrontations, and the astonishing naïveté of medical professionals and social workers. It also exposes the twisted bonds of terror and love that roped Julie's family together -- including the love that made a child willing to sacrifice herself to win her mother's happiness.

I think I perhaps read this too soon after reading the Dave Pelzer trilogy as I didn’t find it as shocking or disturbing as I thought I would (although there is no denying that it is indeed shocking and disturbing). I found the narrative dull and plodding and eventually ended up scanning over passages to get to the next “important” moment. The atrocities that Julie suffered due to her mother’s obsession are undeniably gruesome, but the style of writing did nothing to draw me into her story and questions were, for me, largely left unanswered. It’s an interesting look at a case study of Munchausen’s by Proxy – a little understood condition – but I didn’t feel at all uplifted or inspired by this story, as any action seemed to just happen without any explanation.

Rating: 6

The Saga of Darren Shan: Vampire Blood Trilogy by Darren Shan

Author: Darren Shan
ISBN # 0007143745
Publisher: Collins
1st Published: 2000
511 pages

Cirque du Freak
Darren Shan's an ordinary schoolboy, until he and his best friend Steve get tickets to the Cirque Du Freak, a bizarre freak show featuring such arcane performers as Hans Hands, Gertha Teeth, the Wolf Man and Rhamus Twobellies. In the midst of the ghoulish excitement, true terror raises its head when Steve recognises that one of the performers -- Mr. Crepsley -- is in fact a vampire!

Steve remains after the show finishes, to confront the vampire -- but his motives are anything but ordinary! In the shadows of a crumbling theatre, a horrified Darren eavesdrops on his friend and the vampire, and is witness to a monstrous, disturbing plea.

Later, in a moment of insane daring, Darren sets out to steal the vampire's magnificent performing tarantula, an act which will have severe, tragic consequences for both Darren and Steve. Their lives will never be the same again…

The Vampire’s Assistant
Having abandoned his old way of life to unwillingly serve as Mr. Crepsley's assistant, Darren must accustom himself to the habits of vampires. But the change is difficult and the loneliness is crushing.

In an attempt to give Darren a sense of stability, Mr. Crepsley takes him to live at the Cirque Du Freak, where he is to share a tent with Evra Von -- the Snake Boy introduced in Book 1. Darren soon fits into his new position -- even if he doesn't exactly enjoy hunting food for the ominous Little People! -- and he and Evra befriend a curious young boy called Sam Grest, whose one great wish is to join the travelling freak show.

But all is not well with Darren. He refuses to drink human blood, even though he'll die without it. While Mr. Crepsley argues with him, and tries forcing him to drink, Darren grows weaker and weaker. Will he resist the temptation of blood and sacrifice himself for the benefit of his humanity -- or will some awful turn of events lead to his becoming a true, blood-sucking creature of the night???

Tunnels of Blood
Shortly after an old friend's visit, Mr. Crepsley leaves the Cirque Du Freak and heads for a city, taking Darren and Evra with him. The boys enjoy their stay in the city. Evra soaks up a lot of TV shows, while Darren catches the eye of pretty young Debbie Hemlock! But Mr. Crepsley's behaving strangely, patrolling the streets every night, saying nothing of his purpose to Darren or Evra.

Then, in the run-up to Christmas, police discover several human bodies hidden in an old building -- each of which has been drained of blood! Darren and Evra are horrified, and immediately set about shadowing Mr. Crepsley, on the understanding that if he's the killer, they're going to stop him -- by any means necessary!

In a blood-soaked abattoir, Darren confronts his mentor, and aims for his throat with a rusty butcher's knife. But this attack is just the start of the true nightmare, and soon Darren finds himself fighting not just for his own life, but for the lives of his friends, Debbie and Evra, both of whom are threatened by a force of sinister, murderous evil ...

It’s well known that kids tend to like a good gross-out and Darren Shan delivers on every level. There’s plenty of the nasty blood and guts on offer, but there’s also a rip-roaring adventure and voyage of self discovery within the bounds of an ongoing tale of terror. It has thrills and spills at every twist and turn – the characters are fun and the action is fast-paced without letting the development suffer. This is well-written and animated and should delight readers, especially boys, from about 10 and upwards, but it’s equally fun for older readers who like a good, old-fashioned chiller every now and then.

And anyone who doesn’t like spiders (like me!) will get shivers down their spines!

Rating: 8

The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

Author: Philippa Gregory
ISBN # 000719031X
Publisher: Harper Collins
1st Published: 2005
490 pages

Katherine of Aragon. We think of her as the barren wife of a notorious king; but behind this legacy lies a fascinating story. Katherine of Aragon is born Catalina, the Spanish Infanta, to parents who are both rulers and warriors. Aged four, she is betrothed to Arthur, Prince of Wales, and is raised to be Queen of England. She is never in doubt that it is her destiny to rule that far-off, wet, cold land. Her faith is tested when her prospective father-in-law greets her arrival in her new country with a great insult; Arthur seems little better than a boy; the food is strange and the customs coarse. Slowly she adapts to the first Tudor court, and life as Arthur's wife grows ever more bearable. But when the studious young man dies, she is left to make her own future: how can she now be queen, and found a dynasty? Only by marrying Arthur's young brother, the sunny but spoilt Henry. His father and grandmother are against it; her powerful parents prove little use. Yet Katherine is her mother's daughter and her fighting spirit is strong. She will do anything to achieve her aim; even if it means telling the greatest lie, and holding to it.

Returning to a study of Tudor royalty, Gregory is certainly on top form. The story is intricate, yet it seems to whiz by at lightening pace. Catalina, the Spanish Infanta, is often seen as the dull 1st wife, set aside by Henry VIII, but this fictional retelling of fact shows her as a determined and strong woman who knew her mind and did her level best to succeed in what she saw as her destiny – the be a good Queen of England. This is engaging stuff and one into which any fan of historical fiction will find a pleasure to sink.

Rating: 8

Confessions of a bad Mother by Stephanie Calman

Author: Stephanie Calman
ISBN # 0330438751
Publisher: Macmillan
1st Published: 2005
307 pages

More comforting than chocolate! More liberating than the pill! Do you feel that other mothers are “doing it properly” while you’re getting it All Wrong? Do you give your children chicken nuggets for supper, herd them into bed and slump down exhausted with a drink? Do you wish there could just, please, be a little less pressure? If you try your best but frequently feel a failure, if you – or your children – are in any way imperfect, then join the club: the Bad Mothers Club. In the aisle by the chill cabinets no one can hear you scream.

As someone who never plans on having children, I could identify with the lead character, and as a fellow sufferer of “when are you going to have children?” from friends and family, I could sympathise too. This autobiographical tale of the most unlikely parents getting it all wrong, yet somehow managing to get it all right at the same time, is absolutely hilarious, proving that you don’t have to be the perfect mother to be a good mother. I was in fits of giggles throughout reading this book, which could have been written for me personally, watching the “joys of motherhood” sending another woman round the twist as she desperately strives to be the best and then, after many a sleepless night and cut corner, a passable parent.

Rating: 7

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

Author: Nick Hornby
ISBN # 0140287027
Publisher: Penguin
1st Published: 2005
257 pages

'Can I explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower block?' For disgraced TV presenter Martin Sharp the answer's pretty simple: he has, in his own words, pissed his life away'. And on New Year's Eve, he's going to end it all. But not, as it happens, alone. Because first single-mum Maureen, then eighteen-year-old Jess and lastly American rock-god JJ turn up and crash Martin's private party. They've stolen his idea, but brought their own reasons. Yet it's hard to jump when you've got an audience queuing impatiently behind you. A few heated words and some slices of cold pizza later, and these four strangers are suddenly allies. But is their unlikely friendship a good enough reason to carry on living?

The whole idea of this novel intrigued me – what happens when several suicide-attempters manage to bungle each other’s plans? Rather than being depressing in any way, A Long Way Down turned out to be a very witty and humorous story of how people can often find the help and friendship they need in the most unlikely of places. The hideously mismatched characters somehow form themselves into the perfect support group, covering everyone’s needs and using everyone’s strengths and weaknesses to great effect. The result is something well worth picking up!

Rating: 7

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Her Rightful Inheritance by Benita Brown

Author: Benita Brown
ISBN # 0747267758
Publisher: Headline
1st Published: 2002
406 pages

Orphaned as a child and the product of a mixed marriage, eighteen-year-old Lorna Cunningham has been brought up by her wealthy grandmother, who neither loves nor likes her. When she meets the sensitive and intelligent Edwin Randall she is delighted to have finally found companionship and shares his passion to do something to improve the terrible conditions in the Newcastle slums. However, their deepening friendship is overshadowed by her infatuation with the handsome but unscrupulous Maurice Haldane, who is engaged to her cousin Rose. When her grandmother dies, a family secret is revealed that will change Lorna's life forever, but will she be able to break free of the past and see where her true happiness lies?

I’ve never been one for genre romances, but I picked up this novel, usually stuck in the romance section of book shops, because it was written by a member of On the Shelf, Benita Brown. Not only was I pleasantly surprised, I was mightily impressed. It possibly helped that the story was set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century Newcastle, so that I recognized many of the places and the style of language, but even without that, Brown is an accomplished writer who deserves much praise. The story was never once slushy; the characters never melodramatic. In short, this was a historical drama with both a crime thriller and a romantic element which was both engaging and refreshing. I shall certainly be on the lookout for more by this author who now has the honour of being the person who got me to read romance!

Rating: 7

My Story (Trilogy) by Dave Pelzer

Author: Dave Pelzer
ISBN # 0752864017
Publisher: Orion
1st Published: 2004
489 pages

A Child Called “It”:
As a child, Dave was brutally beaten and starved by his emotionally unstable, alcoholic mother: a mother who played tortuous games - games that almost killed him. With only his willpower to survive, Dave learned how to play his Mother's sinister games in order to survive because she no longer considered Dave a son but a slave, and no longer a boy but an "It."

The harrowing true story of David Pelzer was the third-worst case of child abuse on record in the entire state of
California. If that’s so, you have to wonder about just how horrendous the other two cases were because it’s amazing he ever survived to adulthood.

The Lost Boy:
As a child, Dave Pelzer was brutally beaten and starved by his mother. The world knew nothing of his living nightmare and he had nothing and no one to turn to. But his dreams kept him alive - dreams of someone taking care of him, loving him and calling him their son. Finally, his horrific plight could no longer be hidden from the outside world and Dave's life radically changed. The Lost Boy is the harrowing - but ultimately uplifting - true story of a boy's journey through the foster-care system in search of a family to love. The continuation of Dave Pelzer's story is a moving sequel and inspirational read for all. Essentially, The Lost Boy is a story of regeneration and resilience.

A Man Named Dave:
The third tale in David Pelzer's autobiographical trilogy, A Man Named Dave is an inspiring story of terror, recovery and hope experienced by the author throughout his life. Known for his work as an advocate against child abuse, Pelzer has been commended by several
US presidents and international agencies, and his previous memoirs of growing up as an abused child (A Child Called It and The Lost Boy) have touched thousands of lives. He provides living proof that we can "stop the cycle" and lead fulfilling, rewarding lives full of healthy relationships.

It has been a little while since I read the first part of this trilogy, but as it was so harrowing, it has stayed fresh in my mind, so I was able to pick up where I left off. Pelzer’s story remains one of the most horrific child abuse cases in living memory and his never-ending search for answers is heartrending. Being able to follow his life story through to a conclusion of any kind (he’s still alive and well, so his story is not done just yet!) makes this a satisfying read and the sheer amount of work he has done towards helping others in similar situations is an inspiration. This really is a must-read trilogy, if only so we never forget what can and does happen in families all over the world, and work towards ensuring that it stops.

Rating: 7

44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

Author: Alexander McCall Smith
ISBN # 0349118973
Publisher: Abacus
1st Published: 2005
326 pages

Welcome to 44 Scotland Street, home to some of Edinburgh's most colorful characters. There's Pat, a twenty-year-old who has recently moved into a flat with Bruce, an athletic young man with a keen awareness of his own appearance. Their neighbor, Domenica, is an eccentric and insightful widow. In the flat below are Irene and her appealing son Bertie, who is the victim of his mother’s desire for him to learn the saxophone and Italian–all at the tender age of five. Love triangles, a lost painting, intriguing new friends, and an encounter with a famous Scottish crime writer are just a few of the ingredients that add to this delightful and witty portrait of Edinburgh society.

This was first published as a serial in The Scotsman newspaper and, as a result, the chapters are quite short and self-contained within the big picture, making this an excellent choice for readers who can only snatch a few moments in their day for relaxing with a book. It has highs and lows and sometimes the overall plot appears to get a little lost as different characters, each with their own stories, wander across the pages, drawing us into their lives as we visit them all in turn, occasionally interacting with each other without realizing the drama they add to each other’s tales. It’s humorous, witty and fun – an interesting experiment in serialized writing that has paid off.

Rating: 6

The Doomspell by Cliff McNish

Author: Cliff McNish
ISBN # 1858817625
Publisher: Orion
1st Published: 2000
214 pages

In a blaze of light, rush of wind and scrabble of claws, Rachel and Eric are ripped through the wall and hurtled on to another world. Like thousands of other children before them, they have been snatched away by the Witch.

But this time the Witch has met her match. Rachel discovers that she has extraordinary gifts: she can transform herself into a feather, or fly on an owl’s back, just as the Witch can. The Witch is excited – she has found someone to use for her own evil purposes. But for the Witch’s victims, Rachel is their only hope.

McNish has created a world akin to Narnia – a world perpetually covered with snow, where the inhabitants are under the spell of a powerful Witch from another world. There’s just the right mix of action, adventure, magic and fear mixed in to get the adrenaline running. The ending felt like it was purposely left open for a sequel and, right enough, when I checked I found it’s the first in a trilogy, so I may well find myself with a couple more books being added to my ever-extending list.

Rating: 6

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Redwulf's Curse (A Tom Marlowe Adventure, Book 3) by Chris Priestley

Author: Chris Priestley
ISBN # 00552554839
Publisher: Corgi Books
First Published: 2005
261 pages

Tom and Dr Harker are back and this time their adventure takes them outside London. They visit a friend in Norfolk, Mr. Gibbs, who has recently unearthed fabulous Anglo-Saxon treasures from an archaeological excavation. They are believed to have belonged to the East Anglian king, Redwulf. Local legend tells of a ghostly guardian of the king's tomb and a curse against anyone who threatens it. When not one but two murders occur in the household, it is hard to dismiss the legend. As everyone feels threatened and the atmosphere of hostility increases, Tom and Harker investigate. Discovering in fact that Gibbs' wife is behind the attacks seems to explain what's been happening. But then Tom sees an unidentifiable figure in the mist... This is an exciting and atmospheric story set in the eighteenth-century and delving into our Anglo-Saxon past.

This final instalment in the Tom Marlowe Adventure trilogy is every bit as engaging as the previous instalments and has just a touch of Sherlock Holmes’ style with mysterious happenings, a devilish dog and a ghostly figure on the moor. A rip-roaring read from start to finish.

Rating: 8

The White Rider (A Tom Marlowe Adventure, Book 2) by Chris Priestley

Author: Chris Priestley
ISBN # 055255474X
Publisher: Corgi Books
First Published: 2004
247 pages

It is London, 1716. The streets are full of spies and buzzing with intrigue. Jacobite rebels are being rounded up and hanged at Tower Hill, and on the outskirts of London the roads are haunted by a mysterious Highwayman known only as The White Rider; a robber so fierce that he kills his victims simply by pointing at them! Tom Marlowe, caught in the fascinating heart of events, is resolved to get to the bottom of them. With the help of his mentor, Dr Harker, Tom is determined to discover who is behind the White Rider's gruesome mask. But Dr Harker seems to be keeping secrets of his own. Who is the mysterious stranger with the Scottish accent seen at Harker's house? And why does the Doctor lie when questioned about him? Highly atmospheric, with a gripping plot this historical adventure will fascinate and engage readers.

Chris Priestley has taken the characters he introduced in Death and the Arrow and developed them, so that the reader grows with Tom and is introduced to another round of murder and intrigue. Priestly never condescends to the reader and instead encourages deductive skills and complex thinking while never once losing the plot. The perfect sequel with equal parts excitement, adventure and fun!

Rating: 8

Death & the Arrow (A Tom Marlowe Adventure, Book 1) by Chris Priestley

Author: Chris Priestley
ISBN # 0552554758
Publisher: Corgi Books
First Published: 2003
229 pages

Fifteen-year-old Tom lives in the murky, sooty city of London, where he helps his father to run a print shop. Among the customers is wise old Dr Harker, a retired physician and seafarer, whose patient demeanor and fascinating tales endear him to Tom. When Tom and Harker hear a newspaper seller announce a most curious murder in the city, with the victim pierced by an arrow and left holding an illustrated card of 'Death and the Arrow', they are both intrigued by the mystery. As subsequent 'Death and the Arrow' victims are discovered, the mystery closes ever more tightly round the city and intrudes even into Tom's own life. From then onwards, he can't rest till he has discovered the truth behind the murders. This is a really atmospheric venture into the eighteenth-century, combined with a gripping mystery plot, that will fascinate and engage readers of ten and upwards.

It was books like this one that turned me into a bookworm in the first place! From the very first page, there’s excitement and adventure, engaging characters and a murder-mystery that will keep you guessing till the last page. Chris Priestley is a bold writer who dares to tread where other’s fear to go, which means we’re treated to a thrilling story that wouldn’t be out of place in any crime collection. This is the perfect book for readers to explore both historical fiction and daring action-adventure.

Rating: 9

Endymion Spring by Matthew Skelton

Author: Matthew Skelton
ISBN # 0141382392
Publisher: Puffin
First Published: 2006
442 pages

Who or what is Endymion Spring? A power for good, or for evil...A legendary book that holds the secret to a world of knowledge...A young boy without a voice - whose five-hundred-year-old story is about to explode in the twenty-first century...Blake is visiting Oxford with his academic mother and his kid sister. While their mum immerses herself in olde worlde volumes, Blake feels trapped in the dusty air of the college library. Until one day, Blake is running his finger along the shelf and feels something pierce his finger, drawing blood - like a bite. The book responsible is a battered old volume, with a strange clasp like a serpent's head - with real fangs. Printed on its front are two words: Endymion Spring. Its paper is almost luminous - blank, wordless, but with a texture that seems to shine, and fine veins running through it. The paper quivers, as if it's alive. And as Blake looks, words begin to appear on the page - words meant only for him; words no one else can see. The book has been waiting five-hundred years for the right boy; now it must fulfil its destiny...

This is The Da Vinci Code for kids! There’s mystery, intrigue and excitement on every page as Blake tries to discover the secret of Endymion Spring. Part historical, part contemporary fiction, the narrative blends seamlessly between two eras and the two boys living in them, linked by a strange, dusty book and the secret it protects. Not only is this a joy to read, but the book itself is beautiful, with its scaly dragonhide cover – this is truly a book-lover’s book!

Rating: 7

The Wise Woman by Philippa Gregory

Author: Philippa Gregory
ISBN # 0006514642
Publisher: Harper Collins
First Published: 1992
626 pages

Alys joins the nunnery to escape hardship and poverty but finds herself thrown back into the outside world when Henry VIII's wreckers destroy her sanctuary. With nothing but her tools, her magic and her own instinctive cunning, Alys has to tread a perilous path between the faith of her childhood and her own female power. When she falls in love with Hugo, the feudal lord and another woman’s husband, she dips into witchcraft to defeat her rival and win her lover, only to find that magic makes a poor servant but a dominant master. Since heresy against the new church means the stake, and witchcraft the rope, Alys’s danger is mortal. A woman’s powers are no longer safe to use…

This is one book to which I looked forward immensely, having enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl, The Queen’s Fool and The Virgin’s Lover very much, but I’m afraid that this novel was a bit of a disappointment by comparison. The premise was wonderful and I relished the thought of immersing myself in the world of the Cunning Woman in the time of Henry VIII, but what I got was something only partially rooted in reality, venturing more into the realms of pure fantasy rather than the historical fiction I’d expected. The life of a Wise Woman would have been interesting enough without all the fantastical additions tagged on here and there. I also felt that although the story progressed, there seemed to be no specific destination, and then, when I came to the last few pages, the end came crashing upon me all at once and left me unsatisfied as I wasn’t sure what point was being made.

It didn’t help that Alys wasn’t such an engaging character as the historical figures described in Gregory’s other novels, nor was she particularly likeable with all her manipulation and fickleness. Unfortunately, she wasn’t unpleasant enough to make her more interesting to me – if she’d particularly delighted in being twisted and cruel, rather than agonising over her actions, it would have made for a sizzling read.

All this is not to say that it wasn’t enjoyable – it was well-written, the persecution and paranoia of the age was atmospheric and evocative, and the more zealously passionate passages were a delight to read, if uncomfortable at times. I wouldn’t say it’s quite up to the standard of Gregory’s other work, but it’s still worth a look.

Rating: 6