Book Review ~ Itchcraft by Simon Mayo

When Itchcraft arrived a couple of weeks ago, I was terribly excited. The first two books in the series were rip roaring fun, and when the second book ended with a sense of denouement, I was curious as to where the story would go next.

Itchingham Lofte, known to his friends as Itch, is an element hunter and chemistry fanatic. Prior to the events of the first book, this fanaticism got him into no more trouble than blowing up elements in his bedroom and scorching his eyebrows, but when he comes across the previously undiscovered element 126, a highly radioactive and therefore very valuable set of rocks, he soon finds his life in danger. Itchcraft picks up some time after Itch and his family think their troubles are over; while the villainous Nathaniel Flowerdew is still at large, the rocks aren’t, and Itch and his sister Chloe start the book on holiday in South Africa with their father.

Of course, no book about someone’s troubles being behind them is ever going to be particularly interesting, and it’s not too long before Itch finds himself in trouble again, dragging Chloe, his cousin Jack and potential love interest/new friend Lucy along for the ride. I read Itchcraft while I was also embarking on a Harry Potter re-read, and it occurred to me that Harry has nothing on Itch when it comes to getting into scrapes! When a school trip to Madrid is mentioned, it’s obvious that it will not be smooth sailing, and Itch and the gang end up getting caught up in riots, caused by people protesting the mysterious case of exploding Euros. The last third of the book finds the four teenagers in mortal peril, and although I was sure that our titular hero would survive, I was never convinced that Mayo wouldn’t decide that one of the three girls was expendable for the the sake of the story.

When I reviewed Itch Rocks, I mentioned how much I enjoyed that Itch is surrounded by fantastic female characters. Itch is brilliant, knows just about all there is to know about chemistry, but to get out of all the scrapes in which he so often finds himself, he relies on his three female cohorts. Chloe, Jack and Lucy are all brilliant in their own way – Chloe is pretty fearless, much cooler than Itch, and utterly loyal, Jack is more often than not the voice of reason, and tries (mostly in vain) to stop Itch from getting into trouble, and Lucy is almost as brilliant as Itch when it comes to chemistry.

We are also introduced to a group of formidable women who are out for revenge. Six women who are proficient divers and friends of Shivvi Van Took, they are ruthless and efficient, and it’s not clear for most of the book if they are going to turn out to be the good guys or the bad guys. Simon Mayo has proved himself as an author who has no qualms about writing strong female characters.

He also has no qualms about killing off characters the reader has become attached to, and in doing so, he finds himself with a grieving main character on his hands. The scene in which Itch and Lucy discuss how Itch is feeling, and the way he tries to cope with his sense of grief and his feeling of culpability for the death is beautifully touching.

On an aesthetic level, I love the Itchcraft cover. It’s probably because I like the colour blue, but I think it’s the best of the bunch, and it will look great on my bookshelf with the other two books. It teases the story perfectly, full of explosions and fire and madcap chases. It’s perfect!

Itchcraft is easily my favourite of the three novels so far. It takes the story to the next level, and has moments where you genuinely don’t know if your favourite characters are going to survive. It marries tragedy, action and adventure together perfectly, and has left me with more questions about the motives of some of the characters. The science might go over the head of those not well versed in the contents of the periodic table, but the relationships between the characters are so well written and believable, and the action set pieces so exciting, that in the end that doesn’t matter one bit.

Itchcraft by Simon Mayo
First published: 11 September 2014
ISBN: 9780857532954
Doubleday
Review copy provided by publisher

Book Review ~ The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair was a Radio 2 Book Club book, and although I’ve been waiting for a while, I still haven’t been picked to be a reviewer. So when this one came up, and everyone started raving about it, I decided to add it to my reservation list at the library.

The book is told largely from the perspective of Marcus Goldman, a young writer who, having achieved fantastic success with his first novel, is struggling to overcome writer’s block and write his second. His mentor, the Harry Quebert of the title, is accused of the murder of teenage girl in the small coastal town where he lives. The girl went missing thirty years previously, and her body, found in Harry’s back garden, was buried with the original manuscript of his most famous book. Goldman takes his writer’s block and decides to overcome it by working on a book to prove Harry Quebert’s innocence, and the result is a book spanning three decades, taking various twists and turns and presenting lots of different scenarios.

This is a long book. At over 600 pages, it took me a long time to read, and in the end I had to return the book to the library and download it in order to finish it. It’s a very compelling story, and I loved the way that it was written, never in a linear way, but switching between the present day where Goldman is writing his book, the distant past when the girl in question, Nola Kerrigan goes missing, and the recent past, when Marcus and Harry met and began their friendship. I liked the way the chapters were divided, each one beginning with Harry giving Marcus a lesson about writing, sometimes wrapped up as a lesson about boxing, a hobby that the two of them share, but ultimately working perfectly well as a lesson about life.

The story itself is as twisty and turny as criminal thrillers get. The reader only ever knows what Marcus knows, and for a long time, that’s not a lot. Harry is posited as the killer early on, and it is revealed very quickly that thirty years ago, as an adult man, he was in a relationship with the fifteen-year-old Nola. It’s really hard to tell whether or not his supposed guilt over the murder is a double bluff; as Marcus uncovers the truth, he’s definitely left in the frame for a long time.

There has been some criticism of the fact that we read about certain events multiple times, as the truth unravels itself. This wasn’t something I minded at all; it felt exactly the way you would think about things if you were investigating such a case, going over things again and again to ensure you had it all in the right order.There were a couple of twists in the end, and I had actually guessed at one of them. Guessed might actually be the wrong word, because I think it was signposted early on, and then buried.

Despite largely enjoying the book, I ended up feeling a little cheated by the ending. It all felt a little too neatly tied up, and while that’s not a complaint I would usually have, with a book like this, where we were privy to all the different scenarios that Marcus was considering, to have it all slot into place so tidily didn’t necessarily sit too well with me. But the book was written exceptionally well, with such a fantastic sense of place. Given that Dicker is Swiss, the locating of the book in a small New England town was an unusual decision, but he managed it extremely well. The inhabitants of the town are all drawn perfectly.

I think in the end, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is not quite as good as the sum of its parts. I enjoyed it a lot, but when I finished it, I was left feeling ever so slightly swindled. It’s definitely worth a read, though you should settle yourself in for the long haul. It’s a big book!

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair
First published: April 2014
ISBN: 9780857053091
MacLehose Press
Library Book

Book Review ~ We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

We Are Called to Rise weaves together the separate stories of three people living in Las Vegas. Luis, a soldier wounded in Iraq; Bashkim, an immigrant boy whose family is straddling the divide between Albania and the US; and Avis, a woman who finds herself alone after thirty years of marriage.

I read this book after it was announced as a Radio 2 Book Club choice last month. I thought it would be nice to try and read it in time for the discussion with the author on the show, so I downloaded it straightaway and got reading, but I got distracted by something else and ended up only finishing it at the start of this month.

We Are Called to Rise is a very, very good book. Although I wasn’t sure about it at first, after a while I got completely immersed in it. In the opening scene, we are introduced to Avis, a middle-aged woman with tragedy and loss in her past, but who has spent many years in a happy and loving marriage with a man who is just about to leave her. She is completely blindsided by it, especially given that he chooses to announce that he has fallen in love with another woman while she is naked, and planning to seduce him in order to reignite the spark in the marriage. Avis’ story is probably the least interesting of the book to me, and yet it is still compelling and sad. It’s an age old story really; being left by a husband who has found excitement and love with a younger woman.

Luis, the soldier, spends a large part of the book in Washington D.C., having been injured in Iraq but remembering nothing about how he sustained his injuries. It transpires that his injuries are self-inflicted, and he spends most of the novel coming to terms with what has happened to him. His story intersects quite early with that of Bashkim, the Albanian immigrant boy who is bright and loving, but is struggling at home due to his father’s issues.

The fulcrum of the novel is a tragedy that affects Bashkim and Avis, and Luis is also drawn quickly into the story. At various points throughout the novel, we are also treated to the viewpoint of Roberta, who works as a social worker in the city, and works hard to be an advocate on behalf of at-risk children. These characters are drawn together by this tragedy, throwing Bashkim’s and Avis’ lives into freefall, but also by their shared hometown. Las Vegas is painted in a very different way to how we usually see Sin City portrayed in popular culture. It’s hard to see past the Strip, the neon lights and the gambling, but there is suburban population who make their homes here. As a native, Laura McBride manages to show us this side of the city very well, and it’s an interesting change.

I didn’t expect to have such an emotional reaction to We Are Called to Rise. I cried hard, twice, and both times it was for Bashkim. He’s exceptionally well-written, eliciting sympathy from the reader from the very beginning, which slowly turns into admiration as the novel concludes. Each character is ‘called to rise’ at a time of crisis – the title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem:

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies–

We never know how high we are (1176) by Emily Dickinson

It ultimately ends up being a story of hope arising out of despair. We meet three characters at the worst points in their lives, and the joy of the novel is in watching them trying to build a good life out of a terrible situation. We Are Called to Rise is definitely recommended, but beware Bashkim. He will make you weep.

We Are Called to Rise
First published: July 2014
ISBN: 9781471132575
Simon & Schuster UK
Kindle eBook

Book Review ~ We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

When a book generates as much hype as We Were Liars by E.Lockhart has, it can sometimes be a struggle to both read and review. You’re always wondering, whilst reading it, if it’s going to live up to its reputation, and then when it comes to reviewing it, you wonder if there’s anything that has been left unsaid! As it turned out, it (almost) completely lived up to the hype for me, so I’m going to give reviewing it a go!

Cadence Sinclair has grown up as the oldest grandchild of a privileged, wealthy family. Every year they spend the summer on their own private island, and she has grown up with her cousins, a group of four called the Liars. Cadence, Johnny and Mirren are the grandchildren of the family patriarch, and Gat, who completes the quartet, is the nephew of a long since departed uncle. Gat remains a part of the summer holidaying group, and he and Cadence fall in love. The main part of the story takes place over summer seventeen; Cadence is returning to the island after having suffered an accident two years previously. She can’t remember the details of the accident, but it has left her with severe headaches, and she spends the summer with her family, gradually piecing together what happened to her in summer fifteen.

I struggled with We Were Liars to begin with. I had snapped it up as a 99p bargain in the Kindle store (it’s currently still available at that price), and as I started reading it, I wasn’t enamoured with Lockhart’s writing style. Some of the metaphors and imagery just seemed to be a little over the top, and had ‘PLEASE QUOTE ME ON TUMBLR’ written all over them.

“He was contemplation and enthusiasm. Ambition and strong coffee. I could have looked at him forever.”

This seems to be the quote; the one that Lockhart wants teenagers take away and use and scribble on their pencil cases and tweet. These were my thoughts as I started reading it; I just couldn’t get on board with the writing.

But, having read the first couple of chapters and set it aside, the following day it was all over Twitter as the subject of a #bookadayuk prompt. A couple of people I like and trust when it comes to books were saying it was great, so I thought I’d try a little harder. I’m glad I did, because I ended up really enjoying it. I must have either got used to the writing style, or got over my qualms, because I allowed myself to be completely pulled in by the story and the characters. The Liars, Cadence, Johnny, Mirren and Gat, are incredibly well written, fully rounded characters.

The climax of the book is teased a lot in the promotional material, so much so that I ended up almost guessing how it would end. Although I would have preferred to have been kept completely in the dark, I don’t think it detracted too much from my enjoyment of it. I had a fairly visceral reaction to it, which I wasn’t expecting. The entire book leads the reader up to a point, and then reveals its secrets, culminating in a very powerful ending. I found myself flicking back through the book after I finished, something I think anyone who has read it will understand!

It’s of no surprise to me that We Were Liars has been optioned for a film already. Everything about it screams movie adaptation, and as long as they get it right, I think it could be great.

We Were Liars
First published: May 2014
ISBN: 99780375984402
Hot Key Books
Kindle eBook