A Pocketful of Crows – Joanne M Harris

A Pocketful of Crows cover

“The year it turns, and turns, and turns.”

Taking inspiration from The Child Ballads (which I’ll confess I’d never heard of, but turn out to be a collection of traditional ballads collected by Francis Child, rather than songs about children!), A Pocketful of Crows is a lovely, if dark, fairy tale-esque story of the magic of nature, and love, and revenge.

Set over thirteen chapters, one for each month and back to the beginning again, the use of the seasons is really wonderful. We follow a nameless wildling girl, a creature of the forest, who risks her innate magic for the love of a young man from the town. The outcome of this has a real sense of dread and inevitability through the first third or so of the book, with the remainder taken up with consequences.

I really enjoyed this. It’s very immersive for a relatively short book, catching up my emotional response almost from the get-go. My only minor complaints would be the use of the terms ‘folk’ and ‘travelling folk’ for the two kinds of people in the story, which I found a little confusing at first, and the ending just seemed ever so slightly abrupt.

Perhaps another few paragraphs could have lightened the mood a little, as overall it’s quite a dark tale, and I must confess I love the slightly more whimsical nature of T Kingfisher in her fairytale retellings. That’s a personal thing, though, as the cold indifference of nature, or at least its mix of dark and light, is perhaps one of the themes here.

Recommended, particularly for those who enjoy their fairy tales but are perhaps looking for something a little more unique.

NetGalley eARC: 256 pages / 13 chapters
First published: 19th October 2017
Series: none
Read from 28th September – 6th October 2017

My rating: 8/10

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Death Overdue – Allison Brook

death overdue cover

“Time to move on.”

I’m getting quite fond of the ‘cosy mystery’ genre, turning to these kinds of titles for easy and uplifting reads. I also love books set in libraries, so this sounded like a win-win.

Carrie Singleton is getting ready to leave her childhood town again and go back to her rootless existence when she’s offered a better role at the library where she’s been temping. One of her first tasks is organising a talk by a former police detective, one who’s now promising to solve the cold case he failed with fifteen years before: the murder of a local mother and library employee. However, it seems that the secret killer might be less than keen to let him have his say…

There’s plenty to enjoy reading this book, but in all honesty I can’t give it a very high rating. It’s a lot more ‘chick-lit’ and romance-based than I would have hoped, which could be fine, but alas that pushes the mystery and paranormal bits not only to lesser importance but to rather rushed and not-great written parts. The opening murder, for instance, seems very clunkily handled: a ‘I know I need this bit, but not quite how to write it’ feeling, which is a real shame.

There’s also the usual fluffy genre failing of the heroine’s too-perfect life falling into her lap. First it’s the near-perfect job – okay, that one comes with half an explanation. But then there’s the massively reduced rent on an amazing house, interested dishy men to chose from, family who spoil her endlessly, enemies made good, and heck – we can even squeeze a kitten in here because why not?! I didn’t even wholly like the main character, with her goth look so easily cast aside, murky reasonings for turning sleuth and quite frankly daft ways of stumbling onwards, and not-great treatment of other characters.

Still, it was easy enough to read and keep going with, despite the flaws. Perhaps the next in the series will be able to build on the strengths – an intriguing and helpful library ghost, for instance, or perhaps an explanation as to how this particularly library is so well-funded – and lose some of the fluffier failings.

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 37 chapters
First published: October 2017
Series: A Haunted Library Mystery book 1
Read from 6th-11th October 2017

My rating: 5/10

The Easy Way to Mindfulness – Allen Carr

Easy Way to Mindfulness cover

What if there was a simple, no-effort way to reduce stress, free yourself from anxiety and depression, and increase your happiness? This book’s not quite promising to magically transform your life into rainbows and unicorns, but it’s not far off!

I actually am a huge believer in the power of mindfulness, and meditation, and have experienced a positive change in my life from years of both. However, I’m by no means an expert so any help is more than welcome. Step forward this ‘Easy Way’ title, from the people who apparently devised the best quit smoking method ever – surely a good credential?

Well, they seem to think so, as the book half-reads as a giant advert for the system and previous books – which I found massively irritating. Even discounting those bits, the examples tend to go back to smokers – which was beyond irrelevant to me, and actually left me struggling as I have no experience to connect to such an addiction. Could I move the example over to, say, tea or chocolate? Not so much – unlike smoking, there isn’t the same black-and-white it’s awful, and quite frankly I don’t really want to give up tea or chocolate (having done both at certain points) so this “every smoker absolutely wants to quit” message is again pushing me away.

So: I’d suggest that this is perhaps a book for people who have or want to quit smoking, drinking, gambling, etc, perhaps even using the Easy Way method, and want to go deeper into the mindful techniques that they’ve already used for that.

I did quite like some of the imagery: head in a box of flies-that-are-your-issues, mindfulness is not trying to squish the flies but rather taking your head out of the box. One chapter (13) in particular resonated with me, about the struggling against things being more stressful than the thing itself; life is change, go with the flow etc etc.

However, while there are little bits and pieces like that throughout the book – and these are handily summarised in a final chapter run through (that could, I suspect, have been the outline for a better stab at the full content) – I felt it could have been much better written, with a lot more flow. Paragraphs don’t always follow from the previous one, but rather jump around a little, and the content of each chapter isn’t necessarily as strongly linked to the title as I would have expected.

It really doesn’t help that every single chapter seems to include heavy advertising for the quit smoking clinics and previous books. This is shoe-horned in regardless of whether it actually fits with the mindfulness concept under discussion, which was hugely off-putting. And then the last 10% of the book is a list of clinics’ contact details and previous books o_O

Overall: it’s got some useful advice buried in the advertising, and I suspect that if you’re already a member of the Easy Way audience this might resonate more with you, but I couldn’t help be disappointed that it wasn’t a little more helpful, a little more on-topic (I am hugely interested in mindfulness, after all!) and a little less advertisement for a product I have no use for.

NetGalley eARC: 197 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 15th October 2017
Series: part of the Easy Way series of self-help books
Read from 3rd-7th October 2017

My rating: 5/10

Odd & True – Cat Winters

Odd and True cover

“‘Tell me the story again,’ I urged my sister in the nighttime blackness of our attic bedroom.”

Raised on stories about their mother and uncle’s monster hunting past, Trudchen Grey is still not inclined to believe her sister’s letters, telling of Odette’s adventures in the circus or even wilder escapades. But when Odette returns to their aunt’s house to whisk her little sister into an even bigger adventure, Tru has to make a choice to believe – or not. Either will have repercussions.

In alternating chapters, the narrator switches from Tru to Odette, who fills in some of the mysteries of the family’s past. Soon, the reader is left trying to figure out which half of the story – either side of the fin de siecle – is the bigger mystery.

You might be able to tell from my rating: I loved this book! I went in not knowing too much about it, but I suppose with expectations of a ‘Hansel and Gretel Witchhunters’ ya adventure – which would have been fine. But this is absolutely not that book. It is so much more!

I’m left not really wanting to spoil it all too much for any would-be readers, rather allowing you to make those discoveries for yourself. Suffice to say, this is a heart-pulling drama, a lovely historical slice, and sure – a l’il bit about monster hunting. It’s also a perfect book about the power of stories, and the bonds of family.

Huge thanks to NetGalley for the review copy of the book, and the chance to discover Cat Winters.

NetGalley eARC: 368 pages / 22 chapters plus epilogue
First published: September 2017
Series: none
Read from 6th-12th September 2017

My rating: 9/10

Body on Baker Street – Vicki Delany

Body on Baker Street cover

“‘Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium, Gemma speaking.'”

Elementary, She Read introduced us to Gemma Doyle, Sherlock Holmes-themed bookshop owner, possibly related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and very definitely living up to the famous character in her deductive skills.

Following on from the mysterious death and subsequent investigations in the first novel, Gemma and best friend, Jayne Wilson, are back to happily running their Baker Street, Cape Cod, shop and tea room. To her surprise, Gemma is asked to host a book signing for popular if controversial writer, Renalta Van Markoff, as she publishes the new book in her ‘Hudson and Holmes’ mystery series.

Renalta has already been accosted in a local restaurant by a woman accusing her of stealing her work; Gemma knows that several of her regular patrons hate the way the books ‘taint’ the purity of the original Sherlock stories. Trouble is half expected at the book signing – trouble, but not murder!

I really enjoyed this ‘cosy mystery’, finding it fun and untaxing, with enough to keep me guessing. The characterisation builds well on the first installment, and I warmed a bit more to Gemma, after finding her a bit too unaware of her own annoyance factor in book one. There are still some of the ongoing personal side-plot elements, but largely these are on the backburner with the juicier mystery definitely at the fore.

My enjoyment of this series is growing, so I’m rather looking forward to book 3 – The Cat of the Baskervilles – due in February 2018 🙂

NetGalley eARC: 320 pages / 17 chapters
First published: 12th September 2017
Series: A Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery book 2
Read from 2nd-3rd August 2017 (yup, it’s that kind of book 🙂 )

My rating: 8/10 – it’s not high literature, but it’s a very fun example of what it is 🙂

MAD Librarian – Michael Guillebeau

MAD Librarian cover

“Serenity tried.”

Just because the budget for her public library is being slashed again and again, doesn’t mean head librarian Serenity Sweetwater Hammer doesn’t have big dreams about what they could do for the local community if only they did have the money. When the all-important internet bill needs paid, her desperate search for cash uncovers something… strange. Fortuitous. Dangerous?

When money becomes no object, what does a librarian do?

I really wanted to like this book. I love books about books and libraries, and handing power to a librarian sounds like a good idea 😉 And of course, it’s a lovely idea that half of the book’s profits go to a library charity. But, alas, concept and reality just didn’t gel for me.

To begin with, the opening chapters – the setting up of the ‘norm’ – are actually quite depressing. Yup, librarians are underfunded. Yup, politicians are vile. But oy, the sexism, the over-the-top aggressive dismissals Serenity faces as she’s expected to produce miracles, just made me grind my teeth. Probably the point, but to be honest I didn’t need to read it again and again.

Nor, actually, did I need the rather out of place sex scene near the end. It’s not too graphic, but it felt very voyeuristic and out of place. Serenity’s marriage subplot really didn’t work all that well for me at all, there was just something clunky about the relationship as written, with overly-perfect cop hubby, Joe Hammer (I mean, really!).

Anyway, the early depressive tone changes to more of a mystery, which does help, but things escalate rather to the point of ridiculousness. The supporting characters don’t help: you’d think distinguishing between the one very young and one very old under-librarians would be easy enough, but to be honest… urm? One had tattoos, one insisted on being called ‘Doom’ – both were very OTT in the ‘anything for the library!’ message.

Overall, I think it was a nice idea, and it was a very quick and easy read. Chapters were very short, a few pages at most, so I suspect a fair amount of those 400 pages were whitespace. However, while I don’t begrudge the reading time, I felt very disappointed that things were only 90%-ish wrapped up, with the first chapter of the sequel included at the end – which I really don’t see me picking up.

NetGalley eARC: 404 pages / 70 chapters
First published: December 2017
Series: first of something, given the sequel’s opening chapter was included at the end
Read from 1st-4th September 2017

My rating: 5/10 – nice idea, but didn’t hit the mark for me

The Year of Saying Yes – Hannah Doyle

“If I cock up the next few hours of my life then I’m going to have to admit defeat.”

I’ve definitely been in the mood for some light’n’fluffy reading (and viewing) of late, and the optimistic title of this caught my eye on NetGalley. I was expecting something of a cross between Yes Man and a self-help book – and after a bit of a shaky start, plus a giant dollop of Bridget Jones, I’d say that’s almost exactly what I got!

The opening wasn’t great – in fact, my heart sank as I thought I’d picked up ‘Bridget Jones’ Little Cousin’ or something. We find our main character, Izzy, prepping for her family’s New Year’s Eve party, bemoaning the amount of food and drink she’s consumed, and trying far too hard to attract the eye of her brother-in-law’s brother – pretty much the same thing she does every New Year *eye rolling*

Thankfully, it all get a little bit more interesting, although remains pretty predictable. The strength is in the likeable main character, Izzy, as she sets about undertaking 12 dares over the course of the year, designed to improve her life and make her more confident.

Biggest complaint would have to be how easy it all is. Izzy works for a magazine, so of course she’s got a team of makeup artists and free reign over the ‘fashion closet’ – oh yeah, and of course she’s a size 10, but manages to slim-without-trying into an eight, etc etc. There’s a transformation, but no effort. It’s more than a little grating at times. Likewise, when set some seemingly impossible challenge, events simply line up in a way that no mere mortal could ever have arranged *more eye rolling*

Still, it’s Izzy’s relationships – with men, with her friends and colleagues – that form the backbone of the piece, and that doesn’t always run quite so smoothly. And most of the transformations in her life are about attitude – and while this is fiction all the way, that was actually quite inspirational to read.

NetGalley eARC: 363 pages / 12 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 20th-28th August 2017

My rating: 7/10 – I’m probably going to have to stop saying ‘not my usual cuppa’, but a pretty good example of the fluffiest of genres