I know this book isn’t in a genre we normally review on BCC, but I just couldn’t resist. Since the first announcement of J.K. Rowling’s new book for the adult market I was incredibly excited at the prospect of reading something new from her. I grew up reading the Harry Potter series and it was a huge part of my life for a long time. I knew when starting THE CASUAL VACANCY that it would be nothing like Harry Potter, but still had high expectations of Rowling’s writing.
It began with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a parish councillor in the little town of Pagford. He dies suddenly of an aneurysm, throwing the community into disarray. His death frees up a casual vacancy on the council, with a host of candidates waiting to take his place, with sabotage waiting in the wings.
The main issue for the council to resolve is that of the Fields, a council estate on the outskirts of Pagford. There are those on the council who wish to cut the Fields off from the town, and remove the funding for rehab programmes which the residents are so dependent on. It is mainly the higher class families who wish to make the distinction between Pagford and the Fields clear, but there are still those who are desperately fighting against the discrimination of the Fields.
It soon becomes clear how much of an impact Barry had on the community, affecting the lives of both young and old as he was involved in coaching a girl’s rowing team at the local school as well as his parish activities. He was an advocate for the Fields, and was starting to bring the council around to his way of thinking. His death has rocked the community and starts throwing up old secrets that were better left hidden…
There were a whole host of characters throughout this book, resulting in a wealth of different perspectives. At first I thought I might struggle to keep up with them all, but it proved easy to keep up with the lives of the different personalities, particularly as all their lives interconnect. J.K. Rowling has created a variety of characters from numerous backgrounds, and I think there is someone for everyone to relate to throughout the book.
Without going into too much detail on each character, I will just describe a few of the notable ones, such as Howard Mollison, the vastly overweight chair of the council who thinks that his word is gospel in the town. He is desperate to get his son, Miles, onto the council in the wake of Barry’s death, and would rather face up to the town’s problems instead of those at home. Miles’ wife Samantha is against his election the council, as she feels undervalued and struggles with the reality of getting old. She is bitchy to everyone and desperate to recapture her youth, always contemplating surgery to fix her appearance.
Then there are the teenage characters in the book, which are arguably the best-written and where Rowling’s character development excels. One of these was Sukhvinder, the daughter of the local doctor, who has always been outshined by her two older siblings, with her mother paying her little attention. She is harshly bullied at school, and is just looking for a way out of her life. However, the character anyone who reads the book will remember most is Krystal Weedon. Her mother is a heroin addict and a prostitute, trying to stay clean on the methadone programme. She still seems unable to resist the lure of the drugs her dealer offers her, meaning Krystal has to care for her three-year-old brother Robbie alone. Krystal has had a hard life, but Barry was helping her to turn things around with the rowing team, and without him her life seems to be in a downward spiral.
Little Robbie provides a shock for the reader, as he is only three but still wears sagging nappies and looks uncared for and dirty. I won’t give anything away, but the harrowing finale of the book is greatly centred on Krystal’s family and how they have affected the Pagford residents, leaving me shocked at how Rowling had chosen to close the story.
As the publishers, and J.K. herself, have tried to constantly reinforce, this is not a children’s book and definitely shouldn’t be picked up by younger readers. There is strong language throughout, differing degrees of violence and the odd sex scene here and there. However, particularly with the uses of language, I would say that the situations for this adult content are appropriate, and aren’t just thrown in casually.
A world away from Harry Potter, but I still found the book to be well-written and compelling, and similar to everything Rowling writes it is full of moral dilemmas. I loved how she offers up a harsh critique of society’s problems without it feeling too political, as the book faces some of the problems we are currently dealing with in society. It manages to discuss benefits, healthcare, addiction, community spirit and a selection of other issues in a way that is thought provoking and really makes you stop and consider your role in the world. However, not once does Rowling try to push her own views onto the reader, as she leaves the reader to make up their own mind.
I loved this book, and for Rowling’s first foray into the adult fiction market I thought it captured the imagination just as much as her earlier work. The only slight thing that stopped me from giving this book the full five stars was her use of brackets throughout the book. Frequently there is excess description given in brackets, often quite a few paragraphs, which made the information feel like an aside to the reader. Although this does give the reader further background on the characters, I didn’t see the need for the brackets to be used as consistently as they were. I felt that by having this slightly problem a five star review wouldn’t be justified, but in terms of the plot and every other aspect this is definitely a five star read. (less)
SAVAGE HUNTER by Terry Spear is the first in a new series about shifters that can change at will into jaguars. This makes a change from the abundance of werewolf fiction, so I was ready to give this book a chance to make a good impression.
It begins with a flashback to events a year prior to the novel, in which heroine, army captain Kathleen McKnight, is trapped in the Amazon rainforest after a drugs bust gone wrong. She is under fire, with the rest of her army team being taken down by the drugs lord. Out of nowhere, she is saved by the mysterious Connor Anderson, who carries her to safety, making her the only member of her team to return alive.
A year later and Kat has returned to the rainforest, seeking answers about who saved her and why. She is also desperate to face her fears and to conquer the paranoia instilled in her by the attack. Again Connor seeks her out, having detected her familiar scent, and takes her back to the hut he shares with his sister, Maya.
Both Connor and his twin sister Maya are shapeshifters who can shift into jaguars, an ability they have possessed since birth. They frequent the Amazon rainforest every so often to allow their jaguar side space to roam free, but both are seeking mates and unsure of whether other jaguar shifters exist. Connor has been intrigued and obsessed with the idea of Kat since their meeting a year ago, which Maya has picked up on, and she is as desperate for her brother to have a mate as she is for a sister.
Maya attempts to change an unsuspecting Kat into one of them, but is unsure if it will work, as they have never attempted to change a human before. She is also worried about transforming Kat against her will, and doesn’t know if she will even survive the transformation. There is also the drugs lord to contend with, as when his henchmen begin to search the jungle for Kat in revenge it is unclear if they will make it out of the forest alive.
I wasn’t overly impressed with this book, as I didn’t think much to the plot or the characters. As a heroine, Kat was weak and very two-dimensional. As much as the writer tried to give her more depth I just didn’t feel that it worked, as I found her to be annoying and too over-dependent on Connor and Maya to protect her. There were times when she wanted to use her army training to make a stand for herself but she never goes through with these plans and I just wanted to slap her for being so useless. She was one of those main characters whose actions don’t seem justifiable, as she never once seems angry that Maya has changed her without warning, or frustrated at Connor’s over-protectiveness.
“Kat was quiet, subdued, and Connor wasn’t sure what was bothering her. Well, besides the fact that Maya had turned her into a jaguar shifter, men had tried to take her hostage, she’d had to kill one of them, and they still faced the difficult task of getting her back to the States without any further difficulties.”
This brings me to Connor, who is borderline creepy stalker as far as love interests go. We learn from the very beginning that his brief encounter with Kat a year ago has remained on his mind, and he has thought about her a lot during that time. For a chance meeting this seems a little odd, but he seemed okay at the start of the book so I overlooked this and gave him a chance. I then started to dislike him more and more as his relationship with Kat develops, as she has practically been forced to be with him after the change, and he takes the alpha male role a step too far. He is overly controlling and doesn’t want her to do anything for herself, as well as wanting to sleep with her all the time.
“What other secrets do you have that we should know about?” Kat snorted and released him, but he seized her arms and wrapped them around his neck, then encircled her back with his and hugged her close.”
Aside from this unsavoury relationship development throughout the book, not much else really happens or is explained. They go on the run from the drugs cartel, but we never really know why he is still after Kat when he hasn’t seen her for a year. The ending was surprisingly underwhelming as the chase across South America is described in great detail but the climax is summed up in a mere paragraph. When the truth is revealed at the end it seems highly convenient and too much of a coincidence, and despite being left open for a sequel (implied to be about Maya) I have no desire to continue this series. (less)
I love all things Japanese, so when I started DAUGHTER OF THE SWORD by Steve Bein, I was expecting to love this book. It is set for the most part in Tokyo, but also delves into Japan’s ancient past, detailing the honour codes held by samurais.
The book begins in the modern Heisei era, in the year 2010, with the villain, Fuchida Shūzō, and a description of his attachment to his ancient sword, Beautiful Singer. He goes so far as to sleep next to his sacred blade, despite knowing that one wrong movement could result in his death. The sword was forged by the legendary sword smith Inazuma, who is said to have endowed his blades with the power of destiny as well as being supreme samurai weapons. However, no-one has ever held the power of more than one Inazuma sword, and Fuchida aims to be the first to have held two of the legendary blades.
“His first slash severed her spinal cord not far above her pelvis. She collapsed, legs as lifeless as ropes. A dark bloodstain spread across her carpet. It was already as wide as a welcome mat. Fuchida bent down, took the phone from her hand, hit END, and slipped the phone into his pants pocket.”
In the same era, we are introduced to Mariko Oshiro, the only female detective in the Tokyo Police Department who has worked extremely hard to earn her place in the all-male environment. However, this does very much define her character before we even meet her, as it is obvious that she struggles against sexism, making her bitter towards her colleagues. She is striving to win a place in the narcotics division, but her harsh lieutenant is looking for any excuse to dispose of her and send her right back to the lower departments.
When Mariko leads a successful arrest of a local drug dealer, it becomes apparent that there may be more going on in Tokyo than meets the eye, as the dealer gives her inside information on a potential delivery of cocaine to the city. Knowing that the yakuza don’t deal in hard drugs, this implies a new enemy, and Mariko has enough to deal with at home, as her sister Saori was arrested as part of the drugs bust. Her vengeful lieutenant then puts her on an attempted theft case as part of his scheme to keep her away from the hard cases of narcotics.
However, this attempted theft case proves to be more than meets the eye, as she meets the old Yasuo Yamada, who claims that someone attempted to steal his ancient sword. He owns another of the Inazuma blades, Glorious Victory Unsought, the very sword which Fuchida seeks. Despite her initial scepticism of Yamada’s stories he begins to train her in the art of the samurai, as it becomes clear that this could be the biggest case of her career, if she can only stay alive to see it through.
I really liked the use of Japanese history and culture throughout this book, as it is clear that the writer had done his research and tried to make the eras feel as authentic as possible. However, I didn’t like his inclusion of Japanese terms that then weren’t explained. There is a handy glossary at the back of the book, but I don’t enjoy having to stop my reading to look up a word.
The book is split into different eras, with the majority of the story taking place in the present day, but I liked how these different time periods seemed to intertwine with each other. These sections give us a sense of the history of both swords, with some sections detailing the past of Glorious Victory Unsought, whilst others tell us about Beautiful Singer. There is even the implication of a third Inazuma sword that might be just as vital to overcoming Fuchida, as each sword has its own mystical qualities.
As for the main character, I liked how strong and independent she was, and also respected how much she had to deal with at home, with her sister being an addict and her mother being worried sick about them both. Although I didn’t like the stereotype of being the only female in an all-male environment I still felt that this shaped Mariko into being who she was and so still enjoyed reading her scenes within the confines of the police department.
I loved the plot of this book and I felt that it was very well-crafted by the author, but there was just something stopping me from getting completely into it. It was very much the kind of book that I could have put down and not picked up again for a long period of time, and as such it took me longer to read than it should have. The writing was good, the description may have seemed a little long-winded in places, but for me it was just missing that spark that makes me unable to put a book down.
Despite all of the build-up to the final confrontation throughout the book, I felt a little let down by the ending as I thought the conflict was too rushed, and that Fuchida wasn’t given the time to shine as a villain. Mariko also didn’t seem to progress as a heroine, as I didn’t feel that she had developed as a character or learned any significant life lessons aside from sword fighting. However, I still enjoyed this book and would recommend it to those who like fantasy and those who take an interest in Japanese culture. (less)
HANDS OF THE RIPPER by Guy Adams is a horror book based on a film from Hammer that features horrific memories of the past plaguing the present.
John Pritchard is a university lecturer in the subject of psychology whose wife passed away recently, and he is struggling to cope with his grief. He sometimes sees her around the house and is toying with the idea of visiting a medium, but has never really believed that it is possible to contact the other side.
Taking the plunge, he decides to visit renowned medium, Aida Golding, who claims to have received contact from John’s wife. The rest of the audience are enthralled by her act, but John merely goes along with it and believes that she is faking the information she reveals. However, there is still a part of him that hopes it is real and so he agrees to a private meeting with Aida for a more personal conversation with his wife.
It is at this more intimate meeting with the medium that John actually hears his wife’s voice for himself, along with hearing the voices of the other guests’ deceased contacts. Among the voices heard is that of Douglas Reece, the notorious East End Ripper who makes contact with the priest that knew him before the murders. When one of their number is then murdered, events take a darker turn as they question whether the ripper’s spirit could have killed again.
At both of these séances, John comes across Sandy, a woman who has supposedly lost her baby and receives messages from her dead child. All is not as it appears and it becomes clear that Aida has a hold over her that makes her keep returning to the medium’s side. Is there something more sinister in their relationship or is John reading too much into it?
We don’t learn much about John throughout this book, which I was a little disappointed about as there could have been a lot more character development. He is obviously still grieving for his wife, and some of his mixed feelings of grief are explored, particularly in relation to Sandy as it is clear that he is drawn to her. However, his role didn’t seem to be that effectual, as he offers his aid to the girl but isn’t really involved in discovering the cause of the murders and is told the culprit by someone else.
In terms of the plot, I did like how there was such a mix of characters present at the private séance, and it was like they all represented a different view of mediums – from the sceptics to the avid believers. When they each start to be picked off one by one the fear rises, and it becomes clear that they need to work together to find the murderer before it’s too late. I didn’t particularly like how the writer used multiple perspectives in this book, as the views of so many characters are given and I would have preferred just seeing through the eyes of a few so their characters could be developed more. I also felt that the title of the book was misleading, as there was very little information given about the ‘ripper’, and this was one of the elements I was most looking forward to reading about.
Overall I liked the premise of this book, and was intrigued as to how the murder could have happened and whether the spirit of the ripper was really involved. I was a little disappointed with the ending though, as I thought it had become a little too supernatural and there were still some unexplained elements. Having not seen the original Hammer film there were probably some elements of the book I couldn’t appreciate as much as someone who has, but as a new reader I didn’t connect with the characters even though I liked the horror that they are put through. (less)
SUNRISE AT SUNSET by Jaz Primo is an urban fantasy novel featuring vampires, but is more strongly focused on the romance between the two main characters, Katrina and Caleb.
The book opens with a prologue that takes place in Caleb’s childhood, in which the naïve child unknowingly saves the life of vampire Katrina, who then wipes his memory of her. However, she is eternally grateful to him for showing her that there is still some good left in humanity, and watches over him as he grows. So far this seems fairly acceptable, as she sets him up with a college fund and fixes it so his mother secures a better paid job.
After this, the book starts to tread the line between creepy and stalkerish obsession. Katrina enrols in a night class of Caleb’s in his first semester as a history lecturer, and begins to pursue him as a lover. She watches over him intensely, even looking through his windows into his apartment in some instances. (Surely I can’t be the only one thinking it’s creepy to watch this child grow up and then stalk him?)
“He fell asleep some time after 1 am, completely unaware of a lone figure peering in at him through the sheer curtains of his living room from the fire escape.”
Caleb soon becomes infatuated with the mysterious Katrina, and even after she reveals her vampiric secret he is quick to come to terms with her true nature. However, it frustrated me that when she reveals herself to him, her age is never a concern to him. It almost becomes a comical guessing game for him throughout the book, but is never seen as an issue in their relationship, despite the fact she is hundreds of years older than him.
Throughout the majority of the book, this romance is the only plotline going on, as little else is actually explored. The other plotline involves Alondra Vargas, a past vampire acquaintance of Katrina’s who is out to settle a century-old vendetta by taking Caleb. However, this plotline is wrapped up in the middle of the book when Katrina calls on the help of vampire friends, Alton and Paige.
I won’t mention this plotline too much considering the romance takes up most of the book, as I have a lot to say about this so-called ‘romance’. When Alondra appears on the scene, Katrina takes Caleb back to her house and places him under house arrest, not allowing him to leave, have internet or phone access or even open a window. I could understand a certain degree of her protectiveness, as with Caleb being a human he is no match for a vampire opponent, but Katrina takes it to obsessive levels.
Her character may be strong and independent, but I just couldn’t connect with Katrina at all. She is obsessed with Caleb’s safety, but the way she treats him is painful to read, as it felt like domestic abuse with him not being allowed to do anything for himself. When she tells him that she’s a vampire she also gives him rules to follow, and one of these is that he must never ask to become a vampire himself. I found this to be further torture for Caleb, as Katrina is dating him whilst knowing that it will only be for a limited time frame. She even makes him take vitamin supplements to replenish his blood after she drinks from him, and giving him healthy water instead of coke.
Considering the way Katrina treats him, I ought to feel more sympathy for Caleb than I did, as his character is quite likable at the beginning, with his passion for history and learning. However, I started to lose respect for Caleb as a character when he didn’t put up much of a fight to Katrina’s house arrest or her rules. His father used to abuse him, and to me it felt like he’d walked straight from one abusive relationship into another without holding on to any of his self-respect.
Overall this book really wasn’t what I was expecting to read after seeing the blurb, as it was built up to be a gripping urban fantasy but was instead a twisted vampire-human romance. The author’s writing style was very long-winded, with the majority of chapters being over 30 pages long, and these started to drag as my reading went on. I also disliked the way Katrina constantly refers to Caleb as ‘my love’, as this is a particular pet hate of mine, especially when it was used repeatedly whenever she spoke to him. I think it’s safe to say that I have no desire to pick up the next book in this series. (less)
SOUL FIRE by Kate Harrison directly follows on from Soul Beach, with Alice Forster still frantically hunting for her sister’s killer.
Alice is still accessing Soul Beach as much as ever, but the book opens with a shocking new addition to the beach, as a new Guest arrives. This new Guest is Megan’s boyfriend, Tim, the prime suspect for her murder. He was found asphyxiated with a plastic bag over his face, which the police are ruling as suicide but which Alice thinks was murder.
Meggie is now happier on the beach with Tim by her side, but the other residents are now seeking Alice’s help to free them from this limbo, as she has gained a reputation on the beach. In particular she focuses on freeing Javier’s soul in this book, who originates from Barcelona and died by falling off of a roof. But if his death is as simple as suicide, why is he on the beach? Did he fall, or was he pushed?
Elsewhere in her real life, Alice still suspects her sister’s university friends, Adrian and Sahara, as well as Zoe, the roommate that found Megan’s body. She is still relying on Lewis’ help to track down leads, and needs him a lot more when she is warned about a new website called Burning Truths. This website is campaigning for Tim’s innocence via a series of very angry blog posts, as well as some disturbing images. Alice enlists Lewis’ help to try and track down the creator of this website, sure that they could help in her investigation.
Their search for Burning Truths, as well as Alice’s desire to free Javier’s soul, leads to Alice and her best friend Cara joining Adrian and Sahara on a holiday to Barcelona, where the action starts getting a lot hotter under the collar, but Alice is unable to access Soul Beach during her time there. As a result she isn’t able to talk to her love, Danny, so their relationship doesn’t undergo much development in this book, nor do we find out more about how Danny died.
Alice’s character was more developed in this book, as she begins to struggle even more with balancing her life on Soul Beach with her real life. However, this book is based more around her real life, as there are very few scenes that take place on the beach. I was a little disappointed by this, as the first book had introduced us to such a vivid world that it was odd to return to Alice’s real life.
“Wherever I go – even the bloody Marks and Spencer café – my baggage comes with me: letters from Guests on the beach, the mystery behind Burning Truths, my list of murder suspects, Javier’s story. These days, I am ten per cent Alice Forster. And ninety per cent secrets.”
I did really enjoy how much the mystery was starting to build up in this book, as we find out a bit more about each suspect, and Alice starts forming more of her own theories about what could have happened to both Meggie and Tim. I was a little let down by how this book seemed more teenage than the first book, as Alice’s friend Cara sets her sights on Adrian despite the fact he’s with Sahara, with this subplot getting repeated mentions.
Overall I still loved the world of Soul Beach, and am even more determined to find out who the killer really is, as I’m having my doubts about all of the characters and it’s too hard to determine who is guilty and who isn’t. I still had the same problem I had with the first book, if not more so in this one, that it isn’t clear how Alice can feel and kiss Danny via a computer screen and actually feel his warmth or his touch. I still feel that this is only a minor issue, as the short chapters help to really draw you into the book and it becomes a real page turner. (less)
SOUL BEACH by Kate Harrison is a murder mystery novel with a twist – the twist being that the victim can still communicate with the world via Soul Beach.
The book begins with Alice Forster preparing for the funeral of her older sister, Megan, five months after her murder. Her sister was a reality TV star, known as the Songbird, and loved by millions for her beauty and girl-next-door personality. She was found suffocated, with her blonde hair brushed out around her like a halo, and the police are nowhere near discovering who killed her.
Alice is sixteen, and struggling to adjust to life without Megan. She is trying to continue as normal with her friend Cara and boyfriend, Robbie, but it is clear that she isn’t coping. The morning of the funeral she receives a strange e-mail from her sister’s e-mail address, dated with the date of her sister’s death. Alice thinks it’s a hoax, but she is then sent a link to Soul Beach, a mysterious online site that looks like a beautiful and serene beach scene, with palm trees and clear blue seas.
However, this site is definitely not ordinary, as Alice can hear her dead sister talking to her, and can actually communicate with her via the site. Her sister isn’t the only soul she can communicate with on the beach either, as the beach is full of pretty young souls in a never-ending party environment, but they can only see Alice if Megan introduces them to her.
Alice is only a Visitor to the site, but it is clear from her first entry to the site that her actions are being carefully monitored, as it is forbidden to ask residents how they died unless the resident starts the conversation about it. This leaves Alice to constantly fret over what she says to her sister, as she comes to rely upon the residents of Soul Beach more than her real life friends, and can’t bear the thought of losing it from her life.
It is clear that Soul Beach is not the paradise it is made to look like, as the residents are trapped there forever, described as a ‘limbo’ for souls with unresolved issues. As a Visitor, Alice is the only one who can help these souls to resolve their problems, which gives her even more mysteries to solve than that of her sister’s murder.
In her ‘real’ life, Alice is becoming more and more detached from her friends, breaking up with her boyfriend and steering clear of her parents and their arguments. However, she becomes determined to find out what really happened to her sister, as she doesn’t believe that Megan’s boyfriend, Tim, could have been behind it, and starts her own investigations.
Alice is a brilliant character, as the writer has given her such depth for a YA novel, especially with the grief she feels for her sister, and the attachment she forms for the beach. It is also easy to understand her self-destructive path with her friends, as Soul Beach becomes more real to her than real life, with her beginning to log on to the site more and more each day. And when she starts falling for Danny, a resident of Soul Beach, her life starts to get a whole lot more complicated.
“I know. What kind of sick freak checks her email before she goes to see her sister being buried? But sometimes it hurts so much I feel like I’ve got acid in my veins instead of blood, and that’s when I go online.”
The reader is left to make their own decisions about the nature of the beach, and I also loved the inclusion of the killer’s confession at certain points during the book. These inserts are told in first person, and give the killer’s perspective of Megan, but still don’t manage to give away any clues as to the murderer’s identity.
I loved this book, and I can’t wait to read the following books in the series, as I really have no idea who the murderer is, and have a feeling that any guesses I try to make are going to be totally wrong! This book was full of surprises, and I was absolutely drawn in to the world of Soul Beach. The only detail I had a slight issue understanding was how Alice could ‘walk’ along the beach when she was viewing it from a computer screen, but this was easy to overlook whilst reading. (less)