Tuesday, 15 April 2014

THIS is how you do a vampire book: The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein

The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein The Moth Diaries (2002) by Rachel Klein

The Moth Diaries came into my life serendipitously. I saw someone mentioning it on Twitter - not even to me, just as part of a conversation that caught my attention (I wish I could remember who it was now, I should thank them) - and then, a couple of days later, I was in a secondhand bookshop and spotted a copy for £1. At that point, I wasn't sure it was the right kind of book for me, but the coincidence was too good to ignore. I am so glad I picked it up. This book was amazing and has immediately established itself as a new favourite.

As the title would suggest, it's presented in the form of a personal diary. An introduction from the narrator, written thirty years after the main events of the story, explains that its publication is the idea of her former psychiatrist, who believes the journal will be 'an invaluable addition to the literature on female adolescence'; all the names will be changed to protect the identities of those involved. At the time of writing her diary, the narrator is sixteen and a boarding student at what seems to be a prestigious and old-fashioned girls' school. She has for some time enjoyed a friendship with a classmate named Lucy; their bond is so strong that they have endeavoured to secure a shared suite, and at the very beginning of the book, the narrator looks forward to the year they will enjoy together. It's only a few days, however, before Lucy strikes up a new friendship with the enigmatic 'new girl' from across the hall, Ernessa. Tormented by jealousy, the narrator grows ever more suspicious of Ernessa, and - encouraged by an English course which focuses on novels of the supernatural - she becomes convinced the new arrival is, in fact, a vampire.

There is something truly magical about this book - it casts a spell. It is heavy with doom and dread, which is not to say it is dreary to read (far from it). It's so effectively gothic that I couldn't help but picture the school miles from civilisation and shrouded in mist, even though this is clearly not the case as the girls frequently travel to a neighbouring town. The atmosphere is suffocating: the boarders are pushed together, their lives are each other, they distance themselves from day students and are isolated from their families and (most of the time) from boys. Even in her meticulously detailed diary, the narrator is not always honest, casting doubt on her claims about Ernessa and Lucy, and making you wonder how much of her life is touched by fantasy. Are those occasional nightmarish experiences simply the product of an overactive imagination, fed by lurid stories? The characters' experiences illuminate the dark, strange part of this insular way of life, the flipside of the cheery image projected by most boarding school novels. But what The Moth Diaries does most effectively is to accurately recreate the sensations and emotions involved in being a teenage girl, a thing I think is very difficult and very, very rare. I have clear memories of a lot of the things I did, or that happened to me, when I was sixteen, not least because I kept diaries of my own, yet it's very rare for me to really and truly feel those memories in the context of the person I was then, with all the horrors and possibilities that time of my life entailed. I don't mean the specific experiences as much as the very specific atmospheres and attitudes of youth. This book, though, made me relive them.

Although this is a story about teenage girls, written from the point of view of a teenage girl, I am in two minds about whether it should be classed as young adult fiction. On one hand, it could certainly be read and appreciated by a teenager; on the other, I'm very, very glad I discovered and read it for the first time as an adult. If I'd read it as a teenager I think I would have been too close to it to understand it properly. My reaction (I imagine) would have been characterised by comparison and envy: I've never behaved like that with my friends; as if anybody would do that in real life; ugh, that's weird; come on, nobody seriously writes like that in their diary. The negative reviews I've come across seem to have mainly come from readers judging it in this way, reading it in the context of traditional YA. Reading it from an adult perspective and treating it as I would any other novel, I found it, well, sublime. I suspect that because the author has delved so deeply into her protagonist's teenage psyche, it needs to be read at an adult's arm's length to really make sense. (I find many YA books to be the opposite - the characters behave too much like adults and, because their actions are unrealistic, they work best when read by either their actual target audience or by adult readers who are able to inhabit that mindset with ease.)

There were only two things I didn't really like about the story. The first: the foreword and afterword by the adult version of the narrator, which serve only (as far as I can see) to frame the book as an adult novel rather than a YA one. Since the narrative is so powerful and effective on its own, the distinction doesn't matter, and this isn't necessary. The second: the involvement of Mr. Davies; to my mind, the story doesn't need any male characters at all, and would have been better without them. His involvement, minor though it is, slightly weakens it.

As far as I can tell, The Moth Diaries is Klein's only novel. I'm happy about that, it feels right - it's one of those books that stands on its own so well that it almost seems like it would be a shame if the author wrote any other fiction. (I'm aware there's also a film of it, which looks terrible and which I have no intention of seeing - the book is enough for me.) That the set-up is simple, the action sometimes mundane, is one of its strengths: it allows the mood and tone to shine through as the main strengths of the story. The Moth Diaries was published 12 years ago, and is mostly set in the mid-1970s (if one assumes the narrator's introduction was written in the 'present day'), but the narrative feels completely timeless, with the air of a classic. Perhaps that's the influence of all the classic literature the narrator reads and frequently references; in any case, it's a perfect match for the sombre flavour of the whole book.

Recommended if you enjoy books about vampires, boarding schools, and/or the intensity of friendships between adolescent girls. Recommended if you want to read a teen vampire novel that doesn't have anything to do with romance. Recommended if you want to read a teen vampire novel that is truly worth analysing, obsessing over and writing essays about. Recommended if you like modern fiction with a classic feel. Recommended if you want to read a book about sixteen-year-olds that will make you want to read Nietzsche, Proust and le Fanu, among others. Recommended if you like gothic fiction. Recommended if you like books.

Rating: 10/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

What I've read recently: A review summary

Book covers

The Three (22 May 2014) by Sarah Lotz
What it's about: One day in 2012, four aeroplanes crash simultaneously around the world, and the only survivors are three children - 'The Three' of the title. Presented as a dossier of information and eyewitness accounts, the story attempts to unravel the truth behind the crashes and the strange rumours surrounding the children.
You should read it if: You loved Lost - the publisher's blurb compares it to the show, and the book lives up to the comparison. If you're a fan of horror/fantasy/sci-fi, this is a must-read; if you're not, it's a great introduction to stories of this type. (It's been praised by Stephen King, who described Lotz's writing as a combination of Michael Crichton and Shirley Jackson.) Basically, you should read it if you like exciting books.
My review: The structure of The Three makes it incredibly easy to read and equally difficult to put down. I frequently find books compelling, but it's more unusual for me to be glued to a story and unable to stop thinking about it, which is what happened with this - it really got under my skin and I was desperate to get to an answer about whether there was any paranormal explanation for the crashes and the survivors' odd behaviour. I didn't realise until I was writing this review how successfully the author gives each of her characters a unique voice; I didn't notice because she makes it feel completely effortless. It's also really bloody scary... Read the full review
Rating: 9/10 | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback (There's also a free ebook sampler which is out TOMORROW!)

The Ties That Bind (8 May 2014) by Erin Kelly
What it's about: True crime writer Luke Considine moves to Brighton, on the run from a suffocating relationship. He identifies the perfect subject for his new book in local gangster-turned-philanthropist Joss Grand, but soon finds himself in danger from both Grand's associates and his obsessed ex.
You should read it if: You've enjoyed anything Erin Kelly's written before: she's consistently good, and this new book is another success. You like traditional, adventurous mysteries with lots of clues, twists and colourful characters.
My review: Erin Kelly is so great at what she does: her books never let me down. Whenever I pick up a new novel from this author - and I always get my hands on them as soon as possible - I know I'm going to get an absorbing and exciting story that I can really lose myself in. Those cliched adverts (usually for Galaxy or something) where someone curls up in the corner of an improbably cosy cafe with a huge mug of hot chocolate and a good book with a smug smile on their face? They're reading an Erin Kelly book. Read the full review
Rating: 8/10 | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (15 March 2014) by Kirsty Logan
What it's about: A debut collection of short stories combining magic, fantasy and sexuality, all related in lush, descriptive prose.
You should read it if: You liked Lucy Wood's Diving Belles (this is similar, but with more sex); you're a fan of Angela Carter's updated fairytales or the early short stories of Daphne du Maurier.
My review: Across twenty stories, the author uses a wide range of narrative techniques, settings and time periods; some of the tales are a few paragraphs long, others far meatier. There is always an element of the fantastic, but Logan always links this to more recognisable depictions of love and lust... Some of the stories are too short to be wholly effective, but at their best, they create whole worlds within just a few pages. Original and inspirational, this book made me itch to write my own fairytales. Read the full review
Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle (NB: it's 99p in the sale at the moment!) & Paperback

Book covers

The Quick (3 April 2014) by Lauren Owen
What it's about: Brother and sister James and Charlotte grow up on a country estate in Yorkshire, but as adults they are separated when James moves to London to pursue a literary career. There, he acquires a charismatic roommate and becomes entangled with a sinister and secretive 'club': the ramifications will affect both James and his sister for years to come.
You should read it if: You like Victorian gothic fiction with an authentic feel, but also a dash of the fantastic. On the other hand, perhaps you shouldn't read it if you like those things... I've read much better treatments of the same elements, and was disappointed in this after the good things I've heard about it.
My review: For me, The Quick was a book which suffered under the weight of expectation and hype. Every single review I've read of it - on Goodreads, on blogs, and in the press - has highlighted the fact that it has this amazing unexpected twist. And I suppose the fact that I knew it had this amazing unexpected twist led me to speculate on what it might be a lot more than I would have done otherwise, because although I had no clue about the nature of the twist, I guessed it really early, so it didn't surprise me at all. Read the full review
Rating: 4/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

The Face at the Window: Three Stories (13 February 2014) by Louise Welsh
What it's about: A short Kindle-only volume featuring three ghost stories by Louise Welsh.
You should read it if: You're a fan of the author and the idea of her turning her hand to this sort of tale excites you; or you tend to enjoy modern ghost stories.
My review: Considering what I've loved about the two books I've previously read by this author, it's no surprise that I felt the major strengths of the stories were their atmospheric settings and instantly likeable characters. The plots were rather less successful: the brevity of the stories doesn't give them chance to develop very far, and as a result it feels like these narratives lack the finesse of Welsh's novels. Read the full review
Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle

Before You Die (24 April 2014) by Samantha Hayes
What it's about: When a young man dies in a usually quiet countryside town, it sparks fear that a spate of teen suicides previously suffered in the area is about to be repeated. A detective visiting her sister finds herself drawn into the mystery when it seems that her nephew may be in danger of succumbing to the 'trend'.
You should read it if: You loved Hayes' Until You're Mine - this features one of the same protagonists, DI Lorraine Fisher.
My review: This book was... less than I expected. And that doesn't say as much about Before You Die as it does about its predecessor, the unexpectedly great Until You're Mine. That was a book I expected to be a run-of-the-mill, forgettable crime novel, and it was actually something much more interesting than that. So my expectations were relatively high for this follow-up, and it was - well, a run-of-the-mill, forgettable crime novel. Read the full review
Rating: 5/10 | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

I received advance review copies of The Three, The Ties That Bind, The Quick and Before You Die from the publishers through NetGalley.

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Monday, 7 April 2014

Sex shows and psychotic tendencies: The Girl in 6E by A.R. Torre

The Girl in 6E by A.R. Torre The Girl in 6E (13 February 2014) by A.R. Torre

My reactions to this book went through a number of stages:
1 Read the blurb on NetGalley. Think it sounds interesting. Request it.
2. Google it. Find it was self-published (as, um, On Me In Me Dead Beneath Me - yes, really) a year ago, before being picked up by Hachette, given a new title, extended slightly and re-published. The new, improved version is already out for Kindle; the hardback is released in July. And it's going to be part of a series, or at least have a sequel. Decide it will probably be awful.
3. Start reading it. Get excited when it proves to have genuinely intriguing elements after all.
4. Reach the climax and ending and find it rather pedestrian.
5. Overall conclusion: it can't be called anything more than average as a whole; but it does have some really, really interesting aspects.

The titular 'girl in 6E' is Deanna Madden, alias Jessica Reilly, an internet-famous camgirl who hasn't left her apartment since she moved in, three years ago. She is also the sole survivor of a family massacre: when Deanna was 18, her mother murdered her younger brother and sister and then killed herself. (She's similar to the protagonist of Gillian Flynn's Dark Places, but instead of exploiting her fame as a victim, she's hidden herself away from the world, and uses her looks to make money - a lot of money - online.) The reason for her isolation isn't that she is afraid of going outside, it's that she's afraid of what she might do to other people if she comes into contact with them. She insists she's killed before, constantly fantasises about murder, and seems convinced she has inherited her mother's psychosis. A turning point comes when she identifies one of her clients as the possible abductor of a missing little girl, a discovery that prompts her to leave 6E for the first time.

For me, the most interesting thing about this story is that Torre has chosen to make her heroine a sex worker who is, in fact, a virgin. There's something really fascinating and unique about this, particularly since it could easily not have been the case: Deanna wasn't a child when she entered isolation, has clearly always been very attractive, and has no problems with self-confidence. The sex was among my favourite things about the book, because it's presented in such an unusual way. It's pretty explicit, but there are no traditional sex scenes since Deanna's only contact with her clients is of the virtual kind. For her, camming is both a business and an education; the narrative is peppered with scenes in which she describes some of her clients, their particular preferences and fantasies, and these are far more fascinating than the thriller/mystery side of the book (which, while reasonably well-executed, is nothing I haven't read a hundred times before). Then there's the fact that Deanna is a self-confessed psycho - how much can you really sympathise with her? Then again, how much of what she says can you believe - if she's really killed before, how did she get away with it? I've never watched Dexter or read any of the books, but from what I can gather she might be defined as a similar version of that character; she only kills 'bad' people, but her actual desire to kill runs much deeper than that. It'd be interesting (though unlikely) if future volumes had Deanna battling with her bloodlust in a more meaningful way than she gets to here.

But then there's the syrupy soppiness of the romance, which just doesn't sit with the themes of the rest of the book - all those psychotic tendencies and sexual perversion... it just feels weird. And the occasional clumsiness of the language which leads to the use of sentences such as '[I dropped] my book bag at the base of the stairs with a heavy thud of educational oppression'. Plus we have mutiple occurrences of my least favourite, most hated expression, 'off of'. 'His website made more than $1 million off of my chat sessions', 'I sit back, getting off of my knees' and so on. AAARGH. SOMEONE PLEASE ERADICATE 'OFF OF' FOREVER. I think it might even be worse than 'could of' and 'should of'. I know there is some debate over whether or not it's technically correct, but nevertheless I found it hard to believe those sentences made it past an editor (there are other, indisputable, errors in the narrative too. I can see how easily these could exist in a self-published novel, but I was reading the 'improved' version).

The Girl in 6E kind of reminded me of Sasha Grey's The Juliette Society, and not just because both books contain a lot of sex. It's similar in that it has so much promise that is never quite fulfilled - it's telling that I haven't felt compelled to discuss the crime at all in my review, as that's supposedly what the plot is all about. I can see why the book has attracted the attention of big-name publishers and, despite its origins, it's certainly as good as most big-selling thrillers and will appeal to fans of the darker side of the genre. It's a great concept, but the execution leaves a bit too much to be desired for it to be a true success.

I received an advance review copy of The Girl in 6E from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 6/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback (pre-order)

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Buy these books in the Kindle Spring Sale

There's another Kindle sale on at the moment, so I thought I'd do my usual thing of highlighting some stuff that might be worth buying. They always seem to put a certain number of the same titles in these sales, but if you dig a bit deeper you will find a little goldmine of literary fiction, thrillers, translated fiction and short story collections at ridiculously cheap prices.

When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones - 99p. If you buy one thing in the sale, make it this. Unfortunately the Kindle edition uses the horrible paperback cover, which makes it look like some sort of Christmas-themed chick lit, but it's very far from being that - see my review here. I've enjoyed all of the author's work, but this is particularly great.

The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan - 99p. I finished this volume of 20 short stories a couple of weeks ago - and it's been out for less than a month. Brimming with magic, sensuality and subverted versions of traditional fairytale elements, it's well worth the price.

Nagasaki by Éric Faye - 99p. This intriguing-sounding, award-winning novella, originally published in French, has been on my radar for a while. I was pretty surprised to see it in the sale since it won't be released for a couple of weeks. It seems unusual (not to mention a bit unfair to the author) to reduce the price so extremely before the book has even come out, but my bank balance is not complaining.

I haven't read the following, but they look interesting and are good value for money:
I Have Waited, and You Have Come by Martine McDonagh - 99p
A Compass Error by Sybille Bedford - 99p
Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers - 99p
Cassandra by Christa Wolf - 99p
The Swimmers by Joaquín Pérez Azaústre - 99p
The Manet Girl by Charles Boyle - 99p
The Knife Drawer by Padrika Tarrant - 99p
Posthumous Stories by David Rose - 99p
The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen - 99p
Little Egypt by Lesley Glaister - 99p
Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? by Simon Okotie - 99p
Summer of '76 by Isabel Ashdown - 99p
Animal Lover by Raymond Friel - 99p
The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim by Craig Hawes - 99p

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Friday, 4 April 2014

Reading round-up: March

March 2014 books

14. The Farm by Tom Rob Smith - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
15. A Lovely Way To Burn by Louise Welsh - 9/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
16. The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt - 10/10. Review to come / Buy the ebook
17. The Face at the Window: Three Stories by Louise Welsh - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
18. Blackout by Emily Barr - 3/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
19. The Ties That Bind by Erin Kelly - 8/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the ebook
20. Before You Die by Samantha Hayes - 5/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the ebook
21. The Three by Sarah Lotz - 9/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the ebook
22. The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook

I read quite a lot in March but have been less successful with actually managing to write reviews. I think this is a combination of an incredibly hectic few weeks at work and a bad case of writer's block (reviewer's block?) Anyway, in terms of book-enjoyment it was a mixed month, not as unequivocally successful as February, but certainly not without its successes.

My favourite book of March was Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World. I still haven't written up my review because I'm worried I can't do it justice. It combines the best of Hustvedt's What I Loved (which, btw, is one of my favourite books EVER) and The Summer Without Men in an intelligent, intense and philosophical novel about identity, sexism and the art world.

Close runners-up were A Lovely Way To Burn, the first of a dystopian crime trilogy by Louise Welsh, and Sarah Lotz's The Three, a horror-sci-fi-thriller which comes out in May. The books have some similarities, notably the fact that they both depict a near-future alternate reality, but the main thing uniting them is that both are incredibly enjoyable and hard to put down. I also really liked The Ties That Bind, another forthcoming release, this one from new queen of crime Erin Kelly.

Two volumes of short stories - The Face at the Window by Louise Welsh and The Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan - were good fun and inspiring, if perhaps a little too short to be fully satisfying. I found the much-hyped The Farm by Tom Rob Smith to be a bit pedestrian, and Before You Die, Samantha Hayes' second novel to feature DI Lorraine Fisher, was disappointing after the unexpected reading pleasure that was Until You're Mine.

My reading plans for April are... confused. I have so many books I want to read but I've started a few and none are really grabbing me as I feel they should - I'm on a bit of a comedown after The Three and really want to find something similarly gripping, and my to-read list is giving me a headache. I guess I'll just have to see what grabs me first! (And PS: I promise some reviews will be up soon.

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