January's reading so far has been an average run, I have to say. Apart from one very special book, but I'll do that separately because a) it's too good to lump in with the rest and b) ...I haven't written the review yet anyway. On that note, the Best Books of 2011 list is still a work in progress. Yes, still. Be patient.
The Somnambulist (2011) by Essie Fox
As a fan of Victorian gothic, I knew I'd want to read The Somnambulist the moment I heard about it. Aside from the great title and gorgeous cover, the plot sounded appealingly twisted and involving in a Sarah Waters kind of way (which, I'm pretty sure, is the effect the author was going for). The protagonist, and the narrator for much of the story, is Phoebe Turner, a seventeen-year-old girl who idolises her glamorous aunt Cissy, a singer and actress. Her mother, Maud, couldn't be more of a contrast: an evangelical and pious woman, still in mourning for Phoebe's long-dead father, who decries the theatre as immoral and ungodly. When Cissy dies, Phoebe is granted a lifeline by Nathaniel Samuels, an enigmatic businessman who may have been her aunt's lover, and to whom Phoebe finds herself strangely drawn. Employed as the companion of Nathaniel's ailing wife, she travels to the family's could-be-haunted country pile, Dinwood Court, where she begins to make a series of momentous discoveries about her own history.
This book was full of elements I'm always attracted to, and I did enjoy reading it, but it was all just so... muddled. There were far too many twists and turns piled on top of each other and I could feel the plot creaking and near-collapsing beneath the weight of them all. The problem was that many of these twists, particularly those regarding Phoebe's true provenance, were largely predictable. There were a few I hadn't anticipated, but there were so many of them altogether that these didn't really register: the story was completely saturated with unexpected developments, which both removed the element of surprise, and distorted some of the characters beyond recognition. I also felt Phoebe's reactions often seemed inappropriate for the situations she found herself in - considering how many terrible things she had heaped upon her, she rarely seemed to exhibit the shock or despair I would have expected.
I liked this book when I was immersed in it - it had a good momentum and was grimly absorbing, and the ending was well-crafted and nicely subtle. However, overall I think it was just another largely forgettable historical drama which didn't do enough to distinguish itself from the many similar books I've read in the past. None of the characters have left a particular impression on me and although it was a decent enough read, nothing about the plot hooked me as I hoped. The epitome of a middling, averagely good book.
The Midnight Palace (1994, translated 2011) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Obsessive followers of my reviews (come on, I know there's loads of you out there) may have noted that back when I reviewed Carlos Ruiz Zafón's previous YA novel, The Prince of Mist, I said I wasn't going to bother reading this. And it's true, I wasn't. But then I came across a copy and I couldn't resist giving it a try, knowing it wouldn't take me long to read. I'm quite glad I did, as The Midnight Palace is much better than its predecessor.
Like The Prince of Mist, this book was originally intended for the teen market, but the English translation is clearly being aimed more towards the author's adult fans - again, it comes with a foreword extolling its appeal to readers of all ages. The story starts with Ian, now entering old age, recalling his youth in a children's home in Calcutta - specifically the adventures he enjoyed with a tight-knit group of fellow orphans who called themselves the Chowbar Society. Flashback to 1932, when the seven friends are on the cusp of turning sixteen and leaving the orphanage to make their own ways in the world. An elderly woman arrives at the orphanage with a girl of their age, the intriguing Sheere, and so begins a fantastical rollercoaster ride of an adventure.
It's odd that this is supposed to be the second of a trilogy, as other than some elements of fantasy and a seemingly indestructible 'bad guy', it has very little in common with The Prince of Mist. One of the things that annoyed me the most about that book was that it was so vague, completely failing to establish any sense of time or place, and providing very little explanation of the villain's origins. Here, the setting and era of the story are clear from the beginning, and the evil Jawahal is given a backstory that's perhaps too detailed, raising rather a lot of questions. Naturally, since this is YA fiction, it does all get a bit silly - much of the climactic action is really daft. But I did genuinely like the ending, which seemed oddly melancholy and downbeat for a teen book. Overall, a decent little read for fans of the author - atmospheric, exciting and easy to get through in one sitting. Maybe I'll read his next YA translation (due May 2013!) after all.
Miracle On Regent Street (2011) by Ali Harris
This is a Christmas-themed book and I'd bought it as a bit of trash to tide me over during the festive season, then failed to get round to it until the new year had already begun! I had the misguided impression that it was actually historical (albeit girly) fiction, but when I started reading it quickly became apparent Miracle On Regent Street is actually chick-lit, through and through. Evie Taylor is a typical heroine: a 28-year-old single Londoner, average and unthreatening in every way, and surrounded by a predictable cast of characters - the overachieving sister whose life isn't as perfect as it seems, the glamorous 'friend' who turns out to be a bit of a bitch, etc. Evie's life revolves around Hardy's, the department store where she works as a stockroom girl. Despite having an 'invisible' job and being constantly overlooked by most of her colleagues - who don't even know her name - she's passionate about the store (where her parents met and fell in love), which represents her reverence for both old-fashioned romance and vintage style. So when she accidentally overhears that Hardy's is in danger of being shut down if sales don't improve over Christmas, she sets about using her creative ambition to give the departments a series of secret makeovers, aided by an offbeat group of fellow 'invisible' staff.
Of course, there has to be a romance as well: one that's equal parts predictable and ridiculously improbable. The main male lead's interest in Evie is completely unbelievable, and all his actions so artificial I couldn't see him as anything more than a plot device. And anyway, it's obvious from the first chapter who Evie's going to end up with. By far my favourite parts of the book were those that involved Evie's mission to save Hardy's - I wished it could ALL have been about this, rather than getting bogged down in dull relationship/family subplots. The camaraderie between Evie and her mismatched team of 'Christmas elves' is beautifully depicted, and as cheesy as it all undoubtedly is, I found myself drawn in and moved by their mission to revitalise the store and turn its fortunes around. As an ex-retail worker myself, I liked that the story didn't patronise its characters for not having done anything 'better' with their lives than working in a shop. And the happy ending made me smile, despite myself.
This isn't anything more than a light, throwaway read, but it's sweet and heartwarming. It's definitely seasonal - the entire plot is structured around Christmas, and I'd probably have enjoyed it a little more if I'd got round to reading it a few weeks earlier. Complete fluff, but we all need a bit of something soft and sugary sometimes, don't we?