Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Recent books in brief

Precious Thing by Colette McBeth Precious Thing (1 August 2013) by Colette McBeth

First line: Officially, I don't think of you any more. I am one hundred per cent focused on the future.

The story: Rachel, a TV news journalist, is called in to cover the disappearance of a young woman in Brighton. The girl who's gone missing, Clara, is known to Rachel - in fact, she refers to Clara as her 'best friend'. Yet she doesn't speak to the police about the fact that she was supposed to be meeting Clara on the night of her disappearance, and it soon becomes apparent that the relationship between the two women has hidden depths, a fact illustrated by numerous flashbacks to their shared past.

The verdict: This is one of the crop of female-orientated psychological thrillers that have sprung up in the wake of Gone Girl's success. The debut novel of Colette McBeth, a former BBC News correspondent, Precious Thing sticks firmly to the template of this sub-genre - an unreliable narrator, a cast of dubious characters, dark secrets coming out of the woodwork, and loads of twists. I found it gripping from the beginning, but it also had quite a lot of problems. There were some issues with the style (not the author's fault: it really doesn't seem as if the book has been proofread or edited) but also several with the plot. I was hoping for mind-blowing twists and was left disappointed and feeling a bit short-changed. Not a great read for me, but not without its merits either - it's compelling, and there are a few vivid scenes. Worth a try, but don't expect too much.

Rating: 5/10 | My full review on Goodreads | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw Five Star Billionaire (28 February 2013) by Tash Aw (review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley)

First line: Some time ago - I forget exactly when - I decided that I would one day be very rich.

The story: Set in Shanghai, this novel deals with five main characters, whose stories are covered in alternating chapters. There is Phoebe, an ambitious young woman who has come from Malaysia to Shanghai to find love and get rich; Justin, the heir to a fortune who becomes a recluse when his family's business fails; Yinghui, a successful entrepreneur; and Gary, a teen pop star who suffers a painful fall from grace. Then there's Walter Chao, the self-styled 'five star billionaire' who acts as a link between the others, whose connections slowly come to light.

The verdict: My second attempt at reading a novel on the 2013 Man Booker Prize longlist, Five Star Billionaire was not, unfortunately, a five star book. At the beginning, I was sucked into the atmospheric depiction of Shanghai. I tend to like books of this type - in which a number of vaguely linked characters within one city are studied separately - and I was excited to see how the different stories would converge. However, I ultimately felt that rather than building up to anything exciting, the plot just slowly, quietly, petered out. A couple of fairly dramatic things happened towards the end, but they happened without much fanfare and it didn't even feel like the reader was supposed to care much. I would also have liked some resolution as to whether anything about Chao's story and how he presented himself was actually true. I liked the setup and the setting, but it was all a bit forgettable and it could have been so much better.

Rating: 6/10 | My full review on Goodreads | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates Black Chalk (19 September 2013) by Christopher J. Yates (review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley)

First line: He phones early. England greets the world five hours ahead of us and I answer before my day has gained its groove.

The story: In the 1990s, a group of six friends at an Oxford University college invent an intense, secretive psychological game, mainly consisting of humiliating forfeits which the player must carry out without letting anyone know they are dares. The stakes are high, as after the intervention of a mysterious society, the victor stands to win £10,000. Back to the present day: one of the group is holed up in a New York apartment which he hasn't left for years, still haunted by the Game. A phone call leads him to attempt to abandon his hermit lifestyle, and suggests that the Game is still being played.

The verdict: I started off really quite disliking this book, then I got used to it and thought it was okay, then I got a lot more interested in it towards the end - resulting in an average rating overall. My main problem at the beginning was that I disliked all of the characters, and although at least some of them became more likeable and realistic as the story progressed, I felt it took too long for this to happen. There's a lot of really intriguing stuff involved in the plot, but the most interesting, mysterious elements don't get developed enough. Overall there is enough originality to make Black Chalk somewhat appealing, but this format is getting a little tired now (perhaps an unfair judgement from me as I have read so many of these stories - but the fact remains that there's a lot of them out there already) and it isn't innovative or daring enough to elevate it above the majority of similar efforts.

Rating: 6/10 | My full review on Goodreads | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

A Heart Bent Out of Shape by Emylia Hall A Heart Bent Out of Shape (12 September 2013) by Emylia Hall (review copy provided by the publisher)

First line: Before Hadley, there was Lausanne. Before Kristina, and Jacques, and Joel, there was still Lausanne.

The story: While content with life, Hadley Dunn feels that nothing really remarkable has ever happened to her, and when an acquaintance suggests that she wouldn't be able to cope with international study, she becomes determined to break away and have an adventure. Spending a year in the French-speaking Swiss city of Lausanne, she forms a close friendship with fellow international student Kristina. The only obstacle to their bond is Kristina's mysterious relationship with Jacques, her ever-absent boyfriend, about whom she is extremely secretive. Meanwhile, Hadley is developing a dangerous crush on Joel, her American Literature professor...

The verdict: Full disclosure: I didn't actually finish reading this book, as it quickly became apparent that I am not the right audience for it. A Heart Bent Out of Shape is, as far as I know, being marketed as adult fiction, but I think it would do better out of being positioned as a YA or new adult novel. Personally, I just couldn't get past the thought that it was weird for Joel (who I also, incidentally, really couldn't stand) to be so interested in Hadley. I hated the 'romance', so the main strength of the narrative was in the author's portrayal of Lausanne, which brought the city to life for me. I really like the author's style and she has a fantastic ability to create a sense of place; I just wasn't particularly interested in or engaged by the story told here. I would definitely recommend A Heart Bent Out of Shape to teenage readers, but think it's perhaps best left to them. If you're above 20, I wouldn't bother.

Rating: 6/10 | My full review on Goodreads | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

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