Review: ‘The Marble Collector’ by Cecelia Ahern

I am an avid Cecelia Ahern fan and she has yet to disappointment, and ‘The Marble Collector’ is no exception.

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The bittersweet story of a girl finding her father amid the ashes of his stroke and memory loss, ‘The Marble Collector’ is both sad and beautiful in equal measures. Fergus Boggs loses his memory following his stroke, but the chance finding of his marble collection begins his awakening; enter his daughter, Sabrina, who learns her dad was never who she thought he was and, in equal measure, she sees how much she’s misjudged herself throughout her life.

Fergus’ story is haunting; do we ever really get to be ourselves when there are so many expectations around us? It’s something we all face and all have a struggle with at one point or another, and Ahern’s journey for Fergus reminds us of how precious it is to find people we can be our true selves to.

Likewise, Sabrina’s story is subtle: as a mid-life/existential crisis plot, it had the potential to be cloying, but it’s handled deftly and lingers on the right things in the right places in order to evoke sympathy and maintain our curiosity as Sabrina’s amateur investigations continue. Case in point (warning: spoiler alert), when it’s revealed that Sabrina’s husband had an affair, we could have focused on the pain, the betrayal, the revulsion, but that wasn’t how the story was being told; it was sad, yes, but it was a journey from the dark to the light and not dwelling on the dark kept this momentum going. It’s part of Ahern’s writing magic and why I keep going back for more.

What I really loved about this story was that things so complicated came from these tiny little marbles: family tragedy, spousal divisions, loss, love, and everything else in-between – all from these tiny glass orbs. The everyday, once again, becomes magical under Ahern’s touch, reminding us of little beauties and triumphs in the everyday world. It’s a book I highly recommend if you want a reminder of this and a touching journey to understanding who we are.

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Review: ‘Cartes Postales from Greece’ by Victoria Hislop

I was suitably enchanted by Victoria Hislop’s ‘The Return’ so when ‘Cartes Postales from Greece’ popped up on my Kindle it seemed like it would be a lovely read for the holiday period – and I wasn’t wrong!

‘Cartes Postales’ tells the story of Ellie, who’s reading the story of Anthony Brown, who’s telling the stories of the people he meets after being jilted and travelling around Greece to heal his broken heart. With me? Good.

The stories slowly show how we move on – we begin wondering who S. Ibbotson is and by the end, much like Anthony, we’re distracted by finding wonder, beauty and oddities in the world that challenge our everyday thinking. Much like Anthony and Ellie, we leave our old ways of thinking behind and become absorbed in the colour and culture of Greece, a country renowned for economic problems and forgotten about in terms of its rich cultural heritage.

Hislop’s writing focuses on the sensory human experience and evokes the essence of Greek setting and warmth in the reader. Granted, not in all stories – that of the French couple comes to mind in particular which is haunting in its scary departure from the warmth known previously, reminding us of the cruel and cold side of life.

It’s a beautiful collection of stories that make for easy reading, bringing both the characters and the readers a sense of tranquility and thoughtfulness. It’s a read to drift away to after a busy day, and one I thoroughly recommend.

Review: ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ by Audrey Niffenegger

I loved ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ (who didn’t?!) so couldn’t wait to get stuck into another Niffenegger novel – but I should have waited. And waited. Then waited some more.

Because ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ was just odd.

Warning – spoilers ahead.

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Firstly, the title: I don’t understand what was supposed to be ‘fearful’ about the book. Creepy, yes. Weird, definitely. But twins happen, so why it became such an overawing feature of a novel was unclear. And to be honest, being twins was made into something that should affect the novel way more than it should have been; it didn’t matter at the end of the day with regards to Julia and Valentina, so its necessity was overplayed. And its use with Elspeth and Edie – just ew. Poor Jack.

And Robert – I cannot overstate what an utter creep I felt this man was. Oh, the love of my life has died – I shall attempt a clumsy seduction of her niece/daughter who looks like her even though this is wildly inappropriate and she’s clearly not sure of what she wants. Stalking on a tube, taking young naive girls to odd dates, procreating with the ghost of your dead girlfriend inhabiting said naive girl’s body which – by the by – is also dead girlfriend’s biological daughter…This is a clearly irresistible specimen, who then acts the victim to just solidify what a mollusc he is. Did I mention I didn’t like him?

If I’m honest, I couldn’t tell you what the overriding plot was supposed to be; was it ghostly shenanigans, was it two teens finding their way in a difficult new life, was it a man overcoming his grief and failing…? Not to mention the only plot line that was wonderful but under explored, that of OCD Martin and long-suffering wife Marijke. It was like the ending was a garble of a plot that should have been after nothing happened for the longest time, the whole sequence of events didn’t add together neatly.

That said, I do have to give credit where credit is due; once Valentina’s ridiculous idea of fake dying (oops) was mentioned, the tension ramped up somewhat and I did want to keep reading to find out the outcome (although to give further credit, I figured out what would happen, and more ew followed). The outcome was disappointing, but it was pursuable.

What I did love was Martin’s OCD storyline; what a misused gem this was. How much I loved and rooted for this man who just wanted to love his wife but whose suffering outweighed that love. I wish we could have seen more of his transformation, but because he was neglected his steps back into the world seemed hurried and undernourished, an unfitting reward for his courage.

In all, this was not what I was expecting; a ghostly thriller let down by too many plots, creeps and uncertain decisions.

 

Review: ‘The Sheriff’ by Simon Fairbanks

Picking up a book by a fellow Birmingham alum is always a special thing, and ‘The Sheriff’ did not disappoint – full of fun, tension, twists and turns, it pleases on every level.

Denebola very quickly became one of my new favourite characters; noble, courageous (he’s no cowardly lion!) and a little bit grouchy, he’s a bit of all of us: trying to do a good job in a difficult and ever-changing world. His shaping and craft is skilful to show the complexities of his job, something which is handled delicately to subtly show the intricacies of Nephos life. Likewise, children are always tough in novels, and to get them into likeable characters without being sickly sweet or just plain irritating is a skill, and one that Fairbanks possesses in spades. Toby is astute and brilliant without going beyond his boundaries as a child character, and I’d argue as a result he’s the character we feel the most emotionally throughout the novel.

Even the bad guys are wonderfully shaped; it’s so easy to fall into cliches, but Fairbanks makes even the obnoxious Father Osmond into a creature that confuses the readers emotionally: do we feel angry at him, or sorry for him, or do we see that he’s like anyone who becomes engrossed with theological matters? It’s brilliant writing that makes you re-evaluate how you see things, a sign of a cracking read.
What I also like about Fairbanks’ style of writing is how everything wraps together; there are no clunky hints or clues here, just subtly weaved in elements that allow the direction of the story (and I imagine the Nephos novels as a whole) to be clear and to leave you realising the answers were there all along, a bit like a good Holmes story! I kicked myself for not seeing some of the plot twists coming because everything had been there to tell me they were, and that’s the beauty of Fairbanks’ writing.

This is a definite must for fantasy and young adult readers alike; I dare you not to want to live in the wonderful Nephos, and to come away not wondering who the cursed Besti Bori is in anticipation of the next book – this is definitely a debut that leaves you wanting more, and if you take a sneaky peak on Amazon, you’ll see that Fairbanks does not disappoint in this respect!

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Review: ‘Origin’ by Dan Brown

I’m a massive Dan Brown fan and hadn’t stopped questioning the implications of ‘Inferno’ by the time ‘Origin’ came out; even so I dashed off to the supermarket on the morning of the big release to get stuck into the next Robert Langdon. And the verdict? Warning: spoilers ahead…

The ming boggles at the possibilities of Edmond’s prediction just as it did with the population crisis in ‘Inferno’, and the set up of Edmond’s presentation was incredible.

However…

I will say that the build up to the finale of the book wasn’t quite like other Langdon books – a lot of the book is spent in one location with a lot of background noise ticking over about the royal palace of Spain which turns out to be something less sinister and more bittersweet than imagined (which was a lovely, brilliantly underplayed twist). Whilst I did love that twist, I didn’t quite understand why so much was made of the palace’s involvement; personally, it felt like all the build-up to Valdespino potentially being the big bad was let down by sidestepping the potential church involvement and worrying over the monarchy instead – perhaps ‘Da Vinci’ did enough to the church! It was a shame because we lost the importance of the murder of the religious officials amongst all this changeover between settings and the movement between religion to monarchy as a focus; it’s never nice to feel like the deaths of characters are senseless, but it’s how (until the final revelation) the Imam and Rabbi’s deaths were made to feel by undermining them.

There was a lot of tension constantly being built with little catharsis throughout – no revelations or small reveals, just the reveals that you’d expect in the final part of a book. I have to say, I prefer Langdon being a bit more active and not just trawling a library for most of a book!

However, redemption came in another brilliantly undersold and stunning moment which I’d suspected from about midway through – Winston’s involvement in Edmond’s assassination. What a stunning thought after Edmond just about put a positive twist on his predictions about the future – that it’s not all bright, not all rosy, and is just as sinister as it initially sounded. It was also odd, when Winston announced his departure, to feel sad about this – he’s essentially a robot and here we are missing him! It definitely showed us the possibilities of AI and the conflicted emotions Langdon will have felt, something which made our leading man all the more accessible to us.

Ambra was our traditional female sidekick – beautiful, age-appropriate for Langdon, smart…and I’ll be honest, I was a bit fed up of her being referred to as the ‘future queen of Spain’ every other sentence. In herself, an endearing character, our author was just a little heavy-handed with her significance to the royal household. However, she was a character worthy of our previous female counterparts to Langdon, and not since Sophie Neuveau have I genuinely felt Langdon have a connection that could have been more with his co-adventurers.

Overall, ‘Origin’ was an enjoyable and thought-provoking ride with Langdon once more – yes, nothing will ever live up to the wonder of ‘Angel and Demons’ and ‘Da Vinci’, but both ‘Inferno’ and ‘Origin’ have worked hard to show our Harvard professor isn’t past it yet (let’s ignored ‘The Lost Symbol’…) – and I hope to see him swinging from church towers long into the future…!

Review: ‘Miss Saigon’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome

I saw ‘Miss Saigon’ on its run at the Prince Edward’s theatre in London, and I’m fairly confident I forgot to breathe throughout the entire performance it was so energetic and heartbreaking. So when I heard it was touring, going again wasn’t even an option.

It’s a show that clearly travels incredibly well, given the right theatre. The sets were stunning, and despite a moment where I doubted it would happen, the infamous helicopter escape from Saigon was there in all its glory and it was absolutely magnificent. What struck me about the set in last night’s performance were the colours; they make the atmosphere what it is, and you follow them through the journey metaphorically as it progresses.

The standout actors had to be Kim and The Engineer (Sooha Kim and Red Concepcion respectively). Kim broke my heart with every word she sang, everything resonated and showed her heartbreaking hopefulness until the bitter end; she is what we all want to be, someone believing that a better day will come, and it’s gut-wrenching to watch that hope being played out so cruelly in such a horrific time. The Engineer is perhaps equally a more veiled version of ourselves: he’s our inner desires and ambition, albeit hilariously over-exaggerated. He’s the comic relief such a musical needs, but with a tinge of fear at the world not working out how he planned; he’s just a brilliant character and Concepcion plays him masterfully.

An underrated actor for me had to be John (Ryan O’Gorman) – he nearly had me when singing Bui Doi, which was possibly my favourite number of the show, especially the male acapella part which had me shivering it was so emotional.

It’s a timeless plot of love, loss and seeking a better life, and a wonderful night out – just make sure you pack some tissues! ‘Miss Saigon’ is on tour for the foreseeable future and at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 23rd September – the hour is now to get your tickets!

 

Review: ‘My Not-So-Perfect Life’ by Sophie Kinsella

I’m not afraid to admit that I’d lost a little faith in Sophie Kinsella following ‘Mini Shopaholic’ – I still haven’t plucked up the courage to try any more Shopaholics at least! However, ‘My Not-So-Perfect Life’ was half price at WH Smiths at a time when I was craving a good book, and I remembered my love of ‘Undomestic Goddess’, ‘Twenties Girl’ and the first three Shopaholics and thought ‘why not’?

And I was right to trust in those books!

Katie Brenner (definitely not Cat!) is one of my new favourite modern heroines, she’s trying to fit into a confusing world with her ambitions at her side and I loved her for it. She’s the most human character I’ve come across in a while, and it worked well against the few stereotypes used to sustain smaller characters, making them seem more realistic than just stock. It was like lifting the lid on what we all think: we need to appear to have it all together, when in actuality finding someone who does have everything in hand is rarer than a flying monkey. It linked to our social media lives without being cloying or preaching, and it was a relief to see someone finally admit that the thousand words behind a photograph might not necessarily be pleasant!

The plot wasn’t trying to be anything over-complicated, and again it was a pleasure for it. We’re so used to everything having tangents and sub-plots and subterfuge, it was refreshing to just be able to follow a (fairly) straight line. You never think about bullying coming from the bottom ranks to the top, so it was an interesting take on an old story, and watching Katie and Demeter, the big scary boss, become allied against this injustice was empowering. Everything was what it was, and that’s a rarity in modern fiction, and a delight.

Talking of Demeter, I liked how the big scaries of the company Cooper Clemmow (Demeter, Alex, even Adrian) weren’t overly imposing or difficult to comprehend; they were the big shots, but you were able to get them without feeling like they were deviating from their characters too wildly in order for them to be seen as humans, not robots in the machine. There was one bit in particular I really appreciated, and that was the small moment between Demeter and her husband; it wasn’t all a veneer, they did really care about one another, it was just as it is in real life – a bit chaotic at home! Kinsella’s wonderful at that though, remembering to keep her situations real and recognisable.

I think that’s what makes this book superb; it’s not trying to be profound or over-the-top, it’s just holding up a mirror to life in an attempt to make us remember it’s ok to be not-so-perfect all the time. In fact, if anything, its the imperfections that make us better – look at Demeter having to admit to her staff that she wasn’t as glossy as she projected at the end, where they liked her all the more for it! We could learn a lot from the Katie-Demeter combo – ambition is great, but reality can be better.