"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Naomi's Room by Jonathan Aycliffe

Dr. Charles Hillenbrand is living the high-life of Cambridge academia and enjoys an idealistic family life with his wife Laura and their four-year-old daughter Naomi. But on Christmas Eve, 1970, this idyllic life is shattered when Charles takes his eyes off Naomi for just a second in the busy toy shop Hamleys in London; she's taken from him forever. The Hillenbrands’ nightmare is only just beginning, however. Soon the bereaved couple start hearing ghastly things go bump in the night: first a piercing scream from Naomi’s room, then footsteps in the attic. Charles’ suspicions that these occurrences are not simply in their heads are confirmed by a reporter who has been desperately trying to catch a glimpse of them since the tragedy; he shows Charles the photographs he has taken of their house which show the faces of mysterious people at the attic window, a pair of young girls dressed in Victorian clothing, a slender woman in grey, and worst of all, in one of the photos is Naomi herself...

Aycliffe throws you right into the thick of it, with no messing about. The novel begins 20 years after Naomi’s disappearance, with Charles recounting the events of his past. Aycliffe gives you small pieces of information to keep you hooked, but the whole story is very gradually revealed. For example Charles records ghostly things happening at the very moment he is writing his memoir:

“Very well, let me admit it, I’m afraid to go up there, afraid of what I may hear. Or see. She may be there.”

“I made the mistake of looking down. I should not have done that. I looked at the floor. There was something on the carpet, just outside the old nursery door, Naomi’s door. A length of blue ribbon. I didn’t touch it, of course. It might still have been warm.”

Furthermore, another early statement designed to intrigue is: “I loved Naomi as much as I loved Laura.” Which immediately made me think - hmmm loved in the past tense, well what happened to Laura? Did she die? If so how, why and when? Or did they just get a divorce? Tricks like this always keep me intrigued and eager to read on, and Aycliffe has a particular talent for them.

The novel is really well written and succeeds as a creepy, unsettling ghost story; the narrative maintains a strong sense of foreboding and dread throughout, making Naomi’s Room a surprisingly scary little story that I read almost in one sitting - it was that gripping.

Naomi’s Room is not a pure ghost story though; the book escalates into shocking grisliness and nastiness at the end and what happens to Naomi may be hard to swallow; it is not for the faint-hearted.

All in all Naomi’s Room is a very good ghost story, with some visceral horror thrown in. It is genuinely scary and highly chilling despite the somewhat cliché subject matter of ‘haunted house’. Naomi’s disappearance in Hamleys plays into a parent’s primal fear, making the novel even more effective for mothers and fathers. It is very short (158 pages); it doesn’t drag and a good pace is maintained throughout. I’d recommend Naomi’s Room if you really want to be scared; it’s a good one to read in winter, late at night when it’s dark, with only one low-watt lamp shining over you.

Rating: 8/10

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones

Charmed Life is the first instalment of Jones’ seven part ‘Chrestomanci’ series, but it can be read as a standalone novel. Charmed Life is set in a world parallel to our own, where witches, warlocks and wizards abound; it is a fantasy world of magic and wonder, set against a vaguely victoriana steampunk backdrop.

After their parents die in a tragic steamboat accident, Eric ‘Cat’ Chant and his elder sister Gwendolen - a talented witch in the making - are left in the care of their neighbour and ‘Certified Witch’ Mrs. Sharp. She notices Gwendolen’s aptitude for magic and arranges lessons for her, whilst Cat can only observe his sister become more powerful every day since he cannot do any magic at all. Ambitious Gwendolen soon masters basic magic and, aspiring to take over the world, she is delighted when she and her talentless brother are swept off to live in Chrestomanci castle, home of the powerful magician Chrestomanci. Gwendolen is bewildered however when she learns that she is not allowed to perform magic and that her witchcraft lessons will cease until further notice. This stepback does not quell her ambitions, but rather makes her more determined; mayhem ensues and Cat stands by, powerless to stop her.

The reader views the world, events and characters of the novel through the eyes of the protagonist, naive and innocent Cat. This means that there is a distinct air of mystery surrounding Chrestomanci and his castle, since for much of the novel a lot is hidden from Cat. This device kept me guessing and intrigued as to what was going on and how the story would pan out; why had Chrestomanci invited them both to live in the castle if he refused to teach Gwendolen magic? What is Gwendolen up to? Why can’t they venture into Chrestomanci’s garden? These questions and others make for a compelling read. Cat is OK as far as protagonists go, but he is nothing particularly special either; the narrative feels vaguely fairy-tale, and is funny and charming. It’s a bit annoying how Cat clings to Gwendolen like a limpet, allowing her to boss him around all the time. This part of the tale is also pretty heartbreaking though, as it is clear not only to the reader but also to the other residents of Chrestomanci castle that Cat’s devotion to his conniving sister is not reciprocated.

Gwendolen is a horrible young girl, and is truly unlikeable; at times I wanted to slap her. She is mean, selfish, arrogant and completely heartless. She takes advantage of Cat’s loyalty to her by treating him like a servant rather than a loving little brother, who happily panders to her every request due to her being his only remaining relative. The other characters are enjoyable and fun. There’s Chrestomanci and his kind wife Millie, their mischievous children Julia and Roger - with whom Gwendolen butts heads several times - among others.

Charmed Life is chock full of magic; Gwendolen performs several nasty spells to spite her fellow castle dwellers and get the attention of Chrestomanci, and Julia tries her best to combat her. Of course there is more magnificent magic performed by stronger wizards such as Chrestomanci himself. There is also a grumpy violin-cat, a were-tiger and a sweet little talking dragon.

One drawback perhaps is the lack of detail and explanation as to how the magic works in this world, as at times it doesn’t seem to follow any particular rules. I suspect, however, that this might be covered in the later books of the Chrestomanci series.

Charmed Life is a really entertaining and inventive book, full of delight, warmth and amusement. It isn’t quite as good as Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, which has a better defined protagonist and a slightly stronger story, nonetheless I loved Charmed Life; it is a brilliant, mystifying, funny and delightful read that all ages can enjoy.

Rating: 8/10
My other Diana Wynne Jones reviews:

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Liebster Award

I have just received the Liebster Award! I would like to thank Snuggles with Rainbows of The Golden Pot of Books for nominating me. 

The Liebster Award is given to up and coming bloggers with less than 200 bloggers who deserve recognition. Liebster is a German word which means sweetest, kindest, nicest, dearest, beloved, lovely, kind, pleasant, valued, cute, endearing and welcome. So this means my blog is loved, which I'm very happy about as I really enjoy writing it.

Award Rules:
1. Thank the blogger who nominated you and link back to them in your blog post.
2. Answer the 11 questions your nominator has posed for you.
3. Nominate bloggers who you think deserve The Liebster Award, and notify them.
4. Post 11 questions for your nominees to answer.
5. You cannot nominate your nominator!

11 Facts about the Yellow-Haired Reviewer:
1. I have a first class degree in Classical Civilisation (a fancy term for ancient history).
2. I have never dyed my hair.
3. I have been engaged since I was seventeen.
4. I am quite short at only 5 ft 3in.
5. But unfortunately, I cannot walk in heels!
6. I adore meat and would find it near-impossible to become a vegetarian.
7. I love beer - a Japanese brand called Asahi is my favourite.
8. I love languages and I speak French semi-fluently, and I know a little German, Japanese and Spanish. I can also read and write Latin and Ancient Greek.
9. I love books, and my top 5 favourite books at the moment are A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Christine by Stephen King.
10. I also love films, and my top 5 favourites at the moment are Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, From Dusk till Dawn, An American Werewolf in London and The Dark Knight.
11. I can't stand to walk slowly.

Questions from my nominator:
1. What's your favourite colour and why?
Purple. I just like it; it suits me. It was a very prestigious colour in ancient Rome, reserved for the emperors or for triumphs. Most of my clothes are purple; I seem to gravitate towards it. I adore my purple converse.

2. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you choose?
I don’t know, maybe in a lovely little cottage in Cornwall, right on the coast. I love quaint little English sea side places like this - plus, proper Cornish ice cream rocks! Either that or Japan, I have a huge interest in all things Japanese, it looks like such an interesting place, and I adore Japanese cuisine.

3. What was your childhood dream career?
I had lots (inventor, actress, even a mermaid at one point) but one that always stuck with me was to be an author.

4. Are you an idealist or a realist?
Realist. I’m far too pessimistic to be an idealist.

5. What do you like to do on a rainy day?
Snuggle up on the couch with a good book and some sort of tasty beverage.

6. Besides reading and reviewing books, what else occupies your time?
My postgrad degree.

7. What blogs do you like to stalk?
I frequent Musings of a Muse, Temptalia, Book Hollow, Nekomentsu and She Reads Novels.

8. Who is your favourite historical figure and why?
Augustus Caesar. He was so intelligent and completely transformed Rome.

9. Would you rather live in a mansion, apartment, shack or house?
A house.

10. Who is your favourite cartoon character?
Stewie Griffin from Family Guy.

11. Lastly, what's up? 
Nothing much, I’m just very happy to have been given the Liebster Award!

 11 questions for my nominees to answer:

1. What is your favourite book(s)?
2. If you could meet any character from any book, who would you choose to meet?
3. If you could invite any 5 famous people (dead or alive) to a dinner party, who would you invite?
4. If you could travel back in time to any time period, where / when would you go to?
5. Why did you start blogging?
6. Do you prefer books or e-readers?
7. What is your favourite cuisine?
8. If you won the lottery, what would you spend the money on?
9. If you could live in any country in the world, where would you most like to live?
10. What is your favourite film?
11. What is your favourite animal?  
My nominees:

Book Hollow at My Paranormal Book Reviews
Kayleigh at Kazzii Love Beauty