The Jungle by Pooja Puri

Published by Ink Road on March 16, 2017

If, like me, you judge books by their covers, The Jungle will be a book you won't be able to resist picking up. It wasn't the only reason I wanted to read this book though. The tagline on the front cover was convincing enough along with the blurb which I loved the sound of. The Jungle is Ink Road’s first book and I found it to be a very thought provoking one which had a lasting impression on me.

Mico has left his family behind as he navigates the Jungle, a refugee camp based in Calais. The camp is full of tension and colourful characters who each have their own story to tell. Some of them are plotting their own escape to a better place, but the odds are difficult to overcome. One day Mico meets the inimitable Leila and they too dream of making an escape.

Mico and Leila were both interesting characters. Mico is the protagonist and he is a very up and down character who is capable of snapping in a flash. I found that it was difficult to know what Mico to expect with every chapter but this unpredictability kept me reading on the edge of my seat. Reading this book through Mico’s perspective really helped deploy the sense of anxiety and desperation that is felt in the Jungle. It was not a happy place to be. Leila was a headstrong character who appeared for the most part a confident girl who always has something to say. But there are moments where we see a different side to her too. That was one thing that stood out about this book for me. The characters were almost controlled by this refugee camp they lived in so nothing was black and white. For me there were no characters to love or hate because each one changed throughout, and in a way I felt each one could betray one another given the opportunity.

The Calais refugee camp was built up by the author in a very impactful way, one that allowed me to feel the strain of the Jungle along with Mico, Leila, Hassan, Syed and everyone else we meet. The Jungle was described atmospherically and I felt like I could picture the place really well. With sharp emotions and a sense of unease and tension that could be cut with a knife, there were feelings of hunger, of desperation and fleeting feelings of optimism which really drew me into this short book which the author delivered with power.

There were many different characters in this book, some we only meet briefly and others that come in to the story more as it goes on. With the huge desperation that surrounded The Jungle, it made me as the reader unsure of who to trust. There were choices and actions that the characters made which I couldn’t agree with, and there were also characters that seemed to have little good in them, but I was never quite sure about any of the characters. At first life in the Jungle felt a bit like a dog eat dog world where the most important thing on anyone's mind was how to survive. But there are friendships that surface which surprised and engaged me. Some were more heartening than others but I found it fascinating watching them develop.

I will say that as much as I was looking forward to reading The Jungle, the book itself was very different to what I had been imagining. This isn't a bad thing but it did take a bit of adjusting to once I began the book. The book is only around 200 pages long and whilst I did find the story moving, I thought there was room for more character development, for more of everything really. More desperation, more hope, more action. I found this book absolutely gripping but I felt like the refugee camp theme could have been pushed even further.

Despite this, I really would recommend people read The Jungle. I found it to be a very thought-provoking and insightful read which somehow managed to feel more timely given the state of the world today. Every chapter had me engrossed and the tension, which was huge at the beginning, kept on increasing further and further, leaving me eager to see how the ending of this book would turn out.

Puzzle Girl by Rachael Featherstone

Published by Accent Press on March 16, 2017

I loved the fresh concept to Puzzle Girl, Rachael Featherstone’s debut novel. Though a story involving a woman, unlucky in love, who wants nothing more but to be part of the perfect couple whilst at the same time battling with work related issues is nothing against the norm in a contemporary romance novel, Puzzle Girl surprised me with its originality. Full of humour, this book had me laughing and cringing and smiling at the antics inside all the way through it.

Cassy is still stewing over being dumped by her boyfriend Seph when she was at an important work dinner. When she injures her ankle on the back of a hangover, she finds herself stuck waiting at the doctors with not even a spare puzzle in the puzzle book left to complete. When Cassy creates her own crossword in the book, and next time she is at the doctors sees that someone has completed her puzzle, Cassy dubs the mystery man Puzzle-Man and becomes completely and utterly obsessed with the puzzle-book stranger.

Cassy is a very dramatic character and her obsession with Puzzle Man quickly gets out of control and this amused me no end. She becomes completely caught up in the mystery and even on the first day she discovers he has answered her puzzle she is daydreaming over who he could be and how they could fall in love. I loved Cassy’s vivid imagination and she is a pretty bubbly character who keeps the reader entertained with her mishaps and overreactions.

On top of looking for love, Cassy is also vying for a promotion at work and finds herself rivalling with her colleague Martin who she feels is getting all the opportunities and she becomes desperate to come out on top. Cassy does nothing by halves and she doesn’t stop at anything to try and get what she wants. She builds Martin up to be a monster and I would almost have belived her if she didn’t overreact to everything. I think Cassy could be seen as a frustrating character but for some reason I didn’t really see her that way. Maybe that was because she was so over-the-top even from the first few pages that I knew what to expect from her and I just found it entertaining instead. I would have loved to view the world from Cassy’s perspective for a day and see just how dramatically she views everything as I’m sure it would be an interesting experience! I’m not sure I could have taken more than a day of that though.

Puzzle Girl is light-hearted and lots of fun. One thing I liked a lot about this book was the characters. Other than Cassy, there were other characters I loved such as Cassy’s gay best friend Dan who made me laugh all the way through the book. He’s fun and supportive of Cassy and tells it like it is, which is something Cassy evidently needs in her life. Dan was probably my favourite character. The moment we first meet him is when I settled into the story and I enjoyed getting to know more about him further into the book. Despite being there for Cassy when she needs him, he has his own issues in life and I really wanted him to get his happy ever after too.

Rachael Featherstone’s debut is a winner in my eyes. It took me a fair few chapters to get hooked on the story but once I did I enjoyed every single bonkers moment and all the mad excuses and ideas Cassy came up with to get her own way. The pacing of the book had me eager to read one more chapter again and again until I’d read two thirds of the book in one go. As well as the engaging storytelling, the narrative includes a mixture of puzzles, lists, texts and emails which kept me absorbed in the book and its fast-paced plot. Puzzle Girl is a really fun and witty book, a romantic comedy with a fair bit of character development and an uplifting story that puts a smile on your face for all of its 300+ pages.

Quieter Than Killing by Sarah Hilary

Published by Headline on March 9, 2017

Dear Reader
Why we love crime fiction so much
by Sarah Hilary

I’ve been asked to write about why so many of us love crime fiction. Lots of writers have been invited to tackle this subject including, perversely, several who loathe crime fiction. (Although it’s rather fun watching them wrestle their dictionaries to the ground in pursuit of credible reasons as to why so many smart people cannot aspire to their own contempt for the genre.)

Is it that we love to see justice done? That the detective is our secular priest?

Or is it that we delight in solving a puzzle?

Could it simply be that crime fiction respects the first rule of writing—to entertain?

Should I attempt to unpack the reasons why I became a reader of crime when I was ten? What it was about the stories of Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith that hooked my pre- and post-adolescent brain?

I’m not sure I should, in fact. Any more than I should attempt to analyse your reasons for reading my books or any other crime writer’s. Other than to say this—

Crime fiction, at its best, is uniquely two things. Firstly, it is subversive. It asks the questions no one else likes to ask. It has a social conscience which is active in the here and now, without recourse to nostalgia (a fetish of so much literary fiction) and unafraid of ambiguity.

The second way in which crime fiction is unique is all about you. More than any other genre, ours depends on the pact between writer and reader. Never will you hear a crime writer bemoan or belittle the role of the reader, or make lofty claims of how little we think about our readers when we write. We think about you all-the-time. About the questions you’ll ask of our characters and what makes you turn our pages, whether our red herrings are too red or our subtle clues too clunky. You’re in our heads the whole time. We want to scare you and thrill you—and outwit you, if we can (knowing how damn hard that will be). Writing, they say, is a lonely business. But thanks to you, dear crime reader, we are never alone.

So join me if you will (I won’t say if you dare) in Quieter Than Killing as I twist and turn, and try to keep you guessing right up until the final page. Then tweet me or drop a line to my website or Facebook page to tell me what you liked, what you didn’t, what I should be doing differently.

Until next time. Keep the faith.

Sarah Hilary

Sarah Hilary has worked as a bookseller, and with the Royal Navy. Her debut, SOMEONE ELSE'S SKIN, won Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year 2015 and was a World Book Night selection for 2016. The Observer's Book of the Month ("superbly disturbing”) and a Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller, it has been published worldwide. NO OTHER DARKNESS, the second in the series was shortlisted for a Barry Award in the US. Her DI Marnie Rome series continued with TASTES LIKE FEAR and her fourth book, QUIETER THAN KILLING, is out now.

Follow Sarah on Twitter at @Sarah_Hilary

The Song of the Stork by Stephan Collishaw

Published by Legend Press on March 1, 2017

The Song of the Stork is the complete package as far as beautiful books go. The cover is stunning and the title is really striking and the perfect fit for the story inside. Stephan Collishaw’s storytelling was built on atmosphere and tension, the unnerving feeling that something bad is going to happen without it being spelt out to us. The prose is dark and intense and my fear for what could happen to the characters I quickly cared for had me refusing to put the book down.

Set around World War II, in The Song of the Stork we meet Yael, a fifteen year old Jewish girl who is on the run, seeking shelter from the Germans. All alone, and with the belief that there is nobody left to wonder where or how she is, Yael’s life is now driven by the hope that her brother Josef is alive and how they could be reunited. In the meantime she gradually wins over recluse Aleksei into giving her shelter from the outside world.

Aleksei is mute but that didn’t stop me from completely falling for his character. I found him to be inspired and I loved his way of communicating with Yael and how protective he was. I think he showed great strength in character as he accepted his fear of the situation he was in – his life was under threat as he hid Yael in his home – but still did everything in his power to keep Yael safe. I loved everything about Aleksei’s character and felt for him and his frustration at not always being able to get through to Yael or express himself to her. Yael is a more outgoing character and keeps Aleksei on his toes, and the gradual love story that builds between them was wonderful to read.

I think the author represents the time period, and therefore the war, in this book really well. There is danger lurking on every page and every chapter where things seemed relatively safe for Yael and Aleksei made me feel more aware that bad things were coming. One thing I particularly loved about this book was the feeling of hope that runs through its core. As much as this is a survival story and you are aware that happy endings in this era often went unfounded, there was a level of hope about this book, within the characters and within the reader, and this gave a slightly different feel to the experience of reading a World War II story. I found I was always clinging onto hope, despite fearing for the characters’ lives, and this kept me glued to the pages to see how everything would turn out.

I really did take to this book but my one complaint is with the ending. It just didn’t feel right to me. I felt like someone had ripped the last couple of chapters out of my book… I never feel like I need every loose end to be tied up, I don’t really mind an open ending, but this one was way too open for my liking. To have been invested in something so much throughout the course of the book to find no closure whatsoever was a shame as I finished the book still dying for answers about something in particular.

Despite that, The Song of the Stork is a book that will long remain on my mind. I absolutely loved this book as it was truly beautiful and powerful. The language and tone made this harsh story incredibly readable. I loved the atmospheric detail from the snow to the storks. Everything was very expressive and it gave the book more impact. The Song of the Stork is a haunting yet compassionate story built with love and a level of hope that the future for the characters within the book is not as bleak as can be feared.

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