One year of blogging: thoughts, goals and reflections

Studious Saturday

I almost can’t believe that I am writing this post! This time last year I decided to finally start my own blog after years of hesitation. My first post was incredibly difficult to write and I spent hours rewriting and editing it before posting. Ever since then, this journey has developed in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined and looking back, I am so glad that I continued and didn’t give it up.

When I think back to my reading choices before I started this blog, I almost can’t believe  that I restricted myself to only one or two genres. My Goodreads account consisted of a rotation of thrillers, contemporary fiction and a few classics thrown in but I never allowed myself to step out of my comfort zone and try a book originally published in a different language or a historical fiction novel set in a time or setting unfamiliar to me. Engaging with other bloggers, authors and publishers inspired me to branch out to so many books that I was initially unsure about but ended up loving.

Not only did my reading choices change, but my writing also gradually improved to the point where I now feel comfortable publishing book review posts without having to rewrite the majority of the content. I am still a long way away from producing the kind of content that I aspire to create but I recognise that it takes both time and effort and so I have found myself gradually becoming more eager to work on my writing.

Creating my own brand and sticking with a schedule have been my main struggles with blogging and a huge part of my goals for this year. Today, I am pleased to disclose my new theme as well as a much more appealing logo and banner. Organising my schedule is my next priority and something I hope to overcome in the next few months; I recognise that my ideas for Studious Saturday discussion posts have been limited lately and want to completely focus on these posts rather than book reviews which now come much more easily to me.

Finally, the most pleasantly surprising element of blogging has been the huge support from other fellow bloggers and the interest from publishers and authors. I have read some truly excellent ARCs and connected with so many wonderful members of the book blogging community. As of today I have nearly 300 followers which is so many more than I ever expected and the amount of positive comments and support on my posts is so uplifting and encouraging. The community is full of many lovely people and I am pleased to have found the select few who have become friends and excited to find many more in the years to come. Thank you to all who have supported me during this past year and I cannot wait for the new challenges and ideas to come for Facing the Story!

Book review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens


Book Cover

Title: Where the Crawdads Sing

Author: Delia Owens

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Corsair

Publication date: 8th November 2018

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Summary:

“For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life – until the unthinkable happens.

Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Celeste Ng, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

My review:

A touching tale of survival, hope and resilience, Where the Crawdads Sing was one of the bestsellers in the Historical Fiction genre in 2018 and rightfully so. There are so many aspects that make this book truly great and a special read to cherish for a long time.

Kya is a young girl, left to face life’s struggles alone after her mother walks away from her abusive father and her siblings soon follow the same path. The beginning of this book explores Kya’s strengths, weaknesses, fears and hopes in great detail and the reader is able to join her on this incredible journey of survival as she bravely faces each challenge. Aside from Kya’s unique character traits, the author successfully portrays the remaining minor characters as vital companions to Kya’s survival, from her close allies Jumpin’ and Mabel, to her first friend, Tate. Each character is so wonderfully developed and integrated in the novel that it becomes hard not to appreciate ones that we should dislike such as Chase Andews and his friends who label Kya as “the Marsh girl”.

Another element that makes this book stand out is the beautiful setting of the marsh and the effortless way in which the author depicts the smallest creatures and atmospheric surroundings of Kya’s home. Nature’s wonders are celebrated throughout this book as Kya learns how to take care of herself by making the marshland her habitat and discovers the hundreds of species that she shares her home with. Not only did I find this aspect educational, but also immensely powerful and engaging. Few books published in this genre have used the environment or countryside as a backdrop to the story line as it seems too complex to achieve or perhaps not suited to the plot. However, in Where the Crawdads Sing, the marsh is so alive that it almost becomes another character:

“Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”

On a final note, perhaps the most impressive literary element in Where the Crawdads Sing is the beautiful writing. The storytelling is mesmerising and I often felt unable to put the book down as I was so immersed in the plot. Words flow so naturally in this book and there were so many sentences and phrases that I wanted to bookmark and refer to later on. Few authors are able to create such a delightful setting and completely capture the reader’s attention and I found it remarkable just how powerful the writing was.

Where the Crawdads Sing is a celebration of nature and the strength that one needs to overcome tragedy and meet the challenges of life head on. A mixture of unique characters, compelling writing and a beautiful setting make this book a success and one that should be praised in all its forms. It is by far the most special book that I have read this year and one that I will be recommending to everyone around me.

Book review: Watching You by Lisa Jewell


Book Cover

Title: Watching You

Author: Lisa Jewell

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Publisher: Cornerstone Digital

Publication date: 12th July 2018

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Summary:

Melville Heights is one of the nicest neighbourhoods in Bristol, England; home to doctors and lawyers and old-money academics. It’s not the sort of place where people are brutally murdered in their own kitchens. But it is the sort of place where everyone has a secret. And everyone is watching you.
As the headmaster credited with turning around the local school, Tom Fitzwilliam is beloved by one and all—including Joey Mullen, his new neighbor, who quickly develops an intense infatuation with this thoroughly charming yet unavailable man. Joey thinks her crush is a secret, but Tom’s teenage son Freddie—a prodigy with aspirations of becoming a spy for MI5—excels in observing people and has witnessed Joey behaving strangely around his father.
One of Tom’s students, Jenna Tripp, also lives on the same street, and she’s not convinced her teacher is as squeaky clean as he seems. For one thing, he has taken a particular liking to her best friend and fellow classmate, and Jenna’s mother—whose mental health has admittedly been deteriorating in recent years—is convinced that Mr. Fitzwilliam is stalking her.
Meanwhile, twenty years earlier, a schoolgirl writes in her diary, charting her doomed obsession with a handsome young English teacher named Mr. Fitzwilliam…

My review:

Watching You starts with one of the most enticing first chapters I’ve recently read in a thriller; a dead body is found in the kitchen of what appears to be the ideal family, viciously stabbed several times. We first hear from one of the protagonists, Joey, who is being interviewed by the police and Lisa Jewell’s fluid writing style really starts to show here. I was immediately compelled to read the next few chapters but was disappointed to find out that we are instead introduced to several other characters in this community in Bristol and the connections between these characters doesn’t start to become clear until around the halfway point of the book, by which point I was already starting to lose interest.

The main drawback for me was the lack of context behind the spying aspect. At one point it seemed that everyone was watching each other but the reason behind it was vague so I was frustrated that it assumed such a large chunk of the plot. Snippets of the crime scene and day of the death are slowly revealed through the police interviews, a clever backdrop to use, and by discarding characters one by one it is not too difficult to guess who the culprit is behind the murder, which made for a slightly disappointing and predictable conclusion.

Nevertheless, as with many other novels by this author, the best is left until last and her true talent shines in the last chapter. The ending is enough to put into perspective everything that we have learnt so far about these characters, especially one particularly deceitful and malicious character. Few authors are able to deliver such a strong ending despite the predictable murderer and the implications from the final words are enough to justify reading through the slow beginning. I would recommend Watching You to anyone who enjoys a slow burn thriller with a shocking ending, although I encourage others to try Lisa Jewell’s other novels first as the pacing is much stronger and the characters more refined.

Book review: Dirty Little Secrets by Jo Spain


Book Cover

Title: Dirty Little Secrets

Author: Jo Spain

Genre: Psychological Thriller

Publisher: Quercus

Publication date: 7th February 2019

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Summary:

“Death stalked the Vale.
In every corner, every whisper.
They just didn’t know it yet.
Six neighbours, six secrets, six reasons to want Olive Collins dead.
In the exclusive gated community of Withered Vale, people’s lives appear as perfect as their beautifully manicured lawns. Money, success, privilege – the residents have it all. Life is good.
There’s just one problem.
Olive Collins’ dead body has been rotting inside number four for the last three months. Her neighbours say they’re shocked at the discovery but nobody thought to check on her when she vanished from sight.
The police start to ask questions and the seemingly flawless facade begins to crack. Because, when it comes to Olive’s neighbours, it seems each of them has something to hide, something to lose and everything to gain from her death.”

My review:

It had been a while since I had last read a dark and gripping psychological thriller before I stumbled upon this book on Netgalley. The synopsis had me intrigued and I was hooked right from the first chapter. The characters were delightfully complex yet the plot seemed so simple that I was expecting the typical psychological thriller with drastic and somewhat far-fetched revelations of the characters’ lives. I was pleasantly surprised that the plot developed in unexpected ways, luring us to believe that Olive had nothing to hide yet swiftly transforming into a much more complicated story.

Completely unaware of each other’s struggles, the neighbours at Withered Vale are shocked to find out about Olive’s death but do not appear too troubled when the police focus their search for the perpetrator inside the community. Each chapter focuses on the owners of each house and Olive’s attitude towards them. I particularly enjoyed the back and forth game of figuring out if Olive was within reason to dislike her neighbours based on certain attributes they presented, or if they really did have a solid argument to keep away from her while she was alive. It was captivating and I was constantly wanting to learn more about the background of all the characters, desperate to find out who killed Olive.

The final few chapters were especially interesting as more hints were revealed that seriously made me doubt their intentions towards Olive. Unfortunately the final chapter where we understand what happened to Olive hours before her death was slightly disappointing and I felt that after so much speculation the reveal would be more explosive. Nevertheless, it did not distract from the brilliant story line and the intricate puzzle that the author created. I highly recommend this book to all lovers of dark psychological thrillers.

Dirty Little Secrets is out to buy tomorrow!

Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing a free advanced reader’s copy in exchange for my honest review.

Book review: The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

Book Cover

Title: The Travelling Cat Chronicles

Author: Hiro Arikawa

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Publisher: Transworld Digital

Publication date: 2nd November 2017

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Summary:

Nana is on a road trip, but he is not sure where he is going. All that matters is that he can sit beside his beloved owner Satoru in the front seat of his silver van. Satoru is keen to visit three old friends from his youth, though Nana doesn’t know why and Satoru won’t say.
Set against the backdrop of Japan’s changing seasons and narrated with a rare gentleness and humour, Nana’s story explores the wonder and thrill of life’s unexpected detours. It is about the value of friendship and solitude, and knowing when to give and when to take. TRAVELLING CAT has already demonstrated its power to move thousands of readers with a message of kindness and truth. It shows, above all, how acts of love, both great and small, can transform our lives.

My review:

What a joy of a book! The writing, characters and plot all mold together to create a beautiful and heartfelt story that I will treasure for a long time. Despite preferring dogs over cats, I could not stop myself from laughing at Nana’s adventures and wishing that I was sitting in the backseat of Satoru’s van and looking out towards the waves just as Nana loves doing. The author flawlessly managed to captivate my attention and open up my mind to how cats think and live, especially during the first chapters where Nana is living on the streets and is skeptical to accept Satoru’s help. Their friendship slowly develops into something beautiful as Nana slowly starts to trust Satoru more, an aspect which I think the author handled with lots of sensitivity and patience.

Some of Nana’s feisty expressions made me laugh out loud and the other more naive thoughts were poignant but very genuine so I am glad that the author decided to explore these too. Loss is difficult for an animal as much it may be for a human and, although it was heartbreaking to see Nana’s confusion over Satoru trying to find another home for him, it also addressed the important issue of how pets cope with losing their owner. Many books discuss losing a pet from the owner’s point of view but few explore loss through a pet’s perspective and it was both admirable and tragic to observe this from Nana’s point of view. It was equally difficult to see Satoru struggle with finding a new owner for Nana but this also weaved a path for exploring Japan’s beautiful scenery, with the unique and fun premise of the book as Nana depicted as the most well travelled cat in Japan.

Sometimes the little details add up to create a beautifully crafted book and this was no exception. For me, the highlights of this book were the little quirks such as Nana wishing for a boxy TV to keep him warm and learning more about Satoru’s adventures with his first cat who he named after the number eight. These small moments added authenticity and made the story come alive, with each character feeling more like a friend. I am extremely grateful to have stumbled across this gem and can only wish that it was more well-known because I am sure that many other cat lovers would love this touching story.

 

Book review: In the Dark by Cara Hunter


Book Cover

Title: In the Dark

Author: Cara Hunter

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Publisher: Viking

Publication date: 12th July 2018

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Summary:

“A woman and child are found locked in a basement room, barely alive.
No one knows who they are – the woman can’t speak, and there are no missing persons reports that match their profile. The elderly man who owns the house claims he has never seen them before.
The inhabitants of the quiet Oxford street are in shock. How could this happen right under their noses? But DI Adam Fawley knows that nothing is impossible.
And that no one is as innocent as they seem …”

My review:

It is not often that a sequel is just as good as the first book in the series but in this case, Cara Hunter has really succeeded in producing yet another suspenseful and highly gripping read. As with her first book, Close to Home, she establishes both tension and character building in just the right doses and I was once again stunned at the twists and unexpected discoveries as the plot developed in ways I did not imagine were possible.

Upon reflection, the most triumphant aspect in this book was the woman found in the basement, Vicky, and the astonishing way in which the author slowly reveals her story. Beware, as what may at first seem like an innocent character can quickly become a deceptive yet major turning point in the story line. I was immediately sucked into the intricacies of Vicky’s story and could not believe the turn of events and the clues I had missed prior to the reveal. However, the hints were delivered in an immensely clever way, ensuring to keep the reader guessing the murderer during the whole police investigation.

As before, DI Adam Fawley is presented as a likable yet flawed character, dealing with his own personal problems while trying his best to guide his team to the killer. I enjoyed the first person narrative from his end and truly believe that it was the right decision to continue with this writing technique to immerse the reader in his world and understand the case from his perspective. The DI Adam Fawley series by Cara Hunter is quickly becoming one of my favourite police crime series and I will be one of the first to read No Way Out upon its publication in April 2019.

 

Book review: An American Family by Jackson Baer


Book Cover

Title: An American Family

Author: Jackson Baer

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Publisher: Evolved Publishing

Publication date: 1st October 2018

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Summary:

“Isaac Childs has the perfect life—until that life comes crashing down when his wife Ramie vanishes.
Isaac learns that his wife’s disappearance is the ninth in a string of similar cases. In the wake of this news, he struggles to cope, to be a good father to his daughter and college-bound son, and to reclaim something of an ordinary life even as he conceals his troubled past.
After the FBI makes an arrest, and his wife is presumed dead, Isaac begins to move on. Yet will his secrets catch up with him? Has he conquered his vices for good? And what of the FBI’s theory that the case isn’t completely resolved, after all?”

My review:

This book offers something to every reader. It is an excellent choice for those who appreciate flawed characters and perfect for anyone interested in an engrossing mystery. It becomes apparent as the story line progresses that the characters are vital to moving the plot along and simultaneously, as the plot develops, we discover secrets and imperfections of each character that transpire into an appealing and exciting story. I really admired the powerful use of both these writing techniques and I feel the author accomplished this exceptionally well.

Although all characters were multilayered and engaging, I could not find myself interested enough to follow their conversations. Perhaps it is based on my personal preference on dialogue, but their discussions felt strained and very matter-of-fact which attributed to several forced interactions. Nevertheless, the descriptions in between and after the direct speech were eloquent and concise. I would have preferred a more prominent emphasis on this as the period between Ramie vanishing and Isaac meeting Julia felt somewhat rushed. However, I also realise that this was intended to describe their accidental meeting and therefore the focus soon shifted to their life afterwards.

Few thrillers manage to incorporate emotion and grief in the story line and those that do often fall short of inducing empathy in the reader. In contrast, An American Family shines in this field and from the first page we are introduced to a mix of emotions from despair to heartbreak. I was pleasantly surprised by the ending, although it seemed somewhat implausible, and can safely say that this book left me with a sense of relief which was comforting after the rollercoaster of a ride we travelled on.

An American Family is out next Monday 1st October!

Many thanks to the author for providing a free advanced reader’s copy in exchange for my honest review.