Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Natural Way of Things - Charlotte Wood

Gosh. Wow. These were the only two words that spring to mind after reading this book. But I have a feeling that they don’t constitute a credible review. I found this to be an extraordinary book and possibly not for the faint hearted for it is not a feel good read. My understanding is that the book has already won an award in the author’s native Australia and I’m not surprised.

It is a disturbing, dystopian work with a premise that should alarm us all. Several girls are kidnapped and imprisoned on what seems to be an abandoned sheep station in the outback and spiral down into degradation and abject desolation. The redemption is ambiguous with intention. For this is not a tale that should leave the reader comfortably believing that they all live happily ever after. It’s almost a Lord of the Flies for the 21st century.

It is an exquisite piece of writing, well crafted descriptive prose and to a certain extent you have to distance yourself from the actual storyline, which is harrowing, to fully appreciate it. 

I found the story to be almost allegorical,  a parable of our time,s which doesn’t make for comfortable reading. There is an undercurrent of anger as much on the part of the writer, I feel, as her characters. None of them, the abducted women nor their jailers, are especially likeable. But the situation into which they all have been thrust defies belief. 

I suppose one of the infuriating things about this book is that it poses questions that maybe have no answers. That isn’t intended as a criticism but it places a high demand on the reader to respond rather than remain passive. It has lot to say about bigotry, feminism, sexism.

This is a very powerful book and I’m not sure I’ve done justice to it with my powerless words. It is a remarkable piece of work which I won’t forget in a hurry.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Thin Air - Michelle Paver

I blanched when I received this paperback from Nudge Books.For underneath the main title the phrase ‘A Ghost Story’ leapt out at me. I don’t choose to read ghost stories. And I’ve not told anyone this before but they spook me!  I don’t know why. They just do. So I decided to read this book in one sitting outside in the sunshine in broad daylight rather than snuggling up in bed with it reading by a bedside lamp casting shadows across my bedroom.

I needn’t have worried!! For, yes, it is a ghost story but not the moody, chain clanking, disappearing through walls sort of ghost story. It was a cerebral ghost story. I was surprised and delighted to find this an utterly absorbing and compelling tale that I think I would have read in one sitting regardless as once I began I didn’t want to put it down.

Michelle Paver is a new writer to me and my research shows she is a British novelist and childrens’ writer and I am pleased to have made her acquaintance! In this novel ‘Thin Air’ she has created an atmosphere so palpable it chills you to the bone - from the cold not the fear! The story deals with a mountaineering expedition in 1935 that in part replicates a previous expedition from 1907 to ascend the mountain Kanchenjunga which lies party in Nepal and partly in Sikkim, India.

The first thing that impressed me was the sustained recreation of the 1930’s; male camaraderie and old pals, linguistically perfect, as you completely believe in the characters and the mindsets of this group of climbers.

The research is thorough and the descriptions so rich that you can imagine every step on the ice and rocks and every nuance of creating the base camps and additional camps on the ascent. 

I’ve never been mountaineering but this book made me feel as if I had and maybe could! The attention to detail renders the whole story so plausible. The emotion created for both reader and the characters is a pendulum of exhilaration and agitation. Most of this achieved through the main protagonist Dr. Stephen Pearce. We make this trip very much with him. It is his responses we feel most keenly.

And the ghost element? Ah, no. I don’t do spoilers.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Mother Tongue - Julie Mayhew

Although this book is set in Russia as I read it I felt it had an almost universal location, it could have been set anywhere in the world. My premise was substantiated by the writer herself in her afterword.

I found this a remarkable story by a novelist hitherto unknown to me. I am grateful to Nudge Books for giving me the opportunity to read it.

I am keen not to offer spoilers of any kind so I will offer no more than the briefest of summaries. Darya Pavlovna loses her younger sister in a terrorist siege. We see how that affects her and her family. The event causes her to seek a new life in Moscow which she believes will solve everything. A rite of passage novel? Maybe. 

There was something almost surreal about the experience. At times it was if I were reading a dystopian novel until a contemporary reference made it clear I wasn’t. It is based on an actual event. But that is almost irrelevant. That isn’t meant to sound heartless. The universality of the book allows the reader to embrace the event as almost symbolic of any act of terrorism. The narrative flows flawlessly making it a very easy book to read but with themes that are far from easy to digest nor should they be. A deceptive tale that makes us think more than we realise.

Given the world we live in today how many of us ever stop to think about how we would behave and react when an act of terrorism strikes at our very heart? This book encourages us to consider this in a very real way. You might be forgiven for thinking that such a theme would make for a sombre read and indeed it is heart wrenching in places. But ultimately there is redemption of a kind and upliftment.

I think one of the strengths of this book is that it can be enjoyed on several levels. The characters are very real, very human. especially Darya the main protagonist. For it is very much her story. Yes, her sister had a mother and a father and other siblings who are devastated by her loss but it is Darya who grabs at our hearts and pushes the reader to consider aspects of love, family, ambition.

And we follow her story as she makes erroneous decisions and mistakes that serve to teach her of life and love. Learning of her fellow man, the good people and the less than good people. If we allow ourselves to, we can grow with her as she finds her way to make sense of the tragedy.

This is a book  that leaves you thinking about it long after you’ve finished reading it. 

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Perfume River - Robert Olen Butler

I have read three of Robert Olen Butler’s previous works and I enjoyed them immensely. But they were all Christopher Marlowe Cobb mysteries. They were deceptive works, easy accessible as historical novels of intrigue, war and adventure but written with an intelligence that I often feared might be overlooked. So I was delighted when Real Readers send me this copy of Mr. Butler’s new book. And it isn’t a Kit Cobb mystery which excited me even more.

 Butler takes themes partially explored in his previous works; relationships on several levels from filial, to lust, to love, to loyalty, to compassion and here they are developed with a more cerebral and philosophical style. War remains a kind of additional character, if you will. Here it is both the second World War and the Vietnam War. Possibly those aspects are more accessible if you are an American but that in no way dilutes the impact of the book for those of us of other nationalities.

It is  a poignant, sensitive tale centreing around Robert Quinlan and his wife Dorla. Their relationship is the catalyst to explore Robert’s family relationships and his past.
There’s plenty here for people to identity with; guilt, regret, secrecy, anger, disappointment and resentment. 

I hesitate to comment on the Perfume River of the title as it could amount to a spoiler which is to do a disservice to the book.

The characters are flawed and needy in some respects which allows the humanity of the book to shine through. The pace is languorous sometimes but it perfectly captures the way we sometimes hesitate in both our thoughts and our deeds. 

The writing style is competent and flowing. As a narrative it reminds one of a symphony where all the parts combine together as one for the finished work. The final denouement was not unexpected and I don’t think the writer intended it to be. All the clues were there. It was more of a case of how and when will this act occur.

This is one of the books that can leave you thinking long after you’ve finished it. And in my book  (no pun intended) it doesn’t get any better.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

The King's Curse

I met Philippa Gregory once. It was at a charity screening of “The Other Boleyn Girl”. She was charming, gracious and totally unpretentious. The signed copy of the book is one of my most treasured possessions. I love history especially the periods she writes about and I have loved every novel in The Cousins War series. I love the way she manages to get under the skin of the remarkable women she writes about. and I love the way the same unfolding of historical events is seen from several different perspectives. I think that demonstrates her unbiased view of history. 

The King’s Curse follows on from The White Princess and this time events are told from the point of view of Margaret Pole. Sometimes when you are reading an fictional account of historical events and are keen to progress in the story you can forget about the amount of incredible research that has been done. It is seamless almost, and that is not always the case. Sometimes historical fiction writers fall into the trap of feeling that they have to throw every single piece of research at you no matter what as if to show off how much work they’ve done. I never get that feeling with Philippa Gregory. Everything is relevant but you are almost unaware that it is research driving the narrative forward.

This book was also interesting as much of it deals with Thomas Cromwell’s influence over Henry VIII so it's hard not to be reminded of Wolf Hall. I read and enjoyed that as an intellectual piece of historical fiction and that is not to impugn Philippa Gregory’s intellect in the slightest but her style is a accessible fusion of historical fact with the human element. 

I think, above, all her love of the period she writes about shines through. I guess the Cousins’ War series is at end but the Tudor Court series seems to be continuing and I imagine I shall continue to enjoy her work for any years to come.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Foreign Bodies - David Wishart

Novelus Hystericus

I found this highly entertaining and amusing. I am not sure that I was supposed to! But I did. It was
Life of Brian meets Up Pompeii. And the reason for that, which surely must be intentional, was this
writer's insistence on creating an historical novel using contemporary vernacular. Normally I'm a
stickler for authenticity in historical fiction but that would necessitate a narrative written in Latin? A
compromising move for a potential readership so I suppose the next best thing is to go in
completely the opposite direction. It works.

Marcus Corvinus has been asked by Emperor Claudius himself to assist in the investigation of a
wine merchant stabbed while napping. All very historically accurate until our hero lets forth a
'Bugger' when something doesn't quite suit him. And it happens more than once, And it still makes
me chuckle.

From my research this would appear to be the 18th, yes, the18th Marcus Corvinus mystery by Mr.
Wishart! My incredulity will confirm that that this is the first I've read and probably my last. Whilst I
enjoyed the novelty of the language and the contrast of an historically accurate depiction of Ancient
Rome the story was no better, no worse than many others. It's a competent, clever piece of writing
with some solid characters. I liked Corvinus’ wife, Perilla, who acts as a willing side sick to our
sleuth of the senate.

I can imagine though that this series does command an army of loyal fans and I have no doubt this
will be well received by them.

I received an ebook copy of this from Breakaway Reviewers