Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Boy Made of Snow - Chloe Mayer

This is an extremely interesting debut novel from an erstwhile journalist. I suppose there is a temptation to believe that the transition from journalism to fiction is a straightforward one but my guess is that nothing could be further from the truth. I am often led to wonder what motivates a successful journalist to take a different path.

For me this is a typical debut novel. There is a lack of subtlety in the over abundance of details and descriptions that maybe do not allow the reader time or space to emote. There is much here to emote over! However there is also much to commend this story.

There is a dual narrative structure; Annabel, the mother’s perspective and Daniel, the son’s perspective. This device works well and the transition from adult to child, seeing the same events through different eyes, has been well composed so as not to become jagged as it so well could have done.

The characters are reasonably well drawn, functional for the most part with the main characters enjoying more dimension so that we can empathise with both Annabel,Daniel and Hans. The tensions created between Annabel and her parents/in-laws is effective in leading the reader to feel as uncomfortable as Annabel.The author does a good job of getting under the skin of a lonely, imaginative nine year old boy. The other characters do their job and do it well but we are not encouraged to engage with them too deeply. 

The fairy tale theme is remarkably well sustained with quotations as headings for each chapter running through the whole book attempting to advise of an ensuing parallel in the chapter. However the traditional ‘happy ever after’ fairy tale ending is definitely not in evidence here in the slightest. And its here that for me the novel lost its way a little. For I was not sure what it was trying to achieve. There was little in the way of redemption, a glimmer of hope maybe. Perhaps it was to reinforce the fact that war reaches its insidious tentacles everywhere, not merely between two opposing armies. Or maybe to emphasise that life is not a fairy tale no matter how much we would like it to be. Or to cause us to consider the effect of fairy tales on children, exploring that fine line between imagination and reality. 

Notwithstanding it is a solid debut with some originality and I’m grateful to Nudge for the opportunity to read it. 

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

It may seem folly to review a novel that was first published in 1985. However it seems to have been thrust to the forefront of our consciousness again by the US TV series aired by Channel 4 this year. Plus the recent excellent documentary about Margaret Atwood with Alan Yentob on the BBC this weekend.

And it occurred to me to reread it after seeing the effect the show was having on friends and acquaintances. Somewhere in the mix, too, was the fact that the Bailey’s Prize this year was won by Naomi Alderman’s The Power. Girl power all round it seems. So maybe review isn’t the right word here maybe it’s a ’retroview’.

I’ve always felt that Margaret Atwood was ahead of her time in her thinking. And with the diversity of her fiction and her support of all things bookish this places her pretty high on my list of people I’d like to invite to a dinner party! I felt she deserved not just a reread but a retroview as well!

The book has been ‘genrealized’ (is that a word?) into dystopian, feminist literature, even science fiction. Maybe revisiting it thirty years on it’s less science fiction than it was! Atwood, herself, seems to prefer it to be known as ‘speculative’ fiction - a wonderful term.But I wonder if our need to compartmentalise always does a work justice? There is something of the allegory about this story too. The Handmaid’s Tale, I think, looks more at a totalitarian society that is dominated by men at its head but not necessarily at dominant men. Not all the men in the story reach the heights of characters like the Commander. I also think it is an exploration of how people deal with power. The whole Handmaid system seems almost matriarchal with the Aunts offering the training. Within that role they exude much power.

One of the strengths of this book is the fusion between a unique story and the intelligence of the writing. That doesn’t come across in the TV series. You get the story and a visual interpretation of it. I have to say it did mirror my own visualisation of the written word but that is a testament to Atwood’s writing as much as the director’s interpretation of her words. It was fascinating to learnt the provenance of the Handmaids’ appearance from the documentary.

It isn’t a feelgood read. There is something frighteningly prophetic about it. I think that’s intentional. And the story doesn’t unfold as a straightforward piece of story telling. In fact we only know what transpires through Offred’s point of view. We have to trust that she is telling it like it is. And in a sense she has two tales to tell, a before and after. For some the final denouement has been seen as a sort of cop out. I have not found it to be so. I thought it was clever.

Because the story is Offred’s I think we do, as readers, engage with her in a way that we are not encouraged to do with other characters. I think that’s one of the ways in which the story works so well. You’re almost not encouraged to see it from anyone else’s perspective. 

So much today is transient. It is unusual for a book written thirty years ago become the subject of new discussion. Obviously the TV show plays a part in that but it serves to illustrate the power of the book. 
It is possibly very pertinent right now in contemporary America and maybe the world? So if you just watched the TV show it would be wonderful if you’d give the book a try?

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Stockholm Delete - Jens Lapidus

Jens Lapidus is a Swedish criminal defence lawyer so he knows what he’s talking about in this Scandi crime novel, Stockholm Delete. The courtroom scenes maintain an authenticity one would expect from a writer of his profession. Much credit , too, must go to the translator, Alice Menzies, who’s done a fine, seamless job here.

This novel is fairly typical of its genre. Lots of action, a tight plot full of twists and turns that can be hard to keep up with sometimes. The Swedish underworld with all its tangled machinations, corruption abounds and brutality is the answer for many of these characters.  A liberal splattering of goodies and baddies, some where the line between good and bad is not so clearly defined. In so many ways it’s predictable not in the sense that you can second guess what’s specifically going to happen but in the execution of character and plot. That said it is a gripping, gritty read with much to commend it. It’s good but it’s not great in my opinion.

I sometimes feel that the book blurb can offer people unfair expectations of what they are about to read. This is compared with Stieg Larsson. Why I don’t know. Perhaps simple because it is a Scandinavian crime novel. But if you’re hoping that Emilie Jansson is going to be another Lisbeth Salander you will be disappointed. But if you enjoy Scandi crime as a genre this will satisfy to a large degree.

Thanks to Readers First for a copy of this book.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

A Semi Definitive List of Worst Nightmares - Krystal Sutherland

This is a YA book and I am an OA. Fortunately I am an OA who has never really grown up so I very much enjoy fiction for the younger reader. And I very much enjoyed this book. And anyway does age really matter? Not where this book is concerned as it deals with some very real and contemporary issues. It is written with some humour that helps counter some of the tougher stuff. It is quirky with some almost John Irving type characters. It has a morality within it that could potentially be of some support to many of the troubled souls out there. And it moves along at a cracking pace. Ostensibly it is about facing your fears and developing strategies to do so. But sub themes are about family, friendship, love and bravery.  Aimed at adolescent readers with much American teen vernacular I think it night appeal to a broader readership. It’s competently written, striking an effective balance between the light and the dark which saves the book from becoming too depressing on the one hand or too cavalier on the other. 

It isn’t a book that would have leapt off the shelf at me so I am indebted to Readers First for the opportunity to read it. 

Monday, 21 August 2017

The Book of Luce L.R. Fredericks

Pointless. I think that’s what Luce might have said. No, not this book, not at all. The book isn’t pointless but perhaps attempting to write a review is! I’m not sure whether I read this book or this book read me.

The Book of Luce is a Gnostic Gospel and like many fine gospels that have gone before is subject to both interpretation and misinterpretation. Just the word gospel offers us something Biblical or theological in connotation and there is ultimately a sense of some kind of religious transformation subtlety weaving its way throughout the pages of this book. Religious in its widest sense, I should add. I think this is very much a Marmite book, love it/hate it. It does rather depend on your mind set and the expanse of your imagination and maybe even your life experiences. An open mind is not only required but is essential. If your sensibilities are easily offended by frequent references to drug use than you may struggle.

The genderfluid Chimera Obscura wants to know who the equally genderfluid Luce is. That’s what the book is about. Only it isn’t. It’s about a whole lot more than that. In part it tells of an odyssey, it depicts in full psychedelic glory the whole technicolor ambience of the sixties. In some way that does set the tone for an almost hallucinogenic orgy of words and images and sensations. It triggered so many memories I could compile a list without always knowing why such reminiscences were evoked. Somehow this story puts into words the life grail we are all seeking. But then sprinkle it with some conspiracy theory angst and an additional mood is created. 

Luce is who we all seek, who we all want to be, maybe, and who we can never quite seem to find and if we think we do the finding cannot be sustained. That makes for poignant reading. However on another level Luce takes on an almost Messiah-like mantle with the powers and mystery surrounding such a figure.

I suppose this might be seen as a novel of magical realism. There are a lot of spiritual and metaphysical allusions, metaphors and imagery that elevate it. It is not a quick read and my own feeling is that to compose a judicious review would require more than one reading of this book. 

The writing is tight, controlled and flowing. Despite the length of the book words are not wasted. The cast of characters are endless. As the novel progressed I found myself having to work hard to keep each set of characters (or character) and their relationship with Luce clear in my head in terms of chronology and their role in the gradual elucidation of Luce. 

It is the author’s third novel and there are certainly references, through title, to at least one of the others. I haven’t read them though. Whether that has any bearing on my response to The Book of Luce I don’t know but my guess is it doesn’t.

I suppose that any book that describes a journey of life changing and mind altering proportions has the potential to uplift and there are some very euphoric moments in this story but also balanced by some paranoia and anxious passages. 

It is a book of depth and I found it a very worthwhile read. But strangely even though I reached the last page I still feel something is unfinished………. 

Thanks to Jenni Leech at Hodder and Stoughton for the opportunity to read this wonderful book.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Tragedy at Bawley Bay - Elizabeth M Cox

A interesting little novella that has more than a passing ‘affinity’ with Sarah Waters, (Ouch! I know, I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist). Set in Victorian Kent on the River Thames, this is a gothic ghost story mostly told in the form of a first person written account of the mysterious events of Christmas Eve 1866 by Miss Jane Waterford and the events leading up to that date.

Its authentically written therefore you are completely convinced of the historical accuracy.  You do feel transported back to that era with all the protocols and predilections of the age including the burden of living with forbidden desires and dealing with all the secrecy that entails and the backlash that exposure can produce. As you read Jane’s heartfelt account you unhesitatingly believe her. There is something of the spiritual about the story, karmic forces at play that do send a chill through you. As a ghost story its unnerving rather than frightening. 

I’m not an e-reader fan but I think this is just the kind of work that suits such a medium. Something to be read on the daily commute and it’s short enough to give a reader the satisfaction of completion.
It doesn’t need to be any longer. The story is told and told well. 

It won’t set any worlds alight and I can’t see it hitting the best seller lists but if this is the author’s first toe dip into the sea of the written word then there’s promise of more to come. 

Monday, 14 August 2017

Tin Man - Sarah Winman

This is a beautiful, poignant book. And that’s my review. Thank you for reading it. And I hope you get hold of this book and enjoy it as much as I did. 

Nah, not really. I can’t get away with that can I? But this book has made me realise that I’m maybe more of a reader than a reviewer! And it made me wonder what people want from a book review. Do I wax lyrical about plot, character, narrative, quality of writing? Sometimes I’m reading a book that is so good I forget all about such things and just let the book envelope me and carry me along with it and nothing else seems to matter. 

This book struck such a chord with me. When I was a child my mother had a painting in the dining room. Where she got it I don’t know, it certainly wasn’t won in a raffle and it wasn’t even by a recognised artist. It was a picture of some daffodils in a Sylvac type urn on a highly polished table where you could see the reflection of New York style buildings in the background. One daffodil has fallen from the vase and lays on the table. The daffodils are a vibrant yellow. I never discussed with my mother what she saw in it but it must have been something for it remained on the wall for years. Then we moved house and I didn’t know where it had gone. Years later I found it in her attic after she died, covered in an old sheet. So precious to her that she couldn’t throw it away. Now it hangs in my dining room. I look at it every day always seeing some kind of other life in it. Maybe that’s what my mother did.

This story covers a plethora of emotion but a leitmotiv throughout is painting, pictures, photos and words triggering memories and feelings. There is a wistfulness running thorough it that frequently moved me to tears. A story of love and friendship, of loss and longing and dealing with grief. And its not so much what happens but why it happens and how its described. The simplest of phrases and described tender gestures that just cause your eyes to leak like fountains. And its all done without sentiment, but simply, as it is, which somehow makes it all the more moving.

Is this a tale of extraordinary people? Or is it a tale of ordinary people who happened to find each other at exactly the right time?  But you cannot capture time and what follows is, in the words of kd lang, constant craving. 

I read When God Was a Rabbit and wondered whether such a laudable debut could be followed up and sustained. Yes, it can.

That’s my review. Thank you for reading it. And I hope you get hold of the book and enjoy it as much as I did. Oh, you will probably need tissues.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

All the Wicked Girls - Chris Whitaker

As I started to read this I found my self subconsciously reading it in a southern American drawl. It seemed to fit and I have to say it lasted for as long as it took me to read this enthralling second novel from Chris Whitaker. And that wasn't for long for I struggled to put this book down once I had begun.

Bible Belt America. Small town, so beautifully and ironically, called Grace. A succession of missing girls. A palpable atmosphere of slow burning tensions and historical grievances between the inhabitants of this place literally living beneath a cloud. All the backdrop for a tight, complex plot, more dark and cerebral than Tall Oaks but none the less compelling.

Parallels between the two novels can de drawn thematically and between the characters. It is as if Whitaker has created a cast he doesn't wish to let go of. And whilst that can sometimes render a narrative formulaic and contrived it doesn't here. For me it showed a writer developing his art.

I believe the strength of Whitaker's writing comes from his ability to create characters who drive the novel forwards. Many of his characters are damaged people who forge bonds, sometimes unwillingly and who struggle to make something of their lives. All generations feature but Whitaker draws them all with the same depth that allows them to stand out from the page and draw us along with their stories. We care about them, we care what happens to them. We want justice for them where it is required. Tall Oaks had some laugh out loud moments and whilst there is some black humour here it is not as much to the forefront and rightly so. This is a darker, more chilling tale.

We are led down many different paths and fed many red herrings before we are allowed to meet the real  perpetrator. And there are no punches pulled. Don't expect a sweetly, saccharin redemption as a conclusion. You won't get it.

The real shock for me though was to discover that Chris Whitaker isn't alive and well and living In Alabama. No, he is a British writer living in Hertfordshire! So, y'all, reckon you better go get some of this here Chris Whitaker cause he's the real McCoy.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Thousand Lights Hotel - Emylia Hall

I have great affection for Emylia Hall and I’ll tell you for why. Six years ago when I was a novice reviewer Ms. Hall’s The Book of Summers was the second book I ever reviewed, for Real Readers. And it made an impact on me because on the front cover at the bottom it said ‘Manuscript proof copy not for sale’. For some reason this endowed me with, what I now know is ridiculous, an exaggerated sense of importance. It gave me some credibility, personally, as a reviewer because I felt that  someone had trusted me with this proof copy. I still have that book. So when I received a copy of The Thousand Lights Hotel from Headline Books I was delighted to revisit Ms. Hall’s work and experience how she has developed as a writer and hopefully how I may have developed as a reviewer!

This book was made for summer, the beach, vacational reading, preferably in Italy as that’s where it’s set. It’s the perfect holiday read. Paradoxically, it is the complex simplicity that elevates Emylia Hall’s stories to just beyond mere chick lit. The mood and style created in The Book of Summers shows in this current book with a greater maturity of writing. Similar themes are explored, the parent/child relationships, the love of foreign lands and I suppose ultimately the finding of selves whether you are a parent or a child. 

This book is rich and vibrant; you can almost smell the food described, the sea, that indefinable something that you only find in Italy that draws many people back again and again so ably described here with the guests at the hotel; some are visiting for the first time and you just know they will return and others who returning, some year after year.

The body of the plot is an emotional one, not wanting to give too much away here but there are themes here that will resonate with many readers and may even provoke a tear or two. The principal characters have some depth and the reader can engage with them in their dilemmas. The narrative flows easily and economically. We are not overburdened with details that are irrelevant. Again there is the paradox of the beautiful scenery and a landscape played against the turmoil of emotion that Kits’s visit to Elba ignites. 

As with this genre of stories the ends are all but tied up, a little is left our imagination and if it all seems a little sentimental and saccharin towards the end it really can’t go anywhere else. 

Take it on holiday with you. It’s escapism. It works.

Monday, 7 August 2017

City of Circles - Jess Richards

Let’s cut to the chase. Give this book an award now. Forget about shortlists and other delaying tactics, just hand over the award.

It’s as if Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka have taken you by the hand and led you into a Max Escher picture of Gormenghast and The Magic Faraway Tree with refreshments by Timothy Leary. Such language, such imagination, such imagery. This book had me in its thrall right from the start. And I fear I may lack objectivity. In truth I do not know if this book is good or bad. But I do know that the Book Cupid shot an arrow into my heart with it. And this book requires an open mind and an open heart.

On one level it’s simply a story, whimsical, quirky; how about running away from the circus instead of to it? A story of love, loss, grief. A story of searching. A story of Danu, the tightrope walker. Populated with characters of intensity, it’s a richly layered tale. Magical realism is the genre if you require a genre. And you can enjoy it just on that level.

But on another level the prose just blew me away. The words are like jewels, precious stones. I wanted to say them aloud and let the phrases roll off my tongue forever. It’s a long time since I have been so overwhelmed by the consistent beauty of language in one book.

And within that language are truths and wisdoms that I just wanted to read and re read. There’s so much that should not be glossed over as ‘just’ the narrative in a fiction. There are words and notions here to be pondered and considered. There’s paradox after paradox, yin and yang sublime. The name of the city in the story, Matryoshka, gives something away, named after the nestling dolls, one inside another.

Reading is subjective, I’ve already vaguely alluded to that. In your life as a reader there are maybe a handful of books that really grab hold of you. I thought I was too old for it to happen again!! But it has. I will read and re read this book. I will gift a copy to as many people as I can. I will name it as one of my favourite books, not just this year but of all time. And I am humbled, for this book deserves better words than I can give it.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

From the Shadows - Neil White

Wowsers! Never read a book by Neil White before, my loss absolutely. Thanks Nudge, for the opportunity. If you read no other legal thriller this year at least read this one. It is scrumptious!! You expect a twist at the end of thriller but at the end of the prologue?! Oh my, I never saw it coming. I am so tempted to do a spoiler here that, in spite of writing a review, I am metaphorically sitting on my hands I so want to share it!!

I loved this. Every single word of it. It’s like a one of those fireworks that explodes again each time you think its finished. Plenty of action but also plenty to think about.

Many courtroom dramas fail to strike a balance and there’s an overload, m’lord, of the courtroom protocols and procedures. Here all the narratives inside the court are so relevant and pertinent. As with most of the legal thrillers these days issues of integrity are raised. Do defence lawyers care about the truth and about real justice? I think these issues are admirably dealt with here without becoming sanctimonious at all. It comes across as very real. 

The cast of characters are diverse, many merely functional, others drawn with some depth so that we can begin to care about them. The plot is as tight as a tick. The writing flows easily and accessibly. I did find the time frames a little exasperating; it switched about more than I would like and I wasn’t entirely clear as to why. But it was a small price to pay for the quality of the rest of the story. 

There are some chilling moments. There are some hard to guess outcomes. It’s a fiction that involves the reader right to the end. The temptation to offer a saccharin conclusion is avoided, thankfully, the credibility  of the novel as whole would have been diluted. I’ve little negative to say. I really enjoyed it. So much so that I’m cutting this review short to go seek out some more Neil White.

Between Sisters - Kristin Hannah

This book was first published in 2003 but there must be sufficient confidence in it to republish in 2017 or maybe its a first UK publication? Several years ago I read a Kristin Hannah book. It was a freebie and I had minimal expectations from it. But I was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed it far more than I thought I was going to. So when the benevolent bibliophilists from Nudge Books made this novel available I was happy to renew my acquaintance with Ms Hannah,

I guess this is chick lit, romantic fiction if you’ve a need to pigeon hole it. Neither are genres that have the polarity to draw me towards them. But I do believe that if you are a reader/reviewer you must occasionally step outside your comfort zone to maintain an objectivity and broaden your horizons.

It would be too harsh to say that I didn’t enjoy this book but it won’t reach the higher echelons of my best reads this year list. It’s the work of an experienced writer with a proven track record. A writer who understands her craft, her audience and I salute that. 

Given the original publication date, yes, some bits are dated; the reference to Tony Soprano doesn’t have the same impact as it did in 2003. I think you have to bear that in mind as you read. The plot was predictable. Two sisters fall out, follow diametrically opposed lives and circumstances draw them back together. I’ll not be persuaded to give any more away than that. The plot is well thought out and the narrative moves along consistently. The writing flows.The characters are efficiently drawn. 
If you’re a sucker for a bittersweet, sentimental, emotional escapist novel you wont be disappointed. It’s schmaltzy,  It’s a tear jerker. But it’s meant to be. The kind of book you disappear and leave your life behind for the duration. Life isn’t really like this but who cares? It’s a story, it’s entertainment. and as such it’s superficial but some of these are the reasons people read. If you like a little more depth to your reading then maybe it’s one to miss.