Thursday, 28 September 2017

The Book of Forgotten Authors - Christopher Fowler

I’m a big fan of Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May Mysteries so my curiosity was piqued by his new offering, The Book of Forgotten Authors.  My thanks to Bookbridgr and riverrun for what has been an undeniably delightful read. 

It’s a must for fictionophiles who might generally eschew non fiction works for whatever reason but it is such a celebration of writing, and mostly fiction. Whilst it could have been such a turgid, dry affair Mr. Fowler has rendered it so readable and accessible; to dip in and out of, to read in one go (I couldn’t put it down) or to have it as a reference work or aid when you’re trawling through second hand book stores. It’s intelligently written, succinct, with humour, none of the sections are overlong, in fact sometimes I was left wanting more. 

What also delighted me was the number of supposedly forgotten authors that I had not only heard of and read books by but actually possess works by them! Not forgotten by me! For some reason that made me feel irrationally smug. I may digress here a little because one of the highlights of the book was the mention of Bill Naughton. My father was his accountant and as a child I met him on a few occasions when he came to visit and a nicer man you couldn’t hope to meet. I have fond memories of my sister and I,hand in hand with him, showing him our local park. And I have a signed copy of The Goalkeeper’s Revenge that he gave to me one Christmas and I now have my late father’s signed first edition copy of Alfie where Mr. Naughton inscribed the book to my Dad as ‘the guiding hand - with thanks, Bill Naughton’. Another thing I do firmly remember about him was that he strongly and truly believed that without him there would be no Coronation Street, June Evening, his play, was the genesis of it. 

But to return to the book as a whole, there are 99 entries altogether although some sections cover more than one author and as such offer a great variety and diversity of styles. This gives the book such a broad appeal. I found it revelatory to match writers with titles and vice versa. For example, I had read or had read to me Noel Langley’s The Land of Green Ginger as a child, loved it, but never remembered the writer’s name. There was something joyous about this discovery. 

It would be interesting to examine the statistics regarding searches and purchases of these writers and their works following the publication of this book. I’m willing to bet there are few who read it who don’t go searching for at least one of these authors. And that is a wondrous thing!

However it is an inevitability that writers and their works do get lost and forgotten. There is so much material out there. And invariably for today’s audiences much of the writing referenced here could be seen as dated. We need books like these every so often to refocus our attention on writers who may even have paved the way for the contemporary books that we enjoy now. 

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Ringer - Lauren Oliver

I read Lauren Oliver’s Delirium trilogy and loved it. I think it was the first time I became aware of dystopian fiction as a credible genre distinct from fantasy/futuristic and/or science fiction. So I was delighted to receive a copy of Ringer courtesy of Hodder & Stoughton.

I believe this is the second volume in the Replica series and whilst reading this made me hunger to read the first volume my enjoyment of these stories were not jeopardised by my not having read the first which I believe enjoys a similar format. These books are aimed at a YA audience but I don’t care! I’m old but I really enjoyed the book. 

The ambitious presentation of the dual stories is eye catching and intriguing. Not to mention requiring a decision. Whose story do I read first? Gemma or Lyra. I chose Lyra. Why? Because the name annoyed me! I just kept thinking Philip Pullman and His Dark Materials Trilogy. However once I got into Lyra’s story the specific name didn’t seem to matter. I was reading about the person not the name.

Several times I was reminded of the recent Channel 4 series Humans. Some events seemed to have parallels with incidents in that show. The story was well paced and moved forward with the urgency experienced by the main protagonists, Lyra and Caelum. The mood created by dystopian fiction is tangible and for me I was experiencing similar feelings to those I feel when reading series like The Maze Runner series and the Divergent Trilogy not to mention The Hunger Games! The character of Lyra is convincingly drawn and believable. Her story is ultimately poignant. I did reach a point where all she said, no, THOUGHT, was “I love you. Goodbye.” and I found myself moved to tears. 

Gemma’s story was fascinating. The divergent tales of both girls is very cleverly and meticulously done. In part it’s the same story told from two different perspectives but of course neither girls follow the same course of action. Yet they are entwined. That is not totally apparent until you’ve read both stories, i.e. finished the book. It’s very clever. The raw emotion is terrifying in many ways. The two male protagonists, Pete and Caelum, are also characters of substance. I am so loathe to give any spoilers but the whole novel is almost a treatise in humanity, what it is to actually be a human being. 

Oliver’s prose style is economic without being insubstantial. Detail is there where its needed. This writer really understands her characters and cares about them and it’s a given, then, that the reader does too. Locations are palpably drawn and easy to visualise. 

Ultimately I’m glad I read the Lyra story first for it seemed to help me make sense of Gemma’s story more easily. Also Gemma’s story seems to contain much of the morality, ethics and philosophy that renders this a cerebral work as well as a good old yarn. I loved the implications of the butterfly visual imagery in the book too.It is suggested that chapters from each story can be read alternately which I might like to try. I remember doing something similar with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and it enhanced my enjoyment of that book. And to enhance my enjoyment of this book would be quite something!

Friday, 22 September 2017

Portrait of a Murderer - Anne Meredith

I confess that so keen was I to embroil myself in this fascinating tale that I skipped the introductions and went straight into ‘Portrait of a Murderer’. I will read them later, I promise, but for now I simply wanted the story to speak for itself. Subtitled ‘A Christmas Crime Story’ it doesn’t need to be  Christmas to enjoy it but what a great gift it would make. Thank you to British Library Publishing for recognising just that and offering this copy to me as an early Christmas present!!!

Books like these were written before the need to employ alternative devices and structures to the composition of a fiction, especially the crime and thriller genre, were commonplace. Multi narratives and chronologies, flawed narrators, ambiguous prologues were rare. But in this story you can begin to see the genesis of some of today’s accepted mechanisms of plot and narrative. All in all that renders this the work of a pioneering spirit! 

The opening sentence sets the scene and its worth quoting here in full; ‘Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death through violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas 1931.’ No messing about. That’s the situation. Aha, the reader thinks, this book will be a ‘jolly’ Xmas whodunnit. Not so.The identity of the murderous child is revealed after about 50 pages in! Quite unexpected. And so what follows is, to quote the blurb, ‘a riveting portrait of the psychology of a murderer.’

Viewed in context what follows is an eloquently written and constructed novel where the writing and the actions flows flawlessly. The characters are well drawn and believable. The final denouement is satisfactory if not somewhat tragic and you’re left with that indefinable feeling that you have read an extremely good book. 

Viewed within the contemporary climate of the crime/thriller genre it is, historically, a fascinating picture of 1930’s society offering us some insight into the protocols of behaviour and responses to said behaviours. The lack of forensic knowledge and equipment allow us to see how much more cerebral and observational crime solving had to be. Yet the writing seems to flow as freshly as if it had been written today.

It was wonderful to read; a good story and some writing of quality. What more can you ask?

Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Red Ribbon - Lucy Adlington

Books like these are hard to read. Especially if you've ever visited Auschwitz Birkenau. The evil there is palpable. Stories of redemption and upliftment are rare, few and far between. And for every survivor account you know how many did not make it. And if you've ever visited the main camp at Auschwitz and seen the shoes, the luggage ....... the hair......the chill will never leave you.

That's why books such as this are so important especially when they are aimed at the YA readership. We need to maintain education and information about the Holocaust if we are to have any chance of preventing the same thing happening again. So for that reason alone this is a worthwhile read.

This is a fiction based on fact. Up to a point. If it was pure fact it would be too hard to read. But this isn't just a story about Auschwitz, it's also about survival. What it takes, what must be endured. What moral choices must be made. A balance between active and passive submission. It's also about friendship. And hope. The story alludes to the fact that given different circumstances the four girls, Rose, Ella, Marta and Carla might have been friends and highlights the impossibilities that war imposes.

The story is sensitively written and whilst it doesn't attempt to hide or mask the brutality there is no overload of graphic violence. Much is implicit. It is finely pitched at its prospective audience but I think it has a wider 'appeal' if that word can be used with this subject matter. The characters are well developed and of course we root for Ella the main protagonist. The ending is implausible in its widest context but the softer touch was necessary within the book's niche.

This book is presented attractively. I found the pictures on the pages, especially the red ribbon somewhat intrusive initially, but once enveloped within the story I almost didn't notice them. The sections given colours as the headings was a nice touch. 

It's hard to admit to 'enjoying' a story about one of the worst atrocities perpetuated by Man. I'm not sure if there is even a word to describe the feeling! But to reiterate, this is a worthwhile read. Many thanks to Readers First and Hot Key books for the opportunity. 

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Assassin of Verona - Benet Brandreth

Whilst I struggle to put some books down when I’m reading I confess I did sometimes struggle to pick this one up!! I apologise if that sounds negative because ultimately I did enjoy the book and got a lot from reading it. Thanks to Bonnier Zaffre and Readers First for the opportunity to read it.

The author clearly is besotted with Shakespeare and if ever a book was testament to that then this is that book! There was much about the book I did get; The Shakespearian allusions, characters, quotes, locations - In fair Verona where we lay our scene.’  I love historical fiction although I’ll admit I’m more a Tudor, Plantagenet kinda girl! But I don’t shy away from other periods and I found this to be authentic and appears to be well researched. The plot itself was tight and exciting, like Dan Brown writing in umpteenth century Italy. The characters are convincing enough. But what I didn’t get, and it is bugging me, is the William Shakespeare character himself. I’m worried I’m being thick - uncharacteristically I might add ;-) . The part played by William was not dependent upon him being Shakespeare. Or so it seemed to me. The story would have held up just as well. Perhaps had I read The Spy of Venice it might be clear but the only conclusion I can arrive at is that this is an imaginative speculation as to how the Bard may have spent the so called ‘lost years’ of his life.

This is a witty, intelligent and erudite book of major appeal to scholars and lovers of Shakespeare who will delight and revel in the quotations and their placings with the narrative and chapter headings. I was quite proud of how many I did recognise. I referred earlier to my struggle to pick the book up and that was largely due to the concentration required to fully appreciate this well written text. The story itself is easily accessible but this is a book of language too and in order to fully enjoy that the words require a dissection almost to completely appreciate the skill of this writer.

I wonder, to a degree, whether this book is really aimed towards a niche audience of Shakespeare aficionados but forsooth, methinks there is much in this mighty tome to verily satisfy the many -  O, let my books be then the eloquence and dumb presages of my speaking breast.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

No Shame

Anne Cassidy is an established and award winning author of crime and thriller fiction for Young Adults with over forty novels to her name. That’s impressive. She clearly understands youngsters, how they think, how they might feel. She’s the right person to write this book which pulls no punches. It’s raw and realistic. My understanding is that it follows on from No Virgin and deals with the subject of teenage rape. There is no detriment to not having read No Virgin. This new book gives an account of the rape trial that Girl X, Stacey Woods, has to endure. It’s the work of a competent and experienced writer who wastes no words trying to sugar coat anything that has happened. So it’s an uncomfortable yet compelling read.  It’s hard to say too much without risking spoilers. The narrative flows easily with a straightforward structure chronologically ordered in chapters. I guess the plot has all but written itself judging from what I’ve discovered about the previous novel. The facts had all been established and most of the characters had all been drawn up previously and for many readers it will be a reacquaintance. 

It’s a difficult subject; part of me wonders why anyone wants to read about or write about such a subject. But bold is the writer who faces up to these issues and confronts them head on. The reader is not required to be quite so bold but I wonder whether, as a Young Adult, you would choose to select and read a book about rape? I think it is clever of Anne Cassidy to build up a readership who will want to read her books regardless and therefore has a captive audience to hopefully educate. For it is hard to say that you enjoy a book about rape. The writer has skilfully offered hope of some redemption at the end of the book, it would be too dark without that I think. Even so I think it is to the older end of the YA spectrum that this book should be confined to for even as an Older Adult I’m left feeling very serious after reading it. I would love to discuss the book with a group of kids who have read it and find out their views and responses. 

The value of a novel such as this offers a perspective on what is sadly a very real issue in our world. It’s certainly given me much to think about. My thanks to Readers First for giving me the opportunity to read it.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The Keeper Of Lost Things - Ruth Hogan

In these troubled and contentious times of ours where practically every newspaper you pick up is full of doom, gloom, tragedy and despair a book like this is a wonderful antidote to the almost nihilism that threatens to engulf us.

Hard to believe that this is a debut novel. Many of the hallmarks that might mark it as such are not there. The over extravagance of language is reduced to all that is necessary and no more which makes for what I like to call a ‘snowball read’ - one where the book and its characters gather momentum and urge you along with them. The story was charmingly original, something we can all identify with. Who hasn’t ever lost something precious? And who has never found something that just might be precious to whoever lost it? It’s a simple premise but it really works.

The phrase ‘feel good’ is sometimes bandied about in respect of books and films and arguably there are some incidents and stories n this book which are more feel bad then feel good but somehow it seems to achieve a yin yang balance with the flotsam and jetsam of life. And that balance endures between the concrete real and the abstract spiritual. It won’t work for everyone but if you have a healthy imagination and a penchant for the whimsical this book will please you more than many. 

There are some captivating characters in this book; Sunshine is an absolute delight and the author has tapped into that almost savant like ability to speak absolute wisdoms with such simplicity and purity. The key players in this story have one thing in common, I guess, the ability to love. They may not always recognise it in the right place at the right time but it is there on all its levels. And we root for them all - for Laura and Eunice and Bomber and Freddy and all the dogs.

The narrative and the language flow easily and accessibly sprinkled with humour and darkness but it’s all beautifully balanced which I believe fuels this book’s strength. The structure of the book is unpretentious, the stories within the story sprinkled throughout in exactly the right places. The parallel storylines and how the ends are tied up are satisfying.

In case you hadn’t deduced thus far I thoroughly enjoyed this book! And I thank Hodder and Stoughton for a copy of this wonderful novel.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

My Mother's Shadow - Nikola Scott

I sometimes think that debut novels occupy their own genre, whatever they may be about. There is something so distinctive about them. It’s what I like to call ‘debut novel exuberance syndrome’ and if that sounds like criticism it isn’t, or if it is it’s good criticism, not negative. It’s almost as if the debut novelist feels that they have debut readers and must spell everything out in the minutest possible detail. And so with this intriguing debut from Nikola Scott there is little left to the readers’ imagination everything is described and considered very fully and richly. There is the risk that some readers may be lost along the way but overall this is a story worth persevering with.

Firstly it has a twist I’ve not encountered before which certainly elevated it. Without that clever twist there was much that was predictable and contrived and could have grated but it didn’t fortunately. Secondly it is well written no matter that it is possibly too wordy. The novel has a dual narrative that gradually divulges the family mystery from 1958 to the present day. Without offering anything in the way of spoilers the book explores themes of grief, loss, identity, the mother/daughter relationship, secrets untold and the persistence of the human spirit to indefatigably seek the truth. 

The main protagonists are well drawn characters. As their story unfolds we come to know them, particularly Elizabeth, and start to understand how they are who they are. You can’t help but warm to Addie and root for her; you want her to solve this mystery and understand all that’s gone before without her suffering any further emotional scathing. 

The book is well structured and plotted so the reader is left satisfied at the end in terms of understanding what happened but it’s poignant. And so it should be. Maybe what happened shouldn’t have happened but it did, without it there would be no story and whilst this is a fictional work one cannot help but reflect on true life situations that maybe fuelled this tale. 

I look forward to future works from Nikola Scott.

Thanks to Headline Review for a copy of this book.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars - Yaba Badoe

Considering the number of books I read and the years I’ve been reading, to acquire two books within weeks of each other that both have circuses featuring prominently is spooky to say the least. Since I don’t believe in coincidences there has to be some significance in this? First Jess Richards’ City of Circles and now this, Yaba Badoe’s A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars, the debut novel from this award winning film maker.

This is deemed to be a Children's’ Book on the back cover - 12+. This does not present a problem for me because I’ve spent my whole life trying to grow up and never quite succeeded! I am extremely comfortable with YA fiction. Sometimes though it is a fine line between what is considered appropriate for children and what isn’t. There are some adult themes here that not might be quite suitable for the younger end of the suggested age range. But there’s a good balance between fast paced action and some more cerebral scenes. 

As I began to read I thought this might simply be a ‘Life of Pi’ for younger readers but there’s no Robert Parker disappearing into the jungle. (What did happen to that tiger? It STILL bothers me). It is very firmly in the genre of magical realism which can be a Marmite genre for both children and adults alike. I am one of those fortunate people whose head can go to myriad places with little or no suspension of belief and I feel that is essential for this book to be enjoyed.

It’s a very well written story told from Sante’s perspective the whole way through. Her history of being washed ashore in a chest full of treasure endears us to her immediately telling us that she is a survivor. There’s plenty of word pictures creating tangible atmospheres and giving us a feel of the nomadic existence this travelling circus follows. I believe that woven into the story too, although not specifically cited as such, is some Ghanian folk lore which offers an additional dimension.

At fourteen Sante has developed into a spiritual being able to communicate with ‘the unquiet dead’. And whilst that tantalising snippet from the blurb might hint of zombie apocalypse the book does not travel that path at all. It’s hard not to give too much away but some of these passages are very convincingly written. The book is for youngsters and there’s plenty of action and romance to keep a wide audience happy.  I thought the writer did get under the skin of her adolescent protagonists.

If there were to be an award for the best book cover of the year then this volume should surely be in the running. I am not normally interested in book covers, I prefer what’s inbetween them but this one is quite stunning. Of course you can’t tell a book from looking at the cover and cliched as that might be it does fit here. 

I did enjoy this book but overall there was a patchiness; a balance between the magic and the real was not always achieved. It seemed that the intention was not realised with the depth it promised. Possibly there was an attempt to achieve too much in too short a book. But, wow, that cover!

Genuine Fraud - e. lockhart

Well, this is a sprightly, little tale easily read in almost one sitting, (I took a meal break), with a most unpleasant protagonist. Fortunately the author acknowledges a huge debt to Patricia Highsmith details of which would be to offer spoilers but had such an acknowledgment not been forthcoming I would be accusing ms. lockhart of genuine fraud in this review!! 

In fact reviewing this book is a challenge because to do it justice I would have to divulge much of what makes the book so engrossing. So in a way I’m stumped. The structure is confusing initially until you realise whats happening and then it makes sense. So the plotting is tight if not wholly original. The characters are not especially likeable but I don’t think they are supposed to be. The pace is good and maintains the readers interest. The whole premise is wildly implausible but sometimes that’s what fiction is all about. I think the author has been astute in not producing an overlong thriller. There was plenty of potential to extend the catalogue of deceptions but it wouldn’t have worked at all  .

I think this novel will offer the most appeal to those who are not familiar with the work of Patricia Highsmith. Those who are familiar and are fans of the late, great lady may well bristle. But homage and tributes come in many forms and I think if you approach this story from that angle it passes muster. 

I was much entertained by this and I thank Readers First for the opportunity to read it.