Sunday, 31 December 2017

Sourdough - Robin Sloan

I’d never heard of Robin Sloan or any of his previous work so I had no expectations whatsoever of this book from Readers First before I started it. But I found it absolutely delightful. A wonderful piece of story telling, tender, simply told despite some of the complex science and technology. Uplifting and celebratory. It’s an unusual premise, possibly genre neutral although you could squeeze it into magical realism if you really wanted to.

I cannot think of another story where a sourdough starter is one of the main characters. If anyone else can I’m all ears! The other characters are quirky and slightly off centre but there are no nasty people in this book, no one is unkind to anyone else, no unpleasant happenings, no violence,  a gentle twist or two maybe but no one attempts to shock the reader with their behaviour.

Structurally conformist, no dual/multi chronologies. It’s straightforward first person narration with the inclusion of emails detailing the parallel lives and dreams of the two brothers who start this whole thing rolling by making Lois Clary custodian of their sourdough starter. Lois is a computer/software programmer/engineer, what she actually does is crucial to the plot so I’m keeping stumm. Lois is such a sweet character, conscientious, self effacing but seizing opportunities, solving problems and ultimately taking risks to follow ambition but ambition in a life affirming sense rather than the more cut throat, desire to reach the top type of ambition we hear much of today. And despite the book being a work concerning technology, set in San Francisco as well, there’s barely a mobile phone or tablet in evidence. No mention of social media. So refreshing. 

You can simply enjoy this novel as a story but if you want to delve a little deeper there is plenty to think about in terms of technology, living organisms and their needs, nutrition and addressing the feeding of a growing population. Heaven help us if Heston Blumenthal gets hold of this. It seriously might give him ideas. But, is that necessarily a bad thing? Read this book and make up your own minds!!

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Girl Before - JP Delaney

This is described as a debut work but that is a little misleading as the writer has apparently written best selling fiction under other names. It seems to be a debut for this genre, namely, psychological thrillers. I have resisted the temptation to see if I can find out JP Delaney’s other names and works but that would kinda spoil the mystique and I’m enjoying the mystique. 

This book also belongs to another genre - the unputdownable genre. I found the premise highly original for the most part and reviewing this is going to be hard because I really don’t want to give anything away at all but there’s so much to delight in that I run the risk constantly.

So firstly let’s get out of the way those things that I didn’t like. Although the writing was far, far superior there were times when I was reminded of Fifty Shades of Gray. Maybe it was the control and obsession aspects. Also there were one or two plot holes but I ended up forgetting all about them because the rest was tight. The final denouement was one of those lovely climactic twists  and the wind down was a little anticlimactic until you reach the very last chapter. And that’s all. That’s all I didn’t like.

It’s a very clever, very well written thriller. I understand there’s a film in the offing and I think it will translate extremely well to the big screen. It’s descriptive both in terms of the physical descriptions of locations and artefacts but also expressive in terms of emotion and mind states of the characters. 

It’s a dual narrative structure between the two main women, Jane and Emma, so the story unfolds from their perspectives. And of course, as is almost obligatory now within this genre, the flawed narrator technique is utilised most cleverly here. 
We are fed red herrings, led down garden paths until our, usually, razor sharp, thriller unravelling minds are tied in knots.  It’s most satisfying in that contrary way that these type of books provoke. My suspicions were aroused and thwarted throughout and all the clues are there if you care to look for them. The characters are flawed and real. We are putty in the hands of the writer as we are manipulated into believing and feeling one thing and then another in regard to them. Cleverly forced into positions where we are so convinced  we know what they about, our beliefs are unshakeable - until the next twist. There are no superfluous characters, in fact in keeping with the ethos of One Folgate Street there is nothing superfluous in this book. The house itself is also a character.. 

Well, I think I may have managed it. I don’t think I’ve given anything away. I do hope not and I apologise if I have. There’s a lot of buzz and hype about this book. Often that’s the first thing to put me off it. But I actually think it is justified here. But, hey,  don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The Cruel Prince - Holly Black

I don’t think this book is aimed at grown-ups. Which is a relief because I’m a grown-down. I also don’t care what ages books are aimed at because if I like them I like them. Did I like this book? You bet I did!!!

It was a delight from start to finish. A book that fosters the love of reading because it’s all a book should be. It’s Muggles in Faerie Land. It’s Game of Thrones for youngsters. It’s knights and damsels. It’s good and bad. It’s love and hate. It’s real and fantasy. It’s contemporary and traditional. And all of it balances out so well. This is the first in a series and when you reach the end I can almost guarantee you’ll be desperate for Part Two. 

It’s a clever book for it takes many of the elements so popular in contemporary adult fiction and renders them suitable and accessible for the younger age range without diluting any of the actions or the emotion contained within. Nor is there any sense that readers are being patronised, it’s so subtly done with some beautiful writing and descriptions, So you have the ubiquitous flawed narrator almost obligatory in todays writing and view the events from her perspective. The book is very character driven with some strong leads. Jude is a wonderful character leaping off the page at you insisting you feel what she feels and grapple with her conundrums, want what she wants even if it might not be quite right. It’s almost as if you are making the decisions with her. The characters are real, if that is not a a paradox in a fantasy novel, and many of them do horrible things and several of them have not very nice aspects to their characters. There’s anti heroes, villains, plotters and schemers.I’m not one for spoilers so I’ll say no more than state that some nasty things happen. In one sense so many of the elements in this book have been done before and you are reminded of them as you read but the execution is fresh and rich. It’s a well plotted story with some unexpected moments.  The ends aren’t completely tied up because there’s more to come. 

I get a feel that this is the next generation’s Narnia. How long do I have to wait for the next book?

Friday, 22 December 2017

Mischling - Affinity Konar

Is it my imagination or are fictional works about the Holocaust on the increase? I’ve always believed a writer who tackles this subject in a work of fiction extremely brave. There is just no room for sentiment or poetic licence. So any author has my admiration right away. Books like these can be difficult to read. More so if you have ever visited Auschwitz, both the main camp and Birkenau. There is a tangible evil that chills you. Stories of hope and positivity are few and far between. For every survivor account you hear of you know how many did not survive. I believe the point of writing such a book as this is to perpetuate the knowledge of the Holocaust in the vain hope that such genocide will never happen again. 

This novel focuses upon a specific atrocity of the Holocaust, Josef Mengele and his barbaric, sadistic, experiments. Obsessed with studying identical twins, and eye colour the two protagonists of this story are twins Pearl and Stasha. The book gives them voice with alternating chapters. Ms. Konar’s research is thorough and those students of the Holocaust will recognise descriptions that echo the testimony of Eva and Miriam Mozes and Helen Rapport and Pearl Pufeles who survived Mengele’s cruelty. (Is Konar’s Pearl based on this Pearl?) In a sense there is no new ground covered by this story rather an interpretation of how victims might act, react and interact in the face of such abominable treatment. Initially I found my self puzzled by the twins as they seemed much younger at times than they actually were and I’m not sure if that was intentional to suggest that age was of no consequence to Mengele. Pearl and Stasha could be wise one moment and childish the next but in an unbalanced way. You could argue that their circumstances were enough to unbalance anyone. 

The prose style is eloquent, descriptive and expansive which for me doesn’t quite work with the subject matter. It’s a bold move and I celebrate the attempt but you cannot make music where there is so little harmony.

For readers ignorant of anything more than a general understanding of the Holocaust this is a shocking, disturbing read. And so it should be. It isn’t a book to be enjoyed. It’s not a pleasure to read but it does suggest that we should never stop looking for hope and redemption whatever the circumstances.

Monday, 18 December 2017

The Confession - Jo Spain

Irish novelist Jo Spain is a new name for me but not one I shall forget in a hurry. For if The Confession is typical of her work then I should set about seeking out her previous novels at my earliest opportunity. This latest story is billed as a debut psychological thriller which puzzled me but I see that Ms. Spain’s previous works seem to be crime stories.

Blurbed as ‘the twistiest psychological thriller of spring 2018’ I am forced to mostly concur with that accolade. The crime and the perp are handed to us on a plate in the prologue of the novel. That in itself can kind of take the wind out of your sails because it isn’t what’s expected. What follows is an insidious stripping of the truth through a skilful and well plotted narrative. There are twists a plenty and more than one flawed narrator. 

The story yo yo’s between the past and present and is told through the voices of Julie McNamara wife of the victim, JP Carney, the perpetrator and Alice, the detective who comes across as a sort of Irish Vera Stanhope. 

It is what I like to call an onion story where layer after layer is peeled away to reveal fact after supposed fact, detail after detail until you think you’ve figured things out - until the next twist. It's enough to make you cry. 😉

I found it hard to engage with any of the characters but I didn’t think I was supposed to.They don’t behave particularly well to each other. I felt as a reader, I was being kept at arms length emotionally from these people because to get too close to them would be bad for my health! In fact some of the lesser characters elicit more compassion from the reader and if that is intentional it is very cleverly done.

Jo Spain writes with an easy, accessible style, despite the subject matter of the story, so paradoxically it’s an undemanding and pleasurable read.  It’s a fishing rod book where you are given the bait and reeled in, very slowly, completely hooked. And there’s nothing you can do except to read it! Many thanks to Quercus books for giving me the opportunity to do just that. 

Sunday, 10 December 2017

21st Century Yokel -Tom Cox

I first came across Tom Cox when a friend alerted me to one of his Twitter feeds - My Sad Cat. I had a black cat at the time called Puzzle and my friend saw some kind of similarity between them. although now I would say that Puzzle was a composite of both The Bear and Shipley, another black cat that Tom had at the time. Puzzle was an contemplative, potty mouth and could silence anyone with a look! But I followed the feed and immensely enjoyed the photos and captions. I remember showing my sister the feed whereupon she promptly found the My Sweary Cat and the My Smug Cat feeds too. Eventually I explored the whole Tom Cox internet concept more and more and found that I liked it! A lot.

I love Tom Cox and his books. I love the conversational style that can belie the truths contained within the words. I love his sincere realism and the sense of humour that runs through all his work. I love his honesty. Perhaps best known for his ‘cat’ books this latest offering is a genre defiant piece of writing that is joyous to read. To laugh, to think, to experience, to learn are not often found in one book. 

What I am puzzled about is why Tom had to turn to crowd funding to finance this work given the success of his other books? But he did and so Unbound was brought into my consciousness and, I am sure, the consciousness of many others. All to the good. I felt proud and, given the hours of enjoyment Mr. Cox’s online presence has afforded me, obliged almost to support this project. 

It might be possibly be requisite to have a love of the countryside to truly appreciate this book but maybe it could foster such a love in those without, certainly the easy style of writing makes it very readable and accessible. Existing lovers of Tom Cox’s work will be familiar with all of the cats and be happy to read about them. Full details of poor, sweet Roscoe cat’s dreadful encounter with a dog and subsequent recovery are well documented here as well. Tom's Dad also makes his PRESENCE FELT. But it's like someones taken words for a walk through meandering paths and countrysides revering all living things and seeing the synchronicity of life. 

The world needs people like Tom Cox. If there were more Tom Coxs I doubt the world would be in such a mess. Maybe by reading this book we can all get a little closer.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Macbeth - Jo Nesbo

Just the thought of a new Jo Nesbo had me salivating. In many ways the title passed me by, after all it’s a new Jo Nesbo!! But of course just the word ‘Macbeth’ offers numerous connotations and possibly preconceived notions not to mention a wealth of quotations whether you’ve read the play or not. 

I was moderately familiar with the play, certainly the bare bones of the plot and the characters but I’m more of a Hamlet girl myself! I’ve never seen it on stage but I’ve caught parts of TV interpretations over the years. 

Knowledge of the play certainly adds a dimension to the reading of this novel. You know, in a sense, what is going to happen so it is interesting to see how the author executes the events. I would think, though, that any reader completely ignorant of the play, the plot and the characters would enjoy this story regardless. It might even motivate them to seek out Shakespeare’s version. 

I try not to retain too many preconceptions when I read a book and I seldom allow a cover or a title to impact on me too much before I start. My expectations were high simply because it was Jo Nesbo. 

I would describe myself as a fan of Nesbo. I’ve read five of his previous books and I have another three just waiting for me on my TBR shelves. I had an expectation of the style expected and the type of plot, not to mention the characters. I was ignorant of this Hogarth Shakespeare series so I was half hoping to meet Harry Hole again. So I won’t lie, I did struggle to begin with. I started the book twice in fact because I was bewildered as the style seemed too heavy and clunky for Nesbo.

A digression, I realise, but I’m a tad confused by the series anyway. It boasts an impressive cast of authors who’ve given time and energy to retelling some of Shakespeare’s stories. But why? Without exception they are all writers of depth and imagination who surely have no shortage of ideas of their own. Perhaps for a writer it is a challenge not to be refused? Perhaps it is a little ‘light relief’?! For the plot, character and themes are already created, the writer ‘simply; has to render the story within a modern vernacular and a contemporary style. For the reader though it does provides a variety of potential experiences. If the reader is familiar with the writer but NOT with Shakespeare they will have a certain set of expectations. If the reader is familiar with the writer AND Shakespeare that offers a different set of expectations. And then there’s the Shakespearean diehards who may vehemently object to the exercise. And finally those who know nothing of either the writer or Shakespeare. It’s intriguing.

I think thoughts of all the above caused my initial struggle. But digression over and finding myself really getting into the novel I emerged from the last page having really enjoyed the book. Does Nesbo make the characters his own? Yes, without a doubt and I feel that’s vital for the  story to work otherwise it’s just basic story retelling. ‘Shakespeare retold for crime fans’. We are taken into this rather dark and depressing, faintly dystopian, Scottish landscape where drugs and corruption are endemic. It’s Nesbo so it has to be police/detective dominated which is a perfect cauldron for power struggles, the furthering of ambition and struggles with morality. Macbeth’s dichotomy; desiring power and advancement clashing with his intrinsic desire not to commit evil deeds is well sustained by Nesbo. But I think he sustains the original aspects all of the major characters including the wonderful Lady Macbeth. I was impressed throughout by this.

I guess the bare bones of the crime story is pure Nesbo, a little more wordy than usual but it’s a necessity if you are to suffuse the book with the essence of Shakespeare. Plenty of gritty action, much blood, a tight plot and a cast of thousands. Moral dilemmas a plenty. 

Plus a great big shout out to the translator Don Bartlett who has done a fabulous, seamless job. 

Is this ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ (Macbeth Act 5, Scene 5)?
No it is an exciting fiction told by a clever man, full of sound and fury but signifying much. 

Many thanks to Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read this book.