Mini-review: The Strangler Vine, by MJ Carter

Really enjoyed this – the level of research about India in the early 19thC was evident in the rich detail, and the precarious relationship between the main characters, although a little formulaic in the early sections of the book, developed nicely. The story itself is somewhere between Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones, with plenty of intrigue, jewels and flashing swords. Recommended.

(Review also posted on Goodreads and Litsy)

Review – Lionheart by Stewart Binns

About a month ago on Twitter I picked up a call for guest reviewers, put out by the splendid Sharon from Shaz’s Book Blog. She was looking for folk to take some of her teetering TBR pile off her hands, and I thought – hell, I could do that.

So I stuck my hand up, Shaz posted me a book, I read it, and then I wrote about it. Here’s what I wrote (also posted here at Sharon’s place).

Lionheart, by Stewart Binns

Published by Penguin, November 2013

The blurb:

1176, England. King Henry II reigns over a vast empire that stretches the length of Britain and reaches the foothills of the Pyrenees. But he is aging, and his powerful and ambitious sons are restless. Henry’s third son, Richard of Aquitaine, is developing a fearsome reputation for being a ruthless warrior. Arrogant and conceited, he earns the name Richard the Lionheart for his bravery and brutality on the battlefield.

After the death of his brothers Richard’s impatience to take the throne, and gain the immense power that being King over a vast empire would bring him, leads him to form an alliance with France.

And so Richard begins his bloody quest to return the Holy Land to Christian rule.

The review:

I started this book with a great deal of anticipation – I love a good historical novel, and the twelfth century is a time about which I know very little. The book is the fourth in Binns’ Making of England quartet, dealing with the period from 1176 to 1199 and recounting the reign of Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade to the Holy Land, Christendom’s abortive attempt to recapture Jerusalem after its capture by Saladin.

The story is told from the point of view of the fictional Sir Ranulf, a relatively lowly English knight who becomes a military advisor to the King and travels with him across Europe and the Holy Land. The narrative is rich with detail, the story lurches from fights and betrothals to betrayal and captivity, and the historical events and battles were clearly meticulously researched.

So far so good. However, for me a historical novel needs more than an in-depth understanding of the period. It needs good characterisation, believable dialogue and emotion, and I felt all these aspects were lacking. Sir Ranulf was a wooden and one-dimensional mouthpiece for the historical events, with little emotional rise and fall in his narrative.

In order for him to be present at all the major events in Richard’s life the author needed poor Ranulf to make some very foolish decisions – I felt a bit sorry for him, to be honest, since at various points he lost almost everything (friends, lands, titles, two women he loved – oh, and a hand) pursuing Richard across the known world. The King himself, who by all accounts was a charismatic, forceful and brilliant man, came across as flat and rather nice-but-dim, an impression exacerbated by the frankly appalling dialogue. It was rigid and stilted, mixing modern idioms with older formulations in a rather slapdash fashion.

Overall, in its wealth of historical detail this book was informative and interesting; if it had been written and presented simply as an account of the Third Crusade I would have enjoyed it much more. However, as a novel I felt it didn’t really work. It lacked depth and emotion, and I ended up annoyed with it because the novelisation elements felt so clumsy. All in all, the effect was to turn the Third Crusade into something like Five Go Mad in Palestine, with lashings of historical detail but not much soul.

Edited to add:

The book is (or soon will be) available from the usual online outlets – here and here for starters – but if you want to read it, I have a copy you can have. No, really, I insist. You can have it. First person to send me their address via the contact form below gets it…

Review: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

This book is a long way from one that I would choose for myself. I read it for a book club, but I don’t think I’ll be picking up anything else by Kate Morton.

The central character is Laurel, a famous actress who witnessed a terrible event during an otherwise perfect bucolic childhood, and the author uses parallel timelines to reveal the characters involved and the reasons behind what happened. Laurel searches for answers as her mother lies dying, while we (the readers) are given a privileged view into long-past events through the eyes and thoughts of the people who lived them.

As such, the plot structure was frustrating, since there was very little revelation in Laurel’s story because we already knew more than she did. The plot took a long time to get going and only really accelerated in the final section, which was for me the most interesting and the best-written. I didn’t really like any of the characters – this is not necessarily a bad thing, because I have read many books in which I disliked characters, but I need to be interested in them, and I really wasn’t interested in any of the people in the book apart from two – Vivien, Laurel’s mother’s friend from the 1940s, and Gerry, Laurel’s brother who plays a bit-part role. The last section of the novel, which I liked the most, was told from Vivien’s point of view.

The end, when it came, felt rushed because of the need to spring all the final surprises in the last few pages, and while I did get a genuine “oh, riiight!” moment, it felt like a sudden slap in the face and I still felt that there was a lot more that could have been done throughout the rest of the novel to drip-feed hints and follow up details.

So – this is a decent story told in a workmanlike way, but for me it did not sparkle. The characters were mostly rather flat and did little that was unexpected, and any interesting things they did do were largely unexplained or sidelined. No more Kate Morton for me, but thanks anyway.

~100 word review: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

I read this because I enjoyed The Historian, Kostova’s first novel, and I wasn’t disappointed. A psychoanalyst becomes deeply involved in the life story of his patient, who is a world-renowned artist but also (evidently) a world-class fruitloop with an obsession reaching back into the history of Impressionism. The novel allows the analyst’s obsession with his patient to mirror the psychosis of the artist, with complex and occasionally uncomfortable results.

My only criticism would be that a number of endings within the main storylines were thrown away too cheaply in the final few chapters. However, this doesn’t detract from the clever writing and absorbing qualities of this long book. Recommended.

~100-word review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Oddly disappointed with this, influenced (I think) by reading Maya Angelou immediately before. The story of black domestics and their relationships with their white employers in 1960s Mississippi was well told, the characters beautifully differentiated and the events obviously drawn from affectionate and vivid experience, but in the aftermath of the emotions elicited by Angelou this one felt uncomfortably frothy. I wasn’t challenged by it, which was unexpected in a book dealing with emotional relationships in the context of such deep and vicious racial divides.

I can see why it is a bestseller, but I was expecting something deeper and I didn’t find it. A beach read, rather than a piece of social commentary.

~100-word review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I first read this as a teenager – I thought everyone did, but it seems not, because the members of my book club hadn’t, and none of them liked it. At all.
It’s a good thing I missed that meeting, because things might have got ugly. This book has lost none of its power to shock and move, although my emotions this time round were profoundly different as the mother of an 11-year-old daughter. I cried, I laughed and I raged at the injustice and the agonising self-justifications of a deeply wronged black child in 1940s America, and I’ll give the book to my daughters to read. When they’re a bit older.

Review: The Lost by Claire McGowan

This book, due for publication on 11 April, was sent to me as a review copy, and I’m really glad it was. I know Claire as an acquaintance on Twitter, and I have to admit I’m always a little chary of reviewing or reading for people I know, in case the book is terrible and then I have to lie (or “forget” to write the review). Fortunately, no such worries in this case.

The story is set in Ballyterrin, a small town in Northern Ireland close to the border with the South (which is still, despite the end of the Troubles, very much a foreign country). Paula Maguire, a forensic psychologist, is reluctantly called home from London to be seconded to a newly-formed cold case squad to investigate the massive numbers of disappeared across the area, lost during the years of sectarian unrest.

However, this is a town where everyone has a past, and where religion still separates the community along sharp lines. The violence of the Troubles is in the past, but it is still very much present in family histories, as close and intimate as parents killed, lost or profoundly damaged.

The story unfolds gradually as Paula recognises a pattern of disappearances, vulnerable teenage girls who have vanished or killed themselves, all of whom have links with a church organisation with an insidious hold over the town’s youth. Meanwhile she rekindles links with family and old friends, struggling to deal with her own past as she unpicks the lives of the missing girls.

The story is compelling, with fine degrees of shading and a subtly nuanced approach. Paula ran from Ballyterrin in her teens, and as the novel progresses we discover the full story of what she ran from and how it continues to have an impact on the present, for her as well as for others who were involved at the time. She seemed in some ways a driven character, in others surprisingly feckless – she is perceptive and analytic of the motives of others and highly focused on discovering when became of some apparently long-dead girls, but she also lurches through a couple of ill-advised one-night stands and consistently puts herself in dangerous situations through her disregard of the advice of others. Her internal monologue is revealing; the hard-bitten, demon-driven maverick detective is a well-known literary trope, and Paula is an interesting sideways glance at this.

The town of Ballyterrin is a brooding presence throughout the novel, created in grim detail with its history of sudden and startling violence combined with stifling suburban and religious values, and Claire’s use of Northern Irish vernacular in the dialogue (and occasionally in the prose descriptions) grounds the book firmly in its historical and geographical setting. In the final analysis, the shakedown at the end of the book combines all these elements and sets up a number of further lines for the sequel (which I happen to know is nearing completion). I look forward to reading it.

Podcast – the Scrolls Book Club

A while ago, shortly after I started using Twitter in any sort of earnest, I fell in with bad company. These people are rude, funny and always online. They read and watch what pleases them, mainly geeky fantasy stuff, and then they write about what they think of it. They are Dion, Barry and Phil, among others, and they are, in short, my sort of people.

They hang out here, where they and loads of others review, argue, interview, podcast and generally get excited about a lot of stuff I like. So I started chatting to them, and … well, long story short, I ended up suggesting a book for an occasional book group podcast hosted by Dion. Before I could say “Joe Abercrombie” I was hooked up to Skype and talking book-related nonsense with Dion, Barry and Dion’s wife Clover about The Heroes.

There are worse ways to spend a Monday evening, let me tell you. I had an absolute blast, and am hoping to strongarm my way back in to be involved in another podcast some time soon. In the meantime, though, the recording is online here. Enjoy, and I’m sorry about the gushy fangirl wittering…

Book Review: Dead Mech by Jake Bible

Dead Mech arrived on my Kindle in the middle of a flurry of online purchasing, when I was doing my usual trick of massively overestimating the number of books I might be able to read during a week’s camping holiday (estimate – seven or eight; buy ten to be on the safe side. Actual – one and a bit). I didn’t buy it entirely blind, however – I looked up Jake Bible on the internet and was intrigued by the idea behind this, the first novel in the Apex trilogy, which is written as a series of drabbles.

For the uninitiated, a drabble is a piece of micro-fiction of exactly one hundred words in length. Along with the current vogue for flash fiction, drabbles represent a fast, modern, digestible way of showcasing a writer’s talent, and would seem to be custom-designed for the internet. Dead Mech represents the first in a new style of book – the drabble novel. That is, a novel-length story written entirely as a sequence of drabbles. The book first existed as a series of podcasts, but was published in 2009 as a full novel.

The story is a post-apocalyptic gore-fest of zombies, Transformer-style technology and big guns. Humanity has been ravaged by a zombie plague, which brings the dead back to life as a mindless ravening horde intent only on feeding from the living. The uninfected huddle together in heavily fortified outposts scattered across a barren wasteland, desperately defending themselves from the undead – and, it turns out, from each other.

The mechs of the title are huge 50-tonne war machines, piloted by men and women who are closely integrated into their hydraulic and robotic technology. The story centres around a small cadre of wise-cracking mech pilots and their support staff, based in a tiny outpost and defending the nearby city/states. However, the living are not the only ones to pilot mechs – when men and women die while piloting their war machines, they come back, and their mechs come back with them. These dead mechs are insane, driven only by their zombie pilots’ hunger for living flesh.

The style of narrative, driven by the drabble structure, is punchy and sharp, and Jake Bible has done a decent job of editing down and staying within his self-imposed hundred-word limit. However, there were significant sacrifices made in terms of lyricism, exposition and description; the staccato style meant that the flow of the story was often compromised, with changes in point of view from one drabble to the next and few descriptive or characterisation passages which would have added a great deal to the world-building.

Having said that, after an initial acclimatisation period and apart from occasional hiccups, the drabble structure became more or less invisible through the middle section of the book. However, the plot is complicated; by the end there were many different groups all fighting the zombies according to their own agendas and with shifting allegiances and alliances. This was hard to keep up with because of the fractured narrative, and my immersion in the story broke down repeatedly as I had to flick back to find out who was about to get blown up by whom, and why.

The manuscript also would have benefitted from at least one more round of editing. There were a significant number of errors in the text, ranging from at least one inconsistent spelling of a character’s name to an unforgiveable and repeated confusion between your and you’re. I also need to point out that while I’m not averse to swearing in books – in fact, I’m very partial to a bit of creative and inventive cursing – I did feel that the swearing in this book was neither inventive, creative nor necessary. Given that the drabble structure imposed a strict word limit on each micro-segment, the author could have saved himself an awful lot of words simply by using the word fuck less often. Just saying.

In summary, then, if you like your fiction fast-paced and full of shooting, stomping, splattering, swearing and zombies, Dead Mech is the book for you. It’s a ripping yarn of a story carried through with a decent amount of aplomb, but for me the book had significant shortcomings in terms of narrative structure and style. I do applaud the author for his discipline and inventiveness in sticking to the drabble structure, but ultimately I don’t think the drabble novel will catch on as a style of literature. I suspect the author also reached this conclusion, because the second and (forthcoming) third books in the Apex trilogy are standard novels – which I may well read, the next time I feel in the mood to splatter a few zombies.

Book Review: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Ok, I’m going to come right out and say it – I don’t really like Iain Banks. This is based on a reasonable sampling of his work – I have read Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games, as well as The Crow Road and Espedair Street. I have also read The Wasp Factory before – many years ago, I suspect when I was trying to impress a fellow student with my edgy literary tastes.

Looking back at this list, for a writer I claim not to like much, I appear to have read quite a lot of his books – certainly more than for other writers I don’t like, where one book (sometimes less than that) is usually enough. This is a compliment to Banks as a writer – difficult and uncomfortable as I find his books, they’re almost impossible to leave in the middle if you allow them to get their claws into your psyche.

This is certainly the case for The Wasp Factory – which, by the way, I read for Book Club in June 2012. It was recommended by someone – I forget who, but certainly not me – and I was slightly resentful that not only was it by Iain Banks, but I’d already read it, and I didn’t really want to read it again. However, I reasoned, the whole point of Book Club is to read stuff that one wouldn’t otherwise, and to challenge one’s literary tastes, and for me Banks ticks both of those boxes, re-read or no.

The book is told from the point of view of Frank Cauldhame, a sixteen-year-old sociopath who suffered a terrible accident when he was young and who now lives with his father Angus on an island just off the coast of Scotland, somewhere near Inverness. Frank’s (never-named) island is connected to the mainland by a bridge, and Frank and his father often visit the nearest town of Porteneil, a few miles away. The Cauldhames used to be rich and powerful in the local area – the pub in Porteneil is named for their family – but Frank and his father are now all that are left.

They live a strange isolated existence, visited once a week by the taciturn Mrs Clamp who does the house, and in the main they keep to their own activities – Angus locked in his mysterious laboratory, Frank in a highly organised defence of his island territory, involving explosives, ritual, totemic sacrifice poles and divination using the Wasp Factory of the title.

Through Frank’s highly logical and yet deeply disturbed narrative we learn that he has killed three times – all children, all younger than he, and all despatched with no passion or anger, simply a cold and brutal logic. We also learn about his feckless mother, who abandoned him during his early childhood, and his best friend Jamie, a dwarf who commonly sits on Frank’s shoulders in the local pub in order to see the band, resting his pint on Frank’s head and chatting up girls.

We also find out about Frank’s older brother Eric, who experienced something so traumatic while working as a medical intern that he lost his sanity and degenerated into a dog-torturing psychopath. We don’t learn about this until later, though – the horrific details emerge gradually as Frank waits for Eric’s inevitable return home after his escape from a secure institution. Frank is clearly terrified of his brother, but also loves him with a blind distraction. He oscillates between obsessive preparation and renewal of his defences and an almost parental concern for Eric’s welfare – is he eating? Where is he sleeping?

When Eric does turn up on the island the book’s climax is shocking, nightmarish and not for the faint of heart. It also triggers a world-changing revelation for Frank, which leaves the reader re-assessing everything they have read over the last two hundred or so pages and in many ways renders the details of the story even more shocking in retrospect.

I knew the ending, but that in no way detracted from the visceral, hand-over-mouth horror of the final few pages of the book. In Frank, Banks has created a deeply deranged and damaged anti-hero who nevertheless elicits a good deal of sympathy in the final analysis – a fine balance to achieve, but Banks has pulled it off with a clarity and power that leave the reader gasping.

This book is rightly a modern classic. Reading it is a bit like running a marathon – it’s hard, it hurts, it leaves you staggering and it shakes up your world-view. I think that’s one of the reasons I don’t go to Iain Banks very often; he challenges his readers, often repeatedly within the same passages, and that’s never relaxing or comfortable. However, this isn’t a reason for not liking his books – I loved The Passage by Justin Cronin, and that made me as uncomfortable as hell; ditto most of The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. In fact, my discomfort is a compliment to these authors, a testament to the fact that they are so good at creating a steady and shocking stream of horrors and unpleasantnesses while maintaining my engagement with the story.

I haven’t changed my opinion of Iain Banks’ books. I still wouldn’t choose to read any more of them, given a free choice, but I’m no longer quite sure why – I suspect they might be Boy Books, appealing more to a young male mind than to my own (which is neither of those things). Be that as it may, however, Banks is a writer’s writer – his prose is spare, powerful and eye-wateringly expert, with no word wasted. I don’t need to enjoy his stories to admire his writing and to be affected by the characters and narratives he creates.