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)

Book review: The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth

I’m learning Danish. There, I’ve said it. I have no excuse, other than an obsession with Nordic Noir literature and television, stemming largely from The Killing but encompassing Steig Larsson, Jo Nesbø, The Bridge, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Henning Mankell, Håkan Nesser and Borgen along the way – along with quite a large proportion of the rest of the UK, my last three or four years have been punctuated by immersions in Scandinavian culture, although to be fair this has mainly been the rather grubby underbelly of said culture (Kurt Wallander, Sarah Lund and Lisbeth Salander don’t exactly hang out with the Women’s Institute).

So in an idle moment just before Christmas I thought, I know, it’d be great to be able to watch a bit more Scandinavian TV – Arne Dahl, say, or The Legacy – and understand at least a little of the language. Probably Swedish would be a good place to start. I signed up to Duolingo years ago in an abortive attempt to revise my rusty school-level French before a continental holiday, so I fired up the app on my iPad. Lo – no Swedish course*, but there was Danish. And before you could say “Hej hej!” I was off, learning how to say “The man eats the sandwich” and “A boy drinks the bird’s water”**.

Inspired by this, I started casting around for other ways to learn about Scandinavian culture – because, you know, I didn’t really have that much of a clue about it, beyond some vague ideas about snow, blond people and Vikings. So I poked about vaguely on NetGalley and found The Almost Nearly Perfect People.

And … I learned a lot. The author, Michael Booth, is an English journalist who has lived in Denmark for a number of years, and who set out to provide a foreigner’s account of the Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland) to set against the almost entirely positive but largely content-free depiction of these nations in the British and American media. He took as a starting point the universally high happiness and quality of life ratings achieved by Scandinavian countries (even bankrupt Iceland), and set out to investigate what makes the Scandinavian countries such apparently great places to live.

He devotes a section of the book to each country, travelling there and interviewing public figures as well as casting an outsider’s eye over customs, traditions and stereotypes. Denmark is characterised by its high taxes and hyggelig, Iceland by its buccaneering banking practices and belief in elves, and Norway by its oil wealth and attachment to its national costume. Finland, Booth’s favourite of the five nations, is nevertheless characterised as alcoholic and obsessively macho, while Sweden is conformist and bound by social etiquette.

The tone throughout is humorous and light, but there is a wealth of information tucked away – some trivial facts, some historical, and some downright bizarre (did you know that in the 1970s the Swedish army bought hairnets for its long-haired soldiers? No, neither did I). Booth is clearly very fond of his new Scandinavian countrymen (he should be; he’s married to a Dane), and he uses journalistic licence to poke gentle fun but also raise some significant issues (failures of justice systems, opposition to immigration, poor ecological footprints). The exemplary Nordic education, social welfare and health systems are set against the crippling taxes needed to pay for them, and Sweden’s vaunted neutrality is contrasted with its collaboration with Nazi Germany and its ever-increasing arms export trade.

Overall this was an enjoyable read, although the schoolboy jokes occasionally grated. As an English person I find Bill Bryson’s ‘amusing’ accounts of funny little England rather embarrassing to read, and I suspect Booth’s book might have a similar effect on Scandinavians of all stripes – but there’s nothing wrong with occasionally holding a mirror up to national foibles, and overall the book left me with no less of a desire to watch the second season of Wallander or learn how to conjugate the definite article in Danish, and with rather more of an idea of some of the realities underlying our rose-tinted view of our Nordic neighbours.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth was published by Jonathan Cape in the UK in 2014, and will be published in the US by MacMillan-Picador on 27 January 2015 (UK Amazon link here, other booksellers are available). My review copy came from NetGalley.

*Before anyone starts, I know that Duolingo does actually have a Swedish course, but it wasn’t available on my iPad app at that time, so there.

**Manden spiser sandwichen. En dreng drikker fuglens vand. In case you were wondering.

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: 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.

Book Club – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

One Monday night in the month is Book Club night, when I meet up with a group of chums from work to eat nachos or deep-fried Brie, drink beer or hot chocolate (whichever suits), complain about other work folk who aren’t there and maybe, a bit, sometimes, talk about a book we’ve all read. We meet here and annoy the other patrons with gales of cackling laughter and shouts for more hot chocolate, interspersed with occasional insightful and pertinent comments about the book in question.

This Monday we met a little earlier than usual and all ate together by way of a nod to the festive season, which was lovely, and then the serious ones who’d actually read the book got their copies out of their bags and we got down to business. This month’s book was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho – I can’t remember who suggested it but it may have been me, on the basis of a half-remembered perusal as a student in my early twenties. I remembered the powerful allegory and the spare prose, and I remembered being haunted by the book for some time after I read it.

All things considered I did enjoy the re-read, but I think the intervening twenty years have taught me enough about myself that the simple story, with its emphasis on destiny and striving towards one’s goals, seems less of a fable and more of a fairy story. The message was still powerful and clear, and I found moments of great clarity in the text – dumpout points when I had to close the book and leave it for a while in order to let the precise wording of a sentence or phrase resonate in my head. However, I did not find the haunting beauty in the storytelling that I remembered, and I was left with a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time in my life, when everything was bright and shiny and destiny seemed like something that I could simply reach out and grasp.

Now, in my early forties, I have a more complicated view of destiny and spirituality, and Coelho’s prose in The Alchemist felt too naive, too simplistic to reflect that. Being aware of omens is all very well, but the book had no shading, no rise and fall, and little in the way of nuanced character development – instead the reader is led by the nose past a sequence of Messages, and especially as a non-Christian, by the end of the book I did feel rather like I’d been beaten over the head with a Bible wrapped in a fluffy black-and-white blanket.

The rest of the group had a mixed response – some loved it, some were ambivalent, and a couple hated it so much they threatened to burn it. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say, I think, that this is a book that hasn’t aged with me.

Next meeting is on January 14th; we are being daring and reading two books this month, because we all have a fortnight off over Christmas so lots of time for reading. (Yeah, right.) The books are The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson (don’t ask) and A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett – we wanted light and non-depressing, and I think we’ve chosen wisely.

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: Zombie by JR Angelella

When I started reading it, I was not sure where to place this book. The title suggests horror and zombies (that word alone is currently a sure-fire way of selling books or movies, if ever there was one), but the narrative is much more closely aligned with a classic coming-of-age story, interspersed with movie-geek observations about zombies.

Now, movies are not really my thing – I fall asleep in them, despite my best efforts, and I also fall asleep in discussions about them. In view of this, I did wonder whether I would be able to get into Zombie at all, given that the world view of the main protagonist is largely laid out according to the zombie movie genre. However, as the story went on it did engage me and keep me awake, and it also made me laugh (and cringe) more than once.

The main character, Jeremy Barker, is a fourteen-year-old boy who lives his life according to the Zombie Survival Code, a set of rules for surviving zombie infestations which he has distilled from genre movies and adapted to fit his life. Boiled down, the code advises one to avoid eye contact, keep quiet, forget the past, lock and load and fight to survive – a social survival kit which serves Jeremy reasonably well in his unusual domestic situation.

His family is profoundly dysfunctional. His mother Corinne is absent, a drug-user who has taken off with her boyfriend Zeke and left her two sons Jackson and Jeremy with their tie-obsessed, Vietnam vet, realtor father Ballentine, a man who has a Purple Heart and a talent for disappearing. Jackson has also left home in favour of in a flat where he lives in squalor and staggers from one sexual fling to the next, leaving Jeremy alone with his father.

Jeremy is a misfit in his first year at Byron Hall Catholic school for boys, and the author’s depiction of the casual and daily cruelties of school life is highly effective. Jeremy is reflective about his experiences, and perceptive about his own motives and those of others, but he is annoyingly unable to act on his perceptions and make himself less of a target. He befriends oddballs and echoes his father in his rather prissy lectures about the relative merits of different tie knots, but his skilfully written internal monologue elicits both tension and sympathy.

The book is slow to pick up – for the first third of the story very little seems to happen. We learn about Jeremy’s life and family, and we wonder how far and where his preparation for the zombie apocalypse will take him. The sinister mutilated figure of Mr Rembrandt, a teacher at Byron Hall, stalks through Jeremy’s and his father’s lives, creating a real sense of unease that is exacerbated by the disturbing video footage which Jeremy finds in his Dad’s ‘Box of War’.

However, we also learn that Jeremy is hyperexciteable and his parents have him on Ritalin, but he stops taking it which sends him into a spiral of accelerated perceptions and emotions. The narrative drive of the book increases in intensity significantly towards the end, with Jeremy’s hyperactivity reflected in his actions and in his first-person internal monologue.

The author warned me to buckle up for the last thirty pages or so, and I know what he meant; without his controlling drugs Jeremy’s life accelerates rapidly, and at the story’s climax there is genuine horror and fear, culminating in a stomach-churning scene of violence that leaves both Jeremy and his father broken in their different ways.

One criticism of the book is that it has no real sense of conclusion – the bad things happen but the bad people aren’t caught, and after some fallout Jeremy’s life apparently moves forward smoothly, albeit with a new and rather more sinister reputation at Byron Hall. The neat-and-tidy-storyteller in me wanted more resolution – what was going on in that house at the end of the book? Why? The philosophical treatise delivered by the villain as justification for his acts of appalling violence is compelling, but there is little sense that Jeremy challenges it – or even understands it, in a meaningful sense.

In the final analysis, however, the book left me with the overriding notion that weird stuff goes on in people’s lives all the time, but it is rarely correctly interpreted or dealt with by society. We all have unexplained, unexplainable events in our lives, and our privileged view into Jeremy Barker’s head gives us his (biased, hyperactive, teenaged, obsessive) story. The view of others, and of society, regarding the same events will necessarily be different – and maybe all the more horrifying because of that. The book was a compelling read, although it may not appear to be so during the first sections; stick with it, because the end delivers intensity and uncertainty in roughly equal measure.

Zombie is published by Soho Press, and is available in paperback and electronic versions through all the usual outlets.