Archive for the ‘Library’ Category

Okay. Please put Lafferton and Bevham in the list of places I don’t want to visit because of their high body count. Midsomer, Stockholm, Lafferton. 

Poor Lafferton. I think this, the fifth book in Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailer series, has the third serial killer in the Cathedral city since the first book. I don’t think Serrailer needs his high profile SIFT work: Lafferton is awash with killers! I know it’s an easy complaint to make of detective fiction series, but there are other crimes than serial killing!

This time round, we witness an underbelly of Lafferton which we haven’t seen before: prostitution. Sympathetically portrayed local prostitutes Abi Righton and Hayley and Marie with their own dreams and problems. For a series which has felt – to me at least – uncomfortably middle class and complacent, this more inclusive tone was a pleasant change. These girls felt real and authentic, balancing the need to put money on the table with family commitments and health problems and the temptation to escape it in cider or cannabis.

Besides them, Hill juxtaposes the new Cathedral Dean, Stephen Webber and his wife Ruth and the canon residentiary Miles Hurley who had arrived with the Webbers. The politics of their changes to Cathedral hymns and services and committees were cloistered and less engaging … but turned out to be vital.

Beyond these changes, not much has altered in Lafferton since the end of the previous book: Simon Serrailler remains canonised at work but retains an inability to form any meaningful with women – and finally someone does the right thing and thumps him for descending on Taransay and hooking up with someone else’s fiancee. I don’t know why no one’s done it before! – and his relationship with his new  step-mother Judith improves . Almost to the point when I was anticipating them  having an affair! Cat continues to be the saintly caring voice in the novels. 

And prostitutes start disappearing and being found dead.

And then other women start to be preyed on.

It is a series which struggles with gender, thinking back. Brides. Sisters. Mothers. Prostitutes. Victims of Serrailler’s womanising. Women get hit hard by Hill. Even those who survive are haunted.

This novel – with a fresh DS – was perhaps the most successful in the series so far. It is still more of a soap opera than police procedural: it is through no dint of police work that the killer is caught – but Hill does like to play with genre conventions. Pure luck rather than Serrailler’s genius solved the case.

They are very comfortable and familiar now. The reading equivalent of a warm woollen jumper and cup of tea. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

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We all know that old bloke on the corner who glowers at us, the one with a face like a bulldog sucking lemons, the one who barks at us for dropping litter or parking in the wrong place. The one who we suspect goes around the house grumbling about the radiators being on.

Hell, I fear I am becoming that man. Becoming Ove.

We first meet Ove as an irascible and archetypally grumpy old man seeking simply to drill a hook into his ceiling when he in interrupted by new neighbours reversing a trailer into his fence and post box. The neighbours, Parvaneh and Patrick and their daughters slowly inveigle their way into Ove’s life bit-by-bit as the novel progresses – interrupted by a series of flashbacks to Ove’s childhood and young adulthood, and his courtship with his wife, Sonja. And there is real tragedy within the story: dead fathers, burned homes, babies lost, cancer.

The trials and tribulations of the neighbourhood in which Ove was a stalwart member and founder of the Residents’ Association, however, was heartwarming and touching. The threat to remove Rune, a neighbour and one-time friend, long-time rival of Ove’s, to a nursing home because of Alzheimer’s, which finally motivates Ove to stand up to the anonymous men in white shirts. Jimmy, the overweight neighbour whose mum Ove and Sonja had helped to stand up to an abusive boyfriend and who styed behind in his mum’s house. Mirsad, struggling to come out as gay to his paprents. And, of course, Parvaneh who manages to be supportive without being a doormat.

I believe the novel started life as a blog and it does have that episodic feel to it, especially in the first half as it bounces between past and present but there is a coherent narrative running through the novel: six months before we meet Ove, his wife had died and he has started methodically and doggedly planning to commit suicide in order to meet her again in Heaven. And this is where the novel jarred a little for me: attempted suicide, interrupted by the mundane demands of life, are not really the stuff of humour and it felt like Backman was playing it for humour. His attempt to hang himself fails because the rope breaks, for example; his attempt to gas himself in the car fails because Patrick fell from a ladder. These section felt off to me. Uncomfortable.

And too easily solved: bleed a radiator here, adopt a cat there, all your suicidal ideations will be fixed. Offer a neighbour a box of saffron rice to save their lives. Pretend your kids are allergic to cats – cats who bizarrely trot happily around the neighbourhood and pop into cars and restaurants with their new owners, despite an apparent feral and stray life previously – and all will be well. Foist a gay teenager onto them and they will thrive!

The writing style does take a while to get used to – and listening to it as an audiobook may not have helped – as it is very much from Ove’s point-of-view and replete with his dismissive and judgmental observations. But it is convincing and well put together and the conclusion – whilst inevitable – did bring a tear to the eye and a lump to my throat on a drive to work. So Backman was obviously doing something right!

The book that seems to be most often linked to this one on Amazon, Audible and Goodreads is Eleanor Oliphant is Perfectly Fine by Gail Honeyman: two unconventional protagonists, both misunderstood, both dealing with a tragic and secret backstory. This is a shame because, whilst A Man Called Ove is an effective and moving and, yes, heartwarming read despite my discomfort in places, Eleanor Oliphant is, in my opinion, by far the superior book: more honest, more painful, more authentic and convincing.

But this is a strange book, a difficult book. And probably a book that will stay with me for some time.

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Oh dear. Oh, poor Dan Brown. Poor, incredibly rich and famous Dan Brown.

It seems that you have become a parody of yourself. But, as an aspiring writer, I thank you. I can look at my writing and yours and think…. “If Dan Brown can get that published, I must have a decent chance!”

Let’s be frank and open upfront: I read and enjoyed this as a half-term read. In the same way that I might enjoy a MacDonalds. Neither are good for me but they give a childish comfort. And I have read all of Dan Brown’s previous work: his earlier novels were fresher and more lively than this one perhaps. I wonder whether Brown’s success has gone to his head, or whether he is struggling to live up to the pressure created by The Da Vinci Code. Either way, his more recent books have become downright silly in places.

The Brown formula is in full force once again: exotic and foreign location, check; a murder of a friend, check; a beautiful woman accompanying Robert Langdon through various locations, check; a suspiciously helpful ally, check; twist at the end which anyone with half a brain cell would have anticipated 25 pages in, check; references to art, check; self-aggrandisement of Langdon, check; a series of fatuous ‘clues’, check.

The basic scenario is that Langdon’s erstwhile pupil and friend, Edmund Kirsch, has uncovered a scientific breakthrough which will undermine all religions and just as he is about to reveal it in the Guggenheim Museum, he is assassinated. Langdon helps the authorities by fleeing with Ambra Vidal, the museum’s director and fiancée to the Prince of Spain. Dodgy churches, suspicious machinations, looming royal security.

And – oh god! – the dialogue. It is just awfully written! Allow me to drop in a small sample here:langdon

Let it go.

Oh God.

At least there is one moment of genius here: Dan Brown must have been told that dialogue is not his main strength, that his characters sound robotic and unconvincing, so in this novel one of the main ‘characters’ is Winston, an Artificial Intelligence who guides and assists Langdon and who is robotic and… well… unconvincing. Have you seen 2001, A Space Odyssey, or The Terminator or I, Robot? Trust me, so has Dan Brown. Not convinced he’s read Asimov et al, but he has seen those films.

And what is it with his obsession with numbers? Never has my understanding or appreciation of a book been assisted by knowing exactly which model of gun, car or plane I’m looking at, nor it’s engine horsepower statistics, nor the precise measurements of a room. Seriously, “vast”, “cavernous”, “cosy” or “cramped” would do! There are almost more numbers in this books than words. Writers are told repeatedly, “Show don’t tell.” Brown never shows and tells oh so badly! Delay information to create suspense, that’s another piece of advice I give students… and Brown does that, but does it so clumsily it’s almost painful to read!

And the biggest problem with the novel? The eventual “reveal” of the discovery which will destroy all religion and which we, as readers, are meant to believe would prompt religious leaders to arrange the assassination is just so weak!

The plus points: mindlessly entertaining if you overlook the writing; better than Inferno, the fallout of which is not even mentioned even though Langdon’s other previous adventures are referenced.

And the true tragedy? Tom Hanks may be contractually bound to present this on screen.

Mental health is a difficult topic to write about. A dangerous topic. It would be very easy for it to trivialise – or even worse, to glamourise – mental illness or trauma. 

And there were times here where is was a little concerned that the novel may be going down that route – the love of a good man, a makeover and a haircut will cure mental illness – but it managed to avoid it, skewing off at the last moment. It is also a book full of humour and comedy which it balances with the trauma beautifully. So that, overall, this was a delightfully tender and uplifting novel. For example, when describing an incident from her limited social life, she recalls a party which 

had merely been a pretext, a ruse of sorts to provide her with the opportunity to attempt to sell us sex toys. It was a most unefifying spectacle: seventeen drunken women comparing the efficacy of a range of alarmingly large vibrators….

I’m familiar with the concept of bacchanalia and Dionysan revels, of course, but… sexual union between lovers should be a sacred, private thing. It should not be a topic for discussion with strangers over a display of edible underwear.

And, on her own sense of loneliness, Eleanor remarks that

Apart from Social Work and the utility companies, sometimes a representative from one church or another will call around to ask if I’ve welcomes Jesus into my life. They don’t tend to enjoy debating the concept of proselytizing, I’ve found, which is disappointing.

Eleanor Oliphant, our eponymous narrator, has been at the same job and followed the same routine, living in the same house, for nearly a decade. We quickly recognise touches of OCD and perhaps ASD in her behaviour, her routines, her wide vocabulary deployed without regard for context. Touches, perhaps of The Rosie Project. Before many pages, however, we realise that Eleanor is scarred both physically and emotionally and her background containing more trauma than any character deserves.

We pick her story up as two incidents affect her life: she develops a crush on a singer in a local band; secondly, a colleague, Raymond, drags her across the road to tend to a pensioner who has fallen over.  Sammy’s accident and Raymond’s quiet and patient insistence – or insistent patience? – disrupt the regime and introduce Eleanor to an increasingly widening circle of acquaintances.

As well as providing her with a range of opportunities to describe her backstory to other characters and, therefore, to us the reader.

The involvement in Sammy’s family was the least convincing part of the story for me: I’ve called ambulances for people in the past And never gone on to visit them or attend their or their family’s parties. Perhaps that says more about me and social adequacy than anything else! But it provides the narrative momentum.

Eleanor herself is immensely engaging without ever being terribly likeable, the reader empathises with her without really liking her for the main part. She is a difficult woman, a difficult character, but a deeply damaged one for whom the reader roots throughout. 

And the issue of mental health wasn’t trivialised and no quick fixes were offered: the revelations when they came generally formed part of a journey towards recovery and no simple answer was offered. Not even the truth. Perhaps especially not the truth.

This was not my usual reading fare but i did thoroughly enjoy it and – more – was moved deeply by it. 

A great read.

If you enjoyed the following, you may enjoy this:

 

Railhead-Philip-Reeve

This is a delightfully fun and engaging tale with all the confidence you’d expect of Phillip Reeve, returning to the steampunk genre, if in a very different world, of Mortal Engines.

Here, rather than walking cities, we have sentient trains and K-gates – wormholes or portals, taking trains and their passengers instantly to different worlds and different planets – androids who may or may not be sentient, AIs who may or may not be divine, street urchins and renegade consciousnesses and hive monks. It is a richly imagined and realised world, only a brief fragment of which we see but with enough detail and verve to make the rest imaginable. A word which exists but which ever impedes the cracking pace Reeve creates.

The story follows Zen Starling, the aforementioned street urchin, fulfilling every child’s fantasy role: a meagre existence, relying on his hard working sister and occasional thefts, is transformed when he meets Nova and her employer Raven who reveal that he is actually a lost scion of the ruling Noon family and employ him to infiltrate their train to steal a valuable item. As is not-unexpected, an item whose value is more than financial: a powerful and dangerous artefact within the world created by Reeve.

On the surface, this is a fairly traditional heist tale: various exploits by Zen and Nova lead to them infiltrating the train and they steal the artefact; when abandoned by Raven and learning more about it, they cobble together a revenge heist to steal it back.

There is however, a real humanity in this book and sympathy, albeit generally directed at the non-human characters: the beautiful and  tender trains bearing tags and art with pride and the motoriks, robots and droids with ore soul than R2-D2 or C3PO. And Phillip Reeve is not scared to give the reader shocks: the fate of the sentient trains destroyed (killed?) in the heist and the fate of Nova and, even more so, the tagger Flex were genuinely shocking and moving in a young adult book. 

Reeves gives a nod to a number of classic and popular examples of the science fiction genre from  Blade Runner to Dune to Stargate with touches of Arthur C. Clarke. 

I hear rumours that this is the first of a trilogy and I hope that’s true because it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and thrilling ride 

The-Plague-Charmer

As the image above shows, this book is another historical fiction novel by the author of Company of Liars, which I read and enjoyed a while ago. It wasn’t a great book but it was an enjoyable enough read, earning a decent four star review here. I was expecting something similarly entertaining and comfortable reading. Nothing too challenging.

And that is what this book offers.

Unlike Liars, which roams across England, The Plague Charmer takes place in a single village of Porlock Weir in Exmoor and the overseeing castle of Porlock Manor in 1361. A village and manor under threat from the onset of the plague and the change in focus to that isolated, tethered, claustrophobic atmosphere was an effective change. The horror of Sara and her family, locked up in their cottage to see whether any had contracted the plague – a genuinely horrific and, I am sure, historically accurate account – was a microcosm of the whole country.

Unfortunately, unlike Liars, it eschews the single narrative voice in favour of leaping – sometimes wildly and unpredictably – between a range of different narrators, sometimes only touching on one narrator for a couple of pages before launching into a  different point of view. We see multiple narrators: Sara, the wife whose family are ravaged by the plague and who watches her husband die and her sons flee; Luke, her son; Will, the dwarf cast out from the Manor and an outcast from the village – a character who owes a debt to George R. R. Martin’s Tyrion Lannister; Matilda, the devout, pious hypocrite; Lady Pavia, a dowager widow fleeing the plague in the Manor; Lady Christina, a disgraced young bride with a son born – somewhat inconveniently – less than nine months after her marriage. The novel, similarly, bounces between different ideas: the historical horrors of the plague; the supernatural threat of Janiveer, the mysterious woman who was rescued from the sea on the day of the eclipse in the opening chapters; the threat of religious extremism and cult.

Altogether, I was underwhelmed by the novel. None of the characters were particularly likeable and the writing was neither crafted nor subtle. Maitland never gives the reader time to settle into the voice of one character before changing again and again; and whole tracts of the novel – Luke and Hob’s story for example – were simply rather tedious and dull and not compensated for by the more tightly written final section.

Maitland does seem very historically convincing in the small details – the idea behind the character Will, the artificial dwarf, is an abhorrent concept, the comprachicos of Victor Hugo’ The Man Who Laughs – but was far less successful in this book than in the earlier Liars.

 

It being March, the CILIP Carnegie Medal Shortlist has been announced and I’m embarking on the ritual of trying to read them.

This year, the list is:

For various reasons – Ofsted, toddler, family visits – I’ve not been able to add reviews recently and am about to try to catch-up. Once again.

As an aide memoir to myself, to you – and a short cut to adding photos later, the books I’m yet to review are:

Autumn by Ali Smith: gorgeous, transformational, not (as advertised) a post-Brexit novel.

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The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden: a dark and wintry Russian fairytale mythic novel.

bear nightingale 2

bear nightingale

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett, a re-read of my favourite and first Pratchett.

carpe-jugulum

The Boy In the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen, a young adult apocalyptic novel.

boy tower

We Are All Made Of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen: a young adult family saga.

molecules

The Plague Charmer, by Karen Maitland, an historical fantasy novel.

The-Plague-Charmer

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 It’s a funny thing about series. What is original and unique can become familiar and even – dare I say it? – stale as a series goes on. They become perhaps over-thought or overworked like a piece of dough that’s had the life kneaded out of it.

I wonder whether that’s what has happened with this book.

I have thoroughly enjoyed Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series up to this point. The genii loci of the rivers of London created a mythic and original take on London; the Faceless Man was a formidably distant and shadowy nemesis; Nightingale was enigmatic; Grant himself was engaging and a pleasant narrative voice. Foxglove Summer, which bravely took Grant out of London, worked brilliantly by keeping a freshness which the return to London in The Hanging Tree seemed to lose.  

I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s a good book in that slightly niche fantasy detective genre. It was just a little familiar and tired.

In this book, Grant is called in to what appears to be a drug overdose which implicates one of Lady Tyburn’s daughters – Olivia Jane McAlliste-Thames – as the supplier of those drugs. A convoluted series of plot twists involving a lost Principia by Newton dealing with alchemy brings in the newly reconstructed Lesley May and the Faceless Man who is eventually in this book unmasked but who, as usual, escapes in the end.

As usual, there are a couple of nice set pieces; Nightingale again exudes the potential for massive power but is never seen doing it; there’s the usual credible police procedures. And it was all decent enough. But familiar. A little bit by-the-numbers.

The other thing that really irked me was that Peter Grant frequently did things with other people and always uses the “Beverley and me …” subject construction. Always. I think without exception. Maybe I’m getting old and I know it’s to create a voice but it irked.

I will still follow the series through to the end: I am that invested in the characters. But I hope there’s some more joy and life in the next one.

his-bloody-project

Authenticity is often what we look for in a book. Is the setting authentic? Are my characters authentic? Is my voice authentic? Is my lexis authentic? It doesn’t take much sometimes to pull a reader from a novel and inauthenticity can do it. I’ve still got concerns about the use of the f-word in Hilary Mantel’s glorious Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Some writers embrace otherness and the inauthentic to create something lyrical and beautiful. Others like Jim Crace’s Harvest and Gift Of Stones are credible and authentic but we never lose track of the fact that these are novels.

Gramme Macrae Burnet goes the other way: His Bloody Project drips with authenticity to the point where it blurs the boundaries of fiction and history. Purporting to be a collection of found historical documents, found when 

“In the spring of 2014 I embarked on a project to find out a little about my grandfather, Donald ‘Trump’ Macrae, who was born in 1890 in Applecross…”

In addition to this preface, Burnet embeds his novel in reality: the villages of Applecross and Culduie are real; the criminologist James Bruce Thomson is real; the grim and ungenerous land is real; the daily trials and hard work required to eke a living from that land is utterly credible and authentic. The temptation is to accept the historical authenticity as fact, to turn to Google or Wikipedia to discover which characters are actually real!

On 12th April 1869, Roderick Macrae – inhabitant of Culduie in the far reaches of Scotland – killed Lachlan Mackenzie – known as Lachlan Broad. Murdered him and his sister and his infant son. Bludgeoned them with a croman and flaughter. Don’t worry, a glossary is provided in the novel.

No spoilers here: we learn that in the opening pages of this Man Booker shortlisted novel. Unlike most crime fiction (and that – along with other things – is what this is), there is never any doubt as to who committed the crime: Macrae is discovered covered in blood and admitting the deed. It is not so much a whodunit as a whydunit. And perhaps an exploration of how impossible a task it is to know the contents of another man’s heart or mind. Because Macrae’s only defence is his own insanity.

And I’m not sure we ever receive any answer: the witness statements and testimony and expert opinion and especially Macrae’s own purportedly personal account all testify to the impossibility of knowing. They confuse and contradict and complement each other throughout.

There is so much to admire here: the wealth of narrative voices, all of which are again authentic; it’s a compelling exploration of the deprivation of the crofters’ life; it’s an examination of the misery that an abuse of power can create. It is comical in the second half’s account of the trial, and absurd – especially when Macrae’s father visits the factor to discover and inspect the regulations under which his tenancy is governed, having been challenged for breaking them, and is told that

“a person wishing to consult the regulations could only wish to do so in order to test the limits of the misdemeanours he might commit.”

It is a fascinating, although ultimately bleak and harrowing glimpse into history and a thoughtful game between Burnet and the reader exploring that boundary between history and story. And also a cracklingly good read behind the literary mind games.