Archive for the ‘Three Stars’ Category

There’s nothing new or original in this novel. Touches of Doctor Who, Perhaps. Touches of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime. Touches, indeed, of Eleanor Oliphant Is Perfectly Fine.

An outsider struggles to fit into humam society and ultimately fights to understand what it is to be human. Wrap that up with some science fiction and a very much secondary plot and you get The Humans. 

Here, our outsider is an alien. A Vonnadorian. A Vonnadorian sent to Earth to prevent Professor Andrew Martin from disseminating a solution to the Reimann Hypothesis. I’m no mathematician but this seems to be a real world hypothesis broadly connected to the patterns behind the distribution of prime numbers. Apparently, prime numbers are so critical that this one piece of information would secure the next stage in human civilisation. Well. Okay. I’ll buy that as a premise. 

And the civilised, rational and immortal Vonnadorian hosts had decreed that humans were too violent, venal and vapid for that sort of advancement. Too contradictory. Too emotional.

So they murdered Andrew Martin and put our narrator into his life in order to destroy his solution and anyone else he may have informed, including his colleagues, co-workers, his mum, his wife and child.

It comes as no surprise that the mission gets derailed when the narrator develops attachments, discovers his own emotions, allows himself to fall in love with Professor Martin’s wife. Spock balanced by  Kirk; Data by Riker. 

Nothing new but thoroughly enjoyable and amusing in places.

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There are times when comfort, familiarity and ease are, actually, exactly what you need; at other times, by all means, challenge me, make me confront my preconceptions, subvert my genres in different ways. When I’m tired, poorly and stressed, however, enfold me in familiar settings, tropes and – hell, yes – even the comfort of overused clichés.

And, that is broadly speaking what The Boy on the Bridge, Carey’s prequel to The Girl With All The Gifts, offers.

Having read the original, the concept of the world in which the Cordyceps fungus has infected the human race, creating the familiar post-apocalyptic environment of zombie hungries, plucky scientists and gung-ho soldiers. Carey’s tale occurs ten years after the fungus pathogen emerged, turning the majority of the population into “hungries”, motivated purely by a desire to eat fresh raw meat and with enhanced speed, strength and endurance. It takes place in a Britain where London has fallen and humanity has retreated to the coastal defences of Beacon or has become “junkers”, marauding through the ravaged landscape stealing, raping and turning cannibalistic. All of which, however, is very much in the background: just like the original novel, Carey focuses on a small group of people, in this case, a team of scientists, accompanied by a team of soldiers, who are travelling the length of Britain in the Rosaline Franklin, which is essentially the bastard child of a tank and a science lab and a submarine. The purpose of the journey is a little weak – ostensibly to collect samples left in a variety of places and to perform a range of dissections – but is really just to isolate a group of characters in a hostile environment.

And who do we have in the field? Colonel Carlisle, an adherent to the military chain of command who clashed with the authorities in Beacon before the novel; McQueen, the trigger happy rebellious soldier; Samrina Khan, a motherly and reasonable scientist; Steven Greaves, a child savant on the autistic spectrum; Dr Fournier, the cowardly and pusillanimous civilian commander, more than open to being manipulated by the powers back in Beacon. Plus a range of generally dispensible others. Had this been Star Trek, they’d have been in red shirts. Nothing original, nothing challenging and the trope of the genius autistic child is so overdone. Greaves is more credible and engaging that Wesley Crusher, – and has a more plausible conclusion – but only barely. Familiar enough tropes, rubbing against each other in ways which will be familiar to anyone used to film or television or comic books – a genre in which M. R. Carey writes. Conflict, betrayals, reconciliations and accommodations are made.

As readers of The Girl with All the Gifts will no doubt suspect, the Rosalind Franklin’s crew encounter a group of children, second generation hungries where an accommodation has evolved between the human and hungry: enhanced, hungry but also capable of thought and communication and social life. Conflict with the children becomes something else by the end of the novel and Carey successfully shifts our sympathies from humanity – who generally come across as venal, selfish and flawed – to the children… but that itself comes as no surprise to readers familiar with the first novel.

The strongest part of the novel, in my opinion, occurs in the Epilogue, twenty years after the main narrative and perhaps a decade after the events of The Girl with All the Gifts when Carlisle – now in a mountain fortress – confronts a cadre of children who have scaled the mountain in search of the last remnants of humanity. Led by a familiar character. I have to say, I was surprised by how effective that conclusion was.

Well played, Mike Carey. Well played.

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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.

 

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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.

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This will be a fairly brief review for two reasons: firstly, I thought I’d already reviewed it and only realised when I tried to link my review of The Vows of Silence to it that I’d not; and secondly, it is very much a continuation of the second novel, The Pure In Heart.

Serrailler is summonsed to Yorkshire to help investigate a lead in the kidnapping and (presumed) murder of David Angus, leading him to effect the arrest of the kidnapper, Edwina Sleightholme, in a surprisingly and refreshingly thrillerish moment fleeing down a Yorkshire cliff face – a moment that was a tad reminiscent of The Woman in Black or of something Hitchcockian.

Hill is a writer who has gone on the record to say that she is less interested in the whodunit than the why-dunnit, so I was anticipating something thoughtful and interesting in the presentation of Sleightholme. And was slightly disappointed. There was no real exploration of the mind of a killer. She is portrayed pretty much as simply evil – a word I have trouble with – who just did because she wanted to. After the genuine emotional horror of The Pure in Heart in which the repercussions of the abduction are seen on the family, the explanation and the presentation of the killer were bland. And maybe that was entirely the point. That the monstrous wears the same banal face as the rest of us.

Other tragedies and crimes took place too and interweaved with new characters: Max Jameson lost his wife Lizzie to Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease – an unusual and odd disease to choose perhaps – and his grief led to increasingly bizarre confrontations including holding the new pastor Jane Fitzroy hostage in her own home. Serrailler eventually talked him round to releasing Fitzroy who quickly became a friend of his sister, Cat Deerbon, and lined up as a love interest for Serrailler. It was a nice breath of fresh air in the Deerbon household where some very tedious arguments about GP working conditions were held ad nauseam.

As often happens with the series, it is slow and gentle and meditative – with the exception of the scene on the Yorkshire cliffs – and I vacillated between enjoying that meditativeness and finding it slightly tedious. I didn’t find the Max Jameson plot line convincing as an exploration in either crime or grief, nor the presentation of Sleightholme. What I did like was the reaction of Sleightholme’s mother to her daughter’s arrest: the shock and denial and obsessive rejection of the truth.

It’s a Dresden File.

It’s Harry Dresden; it’s Jim Butcher.

Even after reading only the previous two novels, I already know what to expect.

It’s also a step up from the previous two novels in the series: the prose is still very, well, prosaic; Dresden is still a wise cracking hard boiled detective with magic; but the plotting and world have expanded here and it feels that there’s a more assured hand on the tiller. I have not been convinced that Jim Butcher knew whether to embrace the paranormal or the police procedural style of the first novel, but, with this one, he seems to side with the paranormal, expanding his mythology as well as his character list.

The first book touched on vampires but focussed on a single rogue sorcerer; the second turned the spotlight onto various forms of werewolves. This one has sprouted into a dozen other fantasy creatures. And so we meet (in the opening chapter) Michael Carpenter, a carpenter and crusader, who wields Amoracchius, a fabled mystical sword embedded with one of the nails of the Cross. We also meet Dresden’s Godmother Leanansidhe, a faerie who seeks to control Harry through a combination of seduction, bribery and bargaining.  The plot revolves round Harry’s efforts to confront the being dubbed The Nightmare which attacks people as they sleep and possesses them, binding them with a spectral spiritual barbed wire. Ghosts abound and are vanquished, rival clans and houses of vampires assemble and even a Dragon makes a cameo appearance. And, somehow, the overtly Christian and the Faerie and the mythological and the magical managed to complement  each other rather than conflict with each other.

It is not great writing – sorry Mr Butcher – but it is a fast paced and enjoyable read and is written with a playfulness and joy which is a pleasure to read. It is as if Butcher knew just how insane putting these multifarious ideas and mythologies together was, but did it any way.

In terms of plot, we are plunged directly in medias res as Dresden and Carpenter battle a ghost in a children’s home, learning that the boundaries between the mundane world and the otherworld has thinned, causing the increase in ghostly apparitions. Later, Dresden is summoned to the home of a police officer – with whom he defeated a demon-summoning sorcerer named Kravos earlier – who is under attack by The Nightmare, briefly reuniting with Karrin Murphy (who is again regrettably absent from the novel) and defeating the attack. Further attacks by The Nightmare show that it is assaulting those involved in defeating Kravos prior to the start of the novel, leading to attacks on Karrin and on Carpenter’s wife and on Dresden himself, consuming a large amount of his magical power. As with Fool Moon, we are given hints that Dresden is ridiculously powerful but fettered which is a little (and I’m sure intentionally) frustrating and not unlike Ben Aaronovitch’s treatment of Nightingale in the Rivers of London series.

Throughout the novel, the Red Court of vampires’ ball is built up as a central set piece, and it is here that we finally get to see a real hint at the extent of Dresden’s power, even though Susan Rodriguez, his girlfriend for wont of a better word, is captured, which forces the weakened Dresden into a reckless attempt to rescue her. Without adding spoilers, Susan’s fate is tragic and painful and I hope that she returns later in the series.

Just set aside any expectation for realism, strap in for a fun ride, turn off your brain and enjoy!

You know when you hope you got a book series wrong? Other people are telling you it’s great but you just don’t get it? You end up offering excuses for the writer: maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind; maybe  I was too tired; maybe I read it too quickly.

Sometimes, it is genuinely that other people are wrong.

J. K. Rowling does not write well for an adult audience.

Let’s be fair, this isn’t a car crash of a novel – note the pun; I worked hard on that one else! – it’s serviceable in a pedestrian way. It whiles away a rainy weekend. In the same way that Dan Brown does. And that’s okay.

Let’s turn to the plot. A writer goes missing and Cormoran Strike is hired to locate him; once located, he is discovered dead in a particularly gruesome way that echoes the ending of his unpublished book. The list of those who had access to the book becomes the list of suspects, and it is made up entirely of two-dimensional caricatures. The chain smoking agent, Elisabeth Tassel, who seemed to owe a huge debt to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada; the obnoxious literary rival, Michael Fancourt; the pretentious publisher, Daniel Chard; Jerry Waldegrave, the alcoholic limp editor who permitted practically anyone else to have unfettered access to the safe in which the manuscript was locked; the self-published mistress and her transgender friend, Kathryn and Pippa. 

Each one is equally unlikeable and unlikely as a suspect; each had opportunity; each has motive; no motive is any less credible than any other.

And just like in Cuckoo’s Calling, about two thirds of the way through the novel, Cormoran Strike deduces the killer and spends the rest of his time smugly not telling anyone. And, to be frank, I didn’t care. Not a jot.

Strike was a loner in the first novel and this one widens his social circle a little: in addition to Robin Ellacott, we suddenly have a socialite half-brother, a shark-diving friend and a taxi driver joining Team Cormoran. And that’s all lovely… but all terribly convenient and again those characters are two-dimensional plot devices.

And Strike is – for wont of a better word – a bastard. Yes, I know that it’s not untraditional to try to create sympathy for characters with flaws, that flaws can in fact create sympathy. But Strike is a bastard. Not just is he irritatingl smug, he is a user of women. His relationship with his ex-fiancee is toxic; his treatment of Nina in the novel is atrocious. Which makes the clumsy and blunt attempt to create sexual tension between him and Robin deeply unattractive. In fact, Robin is caught essentially between  two abusive men: her fiance Matthew Cunliffe is just as bad and controlling. 

In fact, that may be the most interesting thing about the novel – albeit one which was done on The Archers recently: the toxicity of abuse within apparently “normal” middle-class relationships.

Susan Hill is, without doubt, a fantastic writer.

The Woman In Black is an exquisitely crafted horror; Strange Meeting is exceptional. so I am persevering with these detective novels hoping for … well something.

But I’ve not found it yet.

I really don’t know what it is that’s missing but something is.

The plots are decent enough: this time, the increasingly dangerous town of Lafferton is host to a serial killer gunman. It is terribly easy to mock, but the body count in Lafferton must be on a par with Midsomer or Cabot Cove! This gunman is on top of the serial killer surgeon from book one, Various Haunts of Men, and the paedophile murderer who passed through in books two and three. In fact, the plot felt very familiar and almost a rehash of the first book.

We also continue with the various traumas of the Serrailler family: having lost his love interest and then his disabled sister and then his mother in previous books, Simon Serrailler’s sister, Kat, faces the prospect of her husband being diagnosed with brain cancer in this one. At this rate, there won’t be many Serraillers left in a couple of books’ time! And is there a part of me that thinks that is lazy writing? Just a touch lazy? Not sure where to go with this plot; I’ll give someone cancer or kill off a loved one.

I do like the wider community and returning cast of minor characters. Hill does create a sense of community reacting to the murders with fear, indifference or shock. We were introduced to Helen Creedy and her attempts to start a new relationship and then balance that with her teenage children; an obvious parallel to Simon Serrailer’s difficulty in accepting his widower father’s new relationship with Judith Connolly. Andy Gunton, the reformed car thief, made a cameo return here, as did Karin McCafferty. Karin, who also had cancer which alternative medicine appeared to have cured previously, returns in order to die. And I didn’t like the way Hill dealt with that death: it seemed unnecessarily cruel to turn Karin into an acerbic, bitter and twisted caricature. I’ve read reviews that disliked her story arc because it was thought to promote an anti-traditional medicine message but her death pushed the seesaw too far the other way for me. However, in terms of the narrative, it did its job: it brought Jane Fitzroy back to Lafferton as a potential love interest.

And I think all these spare characters and community – whilst providing some red herrings for the murders – give the books the feel of this soap opera rather than a crime novel. I mean, it’s a balance of course – and having written a police procedural, I’ve included similar personal elements to humanise the detective – but I  feel that Hill hasn’t trod the line quite carefully enough. To be honest, I’d hoped Serrailler would have moved out of Lafferton so he couldn’t constantly pop to his sister’s! He’d been promoted and given a role in a Special Incident Flying Taskforce – which is a clumsy title in order to give the acronym SIFT – between the end of the previous novel, The Risk Of Darkness, and the start of this one. Couldn’t you have slipped in a SIFT case between these two, Ms Hill?

The other thing that really irked was that everything seemed to be conveyed in dialogue which felt a little stilted – and repeated at regular intervals – or in plodding exposition. With these novels, I don’t feel that Hill is following the show-don’t-tell truism. Now, I’m not a stickler for thinking that there is any such thing as a writing rule, but this did feel very pedestrian.

So, overall, not a bad book at all – not bad enough to put me off the rest of the series, unlike The Silkworm, a review of which is coming – but also nothing in it that sparkles from a writer who I know can sparkle.

cuckoo's calling

Okay.

I’m putting my hands up to this.

I did not like this book.

Yes, I know that Robert Galbraith is J. K. Rowling and the sainted J. K. can do no wrong in the eyes of many… but this did not work for me.

The plot was decent enough: the death of Lula Landry, the eponymous cuckoo, was dismissed by police as a suicide; a private detective, Cormoran Strike, is hired by her brother to prove that her death was, in reality a murder. There were some vivid characters to interview. A crime scene to explore. A dysfunctional family to investigate.

But the writing in the book was not good. It was – dare I say it – a little juvenile? The client, John Bristow, adoptive brother to Lula Landry, was described in the following terms within three pages:

distinctly rabbity in appearance with a short upper lip that failed to conceal large front teeth…this whey-faced leporine man…with his pink eyes, the resemblance to an albino rabbit was heightened.

I don’t need to be told that three times? Does – let’s call the author Galbraith – Galbraith not know that rabbits and hares are different? What was the point in that description being so laboured? Really? And what on earth of the point of the word leporine? It just seems – as a number of other examples I could have used do – as if Galbraith was consciously trying to shoe-horn in as many words as he could that did not sound like a young adult vocabulary. What happened instead was that Galbraith took me out of the novel and made me think about his thesaurus instead.

Equally, the opening pages when Strike nearly knocks Robin, his new temporary secretary, down the stairs and saves her by grabbing hold of her breast – yes, her breast – was very odd. It didn’t seem realistic from a physics point of view; it felt like a cheap titillation; it felt forcedly not-young-adult. And the swearing. In a novel which was primarily juvenile in its language use and forced in its descriptions, the swearing didn’t fit. I’m no prude. I can cope with swearing and with breasts. But in this novel, in this style, they didn’t work for me.

And even worse than that, Galbraith alternates between the points of views of Robin – the temp secretary who becomes permanent at the end of the book – and of Cormoran Strike himself. Now, in and of itself, that’s fine. But it felt very badly handled here. Clumsy. Yes, clumsy is the word that comes to mind a lot as I read the book. Clumsy and clunky.

And borderline offensive. The depiction of Guy Somé, the fashion designer for whom Lula worked, was so stuffed with stereotype and cliché with his

“eyes exopthalmic so that they appeared fishlike, looking out of the sides of his head… He held out a hand with a slight crook of the wrist… looking up into Strike’s face, his voice was camp and faintly Cockney. “Much butcher though.”…”Bring us some tea and bicks, darling.””

I actually came close to stopping reading at this point. But again, consider the clumsiness and self-consciousness of this metaphor: “Strike felt abnormally large and hairy; a woolly mammoth attempting to blend in among capuchin monkeys.”

And, let’s look at Strike: ex-military police, injured in Afghanistan, the product of his mother’s fling with a rockstar and having had a turbulent childhood as a result. Consistently described in terms of his size and clumsiness, gauche, yet sleeping with the super-rich and models. Again, it didn’t work for me.

As I said, the plot was intriguing enough and, without the title of the book, I might not have been able to predict the killer. And that’s probably a good thing in a novel. But the writing and structure – it was bloated and needed a damn good editor – were bad enough that I am not rushing to read the next in the series.

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I tend to have three books on the go simultaneously most of the time: an audiobook for the drive to and from work; a thoughtful, dare I say literary, book for when I’m at home; and a just-entertain-me book for when I don’t actually want to think too much.

We all need a just-entertain-me book to hand.

And Sanderson does that for me and does it well.

And that’s great. I’m under no illusion: the Mistborn books are not great literature. But that’s fine. It’s a detailed and fun magic system in a pretty original and fun universe and, on those times when you need to get your geek on, there’s apparently a whole interlocking Cosmere and multiple forms of Investiture to explore.

Anyway,  in brief, the novel picks up the tale of Waxillium Ladrian – lawman and errant nobleman – and Wayne – master of disguise, thief and sidekick – about six months after the end of the slightly disappointing Shadows of Self.

This time, our heroes are sent beyond the city of Elendel – which had become a slightly confining locale – into the wider world which was a distinctly good move. In fact into a much wider world: entire continents in fact. Which makes sense: the end of the original Mistborn trilogy remodelled the entire planet after all.

We also glimpse a reinterpretation of the Lord Ruler whose powerful magical repositories the book is named after. He becomes – in the mythology of a different race – the saviour of men whose lives are threatened by the remodelling of the planet which was so bountiful to the city of Elendel.

The usual stuff is here: some slightly over blown set piece battles, nefarious uncles and henchmen, turncoats, traitors and spies. There are a few scenes which don’t work terribly well, usually humourous ones, such as the party’s first night in the hotel which seems to simply be an excuse for each character to compete for who is the most extreme. Some parts were quite touching: the romance between Wayne and MeLann the kandra is quite sweet; as is War’s growing fondness for his fiancèe, Steris.

It is just a good romp with plenty of fun and action.

If that’s all you expect, it delivers!

And there may be a hint that Kelsier – the Survivor – may be alive somehow somewhere.