Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Tree Magic Harriet Springbett

This is a captivating, absorbing, little novel aimed primarily at the YA readership but I think there's plenty an OA who will enjoy this magical tale of trees and parallel lives.

For those with spiritual inclinations there is plenty to sustain an interest and maybe even kindle a spark not yet ignited in those who have yet to consider the world on a deeper level.

It's very much the debut novel and possibly overlong in parts due to, what I like to call, 'debut novel exuberance syndrome' but the narrative has a pleasing flow to it with some eloquent descriptions. Characters are mostly functional with the exception of Rainbow whose unpeeling layers will resonate with mothers and adolescents alike. 

To reveal anything of the plot would be to do a disservice to the writer and to Rainbow herself but suffice to say it is intriguing and well constructed. There are elements you may discern, if you have the same smart arse aspirations that I do (!), but overall that doesn’t detract from the plot as a whole.

As the book gathers momentum the latter stages are definitely within the YA spectrum and the broader aspects of the novel fall away a little in terms of sustained interest for a wider audience and whilst that may smack of criticism it isn’t really. This IS a book aimed at a younger audience and it should appeal. 

It is a credibly debut and I have come away from it thinking about trees a little differently.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

The Hiding Places - Katherine Webb

Katherine Webb? You little rascal! I never saw that coming! You had me totally hoodwinked. But once I knew ? It was almost obvious. But so, so clever. The Hiding Places? The book itself is almost a hiding place for the fiction that unfolds. From that reaction you might deduce that this is the first book of Katherine Webb’s I have read so far and you’re be correct.  My cursory research reveals that these kind of endings are a feature of Ms. Webb’s work. And this book and that research will surely lead me to seek out the rest of her books.

What a glorious denouement! And for me it totally elevated this intriguing novel. A prologue that appeared to set the scene concerning a murder. Being seduced into an historical tale of a sleepy little Cotswold village with almost stereotypical descriptions of rural village life. Full of characters you’d expect to find. And the ubiquitous outsider that enters the village with hints of a dubious set of circumstances. And the scene is set. But no more mention of murder. So much so that you begin to think you dreamed the prologue. Village life endures and although you know from the book blurb that there must be a murder you still get a shock when it happens. 

And if that hasn’t whetted your appetite, what will? A well written book with a prose style that flows convincingly, economically, easily. A set of characters in harmony with their surroundings if not themselves. And a plot that conjures and weaves its spell drawing you into the tangle of events that seem to have no hope of a solution and then the wonderful twist at the end.

The sort of book that reading was invented for! No hiding places for this book!! Read it!!

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Muse - Jessie Burton

That Difficult Second Book

Quite frankly the only difficult thing about this book is putting it down!! T’is a joyous thing to behold a writer growing into their own skin and finding their voice. If anyone believed that The Miniaturist was a flash in the pan or a one hit wonder, think again. For The Muse is another exhilarating read. 

Similar themes occur, some of them paradoxical, the secrecy of art and creativity, the destruction and the preservation of art and creativity, plenty of food for thought. But whereas The Miniaturist remains in one historical period The Muse swing boats us between two different periods and two different locations. And the wonderful Marjorie Quick is the link between those two periods and locations. For me Marjorie Quick is one of those characters who projects such a presence on the page. as a reader you kind of know she is an unusual person and pivotal to the narrative. And we are never told the whole truth abut her but there are enough clues to understand her motivation and her sadness.

There’s plenty going on in the narrative to keep the reader entertained and curious. There are pictures painted (no pun intended) of a time gone by, of different etiquettes and protocols.  Atmospheric to the extent that you have to check that you yourself are not soaked from the rain. 

It’s a privilege to read a book such as this for it is everything a fiction should be. If there is a down side I think it is that The Miniaturist was so unique the expectation for The Muse might disappoint some readers. But I believe the quality of the writing, the development of the plot and sympathies of the characterisations assure Jessie Burton’s credibility as a modern novelist of some standing.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

The Cruelty - Scott Bergstrom

May I begin by saying how much I enjoyed reading this. It was fast paced, tight, exciting, not a page turner exactly, but the momentum was absorbing and the whole experience bordered on exhilarating. 

And I start on that positive note because that’s the easy bit!! This novel is categorised as belonging to the YA genre. I guess you need to define exactly what is meant by YA. Wikipedia defines it as being for readers from 12 - 18. Although it goes on to say that some authors and readers define it as being  written for 15 - early 20s. The protagonist is 17 years old when this story begins. Maybe that’s all that qualifies it? But the genre defining has caused some mild controversy due to Mr. Bergstrom’s, possibly ill-advised comments regarding Young Adult fiction  n an interview and a perceived contempt for existing dystopian YA work. Hashtags such as #MorallyComplicatedYA have populated social media with some angry responses from YA readers towards Bergstrom even before The Cruelty was published! Now I’m an OA (old adult) and my reading matter is not genre governed. I don't care who the intended audience is, if I want to read a book I’ll read it!! I have enjoyed both YA and dystopian fiction but the real problem for me is that I don't believe this belongs in the Young Adult category. If this book were a film I suspect it may be given an 18 certificate due to the violence and adult themes. I think overall it is an adult book. I can think of several youngsters I wouldn't want reading it.

So in order to qualify exactly why I enjoyed it all of the above needed to be ‘got out of the way’ as it were, to clear the air and proceed with an open mind. 

The main character, Gwendoline Bloom, is a teenager, a remarkably resourceful one and living a charmed life considering all her brushes with spies, CIA and Mafia heavies. But she was difficult to engage with as a character because it seem to me that she was functional to the plot. But that could go for all of the characters. They were defined and developed only as far as the plot demanded. More two dimensional than one but I would have liked three!! Gwendoline, through no fault of her own, is being compared to Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior even Lisbeth Salander - publicity blurb comparisons only I hasten to add. Relax. Katniss, Tris and Lisbeth are all safe on their literary pedestals. 

The plot is excellent. Very gripping with sufficient detail to tantalise and carry the reader along without being predictable although there was an element of certain situations being contrived. But it’s a story, a fiction and thats part of the fun. It’s action packed and entertaining. I can see it translating well to the big screen. 

There is some ambiguity but I sense the way has been paved for a sequel. Will I read it?

Be cruel not to.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Foxlowe - Eleanor Wasserberg

A debut novel can be a joy to behold. I always find myself excited at the prospect. But they are something of a lottery. This debut was a most disturbing read, a kind of domestic dystopia on our doorstep. In some ways the unfolding of the story in all its gothic horror denies you, initially, to actually appreciate the quality of the writing which was atypical of many debut works. It flows economically yet expressively and creates an atmosphere that is unnerving throughout. 

The book explores the concept of the ‘cult’ and it’s effect on the individual. Again because the story itself dominates the consciousness of the reader it is only after reading that one pauses to consider the events in their wider implication. The cult commune of Foxlowe struggle in many ways to reconcile their individual selves alongside their cult selves with tragic consequences. Which causes me to question why people join cults in the first place. A dissatisfaction with their own lives and selves or a wider dissatisfaction with the society they’re living in.

The book is narrated by one of the younger cult members, Green, and so we are seeing the events unfold through her eyes only. I found this occasionally frustrating because I wanted to understand matters from some alternative perspectives. As with many cults a lore of language and tradition bordering on the obsessive rule the lives of the members and woe betide any transgressions especially from the younger members. And as one might expect, or would there even be a story, things do not progress swimmingly. 

The pathos is heightened when you consider the idealism and idyllic intention behind the forming of this cult which might work if all pulled together equally. But personalities intrude and conspire and divide to prove more chaos than idealism. And brainwashing and conditioning do a thorough job.

The final part of the book is quite horrific. Most unsettling. This is a joyless read so if you’re looking for upliftment you probably want to steer clear. But if you don’t mind being challenged emotionally and cerebrally give it a read. 

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward - H P Lovecraft

When a freshly published copy of an H P Lovecraft book plummets on to your door mat you begin to wonder if the great man himself has managed to do what many of his characters do and raise himself from the great beyond!! He sure put the ‘nec’ into ‘romancer’. It wasn’t anything I expected, something of a horror in itself!

I am not a fan of horror fiction per se. I had an adolescent phase of avidly devouring the Pan Book of Horror stories, volumes one to umpteen and gave myself plenty of sleepless nights and I did progress to Edgar Allen Poe briefly. But my dalliance with horror as a genre to pursue more or less ceased there .

But there’s horror and then there’s H.P.Lovecraft which, like Poe, is a kind of literary horror. There are no extensive, gratuitous, gruesome descriptions offered for effect rather than any real story telling intent. Instead there is a slow, insidious, unnerving atmosphere palpably created that is auto suggestive of doom and uncertainty. 

This novella tells the story of Charles Dexter Ward who explores his family tree and becomes quite obsessed with one of his ancestors Joseph Curwen. Curwen’s history is recounted in the book and he appears to be a dark, occultish, alchemist type character surrounded by unsavoury rumours of necromancy. Ward’s obsession leads him down some dark paths indeed as he tries to replicate some of his ancestor’s activities causing his family and himself much distress to say the least. And apparently this book contains the first mention of an entity who appears in the infamous Cthulhu Mythos.

Objectively it ls a competent, solid piece of writing. Given that the original publication date was 1941 there’s a curious timelessness about it. Although there is a sense of the historic novel in terms of social customs and period descriptions. The characters are functional, you never really get to know them, you just get to know what drives them. The plot is the product of an imagination which defies imagination! And its one thing to have an usual imagination but that does not always translate to accessible, readable prose. It does here. It’s a very readable book.

I imagine that devotees of Lovecraft are familiar with this fiction. The intention of republication is, I imagine, to attract a new audience to his work. I suspect there are more volumes to follow if there haven’t been already.  

Although I don’t like horror I didn’t dislike this book. Its intelligently written. And I did find it curiously compelling. In fact I’m really scared that I am going to seek out some more of Mr. Lovecraft’s books!

Monday, 23 January 2017

Sweet Oblivion

As I began this book it was a bit like Fifty Shades of Grey meets Basic Instinct! Not one for the fainthearted I might stress. But without a doubt this is page turning, nail biting stuff. A white knuckle ride of a read.

It’s a debut thriller and is written by a serving police detective which allows it obvious authenticity. And as a bonus this police detective was previously a writer. Now that Ms. Ramsey has once again taken up the pen alongside the hand cuffs it seems like a combination destined for success.

Before I wax too lyrical in my praise there are flaws both on an objective and subjective level. I spotted one or two spelling mistakes and a few grammar anomalies. Hopefully if there are to be some future works the services of an editor would iron these out. I found some of the conversations between the characters contrived and adding little to character development or the plot. In my experience that isn’t uncommon in a first book. Some of the flashback passages in the story I found unpleasant and not something I wanted to read about. I totally appreciate that their inclusion were crucial to the plot in terms of allowing us to see how one of the characters had arrived at their present stage of life. (I’m trying hard not to offer any spoilers here!) But that is just my own antipathy towards certain subjects. I guess the stark nature of the revelations do allow us some compassion.

I did figure out ‘who dun it’ and I’m intrigued because I’m not sure if I was supposed to or not! So I am not automatically congratulating myself. Some writers offer that as a plot device so the reader can enjoy seeing how the police unravel the clues and arrive at the correct conclusion. It certainly didn’t detract from being gripped by the rest of the story. 

It’s as tight a plot as I’ve come across particularly in a police procedural and a debut work as well. And I really felt the first hand experience of the writer elevated the story. It made me wonder whether the genesis of this comes from first hand experience. It certainly made me stop to consider how the police deal with the effects of what they see and experience. I’m not sure I would sleep at night! But maybe Rhiana Ramsey’s motivation for writing this is a form of catharsis to cope. 

So, if you like a fast paced thriller that pulls no punches you won’t like this. You’ll absolutely love it!!