Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Book #51

HOPE Engine by Andrew Lynch

A world on the brink of war, absent parents, and no friends sounds like a disaster unless all you ever wanted was to live inside your virtual reality pod. 
Meet Severo, a fresh-eyed graduate, as he joins the ranks of new players in the HOPE engine, but quickly finds out that everything isn’t as advertised. An unnatural enemy is rising, more glitch than feature, that not even the highest level players can stop. A noob like Severo doesn’t stand a chance! Right?But with his starter village in the enemy’s warpath, he better figure something out! Before that, he needs to learn that NPCs are sentient, friends are needed, and food in fantasy games sucks! Oh yeah, and pick a class! 
As if all that wasn’t enough to worry about, outside of the VR pod, real life is starting to have its own technical difficulties.

Deep in a strange dystopian future, wars have been won with video games. People climb into virtual reality pods and lose themselves in a digital fantasy world. Be who you wanna be, kill who you wanna kill, meet other players from all over the globe - hey, the game translates language - and level up to become the greatest of your class.

Lynch builds an excellent world here, one which will be entirely familiar to gamers. He minutely describes the mechanics of the game; stats, loot, levelling, melee, minions, village crafting, NPCs - the lot. Lynch knows his stuff here, and immerses us flawlessly into the fantasy gameplay.

I found the plot itself to be slightly confusing and jarring. There were lots of interesting elements introduced and only partially explored, with Lynch seeming to prefer paying attention to the intricacies of battle and the mechanics of the game. This meant there was a lack of care in developing characters and relationships, and I felt I needed a little more guidance through the plot.

The twist in the tale was incredibly clever, but explored fairly loosely. It could be that Lynch is saving his explanations for the sequel, but there definitely could have been some more detail and foreshadowing around this, as it felt a bit shoehorned.

With that being said, I enjoyed the read, and was intrigued by Lynch’s originality. An excellent read for gamers. 

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Book #50

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

In the first book of this brilliant series, Stephen King introduces readers to one of his most enigmatic heroes, Roland of Gilead, The Last Gunslinger. He is a haunting figure, a loner on a spellbinding journey into good and evil. In his desolate world, which frighteningly mirrors our own, Roland pursues The Man in Black, encounters an alluring woman named Alice, and begins a friendship with the Kid from Earth called Jake.

What a struggle.

Too vague in places, too patronising in others, I am at a loss to understand the manic hysteria over this book. King’s writing is as dry as his desert setting; nothing is given to incentivise reading on, engagement is brittle, and his characters woeful - each woman a fuckable object, each man an enemy. Please.

I am gobsmacked at how poor this was. People were messaging me to talk about it, so excited to see I was reading it for the first time. There was nothing here to hold on to, it was awful.

A few people have told me they slogged their way through this one only to be rewarded with a wonderful tale in further instalments. Not fucking happening; I’ve had enough of cigarette rolling, pontificating, shoot-em-up cowboys.

The gunslinger, indeed.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Book #49

Nonsense by Edward Lear

Exuberant and ingenious, Lear's best-loved poems tell of jumblies, quangle wangles and luminous noses.

Finally, a Little Black Classics poetry collection I can say I love. No intellectual stimulation, no interpretation, no smoke and mirrors. Just some simple, joyful, smile inducing nonsense poems.

I spent a lovely half hour reading these, and couldn’t help the grin spreading across my face. Lear’s ridiculous words have a strange kind of magic attached to them - I truly believe he could warm a cold, dead heart.

“The Scroobius Pip looked vaguely round
And sang these words with a rumbling sound -
‘Chippetty Flip - Flippetty Chip -
My only name is the Scroobius Pip.”

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Book #48

The Ghost Files by Apryl Baker

Sixteen year old Mattie Hathaway has been able to see ghosts since she was five years old. No way does she want anyone to know she can talk to spooks. 
Normally, she just ignores the ghosts and they go away. That is until she see’s the ghost of her foster sister, Sally. 
Everyone thinks Sally’s just another runaway, but Mattie knows the truth—she’s dead. Murdered. Mattie feels like she has to help Sally, but she can’t do it alone. Against her better judgment, she teams up with a young policeman, Officer Dan, and together they set out to discover the real truth behind Sally’s disappearance. 
Only to find out she’s dealing with a much bigger problem, a serial killer, and she may be the next victim.
Will Mattie be able to find out the truth before the killer finds her?

This is probably the most young adult of young adult novels I’ve read in a long time.

Mattie is sixteen and sees dead people. Her main response to this is to simply ignore them until they go away, before circumstances dictate interaction and she’s propelled into new spooky calamities.

The plot ticks along well, but I felt, considering Mattie’s circumstances, that there seemed to be a lack of tension and intrigue. She knows there are people who need saved from imminent death, but instead spends a lot of time hanging out at the diner and pontificating over the variety of boys she has a crush on. Her motivations were strange, and wrong.

I understood I was being given a teenage female protagonist, but she felt like a caricature of herself for the most part. Both her inner and outer dialogue were peppered with insipid turns of phrase, ones which would probably come up if you surveyed a bunch of middle-aged white dudes and asked them how they thought teenage girls spoke. She also told me frequently about the walls she put up, how strong she was, and how foster kids were a different breed from others. She told me these things, but rarely showed me. It was poor characterisation, and it really affected my ability to engage and sympathise with Mattie. 

For a horror, there was a real lack of suspense, no notable twists, and things began to take some very convenient turns in order to tie the story up to its ending.

I sound like I hated this book; I didn’t. But I have noted down the main things which spring to mind on reflection, so I’ll leave them as they are. More nuanced characters, a plot with some more complexity, and less use of the word fudgepops would have been all that was needed to make this excellent.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Book #47

The Corset by Laura Purcell

Dorothea and Ruth. Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless. Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea's charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person's skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.
The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea's belief in rationality and the power of redemption.
Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?

This story has overwhelmed and enthralled me so much that I’m struggle to rattle out words which will in any way do it justice. 

Purcell writes of two women from very separate social classes - Ruth, imprisoned for murder awaiting trial, and Dorothea, an heiress with a penchant for phrenology and criminology. Convinced she is being charitable, Dorothea visits Ruth in prison and learns her story. The contrast in them both is exquisite, but no more so than the stunning comparisons each of their lives hold. Purcell writes them distinctly and expertly using multiple voice, both equal parts victim and heroine. I loved both of them deeply.

The prose here is dark and utterly enchanting. The Victorian era is a grim one, and Purcell doesn’t shy away from showing us its poverty and flaws alongside its charms. Her settings were gloriously descriptive; one moment a blooming botanical garden with Dorothea, the next a squalid, lice-ridden doss house with Ruth. The juxtaposition and contrast was breathtaking.

Purcell had me dangling from her hook completely. The plot is rapid in its movement, and throws a thousand situations at us like arrows. The multiple voice works well in creating tension, and every single character has their own flaws and nuances. It was truly wonderful.

There, I knew it. My words above don’t quite manage to convey the true pleasure I felt in reading this novel. Although bleak and heartbreaking, it’s utterly engaging, captivating, and original. This will be one I earnestly press into the hands of friends, urging them to read it, whilst I go off in search of more of Purcell’s work.

A true masterpiece.

“But then I have noted that murderous thoughts seldom trouble the pretty and the fashionable.”

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Book #46

The Narrows by Travis M. Riddle

Oliver and his friends have returned to their hometown of Shumard, Texas for the funeral of their close friend Noah. They each grapple with the loss in their own ways, trying to understand the strange circumstances of their friend’s unexpected death.

While visiting the site where the body was found, Oliver stumbles across a chilling discovery that he knows must be related to what happened to Noah. Wanting to protect his friends from these newfound horrors, Oliver takes it upon himself to venture into the grotesque otherworld known as the Narrows to learn what happened to his friend and find a way to bring him back.

Entering the Narrows is one thing, but will whatever he finds there allow him to leave?

I couldn’t tell whether the stronger vibe here was that of Stranger Things, or IT. A group of friends, a death, an entirely creepy parallel universe of decay - all combined to make The Narrows an eerie and yet somehow relatable plunge into darkness.

Riddle’s real strength here is his characterisation. Each deeply affected by the death of their friend, each dealing with their own stuff, and each as expertly cast as the other, Riddle spends an important amount of time on them, and it pays off. As the characters return to their hometown for their friend’s funeral, we see them visit the places they grew up in, reminiscing and remembering their childhood. It worked really well to reinforce their personalities and motivations, and the mention of Mario Kart 64 definitely tweaked a heartstring or two for me.

I enjoyed the exploration of childhood, and the study of the characters’ relationship changes more than I did the supernatural aspect of the book. It’s a relatively short novel, and the actual level of horror scenes is a small offering in comparison to the heavier feeling of doom and foreshadowing which pervades the majority of the novel. Nevertheless, Riddle’s execution was excellent, his creation and release of tension employed well, and the ambiguous ending was a masterstroke.

My life has recently been overtaken by Stardew Valley, and I imagined the knave as a distorted version of this guy:

Please let me know if that’s somehow a sacrilege; it seemed fitting and amusing at the time.

A definite contender for someone who’d like something quick and creepy - a real must for those who like to analyse relationships, emotion, and nostalgia for things we no longer possess. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Book #45

The Withered Arm by Thomas Hardy

A jealous lover's curse and an ingenious party trick feature in these two suspenseful stories set in Hardy's imaginary Wessex.

The Withered Arm came highly recommended to me, and I was pleased Penguin included it in their Little Black Classics range. Although the range does contain some of his poetry (and we all know how I feel about poetry), the collection would not be complete without some Hardy prose.

He’s a firm favourite of mine, and I was delighted to see his regular style applied here. Although the supernatural isn’t something he would normally delve into, we’re presented with some typically Hardyish awkward relationships, social satire, a lyrical rustic landscape setting, and a running thread of bleak unease. The ending, of course, is tragic and terrible, as is his wont to inflict.

Detailing a spurned lover’s accidental curse on her beloved’s new wife, Hardy skilfully portrays the development and sudden downfall of the relationships. His depiction of the wife’s vicious determination to rid herself of the curse creates an unholy level of tension, with her eventual discovery of the origin then rendering the situation unbearably palpable. Her eventual choice of remedy, and consequences thereof, only Hardy could employ with this level of mastery.

It raised questions about morality, friendship, and reaping what you sow. Hardy seemed to punish every single character here, and, flawed as they were, it felt as though the higher hand of judgement had reached a reasonable verdict.

This is one which will stay with me for a very long time.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Book #44

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

When Nicholas Nickleby is left penniless after his father's death, he appeals to his wealthy uncle to help him find work and to protect his mother and sister. But Ralph Nickleby proves both hard-hearted and unscrupulous, and Nicholas finds himself forced to make his own way in the world. 

Well, fan my brow. I’ve been wandering around this world for years, telling anyone who will listen that my favourite Dickens novel is David Copperfield, with conviction which cannot be rivalled. I’m all a-flutter now Nickleby has come along and knocked Copperfield from the top spot.

What an absolute triumph this novel is. All of my favourite Dickens staples are firmly present - Victorian social customs, comedy, villains, tragedy, debtors, and drunks. There’s plenty of heartbreak and injustice, peppered with Dickens' own brand of humour to lighten the mood to the perfect degree.

There is a lot of plot; I repeat - there is a lot of plot. Dickens goes into tiny detail on setting, atmosphere, and behaviour, creating a beautifully vivid and engaging picture of Victorian London. It feels very deep, and heavy at times; this only added to my enjoyment, but I spent much longer on this book than I have on any other for a while, savouring, relishing, loving.

His technique in presenting the reader with social injustices is gorgeous. Laced with satire, we see our misers and villains gaining the upper hand at every turn; we are scandalised, devastated, incensed. But we remember it’s Dickens, and each and every dastardly character will have his day in the end. Real life doesn’t serve justice quite so perfectly, but anything else here would be an injury.

Despite this, Dickens characters here were nothing but simple. Such a throng of a cast, each of them described to completeness, every flaw and scar exposed. Dickens often characterises his characters as entirely good or bad, placing them into their relevant camps as appropriate. Here, he recognises the range of emotion and temper in his characters, and we even see the squeaky-clean ones make poor decisions, and display emotion not usually attributed to the characters in the more angelic of the two camps.

It gave my joy, it broke my heart. The characters are masterpieces within themselves, the plot divine, everything else just gorgeous gorgeous. Nicholas Nickleby is an absolute wonder. 

Monday, 3 June 2019

Book #43

A terrible beauty is born by W.B. Yeats

By turns joyful and despairing, some of the twentieth century's greatest verse on fleeting youth, fervent hopes and futile sacrifice.

This felt somehow nice and gentle.

Yeats’ words move along patiently, despite deeper rooted political meaning and undertones. Nothing too strenuous or exacting, just the quiet tick tock of his beautiful words.

A review from someone who just can’t with the poetry. 

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Book #42

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Imagine a black and white world where colour is a commodity.

Hundreds of years in the future, after the Something that Happened, the world is an alarmingly different place.
Life is lived according to The Rulebook and social hierarchy is determined by your perception of colour. Eddie Russett is an above average Red who dreams of moving up the ladder by marriage to Constance Oxblood. Until he is sent to the Outer Fringes where he meets Jane - a lowly Grey with an uncontrollable temper and a desire to see him killed. 
For Eddie, it's love at first sight. But his infatuation will lead him to discover that all is not as it seems in a world where everything that looks black and white is really shades of grey.

I do adore a good dystopian novel. The future is something none of us can predict with any degree of accuracy, so I enjoy the quite overwhelming ideas which come with dystopia, despite the fact that quite often these are post-apocalyptic and bleak.

Fforde’s take is notably different to many novels which could be described in this way. Although set far in the future, after the Something That Happened, people seem to live in a fairly ordered society which allows them to thrive. It’s only deeper into the novel we realise this way of life is utterly controlled and maintained by Head Office; people are rated on their behaviours, points are awarded and removed for the most ridiculous of acts, and those in power have immeasurable dominance over those who are not. Did I mention no one can see in full colour?

In Fforde’s world, people see their surrounding mainly in shades of grey. Some see only in grey, whilst some see greys peppered with only one other colour. Your perception of this colour, whether dull or vibrant, sets your rank in life. Those who have more than 70% perception of colour are immediately raised into positions of power, with anyone lower fitting into more menial slots. Those who can see only grey are given the least desirable life of all.

This strange caste system was the most interesting aspect of the novel for me. Fforde really plays on societal customs, treatment of others, and democracy, using only an individual’s ability to perceive.

Eddie Russet is a strong Red. When he meets a Grey with a beautiful nose, he is ripped from the comfort of trusting the status quo, and plunged into an exploration of his world, and why things are done in the way they are. Fforde injects a positive message of hope that change can be brought to the system, and leads us on a sweeping mission to subvert the powers responsible.

Although Fforde takes some time to dip us into the paint pot, perseverance is essential. Once the world makes sense, once the sociology can be understood, the journey through his mostly colourless universe is one not to be missed.

Not to be confused with the other Shades of Grey, which we do not speak of.  

Friday, 24 May 2019

Book #41

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

What begins as the story of a lost boy turns into a story of a brave man yearning to understand what happened that night, in the years since, and to his very person.
While on vacation with their parents, Matthew Homes and his older brother snuck out in the middle of the night. Only Matthew came home safely. Ten years later, Matthew tells us, he has found a way to bring his brother back.

This is a devastating novel. I’ve come away with strange feelings of melancholy, grief, and hope. 

Matthew writes the story of his life to date. His brother, Simon, died some years before, when both of them are young boys. The cause of Simon’s death isn’t fully explored until later in the novel, but remains as a lingering shadow over Matthew, his family, and his words themselves.

The plot details Matthew’s struggles with schizophrenia (“a disease with the shape and sound of a snake”), and Filer shows us how this affects him. It reminded me very much of Haddon’s Curious Incident and Russell’s Wrong Boy, in that I was devoted to the storyteller and his attempts to battle through what he’s been given.

Written mostly in a stream of consciousness style, we’re able to relate and sympathise with Matthew’s feelings of hopelessness, blame, and misunderstanding. Matthew will tell his story sporadically, dashing off on tangents to explain something which happened in the past, adding in additional descriptive commentary when he feels there’s something we should know. It’s exactly like hearing a story from someone’s mouth. Filer uses different fonts and pictures throughout to really instil the various problems of mental illness in the reader’s mind.

Filer subtly hints at the flaws within mental health institutions, and depicts the horror within from Matthew’s point of view. Patients (or service users) experience a controlled, regimented lifestyle peppered with consequences should they choose to behave or react in a certain way. It’s really, really bleak and heartbreaking to see people treated as less than people purely due to an illness.

I’m finding it difficult to convey exactly why I loved this novel so much. I wanted to write an excellent review, but I can’t seem to find the words - I usually find it’s the best novels which don’t allow me to put my feelings into work. But, to the best of my ability, it’s Matthew’s words, it’s the way in which they’re presented, it’s his family, his pain, his guilt. Everything feels so real, so real, so honest. It truly is a beautiful work.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Book #40

The Nun of Murano by Giacomo Casanova

In this episode from his infamous memoirs, swashbuckling serial seducer Casanova falls for a beautiful nun on the Venetian island of Murano - despite already being involved with another one.

Good old Casanova; he didn’t disappoint, and I was certainly surprised by how engaging and well written his escapades were.

Although the passages describing the sexual acts themselves were sparse, and lacking description, there was something entirely erotic about Casanova’s restraint, and his waiting and longing. The long hours spent before his meetings with the nun sent his thoughts spiralling, his anticipation ripening.

I did expect to be scandalised, and for my inner feminist to be sent a-twitching at this philanderer’s treatment of women. On the contrary, in this particular tale at least, Casanova and his ‘love’ are presented as equals. Honesty, understanding, and trust are firmly established, current lovers are informed of the tryst, and Casanova is allowed to explore his desires unhindered by shame (if shame is such a thing Casanova can muster up) and with no advantages being taken.

The nun herself, referred to only as M.M., didn’t seem to be shirking her morals or faith in any way. She was an intelligent and reasoned woman, entirely confident in her actions and justifications, continuing her meeting with Casanova whilst keeping her other lover fully abreast (no pun intended) of all goings on.

I thought this was wonderful, and an excellent choice from Penguin; I would very much like to read more of Casanova’s sordid affairs, and fully intend to explore the adventures of his manhood. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Book #39

Never Die by Rob J. Hayes

Time is up for the Emperor of Ten Kings and it falls to a murdered eight year old boy to render the judgement of a God. Ein knows he can't do it alone, but the empire is rife with heroes. The only problem; in order to serve, they must first die.
Ein has four legendary heroes in mind, names from story books read to him by his father. Now he must find them and kill them, so he can bring them back to fight the Reaper's war.

When I first read the premise for Never Die, I had my suspicions I was letting myself into something unique. Although I was entirely correct in this presumption, I wasn’t prepared for just how uniquely insane this novel would turn out to be.

Ein, a notoriously creepy eight year old boy, is on a quest to kill the emperor. Due to his lack of strength, stature, and the fact that he is eight, he recruits some of the most famous warriors in Hosa to help him with the violent bits. Trouble is, his recruitment strategy involves killing and resurrecting the warriors, effectively binding them to him and his cause. That was jaw drop number one in a vast array of jaw drops.

Hayes’ skill here is unparalleled. He builds his characters wonderfully, through memory, dialogue, and lore, exposing their flaws and temptations, and yet inexplicably binding them to his readers just as they are bound to Ein. They were legendary and wonderfully real; pain, grief, woe, and even hints of joy were weaved into their characterisation, each warrior gorgeous in his or her own way. With each different personality came a different fighting technique, making me long for the ability to step through space, or even just have a cool warrior name.

The mythology was glorious - Hayes has done his research here, and I learned a lot about Japanese folklore. What was particularly special was Hayes’ refusal to patronise and explain. The work I put in between chapters googling words like yokai made the novel far more real, and much more special.

I found the plot to be very reminiscent of video games I’d played as a kid. Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter did spring to mind, but most of all I got real Mystical Ninja feels (ten points if you know that one). Time to dig out my N64.

The finale was an utter triumph. I’ve read so many fantasy novels recently where the ending is easy to predict - everything is perfectly tied up in a little bow and we all go away satisfied. I don’t want to give too much away, but Hayes chose to forsake the little bow and tie everything up with barbed wire. It was completely unexpected, and a master stroke. I loved it.

A true escape into fantasy, an entirely original premise, a journey through twists and monsters, and just a bloody excellent read. Thank you so much for allowing me to read this. 

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Book #38

Typhoon by Joseph Conrad

The crew aboard a ramshackle steamer faces a treacherous storm in this gripping tale, inspired by Conrad's own time at sea.

Conrad’s words are always beautiful. The ship in tumult after its captain (refusing to listen to reason) sails her into a typhoon, is described gorgeously; the panic, the claustrophobia, the water.

What I liked most was Conrad’s depictions of the character’s relationships in life. Long months at sea, away from wives and children, will have pressing effect on relations and mental health, and this is told sporadically, and well. Their letters home were fascinating and heartbreaking in equal measures.

Although I could appreciate the mastery in Conrad’s language here, there was something I just couldn’t engage with, and I can’t say for certain I completely enjoyed this. After having reflected on this for a while, I’ve come to the conclusion the sea life is not for me. My hatred for Moby Dick has completely ruined any appetite I once had for adventures on the open sea, and has not only poisoned the works of Melville, but is now bleeding its disease into other stories. Thanks again, Melville. 

Monday, 13 May 2019

Book #37

Will O’ the Wisp by Patricia Wentworth

David Fordyce wasn’t looking forward to his birthday party, an annual event he shared with his grandmother. But this year Eleanor would be there—Eleanor, whom he had not seen in seven years, ever since she’d married Cosmo Rayne.
There are mysteries concerning the late Mr. Rayne, and his lovely widow—but then David has secrets of his own. When a black clad figure crosses the line between shadow and moonlight the game is afoot in one of Patricia Wentworth’s most eerie and thrilling stories.
I downloaded this some years ago during one of my rampages through lists of free Kindle books. I wasn’t paying much attention at the time, and assumed the novel was a supernatural dive into the phenomenon which is will o’ the wisp. It isn’t.

Wentworth’s Will O’ the Wisp instead features a mystery set in Golden Age London. Although David Fordyce lost his wife at sea some years ago, strange advertisements begin appearing in the paper, implying she’s still alive.  Chills.

Although the mystery itself wasn’t the most intricate, I was (as always) fascinated by the social customs and morals present in 1920s London. The Fordyce family is ruled by Grandmamma - a formidable matriarch who will bang the gavel down at anything, whether it be wearing pressed flowers, or marrying your cousin. There was so much commentary surrounding the concerns over what people will think - wearing red shoes, being alone in a house with a man unchaperoned, divorce; I just absolutely adore immersing myself in this era.

I was fairly surprised at the lack of enthusiasm (and actually, the lack of overall reviews) for this one over on Goodreads. Although I couldn’t say it astounded me, it piqued me, it interested me, and it entertained me.  I’d never heard of Wentworth before delving into Will O’ the Wisp, however I’ve discovered she’s written a number of mysteries - I plan to conduct my next download rampage immediately around these. 

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Book #36

Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane

Kenzie and Gennaro have been hired to find four-year-old Amanda McCready, abducted from her home without leaving a trace. Despite extensive news coverage and dogged investigation, the police inquiry has so far uncovered nothing. The case is rife with oddities: Amanda's strangely indifferent mother and her dangerous, drug-addled friends; her loving aunt and uncle; and two cops who have found so many abused or dead children they may already be over the edge.
As the Indian summer fades, Amanda McCready stays gone - banished so completely that she seems never to have existed. And when a second child disappears, Kenzie and Gennaro face a local media more interested in sensationalizing the abductions than helping to solve them, a police force seething with lethal secrets, and a faceless power determined to obstruct their efforts. Caught in a deadly tangle of lies and betrayal, they must confront the horror of what the world can inflict on its children in order to unravel a riddle that's anything but child's play.

I see crime novels as easy reads; fast-paced mysteries propelling me towards the unveiling of the culprit, peppered with a few complex characters, red herrings, and gut-wrenching twists. For me, crime is a perfect escape, a quick sojourn into a bit of the bad stuff before returning to my often heavy reading list. Lehane didn’t deliver any of this for me.

He does present some interesting moral questions here with regards to child welfare and policies. Without giving too much away, he really sets some thoughts in motion around what’s best for a child, and how to set them up with the best beginnings in life. He also provides some seriously disturbing and violent scenes; almost too gut-wrenching and sickening to read with the knowledge this happens to kids the world over. The questions he poses, and the humbling effect the brutality has on a reader, are probably the only skilful elements of this novel.

The plot moves fairly quickly, but I felt there were many descriptive passages which didn’t lend anything to the novel whatsoever. The twists and turns were there, but easily predicted (as always, look for the unlikeliest candidate and he’s your man), and fairly underwhelming. I felt there were a lot of plot points shoe-horned in there for shock value, or to reinforce Lehane’s attempts at grit.

I had no interest in Lehane’s characters. All painted as grotesque caricatures - the hardened cop, the junkie mother, the downtrodden family - there was barely any depth to their characters, a serious lack of development, and I found it difficult to differentiate between some of them thanks to Lehane’s magnolia paint brush tarring them all. The dialogue was flat, forced, and cliched, with absolutely no one shining out as a realistic character. Even the protagonists, Kenzie and Gennaro, were utterly uninteresting. 

Gennaro, actually, gets a whole paragraph here to herself. A victim of the curse of male writers, she was presented as nothing more than a quick mind on a gorgeous, and overly described, body; that’s it. She’s a hologram; an ideal - great tits and a man’s mouth seem to be the fantasy for many a male author. Her characterisation, and the fact she was the only female character depicted with half a brain, made me cringe painfully. Oh boys, please do better.

Having now read a few Lehane creations, I’m tempted to write it all off and claim Shutter Island as his only success. Although I managed to finish Gone, Baby, Gone, it’s very doubtful I’ll return to Lehane again, and will most certainly never cast my eyes on a Kenzie and Gennaro story as long as I live.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Book #35

How To Be a Medieval Woman by Margery Kempe

Brave, outspoken and guaranteed to annoy people wherever she went - including exasperated fellow pilgrims in Jerusalem and her long-suffering husband - Margery Kempe was one of the most vivid and unforgettable voices of the Middle Ages. Whether travelling alone, getting herself arrested or having visions of marrying Jesus, Margery repeatedly defied feminine convention - and also managed to compose the first autobiography in English, despite being unable to read or write. 

Margery Kempe was an incredibly pious woman in medieval times, and believed she had a higher personal connection to God than other people. Despite being unable to read or write, she compiled an autobiography entirely through diction on her spiritual experiences. It is from this book that Penguin have taken excerpts to comprise How To Be a Medieval Woman.

Being entirely without religion, something of a cynic, and in desperate need of something to get my teeth into, I couldn’t connect whatsoever with Kempe and her spiritual ramblings. Her narrative is extremely heavy and tedious, her superiority irking, and her deep devotion (which I imagine is supposed to be inspiring) feels like a telling off.

The blurb and title very much portray this little book as being filled with social commentary on how medieval women spent their days. I’m convinced Kempe was one of few medieval women with a speed dial to heaven, so Penguin has yet again failed in this collection for me.

Another little black slog. 

Friday, 3 May 2019

Book #34

A Star-Reckoner’s Lot by Darrell Drake

Ashtadukht is a star-reckoner. The worst there's ever been.
She commands the might of the constellations... though her magic is as unpredictable as the die rolls that decide its fate. But star-reckoners are humanity's first defense against divs, so if Ashtadukht is to fulfill her duty, she must use every trick at her disposal—risks be damned.
An excuse. A lie she tells herself. All that remains of a life she should have had. She travels the empire to hunt down the div that brought her world to ruin. The longer her pursuit, the more her memories threaten to consume her. The darker her obsession becomes.
Every spell is a catastrophe waiting to happen, every div a tale of its own, every tale a thread in her tapestry of vengeance. This is the story of her path... a warning to those who would follow in her footsteps.
Ashtadukht is a star-reckoner. The worst there's ever been. Hers is no hero's journey.

Drake tells the story of Ashtadukht, a star-reckoner in Sasanian Iran. She is contracted on missions to hunt and defeat the curse of the people - the divs. In addition to this, she is hellbent on finding and destroying the div who once ruined her life.

At the beginning of the novel, Ashtadukht’s missions tend to span only one chapter, with her showing up and sealing the deal for her contractors pretty quickly. This gave a vignette style feeling to plot until it began to grow and spawn and larger tale centric to Ashtadukt’s history.

A star-reckoner is someone who can command the magic of the stars in order to create some sort of reaction. This is usually useful when defeating enemies - divs - in a fight, but I’ll be damned if I could work out the method of reckoning, the history of it, or how it worked. Later in the novel, planet-reckoning is also introduced, and I was truly, truly stumped. I feel the reason for this is the massive time leap from Ashtadukht being a young girl and identified with reckoning abilities, to her being a fully-fledged reckoner. A little bit of learning alongside the character would have gone a long way for my tiny brain.

I found it difficult to concentrate throughout. I struggled to follow along with the plot, and certain events would occur which would throw me completely as I’d no idea where I was, who I was amongst, or even why I was there. There’s a real disjointed feel to the way the plot progresses, and the confusion began to affect my motivation for reading on.

The characters were pretty interesting in their interactions with each other, but there was a noticeable lack of backstory for each of them, and where we were gifted with some commentary, it was sparse, and often raised more questions than it answered.

Despite the above, this is a rich tale. Sasanian Iran is not a common setting for any type of contemporary novel, never mind fantasy novels. Reading of the lore and myth from this time was enlightening, and it’s clear to see Drake has a strong passion here. His premise was excellent, his writing beautiful. 

My disconnection was in how it was all put together; the lack of backstory, the jarring flow. I honestly couldn’t say whether this would have an impact on anyone else reading this novel - I imagine it’s something that would only affect certain readers. I definitely wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading this; it just wasn’t for me.