In the Middle of Somewhere, by Roan Parrish

>> Tuesday, October 31, 2017

TITLE: In the Middle of Somewhere
AUTHOR: Roan Parrish

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 350
PUBLISHER: Dreamspinner Press

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Starts a series

Daniel Mulligan is tough, snarky, and tattooed, hiding his self-consciousness behind sarcasm. Daniel has never fit in—not at home in Philadelphia with his auto mechanic father and brothers, and not at school where his Ivy League classmates looked down on him. Now, Daniel’s relieved to have a job at a small college in Holiday, Northern Michigan, but he’s a city boy through and through, and it’s clear that this small town is one more place he won’t fit in.

Rex Vale clings to routine to keep loneliness at bay: honing his muscular body, perfecting his recipes, and making custom furniture. Rex has lived in Holiday for years, but his shyness and imposing size have kept him from connecting with people.

When the two men meet, their chemistry is explosive, but Rex fears Daniel will be another in a long line of people to leave him, and Daniel has learned that letting anyone in can be a fatal weakness. Just as they begin to break down the walls keeping them apart, Daniel is called home to Philadelphia, where he discovers a secret that changes the way he understands everything.
When Daniel is invited to interview for a job as an English professor at a tiny college in the just-as-tiny town of Holiday, in Michigan, he's got mixed feelings. Realistically, it's probably the best opportunity he'll get to start a career, and in a few years, he might be able to use the job as a springboard for better things. But he finds the idea of living in such a small town a bit worrying. Daniel is a city boy, and wonders how well and edgy, profusely tattoed gay guy will fit in.

But on the very day of his interview, he meets someone who likes him just fine. Rex Vale lives in a homely little cabin in the woods, just outside town. Their first meeting reveals a fair bit of chemistry, and once Daniel has moved to Holiday, they begin to deepen the relationship.

This is a book where there isn't a lot of external conflict. The focus is fully on the relationship, and it's not even one where the protagonists have got massive, over-the-top issues to overcome before they can be happy in the relationship. It's also a fairly long book (it says 350 pages in the listing on amazon, but it felt longer). And yet it was the rare romance these days that kept me fully engaged and rapt. I really enjoyed it.

The book is narrated by Daniel, and he was a character I adored. Daniel grew up in a family made up of macho men who were just baffled by him. They were baffled by his sexuality, but just as much as by his insistence on studying, going to college (the first in the family), and even worse: becoming an academic. The rest of the brothers work in the father's garage, and that's good enough for them. It wasn't some sort of nightmarish upbringing, as it's clear the father, at least, did care for him, even if he didn't know what to do with him. Still, it was tough (and painfully rough and tumble, it sounds like).

I really loved in Daniel his determination to go after what he wanted. It wasn't easy to get his PhD with basically no support, and he's exhausted. I was touched by the pleasure he took in the simplest things. Being able to work in peace and quiet in an office, when he had to get used to working in public spaces during university (coffee shops being the best option he'd had before, way better than reading in a loud music venue while working as a barman). Actually making some ok money and seeing a future where (once credit card debts are paid off and he doesn't have to pray that his ipod lasts just a few more months) he'll be able to actually afford some nice things. A significant thread in Daniel's story is about starting to build a life as a grown-up, basically, and this is something I really like (and surprisingly, don't really see much of in the New Adult genre).

Rex, since we see him only through Daniel's eyes, we get to know a bit less well, although well enough that I totally got why Daniel falls for him. Rex is quite shy and gentle, in spite of being built like the proverbial brick shithouse. He's had his own challenges growing up, and these have left him with a bit of a fear of being left. Getting involved with Daniel is a risk. This is, after all, the man who has actually said that the only reason to take this job at the college is to be able to later get a job somewhere more prestigious -away from Holiday. Meanwhile, Daniel has to deal with his own issues before he can open up in a relationship.

Daniel and Rex date and get to know each other like normal people, while dealing with friends and family. I've no idea how Parrish managed to make it so fascinating, but it might have been that these characters felt real and that the character development was believable and gradual. I think it might also have helped that the cast of secondary characters was really well done. I particularly loved Ginger, Daniel's only and really excellent friend. Their relationship was hilarious, full of teasing and caring. I want to know more about all these characters, even Daniel's arsehole brother Colin.

The only thing I didn't love was the frequency, length and graphic nature of the love scenes. Part of it might be just me, since I've gone off detailed sex scenes and they tend to bore me these days. Still, I really do think the level of graphicness didn't go well with the the vibe of the book otherwise, and after the first couple of scenes the sex wasn't really adding anything to the character development, so they felt unnecessary.

Small issue, though, and on the whole, I loved this. Parrish has a couple more books in this series, and there's also another starring Ginger in a separate series. I have already bought them all.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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A Dark So Deadly, by Stuart MacBride

>> Sunday, October 29, 2017

TITLE: A Dark So Deadly
AUTHOR: Stuart MacBride

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 608
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins

SETTING: Contemporary Scotland
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Stand-alone

Welcome to the Misfit Mob...

It’s where Police Scotland dumps the officers it can’t get rid of, but wants to: the outcasts, the troublemakers, the compromised. Officers like DC Callum MacGregor, lumbered with all the boring go-nowhere cases. So when an ancient mummy turns up at the Oldcastle tip, it’s his job to find out which museum it’s been stolen from.

But then Callum uncovers links between his ancient corpse and three missing young men, and life starts to get a lot more interesting. O Division’s Major Investigation Teams already have more cases than they can cope with, so, against everyone’s better judgement, the Misfit Mob are just going to have to manage this one on their own.

No one expects them to succeed, but right now they’re the only thing standing between the killer’s victims and a slow, lingering death. The question is, can they prove everyone wrong before he strikes again?
Stuart MacBride is an author I've been meaning to try for a while. He's got a long-running series, the Logan McRae books, which is supposed to be good. I never know if it's best to just jump in with the latest book (and possibly feel a bit lost) or go for the first one in the series (which I've often found is not great). Seeing this new stand-alone title saved me making the decision.

The premise is not particularly novel: after a bit of a screw-up that was not his fault, DC Callum MacGregor has been assigned to the Misfit Mob, a unit which is the dumping ground for officers that, for whatever reason, are going nowhere in their careers, and yet can't be sacked. They are given the pointless, annoying cases no one else wants. The latest, a mummy found in a recycling centre, seems exactly that. Only it turns out the mummy isn't ancient, as originally assumed, and someone is kidnapping people and mummifying them. So the Misfit Mob find themselves with a serial killer case on their hands.

A Dark So Deadly had a lot of promise and could have been really good, but man, did it need an editor! A ruthless one, preferably, who could tighten all the many, many threads a bit and trim the pointless detail. As it is, this was much, much too long and as a result, it flowed about as well as treacle. It felt like a chore to push through, and as a result, it felt even longer.

I read the first half and gave up, because in addition to the slow pace and the clutter, I also had a number of issues that bothered me. First, the women. First, there's Callum's pregnant partner, Elaine, who's portrayed as nagging and manipulative (ridiculously so). Then there's DC Franklin, new to the squad and possessor of a truly impressive chip for her shoulder. She's portrayed as blaming every slight on her race (she's black) and accusing anyone who's nice to her of trying to get into her pants. They were both unbelievable.

And then there was how everyone dumped on Callum. Elaine treats him terribly. His colleagues disrespect him and bully him to an infuriating degree. Random people get in the act. People he tries to arrest keep beating the shit out of him. His balls are crushed, he has people bite him in two separate incidents, first his ear is bitten off and then someone bites his leg. I started out feeling sorry for Callum, but after a while my feelings started turning into contempt.

Then there's the plot, which I just could not buy. It becomes clear quite quickly that what they've got is an active serial killer, and this is treated by everyone as not a big deal and nothing to make a fuss about. This beggars belief, as does the fact that Callum has apparently worked on 4 serial killer cases in his relatively short career. Seriously? What world, let along country, is this set in? And Callum is portrayed as this young, nothing special policeman, not some sort of serial killer specialist.

Disappointing.

MY GRADE: It was a DNF.

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Pursuit, by Elizabeth Jennings

>> Friday, October 27, 2017

TITLE: Pursuit
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Jennings

COPYRIGHT: 1999
PAGES: 330
PUBLISHER: Zebra

SETTING: Contemporary US and Mexico
TYPE: Romantic suspense
SERIES: None

A shocking betrayal...her father's murder...and a life-threatening accusation...

Heiress Charlotte Court has walked into a waking nightmare-one that sends her running from her wealthy home to anywhere she can hide.

Across the border in country-region Mexico, Charlotte creates a new identity and finds refuge in the battle-torn arms of Navy SEAL Matt Sanders.

Fleeing his past, Matt yearns to protect her and replace her pain with pleasure. But Charlotte can't trust anyone, not even someone she's starting to love. She knows she's a target-and out of sight, a soulless killer is zeroing in on his prey...
Elizabeth Jennings is a pseudonym for author Lisa Marie Rice, whose outrageously alpha heroes really should not work for me at all, but often do. It baffles me.

Anyway, while some of the early Elizabeth Jennings books are very different from the LMR ones (cozy mysteries, for instance), this one could have easily been written under the latter name.

Charlotte Court finds herself on the run after her father is murdered by the CEO running the family's company. The man had planned to simply seduce Charlotte into marrying him and then take over the company for himself, but she proved resistant. Plan B? Kill her father and frame Charlotte for the murder. Only Charlotte fights back and escapes.

Charlotte manages to find refuge in a little seaside village in Northern Mexico, where she's recovering from the trauma, both mental and physical (she received a gunshot would while escaping). And it's there that she meets Matt Sanders. Matt is a soldier who's recovering from pretty bad trauma as well. He was shot several times in battle, while saving his men, and it's hard for a man who had been in peak physical condition to feel like a weakling. When a friend invites him to stay with him in his place in Mexico to work on his recovery, he accepts.

For the first few weeks, Matt and Charlotte admire each other from a distance. She admires the mental strength in the way he forces himself through what's clearly tough physical therapy, while he feels she's his guardian angel, and having her watching him gives him strength. Their physical meeting doesn't come till Matt saves Charlotte from drowning.

In the aftermath of that near-drowning, Matt sees Charlotte's gunshot wound scar and realises she must be in danger. Which she is, as the evil CEO has sent one of those extremely competent assassins LMR is so fond of after her.

This was fine. There were things I liked, such as the suspense plot. I joke about LMR's love of professional assassins as secondary characters, but I actually enjoy that. We get a fair bit from this guy's point of view, and it's pretty interesting to see how he works, and the methods he uses to track Charlotte to a place that was basically a random choice for her. Some of the scenes as he hunts her down are grisly, but I did appreciate that we were in the mind of a person who only inflicted violence (however brutal) when absolutely necessary and only as a tool to achieve his objective. I get really tired of the sadistic villains who get off on violence.

The romance was nice enough, as well, although with flaws. Yes, it's characterised by an super-protective hero who workships the heroine and there's a lot of the heavy gender essentialism that usually disturbs me (heroine is all feminine and delicate, hero is hypermasculine and burly), but as usual, LMR does manage to pull it back by making her heroine be mentally very strong and her hero respect and appreciate that strength. That said, this was on the predictable side, and I had to laugh at a scene which was a transparent excuse to get Charlotte and Matt naked in a bed before they've even exchanged a word. Right after Charlotte has almost drowned and Matt rescues her, he takes her into her house and stays with her, and in the middle of the night she has hypothermia. Of course, that means... let's share body heat! But creepily, Matt decides to remove everyone's underwear as well! That weirded me out a bit.

Finally, there's something I'm of two minds about. LMR's voice is one I would recognise anywhere. It's good to have a strong, unique voice, but I feel it sometimes becomes almost a collection of writing tics. For instance, she's fond of going into these weird details about the physiological responses her characters are having. Her pulse accelerated, her pupils contracted, blood flowed to her face and the colour changed. In this book, this got to be too much. Plus, I'm not crazy about the fact that in some cases it means the hero is reading the heroine's physiological responses rather than what she's actually saying. Unfortunately, once you've noticed this sort of thing, you can't really unnotice it. But I might have to reread one of my favourites to see if she toned it down a bit in those.

MY GRADE: A B-.

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Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

>> Wednesday, October 25, 2017

TITLE: Sleeping Giants
AUTHOR: Sylvain Neuvel

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: Del Rey

SETTING: Contemporary (or possibly near future)
TYPE: Speculative fiction
SERIES: First in the Themis Files series

A page-turning debut in the tradition of Michael Crichton, World War Z, and The Martian, Sleeping Giants is a thriller fueled by an earthshaking mystery—and a fight to control a gargantuan power.

A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.

Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.

But some can never stop searching for answers.

Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of the relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?
When Rose Franklin was 11, she accidentally made a huge discovery. While out riding her bike the ground under her collapsed, and she woke up cradled in a huge metal hand. This had a huge impact on Rose, who became a physicist so she could study the mysterious artifact. And by the time that the present-day action begins, seventeen years later, the disembodied hand is still as big a mystery as when it was found. Its composition makes it clear that it couldn't have been built with currently available technology, and the symbols carved on the walls of the cave where it was found are still as cryptic as the first day. Rose is working on the team trying to solve the mystery, but they're getting nowhere.

And then, suddenly, a breakthrough. A pilot in the US Army crashes while on a mission in the Middle East and discovers another body part, of the same material and on the same scale as the hand. There's only one conclusion: there must be other body parts elsewhere, and if found and fitted together, they'll create a giant metal human... a giant robot, of course!

We follow the action as Rose and her team, joined by the pilot, Kara Resnik and a linguist, Vincent Couture, figure out how to find all the pieces, and once they start coming in, how to actually get the robot to operate. But there are soon geopolitical consequences to their actions, and it becomes clear there are shadowy powers involved.

Such a shame! This was a really, really cool setup, but I found the way it was developed and delivered unconvincing. It was fun to figure out what was going on, but the book suffered from characters who felt just unbelievable.

The format didn't help. This book was billed as World War Z meets The Martian, but I thought this was purely because both those books are, as this one, made up of a collection of documents, rather than straight narrative. Here we get mainly transcripts of interviews and logs, plus a handful of newspaper articles. The problem is that in WWZ and The Martian the format felt natural, and all the stuff that was supposed to be in the documents included made sense. It was believable that it would have been there. Here, I didn't believe it for a second. People go into long, discursive descriptions of stuff that their interlocutor already knows. They talk about their deepest feelings in situations that felt inappropriate. Not to mention, every single character speaks in the same way, whether it makes sense or not.

The characters feel shallow and the characterisation is plain bad. There's a really terrible romance, and I was particularly annoyed by the arrogant woman who takes over the project and then makes monumentally stupid decision after monumentally stupid decision. If she was really that stupid, then there should have been no chance she'd convince anyone to put her in charge (and don't talk to me about how some CEOs also make stupid decisions -this was someone with no track record, no connections, no nothing that should have got her appointed).

I don't think I'll be reading any more of this, in spite of the cool robots.

MY GRADE: A C-.

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A Game of Thrones, by George RR Martin

>> Monday, October 23, 2017

TITLE: Game of Thrones
AUTHOR: George RR Martin

COPYRIGHT: 1996
PAGES: 848
PUBLISHER: Bantam

SETTING: Fantasy world
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: 1st in the A Song of Ice and Fire series

Summers span decades. Winter can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun.

As Warden of the north, Lord Eddard Stark counts it a curse when King Robert bestows on him the office of the Hand. His honour weighs him down at court where a true man does what he will, not what he must... and a dead enemy is a thing of beauty.

The old gods have no power in the south, Stark’s family is split and there is treachery at court. Worse, the vengeance-mad heir of the deposed Dragon King has grown to maturity in exile in the Free Cities. He claims the Iron Throne.
Up until a month or so ago, I was perversely proud of being what felt like the only remaining Game of Thrones virgin. The TV show is one of the many I'm vaguely interested in watching, but then never do (pathetically, in the last few years, all I've watched on TV is Bake-off and Masterchef). As for the books, I had it in my mind that they were sort of Lord of the Rings-ish, which didn't tempt me.

So I was happy to go on my oblivious way, pretending to laugh when people made "You know nothing, Jon Snow!" jokes. Until my brother WhatsApped to tell me I needed to start the books NOW. He'd been reading them and watching the TV series, and he was desperate for someone to discuss his conspiracy theories with in real life (plus, he thought I'd like them, and he does know my taste). I love my brother, so off I went, armed with all sorts of resources he thought would help (including this really great non-spoilery animated map showing where everyone is and where they've been as the books advance).

And it was so, so good. Absolutely nothing like I expected. It's basically a really good soap opera, with larger-than-life and very well-developed characters, with an excellent balance of super-cool action and character drama, and also a great balance between evil and decent characters.

We have a large cast of central characters, most drawn from two families. There's the Starks, who govern the Northernmost region of the kingdom. They are headed by Lord Eddard Stark, who is a good friend of the King's. They grew up together, and Ned helped him defeat the previous king and take the throne. Now it's many years later, and the king has turned into an irresponsible, thoughtless man Ned has trouble respecting. He's married a woman from another powerful family, the Lannisters, and Ned worries that they are amassing a bit too much power through the actions of the queen, Cersei. Things come to a head when Ned is asked by the king to take the office of the Hand of the King (which is basically the man speaks for the king and ensures his will is done) and has to leave Winterfell with is family and travel South to King's Landing, the seat of the Court.

As this is going on, action is taking place across the sea, where two of the children of the former king managed to escape into exile when their whole family was slaughtered. The young man is now at an age when he thinks he's old enough to act on claim to the throne and marries off his sister, Daenerys, to the head of a huge tribe of horsemen who are famed as excellent warriors. He hopes their support will help him win back the throne.

Each chapter is narrated from the point of view of a different character (although all are narrated in third-person), and at least in this first book, most are from the Stark family. We've got Ned, his wife Catelyn, their two daughters, Arya and Sansa, their son Bran, and Jon Snow, Ned's illegitimate son. Jon has chosen to leave Winterfell to join a brotherhood devoted to guard a Wall that separates the kingdom from the dangers hiding in the ancient forest to the North. We've also got chapters from the point of view of Daenerys, and of Tyrion Lannister, a brother to the Queen.

I liked how that worked to move us to the different bits of the world, helping us see different bits of the action, and I liked how in some cases particular events were narrated from the POV of a character you wouldn't really expect. That felt like a particularly effective device. Anyway, I don't know whether we'll continue to follow the same characters' POVs throughout the rest of the books, but I suspect not necessarily. A couple of them (Ned and Catelyn, mostly) did not feel quite as fascinating as the rest (although I do think they were the right people to give us certain perspectives we needed to see) whereas there are a couple of other characters whose POVs I would be really intrigued to see.

What I've described is only setup, and I don't intend to say much more about the events that take place. Suffice it to say that there's quite a bit of drama. There's big, kingdom-changing drama, of the sort that made me go "I can't believe GRRM did that!", but there's also smaller, more interpersonal drama. And on the whole, it all feels beautifully justified by the different characters' personalities. These genuinely feel like real people, complex and flawed, all acting in ways that make sense given who they are. I felt there were a couple of small missteps (GRRM clearly feels that boys spoilt by their mothers and without a good masculine role model turn into evil monsters in a completely over-the-top way), but on the whole, I recognised these people as real.

The biggest chunk of the book is focused on what's going on at Court and the consequences of that, but there are also significant chunks with Jon Snow at the Wall and with Daenerys over the water. I think those two sets of chapters were my favourites, probably because the characters were fantastic. Whereas the rest of the main characters are part of a family, these two are more outsiders, having to make their own paths in the world, and each do this in very different ways. The other important thing is that what goes on in their stories has the potential to significantly disrupt what is occupying all the other characters' attention, and I'm sure that will become clear in future books.

My absolutely favourite character, however, might be Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion is a dwarf, which sets him apart from his "perfect" beautiful, golden family, particularly his brother Jaime. His father clearly disdains him, but Tyrion refuses to just live a quiet life and fade into the background. He's got one of those brains that just races ahead and makes everyone around him look like they're just plodding on. And that brilliant, brilliant brain also gets him into trouble, as he sometimes can't resist going a bit too far with a particularly clever put-down. I think the reason he's my favourite is because he's the most ambiguous of all the characters. Even having read the whole book, I can't quite figure him out, even with the chapters from his point of view. He seems to have a fair bit of loyalty to his family, while being completely realistic about what they're like, but he also seems to have quite a bit of decency, which can be seen in how he treats those around him. But he can also be completely ruthless. I really, really want to see more of him.

The other element that raises this book above most fantasy is the world-building. This is a fully-realised world. You get the feeling that there's real history behind all characters, and that the world in GRRM's head has lots more than what he just shows in the page. I also really like the touches of the paranormal, like the existence of actual dragons in the past, or what's going on beyond the wall. Well, it's only touches in this book, but I have no doubt there'll be more in later books.

It took me a fairly long time to read this one, and not just because it's a long book. At the beginning, it felt like there was a lot of setting up of the world. That wasn't a problem, and I really enjoyed it, but it didn't quite propel me forward and make me desperate to see what would happen next. I was reading 2 or 3 chapters a day and felt quite satisfied with that progress, as I could really savour them. And then, in the last third or so, things got really, really good and I flew through it. I expect the rest of the books will probably continue at pace, and I mean to start the second one straight away to find out!

MY GRADE: An A.

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Dead Scared, by Sharon Bolton

>> Saturday, October 21, 2017

TITLE: Dead Scared
AUTHOR: Sharon Bolton

COPYRIGHT: 2012
PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Minotaur

SETTING: Contemporary UK
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Second in the DC Lacey Flint series

When a rash of suicides tears through Cambridge University, DI Mark Joesbury recruits DC Lacey Flint to go undercover as a student to investigate. Although each student's death appears to be a suicide, the psychological histories, social networks, and online activities of the students involved share remarkable similarities, and the London police are not convinced that the victims acted alone. They believe that someone might be preying on lonely and insecure students and either encouraging them to take their own lives or actually luring them to their deaths. As long as Lacey can play the role of a vulnerable young woman, she may be able to stop these deaths, but is it just a role for her? With her fragile past, is she drawing out the killers, or is she herself being drawn into a deadly game where she's a perfect victim?

Dark and compelling, S. J. Bolton's latest thriller?a follow-up to the acclaimed Now You See Me?is another work of brilliant psychological suspense that plumbs the most sinister depths.
This is the second book in a series, following Now You See Me, which was a twisty Jack the Ripper-inspired mystery I enjoyed quite a bit, in spite of some flaws.

In this book, DC Lacey Flint, still recovering after the events of the previous book, is asked by DI Mark Joesbury to go undercover in a Cambridge college. An unusually high number of female students have been dying by suicide and, while the official line is that there's nothing to worry about (and that what Lacey is pretty much told), the numbers and the disturbing and grisly methods used have led to some concerns. Lacey is one of the few experienced police officers who looks young enough to be able to pass as a student.

It doesn't take long for Lacey to realise something is really wrong. And then the same things she's discovering preceded many of the suicides, start happening to her.

This one was a bit of a disappointment. It had a lot of promise. It's an interesting premise, super creepy and scary, and the setting is really well-done. Bolton is excellent at creating a vivid sense of place (however, this was not quite as fantastic as her Little Black Lies, set in the Falklands. I loved that book). Lacey is also a great character, with quite a bit of complexity.

So what was the problem? Well, for starters, that the plot required Lacey to make stupid decisions a little bit too often. For instance, at one point she goes off into the forest and finds a really creepy tableau, with a hanged creepy doll and a fox. She's investigating cases of people being terrified and pushed into suicide, and yet beyond reporting to Joesbury, she does nothing? Another one: she knows the precursor of the suicides is the victims having these bad dreams which include a conviction the next morning of people coming into their rooms. And yet when this same thing starts happening to her she kind of dismisses it and doesn't take protective actions? (e.g. seriously examining everything she consumes and making sure nothing could be slipped in her food and drink?).

I also found Joesbury a bit problematic here. He and Lacey had a difficult relationship in the previous book, but there's supposed to be this sort of chemistry between them. The thing is, I had to doubt he cared much about her, as his actions bothered me. Sending Lacey into a dangerous situation (and one he knows is dangerous) but only telling her it's just humouring a friend of a superior officer and that she's meant to just observe? No, sorry. And he seems much too concerned with lusting after Lacey, rather than with the disturbing things she's reporting.

Finally, I found the explanation as to what had been happening pretty unbelievable. I did not buy the motivations of the culprit(s), and it was preposterous that they would have been able to do what they were supposed to have done.

I will probably give this series another shot, since I did really like the other two books I read by Bolton, but this one was a bit of a dud.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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Dan Carlin's Hardcore History

>> Thursday, October 19, 2017

This one's a bit of a new one for my blog, in that it's a review of a podcast. I do book reviews here, but the only difference between this particular podcast and a non-fiction audiobook is that while it's scripted, there's clearly an element of ad-libbing in how the script is delivered. So, why not?

Dan Carlin is a journalist and broadcaster who hosts a couple of very popular podcasts. The one I'm looking at here is called Hardcore History, and in it, he explores different historical topics. Sometimes he'll do a single podcast episode on a single topic, but what I'm reviewing (because it's what I've listened to so far) are two separate series of podcasts, both of which are basically military history.

The first one is called Wrath of the Khans, and it's a 5-episode series covering the history of the Mongol empire, from the rise of Gengis Khan to the decline of the empire. This series came out in a 6-month period from mid-2012, and it's about 8:30 hours long.

The second, Blueprint for Armageddon, is considered by many to be Carlin's magnum opus (so far!). This 6-episode series is about World War I, concentrating on the war itself. The episodes here are massive, clocking in at around about 4 hours each. The whole thing is 23 hours. The episodes came out between October 2013 and May 2015.

Carlin often makes it clear that although he loves history, he's not a historian. I suppose he means that he's not going to the primary sources to bring in new knowledge, like a professional historian would. What he does, and I think it's just as valuable, is to take the work from professional historians and make it into an incredibly absorbing story. He's a storyteller.

Actually, he's a wonderful, masterful storyteller. Here's what I love about Hardcore History:

1) Carlin takes a huge range of sources and creates a coherent story that makes sense. He simplifies, obviously, but in a way that doesn't seem simplistic. He's very good at signposting the bits that are missing (e.g. how he's concentrating more on a particular front during WWI, and that at the same time stuff was going on in this other front).

2) It's not that he takes only the cool, fun bits, but that he makes even the dry bits fascinating. This includes things like descriptions of military manouvers, which I previously thought could not be done in a way that wouldn't put me to sleep.

3) Explaining is just as important as bringing events to life. I already knew intellectually that the trenches in WWI had been horrific, but it was not until I listened to Blueprint for Armageddon that I felt that in my gut and could really picture it. I'd never stopped to think about what it might have been like to know that the Mongol hordes approached your city. I felt that horror.

4) Carlin has a knack for zeroing in on just the right little detail that illustrates the big picture, just the right personal perspective from a person involved.

5) He does not forget about the impact of these big historical things on the individual. Just because something horrific happened long ago, it doesn't magically become appropriate to take it lightly. When I read The Handmaid's Tale long ago, the bit that unexpectedly changed how I look at things forever was the epilogue. It takes place many, many years after the events in the story, and features a male historian who's discovered Offred's record of her experience. He makes jokes and cheeky puns. We've just experienced the traumatising pain of Offred's life, so this feels extremely jarring. And yet, that's how so many modern historians deal with their material, particularly sexual violence. I just listened to another historical podcast where the (female) historian who was being interviewed was describing how a Scottish nobleman had broken into an estate and "forced a marriage" upon the widow of the former owner in order to gain the property. He made sure he consummated the marriage, and all hell broke loose the next morning. And this historian felt it appropriate to joke that she hoped the wedding night had been worth it, hahah. She was talking about rape. Dan Carlin emphatically does NOT do this. When he's talking about how Mongols would often take the women of their defeated enemies as wives, he stops to say that this is the way they referred to it and that it is a euphemism, a euphemism that hides sexual violence. He does not let us forget this.

6) Carlin somehow manages not to glorify war, while at the same time creating pictures that make the listener go "wow!" These pictures stick in my mind. The German army marching through Belgium. The Mongols in a battle with Polish knights. Wow.

7) He's got a very idiosyncratic way of speaking (if you say to any Hardcore History listener "Ageeeen. And ageeen. And ageeeen", they'll laugh knowingly). I love it (however, YMMV).

There are now 60 episodes of Hardcore History, and the last 10 or so are available for free on the website. This includes the Blueprint for Armageddon series, but also a series called Kings of Kings (about the Achamemenid Persian empire), a single episode called The Celtic Holocaust (about Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul) and what he calls a Blitz episode (I think these are more explorations of a theme) about the development of nuclear warfare and how humanity has dealt with having the power to destroy itself. The remaining 50 episodes are available for "a buck a show, that's all we ask". I've bought them all, even though I hear the earlier ones are not as good (Carlin was apparently still developing how he does things), and call it a bargain.

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Man Booker Prize 2017 round-up

>> Monday, October 16, 2017

The Man Booker Prize winner will be announced on Tuesday, so I'd best write up my usual summary and (always wrong) guesses! This was a strange year. I was really excited by the longlist, and I think that excitement was shared by lots of people. Several of us dove into the list and read one after the other, posted review after review. I didn't like all the books I was reading, but there were quite a few books I really loved that I wouldn't necessarily have picked up on my own, so it felt like a really good longlist.

And then the shortlist was announced, and it felt like all that excitement just drained away. It felt to me like a really blah shortlist. There were several sets of 6 books that could have been drawn from that longlist and would have made an exciting and interesting shortlist, but this particular set wasn't one of them.


Starting with the shortlist, the one book I really loved was Mohsin Hamid's Exit West. It's a short book, but it packs a very powerful punch. It's a very "now" book, in that it looks at a topic that's never far from the headlines these days: that of refugees. The thing is, rather than concentrating on the journey and the difficulties in making a new life, it looks at how leaving their birthplace can change people and make them grow in unexpected directions. I loved it. I even found really effective the fantastical element (which had made me a bit wary) of the mysterious magical doors that appear and allow people to move around the world just by stepping through them. This is the book I hope will win.

My review is here. I rated it an A-.

The only other book on the shortlist that ended up being my thing was a surprise. Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 has received very mixed reviews, probably tending more towards the negative. People mostly think it too long and a bit old hat in terms of its themes. The experimental elements in the structure (we get 4 different versions of the protagonist's life, as variations in how something works out during his childhood lead to differences in how everything else follows) are not felt by most to add much innovation.

Now, I'm still reading this one, as it really is very long and not particularly gripping, but I'm enjoying it quite a bit. I like the detail and the low-key, undramatic writing, and I'm liking how the small variations lead to very different consequences. Do I feel it deserves to be on the Man Booker shortlist, or even the longlist? So far, not really. But at least I'm having a pleasant time reading it, and I intend to keep going.


The only other one on the shortlist that I finished was Autumn, by Ali Smith. I'd tried Ali Smith before (when an earlier book was nominated for the Man Booker as well, in fact), and I just didn't get it. I hoped I'd feel differently about this one, but I didn't. There were several different strands. There's the protagonist's grief for her former neighbour, an old man who is about to die, and who was a huge part of her life growing up. There's a lot about a forgotten pop artist called Pauline Boty. And there's also the fact that the present-day story is set in the summer of 2016, and the effect of the EU exit referendum is being felt.

I was interested in each of those strands, but I felt what Smith did with them didn't resonate with me at all. Also, I didn't think they came together at all. To me, they did not make up a satisfying whole.

My review is here. I rated it a C+.

And now for the DNFs. I promise, I really did try with these three books. I kept picking them up again and again, but I had to force myself to do so. After a couple of weeks each of that, I gave up.

George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo was the one I made least progress with. It's a novel made up from fragments and lots of different voices, and I found that literally unreadable. I tried and tried, both in audio and ebook, but to no avail.

I'm all for working hard on a book if there's a pay-off, but the thing is, in the sections I read I didn't feel Saunders was saying anything particularly interesting or insightful.

My review is here.

History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund wasn't my thing, either. It's a story about a fourteen-year-old girl who lives in the woods with her parents, the last ones left after a commune disbanded. A family with a small child moves to the closest other house, and the girl quickly becomes more and more involved in their lives. The book is being narrated from many years later, so we know from the start that things are going to go badly wrong.

I never got to the point of caring about anyone or anything in this book, possibly because the protagonist and narrator's reactions were flat and dry. And it might be a flaw in me as a reader, but I do need to at least care for a book to work for me. I did read about half of this one, but that was as far as I could push myself.

My review is here.


Finally, Elmet, by Fiona Mozley, which felt to me a bit similar to History of Wolves. The child protagonist lives with his sister and father in rural Yorkshire, away from civilisation after his father decides to withdraw them from school (with good reason, actually).

From what I read, this seemed to be addressing some of the issues with property ownership and capitalism, but when the book turned into that the change felt a bit abrupt. Also, I felt the evil character who seems to symbolise the entire capitalism system was too cartoonish.

I was interested in some of the ambiguity about sexuality and gender roles suggested in Daniel, our narrator, but that didn't seem to ever become anything, as Mozley seemed more interested in the political elements.

I did read most of Elmet, but in the end, I just didn't care enough to push to the finish. It was another DNF.

-o-o-o-

So, half the books in the shortlist were DNFs, one I did manage to finish but was perplexed by, one I'm liking well enough, but hardly blown away by, and the final one was the single one I was genuinely wowed one. I really want Exit West to win, but I fear there's little chance of that. If I had to guess, I'd say it's probably Ali Smith's year and Autumn will do it.

-o-o-o-

So that was a bit of a depressing tour through the shortlist. Fortunately, things will get a lot more positive as I discuss the other books on the longlist, several of which I think are much better than the titles that made it. Do settle in, as I actually read or attempted all but one of the books on the longlist (probably the most I've ever got to -the only one I didn't read was Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness). This time I will start with my least liked, so that I can finish on a high note :)


Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry was my single DNF. I was really excited about this story of a two men who adopt a young girl and form a family, all set around the time of the US Civil War. And I did enjoy those bits, it's just that there was a lot more of killing and senseless violence, as the two men are soldiers.

The Civil War sections were bad enough, but I actually found the sections before, when they're basically killing Native Americans all over the place for no good reason, much worse. It wasn't so much the violence but the way in which it was described, in a dreamy, matter-of-fact sort of way. It jarred me in a bad way, and at the same time, kept me from engaging in the story.

My review is here.

I'd never read Zadie Smith before, although she's been on my list to try for quite a while. Swing Time wasn't really the best place to start. Smith had two main strands going through the book, and I felt she concentrated mostly on the wrong one.

I really wanted more about the unnamed narrator's relationship with her childhood friend, particularly to see more exploration of that as she grew up. Instead, I got more than I wanted of the narrator being a sort of fixer for a huge pop star who has decided to do charity work in Africa. It's satire, but not very good satire, as it says nothing very new and mocking these people is basically shooting fish in a barrel.

My review is here. I rated it a C+.


The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead was one book that was already on my TBR, as I'd heard so much about it. It's a bit like Exit West in that the author takes something real and adds just a touch of the fantastical in order to focus and amplify what he wants to explore. In this case, we get an Underground Railroad that is a real railroad, with tracks and train stops and everything. And it allows Whitehead to explore the many different manifestations racism can have, as his heroine, escaped slave Cora, travels from one Southern state to another and experiences their different approaches to dealing with their black populations. It goes from the brutality of a state determined to get rid of blacks altogether, to the benevolent (but almost as pernicious) 'scientific' racism of another.

It's insightful and quite powerful. The only misstep, I thought, was in the figure of the slave-catcher, a man with almost supernatural powers to find Cora, whom he's become sort of obsessed with. I find that trope pretty tiresome, and the character felt cartoonish and strained credulity. This contrasted badly with the painful reality of the rest of the book and was also completely unnecessary.

No review yet. I rated it a B+.

Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack is just as experimental in style as the Saunders, but my experience of reading it was completely different. The book is narrated in a single sentence by an Irish man called Marcus, as he stands in his kitchen and contemplates his life. I kind of dreaded reading this one, as I'm quite wary about this sort of thing. Too often it feels like a gimmick, almost like an author trying to make things challenging for the reader for no good reason.

Well, that was not the case for Solar Bones at all. First of all, it wasn't really challenging. All the hard work was basically done by the author, who somehow managed to make his single sentence narration feel natural and just right, not even particularly difficult. And although I did wonder at the beginning, I was gradually convinced that this was the right way to tell this story. The device of the single sentence, with the way it reflects the state of the mind it's supposed to come from, added quite a bit to the narrative.

And I should add, this book was not just about the writing. I particularly loved reading about Marcus's relationship with his children, a baffled love which felt so like my father that it made me tear up at points.

No review yet. I rated it an A-.

And now we come to my two favourites. I loved Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor. It's an exploration of the life of a village in rural Derbyshire, as the effects of the disappearance of a young girl who was staying there on holiday with her parents ripple through the years. It's not a plot-driven book at all, but it's not a character exploration either. We get small vignettes of a large cast of characters, the many people who live in the village, but it's not in depth. We get almost as much about how the village itself and the nature in and around it lives and grows. You might think this would feel a bit distant, but it doesn't. It's undramatic, but profoundly affecting.

It's also beautifully written, almost like poetry in prose, and quite hypnotic. This one really, really should have been on the shortlist, and I think it would  have been a worthy winner, even.

My review is here. I rated it an A-.

And still, I think I might have loved Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire even more than Reservoir 13. It's a retelling of the Antigone story, but it feels completely non-derivative. Shamsie really makes the story her own. Any connections to the original only add richness, rather than feel like shortcuts.

Shamsie also makes it feel completely 'now', without it having that awkward 'ripped from the headlines' feel to it. It's the story of two British-Pakistani families and what happens when a young man decides to join IS, setting everyone on course for disaster.

With fascinating, flawed characters who feel completely real, and very interesting things to say about what it's like to be Muslim in Britain today, this book punched me straight in the gut. I couldn't stop thinking about it or talking about it. It's my favourite of the Booker dozen.

My review is here. I rated it an A.

-o-o-o-

So:

I hope Exit West will win

I think Autumn will win

I think Reservoir 13 should have won

But I loved Home Fire most of all. It may not be as innovative or structurally adventurous as Reservoir 13 (which is why I think the latter is more of a 'Booker winner'), but it's brilliant, and finding books like this is the reason why I do this every year.

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Two more from the Man Booker shortlist

>> Saturday, September 30, 2017

Wow, for all that I loved this year's Man Booker longlist, I'm really not liking the shortlist. Well, I did love Exit West, but Autumn wasn't for me, and these two fell in the same category.

TITLE: Lincoln in the Bardo
AUTHOR: George Saunders

I'm not even going to try to explain what Lincoln in the Bardo is about. Mainly, that's because I'm not sure. It's a novel made up from fragments and lots of different voices. It's set in a crypt, where Lincoln's young son Willie lies dead. But it's also set in a realm inspired in the Tibetan tradition of the 'bardo', a place where spirits linger in between life and death, not quite ready to take the next step.

It's an intriguing concept, but I found this quite unreadable. My brain was trying to turn the different voices and fragment into a single whole, but it could never quite do it. I tried to listen to the audiobook first, but the constant reading of the citations (after every little fragment, we get a citation explaining where it's from... what book, what letter, etc) kept breaking my concentration. I really should have listed to Sunita, who had a similar problem. So I returned the audiobook and bought the ebook. It solved the problem of the citations, but it still didn't bring this any nearer to working for me.

I persisted for much longer than I should have, but after several days of forcing myself to keep turning pages, I accepted this wasn't for me and gave up. In addition to the difficulties with the way the book was written, I wasn't getting anything from it. I didn't feel it was saying anything insightful or new about... well, anything, really.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

TITLE: History of Wolves
AUTHOR: Emily Fridlund

Fourteen-year-old Madeline and her parents are the last remnants of a commune in the woods of Minnesota. With almost no supervision in her life, Madeline spends her days roaming in the forest. When a family with a young child move into the nearest house, Madeline (calling herself Linda) befriends them, and ends up spending a lot of time with the little kid. And we know as we read that it all ended in some sort of tragedy: death, a trial, trauma.

History of Wolves strongly reminded me of a book in last year's shortlist, Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen. Fortunately, the obsession with ugliness and bodily fluids wasn't there, but there was something about Madeline that felt very much like Eileen, at least in the sections I read: the unfeelingness, the lack of involvement with what's around her. She walks around observing and barely reacting. She doesn't seem to care, so why should I?

And that was my main problem and the reason why I found reading this a struggle. I found it really hard to care at all, particularly because I didn't quite buy the characters (both Linda and the mother in the family she befriends). The characterisation felt inconsistent and a bit shallow. Not one for me.

MY GRADE: And another DNF.

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Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

>> Tuesday, September 26, 2017

TITLE: Reservoir 13
AUTHOR: Jon McGregor

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 336
PUBLISHER: Fourth Estate

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

From the award-winning author of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and Even the Dogs. Reservoir 13 tells the story of many lives haunted by one family's loss.

Midwinter in the early years of this century. A teenage girl on holiday has gone missing in the hills at the heart of England. The villagers are called up to join the search, fanning out across the moors as the police set up roadblocks and a crowd of news reporters descends on their usually quiet home.

Meanwhile, there is work that must still be done: cows milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured, beds made, sermons written, a pantomime rehearsed.

The search for the missing girl goes on, but so does everyday life. As it must.

As the seasons unfold there are those who leave the village and those who are pulled back; those who come together or break apart. There are births and deaths; secrets kept and exposed; livelihoods made and lost; small kindnesses and unanticipated betrayals.

Bats hang in the eaves of the church and herons stand sentry in the river; fieldfares flock in the hawthorn trees and badgers and foxes prowl deep in the woods – mating and fighting, hunting and dying.

An extraordinary novel of cumulative power and grace, Reservoir 13 explores the rhythms of the natural world and the repeated human gift for violence, unfolding over thirteen years as the aftershocks of a stranger’s tragedy refuse to subside.
When the Man Booker longlist was announced, I was reading Val McDermid's A Place of Execution. Reading the description of Reservoir 13 was a bit startling: Derbyshire village setting, 13-year-old girl going missing? But that's exactly what I'm reading! Well, it's been fun reading Reservoir 13 and seeing just how differently the same basic plot can be developed.

In Reservoir 13, the disappearance of the girl is only the departure point for an exploration of the life of a small village. There is no main character, just short vignettes (or not even that, sometimes; in some cases it's just a couple of sentences) about a group of people, showing their life and how it changes. It's not about the disappearance, but the disturbance created by it can be seen in many of the characters.

As much as about the people, this is about nature, and how a small village interacts with it. We'll get a sentence about a particular character, and the next one will be about how this particular buzzard is now starting to build a nest. It's very effective.

There isn't really a plot propelling anything forward, but I never felt this was a problem. It's beautifully written, like reading poetry in prose. Reading this book was almost hypnotic and strangely relaxing, almost like slipping into a warm bath. I took me a while to finish it, because it felt right to read a single chapter every day, right before going to bed. Reservoir 13 was a lovely way to wind down the day and transition into sleep. I realise this might sound like damning it with faint praise, but I don't mean it that way at all.  I loved it, and I'd recommend it to anyone.

MY GRADE: An A-.

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