Recommendation: “A World in Us” by Louisa Leontiades

The most relevant note from my read of this book is that it’s the first one I can remember since school where I’ve actually highlighted sections to refer back to later.

A World in Us is a memoir of two parts. The first is the actual story, depicting how the author and her husband came into polyamory and the soaring highs and crashing lows of their first relationship with another couple. The second is a commentary of sorts written several years later as a letter to the Leontiades’ younger self, going through each chapter in turn and commenting on what she has learned.

On the first level, this is simply a wonderfully written story about someone’s personal journey. What they went through to find who they were. These are four people discovering a new side to themselves, being willing to do something that doesn’t “fit” with societal norms because it’s what feels right for them, and learning things that a traditional, monogamous relationship would have never revealed. It’s honest, emotional, and at times brutal, but also beautiful and affirming.

The second level is as a guide for people newly exploring polyamory. Leontiades never shies away from the light or the dark of her experiences. There a moments both exciting and thrilling, and moments where she’s is emotionally crushed beneath the weight of everything. We are show the pure joy of discovering something that you didn’t know was missing in your life, but also the pain of trying to find your way in a lifestyle your upbringing never prepared you for.

The beauty of this story is its honesty. At no point does the Leontiades try to hide her own faults or issues and how they fed into the dynamic the four of them created. There are times that the others come off as the “bad guys” in situations, this is only because Louisa is our protagonist and so naturally the depictions of the other three are seen through her point of view. And this is effectively address by the author herself in the second half, where she reflects on the events of each chapter with the benefit of time, growth and reflection.

And this isn’t a piece of polyamory propaganda. We are simply presented with Louisa’s story, and are free to take away from it what we want. At no point does she argue polyamory is better or worse than monogamy. Only that both are valid options with their own benefits and pitfalls.

But through her honest depiction of her own experience, with all it’s failings and unaddressed issues, we are presented with the fact that this isn’t a gateway to a perfect life. It will be hard, and it my not be what we were expecting. But, if it fits your personality and you work on it, it can be a rewarding why to life your life.

Overall, if you are newly coming into polyamory I couldn’t recommend this book enough. Even if, like me, Leontiades’ situation doesn’t mirror your own there are so many universal learnings to take away from it.

Wheel of Time Re-read: The Eye of the World

And Book One of my Wheel of Time Reread is done.

Three thousand years since the world was all but destroyed in the War of the Shadow, the Dark One has begun to stir in his prison. As those aware of such things begin to fear the coming of the prophisied Last Battle for the fate of humanity, Rand Al’Thor, a young farmer, finds himself fleeing his home pursued by monsters from legend. As he and his friends make their way into the world, he begins to suffer dreams that may well mean he is destined to save, or destroy, the whole of creation.

I first read The Eye of the World by the pool in a hotel in Spain. I was on my first holiday with my now wife, and I remember buying it as a whim at the airport. If I remember correctly the quote on the front cover said something along the lines of it being better than Tolkien, and I decided to pick it up so I could properly mock it for such a grandiose claim.

When I got home I immediately ordered Book Two.

It’s not the best in the series. I remember even at the time I thought the story was a little too close to the plot of Fellowship of the Ring. But there was something about it. I didn’t know what at the time, but now I recognise that it was a sense that the world I was being shown was so much bigger than the story I was reading.

Most fantasy books, epic or not, never manage to make it feel that their world is any bigger than the parts we see. The writers flesh out the areas the character travels, but there’s no sense that the world is anything more. As if the protagonist sees everything important, and the rest is inconsequential.

What Jordan managed was to make me feel is that his story is taking place in a small part of something much greater. As is usual in fantasy, the innocent protagonist is pulled from his idilic home into a bigger world. With each step he feels he’s seeing the biggest new thing possible, only to discover even greater still with the next. But with Jordan’s writing you feel there is still more out there.

There is the promise of so much more, teasing a story with a scope we haven’t yet seen.

And there is so much set-up here. The point I always highlight is how there is a passing exchange between two characters, no more than a couple of paragraphs, that set up something we don’t see until around book thirteen. That’s how forward planned these books were. They don’t dwell on it. There’s no “Look at that over there, it must surely be important. One day will will visit that place” dialogue. They just mention is in passing, along with a lot of other things, and let it lie.

So is this book perfect? No. It is a promise of great story to come? Yes.

If you’ve read enough epic fantasy the story won’t be original, but take that as an introduction and you’ll be letting yourself into something amazing.

And on a side note, look at how beautiful this copy is. I can’t remember exactly when this special edition came out. It may have been a twentieth anniversary print, or something to celebrate the series ending. What I do remember is preordering this baby without a second thought.

Now on to Book Two: The Great Hunt.

Review: “Saturn Over The Water” by J. B. Priestley

This one was an interesting read. It’s a bit more adventurous that the last couple of Priestley’s I’ve read. Previous books have had little in the way of real conflict or danger, but this is more of a thriller and while I wouldn’t call the story edgy the protagonist is as at least in danger a large amount of the time.

 

But then it’s a very English kind of danger. There are various points where the characters are on the run and seemingly desperate to get somewhere before the antagonists catch up with them, but they still find time to stop at a nice hotel lunch and a relaxing smoke before carrying on.

Literally one of the plot points revolves around the fact that despite being on a strict time limit, and despite knowing their enemies are in the same town as them, two characters get separated because of of them wants to go out and buy tobacco before they have their coffee after dinner.

But the story is well put together and the writing excellent. It gets a little weird at the end. In the last few chapters the story, which until now was very much traditional spy thriller, suddenly takes on supernatural and spiritual elements. This is a weird shift in tone, and you quickly realise that Priestley’s using the story as a parable for the social politics in his age and his own politics. It’s not a bad ending. In fact I think it rather works. It’s just… slightly odd.

After the unfortunate ending on ‘Lost Empires’ I was wary of ‘Saturn Over The Water’, but while there are a few scenes with an unfortunate misogynistic tint this time we escape anything overtly offensive. Just be prepared for the fact that Priestley was a man of his time.

Reveiw: “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

The simplest review for Outlander is that while it was never bad enough for me to want to stop reading, the only feelings I had by the end were relief that I was done with it.

The plot is just so disjointed and jarring. The world and the characters are fleshed out and interesting, but Gabaldon has no idea how to lay out exposition without having her protagonist literally sit down and have a conversation with someone able to spend a chapter lay everything out for her.

Literally at one point the love interest says, in as many words, “Do you remember I told you there were things in my history I couldn’t tell you about yet. I’ve decided that I can now.” Any reason he couldn’t before but could now? Other than they were further into the book, I couldn’t see one.

Outlander’s Plot: Protagonist is in a situation; Protagonist sits down with another character who explicitly lays out a large chunk of exposition; Protagonist moves on to next situation. Repeat until book is twice as long as it needs to be.

And when I say “twice as long”, that’s no exaggeration. I have no idea who looked at this story and thought, “this needs to be over 300,000 words”, but they need to be found and stopped. This is not Epic Fantasy. It’s a Fantasy Romance. Any half decent editor could have told Gabaldon that this needed to be either split into two separate books, or drastically cut by a minimum of a third. A minimum.

I’m willing to give a pass on how quickly the protagonist adapts to being in the the past, and the nature of the interactions and relationships between her and the main love interest. There are… problematic elements, especially when it comes to 18th Century attitudes towards women. But this is, somewhere in its sprawling length, a romance novel. I wasn’t expecting a realistic portrayal of relationships.

And the most frustrating thing about it is I can’t bring myself to simply dislike Outlander. All the way through, while despairing at the exposition dumps and overlong periods of nothing happening while we waited for the next exposition dump, I found myself actually engaged. The concept has real potential. There are moments where you can see Gabaldon has done her research and has some interesting ideas about how a 1940s viewpoint would interact with 1740s society, and there are enough plot threads left hanging that I would honestly like to learn more about. But the idea of starting book two and having to slog my way through another one like this one send shivers down my spine.

So I find myself torn. After a break I may come back to this series. But I know that if I do by the time I’m half way through the next book I’ll be wishing it was over.

Wheel of Time Re-Read: New Spring

After years of fighting, the Aiel War is coming to an end. But while many are hoping for peace, Moiraine Damodred is privy to a piece of information that could set the world aflame once more: The Dragon, the man who all but destroyed the world three thousand years ago, has been reborn.

As all others with this knowledge are found dead in suspicious circumstances, it is up to Moiraine to find the newborn child destined to lead the world to ruin, hoping he can be guided for the good of mankind. Because if the agents of the Dark find him first, it will mean the end of everything.

I was excited about starting my Wheel of Time Re-Read, but I wasn’t expecting to get pulled back into the series so quickly.

New Spring is a slight oddity. It’s a prequel – a prequel that annoyed a lot of people who wanted Jordan to focus on completing the main story – depicting how two of the main characters of the first few books meet and the begin the quest we find them on – eighteen years later – in the first book if the series.

As someone who’s read the series already it’s a great way to start a reread. It’s a reminder that the story has been going on years, even centuries, before the main protagonist of the series was even born, in a way that makes the world seem so much bigger. And this has always been my main draw to the series; how Jordan managed to make the world feel so vast, yet varied.

But I’m not sure where I’d recommend it for someone coming into the series for the first time. It’s interesting to a fan to have this little piece of backstory, but I can’t say for certain it this would add to the experience of someone coming new to the series, or if it would remove some of the mystery from the first few books.

But if you don’t read it first, when would be the best time? Adding it in as a flashback between two of the main books doesn’t seem to work. I’ll have a think about it once I’m into The Eye of the World and see what I think then.

Now on to The Eye of the World.

Diving back into the Wheel of Time

And so it begins.

The Wheel of Time is my favourite ongoing book series. An epic fantasy story told over fifteen novels and spanning a mind-blowingly detailed world and history.

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I remember picking it up at the airport one year. The first book may have a little bit of a generic fantasy plot, but the characters and writing grabbed me so hard I picked up the second straight away. I know many people have issues with the series, but while most of these issue I just don’t see at all, I won’t argue that after book six it looses some of its momentum and I won’t deny that the story could have been wrapped up in 10 books if Robert Jordan had been a little tighter with his story telling. But I still absolutely love them.

I was lucky, as by the time I discovered the series it was already ten books in so I didn’t have too much wait between them. And by the time I caught up I was well and truly hooked. But the last time I read any of them was six years ago, and since we moved house and I rearranged them on my shelves they’ve been playing on my mind. So now I am finally giving into my own pressure and diving back in.

This will be a significant time commitment.

Last time I read through these series is took me three solid months. And that was when I commuted to London, so adding lunch breaks into the mix I had two and a half hours a day to read. This time I’ll be taking my time a little more. Aside from not having that commuting time now, I have other books I want to read, and writing takes up most of my lunchtimes. Plus I might take a break between books to keep things fresh. So we’ll see how it goes.

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All I can say for now is I’m half way through New Spring and I’m already excited to be back in this world.

 

Recommendation: “Gyo” by Junji Ito

Something is wrong. A stench that drove Tadashi and Kaori from their holiday at the sea has followed them to their apartment in the city. A stench that is driving Kaori mad. But as terrible as that stench is, what is about to follow it out of the sea may be more than mankind can handle.

Gyo. A novel you read when you’re fine never to want to look at a fish ever again.

Junji Ito’s work is something that grabs your mind and doesn’t let go. Grotesque and beautiful. He has a masterful grasp of the very essence of horror; taking something normal and twisting it slightly until it becomes unsettlingly unfamiliar.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoy Uzumaki, the first of Ito’s books I read. But being compared to a masterpiece is never fair, and doesn’t mean Gyo isn’t good. It just didn’t quite have the same overall feel of a completed story. There didn’t seem to be as much character, and the ending came out of nowhere and didn’t really feel satisfying. But that didn’t detract from the experience I had reading.

And that’s what Ito’s work is; an experience. Whatever other opinion you may have of his work, you don’t finish this book the same as you went in.

Recommendation: “The War of the Wolf” by Bernard Cornwell

Now an old man, Uhtred of Bebbanburg finds himself drawn back to Wessex by old oaths and the inevitable coming invasion of Northumbria. But while an ailing King Edward means that soon he’ll find himself marching south, for now he is drawn north by personal vengeance and what may be his final battle.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism about Bernard Cornwall’s series being very samey. I can understand the argument. But I still find that each once is just as readable as the last, and I’ve been waiting eagerly for War of the Wolf to come out in paperback.

I think these books avoid seeming too similar by being based on history. The characters are driven by on actual events, and so while the plot and characters may undeniably have a similarity across all the books, the fact they are draped over the backdrop of history gives them a realism they might otherwise have lacked.

Saying that, I would have though I’d have liked this one less. The majority of the story in War of the Wolf is not based in real events. Essentially, the book sets up the coming death of Edward and rise of Ethelstan that I assume will be the drive of the next story, leaving the majority of the story fictional. But I still enjoyed reading this just as much as the previous stories.

There’s also the fact we’re coming to the end of this series. Uhtred is now in his sixties. And while he, our narrator, can’t die, Cornwall does a very good job of showing age catching up with him. He’s losing speed. He’s still imposing, but lacks the raw power of youth that drove him before. And at the same time, he can see that Christianity is winning, and the old religion, his religion, is passing away. He’s a man beginning to face his own mortality, but in a way that suits the character.

There’s maybe two more books left to this series, assuming that it will end with Ethelstan’s rise as the first king of England (sorry for spoilers, but I think we’re out of the statute of limitations for events over a millennia ago), and War of the Wolf kind of has the feeling of a quick breather before the final push to the climax of the story of the creation of England.

If you’re a fan of the series, that fact is going to leave you more than excited for the next instalment.

Review: “The Murderer’s Ape” by Jekub Welelius

The life of Sally Jones, the ship’s engineer on the Hudson Queen, who just happens to be a gorilla, is thrown into chaos when she and her captain become unwitting pawns in an attempt to overthrow the government. When her best friend is framed for murder she is forced on a journey to prove her innocence that takes her from the kitchen of a Portuguese singer to the palace of a Indian Maharaja.

I’ve had this book on my reading pile for over half a year. I can’t say exactly why it took me so long to start it. I bought it on a whim at a writing event last September, so it wasn’t high up on my list. And I think it’s size put me off a little. I’ve read a few larger books this year that have been slow and ponderous, and I think I wanted to avoid another one.

But once I finally picked it up I really enjoyed The Murderer’s Ape. Despite its length it wasn’t actually that long a read. It refers to itself as a children’s book, but unless you have a year’s worth of bedtime stories to get through I’d have thought it would be a bit much for a child. But it’s not quite young adult. I feel its target audience are those preconscious children who find that early joy in reading. The kind who get their enjoyment from reading books other children can’t manage. Who voluntarily read Lord of the Rings at ten.

I can’t say the story really grabbed me, but I think that’s more because of my age than any fault of the book. I think its a little slow in places, and could have done with a little more peril or thrill, but that’s more my personal taste. It’s a fun, globe trotting tale, filled with a colourful cast of characters, and I think a younger reader would get a lot out of this.

And in the end the length wasn’t an issue. It didn’t take long at all. The writing is good enough that you a zip through without every thinking it’s a chore. I’ve read far thinner novels that have felt like they took longer to read than this one.

A selling point of the book is the art, all of which was done by the author. The story is preceded by a selection of portraits of the main characters, which gives a wonderful feel of the story to come. Those, and the maps included in the covers, signal the nature of the story you have coming, which I think helps mitigate the size of the book. It’s big, but you’re shown it’s scope from the beginning so you don’t worry you’re going to get bored. It also added an element of charm you don’t often see.

The Murderer’s Ape is definitely worth reading if you have the chance. Or would be the perfect gift for that teenager in your life who can’t seem to stop reading.

Review: “The Upstairs Room” by Kate Murray-Browne

The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne is a book made up of three distinct stories:

1) The first is the story of family reaching breaking point. As they struggle with young children, a new house, and a young and free new lodger, Elenor and Richard start to face how neither of them have ever been truly happy with their choices, and whether or not this means their marriage is a sham, or simply more real than the idealised image of it they have had.

2) The second is about a young woman trying to work out who she is. Zoe lives in someone else’s house, works in someone else’s shop, and sleeps with someone else’s boyfriend. All around her are people who seem to know what they’re doing, while she struggles to work out if she will ever find what she is “supposed” to do with her life.

3) The third is a ghost story, where a young couple and their new lodger discover their new house is haunted by a presence that doesn’t want them there. As Elenor gets sicker each day she remains but recovers once outside, Richard refuses to accept that his new house can be anything but perfect. But as Zoes starts to encounter inexplicable night terrors, the three of them need to decide whether to face their own prejudices to run away.

All three of these stories would be interesting to read. Mixed together as they are, they just don’t work. I can see what Murray-Brown was going for, but there is just too much going on. Her main problem is focusing on too many characters. Each time the story gets going and starts to engage you, you’re suddenly faced with huge chunks of back story. And you get this for all three main characters; Richard, Elenor, and their lodger Zoe. If Murray-Brown had focuses on either Zoe or Elenor, the book would have have a simpler through line and got bogged down in itself less often. As it is, the story is so diluted all tension is lost.

It’s a shame, as the writing and characters are good. There is a great book in here. Here’s hoping next time she gets a better story editor.