Recommendation: “Big Sky” by Kate Atkinson

Once again, I’m blown away by Kate Atkinson’s writing.

I tend to find that when an author has an ongoing character they come back to with some of their books but not all – as Atkinson does with Jackson Brodie – I enjoy those ones less. And it’s true that I’ve enjoyed her non-Brodie books more than her Brodie ones.

But I this this was my favourite of the Jackson Brodie books, mainly because the way she uses him as a link between elements of the story, rather than the protagonist. This story isn’t about him. He’s simply part of it.

This book is masterfully written. If you want an example of “Show, Don’t Tell”, this is it. Each chapter is set in the POV of one of the characters, each going about their lives, and this is how we see the story. We’re never explicitly told what is happening, or who people are. Instead, we put it together as we see things from each characters perspective. When one character thinks about an event, the things they know combine with what we learnt from another, and we put them together.

Once more, Atkinson has shown why she is one of those authors that both challenges me to be better, and makes me despair that I’ll never be this good.

Review: “The Disciple” by Stephen Lloyd Jones

I enjoyed this book, but felt it only really got going in the second half.

There is a really good story here, with a core concept that’s incredibly interesting once you reach it. However, I don’t feel that the set up and initial feel of the book gels that well with the second, much better, half.

I feel the first half of the book could have been half as long and a lot more focused. I love Jones’ style, but it took me ages to get into the story to a point where I wanted to carry on.

But once you get through that, the second half is really worth working through for. The concept for the climax is really interesting. I would have loved to have the opening more focused around this rather than taking so long with character development that could have done with a lit of streamlining.

One thing I want to say is there is a massive improvement to the other of Jones’ books I’ve read. When I read his first novel, The String Diaries, I was disappointed by the tacked on happy ending. Sometimes a dark story needs to be brave enough to have a dark ending. And, without wanting to give too much away, The Disciple has an ending that perfectly matches the tone.

So not a great opening, but definitely worth pushing through until it focuses and pulls you in.

Review: Little White Lies by Philippa East

I finding myself enjoying stories like this one; smaller focused family stories, where people are forced to face the cracks caused by the tiny things done in their past.

A5D70964-D5B1-4301-81B0-6727CCE2C030_1_105_cIt’s similar to Emma Donoghue’s Room, in that it’s about a young girl who’s spent 7 years abducted and locked in an attic. Except here the story start with her being rescued, and told through the eyes of her mother and cousin.

The plot isn’t a rollercoaster. There are no real emotional peaks and valleys. The story is quite a low key presence. Rather than the events, “Little White Lies” focuses in the emotions of these characters as they try to process their own feelings and issues.

But there was something that stopped me getting completely lost in the book. I felt I needed more of Abigail. She’s been kidnapped and held away from her family for seven years, but until the climax didn’t seem that affected by it. She fit into her old life too smoothly. I think this was a conscious intent, as we are seeing her through the eyes of people desperate for her to slip back into her old life, but I felt it lacked a certain punch.

I think this is the book’s only issue. There’s fear, secrets, tension, but lacks any real conflict. I wanted Abigail’s return to upturn things. To disrupt her family’s lives more.

I think the author’s background in psychology is reflected here. I found the characters completely believable, but just a little detached.

I sped through this book. One of those stories that grabs you and keeps you reading. I can’t wait to see what East brings us next.

Recommendation: “Lexicon” by Max Barry

Emily, a talented street grifter, is pulled off the street and placed in a school that teaches its students the true power of human language. Struggling against the strict discipline of this new life, she discovers her talents for persuasion are more powerful than she ever realised.

Will has no memory of the things the men who abducted him insist he was part of. The only survivor of an impossible to survive event, he finds himself on the run from an organisation that wants to pull a word out of his head anyway it can.

I got this book as my Secret Santa gift at work last year. It was a successful purchase.

I got pulled into the story straight away, with both Will and Emily’s stories are equally engaging. At no point was I annoyed when it swapped between one and the other, which can happen when there are two viewpoints at once.

It’s hard to go into some of the details without spoilers, but I’ll just say I loved how the two POVs came to interact. There were surprises, and while I managed to work some out in advance these were enough to make me fee smart rather than making the story feel predictable.

This book was fascinating. As I got into it I actually started to worry, as the concept got very close to one of my WIPs. Luckily Barry took it in the other direction to where I’m looking to go. I might still take some inspiration from here though.

I’m definitely putting Max Barry on my watch list. It looks like he’s got a few books out, so those are on my To-Read list once I get my current reading pile down a bit.

Recommendation: “Magpie” by Sophie Draper

Claire and Duncan’s marriage has been over for years. Now their son is eighteen, Claire is finally ready to leave. To take her life back. But she finds that secrets from their past tie her to a man who has become a stranger to her. Ties that wind back to a shared past neither of them are prepared to face. 

When I read Sophie Draper’s first novel, Cuckoo, I was not sure if my problems with it were the writing or my own expectations? I felt there was a slight disconnect, thinking it was going to be more supernatural. When that wasn’t the case I felt thrown.

873B418C-EAAF-4D4E-B575-05C28F1E2FD8So I don’t know if it’s the story or a resetting of my expectations that made me absolutely love Magpie.

This story grabbed me from the start. We follow the characters Claire and Duncan, a couple whose marriage has been dead for years, in two separate time periods: Before and After. You find yourself immediately trying to work out the event between them, but Draper masterfully keeps you guessing.

Each shift and change in the plot is satisfying. Nothing feels cheap or gimicky. And, without wanting to give anything away, the grand reveal at the climax was one of those moments that actually had me rereading previous chapters as everything had been flipped on it’s head yet still made perfect sense.

As good as the plot is, at its heart this book is about it’s characters. Both Claire and Duncan are complex, rounded characters. The failure of their marriage isn’t flat and simple. They both contributed to it with how how they’re responded – and failed to communicate with each other about –  circumstances out of their control.

I very much recommend Magpie. With it Draper has shown that she’s a master storyteller.

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.

Recommendation: “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern

It’s World Book Day. I hope you’re all revelling in your favourite reads, or throwing yourself into a book you’ve never read before. Because if there’s one thing that’s just as good as – or perhaps even better than – the joy of rereading an old favourite its that feeling of realisation that the book you’ve just begun is going to be wonderful. That deep happiness of knowing that you will never again get to experience this novel for the first time.

This is what I just encountered with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

I wish I could remember exactly who recommend this to me last year, because then I could thank them to directing me to the experience of this read. Sometimes, when you’re trying to describe something, you don’t need fancy words. On these occasions the simple ones will fit better, as they can portray the essentialness of something.

The words that best describe The Night Circus? “Soft” and “Beautiful”.

Le Cirque de Reves moves around the world. It appears in one place as if by magic, opens only between sunset and sunrise, and then after a few days disappears just as suddenly. Decorated solely in black and white, populated by performers and attractions so otherworldly and imaginative that you can barely believe they are real, the experience of walking through the gate is akin to stepping into a dream. And behind all this are Celia and Marcus, two young magicians engaged in a contest to which neither understand the rules or know how or when a winner will be chosen.

Morgenstern’s writing is comforting without feeling worn, and elegant without being pretentious. It has the feel of something new that’s been expertly hand crafted to feel old and comfortable. She doesn’t rush a single word. If you require fast paced action, this isn’t the book for you. The story takes its time, letting the characters and the world grow at their own pace. Without wanting to sound to pretentious, the experience of reading the book has the feeling of exploring the circus itself; leisurely admiring every aspect as it comes until you complete your circuit and finally understand the full layout.

While I was reading The Night Circus I never felt rushed. I never looked at the number of pages remaining to guess how much I had left. I felt completely immersed, to the point where I actually felt sad when I reached the end. If you allow it, Morgenstern’s writing will sweep you up and carry you off out of this world and into its own.