Review: Sticks and Stones by Jo Jakeman

After spending two years in jail for giving a false alibi to her abusive boyfriend, Charlie has fled to Cornwall to make a new life. Unsure if she even deserves it, is it possible for her to make a new life for herself? Especially when she doesn’t know how or when her past will catch up with her, only that it can only be a matter of time.

Jo Jakeman’s debut, Sticks and Stones, was about facing the truth about your life and how you free yourself from the shackles that hold you down. Now her second book is about the next steps: trying to create something new in the shadow of your past.

Safe House is a story about trying to take control. Our protagonist Steffi/Charlie is someone who has never had control of her own life. After a life of emotional manipulation by her parents and boyfriend, followed by two years in prison, she’s finally ready to take control of her life.

But how do you do that when you’re not sure if you deserve it? Or when you know it’s only a matter of time before your past catches up with you?

This isn’t as much of a thriller as Sticks and Stones was. There’s less action, mainly being focused on Charlie’s internal world. And we’re missing any real wild emotional ups and downs. Until the end there’s no real antagonist other than her own paranoia.

I will say I think the ending is a little too neat. I like a story to have a few untied threads, giving me a feel that the world will carry on once the plot finishes. Without wanting to give too much away, I felt things were all wrapped up a little too well.

But other than that I can’t really fault it. Definitely worth a read.

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.

The Wheel of Time Reread: The Shadow Rising

*SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THIS AND EARLIER BOOKS IN THE SERIES*

Prelude: New Spring
Book 1: The Eye of the World
Book 2: The Great Hunt
Book 3: The Dragon Reborn

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With The Shadow Rising the series has really hit its stride. Now we’re through the initial “trilogy”, as I discussed in my last post, we’re able to get into the story proper.

Let’s start with my highlight: the history of Rhuidean and the Aiel. This is, in my opinion, a contender for the best moment in the whole series.

We were introduced to the Aiel in the previous book, and now we see their culture in full. This is the third culture we’re introduced to – after the “main” world and the Seanchan – and its differences. The way Rand learns their history is amazing not just because it fills in a large portion of the world’s history but for how it does it.

As I mentioned in my last post, we’ve also now established my favourite characters in the series; Perrin and Faile. It seems silly in a way, but I really connected with these two when I first read the series. Out of Rand, Matt, and Perrin, Perrin was always the one who seemed to me to just get one with things. He did what needed to be done, and with far less sulking than the other two. Not that there isn’t some, but less than the others.

And he meets Faile, a fiery, passionate woman from a different culture who challenges him and forced him to connect with him own passion, while at the same time let him ground her. To an English boy who met and married and Argentinean girl, this spoke to me.

And I still love them. More than any other couple in the series, they compliment each other. They’re always looking out for each other and striving for the best for the other, even when they don’t agree with what that might be.

The other thing that can’t be avoided now we’re well into the series is an issue that’s been raised a lot: the gender divide.

There has been a lot of discussion about the gender politics of The Wheel of Time. Some of it is valid, some of it less so. I’ll probably go into this in more detail in later posts, but let’s start here.

The Wheel of Time has a definite gender divide. The characters are always talking or thinking about how the other gender is impossible to understand. Women will talk about how men are impossible to control and never understand anything, and the men will do the same about women. It’s a theme that runs through the books, and a lot of people have focused on this as a problem.

But there are two sides to this.

The first is that we have to face the fact this series has the same problem all fantasy of its time has, especially when written by someone of Jordan’s generation: outdated gender politics are written into the world in a way that wouldn’t stand today. These books may only be thirty years old but that’s enough to have noticeably dated in some ways.

But the second point is a gender spilt is an intrinsic part of the world. This a civilisation whose founding incident was all male magic users going mad and literally the world. From that point on only woman could use magic without going mad. This would naturally leave a culture with a stark gender awareness.

So while we do have the problem of traditional gender roles being entrenched in fantasy literature, I believe The Wheel of Time gets away with it due to its design. A modern writer might have better addressed this – Brandon Sanderson, for example, would have handled this much better – but I think Jordan just didn’t see it as a problem.

Also, as much as the female characters can be somewhat problematic at time, they have full agency and control. They are in most cases doing their own thing. And while a lot of this revolves around a man – Rand being the prophesied Chosen One will do that – that’s simply an inevitable part of the story.

And now on to The Fires of Heaven. The characters are on the move, the established havens made unsafe, and everything uncertain.

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.

Review: “Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London” by Matthew Beaumont.

I really wanted to like this book more. In fact, I think the amount I wanted to to enjoy it is the only reason I managed to make myself finish it.

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The main concept is one of those that is oddly interesting: a history of London at night. But it is interesting. It’s one of those areas that you don’t realise you’ve never thought about. I mean, when did you last think about how much public street lighting must have fundamentally changed public life? Or what life in the was city like when it would literally be pitch dark at night? I didn’t know that the literal act of being outside at night was once considered a crime. Did you? 

And the conceit should work as well. Beaumont uses examples of literature from different periods throughout London’s history – from Shakespeare to Dickens – to show how these poets and authors – in their work and their lives – reflected these changes in society. How going outside at night without an explicit reason went from being a crime to a leisurely pastime of gentlefolk.

But unfortunately Beaumont took this in completely the wrong direction. Rather than a history shown through the lens of literature, he makes this a literary critique that simply uses history as a loose excuse to show off his own knowledge. His writing is overly literary and self important – seeing the Forward was written by Will Self was fair warning, I suppose – making large chunks of the book almost unreadable. The topics should be interesting, and most often start off that way, but then Beaumont will slip into deep literary analysis that makes it impossible to stay engaged.

Essentially, this could easily lose around half its word-count. It’s not a thin book so wouldn’t look anaemic, and it would be a much better read. Unfortunately Beaumont appears to be part of that literary scene who believe that part of a good book is making it as hard to read as possible. It’s not the subject he’s writing about that he wants us to be impressed with, but his own intelligence. This is not a book the writer intended to be enjoyed. I’m half convinced that Beaumont may have just published his PHD thesis.

It wasn’t so bad that I gave up on it. There was enough in there to chip through and enjoy. But it’s not a good sign when your reaction on finishing a book is relief.

Review: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

When fourteen year old Marjorie Barrett begins to display the signs of acute schizophrenia, her family’s life begins to fall apart. The doctors are unable to stop her illness spreading, and when her father loses his job the family is soon running out of money, patience, and hope. Soon they reach out to the Catholic Church for help, and agree to participate in a reality television show in order to fix their worries.

Fifteen years later Merry, Marjorie’s littler sister, recalls the events she lived through as a child. As she does so, painful memories and forgotten secrets begin to surface.

I enjoyed this book. I just didn’t love it. There’s nothing wrong with it. The writing is good. The characters are solid. The structure is interesting and the ending, while not mind blowing, is at least interesting and well set up.

The exorcism is a old an favourite sub-genre in horror. Tremblay is aware of that, and works it into the story. He is skilful in the way he makes the reader aware that he knows this isn’t a groundbreaking premise. It’s just that after he’s done this he doesn’t then add anything new.

I went into this book expecting more of the conflict between Marjorie’s illness and the lengths the family went to cope. How both religion and the media seemed like the only options available to them, despite how obvious seems that neither was going to help. In the end it felt as if Tremblay didn’t commit enough in either direction. It needed to commit more to this, or throw itself fully into the standard exorcism plot.

It’s still a solid read, and you could find a lot worse out there. Tremblay is a good writer – aside from some very clunky dialogue in the ‘present day’ sections – and I’ll probably keep an eye out for his other work. I was just left a little underwhelmed by the plot.