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.

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.

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.

Recommendation: “The Hoarder” by Jess Kidd

Maud Drennan is a dedicated caregiver trying to move past the secret of a lost sister. When she is assigned to the case of Cathal Flood, a crotchety and apparently dangerous widower, she finds herself drawn into the joint mysteries of his long-lost daughter, and Cathal’s late wife’s seeming obsession with a girl who went missing decades previously. 

As Maud and Cathal bond over a shared dislike of his overbearing son, she starts to believe that there is more the the family and the house, and that Cathal’s dead wife might be trying to lead her to solving a mystery. 

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Having now read her first two books, I’ve found I have a strange relationship with Jess Kidd’s work.

I’ve loved both The Hoarder and Himself. The stories are interesting, the writing poetic and wonderfully Irish, and the characters are fleshed out and realistic. Every part of both books work, both individually and together. Yet, for some reason neither of them have been able to grab me and make me love them.

Objectively, everything about these books is right up my street. But somehow they haven’t taken hold of my attention. I never feel compelled to read on. There are some books where, once I start reading, there’s no stopping. They’ll pull me in and latch hold of me so I want to read them without stopping. I’ll sit up in bed engrossed, reading just one more chapter until I realise I’ve stayed up far too late.

With Kidd’s books, I find I’m happy to pick them up, read a chapter, then put it down. I want to read on, but it doesn’t drive me.

I can’t put my finger on a single reason for this. Every element is correct. There are no weak links, or parts lacking that I can say “that’s the reason”. It’s just a strange and, so far, inexplicable thing.

And I still want to read on. There’s no part of me thing that this is a reason to stop reading her, which is how I usually feel if a book fails to grab me in this way. I have her next book, Things In Jars already in my Want-To-Read list.

I heartily recommend reading Kidd’s book, by the way. I’d love to know if anyone else has the same issue.

Review: “After Dark” by Haruki Murakami

“After Dark” by Haruki Murakami is one of those reads where you can’t really look away from the page, yet somehow by the end you’re not really certain what really happened.

I’ve always had an envy for the writing in slice-of-life pieces like this one. You don’t get backstory, or plot-arcs, or even a plot, really. Instead you feel you’ve been dropped in the middle of a single night, experiencing what these characters experience along with them.

Think back over your life. How many life-changing moments were you aware of at the time? Almost none of them. You only realise their importance in your own story much later.

I was left with the feeling that this was one of those nights. The events and meetings are going to change the characters lives. But not yet. Eventually. Overtime there will be more; relationships will develop, conversations will echo, ideas will grow. In a few years, if they are lucky, they’ll look back and recognise the seed that took root on this night.

One day I hope to write something like this. I’ve heard some people don’t like the ending, as it’s abrupt and doesn’t wrap things up nicely in a bow. But I love endings like that.

Recommendation: “Transcription” by Kate Atkinson

I am by now convinced that I’ll never not enjoy a Kate Atkinson novel. I can’t say this is my favourite of hers, but that still puts it above most other books. I picked this book up the day I found it had come out in paperback. Atkinson isn’t a writer who you see and don’t grab.

Juliet Armstrong is one of the hundreds of girls brought into the security service on the outbreak of the Second World War. Soon she is selected to join an MI5 operation tracking and recording Nazi sympathisers. We jump between 1940 and the doubts of the early days of the war, to 1950 as Juliet now works at the BBC and has to face new doubts about decisions she made during the war that might be coming back to haunt her.

As always Atkinson presents her story through and emotional and beautifully rendered world. If feels like a different type of historical spy novel. A spy thriller from the point of view of the transcription girl. And it is historical, based on real operations undertaken at the time.

As I said above, it’s not my favourite of Atkinson’s novels. She has written enough now that I feel that can be said without sounding like I’m saying she’s slipping. Some books will be better than others. It’s still an amazing read, and drags you along as soon as it grabs you.

Recommendation: The Johnny Maxwell books

I find it strange how there are some of Terry Pratchett’s books that tend to get forgotten. Maybe people have come to blend him and the Discworld so much that his books outside that series don’t get the same recognition? Or maybe they just aren’t aware of them? But, as a whole, I believe his children’s books don’t get the recognition they deserve.

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The Johnny Maxwell books are examples of these. Only You Can Save Mankind (1992), Johnny and the Dead (1993) and Johnny and the Bomb (1996) tell three separate stories about Johnny Maxwell, a boy who seems to have a ability to see through the world into something more; whether it be entering a computer game while he sleeps to save the aliens from the players, speaking with the ghosts of the dead to save their graveyard from destruction, or travelling back in time to the Second World War.

I’ve always felt that Pratchett had a real knack for children’s books. He was able to take the ideas and themes found in all his work and streamline them for a younger audience. Rereading them now I find it a little odd and oversimplified, which is maybe why they are overlooked, but as a child I remember them being incredibly real. They felt like adult books to me. I was already reading the Discworld novels at this point, but I know now that a lot of the details went over my head.

I prefer the Bromeliad Trilogy (Truckers, Diggers, and Wings) (a separate series, but there are enough connections to assume these two series are in the same universe) but I’ll always have a soft spot for the Johnny Maxwell books. If you’re a fan of Pratchett but not given these ones a go, I highly recommend it. 

For the record, Johnny and the Bomb is my favourite.

One final point: having been introduced to these book through the audio book versions I cannot read them without hearing the words in Tony Robinson’s voice. I don’t get that with the Discworld books. There’s just something about these three that sticks in his voice. Weird how that happens. 

Book of the Year 2018: ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson

So my Book of the Year 2018 was actually published in 2013. Yes, I’m kicking these off with an “If I Haven’t Read It, It’s New To Me”. I’ve actually read more new releases this year then I have in the past and really wanted to pick one of those to have an actual book of 2018. (With that in mind I would have picked Laura Purcell’s The Corset, so you should definitely look into that one if you can). But my final choice had to be Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

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This one grabbed the top spot both because of how good it is, and that it introduced me to Atkinson as a writer. I’ve since read more of her work and she’s shot right up to the top three or four of the list of my favourite writers.

Life After Life is the story of the multiple lives of Ursula Todd. The story starts with her dying at birth on a cold February night. Then it restarts, on the same night, this time with her surviving birth only to die early in childhood. Then it restarts, over and over, each time restarting on the same February night. And each time she brings with her small memories and feeling from her last life to help her shape the next.

While this may sounds a little Groundhog Day, it’s far more complex than that. Ursula doesn’t get reborn with all her memories. All that she retains are images, memories and vague feelings. For example, after one life where she drowns, in her next life when she goes to enter the sea on that day she has an unexplained panic attack, leading someone to notice her going in who is able to rescue her. But unlike Groundhog Day it doesn’t stick to the simplistic idea of retrying your life until you “get it right”. Some of Ursula’s lives are better than others, with each one echoing differently into those that come next. And while most lives are largely similar, some veer off wildly, showing how the smallest chance events can have a massive impact on your life.

What’s amazing about this novel is how Atkinson manages to entwine timelines together. I am a massive sucker for interwoven non-linear timelines in novels. I think it’s something that I know can only go one of two ways; perfectly or crash-and-burn. I’d also want to do something similar one day but I’m not sure I’d be able to pull it off.

Her style is so smooth and natural the concept never seems gimmicky or trite. And you honestly come to care about Ursula and her family. You truly get a feeling of relief when you see her avoiding an event that ruined a previous life.

I honestly can’t recommend Kate Atkinson’s work enough. I’m only three books into her backlog and looking for the rest each time I’m out for a new read. 

Review: Stick and Stones

Imogen has lived her life under the control of her husband, Phillip, from the first day she met him. Even after her left her and their son for a younger woman, their shared past has meant she’s never been able to be truly free of him. But when he suddenly demands she move out her house in two weeks, it start of a series of events that brings Imogen together with Phillip’s first wife and new girlfriend. Together they learn that through Phillip they share a bond no one else can understand, and decide that they will finally no longer allow him to control them.

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Sticks and Stones (Or Exes Revenge in America) is an amazing debut novel, and an astounding piece of domestic noir. Opening with the Phillip’s funeral, we’re then taken back over the previous two weeks – and the years preceding –  to discover exactly what happened that led to his death.

The story is expertly put together. It manages to twist and turn without ever feeling gimmicky or predictable. At no point do you get bored or feel anything is being padded out. Jakeman’s writing is lean and slick, leaving in nothing unnecessary. She perfectly keeps the mystery going without resorting to cheap tricks or cliches, throwing in red herrings and distractions that made it impossible to guess where we’re heading. At times I thought I’d guessed incoming reveals onto to discover I was completely wrong.

But as good as the story is, it’s the characters that really make this book. The concept of the mentally abusive husband and dominated wife finally seeking revenge is one that could easily become two dimensional, but Jakeman has created a cast of characters who all feel fleshed out and real. You really feel for Imogen, who never comes across as either comically weak or impossibly resolved. When she changes it’s because her character development brought here there, not because the plot required it to move forward. She comes across as a real person doing her best to avoid conflict with an ex-husband she knows can control her but can do nothing about, all the while fighting to protect her son over everything else. Phillip, too, is never a pantomime villain. He may be a monster, but he’s a monster of the type we all know is so very real. The kind who hides behind a reputation and knows exactly what they are doing.

Sticks and Stones isn’t any easy read. There are trigger warnings for all aspects of domestic abuse here. But all of it is packaged in an impossibly hard to put down story of one woman discovering how far she is prepared to go to defend her child and get revenge on a man determined to ruin her life.