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: “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.

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.

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.

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.

Recommendation: Spider-Man: into the Spider-Verse

If you get the chance then I highly recommend going to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

I can’t say I had high expectations for this when I first saw the trailers. My initial thoughts were that this would be a cynical cash grab by a studio desperate to wring out as much money from the IP before Marvel inevitably took back all the film rights. But after glowing reviews we decided to give it a look, and boy was it worth it.

Other than being an interesting and engaging take on the Spider-Man concept (pudgy, tired, over-the-hill, Spider-Man anyone?), this movie is simply a love letter to the comics. The look is amazing, even going as far as using that old fashions colour bleed outside of the lines.

The writing is fresh, the look beautiful, and the characters new and engaging. Sometime you wonder how there can be so many different versions of the same character without exhausting the audience. Then something like this comes out and reminds you of that unique attribute of certain iconic comic book characters that allows them to be reinvented over and over.

But if you’ve ever felt ill watching a 2D film, be warned. I don’t think the camera was still for more than a second for the entire film. It’s a swirl of colour and art. All of it’s beautiful, but the least descriptive word I can think of is “kinetic”.

Review: The Beauty of Murder

This was an odd one for me. Taken in it’s entirety, I liked every aspect of it. It’s only looking at each aspect individually that different elements jarred for me.

fullsizeoutput_33a4The Beauty of Murder has an truly fascinating concept; how do you track down and capture a time travelling murderer? Someone who can dump a body centuries before they committed the crime? Or even after? Stephen Killigan is a newly arrived Cambridge lecturer who stumbles upon the body of a missing beauty queen that seemingly disappears before he can show anyone. Soon he finds himself caught up in the web of Jackamore Grass, a man with the ability to time travel and a fascination with the apparent beauty of death.

The book itself is great. I’m not a massive fan of crime mysteries, but this avoids most of the tropes I dislike and its concept gaves it a twist that adds a wonderfully fantastical element that other books of this genre often lack. The writing itself is great, and for the most part the characters are interesting and believable.

The only one who put me off a bit was, unfortunately, the protagonist himself. I didn’t go to Cambridge so I might not know the place or the culture, but Stephen Killigan just didn’t quite fit for me. He was a little too cool, and little too instantly popular. The scenes of him teaching didn’t really feel believable for someone starting a prestigious new job. (He also seemed to have a habit of getting tattoos on a whim, from tattooist who will work on people who have just wondered into their shop, which left me a little judging as to their integrity, but I think that’s just me.) Most of the time I had no problem with him, especially once the story got going and I was able to settle into him. It just took a little while to get comfortable enough to slide past those ragged parts.

The other issue I had was the timeframe. About halfway through there is a massive time jump which didn’t seem to be addressed. Without wanting to give too much away, one of the main characters goes through a serious operation that would have required several weeks of recovery. But this jump isn’t addressed, and I was left with the feeling that the plot just paused for a few months. It didn’t ruin the story, I just feel that there needed to be something more here to address this as it left me wondering why all the other character just got on with their lives waiting for this one to get batter.

But other than these two gripes I really enjoyed The Beauty of Murder. It took a few chapters for me to get into it, and the middle had this jarring point where timeframes didn’t match up, but the rest of it was great. A brilliant concept, intriguing ideas and a murderer with methods I hadn’t read anywhere else.

Review: Uzumaki

When you’re reading horror, what you want to discover is a book that takes something mundane and everything and manages to make you see in it something new and unsettling that will make you question, if only for a short while, whether those things you’ve always considered safe are truly so.

And so when you find something as deliciously twisted and original as Uzumaki it’s impossible not to love it.

Uzumaki

Uzumaki tells the story of a Kurôzu-cho, a town haunted not by ghosts or monsters, but by a pattern. A Spiral. The books is broken down into episodic stories, each one telling the next stage in the story of how more and more of the population first slowly become obsessed with The Spiral, that pattern that permeates the world. Through the eyes of Kirie Goshima, a teenager seemingly in the centre of it all, we gradually the episodes begin see how something so everyday as a pattern reoccurring in nature can in fact be a sign of something far more ancient and terrifying.

I absolutely loved this story. I’m a total sucker for twisted horror like this, where the everyday world is gradually shifts and reveal that there is no place to hide from the things we thought were safe. Add to this beautifully grotesque artwork that seriously made me double-task several times while I read, and this becomes something you simply cannot put down.

My only quibble was that some of the middle chapters felt a little too stand alone. With some of the stories is was hard to put aside reality when wondering why people in the weren’t reacting more to what was happening to them. Even if it had been something simple like a few lines pointing out that it was strange how little people were reacting, rather than accepting and getting on with their lives.

But as the story continues and all the elements begin to come together this issue fades away. Once you’ve got to the end the way people act makes more sense. I would have just liked the final explanation behind to have been seeded a little earlier to prevent these niggling feelings.

But that minor issue aside I can’t recommend this book enough, and I will be looking for more of Junji Ito’s work as soon as my current reading pile goes down a little bit more.