If you like slightly magical tales of derring-do and adventure, of running away with a circus, of romance and unstable people in the midst of the greaIf you like slightly magical tales of derring-do and adventure, of running away with a circus, of romance and unstable people in the midst of the great depression, with a fair sprinkling of real darkness and tension, told beautifully and atmospherically, then this is the right book for you.
It isn't flawless - the elephant, especially, is a little too anthropomorphised / cartoonified with all her smiling and mischief, and the 'water for elephants' title is somehow overplayed and underplayed (it's mentioned a lot, but the old narrator's reaction is never completely explained) - but these are minor niggles in an otherwise beautiful, delightful gem of a novel....more
The Hero of Ages is the third book in a series / trilogy. As such, the two preceding novels are really required reading to get anything out of this onThe Hero of Ages is the third book in a series / trilogy. As such, the two preceding novels are really required reading to get anything out of this one - and, if, like me, you leave a long gap between reading installations, the third book is quite a struggle to get into. I'd long forgotten many of the incidents and characters of books one and two, and much of the detail / mythology / rules, so it took almost a third of the way into this book before I got into it.
Book one saw a small group of thieves and con artists take on an empire & evil Overlord / Lord Ruler / Dark God. Book Two saw the surviving characters quest to free an incarcerated force of nature / power & struggle to implement better politics than the evil autocratic ruler they'd replaced.
Book Three is a struggle to save the (dying, ending) world. Our academic idealist (Elend Venture) has given up on democracy and idealism and is instead finding his feet with realpolitik, leadership, and wars. (Why does some of this read like it might be partially inspired by some of Obama's failings as a leader?). And this time, our protagonists really are struggling against an almost omniscient, omnipotent, destructive God...
I gave the book four stars because, for much of it, I was keen to read on. I was keen to read on even though the prose / writing voice is fairly pedestrian. I was keen to read on even though I didn't altogether care much about most individual characters, or the fate of this world. I was keen to read on even though some of battles & skirmishes felt quite endless and boring, and even though there is something fundamentally unsatisfying about abstract god-forces battling with each other by ... err... throwing their mythical magical forces against each other. Not to mention the silliness of God-powers being wielded by men. Basically, I gave this book four stars because it made me want to read on even though I didn't like all that much of its component elements, and because I can't figure out how or why it made me want to read on. I guess the book is like a puzzle where you don't see the whole picture until it's done: once a good chunk of it is together, you sort of want to complete it, even if you don't really like playing with puzzles....more
Is Sprout a metaphor for a migrant, the dog the border agency, the rooster & hen a government, the other barn / reservoir anA nice enough parable.
Is Sprout a metaphor for a migrant, the dog the border agency, the rooster & hen a government, the other barn / reservoir animals foreign nations' citizens? Perhaps.
It's readable and very short. The animals are over-anthropomorphised: beaks don't smile or frown, I'm not convinced birds shed tears, etc. etc. - every character has animal behaviours and human behaviours in a weird balance. (Perhaps comparable to Fantastic Mr Fox, the movie). I found this kept distracting me.
The title is also a bit misleading - it's not really about a hen who dreamed she could fly, but about a hen who dreamed of freedom and motherhood, and a better life. It's a tale of not belonging, and of family, and the permanent outsiderhood / marginalisation of people who move from one place to another.
Not bad - but not terribly memorable either....more
Summary: I think people who like Fin de Siecle, original Gothic novels (Frankenstein, DraYou can find my full review of The Quick on my new book blog.
Summary: I think people who like Fin de Siecle, original Gothic novels (Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde, etc.) might enjoy this evocation of that literary genre. But people like me - who enjoy the aesthetic but want a bit more pace and adventure - are not going to enjoy it....more
A very easy, fast read, this book lives and breathes for its Ugandan character, Mary Tendo. Having lived and worked in London (and other cities and coA very easy, fast read, this book lives and breathes for its Ugandan character, Mary Tendo. Having lived and worked in London (and other cities and countries), she starts the novel back in Uganda, settled and in charge of a linen room in a hotel. A letter arrives, offering her a job if she returns to London, where the now-adult son of the woman whose cleaner/nanny she had been, many years earlier, has suffered a mental breakdown. She's asked to return, to help him heal.
Mary Tendo is the momentum and the heart and soul of this novel. The other characters are... dubious. Vanessa Henman, her employer, is reprehensible to the point of caricature. Hypocritical, self-absorbed, egocentric, racist, controlling, arrogant, bitter and petty with a self-image that is self-sacrificing, equanimous, tolerant, generous... basically, a vile person who thinks very highly of herself. Her son is a messed up crybaby who love-hates his mother, and the way his breakdown is portrayed feels about as inauthentic as it could possibly be. He is portrayed as so dysfunctional that it is not credible he could ever have been functional. The ex-husband is Mr Nice, the creative writing students are screaming cliches... basically, aside from Mary Tendo, all characters are cardboard, and none of them convincing.
It is a little odd, like reading an animated movie with one human character in it (like Space Jam or Song of the South), where the one human character is a Ugandan black woman, and she's stuck in a posh cartoon Britain.
The story tries to preserve its universality by only naming big things: London, Uganda, Kampala. Mary and Vanessa both hail from villages, which remain unnamed, sketched in only the vaguest terms (leading to a weird awkwardness when Vanessa's home village is visited, and it keeps being referred to as 'the village' while all the big cities were named). There are mobile phones in the book, but other than that it seems to have been written out of time - is it set in the 1990s, 2000s? People write letters; there appears to be no internet, or it is unimportant and no part of people's lives. Maybe the book is set in the second half of the 1990s, when laptops and mobiles co-existed without the web being the be-all and end-all of communications.
Sometimes, the book does not quite follow its own logic: someone working hard and saving up £3000 for lots of blood, sweat and tears is unlikely to let her boyfriend fly over from Uganda (which presumably would cost £600-800 or so).
The book also seems oddly inconsistent: sometimes it's told in third person, close to either Mary or Vanessa. Sometimes it's in first person. Some scenes drift close to one viewpoint character after another.
Basically, this is a book with a colourful, three dimensional main character, stuck in a two-dimensional world with clunky writery craftsmanship around the edges.
It's brisk and entertaining, but not terribly rewarding or enjoyable to read. (The British characters sap all the joy from it...)...more
I can understand why this particular guidebook has attracted less than favourable reviews on Amazon. It is short. Painfully short, for 6.99 - the amouI can understand why this particular guidebook has attracted less than favourable reviews on Amazon. It is short. Painfully short, for £6.99 - the amount of information in the book would not be out of place on a website. So it does not feel like good value for money.
It does cover the topic reasonably well, but the holy grail is never even attempted or addressed: Northern Lights on a tight budget. Maybe it's unattainable, but I found myself thinking the book missed opportunities to at least address the issue. I myself have not seen the Northern Lights yet, but intend to, and price is the single biggest obstacle. I found that flights to northern Norway, Sweden and Finland have become much more affordable (thank you, Norwegian Airlines), but accommodation is impossibly expensive. Russia has affordable accommodation but the flights are ludicrously expensive. In the end, Iceland was the location where combined costs for flights and accommodation were least intimidating, but I still don't know whether I made a good choice.
Northern Lights flights were never mentioned as an option at all. Alaska and northern Canada weren't mentioned, either. I imagine the flights would be too expensive, but now that Icelandair offers connections from Europe to Anchorage, maybe that situation might change.
It was good to see photography addressed, but the book could have gone into more depth.
Basically, it reads like an executive summary. A website, rather than a book. The advice and the writing is good and the breadth of topics addressed is not bad, but when paying full price for a book, I kinda hope for more depth and detail....more
I forgot how funny this novel is. It's got momentum, panache, a twinkle in its eye and a mischievous grin, this novel. It does not take itself seriousI forgot how funny this novel is. It's got momentum, panache, a twinkle in its eye and a mischievous grin, this novel. It does not take itself seriously, as American Gods does (Anansi Boys is kind of a spin-off novel). It dances, and it sings.
It's also chaotic at times, and it has rough edges. In the final third, some characters change too quickly, some resolutions feel a bit like writers' cheats... but the book gets away with it.
Of the Neil Gaiman novels, this is one which is light on its feet. It's one of his best....more
Voyageurs is a novel about a Quaker from a community in North England who travels to Canada toYou can also find my review of Voyageurs on my book blog
Voyageurs is a novel about a Quaker from a community in North England who travels to Canada to search for his missing sister, around the time when the US and Britain / Canada were just about to go to war.
It's a slow novel, enjoyable because it puts the reader in a different time, place and culture. Multiple cultures, really: our narrator is a quaker, but he spends time with voyageurs (fur traders), natives, settlers. For most of the book, you don't really know whether the main mystery will be resolved - the odds seem insurmountable. So it's the conflict between a devout pacifist and the various societies readying themselves for war which drives much of the tension. And, of course, the difficulties our narrator has with his own nature (which is somewhat less peace-loving and more capable of lust than he would like).
It's a book with lots of description, quite a few scenes where people sit around and tell each other their life stories (but then, what else would they do when they are stuck with each other for a long time?), and a story which includes the odd moment of shock - but not necessarily tension. Big events happen, but there is rarely build-up. This all contributes to making it a slow read - I enjoyed it for its power of displacing me, and for a sense of a time and a world I had not really thought about very much. But it's definitely no thriller. It almost reads like a good novelisation of non-fiction events (i.e. similar to Nathaniel Philbrick's novels), even though it is pure fiction. That, I guess, is a testament to the attention to detail of the writer....more
Engaging, if somewhat shallow, fantasy noir novel. First person narration, but out 'hero' is not a particularly good man. A fallen from grace former uEngaging, if somewhat shallow, fantasy noir novel. First person narration, but out 'hero' is not a particularly good man. A fallen from grace former urchin, former fantasy-FBI-equivalent agent, current drug dealer and killer.
The story kicks off with the brutal sexual murder of a small girl shocking the community, and our narrator finding himself looking into the crime to find the culprit(s). From there, it is a tale of him trying to unravel a series of child murders.
Unfortunately, the story does not make a whole lot of sense (when it gets resolved, I never quite understood what the different sets of baddies were doing or trying to do, nor how nor why). It's also very much a story told with a certain infusion of our world in the style - people are told to 'park themselves', and our narrator at one point explains, at length, why knocking someone out by hitting them over the head 'does not work the way people think' - but only people in our world, used to movies, would think that: there is no reason people in this fantasy world would have this odd misconception.
Despite that, it's diverting popcorn entertainment. Short, brisk, and generally enjoyable. Features some dark moments, to earn its 'noir' spurs. ...more
A pleasant and diverting, amusing tale of a gastronomic society at Oxford University. It sets up a rich and quaint atmosphere and delights in shenanigA pleasant and diverting, amusing tale of a gastronomic society at Oxford University. It sets up a rich and quaint atmosphere and delights in shenanigans and food.
It does not read as a terribly realistic, important, literary tale, but as light entertainment, it hits all the right notes. ...more
This feels like a Richard and Judy Book Club read. It's short, has easy flowing prose, and it's easy and unchallenging. It's got just enough culture sThis feels like a Richard and Judy Book Club read. It's short, has easy flowing prose, and it's easy and unchallenging. It's got just enough culture shock to be an interesting flavour and put the reader in a new place, but not enough to overwhelm or alienate anyone.
The story starts when our narrator, the best hairdresser in a stylist's, unexpectedly gets competition for the crown when a male hairdresser is hired. Male stylists are totally unheard of, and he's much more talented than her, quickly relegating her to lower rank in the pecking order.
All plot developments are heralded well in advance and unsurprising to European / American readers, which helps the book retain a certain sweetness even when bad things happen. It's quite casual about bad things - sexual harrassment, deprivation, rape, racism, persecution, thug squads, death squads - there's lots of grimness in these pages, but it's always safe, part of the story's scenery rather than its heart. It makes the story easy to digest.
For a little light entertainment with an African / Zimbabwean flavour, I'd recommend this book....more
The Crane Wife is a fable for adults. As it was written by Patrick Ness, whose "A Monster Calls" is a stunningly brilliant, deeply moving and poetic bThe Crane Wife is a fable for adults. As it was written by Patrick Ness, whose "A Monster Calls" is a stunningly brilliant, deeply moving and poetic book for children (about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer), I had the highest expectations.
The prose is certainly pretty and beautiful, and the tale has a richness that somehow echoes with magic and myths. Some of the characters are richly drawn and complex and wonderful. George and Amanda and JP are definitely memorable, believable people. Rachel and Mei and Mehmet and some of the other supporting cast are less complex and less compelling and also not always entirely convincing in their own right.
The story is that of a lonely man, George, who rescues a crane one night, and who, the next day, meets a wonderful woman with a Japanese-sounding name, who takes cut-out art he happens to make in his spare time, and arranges it within the feather-based tile art she produces herself, to a magical artistic effect that completes both his and her art. And, of course, he falls in love with her. The world falls in love with their art.
It is a tale of need and greed and keening. It is also a tale of self-doubt and destructiveness.
It is beautifully written, but the truth is, I did not always feel an urgent desire to keep reading right away. I was conscious of the fact that I was reading beauty and art, but, if that makes any sense, I was not always enjoying it. There is an underlying sadness in the tale, but it isn't the wracking despair of a dying loved one and one's helplessnees, it is a melancholy sadness, a somewhat removed and self-inflicted pain. Melancholy and Weltschmerz and the agonies of desperately needy love and the giant millstones of self-doubt - it's a bit too emo for my liking.
It's still beautifully written and anyone who likes the novels of Ali Shaw should love it, but for me, right now, it was not quite the right book to enjoy. ...more
Pleasant enough, but I thought it would be longer.
Cramming a huge amount of ideas & topics into a fairly short story, with WW2, xenophobia, the vPleasant enough, but I thought it would be longer.
Cramming a huge amount of ideas & topics into a fairly short story, with WW2, xenophobia, the value of 'truths' / 'speaking one's mind' versus 'respecting other's feelings', and even slavery...
On a very basic level, the idea of aliens feeding on negative energy would suggest that there are other places during WW2 where they could feast and thrive, without any input of their own, rather than domineering a sleepy small US town and stirring up negative energies there. And our protagonists are pleasant enough, but sadly the black girl never reads like a child / young character: she seems wise far beyond her years.
This story reads like the outline of a rich, complex novel, rather than a short novelette. Sadly, that means it does not really fit the short form too well, and feels extremely rushed and a little forced as a result. ...more
A Different Kingdom is the tale of Michael Fay, an orphan boy growing up on a farm in Ireland. It’s a time when rural life still feels eternally static, but is actually on the cusp of big changes. The first tractor makes an appearance, and while horses are still the most popular beasts of burden and means of transport, there are cars, too…
But that is backdrop. Really, it is the story of a boy stumbling towards, into, and out of, an eternal, mythical place. At first, Michael notices things in the woods, and by the river, things glimpsed only momentarily out of the corner of an eye. He’s still a small boy then, and though he gets into trouble, that trouble mainly takes the form of a beating for ruining clothes while falling into mud. The other place (and the creatures from that other place) initially have very strong competition for Michael’s attention: his aunt Rose is a girl / young woman, a sensual, unabashed one, and even though he is very much a child, he is fascinated by her.
The narrative is split: we read about Michael gradually moving towards the Different Kingdom, intercut with scenes of Michael as an older man, working his way back towards Ireland / home, from that different kingdom. And then we get his journey into the kingdom, intercut with a narrative of Michael’s adult life in London.
There are many books about characters who stumble into other worlds. Few treat the matter with as much seriousness (and thought) as A Different Kingdom. It’s the sort of novel which could probably be marketed as ‘literary’ or among the most ambitious of the fantasy genre. It’s rich with themes like adolescence, first childhood sensuality, fascinations, and it treats the journey into another place as something with a real and lasting psychological impact. The prose is masterful, drifting into a rich mythical voice in the other world (and when its characters speak), but grounded in real Ireland (and later, London) when it needs to be. And the characters are complicated and believable.
It’s a novel reminding me of Alan Garner’s work, and of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood – eminent classics. I do believe A Different Kingdom will take its place among those, and I could easily imagine it winning a few awards.
Its richness does mean that it commands your attention, and its narrative structure is not optimised for thrills and pace. It’s a gradual, immersive novel, but definitely not a thriller. (After all, you almost always know that Michael will survive, simply because of the way the story has been intercut from different timelines). It’s also a novel with a protagonist who is not always impressive. Michael the orphan boy has our undivided attention and sympathy. Michael the teenager is a bit full of himself. Michael the quest obsessed is stubborn, wilful, and not the most cheerful company. Michael, the tired Londoner is not the hero type. It’s a novel where the gradual erosion of likeability of the protagonist works against the flow: it’s uphill reading. It’s still worth persevering with, but it’s not at all a cheerful little piece of escapism.
Rich prose, thoughtful plotting and intelligent writing make this a worthwhile read, but also a bit of an acquired taste. I’d recommend it for fans of Alan Garner, Robert Holdstock and Jo Walton. ...more
Some of the folk tales here are basically long jokes. Almost all of the others are about wit and wilyness. If you like your folk tales to have a comicSome of the folk tales here are basically long jokes. Almost all of the others are about wit and wilyness. If you like your folk tales to have a comic slant, and shedloads of admiration for pranksters and jesters and con men, then this is the book for you. Not much noble strife and moral guidance, but plenty of outwitting and outsmarting cheek......more
As a companion piece to Princess Bride (written by the same fictional author, set in the same Europe), The Silent Gondoliers has a lot to live up to.As a companion piece to Princess Bride (written by the same fictional author, set in the same Europe), The Silent Gondoliers has a lot to live up to. There is a lot of warmth and wit and quaintness in the telling of the tale, but sadly, not much tale to tell.
The Silent Gondoliers does have a main character, Luigi, but, unlike Westley and Buttercup, it takes a very long time before we have any idea what Luigi wants.
Or rather, he always wants the next thing that's out of reach:
He wants to become a gondolier. (And then becomes one) He wants a pretty girl. (And then he gets her) He wants to sing. (But he's a bad singer)
It takes a third of the novel before Luigi appears.
Another third before he tries to sing.
And then the real story is squeezed into the final third of the novel. But because Luigi bears all his challenges with a goony smile, it's hard to feel that there is any energy at all. The Silent Gondoliers is basically a pretty, quaint little postcard of writing. All style, but little substance, and no real drive. The illustrations, meanwhile, are weird. Most are just plain and boring pictures of scenes and people. Some have elements of the surreal. None are atmospheric, and, by giving Luigi a (not terribly appealing) face, they take away some of the atmosphere from the writing.
Bought this because I attended an SF/F/Horror writer convention / event / thingie in Newport, and encountered the author Tim Lebbon (whom I'd never heBought this because I attended an SF/F/Horror writer convention / event / thingie in Newport, and encountered the author Tim Lebbon (whom I'd never heard of) there. I became curious and figured I'd give his books a try. (How peculiar, to find out that a New York Times Bestselling, multi-award-winning author is living near Newport, and I'd never heard his name at all)
The Thief of Broken Toys is not really a horror novel. It is a short magic-realist / semi-mythical story, longer than a novella, but quite compact for a novel, about bereavement and melancholy, about depression, and about life in a small fishing village near the edge of a cliff. It is incredibly atmospheric, beautifully written, elegant, and rich. A father whose son has died surprisingly, and whose wife has left him, is meandering through his despair when he meets and old man, a stranger, who has an interest in broken toys.
The book builds atmosphere without being too worried about forcing the plot along - a story about loss kind of probably has to march in the stately pace of a funerary procession. There are things which some readers might find uncomfortable - second person narration sections, and descriptions that feel a bit like stage / camera directions moving our view across the scenes. Omniscient narrators are rarer than they used to be. But strangely, it all works, and works well.
All in all, this compact novel is rather good and well worth a (melancholy, autumnal) read....more