This is a charming, funny and readable story of a very eccentric wartime childhood. Given that the book was written in old age, one has to wonder how...moreThis is a charming, funny and readable story of a very eccentric wartime childhood. Given that the book was written in old age, one has to wonder how much was actual memory and how much was liberal use of the imagination to fill in the gaps, but it was nevertheless entirely believable.
It is interesting that the author is a beneficiary of the much maligned eleven-plus exam, which dragged innumerable children from homes uninterested in education and threw them into a grammar school, and thence to university and comfortable middle-class jobs. Without such a system, the author would undoubtedly have remained in his childhood environment and we would not have been able to read his entertaining history.(less)
This is rather a pointless book, a self-indulgence on the author's part. It is ostensibly a discussion of philosophy but is actually a loosely connect...moreThis is rather a pointless book, a self-indulgence on the author's part. It is ostensibly a discussion of philosophy but is actually a loosely connected series of anecdotes from the author's life, some of them interesting and some less so, interspersed with the author's random thoughts (or so it seems). Some of her comments are seriously inaccurate. She boasts about her lack of research, but it really is unacceptable to commit unverified factoids to print. It would have made a nice series of articles for a women's magazine, but as a book is less successful.
On the other hand, it is intended as a light-hearted piece of fluff, and there are some very funny moments in it. It would make an acceptable holiday read for young mothers who can identify with the detailed discussions of childbirth, breastfeeding and the problems of child-rearing. But for a general audience, I would not recommend it.(less)
This was an exceptionally difficult book to read, largely because of the author's habit of not clearly introducing characters, relationships or events...moreThis was an exceptionally difficult book to read, largely because of the author's habit of not clearly introducing characters, relationships or events, but leaving the reader somehow to devine what is going on. The writing is highly stylised, and the dialogue is opaque.
The setting, newly united Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is potentially an interesting one, and students of that period would probably understand a great deal more of the subtext than I did. Clearly the roots of both World Wars are under scrutiny here, but they are buried so deep under the pretentious style of writing that it is hard to dig them out.
The characters are so lightly sketched as to be transparent, and their feelings and motives impossible to discern most of the time. The story hinges on a number of significant marriages, but we never truly understand why the characters undertake them, especially when some of them seem spectacularly unsuited.
There is a good story lurking within this book, but the writing style does not do it justice.(less)
I loved this book. It is a story of three related women which slowly unfurls like a flower to reveal the truth within. It is beautifully written on ev...moreI loved this book. It is a story of three related women which slowly unfurls like a flower to reveal the truth within. It is beautifully written on every level - use of language, characterisation, plot - and the secrets which emerge are both shocking and yet totally believable.
The author is wonderful at leading the reader into the mind of her characters, especially child-Esme, whose intelligence and otherworldliness is brilliantly realised.
A number of reviewers found the ending mysterious or abrupt, but I thought it was perfectly clear and entirely understandable from the series of revelations which preceded it. And who would blame Esme for such an act?
This is a fascinating premise for the author to raise. It is not quite science fiction, rather it is speculative fiction, imagining the consequences o...moreThis is a fascinating premise for the author to raise. It is not quite science fiction, rather it is speculative fiction, imagining the consequences of a situation and the effect on the characters.
I never felt like abandoning the book, but equally I never felt entirely engaged with the characters or the circumstances in which they found themselves. It all seemed quite unbelievable - the (never explained) science, the unnatural docility of the 'students' and the physical aversion to them felt by the 'normal' adults. The adult students seemed to move through the strangely empty landscape of the outside world without ever interacting with it.
Yes, it is intriguing, thought-provoking and (perhaps) a frightening comment on how easily we could fall into what is effectively slavery, but to me it was never wholly convincing.(less)
This is, almost inevitably, a very mixed bunch of poems. The premise is simple - to look at some key moments of history or mythology, and imagine the...moreThis is, almost inevitably, a very mixed bunch of poems. The premise is simple - to look at some key moments of history or mythology, and imagine the female viewpoint. And some are wonderfully insightful, some are laugh-out-loud funny, some are extremely clever and some are, frankly, less inspired.
It really helps, I suppose, to have had the sort of classical education which knows exactly who Eurydice was and what she did, otherwise you spend more time Googling the references than enjoying the poems. Even so, some of them were quite a struggle to get through. It's more a book for skimming, or perhaps for reading out loud, than to sit and read straight through.
For me the book was partly spoiled by the overt contempt towards the male gender which oozes out of almost every poem. I know it's deliberately taking the female viewpoint, but surely it's still possible to feel sympathy, even gentle affection, for the old buffers, even when they are at their most stupid. It's hard to imagine a book like this written in reverse, spitting venom at women, even finding a publisher, and somehow all the cleverness doesn't quite outweigh the nastiness.
This is rather a slight book, not uninteresting but I have to wonder (as always with autobiography or memoir) what sense of self-importance drove the...moreThis is rather a slight book, not uninteresting but I have to wonder (as always with autobiography or memoir) what sense of self-importance drove the author to think her life story was sufficiently interesting to set down.
Her family is disfunctional (aren't they always?), her grandfather a minister of the church with a compulsion to have affairs, her grandmother a viciously angry woman and their marriage an aggressively bitter affair casting a pall over the household. Her mother is a perpetual child, and her father a self-made war-promoted man struggling to manage his business and family in miltary fashion.
In the middle of all this, Lorna appears to be a strange, self-absorbed child, buried in her books, who finds her metier at grammar school and then university. When she becomes pregnant while still at school, it seems that her grandfather's bad blood (and wilful sexuality) has been passed to a new generation.
As always with such books, there are parts that seem less than fully believable, and it is to be supposed that the author is presenting her childhood as she wishes us to see it. Undoubtedly the other members of her family would see things differently. And the sheer selfishness of a girl whose first response to an unexpected pregnancy is to apply to university is breathtaking. What did she expect to happen to the baby?
Nevertheless, despite its flaws, I enjoyed reading the book, even though not all of it rang quite true, for the sheer quality of the prose.(less)
It is six months since I first read this book, and since then I've read it twice more. What is there to say about it? With an average rating of 4.42 o...moreIt is six months since I first read this book, and since then I've read it twice more. What is there to say about it? With an average rating of 4.42 on Goodreads, rated by 36,383 readers, and with 4,724 reviews (to date), what can I possibly add? What can I say that has not already been said before, and undoubtedly better? This is the book that got me reading fantasy again. Decades after 'Lord of the Rings' left me stunned, here was another piece of fantasy that completely blew me away. Larger than life characters, a vipers' nest of political plotting, a whole world of places and inter-related families and history and creatures and magic and strange happenings, plus a dazzling writing style - all that and more blended to make a story I was unable to put down.
Well, there has to be a but, doesn't there? Right from the start, almost, I had concerns about some of the author's methods. After the rereads, that has settled into three issues. Firstly, Westeros is a dismal, depressing, miserable place. No, I don't want fairies and unicorns, or a simplistic good/evil dichotomy, and gritty realism has its place, but this is beyond realism. Nowhere in the real world do you find quite so many selfish, scheming, treacherous, downright evil people, and so few people with even an ounce of good nature in their bones. Now it may be that Martin will eventually toe the traditional line, and good will triumph over evil (in some sense) somewhere in the latter part of book 7, but until then we are left with a book whose message appears to be: life's really a bitch, and then you die (horribly, painfully and slowly).
Secondly, Martin does appalling things to his main characters. They die (if they're lucky), otherwise they're mutilated, crippled, beaten up, enslaved and forced to see and do hideous things, even the children. Minor characters fare even worse, but that's almost expected in a genre that deals with end-of-the-world scenarios. But the main (point of view) characters are the way the reader engages with the story, we have to care about them on some level to enjoy it, and having them vulnerable to death or worse at any moment actually interferes with that. The reader is liable to disengage, and that (surely) is not what any author wants.
In fiction, it's not enough to make your characters suffer just because you can. They have to suffer for a reason - because the plot depends on it, because it makes their character grow, or because the author is making a point about life or humanity or some such. There are too many instances in Martin's work where the reason is not at all obvious - Bran's injury, for example, where we can clearly see the proximate but not the ultimate cause (in plot terms).
Thirdly, the story sprawls. Now, fantasy is prone to largeness by nature - you can't fully describe an epic story in standard novel format, so three volumes at 600+ pages apiece is perfectly normal. Entire continents and worlds need a lot of people and places to fill them. Martin, however, takes this to a whole new level. The cast of thousands all have names and affiliations and children and servants and histories and sigils and named swords. No one could possibly remember a tenth of it, without a photographic memory. To get a handle on it, you have to take copious notes or use a wiki or read the books many times.
And the plot sprawls too. The first book's narrow focus on the Winterfell/King's Landing axis, plus the Dothraki movements, makes for a tight story, with only 8 POV (point of view) characters, excluding the prologue. But the later books begin to spread all over Westeros, with 9 POVs in book 2, 10 in book 3 and 12 in book 4. Book 5 is reported to feature 16. This, combined with the explosion of the originally planned trilogy into 7 (at least) books, makes me wonder whether the story has actually got away from the author altogether.
Now, I realise as I write this that all these points are precisely the things that many people love about the books. Gritty reality is much better than elves and Tom Bombadil tweeness, they argue, it's truly exciting if any character could die at any moment, and the depth and richness of Westeros is awesome. I can understand that. When you've eaten marshmallows for years, something acid is just what you want. But I think Martin takes it too far, and too much acid is destructive. I still see these as defects.
They aren't the only ones, of course. Sizes and distances are dodgy, the magic is all over the place and the medieval European setting is conventional, to put it mildly. But none of that bothers me much, because the story is so good, and the writing is extraordinary. I'm still going to read the whole series (assuming the author and I both live that long). I'll still enjoy it. I trust Martin to produce an amazing finish. But ultimately I will judge the books by the three issues given above, and specifically the reason for Bran's injury - was it critical for the plot, or did the author do that just because he could? (less)
Was it worth the wait? Well... The good news is that this is better than ' A Feast For Crows', much better, in fact. Some, at least, of the many spraw...moreWas it worth the wait? Well... The good news is that this is better than ' A Feast For Crows', much better, in fact. Some, at least, of the many sprawling plotlines weave in and out in a much more satisfying way, the most important new characters are introduced in a less contrived manner, and there is both more backstory and more action. It feels like a denser read, for sure, with a lot less fluff and filler.
The bad news (there had to be some, didn't there?) is that there are still many characters and plotlines left adrift from the rest of the story - notably Bran, Arya and Sansa (missing altogether from this book). There are still too many disparate plotlines altogether, and way, way too many characters. Some might see it as adding richness and depth, but I regard it as a pointless distraction to introduce a raft of characters for a chapter or two, only for them to disappear, sometimes for ever. And even if we need to meet yet another minor lord, surely we don't also need to know the names of his entire family, his maester, his knights, his bannermen, his guards, his sword and all the other paraphernalia. It's extraneous bloat.
There is still a great deal of ambling around the countryside, Brienne-style, but it leads to a lot of extra information and anyway, ambling north of the wall or around the free cities is a great deal more interesting than around the small-holdings of Westeros. And ambling anywhere with Tyrion is always fun.
I have never been a great fan of the practice of jumping from one character's point of view to another, chapter by chapter. At its best, in 'Clash of Kings' and at times here, the plot flows seamlessly from one chapter to the next. At its worst, in 'Feast for Crows' and occasionally here, the cuts are abrupt and jarring. And frankly, the technique of ending a chapter on a near-death moment gets tired very quickly. It's a cheap trick, and not even very effective.
Martin's magic has always been a bit of a muddle of dreams, prophecies, blood magic, shadow killers, seers and several kinds of undead, but previously it has been sparing enough that I can just go with the flow. But now it's much more in your face, and it's becoming increasing a plot device, to the point of deus ex machina. The ability of the red priests and priestesses to see the future in the flames is particularly 'convenient' from a plot point of view, and feels like a cheat. And although some of the special effects are clearly non-magical, there is enough magical capability that it feels as if any difficult situation, no matter how dire, could be resolving instantaneously by a wave of Melisandre's hand. However, I'm reserving judgment until I see the final destination.
The characters, as always, are wonderful. Even the new ones, like Quentyn Martell, are finely drawn so that they have our sympathy. And Martin's ability to make us like even the most hated characters is legendary (if annoying). He's already done it with Jaime, now we sympathise with Cersei and even Theon, who seemed entirely beyond redemption. The writing, too, is well up to Martin's usual standard. His prose is clear and straightforward, his descriptions are vivid, and as for his dialogues, no one does it better. But when did he get so repetitive? If I had a gold dragon for every time I read 'much and more' or 'words are wind', I could probably buy out the Lannisters. And the overused archaic terms, like 'leal' and 'mine own', are simply jarring in language that is otherwise straightforwardly modern.
But what about the story? True, it's absorbing, and it flows along pretty well. There are some great moments with the dragons, there are some genuinely moving episodes, especially Bran and Theon, there's a lot of humour and even the slower parts are entertaining (a great improvement on Feast). I wasn't counting, but my impression was that the death and dismemberment count was lower, at least among significant characters (a lot of the unwashed masses died horribly, but that's par for the course).
But then it ends, and virtually nothing is resolved. People move about, things happen and then it just stops in mid-stream, and we get another multi-year wait until the next episode. It may be churlish in book five of seven to grumble that there is no resolution, but a book that's sold as a single entity should at least have a discernable structure in its own right, even if it also aims to advance the larger plot and set the pieces in position for the next stage. Each of the earlier books had a simple theme - book 1 was about the naive Ned Stark at court, book 2 the defence of King's Landing, book 3 the aftermath of war, book 4 - well, book 4 was free-form plot-drift, and it has to be said, this book tends that way as well. Meereen would make a good central focus, if only it came to some kind of conclusion. The theme of the difficulty of ruling pervades the book, but that's tired - we've seen the same idea worked out already with Ned, Tyrion and Robb. More progress is made, but it is simply a few steps along the way towards the ultimate ending, with no coherent story of its own.
It's not that it's bad - it's actually good, entertaining stuff, with very few dull chapters, the new point of view characters are a positive addition, there is a lot of meaty background detail and a fair amount of action. But in the end, my reaction is - that was good, but so what? There was no emotional resolution here at all. And it's so painfully slow, and the vast size of it only underscores that. Feast and Dance together would have made one terrific book, if the author could have brought himself to prune it down to - oh, about a fifth of the size. At this rate, it's hard to see how the overall story can be completed in just two more books. And Westeros is still a depressingly awful place. I would love to give this four stars, but the rather incoherent use of magic, the dangling plot-threads and the sheer bloat drag it down to three. (less)
I loved this book. I had no expectations going in, and had never read anything by this author before, but it was mentioned as a good fantasy book, I s...moreI loved this book. I had no expectations going in, and had never read anything by this author before, but it was mentioned as a good fantasy book, I sampled it on the Kindle, and liked it, although it's totally unlike anything I've ever read before. It is a slow book to get into, but there came a point about a third of the way in where I stopped trying to follow the details of the plot (they're not relevant) and simply sat back and enjoyed the ride.
The protagonist, Basso, is essentially a businessman who ends up running his country on business principles - everything is about commodities and loans and making sure everyone makes a profit. If this sounds dull, it isn't at all, so long as you don't agonise over the minutiae. This is actually the funniest book I've read in ages. How Basso contrives his deals, and turns even potentially disastrous situations into winning moves is where all the entertainment comes from.
As a fantasy novel, the book is unconventional, to say the least. There is no magic in evidence at all, unless you count Basso's exceptional (and unexplained) degree of luck, there are no heroes or demons, and the wars are mostly a matter of logistics. But the world in the background, while sketchily described and not wholly convincing, is certainly not any known historical backdrop, despite its superficial resemblance to classical Roman times.
One point which still puzzles me is the title. The folding knife, an artifact which arrived in Basso's life the day he was born, and has a role in the defining event of his life, does not appear to be significant in any other way. I'm not sure whether it's meant to be symbolic of his weathy, upper class life, or represents the baggage from his family, or whether it's no more than a convenient hook on which to hang the plot. Either way, it seems a flimsy construct.
The ending is slightly ambiguous. It seems like Basso's extraordinary luck has finally run out, and everything comes crashing down around his ears. On the other hand, in the midst of catastrophe, he manages to escape the city without incident. Given that he is the most famous man around (his head is on the coins, after all), and half the city wants his head on a pike, this is nothing short of miraculous. Only two people recognise him, and the second offers him an anonymous job in a neighbouring country - a perfect escape.
So I'm inclined to believe that his luck is holding, and in fact the whole disaster is actually the best possible outcome for Basso, by releasing him from his past, the ties of family and always doing what was expected of him. Perhaps this is a necessary step for him to be truly free. There is possibly another book in this - after Basso the Magnificent, Basso the clerk. But until the author writes it, the reader is left to choose his or her own ending - Basso lived out his days blamelessly as a clerk, Basso became head of the Auxentine Empire... Either would work.
This book wouldn't suit everyone, both the writing style and plot are unconventional, to put it mildly, but I enjoyed it hugely.(less)
I only bought this book because it was offered for a very low price on the Kindle. It is self-published, so I had no expectations, but I was pleasantl...moreI only bought this book because it was offered for a very low price on the Kindle. It is self-published, so I had no expectations, but I was pleasantly surprised. It's not earth-shatteringly brilliant, nor is it great literature, but as fantasy goes, it's very readable. Unlike most Kindle books, it's extremely well proof-read, with no typos that I could spot.
The story: the dragon stones of the title, which give the dragons their power, are being systematically stolen for purposes unknown. An assorted group of characters - an innkeeper, a mercenary, an oracle and a dragon - are drawn together by events, and struggle to find out what is happening and why.
The dragon is the most interesting of the bunch. She is determined to take revenge on the men who killed her hatchlings, and as she can assume a more-or-less human form, and is not exactly a team player, much of the entertainment value lies in her over-the-top dealings with the world of men.
The ending is satisfyingly positive, but with some unexpected twists which ensure that the book rises above the mediocre level of most of this type.(less)
I found this a strange book, intriguing in parts, but very uneven. Written in the first person, it gives us a good insight into the mind of the protag...moreI found this a strange book, intriguing in parts, but very uneven. Written in the first person, it gives us a good insight into the mind of the protagonist, Rilke, but the other characters are more sparsely defined.
The premise is intriguing - Rilke, an auctioneer, is called in to clear the house of a recently deceased man. His sister insists that it must be done very quickly. In the locked attic, he finds a mass of erotica and some photographs suggestive of a long-ago murder, and decides to investigate himself.
The investigation has its moments, although it is very patchy, and punctuated by unrelated incidents. There is a great deal of gratuitous homosexual sex of the most casual nature. The first instance tells us something about Rilke, and in one encounter we are aware of his fantasies, but the rest feels superfluous. There is also a violent encounter with a supposed friend who tries to kill him in a bout of religious fervour, which has nothing to do with the plot.
Sadly, the climactic moment of the book occurs elsewhere, and we only see the aftermath, which feels rather as if we popped out to make a cup of tea during a TV show and returned to find the credits rolling. Then the ending gives us a great deal of exposition, which feels curiously flat.
The writing is very heavy on supposedly colourful description, which often seems to substitute for action, and the Glaswegian dialect often feels rather uneasy, as if the writer has sprinkled it on for effect. There is a good story somewhere in the background here. If it had been brought to the fore and supported by more action and better pacing, and less absorption in homoerotica, this could have been a much more readable book.(less)
This is a debut book, and inevitably the first in a trilogy ('The Kingkiller Chronicles'), by this author, and it is quite stunning. It is focused qui...moreThis is a debut book, and inevitably the first in a trilogy ('The Kingkiller Chronicles'), by this author, and it is quite stunning. It is focused quite tightly on just one character, for it is his story, told largely in autobiographical form, from the perspective of a point in his life when he is still relatively young but has already become something of a legend. Unlike many fantasy books, the reader is not dropped headfirst into a morass of names and places and customs. Rather it builds very gently and precisely, a step at a time, as Kvothe tells his story, and the other countries, languages and beliefs are simply there, an occasional reference tossed out to whet the appetite. Because of this, the book seems quite slow to get going, and there are places where it almost begins to drag. But about halfway through, when Kvothe reaches the University, the pace picks up and the book becomes totally absorbing and hard to put down. There are a couple of passages which are totally breathtaking, and even the slowest parts have a wonderful eloquence. There is a quite brilliant clarity in the writing, which is unusually poetic in nature, comparable to the best Tolkein passages, and infinitely better than the average for this type of work. This is not a swords and sorcery all-action story, but nevertheless there is enough excitement to keep things bubbling along. The magic is a feature, of course, but it never acts as a deus ex machina. In fact, when it is used, it is possible to see the carefully placed trail of clues which led to it, so that we always understand exactly what has happened. The story is complete enough to read on its own, but inevitably there are mysteries and hints about the events of the subsequent books. The author has achieved such a high standard with this first book, however, that it is hard to see how he can possibly repeat the feat twice more. If he can, the series will be quite outstanding. (less)