Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Not what I wanted, but super readable - A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

[This book was provided to me free of charge by the publisher Cornerstone, assisted in this awesomeness by NetGalley. I thank them muchly.]

I'm usually leary of books set in countries the author is not from, especially countries like Japan which are so very different from western nations. However, Jackie Copleton's A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding comes with an extremely encouraging pedigree: it was on the Bailey's Prize long-list and Copleton is herself is a graduate of Cambridge and Glasgow, so I had high hopes of this one.

Amaterasu Takahashi survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Her daughter and grandson did not. For almost 40 years she's lived with the guilt of their deaths, until a man with a badly scarred face turns up on her American doorstep bearing a box of secrets. He claims to be Hideo, her grandson, rescued from the ash and debris, then raised by a man Ama would rather forget. To find the truth, she must revisit her memories of days long past, of before the war, and of her belief that everything she ever did was to protect her family.

I didn't care for this book. It's not a bad book, it just didn't offer what I look for. I wanted a book which felt authentic, which told a story I don't know from a perspective completely unfamiliar to me. ADoMU doesn't, not because the author is British, but because it's barely about Nagasaki and its aftermath. Instead its focus is the relationship between Ama and her daughter - Women's Fiction then, which is not always my thing.

Although it opens with this mystery - is the young man at the door truly the grandson Ama believed killed the day the bomb fell? - the question is inconsequential, a jumping off point for Ama's recollections, her diary entries and the papers she is given by the young man. ADoMU covers a lot of ground and consequentially its touches on its subjects are light where I would have preferred a hefty commitment to fewer of them, especially as they were the more interesting (and original) aspects.

If I'd been more caught up in the character, or the writing, I'd feel less short-changed, especially as this book goes down the lazy path so beloved by westerners writing about Japan. I was left very dissatisfied - Ama never feels like an 80-odd year-old Japanese woman.  There was no reflection or sense that she'd become a different person at 80-odd than she'd been on the day the bomb fell. The backdrops - of 30s Japan, of Japan at war - felt shallow, never quite coming alive; at one point the local festival of Shoro-Nagashi is described as being "unlike any other in Japan", but the description makes it sound like a variation of Obon. I want to know how it's different, why it's different, and what Ama thinks about it. When she moves to the US, how does it feel to lose this yearly conversation? What was Shoro-Nagashi like the year after the bomb?

There's also least one aspect felt as though it'd been written with Western attitudes in mind, rather than Japanese. I'm not accusing the book of errors (because I honestly wouldn't know), I was just thrown a bit by the suggestion that 16 is young for a relationship in a country where the legal age of consent is 13 (in certain circumstances). It was one of a few small details which contributed to a lack of immersion.

I think it's important to note there's an ongoing background discussion of white voices telling stories which belong to other cultures. This book left me with an overwhelming desire to read something about the legacy of the nuclear bombs by a Japanese writer but Google is bringing me little: everything I can find in English appears to be by western authors. They must exist, surely, but if they're getting translated I can't find them.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is a good book, it just wasn't what I was looking for. I also hope the Bailey's nomination doesn't put potential readers off; this isn't one of those highbrow "hard" reads, it's an interesting one which must surely be a shoe-in for the Richard and Judy Bookclub. The important thing to note is that, despite my complaints, this is one super-readable book and you could do a lot worse when choosing something to fling in your suitcase this summer.

3.5 stars.

Buy A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding on Amazon UK

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Hmmm - Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovotch

Although I like it, Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant series has been a bit hit and miss. The first, Rivers of London, was an absolute stonker - think Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere as a police procedural. The second, Moon Over Soho was slightly dire but managed to redeem itself with a lively final third. Book three was better, book four a bit better than that (provided you have my interest in urban architecture). Foxglove Summer, the fifth entry in the series, is no worse than the previous two.

London copper and apprentice wizard Peter Grant has long since learned not everything is as normal as he used to think it was. This week he's learning that The Folly, the supernatural branch of the Met, takes an interest in missing child cases, just to be sure they haven't been spirited away by anything Grant will only find out exists now. So when schoolgirls Nicole and Hannah leave their beds in the middle of the night, Peter's off to the countryside to interview an old acquaintence of Nightingale's, just to be sure there's nothing 'Falcon' going on. And since he's already out there, Peter volunteers to help the West Mercia Police with their investigation, an offer the overstretched rural force is keen to accept - and not just to show the doorstepping national press that yokels can do diversity too.

The strengths of the series are intermittently out in force: the fun to be had from somebody trying to negotiate the line between getting the job done and filling the paperwork out afterwards; the blending of traditional folklore with the series' rather more modern take on it (high fives for diversity and a pointed look at every fantasy author who's proffered excuses for the majority of white maleness in their books); some great back-and-forth dialogue; and although it's slow in parts, especially at the beginning, when the story *is* moving it's so terrific I risked hideous sunburn to continue reading.

But the weaknesses are there too, especially Aaronovitch's continuing inability to write a convincing relationship. I'm not looking for great romance here, I'd just like a sense of what either of them see in the other beyond a keenness to get carnal. A supernatural moment between the two is incredibly unpleasant but because of the simplistic way we view men as creatures whose interests begin and end with whether they get to have sex or not, it's written in a positive light.

It's frustrating because Peter's laconic narrative doesn't preclude emotion. There is a moment with a tree which is so perfectly done, which shows the underneath parts of Peter so much more effectively than his articulating them would do, that it becomes all the more frustrating for it be placed alongside a relationship which is little more than brief descriptions of energetic lying down.

I'm also having problems with the world building. Each book brings new ideas, often very good ones, but I sometimes feel it's at the expense of developing those already established. And while Foxglove Summer does give some series arc related insights and hints of things to come, those aspects remain very much a sub-sub-plot. I don't feel like we're moving towards a predetermined idea in which all the pieces will suddenly come together and have me scrambling to re-read the series.

While I really liked the premise, the whole thing felt under-done. Removing Peter from London gave some freshness, but not quite enough. The ending itself is horribly rushed, to the point that I feared a cliffhanger approaching. There wasn't, but that would almost have been preferable.

I do like this series and I will certainly be reading the next one, but despite this I can't recommend it (beyond the first book). If you don't like what's gone before there's nothing here to change your mind, but if you do like it this is engaging, occasionally tantalising, and hugely frustrating in equal measure.

3.5 stars

Friday, 20 March 2015

Readable but flawed - Natural Causes by James Oswald

[I've opted to put a few things in spoiler tags in this review - highlight the grey boxes to make them readable.]

James Oswald's Inspector McLean books have been cropping up regularly on my radar for a good while now, but as a crime agnostic I'd never felt particularly inclined to read them. I was, however, encouraged when this one made the Richard and Judy bookclub list last summer which can be a bit hit and miss for my tastes but is usually an encouraging sign. R&J bookclub picks usually score well for readability.

Which is what I think about this one. It's readable...eventually. It took me 20% to start caring and 40-45% to get properly hooked (which is an achievement, hooking me usually means 4 stars).

Natural Causes presents itself as a crime novel and this is a problem. It is a crime novel, but it's something else as well: a supernatural thriller.

I was aware of this second genre before I read the book and the reason I've put it in spoiler tags is because it massively, massively derailed an awful lot of the book for me. There were many instances where I'd nod to myself thinking "Ah, I see what you are doing here", only for it to come to nothing (although I suspect these things may Be Important in later books in the series). There are also plenty of other smallish things which don't really pertain to the plot of this book - like McLean's inheritance - which leaves it feeling flabby and loose where it needs to be tight and confident. Rather like myself.

The second problem with this Other Genre is that there's not enough of it. Only in the final throws of the novel do we get a commitment and by that point there's not enough time or context to make it work properly. The final conversation between McLean and his boss about the case is almost comically bizarre.

"So, Tony, It turns out to have been a demon from beyond the pits of hell, does it?"
"Yes, Ma'am, that's right"
"Well, I expect you've got a lot of paperwork to be catching up on."

It's a difficult one because if the book *had* shown its hand earlier, it would have changed a lot about it and I suspect it may have ended up being either derivative or ridiculous. Then again, it may have helped to give it more of an identity. I can't think of many books I've felt this divided over: it manages to be readable (eventually) yet broken in a fairly fundamental way.

It's also fairly relentless at times. There are an awful lot of dead bodies, more than 10, not all victims and not all in the case McLean is investigating. At one point, I thought I was going to need a diagram to help me remember which bodies went with which case, let alone which cases McLean was supposed to be investigating and which ones he was merely involving himself with.

The first half is also rather repetitive with regards to McLean being knackered. If the poor bloke had just been able to go off duty and not have somebody die, or not ruminate on somebody who had died at some point in the past, matters would have been improved immensely. Allowing it to effect the plot would have been even better. Instead, there's just an endless series of conversations about the sleep McLean should be getting but isn't.

I also spent far too much time as a reader ahead of him. Far too often, McLean realised something he should have put together earlier, or else remembered something only at that moment. The book didn't progress due to his actions enough.

However, for all the flaws, this was a very readable book. I'm giving it 3 stars, which is 2 stars for the confusing plot - which despite have eighty bajillion different cases, everything turned out to wrap up with case McLean cared about the most: the dead girl - and 3.5 for being engaging. I'm interested in reading other books in the series, but either as a Library book or a cheaply priced one. I'm tempted to skip ahead to books 3 or 4 in the hope they are tighter in their plotting (Books 1 and 2 were originally self-published).

Natural Causes: Inspector McLean 1 (Inspector Mclean Mystery) on AmazonUK

(This review was originally published on my Booklikes blog in April 2014)

Friday, 13 March 2015

*sadface* - The Echo by James Smythe

Regular payers of attention will know I like James Smythe. A lot. He's a sci-fi writer, but of the human character type rather than the epic space opera type. He is Ridley Scott and Duncan Jones rather than George Lucas.

The Echo is the followup to The Explorer (my review: very good, although not the most original idea, 4 stars) and is the second of what we are now required to call The Anomaly Quartet. Set 20 years after the disappearance of the Ishiguro, two scientists, identical twins Mira and Thomas, realise their ambition of launching another vessel into the depths of space in order to study the black anomaly the Ishiguro disappeared into. Thomas remains on earth, at mission command, while Mira relates the story from the ship.

This is a follow-up rather than a sequel. The Explorer stands alone completely and plotwise there's no great dis or advantage to having read it, only a degree of enrichment to Mira's accounts of what he - and the people on earth - believe happened to the Ishiguro. Yet, even that doesn't do much other than show Smythe up as somebody who appears to have thought this whole thing through, the cad, so no worries about reading that one first (although you should because it's much better).

Inevitably, I'm going to compare the two books and The Echo comes off decidedly worse. Where The Explorer was tense and tightly done, The Echo feels flabby and overlong. Cormac Easton's journey had a slow inexorability about it as he watched his earlier self in the loop; Mira is vulnerable, procrastinating and fearful. And kind of dull.

One of the strongest parts of the novel is the relationship between Mira and Thomas. Thomas is a voice whose responses gain ever more delay as the distance between them widens, but his is the hand with ultimate control of the ship. We are in Mira's head with his versions of things, his needs and emotions - and his views of Thomas and what he thinks Thomas will do.

It is either repetitive or subtly ironic that we follow the same duel route of what-happens-on-the-ship/unpeeling-narrator's-psyche-to-reveal-their-truth of The Explorer. I found it a bit ho hum at the time, Mira's scientific detachment feeling more like self-obsession while the crew are a collection of characters who avoid absolute cliche, but still wouldn't feel out of place in half a dozen films I can think of, or even in The Explorer.

I like this author and he's getting the advantage of that - I've already got The Machine on my Kindle and I'll definitely want to read the next part of this quartet. While this is very like its predecessor, but where that had its own identity, this feels an imitation of that. This is a three star read which gets an extra half because I was already interested when I began: 3.5 stars.

The Echo on AmazonUK

(This review was originally posted on my Booklikes blog in April 2014)

Monday, 9 March 2015

If this were a film, I'd want Duncan Jones to direct it - The Explorer by James Smythe

If you asked me, and I've no reason to suppose that you wouldn't because I'm fairly anti-social and all your attempts at conversation would meet with bored glances until you got onto the subject of books at which point I would become sufficiently enlivened to answer the questions you would surely be asking if you weren't concentrating quite so hard on backing away slowly, I'd tell you I don't like sci-fi books. I don't know why I think this because I can't think of a sci-fi book I haven't enjoyed. What I can think of are a few dozen books I've read the blurbs of at the library and put down again because I'm prejudiced against books in which the protagonist's name scores more than 38 points in Scrabble.

The Explorer is the story of a journey. Mankind go into space. They will go out, they will turn around, they will come back triumphant. Our protagonist is Cormac Easton, a journalist who's on the crew to provide the people back home with the story. He is the human in a craft staffed by highly trained boffins, one of whom is dead when they wake up after take-off.

The blurb of this one is at once incredibly misleading and incredibly accurate. It suggests you're going to get something action packed with Cormac trying to avoid dying - you're not. This is a tense, tightly plotted novel of the kind which doesn't make you wonder what's going to happen, it makes you watch as it does. I'm not going to tell you anything else about the plot because I think it would spoil it, I will however tell you that the blurb covers the first 20%ish *raises eyebrows in a significant fashion*

I'm not a big reader of sci-fi so I honestly don't know how it stacks up against the rest of the genre, but I would push it on people who like books about humans and their humanity. It's the big empty, close-up view of a person and their head.

If I have a criticism, it's probably with the story. I loved the way it was handled, the way it was written, but it's not terribly original. That said, it avoids feeling derivative and it brings its own identity to the party so I don't have a problem with it. I just like to complain.

I really enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to reading the followup, The Echo. Which I actually already have. Spooky.

4 stars.

The Explorer on AmazonUK

 (This review was originally posted on my Booklikes blog in April 2014)

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Nice Idea, Well Executed - Zero Sum Game by SL Huang

Cas Russell is good at maths. Really good. As in calculating where to apply to correct amount of power to kick a chair so it causes maximum damage to the person standing in front of it good. As in working out the trajectory of bullets as they are fired so they don't hit you in leg good. Which is useful for somebody working under the radar as a freelance ... retriever.

But while maths can be really useful, it's not the best defence against somebody who can read your mind and implant thoughts in it. So when Cas finds herself up against said telepath, she not only has some nefarious schemes to scupper, she's also got to be sure she's not unknowingly helping them along.

Zero Sum Game is the debut novel from SL Huang and it's pretty good. Not only does it feature a main character who manages to kick asses while being female, her superpower is maths. Or 'math', because this book is American. The only thing my maths skills have done for me is enable me to always buy the most cost effective bag of dishwasher tablets even when I don't have a calculator.

I've heard a lot of good things about this one so I was initially a bit disappointed. The opening was underwhelming - not because it did anything wrong; it read like the action sequence which preceeds the credits of a blockbuster film which was fine and everything, just ... meh. However, by 16% it had me. Cas is a witty voice (I will admit, I slightly want to be her. I want to throw sticks.) and she's joined by a cast who complement her nicely. I especially liked the interplay between her and Arthur - he's a nice (if marginally predictable) foil to Cas's Lone Ranger attitude, a dose of empathy in situations where some things need remembering.

The ways in which this could have gone horribly wrong are many and, all credit to Huang, it didn't. When you've got a first person narrator who may not be acting of her own volition you need to get it right and Huang mostly did. The pace keeps things moving forward and it was only towards the end, when that began to slacken, that I felt some minor irritation with a couple of things.

While I was reading it, this was on course for 4 stars - I usually have 2 books on the go, one upstairs and one downstairs; if I carry a book to another floor with me, it's a good sign - but the ending is also underwhelming. It's not bad, just weak. Although the book stands alone, it's the first in a projected series (Book 2, Half Life, is out now) and much of what I disliked were the manoeuvres in the final third, the necessary setting-up of strands for future books.

Zero Sum Game is a seriously enjoyable read for the most part. It's got a great premise, a main character who does it justice, and a story which kept me reading. If only the ending had been better. 3.5 stars and I'll likely be getting the next book in the future.

Zero Sum Game (Russell's Attic Book 1) on AmazonUK

Saturday, 14 February 2015

These kids and their modern techology... - Second Life by SJ Watson

[I paid nothing for this book, instead being provided with an uncorrected proof copy through the kindness of the publisher, Harper Collins, gifted via Edelweiss. I thank them profusely.]

There is always a burden on an author delivering a second novel when their first novel has been a tremendous success. S.J Watson's first novel, Before I Go To Sleep, was not merely a success, it set the trend for all the huge domestic psychological thrillers which have come since: Gone Girl, The Silent Wife, The Girl on the Train... Watson's debut was there first, 4 whole years ago. Watson doesn't merely need to stand up well against himself, he also needs to stand up well in an increasingly saturated market where the books we now hear about tend to be very good indeed.

When Julia's younger sister Kate is found dead in a Paris back-alley, Julia is destroyed with grief. Learning from Kate's housemate that Kate used internet dating sites to arrange smexy liaisons, Julia becomes convinced it was one of these men who killed her. So she does what anybody obsessed with an idea does: attempt to find proof. She sets herself up on some websites to entice the murderer. Except the man she does meet, Lukas, is everything her perfect middle-class life is missing.

Initially, this is slow. It takes a good 40% to get started properly and I was consciously reading with one eye trying to work out what was going to Be Important Later and why. I couldn't really engage with Julia's initial shock and grief over the loss of her sister and was instead waiting for the inevitable Search For The Truth to begin. Once it does it's good, the flirty messages becoming something more until sexual fantasy collides with reality and being controlled is considered part of the game. These aspects of the book are done excellently - and by that I mean so horrific and triggering I would have stopped reading if this hadn't been an ARC, which is the reason I'm mentioning them. It's gradual and insidious, the type of thing which can be explained away so very easily even when you aren't Julia, a grief-wreaked alcoholic fighting a relapse.

The trouble is it becomes boring. Julia's head is a fairly dull place to spend time and even before the book shifted into its end-game I became deeply irritated by her actions (and inactions), some of which felt designed to artificially spin the story out a bit longer.

I was also unreasonably annoyed by her alcoholism. It felt like a device, and while I think it could have been a very effective one, it needed to treat alcoholism as more than just wanting a drink and riding out the compulsion.

For instance, there is nothing about Julia's active alcoholism in her youth, only her attendance at the AA meeting where she meets Markus. She bangs on about failing her sister, about her guilt at leaving her behind when she went to Berlin, but never a word about the drinking she must have been doing when she was bringing Kate up or the effects of it. I genuinely thought Julia would turn out to have been lying about it, or faking it for some reason. It's used as a minor spoke in the story and could have had far more mileage than it's given.

In the end this story is wrecked by its own plot. The grand reveal of what's really going on is a laser saw away from the Bond-Villain School of Illogical Schemes. Plus, it makes something either a catastrophic plot hole or a clever piece of misdirection depending on your overall view of the book. If I learned Watson was a pantser rather than a plotter, I'd nod sagely and say, 'Well, that explains it.'

SJ Watson is a good writer. Whatever churlish things I'd say about Before I Go To Sleep must be countered by the fact it had me absolutely gripped by the end. Although Second Life never managed to hook me the same way there are some excellently done parts; it's scary because it's real. Until the last 10%, I genuinely wasn't sure how I was going to rate this. Happily, the terrible ending made it easy: 2 stars (but I'm definitely going to be interested in whatever Watson comes out with next.)

Second Life on AmazonUK