Friday, 29 August 2014

No, please, I'd love to hear more about your childhood - The Penny Falls by Mark Bastable

(I received a free review copy of this book from the author via LibraryThing)

From the blurb and the opening sections of this book, I expected to read a horror novel - something along the lines of Stephen King's The Dark Half, perhaps. Instead, I got a book which could easily have been split in two and marginally re-skinned to give me a (slight) horror and a contemp/literary. It wasn't much of a problem for me because I read a fair amount of litfic but if you're after a story which sounds like the blurb, keep walking.

The narrative is split between four first person narrations, the brothers mentioned in the blurb plus Stephen, a literary agent who, having seen Pablo's blood soaked arrest on the news, convinces Pablo to write his autobiography. Initially the novel is taken up with Stephen's story and Pablo's manuscript. Luckily, Pablo decides part way through his manuscript writing he's not going to continue unless he gets to find out about Stephen's life, so we are gradually given that account. It's not badly done, it's interesting enough, and it's let down mostly because it's attached to this horror novel it doesn't really have anything to do with. It could stand alone quite easily and would probably be better for it.

The story of Tom, blood-soaked Pablo, and their invisible triplet feels as though it takes a back seat to Stephen for much of the book, largely because their story unfolds through Pablo's manuscript which begins with his childhood. It's an awfully long time before we get back to the present situation. Again, the story of Pablo's life is not an uninteresting one and it's told well (rather *too* well for somebody with Pablo's level of education), but I came here to read a book about twins who have a triplet trying to take over one of their bodies, not Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince's endless "Well, I'd love to tell you what's going on Harry, but first you must sit through a couple of hundred pages of something else".

There is plenty of good about this book: nice ideas (I loved the idea of Tom being born first but being the younger twin); it's well written; Tom's character is well done.

However, there are also issues. First, the narration: I did not find the four first person narrators distinct enough to tell them apart initially and it took me far too long to cop onto the fact they are paired throughout. I will emphasise this may well just be a problem for me.

Second: the suspension of disbelief. Rather too often the the story seemed to rely on things which didn't make enough logical sense - when we first meet Tom he's seeking help for his phobia of flying, but instead of going to a psychologist to help him with that, he's seeing somebody who wants to talk to him about his childhood. Good for the reader because it means we get Tom's story (because there simply aren't enough accounts of people's childhood in this book already), but I'm rather surprised he wasn't, yannow, pursuing a cure for his phobia. There is that part about Stephen convincing Pablo to write his memoir which is as weak in the book as my glib account above. That thing about the twins being born either side of the dateline: cool idea, but problematic (because you're not good to go as soon as you've popped the sprog out). Then there are a hundred other medical questions to do with Pablo as a newborn - these little things really undermined the book for me.

Third: the ending. It really, *really* fizzles out. I was down to the last couple of percent and wondering if it was going to end on a cliffhanger because there was no real drive towards anything, no problems to overcome, no consequences if they failed. The ending is so poor, I'm tempted to make this a 2 star, but as it really is only the last 2 percent which is bad, it can keep the 3 stars it managed for the majority of the book. 2 and 1/2 stars really.

So: medium. It was okay. It's been well published - I've read worse from trade publishers. It's well written. The main complaint is that it's nothing like the blurb. Even judging it for what it is (because blurbs can be changed), it's only okay. It's too much a horror to give to a litfic reader (the attitude to women is right for the character, but it's not what I want to read in my litfic), it's too slow and litfic-y for a horror reader. As a reader of both, I simply felt it did neither thoroughly enough to be compelling.

Buy The Penny Falls on Amazon UK

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Well, thank God that's over - The Rose Cord by J D Oswald

[The Rose Cord is a direct follow-up to Dreamwalker, so please be aware this review contains spoilers for that book. Also, this is a long book and the beginning was a long time ago and has been wiped from my memory: I appreciate a heads-up on any details I've got wrong]

I reached the end of The Rose Cord earlier than I anticipated due to an extract of the next book being included. I was glad. This is the kind of book which makes me want to shake the author; there is a decent novel in here with some brilliant details and fabulous ideas, but it's been buried in one of the most tedious and repetitive things I've read in ages. You know the second series of Game of Thrones where Rob Stark spent 86 hours looking grumpy in a variety of fields? The Rose Cord is basically that, but without Mike from Casualty.

At the end of Dreamwalker, Benfro, a dragon, watched his mother beheaded by Inquisitor Melyn, head of the warrior priests and all round disliker of things scaly. The Rose Cord picks it up in the next scene: Benfro flees through the woods before returning to the village to find everybody he has ever known slaughtered. On the advice of the memory of his mother, Benfro heads north in search of Corwen, a mage dragon who taught Morgwm, but instead he finds something else: the remains of the great and legendary dragon Magog, and his unreckoned jewel...

Meanwhile, Errol Ramsbottom, Warrior Priest-in-training and (unbeknownst to him) heir to the throne, is trying to learn how to keep Inquisitor Melyn out of his head. As in psychic powers, not trepanning. Melyn, though, has a job Errol is just *perfect* for...

To begin with, The Rose Cord is pretty good despite some minor issues, but unfortunately these are the same issues which will come back to haunt it later: repetition. Rather than having a single scene which achieves all it needs to, Oswald has a habit of having his characters plod through a similar situation multiple times advancing their understanding only a small amount with each.

For instance: Beulah, the young Queen occupying Errol's throne, discovers a plot to kill her, so she deals with it in her own inimitable way: kills her would-be assassin and shouts at everybody for a bit. Naturally, he was not acting alone, so there's another would-be assassin to deal with. And then there's another.

Although each scene is different, and each moves the story forward in it's own vital way, it's a good example (within the first 13%) of how the scenes should be working harder and doing more.

Benfro suffers from this problem the most. In Dreamwalker he was entertaining and tremendously likeable, but with the removal of the villagers he's mostly a dragon wandering through a wood. He occupies the bulk of the book but vast swathes of it involve him being on his own not doing a great deal and it's all the more frustrating because there is gold them thar chapters, it's just not worth the trog to get to. Plus, doing so requires reading about Malkin the squirrel, a character I would happily watch taken out at dawn.

The pacing, too, is wrong. From 70% I was reading believing it would get better - the third in the series is already out in ebook with the paperback happening soon; there is going to be a forth. From 88% I was reading with the glazed determination of somebody who's read that much and is jolly well going to finish just so she can write a fair review of the damn thing. The great dramatic end-scene is crippled by the billion pages of Benfro-is-in-a-cave which precedes it. Throughout, so much space was given to things not happening that when something did, it was ... lost.

Errol has more to do in this book and his is a far stronger story than in the first, but for much of the book - as in Dreamwalker - he is at the mercy of things which happen *to* him, and he's too bland for me to care much. His story is more engaging, but not enough to carry the book.

I liked Dreamwalker a lot - I gave it four stars - but The Rose Cord is weeping for structural edit so hard I do wonder if this is the original self-pubbed text and a new version will get introduced close to its November paperback release date. There are some really great ideas in The Rose Cord, but the last 15% (of this 476 page book) is shear tedium; I won't be continuing with the series: 2 stars.

The Rose Cord: The Ballad of Sir Benfro Book Two on Amazon UK

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

I'm glad you're happy

"Curiously, after a couple of my books hit the Top 100 Paid, I had unsolicited offers of representation from a couple of agents. I turned both down gently ... after ignoring their initial emails for a week. A bit cruel, I know, but in my defense, I was very busy and only took 3-4 days to ignore their follow-up emails."

"It is an amazing feeling to reply to a agent rejection with "Thanks anyways but the book is already published and selling at a steady pace." "

"Seriously, the boorishness of those arrogant @#!@@ never ceases to amaze me."

I'm glad you're happy. Really, I am. Self-publishing is bloody hard work and anybody who makes a success of it deserves it - even those who cynically exploit their pen names and book titles to game the Amazon search algorithm. Believe me: they have earned it and should credit their achievements.

However, I see this kind of attitude in lots of places but I rarely see it being called out. So, that's what this is.

If you want to be a publisher, if you want to play with the big boys and girls, then you need to start behaving like a professional. Being a professional means - among other things - that you do your job.

Before you post something like these sterling examples from authors whom I'm not going to read, review, or have anything to do with, consider how it would sound to somebody who doesn't know what KDP stands for. If you sound like an embittered hack who chose self-publishing as a last resort and now intend to make teh evulz trade publishers know what idiots they were for turning you down in the first place, you don't sound like the kind of author I want to read.

I don't care how many copies you've sold, or how many 5 star reviews you've got (and the person I've blanked out in that tweet doesn't walk the walk so much as run the marathon), you don't sound like somebody who's written a great book. You may have done, but I've made the active decision not to find out.

And hey, you know what? I'm nobody. Or possibly Ian McEwan in an extremely good disguise. I'm no kind of loss to your career.

I'm just the person who thought this and said it - but neither of us knows how many others there are who haven't.

I'm glad you're happy, but I'm gladder to spend my time and money on those who treat business as business rather than attempting to take a shot at somebody who likely didn't realise that's what it was. Instead of trying to make out somebody was wrong to make a particular business decision, or that you've got one over on them, why don't you recognise your success is due to your own hard work?

And yes, it does work in the other direction too.

Monday, 25 August 2014

See? This is how it should be done - Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam

During those times I'm not sick of the sound of my own voice, I can be heard proclaiming "If something is X, it has to *BE* X." Bonnie Nadzam is an author who understands this and I salute her for it. The pacing of Lamb's (character) reveal is done brilliantly and although I had criticisms at first, the character paid off. There are moments where credibility should be stretched, but it works for me because the characters have fidelity.

That said, I did have a few problems with this. Although ostensibly written in omni, little is made of it and it feels like a convenience for those few moments it *is* made use of. I also feel - because it's omni - a greater sense of the long term picture could have been given, rather than the brief paragraph we get. Dave Lamb *is* X, so there's going to be more than just this story.

I was also mention I was surprised to see another reviewer describe this as a love story if we think out of the box. It isn't. It really, really, isn't. It is, however, a great one to give to your teenage daughter, along with a highlighter pen.

This is a really well written and intelligent book which deserved its Women's Prize for Fiction Longlisting although it's definitely not one for everybody: four stars.

Buy Lamb on Amazon UK

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Why haven't I heard of this before? - Vet on the Loose by Gillian Hick

After the disappointment of Anna Birch's Call The Vet, my appetite was whetted for a good "My First Year As An ..." book. I had a poke around Amazon's "People Who Bought ... " suggesters and found this one, Vet on the Loose by Wicklow vet Gillian Hick. I hadn't previously heard of her, which is either surprising given the size of the place, or perfectly understandable given that I don't actually watch Irish TV, or read Irish newspapers, or interact with anything Irish if I can possibly help it.

I was sold by the end of the prologue. Any story about castrating a horse which includes a young man showing enthusiasm for the testicles with the words "If I put dat in me sister's bed tonight it'll scare de shite ota her!" is going to be for me.

Vet On The Loose treads the expected path of a newly qualified Irish vet, more specifically that of a female vet at a time when women were still rare in the profession: the beginning of the 21st century. There are stories of the everyday sexism she faced (farmers asking when the real vet was going to arrive etc) which, having lived in Ireland for a good while, I buy totally. There are stories of Dublin council estates, posh Equine hospitals and bachelor hill farmers, and unlike Call the Vet, the stories centre on the cases. To a James Herriot devotee such as myself a couple of them tread familiar ground - there's no wine bottle *uncrosses legs* but we have mention of the sugar trick. However, it's done with enough of its own identity to feel fresh and one one them has the best punchline in the whole book.

The writing, in particular, is excellent and Hick's ear for dialogue spot on. She manages with the smallest of details to show us her clients - and herself; I can *hear* the accents. Comic writing is tremendously difficult to do well and Hick is funny, educational and engaging. As it was mentioned in a few of the reviews I read, I'll confirm there is some spoken profanity but it's never the crux on which a joke hinges, merely a nod to an accurate representation of character (although there is not nearly enough to actually *be* accurate).

As I'm me, I'll complain that the funniest stories were all in the first half which led to an uneven experience as a whole, but to be honest there isn't a duff chapter in the thing.

Vet On The Loose deserves to have a wider audience that it does - it's published by The O'Brien Press who are small and Irish so you're unlikely to find this in your local bookshop, but - as I mentioned - it's currently £1.19 on Kindle and more than worth it. Hick has a second book out, Vet Among the Pigeons, (which I have already borrowed from the library), and I really, really hope she finds the time to write a third.

4.5 stars.

Vet on the Loose on Amazon UK

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Do yourself a favour and read this in one sitting - Confessions by Kanae Minato

[This ARC was provided to me for the sum of precisely no monies by the publisher, Mulholland books, with thanks to the ever glorious Bookbridgr.]

Everybody has pet likes, and one of mine is Japan. I've never been and likely never will - I have enough problems with English, non-Roman scripts are so far beyond my abilities I'm more likely to pwn Martin Amis in a poetry slam than cope with the Japanese language. If you think I'm joking about the English, earlier today it took me three goes to get the spelling of "persuasive" correct enough for Chrome's spell-checker to understand what I was attempting.

Kanae Minato's Confessions has been a huge bestseller in its native country, the film adaptation was nominated for an Oscar in 2011, but I requested it basically because I really like Japan. Which was lucky because this book is amazing.

Middle school teacher Yuko Moriguchi's four-year-old daughter is dead, drowned in the school's swimming pool in what everybody believes was a tragic accident. Yuko knows better. She knows her daughter was murdered by two of the students in her class and so, on her final day as a teacher, she announces this fact to her students, tells them what really happened, and what she has done about it.

Confessions is what it says on the tin: the personal perspectives of this event and what follows. It begins with Yuko's lecture, written as it is spoken, then moves on to other stories told in different ways by various people involved in what happens. In lesser hands this could become dull or repetitive, but Minato's plotting is taut, her ideas horrific, and she performs the literary equivalent of a magician whipping a silken handkerchief to reveal his disappointingly un-dismembered assistant. And then she does it again. Then a couple more times with feeling. To the end, Minato is yanking back great swathes of fabric, forcing you to reassess and rethink what you've been told. It was only at the top of the final page that I understood what was going to happen by the bottom - and it is perfect.

The story feels a little odd at first. The writing - which has the flatness I typically expect from a Japanese translation - sits uneasily with the story conveyed. The juxtaposition of realism and an almost absurd level of dramatic reveal pushed my credibility, but what felt discordant became understandable with the perspectives of other narrators. Trust Minato the writer, but do not trust her characters. Confessions should be an object lesson for anybody hoping to pen a psychological thriller of their own.

I define a five star book as one which makes me want to run up to people in the street and make them read it. If I knew where you lived I'd be standing over you now. Confessions is dark, horrific, and immaculately done: you really want to read this one.

5 stars.

Confessions on Amazon UK

Monday, 11 August 2014

Gwlad am byth! - Dreamwalker by J D Oswald

[This book was provided to me gratis by the publisher, Penguin, and for that I thank them. I also thank NetGalley, for existing. Without them, I'd have fewer than 80 books in my Kindle's TBR folder. The paperback edition of Dreamwalker is out August 14th 2014, but the ebooks are available now.]

J D Oswald is the evil doppelgänger of crime writer James Oswald, author of the Inspector Tony McClean novels of which I've read the first and don't rule out continuing with. Dreamwalker is the first of his epic fantasy series, The Ballad of Sir Benfro; as with his others, Oswald self-published the series and was picked up by a trade publisher following much solo success.

I'm not a big fantasy reader but I've always suspected that's because I haven't been matched with the right author - I don't care for the po-faced pseudo-mythology of Tolkien, and Game of Thrones' endless chair-wrangling didn't capture me enough to have taken the second one for a whirl yet. Dreamwalker, though, is great.

It opens on a dark and stormy night (yes, I know, it doesn't sound great on paper) with a priest, Father Gideon, hustling an unconscious (and fairly pregnant) princess to a trustworthy healing woman. Who is a dragon. With an egg.

A few pages later and we're one fulfilled prophecy closer to a tale of an Heir Who Doesn't Know It. It's okay though, because while we have that, we mainly have the story of Benfro, occupier of the aforementioned egg.

Initially it's a bit confusing - Benfro is a dragon, he lives with his mother close to a dragon village. He learns to hunt, has a bow, and lives in a house. My logistics circuits struggled. It's only when Benfro meets his first human - in what was one of the best bits of the book for me - that we get any idea of how things work. It's not much of an idea, but once I'd got used to Benfro the character I didn't actually care about being pedantic. Next week, tune in for a wolf eating the sun.

I *loved* Benfro. I don't know why, but I found him tremendously endearing. He's 13 years old (which is *nothing* in dragon years), has magical talents he doesn't understand, and is constantly frustrated that his desire to learn is tempered by his mother's (and the other dragon's) caution. Unlike most books with child-age heroes - for instance, Harry Potter - there's no pantomime emotion from the supporting cast.

The narrative also follows Errol, that human heir who doesn't know it, growing up in a small and rural town thinking himself the son of the village healer. He was only intermittently interesting to me as a character, and I didn't care for his friend Martha, the Girl Who Knows More Than You Do And Calls You By Both Names, Jon Snow. However, what happens *to* Errol *is* interesting thanks to the third storyline, that of Inquisitor Melyn and the heir to the throne Errol doesn't know he's entitled to, Princess Beulah

In Gwlad, men have hunted dragons to the point of extinction. Inquisitor Melyn is the head of the High Frydd, an order of warrior priests whose task it once was to complete this mission. Once Beulah reaches the age of majority, she'll stop keeping her father alive and under her authority, the task can be completed. Melyn and Beulah's story is a mix of intrigue and power games, of magic and gods and a hefty dislike of dragons. I *liked* it.

Something else I like is the Welsh flavour. As Tolkien drew on Norse mythology for his world building, Oswald uses Wales - from using place names for his dragon characters (Sir Benfro is the proper name for Pembroke, Ynys Mon is Anglesey, etc) to appropriating legends like those of Gog and Magog. There are lots of things to spot, and it's slyly clever, nudging you in the ribs to see if you get it.

However, Dreamwalker suffers one great weakness: it's not really a book. It's the first 400-odd pages of a book. There's no particular story for any of the characters - they're all just doing their thing to a greater or lesser degree of interesting until the narrative reaches an excellent point for a cliffhanger. Although Books Two and Three in the series are already available (and, like the first, are in the Amazon UK Kindle Summer Sale until September 1st) and I have seen mention of Book Four as being written, it would be tremendously damaging to Dreamwalker if they weren't. Don't let it put you off, but go into it prepared to get the next one immediately.

For me, Dreamwalker worked. Great characters, great world-building, great details in that world building, and some lovely touches of humour. I'm already 20% into the second and will very likely be buying the third before the Kindle sale is over. I'm quite tempted to knock half a star off for that cliffhanger, but I'm also Welsh so am hopelessly biased: 4 stars.

Dreamwalker: The Ballad of Sir Benfro Book One on Amazon UK

Sunday, 10 August 2014

If I wanted to spend time with a man like this, I could just leave my house - The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

[A Note: I'm going to give you a SPOILER ALERT because at times this review refers to things which happen quite far along in the book, but any actual spoilers and specifics have been put in highlightable textblocks].

I have a particular pet hate about books: I really hate misleading blurbs.

I hate blurbs which tell you what happens in the book more than 15-20% of the way through.

The blurb for The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving tells us that Benjamin Benjamin and his charge Trevor, a 19 year-old with MD, travel across America to see Trev's dad.

They set off at around 47%.

Happily, the preceding hundred or so pages are spent showing us what kind of person our narrator is while very, very slowly trying to build up tension about the exact circumstances in which his kids died. Unfortunately, he's a casual misogynist who needs to spend some time googling Schroedinger's Rapist. If it made a difference to the story in some way, great, no problem, but I didn't feel it did. If it had felt deliberate, again, great, no problem, but this didn't.

At one point I was ready to put it down unfinished: Ben stalks a woman he went on a date with (he was supposed to go out and get laid - the assumption is she's fine with that) to her place of work and then mentally calls her a bitch because she - having previously signalled her disinterest in him - arranges for a colleague to serve him.

But, people like this exist. Lots of them. And having one exist in fiction is not a bad thing any more than having serial killers and paedophiles is, it's just not what I want to read. The bad thing was that after those first hundred pages *poof*, he's no longer like that. And maybe you could argue this was his character arc, that he was redeemed by the decision to take Trev to visit his dad and by the hours spent in a car with the Spiritually Noble White Trash Girl - (c)The Ghost Of Charles Dickens - but actually what happens is that they spend some time in a car together and he isn't the jerk he previously was. Maybe she farts sedatives.

Once the lads do set off - well, it's weak. It feels far too much like it's actively trying to emulate Little Miss Sunshine. A jazz hands of "kooky" characters is assembled in a very obvious type of way and Trev and Ben pretty much stop being the people they were before and become cliché (Trev) and whatever the narrative needs him to be (Ben). Throughout the book Ben's character lacked fidelity for me in lots of tiny ways - I have trouble with the idea that a stay-at-home dad (to a son and a daughter), is unable to see women as people unless the narrative requires him to. It could have been a good point of conflict and tension for him, but it lacks that self-awareness to kick it up a notch leaving me to back away slowly rather than take an interest.

The writing is fine for the most part, although at one point I assumed Ben was having a stroke because a particular description was given twice in close proximity and I took it literally.

As a pedant, I didn't feel the logistics of situation were thought through so Trev's MD felt like a device to get the pieces assembled:

When Ben is arrested, no mention is made of what is going to happen to Trev, or who is going to look after him. No provision was made for the time Ben was in the cell.

Another example of the this meatworld logicfail: Trev plays Xbox games but he doesn't appear to have PC internet access. For somebody with motor difficulties, a voice operated PC would be an obvious tool to have.

And then there is the great emotional payoff that isn't: what exactly happened the day Ben's kids died. It doesn't work: it's not a shock because it's pretty much gone into earlier in the book - I was expecting something new, or some detail, something which would make me view it, and Ben, differently. Instead of being emotional, or going "Ah, now I get it", I was just thinking it's a good job the sprogs did cark it because otherwise this whole book wouldn't have happened. Also, more pedantry to do with the specifics of the situation.

If it hadn't lost me so early, or if Ben had continued to be a misogynistic arsehole throughout the book rather than just the first hundred pages, maybe I would have liked it more. As it is, there's nothing much here to recommend it and it's fairly irritating, especially the whole "lads saved by women" trope.

I'm going to give it two stars and make sure you know it's nothing like Little Miss Sunshine. People who don't see what's wrong with the stalking bit can give it 3. I'm not averse to reading something else from this author, but it would depend on the blurb.

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving on Amazon UK

Saturday, 9 August 2014

#BookadayUK Day 9 - Most Powerful Storytelling

For today's choice, I was very tempted to go with Amazon's fabulously passive-aggressive email telling us to email Hachette's CEO. It's the best work of fiction I've read all day. Unfortunately, it's not a book, so I'll have to go with something else, which means I've got to work out what "powerful" is.

To me, a powerful story is one which immerses me in the world of the protagonist, which engages me whatever they're going through and which leaves me feeling differently about things. I have two books in mind. The first is Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry because it's done so perfectly.

But my pick - despite my wanting to try and steer away from books which are already popular - is Caitlin Moran's How To Build A Girl.

There is a section near the end of the book in which she talks about cynicism and what it does to you, and it not only made me weep hot buckets of salty tears all over my keyboard - and is making me well-up now, dammit - but which made me consciously go out and change something. Off the back of those pages I realised some things about myself and I made the active decision to be different.

And now I feel powerful. And I have a dress covered in Unicorns.

Friday, 8 August 2014

#BookadayUK Day 8 - Never Fails to Cheer Me Up

This is probably the easiest pick for me - It's Bill Bryson's memoir The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid.

It's an account of Bryson's childhood in 50's Iowa - it's a lot like the good bits of Stephen King's IT, but without the clowns proffering balloons from storm drains.

When the cat I had before Wren was dying, it's the book I read while I sat next to her to see if the final treatment the Vet had given her would do any good. It's the book I finished the following day after it hadn't. It cheered me up then. It would cheer me up now.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

#BookadayUK Day 7 - Enjoyed by Several Generations

I'm casting my eye across my bookshelves and trying to come up with something I like, my parents have liked and which I'd pass on to any children I have (assuming there's somebody out there who's stupid enough to want to impregnate me). There are the wildly obvious choices: Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, Roald Dahl, Harry Potter; but I want to pick something a bit different.

It's the 400th anniversary edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Bear with me.

It was a gift from my father to my mother when they were young and first married. My sister took it with her to university because she was reading English and American literature. I appropriated it some years ago and it now sits on my bookshelves next to The Lord Of The Rings and Bill Bryson's At Home (because I sort my books by size). It's not a book so much as an object. It has a particular smell to it - sweet leather is the closest description I can come up with.

I will never part with it because it's always been in my life, sitting on my Mammy's bookshelves as it now sits on mine.

Here is probably where something should be said about ebooks, and how "real" books are better because this can happen with them, but I wouldn't agree with that. For a start, this book never gets read. The print is tiny, the printing cheap, the pages flimsy, and it's Shakespeare. This book is not a book, it's an object. It could be a piece of jewellery, or a painting, or an item of clothing, or a hundred other things, but this one just happens to be a book.

But it also *is* a book. As I suffered through Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet, my Mammy didn't suffer through Twelfth Night (because she didn't pass her 11+, but she read and loved it anyway), and I can't see a day when there isn't a room full teenagers complaining at length about these plays. Every generation is made familiar with these works, so that's a pretty good reason to chose it.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

#BookadayUK Day 6 - Best for a Bedtime story

Nobody is stupid enough to impregnate me and I haven't had to read aloud to a sprog since I was legally old enough to be paid for doing things other than eating all their parents' biscuits. I also can't remember ever having been read a bedtime story, although I'm sure I must have been.

I'm going to pick a book I had when I was little: Possum Magic by Mem Fox. It's an Australian book (that's where we lived at the time) about a possum called Hush whose grandmother makes her invisible to keep her safe from all the dangerous things which live in the Bush. One day, Hush asks Grandma Poss to make her visible again, but unfortunately Grandma Poss can't quite remember how to do that - she only remembers it's something to do with human food, so Hush and Grandma Poss set off around Australia to try all the different foods there are.

The watercolour illustrations are gorgeous, the story charming, and I'd happily give it to any small child - although be prepared to explain what Vegemite and lamingtons are. Mmmmm ... lamingtons.

This book is probably better than I think it is - Heartland by Anthony Cartwright

As of today, I have 59 60 (The QI Book of the Dead was the Daily Deal) books in the "Purchased to Read" folder of my Kindle. Thanks to Amazon's dastardly policy of price matching, this number is rapidly shooting higher due to Sainsburys doing an ebooks for 99p yoke throughout October. The problem continues due to my having a rather decent local library which insists on supplying me with a variety of interesting books every time I visit. Plus I've got a hardback copy of Bring Up The Bodies giving me an accusatory glare but it's been doing that since the September before last so I've got good defences worked out.

In the interests of trying to not feel as though I've wasted whole pennies on stuff, I'm making the attempt to get through some of the stuff riiiiiight at the back of the folder which I barely remember buying and am not entirely sure why I did.

Heartland I do remember buying, and why.

Reason the first: it's set in Dudley and while I'm Welsh, I'm also half Birmingham. Dudley is not Birmingham, but they're close enough. Plus I know an Enoch and Eli joke about Dudley.
Reason the second: it's from Tindal Street Press. I pay attention to the publisher when I buy a book, especially the small independents (which TSP probably still was when I bought this), and I've read some good ones from them. Deborah Morgan's Disappearing Home and Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost (srsly, ignore the cover) to name two.

However, it's not a book for me, and I should emphasise that one and a half star is a purely personal opinion. If you're not me, you may well like this a lot.

It's slow, and I'm not sure if it's slow because it's setting everything up (a la Case Histories by Kate Atkinson), or whether it's slow because it's one of these books which wanders through the narratives of the various characters with no particular impetus to get anywhere. I do like those kinds of books, but my enjoyment is dependent on having good writing and compelling characters, and Heartland only manages the first of those.

I freely admit I am rubbish at keeping characters straight. If Game Of Thrones the TV series didn't have such fantastic art direction, I would have given up after an episode or two. Heartland, for me, just doesn't give enough distinction to the characters for me to be able to tell them apart. This is made more difficult because the narrative covers the same characters at different points in their life - you have Rob watching England vs Argentina in the pub, Rob playing a game of football as part of a local team, Rob being a teaching assistant - all only divided by paragraph breaks. It says a lot for the writing that those transitions were never confusing, it was my inability to tell the difference between Rob and Jim, let alone remember who Jim was, which drove me to give up.

Then there is the football. I remember England's match with Argentina, but I'm not wild about reading a play-by-play breakdown of it interspersed with conversation. Or about any of the other football matches featured. Write me a book about rugby and we'll talk.

If I didn't have so much else to read, I probably would have stuck with it a bit longer. I got to page 100, and the first 40 or so of those were a real struggle. It did begin to pique my interest a bit but ultimately not quite enough, so I'm going to give it one and a half stars.

Heartland on Amazon UK

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

#BookadayUK Day 5 - Best Classic Hero/ine or anti-hero/ine

If you listen carefully, you can hear the sounds of a thousand book bloggers' heads exploding as we each attempt to come up with a single favourite.

Part of me wants to pick Charles Arrowby from Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea because he is such a complete knobhead (and very entertaining with it), and part of me wants to pick Lady Sybil Ramkin from Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels because she makes me feel better about myself, but this book caught my eye when I was picking best opening line (and would have been a winner for best opening paragraph).

I pick Valentina from Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian. She is a glamorous blonde Ukrainian Divorcee with whom the narrator's 84-year-old father falls in love. She explodes into the narrator's life "like a fluffy pink grenade", sits on her finacee's lap and lets him fondle her "superior Botticellian Breasts"; she wants a new life for herself and her son, an education for him. She is wonderfully awful and it's a fantastic book.

Monday, 4 August 2014

#BookadayUK Day 4 - Best Graphic Novel

There can be only one choice - When The Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs. Yes, that's right, the bloke who wrote The Snowman. It's worth taking a second to remember the end of The Snowman, because it's not exactly happy, is it?

When The Wind Blows is the story of a little old couple in a little old house, preparing for nuclear war which then happens. It's hilarious and heartbreaking and so beautifully realised. It's the blackest of blackest humours.

It's also worth mentioning that sometimes Amazon's "Customers Who Bought This Also Bought" column is sometimes an utter delight: Customers who bought When The Wind Blows also bought a 500g bag of pink and white marshmallows, and a 48 sachet box of Felix As Good As It Looks cat food.

Spare yourself - The White Devil by Justin Evans

I loved Justin Evans' A Good And Happy Child - loved it - so I was rather enthused to read this one. Sure, I wasn't too struck on the blurb, but that was true of his other book and that turned out to be great.

This one, not so much.

Part of it is not the fault of the book: I am hypersensitised to errors about Britain made by US authors. However, this was inadvertently hilarious.

We begin with a short and threatening prologue which fulfils the role of bad prologues everywhere: making up for the fact little happens in your first chapter. The White Devil opens proper with American student Andrew getting to grips with the oddity that is Harrow. We get parts of the welcome pack, the glossary - but don't worry if you're not paying attention, it doesn't actually make much difference.

Then, Andrew meets Matron, who is cross that he's an American. Later, he meets the other chaps in the 6th Form, all of whom are astounded to meet an American. They tell him to go f**k himself, he calls them assholes, they're all "Woah, mate, bit aggressive, what? That's how we greet each other in England!" Then there's a conversation in which Andrew doesn't know what a gap year is, or what A levels are. Later one of the English people will be completely confounded by the phrase "rain check" but that's okay because Andrew doesn't know what lager is.

Assuming you haven't thrown the book across the room by this point, you have further delights to come: Harrow admits girls! Oh, no wait, just one girl, and that's for reasons which are completely realistic and would totally happen in real life; just like Harrow offering Agriculture as a subject, and Andrew being the only American in the school, and the only new person in the 6th form, and everybody there being white and English (apart from Andrew, oh and Rhys, the Welsh Agriculture student).When a location is (as far as I can tell) so important to the plot it can't be remade as an unnamed public school - as in Patrick Gale's Friendly Fire, which is based on Winchester - you'd better, at least, glance at the website.

I gave it till P78, but even when the story had got going my suspension of disbelief was shot and I was questioning everything (would the police have conducted the interview like that, or does Andrew count as a minor?) Andrews motivation was flimsy. The final scene I read - that of an attempted rape of a child who I fully anticipated finding out was a ghost - pointed too heavily towards public school cliché and, frankly, made me disinclined to read any further.

Terrible. Go and read his other book. That's much better.

The White Devil on Amazon UK

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Sometimes sequels are better off not written - Every Seventh Wave by Daniel Glattauer

(Every Seventh Wave is a sequel to Love Virtually, so this review contains spoilers for that book which is incidentally very good and which I'd probably give four stars to).

I've read an email affair. I have what I believe the kids refer to as "Mad Skillz". I was going to explain more about that but I can't do so in a short way, so just take it from me that I know what a casual email which turns into something more reads like in real life. It's quite a lot like Love Virtually, which is really good.

I first heard the radio play version which stars David Tennant and the eminently watchable/listenable to Emilia Fox (although it's also fair to mention I've never seen/heard Tennant in a bad performance either. If you doubt, three words: Kafka the Musical.) (That's not to say Tennant's never *given* a bad performance, it's just that he's hidden it from me, which gets me to wondering what else he's hidden from me. I believe I've already mentioned my Mad Skillz, Tennant: think on.)

If I had a criticism of the radio play, it was that it felt rushed, which the book does not. I've read it twice, and the second time - with the benefit of Meatworld Knowledge - I was especially struck by how well it's done. It's written as a series of email exchanges beginning when Emmi Rothner, attempting to cancel a magazine subscription, mistypes the email address and sends her increasing frustrated missives to Leo Lieke. They strike up a friendship and the title of the book gives a heads up for where it goes after that.

The pacing of Love Virtually is done really well. The characters are well rounded; Emmi in particular is quite unpleasant. She is demanding, self-centred, vain, and spoiled, but, crucially, she is very readable. Then there is the ending: it was perfect. Leo is leaving for Boston and Emmi is supposed to be going round to his flat so they can meet face to face before he goes, just once, only she doesn't and when she writes to Leo to explain why, all she gets is the autoresponder telling her the email address no longer exists.

So I was disappointed to find out there was a sequel. Emmi and Leo were not epic star-crossed lovers. One of the nice things about having a book which is purely email exchanges is that it allows the reader to have their own opinion, and mine is that they were selfish, stupid fantasists who got carried away with themselves and needed to think about the people they were hurting. Every Seventh Wave is a sequel for people who were rooting for Emmi and Leo, and by god is it tedious.

What was well done in Love Virtually is boring, and repetitive here. There is a glimmer of something better at times, but for much of it there are no outside forces, no real life world forcing itself in. This book begins with Emmi's exchanging messages with Leo's autoresponder, months after he's left for Boston, but what's missing is the hole in Emmi's life which leads her to still sit there sending messages to this guy 9 months after he left. The hole was there in Love Virtually, she could be frivolous Emmi, saying what she thought without worrying about it, but here it feels convenient, and that's a good summation of the book. Stuff happens, but it's not compelling and it's reported by the characters, rather than the more natural exchanges of Love Virtually.

Crucially, I don't know what Emmi and Leo see in each other. More than once I found myself wondering why one or the other of them didn't tell the other to take a running jump. I could forgive if it was entertainingly bitchy, or even just human, but it's dull and it's boring, and in the end I just didn't care.

In brief, it feels like it was written because the first was such a big success, and that's a shame.

If you were the type of person desperate to find out what happened next with Leo and Emmi, you'd probably like it, but otherwise let Love Virtually stand alone. I found the story a great disappointment, so I'm going to give it one and a half stars.

Every Seventh Wave on Amazon UK

#BookadayUK - Best Collection of Short Stories

Once again not my best subject. I'm not a big short story fan and I was all set to chose Neil Gaiman here (because he's one of the only people whose short stories I can think that I've read) but then I remembered a marvellous book which is actually a collection of vignettes. It's also a bit of a cheat to treat it as a collection of short stories because the pieces do (in a way) form a cohesive whole, and also because it says it's a novel on the cover.

My pick is David Levithan's A Lover's Dictionary. It's the story of a relationship told as a non-linear series of moments; a word and then the relationship as it pertains to that word. Some entries are only are only a few lines, and I don't remember any as being longer than a page or two. It is lovely - the kind of short book you read in a single sitting, the kind which leaves you with the sense of a story you can't quite grasp rather than one which tells you what happened.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

#BookadayUK Day 2 - Best Pairing of Words and Pictures

This is a real toughie because there is a real dearth of picture books in my life. It's not really fair to chose one I haven't read, so Hyperbole and A Half is out (although it fits the brief perfectly - the blogs are NOTHING without the illustrations), and I don't really want to chose any of my childhood classics like Winnie The Pooh.

My pick is Kit Williams' Masquerade. It's the story of lost trinket in more ways than one - the trinket of the story was hidden by Williams and the book's illustrations gave clues as to its location. In the end, the jewel was found thanks to some insider knowledge, but it's a fascinating puzzle with some gorgeous paintings, plus I really love hares.

Friday, 1 August 2014

I feel increasingly bad for posting this review in multiple places - Tollesbury Time Forever by Stuart Ayris

In Tollesbury, psychiatric nurse "Stuart Ayris" accompanies the police to the home of one of his patients who has not been seen for over two weeks. Inside, they find no trace of Simon Anthony, only words crawling across the walls, the words you, oh reader, are about to sit through.

For the most part, this is not a terrible book, it's more... not very good, and that's a shame because Stuart Ayris is clearly a man who can write. The problems I feel there are with the writing could be overlooked but unfortunately there is no story here and the ideas are neither profound, original, nor expressed well enough to make the trudge through the text worth it. The last 30% is actively terrible. It was always going to struggle with the banal path it gave its protagonist, but I found it shallow to the point of offensive in the way it offloads the conflicts. The female character of the second half is particularly poorly drawn and I was given no sense she's lived the life the book tells us she has.

From the beginning, the structure didn't work for me. It's a nice idea, a "found document" text, and something of which I am particularly fond - except, if it's going to be a found document text, then it has to read like one. There needs to be a narrator who has written this and a present for them doing that. If they are writing it from a position of knowing the whole story, that is likely to be reflected in the text. It isn't. There is also the matter of the transcription; "Stuart Ayris", rather surprisingly, has nothing to say about some of the content.

The narrative is further weakened by being written more as a standard 1st person past tense. The prose is overly descriptive with Simon persistently giving descriptions of places he should - as a character - already familiar with, eg "The trees that lined the track upon which I walked gave way to a neat field on the left but held up on the right.". There are moments when the language becomes disjointed, reflecting the narrator's state of mind - except it isn't the state of mind because this is being written up afterwards. I don't want to go into it too much because of spoilers, but little or no consideration has been given to the Simon who is writing this story on the walls.

Then there is the language. I'm not a fan of the self-concious olde worlde syntax especially in this found document context (if you're writing on the wall, surely more likely to use abbreviations). It's also repetitive. The sky is always the firmament, every time Simon reacts to something we get to find out he breathes, holes in doorways are always apertures, "literally" - also once misused. Many times it feels like the author is just not paying enough attention to what he's written: we are told Simon's clothes don't look out of place in 1836 - yet he's wearing jeans. There is one moment where we are told what another character thought. The less said about the phrase "pulsating penumbra" the better.

Then there are the similes, not all of which work and not all of which hold up to applied logic: "the torch beams picked out [the words] as if they were groups of well-ordered flies" - which is a nice image until you wonder why nobody had bothered to try the light switch, or why they were there late enough to need torches. I'm also the kind of person who works out how much wallspace you need for 100K words (writing floor to ceiling, about 25ft) - I didn't get the sense the author did.

At times the book is trying far too desperately to be profound. Unfortunately the fail state of profound is #pippatips: "When the only way a man can deal with another man is to kill him, then that man will be a friend to no-one for as long as he lives [...]"

Then - the poetry. It's not good. There are exclamation marks, and it's been made to rhyme. And one of those rhymes is "ring a ding ding!". Again, it's pushing to these big ideas but there is not enough substance in them and there's no awareness there.

Although it is very well written (and published) for a self-pubbed work - there are some errors, mainly in punctuation and I'm not sure you can imbibe a view - but it isn't, in my opinion, good enough to be published. While perfectly readable if not very good for the first 70%, it is totally derailed by the rest. It's a shame because, as I began by saying, Stuart Ayris can write, but he would also benefit from a ruthless Beta or two. Pass on this one, but I'll have my fingers crossed for something better from Mr Ayris in the future.

One last thing - I'm unamused by the copyright violations. It is right and fair that people are paid for their work; plus quoting "I am the Walrus" tends to make it look as though ones grammar has gone totally awry.

Tollesbury Time Forever (FRUGALITY Book 1) on Amazon UK

#BookADayUK #1 - Most arresting opening line

I want to try and avoid the obvious with these posts, so while Rebecca is one of my perennial favourites it's not going to be today's pick. Instead, I hit my bookshelf and pulled out the books I love at random to check their first lines with surprising results: very few have an arresting opener. There are plenty which have an excellent first paragraph, but opening lines, not so much.

My choice, for a book whose first lines makes you stop and want to know more: Unholy Ghosts by Stacia Kane. Although I'm not much of an Urban Fantasy reader, I picked it up because it was 99p and because I vaguely know Stacia through AbsoluteWrite. It turned out to be a proper one-more-chapter read which demanded I create an elastic lunch hour.

Had the man in front of her not already been dead, Chess probably would have tried to kill him.