A Game of Thrones, by George RR Martin

>> Monday, October 23, 2017

TITLE: Game of Thrones
AUTHOR: George RR Martin

PAGES: 848

SETTING: Fantasy world
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: 1st in the A Song of Ice and Fire series

Summers span decades. Winter can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun.

As Warden of the north, Lord Eddard Stark counts it a curse when King Robert bestows on him the office of the Hand. His honour weighs him down at court where a true man does what he will, not what he must... and a dead enemy is a thing of beauty.

The old gods have no power in the south, Stark’s family is split and there is treachery at court. Worse, the vengeance-mad heir of the deposed Dragon King has grown to maturity in exile in the Free Cities. He claims the Iron Throne.
Up until a month or so ago, I was perversely proud of being what felt like the only remaining Game of Thrones virgin. The TV show is one of the many I'm vaguely interested in watching, but then never do (pathetically, in the last few years, all I've watched on TV is Bake-off and Masterchef). As for the books, I had it in my mind that they were sort of Lord of the Rings-ish, which didn't tempt me.

So I was happy to go on my oblivious way, pretending to laugh when people made "You know nothing, Jon Snow!" jokes. Until my brother WhatsApped to tell me I needed to start the books NOW. He'd been reading them and watching the TV series, and he was desperate for someone to discuss his conspiracy theories with in real life (plus, he thought I'd like them, and he does know my taste). I love my brother, so off I went, armed with all sorts of resources he thought would help (including this really great non-spoilery animated map showing where everyone is and where they've been as the books advance).

And it was so, so good. Absolutely nothing like I expected. It's basically a really good soap opera, with larger-than-life and very well-developed characters, with an excellent balance of super-cool action and character drama, and also a great balance between evil and decent characters.

We have a large cast of central characters, most drawn from two families. There's the Starks, who govern the Northernmost region of the kingdom. They are headed by Lord Eddard Stark, who is a good friend of the King's. They grew up together, and Ned helped him defeat the previous king and take the throne. Now it's many years later, and the king has turned into an irresponsible, thoughtless man Ned has trouble respecting. He's married a woman from another powerful family, the Lannisters, and Ned worries that they are amassing a bit too much power through the actions of the queen, Cersei. Things come to a head when Ned is asked by the king to take the office of the Hand of the King (which is basically the man speaks for the king and ensures his will is done) and has to leave Winterfell with is family and travel South to King's Landing, the seat of the Court.

As this is going on, action is taking place across the sea, where two of the children of the former king managed to escape into exile when their whole family was slaughtered. The young man is now at an age when he thinks he's old enough to act on claim to the throne and marries off his sister, Daenerys, to the head of a huge tribe of horsemen who are famed as excellent warriors. He hopes their support will help him win back the throne.

Each chapter is narrated from the point of view of a different character (although all are narrated in third-person), and at least in this first book, most are from the Stark family. We've got Ned, his wife Catelyn, their two daughters, Arya and Sansa, their son Bran, and Jon Snow, Ned's illegitimate son. Jon has chosen to leave Winterfell to join a brotherhood devoted to guard a Wall that separates the kingdom from the dangers hiding in the ancient forest to the North. We've also got chapters from the point of view of Daenerys, and of Tyrion Lannister, a brother to the Queen.

I liked how that worked to move us to the different bits of the world, helping us see different bits of the action, and I liked how in some cases particular events were narrated from the POV of a character you wouldn't really expect. That felt like a particularly effective device. Anyway, I don't know whether we'll continue to follow the same characters' POVs throughout the rest of the books, but I suspect not necessarily. A couple of them (Ned and Catelyn, mostly) did not feel quite as fascinating as the rest (although I do think they were the right people to give us certain perspectives we needed to see) whereas there are a couple of other characters whose POVs I would be really intrigued to see.

What I've described is only setup, and I don't intend to say much more about the events that take place. Suffice it to say that there's quite a bit of drama. There's big, kingdom-changing drama, of the sort that made me go "I can't believe GRRM did that!", but there's also smaller, more interpersonal drama. And on the whole, it all feels beautifully justified by the different characters' personalities. These genuinely feel like real people, complex and flawed, all acting in ways that make sense given who they are. I felt there were a couple of small missteps (GRRM clearly feels that boys spoilt by their mothers and without a good masculine role model turn into evil monsters in a completely over-the-top way), but on the whole, I recognised these people as real.

The biggest chunk of the book is focused on what's going on at Court and the consequences of that, but there are also significant chunks with Jon Snow at the Wall and with Daenerys over the water. I think those two sets of chapters were my favourites, probably because the characters were fantastic. Whereas the rest of the main characters are part of a family, these two are more outsiders, having to make their own paths in the world, and each do this in very different ways. The other important thing is that what goes on in their stories has the potential to significantly disrupt what is occupying all the other characters' attention, and I'm sure that will become clear in future books.

My absolutely favourite character, however, might be Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion is a dwarf, which sets him apart from his "perfect" beautiful, golden family, particularly his brother Jaime. His father clearly disdains him, but Tyrion refuses to just live a quiet life and fade into the background. He's got one of those brains that just races ahead and makes everyone around him look like they're just plodding on. And that brilliant, brilliant brain also gets him into trouble, as he sometimes can't resist going a bit too far with a particularly clever put-down. I think the reason he's my favourite is because he's the most ambiguous of all the characters. Even having read the whole book, I can't quite figure him out, even with the chapters from his point of view. He seems to have a fair bit of loyalty to his family, while being completely realistic about what they're like, but he also seems to have quite a bit of decency, which can be seen in how he treats those around him. But he can also be completely ruthless. I really, really want to see more of him.

The other element that raises this book above most fantasy is the world-building. This is a fully-realised world. You get the feeling that there's real history behind all characters, and that the world in GRRM's head has lots more than what he just shows in the page. I also really like the touches of the paranormal, like the existence of actual dragons in the past, or what's going on beyond the wall. Well, it's only touches in this book, but I have no doubt there'll be more in later books.

It took me a fairly long time to read this one, and not just because it's a long book. At the beginning, it felt like there was a lot of setting up of the world. That wasn't a problem, and I really enjoyed it, but it didn't quite propel me forward and make me desperate to see what would happen next. I was reading 2 or 3 chapters a day and felt quite satisfied with that progress, as I could really savour them. And then, in the last third or so, things got really, really good and I flew through it. I expect the rest of the books will probably continue at pace, and I mean to start the second one straight away to find out!



Dead Scared, by Sharon Bolton

>> Saturday, October 21, 2017

TITLE: Dead Scared
AUTHOR: Sharon Bolton

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Contemporary UK
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Second in the DC Lacey Flint series

When a rash of suicides tears through Cambridge University, DI Mark Joesbury recruits DC Lacey Flint to go undercover as a student to investigate. Although each student's death appears to be a suicide, the psychological histories, social networks, and online activities of the students involved share remarkable similarities, and the London police are not convinced that the victims acted alone. They believe that someone might be preying on lonely and insecure students and either encouraging them to take their own lives or actually luring them to their deaths. As long as Lacey can play the role of a vulnerable young woman, she may be able to stop these deaths, but is it just a role for her? With her fragile past, is she drawing out the killers, or is she herself being drawn into a deadly game where she's a perfect victim?

Dark and compelling, S. J. Bolton's latest thriller?a follow-up to the acclaimed Now You See Me?is another work of brilliant psychological suspense that plumbs the most sinister depths.
This is the second book in a series, following Now You See Me, which was a twisty Jack the Ripper-inspired mystery I enjoyed quite a bit, in spite of some flaws.

In this book, DC Lacey Flint, still recovering after the events of the previous book, is asked by DI Mark Joesbury to go undercover in a Cambridge college. An unusually high number of female students have been dying by suicide and, while the official line is that there's nothing to worry about (and that what Lacey is pretty much told), the numbers and the disturbing and grisly methods used have led to some concerns. Lacey is one of the few experienced police officers who looks young enough to be able to pass as a student.

It doesn't take long for Lacey to realise something is really wrong. And then the same things she's discovering preceded many of the suicides, start happening to her.

This one was a bit of a disappointment. It had a lot of promise. It's an interesting premise, super creepy and scary, and the setting is really well-done. Bolton is excellent at creating a vivid sense of place (however, this was not quite as fantastic as her Little Black Lies, set in the Falklands. I loved that book). Lacey is also a great character, with quite a bit of complexity.

So what was the problem? Well, for starters, that the plot required Lacey to make stupid decisions a little bit too often. For instance, at one point she goes off into the forest and finds a really creepy tableau, with a hanged creepy doll and a fox. She's investigating cases of people being terrified and pushed into suicide, and yet beyond reporting to Joesbury, she does nothing? Another one: she knows the precursor of the suicides is the victims having these bad dreams which include a conviction the next morning of people coming into their rooms. And yet when this same thing starts happening to her she kind of dismisses it and doesn't take protective actions? (e.g. seriously examining everything she consumes and making sure nothing could be slipped in her food and drink?).

I also found Joesbury a bit problematic here. He and Lacey had a difficult relationship in the previous book, but there's supposed to be this sort of chemistry between them. The thing is, I had to doubt he cared much about her, as his actions bothered me. Sending Lacey into a dangerous situation (and one he knows is dangerous) but only telling her it's just humouring a friend of a superior officer and that she's meant to just observe? No, sorry. And he seems much too concerned with lusting after Lacey, rather than with the disturbing things she's reporting.

Finally, I found the explanation as to what had been happening pretty unbelievable. I did not buy the motivations of the culprit(s), and it was preposterous that they would have been able to do what they were supposed to have done.

I will probably give this series another shot, since I did really like the other two books I read by Bolton, but this one was a bit of a dud.



Dan Carlin's Hardcore History

>> Thursday, October 19, 2017

This one's a bit of a new one for my blog, in that it's a review of a podcast. I do book reviews here, but the only difference between this particular podcast and a non-fiction audiobook is that while it's scripted, there's clearly an element of ad-libbing in how the script is delivered. So, why not?

Dan Carlin is a journalist and broadcaster who hosts a couple of very popular podcasts. The one I'm looking at here is called Hardcore History, and in it, he explores different historical topics. Sometimes he'll do a single podcast episode on a single topic, but what I'm reviewing (because it's what I've listened to so far) are two separate series of podcasts, both of which are basically military history.

The first one is called Wrath of the Khans, and it's a 5-episode series covering the history of the Mongol empire, from the rise of Gengis Khan to the decline of the empire. This series came out in a 6-month period from mid-2012, and it's about 8:30 hours long.

The second, Blueprint for Armageddon, is considered by many to be Carlin's magnum opus (so far!). This 6-episode series is about World War I, concentrating on the war itself. The episodes here are massive, clocking in at around about 4 hours each. The whole thing is 23 hours. The episodes came out between October 2013 and May 2015.

Carlin often makes it clear that although he loves history, he's not a historian. I suppose he means that he's not going to the primary sources to bring in new knowledge, like a professional historian would. What he does, and I think it's just as valuable, is to take the work from professional historians and make it into an incredibly absorbing story. He's a storyteller.

Actually, he's a wonderful, masterful storyteller. Here's what I love about Hardcore History:

1) Carlin takes a huge range of sources and creates a coherent story that makes sense. He simplifies, obviously, but in a way that doesn't seem simplistic. He's very good at signposting the bits that are missing (e.g. how he's concentrating more on a particular front during WWI, and that at the same time stuff was going on in this other front).

2) It's not that he takes only the cool, fun bits, but that he makes even the dry bits fascinating. This includes things like descriptions of military manouvers, which I previously thought could not be done in a way that wouldn't put me to sleep.

3) Explaining is just as important as bringing events to life. I already knew intellectually that the trenches in WWI had been horrific, but it was not until I listened to Blueprint for Armageddon that I felt that in my gut and could really picture it. I'd never stopped to think about what it might have been like to know that the Mongol hordes approached your city. I felt that horror.

4) Carlin has a knack for zeroing in on just the right little detail that illustrates the big picture, just the right personal perspective from a person involved.

5) He does not forget about the impact of these big historical things on the individual. Just because something horrific happened long ago, it doesn't magically become appropriate to take it lightly. When I read The Handmaid's Tale long ago, the bit that unexpectedly changed how I look at things forever was the epilogue. It takes place many, many years after the events in the story, and features a male historian who's discovered Offred's record of her experience. He makes jokes and cheeky puns. We've just experienced the traumatising pain of Offred's life, so this feels extremely jarring. And yet, that's how so many modern historians deal with their material, particularly sexual violence. I just listened to another historical podcast where the (female) historian who was being interviewed was describing how a Scottish nobleman had broken into an estate and "forced a marriage" upon the widow of the former owner in order to gain the property. He made sure he consummated the marriage, and all hell broke loose the next morning. And this historian felt it appropriate to joke that she hoped the wedding night had been worth it, hahah. She was talking about rape. Dan Carlin emphatically does NOT do this. When he's talking about how Mongols would often take the women of their defeated enemies as wives, he stops to say that this is the way they referred to it and that it is a euphemism, a euphemism that hides sexual violence. He does not let us forget this.

6) Carlin somehow manages not to glorify war, while at the same time creating pictures that make the listener go "wow!" These pictures stick in my mind. The German army marching through Belgium. The Mongols in a battle with Polish knights. Wow.

7) He's got a very idiosyncratic way of speaking (if you say to any Hardcore History listener "Ageeeen. And ageeen. And ageeeen", they'll laugh knowingly). I love it (however, YMMV).

There are now 60 episodes of Hardcore History, and the last 10 or so are available for free on the website. This includes the Blueprint for Armageddon series, but also a series called Kings of Kings (about the Achamemenid Persian empire), a single episode called The Celtic Holocaust (about Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul) and what he calls a Blitz episode (I think these are more explorations of a theme) about the development of nuclear warfare and how humanity has dealt with having the power to destroy itself. The remaining 50 episodes are available for "a buck a show, that's all we ask". I've bought them all, even though I hear the earlier ones are not as good (Carlin was apparently still developing how he does things), and call it a bargain.


Man Booker Prize 2017 round-up

>> Monday, October 16, 2017

The Man Booker Prize winner will be announced on Tuesday, so I'd best write up my usual summary and (always wrong) guesses! This was a strange year. I was really excited by the longlist, and I think that excitement was shared by lots of people. Several of us dove into the list and read one after the other, posted review after review. I didn't like all the books I was reading, but there were quite a few books I really loved that I wouldn't necessarily have picked up on my own, so it felt like a really good longlist.

And then the shortlist was announced, and it felt like all that excitement just drained away. It felt to me like a really blah shortlist. There were several sets of 6 books that could have been drawn from that longlist and would have made an exciting and interesting shortlist, but this particular set wasn't one of them.

Starting with the shortlist, the one book I really loved was Mohsin Hamid's Exit West. It's a short book, but it packs a very powerful punch. It's a very "now" book, in that it looks at a topic that's never far from the headlines these days: that of refugees. The thing is, rather than concentrating on the journey and the difficulties in making a new life, it looks at how leaving their birthplace can change people and make them grow in unexpected directions. I loved it. I even found really effective the fantastical element (which had made me a bit wary) of the mysterious magical doors that appear and allow people to move around the world just by stepping through them. This is the book I hope will win.

My review is here. I rated it an A-.

The only other book on the shortlist that ended up being my thing was a surprise. Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 has received very mixed reviews, probably tending more towards the negative. People mostly think it too long and a bit old hat in terms of its themes. The experimental elements in the structure (we get 4 different versions of the protagonist's life, as variations in how something works out during his childhood lead to differences in how everything else follows) are not felt by most to add much innovation.

Now, I'm still reading this one, as it really is very long and not particularly gripping, but I'm enjoying it quite a bit. I like the detail and the low-key, undramatic writing, and I'm liking how the small variations lead to very different consequences. Do I feel it deserves to be on the Man Booker shortlist, or even the longlist? So far, not really. But at least I'm having a pleasant time reading it, and I intend to keep going.

The only other one on the shortlist that I finished was Autumn, by Ali Smith. I'd tried Ali Smith before (when an earlier book was nominated for the Man Booker as well, in fact), and I just didn't get it. I hoped I'd feel differently about this one, but I didn't. There were several different strands. There's the protagonist's grief for her former neighbour, an old man who is about to die, and who was a huge part of her life growing up. There's a lot about a forgotten pop artist called Pauline Boty. And there's also the fact that the present-day story is set in the summer of 2016, and the effect of the EU exit referendum is being felt.

I was interested in each of those strands, but I felt what Smith did with them didn't resonate with me at all. Also, I didn't think they came together at all. To me, they did not make up a satisfying whole.

My review is here. I rated it a C+.

And now for the DNFs. I promise, I really did try with these three books. I kept picking them up again and again, but I had to force myself to do so. After a couple of weeks each of that, I gave up.

George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo was the one I made least progress with. It's a novel made up from fragments and lots of different voices, and I found that literally unreadable. I tried and tried, both in audio and ebook, but to no avail.

I'm all for working hard on a book if there's a pay-off, but the thing is, in the sections I read I didn't feel Saunders was saying anything particularly interesting or insightful.

My review is here.

History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund wasn't my thing, either. It's a story about a fourteen-year-old girl who lives in the woods with her parents, the last ones left after a commune disbanded. A family with a small child moves to the closest other house, and the girl quickly becomes more and more involved in their lives. The book is being narrated from many years later, so we know from the start that things are going to go badly wrong.

I never got to the point of caring about anyone or anything in this book, possibly because the protagonist and narrator's reactions were flat and dry. And it might be a flaw in me as a reader, but I do need to at least care for a book to work for me. I did read about half of this one, but that was as far as I could push myself.

My review is here.

Finally, Elmet, by Fiona Mozley, which felt to me a bit similar to History of Wolves. The child protagonist lives with his sister and father in rural Yorkshire, away from civilisation after his father decides to withdraw them from school (with good reason, actually).

From what I read, this seemed to be addressing some of the issues with property ownership and capitalism, but when the book turned into that the change felt a bit abrupt. Also, I felt the evil character who seems to symbolise the entire capitalism system was too cartoonish.

I was interested in some of the ambiguity about sexuality and gender roles suggested in Daniel, our narrator, but that didn't seem to ever become anything, as Mozley seemed more interested in the political elements.

I did read most of Elmet, but in the end, I just didn't care enough to push to the finish. It was another DNF.


So, half the books in the shortlist were DNFs, one I did manage to finish but was perplexed by, one I'm liking well enough, but hardly blown away by, and the final one was the single one I was genuinely wowed one. I really want Exit West to win, but I fear there's little chance of that. If I had to guess, I'd say it's probably Ali Smith's year and Autumn will do it.


So that was a bit of a depressing tour through the shortlist. Fortunately, things will get a lot more positive as I discuss the other books on the longlist, several of which I think are much better than the titles that made it. Do settle in, as I actually read or attempted all but one of the books on the longlist (probably the most I've ever got to -the only one I didn't read was Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness). This time I will start with my least liked, so that I can finish on a high note :)

Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry was my single DNF. I was really excited about this story of a two men who adopt a young girl and form a family, all set around the time of the US Civil War. And I did enjoy those bits, it's just that there was a lot more of killing and senseless violence, as the two men are soldiers.

The Civil War sections were bad enough, but I actually found the sections before, when they're basically killing Native Americans all over the place for no good reason, much worse. It wasn't so much the violence but the way in which it was described, in a dreamy, matter-of-fact sort of way. It jarred me in a bad way, and at the same time, kept me from engaging in the story.

My review is here.

I'd never read Zadie Smith before, although she's been on my list to try for quite a while. Swing Time wasn't really the best place to start. Smith had two main strands going through the book, and I felt she concentrated mostly on the wrong one.

I really wanted more about the unnamed narrator's relationship with her childhood friend, particularly to see more exploration of that as she grew up. Instead, I got more than I wanted of the narrator being a sort of fixer for a huge pop star who has decided to do charity work in Africa. It's satire, but not very good satire, as it says nothing very new and mocking these people is basically shooting fish in a barrel.

My review is here. I rated it a C+.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead was one book that was already on my TBR, as I'd heard so much about it. It's a bit like Exit West in that the author takes something real and adds just a touch of the fantastical in order to focus and amplify what he wants to explore. In this case, we get an Underground Railroad that is a real railroad, with tracks and train stops and everything. And it allows Whitehead to explore the many different manifestations racism can have, as his heroine, escaped slave Cora, travels from one Southern state to another and experiences their different approaches to dealing with their black populations. It goes from the brutality of a state determined to get rid of blacks altogether, to the benevolent (but almost as pernicious) 'scientific' racism of another.

It's insightful and quite powerful. The only misstep, I thought, was in the figure of the slave-catcher, a man with almost supernatural powers to find Cora, whom he's become sort of obsessed with. I find that trope pretty tiresome, and the character felt cartoonish and strained credulity. This contrasted badly with the painful reality of the rest of the book and was also completely unnecessary.

No review yet. I rated it a B+.

Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack is just as experimental in style as the Saunders, but my experience of reading it was completely different. The book is narrated in a single sentence by an Irish man called Marcus, as he stands in his kitchen and contemplates his life. I kind of dreaded reading this one, as I'm quite wary about this sort of thing. Too often it feels like a gimmick, almost like an author trying to make things challenging for the reader for no good reason.

Well, that was not the case for Solar Bones at all. First of all, it wasn't really challenging. All the hard work was basically done by the author, who somehow managed to make his single sentence narration feel natural and just right, not even particularly difficult. And although I did wonder at the beginning, I was gradually convinced that this was the right way to tell this story. The device of the single sentence, with the way it reflects the state of the mind it's supposed to come from, added quite a bit to the narrative.

And I should add, this book was not just about the writing. I particularly loved reading about Marcus's relationship with his children, a baffled love which felt so like my father that it made me tear up at points.

No review yet. I rated it an A-.

And now we come to my two favourites. I loved Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor. It's an exploration of the life of a village in rural Derbyshire, as the effects of the disappearance of a young girl who was staying there on holiday with her parents ripple through the years. It's not a plot-driven book at all, but it's not a character exploration either. We get small vignettes of a large cast of characters, the many people who live in the village, but it's not in depth. We get almost as much about how the village itself and the nature in and around it lives and grows. You might think this would feel a bit distant, but it doesn't. It's undramatic, but profoundly affecting.

It's also beautifully written, almost like poetry in prose, and quite hypnotic. This one really, really should have been on the shortlist, and I think it would  have been a worthy winner, even.

My review is here. I rated it an A-.

And still, I think I might have loved Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire even more than Reservoir 13. It's a retelling of the Antigone story, but it feels completely non-derivative. Shamsie really makes the story her own. Any connections to the original only add richness, rather than feel like shortcuts.

Shamsie also makes it feel completely 'now', without it having that awkward 'ripped from the headlines' feel to it. It's the story of two British-Pakistani families and what happens when a young man decides to join IS, setting everyone on course for disaster.

With fascinating, flawed characters who feel completely real, and very interesting things to say about what it's like to be Muslim in Britain today, this book punched me straight in the gut. I couldn't stop thinking about it or talking about it. It's my favourite of the Booker dozen.

My review is here. I rated it an A.



I hope Exit West will win

I think Autumn will win

I think Reservoir 13 should have won

But I loved Home Fire most of all. It may not be as innovative or structurally adventurous as Reservoir 13 (which is why I think the latter is more of a 'Booker winner'), but it's brilliant, and finding books like this is the reason why I do this every year.


Two more from the Man Booker shortlist

>> Saturday, September 30, 2017

Wow, for all that I loved this year's Man Booker longlist, I'm really not liking the shortlist. Well, I did love Exit West, but Autumn wasn't for me, and these two fell in the same category.

TITLE: Lincoln in the Bardo
AUTHOR: George Saunders

I'm not even going to try to explain what Lincoln in the Bardo is about. Mainly, that's because I'm not sure. It's a novel made up from fragments and lots of different voices. It's set in a crypt, where Lincoln's young son Willie lies dead. But it's also set in a realm inspired in the Tibetan tradition of the 'bardo', a place where spirits linger in between life and death, not quite ready to take the next step.

It's an intriguing concept, but I found this quite unreadable. My brain was trying to turn the different voices and fragment into a single whole, but it could never quite do it. I tried to listen to the audiobook first, but the constant reading of the citations (after every little fragment, we get a citation explaining where it's from... what book, what letter, etc) kept breaking my concentration. I really should have listed to Sunita, who had a similar problem. So I returned the audiobook and bought the ebook. It solved the problem of the citations, but it still didn't bring this any nearer to working for me.

I persisted for much longer than I should have, but after several days of forcing myself to keep turning pages, I accepted this wasn't for me and gave up. In addition to the difficulties with the way the book was written, I wasn't getting anything from it. I didn't feel it was saying anything insightful or new about... well, anything, really.


TITLE: History of Wolves
AUTHOR: Emily Fridlund

Fourteen-year-old Madeline and her parents are the last remnants of a commune in the woods of Minnesota. With almost no supervision in her life, Madeline spends her days roaming in the forest. When a family with a young child move into the nearest house, Madeline (calling herself Linda) befriends them, and ends up spending a lot of time with the little kid. And we know as we read that it all ended in some sort of tragedy: death, a trial, trauma.

History of Wolves strongly reminded me of a book in last year's shortlist, Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen. Fortunately, the obsession with ugliness and bodily fluids wasn't there, but there was something about Madeline that felt very much like Eileen, at least in the sections I read: the unfeelingness, the lack of involvement with what's around her. She walks around observing and barely reacting. She doesn't seem to care, so why should I?

And that was my main problem and the reason why I found reading this a struggle. I found it really hard to care at all, particularly because I didn't quite buy the characters (both Linda and the mother in the family she befriends). The characterisation felt inconsistent and a bit shallow. Not one for me.

MY GRADE: And another DNF.


Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

>> Tuesday, September 26, 2017

TITLE: Reservoir 13
AUTHOR: Jon McGregor

PAGES: 336
PUBLISHER: Fourth Estate

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction

From the award-winning author of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and Even the Dogs. Reservoir 13 tells the story of many lives haunted by one family's loss.

Midwinter in the early years of this century. A teenage girl on holiday has gone missing in the hills at the heart of England. The villagers are called up to join the search, fanning out across the moors as the police set up roadblocks and a crowd of news reporters descends on their usually quiet home.

Meanwhile, there is work that must still be done: cows milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured, beds made, sermons written, a pantomime rehearsed.

The search for the missing girl goes on, but so does everyday life. As it must.

As the seasons unfold there are those who leave the village and those who are pulled back; those who come together or break apart. There are births and deaths; secrets kept and exposed; livelihoods made and lost; small kindnesses and unanticipated betrayals.

Bats hang in the eaves of the church and herons stand sentry in the river; fieldfares flock in the hawthorn trees and badgers and foxes prowl deep in the woods – mating and fighting, hunting and dying.

An extraordinary novel of cumulative power and grace, Reservoir 13 explores the rhythms of the natural world and the repeated human gift for violence, unfolding over thirteen years as the aftershocks of a stranger’s tragedy refuse to subside.
When the Man Booker longlist was announced, I was reading Val McDermid's A Place of Execution. Reading the description of Reservoir 13 was a bit startling: Derbyshire village setting, 13-year-old girl going missing? But that's exactly what I'm reading! Well, it's been fun reading Reservoir 13 and seeing just how differently the same basic plot can be developed.

In Reservoir 13, the disappearance of the girl is only the departure point for an exploration of the life of a small village. There is no main character, just short vignettes (or not even that, sometimes; in some cases it's just a couple of sentences) about a group of people, showing their life and how it changes. It's not about the disappearance, but the disturbance created by it can be seen in many of the characters.

As much as about the people, this is about nature, and how a small village interacts with it. We'll get a sentence about a particular character, and the next one will be about how this particular buzzard is now starting to build a nest. It's very effective.

There isn't really a plot propelling anything forward, but I never felt this was a problem. It's beautifully written, like reading poetry in prose. Reading this book was almost hypnotic and strangely relaxing, almost like slipping into a warm bath. I took me a while to finish it, because it felt right to read a single chapter every day, right before going to bed. Reservoir 13 was a lovely way to wind down the day and transition into sleep. I realise this might sound like damning it with faint praise, but I don't mean it that way at all.  I loved it, and I'd recommend it to anyone.



Autumn, by Ali Smith

>> Sunday, September 24, 2017

TITLE: Autumn
AUTHOR: Ali Smith

PAGES: 264
PUBLISHER: Hamish Hamilton

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: Starts a quartet

Daniel is a century old. Elisabeth, born in 1984, has her eye on the future. The United Kingdom is in pieces, divided by a historic once-in-a-generation summer.

Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand in hand with hopelessness. The seasons roll round, as ever....
After a couple of very busy weeks (lots of travel, and then visitors), I'm back to my Man Booker reviews. Unfortunately, I'm starting with one which I didn't expect to like, and turned out to fulfil those expectations.

I've tried to read Ali Smith before (most recently her previous Booker-nominated book, How To Be Both), and decided I simply do not get what she does. But there have been so, so many really positive reviews of Autumn, including by people who are not big fans of her, not to mention the Brexit element, which is something that I expected to resonate with me. So, almost against my will, I started to think maybe I would like this one.

Well, my experience with Autumn was almost exactly the same as my experience with How To Be Both: bafflement. I have no idea what to make of this book. I didn't hate it; I just didn't get it.

There's our protagonist, Elisabeth, and her grief at the decline and likely upcoming death of her friend, Daniel Gluck. Daniel was Elisabeth's neighbour when she was growing up, an old man already, and yet the only person in Elisabeth's life to make time for her and pay her attention. Now he's 101 and in a nursing home, floating in and out of consciousness, and Elisabeth spends her time at his bedside.

Interspersed with this, we get a lot about a little-known pop artist, Pauline Boty, who is the focus of Elisabeth's work in Art History. We find out some really interesting stuff about the artist and about her work alike. I did enjoy that, but didn't quite get why it was part of the book. Daniel was the one to introduce Elisabeth to Boty's work, but beyond that, I couldn't really see what the two threads had to do with each other.

And then there's Brexit. The present-day sections of the novel take place right after the referendum, in the summer of 2016, and there's a lot about how the country is feeling divided and half are feeling alienated, while the other half are feeling jubilant. A house gets spray-painted with "Go Home", a mysterious fence pops up in the outskirts of the village and aggressive men threaten people who go anywhere it, and the renewal of Elizabeth's passport turns into a vaguely threatening bureaucratic nightmare.

This element will probably be effective for most readers, but didn't move me in the way that I'd expected it to. Elisabeth's feelings didn't really resonate with me, which was most surprising. I've witnessed first-hand the devastation of some of my British friends at the referendum result and really felt for them. They had the same "this is not the country I thought it was" reaction that I had, only for them it was something that shook up their entire identity. I should have been able to feel for Elisabeth in the same way I felt for them. Instead, she didn't move me.I also wanted more, in other ways. I wanted to hear from the people in the spray-painted house. I wanted to understand why their response was so different from mine (they spray-paint "We are already home, thank you" right back, while my response has been more along the lines of "I'm not sure I want to stay where I'm not wanted"). Eh, well. This might be the first "Brexit novel", as it's been billed by some, but it's not going to be the one that really shows how it all felt.

And, like with the other two elements, I struggled to see how all this connected with Elisabeth's relationship with Daniel and with all the stuff about Pauline Boty. Everything was interesting enough in its own right, but just didn't make a whole for me. The bits didn't fit together and coalesce. I didn't feel there was a story here, no character development, just a collection of stuff that felt kind of pointless.

Yes, Ali Smith is definitely not for me.



The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

>> Tuesday, September 19, 2017

TITLE: The Lost Book of the Grail
AUTHOR: Charlie Lovett

PAGES: 336

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Fiction

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Bookman's Tale comes a new novel about an obsessive bibliophile's quest through time to discover a missing manuscript, the unknown history of an English Cathedral, and the secret of the Holy Grail.

Arthur Prescott is happiest when surrounded by the ancient books and manuscripts of the Barchester Cathedral library. Increasingly, he feels like a fish out of water among the concrete buildings of the University of Barchester, where he works as an English professor. His one respite is his time spent nestled in the library, nurturing his secret obsession with the Holy Grail and researching his perennially unfinished guidebook to the medieval cathedral.

But when a beautiful young American named Bethany Davis arrives in Barchester charged with the task of digitizing the library's manuscripts, Arthur's tranquility is broken. Appalled by the threat modern technology poses to the library he loves, he sets out to thwart Bethany, only to find in her a kindred spirit with a similar love for knowledge and books and a fellow Grail fanatic.

Bethany soon joins Arthur in a quest to find the lost Book of Ewolda, the ancient manuscript telling the story of the cathedral's founder. And when the future of the cathedral itself is threatened, Arthur and Bethany's search takes on grave importance, leading the pair to discover secrets about the cathedral, about the Grail, and about themselves.
This book is The Da Vinci Code's shy, bookish cousin, the one who doesn't get out much.

Arthur Prescott is right where he wants to be. He's forever loved the city of Barchester, with its quaint centre and its beautiful cathedral. Arthur's grandfather, a retired clergyman, lived there, and Arthur would spend his childhood summers with him and feel he was home. So when a job as an English professor became available in the University of Barchester, Arthur didn't hesitate to take it, even though he despises its glass and concret campus in the outskirts of town. After all, he doesn't have to live there. Arthur has a little house in what used to be a medieval close, and spends all his free time in the cathedral, mostly immersed in the Cathedral Library, surrounded by all those lovely manuscripts and old books.

Being in Barchester Cathedral allows Arthur to work on his secret lifelong project, the search for the Holy Grail. See, his grandfather confided in him his belief that the Grail came to Barchester at one point, and there are several suggestive clues in paintings and old books.

And then a threat arrives. American Bethany Davis shows up to digitise all the manuscripts in the Cathedral Library. The nasty tech element would be bad enough (Arthur is very much in the "only physical books are real books" camp), but Bethany's work is being funded by a millionaire known for his determination to find Biblical objects, including the Holy Grail. Clearly Bethany must be kept at a distance.

The thing is, Arthur ends up discovering in Bethany someone who loves books just as much as he does, and soon they're working together to find, not just the grail, but the lost book of Ewolda, Barchester Cathedral's founder.

The Lost Book of the Grail was really good fun. It's low-key fun, without over-the-top thrills or glamour. There are puzzles to solve and clues to follow, but no evil villains or huge, unbelievable conspiracies. And we also have one of my favourite devices, the group of friends working together to solve a mystery. In addition to Arthur and Bethany, we've got Oscar and David, who have been meeting weekly as part of as book-lovers group. Initially looked like they'd be the sort of blokes who went all "euww, girls", but they accept Bethany as a fellow bibliophile really easily, and it was lovely to see them all become friends.

I also liked the nuanced treatment of a couple of topics. First, the issue of "real books" vs electronic. I thought I'd get really annoyed at Arthur's attitude, but he's made to realise and admit quite quickly that yes, although there's something unique about books as objects, there's all sorts of value in the digital. Second, the issue of faith. Arthur is a non-believer who attends services just because he loves the music and ritual so much. Throughout the book, he thinks about faith quite a bit, and this might be a minor spoiler, but he comes to believe by the end of the story. As someone who wavers between atheism and agnosticism and who also loves old churches and church music, I very much identified with early Arthur. So it's probably worth mentioning that I liked how his coming to faith was handled. It's not preachy, and dealt with as something that is very personal, not to mention that not having faith is not treated as a moral failing. I do disagree with Bethany's "you can choose to believe" stance, but didn't have a problem with any of it.

On the more negative side, Bethany is not as well-developed as I would have liked. She never really completely gelled, and her characterisation seemed to be almost as an accessory to Arthur... someone to challenge his narrow-mindedness about digital aspects of books, someone to move the plot along and help him make discoveries, someone for him to fall in love with.

This was not a huge problem for me, though, and on the whole, I enjoyed this. I'll be looking at Lovett's backlist next.



Sector General, by James White

>> Sunday, September 17, 2017

TITLE: Sector General
AUTHOR: James White

PAGES: 196

TYPE: Sci-fi
SERIES: Part of Sector General series

The incredible floating intergalactic hospital, where exotic beings receive treatment from equally exotic doctors and nurses. Each new species brings new problems, but no case is too big, too small, too hopeless - or too weird - for Sector General.

Accident: A spaceship crashes and two war heroes must decide how many - and which - victims can be saved...

Survivor: A doctor contracts a fatal illness and his only hope lies in a colleague's courage...

Investigation: The victims have all lost their limbs and the medics think they have the answer - but they are wrong...

Combined Operation: To reassemble a living jigsaw puzzle, Dr Conway needs an alien's cooperation - but first he must learn to communicate with it...

Four fabulous stories from Sector General Hospital - including the story of the birth of the great hospital itself.
Random read, a collection of short stories halfway through a series I knew nothing about. Probably not a great idea. There were 4 stories in this omnibus, and I read only the first 2.

The first one, Accident, is a kind of origin story. I gather the series is set in an intergalactic hospital for all species, and this story shows how the concept of it came to be. It stars two people who are war heroes, each from a different side. They were brought forward into the future (not sure if cryogenically frozen, or what), into a peaceful time, and so they are the only two people alive in their time who have known war. And in spite of the existing peace, they are worried. Relationships between species are now characterised by extreme, careful politeness. Every species is terrified of doing something that will offend other species. As a result, there is a great deal of distance between them. People from different species don't get to really know each other. And the men's fear is that, at some point, this will lead to war.

And then the men are involved in an accident in a spaceport. A vehicle crashes into one of the buildings, and it's all hands to the pump trying to rescue people and keep them alive. And the idea of the right forum for species getting to know one another is sparked.

I liked the concept of this, and had fun with the weird and wonderful alien species on show, but it felt kind of slight. Some parts of it also felt a bit confusingly written. Mostly, it was fine.

The second story, Survivor, is set once the intergalactic hospital is already in operation. An ambulance on a rescue mission finds a single survivor from a ship that had a really bad accident. It's an alien of a kind they've never seen before, and an extremely weird one (and that's saying quite a lot, given some of the characters here). On the way back, one of the medics, an empath, starts not feeling well, and her condition deteriorates worryingly quickly.

This one wasn't particularly good. It's a mystery, trying to figure out what happened to the sick medic. I like that concept, but felt the answer was a little bit too obvious. For me, the story really suffered because there were a lot of elements there that I felt I was supposed to understand how they worked, but I had no idea. I spent a lot of time feeling confused. I didn't dislike the story, but it didn't feel satisfying.

After those two, it didn't really seem worth it to read the other two. I felt I got a good sense of what this series is like, and it's not really my thing.

MY GRADE: This was a DNF.


Genealogy and translation

>> Friday, September 15, 2017

TITLE: Blood Atonement
AUTHOR: Dan Waddell

When I read the first one in this series, which I loved, I sort of thought of it as a series following genealogist Nigel Barnes. The two detectives, Heather Jenkins and Grant Foster, were important characters, but I felt the main focus was Nigel. Well, in this one, it's clear they are protagonists as well!

The case in this one revolves around the murder of a woman and the disappearance of her 14-year-old daughter. A combination of forensic evidence and Nigel's genealogical investigations lead to events in the US many years earlier, and Nigel and Heather head across the pond to investigate.

I liked this one almost as much as book 1. The characters (both our detectives and Nigel) are interesting, the mystery is intriguing, and the genealogy aspect is really cool. At one point we visit the Mormon archives in Salt Lake City, and that is a fantastic moment for anyone with even a passing interest in genealogy.

It's too bad there are no further books in this series available. Blood Atonement was published in 2009, and the next one is nowhere to be seen. The annoying bit is that it looks like it does exist... Waddell's blog has a post explaining that it's been published in French, and that the English version will likely be self-published soon. Unfortunately, this post is over 3 years old, and One Soul Less is still not out :(

MY GRADE: A strong B+.

TITLE: Is That A Fish In Your Ear? The Amazing Adventure of Translation
AUTHOR: David Bellos

Translation has always been a topic that fascinates me, but it's not one I've ever looked at in any orderly way, or read much about. All my experience has been in actually doing it, so part of the joy of reading this collection of essays on different aspects of translating was in putting into words concepts I recognised intuitively. Another part of the joy, however, was in discovering things I'd never noticed.

The book itself wasn't quite what I was expecting. I think I'd assumed it would be more of a "pop science" sort of thing (probably because of the title), but this was quite technical and philosophical. It wasn't the breezy, funny read I was expecting; in fact, at times it was hard going. We get into topics like the meaning of "meaning", the different schools of translation and just what translation actually is. It's still an accessible book (in the sense that you don't need a background in linguistics to understand it), but you do need to put in a bit of effort and attention.

The required effort and attention are well-rewarded, though. This is one I'd recommend.



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