Friday 25 April 2014

Son of the Morning - Mark Alder

The Hundred Years War spanning the 116 years between 1337 and 1453 is one of those great sprawling medieval conflicts that roams back and forth across Northern Europe encompassing a huge number of iconic battles and names of Medieval history. Crecy, Agincourt, Saint-Omar, Tournai, Poitiers just some of the battles that have been immortalised in English and presumably in French consciousness for almost 700 years. We have icons like Edward the Black Prince, Joan of Arc, John the Blind, Henry V, Charles the Bad just a few of the big names that are what you think of if you think of the period. At the same time Europe suffered a series of peasant revolts and an almost total overthrow of the traditional feudal system largely due to the ravages of the Black Death. There is a massive amount that can be written about the period, so much fodder for authors. Something I've never seen touched upon though is the Hundred Years War taking the medieval stance on the nature of Angels and Devils into account.
Medieval theology is something that to modern eyes seems slightly mental. If you read medieval religious or social texts you will find numerous accounts of people genuinely interacting with a huge array of Saints, Angels, Imps and Demons. Many of these are accounts of ordinary common folk stumbling across a Demon as they go about their daily business, but it's not just gullible peasants who see these things. Serious, sensible and highly educated men and women totally believe that these heavenly and hellish creatures existed and could be appealed to. The creatures were a very real part of the actual world, a fact confirmed by all of the great minds of the day. They were as real to the medieval consciousness as microbes and atoms are to the modern mind.
With Son of the Morning Mark Alder has taken this theological concept of Angels and Demons being all around us and made it literal fact. The Angels and the Saints quite literally dwell amongst the relics that fill the medieval churches. The more beautiful and splendid the church the more powerful the Angel that is likely to choose to live there. The worthy, the pious, those chosen by God can have the types of very real conversations with these beings that you usually only find discussed in the writings of people like Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe. At the same time demons are able to take physical form and disrupt God's plan on earth in a totally literal manner, just as the most educated medieval mind would have known they could. When a King declares that the Angels are with his army, and when the troops have a vision of a heavenly Host streaming above the battlefield this isn't superstitious nonsense, but probable fact. Now both the French and English Kings are finding their respective saints and angels increasingly unresponsive, and have to work out if this is a sign of God's displeasure or if something 'unholy' needs to be done to break the stalemate.

As if the conceptual leap it took to combine medieval action and politics with the high fantasy of Angelic intervention wasn't enough to make this book brilliant; Alder also draws in elements of Milton's Paradise Lost concerning Lucifer and his fallen angels, turning the whole concept of God and the battle between Heaven and Hell on it's head. In Son of the Morning mankind has been deceived, the accepted concepts surrounding creation, Christ and the hierarchy between Heaven and Hell is based on lies. 'God' created nothing but the barren wastes of Hell. God saw the beauty of Paradise that Lucifer had formed and in his failure and rage imprisoned Lucifer in Hell binding mankind up in a system of rules and sins that demanded worship of him alone. These sins are so wide reaching that only a tiny minority can ever hope to avoid the fires of Hell. At one point a character, confused about why Hell is so overcrowded asks if Christ didn't visit Hell to release all the just souls who had died with no chance of his Grace. The answer 'He did. And he freed both of them.' Only two simply because of the impossibility for mankind to live by the Ten Commandments. Lucifer escaped Hell only once and came to Earth where he was called Christ. That was until God arranged for him to be betrayed, crucified and returned to his prison, only later spreading the rumour that 'Christ' was in fact the Son of God and a sacrifice in God's name. By combining the paradox of mankind's base nature vs the purity demanded by the Bible,  the disparity between the vengeful God of the Old Testament and the message of peace and love of the New Testament and the world full of death, pain and disease the was normal day to day living for medieval people Alder has come up with a solution that draws in all of these threads and which has the potential to be taken so much further in the upcoming instalments in the story.
There are so many places that this can go. The s**tstorm that hits Europe with the outbreaks of unprecedented vileness that was the Black Death, and the total collapse of 'God's order' in the form of the feudal system, I can't wait to see how these are handled. The concept of Lucifer as a saviour of the people spreading his message of equality 'When Adam delved and Eve Span who was then the Gentleman?' that helped unite revolts both in England and in France only to be brutally crushed by Richard II in the case of London and by Charles the Bad, King of Navarre in the Jacquerie of Paris. This all fits beautifully into the world that Alder has created. As does the total and almost unique brutality of the chevanchee used by military commanders during the period, why else would they commit such crimes unless spurred on by unholy forces?
I'm hoping, and guessing, that future books in the series will delve further into the reasons behind the various unfortunate nicknames given to some of the great war leaders. There is so much material that can be drawn into this brilliant story and used to bolster up the concept of demons, devils and angels all at war. Things like the wording of the momento mori on the tomb of the Black Prince, and the horrific but unlikely death of Charles of Navarre as well as the spate of sightings of angels like Michael that helped raise Joan of Arc to prominence. Even the documented interest Isabella of France took in the supernatural during her retirement and her eventual adoption of the habit of the Poor Clares ending with her burial alongside the heart of her husband; all of these factors will hopefully be drawn in to further enrich this incredible fantasy world.

Ok so in case you can't tell, I love this book; I'm blown away by just how cool the concept is, how well it's been drawn together and just why no one has thought to do this before (if they have, I apologise but I've not come across it and would love to be pointed in the right direction). This book isn't just a cool concept though. There are some wonderful descriptive passages both of the minutiae of daily life, the fabrics and textures of people come across daily and of the huge battle scenes. Think Bernard Cornwell style battles raging across the page, being chased by escapees from Dante. In fact one aspect I really should touch on is the vision of Hell and of the Devils and Demons that reside there. The descriptions of angels are pretty cool; lots of bright lights, colours, beauty, trumpets; think Monty Python's Holy Grail on overdrive. The descriptions of hell, however, are something else. Anyone who's ever seen the medieval wall art that survives in some of the little churches that escaped the Reformation's zeal will know that medieval concepts of Hell were brutal and bizarre. Think the men with faces in their chests that reside around the outer edges of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, or the visions of Hell that make up the famous works by Hiernymous Bosch; what you get here is all of those things and then some.... The devils are terrifying and yet often strangely comical as they cavort and rampage across the countryside. Rotten and corrupt they manage to combine everything that is vile. Even down to being petty minded, but violent, bureaucrats who simply don't realise that their boss, God, is a lunatic! They also have some of the brilliantly ridiculous names that are found in the East Anglian Witchfinder records, all called things like Catspaw or KnowMuch this adds to some of the comic ridiculousness of the interaction between serious and stately nobility and the devils found in this novel.

As if this weren't enough Son of the Morning also has a cast of really wonderful characters. Osbert the Pardoner is a particular favourite of mine, with his Blackadderesque view of the world as being quite ready to drop all manner of cr*p on him from a great height and his willingness to manipulate the forces of Earth, Heaven and Hell to make his way through existence as easily as possible. He is given some of the best comic lines as he finds himself in a variety of unpleasant but unlikely situations. His glee at finally getting hold of some actual relics rather than the knock-offs he's been selling all his life is very funny to read, as are his moments of baiting Father Edwin. William Montegu is also a great character, demonstrating the idea of  classic chivalry corrupted, and through him we get to see the whole process of nobility sinking into absolute sin and losing everything.
One minor complaint is that the female characters are a little lacking both in quantity and in substance. With the period setting and the idea of war and politics as a place for men this is at least understandable, although it is a little infuriating that the female characters that are available don't seem to be utilised as much as they maybe could be. The two predominant females, Queens Isabella and Joan don't come across as being particularly unique from one another, although there is scope for them to show their differences a little more in future books. So this is a minor quibble at this stage.

This is a long old book, 779 pages in the edition I read, but please don't be put off (if you've managed to read all the way through this review then you are probably up to the task anyway!) Every page is worth it here, there is a wealth of detail, of language and of thought that needs every single page. As this book only covers the first 16 odd years of the conflict I'm hopeful that there will be many more books to come and can't wait to see how the author resolves some of the mysteries surrounding the great heroes and antiheroes of the period.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

The Serpent of Venice - Christopher Moore

Following on from Fool, which was Christopher Moore's take on King Lear, we are transported to a semi-mythical thirteenth century Venice to follow Pocket the fool as he tries to thwart some war mongering Venetians.
This is Merchant of Venice meets Othello meets The Cask of Amontillado, with a bit of Marco Polo's travels and bits from other Shakespeare plays thrown in for good measure; and if I'm honest it shouldn't work. But oh my goodness, in the hands of Christopher Moore it is sublime. Pocket is a brilliantly filthy little character, with endless talk of his knob and with his repulsive giant Drool in tow. In fact part of the beauty of this book is the irreverent way that Moore tackles the Bard. Nothing here is sacred, and it is all the better for it. Well known and quite beautiful speeches taken directly from the plays are torn to shreds with the asides and interruptions from the motley cast of characters, who then in turn are often torn quite literally to shreds by the immature dragon that Marco Polo has unfortunately let loose in the canals of the city!
The history and attitudes of the period and of the plays interacts wonderfully with the almost modern sensibilities of Pocket, and the instances of really juvenile toilet humour tearing holes in the original plot construction are very very funny. One of my personal favourite moments came when Othello demanded Desdemona produce his mystical hanky, as proof that she had not given it away. I don't want to spoil the joke for anyone but it involved the necessity of 'cleaning up' after sex, that might just ring bells with a good number of people.
Another clever and very funny construct of the book is the use of a Chorus to help move the plot along. anyone with any kind of familiarity with sixteenth century theatre will know that these narrators often got some amazing lines, but that they were also ignored by the players themselves. Here, not so much. The Chorus butts in from time to time, adding his own little spin on the plot and characters; they then either get all confused as to who the idiot 'narrating' is or become quite defensive and argumentative about his comments. It makes for some very funny exchanges. Pocket is quick to dismiss the Chorus as

'Just a grandiose nutter who can't help himself bursting through the fourth wall like a great dim-witted battering ram.'

A dismissal that certainly made me giggle. 
In fact I found myself giggling a fair bit as I read this, not only that but the book managed to combine all the different elements and create a pretty damn satisfying conclusion to them all, probably one that is actually more satisfying than the original in fact. If you are looking for an entertaining, intelligent read that is sure to put a smile on your face, then you could hardly do better than to pick this up.

Monday 21 April 2014

New GoT covers

Just a quick question.... Is it wrong that I want these new GoT books with the gorgeous new cover designs as well as the beautiful semi Medieval covers and the HBO tie in ones? Why are Harper making me choose between so many simply beautiful designs? Damn them! lol

Friday 18 April 2014

Big Bad Wolf - Nele Neuhaus

First off a bit of a whinge is required here. I am quite the fan of translated fiction. Probably something like three quarters of everything I read started off in a language other than English. I am a big fan of the various publishers who go out of their way to bring great bits of writing to the English market. Companies like Pushkin, Arcadia and Gallic get my vote every time. I also love the brilliant range of crime writers that more mainstream publishers have brought to English audiences in the wake of the massive success of Larsson, Nesbo and Mankell etc. What does annoy me quite a bit is that especially with the larger publishers there is a tendency to ignore the original series order and publish these books in what feels like a completely random order. I appreciate that they do this because they are of the opinion that a certain one in the series will have the greatest appeal to a certain market and will help to launch the author to a new audience, but still it is irritating when you read a book that has the odd reference to earlier things, and then you discover that no this wasn't down to a slightly odd translation, but was in fact thanks to you being forced to read the books totally out of sequence. For some non-English authors we never actually get the who series at all. Neither the first, nor the last two of the Inspector Erlendur books have yet been translated into English at all. We get the series from book three, translated as Jar City, and never get to see how the character arcs start out; and as Erlendur is not the focus of the final two books these have not been translated either.
With Pierre Lemaitre and his wonderful books Alex and Irene, the English market was first given Alex, book two of the Verhoeven series; only for it to be followed up by Irene which was the first one. This led to the shocking ending of Irene being somewhat diluted as we had already read all about the consequences all the way through Alex! I was somewhat annoyed to discover that it was a similar tale with Nele Neuhaus and her brilliant, slightly fairytale inspired crime series. English readers jumped into this series with Snow White Must Die, an amazingly well done story that I absolutely loved, but still book four of her Bodenstein and Kirchhoff series. At the time of reading Snow White, I noticed a few bits were characters referred back to earlier cases, made comments that seemed to require some prior knowledge annoying but it still was a great read.
With Big Bad Wolf I was expecting book five of the series maybe, something that would logically follow on from book four. What we get is in fact the sixth book in the series. It is clear that a couple of years has passed since the Snow White case, events are mentioned giving us a time frame, but also several other cases are brought up which I'm guessing took place in either books 1-3 or in book 5. This really does get tiresome after a while, which is a shame because on the whole this is an excellent and very dark crime novel. It doesn't deserve little annoyances like this to get in the way of the story.
Big Bad Wolf has a huge number of twists and turns, but despite that the ultimate criminal does seem to come to light rather early on at least from the reader's point of view. I spent quite a good portion of the book mentally shouting at the various detectives about who the real culprit was here.  I don't know if I was just being particularly perceptive or if the identity is insanely obvious for everyone, either way despite 'getting it' long before the detectives did there were still enough shocks along the way to keep me very interested in this as a great read. The story is genuinely dark with some deeply messed up and quite hideous characters and some really shocking moments. The whole thing started to lose shape slightly towards the end, and my feeling is that Neuhaus had spent so much time and energy crafting the main story, that once the culprit was made plain she didn't quite know how to wind the story up to a neat conclusion. This had shades of Liz Coley's Pretty Girl Thirteen that I thought could have been explored a bit more, and I have to recommend that book to anyone who enjoys this. I also felt that the style and shape of the story had similarities with some of the Yrsa Sigurdardottir crime novels so I suggest her works as a good read. (Her books do seem to have been published in order so start with Last Rituals.)
Overall I did enjoy this very much as a nice dark crime thriller; I just hope that the lovely people at Macmillan decide to 'do the right thing' and publish the rest of this series so that one day I can read them in order without having to fall back on my slightly rusty German!

Wednesday 16 April 2014

The Pink Suit - Nicole Mary Kelby
A very unusual take on the Kennedy assassination and the icon that was Jackie Kennedy. This book very much focuses on the time, money and effort that went into creating and maintaining 'the Wife' as the nation's sweetheart. The story barely involves the Wife at all, choosing instead to focus almost entirely on the design and creation of the iconic pink suit that was worn on that fateful visit to Dallas. The novel is based on the actual Irish seamstress who was integral in crafting the suit in question as well on the fashion house Chez Ninon. The author makes it clear that although Kate and the fashion house were real people the image of them presented her is her own fictionalised take on their lives and attitudes, however for the most part she does an incredible job of breathing life into these characters. As with her previous work, White Truffles in Winter this is a gorgeously sensual novel. The textures, scents and weave of each fabric becomes integral to the plot and characterisation here. The subplot surrounding Kate's own love affair with her homely butcher allows Kelby to draw in more of the wonderful descriptions of food that made White Truffles such a delight.
There were some lovely little cameos from Coco Chanel and Martin Luther King so be sure to look out for these along the way.
This novel could easily have descended into a mere fluff piece but some beautiful writing and a well thought out set of convincing characters ensure that there is no risk of this, all while providing a glimpse into what it takes to build a modern icon.

A Natural History of Dragons - Marie Brennan

When this book came into the shop I had to buy myself a copy, because SO pretty.... I'm always a sucker for books with gorgeous dragons on the front cover and this fitted the bill nicely. As I'm thinking about doing a feature of dragon related books this one got bumped up my to read list pretty sharpish, and I'm actually rather glad it did. Books I buy for myself tend to languish for rather a long time as I work my way through all the lovely proofs and arcs that I am sent, this one was calling to me though and didn't disappoint. Written as the first in a series that will complete the memoirs of the fictitious Lady Trent, dragon specialist extraordinaire, this book covers her early fascination with the beasts and her first expedition to seek them out in the wild. There are lots of digressions from the author as she writes the work, critics of her younger self and asides about other works and stories that we can expect in later volumes, so I do hope that these are picked up successfully as the series continues. Lady Trent makes for an entertaining and convincing narrator, and although there were actually surprisingly few genuine dragons featuring in this story, the stage was set for further exciting adventures. The story itself is largely focused on the injustice and misogyny Lady Trent has had to overcome in order to succeed in her chosen field. A very complete fictional society is shown to exist with social attitudes being somewhat similar those found in 17th/18th Century England, only with a slightly more Victorian attitude to foreigners and clothing. Society dictates that noble women should interest themselves in little beyond husbands and homes, while females further down societies ladder evidently find working opportunities to be more plentiful despite legal restrictions.
With a strong female narrator, an interesting and action packed story, exotic locations and the odd dragon showing up here and there I can imagine that this would appeal to readers who like their fantasy to be believable but a little lighter than some of the blood and guts stuff you can come across. I am certainly looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of the next instalment when it comes out in a couple of months.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

The Goldfinch wins 2014 Pulitzer Prize

I'm rather pleased to hear that Donna Tartt has won the Pulitzer Prize for her magnificent novel, The Goldfinch. For readers of her earlier work this was a long time in the coming, but boy was it worth it. This was one of those books that I was incredibly keen to get hold of and read, and I must admit that it caused many envious looks when I was sent an advanced reading copies. Moments like that definitely count as one of the perks of the job. The ARC for the novel was almost as beautiful as the final product and I devoured it at speed despite the hefty nature of the novel. Every moment spent reading it was special, it's a very very special book. One of those books that you can imagine will be considered 'important' in the years to come. Altogether it is a worthy winner.... back when I read and reviewed it I didn't have this blog up and running, all my reviews were going up only on Goodreads and Waterstones, they were short and sweet nonetheless here is what I wrote about it at the time.....

I have waited a while to come back and write my review of 'The Goldfinch', and still I am not quite sure what I want to say about it. At 784 pages, it really is quite a brick and yet once you start reading you find that the pages fly by, and you are just wanting more of the flowing beautiful prose. Theo Decker is a total individual and the story of his travels through modern America is both powerful and emotionally charged. Obsession and loss are the overriding themes of the story, although the value of true friendship is also explored in depth. At times this is an emotional read, and the descent into the criminal underworld comes almost as light relief; all I can say don't be put off by the length of this, just read this beautiful book.

Monday 14 April 2014

Oliver VII - Antal Szerb

The second Szerb book I've read this month; this is another of the gorgeously presented translations from Pushkin Press. This is the final novel written by the author and was published under supremely difficult circumstances, despite this it seems to be dismissed as a rather frivolous piece. I think that people would prefer that Szerb stuck to writing dark gloomy works along the lines of maybe Alone in Berlin or maybe Mendelssohn is On the Roof, to reflect his own circumstances as he wrote this. Personally I think it reflects one of the great triumphs of the man as an artist that he was able to write such a charming, light and genuinely comic story while under such strain.
The story reads like one of  Anthony Hope's Ruritanian novels given a gentle comic spin by someone like Oscar Wilde.I can easily imagine the film that could have been made from this novel, it would have starred Alec Guinness as King Oliver and would have been somewhere between 'Kind Hearts and Coronets' and 'The Prince and the Showgirl.' I almost feel the invention of the time machine would be worth the effort just to get the film made correctly!
Although the story is largely set in the crumbling palazzos Venice, a city that was evidently very close to Szerb's heart, it focuses on the King and subjects of Alturia. A central European monarchy that owes it's fortunes to it's trade in Sardines and Wine. Under the  threat of bankruptcy and pressure from big business from the neighbouring Norlandia, King Oliver can see no way to come to an acceptable solution for his country and so decides to orchestrate a revolution, just so he can avoid making an unfavourable decision. He disappears leaving his senile uncle as King of Alturia, and nothing but a trail of rumours in his wake.
As the situation in Alturia worsens one of the erstwhile revolutionaries is dispatched to track him down in Venice. Oliver is living incognito in the city as Oscar, and is learning what it is to be an ordinary person. Trouble only brews when the group of con artists he has fallen in with decide that he is ideal to help with a long con.... all that is necessary is for them to convince the world that Oscar is in fact the exiled king of Alturia Oliver VII...... As Oliver manouvers his way out of trouble he finally learns the responsibilities that come with noble rank, and discovers that there are benefits that come along with the power of his birth. It is a light and farcial story that is an absolute delight to read, I hope that Pushkin can have the same effect of Antal Szerb as they have had on Stfan Zweig because the world needs to read these lovely books.

Saturday 12 April 2014

An Apology

Well I have been pretty lax over the last few weeks. It's been a busy time here, and I have had far too much snuggling up with my Other Half to fit into a mere twelve days to get much reading, blogging or reviewing done. I'm sure that any readers here will forgive my lapse, at least I hope you all will. :)
As of last night a long old state sponsored holiday has started for my OH, somewhere hot and a little sandy; he'll be off doing his thing for at least the next six months or so, and that leaves me all the time that I would usually spend looking after him and his kit, and simply all the time I would usually spend with him to fill with reading and book related whatnots.
It is probably a good thing that I have a bit of a backlog on my to read heap, now is my chance to catch up. I promise I shall do my best..... Let's face it there could be worse ways to speed my way through the next few months. Now I must get back to the three books I currently have on the go :$ lol.

Thursday 10 April 2014

The Third Tower- Antal Szerb

I'm a big fan of Pushkin Press. Thanks to them Stefan Zweig has started to become a author that people recognise, it seems that the next author on their list to promote seems to be Antal Szerb. Like Zweig Szerb was a central European writer who was a bestseller in the period running up to the Second World War. He wrote novels, biographies, short stories and studies of the changing political climate he experienced in a world that was swiftly turning itself over to fascism. Szerb was an academic who was barred from university posts in the increasingly fascist Hungarian state. In 1943 he was deported to a concentration camp where he was beaten to death a year later. Another important and deeply talented voice that was cut off by the barbarities of the Nazi experiment.
I have a few of his better known works on my to read list, but decided to start my exploration of his works with this collection of notes from a tour of northern Italy taken in 1936. As a bit of an italophile myself, I couldn't think of a better introduction to Szerb. I was right, this is a truly delightful collection of musings about a changing Italy. This is no stuffy travelogue but instead is a fun, irreverent record of travelling from Venice to Bologna. Along the way Szerb muses on the cheap trains offered by the fascist state, and on the quality of the tourist experience. His writing style feels incredibly modern, the little snippets about the food, the difficulty of finding a good hotel room and even about the bourgeois attitude of fellow writer Zweig wouldn't be out of place on a modern blog or other social media.
Szerb feels hemmed in by the crowds of tourists that he encounters during his journey, he finds the adulation of Mussolini disturbing and cannot see how everyone in Italy has been duped by the incessant cheerfulness of the newspapers. His insight is incredibly poignant as is his recognition that war must surely be on the horizon. Szerb only finds true peace when he leaves the rest of the tourists behind and visits the third of San Marino's towers set high above the city. He sits at the base of the Montale and realises that no matter what the future brings, the memory of beautiful moments can never been taken away.
      "The happiness I feel here at the foot of the Third tower is something I must not give up for anyone: for anyone, or anything. I cannot surrender my soul to any nation state, or any set of beliefs."
Reading this is all the more poignant when you think about how much would be taken away once war began three years later. 
The Third Tower is a charming snapshot of a lost Italy and of a moment when the horrors of the 1940s had yet to happen. As always with Pushkin the translation is light and lovely, here there is the added benefit of period photographs to illustrate Szerb's travels. I am now really looking forward to reading my next Antal Szerb book.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Letters From Skye - Jessica Brockmole

It seems as though the epistolary novel is staging a bit of a comeback right nowm and probably it's about time. I have read a few new books over the last year or so that have chosen this format, with a varying degree of success. Letters from Skye is entirely written through letters sent during the two World Wars. They look at the great romance that grew between pen friends writing between Skye and the USA in the run up and early part of WWI and then on the effect this has on the generations living through WWII. I have to say that when I read a book like this I want to be reaching for the tissues. I'm a bit of a sucker for books covering separation during times of war and it doesn't take all that much to make me cry while I read them, despite this Letters from Skye didn't quite hit the mark. The story itself is rather nicely done, and the twist in story did remind me of Bridges of Madison County. There was just something off about the tone of the letters that prevented it from hitting the mark. The letters seem too florid from the very start and just failed to convince me. I almost feel that Brockmole was trying too hard to leap directly into the melodrama and potential pathos of the story, in doing so she missed the mark totally for me. As a middle of the road drama this worked for me, as a grand sweeping romance (which is what it feels as though it is trying to be) it let me down.

Tuesday 8 April 2014

The Begger and The Hare- Tuomas Kyro

What a lovely, lovely book this is. An absolutely endearing quirky story following Vatanescu, a trafficked Romanian beggar as he travels around Finland searching for a way to fulfil his ultimate goal; to bring home a pair of football boots for his son. Along the way he encounters all manner of ordinary and extraordinary Finnish citizens, as well as an injured rabbit, who becomes his firm friend and travelling companion. His journey takes him far into the frozen north in search of elusive cloudberries, and through the cities of Finland, all the time staying one step ahead of the Russian trafficker who's life he has ruined. This is a sweet and funny fable, that I am lead to believe owes much to the Finnish classic The Year of The Hare, sadly although this particular book has been on my to read list for a while I have yet to get round to it, but it will now be pushed further to the top after reading the frequent references to it in Kyro's book. I am guessing that the links to Paasilinna's book are the reason why the title of this one mentions a Hare despite the text being pretty firm that the adorable spirited little creature is in fact a rabbit, that or it is down to a minor translation issue.
Either way this is a very sweet, funny and moving book about making your own way in the world, and about the varied goodness of strangers. I kept thinking about Doppler as I read this and felt that there are many similarities between the two books. This one is helped by an absolutely gorgeous cover which is always a good thing.

Friday 4 April 2014

Thursday 3 April 2014

The Machine - James Smythe

This is James Smythe's take on the Frankenstein story. As is usual with his work it is set in a version of the near future which has some dystopian features; here there has been a series of natural disasters which are eluded to throughout the story, but which are never explicitly explained. We know that a flood has made London a difficult place to live, and that the UK is now suffering from extreme, unrelenting heat but that is all. At the same time this is a world where the government has had to legislate to stop the public and medical use of 'the machine' a piece of hardware that is capable of removing and rewriting human memories. The legislation has been brought in after thousands of the machine's patients were left as shells with no memories or ability to function. The machine had been used both on dementia patients to restore impaired memories, and on soldiers returning from the war in the Middle East. These men were suffering from PTSD and it was seen as acceptable to use them as test subjects in memory removal. Beth's husband Vic was one of these men, and she now hopes that she can restore him to his old self by using an illicitly obtained machine. Everything about the process is difficult, and Beth soon feels as though the machine is taking over and corrupting everything in it's reach. Events start to spiral out of control, and Beth is forced to take action that she had never anticipated.
The story maintains many of the aspects of Shelley's original, we have Victor and his true love Elizabeth facing the deaths of those around them as they struggle to reconcile the possibilities of science with the existence and importance of the human soul. The story contains enough ambiguity to keep it totally fresh and enticing, and the idea of the gaps in human memories allowing natural darkness to seep through in a soulless individual is quite chilling.
 I must admit that I found this book more difficult to enjoy than some of the other novels I have read by Smythe. I found Beth's voice a little difficult to read for extended periods, and the whole novel is given exclusively from her viewpoint. Despite her evidently pitiable situation I found her hard to find empathy for, so much of the situation she found herself in could be traced back to her own choices and it wasn't really until the end that she seemed willing to accept any culpability. However, at a different point this objection probably would not have mattered for me, and it certainly did not detract from the overall effect of the novel.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

March 2014......

 Well it has been rather a dark month for my reading, I've had a few great crime novels to dip into, the brilliant new James Smythe, the start of what looks like an amazing new SciFi series in Red Rising, as well as the return of Adolf Hitler in the much anticipated (by me at least) Look Who's Back. I can't say which of these lovely things has been my highlight for the month, although I am thinking that I maybe need to have a lighter month in April. I can tell you now that my reading is likely to be sporadic for the first couple of weeks, sadly real life is going to interfere with my literary one for a short while. But I will do my best to get back on track as soon as I can. Thanks to my contacts and my inability to stop buying books, I have a good supply to entice me back to the the delights of reading once other distractions are out of the way.
Anyway, as a recap for my challenges, a quick count tells me that I have read my way through 30 books this month, which is a respectable figure I think. It puts my grand total for the year so far at 83, so I am well on my way to smashing my target of 200. I am still considering upping this one, but we shall have to see how April and May pan out. My aim to read at least 25 new authors has long been broken despite the number of books I have read this month by authors I was already familiar with. I'm not sure if next year I should aim for reading authors from unusual countries instead as maybe that would be more of a challenge. The only aim that I am not doing too well towards is my SF classics one, I'm afraid I still have a nice little heap of these building up but I will get around to them with any luck over the next couple of months.

During March I have been sent or purchased a mere 72 books, not that many for me I'm afraid. I have read twelve of these this month, the rest of what I have read this month arrived in either January or February, so I am getting there. Now roll on April.....

books aquired in March....

Steppenwolf Hermann Hesse The Whitehall Manderin Edward Wilson
Different Seasons Stephen King Chineasy Shaolan
Just as Well I'm Leaving Michael Booth The Accident Anonymous
The Abominable Dan Simmons Vanishing Gerard Woodward
Pleasure Gabrielle D'Annunzio The View on the Way Down Rebecca Wait
The Slap Christos Tsiolkas Nagasaki Eric Faye
Unholy Night Seth Grahame Smith The Dark Box John Cornwell
Making History Stephen Fry The Strange and Beautiful Life of Ava Lavender Leslye Walton
Precious Bane Mary Webb The Walk Home Rachel Seiffert
The Machine James Smythe The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe Romain Puertolas
The Casual Vacancy J K Rowling The Copper Promise Jen Williams
The Creation of Anne Boleyn Susan Bordo The Troop Nick Cutter
A Darker Shade John-Henry Holmberg Don't Look Back Jennifer Armentrout
The Boy That Never Was Karren Perry Little Failure Gary Sheteyngart
If I Knew You Were Going to be this Beautiful Judy Chicurel Strange Bodies Marcel Theroux
The Beggar and the Hare Tuomas Kyro One Step Too Far Tina Seskis
The Broken  Tamar Cohen Adventures in the Anthropocene Gaia Vince
Death on Blackheath Anne Perry No Harm Can Come to a Good Man James Smythe
The Good Children Roopa Farooki The First World War in 100 Objects Peter Doyle
The Wrong Knickers Bryony Gordon The Long Shadow Mark Mills
The Third Tower Antal Szerb The Crimson Ribbon Katherine Clements
Oliver VII Antal Szerb Heart Bent Out of Shape Emylia Hall
The Pendragon Legend Antal Szerb Creation Adam Rutherford
Lying Under the Apple Tree Alice Munro Death of the Poet N Quentin Woolf
Let the Games Begin Niccolo Ammaniti The Miniaturist Jessie Brown
After I'm Gone Laura Lipman Ostland David Thomas
The Holy Fox Andrew Roberts The Society of Crossed Keys Stefan Zweig
Counting Sheep Philip Walling Letters from Skye Jessica Brockmole
The Carriage House Louisa Hall Decoded Mai Jia
Appetite Philip Kazan Look Who's Back Timur Vermes
I am Pilgrim Terry Hayes Black Lake Johanna Lane
Reasons She Goes Into The Woods Deborah Kay Davies Son of the Morning Mark Alder
Night Heron Adam Brookes The Awakening of Miss Prim Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
Someone Else's Skin Sarah Hilary The Poets' Wives David Park
The Fortune Hunter Daisy Goodwin The Suicide Shop Jean Teule
Kindred Octavia E Butler The Road to Middlemarch Rebecca Mead