Saturday, 9 December 2017

Anita Burgh - Exiles

Okay, time for another one I found on a train. I can’t remember which journey it was but I do get itchy fingers when I see people leave paperbacks lying around. It’s a sickness.

Exiles follows the story of Kate Howard, an author who voluntarily moves to France with her asshole partner, Stewart. She is a successful author whose life starts to mildly fall apart when she tries to change genre and her publisher doesn’t like it.

The story follows a small community of expats who have decided that France is a better option than England as they all basically whine, whinge and eat their way through the French countryside. The book is 376 pages long but there isn’t much of a story, where a story is defined as having a beginning, middle and end. I mean, it does go from A to B, but B is so close to A it makes the middle bit look a bit dragged out.

Exiles is a very tricky book for me to review in that it’s not my normal genre – and not one I picked myself. The first thing I commented on was in the first couple of pages where Kate is describing her life with Stewart. She makes him out to be this perfect man who does everything right... then she goes on to have an interaction with him where she makes him look like an ass.

The first example of this is on page 7 where both of them come off looking like dicks. Stewart doesn’t know how Kate likes taking her tea. This seems like a fairly basic thing to get right after a few years of cohabitation and there are two trails of thought here. Either Kate hasn’t told Stewart and after not drinking any of his tea for years, that she doesn’t like it... or Stewart thinks that the way Kate takes her tea is how a man should take it and so he continues to make her tea she doesn’t like because he’s just a dick.

It becomes apparent that it’s the former when on page 9. Kate states that she can’t tell a hairdresser that she doesn’t like what she does to her hair. Even though she is paying her for the service. To me, Kate is not, an engaging or likeable character and this became clear in the first 10 pages of the book. By chapter 4 she establishes herself as a character who orders food she doesn’t want to eat, drinks things that she is not in the mood for, likes people that she doesn’t like and does things she doesn’t want to do.

This behaviour continues over the next few pages. Apparently she doesn’t like arguments but this is followed by massive fallouts with shouting, fits of violence and throwing stuff. Then followed by narrative fits of, ‘what have I become?!’ It’s mental. And that’s without starting on Stewart.

Mr Perfect is a fucking wanker from the get go. And this is what really confuses me about the book as a whole. Normally you get to see an event or cause that drives a character to change but Exiles outlines that these characters are lovely before showing us that they are not.

Some instances of Stewart being a wanker are when he kicks off at the published author for spending money on Pretty Good Solitaire when he is pissing all their money away on wine that he doesn’t drink. This irritated me greatly as I actually bought Pretty Good Solitaire when I didn’t have an income. It costs £9.99 now and probably even less when the book was written in 2001.

There are lots of other little bits like this throughout the book and these are just small examples of Stewart being a cock, but I actually got to the stage where I believed that this was an intentional narrative style that was supposed to funny rather than taken seriously.

The title sums itself is an oxymoron and microcosm of the book’s contents. To be in exile means to be away from ones home while either being explicitly refused permission to return or being threatened with imprisonment or death upon return. Every English character in the book has chosen to leave England and live in France in a community of ex-pats. So they are exiles by any stretch of the imagination. And some of them haven’t even bothered to learn French! It just sums up the British need to complain while highlighting the majority of British ex-pats have no respect for other countries, even if we chose to live there.

Exiles by Anita Burgh was published by Orion books in 2001. RRP £5.99 (Paperback)

Joanne Harris - Runemarks

Right, I really came unstuck with this one. I started reading it back in August last year and didn’t finish it for a good six months. I had some time off and was reading a lot but when I got home I just couldn’t bring myself to pick it up again.

Runemarks supposedly follows the story of Maddy Smith, a girl with magical powers who lives in a village with normal people. She ends up going on an adventure with some characters based on Norse Gods and ends up saving the world from the evil of Christianity – at least that’s how the story portrays its antagonists.

Now, the first reason I couldn’t keep picking the book up – I didn’t really like any of the characters, even those based on Odin and the like from Norse mythology which is something I normally like as a setting for a story. I understand it’s supposed to be an original take but it come across as Norse history meets the Jungle Book where Maddy is Moglie and the other characters are there to be comedic versions of their real selves.

Because of this I actually did some research to see if it was just me once again reading a book that isn’t intended for my eyes... but then I thought about it. The book is intended for kids and the writing style, story structure and word usage feels slightly too advanced. In my opinion, it’s too advanced for smaller children and condescending for teens.

Moving on to the writing style, I found it very sparse in terms of what’s going on and there is such a lack of description that I couldn’t help but picture the world as a linear path that the characters walk along. In some places, there are jumps in time which make it feel like whole paragraphs are missing. Also, when reading chapters, the perspective changes from one paragraph to the next without warning which makes it hard to keep up with what’s actually going on and who’s perspective the story is being told from.

The last part of the writing that bugged me was the last 40 or so pages of the 504 page offering where the last few scenes whiz by after what a massively dragged out build up. Lots of books seem to do this, like authors are trying to reach a certain length of book and then hammer out the ‘best bits’ in relative seconds. But I found I didn’t care what was happening in Runemarks and was glad to be done with it.

I did make some other observations about certain character actions that I didn’t think were in keeping with their intended behaviour but I don’t think I’m in a position to provide my thoughts on this as I didn’t invest in any of the characters. To me, it was not an engaging read.

Runemakes by Joanne Harris was published by Doubleday in 2007. RRP £6.99 (Paperback)

Sunday, 29 October 2017

J. V. Jones - A Sword From Red Ice

This series is not something I’ve approached very well. I started reading it some eight years ago when I reviewed A Cavern of Black Ice in 2009. The books are so intimidating in size that I kept putting them off and putting them off but my holiday finally gave me to push I needed to read the third book in the series. Thankfully Jones is kind enough to provide a handy synopsis at the beginning to allow people like me to remind myself of what happened so far.

A Sword from Red Ice comes in at 677 pages and the words are tiny. Despite being called A Sword from Red Ice the sword doesn’t actually appear until the last 20 pages of the book. The same thing happened in the other two so the titles of the books seem to be destinations of the journey of Raif.

Another note on the length is that I actually think it’s too long. There is a lot of stuff that happens to some of the characters than don’t add anything to the story. That said the series isn’t over yet but I would have forgotten some of the smaller things by the time I come to read the next one.

It is still a very enjoyable story with lots of intriguing characters. In fact there are so many characters that Jones forgot how many there were when writing the blurb. The blurb mentions three characters and their stories but the book itself is told from seven different perspectives, told a chapter at a time. I’m not sure why there is the need to tell the story from so many different angles when the three on the back are highlighted as the important ones.

Which brings me on to the biggest fuck ass in the book. Raina. She is such a twat that reading her chapters caused me to have a headache. If it wasn’t whining about what was going on, it was saying she was going to do something about it...and then not.

It’s also a very messily written book. I lost count of the amount of spelling and grammar issues throughout but there are so many chapters and words that it’s probably not that bad in terms of percentage.

Outside of this, there were a few things other than Raina that made me stop and take note, the first being Mal Naysayer and his Deux-Ex Machina ability to show up just as the right time to save Ash’s life. Another one is where Raif’s friend Addie develops an attitude problem for literally no reason, unless Raif didn’t give him a reach around in one of the deleted scenes, and Angus Lok’s 100% unnecessary involvement at the start and end of the book.

Another thing that made me laugh is Raif’s ability to survive his monstrous injuries throughout the entirety of the story. This was the same in the second book too. I mean, this guy is basically physically maimed at the end of the last story and somehow manages to continuously survive against all odds.

Despite the book’s length and what I’ve said above, I did get a lot of enjoyment out of the story and will be finishing the series... though I actually need to buy the next one first and probably arrange another holiday so I will actually invest the time in doing so.

A Sword from Red Ice by J.V. Jones was published by Tor in 2007. RRP £8.99 (Paperback)

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Simon Toyne - The Tower

The Tower is the climax of the three-book series that started with Sanctus. Looking back at my review of the first book in the series, it started poorly where the first couple of pages were really hard to get into. The Key was a really good book and The Tower is also very well written but there were a few story choices that made me go ‘oh...’ in a letdown sort of way.
I was immediately worried early on when we are introduced to a new character – FBI Agent Shepherd. It was a little frustrating at first as I was enjoying the characters that had already been built so this new one was just getting in the way. My frustration was short lived however, as Toyne manages to make Shepherd likeable and interesting in a few short chapters.
Another interesting style choice was to write the book from two time periods with parts of the story being told in the past as it catches up to the present. All the story chapters from the past are written in italics which makes it easy to identify what is happening and when.
For all the well written, well paced and well structured writing, there are a few things that I didn’t like but this obviously goes with writing a trilogy where the first two books are set up to answer to a big mystery so when so much effort has been put in, it always feels like an anti-climax when you get to the end.
The following paragraphs contain major spoilers for the ending of the book so if do want to read the trilogy (and if you haven’t already read the first two books, why are you reading this?) stop reading now.
There were two things that I found irritating by the choices made at the end of the book, the first one surrounding the character of Detective Arkadian. We’ve spent the best page of 498 pages, plus the length of the other two books, getting to know the lovable oaf yet our fellow characters don’t seem to feel the same way. When he dies saving the life of others, no one seems to give two shits. Half the reason for my annoyance is because I thought for a lot of the characters that it was massively out of character to not be upset but then again, maybe I got it wrong and he was actually a massive knob?
The other thing that got to me was to do with the big reveal. Apparently the doomsday clock is counting down to the point when the universe reaches maximum expansion and then starts contracting back in on itself so essentially the half way point of existence. And that’s great. But why the fuck does a baby need to be born to commemorate the event? There are similarities with the birth of Jesus and other references in the trilogy point to it being connected to the story of Adam and Eve and the return to the garden of Eden... but none of this is explained and it’s a very flimsy connection to the expansion of the universe. It just didn’t make sense as a whole piece to me so I didn’t get as much enjoyment out of the end as I wanted to.
Despite that, it’s a very good book that’s hard to put down and I hammered through most of it in a few days.
The Tower by Simon Toyne was published by HarperCollinsPublishers in 2013. RRP £7.99 (Paperback)

Simon Toyne - The Key

I’ll start with a fairly obvious confession. I have not been giving this blog the time I should have – case in point I actually finished reading this, and several reviews to follow, back in July and August last year. This means I’m relying heavily on my notes to paint the picture of this book and the next one.

The Key is the follow up to The Sanctum, a book that turned out to be really enjoyable despite appearing to shit all over itself in the first few pages. The Key does not make the same mistakes. It’s a thoroughly engaging read from start to finish as are most second books in a three-part series. But more on that later.

The one thing I can’t quite get my head around is the fact that everything is so well logically constructed to make sense in our own world with the exception of the sacrament itself. That’s all I’ll say about that – after all, it’s a book I am recommending!

So with the praise out of the way, I’m only left with more nit-picking through the 437 page offering. I’ll start with the biggest one – mathematical ages of characters. Kathryn is Gabriel’s mother but if I’ve done the maths correctly, this would mean that she was 16 when she gave birth to him. The book makes this really easy to work out as both their ages are depicted on page 49. I suppose it’s feasible but it just doesn’t add up with the character traits – and it’s one of those things that casual observers would comment on – ‘oh, you must have been young when you had him,’ or ‘you look far too young to have a 32 year old son.’ No one says anything though – again, nothing really wrong with it, I just thought it was an odd choice.

Another thing I found surprising was the Vactican City’s approach to Information Security. On page 14 one character’s narrative states that he only has one attempt at entering a password without locking himself out of his entire computer. I get that it’s super-sensitive information but everyone fucks up typing every now and then. I would have thought that sense would have prevailed here and he would have had at least two attempts at entering the password.

The last one worth mentioning is on page 6 where Ghost is interrogating someone called the fat man. The fat man seems to totally forget that he has programmed his Sat-Nav with his home address seconds after being defiant in the face of having his family threatened. I’m all for characterisation but I just don’t get how anyone could be that stupid.

These are three very small observations that are more my personal preference that actual problems. The Key is a solid, enjoyable story with strong characters. Enough said.

The Key by Simon Toyne was published by HarperCollinsPublishers in 2012. RRP £7.99 (Paperback)

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Ezekiel Boon - The Hatching

You know that feeling when you go on holiday that you haven’t brought enough books with you? Well this was the reason I bought The Hatching. I hadn’t read a decent horror book for a while and this one seemed to promise to fill the gap. However it turned out that The Hatching is closer to Scary Movie than Scream in terms of a horror offering.

The Hatching is a multi-perspective story told from I can’t remember how many viewpoints. It’s about spiders who want to eat everybody and how various parts of the world react to it. In general, it was a quick and relatively enjoyable bubblegum read that was in no way scary but there were several things that screamed at me throughout the story.

The first thing I found striking was that it’s an end of the world survival horror but I found myself not really caring about any of the characters and here’s why. Firstly there are too many viewpoints. The book is only 351 pages long and the words are well spaced out. Due to the vast array of characters, this didn’t give me enough time to emotionally invest in any of them. Sad to say, I didn’t care whether any of them lived or died.

All of the viewpoints have one thing in common. Sex. And Objectivity. All of characters constantly make sexual narrative towards their preferred gender and also objectify everyone. At first I was like, what, but after the third one did it, it started to become hilarious.

In addition to this, a lot of character types are clich├ęd. There is the scientist, the simple cop (who is also the divorcee with a child to protect), the president, the president’s aide, an author, the soldier. It’s all blah but I understand the purpose they are serving, it’s all just a bit too thin and doesn’t pull it off.

My final point is one that would have me shot in certain circles so I will to do this without attracting too much ire. All of the roles are filled by female protagonists. The scientist is female, the president is female and the solider is female. The solider is even narratively described as being massively superior to the men. Now, I don’t have a problem with this in the slightest. I watched Battlestar Galactica and I thought Mary McDonnell made a cracking president. But in this book, it feels that the women are effectively forced into this roles just because they are opposite typecasts. If more work had been put into the narrative and padded to develop the characters more, I probably would have been able to buy in to the characters and not noticed this at all.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that The Hatching feels very hastily written. The concept is great, don’t get me wrong but I feel that the idea is what drove the novel and the characters are just there to plod until the conclusion. This can sometimes work in movies but not so much in books.

The Hatching by Ezekiel Boone was published by Gollancz in 2016. RRP £12.99 (Paperback)

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Simon Toyne - Sanctus

With a lot going on finding time to read has become quite difficult. Setting aside an hour at bedtime normally results in about three pages of reading before falling asleep – such is the current slow rate of reviews. That said, the quality of books I’m reading at the moment seems to be going up and Simon Toyne’s first book is no exception.

I must admit that it was another slow starter and I seem to have a developing dislike for books which set the scene for the story without using their central character. Sanctus follows the story of Liv Adamsen and she isn’t introduced until page 20. The first 19 pages outline what happened to Brother Samuel, a monk living at the Citadel in Turkey. While there is nothing really wrong with this approach, it made it harder for me to connect with the main characters.

So yeah, it’s a slow builder that takes a while to get going but the story telling and character development is really good throughout. It is a very slow build up but the last 200 or so pages really pick up the pace as the action builds.

I can’t really say a lot about the story as there are lots of twists and turns and it’s definitely worth reading. However there were a few things that I questioned during the 470 page novel.

The first of these occurred on page 120 where a credit card was used to receive a payment. Now I’m pretty sure that a credit card cannot be used in this way. Mind you, I’ve never had a credit card that’s been in credit before and I don’t even know how I would go about even doing it. It also seems a very strange way of organising a payment considering the many other ways there are to make secretive payments. In fact, I’m not even sure why you would draw attention to the payment method.

Also on the very next page, there is a reference to drinking a, ‘bucket of black coffee.’ I don’t know what it is with Americans being stereotypically portrayed in every single book going as drinking coffee all the time and seeing coffee as way to combat tiredness. This isn’t really a criticism of Toyne but a build up of frustration at many different authors.

Also, this isn’t really a criticism but the narrative style changes towards the end to be more like Lee Child where the use of full sentences is abandoned to build the pace. Like I said, not a criticism but I did notice it even though I was aware of its intention. I also think that narrative styles should remain consistent. I didn’t like the Lee Child style at first but at least the novel stuck to what it was doing throughout. I also think it wouldn’t have had that much of an impact on the pace if it had remained in the same style narrative, as evidenced by other books.

Everything about is really minor and totally subjective. Sanctus is a great read and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in to the next two books in the series.

Sanctus by Simon Toyne was published by HarperCollinsPublishers in 2011. RRP £7.99 (Paperback)