Reading recap #2

As some of you are aware, I’ve been lucky enough to have some extended time off this year, which inevitably means that I’ve been reading like the dedicated bookworm that I am. I’m likely to read as many books by the end of June as I’ve read in an entire year (during a lean year, anyway), and I’ve loved every minute. It’s been a couple of months since I last captured what I’ve thought of this mountain of material, so I wanted to do another recap – although I have had the time to be much, much better about logging reviews and ratings on my LibraryThing, which is increasingly becoming my main platform for all book-related activity.

Dana Stabenow – A Cold Day For Murder
I bought this on my Kindle because it was cheap fluff… and it unashamedly was. Stabenow is an Alaskan crime writer who has churned out shelves of volumes about her Inuit investigator Kate Shugak and the trials and tribulations of solving crime in deepest darkest Alaska. It’s not well-written and it’s peppered with stereotypes – although it’s entirely possible that Alaska is too; I haven’t been yet – but it’s reasonably good fun. I won’t be picking up any more, but it was a pleasantly lightweight diversion.

Madeline Miller – A Song for Achilles
I’ve had this on my To Read list for well over a year, because I’ve got a long-standing soft spot for the legends around the fall of Troy. This entry into the lists is noteworthy in that it makes Achilles a hero (although not the POV) rather than a smug / spoilt / bonkers villain with a strong right arm. The prose is lovely and the plot picks up the various “must have” episodes, told in the voice of poor doomed Patroklos, here very much Achilles lover rather than cousin or similarly white-washed alternative. Miller takes her time building up to the Trojan War to get maximum pathos out of the inevitable fates of the protagonists, so it feels slow in places, but as lazy Sunday afternoon strolls go, it’s very readable if not outstanding.

Michael Marshall – The Straw Men
I revisited this because I’d enjoyed Killer Move so much, and was delighted to find that it was just as much fun as I remembered. A long-dormant serial killer re-emerges, snatching a girl off the street. An estate agent and his wife die in a car crash, which is more mysterious than it initially appears. Two parallel investigations – one by a dysfunctional cop whose daughter disappeared on the killer’s first go-round, teamed with an intense FBI agent working off-grid; the other the estate agent’s son and his CIA hacker friend – home in on the same set of clues and possibly for the same killer, hidden in an exclusive development high in mountain Montana and almost certainly responsible for a series of seemingly motive-free atrocities around the world. The joy here is the narrative style and the ice-sharp dialogue; Marshall peppers it with overwrought noir-ish comments on the human condition and paints his world dark. Guilty pleasure.

Max Brooks – World War Z
I avoided reading this for years – oh look, someone else cashing in on the zombie fixation, yawn – and it turns out I was entirely wrong. This deserves all the plaudits it gets as an original entry in the zombie apocalypse. World War Z is a history of the apocalypse, related through interviews with survivors around the world. This almost makes it a series of short stories on a single theme, grouped within phases of the outbreak, but with a completely left-field take on narrative tension (clearly the narrator survives each story; they are being interviewed). Much of the horror is derived from the political reaction and the social breakdown, as the survivors don’t need to talk about zombies all that much – after all, everyone who survived knows everything they need to know; the how and why are the interesting points to explore. Fascinating stuff, well-written and wholly absorbing. I would label it unfilmable, and as far as I can tell from the trailer that’s true (they’ve used the name, but resemblances probably end there).

Niccolo Ammaniti – I’m Not Scared
A beautifully-told Italian drama set in the sun-soaked haze of a country village. Nine-year-old Michele narrates his adventures, in which his attempts to limit the viciousness of the local bully lead him to explore a deserted house up in the hills. When he finds a boy his own age at the bottom of the well, he doesn’t know what to do and his life changes as he attempts to come to terms with what he has seen and to work out what to do about it. Young Michele is utterly believable: heroic, spiteful, and easily distracted by turns – the children are the star turns here, beautifully realised in the midst of what is actually a rather dark kidnapping drama based on true events. Highly recommended.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Shadow of the Wind
Sadly, this Spanish modern-gothic novel didn’t agree with me in spite of its towering reputation. Although the clunky writing (bad translation?) settles down into a more palatable rhythm quite quickly, I failed to get my teeth into the plot. A young man becomes the keeper of The Shadow of the Wind, a rare novel by an unknown author, and finds himself the object of unexpected attention as both a notable collector and a mysterious stranger attempt to part him from it. A mystery within a mystery – just who was author Julian Carax, and what happened to him? – as well as a coming of age story, the twisty-turn plot still felt over-drawn and a bit purple for me (as did the rather over-the-top villain). I think I might have enjoyed it a lot at another time – the combination of dramatic romance and gothic extravagance just isn’t doing a lot for me at the moment.

Susan Hill – A Question of Identity
Simon Serrailler novels remain a favourite of mine, and the seventh instalment in the crime / family drama (not crime family drama!) is another fine outing, if not as strong as the previous entry in the sequence. The Serrailler clan are all struggling, with Cat’s job under threat and her brood finally coming apart at the seams under teenage strain, Simon continuing his complicated romance, and the first signs that all is not well between Richard and his second wife. In the criminal world, a serial killer is focusing on old ladies, and this for me was a substandard outing – not enough tension (although Hill rarely leaves you in any doubt as to the identity of her killer) and the murderer’s narrations felt a bit old (i.e. too similar to a previous instalment, albeit illustrating a very different psychosis). The psychology remains fascinating, but the style felt less fresh here. Still, the package overall is pleasing enough, so I look forward to many more.

John Fowles – The Collector
This is probably my favourite read of this batch, a classic early Fowles thriller in which an awkward outsider wins the pools and decides to indulge his long-time obsession with beautiful arts student Miranda by kidnapping her and locking her in his cellar (seriously, what is the fascination with locking women in cellars? It appears to have been common practice for a long time, and the number of women who escape each year is starting to really disturb me as an indicator of how many more may still be trapped somewhere). The novel is split into two narrations – the kidnapper’s and then the kidnapped – unpicking the motivations, preconceptions and prejudices of each and leaving you with little sympathy for either. Darkly humorous and thoroughly enjoyable – presumably an inspiration to early Ian McEwan and similar (think The Cement Garden rather than Atonement!).

George Mann – The Affinity Bridge
Swashbuckling steampunk in Victorian London. Zombies, serial killers, disappearing automatons and crashing air ships all collide in a heady bundle of fluff introducing Her Majesty’s investigators Sir Maurice and Miss Veronica. The breakneck action is peppered with entertaining ideas that almost mask the flaws. Mileage may vary: as long as you like your adventures quite Boys’ Own, you’ll be fine. While Veronica gets plenty to do, the author cannot pass up the chance to comment on her appearance in every scene (which grated with Modern Miss me), and there was likewise a few too few many heavy-handed crush markers between our daring duo with much feminine sighing and aristocratic bumbling along the way. However, the novel ends with an intriguing twist and the fluff is enough fun along the way to make this an enjoyable read.

Marcel Theroux – Far North
Another cut-price Kindle deal, I picked this up as it played to two of my key themes – apocalypse and icy environment. Lightweight in the sense of short, it is set in Siberia in a near future shaped by climate change. Makepeace Hatfield is sheriff of a deserted city, guarding its empty streets against marauders and native tribes, isolated, friendless and self-sufficient. Tersely told, the story unfolds masterfully, Theroux revealing tiny but crucial details incrementally – if something is commonplace to Hatfield, no comment will be passed on it until it becomes relevant – making it almost impossible to provide a plot synopsis without providing spoilers. Because this narrative style works so well in the context of this novel, I’m going to stick with less is more – stuff happens and has consequences, and it’s all rather interesting. I quite liked this at the time, and I like it more the longer I have to think about it. Definitely worth a read if you have a taste for personal / apocalypse fiction, but not if you have already lost faith in mankind and are feeling a bit blue – this is not a cheery novel, but a trial of the human spirit.

Maggie Gee – The Ice People
From one ice-locked apocalypse to another, I picked this up in the second-hand store for all the same reasons as Far North, and was equally delighted with the outcome. This outing has entirely different preoccupations: in near-future Britain, fertility has plunged as temperatures have risen and traditional family and relationship models have broken down. Saul and Sara are an atypical couple, living together and trying desperately to have children as the first data suggests that the Earth has reached tipping point and the temperature gauge is about to swing the other way. Although spoilers are less problematic here, brevity is – this is not a long novel, but it encompasses such a range of topics (race, gender, climate change, sexuality, technology…) that it invites essays rather than comment. Saul and Sara are a microcosm of the broader social failure brought on only in part by Sara’s disastrous gender politics – think The Carhullan Army – and while Saul considers himself a heroic father trying to save his son from the impending ice age, his control of the narrative fails to hide his selfish temper. As with Far North, this wasn’t an easy read or an entirely enjoyable one (it does lag in places), but it’s a fascinating novel that’s well worth the time and one that I will definitely revisit at some point in the future. Same provisos apply – don’t read this seeking to reaffirm your belief in humankind; the most sympathetic character is a feathered robot who probably ate Saul’s cat.

Michel Faber – The Fire Gospel
I ended up slightly apprehensive about reading this because The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps was such a disappointment, but I needn’t have worried. This is Faber in his best form, offering his satirical take on Prometheus for the Canongate Myths. Self-absorbed academic Theo discovers a new gospel in a bombed museum in Iraq, which he promptly hides in his briefcase in order to translate and publish on his own time (which he has plenty of, as his girlfriend evicts him before he even gets home). When it hits the shelves, the new gospel is electrifying – the candid vision of Jesus the man provoking outrage, disillusion and despair – much to Theo’s surprise. There are no gods in evidence as his book tour gets out of control, but plenty of people happy to step up to the challenge of punishing this latter-day Prometheus. Biting and unforgiving from start to finish, this is an accomplished novella that is an awful lot of fun (especially the author’s snide consideration of Amazon reviews).

Antal Szerb – The Pendragon Legend
The next Gothic entry in the list, this is a good deal older and (I thought) rather more fun than The Shadow of the Wind. Hungarian academic Janos Batky meets the reclusive (and exclusive) Earl of Gwynedd at a London soiree, and is invited to his remote Welsh castle to read some rare manuscripts on a shared interest. Before even departing, he has been befriended by a garrulous Irishman with a wealth of unlikely adventure stories; threatened by a nameless Scot; and asked to pass a gift to the Earl by a charming femme fatale who wishes to remain anonymous. Readers will be considerably less naive than Batky, but as his Welsh castle stay becomes demon-haunted, he soon wises up and cultivates a healthy sense of paranoia. As the mysteries around him deepen and the plot gets ever more ridiculous (ghostly horsemen! Rosicrucians! child sacrifice!), it’s best to just buckle in and laugh along. Light-hearted, witty, satirical, lightweight.

Emma Donoghue – Room
And then we’re back to locking women up, this time in a shed rather than a cellar. This novel attracted a lot of attention, and I can (objectively) understand why – it is narrated by five-year-old Jack, who has lived in Room with his (kidnapped) mother all his life, his experiences limited to those things Old Nick is willing to bring along for Sunday treat. This is ghoulish, spine-chilling stuff that you don’t want to read late at night or think too hard about lest you have nightmares, but the narrative style that makes it so unique also takes some getting used to (Jack’s vocabulary is limited, hence creative, also – I found – annoying) and this became a real problem for me. I appreciate Donoghue wanted to explore a number of different aspects of her set-up (life in captivity; the escape; learning to live outside), but I think I would have got more out of this as a novella rather than a rather long book. I’m really not sure why some people label it uplifting.

Dr Spencer Johnson – Who Moved My Cheese?
Just save yourself the bother and don’t. Really. Don’t. It’s nothing you shouldn’t already know, and it’s wrapped up in such a god-awfully patronising narrative that you’ll just want to set the author on fire for being so smug. Let me save you the bother of putting yourself through it: people have emotional reactions to change. If you reject change and refuse to adapt, you will be side-lined and starve to death. If you are willing to try and adapt, you will ultimately be happier. If you can turn on a dime and start looking for new survival mechanisms (fill in contextually-appropriate objective) immediately, you’ll be happy again sooner. Just accept that the change is outside your control, and move on. There you go – no need for mice, cheese, or patronising parables. I thought all my apocalypse fiction had destroyed my faith in humanity – HAH! Not like realising people read this book and are amazed by the insight. I realise my job is frequently to manage people through change and that I work in a constantly-evolving environment, so I’m really not the target market for this book – but if I gave it to any of the change-averse in my team they would quite rightly ram it down my throat until I choked, ranting about over-simplified management bullshit. Ahem. Moving on.

Nick Hornby – How to be Good
Speaking of destroying faith in humanity, I’d forgotten how much Hornby despises everyone. Katie Carr is a doctor – so by definition a Good Person – but her marriage to bitter, confrontational writer David has driven her to having an affair. Struggling to get any perspective on what she really wants – other than to be Good, which she can’t help but feel she isn’t if she’s having an affair – she takes it in her cynical stride when David visits a faith healer called GoodNews to sort out his back pain. Unexpectedly, GoodNews’ treatment works – but it also fundamentally changes David, draining away his anger and creating a liberal Do Gooder to make liberals weep. Now Katie must decide whether she can bear to live with this new version of her husband – and whether there’s anything left that she really believes in or cares about.

Hornby hasn’t lost his touch for dialogue, so it’s hard not to laugh along the way, but this largely made me slightly irritated and rather sad. I couldn’t for a moment believe that Hornby believed in David – making the novel the sort of cynical satire that David and GoodNews rail about. Very meta, and arguably very clever, and there’s lots to argue about over a pint (or whilst giving away the contents of your cupboards to the local orphanage)… but very little to enjoy – and that’s before you get to the even more cynical ending. No more Hornby for me, I think. I’ve never liked his take on women, and I’ve lost my interest in trying to work out what he really believes.

Saladin Ahmed – Throne of the Crescent Moon
This novel attracted awards attention on the fantasy circuit, and I loved the idea of middle-eastern flavoured fantasy, so I was looking forward to it perhaps more than I should have done. Adoulla is fat, grumpy and getting on, but he’s the last true ghul hunter in Dhamsawaat, capital of the kingdoms of the Crescent Moon. His apprentice – or assistant – or possibly partner – Raseed is a religious obsessive with a fine line in violence, but no street smarts and no head for incantations, so Adoulla remains unretired and unmarried (as he was taught that he’d lose his magic the day he wed, although it’s absolutely fine to sleep with people). When his former lover’s niece is murdered, Adoulla and Raseed go a-hunting and trip over more trouble than they can handle until a feisty shape-changing girl (Zamia) comes to the rescue. As matters escalate beyond their powers to contain, the trio must also enlist Adoulla’s former partners Dawood and Litaz to their aid – and all five are drawn into the conspiracy of the Falcon Prince, a thief with an eye on the Crescent Moon itself.

I rather enjoyed the initial introduction of the world-weary adventurer who wants to lay down arms and grow old(er) and fat(ter) with a well-padded woman. There’s also some great incidental world-building (mostly at the beginning), with the Arabian setting shown rather than told for the first couple of chapters. However, the prose lurched badly whenever it tripped into exposition (frequently), and all of the internal dialogue felt forced. Worse, the characters themselves – especially Raseed and Zamia – were flimsy (a second dimension? Who needs one of those?) and the romantic subplot tenuous at best (although I’m willing to wear a cynic tshirt here – I’m just not big on love at first sight, especially when it’s counter to everything you’ve seen in a character to date). The novel is ultimately short and punchy – not a bad thing per se, but in this case I can’t help but wonder if a bit more time and a few more pages would have given the characters more time to breathe and evolve.

Mike Shevdon – Sixty-One Nails
This is a faerie fantasy set in modern London, so obviously I was mentally comparing it to Neverwhere and Rivers of London, however unfair that is – so I’ll put you out of suspense up front – it doesn’t live up to it. When 40-something Niall has a heart attack mid-commute, he is rescued by Blackbird, a little old lady who is demonstrably more than she appears. She introduces him to the Feyre, who live in parallel with us, and none-too-gently informs him that he is part-Fey – and consequently on the Untainted’s death list. Niall must come to terms with his heritage, master his talents, dodge the Untainted, help Blackbird save the world (for the barrier keeping the wraithkin at bay is about to crumble), and earn the protection of a Feyre Court if he and his daughter are to have any sort of future.

I have strong opinions about faeries and I liked the Feyre – suitably ambivalent, with their own code and no clear-cut good guys – and the plot (save the world to earn your place). There’s plenty of good ingredients in the mix, and the writing is reasonable. However, Niall just wasn’t very interesting and the novel (and the love story) would have benefited from some wit / charm. The climax wasn’t entirely convincing, and certain aspects of Blackbird’s development had me spitting chips, but overall this is okay. It’s just not Gaiman / Aaronovitch.