Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

A word of warning: adverts

August 24, 2019

I believe sometimes adverts appear at the bottom of posts in free blog plans such as this one of mine.

Be advised that last time I clicked on one, it was a scam. I inadvertently ‘subscribed’ to a range of products, none of which worked, from a company (in the States) with no point of contact, who sent me things I hadn’t ordered, relentlessly, once a fortnight. I had to discontinue my credit card to stop them (which in itself took nearly a month).

I have today seen something similar on another blogsite, which reminded me to warn you, my valued readers: these ads are not on the level.

A good question would be why wordpress permits them. But as there is no point of contact for wordpress any more either, it is a question I am unable to ask.

 

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Review: ‘Spring’ by Ali Smith

August 17, 2019

This is my first brush with Ali Smith’s work, and I have joined in at book three of a tetralogy. Oh dear, I hear you say. That’s not going to go well, then. Au contraire.

Spring is without doubt the best novel I have read this year, nor do I anticipate I shall read another as good. The previous two were shortlisted for the Booker and the Orwell Prize respectively. This one isn’t up for any glittering prizes except the Not-the-Booker. I cannot understand why.

It begins thus: “Now what we don’t want is Facts. What we want is bewilderment.” I won’t go on. I could. It’s all worth quoting. I love the pseudo word cloud/shock headline emphases in the first bit; the lack of chapter headings, the division into parts (making navigation just a little bewildering); the voice of the protagonists, especially the one who slips between being dead and not yet dead.

I like the way Smith uses the building blocks of text in a slightly different, subversive way. Dialogue is clear, but she eschews speech marks. There is a flow to that which I like: it also reinforces that slight bewilderment, which I also like. What pass for chapters are short. There is (in the hardback copy I borrowed from the library) loads of white space and heavy creamy paper. All that has an effect: it is like walking on a foggy moor. I don’t think the spaciousness of the book is as evident in the paperback. And obviously will be quite lost on a Kindle.

I like my novels to have plenty of plot. This has almost no plot (which is why I borrowed it from the library instead of buying it: I didn’t anticipate wanting to finish it, let alone praise it). I’m not sure it has characterisation either, really. Note I say above ‘the voice of the protagonists’. It is a great, vibrant, rock-on sort of voice, but all the characters sound as if Smith is speaking through them. And why not? This is a novel of ideas. It is in Orwellian territory, raising ‘political writing to an art form’ (hence the nomination of Smith’s Winter for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction last year). So all the characters are prisms-of-Smith – and great prisms they are, each is fascinating, each dovetails with the others.

Spring is about NOW, about how brutalised and brutalising we have become. How ignorant and yet how all-knowing. It is a brilliant, fizzing, satirical polemic that excoriates us all. Except the dead/not yet dead Paddy, who we may as well call St Paddy for her brilliant wit, book smarts, come-backs and put-downs.

It has an edgy British sort of magic realism, as a 12 year old girl goes where adults do not think to or dare not, through locked doors, like an angel might. She makes a difference. As she goes she drags with her a detention centre officer, an ageing film maker who has agreed to make a film he despises and a Scottish woman who … no, I can’t tell you that: spoiler.

This book sits happily alongside those of Fay Weldon or Angela Carter. And it’s great to see this sort of uncompromising fiction has come back into fashion. (Of course, I’m way behind the curve here, as Ali Smith fans will doubtless point out – she has been banging out excellent books for years. But we all have to start somewhere with the reading of them.)

I fancy that when we come to look back at this bleak and embarrassing period, which will by then have solidified into ‘modern UK history’, this (like Coe’s The Rotters’ Club) may be something we turn to in order to understand what it was really like.

There is plenty of Anglo Saxon in this. You will need not to mind f**k and c**t bespattered conversations as you progress through this book full of wise insights into the way we live now.

The covers of this quartet of books are reproductions of those prints by David Hockney of the same farm track in each phase of the year. The same but different. Made on an iPad. Very appropriate.

I’ll leave you with this final thought from the book:

“What we want is need. What we need is want.”

Review: ‘Yukon Audit’ by Ken Baird

August 5, 2019

Yukon Audit: A C.E. Brody Novel by [Baird, Ken]I like it warm. Anything north of Watford Gap is, to me, the frozen north. So why did I pick up a novel which quite clearly says it is about the genuinely frozen north: the Yukon? It was, indeed, a warm review of the book by Pete Barber for Big Al and Pals.

Apparently Ken Baird operated a Yukon gold mine for ten years, was a receiver-manager and a private pilot. He now lives in Florida. I guess he’s decided he prefers it warm too. Yukon Audit was Baird’s first book. It won the 2016 Indie Book Award for Best Thriller. I can quite see why. There is a sequel, Yukon Revenge.

So, what is good about this novel? It is set in one of the last, great wildernesses of the world; winter lasts eight months of the year; and during June and July it never really gets dark (white nights). Baird makes living in the Yukon fascinating. The way people get around, the way the climate and the wilderness dictates how everyday life must be lived, the sheer emptiness of the country, the tiny populations who nevertheless have a rich and vibrant life. The vast amounts of wild salmon eaten!

The Yukon has its own special criminals as well. A LOT of gold is still mined in the Yukon. Substantial quantities are washed out of the banks of the Yukon River every year. Trading in gold is as commonplace as, say, cutting a crop and taking it to a farmers’ market might be in rural Britain. Most things are seasonal in the Yukon – anyone who has watched Ice Road Truckers on the TV will know that travel is a scary concept in winter.

So the setting and the setup are both fascinating. On top of that there is plenty of plot. The protagonist, Brody, is a pilot and car mechanic, who winters in Phoenix, Arizona but prefers to spend his summers in the Canadian Yukon. He gets claustrophobic in offices and knows the value of the solitude which he loves.

However, the Yukon can be a dangerous place. Even without people with unpleasant agendas trying to kill you. The pages turn briskly.

I must, however, point out that this is a book of some 510 pages (so they need to turn briskly). The reason for this length is that Brody turns out to be a real know it all. He tells the reader, in detail, about his pre-flight checks and the mechanics of flying his sixty year old De Havilland Beaver plane. The first time it’s interesting. The second and third time not so much. In fact, he goes into detail about absolutely everything. Some parts of the story can stand this: others cannot.

A side effect of all this detail is that one cannot tell what information is setting up something which will be important later, and what is just Brody telling the reader about how he feeds his dogs. So there are frustrations.

The book only exists on Kindle. And Baird is his own master as regards its publication. So I’m surprised that he hasn’t thought to give it a trim. I see the sequel is even slightly longer! The thriller genre really doesn’t lend itself to big tomes. Tension flags, suspense is lost.

That Baird can keep the pace going is a testament to the quality of his writing and plot. But inside this flabby 510pp bear of a book there is a slim, fit book trying to get out.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: ‘The Naseby Horses’ by Dominic Brownlow

July 25, 2019

(Review prepared from an uncorrected bound proof)

This fascinating debut novel by Dominic Brownlow joins publisher Louise Walters Books eclectic and growing stable of novels on 5 December 2019.

It is gratifying, as a reviewer, to be turned loose on a book in advance of publication and I hope I have provided accurate insights to help you decide whether this is your sort of story. If the publisher makes Kindle samples available at the outset, I believe sampling the opening event will have you as hooked into this unusual book as I was.

The Naseby Horses is a novel of fluidity. It is set in the Fens, except when it wanders back to old haunts in London. It is set in the stupefying heat of August, except when suddenly the room is cold. Time is the most fluid thing of all (the novel begins on Day Three). Truth is also fluid. And the reader has a mounting sense that everybody is being economical with it.

To say that the narrator is unreliable is to understate. He, Simon, suffers with grand mal fits and the book begins with him coming home from hospital after the worst one yet. There is something of the autistic spectrum about Simon too – he is a meticulous observer and has excellent – if not perfect – recall. Because of his condition and his medication his grip on ‘now’ is often tenuous. His mind, like a butterfly, sometimes doesn’t seem able to distinguish between current events and the many places in the past upon which it alights.

Simon is a twin, and it is not giving away anything that the reader doesn’t learn early doors to say that his last fit coincides with the disappearance of his twin sister, Charlotte. They are twin-close, as if having shared a womb they cannot help but share their lives outside it. Simon wants only to protect her, to follow her, to find her – wherever it is she is lost.

The family has just moved from London to deepest Norfolk, albeit to a village they know well. Charlotte has been vocal that she doesn’t want to leave London. And there is certainly a feeling of Stepford about the village of Glennfield – and not just the wives. There are few other teenagers living there. The twins are thrown upon their own resources a lot of the time while the adults in the mix have their own problems to sort out.

Into the fluid mixture of time and place is added a mystery from the time of Cromwell and the Battle of Naseby. Simons acquires information about this mystery like he does everything else – like a sponge. It quickly begins to trickle through the book like a poison. Is everything connected? Or is, actually, nothing connected except in the mind of an overwhelmed teenager suffering from severe epilepsy?

The authorial voice which drives the story forward is knowledgeable. One felt throughout that none of the characters was telling much of the truth most of the time, but one felt the controlling hand and meticulous research of the author throughout in the way that the historical story, the sense of place, and Simon’s epilepsy are woven through the work.

 

‘Eva Jelinek’ by T J Spears

July 2, 2019

Eva Jelinek (The Nat Hopper Series Book 1) by [Spears, T.J]

Yee haw! I used to love westerns when I was younger (about 50 years ago) and often regret the need to abandon the genre because of how dated most of them read now, with the evil Indians attacking wagon trains and men being manly and women called Miss Kitty bandaging them up and making them hearty meals. So I was as happy as a bug in a bed roll to discover this.

The narrative voice is pleasantly curmudgeonly. Ned Hopper is supposedly an old man writing down his memories of his life during and after the American Civil War. He has a damned good memory, and one is reminded of this teensy flaw in the process every time the writing of the memoirs is jerked back to its ‘present’ by interaction between Hopper and his amanuensis at the end of each chapter. He also frames a darned fine, episodic story.

Hopper lived through extraordinarily interesting times, of course: the war, buffalo skinning, homesteading, travelling west to California with Mormons, experiencing those inevitable gun fights, and various sicknesses some of them marvellously ameliorated by a medicine which is mainly opium and alcohol.

Hopper appears to have very few of the prejudices that a modern reader would associate with his time. He is an observer – he sees the woes visited upon north America by its settlers, by them upon each other, and by them on Native Americans. (He largely leaves slavery and its aftermath out of the story.) He reports even-handedly, somewhat like an ancient Huck Finn. He does what he can, in his homespun philosopher’s way, to avert bloodshed and mistreatment, sometimes with greater success than others.

Through the book is threaded Eva Jelinek – a woman Ned Hopper keeps finding and losing. She is a very smart cookie, a hustler, perhaps a whore, adept at making herself scarce whenever there is a danger of her being forced into that Miss Kitty role. Although she can treat a wound, she can also inflict one.

And so Ned Hopper makes his way across the U S of A, gathering  and losing companions as he goes, having wonderful adventures. And every so often he runs across Eva Jelinek.

The Amazon blurb says “If you enjoy intelligent historical fiction with an unusual twist ‘Eva Jelinek’ will not disappoint.” I agree entirely with that assessment. I enjoyed the book very much.

It was just as well it was so engaging, because it was as spattered with frustrating little typos as an Appaloosa is spattered with spots. My e-book is a couple of years old; I hope Spears has fixed these niggles since I acquired my copy. In an electronic book such infelicities are easy enough to fix.

‘Fear the wolf’ by Andrew Butcher

June 28, 2019

Fear the Wolf by [Butcher, Andrew]

** Review originally prepared for ‘Big Al & Pals’. Received a complimentary review file **

Genre: Fantasy

Description: Amazon’s blurb says, “Fear the Wolf is an adult fantasy thriller set in a mysterious world that was torn apart by a great cataclysm. Follow Senla on her treacherous journey as she overcomes her greatest fears and learns to accept herself in a world that’s always trying to tell her who and what she should be.”

Author: when I wrote this review the author was given as S J Sparrows. Now it is given as Andrew Butcher. It is definitely the same book. There is a short writing biography of Butcher on The Zons which reads “Butcher wrote and released his first novel, A Death Displaced, at the age of twenty-one. Since then, he has written more books in the same series and has branched out into writing nonfiction and teaching creative writing online. Over 5,000 students have enrolled in his highly rated course ‘Write a Novel Outline from Scratch’, and his books have often hit the #1 spot for their categories on Amazon and other online retailers. The fiction genres he writes in are a mix of paranormal fantasy, paranormal mystery, urban fantasy, ghost stories, and paranormal suspense.”

Appraisal: This is an interesting book which has much to say about the times we are living in as well as telling an exciting story which gathers pace as it unfolds.

There is a prologue in which people we have not yet been introduced to chase an enormous white wolf. This is doubtless to get a bit of action in early. The book proper is quite slow to get going. It paints its early pictures in muted colours – the colours of the village. We learn that the village lives in fear of anyone who ‘presumes too much’ and brings the wrath of the wolf down on the whole community. The ideal is to be unexceptional. Outside the village are nomads who roam and trade. They are sometimes free spirits, sometimes wild and violent. Nobody is well educated.

There is an element of stereotyping, one might think, in the diametrically opposed communities – the villagers living on the edge of the wildwood, the nomads within and criss-crossing it. Dangerous animals live in the forest: night-apes, foxes, wolflings, and the great white wolf. There is also a sickness for which there is no cure. All this goes to encourage the villagers to stay quietly in their own place.

You might think, then, that this sounds like a novel of stereotypes. And in a way you’d be right. But this is a novel which only came out in April of 2019 and it has the zeitgeist firmly in its teeth – the polarisation of communities in both the US and here in the UK (Brexit! Aaargh!), the diminution of personal liberty in a search for greater security, the loss of excellence in a quest for conformity, suspicion and fear of ‘the other’ – the incomer who is not ‘us’. It wears its political allegories lightly but they are definitely there in Butcher’s examination of “the most basic human fears and insecurities”.

The main protagonist is Senla. She has been rebelling against her dreary life since she was a small child. She is the grief of her mother who is always sharp with her. Senla’s mother is a deeply unhappy woman who, along with the rest of the village finds Senla ‘presumes too much’. However, Senla, we learn, is an exceptional person, forged in adversity. How will the village deal with her? How does that Prologue fit into what is to come?

There were some minor frustrations for this reader. The first was a mention in the blurb of this novel being set in “a mysterious world that was torn apart by a great cataclysm”. This cataclysm is occasionally mentioned. But no reason for it, or result from it is ever offered. Checkov reckoned that (in fiction) if a gun was seen to be hanging over the fireplace in the first act of the story, then it needed to be fired in the third. The ‘cataclysm’ gun is still hanging over the fireplace, and the story is finished.

A second frustration was that every time Senla exerted herself we were given a litany of every scratch, wound, sore, and ache – all of which would promptly be forgotten next time she needed to run or fight. The listings often started during action sequences, slowing them down. I learned to skip past them: you may wish to do the same. And a third was an authorial fondness for the phrase ‘off of’ which exists nowhere in the English language.

Do let me mention that one of the threads of this book hangs on a comma! Yes, that itsy bitsy grammatical mark. I can’t say more because of spoilers – but I hope you enjoy that powerful little comma as much as I did when you come to it.

With the change of author name there may have been some authorial revisions. I have not checked. However, I understand the ‘off ofs’ are no more. Huzzah.

 

 

Review: ‘Rivers Run: Elemental Keys Book 1’, by Lynne Cantwell

June 26, 2019

Rivers Run: Elemental Keys Book 1 by [Cantwell, Lynne]

** Review originally prepared for ‘Big Al and Pals’ **

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Description: Raney Meadows is an actor in a long-running TV series. It has all become a bit much for her, so she takes a leave of absence to hike part of the Appalachian Trail and clear her mind. Unfortunately, on the Trail near Harper’s Ferry, she finds a body in the River Shenandoah. But the victim did not drown. How does she know this? She is half Undine – a water Elemental. The goddess Shenandoah exhorts her to cleanse the river waters of this violent death. The plot quickly thickens. Three more half-elementals make themselves known – earth, fire and air. That seems like a quorum … and, indeed, they have been brought together to prevent a great and ancient evil re-emerging.

Author: Lynne Cantwell has been writing fantasy fiction since the second grade, when she made a picture book, illustrated by the author, about a girl who owned a doll that not only could talk, but could carry on conversations. The book had dialogue but no paragraph breaks. After a twenty-year career in broadcast journalism and a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University (or, she says, perhaps despite the master’s degree), Lynne is still writing fantasy. She is also a contributing guru at Indies Unlimited.

Appraisal: I should nail my colours to the mast at the outset here – I love Cantwell’s work. I even love her romance, despite my lifelong aversion to the soppy kissing genre. Her Goldilocks writing style provides everything the reader needs to know and keeps the pages turning, turning, turning. It is her liberal use of what Cantwell refers to as ‘the woo-woo’ that sets her fiction apart and endears it to this reader. What is the woo-woo? A frisson of magic and spiritism that is always at the heart of Cantwell’s work. Sometimes – as with her ‘Pipe Woman Chronicles’ – there are whole pantheons of deities in play. Other times as with the standalone Seasons of the Fool and this first book in her latest series, the fey aspects are essential but more lightly couched.

In this book we learn what it is to be part Undine; about Harper’s Ferry and the Appalachian Trail; the other Elementals are introduced and developed, and the first part of the plot is brought to a satisfying conclusion. However, much remains to be resolved as the series unfolds. I look forward!

I happen to know that Cantwell put this out in a bit of a rush, and it does show (in my Kindle edition at least). However, then she lays down a sentence like this, “Her mournful rasp sounded like the barest trickle of moisture in a desert creek bed.” And minor imperfections are quite forgiven.

‘Slow Horses’ by Mick Herron

June 24, 2019

Slow Horses: Jackson Lamb Thriller 1 by [Herron, Mick]

I’ve been meaning to get around to this novel for the longest time. My brother recommended it to me. We are both John Le Carré and Gavin Lyall fans. Since 2015, when this first Jackson Lamb spy thriller came out, Herron has written another five. So that’s now a nice juicy series of six to enjoy.

Of course, Herron is compared to Le Carré. He is, for me, a closer rival than, for example, Charles Cumming (who is regularly spoken of as Le Carré’s inheritor). I’ve read three of Cumming’s and been underwhelmed by each. Sadly, Gavin Lyall (who died in 2003) is not so much remembered now: he wrote some delicious spy thrillers. His later work – a trilogy of novels set in Europe in the years immediately before the first World War – I found both gripping and illuminating.

But back to Herron: he does complexity well and he employs plenty of humour. His point of view is as some kind of insouciant omniscient devil who just wants to watch the world burn: nice.

Slough House (which morphs into the title of this first instalment: Slow Horse(s)) is where they send spies who have seriously stuffed up, but who they don’t want to (or can’t) sack, pay severance to, or have an unfair dismissal hearing for; or who have been stabbed in the back by colleagues. So some of those mouldering in Slough House doing mind-numbing busy work deserve to be there and some do not. It is an interesting part of the game in this first book to try and work out who deserves to be there and who doesn’t.

Slough House is under the surly leadership of Jackson Lamb, who used to be one of the best in the business. He is still a damned good spook. And one of the most convincing slobs I have ever come across in fiction. What can he have done to get stuck in Slough House? Could it be something to do with personal hygiene? It is not revealed in this book. I suspect he is one of those stabbed in the back – although possibly for good reason. The six books together are known as ‘the Jackson Lamb series’ so Lamb is the protagonist who carries the novels. That kind of weight is not really in evidence in this first one. Presumably his substantial and brooding presence is felt more later in the series.

This book sets up the characters of the Slow Horses at length. Another reviewer describes the book as a slow burner and because of all the scene- and character-setting I think this is right. You’ll have to wait until I’ve gotten around to book #2 to see if that continues or whether we plunge straight into plot next time. I have my fingers firmly crossed for less exposition and more turny-twisty plotting. Because the turny-twisty plotting, when it arrives, is very good indeed. The thing that makes this less than a 5* book for me is that most of the good turny-twisty plotting (and the presence of Jackson Lamb) comes in the final quarter of the novel.

‘The Shoe Mender’s Lament and other short stories’ by Peter Ruffell

June 22, 2019

Peter Ruffell’s short foreword tells the reader that these 17 little stories, and the poem which completes the book, started life during writing sessions at Off The Cuff, a writing workshop in Weymouth. The length of these stories reflects that: they’re a little longer (and, thus, meatier) than flash fiction, but short enough to read one while you’re enjoying (say) a mid-morning cup of tea.

Ruffell’s punning alternative title for this collection – ‘Read My Shorts’ – gives a good idea of the sort of work he has collected into this little book. With some notable exceptions, the stories are mainly humourous – even the murders. Ruffell likes to pile misfortune upon mishap until the whole edifice explodes (often with a good twist) under the weight of its own absurdity. In this vein I particularly enjoyed ‘A Short History Lesson’. As a foil for the humour there are several stories in which heart strings are tugged, eg ‘Old Peggy’, ‘Love Story’ and ‘Littlemoor Girl’.

Let us hope for a second volume, now that Ruffell has dipped his toes in the publishing waters.

 

Review: ‘The Antiquities Dealer: a David Greenberg Mystery, Book 1’ by Ed Protzel

April 19, 2019

Genre: History and Mystery

Description: the Amazon blurb says: “When Miriam Solomon, the love of David Greenberg’s life, phones him at his antiquities gallery in St. Louis, the black hole at the center of his heart shudders. Twenty years earlier, Miriam had inexplicably run off to Israel with his best friend, Solly, a brilliant but nerdy young scientist. Now she tells David that Solly has committed suicide and she needs his aid on a secret research project Solly left unfinished: to acquire the one remaining nail from the crucifixion of Jesus. Is she telling the truth? And why does that nail have such significance?” (One wonders that anyone would need to ask why a nail from the Crucifixion would have significance. But blurbs – even my own – are not strangers to hyperbole …)

Author: The author has lived much of his life in St Louis, which figures largely in this book. He lived for a while in the Gaslight Square area of that city, among its wackier citizens, some of which colourful characters have probably found their way into this book. He writes with authority of students working their way through college by gambling (including playing chess). As well as this novel, he has published the first two parts of his DarkHorse trilogy of novels and the third is due out this year. He spent several years producing screenplays in LA, looking for the big break which never quite came. He has a Master’s degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri, St Louis.

Appraisal: This book hits the ground running. David Greenberg, the narrator, is a cultural, urban Jew of the darkly witty and ironical sort. It quickly becomes apparent that he has no self-control where Miriam is concerned, so of course he agrees to help her acquire The Significant Nail. I cannot tell you why she needs it, as that would be a massive spoiler. But trust me when I say the reason is a doozie. As is the McGuffin constructed out of the chess Game of the Century played between Bobby Fischer and Donald Byrne in 1956. There is also (of course) a secret society in Israel which runs its own university, possibly a Second Coming, and a red-neck Christian preacher who is quite happy to use strong arm tactics to meet the potential New Jesus. There is, as you can see, plenty of plot.

There are a few infelicities in said plot. I found these irksome: the twin assassins with identical birthmarks; that people kept attempting to flee to safety in cars which they knew carried tracking devices placed there by their enemies; the ease with which Swiss bank account details were acquired and bandied about. There is an increasing flabbiness as the story approaches its endgame, leading to some implausibilities (a bit of a surprise as this is Protzel’s fourth novel: it makes one wonder what sort of editing is provided by Touchpoint Press). But by that time I was sufficiently intrigued by what was playing out to skip over the less well-focussed bits.

This is the second history and mystery using the Crucifixion story which I have read this year (see also my review of 30 Pieces of Silver by Carolyn McCray). It is fruitful ground for fiction writers. Both novels are thought-provoking and relevant in the twenty-first century. In addition there are inevitable nods to Dan Brown in both books – in the arcana and in the sudden flashes of imaginative and unpleasant violence, although this protagonist is both wittier and more passive than Robert Langdon (and the violence is less extreme).

The McGuffin is well used and well explained in the story. It is explained again, unnecessarily, in an addendum to the story. The standard (presumably) chess notation used in both renditions did not format readably on a Kindle using the file I was working from.

** Review originally prepared for ‘Big Al & Pals’.
Received a complimentary review file **

 


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