Connecting at Waterloo – Gordon Corrigan’s New History

waterlooThis post is not so much a book review as a thank you to Alison at Atlantic books.  When the last Atlantic books catalogue came out there was, as ever, several titles that interested me. I’m gradually learning not to gorge myself on the titles offered in these glossy brochures of temptation, because I just end up feeling guilty about the pile of unread books stacked on the shelves. One book that did catch eye, though I knew I’d never read it, was Gordon Corrigan’s Waterloo: A New History of the Battle and its Armies. I wouldn’t read it; my dad however would love it.

Those of you who read regularly will know that my Dad suffers from Parkinson’s. This is a great source of sadness in my life, and the posts about it aren’t particularly cheery. All through my life Dad has spent his spare time, either in the garden or surrounded by toppling piles of history books about Wellington, Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo. He is an amateur historian, but he loves it. I figured he’d love this book, but there was a problem. Dad’s Parkinson’s makes it very difficult for him to read. When he’s off, and forced to sit in a chair, he can’t hold a book or turn the pages (or even operate a touch screen).  When he’s able to move, the last thing he wants to do is sit in chair.

My passion for books (and maps) comes from my Dad. His reading of the Hobbit to me as child engendered a love of fantasy. He helped me cross the traverse between solo gamebooks and roleplaying games, by patiently reading Jackson and Livingstone’s ‘Fighting Fantasy‘ to me. I used to spend hours with him as child pouring over the almost fantastical maps of ‘Muir’s Historical Atlas‘, a book I love looking at even now.

Once I’d grown up, for Christmas and birthdays, it became a challenge to find a book that would interest my dad; usually military history, hopefully on some aspect of the Napoleonic Wars he wasn’t fully conversant with. Then, about seven or eight years ago, I noticed he didn’t read them any more. Even now I find myself thinking, ‘Dad would like that’ but there’s almost no point in buying it for him. It will sit unread.

This cut out a great shared experience. For as long as I remember we’ve talked about books, bonded over them. Whether it be an Ian Rankin, a historical novel, or military history tome, we’ve talked about books. Even when it was just him indulging me by listening to my teenage-self bang on about the latest plans for my Warhammer Army. Parkinson’s, that bastard of an illness, steals the person away gradually; so slowly you almost don’t notice it. The theft of conversation is its most insidious trick of all.

Nevertheless, I asked Alison whether she would mind sending me a copy. I explained to her that I’d probably never review it, that it was for my dad and he’d quite possibly never read it. Despite this she was kind enough to send me a copy. It arrived around father’s day, and I sent it to him with a card and he thanked me for it, and then, I guess I sort of forgot about it…

At the end of July dad moved down here for the summer. Some temporary respite for my mum, he took up residence in care home around the corner from us, which is great because we can see him regularly and he can enjoy his three grandchildren without them driving him crackers and exhausting him.

I noticed he’d brought his Waterloo book with him.

‘Are you reading this?’ I asked.

‘Yes.’ he said, ‘It’s good. So good, I actually want to finish it.’

It’s hard to sum up what high praise this is. Gradually, over the summer, dad worked his way through the book. To maintain his interest despite the difficulty of reading, makes it a rare book indeed. Better still it rekindled conversation. It’s not only that talking is physically difficult for dad. His frame of reference has shrunk so much in the recent years, it’s hard to sustain conversation when you see him everyday. There’s only so much we can talk about football. The book reignited his passion for all things Napoleonic and he talked animatedly about it.

I’m not an expert in this area at all but this is what he thought of the book.

Dad liked the narrative style. It overlooks the battle as whole, and not just from one side or point of view. It’s authoritative; whilst it takes an omniscient view of the battle, the available evidence is interpreted in one way only. Other interpretations are available but they are not offered here.  This clearly might not be to everyone’s liking but it met with dad’s approval.

There is lots of background information and it’s covered well. The battle itself doesn’t start until after halfway through the book. This is unusual, and contained some information that dad hadn’t heard before. There are details about Napoleon becoming emperor placed in context of the French revolution. There is lots of stuff about the preliminaries before the conflict; more of the book isn’t about Waterloo than is. Of the stuff that is about Waterloo, dad didn’t find anything he thought was wrong, greatly adding the book’s authority. The subject of  the latter part of the book, the battle itself, has been extensively written about elsewhere, so there are less revelations. In short the first half of the book is excellent and enlightening, the latter half is solid and well explained, if unremarkable.

Gordon Corrigan’s interpretation of Waterloo, met with dad’s approval and has spurred several father and son conversations, which has greatly improved my understanding of the period. It’s enabled dad and I to talk about something that goes beyond ‘how are you feeling today?’ and for that I am eternally grateful to Gordon for writing his book and Alison for sending me a copy. Last night dad I were discussing the aftermath of Waterloo, whilst I used my phone to check facts on Wikipedia (well hopefully they were facts). 21st century bonding stemming from a 15th century innovation, discussing 19th century history. Parkinson’s may be shit, but the world can be an amazing place.

Many thanks to Alison at Atlantic for sending me this book. May the sun shine upon her always! 

From tiny acorns – Codex Born by Jim C Hines

Codex-Reborn-UK-editionOne of my surprise best reads of the year is Libriomancer by Jim C Hines. A book with such a beguiling premise that it demanded to be read. The idea that there is a coven of magicians who can pull all manner of stuff out from between the covers of a book propelled Libriomancer to the top of my to-be-read pile. Beneath the pulpy cover, vampires and lusty dryads was an intricately conceived and well executed urban fantasy that had considerable depth. It is pretty much a must read for anybody who loves the genre. Libriomancer didn’t just lazily reference its influences, it embedded them in the story and enhanced their myths.

So how do you follow that? Well it’s pretty tricky. Libriomancer is stuffed full of innovation, but the mechanics of libriomancy are now pretty much established, and surely all the best fictional references were in the first novel? What would a second book have to offer? The answer is, ‘Pretty much the same as the first’. This story doesn’t offer much on top of Libriomancer in terms of fresh concepts, so it doesn’t have the wow-factor of book 1. Indeed some of the embellishments don’t quite work. It’s a common problem in this type of storytelling. In order to make an original premise more convincing, there are often constraints put in place. When an author finds that it’s not just his characters bound by the constraints, but subsequent stories too, they bend the rules to allow more interesting things to happen. Invariably they don’t quite work.  Having said that, whilst a couple of Isaac Vanio’s new skills jarred, they certainly didn’t spoil the party

Codex Born has story and character a plenty. There is an irreverent vein of humour running through it, and there is still a reverence retained for books and storytelling. Here vampires are replaced by werewolves (which makes you wonder if zombies are next). I’ve never been a huge fan of lycanthrope stories, so some of the references were lost on me. The central plot once again revolves around dryad Lena Greenwood and her being a living thing that was once fictional.

As in the first book there are thrills, spills and literary shenanigans. Whilst Codex Born doesn’t elevate the series, it certainly does it no detriment. It’s another entertaining novel written in the same vein as the first; magical high jinx for library lovers. I look forward to volume three.

Many Thanks to the team at Del Rey for sending me a copy of this book.

Now or Never? – My Real Children by Jo Walton

my real childrenIf you’ve read much of my blog, you’ll know that I have a soft spot for Jo Walton. Among Others is a book I love. I’ve recommended it countless time and bought copies as presents for just about anybody I could half-way justify. What Makes this Book so Great also left an impression. So much so I’ve started the world’s most infrequent (and least membered) book club.

When those lovely people at Corsair sent me Walton’s latest, I squeeeeed with excitement (on the inside at least). But publication was a while away and I’m forever playing catch up on my reading pile, so I left it to one side. It was a special treat awaiting my delectation. Yet somehow, whilst it sat there, the shelf started to bow under the weight of my expectation. I became convinced it was going to disappoint. I almost persuaded myself I didn’t want to read it. The obvious comparison with Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life started to put me off. How could it possibly be in the same league?

As an acolyte of Walton (a Waltonite?) I should have kept the faith. My Real Children is a masterpiece of understated brilliance.

The novel opens with the rambling thoughts of an elderly lady in a care home. Her sense of reality is confused. Stairs misplace themselves, lift doors appear where before there was only wall and did she have three children or four? Is she suffering from dementia, or is this something else? Is she remembering lives that never were, or did both happen?

The book is predicated on a simple ‘Sliding Doors‘ premise. Patty’s (rather peculiar) boyfriend asks her to marry him (in extremely unromantic circumstances). What happens if she says ‘Now’? What if she says ‘Never’?

The two stories then run concurrently, a chapter at a time. Each is mundane in its own way, but both are compelling and fascinating. It’s a beautiful examination of how decisions might come to define our lives, but it’s a whole lot more than that. Walton examines the role of women in the home and in academia, sexuality in the 1970s and the threat of nuclear oblivion.  It describes the importance of family and humanity’s need to form a collective unit. In essence the book is a peon to love: platonic, familial and romantic. It also provides a crushing reminder that as well as being capable of great love, humans can also be violently destructive.

So where’s the SciFi?

Walton’s brand of science fiction fantasy is delicate and subtle. Among Others contains references to fairies, but the real sorcery is in the power of books and the magic of libraries. Clearly, in My Real Children, we have two alternate realities. Walton cleverly dovetails these into wider conterfactual realities. So real are the stories Walton is telling, time and again I found myself puzzling over a wider historical inaccuracy, before kicking myself; this is a world of fiction. Some of the book is rooted in reality, whilst other branches shift under the moving sands of history. It’s a great device, pulled off expertly. They could have easily overwhelmed the delicate plot, but the speculative fiction elements never jar the reader away from the central story. If Among Others was fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy, this is science fiction for people who hate, abhor and would never ever read science fiction.

I absolutely, completely and without reserve loved My Real Children. It’s a wonderfully clever book. Moving in the extreme. Nothing much happens, yet the stories told are utterly compelling. This is fiction of the highest quality and deserves to be read as widely as possible. Be warned. If you know me, this is what you’re getting for Christmas.

Many Thanks to Grace and the team at Corsair for sending me a copy of this wonderful book.     

Scaffwolves of London – Our Lady of the Streets by Tom Pollock

untitledThe Skyscraper Throne trilogy is a fascinating series created by a one of the genre’s finest new talents. Tom Pollock’s inventiveness is astounding. His grimy London is filled with magical creatures, ghost trains and tower cranes; even the streets themselves rise up. When one of the major players in a novel continually and convincingly recreates itself from the rubbish and detritus of the city, you know you’re reading something pretty special.

My opinion was divided on the opening two novels. Whilst impressed by Pollock’s creativity in book 1,  The City’s Son, I felt he’d thrown too many ingredients into the pot, making for an uneven and often baffling read. Book 2,  The Glass Republic, I loved unequivocally. He’d taken one of his excellent ideas and explored it in greater detail. The layers of meaning and depth of characterisation made it a remarkable book.

So, I opened book 3 with some trepidation. We are now back this side of the mirror, but London is well and truly cracked; sickened by fever. Beth, Pen and their rag-tag army of non-humans are all that stand between the megalomania of Mater Viae and the death of the city they love.

Our Lady of the Streets is a mixture of the brilliance of book 2 and the ideas overload of book 1. I loved elements of the book but others didn’t really make sense to me. Or at least why they were happening didn’t. I think part of the problem is the reemergence of Reach, a character whose premise is brilliant but whose full execution doesn’t wholly chime with me. I struggled generally with the problem of motive. Lots of terrible stuff was happening very quickly, but I wasn’t convinced as to why.

As before there are some stunning set pieces. Pollock’s descriptive writing is excellent. The villains ooze menace and reading about the grubby streets leaves you wanting to wash your hands.

Two chapters in particular set this book apart from the standard urban fantasy offerings. Grown-ups often get fairly short shrift in YA novels, and The Skyscraper throne trilogy is unusual in making Beth’s dad a positive influence on the story. Pollock highlights the parent-child bond; its strength and the love behind it. He does this without ever dropping into schmaltz. As a parent I thought he’d captured it beautifully and was greatly moved.

Later in the book Pen finds an elderly resident, holed up, waiting for the end of days.  Again, taking a break from the magic and mayhem, Pollock writes a touching and reflective piece on growing old and making peace with one’s lot.

In all three books Pollock shows he has imagination to burn; that he will be the urban fantasy go-to guy for countless readers. These two chapters show he is more than just about the weird and wonderful. Heartfelt and real, they demonstrate Pollock can handle and reflect on subtle and delicate emotions.

The end of the novel fits well with what has gone before. Pollock walks the thin line between frustratingly bleak and everything tied off with a bow, with barely a misstep. It’s hard to get the balance right across a trilogy, but here the reader gets mostly want they want, with a few tantalising and painful omissions. The Skyscraper Throne trilogy heralds the arrival of a coruscating talent. It hasn’t always convinced me, but it’s never failed to impress. I very much look forward to reading what Tom Pollock writes next.

Many Thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of this book

Word up! – The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

the_word_exchange_1024x1024Here at Robin’s Books, titles that revolve around social media seem to be coming more and more prevalent. In the last few months I’ve read the writer’s view, the scary vision of the future for grown ups and the scary vision of the future for young adults. All of these titles ask what exactly are we surrendering by putting so much stock in social networking; are we in danger of becoming homogenised sheep all shuffling after the next trend? If they had a coverall catchphrase it might be ‘Think before you Tweet’.

The Word Exchange is definitely the most cerebral of these social media critiques and it’s probably the hardest to read. Dense and thoughtful, the book suggests it’s not just our personalities and our freedoms that are at stake. If they weren’t enough, the very future of language might be at risk.

This isn’t some Daily Mail, Gove loving, piece about teenagers using ‘m8′ signifying the death of the written word (does anybody use m8 any more? I’m too old to know). It’s a serious meditation on how instantaneous information is changing the way our brains function. Recall of telephone numbers, facts and appointments is obviated by modern technology. I barely know my own number let alone anybody else’s. But what if language went the same way? What if your device, here called a ‘Meme’ could supply that difficult word for you? Then, if large corporations were involved in supplying those worlds, how long before they tried to control the chain? It’s quite a simple idea, but Graedon gives it a profound treatment.

The Word Exchange, as one might expect for a novel with at least three lexicographical experts (lexicographers even!), is rich and dense in language. Not only there are oodles of complicated words (that are nothing like ‘oodles’) there is also much discussion as language as a living entity. The metaphysical musings occasionally threaten to overwhelm, but there is lots of interesting stuff in here about how we communicate and how fragile the communication pathways that we take for granted are.

Kim Curran gave us Glaze and destroyed the world. James Smythe gave us ClearVista and did the same (one man’s anyway). Graedon’s Memes are sort of a combination of the two, with prediction and control front and centre. On the face of it they all perfect iterations of social media, but behind each lie sinister forces. For sheer readability The Word Exchange is not in the league of the other two books, but all three can be read and enjoyed for entirely different reasons. It took me a long time to plough my way through Graedon’s book, mostly because of the complex language and themes. I’m not honestly sure her central conceit ‘Word Flu’ properly hangs together but I must confess to not fully understanding everything that I read.

Nevertheless, Graedon makes some very important observations about the subtle ways being permanently hooked up to devices could change our society. It is a peon to the written word and a reminder that sometimes longhand is best. This is not a quick read; not one for the beach, but it is a clever and thought-provoking book that will appeal to anybody who loves language and reading.

Many Thanks to Jess (formely of Orion) for sending me a copy of this book to review. 

A Tale of Two Kitabs by Nikesh Shukla

Meatspace-web-readyAbout halfway through Meatspace I was struggling a little bit. There were some great observations about the absurdities of modern life and the dangers of an addiction to social media, but where was the story? Or more, was I missing the story because this wasn’t the book for me?

I like to flatter myself that I know about technology but the older I get the harder it is to remain convinced ( watching my 15 year neighbour reconfigure my 8 year old’s Minecraft today revealed rather too much of my own ignorance). I like to think I know about social media, but frankly I use Facebook only to keep half an eye on what old friends are doing and, after a brain frazzling three weeks where I tried to read everything that everyone I followed on Twitter was saying, I now just check in occasionally, realise I’ve missed something interesting and then worry about what it was.

Kitab Balasubramanyam, the central character of Meatspace, is not like this. He comes out in a cold sweat if he is more than six inches from his phone; he tweets everything he eats. He lives in cyberspace rather than the meatspace that gives the novel its title. Social media and his online persona has taken him over. It’s why his girlfriend left him on his own. It’s why he never writes any words for his difficult second novel. Yes Kitab is a writer. He’s also, as you may be able to tell from his name, of Indian descent.

The novel is heavily centred around three strands of life I don’t know much about: Social media, the life of an aspiring author and being Indian in modern Britain (I’m as white Anglo Saxon as they come; my cultural references are terrible food, sunburn and forming an orderly line).  The insecure author continually trying to compose witty tweets is rather lost on me. Apart from the fact I never write anything, I’d quite like to be a writer. Meatspace does not sell the experience.  The obsession with staying connected also passed me by. There just wasn’t a thread I could hold onto and say, ‘Yes, I get this.’  Yet at no time did I consider giving up. There was enough quality to keep me reading, even if I wasn’t fully engaged. I’m glad I did. Meatspace is one of those novels that appears to be superficially about one thing before twisting and becoming deeper than I could ever have imagined.

The story essentially has two strands. The main one is the life of Kitab and his status obsession (a phrase that had a different meaning a decade ago). When he gets a friend request from the only person on Facebook with the same name as him, he thinks nothing of ignoring it. When Kitab2 turns up on his doorstep he proves a little harder to avoid. The second strand is in the form of blog posts from Kitab’s larger than life, alpha male older brother. Aziz has travelled to New York, to meet his doppelgänger. So as one brother leaves on a quest for adventure, another arrives with almost the same intentions.

The novel is filled with great observations about the absurdities of social media, and the pitfalls of letting it rule your life. Greater than that though are its questions about identity. More and more novels are coming through  about the duality of cyberspace persona and meatspace reality. As social media becomes more entrenched and people spend more time hooked up, which personality is true? There are lots of subtle touches here, such as comments on Aziz’s blog that poke and probe author reliability and anonymity online. When the relationship between Kitab and Kitab2 goes sour, further questions are posed about the nature of personality and its potential for subversion on the internet.

None of this quite coalesces until the novel’s final chapters. Before that it’s merely diverting.  Only with the final reveal do we see Shukla’s full intentions, and realise just how good Meatspace is. In addition to the social media stuff, there’s lots interesting comment on the importance of family in a fast-moving world. The fragility of self-esteem when nobody really knows you, and just how fucking difficult it is to write a half decent novel. Meatspace will not suit all tastes but if your interested in the effect of social media on the societies it’s supposed to connect, then you would do well to pick up a copy. Funny, intelligent and more than a little bit sad, Meatspace is well worth a look.

Many Thanks to Madeline Toy for sending me a copy of this book 

A Kind of Magic – Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

the-queen-of-the-tearlingAs this book is soon to be made into a film starring Emma Watson, it’s bound to attract some hype. Much of it, I imagine, will be undeserved. This is perhaps an unfair thing to say; the book is very readable and is contains some strong female characters, something of a rarity in the genre. Unfortunately I found the setting to be half-baked, and the story itself derivative.

I must confess to not being a fan of fantasy novels set after an apocalypse, where remnants of old technology remain. QotT isn’t quite like that. The escape from our world is acknowledged and discussed and there is a lot more old-age stuff lying around than just lethal weapons. ‘The Crossing’ occurred some unspecified length of time (but at least several generations) ago. Some skills have survived, as have a few artefacts, and some books (Rowling is inevitably name-checked). Crucially (and specifically) medical supplies are not.  So. This is some sort of cracked Earth, where most of the of the denizens escaped to from…? Where else? The USA.

The book is let down by its world building. I can’t think of single part of the novel that is enhanced by this reforged Earth approach over just making it a standard fantasy secondary world. Setting the novel on a future Earth adds nothing but detracts much. I immediately began to question the structure of the world. In a standard fantasy novel how the world became how it is, is left largely to arm waving. It doesn’t tend to matter if it stands up to scrutiny because nobody looks that hard. Here though we all have a common point of reference, Earth, and now all the minutiae of governance and provenance of artefacts and language becomes an issue. I found myself questioning whether the state of Tear was economically viable (I suspect not), something I rarely worry about when reading a fantasy novel. Even the existence of magic in the novel suddenly becomes questionable. ‘Magic? but it’s Earth…’ This strand may, of course, be resolved in subsequent novels. Curiously, though the novel’s characters came from the USA there are almost no ethnic minorities. There is even a line about how the main character has only ever seen one black person. This is a problematic and frankly baffling omission.

The story itself, whilst not a new one, is strong. Kelsea Glynn is a princess in exile; hidden as a baby by her mother, the queen. On Kelsea’s nineteenth birthday, the queen’s guard arrive at her house to return her to her rightful place as the new Queen of the Tearling. Her uncle has ruled in her stead for 19 debauched, corrupt years. The kingdom slid into ruin, even sending a monthly tribute of slaves to neighbouring Mortmense. The kingdom of Mortmense is ruled by the Red Queen; a baby eating monarch cut straight from Grimm fairytale cloth. Kelsea must gain the trust of her guards, her nobles and above all the people of Tear. With the Red Queen on the warpath and any number of factions likely to benefit from her death, this is a tall order.

So the story is a classic, young and inexperienced monarch must win hearts and minds of the people, tale. Kelsea is a strong character; an idealist, yet pragmatic. She is not just a woman who behaves like a man, written by an author under the misapprehension that this makes for robust characterisation. She’s a tough independent female of the type so rarely found in fantasy novels. She operates in a world dominated by men, though there are other strong female characters around her who back her up. I was impressed and refreshed by Kelsea Glynn.  There several occasions where her strong social conscience must give way to the practical aspects of being a ruler. I liked this facet of the book. In a world where we clamour for our leaders to ‘do the right thing’ all the time, Johansen shows that this isn’t always possible, no matter how obvious an answer might seem from the outside.

Queen of the Tearling is a solid readable fantasy, but there is little to set it apart from the field. Compared with Richard Ford’s Steelhaven books, it’s extremely ordinary. I’ve read the book and I have terrible feeling that the most interesting thing I can say about it, is that Hermione Granger is going to be in the film adaptation. That doesn’t do much as recommendation to read it. I might read the sequels but such is the height of my to-be-read pile, it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever make it to them.

Many Thanks to Leanne at Transworld for sending me a copy of the book. 

Scared New World – The First Stone by Elliott Hall

review-projectthe-first-stone-elliott-hallThis book is this month’s Hodderscape Review Project title. I read and reviewed the book a few years ago. Here’s what I thought. For the project I read the sequel, The Rapture 

The First Stone is a solid noir thriller, featuring a gritty private eye, pithy dialogue and a gorgeous femme-fatale. So far, so ordinary. What sets this book apart from the multitude of other gumshoe novels is its setting: A near-future where the USA stagnates under a Christian Fundamentalist dictatorship.

When a prominent religious evangelist is found dead, Felix Strange is called in to investigate. Strange, an atheist of Jewish descent, knows he’s an odd choice for the job, and when told to keep his investigation under-wraps, he is surely being pulled into something more dubious than a simple murder. After debunking the obvious set-up crime scene, Strange becomes embroiled in a web of deceit and skulduggery.

Elliott Hall’s portrayal of America’s slide into an oligarchy, ruled by the mysterious ‘Council of Elders’, is all to plausible. He describes a nation gripped by fear and paranoia; a nation manipulated by the Council to maintain their absolute power. America is crippled by sanctimony and fear of persecution. Just as in Stalin’s Russia, neighbours are encouraged to inform on one another. Against this, what chance the individual? In a world that parallels that of 1984, in order to solve his case, Strange must challenge the status quo. Hall’s prose is terse and tight, reminiscent of Raymond Chandler. The First Stone is an invigorating read.

The climax of the novel, though exciting was a little too convoluted for my taste. A few too many twists – there are a number of fictional factions each with a vested interest in the case, and I found it difficult to follow (or indeed care that much) who stood to gain the most from the victim’s murder. That said, ‘The First Stone’ is top drawer speculative fiction and a fine Private Investigator novel. I look forward to volume two.

This review first appeared on Amazon.co.uk in Feb 2010

Something Rotten – The Rapture by Elliott Hall

This review forms part of this months Hodderscape Review Project.review-project

raptureThis month’s Hodderscape title was The First Stone by Elliott Hall, a book I read a few years ago and reviewed on Amazon. I’ve republished that review on the blog.

I’m shocked and appalled to discover it’s nearly four and half years since I read The First Stone. Whilst I found it a little convoluted, its original and scarily plausible premise stuck with me. I certainly wanted to read its sequel. It took me a couple of years to buy The Rapture and a couple more to get around actually reading it. Like all book addicts I have far more books than I can actually read.

So, despite my being keen to read the follow up to an excellent book, who knows when it would have managed to claw its way to the top of my to-be-read pile? Fortunately Hoddescape intervened by giving it a passport to the summit. Rather reread book one I thought I’d try out the sequel and report back.

So here goes…

Wow!

Ok, you probably want a little more than that.

I absolutely loved The Rapture. I’ve been on a dodgy reading streak recently but this is a quality novel. It’s inventive, exciting and thought provoking in equal measure, and a gorgeously rendered evolution of the P.I. novel; a dystoPIan novel, if I may.

The book is almost a prequel to 1984. Hall has deconstructed Big Brother’s regime and tried to examine how such a beast might be built. Following on from events in The First Stone, Felix Strange is investigating the disappearance of an old Army colleague; a man who saved his life. Isaac Taylor isn’t just missing, he’s ceased to exist. There is no record of him. Strange’s investigations reveal a shocking and deadly conspiracy.

It’s quite hard to explain just how good this book is. Strange has maintained his distinctive voice from the first book – a wise-cracking PI in the Marlowe mould. The central mystery is compelling, bolstered by flashbacks to a fictional near-future American occupation of Tehran.

Beyond that there is the fascinating analysis of a totalitarian regime in prototype. I don’t want to give too much away but Hall examines the various strands that a government might use to exert total control; fear, a common enemy, a riven population. He also explores what agencies might be used to bring these things about. The closer Strange comes to the truth the more sinister America’s Christian Fundamentalist leaders become.

The society constructed is a curious blend of Stalinist and Nazi oligarchy. Hall’s painstaking world construction is what make this novel so good. He has clearly done his research and sets out his vision with great clarity. This is a completely plausible work of speculative fiction and is all the more powerful for it. From looking at the paucity of reviews an Amazon these books are criminally under-read. They would appeal to fans of dystopian fiction as well as those who like a hard-bitten detective. It’s an ambitious melding but Hall pulls it off with aplomb.

One final recommendation, if you are enjoying the Fexlix Strange novels, do check out Jonathan Trigell’s Genus, another excellent dystoPIan novel.

Hieronymous Tosh – The Bosch Deception by Alex Connor

boschI’ve talked before about my uneasiness at tearing into a book, especially if I haven’t paid for it. Occasionally though I read something so terrible that discretion is thrown out of the window. It’s been a tough few months, I’ve read a string of mediocre books and now I read this, a book that might represent then nadir of popular fiction. I’m afraid The Bosch Deception is going to get it. Both barrels.

Compared to The Bosch Deception, the Da Vinci code is a literary masterpiece. It gave me an appreciation that a terrible book still needs some qualities to make it readable.

This book might be a sequel. If it isn’t then it’s doubly bad, because the backstory is so hamfistedly written, I felt like I’d missed great chunks of information.  The Bosch Deception has being written with short chapters, presumably because the author heard that this injects pace and excitement into a story.

If you break your
writing in ran
dom
Places thou
gh, the effec
t is rather
ruined.

The story is about as exciting as old public information films. The main conjecture is that Bosch might not have painted all of his pictures. Through the use of a series of secret note fragments we learn Bosch may have died much earlier and the church passed off pictures painted in his style as genuine articles. This shattering revelation would, apparently, shock the Catholic Church. Considering the scandal the church deals with on a roughly daily basis, I’m not sure this would have give even the most idealist of cardinals much pause.

The art world? Yeah now they might be a bit more interested in this information, and the mysterious notes written by Bosch that are found in the story. They would cause a stir. And so indentikit villainous art dealers step up to beat each other to a bloody pulp.

So there is a mystery, are the notes genuine, are they not? Is the killer motivated by money or fanatical devotion to the pope? Throw in some dodgy priests, references to abuse and you have all the making of a clichéd conspiracy thriller. Yawn!

I read to the end, though I’m not sure why. I used to read a lot more of this sort of stuff, but found after the Da Vinci Code publishers were prepared to publish any old Brown stuff. Previous books by this author have garnered positive reviews online, so this stuff clearly has an audience. Perhaps my expectations are too high…but then plots that make sense, characters who aren’t clichés and a modicum of excitement, don’t really seem too much to ask.

Thanks to Lauren at Quercus for sending me a copy of this book. Sorry I didn’t like it very much….