Sunday, 21 September 2014

What I've read recently, September edition

The Bone Clocks (2 September 2014) by David Mitchell
What it's about: The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell's sixth novel, nominated for the Booker prior to its release - is, like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas before it, a series of interconnected stories set in different places and time periods. The difference here is that the link between the stories is explicit: they all focus, in one way or another, on a woman named Holly Sykes. And Holly, a teenager at the start of the book, is an unwitting and unwilling pawn in an ancient battle between two races with the ability to transcend time.
You should read it if: Well, my suggestion would be that you shouldn't - while there are flashes of brilliance that do make it kind of worthwhile reading the whole thing, they are far too few. This is by far the poorest book I've read by Mitchell, and I found several of the characters deeply unlikeable and sometimes offensive. But if you're a die-hard fan of the author, you'll probably like it better than I did.
My review: Generally speaking, I love books that combine touches of fantasy, magic, or something macabre with a setting that's recognisable as the world we live in, with individuals' lives remaining largely realistic and relatable. (Ghostwritten did this brilliantly, and is one of my favourite books as a result.) However, in The Bone Clocks the gulf between the two is too great: the ordinary lives are too ordinary, the fantasy is too fantastic, they simply don't gel... Read the full review (warning: lots of spoilers)
Rating: 5/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Jackaby (16 September 2014) by William Ritter
What it's about: The publisher's blurb includes the claim, repeated in pretty much every review of the book, that Jackaby is 'Doctor Who meets [BBC] Sherlock'. It's a paranormal historical detective story, set in a 19th-century American port where a runaway English girl, Abigail Rook, meets an eccentric investigator, R.F. Jackaby. Much entertaining adventure ensues.
You should read it if: You enjoy YA, or you're looking for a good book to gift to someone of YA-reading age. Or the idea of the 'Sherlock meets Doctor Who' setup appeals to you.
My review: Surprisingly, that claim turns out to be pretty much accurate. While it was way too young for me, this was good fun and a nice palate-cleanser. The author's grasp of witty, quick-fire dialogue is excellent, there's a strong and funny heroine/narrator and a plot that focuses much more on friendship and adventure than romance... Read the full review
Rating: 6/10 | Buy on Amazon: Hardback

The Children Act (2 September 2014) by Ian McEwan
What it's about: A female judge, Fiona Maye, is called on to make a quick decision in an urgent case: she must decide whether a seventeen-year-old boy should be forced to have a blood transfusion that will save his life. The boy, Adam, and his parents are Jehovah's Witnesses, and have thus far refused the treatment. At exactly the same time, Fiona's husband, Jack, asks her permission for him to be able to have an affair with a younger colleague. In five parts, The Children Act explores the consequences of the decisions Fiona makes in both situations.
You should read it if: You tend to prefer fiction written in simple, elegant prose, rather than an over-descriptive style. You find complicated legal wranglings fascinating.
My review: I had absolutely no intention of reading this - McEwan is not a writer whose past books have impressed me as much I expected them to. I just started reading a preview to see what it was like, and was so swept up in the narrative I had to continue reading the book. Many of the events on which the story focuses are either easy to predict, or obviously signposted. I didn't find anything in the plot surprising, but I did find the book elegantly written, compelling and perfectly paced... Read the full review
Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

I Remember You (2010, translated 2012) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
What it's about: Part horror story, part mystery, I Remember You starts with a couple, Garðar and Katrín, travelling to Hesteyri, an extremely isolated community which has been otherwise abandoned by its few inhabitants for the winter. Along with their friend Líf, they've bought an old house they intend to renovate and turn into a guesthouse. Meanwhile, in the town of Isafjördur, a psychiatrist named Freyr is assisting in the investigation of a strange act of violent vandalism, in which a preschool has been ransacked and defaced. When all of these characters start to experience apparent 'hauntings', the links between their pasts slowly become apparent.
You should read it if: You enjoy ghost stories and don't mind being a bit spooked - this is genuinely frightening in places!
My review: I honestly found the ghost story in I Remember You one of the most terrifying I've read. Yes, it employs pretty much every cliché of the genre, but the tension is ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level - I found myself almost too scared to keep reading, but so riveted I just HAD to find out what would happen next. The mystery is more prosaic, and it's a pity the characterisation is sometimes weak, as otherwise this would easily have earned a higher rating from me... Read the full review
Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Little Egypt (15 March 2014) by Lesley Glaister
What it's about: Little Egypt splits its narrative between early 1920s and 2002. In the former chapters, 13-year-old twins Isis and Osiris spend a restless year in their family home, Little Egypt, with put-upon maid Mary and louche Uncle Victor, while their obsessive Egyptologist parents search the real Egypt for an elusive tomb. In 2002, meanwhile, Isis is in her nineties and hasn't spoken to Osi in ten years - despite the fact that they still share the same house. Things are changing, and she may finally have to make a decision about the future of Little Egypt, but what are the secrets that have kept her there for decades?
You should read it if: You like 'past-and-present' narratives and quirky, eccentric characters.
My review: This is the first book I've read by Lesley Glaister, and there is no doubt she has a wonderful way with words. A horse's coat is 'mottled like a rainy pavement'; when Isis enters a quiet room, it is filled with 'a thick hush like fur'; the sounds made by budgies are 'hard chips of glassy noise that rattled against her teeth'. The devil is in the detail. Unfortunately, there's also some very implausible plot points... Read the full review
Rating: 6/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Down the Rabbit Hole (2010, translated 2011) by Juan Pablo Villalobos
What it's about: This novella is narrated by Tochtli, the son of a Mexican drug baron, living an isolated life in a 'palace' where he has his own zoo, a private tutor and a vast collection of hats. He knows little of the outside world, yet his every whim is catered to. But, despite the protagonist's privilege and his exposure to violence and corruption, this is still a story about a lonely child trying to understand his surreal, limited world.
You should read it if: You like short books (this is such a short novella that it's pretty much a short story); you enjoy fiction in translation or stories that are a bit more 'off the beaten track'.
My review: The translation is excellent - this really doesn't feel like a book that's been translated from another language, all the more impressive given that creating an authentic childlike voice is hard enough in any language, let alone when trying to render the nuances and colloquialisms of another... Read the full review
Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Leviathan (1992) by Paul Auster
What it's about: The narrator is a writer who, at the beginning of the book, hears about the death - in odd circumstances - of one of his oldest friends. For reasons that will eventually become clear, he's keen to hide what he knows about this man, but he is compelled to write down the history of their friendship, a history that includes the narrator's affair and subsequent obsession (or the other way round) with the man's wife. The story that ensues is part factual account, part confession.
You should read it if: You're a fan of the author, or you like fiction with just the smallest touch of something inexplicable.
My review: If you already like Paul Auster, you will definitely enjoy Leviathan, and if you dislike him or have a negative impression of his work, it's unlikely to be the book that will change your mind. This is, in many, many ways, textbook Auster. It casts a spell, creating a world that is always subtly strange and slightly altered from our own in ways it is difficult for the reader to put their finger on... Read the full review
Rating: 8/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

The Serpent and the Pearl (2013) by Kate Quinn
What it's about: Like Quinn's 'Empress of Rome' series, The Serpent and the Pearl is loosely based on real events, in this case the rise of the Borgia family in 15th-century Italy. Using a variety of narrative voices - Giulia Farnese, the mistress of Rodrigo Borgia; Leonello, a dwarf who becomes her bodyguard; and Carmelina, a cook in the Borgia household - it tells a highly enjoyable tale packed with twists and moments of suspense.
You should read it if: You like historical fiction that's fun and trashy rather than serious and accurate: this is more like a soap than a faithful recreation of real events. And you don't mind a cliffhanger ending - it's part of a series, and you'll need to read the next one to discover the characters' fate.
My review: Quinn is great at writing strong, interesting female characters you can't help but like, but this perhaps isn't that unusual for a female author of this type of fiction. What she's also great at is writing men who should be completely detestable, but are somehow imbued with such charisma and magnetism that you are nevertheless drawn to them... Read the full review
Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

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