Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Book #64 Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Bellman & Black

Length Of Time In Possession : 2 weeks

In this follow up to 'The Thirteenth Tale' Diane Setterfield writes another spooky story set in the Victorian era.

We are introduced to William Bellman - the happy child of a single mother who grows up to be well liked and successful.

But, when William Bellman was 10 he created the perfect catapult and accidentally killed a rook with a well aimed shot. As we learn William's story the narrative is interspersed with prose about the intelligence and behaviour of rooks. William may have pushed his childhood transgression out of mind but the rooks have not forgotten as soon he will learn.....

The intriguing thing about Bellman & Black is that William and those around him attribute their bad fortune to the way of the world, preventable deaths for example were common of the age. The reader however is in on the secret, the idea that something more sinister that is unbeknownst to the characters is actually in play here.

The novel does have its problems, events become slightly repetitive in both of its halves, yet the prose itself is continuously engaging and you stick with it.

There is something genuinely unsettling about the proposed notion that a mistake that you make as a child and do not recall can literally have repercussions across your life through unseen forces that you can chase but never quite grasp...

It's an interesting novel, worth reading and has an original concept. It is not entirely perfect in its execution however.

Verdict :   8/10

Destination : ebook storage

Book #63 The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Midnight Palace

Length Of Time In Possession : About 8 months

'The Midnight Palace' is a ruin which provides the headquarters of a club for a group of teenage orphans who when about to age out of their orphanage, discover that one of their number, Ben, is the victim of a curse. 

I read a lot of books and I read across genres and age ranges. Certain books are published for and marketed specifically at young adults but in many cases this has not prevented me from enjoying them, and I do really like discovering young adult books with the potential to crossover and have meaning to readers of all ages. I've read another Carlos Ruiz Zafon young adult novel 'The Prince Of Mist' before and really rather enjoyed it

Unfortunately this was not the case with this book : the plot repeatedly made no sense, events were often ludicrous and the book as a whole had this sense of melodrama and hysteria about it. For a ghost story it didn't scare particularly, the villain was a little panto & the box opening denouement was just bizarre.

When I read this book I was so annoyed with it that I tweeted that I just wanted to write 'This book was shit' and nothing else as my review - given that I was never its target audience that seemed a little uncharitable, but it is after all my opinion!

There are at the moment some great books out there aimed at this age range ( I recommend Patrick Ness & John Green) this just sadly, for me, was not one of them

Verdict 3/10

Destination : Charity Shop

Book #62 Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Length Of Time In Possession : 1 month

Despite being labelled as a 'fiction' novel this Jeanette Winterson's debut novel bears more than a passing resemblance to the authors own life story. Adopted as a baby and raised in an extremely religious household, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is a coming-of-age story about a girl who was moulded to be what her mother hoped for her : 'a missionary'. Yet when puberty comes, 'Jeanette' discovers that she prefers women to men and find herself at odds with her faith, the church she played such a part in and her domineering mother.

A short but extremely enjoyable read with great turns of phrase; it illuminates a world that is alien and jaw dropping to many and highlights in many ways how easy and unquestioning the indoctrination of young children is.

Having heard a lot of what Jeanette Winterson's childhood was like through recent media coverage; it is no less shocking set down upon the page even Mrs Winterson's own congregation thought she was mad and it is alarming how much Jeanette's life was impacted by her mother's religious mania though she tries to deal with it all with a certain Northern humour.

I would definitely recommend this book to other readers because of the unique oddity of the story it has to tell.

Verdict 7/10

Destination : Keeping this book.  

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Book #61 The Lady Of The Rivers by Philippa Gregory

The Lady Of The Rivers

Length Of Time In Possession : 1 day

I've had a cold this last week and I've been miserable so I rewarded myself with what I class as 'easy reading' in two Philippa Gregory's, this The Lady Of The Rivers and The White Princess reviewed below.

The Lady Of The Rivers is a prequel and takes us back to the very start of the Cousins War as seen through the eyes of Jacquetta Of Luxembourg, a young woman of a noble house who draws the attention of the Duke Of Bedford then the most powerful man in France which was under English rule. Having married the Duke Of Bedford Jacquetta finds herself a senior member of the English Royal Family and the House Of Lancaster and from there on is at the centre of most of the big events of that time despite very little being known of her historically.

This is the point of most of Philippa Gregory's history novels, how little there is on record of the women who were part of the big events of the day and how much they shaped them. Through Jacquetta she says a lot about women, how they had to be careful not to appear 'too clever' is the eyes of men, how they had to be above suspicion and yet how they could alter the course of events in their own way without men really realising.The strength that Margaret Of Anjou exhibits in the face of adversity is shown equally to be her downfall as the people of London shun a woman out of keeping with her place in the world.

Jacquetta is constantly mindful of drawing attention to herself because she has inherited The Sight and fears being burned as a witch like Joan Of Arc before her. The Tarot Card The Wheel Of Fortune runs as a symbol throughout the book as a symbol of the fortunes of the men and the women they took along with them on the journey as they rise very high and fall very low.

A strong, likeable, character who features across The Cousins War novels Jacquetta is easy to respect and admire, to marvel at in terms of how extraordinary her life was. I did find it so odd that in the end she was the undoing of her own best friend and how that must have felt for her & whether she just accepted it as the hand that Fate dealt them all. 

History is full of interesting women about whom little is known and I hope Gregory keeps up this documentation (albeit within fictional parameters) of them.

I liked this one.

Verdict : 8/10

Destination : ebook storage

Book #60 The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

The White Princess

Length Of Time In Possession : A day

The White Princess is the latest installment of the Cousins War Saga, picking up where The Kingsmaker's Daughter left off; Anne Neville and Richard the Third have died, and Henry Tudor has finally fulfilled his mothers desperate single minded determination to see him on the throne.

Margaret Beaufort the King's Mother, and Elizabeth the Dowager Queen have already made an alliance that would see Henry Tudor marry Elizabeth Of York thus cementing any doubts about his claim to power.

Here things get somewhat muddled I think, and a lot of people's characters get besmirched by the unfortunate authorial decisions Gregory makes. Firstly, young princess Elizabeth it seems would far rather be getting it on with her dead uncle than with her new young man. Allegations of incest between Richard III and Princess Elizabeth went unproved and seem entirely unlikely. They were probably largely invented by dramatists such as Shakespeare looking to paint Richard III in a poor light.

Next Henry Tudor turns rapist, determined to get Princess Elizabeth pregnant before marriage to prove she's not barren. Margaret Beaufort encourages this and Elizabeth Woodville complies and so the whole sorry affair reflects well on no-one. Elizabeth Woodville had 8 children and her mother before her had 12, it seems highly unlikely in those times that the fertility of the young princess would ever have been questioned, and also more than unlikely that the religious Margaret would have encouraged sex before marriage.  

Following their poor start Henry and Elizabeth have a difficult relationship flying in the face of what is known of them historically. Unlike her mother, Elizabeth Of York is not a power player in her own right and does not really carve out a path of any interest for herself. There is very little hint at the powers of the water goddess that her mother and grandmother had except in being warned of death. The court is controlled by the King's Mother and so Elizabeth has little to do.

The plot itself becomes exceptionally repetitive. During the novel The White Queen Gregory gave us the idea that one of The Princes In The Tower : Richard in fact survived, a theory that given later events seems quite likely. Throughout his reign Henry is chased by the spectre of 'the boy' and pretty much the entire novel is devoted to various boys popping up out of the woodwork claiming to be Richard Plantagenet. As each of these emerge, Henry rants at Elizabeth she simpers about not knowing anything, the pretender is defeated and it all starts again. This wears thin.

I do find the idea that Richard survived plausible and certainly of these Pretenders, the one they called Perkin Warbeck may well have been the real thing which is pretty much what is suggested here.

In the end I think that possibly the things that I found the most interesting about The White Princess are the continuation of the idea that Elizabeth effectively cursed her own line by accident & that this book in itself acts as a natural conduit between Gregory's Cousins War and her Tudor Saga the next story chronologically being that of Catherine Of Aragon in 'The Constant Princess' whose marriage to Prince Arthur is being prepared for at the close of this novel.

Not perfect by any means, but still another enjoyable addition to the canon.

Verdict 7/10

Destination : ebook storage

Book #59 Absolution by Patrick Flanery


Length Of Time In Possession : 18 months

What first struck me when I started reading Absolution was the identical nature of the basics of the story to Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale which I have just read. Successful elderly writer Clare Wald, summons young journalist Sam Leroux to her home with the intent of allowing him to be her biographer, and their conversations illuminate her back story. There the similarity ends because whilst The Thirteenth Tale is shrouded in a kind of Gothic old fashioned mystique, the mysteries of Absolution are of a starker, bleaker variety.

Set in modern day South Africa the events of the novel are placed against the backdrop of the fairly recent political upheavals of that nation, the findings of the Truth And Reconciliation Commission for example are referenced often. The novel is constructed in an odd way, and at times this made it difficult to read. Split into three sections it at times has sections from Clare's perspective and then Sam's interspersed with excerpts from Clare's final novel, a 'faction' named 'Absolution'.

Clare did not choose Sam for the task for no apparent reason Sam & Clare have a link, a link neither is able to discuss, and as Sam's narrative contradicts what Clare sets forth in 'Absolution' it becomes harder to know what really happened, and in some respects this is the point of 'Absolution' how, when in absence of the facts, we make up fictions in our minds of events we know to have happened but do not know the detail.

Another strand of Absolution revolves around guilt and responsibility, how responsible is a person when a remark they make sets forth a chain of events they didn't foresee culminating in disaster.

The problem with 'Absolution' as a novel and what makes it become hard work as a read is that these points about history and responsibility become laboured and the making of them ultimately occurs at the cost of the narrative : the plot becomes damaged and skewed by the authors apparent need to make them. A lengthy diatribe about censorship for example is just entirely out of step with the rest of the plot.

By far the most interesting aspect of 'Absolution' is the fate of Laura, a fate that is ultimately left hanging in mid air, with the onus on the reader to infer what they can.

All in all the novel is something of a mixed bag that does not entirely flow together very well despite containing excellent ideas.

Verdict 7/10

Destination : ebook storage    

Book #58 The Rapture by Liz Jensen

The Rapture

Length Of Time In Possession : 1 year

The Rapture by Liz Jensen is the second of her novels I have read after the Ninth Life Of Louis Drax which I read two years ago and greatly enjoyed.

Set in a none too distant future, in The Rapture art therapist Gabrielle Fox is trying to have a fresh start following becoming paralysed in an accident. She takes a job at a psychiatric institution for disturbed children and patient Bethany Krall becomes her client. Bethany is already notorious, a child who murdered her own mother and Bethany also has visions, visions which she claims are of the coming rapture. 

The Rapture packs A LOT of themes into a short book : disability issues, including the sexual politics of disability, the horrific state of psychiatric care, particularly of children (I compared Bethany Krall and Louis Drax throughout) the climate change crisis & how much of that is man made, the events of the book made me consider fracking for example, and finally the rise of the religious right, probably more prevalent now in the USA than here, but having found a voice in the UK as per the parameters of this story.

I came to the Rapture from an interesting angle I suppose given that I am a wheelchair user. Though I cannot deny that some of Gabrielle's insecurities regarding her sexuality were very well drawn, I found myself irritated that as the scientists around her debated the end of the world she dwelt morosely upon whether she was still sexy, and took that out on innocent people she suspected of screwing her boyfriend. I felt like shaking her and saying "SO WHAT IF HE SHAGGED HER?! YOU'RE ALL ABOUT TO DIE YOU SILLY COW"

I suppose for one thing it did show honestly that even in big moments in life people do still focus upon their personal issues.

There was good characterisation, and I found it really easy to get into and keep reading, but it's fairly lightweight and a little bit silly, to be honest. It's not as good as Louis Drax but I would still definitely buy & read another Liz Jensen as she really does take on big, interesting ideas.

Verdict : 7/10

Destination : Charity Shop      


Book #57 The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale

Length Of Time In Possession : 1 month

In The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield mousy bookshop assistant Margaret Lea works for her father and writes the occasional biography. She attracts the attention of renowned writer Vida Winter who summons her north to act as her biographer.

Vida Winter is a mysterious figure in the literary world, a writer of many massively popular novels she is also known for giving multiple fictional accounts of her own past in every interview she has ever given. Now dying, she has decided to tell the truth about her unusual past.

I really, really liked the Thirteenth Tale, the story of Vida's ancestry and childhood had enough intrigue and mystery to keep me engrossed throughout and I read it in two sittings.

I really loved its remarks about reading, readers, and the importance of books many of which I identified with.

Yet, I read this book for my book club, and it came in for heavy criticism from many of my fellow readers, and I had to concede that many of these criticisms were unfortunately legitimate.

The central conceit itself lacks much real world plausibility. It is unlikely that a life could be that concealed.

There is perhaps a too heavy push to draw comparison with and to emulate the classic novels, particularly Jane Eyre and on occasion this feels forced.  

The sub plot around the character Aurelius is quite stuff and nonsense really, particularly Margaret's apparent luck in happening to encounter him as well as his back story.

One of the men in book club called it 'a girls book' - and I think I have to ruefully accept there may be truth to that.

My personal feeling about the book however is that it is 'a ripping good yarn' and I've already recommended it to two people. If you like 19th Century novels, it is likely you'll enjoy the Thirteenth Tale, despite its flaws I definitely did and as a reading experience I would probably still give it top marks.

Verdict : 10/10

Destination : ebook storage