23 June, 2014

Taming of the Shrewd

Mad Marco
Annie L. Jones

     This is at least the fifth self-published first novel i have read in the past couple of years, all of them, funnily enough, in the genre i have been taught by my clever friend Stephanie to call SF ~ speculative fiction, though i used to use those initials for sci-fi alone.  One might almost thing that i could set up in some kind of pre-reading business (and, oh, how i would enjoy that!), if this trend continues.

     Two of these five were written by Stephanie and i have an emotional tie to them, not least because i beta-read them and have seen them grow and mature until publication, so i am not able to fairly judge or compare them; of the other three, however, this by Jones is in mine opinion clearly the best.  The other two, Miss Mabel's School and Joshua's Key (i have linked each title to my review of the novel), were by no means failures ~ i suspect that almost no one would throw away the time and, i imagine, money required for proper self-publication if the product were not at least reasonable ~ but each, including this one, had flaws.  The flaws here are, however, lesser than the strengths, which are what are worth exploring in this review.

     The plot is, at root, The Taming of the Shrew thrown into a fantasy setting, and given some elaboration with a bit of adventure thrown in.  I recognised the plot basis very early on, but that did not spoil mine enjoyment ~ indeed, perhaps it enhanced it as i was pleased with myself! ~ as the differences were sufficient that it is not simply a retelling of Shrew but a development.  The major difference is that after the Petruchio analogue, the Marco of the title, has won over his bride he is suddenly put in a position of peril and she, almost without understanding what is happening, is put in the position of rescuing him.

     Part of the plot is built around the setting, a valley or plain, a region almost, with in impassible mountains, with enemies of some form on the outside of the mountains, some form of magic or sorcery which has in some measure been used to set up the communities within the region and protect them from the outsiders.  Marco is the eldest son of the family whose task is the coordination of that protection, which is exceptionally physical at times.  I find that i want to know more, more than Jones has given us, about the land, the sorcery, the history, the reasons for the way things are.  I wonder, is this an initial introduction or is it all that Jones is planning on doing; i believe she has made herself a setting she could use in the future to tell further stories ~ if they were of the same quality i, for one, would read them.  And that statement alone, using my criterion, makes Mad Marco a success.

17 June, 2014

A Little Witchery

Miss Mabel's School for Girls

Katie Cross

     At the very top of the cover of this novel it says, “Book One in the Network Series”, so i have no excuse for being surprised; let me merely state, for the record then, that while i knew there would be sequels, i did not expect this book to almost require them ~ it is not, by any means, a standalone novel, the way The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (to name but two novels which are also the first books in series) are. I expected a certain amount of unfinished business, i suppose, but what we have here is a book which sets up a plot with a lot of tension and antagonism in it, but insufficient resolution; not satisfactory to me, i'm afraid.

     When i read something like this, which has what to me is a large drawback, i can only fall back on my single criterion to help me decide if it is a success: Would i read another book by Katie Cross, based solely on the fact that she is the author of this one? If yes, then Miss Mabel is a success; if no, then it's not. So, then, how do i feel? Funnily, i struggle to know exactly how to respond. Indeed, i find i need to lay out the positive and negative stimuli and reactions in order to find my response.

     On the upside, i enjoyed the thing almost all the way through; that should be enough for me, but clearly it wasn't. The characters are fairly well drawn ~ at least the major ones; the minor ones are not, to my mind, sufficiently in focus that they can be told apart. Character is essential to me to cause me to want to read on; if i don't care for a character and don't care what happens (for good or for ill) to him then i don't have a lot pulling me to finish or read another. Here i care about the two main characters, the protagonist/narrator Bianca and her antagonist Miss Mabel; that is good. Unfortunately, not only do i not really care about the others, i don't really know anything about them, there is not enough detail given ~ or i didn't pick up on enough ~ to know the difference between Bianca's classmates or the other teachers in the school.

     In general, the plot falls on the upside as well, in that it is deliberately structured to pull the reader in, the conflict is strong and requires resolution. It is by no means a unique plot, after all, how many are, but it is given enough that is new that it feels exciting and fresh. On the downside, the driving conflict, between Bianca and her teacher, Miss Mabel, is not resolved, indeed, shows signs of not being resolved until the end of the series, however many books that might turn out to be; this is not necessarily the death knell for a book (the conflict between Harry Potter and Voldemort isn't finally resolved until the end of the septology, for example), but it must be sufficiently resolved to bring some satisfaction to the reader and Cross doesn't give enough, in mine opinion. In addition, within that conflict and around it, there are a lot of questions raised which i am not confident are ever going to be answered; i have to assume that they will be, but that is my assumption about Cross's intentions as author rather than any deduction from the book itself. I want to know more, for example, about the curse laid on Bianca, and then about curses in general in this world.

     In fact, i am led to a certain amount of frustration by my lack of knowledge, as i want to know more about the setting ~ the Networks, their geography and history ~ and the characters ~ other students and teachers at the school ~ and the results of the plot against the leadership which lies in the fairly immediate past. This lack is for me definitely on the downside, quite strongly so. The result is that, torn as i am, i shall probably read another of the series, if i come across it when it is released, but not with the bated breath that i love pulling me towards a book i want to read. Still, in the end, if mild, yet a success.

09 November, 2013

Fast Pace

Simon Kernick

Like the others of Kernick's books i have read, this was zipped through in one or two sittings, the sole difference being the time of day when i pick it is and what commitments i have over the next four to six hours. The essential theme of the plot was taken from the events in Mumbai in the autumn of 2009 when terrorists attacked and took control of several buildings there; here, the action is transported to London, and the motivations of the criminals are not so transparent or unitary, as there are some who appear to be terrorists of a vaguely Middle-Eastern variety but others who are acting solely for financial gain.

Kernick has the knack of creating characters and giving us sufficient information about them and their situation that we become sympathetic to them, which obviously is and excellent ability for a writer of suspense novels as he can ratchet up the suspense by worrying us about the future of the characters we have been taught to like. I find that, although once started i have to read the book as fast as i can, once done i am satiated for the foreseeable future with the level of tension he creates. This is good, i suppose, as it means that i am in no hurry to rush and find another of Kernick's books but, in some months or more, if i come across one as they are rotated around the various branches of the Powys library system, i can be free to pick it up and have another race for the end.

Speaking of the Powys library, the most annoying thing about this book was a part of the the physical artefact itself: Whoever covered it for the library did a less than perfect job, so that the dust-cover and its plastic protection were not correctly folded around the front cover. I constantly found myself trying to adjust it, to make it fit properly, but it was not possible to do so. Mind you, i am aware that this may say more about me than the book!

06 November, 2013

J. Mead Falkner

There was no question of passing this book by when i saw it in the library: Falkner wrote Moonfleet, one of the best children's stories ever written, so clearly i was going to have to see if i enjoyed this as much as the other. It is different, quite different, that is important to say at the outset. Stradivarius is a lot shorter, possibly a novella or novelette, though i'm never sure of definitions with those words, and intended for adults not children (not to say that Moonfleet can't be enjoyed by adults). It is more of a ghost or Gothic tale rather than an adventure; indeed, very little adventurous happens at all: It is more what happens within the characters, most especially the protagonist, who is almost possessed by a ghost or a piece of music or a violin, or all three.

Falkner has purposely reached back into the past ~ his past, as well as ours ~ to create his story, telling it by means of a letter from an aunt to a nephew ~ the protagonist's sister and son ~ some number of years after the event, as an explanation of his family's past. I have to say that, were this the first of Falkner's books i had read, i would not now be considering it a success; my reception of it, however, is affected by my affection for the other. Gothic is not my favourite genre, though i don't hate it; nor am i overly enthusiastic about the narration technique ~ not just here, but in general the epistlatory style is not one i love. These are not enough to make me turn from it, though; i think that more of my response is due to the story itself, which is curiously plain, meaning that the events do not seem to flow properly from the character and actions given. It is more forced, in other words, than i am comfortable with.

31 October, 2013

A Brace of Robinsons

Marilynne Robinson

I read the first page or so of this, just for the flavour, several years ago, when Lynne gave it to me as a birthday gift; i wasn't impressed. Today i'm happy to report that i was incorrect in that very quick assessment, as i have greatly enjoyed reading this novel. It is very simple, in some ways, and yet lovely and complex in its entirety. The text is a letter written by the narrator, minister in a Congregational church in a small Iowa town, to his young son, explaining things he wants his son to know that he knows he will never have the chance to tell him, as he is a very old father, having been sixtyfive or so when his son was born. The letter is written in about 1957, and the story it tells ranges from roughly the American Civil War until its present; the key characters are the narrator, his father and grandfather, his lifelong friend, and that friend's son, named after the narrator himself. All woven together it is the story of families falling apart, struggling to survive the tensions within them, the sorrow that parents both give and are given, and, this being America, race relations.

Peter Robinson

The second Robinson i have read (and, funnily enough, the second finished in the same day by someone called Robinson; coincidence is bizarre stuff), and i enjoyed this one at least as much as the previous. Peter Robinson's books are very much a part of a series, and i was feeling, as i read, that i really needed to read others ~ perhaps all others ~ in the series to fully understand the characters, who is who, and the relationships between them. Of course, i do recognise that this is partially a function of or attributable to a certain amount of my necessity for order and understanding, and that in fact i am perfectly capable of enjoying any of the series (if they're well written) without having to relate them to any others ~ just as it is possible to read, say, Lieutenant Hornblower without having to follow all the rest of the novels. Because something is possible, though, does not necessarily make it desirable. So, all in all, despite this wandering review, i enjoyed this novel, which kept me reading later than intended, and hooked me into trying to solve and work it out.

24 October, 2013

Non-Holmes Doyle, hmmm

Arthur Conan Doyle

It is curious how completely Conan Doyle's reputation has been attached to his creation Sherlock Holmes; so strong is the tie between the two of them that one just about forgets that he did anything else, let alone wrote much else; often the only other thing he is remembered for is his interest in spiritualism and being taken in by photographs of fairies at the bottom of the garden. In fact, though, i know he wrote more; i read at least one of his Medieval adventures about ten or fifteen years ago, and i was aware, vaguely, of Professor Challenger through the influence on subsequent generations of science fiction authors. This was, though, the first of Doyle's SF that i have read.

Professor Challenger is almost a character out of a farce, he is so much the easily offended intellectual, sublimely confident in himself (with some justification, it must be said), always ready to resort to physical violence to back up his mental powers. Doyle has provided him with a challenge sufficient to his abilities in the lost world plateau in the middle of South America somewhere, where remnants from past aeons of Earth's history are living together in some imitation of harmony. This lost world is clearly the precursor to any number of other isolated environments where a series of characters can explore and interact with no reference to the outside world, from Burroughs' Barsoom (not to mention the jungles of his Tarzan) to Lewis's Malacandra and Niven's Ring.

I am glad that i bought this edition, which contains all three Professor Challenger novels, as well as the two short stories Conan Doyle wrote, as i shall return to it in the future and read the rest; The Lost World is obviously a success for me.

15 October, 2013

Another classic completed (again?)

It's a strange thing, but i have finished this without being reminded of the previous reading. I am certain i did read it, at Loretto, maybe for O Level, maybe not. But reading it i have not had the flash of recognition that i usually have at some point while rereading a book. Thus i have been forced to reconsider, have i read it? did i perhaps misremember, remember other pupils reading it? Who knows. Parts of it are familiar, but perhaps only in the sense that i am familiar with books which are a part of my cultural heritage, even if i haven't read them myself.

Without worrying further, i need to respond to the book itself, though, and decide how i felt about it and whether, which is more important that possible past events, i will read another Lawrence in the future. I have to own that, to my regret, i was not as impressed with the writing as i probably should have been. For one thing, Paul Morel, the Lawrence stand-in, is an unattractive character, tied to his mother’s apron-strings, either unable or not willing to make a decision for himself, and in the process he hurts at least two other people, the two women he is interested in but unwilling to make a commitment to.

Another point i found irritating (laughable, really, me, with no credit, being irritated by someone universally acknowledged to be one of the Giants of the Twentieth Century) is that for much of the plot, while not much is happening in the lives of the characters, Lawrence spends his time telling his readers what the interior life of the characters, Paul in particular, is; he does not show it, does not allow the readers to grow their own perceptions and understandings, but lays out in detail how Paul feels, why he reacts in a particular way. I cannot but help think that the better novel is one in which the character is revealed through action. I cannot say that i won't read Lawrence again; i have read some of his poetry before, and perhaps some of the travel writings also; but i can say that i am not inspired to rush out and find another to read immediately. Which reaction, given his stature, and the place of this novel in his canon, makes me question mine own critical ability.

26 September, 2013

Three from One

John Wyndham
I found a collection of six of Wyndham's novels a couple of weeks ago, at one of the charity shops in town, and snapped it up immediately; at one pound there was no question but that it would go with me. There is a bit of overlap with the three i already own, but it does mean that i'll be able to send one to Stephanie for her opinion of him. Mine own opinion, of course, is clear and without doubt: He was one of the best of the British writers of science fiction, whose control of plot may have been slightly less than perfect, but who forced the reader to think about consequences and ideas with every story he wrote. The Day of the Triffids, then: This is probably the most successful of his novels, from either writing period (before and after the War), both in terms of critical and cultural (and maybe financial, though i wouldn't know) success; certainly it is the one which has been the best known, having been made into a film (which i have never seen; one of those 'fifties sci-fi/horror genre, i suspect, it could have been appalling, but it was popular, i believe), and spawning at least one sequel which i read and reviewed about half a dozen years ago.

John Wyndham

A collection of short stories; i think this is the lesser of the (i think) two collections made in Wyndham's later period (not including The Outward Urge which could, arguably, be considered a novel), the other being Consider her Ways. I have read neither of them recently (well, not until i just reread this one, obviously), but it seems to me that Consider has the stronger stories in it. This is not to say, however, that those in this collection are weak; they are not, in the main. Wyndham clearly wrote attempting different styles and genres in these stories ~ he says as much in his introduction ~ with fair success. To my mind the better of the stories include the first (“Chronoclasm”), a romance between time-crossed lovers, “Survival”, a horrible development of the idea in Asimov's first published story, “Marooned off Vesta”, “Pillar to Post”, a very complicated story of time travel and body swapping which ends rather unsatisfactorily, and “Dumb Martian”, which shows almost more clearly than any fiction about actual racism the pointlessness and foolishness of prejudice.

John Wyndham

Though i can see flaws in it, this has always been my favourite Wyndham ever since i read it; i'm not altogether sure that i can pinpoint why, other than sheer pleasure in the clever simplicity of the plot and characters, along with, as always with Wyndham, a necessity for the reader to think about what would happen if.... It is hard to be critical in some reviews, and this is one, because i feel too invested in the book that i'm reviewing; i don't feel as though i can ever write less than effusively about Wyndham or, for a further example, Dick Francis, because i enjoy them too much, though, as i say, i can see imperfections in what they write those imperfections seem less important than the whole which surrounds them. So, clearly, i enjoyed reading this, and i'm glad i now own a copy, so i can reread it any time i choose.

20 September, 2013

Not Hornblower

C.S. Forester

I have, obviously, known C.S. Forester for many years as an excellent story-teller (the Hornblower books are old favourites). I had never come across him previously as a murder/suspense writer, unless i allow The Peacemaker (first read about forty years ago, before even Hornblower) to fall into that category; i clearly have to increase my understanding of his abilities.

This was a delightful, though horrible too, book, telling the story of a man who murders once to secure his future and comes to find that he is prepared to see it as a way of answering many more of his needs than he anticipated. Indeed, there are few characters in the book whom he would not be ready to murder should the need arise. Forester's skill is shown as he makes his protagonist, the murderer, while clearly an unattractive person, sympathetic to the reader, such that i was almost rooting for him to succeed, hoping that he'd have just one more successful killing. When i thought about it, of course, i was horrified; while immersed in the book, though, clearly Morris had my sympathy.

Undoubtedly a success by my criterion, i had not expected otherwise, knowing Forester's other work; i shall definitely look for his other works in the same genre.

07 September, 2013

"Lists" usually = "Goodness"

Matt Richardson

Just the sort of book i would write, and therefore find interesting ~ nay, fascinating ~ full of facts, trivial and otherwise, in this case about the British royal family, arranged in easy to consume lists. A couple of small annoyances to the thing: The adjective in the title is surely in the wrong place ~ they must have intended it to modify lists not book in order to make real sense ~ that i can put down to the publisher, though; the responsibility for error of fact, on the other hand, belongs squarely on the shoulders of the author, and leads me to question just how reliable he is in other facts, ones i didn't previously know, when he can give Richard II Edward II's dates. Such a simple error is really unforgivable, if for no other reason than that it is so basic, so easily verifiable. I have to admit, however, that this was the only real horror i found ~ though i wasn't looking for them ~ for which i was grateful. There is something about a list which is satisfying, to me at least, as it consists of almost nothing but information; the selection of that information does lend a certain amount of authorial interpretation to it, but a good list or series of lists is relatively complete, the selection is not biased, and the unmediated facts are pleasurable. This series meets these criteria.