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Steve D (London, England)
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East of Eden (Penguin Modern Classics)
East of Eden (Penguin Modern Classics)
by John Steinbeck
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars East of Eden, 9 Oct 2013
I have to say, I never thought I'd type the words 'East of Eden by John Steinbeck' at the top of one of my posts, but there they are. I'm not entirely sure what made me want to read it. I've seen it on my mum's bookshelf over the years, and I know she's read it several times and loves it, but her tastes and mine have never been exactly similar. At the start of the year, I wanted to read a few books that are outside my usual fare, and I guess this qualifies. So I borrowed mum's copy.

Anyway, I'm not sure I can do the book justice, and I'm certain there are others here who will have a far better appreciation of its content than me. I found it was the sort of book where sometimes I could read it very quickly, and at others I had to slow down and try and absorb it, yet the strange thing is that it is very easy to read. The story itself could probably be described as straightforward, but it's in the characters - and their thoughts and their actions - where the depth shines through, and it's how they - for the most part - try to fight against the Cain and Abel template that I found fascinating.

The story is largely about two families: the Trasks and the Hamiltons. Their stories are used as a framework on which Steinbeck hangs a lot of philosophising on human nature, how we live our lives, what we hope to get from it etc. I found the truths in this could be evidenced by the number of times I had to stop reading and work through memories of things that have happened in my own life that it seemed to directly address. I should add that none of these memories had anything to do with Cathy . . .

He uses mainly two characters for these philosophies: Samuel and Lee. They were my two favourite characters in the book. What a brilliant character Lee is. I don't want to say too much about him, so as not to spoil it, but he (and Samuel) really came alive in my head. But, then, most of the characters did so. Cathy is a creation of such malevolence that I am actually quite surprised my mum likes the book so much The strange thing about her - Cathy, that is! - is that she was the character who really pulled me into the book, just because I couldn't really believe what I was reading, and I had to see what she did next. Her relationship with Adam Trask takes up most of the first half of the book. The second half is mostly about the next generation, Caleb and Aron, and I spent most of that second part hoping and praying that they would not just re-enact, on some level, what had happened to their parents.

There's a fine sense of history about the novel and a vibrant sense of time and place. Steinbeck obviously loved the setting for the book. At times it felt a little bit preachy to me and, at times, I wanted him to get on with it, but it's one of those novels that needs to meander and take its time about things.

Overall, it wasn't at all what I was expecting. I'm glad I read it.

HMS Surprise
HMS Surprise
by Patrick O'Brian
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars HMS Surprise, 9 Oct 2013
This review is from: HMS Surprise (Paperback)
This is the third book in O'Brian's 'Aubrey/Maturin' series. I think, for me, what sets this apart from a lot of the other historical novels I've read to date is how immersive it is. O'Brian's writing has started to draw me into another time so completely it's almost difficult to adjust once I surface at the other end. The urge to jump straight into the next book is hard to resist. The setting and characters and, particularly, the dialogue, seem to me to be so authentic and vivid it's almost impossible to find fault with them. The nautical terms still get a little confusing for me at times. Sometimes I'll think the ships are headed one way when they're headed another, sometimes I'll think the enemy is in one place when they're in completely the opposite, which is down to my lack of understanding of the terms used.

This particular story carries on soon after Post Captain, with Aubrey still in debt and his impending marriage to Sophie on hold as a result. Maturin, meanwhile, is still preoccupied with Diane Villiers, who is quite obviously no good for him. She has travelled to India with another man and, when the chance of a ship and a diplomatic journey to the East Indies is offered, Maturin grabs at it with both hands and gains Aubrey his own ship in the process. That ship is the HMS Surprise of the title, unsurprisingly.

What I found with this novel was that it delves into somewhat darker areas than the previous two, examining each character's obsessions and having them do so as well. The portion of the novel set in Bombay I found quite affecting, especially Maturin's friendship with Dil. Surrounding this is the journey, which is where Aubrey comes into his own - still a genius on the water but totally out of his depth on land. The action sequences are genuinely thrilling (despite my confusion in places!) and there's one part during a storm which is pretty scary. The central friendship between Aubrey and Maturin seems so natural it's a joy to read. The pacing of the novel is pretty much spot on. My favourite in the series so far, it's a cracking read.

by Iain Banks
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.36

3.0 out of 5 stars Stonemouth, 9 Oct 2013
This review is from: Stonemouth (Paperback)
This is the first of Iain's non-'M' novels that I've read, and I suspect that is why I had more time for it than many reviewers on Amazon seem to have had. A lot of them think he is just repeating himself here, and that the story is similar to previous works. I can't judge that, obviously, which is probably the reason why I quite liked it.

Only 'quite', though. It's a very simple, predictable story, populated by somewhat stereotypical characters. Five years ago, Stewart was set to marry Ellie, daughter of one of the two drug 'lords' who effectively run the town of Stonemouth. But something happened that made him an enemy of her family and sent him on the run to escape them. Since then he's lived and worked in London, but now, upon the death of Ellie's grandfather - with whom Stewart was great friends - he is returning to Stonemouth to attend the funeral, and the inevitable meeting with the family.

What exactly happened five years ago is gradually revealed over the course of the book (ultimately, it's not much of a surprise). It is narrated in the present tense and delves back into the murky past, telling of Stewart's childhood in Stonemouth, his first meeting with Ellie, etc etc. So it's nothing particularly spectacular, but it's decent, and Banks's writing skill is engaging and amusing, and occasionally builds up a bit of tension.

The swearing in the novel is off the scale. Be prepared for the 'f' and 'c' words to appear regularly. This didn't bother me but I can imagine it being a problem for some.

Terminal World
Terminal World
by Alastair Reynolds
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars Terminal World, 9 Oct 2013
This review is from: Terminal World (Paperback)
The story starts with a body being discovered on one of the shelves of Spearpoint, a huge spire which reaches up into the heavens, around which cluster the various zones of the last major human city. The zones dictate how advanced the technology used within can be (it seems to scale downwards from top to bottom). Passing between zones causes sickness in humans and also prevents more advanced technology from working in less advanced zones.

The body turns out to be that of an angel - a so-called posthuman with jetpack and wings - from the celestial zone high up on Spearpoint. The clean-up team sent to retrieve the body have an 'arrangement' and take the angel to Quillon, a doctor with an interest in such things. But the angel isn't quite dead, and delivers a chilling message to Quillon, forcing him to go on the run.

How refreshing to read a book that stands on its own, that isn't part of a trilogy or a multi-book series - at least, not yet. No prior knowledge is required to enter here, and you won't have to remember all the characters and events within for the next book - at least, not yet. Thing is, there are so many questions left unanswered at the end of the book that I can't help but wonder if Mr Reynolds has a sequel planned.

On the other hand, I very much liked the fact that some aspects were actually left to my imagination, that the book left me wanting to know more. It's - in my opinion - probably the least ambitious of his books that I've read so far, yet it's still bursting with ideas and imagination. Perhaps it doesn't quite scale the heights to which it aspires and it runs out of a little steam around halfway through. There is a dead patch in the middle where it seems to lose its way a bit, and throws ideas around with abandon never to revisit them (again, it screams 'sequel!'), but - for all that - it is a pretty entertaining read. There are some good characters, especially the foul-mouthed, gun-slinging Meroka - who has good reason to hate angels - and makes it her job to guide Quillon out of Spearpoint, and Curtana, the captain of one of the dirigibles that makes up Swarm (which I won't go into detail about).

Ignoring the dead spot in the middle, in the early stages it's one of those books that has something important happen in each chapter, and it's quite fast-moving as a result. We learn about the world through Quillon's eyes, and it's quite a scary place, with Skullboys and Vorgs hunting him, and the mystery of the Tectomancers looming over all, and I thought its refreshing blend of Western and steampunk was a great deal of fun. I think, though, that as Reynolds' stand-alone novels go, it's not as good as his Chasm City or House of Suns.

The Way of Kings Part Two: 1 (The Stormlight Archive Book One)
The Way of Kings Part Two: 1 (The Stormlight Archive Book One)
by Brandon Sanderson
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.00

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Way of Kings, 9 Oct 2013
It's very rare that a book actually annoys me, but this one did. The biggest problem with this book is the same accusation that could be levelled at practically every other multi-entry fantasy series out there, including my favourites: it's too long. With some good editing it could have told the same story, much better, in about 500 pages. Instead, what we have is a 1,100 pages during which almost nothing of any consequence happens, split into two volumes so you have to pay twice for one novel. You could skip chapter after chapter and dive back in and not have missed anything. Sanderson refuses to leave anything to the reader's imagination. He wastes words like nobody's business. He let's language that doesn't sit well with the rest of the book slip through the filter (words such as 'wow', 'scoot' and 'gotten' cropped up regularly here). The world building is decent if not particularly ground-breaking. The main three or four characters are cliched (conflicted warrior, wronged slave etc) but they are well developed and you do care for them. There's an intriguing magic system, but I think he's pre-occupied with these things anyway - it's magic, make it magical. There are some original creatures and races on show but, weirdly, his overly-descriptive style doesn't really seem up to the task of conveying what these things really look like (the excellent artwork frequently has to come to the rescue in these cases). Speaking of the artwork, it adds to the immersion and is beautifully done. But it's only the last 100 pages that really come alive, with some nice twists, some laughable conveniences, and some good character developments. Everything else in between is filler. You can guess exactly where the characters are going to end up. And, in making it so the female characters are only good for reading and writing, he's pretty much set equality back several decades. They don't tug their braids or smooth their skirts - they just sit around and don't do much at all. Meh.
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The Mozart Conspiracy
The Mozart Conspiracy
Price: 1.99

3.0 out of 5 stars The Mozart Conspiracy, 9 Oct 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is the second book in Mariani's 'Ben Hope' series. I read the first one a while back and found it reasonably entertaining, and this one's exactly the same. It's a bit bonkers, very daft, moves at a hundred miles an hour, and probably doesn't bear up to close inspection.

But it's fun. It's the sort of book that Lee Child used to write before Jack Reacher became omniscient and indestructible, more Bourne than Bond (although it's easy to imagine Daniel Craig in the lead role). Ben Hope has flaws. He rages, he wallows in self-pity, but - when it comes to getting the job done - he is remorseless, single-minded, and quite capable of making mistakes that put not only himself in danger, but those he cares about as well. It has a plot full of twists, explained well enough in the Amazon blurb, and you have no doubts as to who the good guys are, and who the bad (if they had moustaches to twirl it couldn't be more obvious). And it's one of those tales dragged kicking and screaming out of Hollywood, full of false endings followed by just one more twist. Predictable on many levels, but written with such pace that it manages to excite.

The writing's functional, nothing spectacular, with the occasional mistake in continuity that probably should have been picked up before it went to print. Nobody seems quite sure as to the illness from which Mozart died, and Mariani has his own theories, and has some fun with them here. It's a book, though, where you can probably put your thinkymeatz to one side to chew some gum. Fire and forget. Read and enjoy, and inevitably come back and read the next book in the series at a later date. Mission accomplished.

by S. J. Parris
Edition: Paperback
Price: 3.50

3.0 out of 5 stars Heresy, 9 Oct 2013
This review is from: Heresy (Paperback)
I like historical murder mysteries, particularly those set in the time of the Tudors, and they seem somewhat rife these days. I thought this book was . . . okay. I would describe it as C. J. Sansom-lite. Unlike Sansom's Matthew Shardlake, or Rory Clements's John Shakespeare, Parris's protagonist, Giordano Bruno, is not a fictional character. Much like Phil Rickman's books about Dr John Dee (who gets mentioned in this book), Parris has taken a real person and woven a story around events in his life. Starting with his escape from accusations of heresy in Naples in 1576 the story jumps forward seven years to find Bruno in London, having made his way across Europe (and gained favour in France), with the goal of locating a long lost book which he intends to use to prove his heretical theories on the nature of the universe.

Elizabeth's spy master, Sir Francis Walsingham, asks Bruno to travel to Oxford as part of a Royal party, ostensibly to take part in a disputation at the university, but really to seek out and report upon traitors within the fold, and he has barely been there a day when one of the Fellows of Lincoln College is killed by a half-starved hunting dog, in a walled grove, all the doors to which are locked. Could it - shock horror - have been murder?

Um, ya think??

Yep, it's all pretty much by-the-numbers, full of anachronisms, stereotypical characterisation, and cliche upon cliche, and it's far too long for the amount of plot it actually contains. But its not without its good points (thankfully, as I already have the next two books on the shelf!), particularly the character of Bruno himself, who is neither brave nor selfless but has that unerring inquisitiveness that makes for the best detectives and inevitably lands him in a lot of hot water. The writing is okay, but seems a little like it was written on autopilot, with enough period detail to make it feel authentic, but undermined by errors and a weird lack of atmosphere. Sansom, Clements, Rickman this is not, not yet anyway, but there is promise, so I'll read the next book at some point

Post Captain
Post Captain
by O Brian Patrick
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.53

4.0 out of 5 stars Post Captain, 9 Oct 2013
This review is from: Post Captain (Paperback)
When I read the first book in this series, Master & Commander, I had quite a tough time with parts of it, due to the nautical terms etc. But there was enough in that book to make me want to read the next one. The story begins a while later, as peace is declared, and Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin return to England. Setting themselves up as country gents they come under the attentions of an ambitious mother, Mrs Williams, who has her heart set on marrying her daughters well. These particular adventures form an ongoing strand throughout the novel, but are most prevalent in the opening hundred pages and, as such, it's quite a slow - if mildly amusing - beginning. But then various spoilery things happen and the story really gets going.

All of my problems with the first book seem to have been swept away here. Whether this is because the prior novel was a scene-setting exercise, or whether O'Brian had got all that out of his system, or - more likely, I suspect - his writing skills were growing immensely, I don't know. I found that there is a hypnotic rhythm to his writing in Post Captain and, once I realised that and settled into it, I was swept along by it. It's a novel that is bursting with character, action, adventure, and laugh-out-loud humour (I found an episode with bees particularly amusing). Aubrey and Maturin fall in love (not with each other), fall out spectacularly (with each other), and basically continue to develop the friendship begun in the first book, and what we soon find is that Aubrey is very much at home on the sea whilst being completely at sea when he's at home, which leads to much awkwardness, amusement, and danger.

There are a number of main plot threads woven amongst the thrilling naval battles, from the love interests to Aubrey's less than glowing finances to Maturin's other job as a spy. What almost passed me by as I was reading is the way O'Brian handled historical information: rather than info dumps, talking heads, or masses of exposition, he somehow sneaks it into the narrative in a way that you almost absorb it by osmosis. It's not apparent at all as you read, and yet it's there. The book is almost episodic in nature, moving from one tale to another before you can blink, and it is set as much on land as it is at sea. Once it hits its stride it is almost impossible to put down.

Hugely enjoyable and exciting, it's a cracking read.

The Kingdom of Bones
The Kingdom of Bones
by Stephen Gallagher
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

3.0 out of 5 stars The Kingdom of Bones, 9 Oct 2013
This review is from: The Kingdom of Bones (Paperback)
I first 'discovered' Stephen Gallagher back in the late 80s, when his horror novel Valley of Lights was well reviewed in, iirc, Starburst magazine. I bought it and read it, and went on to read a couple of his other novels; Oktober and Chimera (which was adapted for a tv mini-series in the early 90s). And since then I'd pretty much forgotten about him.

Starting in 1903 in Philadelphia, detective Sebastian Becker is drawn back into an unsolved mystery when he recognises a face linked to traumatic events in his past. The story then moves between 1903 and 1888 in Victorian England, as the rest of the story is gradually revealed, intertwining with Becker's personal life, his wife and autistic child, and a touring stage production that may be the cover for a serial killer.

Gallagher has an economic style that flows very well, and the pages flew past. On the face of it, the story is very similar to that of Valley of Lights, just set in the past. And, again like Valley of Lights, it comes close to being great. There's just something missing that holds it back slightly, and I can't quite put my finger on what it is. I think, perhaps, he missed an opportunity to take his idea of the Wanderer that step further and make this a truly chilling and atmospheric novel. As it is, the chills aren't scary enough and, despite all the period detail, the atmosphere is strangely low key.

That said, I found it a very enjoyable read. It's an intelligently written tale with decent characters and a good sense of time and place. Notably, Bram Stoker is a major character in the story, and it is evident from the notes at the back of the book that Gallagher did a huge amount of research into his life. Also, Sebastian Becker is already the subject of a sequel, The Bedlam Detective.

The Heresy of Dr Dee (THE JOHN DEE PAPERS)
The Heresy of Dr Dee (THE JOHN DEE PAPERS)
Price: 3.59

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Heresy of Dr Dee, 9 Oct 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The Bones of Avalon, the first book in this series and the first of any by Phil Rickman that I had read, was a cracking historical mystery with more than a hint of the supernatural about it, as Queen Elizabeth's astrologer and adviser on the occult, Dr John Dee, travelled to Glastonbury to try and locate the bones of King Arthur. That book, in turn, led me to Rickman's 'Merrily Watkins' series, similarly creepy mysteries only set in the present day.

I think the Amazon blurb says more than enough about the plot of this book without me going into any further detail. It seemed, to me, to be an appropriate time to read it, having just read another book (Traitor by Rory Clements) in which Dee featured heavily. What I have really enjoyed about Rickman's two Dee books is the way in which true events are woven so seamlessly into his stories. Just take Robert Dudley, in this case. Queen Elizabeth's supposed one true love but married to Amy Robsart, who had to remain away from court because of the Queen's dislike for her, and went a year without seeing her husband, she died from a fall down a short flight of stairs, leaving her husband free to marry Elizabeth. But was it an accident, or did he arrange her murder? The subsequent scandal is entwined brilliantly with this story, as is the history of the Battle of Brynglas, and the alleged rising of the dead from grounds around that hill, a mystery brought about by the presence of a young woman and her handicapped brother who can divine where the bones are buried.

As with all of his books that I've read so far, Rickman seems to have an innate ability to create an atmosphere of forboding in his tales. Whilst they are rarely scary, they never fail to be creepy, and he ties together very well all the various plot threads as the story reaches its climax. Rickman's style is sometimes deliberately obtuse, meaning that you have to read carefully at times to pick up on everything he is trying to convey. I don't think this is bad writing, it's a stylistic choice, and his language is chosen carefully to pass on a sense of the period and the way people may have spoken then. Many of his stories focus on ignorance and intolerance towards others' beliefs, and this is no different. It's a cracking read.

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