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Alan McCluskey (Saint-Blaise, Switzerland)

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Luna
Luna
Price: £2.62

4.0 out of 5 stars Teetering on the brink of disaster, 23 May 2015
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This review is from: Luna (Kindle Edition)
Having read Julie Anne Peters’ book Keeping You a Secret, I was looking forward to reading Luna, especially as it treats a subject I too have written about (Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls), a boy wanting to be a girl, or rather, in this case, not ‘wanting’ but absolutely ‘needing’ to be.

Although the two books are from the same author and are only a year apart, they are quite different. Keeping You a Secret has moments of intense joy and the main character is eminently likeable (see my thoughts about the book). She is constantly learning and moving forward. The situation in Luna is much darker, more oppressive, if not desperate. Luna is torn between the suffering of having the wrong body and a dreamworld in which she has become the girl she knows she is. Her sister, Regan, is devoted to and absorbed by Luna, being her only confident and lifeline, to such an extent that it is destroying her. Hardly surprising then that Luna is less of an euphoric read.

Part of the challenge in Luna in terms of writing is the point of view. The book is written from one perspective, that of Regan, Luna’s younger sister, whereas a good deal of the story is about Luna and her thoughts and feelings. This complicates the storytelling, because ways and means have to be found to relate Luna’s thoughts and actions through Regan without it seeming to be narrated by an outside and less engaged voice. As the story moves forward this becomes less important, as it is more and more clear that the story is as much, if not more, about Regan’s difficulty with her self effacement and the resulting disempowerment that springs from being convinced she holds the delicate balance of her family in her hands and she can’t let go. The way Peters resolves this dilemma is both clever and insightful.

Another risk that Peters takes in Luna is the frequent use of flashback. Such returns to the past can slow the narrative and even loose the reader. This is not the case in Luna. Coming as prolongations of Regan’s thoughts, they are part of the current action. This anchoring is strengthened by a clever inversion in which the flashbacks are written in the present tense whereas the main narrative is told in the past.

The story teeters on the verge of disaster with Regan struggling to avoid her whole world plunging into the abyss. There seems little hope of resolution, especially as the main characters have great difficulty in learning from their mistakes. No wonder that the reader should get frustrated and urge the protagonists to move forward. To counteract the feeling of stasis, the author uses momentary accelerations that heighten the tension. In a story that might intrinsically be repelling, this variety of pace is refreshing and engaging.

Thoughts first published on Secret-Paths.


None of the Above
None of the Above
by I. W. Gregorio
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.07

3.0 out of 5 stars Going beyond an idea, 6 May 2015
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This review is from: None of the Above (Hardcover)
I.W. Gregorio’s idea in writing None of the Above is a potent one, that of discovering you are intersex in a world where being so is neither understood nor tolerated. I looked forward to being swept away by the story, but that wasn’t to be the case. A word of warning about my disappointment. I would not wish what follows to be seen as a condemnation of the book, but rather an attempt to understand my personal reactions to it as both a reader and a writer.

First of all I had to run the gauntlet of a bevy of American teen girl markers, each striving to grab the attention of potential girl readers. Ok. I’m neither a teen nor a girl nor am I American, but none of that would normally be a barrier, on the contrary. My guess is that these don’t work because the reader senses an intention to force identification and this repels rather than attracts.

The second problem I encountered was the unidimensional nature of the story. None of the Above centres around one story line. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, lest it be my personal taste for more complex stories that are closer to the complexity of real life. But when all the other characters come across like the backdrop to somebody else’s problem, the story lacks depth and is less engaging. As a result I had read the first two hundred pages (so something must have kept me reading) and yet I was still not engrossed in the book.

Then quite unexpectedly I found myself caught up in the story and was unable to put the book down. My guess was that the author eased up on trying to get across the trials and tribulations of an intersex girl and, in doing so, finally let the characters emerge. That and a hint of mutual understanding and potential love did the trick.

As if to confirm my hypothesis, my interest abruptly waned when the author set the two girls up with a chance to talk about their ‘condition’. And again when the author used a visit to the therapist to add further insight about intersex. My conclusion? An author pushing an idea, however poignant or touching it might be, is not good for the story. If an idea is your starting point, as a novel writer, you need to break free of that and let the characters live their lives.

Thoughts first published on Secret Paths.


The Remains of the Day
The Remains of the Day
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Full to overflowing, 27 April 2015
This review is from: The Remains of the Day (Paperback)
Ishiguro’s book, The Remains of the Day, is undisputedly rich and full. Maybe full is not the right word. Solid, perhaps, or dense might fit better. Whatever the word, my impression as a reader was one of physical repletion. So much so, I set out to understand why or rather how.

The author has adopted a language befitting the time of the action, most of which takes places between the two World Wars and shortly afterwards. But beyond the choice of language, it is the time and effort granted to description and even more so to the thoughts of Stevens, the butler, that contribute to the fullness of the narration. Nowadays, when time is taken to be at a premium and all expression is cut up into ever shrinking fragments each driving the story forward, with the narration full of gaping holes, Stevens’ pondering and the preciseness and correctness, without being pedantic, of his way of expressing himself, appears not only antiquated (which was no doubt the authors intent) but also unfamiliarly dense. This impression is so strong as I reflect on it now, that I wonder if our changing attitude to language and to the flow of time and its impact on our lives is not the major theme of Ishiguro’s book.

While that richness is seductive and works extremely well at drawing the reader into the spotlessly dust-free world of Darlington Hall, it also limits our room for manoeuvre as readers. In lieu of imagining worlds and expanding on character details as I might in a modern novel or rushing helter-skelter to the denouement, I found myself adopting Stevens’ wordy, albeit cautious, voice as I reflected on how much the characters were bound by a culture and a way of behaving that, without the self restraint imposed by the book, would have had me screaming but which, instead, I found charming.

It is those very words, used by the butler to reflect on his life and his work and to perform his duties to their utmost despite the extreme circumstances that assail him, that both convey the intimate fabric of the world at that time, and reveal by omission that which is steadfastly left unstated by Stevens, the underlying emotions that animate the staff and visitors in this stately hub of English society.

Without revealing too much of the plot, the whole book hinges on one sentence that takes a very long time in coming and when it comes you wonder if that was really what you had been waiting so long for or whether you might have misheard and need to go back and check. A moment’s distraction and you could well have missed it. How could such a life, given as being rich and fulfilled, be crowned by a single, but monumental missed opportunity, if ever there was such an opportunity at all?

Review first published on Secret Paths.


The Buried Giant
The Buried Giant
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.00

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Through the mists of forgetfulness, 28 Mar. 2015
This review is from: The Buried Giant (Hardcover)
The central theme of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant is forgetfulness. Not the forgetfulness that is the result of modern life which leaves the elderly untethered from the past and disconnected from society around them, but rather a magically induced loss committed then forgotten in the name of peace that preserved medieval society in a restless present. When fragments of the past surge from the mists, significant but as yet unconnected memories surrounded by doubt, the protagonists and reader alike are left to wonder if the return of memory might not be such a good idea. By a cunning use of repetition and returns to the past, Ishiguro, weaves a mist around the reader who, at the slightest moment of inattention, loses track of where she is and flounders in an undivided sea of impressions. It is in those moments, cut loose from time, that a panic seizes the reader leaving her grasping for familiar landmarks.

A secondary theme lurks beneath the surface of Ishiguro’s novel, that of thought. The author hints that thoughts were much fewer and far between than nowadays. It is difficult for us to imagine, cluttered as our modern minds are by a mass of unbidden thoughts. Back then, in the days following the fall of Arthur, when a thought came to someone it was an unusual and surprising event, surging from a sea of unnamed impressions and emotions. Mind was rather like the land at the time; largely untraced by lanes and hedgerows, it was covered with sprawling areas of what the author calls ‘desolate uncultivated land’ offering no reference points for the would-be traveller. No wonder then that the modern reader should feel alarmed by this undivided and indistinct world and be fascinated by the struggle of the heroic few to trace out paths back to the past and forward to the future.

Thoughts first published on Secret Paths.


Thief's Magic: Book 1 of Millennium's Rule
Thief's Magic: Book 1 of Millennium's Rule
by Trudi Canavan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.00

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Two intertwined stories of magic, 15 Aug. 2014
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As with many of Trudi Canavan’s earlier books like The Black Magician trilogy and The Age of the Five trilogy, I really enjoyed reading her new novel Thief’s Magic, book one of Millennium’s Rule.

The story, or rather stories, for there are two of them, were gripping. The interweaving of the two is cleverly done, with the author taking her time to establish the characters and the context in the beginning, only to leave the reader with a cliff-hanger when she shifts to the other story. As the stories progress, shifting from one to another becomes more frequent, but never too hastily that the reader doesn’t have the time to plunge into the action. The familiar wish to continue with one of the stories to the detriment of the other did not occur here as both stories, one with a female main character, Rielle, and the other with a male one, Tyen, are well balanced and of equal interest.

I did find myself continually wondering when and how the two main characters would meet, seeing as they lived in quite different worlds, and was surprised, but not upset, that their two paths had not crossed by the end of this first book of the series. There was no shortage of possible clues that a meeting would eventually take place, but that meeting will be quite a narrative challenge. How will the author manage the shift from two very strong but unrelated perspectives to a situation where both meet and interact?

Sustaining the reader’s interest while switching between stories when those stories are apparently unconnected is a real achievement. Unconnected? Well they do handle a similar theme: the nature of magic and its role in society, in particular with relationship to women. As with her earlier books, a great deal of thinking must have gone into the workings of the societies in which her story takes place that makes it all the more credible and engrossing.

As a writer, one of the interesting aspects of Trudi Canavan’s work in this novel is the way she provides insight into characters by subtly revealing the reactions of one to another, like Tyen noticing a twitching muscle in the professor’s face that he takes to be an indication of envy; a perception to be seen in terms of Tyen’s changing view of his professor. With only a few words, like a finger of light probing the page, a whole vista opens up to the reader as deeper layers of the characters are made apparent through their interactions with each other. That depth brings the characters alive and contributes to our delight as we read on.

Review first published on Secret Paths.


Harvest (Hyddenworld Quartet 3)
Harvest (Hyddenworld Quartet 3)
by William Horwood
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rich harvest, 21 Jan. 2014
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Harvest is the third book of William Horwood's Hyddenworld series, following on from Spring and Awakening. These three, along with the recently published Winter, mark the author's return to writing after a considerable pause. Those that have read and loved his tales of Duncton or the very moving Skallagrigg, amongst others, will be delighted to see him back in print, especially as many of the older books are no longer available.
The flow of time of the Hydden, the little people that live unseen at the edge of the human world in William Horwood's Hyddenworld series, might seem laborious to us, accustomed as we are to rushing from one event to another without taking the time to stop and look and listen. Maybe it is this failure to pause and savour life to the fullest that contributes most to our inability to see and appreciate the Hydden and their way of life. For the reader of Horwood's book the difficulty is similar. Weened as we are on the breakneck speed of modern films and TV series, as well as books such as The Hunger Games or Divergent, slowing to the pace of Horwood's narrative can be challenging. But slow you must if you want to enter this world full of unimaginable richness and delightful lightness, not to mention profound wisdom.
Or so I thought as I began Harvest! Then I was abruptly whisked off my feet and whirled away in eddies of action and a flood of emotions. All is not a whirlwind, though. The pace of Harvest varies often. The action reaches an apotheosis when the Earth heaves up wreaking vengeance on a town who citizens remain oblivious to the very last, while the main characters look on, deeply touched by the cataclysm but unable to move. Yet in those moments when the story picks up speed, and that was what intrigued me, it didn't skim precariously over emptiness as many fast-paced novel do. It had depth to its intensity.
As an author, I couldn't help searching from the roots of that intensity in the language. Several possibilities were apparent. The restrained use of dialogue and the brilliance of the descriptions of people and places often built around action and verbs. But above all, the power of Horwood's writing lies in his challenge of the self-evident, in the density and richness of his imaginings and finally, the depth and delightfulness of an astounding range of main characters.
When I reached the end of Harvest, it was not the hallmark emptiness left behind by those helter-skelter, breath-taking novels that awaited me, but rather a dense and satisfying plenitude. All was far from right, Winter was yet to come and losses had to be mourned, but William Horwood's book had nourished me in a way that left me feeling richer and more human.
Review first published on Secret Paths.


Seraphina
Seraphina
by Rachel Hartman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Carrying the reader away, 31 Dec. 2013
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This review is from: Seraphina (Paperback)
Reading Rachel Hartman's Seraphina had me thinking about those ingredients of a story that appeal to me most, probably because her book pleased me so much. I really enjoy stories where people discover they have hidden talents or are finally able to reveal gifts that have long been kept secret, just like Seraphina, Hartman's main character. And in so doing we share her joys and pleasures as well as her difficulties if not nightmares at having such gifts.

Another facet of Hartman's book that pleased me is her exploration of the strange and how she weaves it into the story. Not a contrived strangeness trumped up for effect, but rather an unexpected shift in perspective similar to that born of creativity or humour. Who would think of wondering how a dragon would feel if trapped in a human body and the impact that could have on the uneasy cohabitation between humans and dragons?

Like many stories that feed on suspense, Hartman's book is driven forward by the constant threats that hang over Seraphina, but not to the extent that she wallows in unending pain and misery dragging down the reader with her. The author avoids having the reader cringe about what horrible plight will befall Seraphina next. Yet at the same time, the story is far from tame, which is often the fate of those that spare their main character the pain and suffering.

Perhaps the ingredient that delights me most in such a story is being privy to the blossoming love between two powerful but apparently unreconcilable characters, long before they are aware of the forces at play and then the delight when that love is finally perceived and shared by the two concerned. Succeeding such a progressive flourishing of love requires deft craftsmanship.

All in all, I immensely enjoyed this book and, although there were a few moments when my attention flagged, generally when the author grappled with introducing complex story elements, I can warmly recommend it.

Review first published on Secret Paths.


Neverwhere [Adaptation]
Neverwhere [Adaptation]
Offered by Audible Ltd

5.0 out of 5 stars The sounds of Neverwhere, 20 Oct. 2013
The strange and haunting tale of Neverwhere, crafted initially by author Neil Gaiman with Lenny Harry, began its life as a television series in 1996. It was subsequently adapted into a book by Gaiman and finally became a six-episode radio series on the BBC in 2013. My comments here refer to the radio version, published recently in audiobook format, available from Audible.

Neverwhere is built around an imaginative and hilarious use of the names of the stops on the London Underground in the strange world of London below. A familiar, mundane reality becomes the stage of outlandish and gripping adventures witnessed by an "upworlder" who strayed through his goodness and generosity into the world below only to become the central protagonist in a deadly quest.

The radio series Neverwhere is largely made up of short scenes that move the story on at a rapid pace. Cutting backwards and forwards between worlds also gives the author an opportunity to weave them together by his choice of words. Like when a character from the Upperworld says: "You saved my life" about a non-life threatening situation and then the story cuts immediately to a chase to the death in the sewers below.

The sumptuous world of sound in which the radio series is set owes its existence to Dirk Maggs, the same person who directed the original radio versions of many of Douglas Adam's creations. Radio allows only a limited number of layers before sounds begin to merge and the result becomes garbled. Yet Neverwhere is rich in sounds, so much so that the story takes on added depth and breadth, literally oozing into your mind. Watery footsteps in underground wastes, the click of forks on plates in a posh social function, the gurgle of potent wine being poured into a glass, voices echoing off filthy cavernous walls, all anchor the story in a tangible, palpable world.

The radio series had me wanting to read the book, but it also raised questions about my own novel writing. I was intrigued to know if Gaiman's book also switched rapidly from scene to scene so as to employ dramatic irony born of clever juxtaposition. It had me wanting to experiment shorter scenes in my novels with all the challenge that would mean in terms of multiple points of view. And what about the intense world of sound? How, if at all, could a book echo more richly such a sensuousness and depth born of sounds, not to mention smells and touch?

Review first published on Secret-Paths: [...]


Uglies
Uglies
by Scott Westerfeld
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dystopia with rounded edges, 29 Sept. 2013
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This review is from: Uglies (Paperback)
When I read the words `cat vomit` in the first sentence of Westerfeld's book, as he described the colour of the sky, I remember thinking: I hope this is not a taste of what is to come. But nothing came to merit those words, lest it be the opposition of ugliness to a standardised notion of beauty that underlies the book. I wonder why the author used them, especially in his opening sentence.

Writing Uglies must have been a challenge for Scott Westerfeld. Challenge? The difficulty is inherent in the central theme of the book: the glorification of a standarised canon of beauty imposed by surgical intervention. All teenagers, who are universally called uglies, have come to despise their appearance and yearn for the beauty they will have once they are sixteen and are operated on to make them "pretty". It is not easy to write a story in which most of the population's appearance and behaviour have been normalised such that there are few distinguishing features. There's a sort of faceless grin or grimace to the world. Even the baddies, when they finally erupt on the stage, look alike. No wonder the main character, Tally, and her new-found ugly friend, swim in a sea of faceless people at the beginning of the book. This narrowness of perspective and the flippancy of the two girls makes holding the reader's attention more difficult.

The story did however hold my attention from the beginning, although I did wonder what it was that gave it more rounded edges than many a dystopian novel. I suspect this is partly because the threats and dangers are only hinted at but are not personified or made present in the first part of the story. It is as if the girls can get away with anything without being caught (despite narrow scrapes). Nothing matters. They'll all be pretty soon.

The situation changes radically when Tally is forced to leave her shallow world and has to deal with people who have depth to their personalities and meaning to their lives, despite their `ugly' faces. Even the baddies take on a tangible form and their threat becomes real. From that turning point onwards the story picks up speed and breadth and the reader is carried away by its intensity. The contrast between these two parts of the book is its key articulation and therein lies the difficulty: how do you portray shallowness and flippancy at the outset, without leaving the impression that the story itself is superficial and discouraging the reader from continuing. Westerfeld took the risk and it paid off. A story well worth reading.


Ballad
Ballad
by Maggie Stiefvater
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The magic of music, 29 Sept. 2013
This review is from: Ballad (Paperback)
I greatly enjoyed reading Maggie Stiefvater`s Ballad which in no way suffered from me not having previously read her earlier book, Lament. It was a pleasure to discover the unfolding relationship between a young, cocky musician and an all-powerful faerie bent on sucking the life out of him. The story literally overflows with desire and yearning and unrequited love and deep-felt hurt and cutting humour; a tale in which music is the prime mover.

I was wondering why Ballad reminded me of Julie Hearn's The Merrybegot. Rereading the beginning of Ballad I think I found the answer: both authors give more than ample room to a wider range of senses than other authors. As a result, both books are very sensuous. However, Ballad has one key facet that is not in The Merrybegot: that sensuousness overflows into sensuality and beyond to potent sexuality, albeit held at arms length, like in the scene in the practice room on the piano stool.

The intense passion that gripped me as I read Ballad dissipated somewhat towards the end. One possible reason could be the incursion of other characters in the dense relationship between the two main characters. But a more likely explanation was the acceleration of the story and the need to conclude and resolve the plot before the end of the story whereas I would have preferred to have lingered with that relationship and kept the tension unresolved.

Review first published on Secret Paths: http://about-books.secret-paths.com/?p=13


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