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FictionFan (Kirkintilloch, Scotland)

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Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth
Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth
Price: £12.34

4.0 out of 5 stars Playing the villain..., 14 April 2015
As a Brit, the total extent of my knowledge of the Lincoln assassination was that some guy called John Wilkes Booth shot him in a theatre. This biography sets out to examine the whole life of Booth with a view to seeing what brought him to that point.

Booth was one of a family of ten, son of the famous actor Junius Booth, and destined for the stage from an early age. His father was a drunk who had spells of drink-related violence. Often away from home because of his career, much of the children's upbringing fell to their mother, who seems to have been a loving but rather ineffectual soul. When John was thirteen, it came to light that his parents' marriage was bigamous, his father having been married before to a wife still living. The book tells us about young John's education and early attempt at running the family farm after his father's death, before finally accepting that he couldn't make a financial go of it and going into the family tradition of acting. While it's interesting to speculate how much these early experiences may have affected John, speculation it must remain. The accounts of his character at this time, and later, come mainly from people speaking or writing after Lincoln's assassination, so it's hard to know how much their views are coloured by hindsight. While some people seem to have seen him as a nice, polite young boy and a good friend, there are conflicting stories of him being a bully and torturing cats. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

The section on his early acting career is better documented as far as the facts go - where he performed, what roles he played, etc - but the confusion surrounding his character remains. Being handsome and athletic, he became a heartthrob, with legions of admiring female fans, but he clearly felt overshadowed by his father's reputation, and perhaps his elder brothers', choosing at first to drop Booth from his name and to be billed as John Wilkes. Alford looks at contemporaneous reviews and later reports to try to determine how good he was as an actor, concluding that though he showed a great deal of promise, his career wasn't long enough for this to fully develop. At this young age, his general fitness enabled him to be a very physical performer, specialising in realistic swordfights, in which he sometimes took it so far that he injured his opponents. His signature role was Shakespeare's Richard III, and his opponents in the fight scene would sometimes have to remind him to 'die' before he wore them down completely.

The real interest, of course, is in trying to get at the roots of why Booth developed such a hatred of Lincoln. Although not really a Southerner, Booth came to love the South, especially Virginia, and was violently anti-abolitionist. He was present at the execution of John Brown, having begged to be allowed to join the Virginia militia who were sent to Charlestown to ensure peace during Brown's incarceration. But when war broke out, his mother made him promise not to join the Confederate army, and Alford suggests that this may have been part of the reason for his later actions - guilt at having played no active part in the fighting. His family lived in the North, and his brother Edwin was pro-Union and a Lincoln supporter. At first, John also was pro-Union, but held Lincoln and the abolitionists guilty for causing the secession of the Southern states. As the war dragged on, reports suggest that Booth became more extreme in the expression of his views, putting himself at risk of unpopularity, if not worse, in the Northern states where during this period he was spending most of his time. At this stage, some people were beginning to describe him as 'crazy' (though again, how much of that is hindsight isn't totally clear).

Alford goes into great detail over the plot, which was originally to kidnap Lincoln and ransom him for the freedom of Confederate soldiers held prisoner in the North. Delay after delay, however, meant that the war ended before the plan was carried out. While it's clear from the plotting that Booth wasn't quite the 'lone gunman' I'd wrongly supposed, he certainly seems to have been the main mover and in the end it appears he alone decided to change the plan to assassination. The description of the assassination and Booth's flight and eventual capture is detailed and well-told and, whatever people felt about his actions, it appears that in the end Booth died bravely, winning the admiration, sometimes grudging, of those who witnessed his death. Alford interestingly looks at the heroic roles Booth had been steeped in from an early age and speculates on the influence they had on Booth's actions - in particular the role of Brutus and his assassination of Julius Caesar. It seems clear that Booth expected to be the darling of the South for his actions, and he died disappointed that the general feeling in the South was that he had made the post-war situation even tougher for them.

Alford concludes by debunking some of the mythology that grew up of Booth having escaped and made a new life for himself elsewhere. He follows the body, so to speak, from the barn to its final resting place, showing how Booth's corpse was identified by family members and people who knew him well.

There are two fundamental things that are required to make a great biography - a well-researched, well-written narrative and an interesting subject. This one certainly meets the first criterion; Alford has researched his subject thoroughly and has a flowing, accessible writing style. Unfortunately though, apart from shooting Lincoln, Booth's story is only moderately interesting and, despite Alford's best endeavours, many things about his character and actions remain clouded, relying on hindsight rather than contemporaneous reports. For what it's worth (not much), my own conclusion is that Booth was an attention-seeking nutcase, determined to go down in history at whatever cost to himself or those around him. And since we're still interested in him 150 years on, perhaps he achieved part of his aim - though in the end playing the villain rather than the hero.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

The Stranger
The Stranger
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The corrosive power of secrets..., 10 April 2015
This review is from: The Stranger (Kindle Edition)
Adam and Corinne are living the middle-class American Dream - nice house in suburbia, he a lawyer, she a teacher, two lovely, sporty, intelligent, well-behaved teenage sons. (Be honest, you really hope their life is about to be messed up, don't you? Don't worry...) One evening, a stranger approaches Adam in a bar and reveals to him a secret about Corinne that will rock their marriage to its foundations. At first, Adam is unwilling to believe it but a little online investigation convinces him of the truth of it. Now he must confront Corinne, not knowing that this will be the thing that causes their lives to spiral out of control...

When Harlan Coben is on top form, he's my favourite thriller writer. He specialises in the ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and his books are always full of twists, making them compulsive reading. Though they always contain violence, it's never graphic and he steers well away from sleaze. He's also mastered the lost art of using adjectives that start with letters other than 'f', and his heroes don't lose control of their bladders every time they get in danger. It could be argued that the books are a little old-fashioned in tone, but that works for me and, since they're consistently best-sellers, it seems it works for a lot of other people too.

In this one, he's not quite on his best form but it's still very good. It gets off to a slow start, and it took me a while to warm up to Adam's character. He seems too ready to believe the secret about his wife, and the secret didn't seem to me to warrant quite the melodramatic reaction he has to it. However, he improves on acquaintance, becoming in the end possibly one of the most fully realised of Coben's heroes. Once he recovers from his rather selfish response to the first shock, he begins to be more concerned about the effect on Corinne and the boys, gradually becoming more likeable so that it's easy to be rooting for him by the time the danger reaches its peak.

The plot requires a hefty suspension of disbelief, as is par for the course for thrillers. It's based on the use of technology and the security, or otherwise, of personal data. In the last few books, I've felt Coben's main character has felt like a man of Coben's age - mid-fifties - rather than the fictional age - usually around late thirties/early forties, and that's the case in this book too. Adam's ignorance of all things techie doesn't ring true for a relatively young man in a professional career. However his naivety allows Coben to pace the various revelations as Adam finds out more about how to track people and information online, usually from his much more savvy teenage sons. As the book progresses, the plot gets more complex and more fun to read, though at points it gets perilously close to leaving the reader on the wrong side of the credulity line.

Well written and flowing, as his books always are, this one has a more thoughtful edge, looking at the dynamics of family life and the corrosive power of secrets. The depiction of Adam's relationship with his sons feels realistic and, when danger strikes, Adam's realisation that his love for his wife is stronger than he knew is done very convincingly. These aspects slow down the action, meaning this isn't quite the thrill ride we've come to anticipate from Coben. And the ending is not at all what I expect in a Coben book, which I found disappointing even while recognising that it must be deeply annoying for authors when their fans expect them to churn out the same old, same old every time, while keeping it fresh! Fans can be so pesky!

Even when he's not at his absolute best, Coben is still head and shoulders above most of the thriller writers out there, and this book is still far and away better than the average thriller, and something a little bit different from his usual style. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion Publishing Group.

Oral-B Pro CrossAction 600 Power Rechargeable Electric Toothbrush - Pink, 6 Units Per Case
Oral-B Pro CrossAction 600 Power Rechargeable Electric Toothbrush - Pink, 6 Units Per Case
Price: £28.28

4.0 out of 5 stars Very good for the price range..., 8 April 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Bearing in mind that this is a fairly low price toothbrush, it's good value for money. I've been using a Colgate C600 ProClinical Rechargeable Electric Toothbrush for the last few months, which costs about £44, and there's not much to choose between them in terms of results.

However, the Oral-B lasts longer between charges (about 7 days as opposed to the Colgate's 4 or 5) and crucially has a recharge warning light - the Colgate doesn't remind you so that you suddenly find performance has dropped off or it has run out completely.

On the other hand the Colgate has different levels - normal, sensitive, etc., and overall feels like a lighter brush, relying, I assume, on its sonic qualities to get the teeth clean. But the Oral-B is fine for normal brushing - I don't find it harsh on my sensitive gums although it does feel as if it's going to be on first use. I don't notice a difference in plaque build-up between the two, and both leave my teeth feeling perfectly clean.

The Colgate has the on/off switch placed exactly where my thumb rests when brushing so that I'm constantly accidentally switching it off mid-brush. The Oral-B doesn't have this problem. The Oral-B is considerably heavier and thicker, but this means that it's more stable when standing upright - the Colgate falls over at the slightest touch. The Oral-B has a round head - the Colgate has a traditional toothbrush head. That's just a matter of preference, and I don't much mind either way.

The one real downside of the Oral-B is the ridiculously short power cord on the recharger - I don't have a two-point socket in the bathroom so charge via an adaptor plugged into a normal floor-level wall socket in the bedroom. The cord is so short I can't put the toothbrush on the dressing table, so it has to sit on the floor to recharge. The Colgate (and every other piece of equipment I have ever had) has a much longer cord. It's for this that I've deducted a star.

At time of writing, the cost of replacement heads for each brush are pretty much identical. All-in-all, each has advantages and disadvantages but, considering the price difference, the Oral-B gets my vote.

Spontex Microfibre Cleaning Cloths (Pack of 8, Total 32 Cloths)
Spontex Microfibre Cleaning Cloths (Pack of 8, Total 32 Cloths)
Price: £17.23

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent cloths at a good price..., 7 April 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I've been using microfibre cloths around the house for years, so these multipacks are excellent. There are eight in each pack and you get four packs. The four different colours mean that you can use different cloths for different jobs - an essential if you share your home as I do with messy pets.

Spontex are always good quality and these are no exception. They're at the fluffy end of microfibre, so good for getting dried food splashes off cookers and counter tops. But they're also soft enough to use to clean the screens of TVs, computers etc. They're always advertised as not needing cleaning products, but I use them with all the usual products, and find this works better.

They are washable up to 60 degrees, but colourfast to 40. The bright colours make me feel that I wouldn't want to put them in a wash with light coloured towels, but so far I haven't encountered any problems in the wash so I might be being too careful there.

Overall, a handy pack to ensure a cloth is always available when needed, and at the current price of £18.59, they're well enough priced to use the occasional one as disposable should you have to clean up anything particularly gross (looks at the cat's litter tray and shudders...)

The Defence
The Defence
Price: £6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Tick, tick, tick..., 3 April 2015
This review is from: The Defence (Kindle Edition)
It's been a year since lawyer Eddie Flynn last stepped into a courtroom, but he has no choice when the head of the Russian mafia makes him an offer he can't refuse. With a bomb strapped to his back and his young daughter being held hostage, Eddie has to make sure Olek Volchek beats the murder rap he's facing, or else. And he only has 48 hours to do it in.

Eddie used to be a conman before he became a lawyer, and found that the skills of his earlier profession translated well to his new career. But a year before the book begins, a case went badly wrong, and Eddie was plunged into a downward spiral of drunkenness that led to him losing his family. After undergoing rehab, he's now dry(ish) and getting back on track, but the events of the past still haunt him. The sub-plot of the case that drove him away from the law runs in parallel with the main story and provides a bit of background to Eddie's character.

The baddies are the stuff of caricature, evil monsters who will go to any lengths to protect themselves. Fortunately they're also pretty thick, giving Eddie the chance to try to con his way out of the situation. An added bonus is that the judge, prosecutor and state witnesses are frankly rather sub-standard, allowing Eddie to manipulate them to help damage their own case. And it's good that Eddie also happens to have the physical powers of a low-grade superhero, a common feature of the 'ordinary' guys who find themselves in the plots of thrillers. But Eddie is a likeable character, and the first-person past tense narrative allows us to follow his thought processes (though he occasionally keeps stuff back to help build the tension). Underneath his problems, he's a good guy who loves his family and would do anything to save his daughter, and his chequered past has given him the kind of friends that come in useful when tackling the mafia. (I'd love to have a friend called Jimmy the Hat, wouldn't you? Apparently he's called that because he wears a hat! Who'd have thought it?)

This is described as a legal thriller and the publisher compares it to John Grisham, but I feel it would be more accurate to describe it simply as a thriller, since the legal side of it takes a back seat to the action-man stuff in the end, and I'd be more inclined to compare it to Harlan Coben in style. It's marginally less believable than Santa Claus (sorry, kids!) but good fun - well-written, fast-paced and with plenty of twists to keep those pages turning, all leading up to an explosive climax. There's a lot of violence, but it's not graphically described, and thrillingly there's pretty much zero foul language and no sex scenes! Who knew you could write a good book without those ingredients, eh? Overall it's a very good debut that augurs well for the future, and I'll certainly be looking out for Steve Cavanagh's next book. Highly enjoyable!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion Publishing Group.

The Maltese Falcon (Read a Great Movie)
The Maltese Falcon (Read a Great Movie)
Price: £3.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Lights, camera, action..., 1 April 2015
When luscious Miss Wonderly hires the detective firm of Spade and Archer to find her sister, who has run off with a man named Floyd Thursby, Sam Spade might not believe her story but he's happy to accept the $200 dollars she pays them upfront. So is Miles Archer, though his interest is more in the lady's lovely legs. The job turns out to be more than either partner bargains for though, when both Miles and then Floyd are shot dead. With Miss Wonderly begging for his help to protect her and find the Maltese Falcon of the title, Miles' wife hoping his death means she and Sam can finally be together, and the police accusing him of murdering Floyd in revenge for Miles' death, Spade is in trouble up to his neck. But nothing he can't handle...

Did Dashiell Hammett invent noir? I don't know, but Sam Spade is the earliest iconic noir detective, and the one that has spawned a zillion clones down the years. The book reads like a film, making it understandable why the film of the book works so well. Heavy on dialogue, the camera stays focused on Sam Spade at all times and yet we are never allowed inside his head. As he twists and lies and manoeuvres his way through the plot, the reader has no more idea than anyone else what his true intentions might be. Has he fallen for Miss Wonderly, aka Brigid O'Shaughnessy, or is he using her? Will he double-cross her and take the money offered by the mismatched baddies Casper Gutman and Joel Cairo? Or will he trick them all, and take the fabled golden bird for himself? It's only as the end plays out that we discover whether Spade does have some kind of moral code hidden beneath his smooth chain-smoking exterior.

It's a while since I watched the film, but it seems to me that the script stuck very closely to the book, and the casting was pretty much perfect. As a result, I could see the movie characters in my head while reading. It's not just the dialogue that makes the book feel so filmic. Hammett describes every movement that Spade makes in minute detail, from the fight scenes to the rolling of his endless cigarettes, and it gave me the impression of an obsessive director's notes on how he wanted his actors to play each scene. It also feels like a studio film - there's very little description of the world outside and the San Francisco setting could really have been any city in America. It's rare to have quite so little sense of place in a novel, and yet it works. Like a classy film-star, Spade is so compelling that the reader doesn't need to have the background filled out, and the great supporting cast of eccentric characters provides all the necessary contrast to highlight Spade's starring role.

I've seen lots of reviews comparing this book adversely to Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. My preference is for this one. I found The Big Sleep messy plotwise, and the atmospheric writing didn't fully compensate for that. The plot of this one is tight and controlled, with each twist revealed at the perfect moment, and while the language may not be poetic, it sets a distinctive tone. The device of keeping the reader outside the thoughts of the characters works very effectively - ultimately the real mystery is nothing to do with the falcon, or even who killed Miles. It's about what will Spade do - who is he? He's neither likeable nor particularly admirable, but the enigma that surrounds his moral code makes him intriguing and fascinating. The book is, of course, horribly misogynistic and homophobic, but it was written nearly a century ago (1929) so I graciously forgive it, especially since Hammett manages to tell his gritty, twisted, violent tale without the need for any offensive language.

Orion have reissued this as part of a series they call 'Read a Great Movie' and I have to say that this, for me, was a perfect example of doing just that. I'll be checking to see what else is in the series...

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion Publishing Group.

Gods of the Morning: A Bird's Eye View of a Highland Year
Gods of the Morning: A Bird's Eye View of a Highland Year
Price: £8.54

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Highland year..., 30 Mar. 2015
In 1976, John Lister-Kaye bought an estate in the northern central Highlands of Scotland, and set up what is now Scotland's premier field study centre, Aigas. Although a wide range of wildlife lives and is studied there, Lister-Kaye's own main fascination is with the many varieties of birds that make their home there - his gods of the morning. In this book, he takes the reader through a year, showing the changes that come with each season, as different birds arrive, nest, breed and leave again. In the introduction, he talks about how he has noticed changes to nesting and breeding patterns over the years. He declares his reluctance to put the blame for these changes wholly at the door of climate change, but points to the growing unpredictability of weather patterns in recent years. His stated intention in this book is not to provide answers but rather, based on his personal observations, to pose some questions of his own.

Lister-Kaye is an established and respected nature writer and on the basis of this book it's easy to see why. His knowledge of the natural world that surrounds him is matched by his passion for it, and his easy style and fine writing allow both to come through clearly to the reader. In truth, there isn't much in here that adds to the debate on climate change and I wondered if perhaps nature writers currently feel they have to be seen to be talking about that, or be accused of burying their heads in the sand. In fact, the book is a fairly simple nature diary in structure, allowing Lister-Kaye to select topics that represent for him the progress of a natural year. For me, the suggestion of the climate change angle was something of a minor annoyance, since I kept waiting for it to be raised and, except for occasional references to changing migratory and breeding patterns, it really isn't much. He makes much of the adverse impact of an early false spring followed by a big freeze in his chosen year, 2012/3, but points out himself that such anomalies have always happened.

However, read purely for its description of the natural world of this fairly rugged part of the British Isles, the book is both informative and hugely enjoyable. The prose often heads towards lyrical without ever getting too overblown and, though he tells us a lot about the 'science' of nature, it's done very lightly in passing, making it easy to absorb. The tone is personal, based on his own observations rather than textbook stuff, and is often interspersed with anecdotes about life in the field study centre or his own childhood. Like most naturalists, he combines a real passion for the creatures he observes with a hard-headed, non-sentimental approach, recognising that nature is indeed 'red in tooth and claw'. But occasionally we see a bit of anger seep through at man's behaviour towards nature, when for instance he describes the on-going poisoning of protected birds of prey, or the battery farming of thousands upon thousands of game birds, destined for slaughter by rich men (I considered saying 'people' but I think I'll stick with 'men' in this case) who prefer to have the game fixed to ensure them a good 'bag'.

Most of the book, though, is filled with delightfully told observations of the minutiae of life around the estate. His year runs from autumn 2012, and really gets underway in the second chapter as he shows the birds and animals preparing for winter - the red squirrels hiding their nuts, the woodmice moving indoors and making nests, the arrival of the geese, moving south from their Arctic summer. (I particularly enjoyed the bit about the geese, since my house happens to be beneath one of their migratory routes and twice a year for one or two days, the sky is dark with them passing and the noise could drown out a passing jumbo jet, except that happily no jumbo jets pass by here - it's always one of the highlights of my own year, when I can be found standing in the garden gazing upwards in fascination at their squadron-like manoeuvres.) Also at this time of year, many birds are migrating away, and Lister-Kaye combines lovely descriptive writing with information on what triggers migrations, how they have been scientifically observed and some of the myths that have surrounded them in the past.

And this pattern of information and description continues as the long, harsh Highland winter rolls in with its short days, and we see the struggle for survival of those birds and animals that stay; then the welcome shortening of the nights bringing in the late spring, and moving on to the long days of summer when, this far north, darkness falls only briefly before the sun rises again.

There's almost nothing I enjoy more than reading or listening to a knowledgeable enthusiast telling of their passion, whatever it might be, and that's what this book is. Whether telling us of the swan that couldn't manage to take-off, or tales of his own beloved pet dogs, or of the nesting rooks he can see through the window while lying in his bath, this is a man talking about the things that bring him joy, and allowing the reader to share that joy with him. He doesn't prettify nature but, even when its at its cruellest, he sees the glory in it. A most enjoyable trip to the Highlands with an expert guide. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate Books.

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales
Stone Mattress: Nine Tales
Price: £10.70

4.0 out of 5 stars Telling tales..., 27 Mar. 2015
In her afterword, Margaret Atwood describes this book as a collection of nine 'tales', evoking "the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales". She suggests that while the word 'story' can cover true life or realism, 'tales' can only be seen as fiction. Hmm...this seems like a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card to allow the author to make her characters dance to the puppeteer's strings rather than attempting to invest them with a feeling of emotional truth, but then I'm not a huge fan of the trend towards mimicry of folk tales in general. Certainly the tales that worked best for me in this book were the ones where, regardless of the fantastical elements of the plots, the characters' thoughts and reactions came over as 'real'.

There's a general theme through most of the tales, not so much of ageing itself, but of elderly people reviewing episodes in their youth and of the reader seeing how their lives were affected by them. Most of the time those episodes involve failed romantic or sexual relationships and, while as individual stories they are for the most part interesting, I found, as I often do with collections with such a strong theme running through, that it became a little repetitive and tedious after a while.

The quality of the prose, however, is excellent and, taken alone, some of the stories are highly entertaining. Perhaps in line with Atwood's desire for these to read like folk tales, there's something of a detached feeling about the narrative voice in many of them - a glibness that takes on an almost sneering tone at times, leading, I found, to a distance between reader and character which effectively prevented me from feeling much emotional investment in their fates. To compensate, many of them are clever and imaginative, and some of the characterisation is excellent even when the emotional response to them is absent.

The collection kicks off with three linked tales, telling of a long-ago broken love affair from the perspective of the woman, the man and the 'other woman' respectively. The first of these, Alphinland, is one of the most successful in the book, with a beautifully-drawn picture of an elderly woman struggling to recover from the grief of losing her husband by a kind of active retreat into the world she creates in her own fantasy novels. Despite the fantastical elements to this tale, there is genuine warmth here as the central character faces up to the necessity of taking on tasks that had always been seen as the responsibility of her husband. Although there's a lot of humour in them, the other two tales in the trio don't work quite so well, as the fantastical elements that were done with a lot of subtlety in the first are handled more crudely, and what was left ambiguous is made a little too clear.

Other stories include a kind of mini-Frankenstein story told from the perspective of the youthful monster; a tale of a horror writer who resents sharing the royalties of his most successful story with friends from his youth, who have held him to a contract he signed long before he had ever published anything; a crooked furniture dealer who finds more than he bargained for when he buys a job-lot of storage units; and a black widow out for revenge on the man who raped her in her youth.

And two that I particularly enjoyed are:

I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth - another tale of elderly women looking back, this time at the woman Zenia who stole a man from each of them in their youth, but this one stood out because of its sympathetic portrayal of the friendship between the three women, supporting each other as age takes its toll on them.

Torching the Dusties is the last story in the book. The premise is that young people, maddened by the economic mess left them by their elders, decide those elders should no longer be allowed to live on, eating up scarce resources. It's told from the perspective of Wilma, a woman living in a retirement home, who is almost blind from macular degeneration and has the visual hallucinations that sometimes go with it. Despite its unlikeliness, Atwood manages to make the premise chillingly believable and as the story plays out, she doesn't pull any punches. It's always wise to leave the best to last, and this story went a long way to improving my opinion of the collection overall.

I'm increasingly convinced that collections often detract from, rather than enhancing, the individual stories within them - it's a rare writer who can produce enough originality to maintain a consistent standard and avoid repetition. I'm pretty sure I'd have been impressed by any of these stories had I come across them in an anthology of different authors but, collected as they are here, I found myself sighing a bit as the basic premise was recycled again and again. I admired the book more than I liked it in the end - the tales are skilfully told, but on the whole didn't engage me emotionally, and I fear I haven't been left with a burning desire to seek out more of Atwood's work.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing.

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea
Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea
Price: £7.47

5.0 out of 5 stars Mostly brilliant..., 25 Mar. 2015
It's June 1958, and French experimental submarine the Plongeur has taken off on her maiden voyage to test her new nuclear engines and her ability to dive to depths never before reached. The small crew is supplemented by the two Indian scientists responsible for the submarine's design, and an observer, M. Lebret, who reports directly to the Minister for National Defence, Charles de Gaulle. It is soon enough after the war for resentments against those who supported the Vichy government still to be fresh, and Lebret was one such, so there are already tensions amongst those aboard. The first trial dive is a success, so the Captain gives the order to go deeper, down to the limits of the submarine's capacity. But as they pass the one thousand five hundred metre mark, disaster strikes! Suddenly the crew lose control of the submarine, and it is locked in descent position. The dive goes on... past the point where the submarine should be crushed by the pressure... and on... and on...

This is a brilliant start to a novel that remains brilliant for about two-thirds of its length and then fades a little towards the end. Undoubtedly the most original sci-fi I've read in a long time, it's a mash-up of references, both explicit and in style, not just to Jules Verne and the Captain Nemo stories, but to lots of early sci-fi, fantasy and horror writers, from Alice in Wonderland to Poe, and even to Dickens. And I'm sure a more knowledgeable sci-fi reader would pick up loads that I missed. Stylistically it reads like a book from the early twentieth century, Wells or Conan Doyle perhaps, but it has a surreal edge and a playfulness with the traditions that keeps the reader aware that it's something more than a pastiche.

And the surreality grows as the adventure progresses and the Plongeur continues its dive to depths that should have taken it through the centre of the earth and out the other side. As it gradually becomes clear to those aboard that the normal rules of physics seem no longer to apply, their reactions range from panic to getting royally drunk to religious mania, while one or two are still willing to speculate that there might be a rational explanation. Arguments begin over what can be happening and what should be done, and the crew are soon at each other's throats. And when it eventually becomes a little clearer where they might have ended up, there's a Lovecraftian feel about the Plongeur's new surroundings and the creatures it encounters there. The book contains 33 illustrations by Mahendra Singh, and even in the Kindle version they work well in adding to the ever-growing atmosphere of horror. There's much science and philosophy in the book, especially around the nature of reality and God, and even a little politics, but this too all feels deliberately off-kilter - not quite in line with the real world and therefore not to be taken too seriously.

I thought I might be hampered by not having read the original Captain Nemo stories, but for the most part I didn't feel I was, though I suspect someone familiar with those would have got more of the references. There was only one point where I felt a little lost (when we were introduced to a character and were clearly supposed to recognise him from elsewhere) and a quick look at Wikipedia's pages on Jules Verne and Captain Nemo was enough to get me back up to speed. The story moves through the Verne originals and on beyond where they finished. But Roberts is playing with Verne's world rather than retelling it, just as he is playing with the real world and science of the '50s too. In the last section he gets a bit overly philosophical and a little too clever, and also takes us into a sequence that drags a little, unlike the rapid pace of the earlier part of the book. But while I felt the ending wasn't as strong as the rest, overall I found this an exciting ride, cleverly executed and full of imagination, and with a great mix of tension, humour and horror. Highly recommended, and I'm looking forward to trying some of Roberts' other books. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St. Martin's Griffin.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Price: £3.99

3.0 out of 5 stars More is less..., 24 Mar. 2015
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This is the story of two young men in New York, from the 1930s through to the post-war period, who team up to create a comic-book superhero, The Escapist. Sammy Klayman is a second-generation American Jew, street-smart and full of big ideas. His cousin Josef Kavalier has just escaped from his hometown of Prague, now under the control of the Nazis, and where the Jewish population is beginning to feel the weight of the jackboot. Sammy's head is buzzing with comic-book stories and Joe can draw. When Sammy talks his boss into giving them a chance, The Escapist is created and the partnership of Kavalier and Clay is born.

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 and has been touted as a Great American Novel. I must say both those things baffle me. There's some good stuff in here - Chabon can write, there's no doubt about that. But the book is at least a third too long, perhaps as much as half, and I felt much as I did about Telegraph Avenue, that underneath the wordy dazzle there isn't much depth. And, unlike Telegraph Avenue, the quality of writing in this one varies from sublime to extremely dull, and just occasionally all the way to ridiculous ("with skin the color of boiled newspaper" - I considered boiling a newspaper just to find out what his skin looked like, but lost the will to live before I got around to it.)

The first sections, covering Joe's escape from Prague and the two boys meeting and forming their partnership, are very enjoyable and I felt I was in for a real treat. However Chabon then drifts off into what is clearly an immensely well-researched history of the comic book industry, and falls into the trap of passing beyond interesting into info-dump territory. By the 25% mark I was seriously considering abandoning the book, but persevered to see if I could work out why it has garnered so many accolades. To be honest, I couldn't.

Joe's story, of trying to battle both American and Nazi officialdom to get his family out of Prague, should be an emotional one, but the impact of his various setbacks is engulfed by the sheer weight of words. As often happens when an author is wishing to make a point, Chabon uses Joe's unfortunate family like puppets to show the whole range of abuses the Jews suffered under Nazi rule, from the early minor restrictions of liberty to their incarceration in concentration camps, though he stops short of taking us on into the full horrors of those places. But because everything bad that happens, happens to one of his relatives, it begins to feel unreal after a while, and since we never really get to know his family as individual characters in their own right, I found myself feeling detached from their plight. Joe's own reactions to the increasing guilt and desperation he feels are much more moving, but Chabon stretches each stage out for too long, describing everything, physical or emotional, to within an inch of its life, robbing it of most of its effect.

The best sections are those where Joe and Sammy are interacting with each other. Metaphorically speaking (which I try not to do whenever possible), Joe is The Escapist and Sammy is his boy sidekick. But despite this their relationship feels authentic - their mutual regard for each other is believable and gives the book its heart. It's also via them that the most original parts of the book come through, in the descriptions of how they create and develop their comic book characters, and how Joe in particular, but with Sammy's support, uses this medium to try to shame the US into entering the war against Nazism.

Unfortunately I found the love interests of both characters less believable. Sammy takes an inordinate amount of time to work out that he's gay; one feels even in the 1940s he'd have had some idea of why he seems to be attracted to men; and, again, it feels as if Chabon is using Sammy's homosexuality to make points about the society of the time rather than it being a real, integral part of the character. And Joe's relationship with Rosa never feels as if it has any depth, somehow - in fact, Rosa, the template for Joe's creation of the superheroine Luna Moth, feels like something of a caricature herself.

There are too many points where the story feels contrived - where I found myself sighing over the obviousness of the twists. In contrast, occasional passages move beyond believability into near surreality, though never quite making it all the way there, leaving the story dangling in an awkward space between reality and fantasy. The metaphor of Joe as The Escapist is taken too far at some points, particularly in the strange and somewhat forced sequences relating to Joe's war experiences. Too often I was aware of the author's hand controlling the characters' actions to serve his own purpose, making it difficult to get a true feeling of involvement in either the characters or the story.

So strengths and weaknesses - but, for me, the weaknesses outweighed the strengths, and it felt like a mammoth struggle to reach the too tidy end. And when I had, I found that I felt the long journey hadn't really been worthwhile. 2½ stars for me, so rounded up.

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