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FictionFan (Kirkintilloch, Scotland)

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A Tale of Two Cities (Wordsworth Classics)
A Tale of Two Cities (Wordsworth Classics)
by Charles Dickens
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

5.0 out of 5 stars "Tell the Wind and Fire where to stop...", 27 Feb. 2015
Set before and during 'The Reign of Terror' in Revolutionary France, A Tale of Two Cities ranks amongst the finest of Charles Dickens' works, even though it is in many ways quite different to his other great books. The humour and exuberant language is toned down; there is not the huge cast of peripheral caricatured characters; there are no major sub-plots. Instead there is a tightly-focused and exciting plot, a hero in Sidney Carton of much greater complexity than Dickens' norm, and some of his most hard-hitting commentary on the effects of poverty and abuse, not just on those who suffer directly from it, but on society as a whole. While often Dickens' books feel as if they have organically grown during the writing, with Dickens himself being as surprised as the reader by the direction they take, this one always feels to me as if he had planned it down to the last detail before he began. Nothing happens that isn't relevant, and everything is explained completely in the end. And it has a purpose - one overwhelming theme: to show the possibility of redemption and resurrection, personal and political. That theme is what carries the reader through what must be the darkest of Dickens' stories to the sense of hope that is inherent even in the tragedy of the ending.

Dickens throws us into a state of menace right at the start of the novel, as Mr Lorry makes his way to Dover on the mail coach, the passengers and coachmen all in a state of extreme anxiety that the coach will be held up by highwaymen. This, together with the introductory chapter comparing the social inequalities and injustice in both England and France in the period, are an indication that Dickens is warning that the situation in England is not so very different to the conditions that led to the uprisings in France. This is one of the book's strengths - Dickens doesn't do the too frequent British thing of assuming that upheavals in foreign lands are somehow due to a form of moral inferiority. He makes it clear all the way through that the social problems in pre-Revolutionary France are paralleled in English society, and that the end result could very easily be the same.

As always with Dickens though, the story is the thing. Unlike too many modern writers of misery, he recognised that the first thing an author has to do is entertain his audience. That way they might stick around long enough to hear the message. The story proper begins as Doctor Manette is released from the Bastille after a long imprisonment without trial, for reasons that only become known to the reader towards the end of the book. 'Recalled to life' through the love of the daughter he never knew he had, he returns to England where he regains his health and sanity. His beloved daughter Lucie falls in love with a young Frenchman, Charles Darnay, and the little family settles happily in a small house in London. But always Dickens keeps us aware of the approaching political hurricane that will soon sweep through France, and we know that somehow the family's fate is tied to those events. When Charles Darnay is summoned to aid an old servant imprisoned for his loyalty to Darnay's aristocratic family, the action moves to Paris...

It's in Dickens' depiction of Paris at this horrific moment in its history that he shows his genius, with some fantastic writing of the storming of the Bastille and the behaviour of the mob. With barely concealed anger he straddles both sides - showing the decades of cruelty and abuse meted out to the poor by pampered aristocrats, and the dehumanising effects of this, turning the Revolutionaries into savage monsters, akin to devils, when they come to power, wreaking vengeance even on the innocent. Though never sympathising with the viciousness on either side, he nonetheless brings the reader to feel pity amidst the revulsion for those caught up in these times - to understand how mobs become a force apart from the individuals within them. Madame Defarge is one of his greatest creations. The driving force behind the Revolutionary zeal to feed the guillotine, she is monstrous in her savagery, all the more so for being female. And yet we see the forces that have formed her and it is a hard heart indeed that can feel no trace of pity for her in the end - and for those who follow her. Dickens shows us how weak people can be in times of great turmoil, as neighbour betrays neighbour, and loyalty to a cause, or fear of it, trumps personal morality.

But amidst all this horror and tumult, there is Sidney Carton. In love with Lucie but knowing that she could never love someone so deeply flawed as he, his unselfish devotion is brilliantly portrayed, without any of the wild exaggeration of character in which Dickens often indulges. Carton is believable and therefore the reader cares about him. The redemption of this weak drunkard, a wastrel who has thrown away the talents he was born with, is the heart of the plot, and central also to the wider message of the book - that through love, faith and sacrifice, resurrection is possible - for the person, but also for this deeply fractured society. Carton's final scenes and last speech are beautifully written and intensely moving. I can't think of another book where both the opening and closing lines are quoted so often that they have passed into cliché. ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...", "It is a far, far better thing that I do...")

For me, Bleak House is the best, but this one has all the things that make Dickens great - the writing, the plotting, the social conscience - without the things that sometimes put new readers off - the caricatured comedy, the overblown descriptions, the saccharin romances. If anyone were to ask me where to start with Dickens, this would be the book I would recommend.

The 5th Wave (Book 1)
The 5th Wave (Book 1)
Price: £5.34

4.0 out of 5 stars Thank Heaven for Little Girls..., 21 Feb. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
An alien mothership hovers in the skies above Earth. But they're not here to make new friends - it seems they're intent on annihilating the human race. The first wave destroyed all technology leaving humanity almost defenceless, the second wave took out the coastal cities, the third wave released a virus that killed billions, the fourth wave remains almost entirely incomprehensible to me even though I've read the book... and no-one knows what the 5th wave will be. But fear not! The future of humanity is in the hands of a kickass teenage girl with a big gun, so I feel safe...

The book starts in the fourth wave with the first person present tense narrative of the aforesaid 16-year-old, Cassie, surviving in the woods after her parents have died, along with almost everyone else she knew. But her young brother was taken away, either by goodies or baddies - Cassie doesn't know which - and she's determined to find him. As she starts out on her journey, it's Cassie who tells us the story of the alien invasion. Dark indeed though the story is, with some pretty horrific images, Cassie's narrative is shot through with some much needed glimpses of humour which stop the book from becoming unbearably grim. Although she is firmly in the tradition of kickass heroines, she is nicely self-deprecating which makes her an enjoyable narrator.

We then swap to the story of Zombie, a 17-year-old boy who, like Cassie, has lost his entire family. Zombie has fallen in with a bunch of military people who are training the surviving children to be superkillers so that they can battle the aliens. (Why are they training the kids to do this rather than the adults? Because it's a YA novel, silly! But I am deeply reassured to know that arming the 5-year-olds of today is an option, should we be invaded - in fact, I question why governments are not already doing this as a preparatory measure. I know I'd sleep sounder...) Zombie's squad is struggling to get the points needed to graduate from training, until they are joined by Ringer, a super-kickass female who makes Cassie look quite cuddly in comparison...

The middle section of the book dips as we head straight into teen romance territory, but I'm sure this probably works better for people in the right age group for the book. But just as I felt that I could take no more and should seek out sanctuary in the local old folks' home, we return to the story proper, and oddly I was so much happier when we got back to kids shooting each other again. This final section is full of action and builds up to a strong tense finale. There's enough emotional content to stop it being purely a shoot-em-up and, although the way is left very clear for the follow-up (it's a trilogy, obviously - it's YA fantasy, so it's the law), the ending is quite satisfying in itself.

Overall, I enjoyed this more than I was expecting. I could have lived happily without the sex-without-actual-sex scenes and the swearing, but that's probably an age thing. And the basic plot premise doesn't stand up to inspection at all. These have to be the dumbest aliens I've ever encountered - one feels that a race of beings who can travel across the universe and unleash all these amazing horrors could have done something to annihilate the entire human race in a oner, but then that would have ruined the story. And, avoiding spoilers, all the stuff about why the kids were being turned into trained killers makes absolutely no sense. But the writing is good, the characterisation is strong, and Cassie in particular is a very likeable heroine (though I'm led to believe the males in the readership might think Ringer's the coolest). And the action stuff is well done - there's lots of violence but it's not overly glamourised, I felt. Although it's geared towards a YA audience, it's one that dystopian thriller fans of any age might enjoy, so long as their disbelief-suspension mechanism is in good working order.

Price: £0.76

5.0 out of 5 stars Perchance to dream..., 17 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Polaris (Kindle Edition)
Our narrator lies awake each night gazing at the Pole Star through the north window of his chamber. He feels it has a secret to convey to him. But one night it is cloudy and he is able to sleep, and in his dream he visits a city from long ago...

This is a great little story, and it's actually enhanced by Lovecraft's usual grandiose writing style - somehow it seems to match the setting of the dream city in a land from forgotten times. What I particularly like about it is that the ending is totally ambiguous, and either interpretation is disturbing. There is a racist element to the story, (as unfortunately there frequently is in Lovecraft's writing), which is a real pity, since it would have been just as effective without it. But the man believed in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race (or perhaps culture), so it permeates his work, and it's the reader's choice, as with all these old writers, whether to make concessions to the time of writing - this one was written in 1918. Without making any apologies for his views, I find with Lovecraft that the stories are so far from reality that the impact of the racism is somewhat lessened, but it can still be pretty off-putting. However, I'm still glad to have read this one, for the imaginative premise, the ambiguity of the ending and the quality of the writing.

PS A simple search on Polaris HP Lovecraft will allow you to read this story online perfectly legally - it's very short and out of copyright.

The Telegraph Book of the First World War: An Anthology of the Telegraph's writing from the Great War (Telegraph Books)
The Telegraph Book of the First World War: An Anthology of the Telegraph's writing from the Great War (Telegraph Books)
by Gavin Fuller
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.08

5.0 out of 5 stars From our own correspondent..., 16 Feb. 2015
This book brings together a selection of the news reports and articles printed in The Daily Telegraph during the First World War, at a time when for most people their daily newspaper was their only source of information.

There is a very informative introduction, written by Michael Wright, discussing the role of newspapers in general and The Telegraph in particular as organs of propaganda throughout the war. Much of the information they printed, especially in the early days of the war, was controlled by the War Office and, indeed, there was a feeling amongst parts of the Government, including Winston Churchill, that the course of the war should be reported entirely from London. However, permission was given for correspondents to travel to the war-zones, and while reporting was still restricted and censored, the experienced and talented correspondents were still able to give vivid accounts of events soon after they happened.

The articles and reports are given entirely without footnotes or contextual explanation, and there are no notes at the end of the book. At first I found this an exceptionally strange editorial decision, especially given the advance warning in the introduction that the truth and accuracy of the reporting could not always be relied on. Since my knowledge of the conduct and progress of the war could at best be described as sketchy, I was sure, rightly, that I wouldn't spot where the reporting veered from what we are now told by historians.

This feeling lasted for the first hundred pages or so, when I suddenly realised that I wasn't reading the book as history any more, or at least not as war history. The lack of notes in fact put me in the same position as any contemporary reader of the paper - I had no other sources of information so had to rely on the reports entirely, and try to see through the words to the truth they were revealing, distorting, exaggerating or minimising. I don't know if that was the reason for the decision not to annotate the book but, whether or no, it turned out to be incredibly effective in giving me an insight into how it must have been for the mothers, fathers, wives of soldiers and sailors far away and in mortal danger. And that had the odd effect of giving me a different perspective on the use of propaganda in such situations. I began to feel that, if I was the mother of a son on the Western Front, of course I would want to be told that morale was high, that the food was good, that the Tommies were better equipped than Fritz. Of course I'd want to think they were singing Tipperary as they marched to the Front, that they were achieving something, that their deaths were not wasted. Because, if it were my son and I was powerless to help him, how would it help me to know that for the most part the soldiers were dying for nothing?

That's not to suggest that the correspondents didn't paint a starkly horrifying picture of the war-zones - they did, and some of the images will haunt me for a long time to come. But they tended to 'spin' it so that the rotting corpses and body parts embedded in the mud and trenches are almost invariably German, and it's the Germans who commit the horrors like releasing poison gas - when the Brits do it, it's only in perfectly fair retaliation. German poison gas kills civilians, Allied poison gas is much more discriminating. However, they also frequently express admiration for the enemy - his courage, his gallantry - especially in the sections relating to the war in the air. One of the things that struck me most was how much more similar the fighting was in style to the wars of the nineteenth century than to the later wars of the twentieth. We see the progression from a 'traditional' war with cavalry and bayonets, to the tanks and aircraft of the later days of the conflict.

The book is enormously wide-ranging. The sections on the war itself don't just concentrate on the Brits; there are reports about the contributions of all of the Allied nations and some from the other side too. (Scots, Irish and Welsh people should note that most of the journalists refer to Britain as England throughout, but they do mention nationalities when discussing specific regiments.) The Russian Revolution is covered - not in depth, but enough to give a flavour of how bewildering it must have been at the time. And there's lots of stuff about the 'home-front' too - the civilian effort, the munitions workers, the land workers, the internment of enemy aliens. We hear about food supplies, about the American Santa ships bringing toys for the children of the servicemen on both sides in the period when they remained neutral. And we are shown the pressure that was put on young men, especially single men, to 'volunteer', with the word 'shirker' being thrown around freely by politicians and journalists alike.

The quality of the writing itself is astonishingly high, filled with passion and poignancy, and sometimes reaching towards poetry. There are articles from literary figures here, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, but it's the reports from the professional journalists that have most impact. No dry reporting of facts and figures here - these are vivid word pictures that evoked a whole range of emotions in me, sorrow, anger, horror, grief and, more unexpectedly, pride, admiration, and a fierce desire to see the Allies win. If these reports could affect me like that one hundred years on and knowing something of the truth, how much more effective must they have been at the time? Here's a small flavour...

"Shells were rushing through the air as though all the trains in the world were driving at express speed through endless tunnels, in which they met each other with frightful collisions. Some of these shells, fired from batteries not far from where I stood, ripped the sky with a high, tearing note. Other shells whistled with that strange, gobbling, sibilant cry which makes one's bowels turn cold. Through the mist and the smoke there came sharp, loud, insistent knocks, as separate batteries fired salvoes, and great clangorous strokes, as if iron doors banged suddenly, and the tattoo of the light field-guns playing the drums of Death." 3rd July 1916 - The Somme

This is a massive book - 570 large pages of small print and no illustrations. It's beautifully printed on high quality paper and is a tactile delight, despite its fairly considerable weight. I found it fascinating, absorbing and moving, and it has given me a real feeling for what it must have been like for the people left at home, desperate for news, and totally dependent on the brave men who put themselves in danger to tell the story of the war. If they didn't always get it right, if they allowed themselves to be used for propaganda purposes from time to time, they still provided an invaluable service to their readers, and now again to modern readers in giving an insight into how the war was seen at the time. One I would highly recommend to anyone interested either in the war itself or in the social history of the period.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Aurum Press Ltd.

Second Life
Second Life
Price: £1.88

32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Misery loves company..., 12 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Second Life (Kindle Edition)
Julia's life is pretty good. She has a husband and son whom she loves and who love her. But her comfortable life is smashed into pieces when her beloved younger sister, Kate, is murdered in a seemingly random attack in an alley in Paris. When the weeks drag by and the police seem no nearer finding the murderer, Julia decides to take matters into her own hands. She has learned from Kate's friend, Anna, that Kate had been using online sites to indulge in fantasy sex with strangers, and had sometimes met up with men she'd encountered there. So Julia decides to visit some of these sites herself to see if she can trace any of the men who knew Kate. Soon she has embroiled herself in a situation that threatens everything she holds dear, and she has to try to find a way out...

Oh dear! I'm sure there will be a million glowing reviews for this book, and it undoubtedly has some good points. But it's yet another of these woeful misery-fests that have taken over bookworld recently - a first person present tense monologue from a narrator who is utterly miserable even before her sister is murdered, so you can imagine how cheery she is afterwards. There really ought to be some kind of rating system on the back of books to let people know in advance:

Sex - yes, lots and lots, both real and virtual, but not overly graphic
Foul language - occasional, but I've read far worse
Length - roughly twice as long as it needed to be
Humour - none, nada, not the slightest glimmer, not even unintentional
Misery - oh yes! Plenty! Enough to reduce the happiness quotient of the planet by at least 5%
Credibility - not much, and gets less as the book wears on

The first half of the book really drags with nothing much happening except Julia telling us how grief-stricken she is. A brutal edit of this section could have made a huge difference to the whole book. There were so many points where I really just didn't want to go on with it - had it not been a review copy, I'd undoubtedly have given up. Not only is Julia dealing with her grief and her feelings of inadequacy as a parent to her adopted son, but she's also a recovering alcoholic, so every few pages we are treated to her wishing she could have a drink and talking herself out of it. Am I really the only person in the world who is bored, bored, bored with reading about alcoholics? Especially when, as with this one, it had very little relevance to the plot.

The second half is much better once the plot finally begins to move. It's still over-stuffed with Julia's self-pitying whining, now also over the situation she has got herself into through her own stupidity. But the pace picks up and, so long as the reader can suspend disbelief, it builds quite a good momentum and some real tension towards the end. It's not a plot to over-think since it is fundamentally silly, based on one ridiculous coincidence after another, but Watson writes well enough to keep the reader just about on-side. I imagine the ending will be divisive - personally, I was just rather glad to get to the end at all...

Overall, I'm reluctant to rate the book too low because, incomprehensible though it may be to me, I know there are lots of people who enjoy this kind of unremitting misery tale, and it's as good as most of the ones I've read. My preference for a bit of light to contrast with the shade has undoubtedly coloured my view, as has my dislike for FPPT narratives. So while I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, I won't wholeheartedly condemn it either. I really enjoyed Watson's first outing in Before I Go to Sleep and, although I found this one disappointing, he still shows the writing style and skill in characterisation that made that one so enjoyable. Here's hoping that now that the always tricky second novel is out of the way, he'll come back with a bang in his next. 2½ stars for me, so rounded up.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.
Comment Comments (12) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 27, 2015 8:11 PM GMT

Dune (The Dune Sequence Book 1)
Dune (The Dune Sequence Book 1)
Price: £5.98

5.0 out of 5 stars "He who controls the spice controls the universe", 9 Feb. 2015
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Duke Leto Atreides has been ordered by the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV, to give up his comfortable home planet of Caladan and take over the administration of the almost barren planet Arrakis, whose vast sandy deserts give it its other name - Dune. Harsh though the environment of Dune may be, it is the only planet in the Empire which can produce melange, the spice drug, which extends the life of those who use it. The financial rewards of controlling Dune are immense, so the previous rulers, the Harkonnens, don't intend to give up their claim, and it appears the Emperor may be secretly supporting the Harkonnens in their campaign to destroy Duke Leto. But Duke Leto has a son, Paul, the offspring of Duke Leto's concubine, Lady Jessica of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. Paul is the result of generations of selective breeding, carefully controlled by the Bene Gesserit to produce the Kwizatz Haderach, a male Bene Gesserit with unprecedented mental powers, including the ability to see possible futures. And the spice drug melange is a crucial part of the process of bringing those powers to their full potential...

Written in 1965, Dune was the first real fantasy saga set on other worlds, and has remained in the fantasy/sci-fi bestseller lists ever since. It's often compared to the Lord of the Rings for the completeness of its world-building, but the tone of it is much more ambiguous - the dividing lines between good and evil aren't quite so clearly drawn. It's a grappling for power and control, set in a society that has aspects of the mediaeval - lordly families wielding ultimate power over their peoples, where marriages are made for political advantage rather than love, and where torture and death are accepted as the norm.

The ecological themes in Dune reflect the beginnings of the anxieties over our own earth environment, which was just starting to become a matter of public concern in the '60s. The importance of water on this desert planet is brilliantly portrayed, as Herbert shows how its scarcity has led to it becoming part of the mythology and even religion of the planet's inhabitants. Everything revolves round water and customs reflect that - from water being the major currency to the ritual recovery of water from the bodies of the dead. The Fremen inhabitants of the planet are trying to make their planet more habitable by careful use and cultivation of what they already have, but Herbert, who had an interest in ecology in his real life, shows how changing one aspect of an environment must be carefully controlled to prevent the destruction of others.

Much of the language of Dune is based on real-life Arabic languages - there is much talk of jihad, for example, and many of the names are Arabic in origin. I suspect this, combined with the desert landscape, might make the modern reader read things into the story that probably weren't intended and certainly weren't obvious to this reader when I first read the book sometime in the '70s or '80s. Our familiarity with the Middle East is so much greater now than it was then. However it's fun to draw comparisons between spice and oil, and to see the struggle between the Fremen and their imperial overlords as a reflection of the wars of the last few decades. But in truth, the reader can only go so far down this route before the comparison begins to fall apart.

The place of women in the Dune universe is not exactly a feminist's delight, and seems pretty backwards looking even for the '60s. Primarily breeding machines, even the Bene Gesserit wield their power through marriage and concubinage (yes, concubines!) and it's a bit sad that their most urgent desire is to create a male, and therefore superior, Bene Gesserit. Often called witches by the men, and mistresses of the wierding ways, the Bene Gesserit nevertheless are feared and sometimes respected, so women do play an important, if not exactly heroic, role in the stories. And despite their inferior position in society, Herbert has created some memorable female characters, not least the Lady Jessica herself who gradually develops into something much more complex than simply the mother of the Kwizatz Haderach.

Have I made this book sound impossibly boring? I hope not, because after a fairly slow start when the characters and worlds are introduced, there's plenty of action. Treachery, intrigue, poisonings and battles, a little bit of romance, but not too much, the truly nasty Baron Harkonnen and his evil henchmen, and most of all Paul-Muad'dib and the heroic Fremen all make for a great adventure story. And the giant worms, the makers, are one of the all-time great creations of fantasy. Their role in the ecology of the planet and the way they are viewed by the Fremen, as something to be worshipped, feared and yet used, makes them central to the book. They are a force of nature that man, with all his technology, can't defeat - indeed, mustn't defeat, because without the worms Dune would lose the thing that gives it is unique importance. And they are terrifying in their destructive power, made worse somehow by the fact that they are driven by no intelligent purpose.

There are several sequels to Dune, and while this one doesn't quite end on a cliffhanger, the reader is left knowing there is much more to come. From memory the first couple of sequels are excellent, after which the series began to lose its edge somewhat - for me, at least. But I'm looking forward to re-reading the next one, Dune Messiah, in the not-too-distant future, and meantime would highly recommend Dune not just as an excellent read in itself, but as the book that has inspired so many of the later fantasy writers.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 13, 2015 11:57 PM GMT

PRO PLAN Cat Wet NutriSavour Housecat with Salmon in Gravy 10x85g (Pack of 4, Total 40 Pouches)
PRO PLAN Cat Wet NutriSavour Housecat with Salmon in Gravy 10x85g (Pack of 4, Total 40 Pouches)
Price: £25.87

4.0 out of 5 stars Looks and smells fine to me, but apparently not to my fussy cats..., 8 Feb. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The food looks pretty good and, as cat food goes, smells OK too. Unfortunately my fussy cats haven't shown any enthusiasm for it. They'll eat it if forced by being given no alternative, but only grudgingly.

However since they seem to be getting fussier as they age I don't think it would be fair to take too much account of their lack of enthusiasm, hence the four stars. I'm retiring them as reviewers of food now as they seem to turn up their fussy little noses at anything new.

From my own perspective, I'd always prefer a variety of flavours in quantity buys, since I've never had a cat that likes to be given the same thing all the time. Unfortunately because the cats haven't eaten enough of it, I can't make any judgement on the claims regarding hairballs and litter odour. If it really achieves this, and assuming your cats liked it, then it might be worth the extra cost.

Sorry for a fairly pointless review, but I got this free as part of the Amazon Vine programme so am under an obligation to review it, even if the cats won't play along...

Tracks (Jack Nightingale short story)
Tracks (Jack Nightingale short story)
Price: £0.99

1.0 out of 5 stars A pretty poor pot boiler..., 6 Feb. 2015
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An elderly man with dementia leaves his home in the middle of the night wearing only his pyjamas. His body is found the next day, 7 miles away, smashed and mangled on the tracks of a long-disused railway line. The police are baffled, so his daughter asks for help from private investigator Jack Nightingale.

Apparently Jack Nightingale has appeared in several books and stories before this one, but this works fine as a standalone. He appears to get his cases via a mysterious Mrs Steadman who contacts him on the astral plane. He is British but in this story is working in America. The mysterious death has happened in a town in Utah, bordering the Navajo Nation territories. So it's not a huge surprise that the supernatural occurrences come courtesy of medicine men, cursed wampum, evil spirits, etc., (though perhaps a little surprising that a Native American spirit should be impersonating a train...)

I'm afraid this is a bit of a pot-boiler - I'd reckon roughly zero effort went into it. The whole Native American bit reads like a Brit who knows nothing so just throws out a few clichés he's picked up from old pulp fiction or cowboy films. The fear factor is non-existent, largely because there's no attempt at creating atmosphere. The writing is workmanlike, though one can't help but feel a quick read-through before pressing 'Publish' would have enabled him to eliminate the worst of the errors - such as describing the dress and hairstyle of a character twice, differently, in the same scene. It left me baffled as to how the medicine man's two pigtails had turned into one ponytail - not to mention a complete change of clothing - and even more baffled as to why no-one had noticed this miraculous transformation happening! That was really the only truly spooky part, I'm afraid...

The Ice Princess (Patrick Hedstrom and Erica Falck, Book 1)
The Ice Princess (Patrick Hedstrom and Erica Falck, Book 1)
Price: £1.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Light and shade..., 6 Feb. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Erica Falck has returned to her home town of Fjällbacka to sort out the belongings of her parents who have recently died. But she is soon in the middle of the investigation into the death of her childhood friend, Alex, found frozen in her bathtub with her wrists slit. At first it looks like suicide, but it soon becomes clear that she was murdered. Alex and Erica had been very close as children but had grown apart as children do, and then Alex and her parents had left the town. So Erica feels personally involved in wanting to know what happened to Alex in the intervening years, and who would have a reason to kill her. The detective who's investigating the case, Patrik Hedström, is another friend from childhood, but when they meet again after all these years their relationship quickly becomes something more than friendship.

This is the first book in the Patrik Hedström and Erica Falck series. I'd previously read a later one, The Stranger, and enjoyed it a lot, so wanted to go back and read the books in order. Quite often the first book in a series can be disappointing as so much time has to be given over to character development, and authors sometimes take a couple of books to really get into their stride. But I didn't feel that at all in this case - this is an excellent debut, with a strong plot and with two main characters who very quickly become people the reader can like and care about.

Patrik and Erica's new found feelings for each other are handled beautifully. There's enough humour to stop it from being at all soppy and Läckberg makes the whole romance element quite straightforward - no bitter, vengeful ex-partner, no misunderstandings etc. The whole thing comes over as very natural and realistic and, because both characters are strong and attractive, the match feels like one that will last. I loved the way the viewpoint shifts between them so that we are able to see what each is thinking. At one point as Patrik is on his way to Erica's, we see her rushing about desperately changing clothes and re-doing her make-up in an attempt to achieve that carelessly casual natural look - and when he arrives the view shifts to him, and we see him being completely fooled by it and thinking she's one of these rare women who doesn't need to try. Lovely!

By contrast, the plot concerning the reasons for Alex's murder is quite dark, and there is a sub-plot concerning Erica's sister who is in an abusive marriage, so there's plenty of meat in the story. Although Erica does a little unofficial poking around, the bulk of the investigation is done as a police procedural. Fjällbacka is a tiny place, so the police aren't used to dealing with murders, and apart from Patrik most of them would rather not have their routines disrupted. So Patrik more or less takes the case over, and we see him as a dedicated officer without any tediously maverick tendencies. On the downside, Patrik's boss is drawn as the stereotypical incompetent bully in this book, though from memory that aspect seemed to be toned down quite a bit by the time of the later book that I read.

The translation by Steven T Murray is excellent - it doesn't read like a translation at all, and none of the touches of humour get lost. Well written, with two likeable leads characters and a great mix of light and shade in the plot, this one has left me looking forward eagerly to catching up with the rest of the series.

The Way Things Were
The Way Things Were
by Aatish Taseer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.59

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The past is a foreign country..., 4 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Way Things Were (Hardcover)
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When Skanda's father dies, it falls to Skanda to accompany his body back to India for the funeral rites. Though at first reluctant to go, once there, Skanda decides to stay on for a while, living in his parents long-empty flat in Delhi. The death of his father and the experience of meeting up with many of the people he knew in childhood leads him to remember and re-assess the recent history of his family, from the period of the Emergency in the mid-70s until the present day. Like his father, Skanda is a Sanskrit scholar, with a penchant for finding linguistic cognates - seeking out the shared roots of words across languages ancient and modern.

And this book is about roots, or about what happens to a person, and by extension a society, when it becomes culturally detached from its roots. Skanda's family comes from the rich English-speaking society of Lutyen's Delhi, those who became such an integral part of colonial India that decades after Independence they still educate their children in English and look to Dickens and Shakespeare as their cultural classics. But through Skanda and his father Toby, Taseer suggests that this disconnect with Indian culture and heritage pre-dates Empire, that already India had forgotten or distorted its history and that this has fed into the divides within modern society. The fascination that Toby and Skanda have with Sanskrit and the ancient writings of India are openly symbolic of what seems like a cry for India to look past the turmoil of the last couple of centuries and to reclaim her pride in her own heritage as one of the great and influential cultures of the early world. The point is made that Skanda pursues his research into Sanskrit, not in India, where it is looked on as a kind of curiosity, but in America.

But the book isn't just about India's past. It also looks at the politics of the present from the time of Mrs Gandhi to today. When reading Mistry's A Fine Balance, I complained that the book concentrated so much on the poverty and misery of the underclasses that it failed to offer any answers or hope for the future. Taseer's novel is in no way overly optimistic, but because it concentrates on a class that wields power and influence, the message is much more that India must and can choose its own future, not by rejection of its past, recent and ancient, but by understanding it and building on it. Taseer shows the rise of the new industrial class and, while they're not necessarily shown in the most attractive light, they are a vivid contrast to the rather effete upperclass shown as clinging to the habits and values of the colonial period.

That might all make the book sound unbearably dull, but in amongst all the politics and philosophising are a group of exceptionally well drawn and believable characters, whose story is interesting not just for what it tells us about India, but in itself. Skanda is to a large degree merely there to tell the story of his parents, Toby and Uma. Uma is without exception the most intriguing female character I have come across in Indian fiction and, for me, she is the heart of the book; and is in many ways the personification of this post-colonial class that Taseer is portraying. When I read Taseer's earlier book, Noon, one of my reservations about it was that the women in the book were almost entirely background figures, so I was particularly pleased to see such a strong female figure front and centre in this one. Very much a flawed human, Uma is nevertheless the product of her society, and she has an independence of character that I found very refreshing. To some degree, she is still defined by the marriages that she makes, but she makes those choices for herself. The difficulties for women in what is still a male-dominated and very unequal society are not minimised, but through Uma we see the glimmerings of change.

It's always a pleasure when one marks an author as 'one to watch', as I did with Taseer after reading Noon, and then finds that promise fulfilled. This huge and ambitious book is full of profound insight, brilliant characterisation and beautiful language. It's not unflawed - sometimes Taseer's voice comes through too strongly, making his point rather than leaving the reader to find it, and the device of Skanda telling the story of his family's past to his new girlfriend is clunky in places. But the quality of the prose and the depth of insight outweigh any weaknesses in the structure and make this an enlightening and deeply thought-provoking read. And though Taseer avoids giving any easy answers, I came away from the book with a sense of optimism; a feeling that perhaps the intellectual direction of India might be moving somewhat away from contemplation of its failures towards consideration of how to achieve a better, and inherently Indian, future. An exceptional book from an author who is emerging as a major voice in literature.

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