Feed on

Lisa Gardner - Crash & BurnAuthor: Lisa Gardner

Title: Crash & Burn

Publisher: Headline

Paperback: 384 pages

ISBN: 978-1472220264

Price: £7.99

Publication Date: 16/07/2015

My initial reaction on receiving Lisa Gardner’s latest novel, Crash & Burn, was that it sounded like fairly familiar psychological thriller / woman-in-peril territory. A woman, Nicky Frank, is in a car crash. When the police find her she is apparently drunk and claiming that a child, Vero, is missing. But her husband is adamant that they have no child. And Nicky has suffered a number of concussions over the past months – leading the investigating detectives, Detective Wyatt Foster and Kevin Santos, to focus their gaze on the husband.

But whilst the novel initially seems to be taking the reader down an expected route – wondering whether Vero exists or whether she is just a figment of Nicky’s imagination – it begins to twist and turn those preconceived ideas and expectations in a manner that left me first pleasantly surprised and then completely engrossed.

Because, very soon, the twists and reveals are coming thick and fast – and the novel took me in a direction that I didn’t really see coming until a fair distance into the book (something that doesn’t happen very often!). Much of what the reader learns comes from Nicky’s POV, leaving us with a fair bit of wariness as to what to believe, as she is an incredibly unreliable narrator.

What I especially liked about Crash & Burn was the manner in which it is constructed. Nicky’s POV underpins the novel, and is the major focus. However, Gardner also weaves in the police investigation, which serves as a counterpoint to the pyschological elements of Nicky’s narration. And it is here that Gardner’s skills as a crime writer are apparent, as these procedural elements feel both engaging and very well drawn.

Essentially this novel is a standalone book. However, what Gardner does very well is to utilise two characters who will be known to her frequent readers. D.D. Warren – star of her very own series – makes a cameo appearance. And Tessa Leoni, who has appeared previously across Gardner’s work, is both an important figure in the development of the plot and Wyatt Foster’s girlfriend. However, knowledge of these characters is not essential to an enjoyment – or even an understanding – of this book.

That being said, my biggest criticism of the novel is that on the occasions when either Warren or Leoni are talking about their involvement in previous books (or cases) they tend to give both overly detailed and quite unlikely levels of exposition. It just comes off as a little clunky, but doesn’t really happen enough to be more than occasionally annoying.

Ultimately though, I found the treatment of traumatic brain injuries – and the interplay between ‘memory’ and reality in Nicky’s mind – to be incredibly well handled. Whilst there are some moments that are a little heavy on dialogue and the ending is somewhat convoluted, I found this to be a welcome change from the usual procedural or psychological novel. And I ended up devouring the whole book in one sitting (although, admittedly, it isn’t the biggest book in existence!).

Tags: , ,

Joe Abercrombie - Half A WarAuthor: Joe Abercrombie

Title: Half A War

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Trade Paperback: 497 pages

ISBN: 978-0-00-813832-5

Price: £12.99

Publication Date: 16/07/2015

Buying books at the airport is always a risky decision. And when done whilst rushing through the terminal on the way to catch a flight to a wedding, those dangers are raised exponentially. But when I saw that Joe Abercrombie had a new book in his Shattered Sea series out, I had to read it (especially as I read the first book in the series – Half a King – whilst on holiday this time last year).

So when I settled into my seat and the plane soared into the sky, I was able to finally open the book…and realise to my embarrassment and chagrin that I had picked up the third book, rather than the second in the series! However, as a fan of Abercrombie’s work, I decided to forge ahead rather than wait to read the second book (also because the only other book that I had with me was a weighty tome on the legal workings of the capital markets – not exactly fun reading).

This undoubtedly affected my reading of the novel, as it meant that there were a number of characters who were doubtless introduced in the second book who I did not know – and a number of world developments that made my initial re-introduction into the series a little fraught.

Father Yarvi, who underpinned Half a King, returns – although here he is less central protagonist and more manipulator in the shadows. Instead we have Princess Skara, who has watched her family and kingdom destroyed and vowed revenge, and bitter and scarred killer Raith (it wouldn’t be an Abercrombie novel without a character covered in external wounds) as the central figures in a swirling war of words and skulduggery.

As with other Abercrombie books there is plenty of action and twist enough to keep the reader enthralled. And yet, despite a really engrossing first three-quarters of the book, something about the end of the novel didn’t have quite the vigour and crackling tension that has, for me, become a hallmark of Abercrombie’s work. That is not to say that Half A War is a bad book – because it certainly isn’t.

Much of this feeling came at the conclusion of the book. Watching Skara develop over the pages was really well drawn – as she went from frightened seventeen year old to iron-willed queen. Strong, central female characters are rare to see in fantasy. But, like Monzcarro Murcatto from Best Served ColdSkara develops a steely edge as she plots her revenge. What makes them work is that these women not only have courage, character and ability, but that they are also painted as human – through their mixture of strengths and weaknesses. And therefore I really like Skara as a character, and felt that she was probably my favourite element of the book.

The problem, as such, that I had with Half A War was that, for all of the action and excitement of the first three-quarters of the book, the conclusion was ultimately a little unsatisfying. The world of the Shattered Sea, having been hinted at in the first book, is finally explored here. Without giving away too much, it is revealed to have been thousands of years after the fall of our civilisation – but the manner in which it is used to resolve an almost impossible battle at the end of the novel is just a little too convenient.

Furthermore, the relationship between Skara and Raith, she the higher born to his killer, was very reminiscent of the relationship between Monza and Caul Shivers from Best Served Cold. So I began to suspect quite early on into the book how there relationship would end up. And when it turned out as I had expected I have to admit that I felt a little disappointed.

The reason for this turn of events is given an explanation. And yet, something about that reason just didn’t ring completely true here – unlike the far more compelling reason in Best Served Cold. Maybe it is the hopeless romantic in me. Or the fact that I was reading the book the day before a wedding, and the slightly grim (and probably quite realistic) manner in which people take and rationalise their decisions in Abercrombie’s world just didn’t chime with my emotions at the time.

Part of the problem for me is that I am used to Abercrombie’s adult novels being weighty tomes – and the fact that this gives him ample room to develop characters and plot lines within them. And whilst I understand that a YA fantasy novel is necessarily more condensed and concise, I think that Half A War slightly suffered in terms of plot jumps and overly neat developments, in a manner that I am not used to.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed reading Half A War, and the open ended nature of the final pages (despite the claim that this was the final book in a trilogy) makes me interested to see whether the story of Skara (and Raith) may be continued in a manner that has never occurred before in an Abercrombie novel (which would certainly make for a new direction in his oeuvre). But I have come to have such high expectations of his work that it is often too high a standard to meet with every book. But for compelling writing and world building, even something slightly beneath that peak remains better than most of the fantasy on the market today.

Tags: , , , ,

Don Winslow - The CartelAuthor: Don Winslow

Title: The Cartel

Publisher: William Heinemann

Hardback: 640 pages

ISBN: 978-0434023547

Price: £18.99

Publication Date: 25/06/2015

Don Winslow’s epic The Power of the Dog – the precursor to The Cartel, although this can be read as a standalone novel – was a vivid, violent dissection of the US-Mexican drug war that spanned three decades. Now, ten years after the publication of that book, The Cartel charts the intervening period from 2004 to 2014.

Like its predecessor, The Cartel is a hefty book at well over 600 pages in length. And stylistically, mirroring its brutal and bloody subject matter, it is a gritty and not always easy read. At certain points I found myself having to re-read sections, as Winslow avoids précising the dense and intricate tapestry of relationships, allegiances and moving parts that underpin the plot. It is certainly unlike Winslow’s more overtly polished surfer and drug books, The Dawn PatrolSavages and The Kings of Cool. Although you suspect that it is a conscious choice on the author’s part to transmit the murky and gritty environs that the novel describes.

The Cartel returns to the first book’s central characters – Art Keller and Adán Barrera. The former, a now ex-DEA agent, is a recluse in a monastery, broken by all that has happened to him. The latter is still a drug lord, but one who must now conduct his empire from within the walls of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego. And they remain, as ever, sworn enemies.

And when Barrera, through various plots and machinations, manages to extricate himself from his prison, Keller will use any means – overt and covert – to stop his nemesis.

But where the previous book focussed on the cartels’ use of traditional gangster techniques to run their business, The Cartel shows the manner in which technology and the wider world has shifted these modes of operation. Taking on the ideas and ideals of global terrorism, the cartels of this novel are tech-savvy, knowing that – like Al Quaeda and ISIS – using technology and media makes for the perfect means to spread their ‘message’ through monstrous violence.

Most heart-breaking though, is seeing the many people caught up in events beyond their control, particularly the poor and the innocent. And seeing the beliefs and values of well intentioned people slowly eroded and destroyed by the vast machine of the drugs cartel. Whilst, at its heart, this is a thriller that moves along at a swift pace, peppered liberally with violence, what really makes Winslow stand out as a writer is his ability to capture the whole scope of this criminal and corrupt world. If you feel angry reading this novel, as I found myself, then that is undoubtedly how it should be.

What makes it all the worse is that this is, for the most part, based on reality. Winslow’s knowledge and research shines through, but it also turns a mirror on the underbelly of a world that most people don’t want to believe exists. One where even the nominal heroes have their hands bathed in blood.

Ultimately The Cartel is another brilliant, powerhouse of a novel from an author who not only understands the nuances of the world he writes about but is able to viscerally translate it to the page. Not for the faint of heart, The Cartel is a must read.

Tags: , ,

Tess Gerritsen - Die AgainAuthor: Tess Gerritsen

Title: Die Again

Publisher: Bantam

Hardback: 330 pages

ISBN: 978-0-593-07243-1

Price: £18.99

Publication Date: 01/01/2015

When I first received my copy of Tess Gerritsen’s new novel I have to admit that I was a little bemused. Why, I wondered, was the oilskin and Sou’wester wearing killer from I Know What You Did Last Summer on the front cover? Thankfully, it turns out, this is no schlocky Nineties horror – although there is a fair amount of violence and gore (it wouldn’t really be a Tess Gerritsen novel without it).

Nevertheless, the book uses a clever device to hook in its readers (I promise that will be my last reference to the fisherman from I Know What You Did Last Summer!). Juxtaposing a present day series of brutal murders in Boston with a deadly game of cat and mouse on an African safari six years previously creates an enthralling break from previous Rizzoli and Isles thrillers – which have tended to revolve around Boston.

When a mailman – wondering why there is accumulated post at a property (that level of attention would never happen with my postman!) – peers through the window of a Boston house, he discovers a dog with a human finger in its mouth. Enter our erstwhile dynamic duo, Boston homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Dr Maura Isles. The home owner, Leon Gott, has been gutted and hung like an animal – and they soon discover a house full of stuffed wild animal heads, and a garage full of gutted organs, some human, some animal.

This begins the investigation that intercuts with the African scenes from six years previously. And it is the scenes in Africa, through the evocative descriptions of the raw beauty and danger of the landscape, that really stood out to me when I was reading this book.

With no means of communication and cut off from rescue, the atmosphere and terror of the situation transmits to the reader. In fact, as I was reading Die Again, I was reminded of The Killing Place which featured a similar premise. There, the characters were cut adrift in nature and, for me, it was the Gerritsen novel that I have most enjoyed to date. Therefore, I felt that the return to that dynamic worked really well in Die Again.

And as the two plot strands spin closer, it becomes apparent that the African arc is inextricably linked to the murders in Boston (without wanting to give too much away).

The writing is, as you would expect of a Gerritsen novel, tight and pacy and full of menace and atmosphere. Rizzoli and Isles continue to be strong central characters – continuing to evolve and hold the reader’s attention. An impressive feat considering this is their eleventh outing. That being said, it was the character of Millie Jacobson, narrator of the African scenes, who really stood out in this novel.

If there was a slight criticism of Die Again then it would be that some of the later twists in the book felt a little stretched and not entirely convincing. But that is a charge that I could level at quite a lot of the thrillers that I have read recently! Overall though, I sped through the book and really enjoyed it.

Tags: , ,

Netflix’s strategy of releasing full seasons of its shows in one fell swoop, and the binge-watching that it encourages, could doubtless be read within the context of the societal expectations that it utilises and exacerbates. That twenty-first century need to have everything immediately, an insatiable appetite that has made impatience the defining feature of our world. And yet, faced with the opportunity to devour the third season of Orange Is The New Black in a brutal feast of excess, I challenge anyone not to give into the temptation. Like an addict for the various drugs circulating the female-only prison of Litchfield, once you have had your first fix you cannot stop.

So, as with the first two seasons, I found myself racing through the third season in a matter of days. Addictive as ever, you might assume, and you would be correct – to an extent.orange-is-the-new-black_season_3_review_under_the_radr

The second season, with Vee as the overarching villain and focal point for the plot, felt far tighter and more focused than the third season manages to. Here, part of the problem is that the format of the first two seasons – with one figure filling the role of chief antagonist – has been reworked. This is understandable. Carrying on with the same format of a single person as villain for each series would have inevitably have led to the show becoming both predictable and to similar. Further, each subsequent series would need to up the ante in terms of the antagonist’s personality, which would have led to OITNB becoming increasingly unbelievable (certainly if they were going to try to top the incredible Vee of the second season).

However, whilst the change of direction makes total sense from the perspective of the show and its potential longevity, it also causes problems. For, in addition to the slightly anticlimactic nature of season three’s plot when compared to season two, there is also the problem that the progression of the underlying storyline of season three feels slightly disjointed.

One prime example occurs a few episodes into the season. As the episode ends, we discover that Litchfield is about to be shut down due to a lack of funds – our erstwhile group of characters scattered to the wind amongst the American penitentiary system. The episode concludes on this apparent cliffhanger, seemingly setting the scene for the drama that will carry us to the end of the series. And yet, within less than an episode, a white knight (well, more like grey!) has swooped in to acquire Litchfield. Abruptly putting a stop to that problem. It jars, and is one of a few moments within the season, when the viewer is led to believe that something will span the season, before suddenly getting a resolution.

This slight sense of disconnect carries through to the overarching storyline, where the corporation that acquires Litchfield takes on the role of pseudo-villain. A soul-sucking money-machine whose only aim is to monetise the prison and gain profits from its shareholders by shaving margins – which inevitably affects the lives of the inmates. Whilst effective in a political sense, the inherent problem with this is that a corporation is, by its very nature, faceless. And, as a ‘villain’, it is removed from the prisoners – they cannot fight it in the same way that they did Vee. And thus it becomes depersonalised as a struggle.

Essentially, where OITNB season three is most effective is in its characters. And even here there are problems.OITNB-S3_INT_Horizontal_KeyArt_UK

At the conclusion of season two, Vee and Rosa die. Added to this, Piper’s fiancé Larry Bloom (love him or loathe him) is absent from the third season, and brutal guard Pornstache Mendez and embezzler and former Executive Assistant to the Warden, Natalie ‘Fig’ Figueroa are also largely absent. Then, within a few episodes, two other major characters (who shall remain nameless to avoid spoiling the plot) depart abruptly. Likely this was due to other commitments, however it creates a noticeable character void.

This is partly addressed through the evolution of a number of characters who had previously been ciphers. In particular, the evolution of Black Cindy, Joe Caputo’s lone battle against the corporation, along with the burgeoning friendship between Boo and Pennsatucky, stand out in season three. Further, it also allows Piper to finally evolve away from her fairly self-centred characteristics from the first two seasons – here finding herself becoming a crime boss within Litchfield.

But, with none of the newly introduced characters for the season really grabbing the viewer’s attention, it creates a lot of pressure on the established characters to hold the season together. And they do undoubtedly do that. But after the highs of the previous season it does feel like a show searching for a new direction, and not always finding it. Nevertheless, OITNB season three, for all of its faults, remains one of the best things to watch at the moment.

Tags: ,

Mo Hayder – Wolf

Author: Mo Hayder

Title: Wolf

Publisher: Bantam

Paperback: 544 pages

ISBN: 978-0857500786

Price: £7.99

Publication Date: 12/02/2015

As someone with a number of ties to Bristol, and who visits the area a few times a year, I have to admit that Mo Hayder’s recent Jack Caffery novels set in the area have tended to make me a little uneasy when I now visit the city and surrounding countryside. And her latest book, Wolf, does nothing mitigate these – possibly undeserved – fears and prejudices.

Focussed on Turrets, a remote estate in Somerset, the recurring theme of the novel is how the past haunts us. So when Matilda Anchors-Ferrers finds bloody entrails draped across the trees of her garden, it serves as a grisly reminder of a murder committed fifteen years previously in the area. Then, the boyfriend of the Anchors-Ferrers’ daughter – along with another girl – were brutally murdered and disembowelled. But when the Anchors-Ferrers are taken captive and tortured by home invaders the links to those past murders grow ever stronger.

Caffery, unwillingly drawn into a search by the mysterious and equally haunted Walking Man, but compelled by his obsessive investigation into the disappearance of his brother decades before, slowly circles rural Somerset as the plot draws him ever closer to the goings-on at Turrets.

As a thriller, Wolf certainly feels more of the psychological than the procedural kind. For all the time that Caffery spends investigating the small dog handed to him by the Walking Man – a dog with the message “Help Us” attached to its collar – this is an investigation done outside the confines of the police force. And, in any case, the real terror and nastiness of this plot all revolves around the environs of Turrets.

All of the scenes there are filled with menace and an ominous foreboding, made all the more palpable by the two hostage-takers – Ian the Geek and Honig. Both, in their own ways, are really nasty characters, who use violence – both real and psychological – over the inhabitants. And it is that idea, of people bursting into your house, into the place where you should feel safest, that makes this book so terrifying. Beyond mobile phone reception, and cut off from the world around, the Anchors-Ferrers family are at the mercy of their captors.

It makes for some incredibly atmospheric and claustrophobic scenes, as the reader grows increasingly unsure of whether the family will survive – and whether the attack on the house was indeed random. And I found myself completely caught up in the read. That being said, as the novel reached its denouement, and the curtain was pulled back on the big reveal, I have to admit that not only did I see it coming from quite a long way out, but certain coincidences (which I will leave opaquely oblique to avoid giving them away) border on the absurd. So my major criticism of the novel was that, removed from the intensity of the violence and atmosphere, elements of the plot did feel a little forced.

Nevertheless, as a read, it was what one would expect of a Mo Hayder novel. Well written, fast-paced, violent, and atmospheric – with a depth of character development that makes up for the novel’s shortcomings in terms of coincidence. And the final discovery made by Caffery that is heart-breaking, in another strong addition to the series.

Tags: , ,

The Grim CompanyAuthor: Luke Scull

Title: The Grim Company

Publisher: Head of Zeus

Paperback: 464 pages

ISBN: 978-1781852125

Price: £7.99

Publication Date: 29/08/2013

For someone who lives in a  town called Warminster, it is perhaps apt that Luke Scull has written a dark fantasy novel filled with action, skulduggery, betrayal, and …well, war!

In a world where the gods have been defeated and usurped by a group of magicians, who now style themselves the ‘Magelords’, war is brewing. With the death of the gods magic is on the wane in Dorminia. And, with demonic forces spilling into the northern mountains, there are threats and dangers on all sides.

Set against this background is the Grim Company of the title [which also serves as the title for the trilogy itself]. This group includes Davarus Cole, a hero in his mind only [an insufferable idiot to everybody else]; Brodar Kayne, an ageing warrior from the North, with his companion, The Wolf; and Sasha, the young, fiercely independent woman who is everything Davarus is not.

If this band, along with some of the supporting cast – there is Eremul the Halfmage and Yllandris, the young sorceress and lover of the King of the Fangs – seems a little familiar, then that shouldn’t be a surprise. You can certainly see the influence of fantasy writers such as Brandon Sanderson, Scott Lynch, George R.R. Martin, David Gemmell and – most especially – Joe Abercrombie on Scull’s debut novel. Specifically the dark humour and bleak violence of Abercrombie can be seen in The Grim Company. And I would definitely say that anyone who is a fan Abercrombie’s will likely enjoy this book.

However, that is not to denigrate Scull’s work in any way. He shows a deft and confident prose style, and the plot is lean and pacy, balancing the backstories of the numerous characters with the need to keep a constant impetus to the reading experience. But as a work of fantasy it certainly shouldn’t be seen as reinventing the wheel – which isn’t something that I think that the author or the publisher is claiming, so it certainly wasn’t a problem for me when I was reading this novel.

And, whilst there are occasional flashes of satire aimed towards the fantasy genre – and specifically the dark epic fantasy genre – Scull is certainly writing for an audience within that area. So anyone not keen on works in that subsection of the genre should probably steer clear of this series. If I had one gripe it would be that there are a smattering of slightly annoying pop culture references dotted throughout the book that seemed a little superfluous, and a little irritating.

Personally though, I enjoyed the manner in which Scull took a number of rather stereotypical fantasy tropes [specifically those relating to characters], and through his skilful writing, managed to avoid any of it feeling stale. I especially liked the manner in which he managed to make each individual character POV feel exactly that…individual. Ultimately I really enjoyed reading it, and read it in one sitting. And so I will definitely be picking up the second book in the series when it is published and have high hopes for the trilogy.

Tags: ,

Queen of the TearlingAuthor: Erika Johansen

Title: The Queen of the Tearling

Publisher: Bantam Press

Hardback: 434 pages

ISBN: 978-0-59307-269-1

Price: £12.99

Publication Date: 17/07/2014

I came to this book with no preconceptions. Meandering through a bookshop as I attempted to kill some time before an appointment [I am one of those insufferable people who is always early for everything!], I spotted the cover on one of the shelves in the fantasy section. And it was probably only the use of ‘Queen’ in the title that made me pick the book up and read the book description on the inside flap. In a way, it caught me at the perfect moment, with my mind in a very specific mood. I both wanted to read a fantasy novel, but also wanted something featuring a female lead. And this ticked both boxes.

It was only once I had finished the book, and was doing some research prior to writing this review, that I found the publisher’s description of the book; claiming that it had “the narrative drive of The Hunger Games, the dystopian thrills of Divergent with the political chicanery of Games of Thrones.” To be honest, if I had read this at the time that I bought The Queen of the Tearling then I most likely would have put it back on the shelf with a sigh and a grimace.

So I am thankful that I didn’t, because, despite this overblown and rather misguided attempt to describe and pigeon-hole the novel, I really enjoyed reading it.

The plot revolves around nineteen-year-old Kelsea Glynn, who has been brought up in remote isolation, but with the knowledge that she will one day inherit the throne of the kingdom of Tear. However, the crown is more poisoned chalice than prize – with few Tear monarchs holding the crown for long, due to frequent assassination attempts. So, when the Queen’s Guard come to collect Kelsea from the place where she has grown up, no-one expects her to survive more than a few days – let alone set about turning her decaying and corrupt kingdom back to its former glory.

As a heroine, Kelsea is strong and determined, and manages to be both naive and serious. At the outset of the novel she sometimes came across in her manner as somewhat younger than her nineteen-years, and part of me did wonder whether the author had initially written her as a younger protagonist. As someone who has read my fair share of historical and fantasy fiction over the years, I am all too aware that characters in these genres often mature at a far younger age than tallies with our modern conception of childhood and adulthood. As an example from history, Edward, the Black Prince, was sixteen when he fought at the Battle of Crécy.

Therefore, Kelsey’s being nineteen, and feeling like a young nineteen at that, didn’t completely feel right in the first half of the novel. In truth, part of me wondered whether this was a tactical re-aging done by the publisher to bring the character in-line with the current vogue for YA fiction to have its protagonists at the upper end of the teenage spectrum [which apparently is the sweet-spot to appeal to both the younger YA market and slightly older readers as well].

Nevertheless, Kelsea, despite some slight missteps as a character in the first half of the book, develops as the novel progresses. And the pace of the book and the action was enough to sweep away many of these concerns. Because there is a lot of action bookending the novel, and a page-turning pace that meant that the novel rarely got bogged down.

For me though, the element that really stood out, and which had me most intrigued for future books in the series, was the world in which the novel is set. Early on in the novel there were references to the ‘Crossing’. But this was cleverly and carefully teased out over the course of the book – creating a steady feed of information that kept the world evolving. So, whilst the world itself had a degree of magic within it – certainly in the sense that Kelsea possesses a necklace with apparently magical properties – it also hinted at some sort of intersection with the world that we know and live in. Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, America and Europe, along with computers, were all mentioned in the book – which only heightened the intrigue that I felt as a reader about this world, and what had come before.

This is Johansen’s debut novel, but you really wouldn’t know that as a reader. The prose is smooth and confident, with good pacing and action. And I enjoyed the kingdom of Tear that she has created, with its machinations and skulduggery. However, I would disagree with the publisher’s assertion that its political chicanery is on a level with Game of Thrones – which it certainly isn’t [but then, what is?!]. Overall though I found it an enjoyable and pacy read, with a strong female protagonist who has enough individuality and character about her to make me want to read the next book in the series.

Tags: , ,

Joe Abercrombie - Half A KingAuthor: Joe Abercrombie

Title: Half A King

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Hardback: 373 pages

ISBN: 978-0-00-755020-3

Price: £12.99

Publication Date: 03/07/2014

When it was first announced that Joe Abercrombie was to write a YA novel, I have to admit that my reaction was one of surprise. His previous novels have all been what would be best described as ‘very adult’ in tone, theme and style. But, when I thought about it, I began to wonder whether my initial reaction was borne out from the categorisations that the publishing industry has imposed on fantasy over the last decade and a half, which has attempted to delineate between children’s, YA and adult books.

Because, when I was first truly exploring the breadth of fantasy – as a pre-teenager  almost two decades ago – I was reading David Gemmell, Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin (amongst many others). All of whom often had fairly young protagonists – either as the main focus of the works, or, as with someone like Martin, in very major roles. And these writers all wrote books that were often filled with fairly adult content – yet, as a young reader, they felt like books that I wanted to read entirely because they presented very murky, unsterilised worlds. Which, for me, on the cusp of teenagerdom, was both exciting and liberating.

So I approached Half A King with an interested fascination. I knew that Abercrombie was likely to have to temper some of the more excessive elements to his ‘adult’ fantasy, but was equally keen to see whether he would bring his gritty edge to a coming-of-age, ‘YA’ novel.

A tale of betrayal and a quest for revenge, this novel shares similarities in plot to my favourite of Abercrombie’s oeuvre, Best Served ColdSet in a pseudo-Viking-age fantasy world, Half A King focusses on Prince Yarvi, the youngest son of the King of Gettland. Having been born with a twisted and maimed hand on one side – which makes him unfit to fight, a pre-requisite in this warrior society – Yarvi is seen as only half a man. Physical impositions on his characters is a long-running theme in Abercrombie’s books, and Yarvi is forced to rely on his mental acuity to compensate for the fact that, unlike Monza Murcatto in Best Served Cold, he cannot take his revenge personally at the point of a blade.

Instead, having seen his father and brother murdered, and having been betrayed himself and presumed dead, Yarvi finds himself enslaved upon a merchant ship and far from home. There he must try to plot his escape and a way in which to gain his revenge and reclaim the throne.

Much of the book therefore revolves around Yarvi’s attempts to escape his chained collar and draw together a band of friends and allies who will help him traverse the Shattered Sea to return to Gettland. Now, it is in this aspect that this novel feels most dissimilar with Abercrombie’s previous novels. For the journey back, and the incidents that break up that journey, happen in a manner that comes across as quite plotted. By which I mean that elements that are required to advance the flow of the plot often happen very close together, in a very neat manner. The problem here is that Abercrombie is obviously under constraints to make the novel fit within the parameters of what a younger reader would be able to read in terms of novel length.

And this is a double-edged sword. Because Abercrombie’s adult novels are usually huge, almost sprawling books. So, whilst the length of Half A King in one sense means that it avoids falling into the trap of being too big, there are a few times when the brevity between major sequences means that it almost feels a little watered down. Nevertheless, this is really my only slight gripe about the book.

Because the writing is fantastic and Yarvi’s development as a character, from naive innocent to a more ruthless and focussed individual is achieved with skill and believability. And, whilst there were elements of the plot that I could predict quite easily, the main twist at the conclusion was expertly handled – so much so that I really didn’t see it coming.

And, whilst much of the language and violence that one would associate with Abercrombie is here toned down, the underlying themes of the cynicism of the world and the morally ambiguous nature of humankind are still very much present – along with some healthy doses of dark humour for good measure. So, whilst there is undoubtedly an element of Abercrombie holding back in this novel, with his younger audience in mind, it never detracts from the central plot and the characters are as realistically ambiguous and realistically flawed as you would expect. To be honest, within a few pages of starting this novel I was already chastising myself for ever questioning Abercrombie’s abilities to weave his themes into a YA novel, because this is a hugely enjoyable read. One that has a satisfying enough resolution for it to work as a standalone novel. Thankfully it is only the first in a trilogy of books set in the world of the Shattered Sea – and I cannot wait for the next instalment.

Tags: , ,

GONE_GIRLAuthor: Gillian Flynn

Title: Gone Girl

Publisher: Phoenix

Paperback: 463 pages

ISBN: 978-0-7538-2766-6

Price: £7.99

Publication Date: 03/01/2013

At the outset of this review, I have a confession to make. When this novel first came out, and was picking up momentum as a bestseller, I took a conscious decision not to read it. To be completely honest, I had been reading quite a few psychological suspense novels at the time, and was rather keen to avoid reading any more ‘woman-in-peril’ novels. And so it sat on my shelf and gathered dust for the best part of a year and a half, until I decided to finally read it on a flight over the summer.

Why is this relevant to my review? Because, despite the rave reviews that this novel has received from all corners, I have to admit that I found myself curiously ambivalent towards it. And I suspect that part of that response may be due to my delaying of my reading of the book. For, when I finally came to open it, I had subconsciously built up an internal resistance to it – one which required the novel to be absolutely incredible for that semi-prejudice to be dispelled.

And, whilst the novel is undoubtedly well written, with a strong plot, good structure, filled with twists and overall a compelling and pact read, it never scaled the heights that it probably needed to win me over totally. So this is certainly not a negative review, but it also isn’t a totally positive review. I can completely see why the novel has been so successful across the world, and I read it in one sitting, but I found myself in a strange kind of mental limbo when trying to decipher my response to it – which is not something that I can often say about books that I read.

The plot itself, revolving around the sudden and mysterious disappearance of Amy Elliott Dunne and the subsequent suspicion that falls on her husband Nick Dunne, is a pretty well-worn set-up for the genre. There are signs of a struggle at the home that they both shared and Nick’s alibi is both patchy and fairly insubstantial. And as the plot develops, the reader becomes increasingly suspicious of Nick and his actions (as well as what we begin to suspect he is holding back). And the use of Nick as the primary narrative point-of-view character is in keeping with the usual parameters of the genre.

However, it is the introduction of an alternative POV from around the half-way point in the novel that marks Gone Girl from the competition. It is a very clever twist that completely alters the reader’s mind-set – especially in relation to all of the developments that have occurred in the first half of the book. And the twists that proliferate the novel means that the pace of the book is unrelenting, especially given the confident, assured manner in which the book is written.

But, for me personally, there were two main problems that stopped me from loving this book. The first was the characters. They are well drawn and brought out by the author. However, I also failed to empathise or like any of them, especially Nick. Now, I think that this is something that the author actively needed to do, in order for some of the major twists and reveals in the book to work – in particular the ones that paint Nick in a negative light and make the reader question him as a reliable narrator. But the problem is that, having failed to warm to Nick from the outset of the novel, these constant reveals meant that I was unable to ever emotionally attach myself to his predicament. And, as a result, I ended up not really caring about what was happening to him.

Allied to this, the majority of the characters who orbited Nick within the world of the novel were – in the majority – self-centred and difficult to like. So, personally, I found myself unable to truly invest myself in the characters’ themselves, with my interest focused on finding out how the plot was going to be resolved rather than what was going to happen to the characters. It is a subtle distinction, but for me an important one if I am going to completely commit to a read.

My second problem revolved around the ending. And, to be honest, this is not just something that is confined to Gone Girl, but is prevalent across the whole of the psychological suspense genre. More often than not, there seems to be a correlation between the number of twists that a book contains and the difficulties that this presents to the author when trying to create a satisfying ending. It often seems almost impossible for the author to achieve, and this novel was no exception. Because, to be frank, the ending was very difficult to believe – and the characters’ attempts to explain it through their different narrations made it even more difficult to stomach. It is difficult to explain without giving away the major part of the plot, but safe to say I didn’t feel that it felt satisfactory as a conclusion to what had gone before.

Overall I realise, from reading this review back, that it probably comes across as rather a negative view of Gone GirlBut this certainly isn’t what I was intending when sitting down to write it. Looking at this book from a  completely objective standpoint I can completely see why it has been so successful. It is well written, pacy, with some really clever plotting and twists. But ultimately, for the major twists of this novel to work it required characters who weren’t really that likeable. And, for me, this meant that the book’s major strength was inextricably linked to what I felt was its major weakness – that I couldn’t fully emotionally invest in any of the characters. Certainly not enough to turn a good read into a great read for me.

Tags: ,

Older Posts »