Dead Harvest – Chris F Holm

Let’s start this one off with a different tack; let’s have an image:-

I think that’s a lovely cover. Reminiscent of 1970’s textbooks whilst also looking tremendously pulpy and noirish. Which is exactly the type of thing Chris Holm is going for with this one. It’s on the Angry Robot imprint, a Nottingham book publisher who tend to publish genre fiction, this fits right into that.  I’ve read a few Angry Robot books at this point, 2 by Adam Christopher and another by Lauren Beuke, all three were very good and this is no exception.

First Lines:- “Light spilled through the window of the pub as I watched them, casting patches of yellow across the darkened street but conveying no warmth”

Not a bad intro as these things go I think, it’s pretty redolent of place, but beyond that there’s not much to go on. That said within a few lines we get to the crux of the matter in a very short chapter, and I’ve chosen not to write anymore of the beginning for fear of spoilers. So, yes, it’s not great as opening lines go, but the caveat is that it’s more of an opening chapter rather than just opening lines, and to reduce it to such really isn’t that helpful.

Thoughts :- Ok, so the premise of the plot is that the main character Sam, is a collector. He collects souls of the damned, literally reaching in and taking them. As you might imagine he’s possessed of other powers too, for example he can inhabit the bodies of both the living (or what he calls meat suits) and the dead; which he prefers as the dead don’t really think. As the book begins we find him chasing a particular soul only to discover that he’s not sure it deserves to be taken, and that’s were the book takes off.

It’s well written and it’s a page turner, as these books tend to be, or at least are described as being. As I said at the beginning the pulpish looking cover is highly accurate. The book is meant to reflect 30’s (I think) detective novels so we get a tough, no holds barred, narrator who smokes and talks in a gritty way, but it doesn’t feel too much like pastiche, it fits very well. The antagonists are well drawn too, baddies yes, but they are for the most part demons who inhabit a morally grey area, a great idea as it happens because it leaves the reader with a sense of not knowing which characters to trust, something that is centrally important to the novel itself. It’s an accomplished book too, it uses a flashback narrative to relate how Sam became a collector, but manages to tie that in to the present without being convoluted. It’s big strength for me though, is that despite the fantastical plotlines the book is set in the urban now, and for the most part it’s almost believable, so that instead of being a fantasy/sci-fi novel with an urban setting, at times it’s an urban city novel which just happens to have a touch of fantasy about it.

Sadly it’s also one of its weakness, or it is for me. See the book follows some of the tropes of a blockbuster action movie, one of which is that there must be some sort of huge action set piece. There’s a few in this one, but the main one with the helicopter is just ridiculous and highly unlikely. I know that it’s something that should be expected in a fiction novel, and you’ve got to be imaginative and all that, but when the author has done a great job of keeping to a real life setting, and using a real attention to detail in the rest of the book, this set piece just served to pull me out of the story in a highly disappointing manner.

It didn’t ruin the book though, because it pulls off something which quite a few other authors writing in this kind of genre don’t, and that’s to have a strong ending. It’s a fairly open ending because there are (almost inevitably) sequels to come, but it does tidy up any loose ends and feel enormously satisfying at the end.

It’s a fine achievement for a first novel, and if you want to read something a bit different then this is definitely for you. For once the quotes in the book are right, it really is a page turner and it won’t take you long to read it. It’s a fun, well written, different take on the detective novel and as such it’s well worth a go. I for one will be reading the second and third volumes just as soon as I can.

4/5

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Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Chances are you’re familiar with Sherlock Holmes whether or not you’ve read any of Doyle’s numerous stories about him; especially now with the fairly recent rekindling of interest in Holmes by filmic and televisual media, the Sherlock films and the Sherlock and Elementary television shows have been pretty big business. The latter two are especially worthy of a watch. What all of these representations of Holmes do is flesh out the character, make him a bit of a hero, or at the worse a reclusive genius, but they definitely sow an idea of a quite specific Holmes. I’m not sure the books, well this collection of stories in particular, do this in the same way. So if you are going to come to the stories having seen the visual Holmes best to remember this.

Opening Line(s) This being a collection of stories, the opening lines here don’t necessarily give an idea of the overall theme of the book but they are nice enough :-

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions.”

This seems to contradict my opening statement about a not fully realised Holmes in the stories, but this is pretty typical of the entire book in terms of how Holmes is described. He’s a thinking, deduction machine for the most part. Nothing more, nothing less. We don’t really learn a lot more. This is fine really, because the most enjoyable part about the adventures of Sherlock Holmes is how he gets around to deducing the answers to the mysteries in the first place. Yet still, I long for a deeper insight (even a shallow insight!) into what makes the great man work. More akin to the sort of stuff seen in ‘The Sign Of Four’

Thoughts – It’s worth noting from the start that this collection is not a match for the longer form novels that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Holmes,  in particular the aforementioned Sign Of Four, and it’s follow up ‘The Hound Of The Baskervilles’ but that said it’s a collection of stories designed to be snippets of Holmes as told by Watson so it was never going to be as “Whole” is you pardon the vagary as the full bodied novels.

That said some of this is excellent, ‘The Red Headed League’, ‘The Speckled Band’ , “The Blue Carbuncle”, are all brilliant. The first featuring a seemingly odd set of circumstances with no obvious way to link them, which seem simple when explained by Holmes; the second almost gothic in a ‘Mysteries Of Udolpho” sort of way, and the third a little bit of a twist on the victorian christmas story. All feature brilliant deductions by Sherlock, that are so neat it’s hard not to admire Conan Doyle’s deft touch in pulling off simple reveals that one feels he/she should really have been able to work out. Tellingly all three of these stories feature a definite criminal and crime.

I say tellingly because sadly for the most part the other stories in this collection don’t feature a definite criminal or crime, in fact as Watson himself points out, some aren’t even crimes at all. Not a problem in itself perhaps, but they also don’t really end in any specific way, the stories just tend to peter away into nothingness. It’s disappointing, as usually the build up to the payoff of the stories is just as exciting as the 3 stories I picked for particular praise, it’s just that they’re just empty at the crucial moment. Like a chocolate eclair with no filling. Also so many of the stories have a similar premise (some kind of deception) that it almost becomes boring. Almost.

What does save the book is the writing, and the fact that Holmes and Watson are such a comfortable read. The stories have the sort of sophorific effect that a good mid afternoon murder mystery also achieves. The enjoyment derives from the story being told as much as the ending one gets out of it. This and the few outstanding stories in the collection save it from being poor, and the collection is definitely worth a read, but if you’re looking to start out with Holmes you’d be better served by starting with the classic novels.

3.5/5

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Don Quixote – Miguel De Cervantes

What to say about Don Quixote? A book written over 400 years ago? A book that appears on plenty of ‘books to read before you die’ type lists AND that has at least once been named the best book ever written – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_100_Best_Books_of_All_Time

The answer I think is what’s not to say. The influence of Don Quixote casts a long, long, shadow over literature there’s a whole other article about that on Wikipedia too. I think it’s probably just as well for me to give a bit of a synopsis. So here goes.

First Line(s)* – “In a certain village in La Mancha, which I do not wish to name, there lived not long ago a gentleman – one of those who always have a lance in the rack, an ancient shield, a lean hack, and a grey hound for coursing”.

I like this, it’s not over-reaching or aiming to be forever memorable but it sets the scene nicely, the village doesn’t matter but the gentleman does; and that’s the crux of the sentence Alonso Quijano (for he is not quite Don Quixote right at the start of the book), is a gentleman with all that means; respectable and not liable to do anything untoward or unexpected. Which of course he does. But then Don Quixote the knight is not Alonso the gentleman and therefore why should he behave the same way?

Those last lines probably mean nothing to you if you’ve got no idea of what the book is about so here goes.

First Part of the book* Alonso owns many books of knight-errantry and chivalry, sadly he has an uncommon madness which makes him believe that every word in those books is true, and that all the characters in them were completely real.  He takes it in to his head that he too is going to be a knight-errant and so styling himself as a modern-day knight renames himself Don Quixote De La Mancha and goes out riding in search of adventure. He takes with him a neighbour, Sancho Panza, as a squire. Sancho is almost (perhaps) more insane than Quixote himself. Believing that Don Quixote is going to make him a governor of an isle, he goes along and joins in with his master’s adventures. And what adventures! Believing everything to be something it’s not Don Quixote famously tilts at windmills,  believing they are giants, thinks inns are castles, invents a princess of his heart (Dulcinea Del Toboso) who he then defends at every opportunity, and more or less makes a fool of himself. These adventures end almost every time in one of he or Sancho and usually both, getting terribly beaten. There are a few main threads running through the first book, Quixote’s madness, the attempts of a barber and a priest from his village to return him to sanity, and the splits and reconciliations of a group of other characters that the knight and squire meet on their adventures.

Second part – Quixote is now famous, his adventures having been published and many of the other characters in the book are now aware of the particular type of illusion he labours under and take it upon themselves to tease and ridicule him as best they can.  Still usually ending in some physically and humourous pain to the pair of adventurers.  It’s more philosophical in many ways though, slightly sadder, and a little less farcical and comical without sacrificing that element.

Thoughts – Don Quixote is such an accomplished novel and surprisingly modern (though I suppose it depends on the translation one owns). The characterisation all the way through is splendid (partly why it’s considered the birth of the novel I suppose) particularly that of the Don and his squire, it’s not surprising they are still so well-known even today. Don Quixote’s good nature combined with his deep desire to defend everything and everyone and Pancho’s infusion of every sentence with a multitude of proverbs just makes them utterly endearing, it’s extremely difficult not to care about them. A testament to the skill of the author since in some ways both can be highly unlikable at times. The first part is more farcical, even slapstick, at one point Quixote has a helmet containing curds placed on his head, a scene that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a Laurel and Hardy sketch. This first section is also far more about poking fun at chivalric novels and the stylings of such; every woman that they meet is the most beautiful, until the meet another. Everyone has a lovelorn story. These stories, which work as novella inside the main text of the narrative are extremely accomplished and well written. So much so that the secondary plot of Cardenio and his lost and refound love influenced Shakespeare – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardenio    It’s fun and easy to read but at the same time there’s a lot going on.

The second part is such a clever conceit too.  See: The story of Don Quixote is supposedly narrated by a historian by the name of Cide Hamete Benengali. At this point in the story he relates that Don Quixote’s adventures in the first part are now known to many.  It means that the characters who meet him in this second half are able to bend the Don to their will more , influencing his actions. BUT it also means that Don Quixote is aware that he himself is being written about, a meta touch which is pretty common these days, but must have been totally groundbreaking at the time. At the time of Cervantes’ writing the second part, another author had published a false second part of ‘The Adventures Of Don Quixote”. Cervantes makes his character aware of this too so that he can criticise how bad it is and try to have it purged from history as inaccurate. This self-awareness in some ways informs the second part and is psychological in depth into how the character’s think and act. Deception is a theme that runs through this second section of the novel. There’s an interesting part where Quixote experiences (or so he thinks) an amazing vision in a cave, yet is doubted by Sancho. We never know for sure if this is the truth, but tellingly when Sancho tells an equally fantastic story of a vision he has, Don Quixote tells him that if he is to believe Sancho’s story then Sancho in return must believe his.  So is he telling Sancho here that to believe in something fantastical always requires faith (and faith and belief is a theme with the Don), or his he merely admitting a lie? It’s little things like this that twist the mind of the reader and connect on a level outside of the main narrative. On a side note, even the straightforward statement by the novel that  Cide Hamete Benangali wrote Don Quixote’s memoirs has been called into account by (the absolutely excellent) New York Trilogy by Paul Auster.

Such a deep novel then (and it’s 900 pages) and yet so easy to read. I suspect that there is a lot more going on in this novel then I’m aware of, it clearly contains treatises on freedom, the ideas of liberty and the people of the time. Things which being so far removed from the time period I can’t quite grasp. Regardless, it’s such an excellent novel it doesn’t really matter. I cannot recommend this enough to anyone and everyone. A book that can make you laugh and think has got to be cherished and held to the heart.

5/5

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In the beginning was the word(s)

I’ve not used wordpress before so you might have to bear with me for a while. Not the greatest opening lines for a blog that’s obstensably about books, eh? That said at least it’s accurate.

So yes, indeed, BOOKS. The vast majority of this blog is going to contain reviews of books, now I’m not a professional reviewer, or even an amateur one so when I say “reviews” I don’t mean full critiques, overblown character analysis and major comments on themes; I might delve into what I think the books are about or why I enjoy or not a particular character, or a turn of phrase, but for the most part it’s going to be a basic – I liked it because…. – scenario.

So what books do I like and what can you expect me to review? The simple answer is all sorts really. I’m not a book snob so I’ll read pretty much everything and anything. A caveat lector (or two) here though. 1) I rarely read non-fiction, so don’t expect much of that. If I do it’s likely to be animal based. 2) I’m not up on very recent fiction, I don’t necessarily have the money and more importantly find it hard to judge what new stuff is good or not; perhaps I’m just not fully aware of how to find out what to read. I used to work at Waterstones so being aware of new material was part of the job, but these days working in an academy library I find I’ve lost touch. So more likely than not you’re not going to be presented with overviews/reviews of books from the past few years, but then I don’t see this as too much of a problem. After all why just focus on the now? If you want a more indepth look at the kind of stuff I do read though then you can always look at my goodreads profile, there should be a link to that on this page somewhere (maybe not instantly, though. Like I said not that au fait with WordPress yet)

Ok so with the preamble done with I think I’m ready to write my first proper blog post, a good book to start with – Don Quixote.

 

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