Sunday, 20 November 2016

Review: The Queen of the Tearling and The Invasion of the Tearing by Erika Johansen

Book cover of The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
I've not been reading all that much fantasy in 2016. It's not a conscious choice but more an unintentional leaning towards literary fiction. That's fine, I'm sure it'll skew back the other way next year (I'm reading Whatever the Hell I Want, did you hear?). It did mean, however, that I'd forgotten just how engaging and enthralling well-written fantasy could be. Enter, The Invasion of the Tearling.

Book cover of The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika JohansenPlot summary: Kelsea Glynn is the sole heir to the throne of Tearling but has been raised in secret by foster parents after her mother – Queen Elyssa, as vain as she was stupid – was murdered for ruining her kingdom. For 18 years, the Tearling has been ruled by Kelsea’s uncle in the role of Regent however he is but the debauched puppet of the Red Queen, the sorceress-tyrant of neighbouring realm of Mortmesme. On Kelsea’s 19th birthday, the tattered remnants of her mother’s guard - each pledged to defend the queen to the death - arrive to bring this most un-regal young woman out of hiding...

And so begins her journey back to her kingdom’s heart, to claim the throne, earn the loyalty of her people, overturn her mother’s legacy and redeem the Tearling from the forces of corruption and dark magic that are threatening to destroy it. But Kelsea's story is not just about her learning the true nature of her inheritance - it's about a heroine who must learn to acknowledge and live with the realities of coming of age in all its insecurities and attractions, alongside the ethical dilemmas of ruling justly and fairly while simply trying to stay alive...


I'm going to review both books as a whole, as I didn't get round to reviewing The Queen of the Tearling earlier in the year. That said, there will be no spoilers for either book. 

The Good

I really like these books, although I do have some concerns as well. I actually left it a few days before starting this review, because sometimes my opinion of a YA-esque book (that isn't actually YA, not really, but I'll talk about that later) fades after a few days and I end up shrugging my shoulders and deleting the next installment from my wishlist after all. Instead, with Invasion of the Tearling, I've actually just gone ahead and pre-ordered it.

It's rare to find a light fantasy book that's both well-written and has a unique premise, but it's fantastic when it happens. The plot is definitely a page-turner - a new Queen, difficult decisions to make, a looming invasion... it's wonderful. The dialogue isn't stilted and I didn't feel I had to concentrate overmuch to unravel the world building, which is also very impressive.

Invasion of the Tearling is definitely slightly better written than Queen of the Tearling, however. It's not that the latter was bad, not at all, but there were far too many instances of 'Kelsea suddenly just knew...' or 'With a flash of intuition, she realised...' for my liking. Seriously, it's really frequent. But that was my only gripe with the writing in either book and that particular flaw doesn't crop up even once in Invasion of the Tearling. I love it when I can see an author develop between books.

I love the characters. Well, aside from Kelsea, but that deserves a whole paragraph to itself. My favourite is Father Tyler, the elderly priest inserted into Kelsea's Court as essentially a spy, but who finds himself racked with indecision. I also like the Mace, Andalie and the whole of the Queen's Guard. They're all unique and well-written, and I can't wait to hear more about all of them.
 
It looks like a YA book and it has the tone of a YA book (albeit better written), but I don't think it is. Kelsea is nineteen years old, a little out of the scope of teenage books, and there are some fairly graphic scenes of violence. There's also a sex scene but it's vague. It would probably fit into the New Adult category, as loathe as I am to say it. Why is that even a thing!? It doesn't really matter anyway - it's an adult plot with quite informal and casual prose.

The Bad

I wasn't a huge fan of the narrative suddenly jumping to the year 2050, in our world. It was ridiculously jarring to read The Queen of the Tearling and the first third of The Invasion of the Tearling, which are set in your typical high fantasy world (magic, dungeons, horses, torches, etc), and then suddenly the next chapter talks about cars and mobile phones. It's meant to be flashbacks to just before the Crossing, set in 2050 or so, but it just doesn't fit at all. There was nothing in either book to indicate this was going to happen and it felt grossly out of place and completely unnecessary.

The Ugly

So I'm not usually great at picking up on these things, but it was too sledgehammery in both these books (but especially The Invasion of the Tearling) to go over even my head. There's no getting past that these books set an appalling example for young women.

It's possible that I was hyper alert to the possibility when reading the second book, just because I was so shocked at this sentence in the first book:

Kelsea saw now that there was something far worse than being ugly: being ugly and thinking you were beautiful. 

The context of the above quote refers to an older women dressing far younger than Kelsea deemed that she ought, but I don't care. Who approved that sentence for inclusion in a novel that will cross the paths of thousands of impressionable teenagers!? That quote is absolutely disgusting and I was genuinely shocked when I read it. It's not okay.

So yes, I was potentially on the look-out. But even if I wasn't, there are some truly awful examples of how not to come of age.

Kelsea. I was really impressed by how she was described in The Queen of the Tearling. She was a little bit chunky, with a flat, pudgy nose and a sort-of okay complexion. Slightly short, to boot. Awesome. An average looking fictional heroine that we can all admire and feel better about ourselves. Except, in The Invasion of the Tearling, her magic gradually transforms her and now she's notably beautiful. Fuck you. The one thing about this woman that didn't make me want to scratch her eyes out, and then it's 'rectified.'

Let's see. The way she treats men is appalling. She essentially wants to hump all of them and has a bitch fit when they turn her down. "You're just like every other man!" she spat. Really, though? Because I'm pretty sure the stereotype is that they want to get in your pants. If this was a novel from the male perspective and a man was treating a woman like that, there would be outrage.

The bit that really got me though, is that Kelsea cuts herself. That's fine (well, not fine, obviously - but I mean in a literary sense) as perhaps teenagers who are already self-harming need to see it brought into the spotlight a little more. The Invasion of the Tearling seems to almost glorify it, however. The narrative frequently talks about the release it gives her and how good it feels... but then in literally one sentence towards the end she realises she shouldn't do it anymore (with no explanation) and that's that. It's shoved in almost as an afterthought and the benefits are pointed out in a way that borders on negligent.

Conclusion

I really like this series and I've pre-ordered the next book. I genuinely can't wait to read it. However, I do have some concerns about the messages contained within - and I will continue to think myself beautiful, thank you very much.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Review: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Book cover of All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque, poppy
There isn't really an appropriate word to describe this book. Amazing is over-used and wonderful sounds too cheerful. Perfect would be incorrect. If I can't even find the right word for the first adjective in the whole review, I'm not going to be able to do this book justice when it comes to actually talking about it, but I have to try. All Quiet on the Western Front was so much more than I expected and it completely blew me away.

Plot summary: In 1914 a room full of German schoolboys, fresh-faced and idealistic, are goaded by their schoolmaster to troop off to the 'glorious war'. With the fire and patriotism of youth they sign up. What follows is the moving story of a young 'unknown soldier' experiencing the horror and disillusionment of life in the trenches.

I thought this was about cowboys. Yeah, I know. I can see the giant poppy too.

I'm not even sure why I picked it up off my shelf that morning. I was in a rush and panic-picked a book that I could comfortably leave on my seat without a client believing they were being represented by a mushy teenager. Snobbery, so sue me. I glanced at the blurb and, after being disillusioned of my cowboy-related fears, I shoved it in my bag.

I read the first few pages at lunchtime and didn't know whether to cry or be sick. You know when a book grabs you completely within a page or two, and the world just sort of... stops? I put the book down and was just sat, staring blankly into space whilst everything that had just happened swirled around my head.

Every second that I was not reading All Quiet on the Western Front, I wanted to be. It's simultaneously really easy to read and really difficult. It's quite obviously not a happy story. There are no chirpy evacuees, no whirlwind romances and no duck-shaped gas marks. This is solely one soldier's experiences of life at the Front and it is brutal.

What make this book a classic, however, is the humanity of it. Paul is nineteen years old, bullied into joining up by well-intentioned teachers, and he is now numb inside. This is not a story of one man's terror, as Paul is past that now. Instead he is resigned to his death, protective of the new recruits, betrayed by authority and sickened by his life at home. There is so, so much feeling in this book.

They were supposed to be the ones who would help us eighteen-year-olds to make the transition, who would guide us into adult life, into a world of work, of responsibilities, of civilized behaviour and progress - into the future. In our minds the idea of authority – which is what they represented – implied deeper insights and a more humane wisdom.

But the first dead man that we saw shattered this conviction. We were forced to recognize that our generation was more honourable than theirs; they only had the advantage of us in phrase-making and in cleverness. Our first experience of heavy artillery fire showed us our mistake, and the view of life that their teaching had given us fell to pieces under that bombardment.

While they went on writing and making speeches, we saw field hospitals and men dying: while they preached the service of the state as the greatest thing, we already knew that the fear of death is even greater. This didn’t make us into rebels or deserters, or turn us into cowards – and they were more than ready to use all of those words – because we loved our country just as much as they did, and so we went bravely into every attack. But now we were able to distinguish things clearly, all at once our eyes had been opened. And we saw that there was nothing left of their world. Suddenly we found ourselves horribly alone – and we had to come to terms with it alone as well. 
There is a narrative, to an extent. Paul gets sent on offensives, gets some home leave, gets injured, etc. There's a story here, to an extent, but it's much more valuable for the emotion contained within. It's as if somebody has handed you a big ball of Feelings, tied up with string.

All Quiet on the Western Front is traumatic. Not for the graphic gore or the bloodshed (although obviously there's fairly prevalent), but for the aspects of war that we are so removed from. I read this three weeks ago now and it's still going through my head. That said, it somehow avoids being a depressing book. I never felt miserable, despite reading about the atrocities that are somehow acceptable in wartime. Instead I felt, and still feel, so incredibly blessed and so lucky that our generation has been able to experience growing up without fear.

Visit the British Legion's website and learn more about the Poppy Appeal here.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Review: The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey

Book cover of The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey
The Cranes Dance made me feel sick, but in the best of ways. The kind of nauseous that makes you stay up until 2am to write a review because if you don't get to talk about this book, you might actually go crazy. The kind of sick that makes you wonder how on earth you're going to find a book that can possibly beat this. I have to be at my desk by 7:20am tomorrow and I'm still going to sit here and ramble about The Cranes Dance for a while until I can calm down a bit and actually sleep.

Plot summary:
So begins the tale of Kate Crane, a soloist in a celebrated New York City ballet company who is struggling to keep her place in a very demanding world. At every turn she is haunted by her close relationship with her younger sister, Gwen, a fellow company dancer whose career quickly surpassed Kate’s, but who has recently suffered a breakdown and returned home.

Alone for the first time in her life, Kate is anxious and full of guilt about the role she may have played in her sister’s collapse.  As we follow her on an insider tour of rehearsals, performances, and partners onstage and off, she confronts the tangle of love, jealousy, pride, and obsession that are beginning to fracture her own sanity. Funny, dark, intimate, and unflinchingly honest, The Cranes Dance is a book that pulls back the curtains to reveal the private lives of dancers and explores the complicated bond between sisters.


This is a novel about ballet, about siblings and about that dark voice inside your head. From the beginning we know that Kate and Gwen Crane are ballet dancers with a strong sisterly bond who dance with a prestigious ballet company. Unfortunately Gwen has had to temporarily absent herself from the ballet as Kate has informed their parents of her sister's bouts of (unspecified) severe mental illness. What this entails and how this came about is very slowly unravelled throughout the book, which becomes progressively darker with every page.

What made this book for me is Kate Crane. She is possibly the most relatable, the most believable and the most real character I have ever read. It was honestly like she was inside my head. She has flaws, but not those exaggerated traits that fictional characters are often given to pad them out a bit. She was so, so real. She was likeable, for the most part, but those parts where she wasn't so perfect just made her relatable. Every other character was a little flat, but perhaps almost purposefully? The point of this book is that we're inside Kate's head and she's so preoccupied with her sister's illness and her own mental state that she doesn't take the opportunity to examine other people.

What impressed me the most was that the reader somehow knows that Kate feels disregarded and abandoned. Everybody is so preoccupied about Gwen that nobody asks how she's feeling, nobody wonder if it was hard for her to do what was best for Gwen, nobody cares whether it's difficult for her too. The thing is, although she never once shares this,  somehow it seeps through. The Cranes Dance is a masterpiece of characterisation and I've really never read anything like it.

I think you have to have at least a minor interest in the ballet to get on with this book, or at least not be totally opposed to it as a concept. The novels takes place almost entirely between Kate/Gwen's flat and the theatre, and most of the scenes involve some sort of dance. It is accessible though - you won't need any of the terminology or routines to understand what's happening. This is evident from the way Kate explains Swan Lake in the first few pages - she always 'talks' as though she's explaining the plot to a beginner. 

My one criticism would be the ending, which I think was just a little too neat and didn't really answer any of my questions. I can't decide how it should have ended, but I know that I felt just a little unsatisfied.

I know this isn't a particularly well-written post, but I just had to write about The Cranes Dance before I went to bed. It isn't a perfect book, but it's one that will stick with me for a long time.

Visit Meg Howrey's website here or find her on Twitter.
  

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Book cover of The Martian by Andy Weir
I don't know how to start this review.

I read a book! It has science and space ships and disproportionate responses to hardship! Let's talk about that.

Plot summary: Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive — and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to kill him first. But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills — and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit — he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

I bought this book as a result of a quick flick whilst standing in a charity shop (and also, it was £1.49 - that helps too). It looked like an interesting read; a bit sciencey but with what looked to be a lot of pop culture references thrown in to keep it light. I saw references to Poirot, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Bee-Gees... it looked quite fun. A bit quirky, maybe.

Nope. This book is very heavy with the science-shovelling. I'm sure it's correct science (actually, I'm not sure in the slightest but it bothers me not), however, it really does over-balance the story horrifically.

So we start out and Mark has essentially just been stranded on Mars with little equipment and enough food to last 400 or so 'sols' (an earth day plus an extra thirty minutes). Oh dear. So Mark has to re-jig the oxygenator, the filters, the... other stuff to support him longer than was originally intended, whilst attempting to contact Earth and also grow potatoes in a desolate, dust-ridden wasteland. Fine. But how he does this is told in excruciating detail that, to be honest, I just didn't understand.

I've tried to draft that sentence in a way that doesn't make me sound stupid, but it's the truth - I didn't understand. I don't know if it's because I admittedly didn't try very hard to understand, or I just didn't care... but either way, I still have no idea how Mark Watney stayed alive on Mars other than 'grew potatoes, created water and fixed stuff.'

Every twenty hours, I'll have 10 liters of CO2 thanks to the MAV fuel plant. I'll vent it into the Hab via the highly scientific method of detaching the tank from the MAV landing struts, bringing it into the Hab, then opening the valve until it's empty.
The oxygenator will turn it into oxygen in its own time.
Then I'll release hydrazine, very slowly, over the iridum catalyst, to turn it into N2 and H2. I'll direct the hydrogen to a small area and burn it.
As you can see, this plan provides me with plenty of opportunities to die in a fiery explosion.
I have a Masters in Biotechnology Law and a Graduate Certificate of Engineering and I still had to google a GCSE revision site to figure why the above = potential explosion.

The pop culture references that pulled me in aren't really present. Mark just rifles his colleagues' computers for music and TV shows to alleviate the boredom and makes a few quick comments about what he's found. I do like the tone of the book - Mark's voice is very dry as he mocks his situation and tries to thwart the many new and surprising ways in which Mars is trying to kill him.

On that note, there's just no emotion here. He never seems particularly bothered about the fact that he's stuck on Mars and he isn't all that fussed about the prospect of rescue either. No sense of terror, achievement, anxiety... nothing. I mean, this could be explained away by the fact that he's writing all this onto a computer log that he's aware might be published one day, but still. I found it very difficult to care about what happened to him as a result. How can I care when he doesn't!?

The way The Martian is structured works quite well. It's primarily Mark's log, as I said before, so it's told in the first person perspective. After about a quarter of the way through, we start to get the third person perspective of the individuals on the ground at NASA as they realised what's happened and try and put a plan together to save Mark. I actually liked their perspective more. It was more real, more emotional and a lot more interesting than a guy in a desert sarcastically lecturing me about potatoes. Honestly, if the entire book were that, I would have been happier. There were even a few 'gasp!' moments. I mean, I gasped. I assumed Mark just shrugged and raised an eyebrow.

Sigh. Alright then, it's time. This is the crux of it. This is the mean reason why I didn't like this book and you're all going to hate me. My boyfriend is going to wave his little black flag sadly, the way he always does when I'm being Unreasonably Cynical, and also Why Do You Hate The World, Hanna.

I just don't buy it. In this book, NASA (and the Chinese government and several other organisations around the world) spend tens of billions of dollars trying to rescue this one man and I would argue, logically and rationally, that that is not particularly proportionate. Planned launches that would have advanced science were delayed, the lives of other astronauts were risked, taxpayers' money was wasted... for one person. I'm not saying they should have left him to die and waved merrily from distant Earth, but come on. There has to be a point where you draw the line and back off a little. What would bringing him back achieve, other than a warm fuzzy feeling? Would it achieve as much as all that money, resources and manpower could have, otherwise? Would it!?*

The world united in desperation over Mark Watney; there was a 'Mark Watney Segment' daily on CNN... Really though? Fine, people would have been appalled to begin with, but this book takes place over several years. There is no way, no way, that one person's plight could sustain the public interest for that long. I know it's fictional, but it genuinely annoyed me how I was supposed to root for NASA to rescue Mark when, actually... well. Proportionality and all that. 

I didn't hate The Martian, but I was disappointed. It was too fact-heavy and too lacking in emotion, and had an irritating main character of whose rescue I was not particularly in favour. I might give the film a go, but it's unlikely I'll feel the need to read this again.

*No. It would not.

Read a more balanced review of The Martian at Girl Plus Book.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Review: The Godfather by Mario Puzo

The Godfather book cover by Mario Puzo
Let me start out by saying that I actually didn't want to read this in the slightest little bit. It was offered to me by my secretary at work, who I actually really like, and my super brilliant social skills kicked in and I panicked and said 'Yes please!' That's right, I read it out of obligation. Do I have any regrets? No, I do not. The Godfather is, to my absolute surprise, actually very good. It's a classic for a reason.

Plot summary: Almost fifty years ago, a classic was born. A searing portrayal of the Mafia underworld, The Godfather introduced readers to the first family of American crime fiction, the Corleones, and their powerful legacy of tradition, blood, and honor. The seduction of power, the pitfalls of greed, and the allegiance to family—these are the themes that have resonated with millions of readers around the world and made The Godfather the definitive novel of the violent subculture that, steeped in intrigue and controversy, remains indelibly etched in our collective consciousness.

The only previous experience I had with The Godfather was when a boyfriend sat me down to watch the three hour movie... of which I promptly slept through at least two and a half hours. Ever since then I've used the movie as an example of one of those massively over-rated pop culture tripes, that everybody (especially men, in this case) feels compelled to say they like but nobody actually does. I couldn't follow who the characters were, there didn't seem to be much of a plot and, to be honest, I couldn't understand a damn word they were saying.

I haven't rewatched the film since reading the book, so I can't comment on it fairly. I barely remember it (sleeping through the majority of a film will do that to you) but I've read that it sticks very close to the book. With that in mind, it may just be that I find it easier to follow fiction in print than on the screen. There has to be a reason for it, because I ended up liking The Godfather book an awful lot more than I did the film.

It still took me twenty to thirty pages to work out who was who, but in a 600 page book that's hardly the end of the world. It seemed quite heavy going at this point - it was mostly explanatory prose with some dialogue thrown in - and I still wasn't sure if I was going to like it. There are a lot of characterS in The Godfather and it does take some time to get to know them all.

That's the thing about this book though. For all its reputation and controversy, there's not all that much action. There's some, obviously, and I'll get back to that later, but it's more about the Family ties, the atmosphere and the dialogue. For that to work, you do need to know a little of their background, so I can forgive it for being a little slow to start.

I'm not sure at which point I realised I was enjoying this book. It's quite slow-paced, but I was engrossed before I really knew it. I liked the tone of it, I think. It's very dark - whenever I think of it, I picture it hidden in the shadows somehow. There are some amazing twists and turns that I didn't see coming and made me literally gasp out loud.

It is brutal, in parts, but it's more that the decisions and plans made are brutal rather than the actual violence itself. It's a lengthy, notorious novel about the Mafia so obviously there is some violence but it's no more graphic than what you'd see in an everyday thriller (and less graphic than some).

However, The Godfather isN'T perfect. The thing that irritated me the most is Mario Puzo's apparent need to explain what a character means when they've finished speaking. As an example:

*Somebody speaks*
'What was important was that Barzini by speaking out was saying that...'

This happens a lot and it's profoundly irritating. I know what the inference was from his speach, I read the damn thing. I don't need to have a translator bobbing along next to me. God. It's otherwise written to a reasonable standard, which made this particular issue stand out all the more. 'What Kay Adams meant by this was...' ARRGGHHH.

Secondly, the author's view towards women. I know, I know. 1960s Italian-American mobsters. I know. But it goes further than that. Minor spoilers, but only for the minorest of sub-plots:

Highlight to read.
Okay, so there's this woman who won't sleep with a particular Doctor for months. She eventually does, and then cries, and then the Doctor says, "Oh, it's because you have a giant vagina! Women have killed themselves because of that before. I'll pay someone to fix it and then I'll test out the results!" And then she says, "Oh, thank you for still being willing to have sex with me!" to which he replies "No, no. We'll have to have anal instead." So she cried and thanks him even more.

It gets worse. She goes for the surgery and they detail it explicitly. A whole page is dedicated to how to surgery is performed - 
'Kellner was working on the diaohragm sling, the T forceps held the vaginal flap, and exposing the ani muscle and the fasci which formed its sheath. His gauze-covered fingers were pushing aside loose connective tissue.'
A whole page. It's just weird and unnecessary. But seriously, WHY IS THIS HERE!?

I can deal with the whole 'women deserve to be beaten if they don't behave properly.' I don't like it and I certainly don't condone it, but it was somewhat to be expected in a book like this. The above section is unnecessary, crude and incredibly offensive. The whole thing (her reaction included) bothered me to such an extent that I had to put the book down for a day.

If I discount that scene, I did really enjoy The Godfather. There are a few other bits that didn't really make sense for them to be there at all and that scene bothers me a lot, but we're talking four pages out of a 600 page book. I loved the slow pace and the atmosphere of The Godfather. The twists take you completely by surprise because I felt as though I knew every character completely, and genuinely felt a little lurch in my stomach as I realised what was happening. I don't think I'll read the next book, The Sicilian, as it follows somebody completely different, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Godfather and I will be looking for my own copy soon.

Read Laura's review of The Godfather at Devouring Texts.
 
 

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

UK book cover of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
It amuses me no end that the previous owner of this book has scrawled 'BORING' at the top of the first page. Seriously. I wouldn't say it's strictly true but I can see where they're coming from. It's not the easiest book in the world to plough through.

Plot summary: England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?

Historical fiction seems to run one of two ways.

Option A: Philippa Gregory
  
These books get a lot of stick but I quite like them. They focus more on bringing characters to life and sustaining your interest more than any sort of historical accuracy. There's a lot of dialogue and not much prose. They're entertaining and a quick read, and you really care about the characters, but you probably shouldn't put much stock in anything you've 'learned.'

Option B: Hilary Mantel

These books are long and dense. There's not much dialogue and background information tends to be explained in prose. These can be more of a chore to pick up than the other kind and often expect you to have some prior knowledge, but you come away feeling likeyou at least know more about the time period than you did previously.

Why is there no middle ground? Why do I have to choose between entertaining and informative!? Because, whilst Wolf Hall certainly felt educational, I'm pretty sure I would have been more inclined to continue turning the pages of a Philippa Gregory book.

It's just so... dense. See, I love the Tudors. I have a fairly impressive related non-fiction book section on my shelves and I'm That Person who always talks over television documentaries. I got the third highest score in the country for A2 history. But even I thought Wolf Hall was unnecessarily long.

It follows Thomas Cromwell, who rapidly rises from Cardinal Wolsey's Secretary to Chief Minister of Henry VIII, primarily by bringing about the King's divorce of Katherine of Aragon. It discusses Cromwell's ascent to power in great detail and is therefore centered around Tudor politics for a large portion of the book. Not the interesting politics either - Henry and Anne Boleyn rarely actually pop-up - it's consists more of the behind-the-scenes squabbling with other politicians. There's a lot of prose and a lot of dialogue and I really struggled to be interested in some of it.

It assumes a fair amount of prior knowledge which I just didn't have, egocentric above paragraph notwithstanding. I struggled to keep all the politicians and ministers straight, especially as they have two or three different titles used interchangeably. I couldn't always figure out who worked for who, and which party supported each side, etc etc. I shudder to think how long this book would have been if she's actually explained herself properly.

The bits that I did like, I liked a lot. Henry's squabbles with Anne Boleyn, for example. But even then, I'm tempted to consider whether it's just the history that I like. I have always, and will always, take great pleasure in the fact that Anne was eventually executed. Justice be served and all that. Funny how I started to take an interest in this novel when Henry started flirting with Jane Seymour.

I'm not sure it's actually all that well written either. It follows Thomas Cromwell, as we've established, but I don't think the narrative refers to him once by name. It just says 'he did this, and he did that...' When three or four people are involved in a scene, it mays it very difficult to figure out exactly who's talking and several times I had to skip back a few paragraphs just to figure out what's going on.   

I think it would be fair to say that I liked this more than it appears from the above (one day I'm going to embroider that on a bloody pillow). There were parts of it that I did enjoy, I just struggled to pick it up once I'd put it down again and some it I outright skimmed. I'll probably buy the next book, Bring Up The Bodies, if I see it in a charity shop, but I admit that's partly because Anne Boleyn hasn't died yet...

Read Bex's thoughts about Wolf Hall at An Armchair by the Sea. 

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

UK book cover of Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor
TIME TRAVEL. An organisation that investigates historical events by GOING TO VISIT THEM. Why did I not know this series existed!? I feel like you all seriously breached your duty of care by not informing me that these books existed. The Claim Form is in the post; expect a call from my lawyer. This is the best idea ever and I can't wait to read the rest of the Chronicles of St Mary's series.

Plot summary: Behind the seemingly innocuous fa├žade of St Mary's, a different kind of historical research is taking place. They don't do 'time-travel' - they 'investigate major historical events in contemporary time'. Maintaining the appearance of harmless eccentrics is not always within their power - especially given their propensity for causing loud explosions when things get too quiet.

Meet the disaster-magnets of St Mary's Institute of Historical Research as they ricochet around History. Their aim is to observe and document - to try and find the answers to many of History's unanswered questions...and not to die in the process. But one wrong move and History will fight back - to the death. And, as they soon discover - it's not just History they're fighting.

Follow the catastrophe curve from 11th-century London to World War I, and from the Cretaceous Period to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria. For wherever Historians go, chaos is sure to follow in their wake....


This has 'Hanna' written all over it. I discovered it, bought it and immediately sat immobile for an entire day and devoured it. It has its faults and some of them did irritate me (no surprises there), but I loved, loved this book.

It's a relatively simple idea - St Mary's Institute of Historical Research is partnered with a more traditional university, who are paid to investigate aspects of certain historical events. The University contacts St Mary's, and two historians toddle off to the Cretaceous Period, or the building of West Minster Abbey, or the Somme. They come back with the data and everybody wins. It's actually quite well thought out - the safety checks, briefings, contingency plans, etc.

There is actually a detailed over-arching plot, which impressed me. I expected Just One Damned Thing After Another to be a sort of set-up book for the series, just sorting out the Institute and how Max got her job, etc. I suspect this storyline is convoluted enough to last throughout the entire series (seven books at time of writing) and it surprised me that such an idea was implemented halfway through Book One.

It's very fast paced... actually too fast paced. I would have liked it to take its time a little more, I think. Events occur in quick succession with no time to properly deal with what happened, whether a personal problem or a trip back to the past. I need more detail! It makes it difficult to care about the characters when you're essectially just given a list of what they did, in chronological order. Take some time and explain. I mean, the point of the book is that these people jump back in time but the historical events are almost skimmed over. They jump there, see a dinosaur, and jump back. I picked this up for the time travel, so why skim over it? If there were only more detail involved and the characters only had a sense of wonder, these books would be perfect.  

Ironically, this book doesn't deal with the passage of time well. Max is a trainee, but suddenly she'd finished her training and then suddenly she'd been there five years and there were new trainees. It was a little confusing as there were no indications of the time that had passed. It leads back to the lack of detail explained above, I suppose. 

The book drags on just a little too long. Something happens that would have been a perfect place to the end the book, but then Max has a revelation and we go on to deal with that. It carries on past the natural ending for the book and the tone is immediately changed. It's just... odd. I can't help but think that it would have been a better idea for that to comprise Book Two, and then Book One could have been expanded with the detail and explanation that I so desperately crave!

I did absolutely love Just One Damned Thing After Another and I already wish that I owned the rest of the series, instead of just the second book, Symphony of Echoes. It was an effort not to just pick it up and plough ahead, but I decided to give myself a little breathing room. It's a great idea, authored by somebody who clearly loves history, it just needs a little more detail and to slow the pace down somewhat.

Visit Jodi Taylor's website here, or find her on Twitter.  

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